Richard Vogel  /  AP
Vietnamese students walk down a stairway Wednesday into an underground bunker used by late former President Ho Chi Minh.
updated 10/27/2004 6:21:49 PM ET 2004-10-27T22:21:49

Behind thick concrete walls and iron doors, Ho Chi Minh and other top North Vietnamese leaders hid out in secret underground tunnels during U.S. B-52 bombing raids and plotted key military strategies that led to America’s defeat in the Vietnam War.

For the first time, Hanoi has opened the bunker used by the late former president, his military leader, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, and others. It’s in the same building where the 1968 Tet offensive and the fall of Saigon in 1975 were planned from about 30 feet below the surface.

But the site’s history goes far deeper than that.

Visitors are being given a rare, firsthand glimpse of nearly 1,000 years of Vietnamese history through touring the site of the Kinh Thien shrine, which dates to the 11th century.

“I feel very proud to be here and to see all these relics,” said Le Thi Mai Huong, 22, a student from Ha Tay province who is studying in Hanoi. “It is very good for young people to visit places like this. ... We can learn all the sacrifices and the suffering of the older generations who had to fight against the foreign aggressors for national independence and unification.”

The area includes two large stone dragons that extend up nine stairs left over from the 15th century during the Le Dynasty — all that remains of the shrine that was once part of the imperial forbidden city that was off-limits to everyone but royalty. It was rebuilt three times during different dynasties.

When the French invaded Vietnam in the late 19th century, they destroyed everything but the stairs and gate, and constructed a two-story building to house their artillery headquarters, which was taken over by the North Vietnamese after they defeated the French colonialists in 1954.

Labyrinthine corridors
The communist military, with help from the Soviets, built its headquarters there in 1967. It housed the elaborate tunnel system, including the underground bunker, which has narrow submarine-style corridors and vaulted metal doors leading into two larger rooms. During U.S. bombing raids, Politburo members and top military brass took cover there and held meetings.

Vietnam’s Defense Ministry occupied the property until recently, relocating to another site and turning part of the area over to the city of Hanoi. Only a small underground section of the bunker was opened to the public, with most of the tunnels remaining closed and classified.

“No one knows how long (the tunnels are),” said professor Le Van Lan, a historian with in-depth knowledge of the site. “It’s a secret. There’s many legends that they go to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.”

Artifacts recovered from the nearby excavation site of an ancient citadel also are on display, and Lan hopes the Defense Ministry will one day hand over the entire property where the shrine once sat to allow excavation to begin. However, he said much of the ancient treasures were likely destroyed when the bunker and tunnel system were built.

Big decisions from a small room
About 100,000 visitors have so far toured the site, which is open to the public from Oct. 2 to Oct 31. It also contains original war maps scribbled with handwritten notes and arrows as well as photographs taken during historic meetings held in the ground-level command room surrounded by 2 feet of concrete — enough to withstand a missile blast.

An army blanket and a simple wooden bed where Giap, now 93, sometimes napped is also on display in his old office along with antique phones used to communicate with his staff and other officials.

“It’s a very simple room, but from that room, the Vietnamese military strategists issued big decisions for the liberation and unification of the country,” said Truong Khanh Hao, 71, a veteran who fought the French and the Americans. “It’s a pride for all Vietnamese that we have these relics.”

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