A nervous energy filled the air as we approached the Vietnam Embassy in the heart of Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh. Maybe it was our research that had us on edge. Dress nicely, no facial hair, bring a record of your bank account..the list went on and on. I know now the advice, targeted mainly toward Americans headed to Vietnam, must have been from those traveling in a different time, most likely more closely related to the opening of Vietnam for tourism.
Our task was simple. We walked into the guarded entrance of the Vietnam Embassy’s visa section, filled out some simple paperwork and handed our passports over along with $120.00 US for our two Vietnam visas. The man behind the counter wasn’t overtly friendly nor was he harsh or gruff. “Come back tomorrow,” he said as he thumbed through the pages of our passports. Simple.
The next day our tuk tuk plowed through the heavy, hot, dusty air that seems perpetually settled over the city of Phnom Penh and toward the Vietnam Embassy. This time, it wasn’t so simple. A portly man, dressed in his freshly-pressed, khaki Cambodian Police uniform stopped our driver just 100 feet from the entrance of the embassy. A few harsh words were exchanged in Khmer before the officer turned his attention to Dan and me in the back. “You need visa,” he said abruptly. “I get you visa.” We shook our heads emphatically. “No, no.. we’re picking them up,” I said.
“You give me money for the visa. When do you need it?” he asked in a nonchalant, bizarrely-innoncent tone. “We already have them,” Dan said shortly. “We’re picking them up.” Again, he asked for our money and assured us he would procure two visas for entry into Vietnam. This time Dan was frustrated, “No, we have them,” he snapped. “Ok,” the officer responded as he pushed himself back from the rusted, metal of the tuk tuk and waved us on.
We’d survived yet another interaction with a corrupt Cambodian official, but moments later we walked from the Vietnam Embassy with our visas and passports in hand. Shockingly, we were thankful to be headed to a country with seemingly slightly higher government standards – something I never in a million years would have equated with Vietnam..until I visited Cambodia.
Our bus ride and border crossing into Vietnam was much less eventful than it had been weeks before when we entered Cambodia. We were ready to start fresh, but here we were worried it meant temporarily forgetting our past. The horrific violent history between the United States and Vietnam is not something anyone should soon forget. And, while millions of American stood firmly against the Vietnam War, the United State’s image with the older generations in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos remains heavily tarnished.
Being the unimaginative, uninformed, uneducated, naive traveler I was upon entering Vietnam, I leaned over to Dan and whispered, “Canada.” He chuckled and nodded his head. It was something we had joked about.. telling people in certain parts of the globe we were from Canada to avoid bearing the brunt of any unnecessary resentment toward the United States. Vietnam seemed like the perfect place to start.
We stepped off the bus in Ho Chi Minh City, in the southern portion of Vietnam, where we were promptly swept into a cab by a swindling driver. A stop at a nearby ATM left me alone with him just long enough to spout off my first lie. “Where you from?” he asked kindly. I ignored the question. “Where you from?” he repeated. I looked up, surprised, acting as if I hadn’t heard him the first time. “Uh… Canada,” I stumbled and flashed a weak smile. “Can-a-da,” he sounded it out laughing and nodding. Dan opened the door the cab. “Yep, Canada,” I repeated ensuring Dan heard the lie so he could play along.
In the grand scheme of things, it was such a small little fib, but it didn’t sit well with me. It lingered and made me feel uneasy. It was the last time I would ever tell someone I’m not from the United States. Come to find out that cab driver scammed us out of more money than any other person on our journey thus far. His “broken” meter forced us to pay $25.00 US for a cab ride that should have only cost $5.00. A lie for a lie – karma, I guess.
The next day found us sidestepping between the thousands of motorbikes that fill Ho Chi Minh city’s clogged streets as we dodged our way to the nearby bus station in an attempt to take the public bus two hours outside of town to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels are only a portion of the elaborate underground network of cramped crawl spaces and carved-out rooms the Viet Cong used to elude American troops during the war.
Lost in translation and in a sea of people swarming the rusted, run down buses, we struggled to find the right bus. After points and nods we made our way up the steps of bus number 19 and sat on two ripped, pleather, spring-loaded seats, our skin sticking to the material in the intense heat. Each new passenger climbing aboard eyed us intensely, but not negatively, as if they were wondering what two white tourists were doing on Ho Chi Minh’s public buses. Interested by our presence, but not taken aback, women even attempted to sell us baggies full of Vietnamese drinks and quail eggs while we waited for the bus to depart.
