I find out about the Cu Chi Tunnels Firing Range when I am told by my amazing Vietnamese host to go to the Cu Chi tunnels to learn about the American/Vietnam War. He doesn’t mention it to me, but when I look up the tunnels there’s a list of associated activities including the Cu Chi Tunnels Firing Range.
I’ve already missed a chance to blow shit up in Southeast Asia when I decided in Cambodia that $500 was too much to pay to blow up a gas barrel with a bazooka. Perhaps all the happy pizza I consumed made me less trigger-happy. Not quite sure how to feel about the Cu Chi Tunnels Firing Range, but I feel motivated to participate in it and then figure out how I feel about it afterwards. I save it for the end of the journey.
Some portion of what happens on this journey is propaganda.
I sense it easily. I’ve been to enough countries at this point with enough different political systems to get a taste for all the flavors of engineered, fictional history. History is such a tricky read. Some part of what I have been taught is also propaganda, of course. Perhaps more so, even, but I caution myself not to believe either side. It’s the same war, but USAmerica calls it the Vietnam War and Vietnam calls it The American War.
What’s true is that they won, and we don’t call it that. We did retreat. They lost 2.3 million people. We lost 50,000. It was all for nothing, maybe. Or maybe we did win, and stopped the spread of communism. Who knows.
Vietnam is definitely pretty capitalist.
Saigon (I don’t like calling it Ho Chi Minh City and I didn’t meet any Vietnamese in Saigon who liked that either) more so than Hanoi. Saigon has probably the worst motorbike traffic I have seen anywhere in the world. I’ll never forget seeing little old ladies in their paddy hats fearlessly ambling out into a sea of motos, parting around the grannies with no issue – as long as they keep their stride.
A long taxi ride to the Cu Chi tunnels, and then the entrance fee. We go down into the tunnel through a hole cut to our larger size. The holes the Vietnamese entered through were much smaller. Three levels of tunnels. They only show us the first, where people can stay weeks at a time. Further down there are places where one will run out of oxygen in twenty minutes.
Tunnel systems were dug throughout Vietnam. Most collapsed easily and were destroyed, others were dug into harder clay and have stood the test of time.
We are only seeing a portion of a tunnel used during the war. It still blows my mind.
I bump my head and scrape myself on the walls frequently. Walking stooped over underground is incredibly difficult. I’m grateful for the tech-heavy Chinese tourist behind me that brought with him a giant lighting array for photography. Repeatedly, I mutter to myself.
“These things were specifically not built for USAmericans”.
The Viet Cong would farm at night and wage war during the day. Collect weaponry, tools and ammo left by opposing invaders and re-fashion them into new weapons.
Thirty percent of the people living in those tunnels had malaria.
Never fuck with the Vietnamese.
The tunnels were organized, and separated into areas for conducting war while continuing to live. There’s an area where pregnant women stayed, underground. In tunnels. For most of their pregnancy.
One of the things that I know helped the Vietnamese beat the USAmericans was that the USAmericans were simply far more sexist than the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese sent women into combat in every role. Those good ol’ boy US GI’s had absolutely no idea what to do when a woman with a baby in one arm and an AK-47 in the other came towards them.
Throughout modern Vietnam I see tributes to women who fought in the war. It’s moving to see them celebrated, let alone acknowledged. Again, everything from mothers of soldiers to nurses to those that fed people on the battlefield to snipers to platoon leaders.
And speaking of women and platoon leaders, it is in Vietnam that I learn of the Viet Cong platoon leader, sniper, interrogator, and torturer that the USAmericans called “Apache”. She was fearless, brutal, ruthless.
She was famous for terrifying the US army by torturing their members within earshot of the troops. It is told she would hang a man upside down and make small cuts in him, weakening him through loss of blood. She hated the white men she interrogated and would accuse them of coming to Vietnam to “rape cherry pussy”.
One of her preferred methods was to castrate the men as they hung, then cut them down and send them back over enemy lines. She and her platoon would place bets on whether they would reach their own side before they bled out. Her platoon varied in size, but was made up of over twenty men. All of them, men.
