I joined a tour group on its way to the village of Vin Moc which was famous for its underground tunnels.
During the war, the communists had dug tunnels in various parts of Vietnam to elude the Americans and their murderous firepower. These tunnel systems were often quite elaborate, with underground hospitals, theatres, kitchens and sleeping quarters for hundreds of soldiers. The best- known tunnels on the tourist circuit were those at Cu Chi, just north of Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Minh City). But these had been modified to accommodate the physically larger tourists. The tunnels at Vin Moc were slated as being unchanged since the war ended in April 1975: they were the genuine article.
Vin Moc lay just north of the Ben Hai River. During the war the Ben Hai River formed the border between North and South Vietnam. Vin Moc’s tunnels formed a useful base from which North Vietnamese troops could find safe refuge from the American bombing raids and, launch attacks on the South.
The tour group left at 6 am that morning from the city of Hue. I joined it at 9 am when it stopped for breakfast at a town called Dong Ha where I been staying for a couple of days. As soon as I got on the bus, it was obvious that I was at least twenty years older than the other passengers: a dinosaur among a sea of youth.
For most of the way out of Dong Ha it was hilly. We drove past kilometres of squalid houses followed by rubber plantations and little farms with fields of corn and cabbage. We stopped to look at a monument dedicated to the women of North Vietnam who had fought in the war. This was at the top of a hill which during the war, was used by the Americans as a lookout post.
Then it was on to the Ben Hai River.
The tour guide, a young Vietnamese woman and clearly the product of an official communist government training course, stood next to the driver and spoke through a microphone. She recounted the story of how Vietnam came to be divided between a North and a South and how this division led to the outbreak of the Vietnam War. It was a story I knew well. In its basic outlines, it was simple enough. For around a hundred years, Vietnam was a French colony. In 1954, after ten years of murderous warfare, the Vietnamese Communists, led by their charismatic leader Ho Chi Minh inflicted a final and crushing defeat on the French at Dien Bien Phu. At an international conference held in Geneva in 1956 and attended by the U.S., the Soviet Union, France and the North Vietnam, a provisional border was drawn between a north and south along the Ben Hai River. It was agreed by all the participants at the conference, including the U.S., that this division would be temporary pending elections: the Vietnamese people would be allowed to decide the fate of their country. These elections were never held because the Americans feared – and with good reason – that a majority of the people in South Vietnam would vote for Ho Chi Minh. So they ignored the Geneva agreement and instead, threw their resources behind creating a capitalist South Vietnam, something like a South Korea. For the Americans, the border between North and South was to be a permanent one. There was only one problem with this plan. The situation in Korea and Vietnam were different despite the superficial similarities. In Korea, the division between north and south had been supported by an overwhelming majority of the people in the south because they did not want to live under communism. When the communist north tried to unify Korea by invading the south, the latter welcomed the arrival of the Americans as liberators.
In Vietnam, the situation was the reverse: the overwhelming majority of people living in the south, who were villagers, supported the communists and wanted the country to be united under Ho Chi Minh. Only in Saigon were there a significant number of people who were anti-communist. In South Vietnam hence, the Americans set out to impose a western regime on Asians, not defend one lot of Asians against the other. And what was more ominous for the American project: the Vietnamese had a long history of fighting invaders. For a thousand years, they had resisted the Chinese. Ho Chi Mihn had won the universal admiration of the Vietnamese by defeating the hated French colonists. The American attempt to divide Vietnam and set up a western regime in the south was, right from the start, a highly dubious undertaking: most Vietnamese, whether they were living in the north or south saw the Americans – and their allies including the Australians – as just another lot of foreign invaders.
The Geneva agreement came and went. The elections were never held. North Vietnam refused to accept the existence of a South Vietnam. The Americans refused to accept any reunification of Vietnam under the communists. The die was cast. War broke out. The North Vietnamese sent troops into South Vietnam. Backed by local South Vietnamese troops and sympathisers, they waged a guerrilla war against the Americans using the jungles of South Vietnam – and Cambodia in the west – as a sanctuary. In these circumstances, it was difficult for the Americans to use their overwhelming technological superiority and troop numbers to defeat the enemy. The Americans found themselves fighting bitter and inconclusive battles against an enemy which was difficult to find. Thousands of South Vietnamese villagers were forcibly relocated and the jungles ripped up and sprayed with Agent Orange, but to little effect. North Vietnam was bombed around the clock. It came down to a test of wills: who could bear the most pain for the longest.
