Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 6. Going Back into the Hell of the Fighting
We Run through several abandoned fields covered with water and through some empty plots of land overgrown with weeds, and then a road leads us to a small hamlet. There are houses scattered here and there. Thái joyfully shouts out:
“Our [Nationalist] army has just now occupied this area!”
I recognize silhouettes of some military men on the move, carrying rifles, appearing intermittently behind the crowd of evacuees; I see them appearing and disappearing as they stand guard in front of gates and fences. Finally - our deliverance from calamity; we have arrived at a peaceful area. My mother runs out from a tavern: “I’m here, I’m here.” Thái pulls me into the veranda of the tavern. The tavern is deserted; in the middle of it is an enormous shelter made of sand, occupying almost the entire building. Next to the tavern is a deserted brick house; American and Vietnamese [Nationalist] soldiers stand guard in front of it. An American soldier and two soldiers of the Republic check the papers of each of us. I don’t remember where I put my identity card, but then I manage to find it.
Bé’s wife puts the pole down and sits hugging her small child and panting:
“That’s it; now we will live.”
But Thái and Bé still look very unsure. A group of people stop at the tavern. They carry with them a wounded woman; a shell has split her chest wide open, and she is breathing her dying breaths. Several soldiers run over, and an American soldier lifts the blanket with which she is tightly covered; he looks and shakes his head. Nevertheless, the American hastens to call for a vehicle to come to transport the woman. Several other American soldiers lift their hands in signs of despair. The oxcart transporting the two wounded people has now also pulled over here. One of the people has died and the other has one foot in the grave. The women writhe in weeping and moaning. One of the women hugs the dead body; the other one crawls on the ground:
“Oh my husband, the children are dead, the grandchildren are dead, only I am left. Oh husband … husband, you have also gone, and I am abandoned.”
The other woman with the cart also cries:
“Oh husband, don’t die, don’t leave us. How can you die in this situation?”
The woman opens the mat and with her hand she touches the head of the dying person; she forces open his torpid eyes that had been closed tight:
“Don’t die, my husband, don’t abandon me.”
The two crying voices burst out, one belonging to a person in despair and the other belonging to a person who still hangs on to a thread of frail hope; the latter screams as if to die, louder than the former. In the end, one of the two women runs over and grabs the hand of one of the several [Nationalist] soldiers standing and observing the scene together with several Americans; she bows and implores him:
“I beg you, elder brother, do me a favor and transport my husband down to Phú Bài.”
“We don’t have a vehicle. Anyway, how would a car go through the fields? Down there they shoot nonstop. You will have to bear it.”
“Please help save my husband, sir.”
The woman seizes the hand of an American. The American shakes his head. Thái also intervenes:
“Perhaps there’s some medicine to give them to apply to the wounds, by chance …”
The soldier laughs as though he has been long acquainted with this situation:
“Oh, don’t waste your time. We can’t do anything to save him …”
“Then what? Just leave…?”
“But what to do even if we had medicine? Even a miracle medicine would be useless now …”
The woman pushes the American aside and runs back to the cart. She pulls open the mat, and with scowling eyes she clenches her teeth and falls down shaking violently:
“It’s all over now …”
The woman bangs her head against the ground, then she turns her face up toward the sky:
“Heaven is high, earth is deep - there is no help from anywhere - my husband … Heaven is high, earth is deep …”
The woman rolls back and forth, then she suddenly springs up:
“That’s enough, let’s go; enough, let’s go … go, Mrs. Tứ. We will go back up to the city.”
The other woman is weeping and moaning; hearing the words of the first woman, she stops and wipes her tears:
“Going up to the city, are we?”
“We are going up there to die together with our houses, our possessions, our husbands, and our children. What is there to live for anymore - Heaven?”
Everybody rushes to dissuade them … but no one can change the hearts of the two women who have fallen into extreme despair. They look in the direction where guns explode and fires burn; they point with their hands and yell:
“Everything is burned to the ground. Everything is burned to the ground. I am beside myself with rage. Oh heavens.”
“Go, go, they have no pity for us, do they? Who would have pity for us now, oh heavens …”
Heaven also has been moved and has melted in tears. Drops of drizzling rain fly down; the vault of sky in azure and lead colors flows with water.
The two women, weeping and moaning, push the cart, returning to the city. They don’t look back, but the sound of their crying still merges with the curtain of rain in an atmosphere tense with gloom. The oxcart has gradually moved far away - two silhouettes: strenuously, step by step, pushing the small cart on the long road, going forward toward the area of the hell of the fighting. One of the soldiers says after them:
“These two old women have gone completely crazy.”
No one else says another critical word. Two men carrying a stretcher with someone wounded suddenly ask a soldier:
“Is there a first-aid post for the wounded in the hamlet?”
“Carry him in; there are people of the Self-Defense Forces over there.”1
The two men hurriedly get up and carry the stretcher. A little child runs stumblingly along. One of the men says:
“Go quickly, child.”
The little boy doesn’t respond, running to the best of his abilities. A woman speaks up:
“Certainly this is a child of one of those women.”
“The little guy does not yet understand anything; how terrible it is!”
Thái gathers our entire family to discuss the situation. Bé and his wife say that we must go on foot down to Phù Lương, but Thái holds back. It’s afternoon - if we go now, we won’t have time to make it there before dark. The group of people that stopped near the soldiers have all scattered into the hamlet. I ask Thái where we are. Thái says that a bit further is Thủy Dương Hạ hamlet. Bé’s wife negotiates with the owner of the tavern, asking him to allow us to stay for a day. The owner says:
“If you want to stay here, lie outside on the veranda; it’s too crowded in the shelter.”
All of a sudden Bé remembers that he has an acquaintance. Thái says:
“I also have an acquaintance; let’s divide into two groups to be less of a bother for both of them.”
Thái has an uncle, an elder brother of his mother. So, my mother, my uncle, I, and Thái split from the others to go to the house of Thái’s uncle Giáo. As soon as he sees us, Uncle Giáo rushes outside:
“Oh, Heaven and Earth, you’ve made it down here. Glory to Amitabha Buddha.2 What a blessing, what a fortune. Come in, come in, first of all, you, elder sister …”
My mother bursts into tears:
“I thought we’d all die, nowhere else to go, elder brother. This journey is the end of me …”
“Oh, we are all lucky to be alive. Elder sister, come in here, come in here, first …”
“Uncle, is it quiet down here?”
“Oh, everything is quiet. Several days ago refugees came down here, a whole sea of them. They ran cutting across here, then went to Phù Lương. When they went to Phù Lương, Phú Bài became very quiet.”
My mother changes her mind:
“Perhaps we must return to Phù Lương.”
“Impossible. We must stay here to find out news about elder brother Lễ. Why wouldn’t there be people who come over here from Từ Đàm? When they come here, we will be able to inquire of them. Rely on me, auntie.”
Just as we sit down to rest on a wooden plank bed, suddenly there is a deafening explosion, making the sky flash and the earth shake. No one says a word as my mother, my uncle, I, and Thái all dive down to the floor. But the others are still sitting in silence. Uncle Giáo laughs:
“Why are you like this? They are firing in the hills over there.”
I suddenly understand - on the inner side of the top of the mountain on the other side of the road is the place where [American and Nationalist] artillery is placed to fire down at the city of Hue. Artillery shells firing from there have inflicted a countless number of deaths in the city over there. But I also understand that there is nothing to be done anymore. I climb up on the wooden plank bed and sit there, but I am still trembling. One, two, or three guns in the hamlet sporadically fire. Uncle Giáo says the Self-Defense Forces go on patrol when the artillery is shooting. I ask whether the Việt Cộng have returned here. Uncle Giáo’s wife says:
“By night they come back all the time, but never mind them; we are inside the house and at night we don’t open the door. They go through the garden - never mind them.”
“Do they search?”
“In the hamlet down from here they made some arrests, but here, no. Here, it’s near the hills and there are [Nationalist] soldiers on guard; nothing to be afraid of.”
