26 Jul Visiting the DMZ and Vinh Moc Tunnel (Địa đạo Vĩnh Mốc)
It is still early, when we hurry up and get a bite to eat before we hustle over to see Mr. Tinh. After a short briefing we are ready to roll. Mr Tinh and his driver sit in the front, the three of us in the back seat. Today we are going on an excursion to visit the former DMZ and the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
“DMZ,” which means demilitarized zone, is a military term that refers to a combat-free area between two enemies. The boundary between North Vietnam (officially the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam) and South Vietnam (officially the State and later the Republic of Vietnam) was established as the Ben Hai River. The river ran approximately east-west, approximately on the 17th parallel. The DMZ extended five kilometers on each side of the river. (http://www.u-s-history.com)
During the DMZ tour, we stop at several interesting places. An old Naval Base, the Truong Son National Cemetery, tunnels that were occupied by villagers and others that were dug by the Vietcong during the war. Many of these tunnels have collapsed during the Vietnam war when bombs turned the tunnels into mass graves. It is said that other villagers that have not been in the tunnels at the time of collapse still heard people scream for help long after the bombing occurred…even to this day.
Today, we visit one of these tunnels and Mr Tinh translates the inscriptions at the Memorials. Most inscriptions refer to the the war as the “American War” and depict the USA as being an imperial power and aggressor. We have to say Mr Tinh is very good at what he does. Not only is he a wealth of information, but in a matter-of-fact way he describes how life was back then. He tells us stories about the good and the bad; about how the Vietcong used women to deceive many Americans and how they infiltrated the villages near the DMZ to take over the South. He also lets us know about the very different fighting philosophies between the North and the South. He made the experience of the DMZ very personal and without judging any side he gives us a glimpse of what each side went through.
Once on the north side of the Ben Hai River, we jump back in the car to head to the Truong Son National Cemetery. The cemetery has over 10 000 graves of mostly North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong fighters. There are also a few civilians buried here but nobody can tell for sure. During the war there was no time nor means for the Northern Army to bring the dead soldiers back to their home villages. Yet, traditionally in Vietnam, the soul of a dead person becomes a restless soul unless the body is buried. So all the dead were buried wherever they died and after the war they were eventually brought here.
Almost all the headstone at Truong Son National Cemetery are marked with “let si” (martyr). Out of the 10 000 there are only 13 graves with actual names carved on them. The graves are all very well taken care off by monks and veterans and there are many small vases with incense burning along the graves to honor the dead.
While Mr. Tinh tells us all about the graves and how most graves at any national cemetery in Vietnam are marked as “unknown soldiers” or “martyr” and that even today many people are still looking for their long lost relatives, a Vietnamese man about our age approaches us.
He talks to Mr. Tinh looks at us and asks Mr. Tinh a few questions and Mr. Tinh is translating for us. Apparently, this young man is looking for his father’s grave. His dad was from Hanoi, fought for the Northern Army and died during the war while fighting US forces; but his father’s body was actually never found. Although, there are over 300 000 missing soldiers and none of the graves are marked, he tells us that this is how he and many other Vietnamese find closure. The man asks Mr. Tinh where we are from and once he finds out that we are Americans the most surprising thing happens. The man reaches out to us, gives us a very heart warning smile and firmly shakes our hands and welcomes us to Vietnam…
Maybe a gesture to let gone-byes be gone-byes and to look forward to a much better future. We definitely appreciate the sincere welcome and wish him the best of luck.
It has been already a long and emotional morning and the tour is far from being over yet. But, before heading to the Vinh Moc Tunnels, we stop for lunch.
Mr. Tinh asks what we like to eat, we told him we are up for just about anything and throw out Bun Bo, Com Gai, Pho, and a few other things. He smiles and says, “you’ve had all this? That’s great!”…Yup, we like to eat local! We had all this and a bunch of other things that we do not even know what to call or how to describe.
He tells us about a small family restaurant, where we have more Bun Bo. We were a little worried that it might come with the “tourist” price tag, since we are technically on a tour. So we are pleasantly surprised to pay the normal low tab that we became accustomed to during our travels.
After the filling meal and taking a short break we head to the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
The [Vinh Moc Tunnels] tunnels were built to shelter people from the intense bombing of Son Trung and Son Ha communes in Vinh Linh county of Quảng Trị Province in the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. The American forces believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnemese garrison on the island of Con Co which was in turn hindering the American bombers on their way to bomb Hanoi. (https://en.wikipedia.org)
It is said, that the tunnels were initially dug 10 meters (30ft) deep and about 2 km long, but as the bombings increased and caused a lot of damage, the villagers dug even deeper and built their new home into 30 meter (90ft) depth. There are several exits and entrances, some more inland, others facing the South China Sea, where the occupants would escape at night to get supplies.
Whole families lived here with a family of 4 squeezing into rooms that were barely bigger than a 3 person hiking tent. There were many small niches for candles along the walls, a school/meeting area, a kitchen, latrines, a nursery, even a hospital room was carved into the tunnels. About 300 people lived in this dark, wet, claustrophobic hellhole from 1966 to 1972. Like that is not enough, 17 children were born in the maternity room which looks more like an ancient crypt than a place where life begins.
As we walk through the tunnels and explore all of the nooks and crannies we get many more stories to listen to from Mr Tinh.
Here is a short video of our excursion to the Vinh Moc Tunnels
Thank you Mr. Tinh and friend for a fabulous experience!