As many tourists do we visited the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Started in the 1940’s then added to in the “American war” in the 60’s and 70’s the tunnel complex is a vast network of tunnels dug by hand into the hard clay of the Cu Chi province. The tunnels were home to the Viet Minh, then the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army and housed thousands, with a full compliment of kitchens, hospitals, sleeping & living space, munitions factories and ambush areas. Whilst the tunnels spread over an estimated 250kms, small sections have been opened (and widened) for tourists and guided tours allow you to crawl down the hardened clay tunnels in the pitch dark. As part of the tour you can if you’re prepared to pay, shoot live ammunition in Vietnam war era weaponry; M16s, M60s, AK47s that sort of thing.
Honestly, I’m not big on guns, I’ve never fired one in my life, and so I didn’t feel the need or actually want to shoot off some rounds. The whole war- tourism thing was getting confusing and I wasn’t sure where to stand on it: the visual clash of devices designed to kill or maim people clambered over by kids carrying Sponge Bob rucksacks.
Historically however, the “battle” between the utilitarian design and simple construction method of the AK47 (100 million built and still going strong) vs. the complicated design and construction of the M16 is well worth researching.
C.J. Chivers book “The Gun: The story of the AK47” outlines the differences in procurement, testing, justification, design and use between the Russian and American systems. The simple AK design performed well under Vietnam’s dense jungle conditions, whereas the M16, rushed into service and having a new, budget-driven change to the cartridge propellant suffered jamming and barrel failures at critical times.
A week or so later we were sat in a bar in Da Lat, sharing a few drinks with a German backpacker and three Australian teachers. The conversation turned at some point to Cu Chi, where the German became visibly upset; spitting tacks about how sickening it is to see such blatant use of war as a tourist attraction, a view shared by the Aussies. I see his point, although I did argue that if it serves some purpose as a way of people understanding what the Vietnamese conditions were like during the 50’s, 60’s and then the 70’s then that had to be a good thing.
For what its worth I did fire a couple of rounds off from an AK47: I blame peer pressure from my cousin.
And for something with such the potential to kill or maim; it was lighter than I expected, the trigger was easier to pull than I had imagined, the recoil less than I had expected and the noise was much, much louder.