Vinh Moc Tunnel (Địa đạo Vĩnh Mốc) - an underground miniaturized village - is the largest historical tunnel in the DMZ of Vietnam.
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 tunnel soil is a dense clay, allowing easy hands digging of the tunnels. Air caused the clay to harden, making the walls extremely strong. The tunnel network's total length is nearly 2 km, structured into three floors with the first 13 m beneath the ground, the second 15 m, and the third, 23 m. The village tunnel was built in over two years and required approximately 6,000 cubic metres of earth to be dug out.
During that time, 17 children were born in the tunnels, each of whose lives is a testament to just how perfect the complex network of caves and warrens were at protecting those forces within. As time goes by, it has become both a historical evidence and a tourist destination for discovering a heroic period of Vietnam’s history.
The main inner axis is 2,034m long, 1-1.2m wide, and 1.5-4.1m high. The two side cliffs are moulded into small temporary houses every 3m. The tunnel center has a 150 seated hall, clinics and maternity place. It is linked to the sea by seven exits, which also function as ventilators, and to a nearby hill by another six.
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 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.
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.
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.