Return to Vietnam – Part III
My wife and I had just visited Tay Ninh City, where we separated from the tour group at the Cao Dai Temple and took a taxi to what we American troops knew as the Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen). This 3000-foot extinct volcanic peak dominates the flat Mekong Delta plain around it. During the war I’d often gazed up at the mountain and yearned to visit the peak. The mountain was a VC (Viet Cong) stronghold at the time but US forces held onto a small outpost at the tip—one only accessible by helicopter. On my recent visit I was disappointed that a time constraint kept us from hiking one of the trails to the top. We had barely enough time to take the cable car (constructed sometime after the war) to a gaudy Buddhist temple two thirds of the way up the mountain. Nevertheless, the ride offered a spectacular view.
After hurriedly rejoining our departing tour bus, which had patiently waited extra minutes for our return, the most meaningful event of my revisit occurred. On the ride from Tay Ninh City to another place near where I’d spent some time during the war, I met my former enemy. Cu Chi is the name of a village, but most Vietnam veterans remembering the name never saw the village. They only ever knew nearby Cu Chi Basecamp, the headquarters of the 25th Infantry Division. The division’s mission was to be a barrier between the terminus of the Ho Chi Minh supply trail and Saigon. Today, the name lives on because of the Cu Chi Tunnels, a popular tourist destination that is essentially an outdoor war museum. It tells a heroic and largely one-sided story of the local VC’s fight against the American Imperialists and their South Vietnamese Government lackeys.
Besides displaying a variety of grisly booby traps used against these aggressors, visitors have a chance to crawl through some sections of stabilized tunnels and to fire an M16, M60 machine gun, or AK-47. Not for free, of course. Interestingly, 40 years on, the place is still expending an almost inexhaustible supply of captured American ammo. I didn’t have an urge to fire any ammunition myself, but I did crawl through 60 meters of dimly lit tunnel. The latter experience left me with a grudging admiration for the people who’d endured an underground existence there.
However, the most memorable part for me occurred before this, during the tour-bus ride through the rural countryside on the way to Cu Chi—the type of terrain I’d once camped in for months and through which I had either ridden atop of, or driven, an armored personnel carrier. My wife and I were in the back seat of the bus when the young tour guide, who knew I’d been a soldier here, approached me and said another tourist had become curious about me after we’d split from the tour group earlier in Tay Ninh. When he learned I’d been an infantryman here during the war, the man revealed he’d been a soldier here too and would like to talk. Would it be okay?
“Neither of us had imagined…that two men who’d once been duty bound to try to kill each other on sight could embrace with moist eyes
We had plenty of room on the wide rear seat, so I passed along an invitation for him to join us. When the man and his wife made their way down the aisle, I realized it was the same Vietnamese couple who had been on our two-day group tour of the Mekong Delta a couple days earlier. At one point, we’d even shared the same small sampan as we were taken down a rural canal. But because of the language barrier we’d never exchanged any words.
As my former enemy approached, I felt a little anxiety. But I needn’t have worried for the man smiled warmly. We shook hands and I invited him and his wife to sit and join us. Our guide, perched on the edge of the seat to the front and squinched around to face us, began to interpret. I learned my opposite had retired as a North Vietnamese Army colonel. He’d fought in the struggle with South Vietnam, and when that war was over, against the Kmer Rouge in Cambodia. In turn, I explained what I’d done in the war. By then our conversation had begun to attract the interest of others nearby and soon three young European backpackers moved close so they could listen to our exchange.
“I looked forward to us two former enemy combatants touring the exhibits side by side as we realigned the ugliness.”
Our wives were in this conversation as well, but they shared family photos and left most of the talking to us ex combatants. We exchanged information about our current trips, where we lived, and our families. And of course we took photos.
It turned out he was from Hanoi and had grandchildren, as do I. We talked only a little of our experience in the war. And we were able to laugh when we showed each other the small head wound each of us had acquired in the war. Both of us were a little misty eyed throughout the experience. Neither of us had imagined ever coming face-to-face with our enemy again and discovering that two men who’d once been duty bound to try to kill each other on sight could embrace with moist eyes when our conversation ended upon arrival at the Cu Chi tunnels. We had no personal differences now and realized we surely never had any. Even though an enemy government or ideology is despicable to us, most ordinary people under its flag are not fundamentally different from us. Only in war, when soldiers are sent to kill each other, is it necessary to believe otherwise and depersonalize the enemy.
“Foreigners and Vietnamese were sent on separate tours right after the introductory propaganda film.”
At the Cu Chi tunnels I looked forward to us two former enemy combatants touring the exhibits side by side as we realigned the ugliness and shared some common ground. However, once inside the place, Westerners and Vietnamese were sent on separate tours right after the introductory propaganda film, and we had no further chance to talk.
In part I of this topic I said the impetus for me to return to Vietnam was a combination of curiosity, a hope for closure, and a quest to find some sort of validation of my wartime service. The first two were fulfilled, but not the validation part. Although historians might successfully argue that the long and costly US intervention in the war fully occupied Russia and China and prevented the fall of the rest of Southeast Asia to communism (yes, the old Domino Theory), considering the personal cost to so many families, that is not enough justification for me. And I think most other veterans and their families would agree.