• Dig or Die: Fighting for Refuge in Vietnam

    Aymar Mariño-Maza
    Dec 5, 2019

    Aymar Mariño-Maza is the 2018 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

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    Figure 1: Hien Luong Bridge, known as The Freedom Bridge

    “Welcome to North Vietnam,” he said. Vu Van, our trusty historian and tour guide, pointed to his right over the bridge we were crossing to another, smaller bridge. “That is the Freedom Bridge.”

    The unintimidating structure spanning the short distance across the Bến Hải River hid its significance well under its weathered paint—half baby blue, half Easter yellow. But I already knew that Hiền Lương Bridge had a long and troubled story to tell. Located along the 17th parallel, this bridge served as a strategic point between the North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War, the American War, or the Resistance War Against America). It was built by the French, destroyed by the Viet Minh in 1945, rebuilt by the Vietnamese in 1957, used as a strategic transport passage by the Viet Cong, and then repeatedly targeted by the Americans in the infamous Operation Rolling Thunder. All this until it became less of a strategic point of interest than a symbolic one.

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    Figure 2: Freedom Bridge as seen during time of peace (left); Aerial of Freedom Bridge and land North of the Ben Hai River taken after the bridge was blown up (right)

    Another similarly strategic-to-symbolic bridge is the Thanh Hóa Bridge, located some 400 kilometers north of where we stand. Also known as the Dragon’s Jaw (for its uncanny resemblance to the open mouth of that mythical creature), it crosses the Song Ma River.

    The indestructibility of both these bridges has made them symbols of Vietnamese reunification. Every time either bridge was bombed by U.S. missiles, it was rebuilt by North Vietnamese hands. As one U.S. writer and retired Air Force colonel wrote about the Dragon’s Jaw, “after seven years, 871 sorties, tremendous expenditure in lives, 11 lost aircraft, and a bewildering array of expended munitions, the Dragon’s Jaw was finally broken.”1 But of course, it has since been rebuilt—though the writer failed to mention that at the end of his article.

    We parked the car along the edge of the road and stepped out. The flat landscape around us did little to shield us from the harsh midday sun that came down through the cloudless sky. We were caught between the hot and rainy seasons, so that we had to trade our raincoats for sunglasses every few hours.

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    Figure 3: Aerial of the DMZ north of the Ben Hai River taken during the war

    We looked out over the Bến Hải River. As Vu spoke, I learned how the colors of the Freedom Bridge hold more significance than I could have guessed on first glance. Nowadays, the blue and yellow contrast across the north-south divide like two friends extending hands, but during the war that same contrast was a running “joke.” According to Vu, anytime the South would paint the southern half of the bridge to differentiate it from the northern side, the North would rush to paint theirs the same color, displaying a resilient defiance to Vietnamese division that would foreshadow the ultimate outcome of the war.

    Behind us, a lone flagpole rose high to meet the sun, the Vietnamese flag flapping above our heads. This flag was another target of the Southern forces, who kept blowing it up only to see it quickly rebuilt. Now it stands over the DMZ and its cratered earth, which has been adapted into rectangular shrimp fields by the locals who have returned to claim this once depopulated land.

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    Figure 4: A note written on a chalkboard in the ruins of a Buddhist school in Quang Tri advertising a school reunion. The Buddhist school was one of the two structures that survived the War.

    They have returned to take care of their ancestors, Vu told us. Ancestral worship was introduced to Vietnam by the Chinese, who occupied the area intermittently from 111 BCE until 1427 CE. Nowadays, the practice remains a strong part of Vietnamese spiritual life. In keeping with this tradition, after the war ended many people moved back to the lands where their ancestors had been buried. A member of the families that once lived here, usually the youngest male son, would return to lands marred with bomb-craters and hiding lethal mines because of this strong sense of ancestral lineage.

    Here we see how the geography of refuge can be redrawn by the influence of cultural traditions. It’s not that these spaces marked by ancestral significance serve as some form of social refuge (though of course they do) but that they represent a sphere of spiritual refuge within the people’s conscience that counterbalances the instinct to find immediate refuge. It isn’t unlike the nationalism that leads civilians into war, with the understanding that protecting the integrity and power of the nation ensures the survival of their own future, lifestyle, and values—their social refuge.

