by Hank Leukart
May 29, 2011
Did Pizza Hut win the Vietnam War?
Bicycling to the Cu Chi Tunnels and War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
The "economic miracle" of capitalism has deeply infiltrated Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where most own a motorized scooter. (view all Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam photos)
This is the last essay in a series about cycling through Vietnam. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.H
O CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — After a boat ride across Nha Trang Bay and a tour of coffee and flower plantations in Da Lat, my cycling group lands in Vietnam’s largest city: Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon). Considering that we’re in the largest city in a Communist country, we’re surprised to see streets packed with car and motorcycle traffic with a wide selection of upscale retail stores. We see luxury hotel brands like Hyatt and Sheraton, fashion brands like Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, and restaurant chains like Hard Rock Cafe, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, KFC, and Pizza Hut. We don’t feel much like we’re swathed by Communism when my mom and I visit the French colonial Majestic Hotel’s rooftop breakfast buffet, which serves a lavish Western-style breakfast. While waiting for the elevator after eating a custom-made omelet, I start talking to two twenty-something American tourists, Lauren and Nicole, who are sneaking plates piled high with food into the elevator.
“Hungry, girls?” I ask.
“My mom broke her leg, so we’re bringing her breakfast in bed,” Lauren says, winking at me. I can’t tell if she’s winking because she’s pleased to have concocted an outstanding lie designed to make me feel guilty for accusing her or if it’s just that she thinks that I’m cute. I hope that it’s both. In the elevator, Lauren tells me that her mom broke her leg right before their scheduled Christmas trip to Asia, but the three decided to go ahead with the trip anyway. Her food-stealing cover story is, at least, somewhat convincing. Lauren and Nicole say goodbye to me at their floor, and I ride the elevator down to meet my mom and the rest of the cycling group outside. We start cycling toward the Cu Chi Tunnels, an enormous, underground, 75-mile tunnel network used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
After parking our bikes at the Cu Chi Tunnels entrance, we’re ushered into an underground bunker, where Cao, a 60-something man who served with the Viet Cong, starts telling us about his War experience. I’m a little surprised to encounter a Vietnamese man in his sixties, because we’ve seen very few Vietnamese people over 40 years old during our cycling trip. Much of the time, we’ve been surrounded on roads by young children on bikes and teenagers on motorcycles. From Cao’s description of the War, it’s clear why this has been the case: a disturbingly large number of Vietnamese were killed or left the country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Pointing at a map and diorama, Cao explains how Vietnamese soldiers and families tried to live underground for years in bunkers like the one in which we’re sitting. He says that the bunkers included hospitals, arms stores, water wells, bomb shelters, and kitchens. The underground kitchens had long chimneys, so that smoke would be adequately diffused before reaching the ground, keeping the tunnels hidden. The tunnels also included booby traps made from bamboo spikes and grenade trip wires, which made it more difficult for American “Tunnel Rat” soldiers to infiltrate the tunnels.
Cao tells us that tens of thousands of people were killed in the tunnels, and his graphic descriptions of the terror he felt when American forces tried to attack the tunnels by bombing them, filling them with water, or throwing grenades down into them, are as terrifying as similar stories I’ve heard about the War from the American point of view. I’m horrified by the idea of being drowned or crushed underground while baking muffins in a secret, underground kitchen.
Still, Cao boasts of the exceptional resilience of the North Vietnamese, who had very little technology as compared to the American military. As I listen, it’s hard for me to know how to feel, knowing that Viet Cong were killing Americans and South Vietnamese just as Americans were trying to kill tunnel-dwelling Cao.
“But how did you escape being killed?” I ask Cao, expecting him to tell bravado-filled stories of his steadfastness.
“Pure luck,” Cao replies, in Vietnamese. “Tens of thousands of people were killed in the tunnels, and I happened to be one of the few that escaped. The war was horrible for both you and us. No one should have to fight in a war like that.”
After Cao’s presentation, Teng (our guide), brings us to see one of the tiny tunnel openings, where I get a chance to lower myself underground and hide the tunnel entrance with a camouflaged door covered in leaves. Though the tunnel has been widened for tourist use, after being in it for a single second, I start panicking and feel like I can’t breathe. I crawl out as quickly as possible.
Next, Teng takes us to a hut where a man is selling rudimentary rubber sandals made from strips of used tires. The sandals look more like refuse from a traffic accident than anything made by Teva.
“When I was a kid during in the 1980s, these were the only shoes we had,” Teng tells us. “We didn’t even have enough rice to eat. We almost never had meat to eat, but when we did, it was a very, very special day.” At first, I’m baffled by this, considering that, today, Vietnam is the world’s second-largest rice exporter. Teng explains that the Communist government didn’t loosen restrictions on commerce and private farming until 1986, but, when it did, what the Vietnamese now call the “economic miracle” resulted.
