Thursday, 25 June 2009

Back to Saigon (II) - The Cu Chi Tunnels

As we stayed in Saigon three days, we had some time to go sightseeing. One of the places I did not visit last time I was in Saigon were the so-called Cu Chi tunnels: remnants of an impressive network of tunnels dug and used by Viet Cong guerrillas during the war. When I travel, I usually visit as many historical sites as I can - but trust me, when you have visited Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng Prison, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, and the War Remnants Museum in Saigon within a week's time, as I had, you reach a point where you just cannot stand the confrontation with hatred and suffering anymore. Therefore, at the time, I decided to skip the tunnels. However, that was four months ago. This time, I did want to visit them, if only because I still have the feeling I need to study more about the war in order to really understand this country. Remarkably, Nhung had never been to the tunnels either, so we decided to go there now, together with two of our friends.

'There is no public transport to the Cu Chi tunnels,' the Lonely Planet stated. 'The only way to get there is by joining a tour group, or going by bus to Cu Chi and getting a motorbike taxi from there.' We opted for our own (borrowed) motorbikes instead - first of all because it was cheaper, but also because it gave us the freedom to take as much time as we wanted. The trip was nice, although it lasted longer than expected. But when we arrived at the tunnels, the first thing we noticed was the public bus stopping at the bus stop. My God, I knew Lonely Planet authors are often lazy people who don't do their homework, and throughout my trip in Southeast Asia I have been confronted with much incorrect information (especially in Indonesia) - but this really is a serious mistake. Obviously, they had just asked a local travel agent, and not bothered investigating the matter themselves. You may get away with that in most countries (especially places with objective, state-owned tourist information offices), but in Vietnam, it simply does not work. Of course travel agents will lie and tell you there is no public transport - they want you to join their tour! But please, don't copy-paste such claims to your guidebook without verifying them first, especially if that guidebook is the most-read guidebook in the world... Lonely Planet, this was the last straw. I won't buy your books anymore. I am done with it.

Anyway, I will write about the problems created by Lonely Planet and its near-monopoly more extensively some other time. Now, let me say something about the Cu Chi tunnels. As said, they were part of an impressive underground infrastructure, used by communist guerrilla fighters during the American war. The tunnels were extremely difficult to find, and the guerrillas, who were well acquainted with the area, almost impossible to fight. They could escape enemies by disappearing into one of the narrow tunnels; they could shoot them through small, nearly invisible holes in the ground; they caught them in traps with bamboo spikes; and they placed landmines all around. Houses, clinics, schools, meeting rooms, kitchens: they were all (partly) underground, and covered with leaves and branches, so they could not be seen from the air. It all looks quite impressive, and visiting the place makes you understand better why the technologically superior American army lost the war.

Unfortunately though, that is as far as understanding goes, due to the complete lack of any decent explanation of the historical background, and the hostility displayed towards foreign visitors. Before I went to Vietnam, my image of the war was quite one-sided: the Americans were the aggressors, the Vietnamese people the victims, so I thought. In the past couple of months, I have come to realise that reality was a bit more complicated than that; and, after having visited the Cu Chi tunnels, most of the sympathy I had towards the communist side has disappeared. Let's state things clearly: the communists were not the noble freedom-fighters our parents' generation wanted them to be. They were as obsessed with power as their opponents; they did not see their enemies as human beings, and regularly violated the Geneva convention; they did not hesitate to ruthlessly murder other Vietnamese whose ideas they considered subversive; and, while claiming to save poor peasants from tyranny, they mainly employed them for their own benefit, without caring about their safety - for instance, by having them dismantle American bombs and turn them into landmines (the main victims of which would be the peasants themselves).

There are different ways of telling history, and they have different purposes. Nationalist tellings of history generally try to evoke feelings of admiration and pride for the 'heroic' behaviour of the nation in the past. They are based on essentialist notions of 'we' and 'they', linked to a strong good-bad dichotomy. They re-employ and advocate mythic wartime values as self-sacrifice, heroism, comradeship and masculinity. They are influential in the construction of an imagined collective community, and, in the process, the construction of otherness. In times of social uncertainty, they may be employed to mobilise people against a common enemy, either real or imaginary. As such, they are potentially powerful political tools.

However, if we tell history with the purpose of actually learning something, of trying to understand why things happened the way they happened, and preventing similar mistakes in the future, we need to overcome such Disney-ish notions of the 'good' versus the 'bad'. We need to listen to different, conflicting stories, to understand that there is no single truth. There is suffering on both sides, always. In a way, we are all victims, and we are all aggressors, especially in war situations. As such, our destinies are fundamentally interconnected. No peace can ever be achieved without the recognition of the humanity of the Other, and the legitimacy of his stories, even though they may be different from our own. It is a fundamental Buddhist insight that all beings are mutually dependent, and there is no good and bad in the absolute sense of the word. However, in Vietnam - Buddhist though it is - these insights seem completely absent from the historical narrative.

History is never one-sided, but in Vietnam it continues to be presented as such. A simplistic good-bad dichotomy - demonising the other and their motivations and actions, while glorifying the 'heroic' violence committed by the own group, portrayed as the 'victims' but also as the victors of the war - continues to be the paradigm on which the Vietnamese historical narrative is based. In many ways, Vietnam has completely changed during the past thirty-five years - but the way the war is depicted remains static and unchallenged. That may serve to justify the continuing authoritarianism of the 'communist' regime, but it does not exactly contribute to understanding, let alone the acceptance of difference.

