Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 7. Story from the Citadel
I Don’t understand how, Thanks to what miraculous trick, our house remained intact.
We live in a narrow, crowded shelter dug deep underground; sandbags are piled up over the shelter opening and around it. We have been living like this for ten-odd days.
What’s the story? Ah, the first several days. The first several days there is no panic at all. As in other areas, the night of the first day of Tết we lie down, pressing ourselves close to the ground, crawling all the way under the beds because of gunfire everywhere. In the morning the Việt Cộng fill the house and the garden. They walk outside; there are so many of them that they seem to be everywhere. Uniforms? No. They wear all kinds of clothes. There is a small group wearing khaki, as expected, but a large number of them are clad in shorts. What is special – everybody wears colored bands on their arms or scarves around their necks.
So, what has happened? Has Hue already been lost?
We look at each other questioningly; we want to run across to our neighbors to ask them about any news, but that is impossible now. People stay put in their houses. And they [the Communist forces] issue an order that each household must dig its own underground shelter and begin to learn how to withstand hardships for the sake of victory. “We have already occupied Hue. There is still fighting in other places, and we expect to take over the entire country, which will mean victory.” This is what the Liberation Army said.
The first several days are very joyful. They fix food, eat, and drink in our house. On top of this are rumors that they will organize a celebration. Then they bring from somewhere a lot of jam and cakes, mostly bánh tét, and they eat their fill. They eat as if they had never been able to eat like that before.
The first day I am very afraid; moreover, my family is very afraid for me. I’m the only male child in the family; if something happens to me, my mother will certainly not be able to bear it. But the first several days are going peacefully. I am still able to hear them [members of the Communist forces] talking. They tell funny stories. My younger sister Hường asks everything about the North; they say that in the North there is plenty of everything. But a lot of northern cadres and soldiers look very surprised when they see young Hue girls and women wearing tight-fitting pants and floral blouses. I hear them chat with each other:
“Girls here are so beautiful, and the style of their clothes does not leave anything more to desire.”
Several female [Communist] cadres openly hate this. That’s why on the second day young girls and women of Hue living in the Citadel1 learn not to favor their local dressing style and immediately change their outfits. It’s smooth sailing during the first several days; only occasionally do we hear gunfire exploding far away, really far away, either on the right bank or on the left, but in any case close to the suburbs, so no one here pays any attention to it.
Several female cadres take out the motorbikes and bicycles of those locals who ran away. They plan to practice riding them. A lot of families at dawn of the first day fled to Gia Hội. At first we thought they were insane to leave. Their houses are abandoned, and some female cadres rummaged through them to their hearts’ content. What the cadres like the most are bicycles and Honda motorbikes. Seeing female cadres roll the legs of their trousers up to their thighs in order to practice riding bikes, we are almost incapable of suppressing laughter. But, funny as it is, no one dares to smile, for we are very worried about the future. We don’t know what will happen next. Some Việt Cộng soldiers look optimistic. “The victory will be won all over the country; don’t worry, compatriots.” That’s how they report news. And inside the Citadel we are surprised to see that they pour into the city quite easily; I don’t see anything at all that looks like fighting or spilled blood. Of course, I don’t venture out of the house. Right from daybreak of the second day, my mother has the door closed tight, and we are able to look outside only through tiny gaps in the walls or doors.
But even though it’s only a very small slit, I still can see that there are a lot of people moving around outside. All the Việt Cộng soldiers wear blue or white bands on their sleeves.
The atmosphere on the streets changes very suddenly, with a lot of people of Hue with worried faces hiding behind doors while Communists and their supporters come out with smiling faces, glowing with extreme happiness. Teacher Kê, a middle-aged man who left for the North to regroup more than fifteen years ago, has suddenly reappeared. He has a wife who every day goes to sell tea and a son around seventeen or eighteen years old. The appearance of teacher Kê makes everyone worry. Trembling, my mother says:
“That’s it – it’s the end. That man has come back; he knows everybody in the area, so beware, he will be arresting people at will.”
Even though we are worried like this, teacher Kê’s personality doesn’t panic us as much as do the two houses right at the beginning of Nguyễn Hiệu Road that suddenly bustle with Việt Cộng cadres and soldiers going in and coming out in great numbers. People spread rumors that two female students living there are undercover cadres. The two of them live in the houses at the beginning of the street; some people saw them wearing Western clothes, blouses, and conical hats perched on their heads. They go back and forth in the street carrying Czech-type guns on their backs. I don’t know the names of these young women, but people tell me that the two used to be students in Saigon. I try to guess a couple of names among the circle of my old friends and acquaintances, but nothing definite comes to mind.
Also at Nguyễn Hiệu Road, a joss-paper maker who previously left with the Việt Cộng has just returned as an undercover cadre. His appearance is the most troubling for people. He lived here for a long time and somehow distinguishes himself by informing on a number of ordinary people. Worried, my mother asks me whether I did anything to make this man feel enmity and hatred toward me. I think about it over and over again, but I can’t remember anything of this sort; however, I still can’t put my mind at peace. For the next several days, I don’t dare go outside. When my mother sees my face emerge to look through the slit in the door, she drags me back into the room and tightly closes the door.
But after several days, I still don’t see anything unusual happening outside with the exception of the Việt Cộng soldiers entering each house to seize people and force them to go to study. My mother again hides me up in the loft. My younger sister Hường must go to study. When she comes back, she informs us that study sessions are organized in teacher Kê’s house. I ask her what they study; she says people [the Communists] require young girls and women to join a service – propaganda, first aid, or supply. I ask her what service she picked, but she only laughs and shakes her head:
“I trembled to death. Ah, I have met …”
When I ask whom she met, she falls silent and her face reveals fear. I keep inquiring several more times, but she does not dare to respond. But she lets me know that lots of young people and students are forced to go study.
That entire day I can’t eat; I feel that my throat is dry and bitter. It seems like I am about to get the flu. My younger sister’s ambiguous words make me feel disturbed. That evening I leave the loft and come down to lie on the ground, and I ask her again. This time her voice trembles as though on the brink of tears:
“I met this young woman Đoan, the Đoan who lives at the beginning of our road over there, elder brother.”
“Aren’t there two of them?”
“Yes, Đoan and Kim; they live in the two houses across from each other over there.”
“Did she recognize you?”
