Is There an Etiquette for War Tourism?
“Today I’m going to talk a lot about the US Army,” says the guide in his thick Vietnamese accent, “I want you to remember that I’m not talking about all American people, I’m talking about the American army and what they did during the Vietnam War.” Then, with a totally deadpan expression, he adds, “If you’re American and you get offended by what I’m saying, please don’t kill me.”
It’s meant to be a joke but no one laughs. My girlfriend and I exchange awkward glances as the bus rattles up one of the highways out of Ho Chi Minh City. We’re on a guided tour to the Cu Chi tunnels, which are an underground network of burrows that the South Vietnamese guerrillas built during the war.
The Cu Chi tunnels are a multi-levelled subterranean ecosystem that once spanned 250 kilometres. Civilians lived, ate and hid from bombs down there, while Vietnamese soldiers used the network for covert warfare. According to one of the brochures, the tunnels are “a symbol of revolutionary heroism for the Vietnamese people”. And for tourists, they’re a major attraction, ranked fourth of on tripadvisor’s list of things to do in Vietnam.
And while it seems like a fascinating place to visit, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something inherently weird about war tourism.
Despite my reservations, the jokes continue. Our guide, who tells us to call him ‘Jimmy’ because it’s easier to pronounce, shows us a range of different booby traps that the Vietnamese soldiers set for the Americans. “This one’s called the souvenir,” says Jimmy, motioning toward a trapdoor that opens out to a framework of steel spikes that are welded together in a sphere. The sharp bits point downward and inward with a single spear as the centrepiece. It resembles a fish trap, but is designed to catch a downward stepping foot.
“You know why they call it the souvenir?” The crowd of tourists offers blank looks, dutifully granting Jimmy his punch line.
“Why?” someone asks.
“Because when the American soldier gets his leg caught in here, he has to cut it off in order to get away.”
Eyebrows are raised and there are a few smirks but no one laughs. Jimmy’s facial expression makes me think that he was making a funny, but it’s too heavy to treat as a “joke”. Jimmy wants us to lighten up and enjoy ourselves; it’s a tour after all, and he’s the guide, so he’s responsible for making it interesting and engaging and fun. But we’re talking about war and death and torture. Should we be having fun?
At the halfway point, we reach the shooting range and we’re given the opportunity to shoot a bunch of different guns. Without second thought, I drop $20 on bullets, opting for the AK47. I wasn’t allowed to play with toy guns when I was a kid, so shooting a real AK makes me feel like a giddy teen. I fire off a round of bullets, all of which miss the target, while my girlfriend takes a vid for Instagram.
We then head over to a small cafeteria where the tourists are treating themselves to ice creams, beers and soft drinks. I’m a bit perturbed to see everyone indulging in these refreshments, and it momentarily seems a bit disrespectful to the horror of the war. Like, Jimmy’s cracking jokes about death and torture while the tourists are licking their chocolate Cornettos and drinking Saigon Specials. It just seems a bit wrong. Then again, I just shot a fucking gun and posted the vid on Instagram. To a lot of people, that probably seems a lot more fucked up than eating ice cream or drinking beer.
The point is that we’re having fun now, just like Jimmy wants us to. But it’s still a bit hard to process it all. Death and ice cream. Torture traps and beer. Jokes about amputation. Paying USD for the privilege of firing an AK. It’s all just a bit incongruent. Is there a suggested etiquette for war tourism? If so, I think we’re doing it wrong.
The next day, we visit the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the vibe is a bit more sombre. Scores of tourists in white socks and polo shirts gaze at at haunting pictures of the war, mostly taken by American photojournalists. We see images of babies that are deformed as a result of Agent Orange, American soldiers posing with beheaded corpses and the forever-iconic image of Napalm Girl, the naked child covered in napalm who’s running down the street in agony.
There are three floors of this stuff, plus a yard full of tanks and helicopters. Some people are snapping selfies; others are crying. The small children seem to be able to sense the vibe, being quiet and looking sheepish. While most people remain serious, some are laughing.
You get the sense that no one really knows what to say or how to act. There doesn’t seem to be an established etiquette, no ‘right’ way to be. It’s all just a bit of a confronting mess, the fact that humans could actually do this to each other; could actually kill and torture each other because they were trained to or they feared they would die if they didn’t. This is our history – a mirror that we collectively have to face. But when faced with it, we’re just not quite sure what to do.
Jimmy the tour guide was able to laugh about it; others are more inclined to cry. Then there are the myriad reactions in between; proof that “war” and “tourism” are a bizarre and confronting combination.
Cover by the author