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A War, Not A Country

By Robbieana Leung

Gunshots rang in the air as three other Semester at Sea students and I walked in the moist, muddy jungle, only a couple meters away from the infamous Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam. Men wearing Viet Cong guerilla uniforms rapidly took us deeper into the heart of thick forest, marked by the concentration of the twisted branches that dipped low, like claws reaching to snatch our lives. Soon we fumbled through a narrow black channel that constricted air passages and any hope of light, shielding our eyes and blinding the senses, as darkness and much careless fumbling ensued. My throat began to close up and I squeezed my eyes shut, fighting the horrors that the walls embracing my skin would cave in and smash me into a fearsome, blinding death…

Wait a minute.

This was exactly what the Vietnamese tourist agency wanted me to think, in their contrived recreation of the Cu Chi tunnel battlefield. In her essay Recombinant history: transnational practices of memory and knowledge production in contemporary Vietnam, Christina Schwenkel writes that the tunnels “have been transformed into a commercialized transnational public space for the consumption of a multisensory 'VC' experience” (9). The entire battlefield has been constructed in such a way to satisfy tourists’ desire for authenticity; to feel like they are in the actual place and time of where history unfolded. This was evident in the guides dressed up as ‘VC’s, the widening of tunnels to accommodate larger bodies of foreigners, dividing the 90 meter tunnel into three sections with emergency exits (a paradox, as it eliminates legitimacy by placing safety first), and the opportunity to shoot guns that were used in the war.

When our Viet Cong guide took us to a rusting American tank, a hot spot for tourists to take a picture, I remember that my companions and I smiled and posed in “soldier-like stances” (flexed arms, pretending to look in the distance). Only after the picture was taken and my friend had paid to shoot an authentic war rifle, breathlessly calling his “quintessential virtual guerilla experience”, “So cool,” did I realize how sick our behavior was (Schwenkel, 14). We had completely behaved in the desired response that the Vietnamese tourist board tried to elicit and propagate, the tourist response that fuels the fantastical reconstruction of history to attract tourism in order to boost local economy. We became so enamored at being in a prominent location, The Place where fear dominated the atmosphere and thousands had lost their lives in an infamous war that changed the course of generations, that we feigned the part of being true actors in the war.

I was ashamed. It was disrespectful to “enjoy” such a solemn place, as if it were Disneyland, and mock the ugliness and fierceness of war. We had justified the reconstruction for the sake of tourism, clearly demonstrating Schwenkel’s point that the whole hyperreal operation is perpetuated by tourists’ “demands for the real thing [which] produces images that imitate images, obscuring the lines…separating realism from restoration and history from entertainment” (13,14).

Visiting the Cu Chi tunnels showed me the irony of Vietnam’s desire to be seen as “a country, not a war,” and their actions, which boost the production of war memorabilia and paraphernalia as souvenirs. These war memorials and souvenirs, such as Zippo lighters and dog tags, are mainly targeted to the United States, due to the country’s economical dependency on tourism, especially from a country that was strongly affected by and connected to the war. It is unfortunate that Vietnam needs to do the very thing that it despises in order to survive: project a false image of the country that undermines truth. In selling itself, Vietnam’s concentrated focus and promotion of war related tourist spots further engraves the image of Vietnam as a war, not a country. Perhaps this contributes to the reason why “in the perception of many Americans, Vietnam remains a dangerous and war-torn country rather than a potential travel destination” (Schwenkel, 6). Having gotten off the “tourist track” and seen Vietnam’s beauty in other places, I hope Vietnam will place more focus on promoting its natural beauty that compliments the country’s hope of being seen as a country, rather than war. I am confident that its natural beauty is attractive enough to bring tourists to Vietnam.

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