Like I said, the USAmerican GI’s had absolutely no fucking clue what to do with this. There was no context for this kind of woman in their world.
I make Vietnamese friends. I note that the Southern Vietnamese are much more willing to be friendly with me. There still is a cultural divide. A Northern Vietnamese woman I spend time with tries to shock me by telling me she ate over three hundred frogs by age five. Her grandmother thought her growth was stunted, and apparently eating frog helps.
They also eat both cat and dog in Northern Vietnam. The words for “dog meat” are some of the few I know in Vietnamese (Thịt chó). The frog woman teaches me the words, and at my request she points out dog meat alley on the map of Hanoi. I have been a vegetarian my entire life, but I always try to subject my partner to any animal-laden foods that are considered obscure in the United States. So we go to dog meat alley and look for food for him.
Inauspicious timing, though.
In Northern Vietnam, not everyone consumes dog. But even amongst those that do – it’s considered bad luck to eat dog meat during a certain week of the lunar month. We hit that week. It’s not the bad luck that scares off my partner, rather that no one has stolen pet dogs this week (or however they source it, I don’t judge), so the meat sitting in the displays is not fresh. He doesn’t draw the line at dog meat, he draws the line at old meat.
Back to Southern Vietnam. When it’s time to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels Firing Range, myself and my partner are told to stand outside and wait for someone to come to transport us.
That someone turns out to be a Vietnamese soldier on a motorbike. I climb on behind him, and my partner behind me, and off we go into the jungle. It’s at this point I doubt my choices.
Here I am, in Vietnam, whipping through the jungle, clinging to the back of a Vietnamese soldier to the sound of gunfire. It’s a few miles, a good fifteen minute ride. I am glad I have no wartime experience as I’m sure this is a PTSD flashback waiting to happen.
We pull up to the Cu Chi Tunnels Firing Range and the guy just leaves us there and peels away. Another soldier gestures into the cabin. There are no smiles here.
Inside, I see the shooting range through the back door. It’s just a bunch of guns pointed at some metal targets mounted in a dirt mound. These are all USAmerican weapons that were left in Vietnam from the war. That means they’re at least 45 years old. I try not to think about them jamming. Also I try not to think about what the employees of this place must think of me.
I pay my fee, which is based on how much ammo I want to buy for which weapons. I stick to the M-16 and the M-60, neither of which I have shot before. The sales guy hands the ammo to another Vietnamese soldier who loads the weapons for me. I’m disappointed to see that they are mounted. All I have to do is pull the trigger.
I go with the M-16 first. It’s fun. My aim is terrible and the soldiers laugh at me. Whatever. My parents’ tax dollars paid for this weapon.
My parents both were active in protesting against the Vietnam war, a fact which I tell every Vietnamese I meet. They don’t really seem to care much. It’s long over, for them.
Then comes the M-60. This, my friends, is a life-changing experience. My first true experience with an automatic weapon, not “semi-automatic”. I’ve shot an AK-47 before, but all AK’s in the US are semi-automatic by law. One pull of the trigger unleashes a steady stream of bullets. My little strip that I overpaid for is gone within fifteen seconds.
I immediately return to the ammo hut for another strip. The soldiers all chuckle at the crazed look on my face. I’m glad they find it funny. Myself, I find my bloodthirsty, trigger-happy state pretty telling. Put one of these things in the hands of an eighteen year old USAmerican boy that can’t tell Asians apart and what they fuck do you think is going to happen? 2.3 million Vietnamese dead, that’s what.
I shoot my load again. It’s intense and addictive and I can’t believe that humankind has made such experiences available.
I could kill hundreds of people in seconds, even with my shitty aim.
I recognize that it is dangerous, and that in the wrong hands it’s just the stupidest idea ever, but this experience does nothing to change my opinion about firearms. They are fun. I like them. I like shooting guns. Definitely LOVE shooting an M-60. Don’t really care about any consequences more than I care about my own joy.
You don’t see me starting no wars, though. Fuck that noise.
“1000 years against the Chinese. 50 years against the French. 20 years against the Americans.” – Vietnamese saying
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