One of our first excursions upon reaching Saigon was a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels - an underground network spanning some 200 kilometers of varying depths that could hold up to 10,000 Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War*, portions of which have been reopened for tourism. The site isn't so far, as the crow flies, from the city center, but the traffic made it seem so, as did the gradual giving way of multi-lane thoroughfares and modern buildings to modest houses and unpaved roads.
The main entrance to the complex felt like a museum, what with a gift shop and displays of antiquated weaponry and missiles. Once our guide squared away our tickets, we descended into a short stretch of tunnel (not part of the original network), emerging onto what could easily pass for a film set from Apocalypse Now, replete with distant gunfire. Though it was not a hot day (thank god), the air beneath the thick, green canopy of trees was heavy with moisture and rife with a still somberness befitting a site of war. Military-style tents housed exhibits and dioramas illustrating the construction and use of the tunnels, while employees in khaki uniforms milled about, demonstrating how soldiers accessed the tiny, hidden entrances.
The system was ingenious; the underground network had areas for designated uses like bunkers, latrines, and kitchens - with disguised openings for ventilation above ground. Certain areas even had river access should soldiers need to escape by waterway. Up top, in addition to designing entrances so well camouflaged and small that even if Americans located them they wouldn't be able to fit, the Viet Cong also set myriad sorts of traps for the enemy.
A short stretch of original tunnel is open for tourists. As a petite woman, it was cramped for me and my camera. I could walk, bent double, but the 6' 4" Canadian in front of me had to shuffle whilst practically curled up in the fetal position. We had handed our bags over to the members of our group who had opted not to go for the full experience; I tried to imagine what it must have been like during the war, staying underground for days at a time with my weapon and gear. Minutes later we reemerged above ground, gratefully stretching our legs and backs and gulping in the humid air.
The gunfire we'd been hearing, though somewhat amusing and atmospheric from afar, was decidedly less so up close. Our guide, a local, joked that criminals were executed on site; in reality there is a shooting range where visitors can fire authentic guns used in the war - with real bullets, he assured us. Bullets can be purchased in increments of 10 for a wide range of firearms. I have never held a gun, nor do I desire to; I cannot reconcile shooting as recreation when, nearly every day in the country I call home, there is news of gun-related violence.
As we turned away from the shooting range, back toward where the bus had dropped us off, I thought about the tunnels I'd visited in Okinawa, how warfare has evolved over the years, and how different cultures choose to commemorate it. Our guide said that such tunnels would be ineffective today, when there are smart missiles that can pinpoint exact targets and burrow through layers of concrete before detonating. This reminded me of the film Eye in the Sky, a timely drama about drone warfare and the human sacrifice that still persists in battles waged through technology. These new methods may reduce the collateral damage suffered in decades past, but at the same time desensitize us to the violence and destruction still intrinsic to war.
*Or, as locals call it, the American War.