Pitch black. I inch my way forward. Clay walls tighten around me and trigger my fear – claustrophobia. I’m forced to crouch down and shuffle along. Sweat stings my eyes. I want to retreat but I can’t turn round. I must go on. I try to control my breathing. My muscles ache. Then I see light and relief sweeps through me. I’m at the end of the tunnel.
I had only been in the Cu Chi tunnel for about 3 to 4 minutes and probably only covered about 50 metres, yet it seemed like hours. How was it possible that thousands of Viet Cong had managed to live underground in these tunnels for more than 10 years? The answer was simply that they had to. It was a poor, peasant army faced with high-tech weaponry, helicopters, bombs and chemicals. The history of the tunnels is symbolic of the Vietnamese struggle against oppressors throughout its history – determined, inventive, daring, resilient and patient. The US only needed to read the history of past struggles against the Chinese, Kublai Khan, the French and the Japanese to understand this.
In the 1960’s the tunnels – 250 kms of them, stretched from HCMC (Saigon) to the Cambodian border. They enabled the Viet Cong to communicate with other VC controlled areas and to plan attacks such as those on Saigon and the Tet offensive in 1968. Wandering around the Cu Chi area, we learnt that the tunnels were several storeys deep with trap doors, living areas, storage areas, kitchens, weapons factories and command centres. Fake ant hills concealed air holes, trap doors were camouflaged with leaves and logs and underwater entrances were built in rivers. There were even tunnel networks underneath the US military base at Dong Du and in US fortified encampments. This allowed the VC to mount surprise attacks and then to melt away without trace.
Once the US realised that the tunnels were so extensive, they carpet bombed the area. 420 km2 was turned into “the most bombed, shelled, gasses, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.” The US “tunnel rats” were brave men but the toll on the VC was enormous. Of the 16,000 cadres employed in the tunnels only 6,000 survived the war and thousands of civilians were killed.
” How do you find living in Vietnam, as an American?” I asked a photographer who had lived there for 13 years. He said that he was nervous to begin with with but that he had never had anyone use it against him. “Once, I was taking some photographs near a village and an old couple showed me a cage next to their home. It was where they had both been tortured by US soldiers. They smiled as they showed me around and never once indicated any hostility towards me.”
Most modern Vietnamese just want to get on with their lives and support their families. Their wars are past history and they seem to be very forgiving.
With a 3451 km coastline and two major river deltas – the Red River and the Mekong – it was not difficult to get to water. Cycling the small dusty tracks of the Mekong Delta was a delight with children rushing out to greet us with cries of “hello hello!” All of life was lived on or near the water but flooding is becoming a real threat as deforestation in Cambodia is affecting the delicate balance of the Mekong River.
Tall poles adorned with pineapples, melons, potatoes and turnips advertised what was on sale on each boat in the Cai Rang floating market. It was early morning and I needed a coffee. I spotted a coffee seller in her boat and she swiftly drew up along side us and served me – coffee with condensed milk.
The amphibious nature of some communities was even more obvious in Bai Tu Long Bay – the area of the famous karst formations in the Gulf of Tonkin. Whole villages live on the sea in floating houses complete with schools and shops. Each house had at least one guard dog which looked after the children when the parents were out fishing.
Swimming in the warm, clear seas off Phu Quoc island in the Gulf of Thailand was idyllic but not for much longer. The international airport and tax free zone, complete with casinos and 5 star hotels, will soon spoil that.
A barrage of motorbikes surges towards me as I tentatively try crossing the road. I retreat and cover my face, gasping for some clean air. I watch in awe as the drivers weave and wend their way through the mass of motorbikes. One driver is sporting a genuine looking American war helmet complete with an embroidered US eagle on the back. Drivers have to wear a helmet but not the other passengers. Babies, children and adults ride pillion without protection. Having run the gauntlet of a million bikes I think I’m safe on the pavement again. Not so. Several motorbikes use the pavement as a short cut without slowing down, missing me by a hair’s breadth. This is Ho Chi Minh City – vibrant, energetic and polluted.
The burnt out shell of an imperial building stands stark in the midday sun. It is difficult to imagine Hue’s Forbidden Purple City in its heyday. Built in 1802, it was the palace of the Nguyen emperors. Only 20 of its 148 buildings remain – all badly damaged by bombings and fire. First the French in 1885 stormed the palace, burnt the library and looted everything of value. Then the Americans, in 1968, used napalm on the imperial city and destroyed the town of Hue.
“We had to destroy the town in order to save it,” remarked one US officer. This was part of the Tet offensive in which over 10,000 people died in Hue.
I wander around the overgrown ruins of palaces and temples in the Imperial enclosure until I come across the queen mother’s residence. I take refuge from the heat in her pleasure pavilion built over a lily pond. Eunuchs serve tea to the queen mother and her birthday guests. Music floats through the air and fish splash in the pond. The image fades, like a Vietnamese silk painting with illusive figures and washed out colours, consumed by fire.
You can see more of my Vietnamese photos on https://picasaweb.google.com/112780009095358904804/VietnamNov2012