The Cu Chi Tunnels and why you should always say goodbye……..

Yesterday I left for work without patting and cuddling our little cat, telling her that I will miss her and for her not to call boys while I am gone.  I do this every time I leave but that morning, I had one hundred and one things on my mind and I left.  I closed the door and I left without saying goodbye.

Our beautiful Trisha died late last year.  She left without saying goodbye.

My friends son died on Sunday.  He left without saying goodbye.

People died during the Vietnam war.  They left without saying goodbye.

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The following post will not be light as there is no lightness in war just as there will never be a war to end all wars.  Wars are ugly and they are brutal.  They display utter barbarism, simplistic poor judgment and horrific violence.  You may believe fate has a hand in war but it is not the hand to turn your face from the thousands of dead, from the displaced and from the atrocities committed just as there will never be a war won without loss and suffering.

It is deeply saddening that in 2018, the world is still the same.  Bombings of the innocent, tactical starvation, war crimes, humanitarian cataclysm and violations of international law.  It just seems the more things change and the more we advance in civilisation, the more we seem to stay the same.

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The Cu Chi Tunnels

Our bus motored on alongside the endless tide of mopeds, through towns and villages, over the mighty Mekong and past miles and miles of rubber tree plantations, the largest in Vietnam and established by the Michelin Company in 1925.  In long, neat straight rows the trees’ bark is wounded and tapped maple-syrup style allowing the milky latex to seep.

And the item most produced by this latex is………….the prophylactic.  A word best pronounced by Sir Sean Connery himself.

Rubber tree plantation, view down rows of perfectly spaced trees

I had never been a huge fan of coach travel prior to this Vietnam trip however I am now grateful for what a bus trip affords.  Of course it can be a little slower but on the up-side there are no security lines, there was free Wi-Fi and air conditioning, good pit-stops for a leg stretch and you get a better view of all that is going on around you.

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Eventually, we came to a stop in the suburban district of Cu Chi which is approximately 70 plus k from Ho Chi Minh City.  We had travelled out here to visit the Cu Chi Tunnel complex.  An underground honey-combed network of tunnels which covered an area of approximately 250k and ran from the outskirts of Saigon to the Cambodian border.

This is a somewhat chilling memorial.  The construction of the tunnels began as early as 1940 against the French however the tunnel system gained immortality during the 1960’s and they have been preserved by the Vietnam Government to become a major tourist attraction.

We had booked a tour and to our great fortune, we had the wonderful harmonica playing simpatico Hung Lo (which I suspect is not his real name) from SaigonTourist as our guide.  This joyous and energetic man along with his tin sandwich kept us entertained, up to pace and in line with renditions of ‘When the saints go marching in’.  Who would have thought.  I went half way around the world to be serenaded with the club theme tune for the Saint Kilda Football Club 🙂

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Pockets of fun aside, this knowledgeable and beautifully passionate man told not only the story of the Vietnam War without prejudice, but also of his life as a young boy during that war.  He spoke of how his world and that of his country changed forever.  How the once lush, fertile and stunning landscape of Vietnam was showered in millions of tonnes of defoliant rendering it a barren and impoverished wasteland.  How the social fabric of a quite and simple life was left in tatters and how humble villagers suddenly found themselves homeless refugees.

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As he spoke throughout the day I understood that the truth of this war was far more complicated and the story, even harder to tell when you are involved.

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The tunnel system is one of the few historic war sites of the world which presents not only an in-your-face ferocity to an unshakeable and determined spirit but it is also a symbol of revolutionary heroism by the Vietnamese people and the Vietcong-controlled Cu Chi villagers.

It is inconceivable to think that below the feet of allied soldiers and scratched out of the soil by hand were weapons factories, field hospitals, command posts and living quarters all accessible only by camouflaged trap-doors.  The tunnels are dark and tight and they were built to accommodate the slight framed Vietnamese, made even leaner in those war time conditions.  The construction made it near impossible for the allied troops, the Americans and the Australians, who were larger framed to penetrate especially when carrying their packs and weapons.

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Camouflaged under leaf litter and completely missed by all who stood around……….

The 1968 Tet Offensive, one of the greatest tactical achievements and one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, was also conceived and launched from these very tunnels.  On the morning of January 30th 1968 the Vietcong army launched a surprise attack upon 13 cities in South Vietnam which marked the turning point for the Vietnam War.

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When we had first arrived, the sky was blue and the air warm.  The sound of bus engines and chatty unreserved tourist had echoed.  Crickets chirped and the bird song was sweet and all in all, it seemed quite a lovely day.

But as you begin your slow gathering walk on muddy tracks worn down by the thousands of shoe soles before yours, there are no longer birds or crickets to be heard.  The air becomes thick and muggy.  The reviving landscape, smelling so strongly of rotting leaf litter and harboring fire ants and scorpions is steamy.  Laughter is lost to a disturbing quiet and then you hear it!  The impenetrable and disconcerting sound of live rifle fire which stops you dead in your tracks.

