The unwinnable war

The Vietnamese / American war occurred when all the might and firepower of the west went up against a cluster of farmers with hoes. And lost. 

With fears concerning the steadily expanding communist regime across Asia, 1965 saw American troops holding southern Vietnam in a war against Ho Chi Minh's northern forces. The country had been officially divided ten years previously, in an international agreement orchestrated in Geneva that Ho Chi Minh had only reluctantly signed, and America had refused to sign at all. 

Trying out one of the hidden tunnel entrances. Looking down, I could see an even narrower space leading horizontally underground (part of the original tunnel, not the section widened for tourists). When I expressed my doubt about how anyone could fit there, our guide said, "You would if you were under fire!". Perhaps so... but those would be the only circumstances! Also, I would have had to abandon my fine Vietnamese hat.

Trying out one of the hidden tunnel entrances. Looking down, I could see an even narrower space leading horizontally underground (part of the original tunnel, not the section widened for tourists). When I expressed my doubt about how anyone could fit there, our guide said, "You would if you were under fire!". Perhaps so... but those would be the only circumstances! Also, I would have had to abandon my fine Vietnamese hat.

Ho Chi Minh led northern Vietnam under the banner of the 'Democratic Republic of Vietnam': a misleading name that failed to convince anyone that this was not a communist party. Ho Chi Minh wanted unity for Vietnam, while the Americans wanted to stop the advance of communism by propping up the southern Republic government. The result saw the Americans fighting a guerrilla war against the Viet Cong; Ho Chi Minh's communist supporters in the south.  

The American army and the Viet Cong were the David and Goliath of our day. The Americans had bombs and firearms. The Viet Cong had hoes and bamboo. With these tools, the Viet Cong dug over 200 km of tunnels 3 layers deep, and layered the ground with hidden traps of sharpened bamboo spikes. 

Possibly the only thing more amazing that the success of the Viet Cong is that their main base in the Cu Chi district of Saigon (the later named Ho Chi Minh City) is now a tourist attraction, with tunnel sections widened to allow western tourists to explore. 

The existence of this museum is a thing of beauty. And irony. And believe me when I say that the widened tunnels still have you on your hands and knees thinking that air is an illusion. My advice is to try the 20m stretch before committing yourself to 200m and despairing of ever walking on two legs again.  

Air vents from the tunnels looked like ant hills in the jungle.

Air vents from the tunnels looked like ant hills in the jungle.

The deepest layer of the Viet Cong tunnels could survive a hit from a B-52 bomb and even the top layer could support a 50 tonne tank. The region of Cu Chi was selected specifically for this purpose, since its ground is hard red clay that can support such evacuations. Families stayed down in the tunnels for days at a time, spending up to a decade in total living mainly underground. The entrances to the tunnels were hidden under the thick mast of the jungle floor, while air holes came up in mounds of earth disguised as ant hills. Each tunnel was dug by hand, the soil used to fill up the craters left by the area bombing. Such confined living quarters took their toll and 15% of the Viet Cong died of malaria. 

The American troops were well aware of the tunnel network, but were unable to flush their enemy out. The tunnels were too small for an average western soldier to navigate, so the Americans trained their youngest and lightest members as 'tunnel rats', sending them down the entrances they discovered. In total, 400 tunnel rats infiltrated the Viet Cong's layer. None came back out. 

One of the swing traps developed by the Viet Cong. Those be sharpened bamboo sticks of doom below.

One of the swing traps developed by the Viet Cong. Those be sharpened bamboo sticks of doom below.

Hidden in the jungle of the Cu Chi area, on the doors of Viet Cong families and supporters and even in the tunnels themselves, were traps. Sections of ground would turn like horizontal swing doors to drop the surface troops onto beds of sharpened bamboo. Similarly sharpened boards would hang from the back of doors, smacking an unwelcome visitor in the chest and gut. In total, 11% of the American army were taken out by these ingenious and gruesome contraptions.

To locate the tunnel entrances, the American army utilized sniffer dogs. The Viet Cong got wise to this ploy and began to steal and use the American uniforms and shampoo, hiding their scent with that of the enemy. The smoke from cook fires was also re-directed, piped 200 yards from the underground kitchen to emerge in distributed tendrils, rather than a tell-tale column of smoke. 

The exit for the smoke from the kitchen. The actual kitchen was an underground chamber many feet away. Smoke curls gentle from many exits, making it hard to spot from any distance.

The exit for the smoke from the kitchen. The actual kitchen was an underground chamber many feet away. Smoke curls gentle from many exits, making it hard to spot from any distance.

Rice was on short supplies for the Viet Cong and their diet mainly consisted of tapioca. When our guide revealed this fact, I had a mental picture of an entire army living of bubble teas with gelatinous pearls in the drink. Turns out… no. Tapioca is a root like a potato. You might all have known that, but I'd never seen one. For the record: quite tasty, but probably wouldn't want to eat it stuffed down a tunnel every day for ten years. 

The death count at the end of the war was devastating for both sides. When American finally withdrew in 1975, 2 million civilian Vietnamese were dead, along with 1 million northern Vietnam soldiers, 250,000 soldiers from southern Vietnam and 57,605 Americans. The prize was a united country. 

The flag of the Viet Cong, with its bi-coloured background representing the divided Vietnam. After the country was unified, the flag changed to show a plain red background.

The flag of the Viet Cong, with its bi-coloured background representing the divided Vietnam. After the country was unified, the flag changed to show a plain red background.

The Viet Cong's flag showed a gold star on a half red/half blue background. With the country once again independent of foreign rule, the lower blue half vanished, creating Vietnam's national flag as a gold star on a plain red background. 

After the war, the Vietnamese government pledged to help Viet Cong members adjust to life after so long in the tunnels. The implication we received from our guide is what was pledged and what was done did not entirely line up. That said, Vietnam was to face a period of poverty until the mid-1980s, removing many of the hoped-for resources. Helping war veterans is also a difficult task for any nation.  

Nowadays, Vietnam is booming, flying against the fears that led to the war. The communist government does remain in place, which prevents a free market for voting on the ruling party. This leads to a high level of political apathy, with only 17% of the population bothering to vote the elections. 

"Those are part of our government buildings," our northern tour guide had told us in Hanoi, himself an ex-Viet Cong member. "They pick the candidates and then we vote on them." His wry smile indicated that he felt the exercise was mainly futile.

The Viet Cong did a lot of recycling. These tiny shoes (and the bigger ones for adults) were made from car tyres. They also dissembled American bombs to make their own weapons.

The Viet Cong did a lot of recycling. These tiny shoes (and the bigger ones for adults) were made from car tyres. They also dissembled American bombs to make their own weapons.

The country also has compulsory national service, where young men must spend a year or two attached to the army. This isn't particularly uncommon and Switzerland at least, has a similar policy. This service can be delayed by going to college, causing such educational aspirations to be a popular choice and giving Vietnam a high level of university graduates. 

"We have to sit a year and half of politics at university," explained our Ho Chi Minh city guide, a vivacious tourism graduate who had given us an outstanding tour around the tunnels. She shook her head smiling and added, "It was very boring. I slept a lot." 

"Eh, communism, communism, communism," another of our tour guides confirmed, his hand gestures indicating the information going in one ear and out the other.

Whatever our western ideals might feel about communism, in Vietnam at least, it has no effect on the cheerful chatter of their population.