Cu Chi District - January 31, 2003

Mark Walker MWalker at
Fri Feb 7 00:00:16 EST 2003

I am pleased to report that I found the people of Vietnam to be both warm
and gracious.  Everywhere we went we were greeted by smiles and gentle
spirits.  At no time did we encounter hostility or animosity - something
perhaps a bit surprising considering the impact the U.S. had on this nation
(they refer to the 12+ year war following French occupation as the
"Anti-American War").  As a result of that war, over 10% of the population
was eliminated.  You are hard-pressed to find people who are between the
ages of say 40 and 55.  That part of the population just seems to be


On Friday, January 31 - the last day of 2002 according to the lunar calendar
- the team headed out of Ba Ria Vung Tau and back to Ho Chi Minh City.  We
arrived early, and decided to make a special trip out to the Cu Chi district
to tour the infamous underground tunnel system from which the Viet Cong
conducted their offensives against Saigon.  The tunnels date all the way
back to when the Viet Minh were fighting the French, and their usage
continued and expanded throughout most of the American engagement.  The
damage inflicted by the secret tunnels became such a serious threat that the
U.S. made them the object of focus (it turns out that many of the tunnel
entrances emptied right onto the U.S. bases that were set up in the Cu Chi
district to fight the concentration of Viet Cong there), which culminated in
extensive napalm use, Agent Orange spraying, and eventual B-52 carpet
bombing.  The bombing finally proved a successful strategy, pounding and
collapsing a good portion of the 200 km maze of tunnel systems, but by then
the war had already taken its toll - and the U.S. armed forces were soon to


Today a large section of the Cu Chi tunnel system is open for tour (if you
can fit through them) as part of an anti-American War memorial.  The
propaganda is strongly anti-U.S. (our soldiers are referred to as "crazy
devils" in some of the tour literature), but the realities and the tragedy
of the war incurred by both sides are well preserved and honored here.  As
you walk the grounds, you find yourself traversing huge craters left behind
by the B-52 bombing.  There are concrete obelisks dotting the landscape of
what was referred to as "The Iron Triangle" by U.S. armed forces,
memorializing spots were men and women gave their lives.  Many of these
memorials reside deep in parts of the tropical forest where they have been
overrun by flora and mostly forgotten.  It was near one of these hidden
memorials that I would have the most incredible experiences of my entire


While our team spent time at the Cu Chi Tunnel Memorial, I took the
opportunity to dash out into the jungle alone for a zoological survey.  I
had no idea where I was going, but the presence of large and colorful
butterflies provided sufficient motivation.  Immediately, I began seeing
Swallowtails - Papilio demoleus (Lime Swallowtail), Papilio polytes (Common
Mormon), Pachliopta aristolochiae (Common Rose), Graphium sarpedon
(Bluebottle), Papilio helenus (Red Helen), and Papilio nephelus (Yellow
Helen), just to name those that I could identify.  There were Pierids, too,
including Pereronia anais, Appias libythea, Catopsilia scylla, Catopsilia
pyranthe, Gandaca harina, Leptosia nina, Eurema hecabe, and Eurema
andersonii.  The Danaids were probably the most plentiful, however, with
many individuals of Danaus genutia (Common Tiger), Danaus melanippus (White
Tiger), Ideopsis vulgaris (Blue Glassy Tiger), Euploe core (Common Crow),
Euploe midamus (Blue Spotted Crow), Euploe harrisii (Blue Crow), Euploe
algea (Long Branded Crow), Parantica agleoides (Dark Glassy Tiger), and
Tirumala septentrionis (Dark Blue Tiger).  Of these, the Danaus genutia
(Common Tiger) was probably the most spectacular in flight - looking like an
incredibly large and graceful North American Monarch.  Euploe harrisii, with
its iridescent blue dorsal forewing, was another breath-taker. 


As I ventured deeper into the thicket, it occurred to me that most of the
landscape I was traversing had been completely obliterated and defoliated
just 25 years earlier.  Reports indicated that as much as 70% of the
vegetation within the Iron Triangle had been removed by a rainbow of
airborne agents in an attempt to reveal and pinpoint the dozens of hidden
tunnel entrances and trapdoors.  It was a great encouragement for me to see
not only the extent of floral recovery, but also the obvious rebounding of
their associated Lepidoptera.  After about a quarter mile, the wildly
overgrown habitat opened up into a small agricultural site where various
plants and fruit trees grew in haphazard rows.  The butterfly activity
increased here, and I realized that it would be an ideal spot to spend an
hour or two.  I didn't really want to be discovered, however, as I was now
obviously trespassing.  I weighed the options carefully, and, looking around
me, saw no evidence of human activity.  I decided to roam freely.


