For many of us reading this post, the brutal war that lingered in Vietnam for two tumultuous decades (from 1955 to 1975), is what we know only as the Vietnam War. It’s what our text books have officially entitled it, what the multitude of movies like Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Apocalypse Now, visually portray.
But here on Vietnamese soil, right where it happened, it is more commonly known as the American War.
Regardless of the preferred title of choice, everyone, whether American or Vietnamese, will unitedly agree that it was an ugly, savage conflict that has left a permanent scar in our history books.
Surprisingly though, despite its relatively recent end, there are not many reminders of the war. Vietnam has triumphantly moved on… As one of south-east Asia’s fastest-growing economies, Ho Chi Minh City in particular is on the cusp of becoming a high-octane metropolis with swanky bars and designer shopping malls. American tourists are now greeted with smiles of welcome rather than bullets and grenades… In defiance of the atrocities, the Vietnamese do not bear a grudge. One of the VPV staff at the volunteering centre summed up his country’s resilience – ‘This is our history. We cannot change the facts. We just accept and try to make Vietnam a better place. To hate would not be useful for our country. Forgive and forget.’
‘Forgive and forget?!’ I wanted to ask incredulously but I held my tongue. Forgive yes; but I hope no-one forgets this war. A quote I had come across entered my mind, “If we fail to learn from our trials and errors, then we truly fail.” Indeed, what is to be gained if we cannot learn from our mistakes? And to many, the American War was a pointless, costly mistake.
Glimmers of Vietnam’s painful past can be found if you look hard enough and visiting the War Remnants museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels are the obvious go-to.
The yard outside the War Remnants Museum is filled with American tanks, choppers, bombs and weapons, a precursor to what fills the museum inside.
I waked the rooms in silence. Each step filled me with horror. I felt sick to my stomach as I reeled out statistics and looked at one sickening photo to the next… 7,850,000 tons of bombs dropped, 75,000,000 litres of defoliants sprayed on crops, farms, forests, and villages. Over 58,000 Americans killed and nearly 3,000,000 Vietnamese died.
The walls were covered with large black and white photos, documenting American atrocities against the Vietnamese people. Granted this was a one sided account; a no holds barred pictorial display of the US’s cruelty towards the Vietnamese. There is no intention to blur the edges of what this war did to Vietnam. These are the hard facts… photographic proof of beheaded peasants and bodies burnt beyond recognition. One gruesome photo sticks to my memory – a grainy black and white photo of US soldiers posing in front of their trophies of beheaded Vietnamese soldiers.
There is a caption below, ‘…The above picture shows exactly what the brass want you to do in Nam. The reason for printing this photo is not to put down GIs but rather to illustrate the fact that the army can really f*** with your mind if you let it. It’s up to you, you can put in your time trying to make it back in be piece or you can become a psycho killer like the lifer in this picture who really digs this kind of shit. It’s your choice.’
Most disturbing of all is the Agent Orange exhibition – results of the napalm bombings that desecrated 4.5 million acres of jungle. The US sprayed more than 19 million gallons of the toxic stuff to draw out the Vietnamese guerrillas, but it was only revealed much later to have caused serious health issues – tumours, birth defects, rashes and cancer in not only the Vietnamese population but also returning U.S. servicemen and their families. Bottled foetuses of deformities are on display on the third floor; twisted forms of flesh so gruesome, it seems unbelievable these share the same genetic makeup as us.
Admittedly it’s not an enjoyable experience. The displays are so horrific I wondered if I was trapped in a horror movie. Nevertheless it is an education, something which should be done in solitude so the ugly truth of the war can be digested like a bad pill in your own time.
*** Some of the photos below may cause distress ***
Continuing the tour of ‘War’, I decided to visit the Cu Chi tunnels for a half day tour. These are an immense network of connecting tunnels that sit under much of the country, and were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat.
American soldiers coined the phrase ‘Black Echo’ to describe the conditions – air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Even for the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day underground, only coming out at night to scavenge for supplies or engage the enemy in battle. Sickness was so rampant, malaria in particular was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.
On occasion when US troops found a tunnel, they would often underestimate its size. These tunnels were built for Vietnamese size not American, so rarely would anyone be sent in to search the tunnels. Size restriction aside, these tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or ingenious stake pits; lethal spikes covered in urine and faeces to create disease and incurable infections; what eventually rendered US technology ineffective and led to American defeat in 1972.
The tunnels we see today have been increased to accommodate tourists. Still, it seemed impossible even at my wee 5’2″ self that anyone could spend ten minutes down there, let alone years. We were given the opportunity to go through 40 metres of the widened tunnel so we could experience first-hand the claustrophobic conditions.
I squeezed myself through the opening and found myself immersed in to complete utter blackness. The heat was stifling; like someone had suddenly clasped their hand over my mouth and nose, starving me of oxygen, of life. I took a sharp intake of breath, an unsatisfying breath of nothing but stale, hot air. The reminder that I had not brought an inhaler suddenly made me panic.
‘Back up… Back up! Let me out!’ I heard myself shouting to the poor soul behind me.
‘It will be fine. You’ll be okay’ a voice reassured me from somewhere in the darkness. Further behind I could hear someone asking what the commotion was. I didn’t care if I was the reason behind the scene. My mind was going in to overdrive. I imagined huge spiders crawling towards me, rats scuttling back and forth, scorpions nestling in the sand… I felt the hands of my phobia garrotting me.
That was the end of my short experience in the Cu Chi tunnels… I would have made a gutless guerilla. It only adds to the bewilderment of survival in these tunnels. I watched the more successful visitors emerge dirtied, drenched and agitated. I’ve seen enough evidence to convince me that the American War / Vietnam War was a truly horrific battle.