DAILY LIFE AND SURVIVAL AMONG THE VIET CONG

VIETNAM WAR FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF THE VIET CONG

There are not many good eyewitness accounts of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the North Vietnamese. AFP reported: "Emotions have been carefully excised in Vietnam's huge collection of war memorabilia and most are thought to be doctored or even entirely fictional accounts. Vietnam has been through decades of wars against French and US forces. The victorious regime has always painted a glowing canvas of communist troops brimming with determination and derring-do in evicting invaders. [Source: AFP, September 22, 2005 ^^]

"Every year, vast sums are spent by publishing houses and filmmakers on works that are given a wide berth by the public. Historians say many heroic figures presented therein are patently unreal. "I had not felt much for the Vietnamese soldiers' wartime conduct as they were always depicted as saints, untinged by sadness or fear although they were in the thick of fierce and bloody wars," said Nguyen Ngoc Duong, 27, a translator. ^^

"Moments of sadness have been infra dig for Vietnamese propagandists: Soldiers have invariably displayed whole-hearted devotion to the nation, with no thought of personal happiness or unhappiness. A novel published in 1991, by a former soldier and renowned writer Bao Ninh, described bloodshed and suffering. But its title was changed from The Sorrow of War to The Fate of Love as propaganda officials decreed the country's struggle against foreign enemies could never be one of sorrow. While Ninh's puncturing of Vietnamese communist mythology was pathbreaking, it was nevertheless seen as a work of fiction. ^^

"Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, by Christian Appy is an oral history of the war culled from dozens and dozens of interviews that he did with people from all sides of the conflict. On an account from that book one blogger wrote: "One Viet Cong woman said that she was scared before her first battle against the Americans—they were so big and had such advanced weapons—but when she shot her first one the others started to cry and run over to the one she had shot so it turned out to be very easy. She once volunteered for a mission so dangerous that her comrades held a funeral for her before she went. She sat there while they listed all the awards she had won and talked about her just as if she were dead. She spoke a lot about the tunnels they lived in to withstand the bombings and hide from the Americans. She said there were very few places where you could even sit up, let alone stand. Once bombings shut all the openings and they were trapped for a week until they could dig themselves out with bayonets.

Bao Ninh and the Life of a North Vietnamese Soldier

Bao Ninh, the former NVA soldier, wrote the critically-acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel "The Sorrow of War" (1991). American Vietnam War veteran Marc Levy met him in Hanoi in 1999 and asked him about his experience in the war. Levy wrote in The Veteran: "I initiated the interview by asking Bao Ninh what he did as an NVA solider. He answered that his work was dangerous and that he was often at great risk observing American installations at close range. He noted this was the general function unit. I wondered if he had gathered information outside or inside base perimeters. Such information would be used for later attacks, vigorously rehearsed, the NVA going to great lengths to perfect every detail, building sandbox models, practicing for days, sometimes weeks, occasionally calling off missions if conditions were not favorable. In short, had he penetrated the defenses of American bases as an elite sapper, gathered intelligence, then escaped undetected? He refrained from comment. [Source: Marc Levy, The Veteran, Fall/Winter 1999 \-\]

"When asked about the men and women in his unit, Bao Ninh noted the average ages were between 18 and 20 years old. He distinguished between soldiers from the countryside and soldiers from the city. He emphasized that in combat, food and other necessities were shared, that the NVA spoke informally to each other, and like soldiers everywhere made ample use of profanity. What did the NVA talk about? Bao Ninh stated NVA troops most often spoke about sex and food, and exchanged jokes. He related that many of the younger male NVA, generally from the cities, hadn't experienced sex. An older rural solider might then engage a younger soldier in conversation about heterosexuality. Ninh also related that soldiers from the same province or city would often talk about home, and in particular their way of life. Soldiers from the same area might query one another about local schools and teachers or neighbors the other might know. Ninh emphasized that NVA from the city learned about village life from the country-dwelling NVA. Taught in school to believe food cooperatives were popular and held in high esteem, he noted that village life was in reality poverty-stricken and miserable. Although food harvests were shared equally, there was hunger and starvation. \-\

