Ho Chi Minh City We were up and at it on a Sunday morning as we shifted around the agenda to get a feel for the city and the country by taking a bus 60 kilometers away to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, a historic national site in Vietnam. The tunnels were legendary. Built originally in 1948 as protection and operations in what they call the French War until 1954 and independence and partitioning into North and South Vietnam, the American War revived the tunnels as both defense and guerrilla offense on Saigon until the Paris peace from 1966 to 1975. Too much history here!
The bus guide had prepared the way in an idiosyncratic recitation of details. The country was horribly poor with per capita income $1200 USD per year and more like $360 USD per year in rural areas. There was huge migration into the cities with more than 8 million now in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi even larger. After 3 million killed in the war (1 million soldiers, 2 million civilians he claimed) population had surged in the last 35 years from a little more than 30 million to now over 81 million people.
He complained that there were growing inequities between rich and poor, and when I asked him how you got rich here the answers were interesting. First, remittances from family abroad, especially in the USA. No doubt this was a bitter, divisive irony that families fleeing South Vietnam for their support of the Americans, were now fueling relative riches back home from dollars made in the USA and elsewhere. Second, was whether you owned land, because land had value for housing, crops and asset wealth.
At Cu Chi Tunnel we started with a video and graphic ant farm representations of the tunnels under the scorched earth of Agent Orange. The film referred to the “crazy American devils” doing their bombing, showing there’s no mellowness on this score yet. The foliage had come back, according to one of the presenters, after its 11 year run, though he said genetic impacts could be 300 years. I assume the dioxin, but I’m not sure that it is not leached through the soil here as well. 18000 troops could live in the tunnels at one time and during the war they had run more than 200 kms. A half million tons of bombs had killed 2/3rds of the tunnel occupants over time and destroyed much of them, but the operations had been intricate with sources of water, underground cooking with disguised smoke outlets, arms and trap productions, hospitals and more. There was an outlet to the Saigon River that would allow guerrillas to make their way down river to the city, do damage, and come back virtually on the same day.
We could crawl in the tunnels since some had been expanded a bit for “western size,” but were still tight, claustrophobia going. A couple of our crew tried the extra section in the dark coming up in a room full of bats to add to the treats. As we went into the tunnels, soldiers would light firecrackers to give the whole experience even more of a taste of reality. Coming out sweating in the humidity and stillness of the overgrowth, made all of us wonder over and over, what in the world we thought we were doing here?