Friday, 12 April 2013

... Indochina: War, What Is It Good For?

Despite being heavy on the tourist element (yes, I know it's kind of ironic for me to say that), a visit to Cu Chi tunnels on the outskirts of Saigon are worth the trip. The role of these tunnels during the Vietnam War is said to be instrumental in facilitating Viet Cong control of a large rural area on the outskirts of Saigon. In the district of Cu Chi alone there were over 200km worth of tunnels. The visit provides a great insight into guerrilla warfare and some pretty amazing ingenuity from a group of people to overcome their enemy. The handmade weapons and traps give a rather gruesome insight into the tactics used.

You can go down into some of the tunnels. It's a bit of a tight squeeze and probably not for the claustrophobic but well worth it otherwise to gain an insight into the determination of these people to hold on to their beliefs and their country. After being down there and doing a full 100m walk with my Petzel light I can't help but have respect for them. Especially when you feel the oppressive heat along with the fact there's not enough room to swing a cat knowing that they spent weeks underground.

Of course there's propaganda, specifically in the form of a 15 minute movie:

"Like a crazy batch of devils they dropped bombs onto women and children, riverside chickens and ducks. This little girl killed 118 Americans. She is an American killer hero".


However it's all part of the experience so just take it for what it is. It's not like no other nation doesn't employ propaganda tactics anyway.....

If you are so inclined you can try out an AK-47 and other guns. Personally I didn't understand the need for this, especially when so many people died here. I found myself bewildered at why people were getting so excited about shooting. Of course safety procedures are set up in this area so if that's your thing, go nuts. Another part of the tour included tasting some tapioca, the fast growing potato-type plant which I had always thought merely existed as "school dinner frogspawn". This was a major staple whilst living in the tunnels seeing as vegetation was killed off as part of "defoliation".

My guide was Hai, a Southern Vietnamese who served with the Americans as a translator so his side wasn't as biased as it might have been with someone else. The account of his life was truly interesting, especially hearing his stories about how he had reconnected with some of those with whom he had served and most of all the time he spent in a "re-education camp" after the War. Despite all this he had an amazing outlook on life.  It was a fantastic way to spend the morning and I learned a lot.

Back in Saigon, I decided to pay a visit to the War Remnants Museum. To say I enjoyed this visit is not the right word at all. Interesting, sobering and disturbing. The tanks, helicopters, bulldozers and fighter planes out front might send testosterone down your spine Top Gun style.

However, it's a vastly different story once you step inside and your enthusiasm will certainly be quelled. I found it incredibly emotionally draining. The impact of war on the people, the horror, the atrocities are documented here including the My L'ai massacre. Yes there's propaganda and if you're American it paints a pretty ugly & negative picture of the US, although I've been led to believe they've toned down the anti-American rhetoric in recent years.

Some of the information is dubious but its the heart-wrenching array of, at times, graphic photographs that will speak to you more than a thousand words ever could with their undeniable information. There is a powerful exhibit of photos taken by war photojournalists that died or simply "went missing" whilst on duty including Larry Burrows, killed when his helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971. I choked up. More than once. What you see is incredibly powerful in tone.

There's a section devoted to the repercussions of the US chemical warfare, the effects of which I have seen on the streets of Vietnam, and it does not hesitate to document the gruesome deformities caused predominantly by Agent Orange. Granted most of the exhibit is about the effect on the Vietnamese however there's also a section devoted to American victims of exposure which sends a sobering message to governments everywhere to acknowledge the ongoing effects.

It was appalling to see the devastation that man can do to his fellow man. With an open mind however, this museum can present itself as a powerful anti-war museum especially when you grasp the suffering of civilian populations regardless of sides. This has to be one of the most evocative museums I have ever visited. I walked back to my hotel in a tropical rainstorm not feeling a drop of rain but deep in thought.

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