Monday, August 18, 2008

Vietnam's great feats of engineering

14:08' 17/08/2008 (GMT+7)

VietNamNet Bridge - The feats of the Vietnamese army’s engineers during wartime are showcased in a little known museum in the capital city.

The Romans perfected the science of military engineering, entrusting every soldier with a sword, spear as well as a shovel. But even Hadrian’s Wall and the imperious Roman roads of Europe pale in comparison to the work of the Vietnamese Army Engineers in the Truong Son Mountains.

The Army Corps of Engineers build and maintain an infrastructure to allow the quick movement of military forces. Their museum in Hanoi begins on the first floor with the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu. The French position was in a valley, surrounded by high ground that the Viet Minh quickly fortified. A stunning photo of General Vo Nguyen Giap at his headquarters in the mountains above the French stronghold dramatically shows the rugged terrain behind him – craggy peaks and a waterfall cutting the cliff in two.

The trail carved into the hills was used to transport the artillery pieces to the top where they were dug into the hillside to protect them from air strikes. Later, trenches tunneled closer and closer to the French forces. The coloured lights of a diorama depict the ever smaller French held area until a final tunnel, displacing 1,000 kilos of dirt led to the capture of A1 hill. Victory was theirs. The second floor boasts a photo of Long Bien Bridge after one bomb devastated the target – which was quickly repaired. A photo of Haiphong port with a female cadre hauling the ropes while repairing the docks highlights the dedication of the entire population to victory.

One error of judgement of the foreign forces was to underestimate the manpower available to the north, though perhaps we should also speak about womanpower, for they were the glue that held the supply lifelines together. A model of only one of the thousands of rocky hills of the Truong Son Strategic Supply Route (aka the Ho Chi Minh Trail) shows trucks precariously perched on roads hewn out of the hills.

An amazing picture of a truck driving over a gorge on a swaying, corduroy log suspension bridge reminds us of the adage – Army Engineers go where angels fear to tread; with a potential load of 3,500kg and the truck weight we know the bridge was incredibly strong. Army engineers are credited for building, protecting and maintaining this vital lifeline for the troops, and thereby winning the war.

The trail was hazardous duty. It was one of the most bombed pieces of real estate in the world. Needless to say the ever creative Vietnamese used the bomb craters as fish and duck ponds to provide porters, drivers and way station staff protein for their diet. Canopies were made with net, and climbing vegetable vines supplied a camouflage covering and food. At first the trail was only for foot traffic but later in the war, with the acquisition of earth moving equipment it was expanded so it could support truck traffic.

Along with underground storage facilities along the trail, a 5,000 km oil pipeline was built, from the Chinese border to the outskirts of Saigon. By 1975 the north was equipped with tanks, troop carriers and other armoured vehicles which used the trail for the final assault on the south. The third floor displays the work of the Army Engineers today, including the work of the engineers who built the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. One road connecting Laos to Vietnam and the new Ho Chi Minh highway were largely built by army engineers.

After the wars the engineers’ work continued with a new challenge – land mines and Unexploded Ordinance. The ground floor shows the effects of the UXO on civilian population today. Their expertise in de-mining was vital. During the American War, over 15,000,000 tonnes of bombs and mines were used in Vietnam. The contamination of 66,660 square kilometres covered 20 per cent of the country.

After concerted efforts by the Corps of Army Engineers the land area cleared by 2006 was around 12 per cent. At this rate the country will be cleared by 2070. One recent highway bridge construction unearthed 600 unexploded bombs and land mines. A single road in Quang Tri province was upgraded and 300 live bombs were found in a 1-km stretch.

The sacrifices and spirit of the Army Engineers, men and women; some only teenagers, continues today. Previously it was for the unity of the country and now for the protection of the people from leftover ordinance – an ongoing challenge.

Army Engineers Museum (Bao Tang Cong Binh) 290 Lac Long Quan Huyen Tu Liem, Hanoi