|The CuChi tunnels|
Upon our arrival, we were immediately escorted to sit down and watch a movie to introduce us to the tunnels and their history. The movie spent the first few minutes to show CuChi as an idyllic place with expansive fruit orchards and where children loved to go on picnics, while happily untouched from the outside world. Suddenly, the "American white devils" appeared on screen, described as seeking to disturb the peaceful area of CuChi. The Vietnamese children who were formerly going on picnics then were portrayed as being forced to defend their country and learn how to sharpen sticks and dig holes to create gruesome death traps for the American soldiers. For these efforts, these children were lauded as heroes for their efforts in defeating the "devil" Americans and protecting CuChi.
Obviously, the movie was unnerving and uncomfortable for us, especially for my parents who had lived through the Vietnam War era. If that weren't enough, Vietnamese workers dressed up like the Vietcong army and demonstrated how effectively these bamboo death traps worked, just as casually as one would show an audience how well a food processor blended vegetables. To further add to the uncomfortable ambiance, continual gunshots rang out from a shooting range that offered tourists to use the same guns as those in the Vietnam War.
While walking through the site, I felt pangs of anger as to how the CuChi tunnels treated history in such a way that I interpreted as insulting and wildly reductive. I have been to Normandy Beach with my grandfather who landed on D-Day, and I remember seeing how the French took great care to maintain the German graves. I have been to Pearl Harbor, where the tour guide not only explained the attack, but also went into great length to explain the suffering the Japanese went through in the internment camps. While visiting Turkey, I recall seeing the respect the locals gave to the Australian tourists who wanted to visit Gallipolli, the site where thousands of Australian soldiers died at the hands of the Turkish during WWI. While these sites may not be perfect, a feeling of peace can be felt there, as the area decides to move forward and recognize soldiers in war are merely pawns of their leaders' politics and ideals.
But at the same time, I also considered how my American upbringing and education has influenced my own knowledge of how I choose to interpret history. I, for one, was unaware of the American's use of Agent Orange, a powerful set of chemical defoliants sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land to deforest the area and find the Vietcong's whereabouts. While effective, these toxins also destroyed crops and water sources for civilians, and were the main cause of birth defects, psychological symptoms, and other sicknesses for the Vietnamese people. As our tour guide pointed out just how young the surrounding trees were as a result of Agent Orange, I felt ashamed to be unaware of this truth that was obviously deeply embedded into the Northern Vietnamese consciousness. I began to wonder how a British tourist might feel while visiting the Freedom Trail here in Boston. Or how a Southerner may respond to Gettysburg and Antietam.
It is certainly a moving experience to visit a war site where your "side" emerged as victor. But these CuChi tunnels certainly served as a stark reminder of the need to consider the losers' perspective as well.