Millo's Musings

The Cu Chi Tunnels, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Guns

02 May 2013

May 1st is a national holiday in Vietnam, so, with the day off work, I took the opportunity to finally check out one of Saigon’s premier tourist attractions: The Cu Chi Tunnels.

This underground network of passageways and cubbyholes was built by the Vietcong during the war, and was a strategic stronghold that South Vietnam and its American allies repeatedly failed to conquer. Nowadays for $10 you can explore what’s left of the tunnels in their dank and dingy glory.

I never knew much about the Vietnam war until recently, so I’m only just getting to grips with how extensive and brutal the combat was. Arriving at Cu Chi, it’s hard to imagine that this peaceful forest could just forty years ago have been home to so much death and destruction.

The constant sound of gunfire in the background gives you some idea, but it’s not the full picture. More on that later.

Our tour guide was a 62 year-old war veteran called Jackie. With verve, charisma, and a shocking disregard for grammar, he told us of all the horrors he’d seen - Agent Orange, carpet bombing from B-52s, men ensnared in punji traps, and a bunch of other things that probably would have shocked me if I’d been able to understand what he was saying.

Whatever the case, I count my blessings that I was born in England in 1990, and not - well, almost anywhere else, at almost any other point in history. Not a day goes by where I don’t remind myself how lucky I am. Today especially.

Cu Chi Tunnels Trap Door

The ground around Cu Chi is littered with tiny little trapdoors, only just big enough to squeeze through. With the lid closed and some dirt and leaves sprinkled over the top, you’d have no idea they’re there, which of course is the point. I can only imagine what it must be like to fight in this jungle, knowing that your enemies could be hiding, loaded machine guns in hand, mere metres from your position, itching to jump out and murder you when you least expect it. As I climbed in, I realised that this wasn’t just an isolated hole in the ground. At my feet was an opening, big enough to crawl through, that presumably connected my hiding spot to the entire tunnel network.

“You wan’ go explore?” said Jackie.

“Maybe. Where does it go?”

“You go over there. Go down, turn right, first way, many ways, other exit there.” He pointed at some other trees. Was there an exit hatch amongst them? I couldn’t see anything.

Exploring the tunnels might be cool though, I thought. Why not, since I’m here?

“So which way do I go?”

“You be careful,” said Jackie. “Many ways you could go. Go right way, ten minutes. Go wrong way, two hours.”

“But which way is the right way?”

“Go right, and there are many ways. This way, go right.” He gesticulated wildly, tracing a map in the air. “You no scare? Tunnel have many bats. If you scare bats, not go!”

“Bats are fine, I just don’t want to get lost. How do I get to the other hatch?”

“Right way, ten minutes. Wrong way, two hours.”

Clearly I wasn’t going to get any usable directions from Jackie, so my thoughts were the same as yours: Fuck this. I’m all for adventure and exploration, but not when there’s a risk of me getting lost and isolated in what is essentially a pitch-black, bat-filled, underground digestive tract.

Still, checking out the first little section of tunnel seemed pretty risk-free. A few of us piled in.

I’ve already talked about how hellish Cu Chi must have been for the attackers. Crawling into the three-foot high tunnel with my hands and knees in the dirt, I realised it must have been even worse for the defenders. Hot and sweaty, dank and dismal, with no room to stand up or overtake the person in front of you - I jumped as something fluttered past my head. Jackie hadn’t been kidding about the bats.

Don't let the flash fool you - you can't see your hand in front of you in this place.
Don't let the flash fool you - you can't see your hand in front of you in this place.

I made it about ten metres in before deciding I’d had enough. It’s hard to believe that people lived in there for months at a time.

Gunfire was still rattling from somewhere in the forest. We moved in its general direction, towards the next stop on the itinerary: an exhibit of the various kinds of traps that the Vietnamese deployed against each other during the war. Behind a fence sat a row of holes in the ground, each full of spikes arranged in different patterns. They varied in their size, depth, and the particular way they were designed to rupture your body, but they all had one thing in common: they were utterly horrifying. I winced just looking at them.

Jackie with traps
Note the cartoon GIs getting maimed in the background.

As Jackie explained the mechanics of the fourth trap, with its downward-pointing barbs designed not to kill but to trap your leg until you bled to death, I pondered just how depraved you’d have to be to design such a thing.

Then I realised, are the people behind these traps really different from us in any fundamental way? I don’t think so.

It’s incredible what human beings are capable of doing to each other, given the right (or wrong) circumstances. Who’s to say that I’d have acted any better if I’d had to go through the horrors that so many Vietnamese went through in the 60s?

If I’d been born a few generations earlier, I’d surely have ended up in one war or another, if not against the Germans then against the Ottomans, the Boers, the French, the American revolutionaries, or any of the other countless nations that England has battled over the years. Who knows what depths I might have sunk to if it had been my life on the line? It’s an unsettling thought. Once again: I count my blessings.

Vietnam is at peace now, but the end of a war isn’t always a good thing, especially if you’re on the losing side. Born and raised in Saigon, Jackie had fought for the ARVN, and after they were defeated in 1975 he was thrown in jail.

“I was in prison for three years,” he told us. “I was very happy to go to prison.”

Happy? Really? Why?

“Because I am survivor. In war, easy die. Many times I thought I will die. But I survive. In prison, I know I not die. Prison very better than war.”

Everything is relative.

This concluded the tour, but there was still one place left to visit: the shooting range, which was the source of the aforementioned gunfire.

This is the other attraction at Cu Chi - their stock of authentic Vietnam War-era rifles and machine guns. For a reasonable price, you can go nuts against a bunch of targets with any gun you want! I didn’t need to be told twice.

In typical Vietnamese fashion, regulations were non-existent. Just choose your weapon from a menu that reads like the character creation screen in Counter Strike, hand over a fistful of Đong, grab a rifle and Rambo’s your uncle. The guns are mounted in such a way that you can’t point themr itowards where anyone might be standing, but the nonchalant way in which anyone can stroll up to the range and be shooting within twenty seconds would give a British health-and-safety inspector a much-deserved heart attack.

Drawing on the extensive knowledge of firearms I gained from a childhood wasted playing violent videogames, I elected for the gentleman’s choice: The AK-47.

Cu Chi shooting range
Say what you will about gun control; all I know is that this is the coolest I have ever looked.

Now, I’m from England, where guns are as rare as funny episodes of Big Bang Theory. I have no desire to own a gun, I do not feel like owning a gun would make me safe, and a society in which people feel like they need to carry firearms to protect themselves is not a society I want to live in. I am a staunch supporter of my home country’s gun-free culture, and I hope it never changes.

With that being said, there is one undeniable fact which I feel gets overlooked amidst all the current controversy: Guns are cool.

Seriously. Blasting that target to shreds with an Kalashnikov was the most fun I’ve had in months. Now I understand why Americans are so reluctant to part with their boomsticks. Shooting things rocks!

My only regret is that, at 35,000Đ ($1.75) a bullet, I could only afford a few rounds of explosive amusement. If money was no object, I wouldn’t have hesitated to drop a few hundred dollars on a big stack of magazines and go full-auto against some unsuspecting cardboard cutout.

Maybe even have a go on this beast:

Badass machine gun
So frickin' awesome.

Legend has it that somewhere in Cambodia you can pay $300 to blow up a cow with a rocket launcher. While the former vegetarian in me is horrified, the former Call of Duty-player has a new goal in life.

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