ChuChi tunnels and War Remnants Museum
03.12.2012 - 05.12.2012
With great difficulty we finally dragged ourselves away from the beach, grabbed some yummy mushroom pancakes (normal ones!) and hopped on the bus to Saigon. I was looking forward to reading as I had found the second Game of Thrones book on the shelves at our hostel to swap but after all the sun and sea air I slept most of the way to Saigon and to Dan's amusement every so often smacked my head on the window as I failed to stay upright in my seat. Such a caring guy!
After sleepy Moi Ne entering Saigon was mental and it being dark too definately made it more interesting. There was no doubt that we had left the tranquility of the coast behind us as we passed sporadic piles of rubbish burning at the side of the road whilst our bus jostled with the 4 lanes of trucks, buses and cars trying to get into the city. There were several moments that I held my breath as we squeezed through impossibly shrinking gaps but Dan was unfased/oblivious as he was engrossed in the football game on his phone. Highlighted by the slightly worrying 'addicted' rating Dan is given on the game stats that either shows 1) how many long bus journeys we have been doing or 2) that he should just put the game down
After being dropped off on Pham Ngu Lao street we found our hostel a short walk down one of the alleyways just off the road. The friendly staff Thanh Thuong helped us organise a trip to the ChuChi tunnels for the next morning, our bus to take us into Cambodia the day after that and even carried my bag to our room. Although I had protested I was glad they had not listened as we were on the fourth floor! Settled in we headed out into the buzzing lit streets in search of dinner. Bars and restaurants lined the streets with their plastic chairs spilling out onto the pavement mainly jam packed with other travellers sharing their tales over beers. As we settled down to eat outside one of the restaurants we watched the bustling streets of hawkers, bikes, locals and tourists as the nightlife of the city came alive. Children ran among the tourists trying to sell flowers, bracelets and books. There was even one kid, no more than 6 years old and seemingly on his own, trying to impress people with his fire eating!! It is always hard seeing kids out on the streets so late at night approaching complete strangers for money not knowing what characters they might meet. Another change was that this was the first place we had been in Vietnam were we had noticed bars of prostitutes right amongst the regular bars and restaurants. There were two such places just opposite each other both trying to get the attention of the men walking by waving and shouting to get them to walk over, and after a few quiet words in their ear taking them inside. Not really what you want to be watching whilst you eat dinner but a reminder of the seedy past this city has that is still present today. We moved on and found Universal Bar which had a great live band before turning in.
We had breakfast at a stall right outside our hostel before being lead through the alleyways picking up other people along the way before starting the tour to the ChuChi tunnels. Our guide for the day was also called Chi and on our way he told us things about his culture in Vietnam. One of them was the importance of FengSui. We had noticed that some men had grown their fingernail on the little finger of their left hand, this was due to FengSui as if the little finger is longer than the last crease on the ring finger than it means you will have a long life, if it is shorter you get round it by growing the nail. Another thing is that men will often keep just one long hair on their right cheek as this will bring wealth. One of the most interesting though was how the belief in FengSui affected the importance or more the lack of importance of women in Vietnam. The ideal family situation is to have 3 generations living under one roof as this brings good luck and is good FengSui, but due to the tradition that when girls marry they move into their husbands family home if you only have girls then you will never achieve good FengSui as when they marry they leave. This is why Vietnamese prefer to have boys rather than girls. If a girl is not married by the age of 25 then no man will marry her, so I would be a spinster here!
Chi mentioned how his friends sometimes ask him about western behaviour that they do not understand as he is a tour guide. They could not understand why we spend time out in the sun whilst locals try to find the shade. He had to explain to them about how we like to get a tan which is an odd behaviour to Vietnamese as only people who work outside all the time have tanned skin which is a sign of being poor. In their eyes 'Why would you want to look like that?' If you work in an office all day you will have lighter skin and this is a sign of being more wealthy, as well as being fat and not skinny. He also highlighted the influence that China has had on Vietnam which can be seen in the belief in FengSui and also that most people are Buddhist. They do not have Christmas here and he remarked how he did not get it until he was shown a movie and now he loves Christmas....that movie was Love Actually
At ChuChi we sat and watched a video about how the VietCong used the network of tunnels during the Vietnam War and we were shown a map and also a model of the tunnels.