“She did. She asked where you were that you didn’t come to study, elder brother. I said that you returned to the countryside on the twenty-eighth before Tết. She laughed and said that she met you when you were going out of Đông Ba Gate with your friends Hạo and Toàn on the first day of Tết.”
“Then what did you answer?”
“I fell silent.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“She did. She advised me that I must join the Alliance Front, Peace Front, or something else like that. I kept silent. She told me to help her. She promised she would see me again later.”
“Did you see teacher Đóa going to the meeting?”
“I didn’t see teacher Đóa anywhere at all.”
“And teacher Kê has come back, hasn’t he?”
“Teacher Kê has delivered a very fiery public speech. I was awfully afraid; I didn’t hear a word, but even if I had I wouldn’t have understood anything. Now, elder brother, he came back, after regrouping to the North, with a long beard down to his chest; just to look at it is scary. Oh, elder brother, I also saw someone looking like Đắc.”2
I shout in amazement: “Enough, that’s the end; Đắc has returned.” But I don’t believe that Đắc could become a Communist. In the past, he and I were members of the Struggle Movement.3 Đắc was always confident that he could not accept Communism. Then, sometime later, because he was placed under surveillance and caught in a roundup, he fled.
Some people said that Đắc had fled with Đoan and Ngọc.4 If Đắc has returned, surely Ngọc and his brother Phủ5 have also returned. I am secretly worried and afraid. In the past Phủ had a sweetheart who lived here in the Citadel; soon after Phủ left, she had a sudden change of heart and followed another person. In addition to being miserably unhappy because he had to flee, Phủ at the same time also lost the one he loved. Now, if he has returned, Phủ definitely will feel utterly wretched and extremely resentful. Just think what will happen.
I keep questioning my younger sister very closely: “Did you see Phủ or not?” “Did anyone see Phủ?” She is certain that she did not, and even her friends who went to the meetings also said that they did not see him. I feel a tiny bit more at peace and secretly glad for his ex-girlfriend. If Phủ has returned, add in another feeling of hatred here – his beloved who changed her heart certainly won’t escape tragic consequences. But my younger sister forces a laugh:
“Elder brother, you think that Phủ only now learned about this [his former girlfriend]? I believe that Phủ bears no resentment. But neither Phủ nor Ngọc is here in the Citadel.”
I can’t get rid of sadness and feel on the verge of tears when I remember my old friends. Though Đắc, Ngọc, and Phủ left, though they followed some other ideals, though they were hostile toward me, I have still kept good memories about them. I am confident in myself; I am confident in my friends. Earlier, Đắc was driven to the end of his rope; he had to escape and follow the other side. Đắc’s presence doesn’t make me worry or afraid anymore, but it makes me think of him. I suddenly feel a little bit calmer and safer. In my gut, I decide that I must meet Đắc. I don’t believe anything can harm our friendship. Today or tomorrow, whatever happens, I will still have an opportunity to meet Đắc again. I must meet him. I ask my younger sister:
“Did you talk with Đắc?”
“I saw a person who looked like Đắc, that’s it, but I didn’t dare to take another look at him. That guy was wearing a blue armband and also had a gun.”
“But how did he look to you?”
“He had a contemplative look, not lofty like some other undercover cadres. You know, elder brother, our hamlet is full of undercover cadres, but you don’t know anything about it.”
I keep asking:
“So, what kind of study do they organize?”
“Elder brother, you could hear the entire conversation while lying here in the loft in the morning. They came to the house and invited us to go to a meeting. I decided to dodge, but Đoan, she stood at the head of the lane and immediately called me by name, so I had to go. They said to go to the meeting, but they additionally forced us to study. Then they delivered a public speech with their propaganda about the victory.”
“What did they propagandize about? I feel sick.”
“They said that the victory, taking over Hue, is possible thanks to the contributions of the people. So, children are to go back home to find pieces of bamboo and short pieces of sticks covered with black lacquer, and whenever they hear sounds of American and their puppets’ airplanes coming, they are to bring them out and aim them up to the sky so that the Americans and their puppets will think that those are guns, and they will be frightened to death by the spirit of the people of Hue against imperialists and their lackeys. They also said: ‘Compatriots, don’t let even a single American or a puppet or a Vietnamese malefactor hide in your house. If you encounter any such case, you must immediately report it to the Liberators.’”
I am terrified:
“Is it really true that they excite children to make fake guns out of lacquered bamboo pieces?”
“I clearly heard this. They still propagandize a lot. Listen, elder brother, before the meeting, the Liberators continually recite slogans, then the seven tasks of a party member, then the words of Uncle Hồ; I remember it like this: ‘Be loyal to the party, be dutiful to the people, complete any task, overcome all hardships, gain victory over every enemy …’ They shouted loudly many times, and I’ve memorized everything by heart.”
I burst into angry words:
“Damn them! Why must I learn and listen to slogans of loyalty to the uncle and the party?”
These are soldiers from North Vietnam who came to the South; they learned these slogans by rote, but no doubt there are also people among them who don’t understand why they must be loyal to Uncle Hồ and the party and why they must die.
But this propaganda talk had harmful consequences. Later on, when battles broke out, it was not possible to understand whether they happened because of guns firing from foxholes or because of the sticks of small children who were forced to bring them out and aim them up at the sky, and airplanes would fire down at them thick and fast.
I cannot sleep that night. The next morning I have to climb up to the loft and lie there. My younger sister still runs across to the neighbors to check on the news, but I don’t dare show my face down in the house, not to mention go outside. I’m afraid they will recognize me, especially the joss-paper maker, who has been with the Việt Cộng for a long time and now has returned to be an undercover cadre. He doesn’t favor students like myself. Then there is still teacher Kê’s family, including the lad of seventeen or eighteen years old or something like that, who seldom openly talked with me. My younger sister lied that I am stranded out in the countryside, and I am afraid that she will bring misfortune on herself because of my presence.
That morning, in front of my house and back in the garden I hear sounds of someone digging in the ground. Then, a moment later someone bursts into an uproar. I hold my breath, lie quietly, and listen intently. I hear the voice of an old man with a northern accent from Quảng Bình province,6 and it seems that he is talking with my mother:
“Liberation Mother, you must allow us to dig an underground shelter. We still face a lot of hardships. The armies of Americans and their puppets can bring airplanes over here to drop bombs to kill people. But it doesn’t matter, for they will suffer a heavy defeat.”
