They say life begins at 40. And we say nothing beats beginning your 40th year than going inside the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam.
Neil, Patmei and Mayie playing Viet Cong
As I wrote last week, we celebrated our friend Mayie’s 40th birthday in Vietnam. Mayie, Neil and I have been friends for more than 25 years now (we were classmates in Davao City High School class of 1986). We are part of a generation that thinks of Vietnam only in terms of that-war-that-America-did-not-win. Although we were tagged as Martial Law babies and grew up at a time when Davao was still known as the “killing fields of Asia,” when our city was the laboratory of the urban guerrilla warfare of the Communist New People’s Army (NPA) and later as the base of the anti-communist vigilante group, Alsa Masa, we were still relatively sheltered from the horrors of war compared to our parents who experienced World War II. So we were all excited to go on a field trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Cu Chi Tunnels is about 70 kilometers away (about an hour’s drive) from Ho Chi Minh (more popularly known by its old name, Saigon). It is one of the famous battlegrounds of the Vietnam War and the base of operations where the Vietnamese guerrillas or Viet Cong mounted their Tet Offensive in 1968. At its peak, they said the Cu Chi tunnel network covered some 250 kilometers – from the Cambodian border in the west to the outskirts of what was then Saigon. The underground tunnel system has many levels and branches connecting to underground hideouts, shelters, kitchens, schools, hospitals, theatre, and entrances to other tunnels. Each tunnel was dug by hand at a rate of just one or two meters a day in the 1940s during the Vietnamese resistance against the French and it later expanded during the war against the Americans. During the Vietnam War, an estimated 16,000 Vietnamese lived inside these tunnels.
Neil and Mayie pose with an old US military tank
Today, the Cu Chi Tunnels is one of Vietnam’s premier tourist attractions, part of what has been described as the country’s “war tourism” industry. True enough, when we arrived there it felt like we were visiting a zoo or a theme park. There were lots of tour buses parked in front bringing hordes of tourists. First to greet you is a souvenir shop. Then we get our tickets and we’re led to a long and wide tunnel-like entrance similar to those of major theme parks. We go down a bunker that shows a black and white video documentary of the Cu Chi Tunnels. Together with other tourists, some of them Americans, we listened as a Vietnamese female voice on the video narrated: “Cu Chi, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round…then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside…but Cu Chi will never die…”
First we all learn about the war according to the Vietnamese people
After that effective anti-American propaganda video (with images of Iraq on CNN and the Oscar-winning movie “Hurt Locker” zooming in and out of our heads), we were put in a frame of mind better able to visualize what it must have been like being a Viet Cong guerrilla fighting the mighty American military. And being true-blue Pinoys, who always go for the underdog, we naturally sided with the Viet Cong. Our guide, dressed in Viet Cong uniform, showed us all the creative traps the guerrillas used against the Americans, including the improvised weapons they made out of US military bombs and other war arsenal. We walked around the Cu Chi countryside while our guide told stories of Viet Cong ingenuity and bravery amidst sounds of gunfire from the nearby firing range where tourists can shoot using an AK-47 or an old US-made M-16 to get the full Vietnam war experience.
Our guide shows the many creative traps used by the Viet Cong against the Americans
But the ultimate experience was actually going inside the tunnels. Picture this – the tunnels are between 0.5 to 1 meter wide, just enough space for one regular-sized person to walk along by squatting and bending (like the “duck walk” for those who went through some kind of military training) or dragging. And, take note, the tunnels have already been modified to accommodate bigger-sized Western tourists, not to mention cleared daily for snakes and dangerous insects. The smaller-sized guerrillas crawled in the original ones with tunnels filled with other deadly creatures. This is not an adventure for people who are afraid of small, enclosed and dark spaces and have bad backs and knees. I have all of these yet I plunged right ahead anyway (there is something about turning 40 that makes one do brave things). Of course, I was scared and I panicked inside when I couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t move much. Neil was the first to go in and Alexie jumped right after him and I followed her and Mayie was behind me. So I was between Alexie and Mayie, who kept blinking the flash on her camera to light our path. I must have been making a lot of nervous noises because Neil kept asking if I was alright, but he couldn’t turn back to check on me because there was simply no way. Alexie kept taking pictures in the dark and despite my panicked state, I would still manage to smile and pose for the camera I couldn’t see (I guess I just have that instinct for the paparazzi even under extreme conditions).
An improvised map of a portion of the impressive Cu Chi Tunnel Complex
After what seemed like forever, we emerged into the light at the end of the dark, cramped tunnel and eagerly embraced the wide open space despite the scorching heat of the noonday sun. We yelled a collective “Thank God for our blessed, beautiful, and comfortable life!” at the same time developing a profound respect and admiration for the Viet Cong and the Vietnamese people.
The tunnel experience made Neil sweaty and hungry so he refreshed himself with the natural spring water from the bamboo “faucets” and practically ate all the tapioca (otherwise known as “kamoteng-kahoy”) and drank all the tea they served in the makeshift mess hall to give us an idea of what the guerrillas ate during that time.
Our tunnel experience made us appreciate being alive and made us admire the Vietnamese people
As Neil realized that he would have probably deprived the Viet Cong of all their food if he were one of them (kamoteng-kahoy is one of his favorites), I had realizations of my own: (1) When you find yourself inside a tiny dark tunnel, just keep moving forward and take lots of pictures along the way because the flash in your camera will bring light; (2) Bad and traumatic events in your life can be profited from someday, your rich and colorful life can be a theme park later on so don’t despair over your darkest moments; and (3) It is always better to be alive than dead and don’t wait till you’re 40 to live it.