AUSBE ON THE HO CHI MINH ‘TRAIL’ By Patrick Teo AUSBE Exco Member
On 31 October 2008, comrades of AUSBE made a trip to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to attend a workshop conducted by OTC Institute to deliberate and update on the Labour Movement 2011 (LM 2011). I was one of them. And this was what I learnt beyond LM 2011, my personal reflection of this mind-blowing, thought- provoking, absolutely-educational journey of war, chaos and hunger.
History is Written by Winners My earliest memory of TV when my family bought our first black-and-white Sharp 16” TV in the early ‘60s was the image, forever planted in my brain, of a grim looking newsreader reporting on the Vietnam War, and a map behind the newsreader showing Vietnam, so uncomfortably close to home. I recall the fear in me as a young boy seeing the war so near home. Having read quite a bit about the Vietnam War, the trips to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi (pronounced Khoo Chee) tunnels were especially meaningful to me. All the horrendous happenings and the consequential exodus of the fleeing boat people! The Cu Chi tunnels of Vietnam are one of those horrible remnants of a war that most people would probably rather forget. Now, they've become a tourist attraction. In some ways, our AUSBE comrades could associate the similarity to Union work, crawling through dark tunnels and then seeing light of hope at the end of the tunnel. The journey into the Cu Chi tunnels was claustrophobic! Panic-inducing! Riveting!
MAY DAY 09 I AUSBE
Order in Chaos
The Cu Chi Tunnels lie 75 kilometres (km) northwest of HCMC. At the height of the Vietnam War, the tunnel system stretched from the outskirts of HCMC all the way to the Cambodian border, something like 250 km of tunnels. The tunnel system, built over 28 years, let the Viet Minh and, later, the Viet Cong control a huge rural area. Our very patriotic young Vietnamese guide proudly proclaimed that it was through these tunnels that they won their independence. It was an underground city with living areas, kitchens, storage, and weapons factories. Families literally lived underground for years. They have no Union, no Collective Agreements and no night shift or hardship allowances. They only came out at night to furtively tend their crops. The ground here is hard clay, which made this whole tunnel thing possible. But even so, the planning and construction was incredible. The people dug the ground with hand tools, filling reed baskets and dumping the dirt into bomb craters. They installed large vents so they could hear approaching helicopters, smaller vents for air and baffled vents to dissipate cooking smoke. There were also hidden trap doors and gruesomely effective bamboo-stake booby traps. War is mindless, and, sometimes, the aftermath is equally incomprehensible.
HCMC has eight million people, six million motorbikes, and many crowded streets. On the streets of Ho Chi Minh, everything goes. Nobody stops, not even for traffic lights. LTA Traffic Management would be extremely upset here. It is absolute chaos to our Singaporean eyes. Riders on motorbikes carry everything from 6 metre long PVC pipes, metal railings, to babies on their laps and wife and second baby riding pillion behind. I saw a piano being moved using a bus! It is amazing to watch how the millions of motorbikes and vehicles weaved through major intersections without any mishaps. There is an underlying order in what appears to be a disordered traffic mess. It was an electrifying sight indeed to see the bewildering spaghetti of overhead cables all over Ho Chi Minh City. No common service tunnels and road opening permits required here. Along the scenic Saigon River, we dined on board a river boat-restaurant serving night-time dinner. â€˜Tau Saigonâ€™ had an on-board capacity of 600 diners on three levels. Steam boat dinner was served, and there was live music performances complete with a fire-eating dancing girl. Interestingly, there were no life buoys on board, no fire extinguishers to be seen and we were all happily cooking the steam boat with open fire on our tables and the hot fire eating lady dancing away with a naked flame. My fellow AUSBE brothers from MPA would die-die never allow the boat to leave harbour if this was in Singapore. Not only did I get to taste the food, I also got to see, smell and recall what Singapore River was like before the NEA cleaned it up. I had a multi sensory experience. I had the undeniable feeling that in this a p pa r e n t chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, the underlying order of mental resilience of a post-war generation of fast learning people, very, very hungry for progress. And from this journey, I have also learnt that this very hunger will someday rise to the next economic powerhouse.
MAY DAY 09 I AUSBE