Sounds of footsteps accelerate around the house. My mother’s voice implores:
“Yes, please kind sir, my family is small, their father passed away a long time ago, we are a widow mother and orphan children … Yes, sir, help yourself to bánh tét … Yes, please sir, here are some more rice cakes left after worshipping rituals …”
“In the North our people celebrate Tết very joyfully.”
“This year, Uncle Hồ comes to celebrate Tết here with us. We are very happy to meet with mothers and sisters here in the South.”
“Yes, kind sir.”
“Oh, I forgot, for how much per bag do American puppets sell rice?”
“Yes, please sir. Two hundred kilograms is several thousand dongs, some for three thousand dongs, and some for two thousand dongs.”
“American puppets sell at outrageous prices; they drink the people’s blood. Wait until the liberation is complete, and then rice will be sold for only five hundred per two hundred kilograms.”
“Do you have anyone in your family, Mother, to help you dig shelters?”
“Yes sir, myself and my child can dig it. Besides me and my young child, there are other helpers, like this ten-year-old boy, and several nephews. My aunt and grandmother also help. Please sir, I would not dare to bother you.”
I hear feet moving toward the altar. I guess that these are my mother’s quick steps as though she wants to prevent something:
“Please sir, the altar has been set up now for several days.”
I hear a man’s ringing laughter:
“Nothing, Mother; sure, continue to worship.”
“Please sir, to worship … but during the last several days who has a heart for worship? On the first day of Tết, I thought we were dead, but thanks to our ancestors we survived … Please, sir, in there is nothing at all. Please, sir, here are cakes, bánh tét. Yes, please sirs, help yourselves to them, sirs … oh, please, help yourselves to them … comrades.”
“Thank you, Mother. People of the South are very good to the liberation. We will record our gratitude to you to the best of our ability, Liberation Mother …”
I hear footsteps going out of the house and then gradually moving away. Having waited for a moment, I stick my head down. Pieces of cardboard covering the entrance to the loft have just been lifted; I see my mother’s face looking up, her hands clasped together in front of her chest:
“I beg you, God, God on high, help me. They’ve just grabbed all the cakes.”
I am afraid that my mother will worry, and I quickly pull my head back up and put back the pieces of cardboard. Throughout that day, I lie prostrate in the loft. I wait for whenever my younger sister, very quietly, will bring up food for me or pour me a cup of cold water.
Several days later a few of them [Communist soldiers] come into the house; perhaps they don’t have suspicions about our family anymore. My younger sister still has to go to the meetings, to go study. She comes back and brings me an update:
“It is indeed Đắc himself.”
“Did he recognize you?”
“He did. He laughed and said: ‘Hường, is Khâm here?’ And then he gave a neighing loud laugh. I remember how in the past Đắc often patted my head.”
“So, were you afraid?”
“No, Đắc is very kind, elder brother. He asked about you; then he asked about our mother. He said that when he has free time he would come to visit Mother.”
“Oh heavens, did you reveal that I’m hiding in the house?”
“I am not a fool. Nor was Đắc very hard on me while inquiring. He only asked: ‘Did something happen to Khâm?’ I said: ‘Please sir, nothing.’ Then I remembered and said immediately: ‘Because he got stranded somewhere out in the countryside.’ Đắc asked whether it’s in Bao Vinh. I nodded my head and he got a bit angry. He also looked worried and afraid for you, elder brother.”
I feel moved and secretly ashamed. So, it turns out that Đắc is still my friend. Đắc has never changed toward me. So, why did Đắc return? With what task did he return? My heart languishes more and more in my desire to see Đắc. I open up to Hường about my desire to participate in a meeting. Hường says:
“It’s impossible. Đắc is kind, but some other people are very cruel. They say brutal things, and it’s very easy to get scared.”
Then Hường whispers in my ear:
“Now, elder brother. When cutting across a T-junction I saw someone looking like Mậu Tý, who was also in the Struggle Movement. He carried clothes in his arms as though he wanted to flee down to Mai Thúc Loan Road.”
“Wow, that Mậu Tý guy. He dares to flee, does he?”
“I don’t know, elder brother. But I also saw that he wore a white band on his arm. Perhaps he is also with the Việt Cộng now.”
“This man is very daring. He’s the one who can do anything.”
I feel vexed. But at the same time I am also afraid. If he is with the liberation, he will have the guts to find and arrest me or will report me. I tell Hường:
“Little sister, don’t let him see you or he will start asking you in a roundabout way and will figure it out.”
I am afraid he will see my younger sister and then will remember about me. Perhaps because of how busy he must be, he has forgotten about me, but meeting someone related to me can remind him of me. Ordinarily I am not fond of him or of our time together in the Struggle Movement; many times I talked with friends:
“That Mậu Tý guy is not trustworthy. But he dares to be in the volunteer suicide team – how many people has he deceived?”
Seeing my contemplative look, Hường quickly says:
“If I see Mậu Tý, I will escape at once; I am afraid to death.”
“Why would a girl like you be afraid of him?”
“I’m afraid he will arrest me. I saw that guy snatch some of my friends with whom I go to the meetings.”
I laugh, trying to calm the girl down.
“Never mind him; we don’t have anything to be afraid of.”
“Elder brother, you don’t know this, but Mr. Ích Khiêm from down the road, they have already arrested him. Government officials, army people – all of them have been arrested. Especially those who worked in American offices.”
“We don’t work in American offices, do we? So, there’s nothing to be afraid of. We are not government officials, either.”
“Down there a lot of people have been arrested. Many didn’t do anything either but still were arrested.”
Exactly like my younger sister predicted, throughout the next day, all young males, government officials, and military men are arrested in my neighborhood. A few people who try to escape are caught on the spot. Our family finishes building a rather solid shelter from sandbags and pieces of board from the precious wooden plank bed that has been in the family for several generations.
So during the day I continue to hide in the loft of the house, and only at night do I dare to come down to sleep in the shelter. I begin to feel dispirited and exhausted. At that time, everybody is dismayed because artillery shells are being lobbed into our area. Lying prone, I press my ear to the ground and hear constant murmurs as though tanks are moving somewhere outside of the Citadel. A couple of times I vaguely hear the sound of airplanes.
A few houses are directly hit by artillery fire. People say that direct artillery hits fall mostly on the city walls. People also say that the flag at Phu Văn Lâu has been lowered and instead a liberation flag is hanging there now. But when artillery fire hits the Citadel, everybody panics. Add to this the harsh arrests by the Việt Cộng, which make the atmosphere even more terrifying.
