|Old Vietnamese soldier sits outside tunnel entrance|
|Deep in the dark war tunnels, below the village|
I’m down in a dark tunnel. I've already been down in the Cu Chi tunnels, where Viet Cong guerillas had fought tough American 'tunnel rats' back during the war. But this place is different. I'm now in what used to be North Vietnam.
It’s very damp down here, and the air is humid. As I descend deeper inside, darkness envelops me. I round a corner, where a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling helps illuminate the way. In the dim light, I can make out cave walls that are a mixture of brownish soil and whitish chalk.
Fortunately, I don’t have to crawl around on my hands and knees this time, this passageway is reasonably spacious. But I'm forced to walk along bent over like a hunchback. This tunnel wasn’t made for tall Americans like me, but for shorter Vietnamese.
I’m beneath the village of Vinh Moc, and until the country became divided by the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), this was just a quiet fishing and farming village in central Vietnam. When the country was split in two, that left Vinh Moc located just to the north of the DMZ in North Vietnam. For Vinh Moc’s villagers, the quiet coastal life that they had known was over. Overnight, they found themselves on the front line of Vietnam’s most devastating war.
|Frieze depicts wartime Vinh Moc, both above and below ground|
As casualties mounted, many villagers fled to escape the shelling of the 1960’s, but some families stayed. With so many bombing attacks hitting the village so frequently, there was only one place where the villagers could find safety, and that was deep underground. Work quickly began on tunnels for shelter, and on trenches connecting houses to tunnel entrances.
|Huge bomb crater from the war in Vinh Moc|
As I walk stooped over through the dimly lit tunnels, my head bumps a crossbeam. Some stretches have wooden beams and supports lining the walls and ceiling, giving the appearance of an old gold mine. It’s an impressive network. These tunnels are solid, and far more spacious than those that I crawled through before in Cu Chi outside of Saigon. Those tunnels in the south were very narrow, built tight to discourage the taller and fatter Americans from entering. Since Vinh Moc lies within North Vietnam, they didn’t have to worry about American tunnel rats pursuing them down in these caves. These tunnels were built much taller and wider, to accommodate all of the village families.
Above ground many old bomb craters are still scattered around the tunnel entrances, but these tunnels were deep enough to protect them from incoming artillery. Multiple entrances allowed multiple means of escape. That way if a direct hit caused an entrance to cave in, the villagers were not left trapped inside.
|The maternity room; 17 babies were born in the tunnels|
As I walk along, I encounter side rooms dug into tunnel walls. There are still beds inside, made of bamboo. These spaces were made to shelter individual families, who could sleep down here in safety. During long attacks, the villagers stayed down here for days at a time. For some villagers, there lives began down here.
“My father born in tunnel,” said Le, a local teenager who sells drinks outside. As the war dragged on, 17 of Vin Moc’s babies were born underground as the bombs fell above them on the surface. There was a makeshift hospital in one room, but conditions were far from sterile. Other infants born in these difficult and stressful circumstances didn’t survive.
There were rooms down here for cooking, for meetings, and storage for NVA supplies and ammunition. What they didn’t have room for, was an underground school.
|Some entrances nearly reach the South China Sea coast|
“No school (back then,)” Le told me. After the schoolhouse was destroyed, Le’s father grew up without an education. “Many men no have job now,” Le explained. The lack of schooling in their youth, made it difficult for Vinh Moc’s men to find a job in Vietnam’s economy of today. Le told me her father has to get by now with occasional work as a fisherman.
I see daylight ahead, and follow it to a tunnel exit. As I walk out the opening, I have to duck under overhanging weeds. This entrance is surrounded by ferns and other overgrowth. After walking a few steps down the path, the brush opens up, and reveals a beach. I had no idea that the tunnels were located so close to the coast; the surf of the South China Sea is only steps in front of me. Then I turn around, and look back at the tunnel entrance. I can’t even see it! This entrance was well placed. Even with no war going on today, the entrance is still perfectly camouflaged by nature itself.
As I finish exploring, I leave the tunnel network, and find myself back in the village center. I rub my back, pleased to be able to stand fully erect again.
|Steps away from the tunnel entrance, it's nearly invisible|
A sign on their bus translates as, “Association of Pioneer Youth Visiting The Old Battlefields.” These veteran women had a hazardous job. In their younger days as teenagers, these ‘volunteers’ had the difficult job of manually building and maintaining the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
As I look on, some foreign tourists approach to pose with the women for photos. The lady vets are all smiles. Many of them are grandmothers now, and they’re surprised at this kind of attention from foreigners. The contrast in size is obvious. Posing next to the taller Europeans, many of the Vietnamese ladies are not even five feet tall. It’s hard to imagine that this group of short, smiling older women are war vets. But they were there. They dug trenches, repaired the roads, and ran for cover from air raids. When jets destroyed the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they went right back out to work, to fix the roads all over again.
|Lady war veterans from North Vietnam; they worked to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail|
Back in the 1960’s, American women were marching in the streets to protest for women’s rights. At the same time, many Vietnamese women here were marching off to war. Communists aren’t known for personal freedoms or liberty, but they did give their women a right that American women were mostly denied: the right to die in a war. The communists had female soldiers out in the line of fire, decades before the US military did.
Back in World War II, America had 'Rosie the Riveter', who donned coveralls, and went off to work to build planes, ships and tanks.
In Vietnam they had 'Diu the Digger', who put her hair up in a bun, marched off into the jungle, and helped build the Ho Chi Minh Trail.