In Cu Chi, xenophobia starts at the ticket booth. True, paying more than local people is quite common at most tourist sights in Southeast Asia - in this respect, Vietnam is by no means unique. Although I do not agree with it, I am used to paying twice or three times as much as they. This time, however, we (the two foreigners) had to pay more than five times as much as our Vietnamese friends (80,000 versus 15,000 dong), which really is quite a significant difference. Instead of simply admitting that this is discrimination, the difference was justified by selling us two tickets: the official entrance ticket, plus an obligatory ticket of 65,000 dong for an English tour guide. Bullshit, of course - our first tour guide did not speak a single word of English, and Nhung had to act as interpreter. We were shown several rebuilt Viet Cong houses in the jungle, complete with models of heroic guerrilla fighters. Our guide seemed to suffer from a serious lack of both knowledge and humour, which we tried to compensate by asking difficult questions (why did all communists wore black when they were working in the sun, and why did all the women have Pippi Longstocking-braids?) and posing with the models in a funny way. I admit, our behaviour may have been considered disrespectful by some, but whenever I am faced with blatant nationalist propaganda I cannot help but becoming slightly irreverent and sarcastic. Especially when I have just been charged a ridiculously high foreigner's price.

The second part of the tour, we did have a guide who spoke something more or less resembling the English language. However, apparently, he had a bad day. When we arrived at the entrance, we were asked angrily (in Vietnamese) if we 'really needed an English guide'. 'Yes please,' Nhung said, 'they paid for it.' And so we got a guide who was downright hostile to us. Maybe he just did not feel like working, and blamed us for making him do the bloody tour again. Maybe he simply hated foreigners, especially foreigners who seemed to be having a good time at a sacred place like this. We should be ashamed of our ancestors, and feel guilty, he seemed to think. In stead, we were asking blasphemous questions like 'why do these people all wear the same scarves?' (a question which is not as stupid as it seems - as elsewhere in the world (e.g., Palestine and Cambodia) the Viet Cong dressed as peasants to associate themselves with the 'common people', and a simple peasants' scarf was turned into a political symbol) and, oh my, were laughing!

We were shown a video. It was a communist propaganda video from the 1960s. The way they talked about 'the American demons' was violent and dehumanising in any respect. Proudly, they explained their fighting methods, which really were quite horrific. Peasants with big fat fake smiles were dismantling bombs and placing landmines. It was very interesting historical material, if only it had been properly introduced and explained. Shockingly, however, it was shown without any introduction whatsoever - it was the introduction. The wartime paradigm - they are the demons, the murderers who massacre as many innocent women and children as they can; we are the freedom fighters, we will save the innocent people from these demons by wiping them out, every last one of them - has remained largely unchanged, until today. No wonder xenophobia is so widespread in this country, if this is the history education most children receive.

Our tour guide showed us several of the tunnels. They really were incredibly narrow. At some point, he seemed to be getting a little less grumpy. He asked us if we wanted to try walking through a really long tunnel. Sure, why not. A malicious smile appeared on his face, but we did not give it much thought. He went inside, and we followed him. He was the only one who had light. The tunnel was about one meter high, and half a meter wide. Suddenly, when the four of us were in the tunnel, he started running. Fast. The light became weaker. I ran as fast as I possibly could in a one-meter high tunnel, and the others were quite far behind me. At some point, there was a crossing. We could either turn left or right. He had not stopped to wait for us. On the contrary, he had continued running as fast as he could. There were several turns, and I could not see him. Fortunately though, I saw some light on the right, which I followed. After a couple of minutes, I managed to reach the exit, and the others followed me. When we climbed out of the tunnel, he looked angry and disappointed. Then I realised. He went so fast, as he wanted us to be at the crossing without knowing which way to go. He wanted us to get lost, and become afraid. Sure, we would have found our way out eventually - but he wanted us to have a hard time before. Bloody foreigners, we should have learned our lesson. No one gets away with making fun of the holy communist war.

The tour was over. 'Finish', he said, without looking at us. He walked away.

We went the other way. We visited the temple for the victims of the war (only the victims who were 'right', of course - what's new). It was a giant temple, with an impressive gate and dito pagoda. Size is power, after all. When I entered, I expected to see a Buddhist altar. However, there was no Buddha to be seen, nor any other deity - apart from the head, several meters high and covered with gold, of the highest God himself: Ho Chi Minh. It was civic religion in all its megalomania. I tried to suppress the feeling of nausea that was coming up.

If we don't want history to repeat itself, we need to find a different way of dealing with it. There is no good and bad. There are fear, hatred, hope, power, suffering, powerlessness, life and death - and they are universal. The aggressor is a victim, and vice versa - that is inherent to war. If we want to learn from history, we need to listen to different, competing stories, without judging - and acknowledge their legitimacy. We need to understand that there will always be competing stories, but the question is: will we use them as reasons to fight each other, or will we accept, even cherish them.

Sadly, at this place, the only story we were allowed to hear was a decades-old declaration of war. No place for suffering, for pity, and for compassion. No place for humanity.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Downright rudeness in a consulate. I can only imagine what she would have been like had she been a locally hired anti-cross-culture relationships person...

    Congrats though for the visa! Ready to roll now!