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.
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.
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.
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.
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.