Eventually, after two hours of bouncing our way through traffic, we stumbled off the bus with a young Israeli man and a girl from Holland we picked up along the way. Where are you from they asked. “America,” Dan responded. “Ouch,” the former Israeli soldier said with a deep laugh. If only that was the extent of our encounter. Unfortunately, the unlikely pair wandered the Cu Chi park a few steps behind, and eventually became the only other people to be paired with our guide through the tunnels.
We were led through the forest by an unassuming Vietnamese man, decked out in green uniform pants, shirt and even a matching, floppy hat. As we walked from the road deep into Vietnam’s thick growth, the guide detailed his father’s involvement in the American War. Deep in the trees we found ourselves sitting in a small shelter watching nothing more than a Vietnamese propaganda film detailing the peaceful village life before the Americans brutally and unjustly attacked. The images were horrifying. Smiling Vietnamese women and children marched through the fields relentlessly opening fire on American troops. The old black and white film even went so far as to tell the tale of an innocent young girl turned war-hardened hero who single handedly murdered dozens of US soldiers with a smile. “She likes to kill Americans,” the video pronounced. “She kill more Americans than many other soldiers,” the video went on repeating, but each time in a varying manner of broken English.
The Israeli let out another round of raucous laughter this time pointing at Dan and me and shouting, “Look what you American’s did!” I don’t know if I was more put off by his obnoxious, rude and downright disrespectful comments or the bizarrely joyful undertone of the film. Each and every bloody encounter was met by smiles, and the film painted a picture of a community that, despite a ruthless and bloody battle, was still filled with laughter and joy.
Feeling uneasy after seeing the one-sided propaganda being spread to each and every visitor who tours the tunnels we again set off on winding, dusty trails deeper into the woods. “I don’t know why America has to play world police,” the young girl from Holland remarked, “I think each country should be left to handle themselves.” “Sure, that would work in a global utopia,” I thought to myself while biting my tongue.
If anything, this journey has opened my eyes to the geo-political game as a necessary evil. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just mind our own business? Absolutely. Unfortunately, that line of simplistic and naive thinking is out of touch. There has always been war, and there will always be war. There are global powers that use weaker countries to play a dirty game, but as long as countries jockey for global position, and they always will, there is no escaping involvement in foreign politics and policy. Maybe that’s an elitist American attitude, or maybe it’s not. “Look where we would be if the US didn’t help us,” the girl then blurted out, possibly sensing my agitation. “Exactly,” I thought as I wandered on.
Moments later, our quirky, happy little guide stopped suddenly and began to tap his foot vigorously on the ground. He dropped to his knees, his sun-darkened hands searching frantically for something beneath the dry dirt and leaves covering the forest floor. The heavy thud of his tapping hands suddenly hollowed. “Ah ha,” he exclaimed as he lifted a small metal covering from the ground. A gasp from the group, which had expanded slightly now with the addition of several other tourists, let our guide know we were impressed. “In you go,” he proclaimed as he pointed to the small, square opening in the ground.
I was hesitant. I’m adventurous, yes, but small, dark and dank spaces are not necessarily my thing – especially when you’re forced to crawl on your hands and knees to get from one side of the tunnels to the other. Dan, however, immediately lowered himself into the ground. With his hands over his head he wriggled his way down into the darkness. As he crawled through the passageway, I followed his voice to small mound where his fingers miraculously appeared through a circular hole once used by the Viet Cong as a lookout.
Moments later, I dropped down into the darkness as well. As I waddled my way toward a small bunker, a series of shrieks resonated off the walls of the musty tunnel. Another visitor had brushed a colony of sleeping bats. The usually nocturnal animals flapped through the tunnel and into my face as they made an effort to pass between my head and the mud-caked roof. Revolted I moved forward through the dimly lit space..the sweat now pouring down my face.
It only took seconds for me to grasp the gravity of living beneath the ground to avoid a constant barrage of savage attacks. While I may not have understood the Vietnam War as my parents generation did, which suffered the wrath of the draft, the death of friends and family members and the horrific images flashed each night on the evening news, I had learned a decent amount about what happened in Vietnam both in school and from my family. But, if you didn’t live during the time of the Vietnam War, nothing can help you comprehend the vicious nature of the fighting from the Vietnamese perspective more than the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum.
As we crawled deeper into the tunnels the space became even more limited and the air thick with must. Each tunnel led to a different room – one used as a kitchen, one used as a medical center, one used for living quarters and one used as a Viet Cong command center. When we finally rose from beneath the damp soil we were led through the thick trees and past traps used to capture American troops.