"On a lighter note, Bao Ninh remarked that jokes arose from the fact that members in units came from different cities and provinces. I asked him to give me an example of NVA humor. Ninh said the men in his unit made fun of the girls from Ha Tinh Province, whose chests and backsides were said to be of equal proportion. He recalled how the men would laugh at province girls whose breasts they compared to grapefruits. Somewhat darkly, Ninh said that to keep morale up his unit avoided talking about past or recent contact or battles. When I asked about disease and other hardships of guerrilla warfare, he referred only to the debilitating effects of malaria. He did not speak about the incredibly difficult training and subsequent grueling marches up or down the Ho Chi Minh trail, the lack of food, the constant threat of American aerial assault, the sick or disabled left to rest or die in cloth hammocks or tree branches. \-\

"I asked Bao Ninh about the use of ideology in combat situations. I knew the NVA engaged in group and self-criticism sessions, something unheard of on the part of the Americans. He related that indeed the members of his unit were forced to study official ideology. However, under combat conditions this was done quickly and without the usual thoroughness. I asked what subjects ordinary NVA studied in and out of combat. Ninh fingered a line in the grass, then quickly replied: tactics, strategy, policy. By tactics he may have been referring to the NVA/VC concept of "pit one against ten," where attacks took place against American fortified positions only if the NVA/VC had numbers superior to the defenders. If, and it is a significant if, Bao Ninh and his unit were involved in assault operations, they may have studied the best ways to approach and penetrate an American base, coordinating the elements that made up the attacking force: sappers, heavy weapons section, and the main assault unit. They may have prioritized their targets, starting with the American gun pits, then knocking out the command posts and ammunition dumps. Or, Bao Ninh may have been obliquely referring to the tactical doctrine "four quicks," one slow and three strong, which followed a strict and lethal sequence designed to take maximum advantage of methodical planning, surprise, superior numbers, and quick withdrawal, leaving the Americans in awe and wonder as to who had attacked so murderously, then vanished so mysteriously. \-\

"However, Bao Ninh declined to elaborate and later only briefly touched on policy as it related to NVA in the field. I asked Bao Ninh about the NVA equivalent of the American NDP (night defensive perimeter). I wanted to know more about the practice of the NVA soldiers digging L-shaped bunkers and the more elaborate bunker complexes I had encountered in Song Be Province in 1970. Bao Ninh made only a passing reference to bunkers being dug at fixed positions. He noted that in action, when on the move, each individual solider dug a trench for his own use. This concurred with my readings, which described individual L-shaped positions with an open trench on one end 1.2 meters long, 1.2 meters deep and 0.4 meters wide. Though more notably, he did not comment on the ARVN and American respect for NVA/VA soldiers dug into either temporary or base-camp defensive positions. After many casualties sustained by using direct assaults, the Americans learned to use artillery fire, gunships and tactical air strikes to destroy the well-defended and fanatical NVA/VC troops. \-\

"I asked Ninh about the range of feelings he and the soldiers in his unit experienced during and after combat. He said the NVA cried or were sad when there were deaths or casualties. And what of religious ceremonies after the retrieval of the wounded or dead? To provide comparison, I described how the Americans would fly chaplains into the jungle, more often than not on paydays, who would then conduct song and prayer, often with our weapons and ammo scattered carelessly about. Ninh stated that in his unit all the troops were communist, and therefore no religious ceremonies were observed. The dead were mourned and buried. Recalling his book, I pressed Bao Ninh on this subject, but to no avail. Later, under somewhat different circumstances, he would reveal deeper feelings. For the present he remained implacable. \-\

I returned to a previous subject. If the NVA soldiers didn't talk about ongoing battles, or battles they had fought in, what was the general morale? Ninh provided an eloquent and perhaps doctrinaire answer. Although everyone feared death, the NVA soldiers in his unit had a clear focus: to fight for the independence of the country. Perhaps this was true, since the Vietnamese had successfully fought the Chinese for a thousand years, then the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans. Though perhaps not. The title of his masterful book flashed across my mind. \-\

Bao Ninh and the Sorrow of War

Bao Ninh’s real name is Hoàng Au Phung. He was born in 1952 in Nghe An province (his ancestors were from Quang Bình province). During the Vietnam War, he served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. Of the five hundred who went to war with the brigade in 1969, he is one of ten who survived." In "Sorrow of War," he wrote: "The sorrow of war inside a soldier's heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk. It was a daness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past. The sorrow of the battlefield could not normally be pinpointed to one particular event, or even one person. If you focused on any one event it would soon become a tearing pain... envied his inspiration, his optimism in focusing back on the painful but glorious days. They were caring days, when we knew what we were living and fighting for and why we needed to suffer and sacrifice. Those were the days when all of us were young, very pure and very sincere."

