The First Attraction: Video Entertainment
Unfamiliar birds call out between bursts of gunfire from a distant shooting range. Vines twist around trees, anchoring them to the soil; they appear taller than any trees I have seen before. Large black butterflies with blue-green markings twist around branches high in the jungle canopy. The trees filter sounds and light, turning the jungle into a place without time, without space, just endless green and brown, with birdsong and the sounds of contained explosions coming from every direction at once.
My tour group has been in Vietnam for less than twenty-four hours. Our flight arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, late last night, and we barely had a chance to sleep before our bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels left at 8 a.m. this morning. We have been told the Vietnamese have mostly forgotten about the American War, what we call the Vietnamese War. A majority of the population was born after it ended. They’ve moved on. So the first place we visit after landing is a place where our soldiers killed each other in the war we’re all supposed to have forgotten. But the Vietnamese didn’t plan our itinerary. We did.
Our tour guide and translator, Chau, ushers us into a pavilion with a palm-leaf roof and starts a DVD. My body dwarfs the wooden chair on which I sit, but I try to settle in so I can absorb whatever information the movie will impart. The film is poor quality black and white from the war. A woman speaks about American soldiers destroying the beautiful, peaceful village of Cu Chi. The guerillas had a way to fight back, though. A system of tunnels had been built during the French War in the 1940s, and they expanded the system. Viet Cong soldiers lived in the tunnels for days at a time, hiding from American troops, moving supplies, and treating their wounded.
Abruptly, the narrator starts speaking about particular Viet Cong who were American-killer heroes, who were adept at blowing up tanks using unexploded American ordinance. The film no longer seems to be about Cu Chi or the tunnels at all. What is this?
From the jungle, an orchestra of cicadas picks up its wings and plays, nearly drowning out the narrator. I’ve never heard cicadas so loud before. The narrator’s voice marches on over the thankfully blotchy black and white images. I think of my father-in-law, who served as a helicopter crew chief and flew missions here in Cu Chi during his tour of duty from 1970 to 71. I look away from the screen. Above the television hangs a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, his long, white goatee hanging almost out of the frame. His lips hint at a smile, and his eyes twinkle. The portrait hangs at an angle, so it appears he is looking down on us, watching us as we watch Viet Cong blow up our countrymen on the television.
When the video ends, I shift my weight in the chair. Chau returns to the front of the pavilion, turns off the television and picks up a pointer, the kind elementary school teachers use. He points to features on a diorama of the Cu Chi Tunnels to the right of the television. This is more like what I am used to from trips to National and State Parks and old battlegrounds like Gettysburg and Valley Forge near my Philadelphia-area childhood home. Chau explains that the villagers living in the tunnels cooked only once in the morning so that smoke from their cooking fires, which escaped through a series of chambers constructed to disperse it before it reached the surface, would blend in with the morning mists.
“Here they built the tunnel smaller so only Vietnamese could get through, and Americans would get stuck.” He points to a low section of the diorama, where a tiny doll lies pinched between the walls of the tunnel.
The ground above the tunnels in the diorama is burnt and barren. A painted backdrop depicts American helicopters and a raging fire. I try not to think about it too hard. Chau doesn’t give me much time to dwell, anyway. He runs his eyes over the diorama one final time, and satisfied, replaces the pointer below it.
“Okay, boys and girls, follow me! We go to the tunnels now!”
The Second Attraction: The Secret Entrance
Chau leads us out of the pavilion and along a path. The cicadas drown out any attempts at conversation. We stop in front of a small copse of trees, behind which a uniformed man is half submerged in the earth. Over his head, he holds a thick metal rectangle covered in dead leaves and dirt. I wonder if we are expected to squeeze into the tunnels through this small hole—no more than eighteen inches across and six inches wide. I doubt my thighs would fit.
“This is the secret entrance,” Chau shouts above the cicadas.
The uniformed man disappears into the ground and shakes the metal cover to disperse the leaves and dirt and disguise the entrance. After a few seconds, he reappears and poses for photographs. He doesn’t smile. A group of blonde women in shorts and expensive-looking flip-flops seem especially transfixed with the display, but we all snap away. For a few moments the sound of camera shutters and digital approximations of shutters compete with the cicadas.
The man hops out of the hole, and Chau asks if anyone would like to take a picture inside, holding the cover. One of the blonde women volunteers. I turn away from the secret entrance, feeling the weight of my DSLR camera on my shoulder. Something about this makes me uneasy. I turn to the unfamiliar jungle foliage and search vainly for one of the cicadas that still roar from the some hiding place in the treetops. I don’t see any. I don’t see any birds either, just a few butterflies well out of range of my camera lens. One of my tour group members replaces the blonde woman in the hole. I turn my gaze to the ground and find a six inch long, red centipede woven around a rock. I also find a tree sprout, only a few inches high. It feels like I’ve discovered a secret.
