Sunday, August 10, 2008

Positive Karma at the Cu Chi Tunnels

Yesterday I followed the well-beaten tourist path to Cu Chi tunnels, part of a 200km network of tunnels constructed by the VietCong. I have read about tunnel rats and also had heard about the entirely offensive propaganda "documentary" that precedes the tour, so my expectations were low... but I met a guy named Minh, who was the highlight of my trip. I want to share his story because I think it says a lot about the South Vietnamese experience during and since the war.

Minh was born in 1944 in Hanoi, but his family fled South in 1954 when the Communists took control of North Vietnam, after a decade of bloddy fighting with the locals, the Chinese and the French. His best quote: "I was born in war, I grew up in wartime, I fought in a war, I paid for fighting and I survived the war."

After moving to Saigon, which was being transitioned from French to American support, he thought he would go into Seminary, but met a girl, and decided that "he didnt want to spend the rest of his life going to bed next to an empty pillow." So instead, he went to university, and majored in linguistics. When he graduated in 1969, the war was fully escalated, and he was married. Working for the Americans was the best gig in town, so he became a translator for the 101st Airborne. He served with the American army until the end of the war, as a field translator and as an interrogation translator for the Military Intelligence Department. Some of the people he helped interrogate had been taken out of the tunnel system.

After the North took control of the south, his assets were seized and he was sent to a reeducation camp for three years. After that, he was sent home on a collective farm in his home village. 14 years later, Vietnam starts to open up to free trade, so he was able to get a job as a tour guide. Where I met him.

I would have expected someone with such gruesome experiences, to be a little jaded or toughened, but he was an extremely soft - and peacefully reconciled - guy. What moved me the most was the way he spoke about his "GI friends." His take on GIs: they didn't want to be fighting, they made him realize that people are generally similar ("because everyone sits down on his helmet and cries when it gets to be too much"), they drank a lot and most of them were deeply troubled by their experience. He talked about this in a deeply compassionate way, which was particularly moving for me to hear, because as some of you might know, my dad was a troubled Vietnam Vet who drank a lot.

When we got to the CuChi tunnel, he sat outside while we all crawled through them. I thought it was so he could count heads and make sure no one was lost, but he told us this story on the way home: When he first started giving tours, he took the guy writing the lonely planet guide to CuChi and went through the tunnel with him. While he was in the tunnel (which have a lot of turns, are completely dark, and scary under the best conditions), he saw what he thought was the ghosts of one of his GI buddies as he turned a corner. He fainted, but kept going, and saw another ghost. And another. He was so unnerved, he hasnt been in the tunnels in 16 years.

He shared many of his views with us during the trip, but the pervasive message was
"War is awful, and we should be grateful for every day we are able to live without it. Don't waste time wondering why it happens, just get through it and when its over, focus on the fact that life goes on." I really wish my dad could have heard that, but I like to think that there was some karmic good in my hearing it. And sharing!

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