Next, we visit a “Self Made Weapons Galley,” where we see a myriad of low tech booby traps — the “Clipping Armpit Trap,” the “Folding Chair Trap,” and the “Swinging Up Trap,” all of which are variations on a hole in the ground filled with razor-sharp spikes of death. We end our tour at a shooting range, where tourists try their hand at shooting rifles used in the War at targets. Marksman can choose to shoot either from an American side with an M-16 or from a Viet Cong side, with an AK-47.
“I can’t imagine an American Vietnam War veteran visiting this place,” my mom says. I realize that I’m at the world’s most disturbed theme park.
On one hand, the Cu Chi Memorial, with its displays of damaged American tanks and Vietnamese booby traps, feels like the Vietnamese boasting of a War victory. But, underneath some of the self-aggrandizement, I detect a strong undercurrent of relief — relief that no one, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese, or Americans — have to fight another day.
In the evening, Teng takes us to a theater to see water puppetry, a Vietnamese tradition in which wooden, painted puppets perform traditional Vietnamese folk stories in a waist-deep pool. At first, I’m bewildered by his description of the unusual art form. But, during the show, my mom and I are enthralled by the beauty and humor of the performance, and I find myself wondering how it’s possible that the culture that created the delicate puppets gliding gracefully across water is the same as the one that created the “Clipping Armpit Trap.”
On our last day in Ho Chi Minh City, we decide to visit the War Remnants Museum, a museum which tells the story of the Vietnam War from a distinctly Vietnamese and propaganda-laced point of view. Exhibits describe the French as American “henchmen,” the South Vietnamese government as the “repressive and murderous U.S.-Ngo Dinh Diem regime,” and the South Vietnamese military as “puppet military forces.” Exhibit summaries charge the U.S. government with setting up concentration camps designed to “keep strict control of the people by trampling on their right to freedom of residence, freedom of movement to earn their living in a normal life.”
We walk through an “Agent Orange in the Vietnam War” exhibit, which shows disturbingly graphic photos of children with birth defects purportedly caused by the use of the defoliant Agent Orange by American forces. We also see a “Tiger Cages” exhibit, which describes violent torture techniques allegedly used by American forces against the North Vietnamese and includes reconstructions of tiny jail cells purportedly used to torture prisoners of war. Even if only half of the museum’s historical claims are true, it’s clear that the Vietnam War was a Hell on Earth for the soldiers on both sides.
As I’m leaving, though, I realize that I’m saddened by the tone of the museum. Because the Vietnam War was so unpopular even in the United States, the museum curators missed a chance to present visitors with more sophisticated depiction of the conflict by illustrating the nightmare that both the Vietnamese and the Americans experienced. Instead, I’m disappointed that it’s so easy for non-Vietnamese visitors to discount exhibits completely because they’re so one-sided.
At night, before leaving for Siam Riep, Cambodia, my mom falls asleep early, and I find myself feeling antsy. I take the elevator to the Majestic Hotel’s rooftop bar, where I run into Lauren and Nicole, the two girls I saw taking/stealing food from the breakfast buffet. They’re having drinks with Lauren’s mom, Deborah, who actually is wearing a large leg cast. I feel bad for accusing the two girls of stealing buffet food and offer to teach them all to play Hearts, a card game beloved by my dad that our family played for many years.
On the rooftop of the luxurious Majestic, as I deal cards, the four of us gaze out over Ho Chi Minh City, at skyscrapers filled with American upscale retail stores, luxury hotel chains, and fast food restaurants. I marvel at the thought that this extravagant French colonial hotel was rebuilt after the Communists took control of the country.
Sipping on a cocktail, I begin to wonder whether Ho Chi Minh, lying in a cryogenic freezer in his mausoleum in Hanoi, has any idea that, though American soldiers eventually left Vietnam, his Communist regime didn’t win the War.
I wonder what he would say if he were revived, only to discover that Pizza Hut actually won the War.
Read another essay in this series about cycling through Southeast Asia, in which we visit Angkor, Cambodia, the world’s largest religious complex.
Photographs show birth defects allegedly caused by American use of the defoliant Agent Orange in the Ho Chi Minh City War Remnants Museum.
How to Visit Vietnam’s Cu Chi Tunnels
- OVERVIEW: The Cu Chi tunnel network is famous for its strategic importance during the Vietnam War, and a visit there will certainly be one of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam. The Cu Chi area lies 65 kilometers northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the section preserved for tourists is open daily from 7 AM to 5 PM. Admission is 70,000 VND (US $3.50).
- LOGISTICS: Any tour company in HCMC will happily arrange a half-day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the nearby Cao Dai Temple. You can also hire a taxi to for the same trip (US $40). It’s possible to bike there, as we did, though our cycling guide company drove us out of HCMC city traffic to a rural road in Tan Phu Trang before we cycled the rest of the way to the Tunnels.
- ROUTE: The cycling route we took to the tunnels can be seen on the Without Baggage Cycling Vietnam and Cambodia GPS track in GPX or KML format.