It’s hard for a modern tourist in Vietnam to imagine the horrors of war that happened in such a beautiful country – not one war, but three, against France (1946-1954), America (1965-1975) and China (February-March 1979).
It’s important for a Western visitor to adjust away from the conventional mind-set of films such as Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and even Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), in which the Americans are the “white hats” and the Viet Cong are the villains.
The Củ Chi Tunnels tourist site lies 1½ hours’ drive from the centre of Saigon, yet this labyrinth of tunnels stretches for at least 75 miles and connects with the Saigon River.
On the ground at Củ Chi it makes more sense to take the local viewpoint, “Why are these bastards bombing my village?” The ingenuity and the endurance of the six thousand Viet Cong guerrillas are astonishing: the site shows the contrivances to hide access and ventilation to the tunnels, and the fiendishly clever man-traps that were devised to deter American troops on the ground.
A man demonstrates the manufacture of sandals from American truck tyres, deliberately designed with the brand-name upside down, to persuade troops that the footprints went in the opposite direction to the way the wearer was walking.
There is a below-ground kitchen which emits no smoke to its surroundings.
And we were invited to sample the typical Viet Cong diet of cassava (customarily used as cattle feed in Vietnam) and thin, unappetising tea.
I declined the invitation to traverse a short stretch of tunnel, suitably enlarged for Western tourists: I decided that crawling on all fours in a claustrophobic space in 30°C temperatures wasn’t necessary to appreciate the rigours of fighting the Americans.
But I’m glad I’ve stood on the ground where these things happened, felt the steamy heat, and seen a sanitised but realistic display of artefacts that connect to the reality of war.