Visit the Vietcong's World: Americans Welcome

 

By Seth Mydans, , July 7, 1999

 

CU CHI, Vietnam -- The rattle and pop of automatic weapons greet a visitor. Young women in the black pajamas of the Vietcong flit through the woods. A man in green fatigues picks his way down a narrow trail, leading a small platoon of foreign tourists.

This is the site of the Cu Chi tunnels, one of the most famous battlegrounds of the Vietnam War. Today it is one of the country's prime tourist attractions, part of a new industry of war tourism. Sometimes, these spots seem to be memorials to wartime propaganda as much to the war itself.

Following the man in green fatigues, the tourists arrive at an open-sided hut, where the women in black show them to their seats. There, on a big-screen television set, the Vietnam War plays on: B-52's drop strings of bombs, villagers run for cover, communist guerrillas fight back.

For those who still don't get the message, a narrator says:

"Cu Chi, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round under shady trees ... Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside ... Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children ... The Americans wanted to turn Chu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die."

Knitting past and present jarringly together, the gunfire in the film mingles with that of the nearby firing range, where visitors can pay $1 a bullet to shoot an AK-47 rifle.

Since the war ended in 1975 with a communist victory, Vietnam has rebuilt and moved on. It is almost impossible to find anyone who still talks like the soundtrack of the Cu Chi film. Even the young women in black, who work as guides and ground keepers, dismiss the hard language, repeating instead today's government line: We're all friends.

But in their new struggle for foreign currency, the Vietnamese are exploiting their harsh history, offering visits to long-forgotten places that were once considered vital to America's national interests. Most of the visitors here are foreigners; the Vietnamese who come are mostly schoolchildren with their teachers.

The Cu Chi tunnels, a 75-mile-long underground maze where thousands of fighters and villagers could hide, are at the top of the list of tourist spots for Ho Chi Minh City, 45 miles to the southeast. Another is the city's Museum of War Remnants, with its displays of captured weapons and its catalog of horrors, which only recently amended its name, with changing times, from the Museum of American War Crimes.

Hue, the ancient capital, familiar to many Americans as the scene of heavy fighting in the Tet offensive in 1968, is the hub of a network of war tours. Streetside kiosks offer lists of attractions: "Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Marble Mountain, China Beach, bombed-out church, DMZ with statue of Ho Chi Minh."

Even the site of the American massacre at My Lai has been turned into something of a theme park, with a cemetery, museum, professional storytellers and a memorial reading, "Forever hate the American invaders."

There are plans to develop the DMZ -- the wartime demilitarized zone separating the north and the south -- as well as parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, neither of which now offer much for tourists to see.

Many of the visitors to these sites, like most of their guides, are too young to remember the war. Relatively few tourists come from the United States. For most people who come here, the war is a distant curiosity.

But for the last few years, since travel to Vietnam became more open, groups of American veterans have come in search of remembered battlefields. A small number of American tour companies specialize in guiding them and gaining permission to visit remote areas.

"They get a feeling of closure; that's the big benefit of going back as a veteran," said Richard Schonberger, director of veterans programs at a travel agency in Washington called Global Spectrum.

"We left suddenly," he said. "Now you know how the story ended. All the Vietnamese are very friendly. It's a different country now."

That can be disorienting, said Chuck Searcy, the Hanoi representative of Vietnam Veterans of America, which now runs prosthetics and rehabilitation programs.

"Everything has changed," Searcy said. "Almost every time, the vets are disappointed. They can't figure out where anything was: Was it here or was it that hill over there? That piece of rusted metal was the gate to a big army base. You go to Long Binh: It's an export-processing zone now."

One American tour company uses a global positioning satellite to pinpoint battle locations for its clients, said Paulette Curtis, a graduate student in social anthropology at Harvard who is studying returning veterans.

"I've been to Hill 10, Hill 37, Hill 55 and Hill 65," she said, naming old battlegrounds. There isn't much to see. "You go to Khe Sanh and it's just coffee plantations and black pepper trees. The world of the vets' tour is completely different from the rest of Vietnam."

The sites that have been restored for tourists, with their soft drink stands, hawkers and eager guides, are almost as unrecognizable.

At Cu Chi, the visitor is greeted by a sign reading: "Please try to be a Cu Chi guerrilla. Wear these uniforms before entering tunnel." Black pajamas, pith helmets, rubber sandals and old rifles are available.

Here and there, swimming pool-sized holes in the ground are neatly labeled: "B-52 crater."

The woods are dotted with souvenir kiosks selling these items: a lighter made from a bullet, a pen made from bullets, a bullet on a chain, rubber sandals, an "I've Been to the Cu Chi Tunnel" T-shirt.

Also abundantly available, as they are wherever tourists are awaited in southern Vietnam, are Zippo lighters engraved with reproductions of the swashbuckling mottos that were popular among American G.I.'s:

"Death is my business and business has been good."

"I know I'm going to heaven because I've already been to hell: Vietnam."

"I am not scared just lonesome. Vietnam 68-69."

The tunnels themselves are undeniably impressive. Throughout the war, the South Vietnamese Communists, or Vietcong, continually expanded the three-level network, which included mess halls, meeting rooms, an operating theater and even a tiny cinema.

When the war was over, the people of Cu Chi went to work on the tunnels once again, widening parts of them and adding steps and lighting so that foreign tourists could wriggle in for a look.

"I got claustrophobia big time," said Lawrence W. Goichman, a recent visitor from Stamford, Conn. "I crawled about 30 yards and then I took the first emergency exit."

But he added: "It's very clean down there. The guide said they have someone dusting every day. They actually let you eat the food that the people that fought were eating."

He said he enjoyed his visit to Cu Chi. But he said the Vietnamese still have some work to do in developing their tourist sites. "Let's put it this way," Goichman said. "It wasn't as good as Disneyland."


Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov