Our main reason for visiting Saigon was to visit the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong hid out during the war and mounted a very successful opposition to the forces of the South and the USA. Our visit to the tunnels was preceded by a visit to the War Remnants Museum which was quite a harrowing experience.
The museum showed us yet another chapter in humanity’s history of doing evil to each other. This was a rendering of the Vietnam War that was told from the point of view of the Vietnamese, which isn’t one you’re really exposed to growing up in the West. The level of anti-US propaganda is very high here but even if you take a giant cellar of salt with everything you read there has to be some truth there.
Phu Quoc island according to our guidebook is everything that a tropical island should be, fringed with white sand beaches, lined with swaying palms and gently lapping turquoise waters. But it was also home to one of the big prisons used in the Vietnam war where prisoners were subjected to all manner of torture, including being placed in “tiger cages” on the beach which were effectively metal rods wrapped in barbed wire, too small for a prisoner to sit up or lie straight.
One of the exhibitions told the story of the chemical warfare that was waged in the area, including use of the famous “Agent orange” and this display was finally too much for me. It focused on the effects of these chemicals on generations of children that have been born since the war and the photographs were horrifying. We hear so much about the second world war growing up in Europe and the atrocities committed in the concentration camps and you think that we would learn, but the fact is that history has repeated itself over and over again. I had no idea before I came to Asia of the horror that has happened even in my lifetime.
The tunnels were definitely less harrowing and focused more on the ingenious nature of this resistance by people who were basically peasants used to working on the land. Again we had to take everything with a pinch of salt as the tone of the video that we watched, anything that we read and the spiel of our tour guide was incredibly anti-US and pro-Vietnam but you can’t fail to be impressed by the achievement of a relatively small group of peasants who built a network that comprises an incredible 200km plus of tunnels that are at 3 different levels, 3m, 6m and 12m deep.
Part of the tour gives you the chance to go down the tunnels which was an experience I wanted to have but wasn’t something that I was necessarily looking forward to as I don’t exactly love being in confined spaces. We had a plan to go down the tunnel right at the front of our group to try to limit the chance of having a fat American backside in our face (thanks for the tip Rob) but sadly there were so many tourists there that no gap ever really open up. With a deep breath though and the Bolt holding back the hordes I headed down into the dark and I genuinely cannot believe that people lived and fought down these little rabbit holes. The entrance had to be opened up to allow our large white selves access – you can see in one of the pictures below how they used to access the tunnels back in the day – and you have to crouch/crawl your way through. They had put in multiple exits at 15m, 30m and up to 120m but I was done at 30 – enough for a taste and to realise I would have been no use down there.
Daily life as well as fighting took place in the tunnels and they had to be constructed to support this. Complex ventilation was built in with air shafts made to look like termite mounds on the surface. Cooking was only done in the morning when mist lay on the ground, so that the smoke from the cooking fires could be camouflaged. Tunnels were built down to the Saigon river so that people could bathe and also enter and exit undetected. Of course the tunnels were also boobytrapped to deal with the cases where they were discovered by the Southern army and the way that they used simple materials like bamboo to construct quite frightening traps was something to behold.
Definitely worth seeing but I was ready for some slightly more upbeat traveling for a while, so thankfully our next stop was the lovely town of Hoi An.