Saigon 2: We join the Vietcong

Wed 10th July, 2013

Today is a day for history lessons. We become honorary members of the Vietcong.  We are met bright and early by our guide who greets us with a “comment allez-vous?” and boyish giggle and depart for a village some way to the North of Saigon which is a museum piece for the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese freedom fighters against the aggressions of the bourgeois, lackey, capitalist running dogs of imperialist, war criminal Americans (blah, blah, blah).  OK I made the last sentence up, but you get the picture.  Dave Spart would have been at home today.

En route to this display we stop at a factory which produces Lacquered goods – wooden plates with intricately inlaid designs of tigers, paddy fields and other bucolic Vietnamese scenes. We watch rows of young girls (some of whom are deformed by Dioxin poisoning) carving to the millimetre mother of pearl shapes to inlay into scored designs on pre-lacquered boards of thin wood.  It is a production line, but skilled at every station. The glued inlays are then washed and polished smooth for another fifty doses of lacquering and polishing until the finished product gleams.  Needless to say we are decanted into the shop at the end of all this display and a personal shopping assistant guides us.  With consummate skill she watches the movement of our eyeballs as they light casually on finished products (literally she catches our eye) and helpfully selects the size and shape of our purchase.  By God she is good at it.  By the time reach the door we have augmented the Vietnamese economy by a god few tens of dollars.  David is out of this.  Phil and Sue are the household designers and have the last say on selection. He photographs the process and pays the bill.

To Cu Chi.  Doubtless you have heard of “the tunnels” which the Vietcong fighters used to move around their fighters and hide from the sight of the American infantry and the bombs from the B52s in their sky.  Cu Chi is a large open air military museum dedicated to the field craft of the Vietcong.  Let’s do an orders briefing.

Ground:    This is tropical rain forest. Jungle as we might call it.  It is not a good place to be fighting an infantry war.  You can’t see where you are going – even in daylight for, it is dense. Air cover is next to useless as the helicopter pilots and gunners can’t see you or your enemy.

Your enemy is a bunch of guerrillas. They are not uniformed or distinguishable from non-combatants.  The non combatants are partisan supporters of your enemy and adept at playing dumb.  Your enemy are lightly armed and highly mobile.  Their resupply is animal/human-carried and impossible to interdict for it travels by track and by night.

Situation: You are fighting an ideological war against an idea, Communism.  You are doing it because your Government fears that all of Indo China (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Singapore) will tumble like dominoes into a totalitarian morass which resembles China or the Soviet Union.  The natural resources of Malaysia (Tin and Rubber) and the strategic port of Singapore are at risk. With the support of the losing side in Vietnam you decide to make a stand here and protect the “free” world from such domination.  The French pulled out a few years ago giving it up as a bad job.

Mission:   To prevent the Vietnamese Communists from over-running the whole of Vietnam.  (They already dominate the northern half of the country).

Enemy forces:   Fanatical guerrillas, organised in cells with a common purpose but no common command and control, ideologically and patriotically motivated; armed and trained by their northern compatriots and the Chinese military.  Supplied over several routes from China (via Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia who are friendly / neutral, skilled jungle fighters and ingenious sappers).

Allied forces:   US Army infantry supported by helicopter and US Air force bombers with seemingly infinite fire power.  Training and combat experience – middling to poor.

Command and Control:  The whole of the US war machine, Army, Navy and Air Force. You’d think it was a no brainer militarily, but the good guys lost and scarpered.

