Ho Chi Minh’s Trojan Horse: The Fortified Village in Vietnamese History

North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap’s concept of People’s War called for the total mobilization of Vietnam’s human resources and the transformation of the country’s natural and built environments into weapons of war. Thus, as soon as the Communist guerrillas took hold of a South Vietnamese village, cadre worked to consolidate the Vietcong’s control over the residents as well as the surrounding countryside. Political officers levied taxes on rice farmers, convened show trials for “enemies of the people,” and propagandized the populace on the need to support The Resistance. Military officers recruited young men into the many branches of the Vietcong military apparatus and organized the peasants into work gangs. Those labourers fortified the Vietcong village and the surrounding agricultural landscape against U.S and South Vietnamese forces.

The Vietnamese had a long history of employing villages as military strongholds. Centuries ago, when the Vietnamese expanded southward out of the Red River Delta, they confronted Cham and Khmer peoples in their path. In order to both protect settlers from attack and provide bases from which to launch military forays into Cham and Khmer territory, the Vietnamese constructed fortified villages along their frontier. According to author Jonathan Schell, the village of Ben Suc in Binh Duong Province northwest of Saigon had been one of those old fortified villages. The bastion of Ben Suc allowed the Vietnamese to secure the fertile Saigon River Valley. Schell, who would witness the destruction of Ben Suc during Operation Cedar Falls in January 1967, wrote, “…[Ben Suc] had a recorded history going back to the late eighteenth century, when the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled the southern part of Vietnam fortified it and used it as a base in its campaign to subjugate the natives of the middle region of the country.”[1]

Before the start of the First Indochina War, Ho Chi Minh hinted that he planned on exploiting the Vietnamese rural landscape as a weapon against the French Expeditionary Corps. Ho Chi Minh biographer William Duiker wrote of Ho’s intentions, “…[he] insisted the heroism of the Yugoslav partisans against Nazi Germany showed that the spirit of man was more powerful than machines, which could not operate effectively in swamps and thick jungles. [According to Ho] There were millions of straw huts that could serve as “Trojan horses,” in the rear of an invading army.”[2]

Ho further explained how the Vietminh would use Vietnam’s landscape to defeat the French. He stated, “It will be a war between an elephant [the French] and a tiger [the Vietnamese]…If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing his chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina.”[3]

In December 1946, war erupted between the Vietminh and the French. Fighting began in Haiphong and quickly spread inland to Hanoi. In the northern capital city, Vietminh troops rebuilt residential neighborhoods into bastions. Houses became small fortresses, open sewers were reconfigured as trench lines, and high rooftops served as sniper dens. Vietminh fighters connected a string of houses together by knocking down adjoining walls or by digging trenches and tunnels from building to building. In this way, the Communists could resupply and reinforce every single building, making it costly for the French to dislodge their defenders. The intricate system of Vietminh defensive works took a terrible toll on French troops. It took the French two months of vicious house-to-house fighting before their cleared the Vietminh from Hanoi. In the end, a sizeable Communist force escaped the city by fleeing through a network of tunnels.[4]

As the war against France intensified in the late 1940s, Ho, and his military commander Vo Nguyen Giap, ordered the fortification of rural villages under Vietminh control. By war’s end, villages all across the Vietnam had been reconstructed as Vietminh strongpoints.

In the summer of 1953, author Bernard Fall accompanied a French military operation in Vietnam’s central coastal province of Quang Tri.  Operation Camargue, the largest single French operation of the First Indochina War, sought to eliminate the Vietminh from the villages between the South China Sea and Route 1 in an area known to French soldiers as the “Street Without Joy.” Fall saw firsthand the sophistication and durability of the Vietminh’s village defenses. “Each village forms a veritable little labyrinth that measures barely more than 200 by 300 feet and is surrounded by bushes, hedges, or bamboo trees, and small fences which made ground as well as aerial surveillance almost impossible. Regiment 95 [of the Vietminh] had spent more than two years fortifying the villages with an interlocking system of trenches and tunnels, underground arms depots, and first-aid stations which no single brutal thrust by large mobile forces could uncover or destroy.”[5]

Unable to find the Vietminh because of the superb concealment of tunnel entryways and because the local population refused to reveal the hidden locations of the Vietminh troops, the French departed the Street Without Joy without destroying the Vietminh units in the area. Soon after the end of Operation Camargue, the Vietminh emerged from their subterranean hiding places and reasserted control over the region.

French military operations in Vietminh-controlled areas, such as the Street Without Joy, acted like a wave that briefly washed over the land and then receded. The Vietminh resembled the pebbles and sand under the water. The Vietminh might move with the wave, but once the water retreated back from whence it came, the Communist troops resurfaced to again take control.

Fortified villages and their tunnel networks thwarted the permanent French occupation of the countryside. Consequently, the French found it impossible to dislodge the Communists with any military means short of the complete destruction of the villages and the forced removal of the inhabitants, actions that alienated the peasantry and spurred Vietminh recruitment.  Later, when American military forces encountered Ho Chi Minh’s fortified villages in South Vietnam, they applied the same brutal tactics against them as the French had in the 1950s, with the same detrimental results.

[1] Jonathan Schell, The Village of Ben Suc, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), 3.

[2] William J. Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Life, (New York: Hyperion, 2000), 379.

[3] Ibid., 379

[4] Ronald H. Spector, Advice and Support: The Early Years of the U.S. Army in Vietnam,1941-1960, (New York: The Free Press, 1985), 83.

[5] Bernard B. Fall, Street Without Joy, 1961, Reprint, (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1994), 147.

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