Memories of Vietnam haunted a generation of Americans. It was the war we lost and the recollection of it stings. Jane Fonda and LBJ, carpet bombing and “Give Peace a Chance.” Americans have processed this era through the nihilistic lens of Oliver Stone and the music of Joan Baez.
But what of the Vietnamese themselves? How do they process this conflict, one of many in their very long history, some 44 years after the U.S. withdrawal and the communist takeover of that country?
Last month I traveled to Vietnam to find an answer to that question — and the answer was not long in coming.
“You should see The Cu Chi Tunnels,” the hotel concierge advised me. “Very popular. And it will go far to give you the Vietnamese perspective on the war.”
Taking this advice to heart, I booked a tour and hopped a speed boat in central Saigon — uh, I mean, Ho Chi Minh City — and I headed upriver an hour to the tunnels. Whenever possible, a boat is the best way to travel in Vietnam. Outside of the upscale parts of the urban areas, the roads are often in poor condition and dusty. By contrast, the speed boats and water taxis move about efficiently. Sitting in the back near the big Mercury outboard motor of this 25-footer, I took in the sights of the city, the riverside mansions and bamboo stilt houses, along with the great natural beauty and the trash that peppered our wake. With the boat captain skillfully navigating the water hyacinth at high speed to the accompaniment of Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, all that was missing was John Kerry to regale us with his suspect Vietnam War swift boat stories.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were one of the many bases of operation for the Viet Cong during “The American War,” as they call it. Stretching for miles like capillaries, they are now a national park celebrating Vietnam’s great victory over the “American capitalists.” Arriving at the park’s boat dock, you are greeted with a meal and the beverages westerners always seem to need. Prior to going into the tunnels, the government requires visitors to watch a 20-minute film. In the U.S., such a film would be about safety, expected behavior on the tour, and, of course, advertisements to capture your tourist dollars. Not here. This was propaganda at its finest — or worst, depending on your perspective.
The film begins with serene scenes of life in Vietnam prior to American intervention. (I include here a link to the Vietnamese language version with subtitles.) It then transitions to American bombing and destruction of this innocent and peaceful land. In one scene we are introduced to a beautiful Vietnamese woman named Vo Thi Mo. Although we are supposed to think of her as a typical peasant, her appearance suggests she might have played a starring role in “Crazy Rich Asians.” But don’t be fooled by the exterior of this femme fatale. Her first name — or that which the propagandists gave her — means war. The narrator, sounding like Hanoi Hannah, says softly:
“It’s Vo Thi Mo, the beautiful and thin girl from Nhuan Duc. She prefers singing to firing, but her determination is huge.”
“She follows male soldiers everywhere…. She follows [the] enemy’s each and every step. She earned the medal of American soldier killer.”
It seems a safe assumption that this was not a woman with a profile on Christian Mingle. I lost count of the number of times the narrator said “kill Americans” or its variants. No doubt the gift shop at the end of our tour would be full of snow globes, t-shirts, and hats reading, “Kill Americans.” This phrase was the Cu Chi Tunnel equivalent of “See Rock City.” I was the only American in the audience and now I knew why. I decided they needed better marketing consultants. I mean, if they don’t want to tone down the “Kill Americans” rhetoric for the sake of attracting more of them, they should at least consider advertising in the Muslim world. Many of them would love this place.
Departing the amphitheater, the willing were permitted to enter the tunnels unguided. I squeezed through a short passage feeling like the proverbial camel trying to thread the needle. The tunnels are hot and narrow and go on indefinitely. Following this bit of spelunking, a tour guide led us along a veritable path of horrors where she gleefully pointed out concealed traps of every kind — poisoned bamboo spears that swing from trees and aim for the face, neck, and torso; pits containing iron spikes; apparently harmless objects that are rigged with explosives; landmines, and so on until we arrived at a mannequin symbolizing women like Vo Thi Mo. The mannequin wore lipstick, rouge, and what appeared to be a Burberry scarf. I had no idea the Viet Cong had been at the forefront of fashion. Our guide, jovial and in a voice more appropriate to a tour of a chocolate factory, pointed back to the path we had just walked and said:
Then, with the perfect timing of a practiced comedienne, she pointed at the mannequin:
The tour group laughed nervously, fearing, perhaps, a trapdoor and impalement or bamboo to the face if they didn’t. Regardless, the not-so-funny point was not without merit. Many a good American soldier, taught from youth to be deferential to the opposite sex, found those ingrained behaviors weaponized and used against them by women who lured them to their destruction. Indeed, throughout history, men who have shrewdly avoided death on the battlefield have fallen by the score to this subtler kind of warfare.
“Honey traps aren’t just on the battlefield!” one fellow said, eliciting a few chuckles. I had cause to reflect on that one.
The tour now over, we stood under a canopy where it was announced that visitors could buy gifts, have a soft drink or beer, relax — or rent an AK-47.
This is what I love about the Third World. No frivolous lawsuits and not calibrated to meet the anxious expectations of soccer moms. Yup, you could rent the assault rifle of choice for communist and Islamic terrorists around the world and shoot at paper targets in the silhouette of a man who is, presumably, representative of an American soldier. I briefly wondered if they had one of Ho Chi Minh or, lacking that, another communist, Nancy Pelosi. No? I would have to use my imagination.
But my enthusiasm was not shared by everyone. Angst had suddenly possessed our group of mostly Australians and Brits, and a handwringing discussion on the ethics of using such weapons, even for fun, ensued.
“Hey, Larry, where are you going?” someone from Wales called out after me.
“I’m going to go and empty a couple of magazines into those targets.”
I needed to let off a bit of steam, and can you think of a better way to do it?
This place was like Six Flags — but with AK-47s.
I wonder what the next thrilling addition to this theme park will be. Cornhole with hand grenades?
Larry Alex Taunton is a freelance columnist, author, and contributor to The American Spectator. You can subscribe to his blog at larryalextaunton.com.