Posted by: kim | July 30, 2007

Mister Binh and the Cu Chi tunnels

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Vietnam has been so heavily scarred by war (it was essentially at war from 1860-1980) that you can not go a day without reminders, and no more so than on the tourist trail.

We spent a sapping afternoon at the War Remnants Museum. It is the most popular tourist site in Vietnam. The photographs of agent orange victims, of tortured villagers, of destroyed schools in and after the Vietnam war make you feel sick to your core. The most disturbing are those of the kids born with agent orange deformities .These kids fathers were farm workers in the period that the US dropped agent orange defoliant to clear the jungle. There are grotesque grisly photographs of trophy corpses, shredded bodies, and even jars of pickled fetuses. (No pictures, sorry!). There were hundreds of tourists in the museum but it was the quietest museum I’ve ever been in. Outside, enormous unexploded bombs stand as horrible sculptures. All visitors appeared to be very moved by the experience.

Next day to the Cu Chi tunnels. We’ve already written about the Vinh Moc tunnels near the DMZ where villagers hid from the war. The Cu Chi tunnels are completely different. These tunnels lie just 60km from Saigon and were a vital part of the Viet Cong war effort. At 260km long, they were a cunning method to sabotage nearby US bases, to facilitate guerilla warfare, to meet and plan, and to provide supplies. Incredibly the tunnels are only 1.3m high and 60cm wide.

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It’s not particularly easy to travel independently in Vietnam. As the place is overrun with tourists it is far easier to tag along with a cheap tour group than do it on your own. $7 will get you a 7 hour tour. The price is being forced to listen to a tour guide’s spiel. This time the guide was mildly interesting, at least at first. Vietnamese born, he left Saigon in 1968 aged 19 to join the US army in the US. Shipped back to commence his tour of duty in 1970, his mission was to rescue MIA soldiers on the Mekong river. After the war he stayed put in Saigon, was sent to “reunification camp” and these days is a tour guide. Some of his tale seemed a bit fanciful, especially as he has had 17 years to hone the story, but it kept out interest for most of the time. The crowd seemed to like that his name was Mister Binh (Mister Bean). I find it difficult to believe that after recounting his tale every day for 17 years he uncontrollably sheds a tear at 9.27am as he recounts his personal chronology, and yet more difficult to believe he was the one who took down the last US flag in Saigon. Nevertheless, he’s lived an action packed life.

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As with all these tours you make a stop to buy souvenirs so that the guide can collect a commision. This time at the “Handicapped Handicrafts Shop”. Next time you get dressed or wash your clothes you should look at the label as chances are the clothes were made in Vietnam by workers earning a pittance. Workers at the HHS looked happy enough, maybe because the money goes more directly to them. It’s hard to establish the truth but Vietnam is said to look after its war wounded and agent orange children. All over the cities you see amputees in specially made mobile road-ready wheelchairs that look like railroad pushcars from a cartoon. But there are also hundreds of billboards over Vietnam that have apparently propaganda messages about how good the government is, with soldiers hugging children and the like (I have pictures of these, I hope to be able to post when I’m in a more modern place).

 With one thousand visitors a day, the tunnels themselves are a major attraction. You are shuffled around in minibus sized groups of 20 so the place does not actually feel crowded as or even busy. First you watch a really poor video that shows the heroic vietnamese girls fighting in trenches, the video is so bad that I’d recommend sitting outside and resting for 10 minutes. Then you walk through a series of spots in the forest that show aspects of the tunnel. There is a trap to catch sniffer dogs. There is a display of the various booby traps laid inside the tunnels to inflict pain on fat american invaders, but best of all there is a reconstructed tunnel entrance to show how well hidden they were. You can try out the entrance for yourself but even skinny me would have trouble getting inside.

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Next on to the shooting range where you can try out AK-47s, M16s, and so on for $1.30 a bullet. As Mr Binh noted before we arrived, it is “particularly popular with British tourists”. The 19 year old gap year kids each blew away 30-40 dollars on bullets. Everyone else waited just 10 metres away while they got their testosterone fix. Even this was educational as we got to smell and hear what the scene must have been like as 19 year old soldiers killed each other decades ago.

Finally to the tunnels themselves. It’s left to last as some may find them disappointing. If you are above average size there is no way you could fit and several of our group opted out. Kim and I managed to go only the first 40 metres of 100 before escaping. I was too tall to walk bent over and had to shuffle forward on my haunches in 40C heat. Many of those who shot guns felt they had to go the full distance and emerged at the recreated hospital covered in dirt. Humourously a posh English kid who had no troubles shooting an M16 was too scared to go into the tunnels (“I don’t like confined spaces”). A fun day with interesting sites that only just beat the nuisance value of a bus tour and Mister Binh.

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We’re currently at the border of Vietnam and Cambodia after a few days of unbelievably beautiful experiences and unbelievably awful bureaucracy. Like all border towns, Chau Doc has an otherwordly frontier feel about it. If all goes to plan we’ll be in Phnom Penh in 24 hours. Tonight is another night in a $10 hotel on the Mekong River hiding from 30 bazillion mosquitoes huddled under a mosquito net.

– rob

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Responses

  1. Anyone has contact info on Mr Bean so we can also book a tour with him?
    Thanx


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