Tunnel Vision


I am not an adventure traveler. Show me something that provides an adrenaline rush, and I will show you me, running the other way.

So when I heard that it was possible to go down in the tunnels that the Vietcong had dug many meters underground, I was instantly turned off. It sounded both unpleasant and almost tacky, making a sort of adventure out of the war. But then I met Birgitta in Phnom Penh, who told me that it was a really educational experience that I should not miss. She reminded me that people lived underground for 20 years–largely because of American bombing. After that I felt that it was my duty as an American to try to understand what had happened.

Travelers from other countries keep asking me what we learn when we study the Vietnam War in the United States. I tell them that we really don’t study it—at least when I was growing up, it always came up at the very end of the school year, since it was such recent history, so we rushed through it in the last week or two before summer vacation. It was no more than a page or two in our history books.

So I have been trying to fill in the blanks in my education. I’ve been reading an absolutely terrific book, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, by Christian Appy, which is an oral history of the war culled from dozens and dozens of interviews that he did with people from all sides of the conflict.  I can’t help but be most fascinated by the Vietcong accounts, which often have my jaw on the floor. One Vietcong woman said that she was scared before her first battle against the Americans—they were so big and had such advanced weapons—but when she shot her first one the others started to cry and run over to the one she had shot so it turned out to be very easy. She once volunteered for a mission so dangerous that her comrades held a funeral for her before she went. She sat there while they listed all the awards she had won and talked about her just as if she were dead. She spoke a lot about the tunnels they lived in to withstand the bombings and hide from the Americans. She said there were very few places where you could even sit up, let alone stand. Once bombings shut all the openings and they were trapped for a week until they could dig themselves out with bayonets.

It was to those tunnels that I went on my last day in Ho Chi Minh City. (Our guide (whose name was Phu but who told us that if we couldn’t pronounce that, we could use his English name—Puppy) was very adamant that the city should be called Ho Chi Minh and not Saigon, directly contradicting my guide from the day before.)

The Cu Chi Tunnels are about a two-hour drive from the city. We stopped halfway there at a rest stop that doubles as a workshop where victims of Agent Orange make lacquer pieces. It felt a bit odd to walk by them and snap pictures, but apparently that’s what they wanted us to do, as they did not seem to be selling their wares and I couldn’t figure out why else they had brought us there.

When we finally arrived at the entrance gate it was packed with tourists. I’m amazed that our group (of about 15) didn’t get separated—Phu (no, I am not going to call him “Puppy”) was always racing off in a new direction, leaving me scrambling to catch up.

We began by walking into the forest. The trees in it seemed young, as you’d expect given that the whole area was bombed to pieces 40 years ago. Our destination was a thatched-roof-covered room where a video informed us about the war in a narrative so biased it was at times rather humorous (the Americans were referred to as “devils”). Unfortunately, there was another group there as well so we were at the back and I was unable to see/hear everything. After the video the other group left and Phu had us move up the front, where he showed us a diorama of the three levels of tunnels. The top level was only 3 meters underground, and that’s where the Vietcong did most of their living. The other two levels were for escaping. (I just read an account in my book that said that there were always helicopters or airplanes overhead, so much so that when the skies were quiet they knew a big attack was coming and moved to the lower level tunnels. As such they rarely got hurt.) Phu showed us how they diffused the smoke from cooking (by not having a chimney that went straight up, but a horizontal space that pushed the smoke farther away from their living space).

The room where we watched the video.

The room where we watched the video.

Then he took us on a walk through the forest, stopping at various points to show us different things. First stop was one of the original tunnel entrances. It was an unbelievably tiny rectangle—maybe a foot by six inches—with a lid camouflaged by dirt and leaves. Here’s video. Phu asked for volunteers and a number of people climbed in. I was waiting for my turn when he rushed off to the next location and I had to race to catch up. Oh, well!

One of the most fascinating stops was the trap they invented to kill the German shepherds the Americans used to try to find the tunnels. It was a sort of seesaw that flipped over when the dogs stepped on it (they coated them in fish oil to attract the dogs). On the other side were sharpened bamboo spikes. Once they killed the dog, they ate it. Here’s video.

Phu showed us a mannequin dressed in typical Vietcong attire. He said the giveaway was their shoes—they wore distinctive crisscrossed sandals. When they went into villages in normal clothes, the tan lines on their feet would give them away.

