What could fiber art possibly have to do with the Vietcong tunnel complexes scattered throughout South Vietnam? The connections are quite astonishing—more on that later. While traveling in Vietnam this past January, we visited the village of Cu Chi, famous for its extensive network of tunnels. Extending perhaps 125 miles, these tunnels have been used since the French occupation, but they played a major role in defeating the Americans and South Vietnamese armies during the war. Amazingly, the tunnels were dug by hand with shovels and consisted of many levels which included kitchens, living space, classrooms, bunkers, meeting rooms, and clinics to treat the wounded.
Entrances to the tunnels were very small, cleverly disguised and protected by land mines and hideous booby traps. Soldiers could pop up, attack their enemies, and vanish in seconds. Cooking took place only before 5:00 a.m. when the jungle was misty, and smoke would not be noticed; even so, a pipe carried the cooking smoke for up to a mile, far enough away to prevent discovery of the tunnels should the smoke be detected.
Today, some tunnels have been enlarged to allow tourists (who are seldom as tiny as the Vietcong) to experience these tunnels for short distances. Although I had to stoop, I found it fascinating to move through the tunnels whose only residents now are tiny bats. It’s almost incomprehensible to know that people survived for long periods of time in these tunnels. While many of the Vietcong came out during the day to mingle with villagers and to work in the fields and rice paddies, pregnant women were simply unable to come out until after the birth of the child—the tunnels were too small to accommodate their bodies. Apparently, these women and the wounded—or anyone who’d survived in the dark for long periods of time—had to be brought up to the surface gradually or face blinding by sudden exposure to sunlight.
Every imaginable activity took place in these tunnels. Battle plans were formed, meals were cooked, booby traps and bombs were created, the wounded were nursed, and the Vietcong rested in uneasy safety. Abandoned American parachutes, tires, vehicles were cleverly repurposed into capes, clothing, sandals, and makeshift weapons. After Agent Orange deforestation, the Vietcong survived on tapioca root which grew very rapidly. Estimates are that eighty percent of the inhabitants of these tunnels died or were killed in battle before the fall of Saigon.
And the connection of these tunnels to fiber and fiber art? I’ve mentioned the clever repurposing of American parachutes into capes, bandages, stretchers, tents, and other necessities. But, surprisingly, scarves are the most artful connection. Almost all Vietnamese peasants wore scarves around their necks or their heads, especially while working outdoors. However, the Vietcong wore a very particular scarf that identified them as Vietcong, both to each other and to the villagers among whom they moved. Of course, American soldiers saw only Vietnamese peasants wearing scarves and never recognized the enormous significance of some of these scarves.