Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Cu chi coo, Ho Chi Minh

And here we are in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Bigger, crazier and just as 'tooty' as Hanoi, we managed to find a hotel off the main roads and secure a little bit of piece and quiet. 

One of the highlights of my time here was the Cu Chi tunnels, which are located in the Cu Chi district around one and a half hours drive from Saigon. The tunnels were constructed during the war by the Viet Cong and used as a hiding place from the American soldiers who were unable to find the tunnels and, when they did, largely underestimated their complexity. 

The tunnels at Cu Chi have been preserved by the Vietnamese government and cover around 121 kilometres: a staggering distance when you consider they were dug entirely by hand using only small spades and buckets. We were able to travel through a small section of the tunnels (approximately 120 metres long) and experience what life was like underground for the Viet Cong. I can't say I could have survived in those cramped conditions - the tunnels are tiny, dark and very, very hot. You wouldn't want to venture down there if you were claustrophobic or, unsurprisingly, if you were partial to pies. 

The Vietnamese were a wily lot - their tunnel system was exceptionally labyrinthine, and the traps they dreamed up for the American soldiers were nothing short of genius. No stone was left unturned in their quest to outsmart the US and what they lacked in fire power they more than made up for in cunning. They would hide out in their tunnels during the day when American soldiers were patrolling, well hidden underneath the trap doors scattered throughout the Cu Chi area. By night, they emerged and fought when the Americans were resting and when the malaria-ridden mosquitos were out in force. Malaria was a prominent cause of death for Viet Cong soldiers, second only to battle wounds.

Our tour guide for the half day was a fascinating man. Vietnamese, he spent seven years fighting for the Americans and was a wealth of information and stories, some of which he was reluctant to share. His name was 'Bin' (pronounced 'bean'), or as he liked to be called, Mr Bin. Prior to the war he attended medical school and was training to become a doctor. He met his girlfriend there and they planned to marry. Tragically, war broke out and his girlfriend and family were murdered by the Viet Cong and he was drawn into the war to fight for the Americans.

It is pretty incredible to think that so many of the people who still walk the streets of Saigon today have been witness to the horrors and atrocities of the Vietnam war. It's even more incredible to think they survived. To live through this and maintain any sort of faith in the human race or in God (presuming there is one) would be a difficult task and require exceptional strength of character. Although that said, if you've lost your livelihood, your home and even your family what else is left except blind faith? It doesn't bear thinking about.

The atrocities of the Vietnam war are well documented at the War Remnants Museum in central Saigon. The building is home to a range of war paraphernalia such as old aircraft, tanks and munitions along with an extensive collection of photographs from newspapers and private collections around the world. Interestingly, it has been known by a number of names across the years, including 'The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government', the 'Museum of American War Crimes' and later as the 'War Crimes Museum', until 1993 when it was given its present name following liberalisation and normalisation of US-Vietnam international relations.

The museum also features a craft workshop which provides work for those affected by Agent Orange - this is set up right next to the main entrance and is the first thing you see upon entering the building. Those working at the shop are mostly kids, and all have obvious physical deformations. Blatant marketing strategy? Absolutely. Heart-rending? Undoubtedly. Exploitation? I'll let you be the judge.

Some of the photographs from the exhibition were truly breathtaking, particularly those by Japanese photographer Yasufumi Murayara who documented the aftermath of the war and, primarily, the lives of those who were affected by Agent Orange. Some of the photos were sad yet inspiring and others tore me up inside. I actually had to leave the exhibition around three quarters of the way through as I was viewing the photos through a haze of tears. How anyone could inflict such horror on an innocent population with such little understanding and disregard for the long-term effects is beyond my comprehension. Murayara began photographing Vietnamese victims (mostly children) in 1998 and the extent of the deformities they suffer is heart-wrenching. His pictures capture an incredible amount in a single shot and despite their quality it seems surreal and wrong to find beauty in them.

You may have noticed from my earlier explanation regarding the museum's nomenclature that it is not the most impartial exhibition in town. It focuses solely on the Vietnamese war perspective and the evil of the Americans. Admittedly, I can't say I could stand in that museum and say I was proud to be an American (not that I am but that's beside the point), however it is important to note that there are two sides to every story -  the Vietnamese are equally as guilty of perpetuating the horrors which plaster the walls of the museum. Not only that, but they committed these heinous crimes against their own people.

It's hard to understand the point of museums like this sometimes - although historical, paying money to witness such suffering seems macabre and borderline voyeuristic. Of course, they pay tribute to the innocent lives lost in the name of war and document history so that we may ensure it never repeats, however the very same events are still taking place today in the world. Tragically, those who incite war aren't the ones visiting these places - they are the war mongers of the world whose opinions won't be swayed by the suffering of a small south east asian nation. Whether it be over communism, religion or natural resources, the wars will continue regardless. We will not learn.

But, I digress. The rest of our time in Saigon was great. We met some great people at our hotel and spent a lot of time with them and found many great places to eat and drink. We also ran into friends we had met in Hanoi and Hoi An which was a nice surprise - it's just like being back in little ol' Daegu!

One other memorable part of my trip was my visit to the Christina Noble Foundation Sunshine School which is located in Ho Chi Minh City. After reading Bridge Across My Sorrows and Mama Tina many years ago (and countless times since) I made it my mission to visit there if ever I made it to Saigon. That I did, and yesterday I was privileged enough to visit the school, meet with some of the coordinators and also one of Christina's daughters who arrived with her own family as I was there. The school was amazing - far more modern and developed than I could have imagined and staffed by some of the loveliest people you could meet. I saw a lot of the kids too, who were just like Korean kids - cheeky, inquisitive and full of boundless energy. I'm giving consideration to a volunteering post there next year for a few months, so watch this space.

And on that note, I will leave you. I find myself finishing this post in Phnom Penh, Cambodia - it has stopped raining outside and there are streets to be explored and food to be eaten. I'm off to the killing fields and the Tuol Sleng museum tomorrow morning so that should be a cheerful day all round! I will attempt to upload some photos soon too - unfortunately the connection here is too slow and I'm too impatient. 

More soon!


  1. The CN Foundation is very active here in HK - they also work in Mongolia (perhaps other places too?). I think that unless you can spare a minimum few months dedicated to volunteering on site, you can be of more help raising awareness and money for places like that. Just my opinion anyways.

  2. One of my cousins was involved in the protests of the 70s...