Inside a North Vietnamese Tunnel Complex.
Above Photo – inside the Vinh Moc tunnels (me for scale)…
On a BACK-related research trip through Vietnam recently, I crossed the Ben Hai River which used to divide North and South Vietnam and travelled through the old Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), before arriving at the incredible Vinh Moc tunnels.
I first visited these tunnels in 1992 when there were no tourists and I don’t even think they were ‘open’ as a tourist site, but this time I was happy to see them now being put to good use in Vietnam’s seemingly booming war tourism trade.
The tunnels were initially built to shelter villagers from massive US bombing of the DMZ during the Vietnam War. Initially built to a depth of 10 metres, the US developed early ‘bunker buster’ bombs which could penetrate this level, so the villagers burrowed further into the limestone, by hand, down to a depth of 30 metres, where they continued to live their lives undisturbed. During the war not one person was killed by bombs in the tunnels.
Originally built during the 1960s, the tunnels extend for 2,000 metres on three different levels, and they have multiple entrance and exit holes.
The tunnels are an incredible testament to hard work and the will to survive. Around 60 families lived in them, children were born in the tunnels (they have a niche helpfully labelled as the “Maternity room”) and wells and hospitals were dug into the limestone too.
When you descend, the tunnels are dark, hot, slippery and slightly claustrophobic, but they were exciting to explore.
Due to my overzealous photography, I quickly became separated from the group and had to find my own way out of the tunnels, which was quite a long walk to do on my own, uncertain of the exit, in low light conditions, but I managed.
I was struck by the total silence in the tunnels. Within seconds I couldn’t tell which way our group had gone. It was incredible, but I had a torch and knew it couldn’t be too difficult to find the way out, although it took longer than expected, moving slowly, bent almost in two, as I headed down the disorienting, cramped, dark and damp tunnels.
It was finally a relief to emerge and find myself staring out at the South China Sea.
The tunnels are a work of art and an example of brilliant military and social engineering. It was a fascinating visit and an interesting (if unrepeatable) experience to get lost in them too.
On the ground there are still many huge bomb craters, a legacy of the pasting the area took during the Vietnam War. I was also intrigued to see a photo of a downed and captured US airman during the war.
The US (rightly) thought the villagers in this area were supplying the North Vietnamese Army, who also used the caves for shelter and storing supplies, before shipping them out to a garrison on the nearby island of Con Co. This island was causing the US huge problems in their bombing of Hanoi, as there was an array of anti-aircraft weaponry on it.
The communications trenches criss-crossing the area have also been restored. They were used by villagers and troops so they couldn’t be seen moving by US ships out at sea.
And I really liked the piece of old bomb fragment that had previously been used by the villagers to warn of danger and to call people into the tunnels.
There was an informative, small museum on the site too, which is where I took the original wartime photos accompanying this article.
Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
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© Peter Alan Lloyd
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