    As a child of a society that has never felt “the sorrow of war,” to quote the Vietnamese author Bảo Ninh, I am unable to grasp the power of such counteracting forces. I look upon the decisions made by these men and women who were forced to be much braver than me, and I can only create a fiction around their humble and heroic decision to return home. Home may have not been where their heart was leading them, but where it lay buried.

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    Figure 5: Man reenacting the way Viet Cong soldiers would come in and out of the small hidden entrances to the Cu Chi Tunnels

    Back in ’54

    Bắc 54 was the term used to identify the group of people that migrated south from North Vietnam in 1954 under the Operation Passage to Freedom, a U.S. Navy and French military initiative. Among those who moved south were Catholics, whose religion was now supported by the new president in the South. Christians were a small minority in Vietnam, but that did not stop them from holding power under Diem’s presidency. In Quang Tri, the remains of a concrete church built in 1955 stands as a testament to this power. One of only two buildings made of concrete in the area, it survived (though not unscathed) the ravages of war. The plaque that adorns the otherwise unkempt plot of land around the ruins of this church explains to the visitor that this is “a relic of the war… the memorial of the bravery of our soldiers and people,” not a relic of the Catholic religion or of a small group of people making a home for themselves. This is a small reminder that no meaning is permanent, that the significance of a place or thing is applied, be it through a congregation of people praying or through a round of bullets incrusted into a concrete wall.

    In 1954, southerners were also allowed freedom to go north. Many of the soldiers who were in the south during the fighting returned—but not all. Some soldiers remained as sleeper agents in the south, biding their time until the war would inevitably start up again. These sleeper agents are the origins of the Viet Cong, whose stealthy approach to war played a major role in the subsequent North Vietnam victory. 

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    Figure 6: One of the booby-trapped entrances designed by the Viet Cong at the Cu Chi Tunnels

    Ideological Home

    No Man’s Land. I had never fully questioned the term before I found myself in the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. It is a term that carries its poetic meaning right on its branded military-issue sleeve. The mere sound of it is enough to bring up notions of death, inhumanity, and futility. But there is another layer of meaning in the words. No Man’s Land is a land that does not belong to anyone. But it did once belong to someone. Before it was chosen as the space of No Man, it belonged to some man or woman, to a family or community. It was someone’s home, someone’s inheritance, someone’s entire livelihood. So what happened to them?

    In the south, the civilians that once populated the fertile lands in the DMZ were shepherded into refugee camps under the Strategic Hamlet Program begun in 1962. Under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s first president, the Strategic Hamlet Program was an attempt to thwart communist influence in South Vietnam by separating rural villagers from Viet Cong insurgents and to develop a political population base for Diem’s party. These camps were also meant to provide the inhabitants with a higher standard of living, but this was far from the case. A report from the Pentagon found only 20% of the completed hamlets met the U.S. standard of living. By 1963, after a military coup carried out against President Diem, the program was dismantled.

    Though the Strategic Hamlet Program is the best known, it was not the first program within Vietnam that used human displacement for ideological purposes. Others include the 1957 transfer of tens of thousands to uncultivated tracts of land in the center and south of the country or around the Mekong Delta, which was carried out with the intention of eradicating the nomadic lifestyles that still existed in the highlands and of fostering a sense of national solidarity.2 After insurgency mounted in 1958, the government implemented the agroville program, which entailed moving inhabitants from the Mekong Delta into small agrarian hamlets.

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    Figure 7: Remains of Long Hung Church in Quang Tri. Its concrete structure made it a likely spot of fighting during the war and resilient enough to survive—one of the two structures that did so. It was built in 1955 and remains a remnant of the North ’54 Christians who migrated south.

    The hamlets were spaces but can be studied as pieces of architecture. We can analyze the materials, techniques, and structure used in their construction. We can dissect them aesthetically. We can probably learn a lot in doing so. But I would like to study them another way (through a concept that I probably have no right to appropriate): the dialectic.

    This is a dangerous little word. In the world of philosophy, the dialectic has had minds spinning in circles since the days of the Ancient Greeks. It is easy enough to explain, but not so easy to employ. Simply put, life is filled with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions. The dialectic method is the attempt to reconcile these differences by putting them in conversation. This conversation can take on many forms, including some that are less dialectical than they are confrontational, but mostly it can have many outcomes, from clean answers, to messy answers, to more questions, to non-answers.

