Although I was too young to remember the Vietnam War, I couldn’t miss the deluge of films about it which emerged in the 1980s as America underwent a kind of catharsis, trying to come to terms with the past. Some, such as The Deerhunter, were poignant portraits of small town American life into which the war suddenly intruded, and the film conveyed the sense of loss felt by a whole generation – the death of innocence after the optimism of the 1960s. There was the tripped out insanity of Apocalypse Now, which was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in Vietnam with a few T S Eliot quotes thrown in for depth. There was Oliver Stone’s Platoon, turning the tables by showing young, fresh-faced American troops becoming brutalised and committing atrocities, culminating in the murder of one sergeant by another in the heat of battle – an all too frequent event which came to be known as ‘fragging’. The one thing all these had in common was their sense of bewilderment, a kind of soul searching as to how they had found themselves in this situation. The war forms a scar on America’s psyche even today, and the reliving of it through film that began to take place a few years after the end of the war coloured the way many in the West see Vietnam. It’s only when you actually travel there that you are struck by the extraordinary lack of bitterness of the Vietnamese. The war touched every family in the land, but in a country where 27% of the population are under 15, the past, as they say, is another country. In fact it was two countries, and today there is a clear difference between the sleepy, Socialist austerity of the capital Hanoi and the thriving, vibrant commercialism of Ho Chi Minh City, which everyone still calls Saigon, capital of the old South Vietnam.
I expected to see evidence of the war all over Vietnam, but it wasn’t as obvious as I’d anticipated; you really had to look hard to spot it. Up on the old DMZ – the Demilitarised Zone, once the front line between North and South, the foliage has swallowed up the hilltop landing strips and grown over the bunkers. There was the rebuilt US Army jeep chugging along at the head of a huge tailback in Da Nang, or the bullet holes that pockmarked the pagoda walls in Hue’s Imperial City, setting of the ferocious defence of the citadel depicted in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. There was the beggar in Saigon with stumps for arms and half a face who saw me and called out: ‘How ya doin’ buddy!’, presumably an ex-officer in the ARVN army of South Vietnam. There was the woman who cried as she nursed her child as it moaned and flailed helplessly, hideously deformed by Agent Orange. ‘Who could love such a thing?’ she sobbed. ‘She’s like a monkey.’ These and other sights hint at the war’s toll, but mostly it just seems like history; Vietnam has moved on, and the economy is booming. Although this is still a Communist country, complete with frequent Hammer and Sickle iconography, there’s an entrepreneurial buzz in the air which was first encouraged by the doi moi reforms, a kind of Vietnamese perestroika, and today America is one of the largest investors in Vietnam. The one place where the past is on open display is a setting that became legendary in the war as a byword for the tenacity of the Vietnamese. When the world’s most powerful army razed everything to the ground with their Scorched Earth policy, the Viet Cong sought shelter in the only place left to them: underground, deep in the tunnels of Cu Chi.
40km north-west of Saigon lies Cu Chi District, bisected by Highway 1 – it was the French who first coined the name ‘Street Without Joy’ for the main route running northwards through the war. The first tunnels are thought to have been dug by the Viet Minh who used them to hide from French air reconnaissance. By the time the Americans arrived the network was vast, linking hamlets beneath the ground and stretching from the Cambodian border right up to the outskirts of Saigon. The red laterite clay of the district was the perfect tunnelling material, and below ground were ammunition dumps, sleeping chambers, firing positions and kitchens, which meant that people could stay underground for weeks at a time. Makeshift operating theatres worked on casualties, and there were even theatrical performances to boost the morale of the troops as the bombs fell overhead. The tunnel entrances were camouflaged trap doors that were almost impossible to spot, but even if the tunnel entrance had been located, getting in was far from easy. Inside there could be booby traps such as punji pits lined with sharp bamboo stakes, grenades attached to tripwires, and the ever-present danger of a Viet Cong crouching in the darkness armed with an AK47. Snakes and poisonous centipedes were common, some of which could kill in minutes. In addition water traps were sometimes used, gigantic U-bends that needed to be swum through in pitch darkness. It required a certain type of soldier to go crawling into the tunnels after the enemy, and the Americans formed a unit known as the Tunnel Rats, who came to specialise in the close quarter combat underground that was required.
Trinh the guide had a degree in Travel and Tourism and wore an olive green uniform and Ho Chi Minh sandals made from truck tyres. Born the year the last American chopper took off from the embassy roof in Saigon, he was fluent in 3 languages, liked rap music and took great pride in the fact that his mother had spent 3 years in the tunnels – one of his siblings had been born underground. Today he leads groups of tourists along marked paths to the tunnels, taking them past a display of horrific-looking mantraps, to where women in black pyjamas and conical straw hats give a demonstration of making rice paper in a bunker. There is the firing range where you can shoot off a clip of live ammunition for a dollar a shot using a variety of weapons – the old Viet Cong favourite, the AK47, is the most popular, closely followed by the M60. The sights were off on my AK and Trinh looked askance at the row of holes that appeared in the oil drums behind the target. ‘Are you sure you’re not American?’ he asked with a wink. You can descend down the steps of a tunnel that has been specially widened to accommodate the larger frame of westerners, shuffling forward at a half-crouch into the hot, close blackness, and feel the first stirrings of fear. Emerging again into the light you are ushered towards the exit, past the fragments of bomb casings and the Red Cross donation box for victims of Agent Orange, to the souvenir shop selling Vietnamese flag T-Shirts in extra large sizes, ‘genuine’ GI watches and Zippo lighters engraved with US Army regiments which are made on production lines in Saigon. There’s no better illustration of how the Vietnamese have taken their traumatic history and turned it to their advantage. Like the saying goes: the past is another country; they do things differently there.