Chapter 17 – The Footsteps of a Previous Generation
On the night that Kathleen had been due to meet up with us at the Park Hyatt Saigon, Tim and I got drunk on sangria and passed out before she’d even arrived. Sometime during this twelve hour coma, Tim’s older sis had slipped into the room without either of us taking notice. After catching up over breakfast, our troika spoke with the concierge and booked an afternoon tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Now considered a national monument, these man-made gopher holes had been part of an extensive network used by the Vietcong to transport troops, weapons and supplies across enemy lines without notice during the Vietnam War era.
While waiting at the hotel for our guide to arrive, we’d made ourselves quite comfortable in the lobby and ordered a late-morning round of San Miguel. As we sat in fancy leather chairs sipping suds around a fine, round, wooden table that’d looked like someone had just Lemon Pledged the shit out of it, a tall blonde woman in an elegant dress set the mood by playing something smooth and classy on a shiny black grand piano.
“Hello,” said a woman with bangs who’d snuck up to our table.
“You going to the tunnels today?”
“Yes we are.”
“Very good. Nice to meet you,” she waved. “My name is Mai, and I will be your guide this afternoon.”
Mai led us outside to a Land Rover SUV and climbed in the front passenger seat. After directing the guy at the wheel to start driving, she began to tell us a bit about herself. As it happens, she’d been in her late-fifties and had picked up English from living in Canada for some time after the fall of Saigon. She’d been back in ‘Nam for a couple decades and had been giving tours for almost just as long.
While fidgeting with a laptop, Mai informed us the distance between our hotel in Saigon District 1 and the tunnels in the north suburban Cu Chi District would take about forty-five minutes to an hour to cover. After hitting play on what she’d called a “historical documentary” that she pulled up on the screen, Mai passed us the laptop in the backseat and seized the opportunity to take a nap. Machine guns popped off, artillery had been fired and soldiers marched, serving as a powerful introduction to this violent half-hour of anti-American propaganda. With no shortage of bloody war scenes showing heaps of slain Vietnamese villagers, the film had been narrated in a hateful English and was chock-full of terms such as “white devil,” “capitalist pigs,” “murderers” and “baby killers.”
Although entertaining at first, the novelty of the biased account soon wore off. I looked away from the screen and redirected my attention out the window to soak in as much I could the sights and sounds of the modern Vietnamese lifestyle. The streets had been exceptionally busy as horns blared from left and right. In anticipation of the annual Lunar New Year celebration of Tet Nguyen Dan – or, “Fete of the First Day” – everybody and they mama had been out picking up food, flowers and gifts for their family members.
For the holiday and much like our Christmas tradition, many families purchase a cone-shaped tree known as a “tac” and bring it into their homes for good luck in the new year. With no better way to get one of these orange-bearing Tet trees back to the crib, I witnessed a farmer in shabby clothing and sandals successfully managing to balance a large pot containing a big bushy tac on the handlebars of his motorbike. From my vantage point, the tree appeared to be obstructing at least 90% of his view. It sounded like he’d been dealing with the disadvantage by honking up a storm to make other drivers aware of his presence and situation.
In addition to the many tac-juggling cyclists with whom we’d shared the road, several times I saw families of four sitting unsecured on a single bike riding as close as a foot away from and then zooming past our SUV. Instead of straddling the person in front of them and having everyone’s privates aligned like an incestual choo-choo train, some of the women and children passengers rode with both legs hanging off one side of the bike and with each consecutive person’s legs dangling off alternating sides.
The most impressive I’d seen of this circus-like transportation had been a farmer in a triangular sedge hat who’d sputtered along the rural outskirts of Saigon on his broke-ass, outdated, Motorcycle Diaries style motorbike. With the Zen-like balancing skills of a seasoned tightrope daredevil, at the time of our passing the man had been transporting four pails full of liquid that splashed about as they hung from his handle bars and constantly fucked with the directionality of his inertia. While trying not to lose control of his bike and die, the human Libra scale also managed to bear the weight of a six-foot-long bamboo stick that’d laid across his lap in mechanical equilibrium as it held, on the sides, an additional two cylindrical metallic buckets that’d hung and blown in the wind only a foot above the fast-moving pavement. In a position as precarious as the one he’d been in, I’d have to imagine he was no more than an erection away from tipping the bamboo rod, throwing all his buckets off balance and reducing whatever he was transporting – not to mention himself – to nothing more than another greasy stain on the highway.
