We wake up early again and eat noodle soup for breakfast just before leaving for the Cu Chi tunnels north of Saigon (stopping at another handcrafts workshop on the way).
Our guide is a funny former English teacher from the Mekong Delta nicknamed “Slim Jim.” The name suits him as he is indeed quite slim mainly because, as he says, he “drinks too much and smokes too much.”
Slim Jim is a great storyteller, going into the history of the “American War.” He was a member of the South Vietnamese army for a year (he didn’t see combat) before leaving to become a teacher. When the North took control of the country, he had to go off and learn communism and party politics before he could teach again. Others from the South army were sent to more intensive re-education camps, escaped the country (the boat people) or earned safe passage to America.
Throughout our travels in Vietnam I’ve often wondered how the French and U.S. troops could fight in the mountainous terrain and dense jungle. In the end, they couldn’t. This is why the Americans horribly polluted the country with toxic Agent Orange.
Beyond the terrain, exploring the Cu Chi tunnels certainly reveals an ingenius foe in touch with the locals and committed to their cause, using whatever means were at their disposal to fight the war. Sandals were made from tire rubber. Bamboo sharpened and used for deadly spears in horrific hidden booby traps. Unexploded American munitions carefully taken apart and used to make new landmines.
And the earth. Tunnels 60 x 80 cm, two or three levels deep. Perfected over 20 years of warfare. Brutal, petrifying.
I imagine hiding in these dark tunnels as B-52s flying above turn the land as dimpled as a golf ball.
Beyond the tunnels, there’s a destroyed U.S. tank that hit a Vietcong antitank mine. Escaping U.S. troops were shot and killed. Smiling people pose in front for pictures.
There’s also a rifle range with a machine gun, M-16 and AK-47. And, yes, Sara and I fire a few rounds of the AK.
When we’re dropped off in Saigon we return to the War Remnants Museum. One-sided, yes, but still an interesting collection of photojournalism from the French and American wars. Images of the destruction from the previous cities we visited – Hanoi, Hue in particular.
And the remnants of Agent Orange. It really does break your heart.
Throughout my travels in Vietnam I read the novel “Going After Cacciato” by Tim O’Brien. Clearly written by a Vietnam veteran, this story details a stream-of-consciousness Vietnam using vivid descriptions I can picture from my own trip and ugly anecdotes of this ugly war through the eyes of a grunt.
Dirty on all sides, but in Vietnam the scars are more obvious and still healing.