The Third Attraction: Booby Trap
In a few feet, Chau stops us. “Come here, boys and girls, let me show you this.”
He holds a long, thin bamboo pole against what looks like a door-sized woven mat on the ground. A sly grin crosses his face. I can see, though, that the mat isn’t sitting on top of anything, but is flush with ground level. In this moment, Chau reminds me of the men at carnivals shown in movies, the ones always shouting things like “Step right up, see the world’s most horrifying woman. Right behind this curtain, step right up!”
When everyone has caught up and circled around, Chau pushes down on the pole and the mat, a trap door, flips open. A dozen punji sticks stare up at us from the bottom of the pit the trap door had been hiding. On cue, the group winces. Someone says “ouch.” I unconsciously take a step back, then force myself to take two steps forward, to get a better look. The sticks aren’t perfectly rounded stakes. They are rough-hewn, sharp, and nasty-looking. Their uneven edges make them look even more menacing.
“Yes, very bad to walk across this,” Chau says.
The Fourth Attraction: The Viet Cong Camp
We walk for a longer distance this time. The dirt on the path is tan, the color of sand. Water runoff has carved deep trenches along the path, and the flattened carcasses of several red centipedes, yellow guts pooling around them, mark the passage of previous groups. The cicadas die down. At first I don’t notice, but a burst of gunshots startles me. How strange, to hear assault rifles in a place where men killed each other with those same models of guns and bombed the landscape into an unrecognizable wasteland.
I wonder how long it took the jungle to recover. I wonder if any species were endangered in the process. The jungle smells like decaying plant matter, but richer, more organic. There are more undertones, more layers. Dirt from the path finds its way into my sandals. I wiggle my toes and feel its graininess beneath the soles of my feet. I want to keep walking, discover more of the jungle’s secrets.
But we reach our next goal, a Viet Cong “camp” set up with three mannequins. They wear green fatigues and black and white checkered scarves. Their helmets bear the circular Viet Cong emblem: half red for North Vietnam and half blue for South Vietnam, joined in the middle with a gold star. The mannequins relax beneath a piece of camouflage fabric that’s been strung up between tree trunks. Chau explains how the Viet Cong would march through the jungle for months on end. One of the mannequins holds a pen and paper to write a letter home.
A young girl, not in our group, poses next to the female Viet Cong mannequin. She throws her fingers up in the peace sign and smiles ear to ear as her boyfriend takes the photo. The girl could be Japanese, as I hear some Japanese being spoken by another group behind us, and it’s common for Japanese tourists to pose with their fingers in the peace sign. I wonder if she realizes the irony of the photo. Or, perhaps there is no irony. The Viet Cong women who fought in the war did so because they wanted their country to be whole. They wanted their country to be at peace. Now, it is, after a fashion.
Maybe I am the one who doesn’t understand.
The Fifth Attraction: The Gallery of Traps
Past the well-hidden air vent that allowed oxygen into the tunnels and the “weapons factory” where animatronic mannequins saw endlessly at reproductions of unexploded American bombs to extract the explosives and repurpose them, Chau leads us to a covered, open-air pavilion. Inside, lined up in a row like a museum display, are examples of many of the types of traps the Viet Cong used during the war. Each has a name that describes its function or its inspiration. Names like see-saw trap, window trap, and door trap. Chau takes us down the line and explains each one while a bored-looking official in a green uniform plunges a bamboo pole into each trap with the same emotionless force to demonstrate its function.
Though the names and functionality of each trap differ slightly, they all share the same purpose: to cause as much damage to the unsuspecting U.S. soldier as possible. Most of them look something like a bear trap, but nastier. Crude, rough-hewn black metal spikes are attached to as much of the trap mechanism as possible. Most of the traps would be buried in a pit, and when the soldier stepped on the trap, he would fall and become caught. The spikes would dig into his leg, or if he were very unlucky, his torso.
I picture my father-in-law in the jungle, taking a false step, feeling the ground beneath him give way, those teeth biting through skin and muscle and bone while he grabs for solid ground, his efforts only making the trap bite down harder. But thankfully, he never fell into one of those traps. His helicopter flew safely over them.
At the end of the line hangs the door trap, a large metal frame covered in spikes. Chau grabs it. “This one is for the boys, who wants to try?”
No one volunteers.
Chau pushes the frame, and we can see that the bottom half swings independently of the top. “So yes, this is for the boys who want to be eunuchs. Do you know eunuchs?” He pronounces the word u-nucks. At first I don’t understand, but the second time he says it I realize what he’s saying.
We nod. In another context, his joke might be funny. But one of our group members, the same who had his photo taken in the secret entrance, responds anyway.
“Why don’t you try it?” he asks Chau.
