Friday, July 6, 2012

From Valhalla to Labyrinth

Cowboys 'n Injuns, Yankees 'n VCs

An iconic photo of an arbitrary execution of a Viet Cong
by a South Vietnamese Police Chief

    Those who grew up in the '60s would recall iconic photos of 'ugly' Viet Cong, the Arch Enemy of US Democracy & Capitalist Economy, by Life magazine. The world was either black or white during the Cold War - B&W newspapers, B&W photos, B&W TV screen, Smart Cowboys vs Stupid Injuns, Slick Bond vs Clumsy Russian Agents, Angelic Yankees vs Evil VCs, Us vs Them ... you get the drift. 
    I wasn't acquainted with the term 'proxy war' but able to grasp the meanings of the concept of Iron or Bamboo Curtain and the Domino Effect. The Americans were the Good Guys and those behind them Curtains were Evil Incarnate. Thus, we must fight the Russians and the Chinese to stop Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) and Southeast Asia from falling into their clutches. 
    Not unlike Afghanistan since the late 70s, 'Nam was the site of real ideological warfare between the Russian Communists and the American Capitalists from 1956-1975. USSR (United Soviet Socialist Republic) and PRC (People's Republic of China) supplied weapons to the Independence Movement led by Ho Chi Minh, a multi-lingual comrade who was educated in France and work-travelled throughout Europe.
    Historically, Vietnam was dominated by the Hans and was thus part of China for about a 1,000 years (111BC-905AD) which explained the 25 percent of Vietnamese having Chinese bloodline. She enjoyed intermittent autonomy from 905 until 1887, when the French Indochina was officially established. 
      The Japanese Invasion in 1940 sparked the fire of Independence Struggle led by Nguyễn Ái Quốc, now known as Ho Chi Minh. He arrived in northern Vietnam to form the Viet Minh Front (League for the Independence of Vietnam) in 1941. The Việt Minh Front was supposed to be an umbrella group for all parties fighting for Vietnam's independence, but was dominated by the Communist Party. The Việt Minh had a modest armed force and during the war worked with the American Office of Strategic Services to collect intelligence on the Japanese. Other non-Communist Vietnamese parties also joined the Việt Minh and established armed forces with backing from the Kuomintang. 
    Vietnam was liberated during a power vacuum in August 1945 when the Japanese was defeated by the Allies. By September 1945, Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnam independent under the new name of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN) and held the position of Chairman (Chủ Tịch). Communist rule was cut short, however, by nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces whose presence tended to support the Communist Party's political opponents. 
    In 1946, Vietnam had its first National Assembly election (won by the Viet Minh in central and northern Vietnam) and drafted its first constitution. Meanwhile, the French tried to regain power by force, the Cochinchinese formed a separate Republic, the Communist and non-Communist forces fought each other, the Stalinists purged the Trotskyists, and various religious sects and resistance groups had their own militias. In the end, the Communists suppressed all non-Communist parties but failed to secure a peace pact with France.
    The First Indochina War was fought between the Viet Minh and France from late 1946 to 1954, when France finally surrendered to the Vietnamese forces. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the North from Hanoi and the US-backed Ngo Dinh Diem's regime ruled the South from Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975).
    The Second Indochina War was popularly known as the Vietnam War (1954-1975). When it ended, the Viet Cong and the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces from the North were able to unify North and South Vietnam under Communist rule. The USSR-supported insurgents squashed the US-backed Army of the Republic of Vietnam's attempt at maintaining South Vietnamese independence. In spite of the military might of the US forces (504,000 during the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968), they had to admit defeat in 1973. 
    The 1973 Paris Agreement, which officially ended the War by calling for free elections in the South and peaceful reunification, was not abided by the North. Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was captured by the Communists and the South Vietnamese Army surrendered on April 30, 1975. In 1976, the government of united Vietnam renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the revolutionary leader who died in September 1969. The Vietnamese government in 1995 estimated that 4,000,000 Vietnamese civilians on both sides died in the war. Overall figures for North Vietnamese civilian dead range from 50,000 to 2,000,000.
   Vietnam War: Major Battles.Vietnam War: Major Battles. This map shows the locations of major battles and other actions during the Vietnam War (1957-1975), as well as major United States military bases. The war was fought mainly in North and South Vietnam. Troops also battled in Laos and Cambodia, and U.S. pilots flew missions from bases in Thailand. In the war, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces fought against Communist-trained South Vietnamese rebels and North Vietnamese troops.
An American soldier and a Vietnamese 
child two days before the Fall of Saigon in 1975 