But Uncle Giáo is careful:
“In fact, we must also focus our minds on this: at night absolutely no talking. If you stir around, it will be the end of us. They will enter here.”
Thái suggests digging another shelter. This evening everyone bustles in and out fixing the new shelter. The house can contain another surface shelter. As dusk is falling, Uncle Giáo does not allow anybody to go to the courtyard or to show a face outside the door. Outside there is not a shadow of a person; even the Vietnamese and American soldiers have pulled back to safe locations. I suddenly have a premonition that something will happen soon. Amid this peaceful scenery, I listen to my heart, waiting for something bad to happen.
But the first night that we sleep in Thủy Dương Hạ hamlet, absolutely nothing happens. Early in the morning of the following day when we wake up, I hear the sound of birds chirping. I fumble my way to the courtyard to wash my face and rinse my mouth; then, along with Uncle Giáo’s daughter-in-law, named Lài, I go out to the lane to see what the situation is outside. Life still goes on normally; in front of the house, on the other side of the road, a market is crowded as usual. But the crowdedness of the place seems somehow different. Lài pulls me toward the market. There are lanes selling porridge with entrails here; people stand, people sit, and they eat and drink whatever comes to hand. Around the group of sitting and standing people, there are also towering piles of stuff, baskets and poles. It seems that they’ve just evacuated this morning. I go to make inquiries. But everybody only knows one’s own story. A lot of people from An Cựu, a lot of people right from the slopes of Nam Giao Bridge, but they don’t have anything for me to know more than the news I’ve already learned. One person says to me that up there still remain a lot of wounded people. Lài pulls me away, saying that we must go up to see what’s happening. The young woman has not fled from danger yet; since the day of Tết until now it has been quiet and safe at Thủy Dương Hạ, so she doesn’t know what to be afraid of. But I, I am different; the sound of gunfire, even a strange noise, everything makes me twitch. My mother stands in the courtyard; when she sees us taking ourselves away, she calls to us, telling us not to go. I say several words to put my mother’s mind at peace. The words that make my mother contented the most are that, if we are fortunate, up there we will find people from Từ Đàm who came here and we will be able to inquire about the fate of my elder brother and his family.
It still drizzles. If one doesn’t have to flee from danger, during the first days of spring such a drizzle is marvelous. But now I’m no longer able to admire this scenery. Groups of people who fled from Hue are still the main sight that strikes my eyes. I feel sick; whomever I meet I ask whether they know anything about Từ Đàm, but their responses are completely identical.
“Where did you come here from, uncle?”
“From An Cựu.”
“From Nam Giao Bridge.”
“What’s going on up there, elder sister? Grandmother? Uncle? Elder brother?”
“Completely destroyed. Completely reduced to ashes.”
The words speed away following the footsteps. Groups run as though afraid that the guns will catch up with them. Lài pulls me by the hand:
“That’s enough; whomever you ask, everyone says the same thing.”
I follow Lài, but if I see someone, I still ask. Some people answer; others are not inclined to open their mouths. Damn it, it’s like I acquired an addiction, which is very hard to get rid of, and in spite of the fact that the responses are so similar to each other, each time I hear them I am still out of my element, surprised as though I have discovered another unknown thing.
We cross a deserted plot of land; a small food stall and a military post emerge in front of us. Here the scene is of utter disorder; people sit and lie in heaps on the sides of the road, in the courtyard, in front of the food stall. Several soldiers and civilians from the Self-Defense Forces bustle in and out, checking papers of some people, inquiring of others. Several Americans stand and gaze at the group of people, then bare their teeth, laughing inappropriately, in a manner that in no way fits the situation or the scene. The wounded have a place arranged for them, and there are several doctors in the area who are there to dress their wounds. I keep inquiring but learn only that people in this group streamed here from many different localities. They let me know that Tràng Tiền Bridge has been destroyed and An Cựu Bridge has also been destroyed. There are people from the city who managed to escape because they risked taking a boat. Each person had to pay more than five thousand dongs for a boat trip across the river.
Thanks to inquiries of those who just arrived this morning, I know that in Hue there is fighting everywhere; the Nationalist side has not yet brought its troops to the area of the National Highway and only fire artillery and drop bombs. By day, airplanes hover overhead all the time. Airplanes still call upon civilians to try to relocate to the right bank to avoid falling into the Việt Cộng’s hands. I learn that Đồng Khánh,3 Quốc Học,4 and Kiểu Mẫu Schools have turned into temporary residences for compatriots. They stay in these places, and it’s like playing with death because of the unpredictability of artillery shells or because they are trapped between the two warring sides; everyday people die. I try to inquire about the news from the area where my elder brother lives, but people shake their heads or try to make random guesses, and the answers come out increasingly pessimistic:
“Up there, everything has now been reduced to ashes; everything is leveled.”
There are people who speak as though they have witnessed it with their own eyes:
“Up there is only Việt Cộng; as for people, no one has remained. Only artillery fires day and night for ten-odd days and a lot of people have already died; don’t tell me about guns and shells … don’t tell me stories of being denounced by them [the Communists]. I am from Bến Ngự and I sense a stinky smell spreading down from there. Dogs carry in their teeth arms and legs, pieces of leg bones still covered with flesh - it’s very horrifying.”
Another person adds:
“Up there, people die and nobody buries them; there is not a house that remains intact. Several days ago there were people who fled and came here and told me this.”
Enough - so I keep hoping that the family of my elder brother is still alive, not to mention my younger sister, to whose face the eyes of my father, when he was on his deathbed, remained glued fast, as though he wanted to entrust her to the care of the people who remained, and also several young nephews; I just came back after several years and, busy with the funeral, haven’t had time to hold them in my arms.
Tears are about to stream from my eyes, and in my heart I don’t have any hope anymore. But at this moment I suddenly hear another voice answering somebody’s question:
“Up at Từ Đàm, eh? There are a few people who have escaped. They went in the direction of Tây Thiên; up there it’s very calm, but what a wretched situation. That place [Tây Thiên] is full of the Liberation Army. Their headquarters is there. A lot of people are stranded there, but no one has managed to escape.”
“Ma’am, don’t worry. I live down the slope next to the river near Bến Ngự but have managed to escape; my house is not made of brick but is still intact.”
I get hopeful again:
“No doubt my elder brother’s family will manage to escape.”
But thinking about my sister-in-law, who’s feeble, with a flock of young children to take care of, and my younger sister, I start worrying again. My elder brother is also very feeble; the big funeral at the end of the year put him between death and life several times. During the several days of the funeral ceremonies, my elder brother didn’t eat even a bowl of rice, and on the day of my father’s burial procession, he almost fainted in front of the grave.
Seeing me standing stunned, Lài pulls my hand:
“That’s it, we are going back; here it looks too scary, oh heavens.”
On the road I meet Bé and his wife. They say that they will stay here until tomorrow and then will go down to Phù Lương; it’s not quiet and safe here. I don’t reply. Actually, I can’t guess what place is quieter and safer than another place.
My mother is waiting for me at the gate; she asks:
I reply to calm my mother’s heart:
“There are people who told me that at Từ Đàm a lot of people evacuated to Tây Thiên and Trúc Lâm.”
“So, why would he not flee and go up to Trúc Lâm then around Ngự Bình Mountain and manage to come to An Cựu?”
“Surely he is still stuck somehow over there.”
My mother is uneasy:
“Other people have fled; why didn’t he go?”
Then she decides to stay here to wait for him. When I enter the house, I see that Uncle Giáo’s wife bought for me a big bowl of porridge with entrails.
The bowl of steaming hot porridge has a very sweet aroma, but when I swallow a bit of it, in my throat I suddenly feel that it’s very bitter.
At this moment I still want to eat delicious food; I want to be happy. In my essence I am an egotist. I miss my children and my husband. I worry about my elder brother and his wife, about my younger sister along with all my young nephews. Will I really manage to stay alive? And my husband and children …
Tears stream from my eyes. Lài asks:
“Why aren’t you eating? Is it too hot?”
