Read every word, and no one gets hurt.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Chapter Five - Cu Chi

Believe it or not, this is the fifth chapter and I am just now describing our first full day in Vietnam. At this rate… never mind, I don’t want to think about it.

Our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City– the An-An (pronounced ayng-ayng, sort of) – was one room wide, two rooms long, and eleven stories tall. That morning we climbed to the highest floor (or took the elevator) for the first time, where we found the room on the right was the kitchen, and the room on the left was a small dining area. This was where we would breakfast every morning on whatever happened to strike our fancy from the menu. Personally, I opted for yogurt, fresh fruit (anybody ever tried dragon-fruit?), and bread just about every morning. The breakfast menu was where we got our first money conversion shock. Imagine looking at the menu and discovering it costs 10,000 dong for two eggs and bread… and then puzzling it out until you figure out it’s actually about sixty cents.

Even in the morning, it was sticky and too warm, but the dining room had two walls that were nearly completely windows… and the view was fabulous. How can I describe it... ? If you’ve ever seen a massive city that’s not too clean, that’s a good start. Now make all the buildings really narrow and close together (think San Francisco) and add lots of bright colors. We didn’t see many beige or brown buildings in that city – they were yellow, orange, blue, green, and pink! Now place a few cars in the streets, but just a few… and then fill every highway and byway with speeding mopeds! Add fruit stands on almost every corner, with lots of people lounging outside on white plastic chairs… and you’ve just about got it.

After breakfast we hopped in a couple taxi-vans and headed over to the Cu-Chi Tunnels, which I had never heard of until that morning. Cu-Chi. Sounded like something you might say to a baby to make it smile. Turns out it’s a site that has preserved the underground tunnels the Viet Cong used in guerilla warfare during the Vietnam war. Cu Chi. Sounds so innocent.

Upon arriving at the tunnels, we were taken by our tour guide into a hot, close little room where we were shown a video portraying the communist Vietnamese perspective on the war. Quite alarming. It made me feel ill to hear a triumphant female voice hail the mighty war heroes, who had slain hundreds of American soldiers single-handedly! The crueler the death, the higher the glory. If an American had to lie suffering for a day before he bled to death, the Viet Cong that built the trap was lauded all the more.

We were shown a little mini-model of what the tunnels were like and how far they reached underground. I felt avidly curious and at the same time repulsed at the thought of so many men living in tiny spaces underground, all in order to wage a kind of warfare hitherto unknown to American soldiers. Afterwards, when we walked outside and were shown many secret entrances to the tunnels, I smelled a hint of the fear that our troops must have walked with as they cautiously entered the area. A trap could be at your very feet, a hidden sniper three feet behind you, or ten soldiers directly under you, and you would never know it until you were wounded. It made my spine crawl.

Maybe you’ve read about these tunnels, and the types of warfare that surrounded them, but actually being there was mind-boggling. Several of the tunnels had been carved out a little larger than they were originally, in order to facilitate the backsides of “fat American tourists” (such as ourselves.) Most of the team braved the dark and the creepy-crawlers and made the descent into the earth. I’ll never forget that experience…

I went in a few feet behind Pastor Darin, somehow feeling a little less spooked with him close by. I felt like I barely fit, walking completely hunched over, with knees bent. In front of me, Pastor Darin practically filled the entire tunnel, blocking all light that was coming up. (There were little electric lights installed every fifteen feet or so that made everything a little more bearable – at least we didn’t have to feel our way through!) I felt the twenty-five feet of earth resting above me, and I was so glad to see a ray of daylight coming from the exit of the tunnel, a steep ladder climbing nearly straight up out of the tunnel. There was the option of going down another three meters, but I was told the tunnel got much smaller and went on another thirty feet or so. I opted out, and reached the fresh air gratefully.

Probably the most disturbing thing about Cu Chi was not the radical video we were shown, nor the system of underground tunnels that were used for cruel warfare, but the actual traps that were still in place. We saw deep pits filled with sharp spikes, cleverly covered with innocent-looking trap doors. We saw small holes dug in the earth that would imbed a soldier’s leg with more metal spikes, positioned in such a way as to keep him from ever pulling his leg back out. We saw the traps they placed in civilian huts, which would kill the person who first entered. We saw so many things I wish I could forget, and yet somehow I know the knowledge of them is worth having.

There was an American tank still sitting in the spot where it had been taken by the Vietnamese. Somehow that made me the saddest of all. I don’t know why. I thought of the men who had been driving it, who no doubt met their Maker in that very spot. It was sobering. It made me think about eternity.

There was a place you could pay five bucks to shoot an actual gun of some kind. (I know nothing about guns, so I can’t tell you what kind. The army kind, I guess. All I know is that many of the guys, and even some of the girls, were very excited at the opportunity.) Several did it. I just covered my ears and tried not to think of those very same types of guns ending lives. I didn’t do a whole lot of smiling at Cu Chi.

Before we done, we had to pass through the inevitable gift shop area. I actually bought my mom a little collectible there, but I can never look at it without shuddering. Tim bought me a drink. That’s a strange detail to remember, but you have to keep in mind how thirsty the heat can make you! It seemed like the one of the most important events of the day, that bottle of soda pop.

After that we scrambled back into the taxi-vans (I keep calling them that because I don’t know if they have a real name)… Oh wait. Before we left, I made the entire group wait while I went to the bathroom. Seriously, the whole week I was one of the only team-members who consistently drank enough. I considered myself the Water Mom, even though I’m not a mom, bringing a large bottle of water everywhere with me so I could share with those who didn’t think ahead. Anyway, I did need to use the restroom, and I do believe the experience was altogether unpleasant.

Finally, we did make our way back to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and found ourselves once again very grateful for our air-conditioned hotel rooms. It was only mid- or late-afternoon, but we were ready for a nice breather before dinner and our team meeting. Dinner was at the Café 3-3-3 (go banana shakes and pineapple pizza!), and the team meeting I’ll leave for another day. Believe me, it needs its own story.

Until next time!

Friday, April 22, 2005

A Commonly Known Fact

'Plus One' makes great cleaning music!

Friday, April 01, 2005

A Promise

Look, people, I've had some other things on my mind lately, okay? But I want to reassure you that I will post again, and I will do it soon. I promise.

Hmm. That reminds me of an unspeakably horrible dramatic production I saw last night. Honestly - a friend asked how it was, and I literally answered "unbelievably bad." But anyway, in that scary-beyond-all-reason (for reasons of its poor quality) musical, the antagonist promises a little boy that if he brings his brother and sisters to her, he will be made a prince and will be able to eat turkish delight for the rest of his days! Later on, when she instead makes him her slave, she claims "witches don't have to keep their promises - they only have to make them!"

All that to say, I am not a witch. Really, when I promise I will post, I mean it. And not only do I mean it, I mean to do it. (Are you as confused as I am?) So once again I say it...

I will post again, and I will do it soon. I promise.