One day, I’m lying in the shelter chewing on some pieces of dry bread and hear at the beginning of the alley sounds of feet in hot pursuit. A voice shouts:
I hear sounds of feet running in circles back in our garden, the sounds of stomping feet chasing someone; there seems to be a lot of people in a hurry. An explosion and a scream – I tightly cover my ears. My mother holds Hường fast in her arms, and several small siblings of mine lie flattening themselves against the shelter floor; a child hugs my mother’s legs and another one hugs Hường’s legs with his mouth distorted by the desire to cry.
A moment later, the sounds of feet from the garden enter the courtyard. I hear the sound of an uproar:
“Because he attempted to flee. He’s certainly a military lackey of the Americans and their puppets.”
“Is he completely dead or not quite yet?”
“Not yet, but he will die later. But is it true that he worked for Americans?”
“He worked for Americans, indeed. I often saw him with tons of dollars.”
“That’s correct then.”
“If not for me, he would have escaped. In this hamlet, when anyone flees, even if into the sky, I will still know. Their [those who work for the South Vietnamese government] gangs must pay the debt by blood, mustn’t they, dear comrade group commander?”
“You’re very active, comrade.”
I hear the familiar voice of the informer. It seems that this person is everywhere in the hamlet. Hường also decides to raise her voice, and my mother gets a bit vexed:
“Be silent; if he hears you, he will come in.”
We keep silent. But then we hear that someone is pushing the door, and then feet enter the house:
“Is there anyone at home? Please come up here for a short chat.”
My mother hastens to creep out. Then Hường also creeps out.
“Back in the garden, there’s a person who has just been shot. We’ll have people come here to carry him away and bury him. We want to again advise you not to shelter anyone from the gangs of Americans and their puppets. Please, auntie, help us – that is, help the party; help the country to get independence.”
My mother immediately responds with polite “Yes, sirs.” Some other voice speaks:
“In this house there are only a few people: the woman and children, that’s it.”
“That’s why we have just advised them because if they [the Americans and their “puppets”] enter, they will kill the entire family, and we will not be able to save them.”
Hường innocently asks:
“Please sirs, dear elder brothers, whom did you just shoot over there?”
The familiar voice of the official informer responds:
“That guy Minh.7 Before the liberation, he was the one who showed off his power the most in this hamlet, isn’t that right? Please, young lady, identify him here for our brother comrades.”
I hear Hường’s very soft and subordinately polite “Yes, sir.” Then, the voice of the informer asking:
“This lad Khâm, where is he? Not at home?”
My heart beats fast. That’s it, it’s the end; he has remembered me. My guess is not mistaken – this is indeed the person who makes noodles in the hamlet. Usually, he only stays in his house grinding flour to make noodles and then his wife takes them to sell to fellow traders, wholesale and retail. He also talks very little with anybody. Hường attempts to keep her voice calm:
“Please sir, my elder brother is stranded down at Bao Vinh. That day they went there to congratulate our uncle, then didn’t have time to come up back here when everything happened …”
“If he’s down there, stop worrying; that place now completely belongs to the Liberation Army and to the people.”
Hường smartly adds for form’s sake:
“Yes, sir, and here also now belongs to the liberation.”
“Yet in just this short period of time, our division has still not finished liquidating the enemy. But now they will all die of starvation. Soon we will get more reinforcements from Quảng Trị8 to complete the takeover, and from the North will also come more reinforcements, so nothing to worry about.”
He continues to stand there blabbing and singing verbose praises, and then he leaves together with his comrades.
I sigh, relieved, thinking that I have luckily just escaped death. My younger sister sneaks down to the shelter and tells me in a low voice:
“That’s the noodle-seller guy from the hamlet, elder brother. He was as slippery as an eel; who would suspect him?”
“So, did he shoot anybody?”
“Mr. Minh. He’s now dead.”
“Who did he come with?”
“With several Việt Cộng, who else? When he was talking, I saw Đoan and Kim walking outside.”
“Did they see you?”
“They did, and they waved ‘Hi’ to me.”
“Have you stopped being afraid?”
“Not at all. At yesterday’s meeting I met them and both were as slick as shit; they greeted me and didn’t ask anything. Here, elder brother, today it seems they are scouring and conducting arrests very fiercely. Be a bit more careful, elder brother.”
“People have their own fates, younger sister.”
“To meet Đắc is certainly out of the question now, elder brother, isn’t it?”
I exhale without any confidence:
“I don’t even know for sure.”
My mother has come back:
“Mr. Bèo, the one who sells noodles, he’s a Việt Cộng.”
“When I heard him, I also guessed it.”
“Fortunately, there’s no bad blood between him and our family.”
“No bad blood, but he owes us, doesn’t he, Mother? The day his hag of a wife gave birth, he came to borrow money from you, Mother, several hundreds. The day before Tết, you, Mother, sent me to go request that it be returned, and luckily I forgot, so it didn’t make us enemies.”
Just at this moment we hear a woman in a nearby house shouting and crying. My mother signals for us to be quiet, then strains her ears to listen:
“Mr. Bình’s house.”
“It’s Mrs. Bình screaming there, and certainly someone else has entered her house.”
Hường tightly holds my hand:
“It seems they [the Communists] are arresting people.”
Sounds of screaming and crying from the nearby house become louder by the minute:
“Pray you, sirs, my husband is innocent, and my child goes to study.”
A man’s voice is unruffled:
“It doesn’t have anything to do with that, Mother. Please, you and your son, come with us to a meeting, and then you’ll come back. Go to the meeting, then come back, Mother, put your mind at peace. We came here to liberate Hue; we ask for the help of the people of Hue.”
The shouting and crying gradually weaken. A moment later there is the sound of someone banging on the door. Hường opens the door and Tịnh, Mrs. Bình’s son, comes in, his face deathly pale:
“They have just now arrested my elder brother Định. My father has also been arrested.”
My mother asks:
“What do you think to do now?”
“My mother said I must run over here to ask you, auntie, to shelter me. There, they will come back anyway to arrest me.”
My mother gives a long and heavy sigh:
“Enough! Go down to the shelter.”
