Today the things that stand out most in Vietnam, are the aromas of food being barbecued over charcoal, the laughter of the children playing in the streets, and the music. Vietnamese love to eat, sing and play.
It was not always like this.
In Central Vietnam’s Quảng Trị Province, is the Vĩnh Linh District, with the village of Vịnh Mốc, located on the southern border of the previously known (DMZ) Demilitarize Zone (the former North/South Vietnam border).
In early 1965, American intelligence believed the Vịnh Mốc villagers were supplying arms, ammunition, food and supplies to the North Vietnamese fighters and to the nearby Con Co Island.
Later in 1965 America began a bombing campaign against North Vietnam. The operation was a gradual and sustained aerial bombardment campaign conducted by the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy, and the Republic of Vietnam Air Force from March 2, 1965, until Nov. 2, 1968. During this time, the DMZ became a burnt and blackened wasteland.
A bombing campaign also began against the village of Vịnh Mốc, to protect the aircraft from the anti-aircraft fire coming from Con Co Island, as they bombed and strafed villages along the highway heading to Hanoi.
The idea was to force the villagers of Vịnh Mốc to leave the area but they had nowhere else to go.
In 1965, the Commander of Outpost 140, Le Xuan Vy, stationed in the Vịnh Linh District, Quang Tri Province, put forward the idea to move the people underground to stop the constant casualties and protecting the community.
If it was only that simple.
Tan My Hamlet, Vinh Giang Commune, was selected to dig the first tunnels, 80 meters long, to a depth of 7-8 meters. Unfortunately, the tunnels were too short and shallow. Over 100 people lay buried in these graves
In 1966, after initially digging the tunnels to a depth of 10 meters, the Vĩnh Mốc villagers found they faced bombs designed to penetrate to this depth. As the bombs got heavier, the villagers dug deeper.
Within 18 months, the Vĩnh Mốc army and people had moved near 6000 cubic meters of land, by hand, burrowing into the basalt hill. The tunnel system has a length of 2034 meters, with a domed structure and 0.9 x 1.5meters. Surrounding the tunnels is more than 8000 meters of communication trench. The tunnel village was occupied until 1972.
There are three levels of tunnels.
The first level, down 10-12 meters, accommodated the headquarters of the Party Committee and commander of the armed forces.
The second level, down 12-15 meters was the living area for the residents and those transiting the area.
The third level, down to 30 meters, was the logistical warehouse level. With entrances coming in from the shoreline and heavily camouflaged by nature, provisions of food, weapons, and ammunition stored for the combat units, Con Co Island anti-aircraft batteries and provisions for residents and local fighting. Hundreds of tons of rice and ammunition were transported by fishing boats, secretly, across 26 kilometers to Con Co Island to support the local anti-aircraft batteries.
Eventually, with fighting going on above them, the tunnels included accommodation, a hospital, a maternity ward, and a series of water wells, toilets, plus ingeniously designed shafts for fresh air and venting kitchen smoke in a way that it could not be detected from the air.
The tunnels are not just famous for the uniqueness of their endeavor, but for the meticulous ingenuity of their design.
Sixty families lived in the tunnels and 18 children were born in the maternity ward, many of whom still live in the district.
At the peak of occupation, there were 600 villagers and soldiers living in the Vịnh Mốc tunnel village.
The protective tunnels were a success and no Vịnh Mốc villagers lost their lives during the bombings.
When American forces began bombing Hanoi in December 1972 with B52 bombers, the villages along the coast north of the DMZ were also targeted.
The only direct hit on the Vịnh Mốc tunnels was from a 200lb bomb, not detonating. The bomb was dug up and the resulting in hole used as a ventilation shaft.
Today, the underground village is open to tourists.
The difference now is that the entrances to the tunnels have been reinforced with stones and concrete. Where logs once supported the trenches and strafing shelters, they have been replaced with look-alike concrete logs.
The ventilation shafts above ground are there, looking much like any water well that one will see in any village. Closer inspection will show that this is where the diggings came to the surface and spread around filling bomb craters or dumped into the surf to disperse along the coastline.
Lighting was a luxury within the tunnels. Oil and animal fat was conserved, and used to light lamps only used for meetings, emergency patients, and child care.
Today, instead of the low light oil lamps and candles used during the war, low wattage electrical lighting gives a realistic impression of just how these people lived.
Visitors can see the small bedroom alcoves where families lived their day to day life. The alcoves for bathing, and access to the fresh water wells. One tunnel was a meeting room where families gathered, movies shown and songs sung loudly as the bombs rained down.
The village of Vịnh Mốc is a testimony to just how perfect the complex network of caves and warrens were at protecting those living in them.
Le Xuan Vy, not only the designer of the system but also led the building of the tunnels.
Vy is quoted to saying “Their real name is Son Vịnh Tunnels, from the very beginning we called it Son Vịnh tunnels. Son meaning mountain and Vịnh not only refers to Vịnh Mốc, but to the Vịnh Linh people, the people of Son Trung and Son Ha communes, and the men of my border-post who all helped construct the tunnels.“
By the end of 1968 7.5 million working-day hours had gone into digging tunnels and moving 4 million cubic meters of soil and stone excavated to build the underground villages including 114 tunnel systems of all sizes with a total length of 40km in (the then) North Vietnam (excluding over 2000km of trenches which is half the length of the country and about 100,000 tunnels of all kinds).