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Down rabbit holes in rubber-tyre sandals in Vietnam

Around Asia Effie-Michelle Metallidis visits the Cu Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City - and nearly gets stuck inside.
A shoemaker makes Vietcong-era sandals from black rubber tyres at the Cu Chi tunnel site. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National
A shoemaker makes Vietcong-era sandals from black rubber tyres at the Cu Chi tunnel site. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National

What does it feel like to shoot military targets in former Vietcong territory?

I don't know, because the line of sight on the M1 carbine I'm using is skewed, and I keep getting distracted by the Australian next to me hooting every time his little M-16 rat-a-tat-tats.

"Very close!" the Vietnamese army officer encourages me after I nick a bottle 100 metres away. The bottles are painted a cheery Communist red, and short of pulling the carbine clear of the metal rung it's hooked onto, there is no way I'm going to pull Annie Oakley shots at a Vietnam War memorial park.

The shooting range, like the park, is run by the Vietnamese government, which operates a popular tourist destination for those interested in ambling through the leafy forests of former Vietcong trenches. For US$7 (Dh26), visitors can shoot rifles and submachine guns, and for $8 (Dh29), they can crawl through claustrophobic holes up to 15 metres underground.

Patty, my travelling companion, and I were naturally intrigued.

Forty years ago, the 121km network of the Cu Chi tunnels in northern Saigon acted as a base for Vietnam's communist resistance forces. It was carpet-bombed by American troops in one of the most disastrous military campaigns of the Cold War.

Fortunately, the enmity between Vietnam and its colonisers has been buried, allowing US imperialists, such as Patty and myself, to wander about a site peppered with camouflaged traps and 250kg US cluster bombs.

As a propaganda enthusiast, I was interested in seeing how Vietnam had constructed its national narrative after communism's decline. In this regard, Cu Chi is an emerald among gems.

Sure, propaganda poster shops are a staple of Vietnamese tourism, and hipsters with black-framed glasses can be seen poring over reprints of Ho Chi Minh and Lenin in the crowded shops of Ho Chin Minh City, but there is no propaganda quite like installation propaganda. Having been to Hizbollah's "tourism park" in the south of Lebanon, which pays homage to the guerilla group's victory over Israel, I can say that rescued enemy tanks and walk-through tours of hidden guerilla caves win over a poster any day.

As expected, the military has turned Cu Chi into a sanitised field of patriotic remembrance. Leafy trees cover the grounds of former battle sites and reconstructed huts show how the Vietcong lived, cooked, stored supplies and designed traps to thwart imperialist forces.

There are no pictures of dead bodies, no long-winded historical accounts, no memorials.

Instead, there is a black-and-white documentary touting the praises of the guerilla resistance: "The Americans wanted to turn Cu Chi into a dead land. But Cu Chi will never die," intones the voiceover. There are mannequins dressed as female and male Vietcong demonstrating how to make a death trap out of farm tools. And there are thatched, sloping-roofed huts where one can eat a Vietcong meal and buy Vietcong shoes made of rubber tyres.

I hold up a pair of baby Vietcong sandals ("for the resistance toddler in any family," I imagine a 1950s radio ad saying). They are half the size of my fingers. "What fat tourist baby can fit into these?" I wonder out loud. "You need to make these bigger if you want to sell them," I try to tell the shoemaker. He gives me a silver-toothed smile, shrugs and offers a discount.

This, in many ways, is the modern face of Vietnam, a country wise to the benefits of tourism and eager to grow its economy by appealing to foreign markets. Chinese hotels and restaurants dot the landscape, a testament to the strength of its rising tourist class, while Australian and American accents float throughout the streets of Ho Chi Minh City - and echo through the tunnels of Cu Chi.

The highlight of the park is, of course, crawling through the tunnels. So down the rabbit hole we go, curious to explore the Vietcong's labyrinthine confines.

"Check it out, Effie, I don't have to crawl," Patty calls out in front of me, her lithe Taiwanese frame covering metres of claustrophobic tunnel in seconds. "Uh-huh," I grunt, my hips wedged between the narrow sides of the clay earth, my shoulders pressed against the ceiling.

The earth is cold and grey, the maze disorientating - its clever designers built in slopes and dips and corners and turns to thwart even the most agile of invaders. Today, the tunnels are lit by dim light and graciously offer exits every few metres or so. During the war, they were laden with traps, flooded with water and set on fire as a way to ferret out occupants - or deter infiltrators from entering.

They were smaller, too. "We make the tunnel bigger for you tourists," our petite tour guide says solemnly. "You know, Vietnamese farmers, they built very small. And today, many people bigger," she adds diplomatically, puffing her arms out to indicate a fatness factor absent in 1970s Vietnamese agrarian society.

In the background, the clatter of guns can be heard as tourists enthusiastically have a go at the M-16, lending an unsettling feeling to the otherwise calm woods. I look at the mannequins installed at the end of the exhibition, bidding visitors farewell. Atrocities were committed here, as on any battlefield, and yet the souvenirs of a Vietnam War park for many remain odd rubber sandals, spent bullet cartridges and a good laugh at the rabbit holes of a bygone era.

Next week: the lies I was told about Vietnam. Catch up on Effie's adventure at Around Asia.

Updated: July 29, 2011 04:00 AM



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