There is surprisingly quite a lot of negative American sentiment in Ho Chi Minh (“HCMC”). I have noticed this even without visiting the War Remnants Museum, a museum that (according to the Lonely Planet) highlights atrocities carried out by Americans against the Vietnamese, without any mention of atrocities carried out by North Vietnamese against the South Vietnamese or against the Americans. I guess I expected it a little bit. However I hadn’t experienced any anti-American sentiment in our last 13 days of Vietnam. So I found it a bit weird to then find it in our final destination. One reason I wanted to visit Vietnam was to learn more about the Vietnam War. To see the place it happened, to understand it better, and see a different perspective.
Not only do the attractions seem a bit anti American, they also seem to be pro-war, pro-revolution or pro-reunification, whichever term you prefer. In my view, it was still a war. Doesn’t matter who was involved or what the aims were. Sides fought against one another. People died. There was a victor. It was a war.
Because of the war, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a major tourist attraction in HCMC. The tunnels, about 50-70km outside of HCMC, allowed the Viet Cong to control a large area between the border of Cambodia and HCMC. It is a large area of underground tunnels, some 20 meters below ground. These were not mere tunnels for transport, rather there were multiple floors, and the rooms included schools, churches, hospitals, weapons storerooms and kitchens. They had multiple hidden entrances, and these hidden entrances allowed the Viet Cong to attack American troops by surprise, and quickly jump back in their hole again and disappear. They had wooden trapdoors that were camouflaged or booby-trapped, and hidden underwater entrances from the rivers. It was all rather clever, and despite the US establishing a base camp nearby, the tunnels eluded the US troops for months. People lived underground for months at a time, and only about 6,000 of the 16,000 soldiers who fought in the tunnels survived.
Unlike other war sites I have visited, such as the S-21 genocide museum and the killing fields in Phnom Penh, the museum seemed to almost celebrate the war. Applaud it. Be proud of it. It was like a theme park, minus the roller coasters. It didn’t make you feel disgusted with what happened, or ashamed that it could be allowed to happen. In Phnom Penh I could not fathom how people could do such atrocities to their own people. To murder children and babies by throwing them against a tree. To torture people to try to get confessions. And to work people to death in the fields. At the Cu Chi Tunnels, the only part that I personally found sickening was the traps set for American soldiers, more because I hate blood and pain, and the hook needles on the traps made me squirm.
The visit starts with a rather upbeat propaganda video. It is black and white, lots of old footage, but with lively music in the background. It shows smiling children and women, and pictures of beautiful Cu Chi, with a commentary: Cu Chi, such a peaceful beautiful destination that didn’t want war. Cu Chi, known for its plentiful fruit, beautiful forests, and innocent young children. Cu Chi, a popular weekend destination and picnic spot. Cu Chi, invaded by Americans, who forced war upon it. Americans, who “like a bunch of crazy devils, shot women and children, cows and ducks, the ground and trees”. I swear, that is a quote directly from the movie, or as close to the quote as I can remember. Cu Chi has been presented with numerous awards, and many villages have been declared “heroic villages”. The government has since given awards to children soldiers for killing Americans, with an “American Killer” award. Further, the tour guide talks about how the Viet Cong used to climb in tiny holes to hide in after shooting at US troops. “Anyone want to have a go? Come on it’s fun!” There was also an old US tank, that we were told to pose next to or even climb on top of for photos. And, even weirder, “Here are the guns we used against American soldiers. Anyone want to shoot one? Only $1 per bullet!”.
Beginning to see how it feels like they almost celebrate the war…? Even at the reunification palace, the tour guide and photo captions said how the North “liberated” the South or “reunified” the two halves of the country. North Vietnam was a bringer of peace. Never a bringer of destruction. The Palace itself was beautiful and the free tour provided quite a lot of history on Vietnam and its politics. In 1868, a house was on the site, for the French Governor-General of Cochinchina. Once the French left, it became the home of the South Vietnamese President. However, he was unpopular, and his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an attempt to kill him. A new palace had to be built, which was completed in 1966, however the President was killed by his own troops 3 years prior.The new building became “Independence Palace” and was home to the next President, before he had to give up power at the end of the Vietnam War.
The “end of the war” happened at the Palace on April 30 1975 when two big tanks drove through the gates, demanding that the President surrender. He did. Vietnam was one again. A communist state. I actually enjoyed the palace visit, as the history was nice and the rooms and furnishings beautiful. We even got to go to the bomb shelter and president’s war room beneath the palace! Likewise, I enjoyed the Cu Chi Tunnels. It weirdly made me want to be more vocal about being an American. I often travel Asia on my British passport, but now I want to travel on my American one, or at least say I am from the States, rather than NZ. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because I fired my first gun today. An AK47. Walking around the tunnel grounds you could hear the shots in the background. I knew I wanted a go. They have a huge shooting range with big posters of animals to aim at. There are 6 guns to choose from, 2 of which are machine guns. Bullets are either 20,000 dong each ($1) or 35,000 dong each ($1.75) depending on the gun you choose. You have to buy a minimum of 10 bullets, so overall it cost me $17.50.
It wasn’t El’s piece of cake, therefore I have no photos of me with my gun or with the earmuffs on, as she didn’t want any part in it. But personally, it was actually quite fun. Not in an “I am turning into a gun person” type fun, but just a cool, new, different experience. It de-stressed me. Took a load off my shoulders. I felt better afterwards. Running is my stress relief, but as I can’t run currently, this did the trick for me. I was shown exactly how to hold it. I was really worried about firing it the first time – whether if I held my head by the gun, it would kick back and hit my cheek, so I kind of held myself far away from it until I got a feel from it. After it didn’t really kick back much, I got more into it and actually tried to aim (tried being the operative word) at the targets. Before I knew it, I was out of bullets, and headed back to meet the rest of the group.
Following this, we got the chance to climb down into tunnels. These tunnels are not legitimate ones, they are tourist made. Which means they are 80cm wide and 120cm high. So still quite small, but larger than what they used. After two flights of stairs, we were truly underground, in a small smooth rounded passageway. Some crawled, I shuffled, and we ventured forward. The one piece of advice I can give is that if you are in a large group, leave a bit of a gap between you and the person in front. Because people stop or slow down, and then you are stuck in a very hot and very dark claustrophobic tunnel. So just leave a bit of room so if the person in front of you stops, you don’t stop suddenly too.
It was a very interesting experience. Very odd, due to the almost celebratory atmosphere, but interesting nonetheless. Tomorrow, I will be visiting the War Remnants Museum, so will see how slanted against America the museum is. The interesting thing is that a lot of photos and parts of the exhibition at the museum were actually donated by the US government. So they seem willing to open up about exactly what happened. The Vietnamese government doesn’t seem willing. I read in Hanoi how US prisoners of war were made to sign forms saying they were treated well whilst being held during the war, when in fact they were tortured and depraved. Vietnam to this day still denies that the US troops held prisoner were treated poorly in any way. Politics…