“Yes, my bowl has a lot of black pepper. It’s too burning-hot to eat; it even made tears come to my eyes.” Lài suddenly laughs. I turn away to hide two lines of tears streaming down my face. My mother still sits totally stupefied in front of her big bowl of porridge. I wipe my tears and say:
My mother says:
“You eat, child. I pity you so much, child, for ten-odd days to endure hunger and thirst.”
I blink my eyes; the veil of tears gradually thins out, and I clearly see my mother’s face. She looks at me fixedly. The bowl with porridge still stands in front of her; puffs of steam gradually thin out, and soon it will be cold. Several morsels of coagulated pig’s blood are floating on the surface.
I suddenly shudder; the pig’s blood resembles bluish-black bloodstains, of which by now I have seen enough. I push away the bowl of porridge. My mother covers her face with her hands and bursts into tears:
“I’ve escaped, came here, and eat happily, but my son and grandchildren, what happened to them, oh heavens?”
My mother appeals again to Heaven. Countless numbers of people have appealed to Heaven during these days of upheaval. Lài consoles my mother:
“Don’t, auntie, you are so miserable as though something bad has happened to them. There is still a chance, sure there is, auntie.”
Thái has finished eating his big bowl of porridge. He pushes my bowl back toward me:
“Eat, elder sister. If there is food, eat it; people die because of artillery, and those dying of hunger fill the roads.”
I try to swallow several spoonfuls of porridge for the benefit of my mother and Thái, but each swallow of porridge causes excruciating pain in my throat. When I was outside, I saw a child who looked intently at a woman in a stall selling porridge; he demanded to eat but his mother held him back and kept pushing him to run down the road ahead of her. The child stomped both his feet and cried, but his voice became so hoarse that no breath was coming out anymore.
Uncle Giáo’s wife retells stories overheard from groups of people fleeing from the fighting. Uncle Giáo is worried:
“I don’t know whether we have taken back Hue or not. If it’s lost up there, down here we won’t survive either!”
His wife throws a long angry glance at him:
“Watch your mouth. Last night, they [the Communist forces] came back and arrested some people over there. There are a couple of people from Hue who came here; they fled and also were arrested. There are spies everywhere - be careful or you will end up with a miserable death.”
My mother is worried:
“If it’s so, then we mustn’t stay here any longer.”
Thái is confident:
“Auntie, put your mind at peace; they don’t know who we are. Wherever we run, it will be the same; they are everywhere now.”
Thái tries to reassure my mother about staying here, but reading his eyes I understand that he is now exhausted beyond measure from foolhardily going from one place to another. Uncle Giáo scolds him and tells him to change into clean clothes, those of country people. Uncle Giáo’s wife brings a set of loose black clothes for me, too. My mother advises me that I must pull my hair up into a bun, Hue-type, and raise it high up; if during the night they come in to search, then I must tell them that I am a poor farmer. I look at myself in the mirror and suddenly see myself extremely distant and strange; I don’t recognize any of my features anymore.
From that time to the afternoon, I don’t take my eyes off the main road. Groups of people fleeing from danger become more numerous by the minute. If someone asks them anything, they only beckon with their hands and elbows backward with one hurried phrase: They are fighting each other back there; it’s absolute hell. By the afternoon, I see people fleeing over here, even carrying dead bodies on their bicycles.
The family of a doctor from somewhere down the slope of Nam Giao managed to get here to Thủy Dương Hạ; they brought along a Honda motorbike to carry their stuff. Several girls with their faces drained to the last drop of blood, absolutely stunned, sit on the shoulder of the road to give their feet some rest. The doctor orders porridge with entrails for his family; each person eats four or five bowls, eating and sighing at the same time. The features of their faces gradually change from painstricken to radiant.
Another family has also managed to flee to Thủy Dương Hạ; they are completely exhausted and tidy up a corner of the communal house to spend a night there. The mother of the family winds up with a bout of asthma, and in the afternoon she dies. People suddenly swarm around as numerous as ants. The corpse of the woman, big and fat, sprawls in an ugly pose on a mat with scowling eyes and hands tightly entangled, unable to separate. The husband sits near the corpse of his wife, breathing in, breathing out, throwing long looks toward the city of Hue where incredibly high columns of smoke push and push into the lead-colored sky like monsters’ gray tongues. In the afternoon, this family disappears somewhere; when I go in the communal house, I see only the abandoned mat in the corner. The building is packed, and another family immediately replaces them in that spot. The mat turns into a place for an entire family of ten-odd people to sit or lie down.
Lài tells me about something she has seen. She speaks, and her face is at once moving and funny:
“In the afternoon, there was this young girl wearing a cowboy outfit; she held in her hands a coat but she cried bitterly, melting into tears. She entered the hamlet, offering her coat in exchange for a small jar of rice, but no one agreed. She was crying. I asked her to tell me her story, and she said that her sweetheart had bought the outfit for her in America and had sent it back as a gift. The young woman was very hungry and wanted to trade it for a jar of rice, but no one agreed to the exchange. I decided to go in her house to take rice and exchange it for the coat, but my mother did not allow me. She said that if this coat is in the house and they [the Communist forces] come in, then they would say that I am for the Americans and they would at once shoot me. This woman went on cajoling and cajoling, crying and begging, but no one would make such an exchange.”
During these times, even gold and silver, precious pearls, jade, and ivory are not valued anymore. A plot of land is still useful to bury dead bodies, but gold and silver won’t fill your stomach. A grain of rice now is a pearl, more precious than anything else in life. Uncle Giáo’s wife has strongly advised that when we cook rice we must add a lot of water so that when we eat we will get full fast and that we must remember to be thrifty with rice.
In the afternoon of this day, Thái goes to mobilize the women and children to buy or to ask each house for several measures of rice, and he manages to procure almost half a bag of rice; seeing Thái coming back carrying rice on his shoulder, the eyes of my mother shine:
“This lad is very talented.”
Thái throws the bag of rice on the ground:
“When we finish eating this, and if it’s not quiet yet, we will all soon die from starvation. No one will dare to give or to sell another grain of rice.”
Thái’s aunt Vạn, who stayed with Uncle Giáo’s family, runs over and asks:
“Is there anyone who wants to buy gold? Outside there is a group of evacuees; they will sell a bar of gold for several hundred dongs, or they want to exchange it for rice.”
Uncle Giáo’s wife laughs bitterly:
“To exchange an ingot of gold for a grain of rice, even that will not work. They must be crazy.”
Thái looks at the curtain of drizzling rain and sighs:
“In rain like this it’s very difficult to fight. Our side has tear gas, but in rain like this it all gets washed away.”
Uncle Giáo shakes his head:
“Enough, we are all in the same boat. What’s the point to moan?”
Several children suddenly dash in from outside, their faces panic-stricken. Then we hear the sound of an entire column of vehicles approaching with a roar. I look out and see American vehicles coming up from the direction of Phú Bài. A lot of Americans jump down out of the vehicles and lie down close to the sides of the road and fire in the air, their shots exploding in salvoes. They are shooting even at the area of virgin land in the mountains. Uncle Giáo shouts at everybody to go into the shelter. All the doors are closed tight.
The guns explode like popcorn in salvoes, then move away. The column of vehicles departs with a lot of noise; many people are running into the houses, and those who don’t make it inside lie pressing themselves into the ground in the courtyard where the water tank is, waiting until the vehicles are completely gone. When the guns gradually move farther away, we hear a loud bang on the door. My mother whispers:
“I see that here it’s not at all quiet either. Oh child, that’s why I am so worried.”
My mother suddenly decides to flee again. This time, it’s she who suggests it. But I’ve changed my mind. I know that wherever we go, the situation will not be any better. My mother falls mum.
