Vietnam is perhaps best explored from below. There is nothing quite so effective for making you understand the country and its past than by crawling through the dirt as all above-ground sounds disappear and you are left with the scurrying and scuffing of the creatures disturbed by your presence and the heavy reverb of your own breathing as it hits the entombing walls. And that’s with only a few metres of tunnel and a torch. It is hard to imagine how the Viet Cong managed to live virtually their whole lives underneath this forest, but they did. Our no-nonsense guide points out the different chambers from maternity wards to kitchens to bedrooms. Then there are the traps which he enthusiastically demonstrates with the use of a long staff, decorated with the teeth marks of repetitive illustrations. It doesn’t bear thinking about the effect on human flesh.
Right from the moment that we pick up our little coach in Ho Chi Minh we are a little on edge. Our guide climbs aboard swinging himself forward with his stick, his long black hair swishing rather menacingly. We don’t yet know if he is the baddie or the stern wise man of the story. But then that’s a rather fundamental problem when it comes to war: it’s all a matter of perspective. Perhaps he is both. On arrival he gathers us around and begins to bark out an introduction. It is the first time we have heard him speak and it’s alarming. ‘You know nothing!’ he shouts at us, firing questions at those nearest him, as I slink to the back of the crowd, ‘You look me: survivor’. He vehemently points a thumb at his chest, eyes blazing. It is a reminder that you are the tourist, the outsider and you know nothing of war. And he’s right. Even with all the empathy in the world, reading facts and figures and even personal accounts of a war can never evoke quite the right reaction. You have to see the chimneys sticking up miles away from their original source to divert the enemy away from their lair. You have to see the tank riddled with bullets. You have to talk to the survivor.
It is only when crawling below the forest in musty darkness, glimpsing folded bats clinging to the intruding tree roots, rifling through dry earth and decomposing leaves that you come anywhere close to understanding. Having been dragged through tourist trap after tourist trap, you are now in close proximity to a plethora of man traps, and they want more than your money. You scrabble around in the dust feeling for walls and trying to take the right turning, deliberately not thinking about the possibility of being lost underground. The chamber closes in around you and suddenly the length of your thigh bone becomes longer than the ceiling height and you have to drop your belly to the floor and pull yourself forward on dusted elbows. Then you see the light.