On the streets of Saigon, every few hundred feet, light poles had emerged from behind well-trimmed bushes lining the median. Attached to the sides of these poles had been red banners with a golden Vietnamese star, a Communist sickle-and-hammer or phrases printed across the middle. I don’t understand Vietnamese, but that didn’t stop me from trying to read the messages on a few of the flags. None of the words had reminded me of any familiar thoughts or feelings until I’d come across a banner displaying the word mừng.
You see, where I come from, when the sound “mung” bounces around in someone’s eardrum, it most often triggers a mental response that evokes the image of a rather unpleasant scenario involving two necrophiliacs hanging out at the morgue. After losing a coin toss – or however they decide who gets first hacks – the less fortunate munger-fucker is forced to be the wingman and assist his partner in crime. In eager anticipation of what he views as one of life’s greatest pleasures, the martyr of sorts helps his buddy out by standing above a fresh, pants-less corpse as she lies on a cold steel table. From as high as he can reach, the assistant is to drop a bowling ball or stomp onto the stomach of the deceased while the leadoff man, with his lips wrapped around those of the vagina, swallows whatever comes shooting out.
I find it strange that the four letters of the English word “mung” and whatever variation of them that comprises the Vietnamese phrase mừng tuổi can differ so greatly. On the other side of the world, mừng tuổi translates to “happy new age” and refers to the ancient tradition of giving loved ones red envelopes full of money known as “lì xì” on special occasions. Here, for most perverts I know that have hypothetically discussed the practice of munging or for the real sickos that actually get down on it, an anvil or a funnel would probably be the common consensus of a standard American “mung toy.”
Until reaching the shabbier outskirts of Saigon where infrastructure had been replaced by shacks, huts and rice paddies, on each side of the road we traveled were long continuous stretches of attached two-to-three story buildings wedged apart by the occasional Buddhist temple or Catholic Church. Be it a fruit market, a hotel, or even a massage parlor where they’ll knock your junk around for dirt cheap, some sort of business had more likely than not occupied the first floor of these buildings and, as Mai would mention during our eventual return to town, were most often owned by the families that lived above them. It seemed like all the names of these places followed the formula of adjective (boss, jolly, happy or smiley) followed by the function of the establishment. Among many other unlikely monikers that only exist in Asia or abroad but under Asian management, Smile Massage Parlor and The Boss Hotel had been two of the more memorable titles I’d seen in Ho Chi Minh City.
Once removed from the hustle and bustle of Saigon, we passed a monster of a home overlooking acres and acres of lush green rice paddies. In a league of its own, this mansion looked like the type of estate you’d expect to see on MTV Cribs, not among the humble abodes belonging to piss poor rice farmers on the outskirts of HCMC.
“You see that big house over there?” Mai said, snapping out of her nap.
“Yeah, what is that?”
“That belong to a government leader.”
“It looks like a very beautiful home.”
“Oh, it is,” she said, “but it not for normal citizen. No one else has big house but no one allow to say anything. That how communism in Vietnam really work. It can be very hypocritical, but you know what we do here?” she half-turned, facing us in the back seat. “We do this,” she grabbed the imaginary zipper on the side of her face and sealed her mouth shut. “That how communism work in Vietnam.”
In modern day Vietnam, the Cu Chi Tunnels are part of a government-run memorial park that allows visitors to experience the 75-mile-long system of underground rat holes the yellow man had used to pump the white man full of lead. Upon arrival, we followed Mai along a dirt path that’d cut and wound through thick brush of the otherwise untamed jungle. Eventually, the path led to an underground bunker that’d been covered at ground level by a thatch roof made of the same plants by which it’d been surrounded. There’s no way any passing American plane or chopper could’ve distinguished this hideout from any of the naturally surrounding greenery.