Outside everything has become totally deserted. The shadows of dusk close in very fast. The drizzling rain has gradually become denser, and the air is freezing cold. My mother sits in the corner on the wooden plank bed with her arms clasping her knees, looking outside at the vault of the sky, which gradually turns black. At the evening meal I manage to eat half a bowl; as for my mother, when she finishes eating her bowl, she suddenly cries. Tears drop down into her bowl, and my mother hastily puts her chopsticks down.
Two surface shelters are filled with children and adults; there’s no place to wriggle. I want to go across to the other side to Mrs. Ái, Uncle Giáo’s neighbor, to ask to sleep there but don’t dare step outside into the courtyard. Very fortunately, Hiền, Aunt Ái’s son, knocks on the door and calls. I follow Hiền into the nearby house. Hiền is a student of fine arts, a relative of Thái’s on the maternal side. Hiền’s house is farther out of sight from the road, and they dug up a deep, spacious underground shelter under the house. Hiền lights a lamp just for me to see several new pictures he has drawn. But I don’t show appreciation of anything, don’t even recognize anything; my brain is stretched out to the extreme. I am worried and afraid that today or tomorrow or in the near future the guns will reach this place, and I know for sure that we won’t have the strength to flee anymore.
“There are several young people looking for you, elder sister; they asked me, but I didn’t know what you would think about it.”
I smile faintly:
“Enough - spare me, now when I look like this, when my clothes are torn into shreds. Let’s put it off until another occasion, if we are still alive.”
Thủy Dương Hạ hamlet is the place I will remember with gratitude when I think about those days of seeking safety from the fighting. I remember a fertilized duck egg that Hiền put slyly into my pocket for me to eat. I remember a few young faces watching me with both compassion and amusement. Right, I must be looking very funny after the preceding exhausting days. But what importance will it have unless I survive?
That night I don’t lie in the shelter but on a wide bed with Mrs. Ái, her daughter-in-law, and a small grandchild. The cold is biting, and I tightly cover my head with a blanket. I still always carry with me my father’s overcoat, not letting it leave my side even when I sleep.
The hamlet is silent and empty in an unusual way; there are not even sounds of dogs barking, not a single sound of small arms. We hear only artillery firing monotonously from the top of the small hill and roaring sounds in the distance. Those places in the distance are the city of Hue, the Citadel, An Cựu, Nam Giao … It feels like each strident sound screws into my heart; I know that while I get a chance to lie quiet and safe here, countless numbers of people in that city are dying from guns, dying from shells, dying from hunger, dying from thirst. How many torsos are about to be broken open; how many drops of tears will mix with each other?
After being wakeful and restless for a long time, I fall into a deep sleep. I sink into the spell of a fiercely violent dream. I see myself fleeing from the dangers of the war all over the city. Faces of the liberators take the form of giants, always ready to swallow us. Shells fall behind me and in front of me. And I keep running. It’s exactly like scenes of what I have lived through. Behind my back, dead bodies burst out into tears and chase me; even pieces of their hands and legs also run and pull me back. Under my feet, blood runs like a mountain stream. And corpses of Việt Cộng, and corpses of children, and corpses of soldiers, and corpses of Americans, and corpses of old women are scattered around everywhere, blocking the roads. Never mind, I step over their corpses and run forward.
But I am stranded between two gigantic columns of smoke: a fire in front and a fire behind. Groups of people flee from the fighting in all directions, at random treading upon each other. I recognize among the groups of people one group holding white flags that crossed the river one day. Even my mother, younger cousin Thái, elder brother Lễ, and younger sister Hà run impetuously farther and farther, leaving me behind.
On this side of the bridge, a liberation soldier holds his hands like a loudspeaker: “Compatriots, stay at home; don’t go outside.” On the other side a Nationalist soldier shouts: “Go to the right bank. Evacuate to the right bank.” I don’t recognize anymore which direction is which. Where is the right bank? Where is the left bank? Streams of blood have been flowing to the banks of the river and the surface of the water, biting cold, trailing bloody threads. Columns of smoke from behind gradually become larger, and columns of smoke in front gradually become larger. The smoke envelops me, tightly covering my eyes, then large and small guns start to compete with each other with their explosions. Groups of people run, shouting and crying; people overtake each other; people fall down. I also run following them. But I can’t keep up with them anymore. A big explosion, and then the entire city explodes. It feels like my body shatters into pieces among bricks and sand. I still manage to hear my own shouts rising up, flying swiftly up toward the vault of the lead-gray sky.
Someone’s hands pull me and then push me down to the ground. I hear shouts: “Run into the shelter. Hurry up.” I suddenly wake up. An explosion very close to us shakes the entire house - several window shutters come loose and start flapping in and out. After I drop down to the floor, I make several rolls and get to the underground shelter opening.
Perhaps I am the last person to come down into the shelter. Another explosion follows the first one. The roof made of iron sheets cries out in fury when thousands of fragments pour down upon it. When in my dream there was an explosion causing the collapse of the city, it was identical to the explosion in the middle of the night in this place in the countryside. Someone’s hands at my side are trembling. We hear a round of rifle fire from the direction of the road, then sounds of rifle fire emerge everywhere. The fighting between the two sides has reached this place. I lie tightly holding Mrs. Ái’s hand. Her hand also trembles. I think about my mother, my uncle, and Thái in Uncle Giáo’s house. Certainly, my mother also trembles like we do here. Hiền says in a low voice:
“Obviously the fighting has now begun here.”
A thud on the door; everyone is silent, holding their breath. Mrs. Ái suddenly grumbles:
“Damn that dog, it went outside.”
The dog’s barking gets louder and louder, gunfire becomes scattered and sparse, and then we hear sounds of feet running all over the garden. I lie very close to the floor of the shelter. They [the Communist forces] have come to arrest the villagers. What will my fate be? I remember Hiền’s words when in the evening he said that there were several young people who were looking for me. No, I was too scared and improperly suspicious; no one could still have enough strength to harm others at this time. However, my heart did not dispel my suspicions.
There are the sounds of feet running through the garden very noisily. Then we hear voices of people calling each other: “Open fire!” “Quới - at the foot of the hill.” “Lục - at the edge of the river.” A loud call: “Fire!” There are beeping sounds: secret signals. But we don’t know whether or not they are searching houses. This is my most important concern at the moment. The sounds of feet stop in the courtyard. Then the sounds resume - they run again. Loud calls gradually move away, and complete silence moves in. At this moment we hear gunfire again. Hiền angrily mumbles to himself:
“First they [the Nationalist forces] wait until all Việt Cộng withdraw, and then they shoot.5 Real idiots.”
A moment later there are voices of people from the Self-Defense Forces screaming outside: “Chase after them.” After several minutes there is full silence. Mrs. Ái makes us sit in the shelter through the night, not letting us go up to sleep in the house.
Early in the morning, before any of the houses have their doors open, I run to Uncle Giáo’s house. I bang and bang on the door. People inside listen intently for a while, then the door panels open enough for only one person to jostle in, and then immediately the lock is fastened again. Everybody is still in the shelter. My mother stretches out her hand and hugs me, crying for joy.
“Last night aunt worried about you, elder sister, a lot. She cried through the entire night.”
I hug my mother more heartily and can’t come up with a single word to calm her down. Certainly my mother doesn’t have a calm minute anymore. Thái points to the window where the shutters were blown away:
“Yesterday evening there were several explosions, and some doors were blown away.”
Aunt Vạn’s voice:
“So, those bombs fell here, close to our house. I heard a boom and thought the shelter would blow up. I kept holding my head in my hands, thinking my head was about to go to waste.”
Uncle Giáo’s wife bursts into angry words:
“Auntie, why do you say such nonsense all the time?”
Túc, Uncle Giáo’s son, jokes:
“Flying heads still have two legs and can run, can’t they, auntie?”
“Why do you say such stupid things? To have such a loose tongue when surrounded by guns and shells.”
