There are 9.5 million residents in Saigon, who own only a half a million cars but 4 million motor scooters. Families of four all ride one scooter as the kids get dropped off at school. It’s a wonderment.
A word about the “horn culture” here in Vietnam which is incredibly noisy. Everyone (and I mean everyone) who drives a vehicle honks at everyone around them. The buses have been deep horns, the vans and shuttles have car horns and the mopeds and scooters have squeaky horns. They all notify everyone they are coming and to stay in their own lanes. The big vehicles have right of way and pedestrians … well, forget it. It is very annoying and it makes for noise pollution in the big cities like Hanoi and Saigon that already afflicted with other pollution. Whatever, Vietnam itself is unique and this may be one part of this uniqueness.
Following breakfast, we head for our pre-planned Cu Chi Tunnels tour in Ben Duoc for a close-up look at the Vietnam War. Located in a 120-square-mile area, it is an underground network of living quarters, meeting rooms, triage centers and kitchens, a vast complex that allowed the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese combatants to evade discovery as they moved freely throughout the area, and offers a unique look at life in wartime Vietnam.
Vietnam Conflict Overview
- 1954 Dien Bien Phu falls; Vietnam partitioned at 17th parallel
- 1956 Diem proclaims himself president of Republic of SVN
- 1960 Hanoi forms National Front for Liberation of South
- 1963 Buddhist monk sets himself on fire in protest of religious persecution; Diem killed in coup d’etat
- 1964 Ho Chi Minh Trail becomes supply route from N to S; USNS Maddox attacked in Gulf of Tonkin; US attacks NVN coastal areas
- 1969 US troops peak at 543,000; Ho Chi Minh dies at the age of 79
- 1970 4 Kent State students protesting war are killed by National Guard; Nixon orders intense bombing
- 1973 Treaty to end war signed in Paris
- 1975 Fall of Saigon; America withdraws last of soldiers
- Civilians killed: 665,000
- ARVN killed: 313,000
- VC killed: 251,000
- US killed: 55,000 (1,655 MIA)
Vietnam War or American War?
When we were in Hanoi, we learned the people there refer to the Vietnam Conflict as the American War and here in Saigon, they call it the Vietnam War.
After 100 years under French control, the Vietnamese were “liberated” in 1954 by Ho Chi Minh. The French withdrew. The country was partitioned at the 17th parallel, with those in the north under Communism and Ho Chi Minh; and those in the south with Ngo Dinh Diem. Vietnamese could move north or south before the country was officially divided. Catholics mostly went south.
The tunnels were begun in 1945, dug to hide weapons. Later, the tunnels were made longer and dug deeper. From 1961-64, the VC (also known as Viet Cong or National Liberation Front) had the tunnels dug all the way to the Mekong Delta and the Cambodian border. They eventually linked six villages at three levels:
- First level was the no-smoking kitchen, where there were elaborate ways of keeping smoke from appearing at the surface.
- Second level was a living area with school, hospital, even markets, honeymoon room and happy room (rest room), again with an elaborate system to prevent the enemy from finding them as a result of human waste.
- This level was 30’ underground. First two levels could be damaged by B52 bombers but the 3rdlevel was safe. It was used for movement to and from Cambodia and for moving weapons from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to where they could be used most effectively, a big wow
In 1968 when there was a cease fire for the Vietnamese lunar new year, the VC were able to surprise Saigon and the US Army with its Tet (Lunar new year) offensive. Most of the element of surprise came from soldiers living in the tunnels near Saigon. The tunnels were built by villagers in clay, using only hoe and hand. The clay hardened and was difficult to destroy. It’s the same clay we walk on today on our tour.
Once the US Army found the tunnels, they tried a variety of ways to neutralize their use: flooding, gassing (but the ventilation system was too good), tunnel rats who went in by foot but who found many many booby traps. And finally bombing with B52s, but even that only destroyed the first and occasionally the second level. Our Cu Chi tunnel tour today takes us into the jungle where soldiers conducted guerrilla warfare. We walk the same paths soldiers from both sides traversed. The jungle, of course, is nowhere near as dense, or frightening. We actually go down into the tunnels and see the kitchens, then further down into the hospital and other rooms where the VC lived and worked. The tunnels themselves, in most sections, are about 30″ high so there is much stooping to get through. The 6’6″ fellow I live with, who also has bad knees, declined.
A word about the Cu Chi tunnels. These are homogenized versions of the real thing. The ones really used by the VC in the 60s had very small entrances (perhaps 12×10” chutes), were completely black inside and very close. They are narrow, low and very hot and steamy. The ones now have wide covered entrances, stairs, lighting. But they demonstrate to us how well they were disguised and they talk about how long it was before the Americans found out about them. We also learn about the trap system they used. One is life size, maybe 3’x6” and it rotates when stepped on. Victims drop into a pit filled with bamboo spears which impale the soldier and he dies. Very scary.
Necessary items to bring when visiting the Tunnels
The venture into the tunnels of Cu Chi is worth it. Maybe not the ones at the end where there are a lot of bats, but still. This is definitely a day for all those products they tell you bring along.
- DEET (I could feel the mosquitoes around me but they didn’t light)
- Wet Ones or other sanitary packets
- Sunglasses and perhaps a hat (although truthfully we were in shade most of the time)
- walking shoes and shorts
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