Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Cu Chi Tunnels and a bit of a haggle

We were up bright and early on Friday morning to catch our bus to Cu Chi, the infamous site of a huge underground tunnel system built using a wooden handled pick, one or two meters a day, beneath the feet of bamboozled American GIs during the Vietnam War (or the American War if you are Vietnamese). We had bought tickets from the popular Sinhcafe in the backpacker district, before we'd had dinner the night before, at a cheap wee eat a few doors down. A whole 6-25 USD each for the large airconditioned comfortable bus, water, English speaking guide and an outing that lasted nearly 6 hours. The drive, which was about 1 1/2 hours long, took us through the morning traffic then northwest through rural Saigon past brick and plaster farm houses with shiny tiled floors, neatly fenced with trimmed hedges, yards strewn with woven trays of drying rice paper and acres of rows of rubber trees each scored with tattooed armbands and adorned with clay collection cups. From the windows of the bus we caught glimpses of people hard at work making the 101 things the Vietnamese make with rice and it struck me how much better off rural Saigonese are to their Cambodian counterparts who make do with stick and dried palm houses and are lucky to sell their 'inferior' broken rice -grown, picked and dried- for barely enough to feed their families.

Finally arriving at Cu Chi, having not felt a single butt bruising pothole, we piled out to buy tickets (not included in the price) for 65 000dong (about 4 USD) then followed our guide down the brushed tree lined path to one of 4 or 5 sunken dug outs to watch the 'information' video.

The black and white film, supposedly made in 1967, began with idyllic bucolic scenes of life at Cu Chi, 'the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round under shady trees', the sing song female voice-over said, but quickly progressed to scenes of war, '...then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside ... Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children ... The Americans wanted to turn Chu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die', she exclaimed with more excitement in her voice this time. A few people squirmed visibly on the hard wooden benches but most held their vid cams steady. Riddled with anti American sentiment our monochrome introduction to Cu Chi's history had the wind completely taken out of it by the continued honey dripping tone of the unseen narrator. The video coverage, real or otherwise, would have been much better accompanied by actual radio news reports and photos taken at the time as there is no doubt what happened at Cu Chi was an unfair fight of David and Goliath proportions and, like on the walls of the War Museum, pictures are often more powerful than words. It's interesting to note that despite a very obvious anti American-ness in the information at both the tunnels and the War Remnants museum most Vietnamese have moved on and subscribe to the 'let bygones be bygones', 'the past is the past', 'we are all friends' theories the government currently promotes.

As soon as the film ended our guide jumped to the front of the room brandishing a long stick which he used to point to areas on a huge map as he explained the extent of the tunnel system and enemy advancement. There was also a model, lit from the back and encased in glass, like an ant farm (very appropriate considering the industriousness of the endevour) to give an impression of the tunnel structure.

At its peak the Cu Chi tunnel network covered about 250 kilometres from the Cambodian border in the west to the then outskirts of Saigon. The system was actually started during the war with the French but was expanded to include arms caches, hospital rooms, dining rooms, command centres, even theatres where politically motivating plays were staged during the Vietnam (or American) War. Some areas went down three storeys and were barely high enough to crawl through. People lived almost completely underground for years, going to school, getting married, giving birth. To escape detection they lived their days upside down, in the tunnels during the daylight hours and tending their fields to provide food for the masses, at night. Vents were installed to remove stale air and so they could hear the sounds of approaching aircraft and heavy vehicles. Longer vents were dotted with chambers to disperse cooking smoke, their eventual openings hidden in ant hills meters from the system itself. Entrances were hidden and booby trapped using bamboo and nails.

The tour follows a packed dirt path through regenerated bush. The area was rendered completely barren, the video had explained, by the bombs and chemicals used during the war which made the furtiveness of the rural Vietnamese and lack of detection of the tunnels and not to mention their expansiveness even more impressive. The ground, at Cu Chi, is hard clay making the tunnels robust, cool construction possible but also making the task of digging and the removal of dug heavy clay sod hard work.

Of course, the U.S. military knew about the tunnels they just couldn't find them so instead they bombed the area extensively and indescriminently growing more and more frustrated with each surprise attack staged by the tiny Vietnamese.

The tour winds through the trees passing various examples of booby traps made of bamboo and lethal looking sharp ends. There is a hole in the ground topped with a camouflaged wooden lid not much wider than my handspan which we were encouraged to try for size. Those that did had to hold the lid in straight arms directly above their heads in the 'I surrender. Dont shoot' pose and slowly bend their knees till the lid hit the ground. It was dark and smelt earthy- no surprises there!

Further down the path we passed an example of one of the tanks used by the opposition forces, a sandle (made out of tires) and uniform making hut, a sunken weapon creating room with various examples of homemade and modified armory, a rice paper making hut and the so loud it made you nauseous firing range where for a few dollars you could fire an AK47 or lob a grenade. We didnt feel the need, after all for a few dollars less we could do the same at home, should the mood ever take us.

Finally we arrived at the tunnels, widened to fit a considerably larger tourist (and for that matter our Vietnamese guides) frame. Only a small length of tunnel is open to the public. What the American bombs hadn't destroyed they have made unstable and in serious danger of collapse.

The 200 meters that are 'safe' are almost a meter high and about 50 -70 cm wide, give or take a few clicks. I had fully expected to be crawling but we were all able to walk in a stooped duck walk kind of way for the 150 meters or so we managed. There were lights at each of the exits- at 10, 20, 50, 100 etc meters- but in between, especially in the longer distances, we were plunged into complete, utter and absolute darkness. During these stretches we found it necessary to push the backs of our wrists against the wall on either side for stability and direction. The tunnels themselves were surprisingly cool. The effort it took to maintain the duck walk, however, meant that before the first 10 meters sweat had begun to trickle and by the time we emerged we were all dripping like ferns in the rain forest.

We were rewarded with a refreshing cup of tea made out of rice water and some sweetened cooked taro served with a nutty dukka like dip before getting back on the bus.

I came away with admiration for the strength, bravery and ingenuity of Cu Chi's farmers who quite literally dug deep and so obviously weilded a number 8 wire mentality as finely sharpened (albeit it in much a more sinister manner) as a Kiwi farmers, a trait that has no doubt helped in their development since.

Later that afternoon, rested and well watered, we made our way to Ben Thanh market, one of Saigons most famous landmarks for a spot of haggling.

The vendors, unlike vendors in Phnom Penhs markets, were cheerful and friendly as we entered into a comfortable banter that netted us some brilliant bargains. The quality of produce and clothing was much better, we thought, than in Cambodia. We bought fruit (for less than half the market price of the same across the border) , tee shirts and branded sports wear (for a couple of dollars each) and some beautiful red lacquer wear (for a 10th the price of the equivalent in Singapore). The market itself was incredibly clean but then our comparasion is the dusty, rubbish and spit filled aisles of Phnom Penhs Russian and Central markets.

We were impressed by the range and the condition of the produce...

and the care that was taken to keep everything looking attractive and enticing. Sadly I have found the market produce in Cambodia to be so often wilted and so quick to rot that I have completely given up and buy from the supermarkets (at the same price or sometimes even cheaper mind) although admittedly not that much fresher.

I couldn't resist the beautiful looking mangosteen and passionfruit, shiny red tomatoes, capsicum and even firm kiwifruit all for a couple of dollars (once she woke up) plus the extra she threw in with a gap toothed grin.

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