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Vietnam marches on from the quagmire of war

Vestiges of the 20-year war that started this month, 64 years ago, still mar this beautiful and spirited country

Some of the tunnels at Cu Chi have been modified for tourists to crawl through.
Some of the tunnels at Cu Chi have been modified for tourists to crawl through. (Photo: Alamy)

We chose Vietnam as a holiday destination after seeing the ethereal photographs of Halong Bay and the limestone cliffs of Tam Coc, but when my friends asked me about the most memorable part of my trip, I paused briefly. Vacations are not supposed to end on a note of unease but that was my overarching feeling. At every step and every corner, we had run into traces of the war that ravaged the country—the long and brutal Vietnamese war that started this month 64 years ago, and left thousands maimed and dead.

Just outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), a guide walked us through the Cu Chi jungles that were at the heart of the guerrilla warfare. I wondered about the rabbit holes riddling the ground till the guide told us these were entrances to tunnels. Bending to scrape away the leaves, he revealed a narrow hole and invited me to crawl through. It was a tight fit as I lowered myself and hit the ground with my feet.

“It is a dead-end hole," I shouted. “Bend down, look to your sides," he answered. As I crouched at the bottom and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw two dark holes to the sides. The only way into either was by crawling on all fours. It was claustrophobic and I could not bend my body enough. Aborting the attempt, I tried to climb out—the guide and my husband had to tug me out of the narrow space.

The guide took us to another tunnel that had been modified to enable tourists to crawl through. As I came out at the other end, my heart was thumping. I couldn’t help but think of the thousands who had lived and crawled through these narrow tunnels day after day for 20 years.

The jungle is crisscrossed with hundreds of such tunnels, built three levels deep, with designated areas for cooking, eating, sleeping, sickness and even birth. They serve as reminders of the determination that enabled the guerrila fighters to survive entirely underground, while the land above was bombed.

As we walked through the jungle where handcrafted instruments of torture were displayed, I felt transported back in time. In the humid stillness, I could almost see their enemies impaled on the gruesome contraptions. The horror was real—and I could no longer differentiate between the hunter and the hunted. Watching an engrossing war documentary at the site, I was surprised to see a family leave midway. Until I heard a muttered “one-sided narrative" in an American accent.

On our last morning in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the War Remnants Museum, outside which the tanks and fighter planes captured from the Americans were on display. They were quite popular as selfie props. Inside, I was struck by the eerie silence; not one person spoke. The walls were mounted with large black and white photographs, each more graphic than the other. Maimed bodies, massacres, mass burials and bombings, all the devastation was on display. Amidst it, a wall of smiling photographs seemed incongruous. It was a collage of the overseas journalists who had lost their lives reporting on the war, but who seemed proud at having captured the truth.

I felt oppressed, each visual tearing at my sensibilities and giving rise to a raw feeling that was a mix of horror, empathy and a strong revulsion for mankind. The feeling lingered as we strolled through the brightly lit streets of Ho Chi Minh City one last time. Warm smiles greeted us everywhere, and I mentally saluted the Vietnamese for their resilience.

I was reminded of a sign at the war museum saying bi sa lay (the quagmire). While it referred to the quagmire theory about the US’ involvement in the war, to me it seemed an apt metaphor for a land that had fought hard to step out of the quagmire and march on.

Shirali Rana is a Noida-based doctor who writes on travel and social issues.

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