Thursday, January 10, 2013


Tuc Dup, the 'Tora Bora' of Vietnam's Mekong Delta 

 I’m approaching some kind of freak of geology. The Mekong Delta is generally flat, but I’m staring at one enormous, gargantuan mountain of rocks. As our 4X4 drives closer, I see that this isn’t a pile of just rocks, it’s a pile of massive boulders. Somehow, nature piled all of these massive boulders here onto one place, forming a towering hill that rises high above the flat expanse of the surrounding landscape.

This is Tuc Dup, one of the few high vantage points in the Mekong Delta. It’s not tall enough to be classified as a mountain. But its higher altitude gives it not only a great view of the delta beneath, it also made it easily defended. The solid rock boulders that form the hill made  superior natural defenses. This made Tuc Dup an ideal location for a rebel stronghold; the Viet Cong's 'Tora Bora' in the delta. 
The flag of the former Republic of Vietnam, crossed out

From the bottom, I look up at this jagged, intimidating hill. I know that climbing this will be a good workout. As I start up, I can see a large flag of old painted on a boulder, the former yellow and red striped flag of the Republic of Vietnam. This is a rare sight in today’s Vietnam. The former South Vietnamese flag is rarely seen anywhere in public. But the flag now has a black 'X' painted across it, to remind visitors that the south didn’t win the war.

A long curving walkway of wooden steps eventually runs out, and soon I enter one of the many cave entrances of this strange hill. With the boulders piled every which way, the large gaps between each boulder are large enough to form natural passageways and caves. The former soldiers here managed to chip away the rock to widen some openings, and make some of the walkways more accessible. 

The passageways form an elaborate network. I make my way through, rock hopping from boulder to boulder. Some of the areas are difficult to fit through. Like the Cu Chi tunnels, some openings are tight for an American, but easier for the shorter and thinner Vietnamese. 

Entering one section,  I find wood was brought in to make platforms, to make the caves more livable. Daylight reaches in, and I look above to see parted boulders form a natural skylight. Dead vines hang downward along the heavy rocks. I’ll bet they used to put containers out here to catch water during the rainy season. With no plumbing, it was a real chore for the VC to carry water all the way up here every day.
A natural skylight in the caves

Weaving through the cave network, there are openings here and there that lead back out to the hill’s exterior. Reaching one, I climb out onto a boulder and look at the surrounding landscape. Green farming fields below stretch all the way to the horizon. Behind me, one of the larger boulders has a lot of holes and chips in it. A sign near it translates as, “Bomb Trace Marks”.

Even a US made 500 lb bomb dropped from above, didn’t do much damage to this 30 ton solid rock boulder. So despite numerous bombardments, the Viet Cong held onto Tuc Dup for years. During the course of the war there was so much heavy bombing here, that the locals gave Tuc Dup the nickname of ‘$2million dollar hill'.  

This ended with a final battle, and according to the government version here, the siege and fighting for Tuc Dup raged from November 16th, 1968 until March 24th, 1969. The VC in these caves faced both American and ARVN forces. Helicopters  and jets attacked from the air, with ground troops and tanks attacking by land. This hill of boulders became a sort of 'Alamo' for the Viet Cong.

View of the surrounding countryside from upper cave opening
As I continue through, up, down and through this strange network of caves, I pass through other inner rooms. Other stone signs posted on the boulders list their former function. “Dried Rice Cave” and “Cave of Support Unit 61” One is named, “Cave of the No Name Soldier". I recall hearing that after the war,  the bones of anonymous fighters who died on Tuc Dup were left lying up in these caves for years. Those bones and other remains of the war have since been removed. The stone passageways of Tuc Dup are now filled only with rubble, disturbed by the occasional visitor.

Reaching another overlook, I peer down at the land in front of the strange hill. The unexploded bombs have been removed from the earth, and now it’s a family park. Vietnamese families come here to relax on weekends these days.

Captured US made weapons on display

There are some small restaurants and cafes, most of which have hammocks hanging in them for their patrons to relax. There is a pond with pedal boats, and an enclosure with live alligators.

To remind visitors that this is more than a park, at the base of the hill sits a small museum, with a large bomb crater out front. Filled with the usual captured small arms, the place is empty. Rather than look at war relics, the visiting families would rather eat in the cafés, and spend the afternoon relaxing in a  hammock. 

This is precisely where I find my guide Nga. Since she didn’t want to make the long climb up the hill with me, she’s been reclining in a café hammock, chatting away with a local waitress. 

Old bomb crater outside museum at base of the hill

Nga is one of my more interesting translators I’ve had in Vietnam. Besides guiding me around the delta, she also occasionally works as an actress. On the way here as we passed a village, she told me, “I was in movie here, days ago.” The film was a love story, and she had a supporting role in the film.

She described for me another movie she acted in, when she played the role of a captured Viet Cong cadre. In that difficult role, she had to act in an interrogation and torture scene. That wasn’t an easy role, that’s for sure. 

Hammocks where Tuc Dup's visitors relax

As we are on our way out and heading for the 4X4, we spy a shooting range, and stop in for a look. This is much like the firing range I saw in Cu Chi, except that the prices are lower. Whether firing an AK-47 or a semi-automatic AR-15, the price per bullet is only 10,000 Dong (about 55 cents.) I’m not surprised its cheaper here, since Tuc Dup is remote and gets far fewer visitors than Cu Chi. I look toward the targets, and I’m amused to see that between the firing line and the backstop, there are neat rows of green plants. They are growing some kind of crop out in the middle of the firing range.

Since I’ve already shot a few rounds when I went to Cu Chi, I decline the offer to shoot here. But I’m surprised when my petite guide Nga speaks up, saying, “I want to try.”

The Tuc Dup firing range, where crops grow??

She buys some bullets, and takes her place at the firing line. The muzzle of the AK is bolted to a post, in order to keep wayward shooters from firing high and out of the range. With the assault rifle loaded, Nga takes aim at a target of a tiger.

POW! Her first shot rings out, and she giggles nervously. Then she takes her second shot. POW! She stops, lets go of the weapon, then walks to a bench and sits down. “I’m scared,” she says.

Nga now lives in a Vietnam without war, and guns these days are a rarity, not available to the general public. Unlike in the past, when the VC fighting force included women like her,  Vietnamese women today rarely touch firearms. “First time in my life I shoot,” she tells me. “I a little scared.”

As a child growing up in the Mekong Delta, she had survived the war. She was so young that at the time, she didn’t really know what was going on. Meanwhile, others in her family were involved in the conflict.

“My grandfather was VC,” Nga told me. He had been a commander in the delta until he died in 1966. The story handed down through her family, is that he was killed by Americans. They say that his death had been witnessed by her uncle. She tells me her uncle was so frightened by what he saw, that he had wet himself.

With such a terrible story to tell, I would think that Nga would hold a grudge against Americans like me, and she doesn’t. She had never known her grandfather, and as a devout Buddhist, she takes the route of forgiveness. It also probably helps that her grandfather’s side eventually won the war. For Nga, like so many other Vietnamese I’ve already spoken to, the war was so long ago, and is better left in the past. 

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