Chau pushes his glasses up his nose with a finger and laughs, then immediately launches into an explanation of the trap. I didn’t catch how the trap was triggered, but because the bottom half swung freely from the top half, even if U.S. soldiers detected the trap once they opened a door, they were likely to stop only the top part, leaving the bottom to impale them in the stomach and groin area.
As I listen to Chau’s explanation, I notice a mural on the wall behind the uniformed man triggering the traps. It depicts the traps in action, all of them having caught U.S. soldiers. Red splotches of blood pour from the soldiers’ wounds, and looks of pain and surprise are painted on their faces. But the one closest to me is the worst. The soldier is bent over, holding his butt, which is stained red where the door trap has just stabbed him. His face is a cartoon image of pain and surprise: big, round eyes, mouth open wide. Chau sees me looking and points.
“Look, that one hurt his butt,” he says. He giggles a little. “Okay, we keep going.”
And we move along the path to the next station, with hardly a chance to process the mural or what it could mean that a government would sanction a painting like that. Considering the damage the United States did to Vietnam, and even to our own troops with chemical defoliants like Agent Orange, and the fact that our government has done little to nothing to make amends despite ample resources with which to do so, the Vietnamese government’s levity is almost understandable. Almost.
It isn’t uncommon to hear “’Nam” jokes on American comedy television shows, but even these often only make fun of the veterans’ constant retelling of their war stories—not of the actual physical suffering or death, though there are always the racist, crass exceptions. And even the jokes that “only” make fun of the constant storytelling are borderline, I argue, because of the many mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder that plague Vietnam veterans and could contribute to the constant storytelling.
Chau is younger than the war, like I am. But surely his parents suffered, if not in the war then during the post-war period when a majority of the Vietnamese population went hungry. Perhaps Chau’s jokes are his way of dealing with something that’s beyond comprehension. I still cannot understand how anyone could conceive of a single trap, let alone a dozen, that would tear a person up and leave him bleeding in a pit, but I have never been faced with enemy gunfire, or had to hide underground for days and days.
The Sixth Attraction: The Firing Range
The sounds of gunfire grow louder as we approach the firing range. I question whether we will ever actually go into a real tunnel. Some of our group members are more excited about the opportunity to shoot Vietnam War-era firearms than to go crawling through a dark hole in the ground.
Having been raised by a competitive shooter and hunter, guns have always been a part of my life. I don’t usually call myself pro-gun because I don’t want to automatically get thrown in with right wing gun nuts, but I’m not anti-gun, either. I think people should handle firearms if given the chance, if only so they come to understand and respect the power and responsibility that comes with owning or operating them. As we mill about the souvenir shop outside the firing range waiting for the members in our group to select and shoot their weapons, gunshots ringing in our ears, I think that this is the wrong time, the wrong place.
I hear my dad’s voice in my head: “Got your eyes and ears? Good to go?” When he would take me and my brother out shooting, if others were already at the range, we were not allowed out of the car until we put on our ear muffs and protective glasses. Once, another shooter failed to keep his pistol pointed down range. Dad marched over to him and asked him to please be aware of where he was pointing his gun. After that, Dad kept his eyes on the man, and as soon as he saw the gun pointed our way a second time, we packed up our gear and left. My father believes so strongly in gun safety that every year he volunteers at a local sportsman’s club to teach hunter’s safety classes to kids.
Here, men in uniforms and ear muffs stand about stiffly, directing tourists. A locked case displays assault rifles and machine guns, some of which can be shot, like the M60, the M16, and the AK-47. For a few thousand Vietnamese dong—less than one American dollar—, you can fire three rounds. The uniformed men in front of the gun case, like the man in the trap gallery, give off the sense of boredom and maybe a little disdain. None of them smile.
Even if I hadn’t shot high powered rifles before, and if my dad the gun collector didn’t also have an AK-47, I would find another way to shoot a gun like that, a way that wasn’t rushed or hurried. This place has seen real bloodshed, real horrors. It seems cruel to inflict the constant sound of assault rifle fire on it.
While we wait for the others, I plug my ears with my fingers and wander around the souvenir case, placed here, presumably, to catch people like me who choose not to shoot one of the weapons. Ho Chi Minh’s eyes stare down at me from a framed portrait above the case. I circle it and take stock of its offerings: Viet Cong checkered bandanas, sandals made from tires designed to trick Americans into thinking the Viet Cong were walking the opposite direction, key chains made from bullets, statues of Viet Cong soldiers, and even a miniature representation of one of the traps. At that, I turn away.
I am glad when we move on.