A strange feeling sank into the pit of my stomach as the brutality of the war was becoming even more clear. While the photos in history books portray the ferocity of the fighting, nothing prepares you for standing on the same ground where blood was once spilled or actually peering into a trap used to kill American troops. I couldn’t help but imagine soldiers lying helplessly in the deep holes cut into the soil, their bodies skewered by the makeshift spikes reaching from the earth toward the sky. This isn’t typical of modern warfare, but instead a point of pride for the Vietnamese who considered themselves aces of guerrilla warfare tactics. Unfortunately, that equated to one of the most brutal wars ever fought.
We could not escape the images of horror as we eventually moved from the Cu Chi Tunnels to the War Remnants Museum back in the heart of Saigon. The only reprieve from the solemn day came to us in the form of a young Vietnamese girl on the public bus back into the city. Her efforts to strike up a conversation with us in English were supplemented by an English teacher who heard our broken exchange and moved to a seat nearby to help us communicate.
Overjoyed to have simply conversed successfully with two Americans, the young girl snapped photos of us with her brother’s old cell phone and us of her with our camera. Amid learning of the atrocities committed during the war, which remains fresh in the minds of many, it was surreal to develop such a simple relationship based upon us trying to learn about the Vietnamese culture and her trying to learn about the Americans on the bus.
The euphoria from our new friendship quickly faded as we walked into the War Remnants Museum. We didn’t know what to expect but had been told it was a “must see” when in Ho Chi Minh City. In all honesty, as far as museums go it was unimpressive yet somehow extremely powerful. Is it anti-American? Yes. Would you expect it not to be?
A plethora of anti-Amiercan war propaganda posters fill the first floor. It seems the Vietnamese dug up just about any piece of writing or advertisement that supported their cause including posters from other communist republics like Cuba and tacked them to the walls in an effort to drive home the global opposition to the war.
The second floor covers the basics and boasts the famous photos of naked children running from flames set by American soldiers or their bombs and the images of the mangled bodies of men and women tossed into piles without dignity to be buried without proper customs. It’s heart wrenching, sickening and downright ruthless. Yet, there is very little mention or photos of how Vietnamese soldiers tortured and killed Americans – somehow the other side of the war never found a place in Vietnam’s history books. In fact, at the famous “Hanoi Hilton” in Hanoi, Vietnam photos adorning the walls show how well American POWs were treated. The pictures show smiling soldiers decorating a Christmas tree, opening mail from home, playing basketball in the courtyard and cooking holiday meals – all acts accompanied by plenty of smiles.
Still, it was the top floor of the War Remnants Museum where eventually I turned my back to the atrocious images and instead found a seat outside. Here, the photos of Agent Orange victims hang hauntingly on the wall. While not meant to kill, injure or deform, the result of the American chemicals used during the war as a defoliant was horrific.
For those lacking a basic knowledge of the Vietnam War or with no direct connection to the fighting, the War Remnants Museum is enough to make you believe the United State’s actions were nothing more than unprovoked savagery. However, for those who understand the deep controversy surrounding the US invasion of Vietnam, whether they agree or disagree, it’s painfully apparent the information portrayed is one-sided and anti-American. But then again, wouldn’t you teach visitors the same if you were fiercely attacked on your own soil, forced to defend your families and your way of life.
Without going into personal opinions on the war, it’s sufficient enough to say traveling through Vietnam has given me a new perspective and helped me to better understand the ferocity of the fighting (along with supplement research detailing the US side afterward). As much as the negative impact of the war is touted throughout Vietnam, the positive impact of Bill Clinton’s decision to renew Vietnam-American relations and help open the country to economic trade and opportunity is praised as well. Clinton remains a hero of sorts in their eyes.
Still, the Vietnam War will forever be known as the American War in Vietnam, and aside from their anti-American war sites, the Vietnamese welcome American tourists into their country and treat them with the utmost respect. If it weren’t for our visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, it would be difficult to find any evidence of the once bad blood between Vietnam and the United States. The war will never be forgotten, but as generations pass the relations between the two may be strengthened not weakened.
Our remaining encounters in Ho Chi Minh City and the heart the Saigon were wonderful. While many of the people we turned to for help spoke absolutely no English, unfurling our map and pointing was enough incentive for them to help us. Those who did speak English usually told us of their family living in the states and asked questions about where we were from and how we liked Vietnam. If you’ve previously heard the Vietnamese can often be short or gruff, you’ve heard wrong. We never found a person who wasn’t willing to help or who treated us with disrespect – it was quite the opposite. For the most part, they love their country and welcome visitors, even Americans, with open arms.