As I walked around the fields of the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City, I could hear the sound of gunshots. It was quite impressive and gave me a realistic sense of what it might have been like during the American Vietnam War, I thought.
It started raining just as we arrived, and then quickly cleared, to be followed by hot and steamy weather, which further added to the atmosphere and provided a glimpse into the conditions experienced by the people in the area during this time.
Looking at the vegetation, you could get a vague sense of the jungle terrain and how it was destroyed by Agent Orange during the war. What remains now is just a fraction of what it used to be between 1954 and 1975. It was, apparently, thick jungle, and later empty landscape.
The legacy of Agent Orange continues in a gallery and workshop that we visited along the way. It’s a place where people with disability caused by Agent Orange, are creating art.
The artwork produced there is absolutely beautiful. Although it’s not my usual preference or style, as I learned more about the effort put into creating these pieces—using materials like eggshell and mother of pearl, and the intricate hand-carving and polishing—I began to appreciate and even liked some of the works. What made it even more meaningful was knowing the money raised from sales goes towards supporting these individuals, their children, and grandchildren.
In a landscape decimated by the defoliant, between 1954 and 1975, around 10,000 people from the Vietcong lived underground.
By visiting the tunnels we learned a little about their lives.
For example, we learned about their consumption tapioca, a root vegetable, a type of agriculture, that could be grown without the soldiers above ground knowing people were living below.
Another intriguing aspect was how they cooked underground. We were told that there was a very slow release of smoke at different locations, aiming to give no indication of people living below.
We also saw the handmade rubber thongs, which had an interesting design where the footprints appeared to go in the opposite direction.
However, I couldn’t help but think about the diseases and challenges associated with the tropics, such as malaria and leeches.
But I also considered the sense of normality that must have existed—families going about their daily lives, raising children in that environment.
During the tour, many in the group participated in some of the immersive experiences like crawling through tunnels or descending into narrow spaces. Personally, I couldn’t do it due to my claustrophobia and my own reservations about this type of tourism.
At the end of the tour, some people had the opportunity to shoot targets using M16 and AK47 weapons, provided during the war by the Russians and Americans. However, this wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing as I am more of a pacifist and not particularly fond of such activities. Nonetheless, I believe it added to the overall experience for many. And yes, the “sound effects” I heard at the start of the tour were very real.
A difficult subject, and something you might want to “avoid” if you’re a tourist, but well worth seeing and experiencing to deepen your understanding of history.
A big shout out to Kate (her Western Name), our local tour guide who explained everything we saw today with authority and empathy. She’s amazing.