Tịnh brings me a lot of very strange news. Now, outside the city gates there are many dead Việt Cộng because of the direct hits by artillery and bombs. And one can hear outside of Gia Hội School public denunciations; it gives me the creeps. And some people suspected of working for Americans are executed; their bodies are buried in the garden area down the road. I ask why they took away Mrs. Bình, Tịnh’s mother, from the house nearby, even though she’s quite old. Tịnh tells me that when they entered the house, Mr. Bèo, the noodle maker from the hamlet, accompanied them. He said something in a low voice, and then several liberators immediately invited her to leave with them. At that moment Tịnh escaped down to the kitchen; surely Mr. Bèo forgot about Tịnh and didn’t inform on him.
My mother says:
“Fortunately, there’s no bad blood between us.”
“It seems that there’s enmity between him and my family. Before Tết, the guy came to borrow some money, but my mother did not give him anything. He had borrowed several times before but didn’t pay back. On top of that, when the guy is drunk he curses profusely; my elder brother Định used to speak his mind about this, and clearly this noodle maker hates him so now he harms him.”
Tịnh intently listens to the sad crying still heard from the outside and grimaces with an apprehensive expression:
“My mother begged him, but I was just burning with anger. I wish I had a rifle; I would shoot a round then and there and let it be, whatever comes, even if death.”
I comfort him:
“Surely there is no guilt of anything; your mom is already very old. They force her to go and then they will let her return home, and there is nothing to worry about.”
“Yes, please sir, may you be correct.”
“There is a rumor that down in the hamlet there’s a house directly hit by a bomb; is that right?”
“It seems like that. Just now in my house Mr. Bèo threatened that any house conniving with Americans and their puppets will be the easiest target for bombs because they will suspect that the Việt Cộng have occupied those houses.”
“They are just talking bullshit.”
My mother moans. At night artillery shells do not reach the area I live in, but from time to time there are shells that go astray, hitting some gardens, making roofs fly off, making houses shake. Outside, the number of Việt Cộng soldiers going back and forth has decreased. They pull into solid shelters to hide from danger. Guards on the street also dig individual foxholes for themselves.
From that day on, my younger sister continues to be invited to go to meetings and study sessions, and then she manages to be set free to come back. Each time I inquire about Đắc. One day she says that she saw him. Another day she says she didn’t. But suddenly one day I hear Đắc’s voice.
That day, when the entire family is eating down in the shelter, someone knocks on the door. My mother quickly tells us to squeeze into the end of the sand shelter and then she climbs up to open the door. It seems that there is only one person there, and my mother greets him; her voice is slightly happy:
“Wow, it’s you, young man, isn’t it? When did you come back?”
In a flutter of excitement I wait to hear the answering voice.
“Please madam, I’ve come back with my comrades into the Citadel.”
I don’t hear my mother asking anything else. A moment of silence, then the young voice asks:
“Auntie, surely you’ve dug a shelter, haven’t you? You must get ready for a long resistance, auntie. The situation seems to be wearisome.”
“God, auntie, the way you talk to me, you make me feel very weird. I am still the same guy, Đắc, who I was in the past, auntie. Oh, where’s Khâm?”
My mother pretends to sob softly:
“Oh, it’s a disaster, elder brother. He has been gone since the first day of Tết; he went back to the countryside at Bao Vinh and then there has been no news from him anymore. I am so very worried, afraid that he, as hot-tempered as he is, was coming back up here but was arrested somewhere along the road. He’s my only son; you know this, elder brother: if his fate led to his death, I will not be able to bear it …”
It’s Đắc, for sure. I want to climb up from the shelter to meet my friend. But Hường has tightly clasped her hands on me:
“Don’t, elder brother, are you out of your mind?”
“Don’t worry, auntie. Those who are guilty must pay for their sins. Khâm and I are still friends …”
“I know that you are fond of him, but there, on the roads, he will not encounter you but someone else …”
Đắc seems to think about this for a moment and then says in a less confident voice:
“Death indeed is a fate, auntie. If I had been destined to die, I would have been dead a long time ago. Auntie, don’t call me ‘elder brother’; it makes me very sad because I’m still a child for you. Oh auntie, I hear Tịnh has come here, hasn’t he, auntie?”
I get angry; Tịnh is lying next to me and shivers from head to toe. Fortunately, my mother answers on his behalf:
“He has been here and has already left. He went to a meeting and then was going to go back somewhere.”
“Huh, so who could it be that detained him? All right – let me ask around and then I will let him out to go back. I’ve just met Định, Tịnh’s elder brother. Định must go to study; otherwise no doubt he will be taken to Gia Hội or down to the mulberry field.”
“Why so far?”
Đắc doesn’t respond to my mother but asks instead:
“Where’s Hường, auntie?”
My mother doesn’t dare to hide the truth:
“She’s been so afraid the entire day, she has crawled into the shelter or under the bed; this child, she’s afraid of sudden gunfire.”
“Auntie, call Hường up here. I won’t scare anyone.”
“Hey, Hường. Đắc has come to visit.”
Afraid that Đắc would come down to the shelter, Hường quickly crawls up from the shelter opening. I hear Đắc’s voice laughing loudly:
“Hường, it looks like you think that when I went up to the mountains I turned into a tiger eating human flesh, isn’t that right? And that’s why you got so awfully scared when you heard my voice?”
Hường forces a reluctant smile:
“I’m not afraid of you at all, elder brother, but these several days I am very afraid of death.”
Đắc sits down and talks with my mother and younger sister for a very long time. He tells them about the hardships he went through before he went up to the mountains. Đắc talks half-jokingly, half-ironically:
“Back then I only struggled against the South Vietnamese government; I was arrested and unimaginably beaten up. Do you know, auntie, they crushed both my hands? My body is still full of scars; I was dead and then came to life again. Gratitude and hatred must be paid back, auntie. I went up into the mountains to study and practice with the Việt Cộng; now I return to pay back my persecutors in kind. I don’t want to harm anyone, but the debt of blood must be paid, auntie.”
I don’t know what my mother’s face looks like right now, but Đắc suddenly laughs:
“I tell you my story, and your face, auntie, turns dead white. I’m just joking for fun, but I was indeed forced to go up to the mountains. Wherever I went, I couldn’t forget about Hue. I still bear a lot of grudges, auntie.”
Right at this moment I hear many people entering the house. I hear a lot of stories, and it’s Đắc who talks about recent arrests in nearby houses. Someone’s drawling voice:
“That guy is real good at hiding: if not for comrade Đắc, who knows whether we would have found him.”
Another voice, laughing:
“I knew that he hid under the mattress. That guy here in the hamlet, who doesn’t know him?”
