Reflections on the Củ Chi Tunnels

I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world…It has put us against the self-determination of a vast majority of the Vietnamese people, and put us in the position of protecting a corrupt regime that is stacked against the poor.  Martin Luther King Jr.

  • When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That’s the message he is sending.
  • To think in terms of either pessimism or optimism oversimplifies the truth. The problem is to see reality as it is.
  • If you are truly present and know how to take care of the present moment as best you can, you are doing your best for the future already. Thích Nhất Hạnh, Influential Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk

Just 40 km from Ho Chi Minh City, and consisting of an underground network of 250 km, the Củ Chi tunnels were a vital part of the Vietnamese people’s resistance to the genocidal US war machine just 40 years ago. Over 10,000 locals lost their lives here as they and their impoverished comrades suffered through wave after wave of assault and aerial bombardment by the world’s best equipped army. Today, part of the tunnels are preserved as a memorial park where tourists can visit and get a sense of what life was like here under the hellish conditions. The perseverance and bravery of the peasants of this area and what they had to go through seems scarcely believable now. In a war over land (that’s what they were fighting for…the right to their own land and protection against the the cruel US-backed regime in Saigon), they used to have to come out of the tunnels at night under the cover of darkness to tend their crops. Their ideology was not simply ‘communist’, but one of survival as they tried to eek out a meagre living and defend their land using every means at their disposal, including hand-made weaponry, booby traps and camouflage. Their guerrilla tactics ensured that the US forces where bogged down in the South of Vietnam much longer than they expected to be. When you’ve lived in Vietnam for a while and witness the modest, gentle nature of the people here, you can’t help feel an immense admiration for what they’ve come through and their attitudes towards the recent past, which due to their total lack of bitterness, could almost be mistaken for indifference.

IMG_1141Củ Chi Tunnels

IMG_1134Photograph of female guerrilla fighter during the war, Củ Chi Tunnels

IMG_1165Cartridge shells at firing range, Củ Chi Tunnels

Even as a teenager I took an interest in the American war in Vietnam and since then I’ve read many books and watched documentaries detailing what happened and the real reasons behind the slaughter, but to wonder around the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and be reminded of what went on in those dark years is harrowing. The scale of the destruction and terror is laid out through photographs and exhibits showing different aspects of the War. It was a war of attrition where the Americans knew they couldn’t win by relying on the support of the people; the only way to win was by killing the people in the countryside (and in the cities of the North) in large enough numbers to ensure their resistance was futile. This inhuman and racist policy was directed from the top of the American military and political class and it went all the way down to the GIs whose regiments were directed to keep ‘kill counts’ of Viet Cong whereby the definition of who classified as VC was, “If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese, it’s VC”. The widespread atrocities, napalm and agent orange usage on large swathes of Vietnam’s countryside destroying the natural habitat and the people whose lives depended upon it, the consequent birth defects (an estimated 500,000 children have been born with birth defects due to agent orange) which continue in large numbers today and the carpet bombing of North Vietnam’s population centres are all given attention in the museum. There’s also an exhibit of US soldiers and their suffering…which, alongside growing opposition in the US, ultimately led to the end of the war (by the late 60s, increasing numbers of GIs were refusing to fight in missions and many commanding officers were being killed by their own soldiers). After the Tet offensive, the war had become a toxic issue for US politicians and their propaganda failed to persuade most of the US population that the war was necessary or right.

On the ground floor of the museum there’s a more upbeat exhibit of anti-war protests from around the world and solidarity from other poor countries, as well as anti-imperial propaganda posters. I come away from the museum a bit overwhelmed by it all; by the sheer scale of what happened just a few decades ago in comparison to the near total absence of any obvious affects from the war on the parts of modern Vietnam I’ve seen. I’ve a few American friends who teach in Vung Tau and they’ve all told me they’ve never encountered any hostility from the local people. There is an understanding that what is past is past and the only direction to look is towards the future, along with the recognition that a people are separate from the actions of their government. It’s remarkable in a country that is so patriotic; the boggy-man of their current nationalism seems solely directed against China who continues to encroach on Vietnam’s maritime territory (the impression is that if China ever invaded, every man, woman and child would be prepared to give their lives to fight the Chinese). The reality of the American war seems lost somewhat…especially the unpaid $3.3 billion in repartitions promised by the US at the Paris Peace Accords in 1973.  There has never been an apology from the US government or one penny paid to the victims of this unnecessary war. The US is still causing carnage around the world in its pursuit of complete imperial domination and even as I write this now, its main client state in the Middle East (Israel) is terrorising and massacring innocent men, women and children in the Gaza strip; raining down bombs on civilian infrastructure just as its paymaster has been doing on defenceless populations for the past 60 years. All these decades later, the arrogant barbarity of US foreign policy is still in tact and is resorting to ever more elaborate means of propaganda to deceive the world that it is benign. The victims of these wars are ‘unpeople’, whose voices are never heard further afield than their own localities. One story that sticks in my mind from the Củ Chi tunnels is of a female fighter coming across three American soldiers in the forest. As she watched them from a distance she realised they were “just like us” as they smoked, read letters from back home and cried. She couldn’t bring herself to shoot them as was her duty and she was brought before a committee to determine whether she should be punished for her negligence. Her messenger  boy testified that she was an outstanding, brave guerrilla who had taken part in many successful missions and that this lapse was uncharacteristic and so she was let off with a warning. She was 17 and her messenger boy was 9 years old.

IMG_2084War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

IMG_2072American fighter jet, War Remnants Museum


A few weeks later, back in Vung Tau, there’s a buddhist festival within walking distance of my house. The chilled atmosphere, free vegetarian food and smiley faces transform this part of town into a special place to relax that evening. Buddhism is an integral part of the culture in much of Vietnam and it’s perhaps in no small part because of this that the people here know how to move on and have a certain calm acceptance of the way things are. The trauma of the war is gone. There is only here and now.

IMG_2148Local Buddhist festival in Vung Tau









  1. Pingback: a fleeting week in smiley Vietnam | an aimless hitchhiker…
  2. freetoramble

    Thanks Jo! Had a wee look at your blog too…very nice – a brief look at a post on Yerevan brought the memories back…I met a refugee from Syria there in 2012, so it was very interesting to read that post. I don’t think we met in Turkey, did we? I was there from October-December 2012 (Istanbul, a place near the black sea, cappadocia, Kurdistan and erzurum)


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