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 Visit the Vietcong's World: Americans Welcome

By Seth Mydans, , July 7, 1999

CU CHI, Vietnam -- The rattle and pop of automatic weapons greet a visitor. Young women in the black pajamas of the Vietcong flit through the woods. A man in green fatigues picks his way down a narrow trail, leading a small platoon of foreign tourists.

This is the site of the Cu Chi tunnels, one of the most famous battlegrounds of the Vietnam War. Today it is one of the country's prime tourist attractions, part of a new industry of war tourism. Sometimes, these spots seem to be memorials to wartime propaganda as much to the war itself.

Following the man in green fatigues, the tourists arrive at an open-sided hut, where the women in black show them to their seats. There, on a big-screen television set, the Vietnam War plays on: B-52's drop strings of bombs, villagers run for cover, communist guerrillas fight back.

For those who still don't get the message, a narrator says:

"Cu Chi, the land of many gardens, peaceful all year round under shady trees ... Then mercilessly American bombers have ruthlessly decided to kill this gentle piece of countryside ... Like a crazy bunch of devils they fired into women and children ... The Americans wanted to turn Chu Chi into a dead land, but Cu Chi will never die."

Knitting past and present jarringly together, the gunfire in the film mingles with that of the nearby firing range, where visitors can pay $1 a bullet to shoot an AK-47 rifle.

Since the war ended in 1975 with a communist victory, Vietnam has rebuilt and moved on. It is almost impossible to find anyone who still talks like the soundtrack of the Cu Chi film. Even the young women in black, who work as guides and ground keepers, dismiss the hard language, repeating instead today's government line: We're all friends.

But in their new struggle for foreign currency, the Vietnamese are exploiting their harsh history, offering visits to long-forgotten places that were once considered vital to America's national interests. Most of the visitors here are foreigners; the Vietnamese who come are mostly schoolchildren with their teachers.

The Cu Chi tunnels, a 75-mile-long underground maze where thousands of fighters and villagers could hide, are at the top of the list of tourist spots for Ho Chi Minh City, 45 miles to the southeast. Another is the city's Museum of War Remnants, with its displays of captured weapons and its catalog of horrors, which only recently amended its name, with changing times, from the Museum of American War Crimes.

Hue, the ancient capital, familiar to many Americans as the scene of heavy fighting in the Tet offensive in 1968, is the hub of a network of war tours. Streetside kiosks offer lists of attractions: "Khe Sanh, Dong Ha, Marble Mountain, China Beach, bombed-out church, DMZ with statue of Ho Chi Minh."

Even the site of the American massacre at My Lai has been turned into something of a theme park, with a cemetery, museum, professional storytellers and a memorial reading, "Forever hate the American invaders."

There are plans to develop the DMZ -- the wartime demilitarized zone separating the north and the south -- as well as parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, neither of which now offer much for tourists to see.

Many of the visitors to these sites, like most of their guides, are too young to remember the war. Relatively few tourists come from the United States. For most people who come here, the war is a distant curiosity.

But for the last few years, since travel to Vietnam became more open, groups of American veterans have come in search of remembered battlefields. A small number of American tour companies specialize in guiding them and gaining permission to visit remote areas.

"They get a feeling of closure; that's the big benefit of going back as a veteran," said Richard Schonberger, director of veterans programs at a travel agency in Washington called Global Spectrum.

"We left suddenly," he said. "Now you know how the story ended. All the Vietnamese are very friendly. It's a different country now."

That can be disorienting, said Chuck Searcy, the Hanoi representative of Vietnam Veterans of America, which now runs prosthetics and rehabilitation programs.

"Everything has changed," Searcy said. "Almost every time, the vets are disappointed. They can't figure out where anything was: Was it here or was it that hill over there? That piece of rusted metal was the gate to a big army base. You go to Long Binh: It's an export-processing zone now."

One American tour company uses a global positioning satellite to pinpoint battle locations for its clients, said Paulette Curtis, a graduate student in social anthropology at Harvard who is studying returning veterans.

"I've been to Hill 10, Hill 37, Hill 55 and Hill 65," she said, naming old battlegrounds. There isn't much to see. "You go to Khe Sanh and it's just coffee plantations and black pepper trees. The world of the vets' tour is completely different from the rest of Vietnam."

The sites that have been restored for tourists, with their soft drink stands, hawkers and eager guides, are almost as unrecognizable.