The test went on for ten long and horrific years and in the process, 3 million Vietnamese, 60, 000 Americans and 500 Australians died. A country was laid to waste with bombs, napalm and defoliants. Ultimately, it was the North Vietnamese who won. They were ready to sustain horrendous casualties. To get an idea of the casualties they suffered, the case of the famous North Vietnamese novelist, Bao Ninh, is instructive. In 1966 when he joined the ‘27th Glorious Youth Brigade’ in Hanoi, it had 500 members. He spent ten years in the South fighting the Americans. In 1975, he participated in the successful North Vietnamese conquest of Saigon. When he returned to Hanoi, he was one of the ten survivors from ‘27th Glorious Youth Brigade’.
The Vietnamese tour guide told her story as the bus negotiated heavy traffic and constant bends. Everyone listened attentively. There was no good reason for me to listen to her; there was nothing she had to say which was new to me. Nevertheless, I found myself following her spiel closely, interested to see what she would include and what she omit.
And there were no surprises here.
I’d been on other bus tours in Vietnam, mostly to former battlefields, and the tour guides always left out the same things, the same part of the story.
They invariably talked about the war in terms of the sufferings and sacrifices of the men and women of Vietnam in their historic struggle for independence. No mention was ever made of the massive protest movement which erupted in the U.S. and Europe and which in turn triggered off a youth rebellion. There was never any mention of the way the Vietnam War led to the rise of a New Left, flower power, hippies, yippies, Timothy Leary and LSD, a counter-culture; Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors and Woodstock. The American rebellion (actually, there was a lot of talk about revolution then) spread to every other western country, just like in later years the personal computer, the internet and the mobile phone would begin in America and spread all over the world. And facts were facts: if it hadn’t been for that rebellion, the Vietnamese communists would never have won the war. They may have been prepared to take horrendous losses in the quest to reunite their homeland, but the U.S. military would have just kept bombing and kept on sending troops until the job was done. But the U.S. military, especially after 1968 and so-called Tet Offensive, came under immense pressure, thanks to the groundswell of opposition at home. The same was true in Australia. The politicians and journalists who supported the war suddenly found themselves under a withering fire of criticism.
The Vietnamese Communists made use of the western ferment – of the protest possible under democratic regimes – and planned its tactics accordingly. Its military and political strategy was carefully calibrated by domestic developments in the U.S. The war fought on the streets of America between the police and National Guard and the students and blacks were at least as important as the battles fought in the jungles of Vietnam. And the Vietnamese communists had known that only too well.
But it was a whole dimension to the war which was taboo in Vietnam because it put the ‘revolutionary struggle of the Vietnamese people’ in an entirely different perspective than the one portrayed by the official propaganda machine. To have recognised that one of the reasons why the war was won was because that war was waged against a democracy, where opposition to government policies was possible, would have highlighted the oppressiveness of Vietnamese communism.
It would have raised questions about the price which the Vietnamese had paid for being ‘liberated’ from the Americans. And so the official fairy tale persisted and real story of the war ignored: the country was divided and reunited after ten years of terrible struggle and today, the Vietnamese could hold their heads high, their national honour restored.
Had it been worth it, that war for independence?
Only in the pages of Bao Ninh’s brilliant novel, ‘The Sorrow of War’, did anyone dare ask those questions.
“My life seems little different from that of a sampan pushed upstream towards the past. The future lied to us, there long ago in the past. There is no new life, no new era, nor is it hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful pre-war past.”
We came to the Ben Hai River.
In the past, the Ben Hai was a river dividing warring nations, a river of blood.
On one bank was communism, on the other, capitalism. Millions died to decide whether the Ben Hai River would remain a border – or just vanish into obscurity.
It vanished into obscurity and what a price was paid for it!
But there was nothing special about it now.
We crossed a bridge: I looked down at a snake of brown water fringed by trees; the river of blood was just another river in a country which had many rivers, including the mighty Mekong. Besides its name, it was quite unremarkable.
North of the river, the scenery outside the bus became more interesting. I stopped listening to our tour guide. Her voice blurred into a continuous sound: she could have been speaking Vietnamese. I found myself mesmerised by a scene of flat watery rice paddies, of long lines people with conical hats bent over knee-deep in slurry; by the brilliant green of new rice, the shiny black of water buffaloes, and flocks of snow-white herons; by a network of low dividing walls, each one made of compacted mud, together forming an elegant pattern of straight lines, like a geometric design. The scene struck me as beautiful. In the high-tech 21st century there was something attractive about a form of agriculture whose chief implements were water buffalos, hoes and wooden ploughs.
