Monday, March 22, 2010

Cu Chi and Lai Khe

One of the reasons I wanted to come to Vietnam was to see some of the areas where my dad served during the Vietnam War. Although 70% of the Vietnamese population alive today was born after the end of the war in 1975, the landscape still bears the evidence of the war. One area where this is most apparent is the Cu Chi tunnel system about 30 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City.

This elaborate underground system (at the peak of activity there were over 250 km (150 miles) of tunnels) enabled the Viet Cong to fight (and win) the war despite having fewer resources and firepower. In the beginning when the US came to Vietnam they didn't know about the tunnels and actually built a few bases right on top of the largest sections. Eventually they discovered the tunnels and developed methods of fighting and destroying them. However, because of how well they were built and the nature of the clay that they were burrowed in, many of the tunnels still survive.

The tour is somewhat surreal at times. For example there's a large section of primitive traps that the Viet Cong developed which our tour guide was a bit too enthusiastic about: "Look, here is a bamboo booby trap that plunges sharp bamboo right into the American's knee!" The "video" they show you is pure North Vietnamese propaganda from 1967 (literally, it was produced in 1967). And, there's a shooting range as part of the tour where you can shoot M-16s, AK-47s or one of at least 10 other types of guns (bullets were between 15,000 and 30,000 dong (75 cents to $1.50) each depending on the gun, with a 10 bullet minimum). In case you're wondering, we didn't try the guns out. Those who didn't want to shoot could buy ice-cream instead (and listen to the loud bang as others shot guns about 30 feet away).

We got to climb into and through the tunnels. Here's Jaimee poking her head out of a very small tunnel entrance:
And, here I am climbing around on a tank that acted like an adult jungle gym:
Today, we hired a private guide and car (which came with a driver in addition to the guide) to take us out to Lai Khe, the area where my dad was stationed from 1967 to 1968. When we booked the tour we were warned that there isn't much left of the American base, but to our surprise our guide Hung showed us several bunkers, and an old airstrip. Hung was also a veteran of the war, working for the North Vietnamese Army from age nine (!) to 19. He retired in 1975 as a 19-year old officer and was sent to Czechoslovakia to study for six years. He was really cool, and he even bought us our coffee when we stopped at a little road-side shack near the old base (the picture of him in the hammock was taken while getting coffee). Here Hung and I are on the old airstrip:
It was hard to imagine what the area was like during the war. Hung emphasized how much it's changed because of the war. He said that prior to building the base the Americans razed the area, both with bulldozers and with chemicals such as napalm and Agent Orange. And since the end of the war, farmers planted rubber trees, the Chinese built a couple steel factories and there are lots of industrial brick and ceramic kilns in the area. All that's left of the American base are a few bunkers and the crumbling asphalt from the airstrip (Hung pointed out that it was actually good quality asphalt). Be sure to check out all the photos from both Cu Chi and Lai Khe.

I won't say that it was completely anti-climactic to visit Lai Khe, but it is something that I've wanted to do for many years and it's kind of strange for it to now be over. I am sad that my dad is no longer living as seeing the area brings to mind many questions of what it was like when he was here. He didn't talk about the Vietnam war very much and, as he passed away when I was 16, I never really asked him too many questions about it. Now that I've visited his old base, I think the only quest left with regard to his Army stint would be to look up and find some of his fellow soldiers. But, as he never talked about any of them, I don't know how feasible this would be. In any event, this is a digression for another day...

Tomorrow we head to India! After two months in Southeast Asia, although we've loved it here, I think we are ready to move on. Plus, there will be Indian food!


  1. Except in India they just call it "food."

    Awesome post!

  2. I bought 5 bullets for $1 each and did fire an AK47. Very different sound.

  3. We are planning a trip to Vietnam and want to visit Lai Khe. Can you help us get in touch with Hung? He sounds like just what we were hoping to find and would like to contact him.
    You can send me an email at


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