Our Cu Chin tour starts with a briefing in a low thatched hut.  There is a short grainy black and white  film setting out the Vietcong point of view and showing how they hid themselves from view. We are shown how trap doors (all wood and undetectable) are set into the ground and which link to the tunnels enabling combatants to disappear and reappear like deadly moles. Oh, and they made “easy to spot” ones too as decoys that led nowhere and were booby trapped. We are then treated to a grisly display of the various simple man traps which would be dug into tracks and which would “embugger” any infantry advance.  All had nasty metal spikes coated with fermenting s**t  to dirty any inflicted wound.  Tree-born ones, like heavy spiked coconuts on strings would swing down and pierce faces when tripped. All of these spikes and weapons were made from the Americans’ re-cycled bomb shrapnel.  The whole array was medieval in its simplicity and barbarity and designed to slow down an infantry advance to the speed of a tortoise with a probing stick. High explosive anti-personnel mines were an additional too,l with small charges and shrapnel to remove a foot or a lower limb from any unfortunate soldier.  This needed casualty evacuation, more resources and so on. Brilliant really.

The tunnels contained whole villages – catering, medical, meeting rooms  Elaborate “friend or foe” procedures were in order to prevent anyone individual knowing (& potentially betraying) too much.  We were allowed to traverse a few hundred metres of these tunnels, about 5m below ground level, running along in the crouch position round bends and up and down steps until we came out into a large dug out.  Our tourist tunnel was lit, but operationally it was all done in the dark.  It was terrifyingly claustrophobic. Some of the passages had a Vietnamese person sized chicane that no US squaddie (or David) could squeeze through  The idea of a combat confrontation in these circumstances fills one with the screaming hab-dabs.  Small wonder then that the US Soldiers were reluctant to enter them.

Pattern bombing from the sky made a lot of holes in the ground (into which our doughty sappers tipped their spoil) but proved ineffective in inflicting significant casualties on the communists or destroying their tunnels.  Frustration led to soldiers inflicting ever more revolting atrocities on Vietnamese combatants and civilians alike until US public opinion – highly informed by war correspondents and TV coverage – and too many body bags, tipped the political balance away from continuing a war.  An ignominious retreat from Saigon – the last men by helicopter from the embassy roof – allowed a communist victory, which style of government has ruled ever since.  Interestingly all the dominoes are still in place.  Our tour guide does a very well informed and quite passionate commentary.  We are pretty sure where his political sympathies lie.  We were undergraduates in London and we were at the Grosvenor Square riot in 1968.  I can recall the unpopularity of this war, but have little personal knowledge of the detail of its history.  I am minded to go back now and read about it.

This was a heady experience and after another gentle lunch and some heated political discussions we head back to the city.

Our afternoon is a trip to the theatre.  There is a delightful theatrical tradition of water puppetry, in which the stage is a shallow lake (about waist deep as it turns out, 6m wide and 3m from front to back) and the backdrop is a curtain beneath a large pagoda.  On either side of the stage is half of a 6 piece orchestra with twangy and plucky instruments + percussion stuff and a bowed single-string viol.  They provide entre-act music and spoken commentary of the story + songs. They are dressed in some traditional costume and cute head-wear.  The action is a series of scenarios about the farmer’s year – rice planting with water buffalo, catching ducks and frogs, fishing, passing exams and a triumphal return, boat racing and a contest between Dragon, Phoenix, Unicorn and Tortoise.

The actors are puppets and puppet combinations, all about 50cm high, which appear to float on, or move in the water and perform actions, dances or combat which are stylised and quite convincing.  They come to front of stage (about 3m) and then disappear behind the curtain.  All is controlled by 6 quite burly puppeteers (they are hidden but come out and bow at the end) whose creatures are on underwater poles with ducking, diving, dancing and fighting movements enabled.  It really is most clever and we are transfixed like the children in the audience as by a Punch and Judy show.  When the puppeteers appear we applaud them loudly.  It is quite charming and very entertaining. We have not seen the like before.

Dinner that night is taken on a moored river boat. Well you just have to do these things don’t you? Jubilate! We are let of the leash and released into the night market to buy souvenirs. It is 38C and 90% humid so we “glow” a little. Sue is in full purchase mode and David is allowed to barter for things.  We buy our grandson T shirts, ourselves: table cloths, his and hers knock-off Rolex watches ($10), and some sweeties.  At last we are in bed asleep.  It has been a most stimulating day.

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