To us Americans, Vietnam was one of our longest wars. But for the Vietnamese, it was one of their shortest. The American War was but one episode in 30 years of conflict with the French, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Khmer Rouge.
Today we toured the tunnel system near Cu Chi, a network of underground strongholds running to the Cambodian border and used by the Viet Cong as a jumping off point for attacks on Saigon.
A map of South Vietnam from ’65-’66 showing zones of American and ARVN control brought to mind Daniel Ellsberg’s contention that the war in Vietnam might never have been winnable. Pockets of American control in the countryside surrounded and in some cases even riddled with VC tunnels meant that American forces could be surrounded or infiltrated by an unseen enemy that might even be under their feet.
It’s worth noting that the term “Viet Cong” was an American coinage. The VC never used this term, instead referring to themselves as the Revolutionaries.
Today the area of Cuchi, on the far outskirts of Saigon, is peaceful farm country. We saw cemeteries with well built, covered tombs. The Vietnamese, unlike many Asian countries, bury their dead rather than cremating them. The positions and facing of the tombs are decided upon with the consultation of geomancers who take into account many factors, including the astrological chart of the deceased.
Consulting geomancers is still a common practice overall — another example of a local belief that communism couldn’t ever get rid of. Country people consult them not just to place graves, but also to decide which direction their houses should face. The practice is very similar to the Chinese reliance on feng shui.
We didn’t visit it, but a but farther up the highway from Cuchi is Trang Bang, where the famous photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack on her village was taken. The woman in question now lives in Canada. Many years later, in a gesture of reconciliation, she met the American pilot who carried out the attack.
Cuchi was a free fire zone. Frequently American pilots who couldn’t drop their payloads due to weather or other difficulties, and couldn’t land safely with a payload of ordnance, simply dropped their bombs on the Cuchi area before returning to base. The area is still dotted with bomb craters.
At the Cuchi museum, we saw how the tunnels worked. Claustrophobic passages, many too small for big Americans, were concealed under piles of leaves, bushes, and even termite mounds. Smoke chambers contained cooking smoke, which would then be released with the morning fog to avoid detection by Special Forces tunnel rats. To throw American dogs off the scent, chilies and, later, the familiar smell of captured American uniforms scented the tunnel entrances.
Inside, deadfalls full of pungi sticks and other vicious traps guarded the tunnels. Dung was used as a simple poison to make pungi sticks even more deadly. The effect of this form of warfare was intended to be as much psychological as anything else.
The museum included a display of weapons ranging from improvised flintlock rifles to captured American M-60s. There was even a live fire rifle range where I got to try out an AK-47.
Takeaway: never get involved in a land war in Asia. Especially against the Vietnamese.
On the return to Saigon, we stopped in an area of rubber plantations. Due to past bombing, most of the rubber trees, originally imported by the French from South America, are only 20-3o years old. The trees drip latex mostly in the morning, at which time workers on motorbikes gather the outflow in large buckets, and, when they’re full, bring them to a foreman, who pays them by weight.
Speaking of latex, the Vietnamese call condoms “raincoats,” and they’ve become quite important in a country with a 2-child policy. Men hoping to have sons — for Vietnam, unfortunately, is beginning to have the same male/female imbalance problem as China eat drink snake blood rice moonshine and eat snake meat. The heart is most sought after, and poor men will often share a meal, dicing for the most desirable organs such as heart and gall bladder. Served raw, the hearts will sometimes beat reflexively when touched with chopsticks.
We spent the rest of the day back in the city. A few more random observations on Saigon…
- Scooter helmets are fashion! In a city where most of the population get around on motorbikes, and many go masked while riding (both to keep pollution out and to keep their skin pale, for women), helmets come in a riot of colors and designs. Some remind me of Japanese fashion, with seemingly naive use of slogans in English a major feature.
- Saigon is a city of tall, thin buildings, built on tiny lots. Some blocks put me in mind of Amsterdam, although the architecture is much different.
- In the markets and malls, “Look sir, look sir ,” was the refrain as I walked through the cheaper places. But we found other places with a boutique style and American prices selling hip Singapore labels like Mphosis.
- Our guide loved the word “flexible” to describe most aspects of Saigonl life — but especially the traffic, which looks like a chaotic mess until you figure out how to cross the street and realize it’s all one big, crazy ballet.