The land is still healing and although the jungle is reclaiming back its ground, the pock-marked bomb craters still remain, evidence of the heavy bombing raids during that time.  Around your feet also remain ant-hill-like structures of mounded soil which were the ventilation units for the tunnels.  It was only through these tiny openings did the air flow into the tunnels.

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Ventilation holes disguised as termite mounds and also found at the base of tree roots…….

A dirty and claustrophobic crawl through the underground tunnels is not to be missed.  I remember thinking while crouched in the dark, what an extraordinary yet very singular moment this was.

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The booby traps were it seemed, barbarically unsophisticated, but the ingenuity of them was not to kill outright but to devastate, incapacitate and maim.  No doubt they achieved their intent.

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The live rifle fire I spoke of earlier came from the AK 47’s which have been made available for tourists to shoot.  The AK 47 was the primary weapon used by both the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong during the conflict and although manufactured originally in the Soviet Union, the chief supplier of these assault rifles during the Vietnam War was the Peoples’ Republic of China.

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I do respect there are those in the world who love guns and those who despise guns and gun ownership but what I do find disconcerting are those who claim a passionate loathing of guns yet fire them and boast of it on social media (#insta).  Perhaps the none-too-bright-of-the-world will just continue to shoot themselves in the foot.  But hey, if guns and weaponry, weapons and war history and having a shoot is your thing, then knock your socks off.

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No doubt this was an unpopular war and the tunnels, well they were a profoundly haunting experience but there was an added weight of something far greater in that jungle and of what, I am still unsure.  The Vietnam War had been awfully human place.  It had been a bloody place and it had been a place of horror and horrendous loss with over 1,118,000 lives being lost.  Such a raw legacy of misery is still so incomprehensible.

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After spending hours at the tunnels, we stopped in at what seemed an oasis.  There was food, but I don’t remember eating it.  Beers, I don’t remember drinking them.  There was a small bridge and a creek and a quite serenity which I welcomed.  I kept thinking of the terror and fear both sides endured during this campaign and forty years on there is little solidarity with historians on how and why this war really began.  There is also little consensus as to the wisdom in the handling of this conflict but frankly, I don’t think anyone is in a position to morally judge what we truly do not know nor understand.

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While standing by the river bank on this day I thought of my grandparents who we grew up with and who are both now gone from our lives.  It was the orchid blooms that made me think of them.  I imagined them in their garden, the moments in the late 60’s when they would dress up to the nines for the dance and I remembered how they were when we camped in a tent during the long hot Queensland summers at Tallebudgera.

Most of all I remembered how Nana loved orchids and how on a whim Dad, my paternal Grandfather, would walk for miles to the local orchid grower and choose a perfect orchid plant for her.  This gesture was always a small, very private and loving moment of their relationship.

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In most instances our goodbyes are not heartbreaking unless we never have the opportunity to say hello again yet I sometimes worry time passes too quickly.  One moment it seemed I had said, ‘Dad/Nana died yesterday’‘Dad/Nana died last week’‘They both died a few years ago now’…….

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I actually have the lime green gloves my Nan was wearing and I wear them with love x

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Happy times and how I like to remember them or maybe they were celebrating the arrival of another orchid…….

Perhaps during loss our hearts cannot go unscathed yet it is but a moment taken to say goodbye when we have the chance.  The one good thing though with having to say goodbye to a country like Vietnam is, you immediately want to go back to say your hello……….xx

12 thoughts on “The Cu Chi Tunnels and why you should always say goodbye……..

  1. Lexi Bannerman

    Those old photos are just great. I love seeing things like that. I really enjoyed reading this especially as my dad is a Vietnam Veteran. Do you reckon a trip to those tunnels would be ok for him to do. I thought it could be something we could do together but not really to sure given there is live gun fire going on. Is it really packed to as he isn’t to big on big noisy crowds. Thanks. Lexi.

    1. Thank you for your great comment Lexi and I have to agree, the old photos are pretty wonderful.

      Given I don’t know your Dad, it would be difficult for me to speculate on how he would react to being back in Vietnam at the tunnels. On the day we visited, there were many men there and their numbers far outweighed the women’s attendance and some of those were Vietnam Vets from both Australia and the USA.

      The gun range, which you come to toward the end of the tour, is at it’s loudest when you are actually at the range however there is ear protection offered. You certainly can hear the gun fire while touring the tunnels but it is not as loud. And yes, it can get very busy with hundreds and hundreds of tourists coming and going at any one time.

      For us, it was a profoundly moving experience and we were so glad we decided to do the guided tour. Have an amazing week…..x

  2. Mum

    A thought-provoking read and a beautiful tribute to mum & dad.
    Coincidentally (or not😌?), I have only now come inside from moving one of mum’s orchids to a more prominent position, as it is yet again in full bloom. A nudge perhaps, that neither she nor dad have gone very far from us.)

  3. Brad

    Man! How cool is that old photo of your dad. 40’s style John Travolta in the opening scenes of Saturday Night Fever! That super cool swagger. Yeah dude, you are owning it. Stay epic. Brad 😉

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