Vietnam war confronting – Porper Story #3

Vietnam war confronting is the third post in a series of Vietnam experiences storied by Rochelle Porper, for the previous ones please read these.


Our travel team

Well, today we officially met our tour guide (Long) and the rest of our small group. We are traveling with a mother and her 21 year old daughter from England. I think the daughter is much more adventurous than her mom, but they both seem game for anything.

Long is the guide who will be spending the next 2 weeks with us. He is extremely knowledgeable and quite funny – a good combination. Along the way today, we learned a lot from him about certain cultural eccentricities. For example, in Vietnam, it is very insulting if you tell someone they are skinny. Only the beggars are thin, and who wants to be associated with them?? The highest compliment you can pay someone is to call them ‘healthy fat’.  In fact, women travel up and down the streets with portable scales and when you step up to be weighed (in full view of anyone around you), weight will be surreptitiously added to the scale so that you can report that you are heavier than you actually are.

My gut intuition is that this is not a concept that has legs beyond this part of the world. Also, bathrooms are called ‘happy houses’ because there aren’t that many of them and when you find one, you are very happy. I can report to you, without hesitation, that this is very true.

So today after another cosmopolitan breakfast (including spaghetti Bolognese, oddly enough), chicken in grape sauce and thankfully, chocolate pie (clearly I got bum information on the plane) off we went to the Cuchi Tunnels. I had never heard about these tunnels before, and I am not actually sure the American media reported on them during the Vietnamese war. If you remember hearing about these tunnels, I would be curious to know. I wonder, because the war did not go so well for us as a result, if they were kept a secret.

Vietnam war in Cuchi tunnel

So the Cuchi Tunnels are a series of 250 kilometers of labyrinthian underground tunnels that the Vietnamese built in hard dirt using nothing but a hand ax and a basket to carry away the dirt. They are three levels deep – the first level is where the families lived, the second level was where the guerilla warriors traveled back and forth to ambush the Americans and the third tunnel was where secret meetings were held to plan future attacks. Mind you – there was no light and oxygen was fed into the tunnels though ingenious air holes.

People lived in these tunnels for years – and they were small, dark, claustrophobic and were purposely built to be confusing to their inhabitants, who were only allowed to travel a certain distance in any particular direction for security purposes. Apparently, everyone was suspect as a possible traitor, and as a result, no one was trusted. People wore face masks so that they were unrecognizable to anyone outside of their own family or commander.

Vietnam Discovery - Vietnam Tours - Vietnam Travel

These tunnels allowed the Vietcong to basically win the war in this particular region because they provided a strategic advantage that the Americans could not overcome. You will have to see the pictures to believe it. The Vietcong would pop out of these small holes in the ground and shoot or throw grenades and the Americans could never figure out where the next assault was coming.

They also built an ingenious series of landmines using hidden pits with poisonous spikes that were deadly both slowly and painfully. Not the way I would want to go. The Vietcong really defeated us using their knowledge of the land, basic ingenuity and psychological warfare. For example, they knew that the Americans were always looking for footprints in the dirt so they could track down the enemy, so they wore their rubber sandals backwards so the tread would send the soldiers off in the wrong direction. Who could have thought of that? Anyway, we were able to crawl through some of the tunnels (which were built for people half my size) and it was hard work, hot and terrifyingly dark.  It is unimaginable that this was a way of life for so long. 

Vietnam Discovery - Vietnam Tours - Vietnam Travel Cuchi tunnel - holidays in Vietnam

After seeing the tunnels, you walk to a shooting range where you can purchase bullets and shoot old confiscated AK 47s or M16 rifles into a target. OK – I had to do it. It was a very odd experience to shoot a real gun. It was loud and the kickback was really powerful and you had to wear ear muffs for protection and for an instant, it gave you the sense of how easy it could be to kill someone. The whole experience of being in the jungle with the tunnels and the guns and craters from the B52 bombers and war stories was pretty powerful. Glad I did it, wouldn’t want to go again. Was not a proud American moment.

Vietnam war in War Remnant Museum Saigon

So if that wasn’t enough of history lesson, then we drove back to Saigon and went to the War Museum. That was horrific – films about the devastation caused by Agent Orange and  cluster bombs that were filled with thousands of nails that exploded before they hit the ground to  maximize their effectiveness. War is a nasty business for sure.

So that is pretty much it for Saigon. Tomorrow we have the morning free and then we fly to Central Vietnam to spend a few days with the hill tribe people. I am definitely ready to bag the city for good.  Tonight we eat dinner where Brad and Angelina came when they were here to adopt one of their bazillion children. I don’t know why this particular bit of trivia is important to Long, but it is. There is a theme here because we had lunch today at a place where Bill and Chelsea ate when he was President. This wouldn’t exactly be my criteria for picking a restaurant but the food was good so its ok by me. More later, providing the internet is available in Central Vietnam. I hope all is well there, wherever you are.

by Rochelle Porper from Boston, Massachusetts, USA

For the next ones among this Vietnam travel experience, you can jump to the following days.

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