Tourism in Vietnam
This past weekend we got to go to some famous war sites with both an American War Vet and a Vietnamese War Vet. Both men were very eager to share their stories and it was interesting to hear what they had to say. Both deeply regret the war and the negative repercussions that both America and Vietnam has had to suffer. The first stop was Kim Phuc’s house. She was the young woman in this iconic picture that shook the whole world.
Her life was turned upside down when her village was bombed and she was showered with napalm. Undergoing many surgery’s, Kim’s life was eventually saved, but there was a time that a lot of doctors thought the burns were too bad to overcome. Watching the footage of her skin falling of her body was horrific and in one clip there was a mother carrying her baby who was burned to death. Visiting her house right on the road of where the bomb dropped was surreal and while Kim now lives in Canada, her relatives run a little coffee shop in the house. They show the movie about Kim’s life and how her life since the bomb has progressed from being an innocent girl to now a piece of war propaganda.
Next we were off to the Cao Dai temple. Cao Daism is an old religion that was established in Southern Vietnam. Those who follow this religion are on a spiritual journey to free themselves from the cycle of birth and death. The temple is a beautiful site. Then we were off to the famous Cu Chi tunnels. This was an under ground network that runs throughout the country. These tunnels were the Vietcong’s home base during the war. All of their fighting was stealth and the American troops were often caught off guard by the guerilla fighting strategies. The Americans did figure out that the Vietcong were hiding under ground, but because the tunnels were so well hidden the Americans found themselves struggling to find the entrances to this massive underground database. One way to access the tunnels was through the river. Underground they had everything: layers of rooms where families lived, and even a hospital for their injured troops! There were meeting rooms where the operations for the Tet Offensive took place and they even had kitchens. The Vietcong came up with a brilliant system for letting the smoke out of the tunnels without giving themselves away. Through a layer of chambers the smoke slowly dissipated until just a wisp of smoke was released on the ground above. It was scary to see how the Vietcong used the jungle to their advantage. In one exhibit they show how the traps worked if you stepped on one. Anyone who stepped foot in one of these traps suffered a slow and painful death. For example there was a trap called the see-saw trap. If you stepped on it you fell into a ditch and the spiked boards caught on to your skin and swung you up and down only to fall on more spikes when your skin was torn through.
We got to crawl through the tunnel as well. This was really cool and the tunnel was so small. It has even been made wider to fit tourists, but I don’t think a lot of average Americans would be able to fit through the newly fashioned tunnels. This site was certainly eye opening because the Vietcong’s style of fighting is never taught in America. There are still bomb ditches where American bombs were dropped and in the central region there are still many land mines that have killed many people in recent years.
While Vietnam’s history is ridden war and destruction, the country’s future has had to face a completely different kind of battle. The reconstruction of Vietnam since the war has been somewhat of a rocky road. The country is not only caught amidst international power struggles, but it also finds itself fighting internal battles as well. Tourism has become a huge economic pull for Vietnam, yet it is also extremely controversial. The image Vietnam has chosen to promote in many of its tourist attractions allows for tourists to fulfill phantasmal ideas they hold about the war. Yet, the country also wants to promote themselves as “more than just a war.” With the pressure and desire to become a world power, Vietnam has placed itself into quite a sticky situation.
Scholar Victor Alneng argues that Vietnam’s tourist business promotes ideological ideas that westerns have about the Vietnam/ United States war. He calls this understanding, “Phantasmic” The Cu Chi tunnels is a perfect example of this phantasmic understanding foreigners dream of. While it is a historical site and that played an important role in the American War, it has also been turned into an amusement park. There is a hotel there and other tourist attractions, and most controversial of all, a stop on the trail where you could pay $2 to shoot a huge gun. Here is where Vietnam’s future identity is muddled. This tourist attraction has pulled large groups of Westerners in because it plays up this fantasized idea about the war. These envisioned images people have engrained in their mind about the war such as the heavy artillery and the chemical weapons come from Hollywood films and westerns expect to have that sensation of war when they step foot in Vietnam. While Vietnam is making money off these tourists, the country only seems to be plunging its image into this western obsession with the war. By doing this, the country’s global image is tainted and the country’s wishes to move past the war cannot be met due to country’s creation of a tour-able place.
Overall, I believe that Vietnam has every right to remember the war in any way they want. The war left the country in ruins and the damage is still present today. There can be a lot learned from tourist sites such as the Cu Chi tunnels, but you must be careful with what kind of image you are promoting. If Vietnam continues to support the fantasized ideas that Hollywood projects, then the country will never truly be able to move forward. Maybe Vietnam shouldn’t focus as much on the war as the main attraction for tourists, yet the country makes money off war because war sells. If Vietnam did minimize the focus on war there is a risk that people would be less inclined to visit thus eliminating some cash flow to the country. Quite an interesting juxtaposition.