    But whatever differences arise, the intention behind the use of the dialectic remains relatively constant. I believe it was the late Marxist philosopher Georg Lukacs who put it best when he wrote that the imperative of the dialectical method is “to change reality.” To change reality we must think through reality. A problem I have with programs such as the Strategic Hamlet has to do with the isolation they engender, with the conversation they eliminate. They are attempts to change reality by force and, whether or not they are successful, the method they employ is dangerous. They take away the dialectic.

    In a homestay in Ninh Binh, I sat across from an Israeli who is living proof that people can change their minds (and sorry, but I do mean this in the metaphysical sense). Raised Orthodox, he left the faith and took the mantle of nationalist, settler, and soldier, then left that faith and became a left-wing advocate of Bedouin rights and representation. He spoke to me of his passion for education and his desire to understand indoctrination, dissent, and the loops that the human mind can do around these two poles. His faith in the elastic power of the human mind brought to my mind a thought I had not anticipated. Yes, that elasticity is fascinating, but it also has its limits. In other words, though the mind can jump ship, it does not usually jump into the abyss. It jumps from ship to ship—from ideology to ideology, from belief to belief.

    Thinking about these government housing programs, mulling these ideas over, and looking out over the villages scattered across the DMZ, I begin once more to ask myself a question that many reading this will probably already be asking themselves: what does this have to do with architecture? The problem, I realize, is that I cannot give a good answer to that question. Architecture, the way I’ve been taught to understand it, ought to be disengaged from questions of indoctrination and dissent. It ought to be autonomous. Laugier’s Primitive Hut floats easily into the back of my head as I think of all the times architects have been drawn back to their roots, removing style, context, and anything else that may muddy the ideal concept of Architecture.

    And yet, I fear the image doesn’t hold the same sway over me as it once did. More and more I find it unbelievable that there are architects who still stand under the banner of an autonomous architecture. To study space is to study its politics, its philosophy, and its history. To study space is to study the bodies that inhabit it, make it, and break it. Studying space as an autonomous entity is like abstracting a political party down to a slogan. It can be done and it is useful, but once it is done it needs to be brought back into conversation with its context.

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    Figure 8: Entrance to the Vinh Mốc Tunnels

    The Underground

    In the North, an entirely different approach was used when it came to war refugees. Children and the elderly were moved away from war zones, but all able-bodied men and women were made to remain as a civilian militia meant to help fight the South. These “volunteer” civilians went underground—both metaphorically and literally.

    The Vịnh Mốc Tunnels are just one example of the 3.5 kilometers of underground tunnels that the North Vietnamese burrowed beneath and around the DMZ. Used for housing ammunition and people, they were complex networks equipped with booby traps, escape routes, ventilation systems, as well as kindergartens, medical centers, kitchens, and cisterns.

    Still above ground and on our way from the car, we passed the hollowed-out trenches that served as a secondary network over the tunnels where children born in the tunnels attended kindergarten, soldiers transported weapons, and farmers went to and from the few fields they were still able to cultivate. I can picture them almost hopefully surviving, separated as they were from the direct fighting. But of course the image in my head is just that—an image.

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    Figure 9: Naturally hidden ventilation shaft made in the ant hills, using bamboo rods to bring air down to the tunnels.

    From 1968 until the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, a small fishing village occupied the second of three levels that still make up the Vịnh Mốc Tunnels. Set against a steep hillside that meets the ocean, these interconnected levels were staggered both vertically and horizontally as a safety measure. The result? A surprisingly strong sea breeze flowed through the dark and narrow passageways. After having crawled and sweated through the Cu Chi Tunnels, I caught myself almost accepting the conditions of those living in the Vịnh Mốc Tunnels. Not too shabby, I heard myself say, finding that I could walk with my head held high. But these words sank to the pit of my stomach as Vu began speaking of the terror that the inhabitants must have felt as the bombs would make the world of clay around them shake.