At Cu Chi, the visitor is greeted by a sign reading: "Please try to be a Cu Chi guerrilla. Wear these uniforms before entering tunnel." Black pajamas, pith helmets, rubber sandals and old rifles are available.

Here and there, swimming pool-sized holes in the ground are neatly labeled: "B-52 crater."

The woods are dotted with souvenir kiosks selling these items: a lighter made from a bullet, a pen made from bullets, a bullet on a chain, rubber sandals, an "I've Been to the Cu Chi Tunnel" T-shirt.

Also abundantly available, as they are wherever tourists are awaited in southern Vietnam, are Zippo lighters engraved with reproductions of the swashbuckling mottos that were popular among American G.I.'s:

"Death is my business and business has been good."

"I know I'm going to heaven because I've already been to hell: Vietnam."

"I am not scared just lonesome. Vietnam 68-69."

The tunnels themselves are undeniably impressive. Throughout the war, the South Vietnamese Communists, or Vietcong, continually expanded the three-level network, which included mess halls, meeting rooms, an operating theater and even a tiny cinema.

When the war was over, the people of Cu Chi went to work on the tunnels once again, widening parts of them and adding steps and lighting so that foreign tourists could wriggle in for a look.

"I got claustrophobia big time," said Lawrence W. Goichman, a recent visitor from Stamford, Conn. "I crawled about 30 yards and then I took the first emergency exit."

But he added: "It's very clean down there. The guide said they have someone dusting every day. They actually let you eat the food that the people that fought were eating."

He said he enjoyed his visit to Cu Chi. But he said the Vietnamese still have some work to do in developing their tourist sites. "Let's put it this way," Goichman said. "It wasn't as good as Disneyland."

 Images Remain For "Little Bear 714" Gunner

By- Tony Lazzarini

   The following true story is a tribute to the men of A. company, 25th Aviation Battalion, also known as "Little Bear," who served in teh Republic of Vietnam.
   Reprinted by permission of the author from his book, "Never Trust a man in Curlers".
   In late October 1967, an armored personnel carrier with numerous troops on board rolled on top of a powerful anti-tank mine. Th eensuing explosion killed four men and severely injured several others.
   Vulnerable and alone their distress call for a dust-off was responded to by the closest helicopter in the area. The huey Little Bear 714 was returning to base from it's lone previous mission.
    Two round trips were needed to deliver th ewounded to a base hospital. It would take a perilous third trip in darkness to retrieve the bodies of the dead.
    Hastily we loaded the last of th edead into a helicopter. Above me the rotor blades were spinning frantically grasping for enough air to remove us from the engulfing jungle. A voice in my flight helmet cried out, "we're taking hits." The crewchief's ,machine gun responded with a burst of yellowish orange tracers that disappeared into the night shrouded jungle. "I'm In," I shouted and squeezed into the small space behind my own machine gun. We started to lift off when flashes of whitee appeared from the shrinking earth. I could hear the splats as the bullets searched th eship for another host. I yanked back on the trigger if my weapon and fired, and fired. The burning APC remained as a marker to soon fade and vbe forgotten, like it's unfortunate crew. In the real world, grieving parents would be left with only tears and memories.
   "Where are you hit?" "What?" I replied. "Where are you hit?" again questioned the medic. We were back on th elanding pad of the base hospital. The last body was being carried away on an olive green stretcher. The medic pointed to my blood-drenched arm. "It's not mine," I informed him coldly and turned back to re-enter my ship. Light from the well lit pad revealed a palette of blood left by our passengers. The rotor blades fan effect had spray painted the inside of the Huey with a red sticky coating. Three bullet holes ventilated the area around my perch.
    Jerry,the crewchief was staring down at a puddle of red dish-black fluid growing under the tail boom. The pilot was shutting down the engine to examine a strange whistling sound coming from one of the rotor blades. It would soon reveal a .30-caliber incision.
    Once again, in my seat behind the machine gun. I leaned back against the bulkhead and closed my eyes. "I'll be back in the states in 10 more days, and all this will be forgotten," I said to myself.
    I was wrong, I have never forgotten. Tony Lazzarini-Iron Triangle Oct 27, 1967.

