Columnist Christie Moulton: Impressions of Vietnam, a half century after the war

  • The American group of students travels by boat during July through the Can Gio Mangrove Forest southeast of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • Chú Sáu in front of his home in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • An altar on Chú Sáu’s property in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • Mangrove trees grow southeast of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, an area where the forest was decimated by Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used as a defoliant by the United States during the war. CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • The group of American students visits a bird sanctuary near the Can Gio Mangrove Forest in Vietnam during July. COURTESY CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • Chú Sáu, who has a coconut farm in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, shows pictures of himself as a South Vietnamese soldier during the war. CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • Part of the ceramics collection which has been passed down through seven generations of Chú Sáu’s family in Vietnam. CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • Guide Chanh leads the way through the Cu Chi tunnels which were used by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong during the war. CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • Christie Moulton lowers herself in to one of the Cu Chi tunnels northwest of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. COURTESY CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • Christie Moulton with Vietnamese children during July in the Mekong Delta. COURTESY CHRISTIE MOULTON

  • The American students have tea and conversation with the stewards of the Can Gio Mangrove Forest southeast of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. CHRISTIE MOULTON

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

I found myself far from my New England home during July, crawling on my hands and feet through an intricate tunnel system built during the war in Vietnam. At just over 3 feet high, the Cu Chi tunnels are narrow, dark and humid.

I was leading a group of 12 American teenagers spending a month in Vietnam in an educational exchange program sponsored by the Experiment in International Living, based in Brattleboro, Vermont. That day we experienced a tiny slice of the reality of the American War that raged in Vietnam a half century earlier. Our guide was Chanh, the son of a Viet Cong soldier who helped build the tunnels in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Cu Chi tunnels, northwest of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), are now part of a war memorial park and some areas are open to visitors who experience how North Vietnamese soldiers and their Viet Cong supporters moved beneath the jungles of what was then South Vietnam. The Cu Chi tunnels are part of a vast network started during the war for independence from France and expanded during the American War.

The deepest tunnels are over 30 feet below ground, used when the bombing was the worst. The tunnels led to caves for meetings, hospital care, wells, and out to the river so that Viet Cong soldiers could swim to escape. The tunnels were ventilated with bamboo poles camouflaged inside imitation termite nests.

Chanh took us to a section of the tunnels not open for general visitors. We crawled through about a quarter-mile of tunnels that had not been expanded to make them more navigable for tourists. It was pitch dark and home to bats and every insect imaginable. We all emerged sweaty with hearts pounding. We could only imagine the impact for soldiers who used the tunnel system, some for 20 years.

The tunnels were heavily bombed by the United States and Chanh told us that out of the 16,000 Viet Cong soldiers who fought in the Cu Chi area, 12,000 died during the war, 3,000 were injured, and 1,000 survived.

Everyone we met in Vietnam had a family member impacted by the war — whether they fought, went into hiding or emigrated — and war stories are a part of growing up here. Chanh lost many family members during the war and his pride for their service was evident.

Neverthless, Chanh said he had no negative feelings toward Americans. Like so many of the Vietnamese people we met, he is forgiving of Americans — separating us from the war waged by the United States government. The deaths, injuries and destruction resulting from the American War are preserved in museums like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. On display there are a reproduced war prison where Viet Cong soldiers were held, photos of people with defects caused by Agent Orange, images of people burned by napalm, and photos and narratives by Vietnamese people describing the ransacking or bombing of their villages. 

The museum stands in stark contrast to the welcoming generosity we received from host families eagerly willing to share their daily lives with us.

They accepted us into their homes like one of the family, cooking us their favorite dishes, patiently helping us with Vietnamese and taking us to see their favorite places. As I reflect on that experience, I think about how I can be more helpful and welcoming to people new to my country.

Visit to coconut farm

One warm July morning, just after sunrise, our group rode bicycles through the narrow streets of Ben Tre, part of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. We ducked under palm branches, teetered over bridges, and dodged small dogs and roosters. One student even fell into an irrigation canal, leaving her muddy but uninjured.

The only thing I knew about our destination was that we would see an impressive pottery collection. Chú Sáu was our host. One of 13 children, he fought in the South Vietnamese Army and escaped the war without being wounded. As part of the reeducation program after the war, Sáu said he was “checked on” periodically for about five years but otherwise resumed a quiet civilian life.

He has a coconut farm and taught us to climb a palm tree using only twine. Sáu’s home and land are like a museum for the ceramics collection that has been passed down in his family for seven generations. From teapots to jugs to Buddha statues, his collection is stunning and contains a lifetime of stories.

Sáu maintains a beautiful Buddhist altar for all his ancestors, lighting incense every morning. He graciously welcomed us into his home, served us fresh coconuts and green tea, laughed with us, and told us proudly about his three grown children who live several hours away in Ho Chi Minh City.

Among the lasting impacts of the war are the children still being born with birth defects in the areas most heavily sprayed with Agent Orange, the toxic herbicide used as a defoliant during the war. The dioxin can still be found in groundwater. Though the numbers of birth defects decrease with each generation, the impact is still real and horrific for some families.

Can Gio Mangrove Forest

Though we we will never know what species were totally wiped out due to the devastation of Agent Orange, one area that has been revived is the Can Gio Mangrove Forest, a biosphere reserve southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. We saw photos of the forest in that area decimated by Agent Orange. After 40 years of reforestation efforts, the Can Gio Mangrove Forest has been restored to 100 percent of the acreage that it covered before the war.

The mangroves, wetlands, salt marshes, mud flats and sea grasses there today perform an important ecological function. The forest is known as the “green lungs” of Ho Chi Minh City because it absorbs carbon dioxide and other pollutants.

That is among the ways that Vietnam has recovered beautifully from the war, but most meaningful to me was the warmth extended by the Vietnamese people to American visitors. It’s a powerful thing to be welcomed into a country that my own had been at war with some five decades ago.

It was important to me, a 30-year-old American, to learn more about the war that so deeply impacted my parents’ generation from the Vietnamese perspective. To have walked, crawled and biked through areas that had been war zones is particularly meaningful at a time when memories of the war surely will be stirred again with the broadcast of “The Vietnam War” documentary in the United States.

“The Vietnam War,” a 10-part, 18-hour documentary directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, premieres on PBS at 8 p.m. Sept. 17. A one-hour abridged version of the series will be shown at the Academy of Music in Northampton at 4 p.m. Sept. 10, followed by a panel discussion.

Christie Moulton, a teacher in Vermont, is a 2004 graduate of Northampton High School. She is the daughter of the Gazette’s Opinion editor, Stanley Moulton of Northampton, and Sharon Moulton, of Leeds.