    Vu showed us the couple square meters that a family would have called home: simple holes dug at repeated intervals into the long passageway. He stopped where women would have given birth, a slightly larger hole that opened up into that same long and winding passage. In a segment of the passage that widened no more than three meters to make the sole meeting place in the complex, Vu noted the corrugated walls with shallow enclaves where mats would have been placed—a small kindness. We kept going, always further down. We sidestepped a couple workers making repairs, whose voices we had been hearing since our eyes first began to adjust to the darkness. We poked our heads into the two-level space that served as a bathroom and into others that were used for storage. We kept going, the sea breeze intensifying, blowing salty hope to our bodies so unaccustomed to the claustrophobia we had been denying we had.

    When we finally poked our heads out of the shelter, the sea welcomed us with the mellow sprays of its wreaking waves. And I fear that my use of the word “welcome” cannot fully express the impact of the sight after spending just a little while within the tunnels. The fact that these tunnels, unlike so many others across Vietnam, met the sea was no small thing.

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    Figure 10: View of the beach from the waterfront entrance of the Vinh Mốc Tunnels.

    One of my favorite quotes is by the playwright Antonin Artaud, who stated, “It is not opium which makes me work but its absence, and in order for me to feel its absence it must from time to time be present.” Sometimes we can forget the impact that our surroundings can have on us, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, until we experience its lack. As a college student, I spent five years in a campus whose long winter months came with clouds, clouds, and more clouds. But it was only on the lucky days when the sun came out that I would realize how easily those rays could lift my spirits.

    Experience—that’s another word that rests at the tip of the tongue of many thinkers, from philosophers to scientists. Its taste is somewhere between palpably real and unreliably false. It’s a word that I have heard architecture professors use with either whimsy or disdain—but not so often with critical application. (I have even heard one professor advise an entire class not to give a second thought to the way people experience architecture). An exception that comes to mind is the late Bonnie MacDougal, whose earnest attempts to get my fellow students and I to understand the world in which we were to help build a new world earned her a permanent space in my conscience. But the experience of space is something designers should neither take for granted nor simplify to the superficial genres of materiality or geometry. Architects should be thinking of the experience of space on the levels of culture, history, or psychology. It may sound extreme, but we should be thinking about it on the level of human survival.

    Architects should be constantly questioning and learning about the human experience of the world as it is. From the farmer pulling unexploded mines from their field, to the shoe store security guard sleeping on the job, to the child victim of Agent Orange handcrafting mother of pearl artifacts for tourists—and these are only momentary slivers of the world in Vietnam. Because Bonnie had the right idea. What right do we have to build upon this world if we don’t understand it? The past few months have made the truth in that perfectly clear to me. And my visit to Vietnam has reminded me that I’m not even close to understanding it.

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    Figure 11: Stairs leading up from the waterfront tunnel entrance up to the other entrances of the Vinh Mốc Tunnels.

    1 Boyne, W. J. (Aug. 2011). “Breaking the Dragon’s Jaw.” Air Force Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.airforcemag.com/MagazineArchive/Documents/2011/August%202011/0811jaw.pdf.

    2 Catton, P. (1999). “Counter-Insurgency and Nation Building: The Strategic Hamlet Programme in South Vietnam, 1961-1963.” The International History Review 21 (4): 918-940. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40109167.

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  • What does success look like? and other questions from SACRPH 2019

    Sarah M. Dreller
    Nov 13, 2019

    Welcome to The SAH Data Project’s process blog, a series of short-form reflections and interviews about the Society’s study of architectural history in higher education. By Sarah M. Dreller, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Humanities. #SAHDataProject

    The SAH Data Project just passed a milestone of sorts: earlier this month, I answered audience questions during the Society for American City and Regional Planning History’s conference in Arlington. Without context, this may not seem like an important step forward. Participating in disciplinary conferences is a standard facet of academic culture, after all. Actually, though, this was the first time I’ve met a cohort of our project constituents on their own turf. Every other opportunity I’ve had to discuss this work with people outside the core project team (and there have been quite a few such opportunities, I’m pleased to say) has been as phone calls or in various virtual spaces or in person at SAH’s conference and Chicago headquarters. But listening to people face to face in the places that are comfortable to them can make the interaction more valuable in myriad ways that extend beyond our immediate data-gathering goals. This kind of proactive engagement has been part of the project vision from the outset for a very good reason, in other words. And it was time to start.