Robert Templar wrote in The Independent, "Bao Ninh set off to war, at the age of 17, against a background of patriotic songs and poetry. Today, these are sounds he would rather forget. 'At the recruiting station they had singers and poets, working up the spirit of those signing up. There were two types of people - those who really carried torches for the war, full of anti- American spirit, signing their forms in their own blood. And then there were those like me. We were told to go and we went. We weren't particularly afraid. We knew we had to fight.' [Source: Robert Templar, The Independent, June 4, 1994 \|/]

"Behind Bao Ninh's prosaic view of his entry into the Vietnam War lies some resentment at its glorification, at the performers who sang as the 500 teenage soldiers of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade went off to fight the South Vietnamese and the United States. Only 10 returned. The Sorrow of War is the first Vietnamese novel to break away from that spirit, to crack the heavy mould of Hanoi's state-sponsored literature, where all soldiers are heroes, where young girls cheerfully perform clunky propaganda plays and deaths are noble - the written equivalent of the portraits of square-jawed, sturdy peasants and workers that are still hoisted onto billboards in Hanoi. \|/

The book is haunted by a recurring nightmare of awful, lurching violence. At one point Kien and Phuong, the tormented lovers at the centre of the story, come upon a wrecked classroom. 'How could they destroy a school,' says Kien. 'Don't they respect life any more?' Phuong, who has just discovered how cruel and degraded war can be, replies: 'Maybe it was our soldiers. Soldiers do this sort of thing. War does this, war smashes and destroys.' Kien and Phuong go on to mourn the innocence and love that has been torn from them. But Ninh himself now expresses no sense of loss at his years spent fighting, no bitterness at the ease of life of many young people today in Hanoi, who think foremost of money, clothes and motorbikes. 'Those years were great,' he says. 'I never felt they went out the window, they weren't wasted.' \|/

On the surface, people tend to show little emotion about the war, shaking their heads silently at the memory of the brutality but saying little. 'Most Vietnamese don't want to make too much fuss but they don't want to forget either. We have very deep, quiet memories.' Vietnam would not accept war now, he says. 'People here can't stand to watch pictures of the wars in Bosnia or Somalia on television.' But the official line on the war tends to recall glorious victories. At recent celebrations to mark the battle that ended French colonial rule in Vietnam 40 years ago, speakers called on the people 'to revive the spirit of Dien Bien Phu' - not against imperialism but in the fight for market shares and export contracts. 'I don't like this sort of thing much, but I suppose it can create some sort of echo in society,' Bao Ninh says with a weariness that suggests an immunity to propaganda. 'I just really don't want to be patronised by the same people who were the singers and poets when I went off to war.' \|/

Heaven and Earth Changed Places: a Vietnamese Villagers View of the War

"When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" is the haunting memoir of a girl on the verge of womanhood in a world turned upside down. The youngest of six children in a close-knit Buddhist family, Le Ly Hayslip was twelve years old when U.S. helicopters langed in Ky La, her tiny village in central Vietnam. As the government and Viet Cong troops fought in and around Ky La, both sides recruited children as spies and saboteurs. Le Ly was one of those children. Before the age of sixteen, Le Ly had suffered near-starvation, imprisonment, torture, rape, and the deaths of beloved family members—but miraculously held fast to her faith in humanity. And almost twenty years after her escape to Ameica, she was drawn inexorably back to the devastated country and family she left behind. Scenes of this joyous reunion are interwoven with the brutal war years, offering a poignant picture of vietnam, then and now, and of a courageous woman who experienced the true horror of the Vietnam War—and survived to tell her unforgettable story. [Source: Penguin]

Le Ly Hayslip wrote in "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace": "For you see, the face of destiny or luck or god that gives us war also gives us other kinds of pain: the loss of health and youth; the loss of loved ones or of love; the fear that we will end our days alone. Some people suffer in peace the way others suffer in war. The special gift of that suffering, I have learned, is how to be strong while we are weak, how to be brave when we are afraid, how to be wise in the midst of confusion, and how to let go of that which we can no longer hold. In this way, anger can teach us forgiveness, hate can teach us love, and war can teach us peace...The past, for everyone, is full of missed chances, surviving to understand them, if not set them straight, is one of the things that makes the next breath worth taking... In the West, for example, people believe they must 'pursue happiness' as if it were some kind of a flighty bird that is always out of reach. In the East, we believe we are born with happiness and one of life's important takes, my mother told me, is to protect it."

