Michelle Baran visited Vietnam on a tour operated by National Geographic with G Adventures. Her second dispatch follows.
You could feel the mood get a bit tense in the screening room where we were directed to watch a film about the Viet Cong before proceeding with our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels.
Vietnam's Communist guerilla forces used the extensive network of underground pathways and quarters during the Vietnam War to combat the better-armed Americans and South Vietnamese.
The black-and-white video presented an overview of the Viet Cong's motives and tactics, repeatedly reminding visitors how proficient they were at "killing Americans."
It was the first sense I got that this visit might be more awkward than I had imagined. In 2011, I visited the Xeo Quyt Forest outside of Cao Lanh, Vietnam, a former Viet Cong base, complete with underground bunkers tucked into a lush jungle setting that was a mix of stunning natural landscapes combined with informative and objective insights into the Viet Cong. I assumed the Cu Chi tunnels, located about 30 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, would be a similarly enlightening experience.
Visitors to the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam are first invited to watch a short film about the Viet Cong's motives and tactics. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
After finishing the film about the cunning Viet Cong (whatever your opinion about the Vietnam War, there's no denying that the Viet Cong were incredibly resourceful and effective), we started our tour of the tunnels, at which point we heard occasional gunfire in the background. Was this supposed to get us into a wartime frame of mind? Things were getting increasingly weird.
The exhibits started out innocently enough, with a small manhole camouflaged by ground leaves to show how the Viet Cong hid from enemies. A Cu Chi tunnels employee showed us how it worked then asked if any volunteers from the group wanted to try. Okay, fair enough, a put-yourselves-in-their-shoes experience.
The Viet Cong created booby traps that would impale U.S. soldiers. Photo Credit: TW photo by Michelle Baran
Then we continued to more gruesome displays, a series of booby traps. American soldiers would end up on a medieval torture-chamber-style apparatus that was meant to impale them in various ways. Thankfully, no one was asked to test these out, but the awkwardness meter was on the rise as we were shown one after another of these torture devices.
We passed by an abandoned U.S. tanker and mannequins depicting the Viet Cong's way of life. All the while, the gunfire continued to get louder. Finally, our local guide asked if anyone wanted to shoot a gun as we were approaching the shooting range. And thus, we discovered the source of the gunfire. No one in our group was interested, so we were instead herded through the gift shop adjacent to the range that was so intensely loud most of us practically sprinted through without stopping to look at a single item (which is often my reaction to gift shops, even those that aren't adjacent to a shooting range).
At this point, one of my fellow tour-goers came up to me and said, "This is so [messed] up." I couldn't help but agree.
Alas, it was time for the grand finale, the opportunity to crawl through the tunnels. I and other travelers from the National Geographic with G Adventures group shrugged our shoulders and with a "what the hell" attitude, did the shortest tunnel crawl that was available, about 16 feet. It oddly provided some physical and comic relief to the otherwise bizarre experience.
I am not opposed to war tourism. It informs travelers about the atrocities that happen in war.
But as I left the Cu Chi tunnels with relief, I thought that there must be a better, more tasteful way to do it. Or maybe making Americans feel awkward was the point.