Meet the Saigon family who stockpiled secret arsenal for Tet Offensive

By Tuyet Nguyen, Manh Tung   February 2, 2018 | 04:00 pm GMT+7
Meet the Saigon family who stockpiled secret arsenal for Tet Offensive
A file photo acquired by VnExpress shows Tran Van Lai in a tunnel he built to hide weapons for the Tet Offensive in Saigon in 1968.

Tran Van Lai's cover as a rich contractor put him in the perfect position to build a network of tunnels before the order came to launch the attacks.

Tran Van Lai arrived home late one afternoon in January 1968, driving a van full of vegetables and flowers for the upcoming Lunar New Year (Tet).

As his wife helped him unload the van, a cache of guns and mines was revealed at the bottom.

“This is the last trip. I am just looking forward to the attacks,” Lai said as he opened the trapdoor in his living room, signaling for his wife to pass the weapons down to him.

With Vietnam commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, the surprise attacks that played an important role in ending the Vietnam War, Lai’s tunnels have been a popular attraction, drawing veterans and government leaders including Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong on Wednesday.

The Tet Offensive was launched on January 30, the first day of Vietnam’s Lunar New Year in 1968. More than 80,000 soldiers from the north and the Vietnam National Liberation Front (NLF) launched surprise attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts throughout southern Vietnam.

It came at a crucial time when most U.S.-backed southern soldiers had gone home for the Tet holiday, and the anti-war movement at home had caused distractions and divisions in the American leadership.

Lai, who fought in the colonial war against France, had been staying in Saigon, then the capital of the south, to set up a base for the attacks.

He was a designer for the Independence Palace, then the South's presidential palace, and knew many of the  officials who worked there.

His first wife, an NLF fighter, died in 1964 after she was arrested and tortured by the South.

A year later, he married Dang Thi Thiep, the daughter of a revolutionary family.

For three years, the couple dug tunnels, transferred weapons and harbored leaders of North Vietnam.

Dang Thi Thiep (F) in a tunnel she and her husband built to hide weapons for the Tet Offensive in Saigon in 1968. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

Dang Thi Thiep (F) in a tunnel she and her husband built to hide weapons for the Tet Offensive in Saigon in 1968. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen

His cover as a rich contractor put Lai in the perfect position to build the network of tunnels under more than 10 houses in the city, including his house on what is now Vo Van Tan Street and three adjacent houses on Nguyen Dinh Chieu.

The couple worked through the nights on their secret project, taking deliveries of weapons from NLF fighters.

By the end of 1967, Lai had amassed more than two tons of weaponry, including explosives, guns, grenades and bullets.

Several hours before the orders were issued for the Tet Offensive, 15 members of the NLF’s Special Forces Unit came and Lai drove them, together with the weapons, to the targets, which included the U.S. embassy, the Independence Palace, the radio station, the police station and military command offices.

After the attacks, his secret arsenal was exposed and all his assets were seized.

The South's government issued a warrant for Lai with a $2 million bounty on his head.

After years of hiding, he managed to move to northern Vietnam. He was arrested twice but his wife helped bail him out.

In the reunified Vietnam, he led a normal life like many poor Vietnamese people, selling eggs to make ends meet.

His children later reopened his tunnel network and it was turned into a museum in 2005.

But Lai did not live to see the recognition for his efforts. He died in 2002 and the government awarded him a posthumous hero title in 2015.

 
 
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