Moria. The walls are smooth and hard and way too close, except for the terrifying breaths of dark air when we pass openings to different sides; I more than half expect orcs and goblins to pour out of them. I only go about 60 metres (I had signed on for 20, but somehow got herded into the longer one), but I emerge with the sort of adrenaline high that a roller coaster produces and a real sense of the relief it must have been after seven long years.
The tunnellers made fake termite mounds in which they hid the air holes. There are many of these around and it’s impossible to tell which was made by termites and which by humans. They learnt to make land mines from unexploded enemy missiles and fashioned bamboo sticks into deadly traps. I count 12 types of these, from a spiky ball copying the rambutan that had stopped growing on their dead land, to a lethal swinging door inspired by cradles that no longer had a safe place to hang. When the river was poisoned, they dug wells inside the tunnels. They took their kitchens underground, designing chimney vents to make smoke disappear wispily into the morning or evening mist. They lived on tapioca for years. The resulting malnourishment only helped them make the tunnels even smaller. All of this is demonstrated through well-made, understated exhibits. You can even eat tapioca dipped in powdered peanuts, fire a rifle and buy sandals made from truck tyres.
The US Army didn’t stand a chance – how could secure young boys raised in mild climes have hoped to defeat this kind of on-the-fly innovation and endurance baked hard by centuries of struggle?
Back in Saigon, I see a notice outside a passing church and, deducing from the musical symbols that something songlike is in progress, I enter and sit in a familiar dimness, listening to the tail end of a Vietnamese choir. The words are strange but the tune of Amazing Grace is unmistakeable: “Through many dangers, toils and sins I have already come; ‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home”. It’s a strangely appropriate sentiment for a communist country that shook off the Catholic invader a long time ago. At least it replaces the tune of Green Fields of France that’s been playing over and over in my head ever since Cu Chi.
Agent Orange is still around, it gets in the meat and milk. My Vietnamese peers grew up in the desolate aftermath, their parents lived – or not – through the war. No monument stands here with the names of the dead, no flags went to the families of the fallen, nobody even knows how many fell. These claustrophobic subterranean corridors are all the memorial there is to an incredibly brave generation of civilian soldiers, both men and women. And that I think is the secret to the calmness and the complete lack of self-pity in the country: they were small and poor fighting the big and rich and they won, through their own spirit and ingenuity. What’s more, they are gracious in their victory.
Getting there: There are buses aplenty but I highly recommend the boat. Saigon River Express does it beautifully.
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