Perhaps this is a group of undercover cadres. They loudly tell stories and merrily joke around. Tịnh pushes my hand and is about to speak, but I cover his mouth. I am afraid that up there at the shelter opening they will hear him. Hường asks about Ngọc and Phủ. Đắc replies:
“They’ve come back. Phủ along with Ngọc are at Gia Hội School.”
“I haven’t heard anyone mention meeting those two at all.”
“Hường, you don’t go out, so you don’t hear or see anything. Oh heavens, this girl is really timid.”
Then Đắc talks with my mother:
“It’s a pity that Khâm is stranded out in the countryside; if he were here I would make him go to work with me.”
Then suddenly Đắc ponders.
“But certainly I wouldn’t force him. When you see him, auntie, tell him that I am always and everywhere his friend.”
Đắc stays and talks for a long time. He asks my mother whether there’s still enough rice in the house. Then Đắc promises that he will bring rice to supply the entire family. Seeing Đắc being happy, my mother and Hường seem less scared. My mother inquires about the situation. At first Đắc’s voice is quite positive, but then the confidence in his voice seems to decrease. Đắc advises that the shelter must be made very carefully; a lot of houses inside and outside of the hamlet have been directly hit by artillery fire. Đắc also says that the American army has advanced to National Highway No. 1, and in daytime it advances to An Cựu. But Phú Cam, Từ Đàm, and Bến Ngự hamlets are still under the authority of the Liberation Army. My mother can’t suppress moaning out her grief. Certainly, a lot of civilians have died. I don’t hear Đắc’s response, and the merry laughter also stops for a long time.
Before leaving, Đắc promises to come back to visit. Đắc advises Hường about some things that I don’t hear clearly, only occasionally Hường’s responses: “Yes, elder brother.” Just as Đắc and several liberators and cadres leave the house, artillery fire resumes. My mother and Hường again crawl down into the shelter. Hường tells the story about her meeting with Đắc despite my having heard almost everything. Hường says that among those who came into the house there was a person, still young, wearing thick glasses, surely also an undercover cadre. My mother advises me to be careful because Đắc promised to come back. She reminds me that Đắc promised to supply us with rice and told Hường that if she needed anything to go find Đắc himself. I listen and feel moved. In fact, no ideology, no ideals can divide human feelings and friendship. I also think that perhaps I am too shallow. But after several days pass by, Đắc doesn’t find time to come visit with us anymore, even though I know that he has passed by our house many times.
Once, when the artillery had calmed down and the large and small guns outside the walls of the Citadel were also taking a break, I suddenly hear deafeningly loud shouts outside. My younger sister, by now very much accustomed to the situation, dares to crawl up, open the door, and look outside. I hear a familiar voice and recognize Đắc’s voice. Hường sticks her head down to the shelter and says in a low voice:
“Damn it. Đắc has just now arrested Mậu Tý.”
I don’t have time to ask more when Hường goes back up and continues to peer out at the street. Đắc’s voice resounds from outside:
“Comrades, let me try this one. Give me the right of priority. In the past, he afflicted our lives with misery on so many occasions! He must pay for his terrible crimes.”
Mậu Tý, Đắc’s former friend, pleads:
“I beg you, elder brother, to spare me. Now I also follow the liberation. Here, I am wearing a band, elder brother; here, I am wearing a band. For several days I’ve been very active with the liberation; I’ve already publicly denounced and arrested a lot of American puppets. Please let me work to redeem my crimes.”
Đắc gives a few muffled laughs; his voice is biting:
“So you also know repentance. No, I must try you. You go down and stand in the foxhole, and I will ask about your crimes.”
A sound of jostling, then Mậu Tý’s screaming:
“Oh, pray you, elder brother, please spare me!”
“Spare you? In the past, I put our friendship on trial with you, but did you spare me? I was arrested, imprisoned, and beaten.”
Đắc gives a few muffled laughs and keeps joking:
“Damn it. I went up to the mountains to study and practice with the Việt Cộng and then I came back here; this time you don’t have any hope.”
Mậu Tý’s voice sounds as though he’s crying:
“I beg you, elder brother, spare me. I beg you, elder brother – I now know my mistakes. That’s why I followed the liberation right from the start of the offensive.”
“You have a knack to follow very fast. That’s exactly why I was beaten and imprisoned. You stand there in the hole and bend down your back and listen to my questions.”
“I will, I beg you, elder brother, don’t shoot me dead. I, I … by the will of Heaven, elder brother … elder brother …”
Đắc erupts into a boisterous outburst of laughter.
“Shoot you? No, you cannot die such a fast and easy death. You must die gradually, die in weariness … die in pain and in misery. In my life, I was a victim of glaring injustice; now I don’t want to judge anyone unfairly.”
I shudder. Đắc’s voice is very angry and resolute. I hear someone’s voice saying:
“Enough, comrade. He has already shown repentance for his crimes and mistakes; he has come back to the liberation with the people … Comrade, you have to – ”
“ – have to restrain my personal hatred? No, my personal hatred is also the hatred common to all my friends. You, comrades, don’t meddle in this case; please, comrades. I only ask for this case; that’s all I ask, comrades.”
Đắc’s voice storms blusteringly upon Mậu Tý:
“Stand quiet there. I haven’t shot yet, but don’t have any expectations.”
“I beg you, elder brother, stop … spare me from being shot to death – release me from this misery.”
Mậu Tý screams loudly as though someone is breaking his neck:
“I beg you, elder brother … I beg you, elder brother …”
Đắc’s laughter resounds loudly. The laughter full of deep resentment pierces my head, making me giddy, and then the sounds of a gun firing. A loud scream – it’s all over. But no, there is another gunshot and another scream. And it goes on like this. Several times my heart sinks, then I breathe a small sigh for the accused person. Death is the end. But strangely, it’s not over yet, and each gunshot brings another scream, adding another round of Đắc’s mad laughter.
The gunshots end after a terrible scream from Mậu Tý. By this time my mind is at peace about Mậu Tý.
Now the guns are somewhere outside the walls of the Citadel, farther away; it seems like in the market area near Tràng Tiền Bridge or somewhere over there are explosions, and then I hear artillery. My mother calls Hường to hasten into the shelter. But Hường looks terrified by the scene she has witnessed and stands transfixed near the open door. My mother has to run out and drag her into the shelter. I ask her what she saw. She stammers and stammers, trembles and trembles, and only then she tells me about what she witnessed from the beginning.