In Chapter One Le Ly Hayslip writes: "I discovered who the enemy was. I realized they weren't magical devils after all, but men of another race." In Chapter Two she says: "Even more, I was amazed and impressed by my father's pride in her [Phung Thi Chin] accomplishments (she was, after all, a humble female), and his belief that I was worth of her example. 'Con phai theo got chan co ta' (Follow in her footsteps), he said." In Chapter Three she says: "I have been raped---I know the terror that every woman dreads" and then describes how being raped may have saved from being killed. In Chapter Six after escaping from he village she says: "For the first time in my life I was truly independent --- of the Viet Cong and the village and the government and even our mother and father --- and I liked the feeling very much.

Book: "When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace" by Le Ly Hayslip (Penguin,

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s Diary

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "As a young doctor in a country at war, Dang Thuy Tram chose a life of sacrifice. She spent three years at the front lines in South Vietnam treating wounded Viet Cong guerrillas, battling sorrow and self-doubt, until she was killed by American forces. She was 27. Now...years later, she has come to life again with the publication of her diary. Written in the field hospitals and foxholes of the Vietnam War, its honest portrayal of a young woman seeking love while eluding the American "pirates" has made it a runaway bestseller in Vietnam. A kind of Vietnamese version of "The Diary of Anne Frank," Tram's heartbreaking journal has the same kind of personal insights and observations on the hardships of daily life, overlaid with a sense of impending doom. At times, she comes across as a romantic schoolgirl seeking love from the boys around her, at others like a battle-hardened veteran who wants vengeance against the foreign invaders. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, August 04, 2006 **]

"The diary vanished from Vietnam soon after Tram's death in 1970 and didn't resurface until last year, when former U.S. Army intelligence officer Frederic Whitehurst gave it to the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. In 1969 and 1970, his job was to burn captured documents that had no intelligence value. He kept two volumes of the diary at the urging of his translator, who said the handmade notebooks already had "fire" in them. The center tracked down the doctor's mother last year and gave her a copy. **

"An emotional account of sacrifice, love and bloodshed, the diary humanizes an enemy of America once demonized as ruthless and sneaky. The young doctor, sometimes addressing herself by name, confides her hopes, ambitions and fears. At times, she is overwhelmed by the death of so many people she knows and the destruction wrought by the Americans' awesome firepower. "Why do they enjoy shooting and killing a good people like us?" she asks. "How can they have the heart to kill all those youngsters who love life, who are struggling and living for so many hopes?" The 322-page diary, published in 2005, last year, has become Vietnam's bestselling postwar book, with 400,000 copies sold" by he summer of 2006. **

"In a society increasingly consumed with economic growth and material goods, the book has revived a sense of idealism. Written in a simple but powerful style, it reminds war veterans of their sacrifices and educates a new generation -- born after the war's end -- about the hardships their elders faced. "This is the first book to talk about the lives of people during the war," said Nhan, 63, who went to high school with Tram in the North and later served as a North Vietnamese army journalist. "Old people want to relive memories. Young people want to know how their parents lived during the war." The diary also has struck a nerve because so many Vietnamese don't know what happened to their loved ones during what they call the American War. Of the estimated 3 million Vietnamese who died during the conflict, 1 million remain missing. **

"Since the publication of the diary, the family has received thousands of emotional phone calls and letters from readers moved by Tram's account."Many of them are young people," said Tram's sister Dang Kim Tram. "They say that before reading the book, they didn't believe their parents' stories about the war. Now they understand how difficult it was." She says she typed the diary for publication and wept with every page. "I typed it while I cried," she said. She was 15 when her sister died. She remembers her as "very beautiful, very gentle and very fragile. I cannot imagine her working in such difficult conditions." The publisher, Vuong Tri Nhan, who knew her, recalls that Dang Thuy Tram was popular in high school and believes her interest in literature as a student helped her as a writer. "She understood other people's feelings," he said. "She could put herself in others' shoes." **

