An American in Vietnam: Part 2

Hoang showing us an entrance to the tunnels

Hoang showing us an entrance to the tunnels

The following day we made the trek to the Chu Chi tunnels. The intricacy of the tunnels the Vietnamese created to evade the Americans were nothing but impressive. These tunnels represented true guerrilla warfare. A complete living area underneath the ground that allowed soldiers to move silently, evade the American troops, and defeat them with booby traps and landmines. It was clearly bloody on both sides, but the military strategy was impressive: move underground and disappear making it nearly impossible to track and defeat the resistance in the lush landscape and dense forest. We arrived early, allowing us to get a feel for the site before the mass of tourists showed up. Overall, I found the site very informative. Between the demos of how the tunnels worked, to the information our guide (Hoang) gave us, to seeing the everyday living of the people during the war, I appreciated the history and wartime strategy.

Until I heard the first gunshot.

In my group of ten, I’m pretty sure all of us were startled by the shot. Some of us physically jumped when the shot was fired, some just looked around wondering where it had come from. I felt like it was right next to us. Hoang said it’s normal, and moved us on. He didn’t seemed phased by this, and at that point we trusted Hoang 100% (he was one of the most amazing tour guides I have ever had). We moved on to the next demo, continued to learn about the way of living in the tunnels, and then more gunshots fired. I didn’t understand why this was happening. I had no idea that right around the corner was a shooting range where you could pay to try the artillery from the war--as a tourist attraction. The gunshots from the range became more frequent and louder.

Before you get to the shooting range and concession stand, there are replicas and demonstrations of how the different kinds of Viet Kong booby traps worked on American soldiers. After watching each demo, you can’t help but notice the mural on the back wall that depicts American soldiers spurting blood because they have been caught, or the framed black and white pictures of Americans who were trapped in them.

That was my breaking point. The gunshots. The booby traps. The anti-American sentiments. Did I mention the gunshots? I have a vivid imagination and I imagined what it was like for those 19 year old boys who fought for the US and how scared they must have been running around afraid of traps, the enemy, and guns. It was just too much.

I felt like I walked away with PTSD, and I can’t imagine what how our vets felt. At the same time, I know that the Vietnamese did what they had to to protect themselves. It was a push pull in my brain to be able to keep moving and not just stand there and cry because I didn’t know what to think or do.

We continued through the displays, and by the end I think Hoang felt our anxiety and disgust with the shooting range. We skipped the films, and moved pretty quickly through the end of the path. At that point I was completely disassociated and just followed the person in front of me. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be a soldier on either side, what the American war vets saw and experienced, or what it was like seeing your birthday picked to be added to a draft number on national television in 1969. I can’t imagine what the Vietnamese who were fighting for their country felt, or those who were innocent and non-fighters just trying to take care of their families and survive. Saying it was tough doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings and thoughts.

When I’m asked “how did it feel to be an American in Vietnam?” I think: My country did this, but so did the country of Vietnam. It takes two to create and sustain a war and as an individual from the U.S. I am not solely responsible for this. I was born more than 10 years after this war was considered over. This is not my individual fault, but my country was a part of this, even though it was a highly disputed war at the time, and obviously still is. There were no clear winners, but there were clear victims on both sides. But, I am not responsible just because I am American.

I walked away disappointed and stunned because based on my past experiences, these kinds of exhibits and museums preach understanding and peace through a recount of an unbiased history that is based on facts and primary source documentation. These museums are always incredibly hard to visit, often times raw and terrible, but the theme of peace is always clear and prominent. “Never again” is what you walk away thinking. I did not walk away from either the War Remnants Museum or the Chu Chi tunnels with either of those messages. Instead, I walked away confused, enraged, hurt, and overwhelmingly sad.  

As a tourist, I feel that regardless of how hard this experience was, I needed to go. I needed to see history according to the Vietnamese. As an American it’s important for us not to forget what happened in Vietnam and to see it from another perspective, no matter how hard it is. At the end of the day either side you see it from, war is war and no one ever wins.

Bottom line: Go. Go to these attractions and take away something positive and constructive. Despite all of the bad things that happened there, it is our duty as tourists to bring the message of Never Again back to our home countries, no matter where that is. The message should be the same: May Peace Prevail on Earth.