On Saturday May 30, our Saigon tour guide Kwe took us northwest of the city to view the Cu Chi tunnels and Wildlife Rescue Center. As he is pointing out here, the Cu Chi tunnels spanned a considerable extent just NW of Saigon (in lower right), allowing the Viet Cong to control the Cu Chi area and continue to wreak havok even following American herbicide spraying and carpet bombing of the Cu Chi area. Clearly, Cu Chi is seen as a site of victory by the Vietnamese government…though as I learned when viewing this area via Google Earth, they've only designated a small portion for tourism, cultivating much of the remainder in rubber plantations,
Our first stop in Cu Chi was a grainy propoganda film produced in the 1960s, shown to us without background or narration (though translated into English). One must pause at the irony, but they allow you to draw your own conclusions.
The movie featured brave comrades such as the pictured woman here who rose up successfully against the invader. Of course, Viet Cong suffered far greater casualties in Cu Chi than Americans, but the difficulty the U.S. faced in regaining complete control is said to be the beginning of the end of American involvement.
As we walked through Cu Chi we were talking over tunnels everywhere. Here Bruce is lowering himself into a sample camoflaged tunnel entrance.
Later we got a chance to crawl through the tunnels ourselves. I have to say, as someone who isnt claustrophobic, that the feeling of groping through dark narrow underground tunnels gets your heart going. (They were originally booby trapped to prevent Americans from chasing VC; we didn't enjoy that portion of the tunnel experience.)
Speaking of booby traps, here is a selection of means by which VC inflicted damage on U.S. troops, all ingenious and low-tech.
The landscape of Cu Chi, of course, was entirely razed by bombs four decades ago: what you see as remnants are bomb craters, but little else. Memory plays tricks on you here, but you can imagine what Agent Orange did here, to the land and its people.
Imagine being an American solder walking through this area, where VC popped out of holes and then disappeared again. I can't imagine the fear they experienced.
Some of the VC spoils of the war…
…and, ironically enough, even a chance for the tourist (often U.S.) to shoot an AK-47!! Can you believe it? From the reports we heard during our visit, this is a popular pastime.at Cu CHi tunnels.
After we left the tunnels, Bruce and I traveled a short distance to the Wildlife Rescue Center, sponsored by a local NGO, Wildlife At Risk (WAR), "dedicated to protecting the biodiversity of Vietnam by combating the illegal wildlife trade…" More info is at www.wildlifeatrisk.org.
I asked Matt Willis, the Australian manager for the Center, why his organization originally chose such a provocative acronym, and he replied that from the government's perspective they won the (American) war, hence this battle to save wildlife may be winnable as well. Yet WAR faces all the challenges of similar organizations in effectively locating illegal use of animals (primarily in Ho Chi Minh City nearby) and retraining and eventually releasing animals successfully into the wild.
Here is a juvenile yellow-cheeked crested gibbon, surely the show-stealer of the Center's current managerie. Of course they -- and the other mammals here to some degree -- have bonded with the humans here who care for them, which does not necessarily bode well for their survival outside of captivity.
The Center has a number of otters…
…and a wide variety of turtles. One asks: why are these animals trafficked in Vietnam? A simple answer: food, often sold as exotic elsewhere.
I wouldn't say that this 100 lb cobra has exactly bonded with its human caretakers, or at least hopefully not.
Once their overweight sun bears and moon bears slim down a bit they'll be released into this new habitat. Bears are used for a number of illegal products, including bile; much of the trade is apparently with China.
Of course, the Center is able to capture, retrain, and release only a small fraction of the animals trafficked in Vietnam, so another goal of WAR is education. Here in their small interpretive center they remind you not only to avoid traps but wild meat -- almost impossible to distinguish in most markets.
Trafficking in wildlife made Bruce and I wonder a bit about one of Vietnam's biggest tourist sells, and that's its extraordinary food. Though this meal only featured pigeon (including the head), it's hard to envision a more humane future for Vietnam's animal population, nor indeed what a culturally-appropriate treatment of animals would be. Throughout our time here we realized how impossible it is to escape our roles -- tourist, scholar -- yet how important these sorts of relations are to the evolving Vietnam, and how much we and our students can learn, and possibly make a difference, via these roles.