Book: "Last Night I Dreamed of Peace," a translation of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries into English by Andrew X. Pham ( Harmony Books, 2007)

Entries from Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s Diary

"Sadness soaks into my heart just like the long days of rain soak into the earth," she writes in April 1968 after treating several seriously wounded Viet Cong fighters, the communist insurgents in the South. "Oh! Why was I born a girl so rich with dreams, love, and asking so much from life?" [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, August 04, 2006 **]

Introspective and often self-critical, Tram wonders why her life seems so much more difficult than others'. "The way I travel is so very hard, the way of a girl student becoming a leader," she writes. "Something causes me to be different from others. Is it my way of life, a life of love, a life of too much thinking with my heart?" At other times, she seems consumed with the desire for revenge. "With those pirates robbing our country, every time I think about you [dying] my heart is so filled with hate I cannot breathe," she writes after losing a friend in combat. "We must force them to pay for their crimes." **

"I will perish for the country, tomorrow's victory song will not include me," Tram writes after surviving an artillery attack that killed five others. "I am one of those people who give their blood and bones in order to take back the country. But what is so special about that? Millions and millions of people like me have fallen already yet have never enjoyed one happy day, so I am never sorry." **

As the bombing edged closer to her hospital she wrote in June 1970: "The dog Nixon is foolish and crazy as he widens the war...How hateful it is! We are all humans, but some are so cruel as to want the blood of others to water their gold tree." In another entry, she writes how "death was so close" as the bombing "stripped the trees bare" and "tore houses to pieces." [Source: David McNeill, OnmyNews.com, October 10 2005]

Love and Loneliness in Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s Diary

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "As her diary hints, Tram went to the South not just out of patriotism and idealism. She also was in love. The object of her affections is the shadowy M, who apparently spurned her before the book begins. She first mentions M in the fourth entry, saying: "I have strength to bury nine years of hope deep in the ground.... Day by day, love for M fades away." Nevertheless, her passion for M is a recurring theme as she seeks to prove herself as a doctor and revolutionary. Although his identity is never revealed in the book, publisher Nhan said M was a cousin on her mother's side and a Communist Party member who had gone to the region to take a post as political officer. Tram volunteered to serve there so she could be near him, the publisher said. M survived the war and died shortly before the diary was returned to the family. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, August 04, 2006 **]

The diary has resonated with many readers because Tram is bluntly honest, even when writing about the Communist Party. Denied membership for years, she complains of petty jealousies, attempts by party members to control her behavior and discrimination against her because of her middle-class background. Her mother was a university lecturer, her father a surgeon. "Because she wrote for herself, she wrote the truth about the war," said her mother, Doan Ngoc Tram, 81. **

David McNeill of OnmyNews.com wrote: "Dang switches from the language of lovelorn teenager who desperately misses the mysterious 'M' to earnest revolutionary, recalling the words "Uncle Ho" [Vietnam communist leader Ho Chi Minh] and Lenin: "The revolutionary is a person with a heart very rich and filled with love." I am that way already." "She writes the truth about her feelings, and despite everything she loved people," says Nguyen Duc Tinh, a radio announcer from Hanoi. "It comes straight from her heart. I think a lot of young Vietnamese are impressed at the way she was ready to sacrifice her life. I hope people around the world will read it to understand the truth about the Vietnam War." [Source: David McNeill, OnmyNews.com, October 10 2005]

The youngest Dang sibling, Kim Tram, just 14 when her sister died, said she remembers her as "gentle and fragile." "I never imagined how hard and dangerous her life was. I was not surprised to know her longing for our parents, for our home in Hanoi. But now I've read her words I can sense her loneliness."

