Distorting History at the Cu Chi Tunnels
The tour package included a bus trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
This location was an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi District of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
The area witnessed several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and was the Viet Cong's base of operations for the later part of the Tết Offensive in 1968.
The tour group was all Australian. During the outward journey from Saigon, our guide just happened to sit next to me. We spoke in Vietnamese and English whereupon, I told him I was in Saigon in 1968.
His reaction was to inform me that his father, at the time, was aged five.
The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction. Visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate tourists. Low-power lights have been installed in the tunnels to make travelling through them easier, and both sites have displays of the different types of booby traps that were used.
The group was fed “bullshit” stories that embellished military achievements over “the Americans”.
The above-ground attractions include caged monkeys, vendors selling souvenirs, and a shooting range where visitors can fire a number of assault rifles, such as the M16 rifle or AK-47, as well as a light machine gun like the M60.
At the end, there was a regathering of our group in an open conference hall which had a large wall map of the region on display.
The purpose was for the tour guide to feed us propaganda.
I was getting agitated.
There was a break in his presentation while another video was being loaded. I tried to get out of my seat in the third or fourth row only to have my trouser belt snatched by Carmel and abruptly pulled back down.
I evaded her next grab and scurried towards my guide-chum now located at the lectern.
I asked him if I could address the group.
No problem, as he handed over the pointer stick.
I tapped on our present location and said that in May 1968, a large Australian force of about 3,000 solders ( some 60% of our total commitment) was operating in this exact area and would the group like to hear about Operation Balmoral?
The wall map was a magnificent aid. In 5-10 minutes, I explained the geo political and strategic significance of the intervention as well as the cost in terms of dead and wounded.
I was not glorifying the month long engagement - I was simply providing some much needed "Balance".
We traveled by bus to Phnom Penh. It seemed to take all day – the longest part being pandemonium at the border where officials were intent on making things difficult for people who were obvious tourists.
Cambodia 2015 compared to my recollection of Cambodia 1967 was incomparable.
The people seemed meeker and more friendly. But tourism is still in its infancy and the population still seems traumatised by the Killing Fields genocide. We were taken to one location where indeed there was a pall in the air. Collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979.
It was with a sense of depression that Carmel and I decided not to continue with the tour that ended by a visit to Angkor Wat. (I had been there in 1967 and Carmel was out of sorts.)
So we reorganised our tickets and went home.
It did not occur to us to advise the tour company representative.
When we got home we were greeted with a phone call from its HQ.
It seemed that Cambodia was still considered kidnapping territory and we were reported as “missing”.