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
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.
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
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
The tunnels are not just an incredible example of the constructors’ endeavour,
but also their meticulous ingenuity. For example, all the kitchens required
chimneys, which had to be able to disperse their smoke above ground without
attracting the attentions of enemy planes. During the war, most of the women
and children and the elderly never saw daylight. But when it was considered
safe, they would leave the tunnels under the cover of night to get some fresh
Visiting tourists are often left scratching their heads, wondering how people
managed to live day to day in such conditions with the mother of all storms
raging above ground. Not that is was even safe down below. The US Army also
used drilling bombs, which are basically bombs within bombs. The first bomb
would detonate and make a crater while the second would then detonate much
deeper in the ground and, therefore, potentially destroy an underground tunnel.
Amazingly, the Vinh Moc tunnel system was only hit once directly and fortunately
nobody died. Even without the threat of the bombs it was dangerous. In periods
of heavy rain, the tunnels could flood and in this damp, muddy underworld
sicknesses were also inevitable. Today you can clamber down into the tunnels to
get a sense of how people lived during the war. The tunnels are lit at
infrequent intervals by weak bulbs and shuffling behind someone blocks whatever
little light there is.
The stairs are rough, narrow and steep. Your shoulders scrape against the
walls. I find it intensely claustrophobic and suffocating and, of course, I
know it would have been far worse during the war. At one stage I pause to stare
at some mannequins, designed to represent the wartime tunnel dwellers, and the
group leaves me behind. Embarrassingly I am terrified and I shout out until the
tour guide returns to help me catch up. We pass some living quarters, which
look deep enough for one short person to lie down in.
In one nook a mother nurses a baby. In the next a midwife helps a woman give
birth. Elsewhere soldiers clean their guns and rest. At one point the tunnel
widens into a meeting room, which also doubled as a school. I picture how
people sedately huddled together as the bombs pounded the earth above their
heads. It is a chilling vision and I’m happy when the tour group shuffles
towards the exit. Finally we emerge into the fresh air.
The blue waters of the give off a wonderfully refreshing breeze. How sweet it must have
finally felt for the villagers when they could finally resettle above ground
after years in the tunnels. It wasn’t until after 1973, when forces
had departed, and the country battled to liberate the south, that the Vinh Moc
site could be completely abandoned.
After 1975, it was quickly recognised by the State as playing a crucial role in
the war effort and declared a cultural and historical relic that needed to be
preserved. The tunnels have been partially restored and reinforced so there is
no fear of them collapsing. Today many of the people who borrowed down into the
earth still live in the area. Of course, I wouldn’t think they feel the need to
visit their old home./.