Phu explaining VIetcong clothing

Phu explaining VIetcong clothing

He took us to an exhibit showing an underground workshop with mannequins demonstrating how the Vietcong made tools—but I was too distracted by some obnoxious Chinese(?) teenagers to pay attention. They were taking lots of goofy photos with the mannequins out of his sightline. I was this close to telling them that millions of people died in this war; show some respect, when it was time to move along.

The next stop was the shooting range. Yes, the only shooting range in Vietnam is right next to the tunnels. I can’t decide how I feel about this; on the one hand, it seems tacky as hell; on the other, it really helps with the atmosphere to hear guns going off in the distance. When we got closer to the range the noise from the AK47s was actually making me jump—it helped me imagine how much worse it would be if those guns were trying to kill me.

One of many traps for humans. They were designed to maim, not kill, since it slows the enemy down if they have to carry wounded.

One of many traps for humans. They were designed to maim, not kill, since it slows the enemy down if they have to carry wounded.

After that, it was finally time to go down in the tunnels. (They had been slightly enlarged for westerners—according to the Danish girl, the average Vietnamese man weighs something like 48 kilos! Which is about 105 pounds!) When we arrived at the entrance (stairs covered by a thatched roof), people from the group ahead of us were already coming out, having turned back because they couldn’t cope with the claustrophobia. That was not an auspicious beginning. I nearly gave up right then. But then I reminded myself that the whole point of my coming was to experience the claustrophobia and try to understand what the Vietnamese people went through during the war, so I inserted myself into the middle of the line (I had no intention of being stuck next to the Chinese teens), and walked down the stairs.

The stairs led to a slightly lower level where there was an actual hole (probably close to 3 feet in diameter) that you had to lower yourself into to get to the tunnel itself. That was a bit scary. The tunnel I found myself in was about 4 feet high—I was able to walk doubled over. There were dim lights every few feet. I followed the guy in front of me as closely as I could. More than once another hole appeared and we had to go down another level. That always involved a deep breath. There were twists and turns. We were often backed up when the people in front of us would stop to take photos (I could usually only see one or two people ahead of me, but they would report back what was going on). During one of these traffic jams the guy behind me asked me to take his photo and as far as I was concerned, he immediately became my best friend, since I needed someone to talk to and encourage to keep myself distracted. Especially since the tunnel kept getting smaller. By the end we were in a sort of crouched position, scooching along. Here’s (very poor quality) video. But all in all I was surprised at how little it bothered me. It actually reminded me a bit of a feature at the Boston Children’s Museum, where as a kid I crawled around in a rather claustrophobic jungle gym that spanned two floors. I just told myself I was in a museum exhibit and was fine.

When I emerged from the tunnel (up more stairs and out of another thatched roofed area) I was absurdly proud of myself. I had seen cocky 20-year-old guys seriously consider giving up, and I had done the whole thing without breaking a sweat. Metaphorically. Because literally, I was bathed in it. It was so hot down there that I was sopping. But I had kept a cool head.

Someone is very proud of herself!

Someone is very proud of herself!

Just when I was getting cocky, our guide told us that he was giving us the rare opportunity to go through an original (read: not enlarged) tunnel. The idea of going through an even smaller space made me nervous, but there was no way I was not going to try. This time I decided to leave my purse with one of the wusses people who decided not to go down in the tunnels and just carry my camera. Our guide (who never came down in the tunnels with us) told the girl who was at the front to keep turning right and never turn left (which was quite scary to think that we could go off in the wrong direction and get lost!) There would be no lights in this one, but she had a small one on her cell phone (which is how she ended up in front).

The experience was much the same as the first, only with more nervous laughter, more darkness, and more crawling, since the ceiling was too low to do anything else. Since I was holding my camera, I had to crawl on the back of one hand, and I still have a cut there a few days later. I used my camera to create some light for the people behind me (I could see a little bit up ahead of me, but they were in darkness.) I took dozens of forced flash pictures of nothing. We were always telling each other what was happening to keep our nerves calm. At one point I went down a level and the angle was steep and the ground slippery, so I made sure to call back and warn the people behind me. Eventually, I came to a hole in the ceiling and had to use all my upper body strength to pull myself into what turned out to be an underground room. That turned out to be the end of the tunnel. Once again, I was giddy with pride and drenched in sweat. I kept apologizing to people who had to stand near me—but, of course, they were in just as bad shape.