The tunnels comprised of three levels which helped them to be able to survive underground. If people tried to smoke them out they could open vents and retreat to lower levels. If they tried to fill the tunnels with water they would let the water run through to the lower levels so they would not drown. They had to live down in the tunnels sometimes not coming up for days at a time during heavy bombardment, this meant everyday life had to go on underground despite the lack of ventilation, light and space in the tunnels. Cooking for example had to be carried out in the tunnels and to stop being detected by the smoke that needed to escape from the tunnels they came up with a filter system that comprised of a number of chambers in succession that gradually released the smoke to the surface at a point further away so as not to alert people to their presence.
Alsatians were used as sniffer dogs to try and locate the VietCong and the tunnels and there were several ways that the Vietcong countered this. One was to rub lime and chillie around their ventilation holes (they used ant hills for natural ventilation to help them blend into the jungle) in order to stop the dogs sense of smell.
Another method was to set booby traps for the dogs hidden under the ground and so when they walked over them they would fall into a pit of spikes and be killed.
This was the first of many booby traps that we were shown some used within the jungle and others would be within the tunnels themselves. As we were shown each one we all flinched at the thought of falling or stepping on one but also marvelled at how these were thought up. I cannot imagine the horror of knowing you had to walk out in areas that had these. It is no wonder the American soldiers were so traumatised by this kind of warfare, particularly as not all of them would result in an instant death. Here are a couple of examples...
Fox holes were also used to position gunmen at different points that could then pop up and disappear. We were able to climb inside one. The entrance hole was small but inside there was a wider space in order to crouch inside with the lid on the hole. Some of the larger guys struggled to get in and out of the hole and we were a bit paranoid about getting stuck in there.
Chi told us how the Vietcong would saw in half unexplored bombs to collect the TNT inside to use to make their own landlines and grenades. It was a very dangerous job as at any point their sawing could detonate the bomb but this is another example of their resourcefulness.
Before we went to the tunnels themselves we had the opportunity to shoot AK47s. Standing next to the shooting range it was hard to get over just how loud the gunshots were. It went right through you even with ear defenders on. I could not imagine being surrounded by constant gunfire and bombing. I nearly hit target a couple of times but was happy to leave the range and try to find some quiet.
Now it was time to go into the tunnels themselves. There are 100m of tunnel that tourists can go into with exit points every 10m in case you need to get out. These tunnels have been widened for tourists but still were much smaller than the tunnels we had been in further north and some of the larger guys that went in first came out instantly as they could not fit! As we waited to try I started to get a bit anxious and at the underground entrance I decided not to go in as people were stopping along the way and waiting behind me. I did not want to be down there with noway forward or back in case I panicked as sometimes I get claustrophobic in crammed hot trains and last thing I wanted was to pass out in a underground tunnel! Dan was braver than me but as I forgot to take the backpack off him he came out after 10m when it got narrower as it was getting in his way. When we met the rest of the group at the end those who had made the 100ms said how narrow it was and one girl said she almost got stuck crawling through as her shoulders were too broad. I definitely made the right decision!
Below is a pic to show how small the original tunnels were (spot the bat!) and then one of Dan in the 'widened' tunnel (and it got narrower)!
Can you imagine living and fighting down here!!
In the afternoon we went to the War Remnants Museum.
This is a place you must visit if you come to Saigon.
It is hard trying to put into words the experience of visiting this museum. There are several sections which deal with the atrocities of the Vietnam War and the photos they have inside are shocking, heartbreaking, infuriating and just unbelievable. There were moments when a photo will just stop you in your tracks and although it is hard to look at you also cant look away. I think one of the things that shocked me most are the repercussions of the use of Agent Orange and other chemicals which contained dioxin which according to the information at the museum 'scientists have agreed this is the most harmful and toxic chemical discovered by mankind'. Not only did they do so much damage during the war but have resulted in the next generation being born with all sorts of health problems, deformities and severe disabilities. Sadly this will affect many generations to come too. These people were not even part of the war and have to continually suffer today due to this method of warfare. Unfathomable.
Although I feel this is something everyone should experience I have decided not to put photos I took at the museum on here as I know some people may find them too upsetting and not expect to see images like that on this blog.
Our time there also flagged up the importance of the photographers that risked their lives and many who also lost them to take the images that showed the world what has happened in Vietnam. I spent sometime reading the biographies of the photographers that were part of the 'Requium' exhibition at the museum and so many were last seen going back into war torn areas then listed missing or known dead.
I would be very interested to visit an American museum that deals with the Vietnam war to get their perspective on what happened as I find it all hard to understand.
A very sobering day