Another iconic photo of Vietnamese children fleeing Napalm dropped by the Yankees

The US Evacuation during the Fall of Saigon to the Viet Cong guerillas in 1975

Move Aside, Miss Saigon

An Orientalist view of a Vietnamese lady in Miss Saigon, the popular Broadway Musical.
An alternative image of Vietnamese females as freedom fighters. 
Vietnam Cu Chi Tunnels
The intricate labyrinth of tunnels which served as the 'underground' base of the Viet Cong and villager fighters during the Vietnam War
    Perhaps I didn't patronise the right places, hence I didn't get to meet a real life version of a soppy Miss Saigon (which I caught on stage in Sydney in 1996). Some of the female store owners/operators at the Viet Valhalla of Cho Ben Thanh may be dressed in skimpy shorts and see-through chiffon tops but they were all tough cookies. They may have smiling faces and lilting voices but they were no-nonsense negotiators.
    I witnessed the same seriousness in Erra, the tourist guide who accompanied us to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This petite damsel from the Mekong Delta was visibly peeved by the lack of enthusiasm about her country's history among the Malaysians on board the tour bus. However, she persisted in recounting the story of the Cu Chi Tunnels when a few of us politely feigned interest about the topic.

The Cu Chi Tunnels    

    This maze of tunnels was first dug by the French-fighting Viet Minh troops beneath a French planter's estate in 1948 to escape from exploding bombs. The Viet Cong guerillas later used these tunnels as an underground dwelling units and hiding places during combat, as well as vital communication and supply routes for food and weapon caches. Dug entirely by hand, the tunnels at one time measured more than 120 miles, stretching from the Cambodian border to the outskirts of what was then Saigon.
    This rudimentary network of tunnels is undoubtedly the pivotal factor in the Viet Cong's victory over the US forces, in spite of their more advanced warfare and weapons. Countless attempts to destroy the tunnels failed and the American GIs finally capitulated and withdrew. Thus, the tunnels are a symbol of national pride to the Vietnamese.
     The tour of Cu Chi’s main site (Ben Dinh tunnel) began with a grainy black-and-white film which charted the history of events during the Vietnam War and gave a brief background on the tunnels. The tour followed a short looping path past recreated tunnel sites which were built into the ground, with canvas tops to illustrate how life was carried out underground. In the simulated kitchen, guides showed how smoke was diverted through mini-tunnels to escape far from the real tunnel itself.
Vietnam Cu Chi TunnelsThe slim and fit Vietnamese  demonstrates how his predecessors were able to hide and ambush pot-bellied, beer-guzzling American GIs
Vietnam Cu Chi TunnelsOnce the lid covered the opening, it's undetectable.
Vietnam Cu Chi TunnelsLife in the tunnels was very harsh. The tunnels were extremely narrow to prevent big sized American GIs from exploring them. The openings were camouflaged by leaves. Visitors can navigate their way through three levels of tunnels ranging from 150 to 650 feet in length. These tunnels have been widened to accommodate western tourists but they are not recommended for those who are claustrophobic, asthmatic or suffering from back or knee pains.
Above ground, you'll find mock ups of spiked contraptions hidden under trap doors in the jungle floor, craters left by bombs dropped from B-52s, abandoned U.S. tanks and models of North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas. Those who want to try their hands at shooting the AK-47s and M-16s at the shooting range may do so at USD1.50 per bullet.
Half day Cu Chi Tunnels tours are offered daily from 7am to 5pm. Admission charge costs about USD5. 

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