    During our SACRPH 2019 session, “Shaping the Field of Planning History,” my fellow panelists and I discussed various opportunities our projects offer to planning historians. My comments highlighted ways for planning historians to make their voices heard within the SAH Data Project. Dr. Deborah Hurtt (left), a Senior Program Officer with the Division of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities, emphasized two NEH grant programs that could enable more planning history-focused events and workshops. And Dr. Eliana AbuHamdi Murchie (right), the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative’s Project Manager, described how planning historians with global expertise can contribute to the GAHTC’s library of survey teaching modules. Image credit: Dr. LaDale C. Winling (session chair)

    My current schedule of disciplinary conference travel has been available online since we launched the SAH Data Project’s website last summer.  I invite you to have a look at that and reach out to me with questions you’d like me to address during any of those trips. I also invite you to check back regularly because we’re constantly updating that schedule as we determine more about what architectural historians need and want from this project.

    After more of the details have been hammered out in a few months’ time, I hope to use the process blog to reflect more broadly on our planning approach. So keep an eye on this space, too.

    In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to share some key ideas I just discussed in Arlington in case questions like these are on your mind. And, as always, please leave a comment or write me an email in response because I’m eager to know if this helps or there is anything I’ve missed.

    What role does planning history play in a project about architectural history?

    The definition of “architectural history” for the purposes of the SAH Data Project is quite broad. In addition to the history of buildings, the project also encompasses the history of landscapes, cities and planning, engineered structures, and interiors. Those five subfields of architectural history are what we’re calling our “expertise scopes.” Gathering data about who, where, and how people are studying and teaching these different scopes is a big part of what we’re doing.

    Does the SAH Data Project want to hear from independent scholars?

    The project is focused on architectural history in higher education but otherwise participants are definitely not limited in any way by tenure-stream status. That means that any independent scholars who study, teach, and/or make curricular decisions about architectural history coursework are strongly encouraged to give their input. We want to hear from as many people like this as possible, in fact.

    Is the study gathering data about what motivates people to enter the field or is it only about what people are doing once they’re already students and/or faculty?

    We definitely want to know what has motivated people to enter the field. Actually, right now we are in the middle of determining what data we need to describe the “pipeline” process for architectural history, i.e. the various kinds of factors that contribute to people pursuing architectural history studies. We’re thinking of this in qualitative terms as part of our commitment to the project’s data humanism approach.

    What are the most important ways planning historians can contribute to the SAH Data Project?

    Three things come to mind. First, completing the survey when it is posted online or lands in your inbox is absolutely crucial for everyone – not just planning historians. That’s not the only way we are gathering data but it is certainly how we’ll be getting much of the qualitative information that will ultimately help us tell meaningful human-centric stories. You can sign up for the newsletter to receive email updates on when the survey will launch.

    Second, we will also be relying on everyone, including planning historians, to actively encourage their program chairs and anyone else who makes curricular decisions about architectural history coursework to complete their version of the survey. That’s because those people aren’t necessarily architectural historians and therefore won’t necessarily appreciate the importance of what we’re asking them to do, yet they’re the people who have access to enrollments, demographics, and other quantitative data that the project really needs.

    And, third, since planning historians haven’t made their perspectives known to us yet as much as, say, historians of buildings or landscapes, it would be helpful for planning historians to really start reaching out to us about what is important to them. Emailing me directly, commenting on a process blog post, and engaging on social media would go a long way toward expanding planning historians’ overall presence in the project.


    When can planning historians start completing the survey?

    Everyone will be able to complete the survey at the same time regardless of their architectural history expertise scope. The current survey launch is scheduled for January 2020 and right now we expect it to remain open until after SAH’s annual conference in May.

    I should add that although each respondent will complete only one survey, we are actually developing three different versions of it. That’s because we are asking a slightly different mix of quantitative and qualitative questions to students, faculty, and people who make curricular decisions. I am planning to write a process blog delving into the key differences between the three surveys at some point during the open survey window so I recommend subscribing to the e-newsletter if you don’t want to miss that.

    What does success look like for the SAH Data Project?

    The SAH Data Project will be successful if the findings report represents the state of architectural history in higher education accurately, even if aspects of that description are unpleasant. Thinking more expansively, though, there is the hope that the SAH Data Project’s findings might eventually inspire or inform some kind of meaningful positive change in the field like new grant opportunities, revised course offerings, and so on.

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