The forgotten Vietnam War tunnel builder
Le Xuan Vy always smiles when people ask him about all the rewards and certificates of merit he must have gotten for his design and construction of the complicated Vinh Moc tunnel system in the north-central province of Quang Tri.
“It has been almost 50 years… My greatest reward was that the tunnel offered a shelter that saved thousands of people from heavy bombardment,” said the 85-year-old man at his home in Dong Ha Town, the provincial capital.
The construction of the Vinh Moc Tunnels in Vinh Linh District began in 1966 when Vy was the chief of Police Station 140 in Vinh Moc Hamlet, located on the north bank of the Ben Hai River–which effectively separated North and South Vietnam.
It was that year that he decided to build underground tunnels to safeguard soldiers and locals.
On February 18, 1966, he ordered his subordinates to begin digging a series of U-shaped tunnels with entrances that looked out toward the sea for easy detection of approaching enemy aircraft.
The 10-meter deep tunnels, however, couldn’t withstand heavy bombs and one of the tunnels collapsed during a bombardment, killing more than 100 people.
Vy decided to go deeper into the ground and design a complicated tunnel system under a nearby hill.
Vy only completed the fourth grade and it was hugely difficult for him to calculate the depth of the tunnels and the direction of each tunnel during construction, especially since his only piece of equipment was a compass.
Several meetings were held at his police station to measure the distance from the slopes to the sea, but all of their efforts proved unsuccessful.
One day, Vy had an idea about using a right triangle made of rope to measure the height of each peak.
From there, he was able to determine the depth and height of each tunnel and ensure that they all met underground.
“After the tunnels were completed, the Engineer Corps measured the tunnels with machines which produced the same results,” Vy said.
Nguyen Van Dung, 82, one of his few surviving subordinates, said that it is difficult to list all of Vy’s innovations in constructing the tunnels.
Vy assigned different groups to dig the tunnels in different directions and it was difficult to make sure that they all went straight toward the center of the hill, he said.
“Vy gave each group three lamps and instructed them to put them on a straight line. People just based their efforts on this line,” he said.
Dung said that Vy wanted to make sure that people would dig straight tunnel sections, so he asked each to dig five times with right their hand and five times with their left hand to ensure a balance.
“That’s how we created 25-meter straight tunnel sections that met each other underground,” he said.
“My greatest reward was that the tunnel offered a shelter that saved thousands of people from heavy bombardment.” 85-year-old Le Xuan Vy.
Vy also held competitions and granted honorary titles among the workers.
“Thanks to the competitions, the digging speed increased significantly despite the fact that no one had enough food,” he said.
After 18 months, a tunnel system of about 2,000 meters (6,560 ft) was completed, with its deepest sections measuring 25 meters (82 ft).
The tunnels featured ten different spaces, including meeting rooms, wells, kitchens, medical chambers, family chambers, toilets, etc. with six entrances leading to the tops of the hills and seven entrances to the East Sea — internationally known as the South China Sea.
Unofficial statistics show that the United States Army, who was backing the south Vietnam regime, released over 9,000 tons of bombs in the area between 1966 to 1972–payload of roughly seven tons of bombs per person.
No one was killed while hiding in the tunnels.
After the war ended (1975), General Doan Khue, former defense minister, visited the Vinh Moc Tunnels.
Before leaving, he asked the Quang Tri Military Command to forward Vy some gifts of a piece of cloth and some basic products.
It was the first and only time Vy had his contributions recognized.
Nowadays, the 85-year-old man has difficulty seeing and walking; his small house features only a bed, table and chairs.
On his bed is a box full of his old uniforms.
He donated the compass he used while constructing the tunnels to the Quang Tri Museum.
The Vinh Moc Tunnels have become a tourist site, but Vy isn’t mentioned in the placards or the speeches of tour guides.
The place often shows the documentary Huyen Thoai Tu Long Dat (Legend from Underground) to tourists, and the 30-minute film only mentions Vy once, as the person who “directed” the work.
Asked about recognition for Vy’s contributions, Nguyen Huu Thang, director of Quang Tri Culture, Sports and Tourism Department said the province proposed to the culture ministry several years ago.
“A seminar was held about the tunnels and some proposed to grant the Ho Chi Minh Award to Vy. However, others said the tunnels were the work of thousands of people and the title should be granted to an entity and not an individual,” he said.
“We are going to open a museum at the Vinh Moc Tunnels and will consider mentioning Le Xuan Vy’s name there.”