THERE is no way of telling the story of Vietnam without making reference to the country’s 20th century wars against France and later the US.
The scars of these two conflicts still run deep today, even though on both occasions the “peasant” forces of Vietnam’s communist armies overcame the Western aggressors.
For a complete, though glaringly slanted, history of the incursions there is no better place to visit than the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City’s District Three.
Boastfully displaying shells of US helicopters, war planes and tanks in the forecourt, the museum is a modern building that clearly has been fitted out for the tourist market.
This, however, makes it no less emotional a journey for the visitor, who is impelled to look upon photographs showing the devastating effects of Agent Orange, the herbicide used by the US to kill and cause birth defects among the Vietnamese.
As a South African, I was particularly taken by a series of exhibits showing how far the Vietnamese people had come since the war. Before and after photographs provide such a stark contrast that one immediately begins to wonder where we are going wrong in our own land, which did not even suffer a bona fide war.
To really appreciate the trials and tribulations of the war a trip to the world- famous Cu Chi tunnels is a must. This area, some two hours outside Saigon, was home to communities famed for their rubber trees – a commodity that was highly exploited by the French. While initially separate from the ideologies of the northern communists they soon joined the fray, feeling they were being exploited.
In an incredible show of ingenuity they constructed a series of underground tunnels stretching more than 200km. In these they lived for 20 years, launching guerilla attacks against the US forces above ground, where they also dug brutal booby traps of metal spikes and bamboo.
The diameter of the tunnels is no wider than a small bedside cabinet, and as high. Visitors may crawl through one particular section, but if you suffer from claustrophobia then this is not for you.
While the thick jungle at Cu Chi has been cleared, enough remains for the traveller to get a good idea of how difficult it was for the Americans. The relentless heat, retained by the vast canopy above, is an obstacle in itself, but being faced with a near- invisible foe suddenly popping up made victory an impossibility.
Throughout the tour a barrage of gunfire can be heard in the distance, adding to the authenticity of the experience. This is no clever gimmick, as visitors are actually given the opportunity to fire live rounds from an M16, M60 or AK47 machine gun.