Having a real earthy feel to it, the bunker was bottomed by a browning, unpainted cement floor with fifty years of dirt stained into it. The same goes for three of the walls, the fourth of which had been painted a darker, Wesley Snipes shade of brown. On the colored wall had been a big red Vietnamese flag, a hanging portrait of Ho Chi Minh and, painted in yellow, the phrases, “Khong co gi qui hon doc lap tu do” and “Tlen Len! Toan Thang At Ve Ta.” The former translates to, “Nothing is so precious as independence and liberty,” and the latter, “Advance! Total victory will be ours.”
In a corner where two of the shittier, non-painted walls had met was a three-foot by one-foot hole carved through the foundation. This cartoon-mouse-hole shaped orifice served as a gateway to the network of bat-infested tunnels that I’d soon find out are so narrow the shoulders of a full-sized American man couldn’t make it through without a struggle.
With the verbal guidance of Mai and a Vietnamese soldier, we sampled a hundred-foot stretch of the Cu Chi Tunnels and the experience was nothing short of brutal. Aside from the uncomfortable feeling of not being able to distinguish whether my eyes had been open or closed, I resented the fact that Tim’s asshole had been right in my face for the entire crawl.
Once back inside the bunker, we sat on several of the primitive wooden benches facing Mai who’d been waving a yardstick and smacking it up against a map of Saigon to point out historical places under which the Cu Chi Tunnels had run. To convey the complexity of the system, Mai also employed a rectangular glass case filled with dirt that looked very much like an ant farm to show how the Cu Chi tunnels would look if we were to cut out a large hunk of the earth and see them from the side.
Running at depths of up to three stories below the earth’s surface, the Vietcong developed an impressive ventilation system that allowed guerilla fighters to live deep underground for days on end. Made entirely of hollowed bamboo sticks, this system enabled the NVA to not only receive fresh air but also boil food while properly venting harmful gases. From the depths of the tunnels, the bamboo piping would rise above the surface and stand a safe distance above ground to prevent flooding during rainy season. While the bamboo had already blended in with the rest of the flora natural to the area, cooking was only done at certain times of the day when either fog or mist were present so the exhaust would be undetectable, rendering American troops oblivious to the funny business lurking below.
Once they’d finally wised up to the game, the United States government launched several campaigns designating specially trained “tunnel rats” to climb down into the abyss and pull Charlie out. With no way to prepare for the see-nothing, hear-nothing conditions American soldiers described as a “black echo,” these eighteen-year-old kids had no idea where they were, what was going on or how the fuck they were gonna get out of the hole they didn’t even wanna be in to begin with.
A sadistic underground maze, the Cu Chi Tunnels had been full of dead end passageways laced with booby traps to kill anyone who was foolish enough to enter without knowing their way around. The “booby twaps,” as Mai had said just like Data from The Goonies, were sick and twisted creations that made Kevin McCallister’s swinging paint cans and blowtorch-rigged doorknobs in Home Alone seem like mere child’s play – which, in essence, I guess they are.
Every trap that had been set off would result in some variation of a spiked bamboo instrument called a “Punji stick” impaling different regions of the human body by different means. The NVA realized that the majority of their traps were powerful enough to kill an average-sized human being if they’d hit the right spot but to ensure that any contact with the spikes would be a certain deathblow, Victor Charlie slathered each and every one of nature’s nasty nails in the most readily available poison they’d had – a nice thick coating of what Mai referred to as “human recycle.”
The functionality and intensity of these sadistic snares ranged and varied in both size and form – the most savage, in my opinion, being the rolling trap. This particular impediment had been designed employing a three-foot long by two-foot wide rectangular hole that dropped five feet down and had a pair of suspended, spike-laden rolling pins on each side at the top of the pit. When an unsuspecting soldier who’d been worming along in total darkness happened upon one of these doodads, gravity would take him down head first as the entire length of his body was penetrated on both sides by the overlapping shit-stained spikes of the rolling pins. If a soldier had somehow managed to get out of one of these traps – a feat which would require his leaky, Swiss-cheese-looking-ass to once again get penetrated by the same spikes that got him going in and then, on the verge of passing out from blood loss, find his way out the tunnels and back to his troops – it would be the fecal infection with lack of treatment that would soon after do him in.
