I went on a recent weeklong visit to what the French colonialists called “the Paris of the East”—Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City—and the southern areas of Vietnam. On April 30, Vietnam celebrated the 37th anniversary of the complete liberation of its southern part from “US aggressors and its puppet government.” It was a victory that led to the reunification of North and South Vietnam and the establishment of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
In the Philippines’ current dispute with China over territorial claims, we can look to Vietnam for lessons on how not to surrender our self-respect and sovereignty to any big power.
Vietnam was colonized by the Chinese, the French, and the Americans, all of whom emerged bruised and traumatized after ultimately being defeated in protracted people’s wars waged by the Vietnamese people and their resistance fighters. In the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the best French generals and officers, schooled in St. Cyr, the elite French military academy, were outwitted and defeated by Vo Nguyen Giap, a former school teacher turned guerrilla leader; the battle capped the defeat of France in the hands of the Viet Minh people’s army. During the American War in Vietnam in 1961-1975, the United States was humbled by the Vietnam People’s Army and the black-pajama “Vietcong” guerrillas of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam.
I had long heard of the legendary Cu Chi Tunnels, which can be reached after a one-and-a half-hour trip northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, before I traveled to Vietnam. I had imagined that the tunnels were simply like an ant hill with several layers. But the visitor to the Cu Chi Tunnels would be left in awe of and admiration at the determination and creativity of the Vietcong, who were demonized in our country by US black propaganda during the Vietnam War. The tunnels are actually a vast, intricate, multistory network carved out by hand, bucket by bucket, which functioned as residence and fortress of thousands of Vietcong fighters and their families.
The tunnel network functioned as an underground city. It was started by the small farming community of Cu Chi in its resistance against the French colonialists. It expanded for 20 years, covering almost 250 kilometers, to defeat, in April 1975, the strongest military superpower on earth.
The Vietcong guerrillas and their families lived, ate and slept in the tunnels that also served as command centers, meeting and conference areas, cultural halls, kitchens, weapons factories, storage rooms, and field hospitals. These were where many Cu Chi residents got married, gave birth, and cared for and educated their children.
The tunnels were protected by a sophisticated array of booby traps directed against intruders. Almost 20 percent of the total US troop casualties during the Vietnam War—deaths as well as injuries—were inflicted by these booby traps.
The US war machine used every weapon in its arsenal to flush out and destroy the guerrillas in the Cu Chi Tunnels—carpet bombing with 1,000-pound bombs, defoliants like the deadly Agent Orange, strategic hamlets and a special unit of US forces called the Tunnel Rats. But it failed. Eventually, the tunnels even extended under the US military bases and facilities, so that the American forces wondered how many of their weapons in their base arsenals were being pilfered by the Vietcong right under their noses.
In its heyday, the tunnel network was considered a “holy revolutionary base” of the Vietnamese resistance to colonial and superpower intervention. It was the headquarters of the Saigon-Gia Dinh Regional Party and its military command, which led the resistance against the US forces and contributed in no small way to the complete liberation of South Vietnam. It is now a national historical site, as it is for most Vietnamese a symbol of their revolutionary heroism.
In April 1965, during the US military intervention in Vietnam, the Philippines sent to Tay Ninh a contingent of 2,000 troops, which Vietnam’s War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City describes as “troops of satellite countries.” The museum also takes note that “…in addition, the Philippines provided the US military forces the Navy Base at Subic Base and the Air Force Base at Clark Field for launching air attacks over Vietnam.”
The museum documents in exhibits and photos the war crimes of the French colonialists, but focuses more on the atrocities during the US military intervention and occupation of South Vietnam. Also displayed there are the tanks, warplanes, artillery, small arms, and weapons of mass destruction and defoliants like Agent Orange that were used in the war against the Vietnamese and their people’s army. The Vietnamese people’s resistance and the world’s support of this resistance are also well documented.
Although China provided critical support to the Vietnamese resistance in the anti-French, anti-Japanese and anti-US intervention wars, Vietnam has not hesitated in standing up to its former close ally and supporter. It even engaged China in combat when necessary, as when China began encroaching on Vietnam’s borders in the north and in contested islands in the Spratlys of which Vietnam is also a claimant. It did not rely on the US Navy to stand up and say no to China, but instead developed the military capability of its own Vietnam People’s Army, which it combines with astute diplomatic work. China was prudent not to continue to bully or to militarily engage this small country of 80 million, which had defeated and humbled, on its own terms, the strongest military superpower on earth.
The Vietnamese people’s staunch resistance against France and the United States, and even against the later bullying by China, made up for the scarcity and limitations brought by wartime. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a testament to their endurance, ingenuity and sheer will to fight for their country and defeat those who would trample their sovereignty.
Roland G. Simbulan is board director and senior fellow of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg). He is also a professor at the University of the Philippines.