A moment later we see nothing unusual and people are walking around outside. Uncle Giáo opens the door. A bomb fragment had landed in the courtyard. Everybody runs out to look at it for a while. Thái goes to the road and a moment later returns to inform us that yesterday evening the Việt Cộng detonated a bridge. They used two or three mines but didn’t destroy it completely, only made a big hole so that vehicles can’t get through, but it’s still possible to pass on foot, and mopeds can go through, too.
“Yesterday evening they came back to the village but now have pulled out completely. For sure they think that the bridge has collapsed.”
Outside, in the lane, there is someone’s voice calling. We look outside. Bé, his wife, and his eldest son, supporting each other, stand there with a carrying pole.
I run outside:
“Where are you going like this?”
“Going down to Phù Lương; it’s not safe here anymore.”
“Is it far?”
“Far, but people have made it, and we can make it too.”
“Do you know if it’s quiet down there?”
“It’s a hubbub because of all the people streaming there.”
“I want to ask auntie and you, elder sister, if you will go with us, and if so, let’s go, but if not, we’ll go ourselves.”
Thái shakes his head:
“Everywhere is like this. We don’t know anything, so why go?”
“If you go down there, you’ll find a military post and can report for duty at once. Then you will get ammunition and will be able to fight the Communist forces. I am furious with them [the Communist forces].”
Thái falls silent for a moment, considering Bé’s words, then he asks:
“Do you have any news?”
“I heard that the commander of your post got his throat slit.”
Seeing that Thái remains silent, Bé continues:
“If you stay here, then what? They will again come to scour and will arrest you. They know that a lot of evacuees have come here.”
My mother has come out. My uncle wants to follow Bé and his wife. In this way, my family again splits up. Thái stands watching Bé and his wife disappearing over the bridge and sighs:
“Let’s go inside, auntie.”
“Did you decide to stay here, Thái?”
Thái tightens his lips:
“Yes, to stay here.”
My mother has tears welling up in her eyes:
“Whatever happens, why go anywhere again? Here, it’s near An Cựu, our home. We don’t know what’s going on up there …”
I know that my mother still misses her house, the altar of my father, and his fresh grave on Tam Thái Mountain. On the day when we were evacuating down to Thủy Dương Hạ hamlet, cutting across the fields, my mother repeatedly looked up toward the mountain. But, like myself, she could not distinguish which grave was my father’s. The slope of the mountain is a realm of dead people, and from a distance each grave looks exactly like the other ones.
The first several days at Thủy Dương Hạ were calm and safe. But since the day of the explosion at the bridge, artillery lobs into this village at night. Each evening we sneak into the shelter really early. Throughout the second night, explosions continue. The bridge is completely put out of commission. By day, Americans come up to fix the bridge, but by night, they all pull out, giving way to liberators. By now, several houses in the village have been hit by artillery. Each morning we hear people everywhere engaged enthusiastically in futile discussions about the artillery shells that were shot from the other bank of the river and hit residents’ houses. A couple of houses have been completely destroyed. By night, liberators come back to conduct thorough searches and arrest people. By day, the area of the bridge is blocked. American soldiers guard it and don’t allow people to go back to Phù Lương anymore. We are stranded in Thủy Dương Hạ and await our fate.
A number of evacuees from Hue who came here inform us that An Cựu is completely cleared [of the Communist forces]. The American army and Nationalist soldiers have occupied the place and have full control there. Several people went up there to retrieve their belongings, but they came back crying and moaning heartbreakingly - at every house that has not been destroyed, doors are opened and the insides ravaged, the furniture gone. An Cựu Bridge was detonated and collapsed right in the middle, so the crossing is extremely difficult now. My mother makes very thorough inquiries with these people, and they say that despite the fact that the place is completely cleared, Nationalist soldiers and Americans come only by day, and at night they all withdraw back to Phú Bài. In Thủy Dương Hạ hamlet, where we stay now, suddenly there is news that the enemy [the Communist forces] is coming here soon, that it is losing control of the city, so it will pull out to the countryside. People are getting ready to evacuate. My mother and Thái decide to return to An Cựu.
For several days in succession I watch convoys of vehicles coming back through the village filled with dead bodies and wounded soldiers. But people still gather and prompt each other to return to Hue.
Yet at the same time, there are also groups of people that come here one after another from Hue. People run to and fro. My mother sends Thái to check the road first. He goes around midday, then comes back:
“A lot of people are returning to An Cựu, auntie. We’re going back.”
So, we get ready to go up to An Cựu. My mother admonishes us to go up by Giáo Bridge if the artillery here is too fierce. Uncle Giáo’s wife gives my mother a bit more rice: “Even if all this continues, down here we still have unprocessed rice to pound and eat, but if you are stuck up there it will be death from hunger.” Uncle Giáo’s wife, Uncle Giáo, and their entire family see us off, accompanying us part of the way down the road before turning and going back. Seeing many groups of people carrying poles with their belongings on their shoulders going to Phù Lương, my mother suddenly hesitates. Thái has to talk and talk with my mother until she lets out a sigh: “OK, fine, let’s do it.” Thái says that to stay in Thủy Dương Hạ is too dangerous; he heard rumors that during the night the Việt Cộng entered the hamlet and took away young men.
I feel a bit calmer when I see a lot of people going up toward the city of Hue; they have empty baskets on shoulder poles. I inquire of them and learn that the Nationalist Army has occupied An Cựu and is in control up there; these people are going up to see if anything is left and if yes then to take it back so that thieves and burglars will not take everything.
Artillery still explodes furiously in the direction of Hue Citadel. My mother’s face turns green and her lips tremble:
“What to do now? Up there they still shoot at each other.”
Thái is firmly determined:
“We are now close to An Cựu; the artillery is firing up into the Bến Ngự and Từ Đàm areas.”
Just as Thái said, when we climb up to Mù U, I see silhouettes of military men, appearing and disappearing. They carry rifles on their shoulders and march in lines or stand guard, scattered on both sides of the road. When we get up to Trường Bia military post, my heart is increasingly assured. There are many soldiers in the post. They are very alert and stand guard outside. When we go across and I encounter their glances, I want to laugh, but no laughter comes out. I am sure they feel the same way, their eyes watching us until we are far away. Some houses on the sides of the road have their doors open. Several people stick their heads out and ask:
“Coming back, are you?”
My mother nods repeatedly and asks in turn:
“Oh, it’s OK. We dug shelters and escaped the shells; only fate knows how and why we managed, aunt.”
A big explosion seems to shred my eardrums. We hastily duck down.
A voice resounds in the courtyard of some house:
“It’s friendly fire. They are shooting from Trường Bia military post.”
I get up, awkwardly brush away the dust, and then pull my mother up too. She looks around:
“So empty, no people have come back yet.”
Then she asks the person whose head has just stuck out of the door of a house:
“Have you just returned?”
“No, I’ve been here for several days.”
“You haven’t had any trouble?”
The woman sticks her head out even more, raises two fingers, and then points toward the corner of the courtyard:
“Two people are dead.”
I follow her hand with my eyes. Two graves with earth carelessly heaped on them are in the corner of a courtyard, cold and grim without a single stick of burning incense. I pull the flaps of my coat tightly together, then turn to go to some other place. The woman’s face is shriveled; I don’t know whether sufferings have changed her face a long time ago or just recently. But she doesn’t look sorrowful at all. I shudder. Ten-odd days, and people seem to have gotten used to blood, to deaths, to wounds.
Shortly before arriving home, my legs and arms tremble uncontrollably. I am at once glad and afraid. I betray my worry that the house has been completely destroyed, that it’s not whole anymore. The day when we went down to Thủy Dương Hạ hamlet to avoid disaster, cutting across the main road, I tried to get a glimpse of our house, but shells behind me seemed to push me to run forward, and thin rows of trees hid the garden area. During the days in Thủy Dương Hạ, there was no way to know whether our house had collapsed. People only spread rumors or tell a few distressing or comic stories. We heard different stories: when American army units came up to An Cựu, any house they saw intact or that had something suspicious about it, they fired into it at random, regardless of whether there were people inside. Or they dashed into a house, stood at the shelter opening, and flooded the inside of the shelter with shots. They were afraid of Việt Cộng hiding down there.
