Vietnam’s underworld

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Cu-Chi

From 1965 to 1973, people from Vinh Linh district in Quang Tri province lived in the Vinh Moc tunnels, harbouring soldiers, storing ammunition and simply surviving.

If you asked a tourist to name a network of war era tunnels in Vietnam, no doubt they would say Cu Chi, which is now known throughout the world as a symbol of Vietnam’s dogged determination and military guile during the Vietnam-American war. But there were plenty more underground tunnels built during the country’s struggle for reunification

In the DMZ, or Quang Tri province, where the bombing was at its most intense – it was declared a free fire zone by the US Army – numerous underground complexes of tunnels and bomb shelters were built to help villagers survive. There are more than 60 tunnels, including the Tan My, Mu Giai and Tan Ly tunnels.

The largest tunnel is called Vinh Moc, which was built to shelter the residents of Son Trung and Son Ha communes. Open since 1985 as a tourist attraction, Vinh Moc is also testament to the endurance, wisdom and bravery of the local population. Rather than flee, 350 Vinh Moc villagers, helped by soldiers serving at the border-post, chose to create a series of interconnected bomb shelters from 1965 to 1966.

Cu-Chi

As fate would have it, the soil in this area is a kind of dense clay, which allowed for relatively easy digging. Air also causes this clay to harden, which helped make the walls extremely strong. At first, the system was comprised of two-A shaped tunnels that were connected by a “u-turn”. This initial network would also act as a base to retaliate against the enemy if they landed at Vinh Linh and conveniently as an entry point for supplies to the Con Co Island nearby.

These shelters were then slowly expanded and eventually the entire village was relocated underground. By the end the tunnels had 13 exit and entry points of which seven opened up to the sea, which also helped ventilate the tunnels. Each entrance was propped up by firm wood pillars and covered by trees or bushes. The main trunk of the system was a 768-metre long tunnel. Underground a community of around 60 families survived; there were even 17 children born in the tunnels during the war.

Meanwhile above ground, the area around the tunnels was being pounded with bombs. It’s estimated that there were approximately seven tonnes of bombs per resident in Quang Tri during the war. There were three levels inside the tunnels. The highest level was 8-10 metres down and used for fighting and hiding. The second level was 12-15 metres deep and earmarked for living. The lowest level was at a depth of 30m and used to store ammunition and hundreds of tonnes of rice.

Unlike the Cu Chi tunnels, which were specifically built for military purposes, Vinh Moc tunnels were designed for people to live rather than fight. Inside whole families slept in small chambers – normally about 2m x 1.5m in size – dug on the side of the tunnels. There were larger chambers built as common areas for the underground community: kitchens, storerooms, clinics and other multi-functional rooms.