AMERICAN bombs rained overhead as Ho Thi Giu was born in an underground tunnel on Jan 1, 1968, where hundreds of-

Vietnamese villagers carved out subterranean lives to escape the bloodshed of the country's brutal civil war.

Saltwater sloshed underfoot as her mother gave birth in the  communist stronghold of coastal Quang Tri province, just north of the Demilitarized Zone that separated North from South Vietnam during the war.

Weeks later on the eve of the Tel lunar new year holiday -50 years ago this month- north Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerrillas launched sweeping attacks across Southern Vietnam.

Known as the ''Tet Offensive'', the surprise assault was a turning point in a war eventually won by the communist North.

Yet fighting carried on for years before American troops finally withdrew.

During that time some villagers in Quang Tri took up arms against the US backed south.

But others stayed behind to build the elaborate Vinh Moc tunnel network -mostly by hand- as a refuge from the bombing.

Gou and her mother spent the nest two years living 15 metres [49 feet] below ground, alongside up to 600 people. Thousands of other villagers were evacuated from the area.

The Vinh Moc tunnels are among thousands of underground passageways built across Vietnam throughout the war, including the massive  Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon, where Viet Cong  guerrillas took shelter beneath the former-

Southern capital, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh city after the war's ended in 1975.

Most of the tunnels were destroyed by American bombs, but a few like Vinh Moc are intact and now attract hordes of tourists, many of whom marvel at the cramped conditions.

''My mum told me it was difficult because we lacked the so many things, from food to everyday supplies,'' said Giu, whose father was a Viet Cong fighter.

There was only one kitchen and one bathroom, and just a few oil lamps to light the tunnel's dark and narrow passageways.

''My legs were always swollen and my vision suffered -some men got scabies. That was regular during life in the tunnels,'' said Nguyen Tri Phuong, who was just 14 years old when he joined some 250 locals to dig the one-kilometre long network.

Personal hygienic was nonexistent and residents struggled to wash their clothes and dispose of the human waste, said Phuong, a former Viet Cong fighter who guarded the tunnels during the war.


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