A conflict still very real in Vietnam
As I shuffled underground in the darkness along a tiny, cramped tunnel it was a brief insight into the life of a Viet Cong guerilla.
My journey of just a few metres along the 75-mile network of the infamous Cu Chi tunnels was over in a matter of minutes but as I ducked out at the first available exit I was notably relieved to be back in the fresh air and sunshine.
It was mind-blowing to think that this pitch black, claustrophobic existence was a permanent reality for 16,000 Vietnamese over a period of 20 years during the Vietnam War. We arrived at the Cu Chi tunnels war memorial park on a coach trip from chaotic city Ho Chi Minh.
Inside the memorial park we were treated to a black and white propaganda video with jubilant commentary praising Vietnam’s ‘American Killer Heroes’. I fidgeted uncomfortably next to my American travel companions.
Our guide, a tall, skinny guy in his early 20s, also added his own explanation of how US soldiers were unable to get into the small trapdoors that served as entrances to the tunnels.
'They got stuck because of their pot bellies from eating too many hamburgers,' he grinned. Hmmm.
As we walked around the area it was hard not to feel melancholy as you thought about a war that caused so much misery to all involved. There was the bleak existence of a community forced to live in dense darkness underground for years on end with 10,000 dying due to warfare and ill-health.
The tour also gave a horrific glimpse of the brutal world the US soldiers faced as they fought in an unfamiliar place littered with cruel booby traps that were used to painfully maim and kill.
As I reflected on the terrible history of the region, the sound of gunfire rung out, causing my heart to race. There amongst the trees was a firing range where tourists could pay to fire an AK57 machine gun. In area where so many died it seemed a little distasteful.
An hour from the memorial park we stopped at a factory and saw first-hand some of the disabilities still affecting the Vietnamese people some 40 years after the US military sprayed 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliant, known as Agent Orange, on dense foliage in the area.
The chemical contaminant dioxin was intended to destroy the forest cover and crops during the conflict but has since been linked to linked to cancers, birth defects and other diseases.
The Red Cross of Vietnam estimates that up to one million people are believed to be disabled or have health problems due to Agent Orange exposure.
Studies have also indicated that US veterans who served in the south have increased rates of cancer and skin and respiratory disorders.
It is welcome news that in August this year the US pledged to start cleaning up several Vietnam sites still polluted by dioxin and to help the country’s disabled in a program expected to cost $43 million over four years.
For now, those with disabilities are employed in government-funded factories, like the one we visited, to make trinkets and art.
The route to the gift shop runs through the factory and it seems very magnanimous when workers stop to smile for Western tourists’photos.