 Return To Thai My Village

By- Troy Thomas

10 May 1999
Thai My Village
Viet Nam

     Somber satisfaction is etched in his furrowed brow.  With arms hanging limply to the side, he also seems a bit uncertain in his black T-shirt and faded yellow surfer shorts.  Our meeting had been fortuitous, adding a needed human element to a primarily data and map driven hunt.  He knew what happened better then we ever would.  Although he says little, his unhesitating willingness to guide our way reveals a genuine understanding and communicates the gravity of what he witnessed as a former ARVN soldier of seven years.  Our guide, Viet, calls him Doung, which is pronounced Yung.  
It is 1150, and the sun makes a noticeable impression.  The sky is a familiar, soft blue, punctuated with petite white clouds. There is no escaping the heat among these rice paddies.  Flood's ever-present dirt brown towel is already soaked.  Dan looks as fresh as the rice, reinforcing our common conviction that he not entirely human. The fresh green shoots are interspersed with a flowing yellow grass and shimmering black water.  Scrub brush is to our south.  It is green now, but we have each stared at the 1969 photo for too long, leaving only the impression of a terrain scorched by defoliant and battle. Still, we each comment on the serenity of the scene, which is only enhanced by the infrequent puttering of a motorbike on the nearby dirt road.  We had passed this place earlier on the same road, proceeding too far south.  We mistook a navigable canal for the dry one in our photo.  Flood was on his game; however, and quickly suggested a return to the intersection followed by a carefully measured pacing to our ultimate destination.  It was back as this intersection that we met Doung.
           Brian gravitated to the children, enthralling them with soap bubbles and his floppy hat.  While Brian diverted the gathering of Thai My villagers, Viet explained our journey to Doung, who nervously climbed in our van for the short drive.  Doung asked us to stop.  He knew the route with precision.  Moving quickly to catch up, Viet and I stepped gingerly along the rice paddy berms until we reached a t-intersection about 20 meters from the road.  
His eyes suggest compassion as he points with a certain left hand to a spot of water, mud, and new rice.  No words are spoken, just an outstretched hand.  My eyes gravitate to the sky where death began.  The earth was a conclusion whose greeting was goodbye.  No, it is in the sky that they knew.  It is in the sky that they said farewell; a sky owned by no land and no man.  The earth simply swallowed their thoughts in a six-foot crater.  When the Huey gunship met a force greater than its own, their thoughts became the possession of the living.  Of us.  
I look back, seeking out Brian, Pat and Dan.  I motion for them to join me, but they are respectfully hesitant.  Please come join me, I beckon.  They do.  Viet and Duong slip away, aware that their role ends here.  We are alone now, with our thoughts of these heroic men.  I can not be certain, but I suspect we are each uncertain of our feelings and how to respond.  We are here.  Hard earth and photographic images of twisted metal replace the fiction of our planning.  The timing is right for our humble ceremony.  Flowers from the Ben Thanh market are tossed in the water.  The etchings from that slab of black granite in Washington are also laid gently before the flowers.  Pat made the rubbing of these four men: Roy S. Thomas (pilot); Allan E. Stahlstrom (commander); Marcus R. Byous (crew chief); and Paul N. Kupchinskas (gunner).  He had protected them like a newborn. Dan, or is it Brian, I am not sure, reads a poem by Gary Jones:

                To My Fallen Friend

I saw Death today;
A friend of mine died.
Not a close friend, perhaps, but still a friend.
We can make excuses, and find convenient reasons,
Yet the world is still less one more smile,
Or a warm handshake of friendship.
I have seen death before,
But not as close and poignant as this.
It may seem strange, but I cannot remember his name.
He was like that, though, friendly, yet aloof.
Only yesterday we talked of unimportant things:
The weather this time of year; the sky above;
Our latest love.
It seems strange that I should know,
Before his wife, his child or his parents.
Yet this is the road we follow.
Because I took this path, I have known him.
For the short time our lives have crossed,
I have learned more, and become a little more gentle by it.
I will get used to the emptiness as it will slowly fill.
I wish I could forget, and yet I'm glad of my memory of him.
Be kind when you speak of him, and speak a little less harshly
of your friend.

Is this enough?  We think so, but are not certain. I believe we honor these men and others by our journey here more than by the ceremony itself.  As I stand among these men, I recognize a dignity and tenderness that is worthy of those we honor, and I am glad.  These friends ensure it is enough.
The Tiger beckons and Brian is knee deep in mud.  Let's move.