He was six years old, just a little boy. But fate had not been kind to him. He was having to learn fast, make smart decisions and grow up very quickly. There was no choice. His young life depended on it.
When the attack started he knew exactly what to do, where to go. He’d been through this before.
As the bombs fell he and the other children scattered from their games, terrified and literally running for their lives. In a rush they reached the tunnel entrances, scampering down the holes like rabbits. But the little boy had been left behind. His young legs just not fast enough. A bomb ripped into the ground, the explosion shattering everything in its path.
His mother heard the awful sound and felt the earth tremor as she huddled in fear below. She silently hoped for her child’s safety, like she’d done so often before. He’d always made it back to her. But this time was different. He didn’t return. Her little boy was gone for ever.
More than 40 years on, now in her 80s, she is telling me the story. Her face ravaged by the cruelty of time, her tiny body stick thin and frail. But the awful memory of the day her son was killed as vivid as ever.
Mrs Cat Ho had been sat in the shade near the entrance to Vinh Moc Tunnels. The two kilometre complex was dug by villagers just north of the old DMZ (demilitarised zone) on the central coast of Vietnam. It was their only way to escape the aerial and naval bombardment by American forces in the war. These days the tunnels are open to tourists. I was the only one there on a blisteringly hot afternoon.
As I’d passed by she’d raised her bony arm, pointed back at the tunnels and spoke. I was clueless. Twice more she pointed and tried to tell me something. “She says she helped build the tunnel,” my guide, Mr Thang, had come back to join me. “She helped build it and she lived there”.
Here was living history. For the next hour we sat at her feet as she told us her extraordinary story.
Mrs Ho had the good fortune to be born in a beautiful setting metres from a sparkling beach. Her misfortune was that it was close to the border between north and south Vietnam. With the start of the American War (it’s not called the Vietnam War here) US forces set about clearing everything near the DMZ. Tons of bombs were dropped. With nowhere go the villagers began digging an underground complex of tunnels and rooms. One of the volunteers was Mrs Ho.
For three years she carried sacks of soil on her slight back from the dig site to the sea, mostly in the dead of night. There she would dump it for the water to take so no trace could be seen by US reconnaissance planes. It was gruelling work.
Eventually the tunnels took shape. Initially they were 10 metres deep but when the Americans developed bombs that could penetrate underground the villagers doubled the depth.
These days the tunnels are well ventilated, lit and dry. They give a glimpse of the hardship villagers endured in the war but it’s impossible to really grasp how it felt.
“It was very wet there. We used to have to stand with water above our ankles for a very long time. The walls were always damp. Many, many people were sick,” Mrs Ho told me.
Seventeen babies were born in the tunnels. Children had school lessons underground. Cooking and all the other daily routines of life were carried on there.
And throughout there was the bombing.
“Boom, boom, boom,” said Mrs Ho and she clutches herself tight, draws in her cheeks and shakes her head.”It was very frightening but we were safe”.
Several hundred people at a time could hide underground. None were ever killed in the tunnels. When she wasn’t’ digging Mrs Ho was helping the North Vietnamese war effort. “I took food and supplies to the soldiers. I would carry everything on my back and go right to the front lines. I would be so close I could sometimes see the Americans.” She is temporarily lost in the thought and stops a few moment before returning to the task in hand of rolling her own cigarette and reliving her memories.
Mrs Ho was awarded a medal after the war. Remarkably it was her second medal and her second war.
In 1954 Ho Chi Minh led North Vietnamese troops against the French. There was fierce fighting around the Vinh Moc area. Mrs Ho helped the soldiers, resupplying them with ammunition and rice. She would crawl through fields while the fighting raged around her, intent on doing her bit. She mimics soldiers shooting and points to a small rise where French troops had once come within metres of her as she hauled guns to the troops.
Mrs Ho is enjoying telling her story, a smile is nearly always on her face. I mention this to her. “Ever since I was a girl I have always smiled. It’s important. It helped in the war”
Vietnam is a forward thinking place. Nearly everybody I spoke to looks to the future not the past. The war is long over. Americans are welcome.
I asked Mrs Ho if she’d met any since the war. “No. They don’t come here. I think they are afraid.”
How does she feel about them? “I don’t like them.”
And if one came and tried to talk to her how would she feel? She pauses and then after a little internal debate and a grudging reluctance the war veteran gives way to the polite old lady. “That would be alright”.
Vinh Moc isn’t easy travelling. It’s more than 100 kilometres north of Hue. I go on the back of Mr Thang’s motorbike. It’s an unusual way to do a tour but very satisfying. He is an excellent guide, knowledgeable about the war and very good company. He takes me to other DMZ landmarks, sites that are reminders of the awful cost war inflicts on all sides.
Just outside Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels. They are transport and fighting tunnels, better known and immense. I considered going until I discovered that on some tours you get to buy bullets and shoot AK 47s. It’s very popular, especially with young guys. To me it seems grotesque. Millions of men women and children died in the conflict. The idea of blasting away for fun seems to mock the terrible dread that those who were involved went through.
Hundreds of kilometres away I know a little old lady who would probably feel the same way.
***Mr Thang 0909199816 Hue Motorbike Trail.com