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram Begins Her Work in a Viet Cong Field Hospital

The daughter of a prosperous family of doctors, Dang Thuy Tram volunteered for duty in a military hospital in the killing fields of Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam in 1967. Her diaries begin in April 1968 when she’s 25 and several months into her first post-medical school job, chief physician at a field hospital in central Vietnam. The Tet Offensive is raging; though her hospital is a civilian clinic, she treats mainly soldiers. Sometimes she walks for miles through the rugged terrain to care for wounded fighters. Her duties also include training new health practitioners. [Source: Stanford School of Medicine magazine, Summer 2007]

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "Like other North Vietnamese students of her generation, Tram was taught the ideals of communism and Vietnamese nationalism and was prepared to make sacrifices for the war effort. After graduating from medical school at 24, she volunteered to leave the North and work in the central coastal district of Duc Pho, then part of the U.S.-backed South, where she was assigned to care for Viet Cong guerrillas and local villagers. It was one of the most dangerous combat zones of the war. Her early days in Duc Pho remain a mystery because at least one of her early notebooks was taken by U.S. troops in a raid. It disappeared and was probably destroyed. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, August 04, 2006 **]

The published diary begins in April 1968 with her description of performing an emergency appendectomy on a guerrilla: ""I had to do an appendix operation without enough medicine. Only a few tubes of Novocain, but the wounded young soldier never cried out or yelled. He continued to smile to encourage me. Looking at the forced smile on his dry lips, knowing his fatigue, I felt so sorry for him...I lightly stroked his hair. I would like to say to him: 'Patients like you who I cannot cure cause me the most sorrow, and their memory will not fade.'" [Source: David McNeill, OnmyNews.com, October 10 2005]

"May 20, 1968: We say farewell to our patients today. They have recovered enough to return to their combat units. Instead of being joyful and happy, we are all sad, both physicians and patients. After over a month at the clinic, they have become like friends and family. It’s wrenching to see them leave. [Source: "Last Night I Dreamed of Peace," a translation of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries into English by Andrew X. Pham ( Harmony Books, 2007); Stanford School of Medicine magazine, Summer 2007 =*=]

"May 31, 1968: Today we had a major base evacuation to evade the enemy’s mopping-up sweeps operation. The whole clinic was moved, an infinitely exhausting undertaking. It’s heart-wrenching to see the wounded patients with beads of sweat running on their pale faces, struggling to walk step by step across narrow passes and up steep slopes. If someday we find ourselves living in the fragrant flowers of socialism, we should remember this scene forever, remember the sacrifice of the people who shed blood for the common cause. =*=

"June 4, 1968: Rain falls without respite. Rain deepens my sadness, its chill making me yearn for the warmth of a family reunion. If only I had wings to fly back to our beautiful house on Lo Duc Street, to eat with Dad, Mom, and my siblings, one simple meal with watercress and one night’s sleep under the old cotton blanket. Last night I dreamed that Peace was established, I came back and saw everybody. Oh, the dream of Peace and Independence has burned in the hearts of thirty million people for so long. For Peace and Independence, we have sacrificed everything. =*=

November 25, 1968 says: "The work load is huge, causes headache and fatigue. I wish nothing more than to peacefully get back to the comfort of a loving home. But a wish is just a wish, reality is reality. The heartrending groan of patients is ringing in my ears. There is so much work to do: it is complicated, difficult and even frustrating." [Source: AFP, September 22, 2005]

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram on her Work in the Viet Cong Hospital

"July 20, 1968: The days are hectic with so much work piling up, critical injuries, lack of staff personnel; everybody in the clinic works very hard. My responsibilities are heavier than ever; each day I work from dawn till late at night. The volume of work is huge, but there are not enough people. I alone am responsible for managing the clinic, treating the injured, teaching the class. More than ever, I feel I am giving all my strength and skills to the revolution. The wounded soldier whose eyes I thought could not be saved is now recovering. The soldier whose arm was severely inflamed has healed. Many broken arms have also healed. [Source: "Last Night I Dreamed of Peace," a translation of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries into English by Andrew X. Pham ( Harmony Books, 2007); Stanford School of Medicine magazine, Summer 2007 =*=]

"July 25, 1968: I came to sit by Lam’s bedside today. A mortar had severed the nerves in his spine, the shrapnel killing half of his body. Lam was totally paralyzed. His body was ulcerated from the chest down. He was in excruciating pain. Lam is twenty-four this year, an excellent nurse from Pho Van. Less than a month ago, he was assigned as supplement to the District Civil Medical Department. The enemy came upon Lam while he was on the road during his recent assignment; Lam tried to get into a secret shelter, but the Americans were already upon him when he opened the cover; the small shrapnel painfully destroyed his life. Lam lay there waiting for death. In the North, a severed spinal cord is already a hopeless case, let alone here. Lam knows the severity of his injury and is deep in misery and depression. … Oh! War! How I hate it, and I hate the belligerent American devils. Why do they enjoy massacring kind, simple folks like us? Why do they heartlessly kill life-loving young men like Lam, like Ly, like Hung and the thousand others, who are only defending their motherland with so many dreams? =*=