After spending a good 30 minutes exploring, I saw something that just about
made me drop.  It was the largest butterfly I had ever seen, and it was
flopping about the orchards like a small bird.  It gave me a good chase, and
I surprised myself with laughter each time it successfully escaped my net
(which was often).  It took me on a playful journey across the terrain until
it brought me face to face with the rapidly moving Saigon River.  The River
was one of the major boundaries of the Cu Chi district, and many battles
were raged along its banks.  From my vantage point, the river was awesome
and beautiful, with huge clumps of waterborne plants floating down in
natural rafts at a speed that was surprising.  I could see the same plant
growing along the immediate bank, sporting large purple blossoms, and
realized that the river was indiscriminately tearing and carrying it away
all along its vast upstream stretches.  From here the river snaked its way
down to Ho Chi Minh City, and eventually to the sea near Ba Ria Vung Tau.
It was truly a major artery of sustenance for much of southern Vietnam.  It
held me spellbound for quite some time.


Most of the butterflies eventually made their way to the riverbank, and I
found a nice riverside path to traverse that gave me the best opportunities
for capturing them.  I saw two of the most incredible butterflies I've ever
seen along those banks - the spectacular Troides helena (Common Birdwing), a
huge member of Papilionidae with a 6" wingspan and a stunning neon yellow
hindwing; and Papilio memnon (The Great Mormon), a gargantuan swallowtail
with a wingspan over 6".  Other spectacular butterflies of this area
included Junonia atlides (Grey Pansy), Parthenos sylvia (The Clipper), and
Elymnias hypermnestra (Common Palmfly).  There were also a number of
Lycaenids, including Castalius rosimon (Common Pierrot) and Anthene
lycaenina (Ciliate Blue).  I saw no Hesperiidae here, or any other place in


While butterflying on the banks of the Saigon River, I spotted a man who had
walked into the area and stopped underneath a large Mango tree.  He hadn't
noticed me, and after awhile I decided that it would be best for me to walk
over and make my presence known.  I decided to make a small offering of Dong
(the Vietnamese currency) for the liberty to remain in this wonderfully
tranquil place.  I must have been a site for the man, who was busy preparing
a place under the tree under which he apparently planned on staying for
several nights.  The man knew little English, probably about 20 words or
less, but it was just enough for the two of us to communicate.  I explained
that I was catching butterflies (which I depicted using my own fabricated
International Hand Sign for butterfly), that I meant no harm, and that I
wanted to continue to remain in the area if it was alright with him.  He
greeted me with a smile, a handshake, told me that the name for butterflies
was "Pum pum", and pointed to the areas that I should focus on (I'm truly
amazed at the wonderful names the world peoples have coined for leps).  He
stared at me at length, and finally asked me where I was from.  He was not
surprised to find out that I was an American, but continued to smile and
stare at me in wonder.  Finally, I nodded, smiled, shook again his hand, and
headed back to the riverbank.  


After awhile my new friend made his way over to me, carrying with him a
bunch of bananas.  He offered me the bunch, along with a cigarette, and
asked me a few more three-word questions regarding whether I had ever been
to Vietnam before.  He left again, only to return minutes later with another
batch of fresh tropical fruits.  He showed me how to eat them (I had never
seen them before), and proceeded to explain with much sign language that he
was VC - Viet Cong - and that he had been in the war and had fired many
weapons.  The implication was obvious.  I asked him his age, which was 53,
and when I shared my own he laughed and cradled his arms, indicating that I
was just a babe.  He busied himself again while I chased more butterflies,
but eventually called me over to his tree, where he graciously offered me
his hammock.  I must have looked hot and tired (which I was), but I
graciously declined, explaining that I had Pum pum to chase.  He laughed and
watched as I wandered off once more.  As the sun continued to beat down on
me, my VC friend came once again to my rescue.  This time he had climbed a
palm tree, bringing down a large green coconut.  He beckoned me back to his
tree once more where he obtained a large machete, and with graceful motion,
managed to slice off the top of the coconut - producing a coin-sized hole
through which the interior was now exposed.  He offered the coconut to me,
which I lifted to my mouth, receiving a mouthful of the cool, sweet nectar.
Vietnamese coconuts are FULL of liquid - a quart, easily.  We proceeded to
share the delicious coconut milk, which I found to be powerfully quenching
and satisfying, but soon it was time for me to head back to my wife and the
rest of the medical team.  My friend and I exchanged information and parted
with an embrace - which was unusual, as few of the friends we had made in
Vietnam were comfortable with this very American custom.  I wandered back
into the jungle, numbed by this latest experience.


That evening, back in Ho Chi Minh City, the team stayed up past midnight to
enjoy the festivities of the Vietnamese New Year.  Such a fireworks display
I have never seen.  The streets were packed for miles with people -
essentially the entire population shows up - and it was difficult to walk.
The skies lit up at 12:00 sharp, and the impeccably behaved crowd oooh'd and
ahhh'd.  I was truly sad to be leaving the next morning, having had far more
adventure than I bargained for - having been truly blessed by the entire
experience.  The butterfly interaction was to die for, the human interaction
to live for.  God willing, I will find a way to return.


Mark Walker. 


(more photos at
<>  )


Some Links:
<>  Troides helena
<>  Papilio helenus

 <> Papilio nephelus

 <> Papilio memnon
<>  Graphium sarpedon

 <> Pachliopta aristolochiae
<>  Danaus genutia
<>  Danaus melanippus
<>  Tirumala septentrionis
<>  Parantica agleoides
<>  Euploea algea
<>  Euploea harrisii



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