Đắc managed to find Mậu Tý. He forced Mậu Tý to stand down in the foxhole and then started to ask him about his crimes and to abuse him. Đắc asked the comrade-liberators who were there to let him settle his old score of personal hatred, and none of the comrade-liberators intervened. Mậu Tý stood down in the hole, and each time Đắc raised his gun and aimed it at Mậu Tý’s forehead and placed his finger on the trigger, Mậu Tý would close his eyes, his face frozen … waiting. But the awaited gunshot did not come. And when the gun did fire, Mậu Tý still was not dead. Each bullet passed close by his ears, by his head, or by his shoulders, and each time Mậu Tý thought that he had given to the world his last scream. After that, Đắc pulled Mậu Tý up and then led him away.
Several days later in that vacant foxhole, according to what Hường told me, a liberation soldier died with his head at the opening of the hole and his face turned toward my house. I suppose that before he died, he surely had a chance to see the golden peach flowers in the courtyard and a part of a roof that had collapsed from a shell or from shots by B40s during the first night when the battle began.
I don’t remember anymore what the days after this were – whether the dates were in single digits or in ten-odds. The battlefront had spread into the Citadel. By night, the sounds of exploding artillery are nonstop. The Citadel walls collapse in many places. There are rumors that Đông Ba, Thượng Tứ, and Sập Gates of the Citadel have all been hit and destroyed, and the ways out are all blocked. The first few days we can still get out from the shelter to cook food. But several days later, artillery fire falls nonstop and guns from outside shoot into the Citadel like rain. My mother and Hường have to pull several bags of rice down to the shelter, and we eat raw rice to alleviate hunger. We eat raw rice and drink cold water, and on top of this the weather is cold, as though cutting through our guts, and the vapors from the earth penetrate into our bodies; everyone in the family has indigestion. We have to pay close attention to the sound of artillery when we climb up from the shelter to urinate just outside of the house. A couple of times, our business still unfinished, we hear the roaring sound of an airstrike and without running we automatically fall directly down into the shelter as though someone has punched us with a fist down the hole.
We live like this for several days, and our bodies turn sickeningly green. Hường can’t bear to go up anymore; she weeps softly throughout the days. So, how would it be possible to be calm? Despite artillery shells, despite airplanes, liberation soldiers still find a way to come to the door of each house, calling for compatriots to contribute to the struggle at the front. The slogan is: “Don’t hide American enemies, do not give shelter to Vietnamese malefactors, do not lose heart at the onset of artillery fire. If necessary, all compatriots, adults and children, must flood outside to fight against the Americans and their puppets.”
Each time we hear this, we shiver. People around us die, each day more and more. Right in the back of the garden of our house there are three or four abandoned dead bodies, we don’t know whether ordinary people or liberators. By night we occasionally hear the sounds from back in the garden of screaming and shrieking. Or they arrest people and lead them past the house with sounds of entreating and imploring and screaming and crying assaulting our minds and bodies.
As another day passes away, we are still alive. But the house next to ours is hit and destroyed by an artillery shell. The iron-sheet roof of the house next to it breaks into pieces that fall pell-mell everywhere; a shelter inside that house turns into an open-air shelter. Daylight shines into the shelter, making everybody in there scared. So they, oblivious to death, run outside and into my house asking for refuge.
Even though it’s more crowded and foul-smelling now, still the presence of many people makes us calmer. People who just arrived let us know that there are a lot of groups of refugees fleeing along the riverbank toward Gia Hội. But Hường is firmly determined that Đắc talked about Gia Hội School as exactly the place where the Việt Cộng headquarters are and where the people’s tribunals are conducted. I warn my mother. Any refugees who go there are thrusting their heads into the jaws of a tiger.
Only two hundred kilograms of rice are left, but there are so many additional mouths. We must ration our rice and eat sparingly. Fortunately, the refugee family that has come over doesn’t have children [who would inevitably cry without food and water and would be heard], so it is bearable to stay hungry and thirsty. Each morning we chew on a handful of rice and have a handful for lunch and a handful for dinner.
Even so, the bag of rice goes down terrifyingly fast. Perhaps when the bag is empty and we are not yet dead from artillery we will still die from hunger and thirst. Each day everybody looks at each other and gives a long sigh or has tears overflowing from one’s eyes. No one has any strength for long discussions.
One noon, when everybody is sitting in the shelter, chewing raw rice, there is the sound of the door being pushed open and then someone calling:
“Hey aunt … hey aunt.”
My mother hears and recognizes the voice of a child from Mai Thúc Loan Road. She shouts for joy:
“Here, here, here down in the shelter; hey child, come down quickly.”
A head sticks in. It’s Tam. He shivers all over; his face is pale green. My mother pulls him close to her body:
“Where are your mother and father? Why do you go about alone?”
Tam bursts out crying:
“Mother died when we ran outside. Mother told me to keep running; Mother waved her hand, opened her eyes wide. I couldn’t bear to leave. I left only when my mother died.”
My mother bursts out crying:
“Oh, Heaven and Earth. Where is your father, child? Where is your father? Let me know.”
“Father has been arrested. He was led, tied up, along with many other people. People say they were led to a gate of the Citadel so that artillery would shoot down at them. Oh aunt … oh auntie …”
Tam cries bitterly. My mother does so too. I appear to be covered with goose bumps all over my body. Why do they lead people up to the city gate for the airplanes to shoot down at them? What are these people’s crimes? It’s several damned local cadres who satisfy their personal hatred, that’s all. We are a small hamlet, we are neighbors, and we kill each other like this? I am angry, full of deep resentment; I want to scream wildly to diffuse my anger. Tam continues to sob:
“They are so ruthless, auntie; they arrested several suspects and took them up to the city wall, tied up, for the American airplanes, so they would think they are Việt Cộng and shoot them. Yesterday, ten-odd people … today, several tens of people. No doubt my father too.”
My mother taps her hands and her feet in anger. Hường’s feeble voice:
“What to cry for, Mother? Sooner or later we’ll all be dead anyway. To be set free by death sooner is even happier. Now I want to run outside so that airplanes will shoot me to death. To live like this, how’s it different from being condemned to death, being threatened by death?”
