Blog Tales from the road

Time to close the firing range at Vietnam's Cu Chi tunnels?

, 3 Comments
06 Oct 2014

The Viet Cong tunnel network at Cu Chi is among Vietnam's most popular tourist attractions. But the inclusion of a firing range provides plenty of ammunition for those arguing that so called “dark tourism” glorifies history's horrors.

The Cu Chi tunnels are one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vietnam. And rightly so. The story of the tunnels is remarkable.

During wars against France and then the US-backed South Vietnamese government, Ho Chi Minh's Viet Cong guerrillas created a 200km network of tunnels over three levels, just 70 kilometres from Saigon - the one-time centre of US military power in Vietnam.

Demonstrating how the Cu Chi tunnels were concealed.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Demonstrating how the Cu Chi tunnels were concealed.


Built with basic hand tools, the tunnels give the casual visitor a glimpse of the ingenuity and sacrifice that enabled a poorly equipped guerrilla army to humble a super-power. It’s an extraordinary story.

But the Cu Chi region was a place of terrible suffering - for locals as well as invading armies. And this message is trivialised in the presentation provided to tourists.

Cu Chi is packaged like a fun park. There’s little regard for the horrors of war or the lives on all sides lost here. While describing a particularly gruesome trap, our guide joked that it was his preferred device as it provided a “full body massage” before an agonising demise.

US M41 tank, Cu Chi
Photo: Mark Bowyer US M41 tank, Cu Chi
Tank, Cu Chi
Photo: Mark Bowyer Tank, Cu Chi

 

Traps used by VC around the tunnels.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Traps used by VC around the tunnels.


The most jarring aspect of the Cu Chi tunnels visit though, is the firing range. It provides an all-too-real sound track as you wander around. But the firing range is completely out of place at a sight that should remember rather than celebrate, war.

The firing range is a major drawcard and a big money spinner. Tourists line up to fire M16s, AK47s and other weapons. A handful of travellers in our small group collectively shelled out more than 200USD - far more than we spent on our admission. Guides tell of travellers spending hundreds of dollars firing off whole magazines.

Price list for ammunition. Cu Chi.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Price list for ammunition. Cu Chi.

Cu Chi firing range.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cu Chi firing range.

Firing from a Jeep. Cu Chi.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Firing from a US Army Jeep. Cu Chi.


The firing range has been part of the Cu Chi experience for as long as I can remember. Twenty five years ago it was a silly novelty dismissed as a quirk of a post-war, post-communist nation on a clumsy quest to build tourist numbers. And yes, I admit, I tried an AK back then.

Now, coachloads of tourists descend on the tunnels each day. The place is packed.

Vietnam has matured as a travel destination and a nation. The tunnel experience needs to mature as well - and provide a solemn, sophistocated historical account of the area.

The fact that travellers can experience the tunnels first hand is great. I'm not suggesting it needs to feel like a cemetery - but there should be some contemplation here.

The firing range makes a mockery of the place. It's lowest common denominator tourism.

Cu Chi souvenirs.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cu Chi souvenirs.


Imagine the furore if other major global battlegrounds also had firing ranges - The Somme? Normandy? Khe Sanh? Dien Bien Phu? For Australians - Long Tan? Kokoda or Gallipoli? There would be outrage. It would be considered a defilement of sacred ground.

Cu Chi’s horrors are far more recent than those of WWI and WWII. Why is it any different? I doubt many Vietnamese would, on reflection, view the firing range as an appropriate tribute to their countrymen and women who died there.

The Cu Chi story is one of many incredible David vs. Goliath stories to come from the Vietnam War. It doesn’t need cheap props like a firing range. The fallen of Cu Chi and the Vietnam War deserve better. Travellers do too.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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3 comments so far

Subject says all: couldn't agree more with Mark's article re the firing range at Cu Chi. Visited the site in 2005 and was appalled both by this repulsive initiative as wel as the greediness which with tourists (foreign and Vietnamese alike) indulge in this tasteless display of masculinity. Remember the comment of an elderly Vietnamese lady, in tears. 'The spirits of the deceased will never find rest', she sobbed.

  • Hans de Clercq
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Monday, 08 December 2014 10:57

I am another one who agree's with the comments with a little twist I think the firing range could stay but to be used only by Government army ,police for practice at random times which could give a real feel as too what everyone went through in these jungles .Also at the beginning of the walk should be a lot more pictures of the fallout of this nasty piece of history ie like at the Military Museum which is very graphic nothing held back !

  • Peter
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Sunday, 22 February 2015 05:52

I Agree that the firing range should be closed (sorry for all caps here). After the devastation that this poor country has suffered, how can people think it is fun to use the same weapons that killed people? Why not use the money to try to make sure 20 percent of the population doesn't go hungry, which it now does? I went to a restaurant on Hoi an last night and was looking at the menu when a kid came out pretending to shoot me. His mother thought that was funny. Not.

  • Deb hopkins
  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Monday, 21 March 2016 13:09