The Seventh Attraction: The Tunnel
With the sound of rifle fire still booming behind us, we stop in a small hut to watch a woman make rice paper. She dips a ladle in a pot of creamy liquid and pours it onto a hot stone over an open flame, then spreads it thin like a crepe. It cooks in seconds. She peels it off the stone with what looks like a rolling pin covered in fabric, and places it on a bamboo mat to dry. The juxtaposition of implied violence and death with domesticity—would the Viet Cong living in the tunnels really have the time, ability, space, or inclination to make something as delicate as rice paper?—is absurd to me. As soon as we turn to leave, the woman flips open her cell phone.
Back in the jungle, we walk past a mound of dirt emitting little puffs of smoke—the kitchen vent. I suppose it runs all day now for the tourists to see how it works. We round a corner and I find myself staring into a little valley. It isn’t until we’ve passed it that I realize it’s not a valley. It’s a bomb crater. I dash back to take a picture. A sign informs me a B-52 did the damage. Trees and vines grow from its center and its sides, almost hiding the sharp edges where the earth falls away, reclaiming the open space. After I snap another picture, I sprint to catch up to the group.
By the time I’ve caught my breath, we stop. We’ve finally arrived at the section of the Cu Chi Tunnels we’re allowed to enter. We leave our bags and cameras with those in our group who choose not to walk through the twenty or so meters of tunnel, widened and made taller for larger Western bodies. I imagine the concrete lining was also a government addition for us tourists, as I can’t imagine the Viet Cong having the resources to mix, pour, and set concrete while also evading American troops.
A short staircase with a railing—certainly another addition for our benefit—beneath a thatched roof leads us into the tunnel. We walk in a single-file line, like school children. The first staircase leads to a small, box-shaped alcove. We turn left and head down another staircase into the actual tunnel. Low-powered light bulbs encased in wire cages like the kind used at construction sites are strung up by an extension cord along the ceiling, illuminating the tunnel in a dull yellow glow. The utility lights give me the impression that the tunnel is unfinished, a work in progress, rather than a historic landmark preserved to resemble a certain period in time.
We crouch, knees folded up to our chests, arms and hands hugged close to our bodies. Even though it was widened and made taller, the tunnel is still only half as tall as we are, and just barely wider. I am in the middle of the single file line of my tour group mates, and I have no choice but to crab walk forward. There is no room to turn around or back up.
My calves and thighs have already begun to burn when I see one of the red centipedes crawling across the floor, directly toward me. I move as far to the right as I can, which is not very far, hoping the centipede will pass. I watch sections of its legs move together, propelling it forward in a graceful swimming motion. It looks poisonous. The centipede passes me before I have to find out or attempt to squash it beneath my sandaled foot, and I warn those behind me of its presence. I continue crab walking forward.
I know the tunnel is only twenty or so meters long, but as we move forward, it seems like forever. Dim echoes of panic rise within me. I feel not like a clever soldier outsmarting those who would kill me, but like a part on an assembly line. I can do nothing but move forward. I cannot stop, or rest, I cannot even pause to touch my hand to the wall to test its strength and texture. With people in front of me and people behind me, and the walls so close, and nowhere to go but forward, I am trapped.
As the sense of being trapped, the sense of panic, swells, I catch a whiff of that rich smell of organic decay, the jungle smell. The quality of light shifts, brightens. The person in front of me turns left, revealing a uniformed man crouching in the tunnel, blocking our way forward. We climb another set of stairs and emerge not so very far from where we entered the tunnel. I shake out my legs and inhale the jungle smell, enjoying the heat.
We pick up our bags and cameras, and Chau ushers us away from the tunnel. The cicadas have taken up their buzzing song again. As we rush toward the bus and lunch in Ho Chi Minh City, I look up at the greenish light filtering through the trees. I am out of the dark of the tunnel, but I am still in the dark. I wanted to have a profound experience in this place, a revelation about the Viet Cong, some form of communion with the spirits of those who lived and died underground here.
Instead, I have become part of an assembly line of tourists marching dutifully through this battlefield-turned-historic-site like the soldiers who came before them, being fed some new piece of information at each station.
Places like this, like the concentration camps in Europe, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like countless others, where large numbers of people have died, where men have done terrible things to one another, are never easy to visit. But Cu Chi is worse.
Cu Chi was destroyed by war and is now used to glorify it. This place is haunted not by ghosts of dead soldiers, not by the past, but by the present, by the shadow of propaganda that hangs over it. There can be no profound revelations in a place like this, no tidy, neat answers, no closure, no healing.
Is it enough to have come, to have seen, and to remember? Is it enough to bear witness, to acknowledge that these murky waters exist?
As I climb onto the air-conditioned bus and my sweat begins to dry on my skin, I feel complicit, as if the act of going through the tunnels has somehow made me a part of the deaths of all these men and women, American and Vietnamese.
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others, and was a finalist in the December 2015 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also writes “This Week in Books” for The Rumpus. Follow her on Twitter @kellylynnthomas and read more at http://kellylynnthomas.com.