Unfortunately, I didn’t spend much time in the tunnels reflecting on the war. I think if I had thought things like, “imagine spending 20 years down here with the most powerful army in the world bombing you,” it would have been too scary and I wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I have been reading my book every chance I get–each time I eat a meal alone or when I have a few minutes to sit on a bench–so I have definitely been thinking about it a lot. I feel like I finally understand it–as much as someone can who wasn’t there, of course.

On the bus on the way back I decided to be polite and introduce myself to the guy in the seat next to me (whom I had ignored on the way there in favor of my book). He turned out to be Ludo, a French-speaking Swiss math teacher, and an instant friend. We chatted all the way back to the Ho Chi Minh, then had lunch together near the War Remnants Museum (which I was determined to see more of than what I could during the 50 minutes I had gotten during my city tour).

That night I fulfilled my promise to the woman at the first restaurant I ate at in HCMC by coming back to see her before I went. Alas, she wasn’t there, but since I brought a large group of people (a mix of friends I had made in the city and people from Couch Surfing I had invited sight unseen) to her restaurant, I felt like I had done my part to repay her kindness.

(One of the people I brought to dinner was Tara, an American who is teaching English in Korea. Tara had just arrived in HCMC, and I asked her if she had crossed the street yet. She said no, so I told her to just stand right beside me and walk at the same speed I did, and I would put myself between her and the traffic. When we crossed, a couple of older Vietnamese women were crossing as well, but I was the closest to the cars/motorbikes. Halfway through, I felt Tara take my hand. I thought it was kind of adorable that she was that scared and felt she could trust me even though we had just met. But when I stepped onto the curb and turned my head, I saw that it wasn’t Tara at all—one of the older Vietnamese women had taken my hand to protect me! I was so touched. She didn’t even try to speak to me—just walked away quietly.)

Our dinner was lovely. The group was very diverse (Ludo, Ludo’s French friend Rashid, Tom (Hong Kong/Australia) from the Mekong trip, Tara, an American who was staying in the same dorm as I was, and two people from Couch Surfing, Glen from Yorkshire and Phuong, from, of all places, Ho Chi Minh City). I peppered Phuong with questions about herself, Vietnam, and local etiquette. She is 25 and works in market research. She loves to travel but she says it’s very difficult to save for it since the dong is worth so little compared to other countries’ currencies. She said she thinks it’s fine for me to wear tops that expose my shoulders, so so much for that worry.

Our merry, blurry dinner group. L-R Phuong, Glen, Ludo, Rashid, Tom, me, Tara

Our merry, blurry dinner group. L-R Phuong, Glen, Ludo, Rashid, Tom, me, Tara

After dinner Phuong took us to a couple of bars back in the Backpacker district. She met us there since she had brought her motorbike to the restaurant. As the rest of us walked we ran into some Vietnamese teens who started speaking to us (I assume because they wanted to practice their English). One young man gestured to the traffic and said, “We drive like fishes, but if you step into traffic blindfolded you won’t get hurt.” I loved the image of them driving like fish—it’s so true. The motorbikes move like schools of fish with almost no rhyme or reason to it.

When we got close to Saigon Buffalo, the bar where we were to meet Phuong, a whole team of its staff swooped in on us, urging us to go in. I assured them that we were going to. They continued to insist. I pointed to Phuong and said, “Look! My friend is right there! You don’t have to try so hard.” But they still did everything short of pushing us onto the patio. It was really annoying. But I was still very happy to be there–since I had stayed in every night Skyping and writing, it was great fun to sit at an outside table and watch the world go by. Later we moved across the street to a roof deck where we could see the lights of the tallest building in the city (it’s only 40-odd stories high, which seems plenty). When we left one of the employees actually grabbed my arm and tried to drag me into the nightclub section of the bar. I yanked my arm away, pretty pissed off. I guess they must get in trouble if people leave. Or maybe they make money per person they bring in? Either way, it’s too much pressure. (Incidentally, Ludo and I could not agree on which country’s people pressures you more, Cambodia or Vietnam. I said no contest, Cambodia, and he said the opposite. I could not believe he thought Vietnam was as bad as Cambodia, let alone worse, and he was equally disbelieving of my reaction.)

I had to get up very early the following morning to fly to Da Nang, so Tara and I said goodbye at midnight and walked back to our hostel. Once again, I found myself sad to leave a city where I had met so many nice people. I could only hope that my next stop, Hoi An, would be just as fun.