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Lessons of the Cu Chi Tunnels

By Caroline Park

I hadn’t planned on visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels during our stay in Vietnam, but when a friend asked me to go on the first day there, I shrugged and thought why not. After having lunch at a pho restaurant, we asked the owner how we could get to the tunnels.  In very good English, she told us it was quite far and the best way would be by taxi. She graciously offered to call us a taxi from a company that she knew wouldn’t try to rip us off. We accepted.

Within a couple of minutes a white SUV taxi pulled over and the five of us climbed in. Our driver took us through Ho Chi Minh City and out of it headed for Cu Chi. I gazed out of the window the whole time, taking in everything that I could see from my limited view. People were pushing carts, people were selling things, men young and old were working in a construction site lifting heavy concrete blocks. Hundreds of motorbikes passed us by.  The hustle and bustle of HCMC was familiar yet fascinating. We didn’t talk much during the ride to Cu Chi.  All of us were in a trance, staring out at a city that was full of life but had been war torn only a couple of decades ago.  I couldn’t imagine the city in war but while we were passing by I noticed the wreckage of several buildings that had not yet been reconstructed.  The traces reminded me of the skeletons of a long decomposed body.  Forgotten, yet visible.

As we drew nearer, I asked myself, “what exactly are we going to see at the Cu Chi Tunnels?”  I only knew vaguely that it was a reconstruction of a tunnel that had been used by the Viet Cong during the war and I wasn’t prepared for “a commercialized transnational public space for the consumption of a multisensory ‘Vietcong’ experience” that Christina Schwenkel describes in her article "Recombinant History: Transnational Practices of Memory and Knowledge Production in Contemporary Vietnam".  As soon as my group crossed the street into the “jungle,” I felt the construction of memory and history at work. 

First, we were ushered to the “original” entry to the tunnel.  We joined a large group of Canadians and I watched a young girl around the age of ten climb into the entry hole.  “Ouch,” she exclaimed as her elbow bumped the ground while she tried slithering into the constrained space.  She held the wooden door above her head as her parents snapped pictures.  Then we were herded to the second attraction: a broken down U.S. army tank half sunken in the mud.  The Vietnamese guide explained that the tank had caught on fire and as the U.S. soldiers climbed out, they were shot on the spot by surrounding VCs.  Shutters of cameras opened and shut and the tourists formed a line to take pictures on the tank, including the group I was with. 

As I joined them on top of that tank, I couldn’t figure out what kind of meaning this relic held for the people who coming to encounter this “‘implied’ experience that ‘operated in the realm of the imaginary’” (Schwenkel 9).  Did the people, foreign or Vietnamese, come here to feel the realness of a past and gruesome war?  What kind of meaning does this place and places such as this hold for travelers who stop by?  Schwenkel asserts that foreigners who come to Vietnam in search of traces of the war express disappointment at the lack of remnants (8).  Therefore, is Vietnam’s tourist industry spurred by an international demand in a globalizing world where people from one side of the globe come by the other side in search of an exotic and tragic history?  To me the Cu Chi Tunnels were a reminder of a horrendous event that should never take place again.

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