The closer we get to home, the faster my feet move. Thái and my mother are the same. When we left, my family was indeed numerous; when we come back, it’s only my mother, Thái, and me. Aunt Vạn and her daughter are still getting ready; they said they would come up later. Bé and his wife have already left for Phù Lương. Thu Hồng has also stopped following us.
When we are about to step into the lane, our yard is hidden behind another house, and the lane leads in to the gate, on both sides of which are hedges of hibiscus and vines. I suddenly hear a voice behind me. It turns out that my uncle, Bé’s father, has hurried to catch up with us. Bé and his wife, regardless of what they initially thought and planned, ended up leaving him behind. I push open the iron gate leading to our courtyard and then shut it, but not tightly. Our house suddenly bursts into view as though greeting us. The tiles on the roof are caved in or pierced with holes from rockets or bombs. A wall on the front of the house is cracked, and window shutters are open wide from the reverberations of bombshells. Nevertheless, the two panels of the main door are still closed. First of all, Thái jumps up to the veranda. He puts down the bag of rice and turns around to look at my mother, then fishes keys out from his pocket. I see his hands shaking uncontrollably and his face turning pale. The panels of the door open and light floods into the house. Half-burned candles, parallel sentences with condolences,6 and beaded mourning wreaths remaining from my father’s funeral suddenly fill my eyes. I rush into the house and bow my head in front of my father’s altar. My mother plops on the ground crying. And even Thái, though he is Catholic and was baptized a long time ago, still looks for incense to light on the upper part of my father’s altar and finally takes the incense that remains unburned from the incense burners for the more distant ancestors - relatives passed away a long time ago. I look up at my father’s altar, at his picture covered with red cloth along with all the aquilaria7 burners and the altar candles; everything is covered with a thick layer of dust. Then my eyes go to holes in the roof as my mother calls Thái; in her hand she is holding a piece of a bomb, a shell fragment or something like that, with uneven shape and the ash-gray color of zinc.
In a moment, we go to inspect whether or not anything has disappeared. Very fortunately, all the stuff we left here is intact; only the things we took along with us when we fled have disappeared. Thái is confident that no one has entered our house. In fact, why would anyone want to get into this house? My father has recently died and the house has been deserted since the day of my father’s funeral procession; black and white rolls of reinforced paper for writing parallel sentences of condolences, beaded mourning wreaths, votive paper, and incense fill the house, making it feel like a crypt. If anyone got lost and entered this realm of death and grief, so desolate, certainly this person would be startled out of his or her wits. But because this is our house and over there is our ancestral altar recently established for my father, only here and now do I feel harmony and calm.
My mother tells us to close the windows and to keep the entrance door locked on the outside at all times, except for when there is need to go out for whatever reason, so that there will be the illusion that the house is abandoned. I look out of the window, thoroughly examining the neighboring surroundings. Through the window, serene and pure Nam An Pagoda appears absolutely deserted; houses around there are also absolutely deserted. But soon I see an old man going out in front of the courtyard. He stops by the pole on which a Buddhist flag usually hangs during festivals. The man stands and stares at the deserted road, his two hands clasped behind his back. I want to call the old man to ask him about his story, but my mother has pulled me inside. Thái says:
“We must redo the shelter. This shelter is definitely not reliable.”
The two of us, together with our uncle, Bé’s father, help each other fix the shelter. In the afternoon of this day, Túc and Lài come up from Thủy Dương Hạ hamlet. Túc informs us that down there it’s not safe, and so they came up here to stay for a while. A moment later, Hiền, the art student, also arrives on a Honda motorbike. Luckily, we left Thủy Dương Hạ just at the right time.
The same afternoon Bé and his wife come back here to An Cựu and join us too. When they left Thủy Dương Hạ, they were stopped in the middle of the road and told that somewhere farther down, some vehicles were shelled and attacked and a column of American vehicles got stuck, and it was not clear whether they [the Americans] made it back to Phú Bài or not.
Because it has become crowded with people in our house, we open the kitchen house, which my father rented to a teacher from An Cựu School. The teacher and his family went back to their native place to celebrate Tết and locked the door. Down in the kitchen there is a fixed surface shelter made of sandbags; we carry the sandbags up into the house to make a surface shelter behind the altar.
While Thái is working, he asks me whether I saw anything unusual. I say no. Thái says that when he was approaching the house, as soon as he passed the gate where we turn to get out of the alley to go to our house, he saw there in the front yard a grave. On the grave, there is incense and a cluster of green bananas. I remember that the neighboring house in front of ours was shelled and burst into flames on the second day and several people were wounded there; surely one of them has already died. Thái says in a low voice:
“The lady who lived in front has died and is buried there. All of her family has now left for somewhere else, and the house is empty.”
“How many more people will be wounded?”
Thái shakes his head and says: “Carry on, elder sister.” Thái doesn’t know anything more than I do. We bustle in and out making a shelter. Out in front there is a wooden sign from which Thái carries several boards, which are quite good, and brings them in to arrange in the shelter.
The shelter looks acceptable, at least for temporary use; he divides it into two parts. The inside part is intended for my mother, my female relatives, and myself. The outer part is intended for men. Luckily, our house has just had the funeral and there are a lot of candles; even if we keep burning them for a few months, certainly even then we will not run out of them. Thái finds a cask of oil for burning. When still alive, my father had a taste for hoarding things; he was about to retire soon and had decided to use the yard and garden together with the family ancestor-worshipping house as a place of retreat in old age.
This afternoon we have a very delicious meal. We pound rice by hand and eat it with dry salted meat. This food is from Thủy Dương Hạ, and it was Uncle Giáo’s wife who paid for it. We eat a lot. Because we have been working, we are very tired and, on top of it, also hungry; and, obviously, my mother gives up half of her portion for the rest of us.
When night falls, before carefully locking the doors and gates and crawling into the shelter, Aunt Vạn, who eventually arrives from Thủy Dương Hạ and joins us, lights incense on my father’s altar and whispers a prayer. Then she goes to the courtyard to light incense and to bow, with her hands joined, toward all four directions. The peach tree near the water tank still has several flowers strewn about, and she brings incense and sets it up at the roots of this peach tree. When she comes back into the shelter, we all lie on the ground, crowded very close to each other, but still there’s not enough room. Lài and Túc can’t stand to lie in the shelter, so they spread a mat and lie out in the house. My mother worries, discusses, and plans details of the upcoming day. Aunt Vạn grumbles, saying: “Anyhow, it would have been better to go down to Phù Lương - it’s still safer there than here.” But my mother says that we are done with running east then running west; we’ve come back here now, and even if death comes, we will have no regrets anymore. Here, she says, there is still hope of hearing news from her son and grandchildren.
In the afternoon, Bé and his wife with my uncle went up to their own house by the railroad. Bé let us know that, up there, a lot of people have also returned. Many families were intact when they fled, but when they came back they had lost some of their members. They had died on the road. My mother tells us that at night if anyone calls at the door, we must not open. Thái prudently goes outside to lock the door and then climbs in through the window. He thinks that if he does so and someone calls at the door, that person will think that there is no one in the house. My mother is in full agreement with him. In the middle of the night, suddenly we hear a lot of explosions from small guns, then footsteps in the yard. The footsteps are bold, indicating that these people are not even hiding their presence. We hear the footsteps stop in front of the house’s door, then a knock on the door. A man’s voice asks:
“Is there anyone there? Open the door. Open the door.”
Another voice angrily bursts out:
“Comrade, it’s in vain; each evening we knock here. They have abandoned the house.”
“In this area, a whole lot of people have already returned. Who knows but perhaps the owners of the house are back by now?”
“There is a guy from this house whose name is on the list [according to which the Communist forces conducted searches], isn’t there?”
