Our guide was almost gleeful as he described the booby traps to us. Pointing out the sharp, rusted bits of metal repurposed from blown-out tanks and unexploded bombs that would be driven through the soft, fleshy bits of enemies.
One by one, he described them. Demonstrating with his words how they worked. Traps that would drive nails through the neck and armpits; traps that would release a swinging beam full of metal spikes through an opened doorway; traps that would catch and mangle feet and ankles.
“These are for American soldiers,” our guide said with a slight smile. A glint in his eye told me that he would have been happy to have witnessed some of them in action.
Our guide's opinion toward “American soldiers” at the Cu Chi Tunnels is not an uncommon one in many parts of Vietnam. After all, he told us that several of his immediate family members (a father, an uncle) fought against the U.S. troops back in the '60s and '70s in what is usually referred to by my country as the Vietnam War.
In my guide's country, though? Here, it was the American War.
In high school, the Vietnam conflict took up a large portion of my American history class. We learned about the terrible things that BOTH sides did to each other; about napalm and Agent Orange and booby traps and barbaric massacres of innocent people. We read books. We watched movies. But it's still not an easy war to dissect, mostly because of the fact that the war is still a very controversial one. And it's also not always easy to succinctly explain WHY we were fighting in the jungles of Vietnam in the first place.
The non-Americans in my Cu Chi tour group were perplexed by this. “But why was the war begun?” they kept asking. I would just shift uncomfortably because I didn't have a simple answer. Maybe there IS no simple answer. “To stop communism,” we usually say. But it was more complicated than that.
The fact of the matter is that my country invaded another. Innocent people died; whole cities were destroyed; horrific gases and poisons were used that have left both physical and mental scars on the people who survived.
I could sort of understand, then, when my guide at the Cu Chi Tunnels made off-color comments about Americans; when he made fun of our fat asses as we tried to climb down into the tiny tunnel entrances. It's not like this war happened 100 years ago. For many people in Vietnam, it is still very fresh in their minds. Especially at a place like this, where the war is discussed every day.
At the Cu Chi Tunnels, hundreds — maybe thousands — of tourists show up each day to marvel at the tiny hidden entrances that lead to more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) of underground tunnels around Saigon. Tunnels that people not only hid and fought in, but tunnels that they actually LIVED in for years. The tourists laugh at one another trying to squeeze into these tunnels; snap some photos and maybe pay money to shoot a machine gun.
They listen to the presentation about the booby traps, and then watch an old newsreel video showing Viet Cong soldiers shooting guns and receiving awards for being “American Killer Heroes” before being herded back out the front gates.
This was the point where I found myself conflicted.
On the one hand, war is war. People kill one another and are awarded medals and honors for it. I realize that. Politicians in my own country run on platforms built around the fact that they are “war heroes.” It should not have been a shock that it's the same in Vietnam.
On the other hand, being confronted by something bad that your country did in the past and then being asked to feel guilty about it… that is something else entirely. It's true that it's not always pleasant to be presented with unfortunate or uncomfortable truths. But, mostly thanks to our tour guide, I almost felt under attack by the time I left the Cu Chi Tunnels, despite the fact that I was not even alive when the U.S. went to war in Vietnam. If I had been, I certainly would not have supported it.
The next day we visited the War Remnants Museum in Saigon — a museum containing a good deal of one-sided, anti-American propaganda.
Even though there WAS a small section on protests against the war in the U.S., again, I felt as though the popular tourist attraction was begging for me to claim some sort of responsibility as an American. To walk through the rooms of disturbing photos (which comprise the majority of the museum) and feel guilty about them.
On the one hand, I suppose this is fair. The U.S. really has never apologized for what it did in Vietnam (or in Laos or Cambodia — in fact, the government is still unwilling to admit that we did ANYthing in some of these places). It is fair to want to place blame and demand that guilt be felt. After all, I would probably feel the same way if the roles had been reversed and it was MY country being invaded and bombed and poisoned like Vietnam was.
But I'm not sure that these one-sided tourist attractions are the way to ask for that responsibility to be claimed.
Don't get me wrong — I'm glad that places like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum exist. What the U.S. did in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and '70s was largely uncalled for and needlessly brutal. It dropped more than 3 times as many tons of bombs during the Vietnam War than in the whole of WWII. Which is ridiculous.
And it's right for Vietnam to want the U.S. to take responsibility.
The thing is, in places like the War Remnants Museum (and also to some extent at the Cu Chi Tunnels) Americans are made out to be monsters.
And it's true, of course, that some American soldiers did some monstrous things in Vietnam. We've all seen the photos and read the stories; we've learned about the My Lai Massacre and can picture Napalm Girl in our minds.
But what these places don't tell you is that the majority of young Americans sent to fight in Vietnam did not go willingly. The war, overall, was not popular in the United States. In fact, there were massive, sometimes violent protests against it — 4 students at my alma mater of Kent State University lost their lives in 1970 protesting this war.
The U.S. government enacted a draft to conscript troops to send over to Southeast Asia in 1969, and most of the soldiers sent there had no choice. This of course doesn't excuse the inhumane things that some of them did; but it's worth remembering that there are always two sides to every story — especially when war is involved.
In many cases, the American troops suffered just as much as the Vietnamese did. They developed drug addictions. They suffered traumas. They, too, were affected by things like Agent Orange. Most Americans today will agree that the Vietnam War was a war we should have never been fighting.
But these are things that museums and tourist attractions in Vietnam will barely tell you, if at all.
Before I went to Vietnam, I had a lot of people expressing concerns for my safety.
After all, I was an American traveling to Vietnam. Wouldn't that be dangerous?
Well actually, no. Yes, it's true that the American soldiers who fought here decades ago are still hated in many parts of Vietnam. And some people (perhaps like my guide at the Cu Chi Tunnels) still harbor sour feelings toward the U.S.
But, in most places, nobody had anything bad to say about my being an American. I felt welcomed. I felt safe. I won't say that they've forgotten… just that they are moving past it and realizing that I am not the one responsible for the bombs that fell in their country all those years ago. Other than that one tour guide at the Cu Chi Tunnels, I did not meet one person in Vietnam who narrowed their eyes at me upon learning that I was American.
The people of this country realize that not all Americans are evil, and are able to differentiate between me (a tourist interested in learning about their country) and the American government that sent boys with guns here 40 years ago.
The problem is that the government-run museums and tourist attractions don't really reflect this attitude.
So what's the whole point of this post? Well, to be honest, I'm not sure I have one. War is never an easy topic to address, especially a war with such confusing motivations and devastating consequences.
Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum forced me, an American, to look at the Vietnam War slightly differently. They forced me to see it through other eyes — eyes of the locals, and eyes of non-American tourists, many of whom were learning about the conflict for the first time.
Did the one-sidedness bother me? Yes. But did it also make me look in the hypothetical mirror a bit differently? Yes, it did that, too.
I don't have a solution for dealing with tourist sites like the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum. Do I believe that these places are biased in the information they share and the manner in which it is presented? Yes, I definitely do.
But do I, as an American, have any right to demand that they be changed?
No, I don't believe that I do.
All I ask is that, if you visit these places yourself, keep in mind that you are only being shown part of the story.
And remember that these types of propaganda-heavy attractions do not necessarily reflect the overall opinions of people living in Vietnam today.
Have you been to any of these sites? Would you want to go as an American?
*Note: I visited these sites as part of a complimentary tour of Vietnam and Cambodia with Intrepid Travel. The guide at the Cu Chi Tunnels mentioned in this post was not affiliated with Intrepid at all. As always, opinions and observations are completely my own.