The tunnel system became enormous from the 1950s through to the 1970s, stretching for an estimated 250km. The protection, camouflage and communication and storage offered by these cramped subterranean spaces was central to the success of the Viet Cong in their battle against what the Vietnamese still powerfully call “American imperialist aggression”. But they were also deadly places for the Vietnamese regardless of bullets and bombs, with malaria being the second largest cause of death after battle wounds, not to mention other parasitic sickness and encounters with deadly snakes and spiders. Certainly no picnic.
As a tourist destination now however, a picnic is precisely what it is.
We joined our tour from our hostel, and after a two hour bus journey, punctuated only by a comedy stand-up routine from our guide which consisted of jokes about the difference between Vietnamese and Western cultures (and virtually no information about the tunnels) we arrived at the gates amid the rubber plantations. Here, our first port of call was the “Weapons Room”, where cases of war-era US guns and bazookas were there to be photographed from every angle by some rather over-excited men who should have known better.
Next was a weird propaganda film about how young girls killed soldiers, which it’s probably best to gloss over. “My family this way!” said one of the funnier guides at the end, and everyone laughed with relief…particularly the Americans, I suspect.
We then entered what was a crater filled wasteland after the American carpet bombing campaigns which has now grown back to be what it once may have been. Our guide (somewhat ironically called Cong, or was it Kong?) kept the jokes flowing: “These barracks, they are fake. Vietnam war is like game of hide and seek – it so funny if barracks really there. It would be like, hi, here I am. Bang bang! All dead! Hahahaha! Just put here for Westerners. You wanna fire gun?”
Meanwhile, the hoards (with us among them) descended upon the mock ups of gruesome booby traps, presented with a smile by Cong/Kong. You had to hand it to him for trying hard. “The Vietnamese soldiers dig these at night. The Americans come, fall in. They dead. Everyone get a medal. Ha ha!”
We stopped at hole after hole (some we even got into like some sort of bizarre turn taking sport) and heard snippets of information about them in stereo from various other guides around. Meanwhile, Cong/Kong kept the tone light and uninformative as usual, concentrating on how Vietnamese marriage ceremonies are different from Western ones and how black is an unlucky colour for the Vietnamese. I expect the Viet Cong talked about those things in the long bomb and disease-filled hours in the tiny smelly tunnels.
But things were taking a more realistic and evocative turn, as we could hear, not too far away, the distinctive and rather terrifying sound of machine gun fire. Had a lost GI suddenly found his way back to the battlefield after all these years? Was the end of the war a massive propaganda lie? No. It’s just a bit more Viet-Disney, and you can go and fire a real war-era gun.
We politely declined the chance to discharge a weapon that had probably killed a few people in its time, and had a surprisingly cheap corn snack. Then, after telling us a joke about how he likes to vomit after drinking, and how his grandmother had enormous breasts, Cong/Kong showed us how to grind. This was getting bizarre.
Finally, after more misplaced hilarity than we could really handle, we were shoved down into some actual tunnels (“These are fake! Made for fat Westerners. Hahahaha!”) It was, thinking of the history of the place, the most revealing experience, as we clamboured on our hands and knees through baking tunnels, safe but aware that our claustrophobia was both a widened and a chosen experience. Sweating and happy to have only spent a few minutes down there, we were glad to get out. As we dusted ourselves down with the sound of tourist gunfire in our ear, this at least was a tiny feeling of how terrifying it must have been here, not too long ago. Perhaps someone should tell the younger generation of tour guides that this sort of empathy is what we fat Westerners should be offered. It certainly doesn’t work as stand-up.