“Yeah, there is, but that’s an old man who worked for the government, and he has died.”
“If that’s the case, then that’s it. His children and grandchildren, never mind them. I guess it’s a sure thing that no one has come back yet. Who would dare to stay in this house?”
The footsteps gradually move farther away. We hear a dog barking in the hamlet. Shortly after, artillery explodes nearby. Lài swiftly crawls into the shelter. We must sit up because only then do we have enough room. The sound of artillery falls monotonously, nearby and far away. Some sounds are terribly close; their reverberations squeeze our chests and shrivel our bodies. Lài holds my hand and asks me: “Vân, where are you sitting? Here you are - it’s so scary!” Aunt Vạn’s voice follows:
“Keep silent. Don’t make any noise.”
Far away in the distance, guns explode in rumbles. The fighting everywhere seems to be very serious. We spend a restless night, worrying for one, two, three hours, then exhausted we fall asleep, dead to the world.
In the morning Aunt Vạn gets up before anyone else. She waits at the door, intently listening for any movement, and only then does she open the door wide. It is quite deserted outside; you look at any house, and each seems so desolate that it makes one scared. Thái sneaks into the courtyard first, then I go, and then Lài. The morning sky still drizzles, and leaves in the garden are green in an odd way. Beyond the low masses of grayish-blue clouds, I suddenly imagine that behind them there is a bright blue sky and brilliant sunshine. My mother and Aunt Vạn also run outside: Glory to the Amitabha Buddha, goddess of compassion, for one quiet and safe night has passed. Aunt Vạn holds her hands together and bows in all four directions with her hands joined. We all look at each other, happy and upset at the same time. We’ve stayed close to each other through all the dangers for a long time, but we didn’t see each other, did we? However, it seems to us that, after several days of hardships and danger, standing in the front yard, happy and sad at once, only now do we really meet each other, see each other, and we are still intact.
Our bouts of joy and self-pity have not passed yet when on the National Highway a column of American vehicles comes up from Phú Bài, guns fiercely firing at the fields along both sides of the road. All of us, without saying a word to each other, run into the house and tightly close the door. The American column passes in a moment, and Thái suddenly realizes:
“The soldiers of my unit have come up.”
He stands near the open window and looks out. My mother says:
“We must fix the shelter. You listen to me, Thái, remember to dig more soil to put on the top to make it thicker.”
Even though we try to hope, still we haven’t seen any sign to prove to us that people can live in this city after what has happened.
The first night after our return to the city, despite the artillery, despite the guns firing and echoing in the distance, we still get a calm sleep of several hours in the narrow, crowded shelter.
Unfortunately for us, only three days after the shelter is fixed, the person renting the kitchen space returns, the teacher in elementary education who works at An Cựu School.
Seeing the kitchen door wide open, he doesn’t look happy. He hurriedly throws all his belongings in several big baskets and makes clear his intentions, demanding several bags with sand to build a shelter so that he can bring his wife and children back to stay here temporarily; when he’s done, he gets on his Honda and leaves.
The next morning we are still working on the shelter, returning bags with sand back to the kitchen, then together rebuilding a makeshift shelter - we don’t have anything to make it very solid. The renter of the kitchen returns and re-fixes the shelter there, but he brings his wife back for only one day to take care of collecting their stuff to move to another place. So, the shelter down in the kitchen is abandoned. Thái again gropes his way down to take back bags of sand to pile up for thickness.
Several days later, National Highway No. 1 connecting to An Cựu looks more bustling than before; those who are evacuating leave, others come back from evacuation, and the hamlet seems denser with people. A few families stay temporarily for a day or part of a day, sitting on wooden verandas, then they again go back to Phù Lương or Phú Bài or somewhere else.
Every day Bé and his wife come down to give us tiny pieces of news. Once, during the night the Việt Cộng came back to the T-junction. Another time: “This morning our army went to remove the flag hanging in front of the Transportation Station.” Or: “Oh, auntie, soon fighting will break out here. They will soon occupy An Cựu again.”
I don’t have any way to apprehend what else will happen. But the An Cựu area looks more peaceful and quiet. The first couple of days we didn’t see anything unusual, but every night Lài and her husband hear sounds of feet in the garden. Two or three days later, Hiền, Lài, and Túc go to Phù Lương. A lot of evacuee families go down there because they hear that refugee camps have been established down at Phù Lương and Phú Bài. Bé and his wife, intrepidly calm, stay up at their place until one day several artillery shells inexplicably fall directly in the An Cựu area late at night, either because of a mistake in calculating coordinates or aimed intentionally. At that moment we are lying in the shelter, and we all get bounced up in the air by reverberations and clutch each other tightly. Two or three explosions continue very close, then complete silence follows. When morning comes, Thái goes to check on the situation. He sees that outside there are people carrying wounded; they put them down on the side of the road and look for a way to take them farther to the American hospital. Around nine o’clock in the morning a column of vehicles with soldiers comes up; not one of them stops. Then, at ten o’clock, soldiers of the Special Forces and paratroopers from down at Phú Bài come up on foot. There are no more means of transportation, and several wounded people have already died. Two houses have been completely destroyed; a roof made of iron sheets was blown off and flew away over the railroad. Then the next night there are explosions again, this time a bit farther away, and the following morning Bé and his wife, panic-stricken, supporting each other, come down to our house:
“You must not stay here anymore. Our soldiers are arriving from Saigon, and there will be a huge fight. They are taking over the post office. All people have gathered at Kiểu Mẫu School. Last night bombs fell in the tiny hamlet and several more houses collapsed.”
My mother gives a heavy sigh. Thái is worried:
“Is anyone wounded?”
“No, fortunately, everybody was in the shelter. Last night I thought we all were in danger.”
And without waiting for anyone’s further input, Bé, his wife, and several young children lead each other to Phú Lương, carrying poles on their shoulders and supporting each other. My mother sees that the situation is extremely difficult; half of her wants to leave, but half does not. My mother is still awaiting news from Nam Giao and Từ Đàm. But any bit of news that we get only makes us more desperate.
In the previous days, Hue residents died because of artillery, because of bombs and airplanes, because of public denunciations and informers. We are in An Cựu, which is considered a suburb bordering Hue; those who flee the fighting here flee because of the fear of being caught by the Việt Cộng or of being directly hit and dying innocently. But this time the fighting has been so violent that it has spread everywhere, out to the very extremities of the city. The Nationalist Army has managed to reoccupy a few places, and there the flags of the liberation [the Communist forces] have been taken down. At Trường Bia military post, soldiers have been seen moving in and out, but the Transportation Station is still abandoned. By day, An Cựu Bridge is guarded and repaired by Americans. First they must finish rebuilding several bridges, and only then will the army dispatch troops to the city’s side of the river. On the right bank there are only a few quiet and safe areas. News comes from the Citadel that they [the Communist forces] still occupy Trần Hưng Đạo Street. Their army still occupies Nam Giao, Bến Ngự, and Từ Đàm.
We have returned to the city just as the Nationalist side is trying to reclaim every inch of ground; it turns out to be quite a dangerous game. But to flee, leaving half of our family stranded at Từ Đàm? Deep in our hearts, no one really wants that either.
At the moment, we stay in An Cựu, a piece of land that is in relatively little danger while the city of Hue has fallen in bullets and flowing blood. And from a person who escapes back here from the city, we learn terrifying news from the other side of the Perfume River.
Here’s how we encountered this person.
One morning, Thái sees a column of vehicles coming up approaching the bridge and turning up toward Phú Cam; then many units of paratroopers and army Special Forces march up from Phú Bài. A moment later, he sees Americans coming to repair An Cựu Bridge. Thái shouts to me to come outside:
“Many people now go back and forth, elder sister.”
My mother admonishes:
“Listen, both of you, don’t go outside. When our army comes up, then soon there will be a big fight.”
