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Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Crystal Symphony Cruise Journal

Memories of War - Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum of Saigon

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American tank captured during Vietnam War

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels (c) Linda Garrison
We drove around the city first, seeing many sites that were famous from the war. The old US Embassy building, site of the photo of the helicopters rescuing people from the top of the building in April 1975, has been torn down, and the US consulate (not an embassy since Hanoi is the capital) rebuilt in its place. I had forgotten that the USA did not have diplomatic relations with Vietnam until 1995, and we had a trade embargo against Vietnam from 1975 to 1994. Our first stop off the bus was at the War Remnants Museum, which was previously called the Museum of American War Crimes. We were not supposed to go to the museum, but some of the passengers on the bus vehemently wanted to go, even though the Crystal description of our shore excursion ("Memories of War") specifically said we would not get off the bus except at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

I could tell that our guide was reluctant to let us loose in the museum, and he cautioned that we would find many of the exhibits offensive. He called his supervisor who approved the short visit. Many of the exhibits, signs, and photos were very one-sided and offensive, and they were all labeled in English, Vietnamese, and other languages. We just took the propaganda with a grain of salt, although much of the info (like the Agent Orange problems in Vietnam) was disturbing. They also had many shocking photos, many of which I remember from the 1960's and 1970's. I don't think anyone on our bus was a Vietnam veteran, and I'm sure they would have been outraged. The museum certainly made one think about the stupidity and horrors of all wars. Sad and sobering. I felt a little weird walking through the museum; it was almost like the Vietnam visitors were staring at us for our reaction. I was even more uncomfortable than I had been at the Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, maybe because we were on the losing side this time.

Over 400 thousand people visit the War Remnants Museum each year. I wonder how many recognize that the stories and photos displayed there might not be the whole story. Not many, I'm afraid. No wonder Americans have such a bad reputation overseas.

After 30 minutes at the museum, we re-boarded the bus for the 1.5 hour ride to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which are located about 25 miles NW of Saigon. We passed by the former American air base (now airport) and drove along a wide interstate-like divided highway. Our driver drove very slowly because of the fear of getting stopped by the police. Our guide confirmed what we had heard in Da Nang -- traffic cops have a great job and pocket much of their "fines". Khoa was embarrassed to even discuss the corruption. The median of the highway had many red banners with either the red star of Vietnam (like their flag) or the hammer and sickle of the Communist party. The country was getting ready to celebrate the April 30 victory in the American War. I was glad we would be gone. The bus passed by huge rubber plantations, and each tree had a little cup attached where the sap flows. The trees were much taller than expected, and the guide reminded us that most of the area had been regrown in the past 40 years.

The soil in the Cu Chi area is very hard clay, facilitating tunnel building with no wooden supports. The miles of tunnels were all dug by hand, and up to 6,000 people lived, ate, and slept in the 3 levels of tunnels (5 feet to 30 feet deep) between 1965 and 1975. The tunnels were originally built during the French war of the mid-1950s, but were used again in the American War, with some residents living there much of the 10 years. The tunnels had a series of traps, doors, and junctions. The map looked much like an ant farm. The residents didn't stay in the tunnels all the time, but since the land above the tunnels had been defoliated with agent orange or other defoliants, it was safer to stay underground. They showed a mid-1960's propaganda movie (in black and white) praising the many "heros" of Cu Chi who killed Americans. As we toured the above ground area, we saw many hidden tunnel entrances and air vents. We also saw examples of the many Viet Cong booby traps used to kill and maim American and South Vietnam troops. According to our guide, at one time about 50 percent of the South Vietnamese were fighting with the Viet Cong and the Northern armies. The whole area reminded me of that John Wayne movie, Green Berets.

One other interesting tidbit. There's a shooting range near the tunnels, so the entire time we were walking around, we could hear nearby gunfire. Certainly added something to the atmosphere! We also saw many 6-8 inch millipedes or centipedes, but thankfully no snakes. My brave mom was one of the hardy souls who ventured into one of the first level tunnels, inching her way along the dark, narrow passageway for about 20-30 yards. Two guys in the group went down another level, but most were content with the first level or not at all (like me.) I gave mom no sympathy the next day when she was complaining of sore thigh muscles from squatting as she walked through the narrow, low space.

We left the tunnels for the short ride to a nearby restaurant, enjoying a variety of foods in a pre-set menu served family style. Mom and I got lucky--3 of the people at our table were vegetarians and two were Jewish and didn't eat pork (a Vietnamese favorite). So, we had plenty to eat. We re-boarded the bus about 1:30 for the ride back to the ship, arriving a little after 3 pm. The ship was supposed to sail at 3 pm, but waited on us.

Sailaway from Ho Chi Minh City
We had a glass of champagne at the sailaway party and enjoyed some tea and hot scones while sailing down the Saigon River and back to the sea. A shower felt great, and we went to the bar and listened to Colin Salter, the excellent pianist/singer whose show was devoted to Billy Joel. He is terrific.

Dinner was Dover sole for me and pasta with lobster for mom. Both were delicious. The show in the main lounge was Michel Bell and his pianist wife Catherine Matejka. Michel has a marvelous deep voice and is quite entertaining. Catherine is an excellent director and pianist. They make a good team.

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