Our visit to Cu Chi really made me feel for the poor teenage kids that’d gotten drafted over there who’d probably inserted themselves into enough scary holes at the massage parlors during their down time in Saigon to have to deal with this underground hell on top of it. Those guys weren’t playin’ around over there and God help you if you were one of the unlucky sons of bitches who’d gotten captured by the NVA. I’m one-hundred percent certain their stay at the Hanoi Hilton hadn’t been quite as pleasant as ours’d been at the Park Hyatt Saigon.
These tunnels were about as close as you can get to an impenetrable, self-sustaining hideout and American attempts to comb Victor Charlie out these holes – napalm attacks included – time after time proved unsuccessful. From their strategic vantage point, picking off scared little white boys wandering through the jungle must’ve been like shooting fish in a barrel and, because of being up against that on a daily basis, it’s no wonder why American Vietnamese War veterans who were spit on upon their return are so fucked up in the head. In the end, it was these invaluable arteries that had served as a crucial implement for the Viet Cong in fending off and eventually defeating the Americans and the Republic of Vietnam in 1975.
After the history lesson, Mai led us back to where we’d started and began chatting with a Vietnamese soldier who’d been sitting at a plastic table in the shade, beneath a tree. She’d said something to the man that caused him to stand up, whip out a huge machete and lop a large, green, oblong piece of fruit that’d been dangling from one of the branches above his head. He’d then laid it out on the table and sliced it to pieces with the blade.
“Here, this jackfruit,” Mai extended a large hunk in my direction while spitting seeds out mid-sentence like a ballplayer, “you try some.”
Despite a resounding “no,” Mai forced me to taste the fruit which, like the weather, felt like it had to be at least ninety degrees. I’d hate to break it to all my fellahs down in Boy’s Town, but hot fruits just aren’t my thing and as soon as Mai and the soldier boy weren’t looking, I seized the opportunity to chuck that nasty shit under a bush off to the side of where we’d been standing.
The final part of the tour was a stop at the gift shop/gun range where they allow any run-of-the-mill jag-off to walk in and fire heavy artillery without showing any credentials whatsoever. Pistols not included, the arsenal at Cu Chi consisted of about ten different firearms which’d been standard-issue during the Vietnam War Era that could, with one bullet, blow a basketball-sized hole through a human body.
The ammunition for these guns had been priced at a dollar a round. For guns that fire up to two-hundred rounds a minute, that isn’t much bang-bang for your buck. Nonetheless, each of us threw down twenty and when selecting the gun we felt would best match our respective personalities, we all turned up our noses at the AK’s and AR’s opting instead with the most powerful piece of weaponry they’d offered – the M60.
The M60 had been a gun attached to most American helicopters during the war and from the quality of it, I wouldn’t doubt if that particular one had been connected to the floor of a bird as it not-so-gracefully spun out the sky and crashed into the Vietnamese jungle. It jammed quite frequently but I didn’t mind because it made my twenty bullets last longer than the two seconds they otherwise would’ve.
Despite these malfunctions which had called for a supervisor to come over, take out and then wipe off each individual bullet with a greasy rag, pulling the trigger of an M60 had been quite an exhilarating experience. A wildly inaccurate old piece of shit – then again, maybe it was just me – this man-eater seemed to shoot anywhere but where I’d been aiming. The M60 was indescribably powerful and would no doubt leave your ass looking like hamburger meat if you were on the wrong end of the barrel. Knowing that, it had been quite comforting to see the group of vacationing 10-year-old Indian kids “poppin’ them thangs” right next to us while their fat, old, FUPA-having dad stood back and cheered them on.
Some photos from our day at Cu Chi…