Tourists turning tunnel rats at the Cu Chi Tunnels

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Our guide Thong points to the ground, which is covered with grass and leaves: „That’s the entrance to one of the Cu Chi tunnels. But there is no more tunnel there today, just a hole in the ground.“ A young man in uniform strolls over, lifts a hidden concrete board to reveal the tiny-looking hole, lowers himself in and closes the lid with a longish photo pose. When he reappears, everybody claps their hands and then we, the tourists, can try. A slim girl and a young man stand in the „tunnel entrance“ – be it original or recreated – and pose for photos. A sturdy, slightly older woman even closes the lid over her head. „Russian partisan!,“ she cries coming out again, and flashes a victory sign.

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At the Shooting Range

We walk along a jungle-like forest path, where we pass a few life-sized displays of puppets in Vietcong uniforms making traps or sawing unexploded bombs in order to get the gunpowder, and then: a captured American tank. „You can climb up to take photos,“ Thong encourages us. The next stop is the Shooting Range – M16 or AK46, one bullet 35 000 Dong, almost 2 dollars. Minimum 10 bullets. Those who aren’t interested spend the break looking at the merchandise: Vietcong T-Shirts, rubber sandals made from car tyres, ball pens made from bullet casings.

The tourist tunnel

The next stop on the tour is a walk through a tunnel, but not a real one. „This one was made for tourists, twice the size of the original Vietcong tunnels,“ Thong explains. „The Americans never went into the tunnels, hehe, the would have got stuck! They used Mexicans trained as “tunnel rats”, and quite often if they found an entrance they just threw grenades into them…”

Walking bent overt through a low tunnel, sometimes moving up or down one level, evokes some strange adventure in a theme park. And of course it is a theme park of sorts. The recreated tunnel could be anywhere – especially since Thong doesn’t even bother to explain why this particular area (between Saigon and the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail) was strategically so important to the Vietnamese communists to infiltrate whole village populations and make them risk their lives fighting against overwhelming US forces. After the tunnel we get some “Vietcong Food” – barley tea and some manioc served at long wooden tables in the forest. At the end of the tour, a 1960s Vietcong propaganda film is shown without any introduction or explanation.

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Cu Chi tunnels: an army-operated fun park

Turning the Cu Chi tunnels, a site of so much fighting and death, into an army-operated fun park for tourists left us with an uneasy feeling. Not to mention the irony of the communist victors operating a very capitalist tour business. Maybe it is because we are from Germany with all its solemn sites of remembrance, and used to dealing with such memorials in a quite particular way.

But then, a Columbian friend told us how shocked she was that the Pablo Escobar house has been turned into a tourist business, where gap year travellers pose in the drug baron’s bathroom, and his family earn even more money from it, legally this time. Thus we wonder how other tourists feel in the tunnel area where two thirds of the fighters and thousands of local villagers died, and just how awkward American Vietnam veterans may feel. And do the young Vietnamese soldiers who teach tourists how to use a Kalashnikov think of their relatives who died in the war? Or are we too German and too serious about this?

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