“Cuuuuu Chi..." A soothing female voice intones...
"Land of plenty and land of bountiful”
“Cuuuu Chi – gentle, rural, folk...” she coos, over images of women in long silk dresses elegantly plucking mangoes from the trees.
“Cuuuu Chi ...” Her tone takes on an abrasive edge ...
“Now this innocent town of simple farm folk must pull together to fight the American imperialists...”
The footage changes abruptly to grainy sped up black and white footage of Amerian B52s carpet bombing the land and a petite female Viet Cong fighter crouched behind a hill with a rocket launcher. The voice crescendoes, jubilant with praise:
"Everyone can fight in war effort, this brave, young girl has already killed seven American imperialists."
Today the Argentinos and I are doing a day trip to CuChi - a small rural village on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh where the Viet Cong lived in an immense connection of underground tunnels during the Vietnam war.
Living underground in the jungle the Viet Cong would only come up at night time and the US Army tried for years to unsuccessfully bomb them out. They totally underestimated the length and breadth of the network and the tunnels were ultimately a contributory factor to North Vietnamese eventually storming Saigon and winning the war.
We start the tour by watching this promotional piece of black and white propaganda about Cu Chi encouraging people to support the war effort.
They had a saying: “One hand on the gun, one hand on the plough.”
After fighting during the day, the VietCong and villagers would plough their fields by night to make sure that there was enough food to keep the army and town going. You get a flavour again of the sheer resilience and bloody minded determination of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army to defend both their land and their independence against what they saw as US agressors and a South Vietnamese American puppet state.
Ho Chi Minh was quoted as saying:
“You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours. And in the end you will be the ones who tire of it”
"We have a secret weapon. We call it Nationalism."
America massively underestimated the fierce mental fortitude that the North Vietnamese belief in their independence against what they saw as outside aggressors, gave them. As one US general noted – they had been fighting for their freedom for some 30 years against the French before the Vietnam war:
"If America wants war for twenty years we will give them war, if they want peace for twenty years we will give them peace," said Ho Chi Minh.
What is remarkable about this kind of guerilla warfar was the barbaric yet ingenious simplicity with which the Viet Cong both killed and defended themselves. They took to living underground in a complicated honey comb of tunnels. The entrance to the tunnels would be small squares cut into the earth of the jungle carpet – and covered with dead leaves... practically impossible to identify with the naked eye. They hid the ventilation shafts to the tunnels in massive natural termite mounds and the kitchens were designed within a series of dummy passages and dead ends away from living quarters so that if smoke was detected from them it wouldn't lead soldiers to their inhabitants. They would only cook once a day in the early hours of the morning so that the smoke from the food would mingle with the jungle mist rising over the canopy of the tree tops.
When US forces tried to discover and then either posion or bomb ventilation shafts through the use of tracker dogs they would put chilli pepper on the entrances to throw the dogs off the scent. When the US realised that their dogs sneezing indicated a ventilation shaft the Vietcong changed their methods and begun soaking laundry rags wrung in American soap so that the tracker dogs smelt a familiar and “American” smell which then threw them off the scent.
The Viet Cong booby trapped the jungle floor with a gruesome variety of techniques that they had previously used to capture wild tigers. False panels would be cut into the floor that when stepped on would rotate round to let the victim fall into the shaft below onto steel metal spikes. Horrendous medieval looking devices would puncture victims feet, ensnare their legs and ankles, puncture their head or groin area and leave them to bleed to death or be captured.
The final part of the tour allows you to crawl through 100m of the tunnels that they lived in. It has been made into a 'European Tunnel” in order to incorporate our larger body size and there is a “get out” exit half way in incase you suffer from a nasty bout of claustrophobia.
Even though i've done worse things on this trip I wasn't expecting to have to “duck walk” (crouch down to squat position and shuffle along on my ankles) the 100m. The hot, humid, dusty tunnel feels like it takes half and hour to navigate not 10 minutes – and I can only wonder at the people that managed to live down here for years at a time. Not only did they have to endure being cramped into tiny dusty dirt tunnels with scorpions and poisonous centipedes for company but disease (particularly) malaria was rife.
The US simply weren't prepared or educated in this kind of tunnel warfare – and were unable to find a way to successfully oust their enemy until it was too late. The CuChi tunnels kept their enemy at bay for long enough to allow the Viet Cong to “fight another day.”
At the end of the experience you are able to pay to shoot a variety of weapons of your choice, AK47s. The Argentinos and I are broke - i figure it might be something boys want to do but they are pleased not to as am i. To be honest after all the torturing, death, maiming and warfare we've seen first at the war museum and now here i can't think of anything i'd like to do less than play at killing people. . .
Back in Ho Chi Minh city - Martin and I pay a little visit to Saigon's version of Notre Dame. Its not open to the public on the day that we are there – so we wander around the outside. It looks like a pristine replica of its soot- swept, gothic, Parisian doppleganger. Apparently it was constructed in the late 19th Century – but must have been restored since – – the bright red bricks glow against the blue sky and burning sun. In front stands Regina Pacis – a large and striking white “Peace” statue that was reported to have shed tears down her right cheek in 2005. Having grasped a better understanding about this country's bloody past - I can only imagine she has a lot to cry about.
Close to the cathedral is the up market bit of Saigon – and I feel myself unavoidably wafting over to look at the big black Double C of the Chanel sign. Next door is Cartier so I have a little glimpse at the necklaces twinkling in the window.
“Eeeey bonita...you look like a puppy!” says Martin.
Short of whimpering and pawing at the window I probably do! I'm reminded i'm not always the best of budget travellers. As much as i'm grateful to learn how easy it is to live well on very little on this side of the world and how much more abundant I feel being time rich and cash poor and not the other way around - I have not managed to completely expunge the decadent “glamour gene” in me that wants to be able to afford and wear Chanel while i'm still young enough to make it look good. Ah well. I'm a work in progress...
Martin and I have our final dinner together in Saigon. Banana flower salad, fresh spring rolls, and grilled pork cooked in a flaming bamboo pot. Its delicious. As is he. So we make plans to meet up again in Cambodia.
But enough of all this budget traveller talk anyway! – its time for a short 5 day pitstop of abject luxury with the indomitable Louise a.ka The Duffmeister General – who happens to be holidaying in Asia and is requesting a little girl time at a fabulous resort in Phuket. . .Oh well if you insist....