30 January 2012
One great thing about taking day trips in Vietnam is that there are many tour operators in the city. Cu Chi Tunnel, 70 km from HCMC in the North-West direction is preserved in two areas of Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. It was the holy revolutionary base of Cu Chi and formed a versatile battle formation to front enemies. No doubt, it was and still is a symbol of national unity.
These underground tunnels are all connected and were the locations of several military campaigns during the ongoing war. Viet Cong soldiers used them as hiding spots, supply routes, storage places for ammunitions and some even operated as hospitals and living quarters. The tunnels offered them great advantages over the Americans.
The claustrophobic Cu Chi tunnels are known as the “Black Echo” by the Americans. When night time falls, it’s not hard to imagine how tough the conditions were. No doubt when fighting is intense and food is scarce, the dark tunnels would be crawling with disease-carrying vermin.
There are trap doors that were well camouflaged leading to the tunnels and due to advantages that Viet Cong had over Americans, America launched their Agent Orange and explosives (chemical warfare) campaigns. From 1962 to 1971, American forces sprayed over 75 million litres of Agent Orange over Southern Vietnam. Spraying was done from helicopters + planes and 12% of S.Vietnam, over 10 million ha of land, was destroyed.
Aim: deforestation, depriving guerrillas of food and cover, forcing peasants to flee to US dominated areas to cut off the guerrilla’s rural support and of course to strike fear in the hearts of the people. Agent Orange was deadly and still is. The Vietnamese government stated that 4 million people were exposed to Agent Orange and 3 million have suffered illnesses because of it. US challenge such figures and called them as being unreliable. Regardless of the exact figure, one cannot deny the lingering complications and the aftermaths of war nor the fact that 28 former US military base still contain high level of dioxins. The contaminated soil continue to affect the surrounding communities, not only poisoning the food but also causing illnesses from skin disease to cancer to heart diseases and horrendous birth defects. I paid a visit to one orphange where the caretaker looks after these children. Heartbreaking to know that people still suffer from this painful legacy.
The fierce fighting that once went on in Cu Chi is now replaced by tourism. It is a popular attraction where tourists are able to learn the history and crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some have been modified to allow Westerners to squeeze through. I stayed at the Ben Duoc site and spent a good 30-minutes crawling through the tunnels. It was fun and a very hands-on experience to see what life was like back then.
I had a good hour left so with a gun in my hand, I went a tad crazy at the shooting range. I’ve always had a military dream so I’ve never said NO to any opportunities where I could imagine myself as a badass soldier.
After the tour, I hopped off the bus at a random stop and before I knew it, I was lost in HCMC – mapless. Despite walking around the city for a good 2 hours or so that afternoon, I was pretty impressed that I used landmarks to make my way back to District 1 Cong Hoa roundabout. I just kept on walking, passing through residential areas, hospitals, landmarks…going up and down the streets who all bore witness to the city throughout the years.
Anyone interested in volunteering and helping those who are suffering from Agent Orange can log onto volunteervietnam.org. Plan the organisations and orphanage a visit during your travels and give something tiny back to society.
A great experience and like all tragedies in the world: heart-breaking.