Vin Moc was near the coast.
There was a big swell running that day. When we got out of the bus we were greeted by the sound of crashing waves. We passed tall thickets of dark green bamboo.
Before we were led through the tunnels, we were taken to a museum. I’d visited a lot of museums in Vietnam and rarely seen a good one. They tended to be an eclectic assembly of artefacts devoid of any coherent theme and the English translations were awful. I often wondered: why didn’t the museum authorities get an English-speaking person to check the texts before sticking them next to the exhibits?
This museum was no exception to the other ones I had seen.
There was one exhibit however, which made a deep impression on me.
It was an enlarged black and white aerial photo of the area north of the Ben Hui river – the same one I’d gazed at out of the bus when I was supposed to be listening to the tour guide – taken during the war (probably by an American photographer in a helicopter). I stood in front of it transfixed whilst the rest of the group moved on.
During the war, American ships anchored off the very same coast we had looked at when we got out of the bus, had shelled the area around Vin Moc relentlessly, adding to the cargo of death dropped by endless waves of B52’s. In the photo, the Ben Hai River curved around in a long, graceful bend. On either side of it was a vast network of rice paddies pock-marked with bomb craters. There were so many craters, big and small; it was like looking at the surface of the moon, only the craters were full of water. There was not a single rice paddy among the vast network of rice paddies which was intact. Every single one either had a huge crater in the middle of it or had its walls blown away by an explosion. There before me was the stark murderous incongruity of waging high-tech war on a low-tech, rice paddy people. There before me was all the murderous futility of the Vietnam War summed up in one image.
The English language name next to the photo was: ‘Heaven Devastated’.
It made no sense to me.
I walked briskly to catch up with the group, which was leaving the museum on its way to the tunnels.
I did not enjoy our short tourists’ excursion into the Vin Moc tunnels.
We were led through what was certainly not the deepest level of tunnels and quite possibly the shallowest. Their rounded ceilings and walls consisted of compacted clay. It was very dark. The tunnels were indeed very small. We had to bend over and creep along. At intervals, we saw steps leading down into bomb shelters. I felt like I was crawling into a grave, into a dark, enclosed, airless hole. I was near the end of the group and at one point, rounding a bend, I was completely enshrouded by darkness. The thought went through my head: what was it like for the people living in these tunnels during a bomb raid? I thought of the huge iron bomb casing I had seen near the museum. It was taller than me and it was only one bomb among the thousands that were dropped on the ground above the tunnels. The statistics quoted by our tour guide came back to me: ten thousand pounds of bombs were dropped for every square mile of ground.
The view out the window of the bus leaving Vin Moc was very different to the one on the way there.
Gazing out at the rice paddies, the ones which had so enthralled me on the way to Vin Moc, I saw that black and white photo in the museum instead of the romantic, green and watery vista I had seen on the way to Vin Moc.
Now I got it: devastation from the heavens.
Vietnam didn’t fit the Korean template and so in their determination to make it so, the American generals – like a child trying to bash a square peg into a round hole – bombed and blasted and burned and buggered a country. As a result, the Vietnamese support for the communists grew rather than diminished. No one among the Vietnamese thought about the pros and cons of communism. Their sole rationale was to resist the power that was obliterating them and their country.
The generals and the politicians didn’t seem to realise that if this was how ‘democracy’ was to be advanced and communism defeated – then it wasn’t worth it; that there was a damn good reason why back in the U.S., so many people were demonstrating on the streets.
On the way to Vin Moc, I had wondered about the point of the communists’ victory, given that it had brought the Vietnamese people only poverty, dictatorship and corruption.
Now different questions occurred to me:
When the war was over, how many years did it take the Vietnamese farmers to fill in all the craters and repair all the walls and get their rice paddies working again?
How many people died digging up the unexploded shells and bombs?
It struck me that the very existence of those quaint, primitive rice paddies north of the Ben Hai River represented a triumph of the will every bit as remarkable as the Vin Moc tunnels themselves.
That the simplest triumphs might be meaningful, in a way which was inconceivable to a pampered westerner.
Entrance to the Vin Moc tunnels
Hundreds, sometimes thousands of people lived in tunnel systems. An entire generation of people were born and raised in the tunnels