"July 29, 1969: "The war is extremely cruel. This morning, they bring me a wounded soldier. A phosphorus bomb has burned his entire body. An hour after being hit, he is still burning, smoke rising from his body. This is Khanh, a twenty-year-old man, the son of a sister cadre in the hamlet where I’m staying. An unfortunate accident caused the bomb to explode and severely burned the man. Nobody recognizes him as the cheerful, handsome man he once was. Today his smiling, joyful black eyes have been reduced to two little holes — the yellowish eyelids are cooked. The reeking burn of phosphorus smoke still rises from his body. He looks as if he has been roasted in an oven. =*=

"I stand frozen before this heartbreaking tableau. His mother weeps. Her trembling hands touch her son’s body; pieces of his skin fall off, curled up like crumbling sheets of rice cracker. His younger and older sisters are attending him, their eyes full of tears. A girl sits by his side, her gentle eyes glassy with worry. Clumps of hair wet with sweat cling to her cheeks, reddened by exhaustion and sorrow. Tu (that’s her name) is Khanh’s lover. She carried Khanh here. Hearing that he needed serum for a transfusion, Tu crossed the river to buy it. The river was rising, and Tu didn’t know how to swim, but she braved the crossing. Love gave her strength. The pain is imprinted on the innocent forehead of that beautiful girl. Looking at her, I want to write a poem about the crimes of war, the crimes that have strangled to death millions of pure and bright loves, strangled to death the happiness of millions of people, but I cannot write it. My pen cannot describe it all, even though this is one case I feel with all my senses and emotions. =*=

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s Effort to Hide From American Forces

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "She spends much of her three years in Duc Pho fleeing and hiding from the Americans. At times the troops attack and destroy her field hospitals, which she and her comrades work to rebuild. More than once, she says goodbye to friends only to have them brought back to the clinic soon after, badly injured or dying. [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, August 04, 2006 **]

"Death still continues to make the hearts of the living bleed," she writes after trying in vain to save the life of one guerrilla who had led her to safety only a few days earlier. Two weeks later, American planes bomb a village where she knows many of the residents. "From a place not too far away I quietly watched, my heart filled with hate for those burning fires," she writes. "Who is burning? In the explosions, who is burning in the bomb craters?" **

One night, she joins a Viet Cong unit on a night rescue operation and is momentarily caught in American searchlights, which reminds her of performing in school musicals. "Now I am also an actor on the stage of life: I am playing a girl of the Liberation with a black dress, every night following the guerrillas in their activities in our area close to the enemy," she writes. "Maybe I will meet the enemy, and maybe I will fall with my hand carrying the red-crossed box, and then people will also feel sorry for the girl sacrificed to the Revolution during her dream-filled youth." **

"August 5, 1969: I’m on a night emergency-aid mission, going through many dangerous parts of the national highway on which enemy vehicles frequently commute, and passing through the hills filled with American posts. Lights from the bases shine brightly; I go through the middle of the fields of Pho Thuan. Bright lights shine from three directions around me: Chop Mountain, Cactus Mountain, and the flares hanging in midair in front of me. The light sources cast my shadows in different directions, and I feel like an actor on stage, as in the days when I was still a medical student performing in a choir. Now I am also an actor on the stage of life; I am taking the role of a girl in the liberated area, wearing black pajamas, who night after night, follows the guerrillas to work between our areas and those of the enemy. Perhaps I will meet the enemy, and perhaps I will fall, but I hold my medical bag firmly regardless, and people will feel sorry for this girl who was sacrificed for the revolution when she was still young and full of verdant dreams. [Source: "Last Night I Dreamed of Peace," a translation of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s diaries into English by Andrew X. Pham ( Harmony Books, 2007); Stanford School of Medicine magazine, Summer 2007 =*=]

Describing the war zone on Feb. 21, 1970, her daughter says: "Once again, death was so close to me ... Some HU-1A [helicopters] fought in our place for more than one hour. "We were only dozens of meters from them. Sounds of gunfire were echoing in our ears. My comrades and I were sitting under the shelters, not knowing when a bullet would hit us. Death seemed to be a touch-and-go thing." [Source: AFP, September 22, 2005]

