Sunday, 28 March 2010

Are the Cu Chi Tunnels Vietnam's Ultimate Theme Park?

Comely Viet Cong fighters with
wide, welcoming smiles
under a bamboo shade. What next?

After all the death, destruction and angst that was the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese have paid their American tormentors the biggest compliment by turning its iconic Cu Chi Tunnels into a theme park. Long regarded as Vietnam’s symbol of resistance against French colonialism, South Vietnamese corruption and American aggression, the tunnel network and complex painstakingly dug some 70 km outside Ho Chi Minh City is justly celebrated. However has it become too commercial for its own good?

Our day-long excursion out of HCM took us to the garish Cao Dai Holy See at Tay Ninh and the Cu Chi tunnels at Ben Dinh. Tourists disgorged themselves in the busloads to buy tickets, priced at 75,000 Vietnamese Dong per head. Not exactly a princely sum (about SGD 7), but pretty dear for most Vietnamese. A long subway tunnel then led from the ticket office to a fenced up wooded area across the road.

Uniformed soldiers greeted the visitors, each group led by guides speaking in English, German, Chinese, Japanese or whatever, how very helpful. The first stop is an underground “classroom”, except its not quite underground, more like a fairly deep dugout roofed with thatched leaves. There are several of them, all stocked with large maps, TV, video equipment, a model of the tunnels, the yellow star on red background, and the ubiquitous portrait of Uncle Ho.

They are all occupied so we move on, just in time to catch a soldier emerging from a rectangular aperture in the ground smaller than the average manhole. With a lid camouflaged by dead leaves, it looks imperceptible from the surroundings – that’s where GIs get caught napping by the Viet Cong. Some members get to climb in, but no big guys allowed.

Next comes a tunnel entrance proper but no one volunteers because it’s just too small, and too grimy. There is a fixed circuit that circumnavigates the “forest”, which is mostly secondary jungle, not unlike that found on Pulau Tekong. The next stop is a trackless American tank, which was stopped short by a mine in 1970. “All five crew members were killed,” the guide handily offers. People get to climb on it for photos, while others do the same with mannequins donning VC outfits.

More horrors take the form of a series of ingenious but treacherous traps fitted with punji spears, each with a fanciful name, and each meant to skewer whichever soldier – foe or friend – unlucky to land on top of. Few were maimed by these particularly evil devices, conceded the guide, but these were a form of psychological intimidation.

Then comes a mock-up of a workshop where VCs harvested gunpowder from unexploded ordnance. With a flick of a switch, the dummies begin to saw and hammer shell casings and other bomb-shaped objects. Not very smart if one of these explode in your face, eh?

Anybody wants to fire off an M16 or AK47? Here’s your chance, with live ammunition sold at US$2 a bullet with maybe a discount for a full magazine. There is a firing range, of course, and the shots are deafening. Heck, the Singapore government paid me to fire these things during ICT, so why should I fork out the dough? I fritter the money on postcards and a lacquer box instead.

We eventually get to descend into the tunnels themselves. There is one specially widened to fit the “Western” body habitus, running some 100 metres in length but with 5 or 6 escape outlets in between. The six-foot Caucasian with the face of Jesus gets in and immediately beats a hasty retreat – he is just too tall. A Korean waif has no problems, so we follow her in. Its pitch darkness, but thanks to Janet’s handy torchlight it seems less forbidding. We however still emerge from the first “chicken” out-let, much to Ming’s disappointment.

For our troubles, we are treated to a tea-party which consists of boiled tapioca roots and unsweetened tea, what the VC subsisted on in their privations. We passed more used shells and bombs, several unmanned souvenir shops until we’re back to those underground classrooms – a full circle and in one piece. The lecture consists of a black and white Vietnamese film (circa 1967) with this story:

Cu Chi was a peace-loving region, with lots of farming and happy children smiling and playing in the fields. That all ended with the imperialist Americans bombing and slaughtering of innocents. But never fear, Vietnamese of all ages and sexes stood firm together to resist the Capitalists. Take for example Nguyen Duoc, just 18, but has claimed 12 confirmed kills. What about Phan Ming Yen, father of 14, who downed 3 helicopters? They are our heroes, and their spirit is what keeps us alive. Damn those Yankee bastards!

End of film and thus end of tour, and as darkness falls, we are herded into the last minibus headed for the Pham Ngu Lao ward of Ho Chi Minh City. So a history of the Vietnam War, all wrapped up in one convenient and painless hour. If this wasn’t the ultimate Vietnam War theme park, I don’t know what is.
The ultimate Vietnam War theme park?


Steven said...

Hey if my country can kick the Yankees' collective butt so succintly I would make a theme park out of it too! Don't think that Iraq will be building an equivalent anytime soon. Besides half the attractions are already built by the Americans with their B22 bombs.

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