It turns out exactly as my mother predicts. In only about half an hour after the units of soldiers passed through, sounds of big and small guns emerge up in the areas of Phú Cam and Bến Ngự. And a number of residents, supporting each other, flee from the fighting to An Cựu, then proceed down to Phù Lương. They tell us:
“They are now fighting each other big time.”
My mother hollers at me to crawl back into the shelter. But at noon we remember that there is nothing to eat in the house except for a little bit of rice.
“I hear that down at Mù U they sell pork. Down there it’s quiet; it belongs to the Nationalists.”
My mother falls silent. Thái says:
“Let me and Vân go to buy some meat. The battle is up in Bến Ngự; don’t worry, auntie.”
I also want to go outside to check what the situation is, so I must pitch in to help Thái:
“I and he, we’ll run really fast and will be back in a minute, Mother.”
My mother gives a heavy sigh:
“Yes, but listen, go fast.”
I crawl after Thái from the shelter. My mother advises: “Listen, child, go but avoid shells.”
My mother’s words make me both feel love and feel like laughing. How is it possible to avoid shells? But I politely say, “Yes, Mother,” for the peace of my mother’s heart. I and Thái don’t go down to Mù U but, encouraging each other, go straight to An Cựu Bridge.
In fact, together we become bold. There are no people walking outside but American and Vietnamese soldiers who scurry up and down, moving units about.
They are not inclined to pay any attention to us. We go out to An Cựu Bridge and see that the American engineers are about to finish rebuilding it. We don’t dare to take the main road but take a circuitous route, following a small road behind the fields to go back home. A lot of bomb craters broke open underground shelters that are filled with rainwater, making pools. Cutting across an abandoned garden area, we hear a noise behind a clump of bamboo.
Thái pulls me:
“Go fast, elder sister.”
I inquisitively turn my head back to see through the sparse sprigs of the bamboo trees and see graves with earth hastily heaped on top of them where someone attached the victims’ identification cards. Next to them is a foxhole with the body of a North Vietnamese soldier lying half in the foxhole and half out; I don’t know whether he’s wounded or dead. Nearby is a bomb crater and dried tree branches and pieces of bamboo that fell down, broken into small pieces. Through several desolate yards and gardens, we come to a small plot of land that is abandoned and collecting water. I don’t know the road, so I continue to follow Thái. We hear the sound of an approaching airplane and Thái pulls me to duck down, pressing me into the road, waiting until the plane disappears, then we get up and cast about for the road back home. When I get up, I suddenly hear someone groaning. When I pause, Thái pulls me by the hand: “Go, elder sister.” Thái says in a low voice:
“They’re wounded; if we’re not careful here, they will shoot us. It was such a stupid mistake to take this shortcut.”
Thái firmly holds my hand and drags me behind him. But moaning sounds become clearer by the minute, imploring more and more persistently: “Help me please. Help me please. Help me please.” I cannot make myself ignore it. Clearly this is the voice of a person about to die. I look around and suddenly realize that this is a youth lying face-down beside a shallow hole, which looks as though people dug it, then left it half-done, or as though a delayed explosive device created it. The young man is clad in a gray coat, covered all over with blood. Thái looks at him and knows that he is not a liberator. I pull Thái to get closer:
“No doubt it’s a student from high school or college.”
We stand next to him. As though sensing the sound of people’s feet, the youth raises his face covered all over with earth; a streak of blood trickles from the corner of his mouth. The youth hugs his chest and wants to go down headfirst. In a jiffy, Thái jumps down into the hole to help him up. The young man groans:
“I am dying.”
“Where did you come from?”
Thái bends close to his ear. The youth tries to raise his hand to point forward to gardens and trees. I don’t understand. Thái asks:
“Are you escaping from the city?”
The youth nods.
Right at this moment we hear airplanes approaching. This time it seems that there are several of them and that they hover right over our heads. The youth makes a sign to us that we must run away and lets us know that the Việt Cộng are still hiding in many yards and gardens here. Thái raises his hand to signal me to go ahead and then helps the youth get up. The airplanes sound as though they will soon land on our heads. Thái shouts loudly:
“Run into the house right in front.”
I run straight into an open gateway and Thái follows on my heels. We take several strides across a veranda and enter the house. The house is abandoned; there is a shelter made of sand, but as soon as Thái looks inside, he cups his mouth in his hand and pulls back:
“There is a dead person.”
I decide to run out, but there have been gun explosions outside. A round is fired down from an airplane. Rockets sound as though they are falling right on our heads. Thái makes up his mind and pulls me to run down to the kitchen where there is a water tank; Thái leans the youth against the water tank, then pulls me down to the ground.
“Don’t lift your head. Shells are flying over there.”
I lie pressing myself into the ground, holding my head in my arms. Thái is more self-possessed; he tears his shirt into pieces and cleans the youth’s wounds and dresses them. The young man is less afraid and more clear-headed now. He lets us know that his name is Khâm and he is from the Citadel. He managed to escape by disguising himself as a woman; he fled following a group of people who rushed through the Citadel gate; he scraped together all his money to bring along to hire a boat to cross the river. He opens wide his coat; the inside flaps of his blue flowing tunic are completely red with blood. A headscarf covering his head had fallen off and was lost some time before.
Airplanes still soar overhead and circle, even though the sound of firing from the ground at them is like rain, and each circle the airplanes make elicits round after round of rockets, thick and furious. Our hearts beat very fast. Certainly my mother at home is now extremely worried; based on my sense of direction, I guess that in the area of my house there is no trouble; this side is too close to Phú Cam. Lying here, I feel extremely uncertain; a direct hit can come at any moment. I think about the shelter up in the house. Thái said that there is a dead person there. I ask Thái inquisitively:
“What is it that you saw in the shelter, younger brother?”
“There’s a dead person there. Very scary. I looked inside and there was a person lying with his face turned upward, his legs and arms dried and twisted; his eyes seemed to still be open and looking up to the shelter opening. Next to him were puddles of coagulated blood, and I saw several mice, busybodies, running back and forth, some of them holding in their mouths fingertips and toe tips from the dead body.”
I shudder and want to escape from this house at once. But now the outside abounds in danger. Gunfire from down on the ground gradually diminishes, then fades farther away. It seems that they [the Communist forces] left their foxholes to escape when they heard the sounds of the airplanes circling back. And when the airplanes do turn around and come back, we don’t hear return fire anymore from the ground around the place where we hide. Khâm looks more alert and rests his back against the side of the water tank. Thái takes a small can, fills it with water from the tank, and gives it to Khâm to get a sip. He has lost a lot of blood, his face is pale green, and his eyes are deeply sunken, betraying many sleepless nights. Although there is no sound of firing from the ground anymore, the airplanes still hover and circle over our heads, and we know that we still cannot escape from this house. Khâm says, his voice feeble:
“Several days ago, my main fear was to be arrested by liberators and executed or to die from bombs. But now, suddenly I am not afraid of anything. Everything has been destroyed.”
And Khâm begins to tell us about his escape. A story of the people stranded on the other side of the Perfume River.
1. The Self-Defense Forces was one of the groups of militia, a part of the South Vietnam Popular Force that fought against the Communists.
2. Goddess of compassion in Buddhism.
3. A school for girls established in 1917.
4. A school for boys established in 1896 and the first secondary school in Vietnam in which many intellectuals and political leaders were educated, including not only southern leaders like Ngô Đình Diệm but also Hồ Chí Minh and other leaders of the Communist North.
5. According to the author, Nationalist soldiers cautiously restrained themselves from aimlessly firing their weapons. Very seldom did they shoot randomly because the Communists often mixed in with ordinary people, turning the latter into targets.
6. According to Vietnamese classical literary tradition, especially widespread among educated people, when one person writes a sentence, another responds not only in accordance with the content of the first sentence but also paralleling the grammatical and phonetic structure of the first one. For Tết, every household usually composed a pair of parallel sentences on red paper to be hung in a place of honor, usually on both sides of the entrance door of the ancestral altar.
7. Sweet-smelling wood.