Final Entries in

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s Diary

By late 1969, the tide of war in Duc Pho favors the Americans. Her entries are less frequent, dwelling more on the war and less on her dreams for the future. "Is the conflict gradually taking away the thoughts of one who knows how to think about life?" she asks. "No, I don't want it to be that way, but the job weighs heavily on me and every day the sorrow of dead comrades makes me forget personal matters." She never expresses regret over her decision to volunteer but is saddened by the toll the war has taken on her and her country. "My youth is over: Fire, smoke and war have robbed my youth of the happiness of love," she writes "The 20-year-olds of this generation have given away the dreams and happiness which they should have had. My youth is soaked with sweat, tears, blood and the bones of those living and those already dead." [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, August 04, 2006 **]

In June 1970, the situation becomes desperate. U.S. troops are closing in and able-bodied guerrillas evacuate. With her clinic destroyed, she is left behind with five wounded fighters who can't be moved. Two young women stay behind to help her. "The situation with the enemy is tense and if they come here how can I leave the wounded soldiers?" she writes on June 14. Food supplies, never plentiful, run short. In her final entry, June 20, she reports that there is only enough rice left for one meal. She thought help would have arrived by now. Her two assistants leave, and she wants to cry as she watches them wade across the river.

The final entry reads: "Suddenly I recall a line from a poem: Now immense sea and sky/ Oh, uncle, do you understand this child’s heart… Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me. No, I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril, but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. ... Please come to me and hold my hand when I am so lonely, love me and give me strength to travel all the hard sections of the road ahead." **

The last entry is June 20, 1970, two days before she is killed by U.S. soldiers. Paddock wrote: One GI reported later to Whitehurst that the doctor tried to fight off the heavily armed soldiers with a single-shot rifle. There were no Vietnamese survivors to tell her story; the five wounded guerrillas were killed with her. But her remains, buried by villagers and turned over to the family in 1976, also indicate that she stood her ground. "When I went to pick up her bones, I saw a bullet hole in her forehead," Dang Kim Tram said. "I imagine that she would pick up a gun. I know for sure that she faced the enemy." **

Four days before her death, Dang Thuy Tram seems to recognize that the end is near. "When you live like this, then you understand the value of life," she writes. "Oh, life changed by blood and bones, by the youth of so many people, how many lives have ended in order to allow other lives to be fresh and green?" **

Hunger and Queues in Hanoi

During the war, the electricity in North Vietnam was cut off to save energy. People kept cool with wet clothes and hand fans. Many people fled the cities to the relative safety of the countryside. Many necessities and food items were purchased with ration coupons. Milk and meat were in short supply and few could afford them. Some children went blind from lack of vitamin A. Countless others experienced stunted growth that has kept the whole population short and thin.

During the "hard times" of hunger in Hanoi from 1968 to 1989, people used rocks to keep their place in queues to collect water in communal water taps and buy a few ounces of food with state-issued ration coupons. "During the subsidy years, using a book to buy rice, scrambling to be the first buyer, or to buy a good bag of rice made a deep impression on me," Nguyen Ngoc Tien, a collector of memorabilia from the era, told Reuters. "Those who came late could not get food." [Source: By Grant McCool , Ho Binh Minh, Nguyen Van Vinh, Reuters, May 10, 2006 //\\]

Reuters reported: "Queues started at 3 a.m., more than four hours before shops opened, said Tien. In his hands, he held what is his most valuable and symbolic item -- a large stone scratched with a name and house number that was used to secure a place in line." Other common items form the era included charcoal-heated clothes irons, chipped porcelain rice bowls, Soviet-made radios with incorrect Vietnamese-language labels, scale from Poland. Tien’s prize possession is a BMW motorbike used by a spy who was the director of a rubber plant. The collector explained that he wanted these possessions from people all over the country because "the period when Vietnam had its subsidy system was rare in the world's history." Vietnamese remember it for low costs for staple goods but dire shortages. //\\

"During the decades of subsidized living, Vietnam was at war and isolated from the West. It depended on support -- food, machinery and raw materials -- from the former Soviet Union and other communist or socialist countries in Eastern Europe. The United States backed a South Vietnam regime in a war with the communist North and then imposed a trade embargo after the communists unified Vietnam in 1975. //\\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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