At the entrance of the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

When I decided to visit Vietnam specifically for a goddess festival, I was honestly a bit nervous about being there as an American traveler. Considering our US history education is generally colonial trash, I wanted to make sure I had a deeper understanding of the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese appropriately call the American War. So before I made my month long trek to Vietnam, I made sure to watch the epic 10 part Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War. (I highly recommend everyone watch it whether or not you’re going to Vietnam.) Part of my travel ethos is to make sure I understand the context of where I’m visiting and basically not to be the ignorant American.

Appropriate reminder at the War Remnants Museum

When I planned to visit Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, WanderWomxn sis and co-founder Meena suggested I visit the Cuchi Tunnels. Besides chuckling at the name because I’m very mature, I was intrigued because it was the site where Vietnamese people lived UNDERGROUND for the 20 years of the war. She also suggested the War Remnants Museum, a powerful and evocative space that offers a perspective of the destruction of war that we won’t ever see stateside. I went with my travel partner, Michael, and I was not ready.

Unintentionally, the day we booked the Cuchi Tunnels excursion was on Reunification Day, April 30. Known as ‘Ngày Thống nhất’ in Vietnamese, it is also known as Victory Day or Liberation Day. This national holiday commemorates the day that the Vietnamese army defeated the US military and reclaimed the southern capital of Saigon from the colonizers (the French and then Americans). The city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City for obvious reasons.

Honoring Ho Chi Minh at the Cuchi Tunnels

The site of the Cuchi Tunnels is located about a 2 hour drive from the city and we took a full day small group tour with XXX excursions. Our group was mostly Europeans so Michael and I were the sole Americans. I make that distinction because the United States were pretty much the sole perpetrators of the war with minimal troops from only 6 other countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Thailand. So it was clear as day that the US was fucking terrible and certainly the villain in this story.

The Cuchi Tunnels takes you through the grounds where Vietnamese families lived and prepared for war underground. They are literal tunnels where Vietnamese people set up kitchens, schools, and shelters where they made weapons and clothes. Their entire community was submerged in the earth. When you think about how they engineered underground ovens that wouldn’t blow smoke outside and tip off the American soldiers, it’s an incredible feat. It’s also mind blogging to acknowledge they were hiding like this from American troops for 20 years. The exhibits include craters from B-52 bombs, the rooms where women sewed uniforms and made weapons, and most notably, the death traps that they set up for American soldiers like doors rigged with nails if they tried to kick them open. There’s even interactive parts like where you can go in a hole in the ground and get covered by leaves like Vietnamese soldiers (Viet Cong) did. They would hide in the holes with guns waiting for American soldiers to pass by to take them out. This was a big hit for many tourists who popped out of the hole gleefully shooting an air gun at other visitors. Survival begets ingenuity.

Very creepy mannequins dressed as Viet Cong and a tour guide

One of the most stressful parts is going into the actual underground tunnels to experience where Vietnamese families lived and created homes. The tour guides warn you at the beginning that it’s not good for tall people or anyone with claustrophobia. I didn’t think that applied to me until I got in the tunnel. The tunnel is only 100 meters long with stops every 20 meters to allow folks to leave. I was convinced I was going to make it at least halfway but when I got in there, all I could feel was panic, fear and death. I’m a sensitive being and all I could think about was what it was like live underground on defense, afraid of being found and killed every day for 2 decades. I made it 20 meters and got my ass outta there. It is not for the faint of heart. I’m only 5’3 and I was completely bent over to move through the tunnel. And also it doesn’t help when you have aggressive tour guides from other groups breathing down your neck to move while people in front of you are taking pictures. So if you’re really curious and want to experience it, try to find a weekday and go super early to avoid crowds. And don’t feel bad if you can’t make it through.

I was very disturbed. (Click through for my video commentary.)

On top of the eerie energy, there is a shooting range there for visitors who want some extra stimulation. So as you’re experiencing this land that holds deep trauma, loud gun shots are popping off intermittently. It was sensory overload for me and I want to prepare folks who want to visit.

It was also very disturbing to see how tourists engaged with the space. It was almost like a playground to visitors especially non-Americans. While I acknowledge how fucked up and evil the war was with our big colonizer energy, it’s not lost on me that young American men, many whom were poor or Black or Brown, were sent there to die. Our government knew the terrible conditions on the ground and didn’t equip them with adequate knowledge or artillery. Young men were drafted and forced to go fight a war that was none of our business because of political egos not wanting to pull out and admit defeat. Many Americans have elders in our families who fought in Vietnam and we know how veterans returned to nothing in the States except their PTSD. So the celebration of war and outright joy some tourists expressed during their visit disgusted me.

The outside of the War Remants Museum

The next day we decided to visit the War Remnants Museum which documents various aspects of the war giving context to the amount of troops that infiltrated, the impact of Agent Orange, and the lack of international support for the American invasion of Vietnam and our 20 year stint there. The photo documentation of soldiers, villages and families was powerful because it personified the war’s impact on the country. It’s an important museum to visit especially to juxtapose with the Cuchi Tunnels. It’s a less visceral experience but just as emotional.

Women were very active in the Vietnamese army and were a major force during the war.

Women and children were also shown no mercy by the U.S. soldiers

What got me crying were the drawings done by children who are impacted by the Agent Orange chemicals that the US bombed villages with. People are still dealing with birth defects and deformities because of the chemicals in the soil and water. The cruelty of the US army and more importantly the politicians who brainwashed our young people to disregard human life is infuriating to think about and to witness throughout the exhibits.

It is also thought provoking to see the anti-war posters and art from countries all over the world who were in solidarity with Vietnam.

German posters showing solidarity with Vietnam

While vacation is often meant to be fun and relaxing, there’s some places you go that you cannot and should not divorce yourself from the history and how your identity intersects with that. Trust and believe, Michael and I had joyful adventures in caves, eating delicious street food, drinking beer with locals. We visited temples, museums and an abandoned amusement park. However it’s critical as US tourists visiting Vietnam that we acknowledge our history and humble ourselves to learn.

As Black people, we have a complicated relationship with the United States. It continues to hurt us and exploit us even though we make this country great and set global trends. I thought a lot about what it was like for Black and Brown soldiers to be scared out of their minds fighting for a country that never loved us, and alongside fellow soldiers who called them whatever racial slur they felt like. I felt an overwhelming compassion and grief for the casualties of war and its lasting effects.

U.S. propaganda given to our soldiers to dehumanize the Vietnamese soldiers (Viet Cong)

I am probably not selling this experience very well but that’s okay. I just want to encourage travelers visiting Vietnam to make sure between the banh mi and beaches that you pay respect to the powerful and deeply tragic recent history. It’s how we can co-create a brighter and more peaceful future for our future generations.

A child climbs one of the tanks at the Cuchi Tunnels site

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