Feeling like we’d seen everything that Ho Chi Minh City had to offer, we decided to spend our final day in Vietnam at the Cu Chi Tunnels. For those who don’t know, the Cu Chi Tunnels span 250km and were used by Viet Cong’s main base of operations during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The original tunnels were only 80cm high and 30cm wide… Too narrow for most Westerners. The Americans never defeated the Viet Cong at the Cu Chi Tunnels.
We booked a tour through our hostel and didn’t realise what day it was or it’s significance with the tour. We were actually visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels on ‘Liberation Day’ aka the end of the Vietnamese War and the fall of Saigon. We were met by our guide Mr Binh (Bean) who told us that today was a very, very sad day for him. He told us that he wasn’t Vietnamese but American, and had fought with the American army during the Vietnam War. His father was Filipino but had lived in Vietnam before emigrating to the US before the Vietnam War. Mr Binh then returned to Vietnam with the American army to fight the Viet Cong and the Communist Northern Vietnamese. He told us that after Saigon was captured by the Northern Vietnamese and Communism established as the majority, he was forced to spend 5 years in a ‘Reunification Camp’ to rid him of his anti-Communist beliefs.
After being in Northern Vietnam and visiting the War Remnants Museum yesterday, it was really interesting to hear another perspective of the war. When we got on the bus to the tunnels he asked us if we wanted to know the ‘truth’ about the Vietnam War. He said everything in the War Remnants Museum and Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi was Communist propaganda and utter ‘bullshit’, and that today he’d tell us the truth. Today was a very sad day for him because it was Liberation Day, the day that the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, and the day that marked he end of the Vietnam War. He told us that on this day 39 years ago he took a gun to his head and nearly killed himself because Saigon’s fall meant the establishment of communism as the popularity.
It was interesting to hear his story because he said initially he wasn’t against Communism, but after his fiancée and the love of his life was brutally murdered by the Viet Cong for no apparent reason, he wanted justice. Mr Binh went on to say that though Ho Chi Minh is the city’s official name, to him it would always be ‘Saigon’. Always. (After the Vietnam War Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City).
The Cu Chi tunnels were very interesting and it was in part due to Mr Binh’s commentary as he’d actually fought here against the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese. We started the tour at one of the tunnel’s entrances to show us just how small they were. They were not more than 30 cm wide and Mr Binh told us that the tunnels were too big for the ‘big fat American soldiers’. He also told us how a young woman with a rather large bottom got stuck trying to get into the tunnels yesterday. He had plenty of stories about how the Viet Cong were able to spot Americans soldiers hiding behind trees because they were so big boned.
Mr Binh then showed us various traps used by the Viet Cong to hinder the American war effort. He explained that the tunnels underneath were on three levels and to maintain air supply the Viet Cong had made vents and tried to disguise them. The Americans quickly caught on and would send a German Shepherd to find the vents by trying to get it to smell ‘fish sauce’ as Mr Binh explained Vietnamese food is’very stinky stinky’. The Viet Cong though had another trick up its sleeve and built this booby trap below with sharp bamboo sticks. They’d put the ‘stinky fish sauce’ under the trap door and the German shepherd would fall to a nasty death. Mr Binh told us that many American army dogs died this way.
We then went into the tunnels to get a taste of what they were like and they were very, very narrow. For once being petite served its purpose. A lot of taller Westerners found it very claustrophobic, and one girl even had a panic attack half way through the tunnel we went in. The tunnel rarely went in a straight line and Mr Binh explained this was done by the Viet Cong to confuse and scare any American soldiers that might have made it into the tunnel.
The tunnels were really interesting but we could constantly hear the sound of gunfire. There was a shooting range at the end of the tour and you could shoot an AK-47, M16 and others. I was perplexed how Mr Binh who’d fought here and witnessed many people die here could return here on a daily basis. The constant sound of gun fire must be a constant reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War. The sound of shots being fired gave the tunnels a very eerie atmosphere and I felt like I’d been transported through time.
As for Mr Binh, he said he was currently writing his second book which was due to be published next year by Bloomsbury in the US. He said his book would be entitled ‘An American eagle flies down to hell’. Although Mr Binh was a real character and full of war tales, it was hard to know just how much of his story was true. He told us that he’d already published a book about his life and told us it was called ‘Three Moons of Vietnam’ but I couldn’t find it online or in the bookshop he told us about…