The sounds of gunfire from small arms resound widely on the road. My mother and Tam completely stop crying. It seems that the Liberation Army leads a group of convicts past the house. There are loud sounds of screaming, crying, and shrieking. My mother wraps her arms around her chest. Hường opens her mouth wide and then falls on the ground, shaking violently. I touch her with my hand and feel that she is deathly cold. Fortunately, the neighbors who came over have a bottle of oil and rub it all over Hường’s body. A moment later she comes slightly back to her senses and groans:
“Oh Mother … so terrible. Oh elder brother … so terrible …”
Then she cries. It seems that she is crying in a fit of delirium. I hold fast my younger sister’s hand. I feel such pity for her. She ate raw rice for many days and could not bring herself to go up; her stomach has swollen up hard like she has a gastroenterological condition. Foam brims over from the corners of her mouth. Soon she completely regains her senses and heartily hugs my mother:
“I can’t bear it anymore. Surely I will die.”
Amid bouts of raining artillery outside, my mother, crying, crawls up out of the shelter. She rummages for something for a long time. I am concerned, so I stick my head up and call:
“Mother, come down to the shelter at once.”
My mother comes down only after an eternity. In her hands she holds a piece of bánh tét with mold all over it. She peels off layers of banana leaves covering the cake and gives the cake to Hường, who at that moment is lying close against the ground and breathing as if about to expire.
Since then, horrifying nights turn into horrifying days.
I am unable to sleep. No one dares to climb up from out of the shelter anymore. The food is gradually used up.
The bag of rice is almost finished and, on top of this, there has been added another mouth to feed – Tam is stuck here with us. He doesn’t dare go back home alone.
Hường is seriously ill; she lies completely motionless. My mother continues to listen intently to the sound of feet on the surface of the ground, hoping for Đắc to come back. If Đắc returns, we still can depend on him for help. One afternoon we hear the sound of light steps entering the house, then the sound of a person falling down with a thud. A moment later we hear a lot of other feet chasing in after him. A gun fires. A shriek. An uproar of talking and laughing bursts out: “He has fled to heaven.” Another voice seems to be surprised: “Definitely no one is in the house. There’s a shelter; they are certainly down there … Search thoroughly, oftentimes puppets hide in places like this … Oh, thick shit, certainly there’s no one there. Such a stink comes out of there.” The sounds of feet gradually move away; my mother is happy to the point of tears. Stinky piles of excrement and litter lying topsy-turvy in the middle of the house have saved us. My mother takes a deep breath and nods her head: “Only now have we seen the value of the piles of excrement.” I feel the same way; there is no disgust or fear in me anymore about the foul stink penetrating down here. I think to myself: “Obviously, when they departed, they left a dead body right in the middle of our house.” I am confused, not knowing whose body it is. I think about Mậu Tý. But it can’t be Mậu Tý either. Đắc9 has already arrested him, and he would not let Mậu Tý pay his debt so easily. But I feel confused only for a minute; my biggest scare is that in several days the corpse will swell and stink, and certainly the stench of the dead body mixed with excrement will not be as easy to breathe in as the smell we breathe in now.
Then the bag of rice is used up down to the bottom. That morning, my mother alerts us that no food remains. Those in the family who came for temporary refuge look troubled because they think that they are responsible for the imminent onset of hunger and thirst. But even if they had not been here, the rice would have come to an end and we would die of starvation anyway. A quick end or a struggle for two or three more days, it’s the same at the end. My mother cries:
“Real suffering has not yet started here; not to die from artillery but to die of hunger is real suffering.”
Then she hugs Hường and buries her in tears.
After that we chew the last grains of rice very carefully as though we are afraid that a few grains will fall down and scatter and there will be no way for us to find them.
The refugee family has decided to abstain, but my mother still divides the last grains fairly for everyone: “Oh, if death comes, we’ll die together. Go ahead, eat, and then die.” Everybody is weeping and moaning for a long time, but no one dares to cry loudly, afraid that someone up there on the surface will hear.
It seems that a lot of houses around us have collapsed. Many loud explosions reverberate and squeeze our chests. Occasionally we imagine how the explosions will plow and upturn the earth under the house we live in, and we close our eyes, waiting for death to come, and a moment later the sounds become less sharp – only then we know that we are all right.
The sound of small guns firing comes closer; it seems that they are right here in the street. Suddenly a decision pops up in my mind:
“Mother, we are going to escape; here it’s death in any case.”
“I don’t know anything anymore. Let’s do whatever you decide.”
We go without food for two more days. Hường is exhausted. Our two families discuss and plan the escape. Tam tries to crawl up from the shelter, despite the gunfire, and he fumbles his way out the door to see what’s going on outside. A moment later he crawls back down into the shelter; his voice is very pleased:
“There’re a lot of people walking outside. From time to time, there’s a group of people running toward the city gate.”
My mother springs up:
“We’re going to follow them.”
But Tam rejects her idea outright:
“No, only women and old people. I didn’t see men. Men, they don’t go anywhere anymore.”
My mother discusses a possibility of disguise. The women, carrying Hường, would flee first; as for me, I will disguise myself in women’s clothes, cover my head with a scarf, and follow them. I ask:
“And what will Tam do? It’s absurd to disguise him too, because it will be too evident if two people are disguised.”
Tam looks very sad:
“Life or death, it is fate. Elder brother, you go ahead and take care of your own fate.”
Right before noon of that day we climb up from the shelter, supporting and encouraging each other. What jumps into my eyes is the dead body of a man, handsome and large, lying in a prone position, blood already dried up. His two arms are stretched as though he embraces the earth. We don’t clearly see his face. Tam is absorbed in applying makeup on me. I am wearing Hường’s clothes, my head very tightly covered with a scarf. My mother gathers bits of trifles, wraps them into a bundle, and then drives everybody outside.
The door suddenly opens. My eyes are dazzled; I stagger, about to fall. Only after I get used to the light do I realize that the entire scenery has changed. Nothing of the old shapes has remained. Strangely, our house has not yet gotten a direct hit from the artillery and still stands desolate amid destitute gardens, among houses reduced to piles of loose bits of brick. Everywhere are dead people: in the courtyards, at the ends of alleys, out in the street. Some puddles of blood have dried, and some are still fresh. Artillery still lobs monotonously from the inside of the Citadel, and groups of people continue to flee. They run, screaming and crying, lamenting to Heaven. No one asks anyone about anything; no one looks at anyone.
Right in the middle of the road and on both sides of the road are big holes dug by people and also dug by bombs and shells. Just as we get to Mai Thúc Loan Road, we hear salvoes of small guns pouring like rain outside the city walls. In the group of people running in front of us, several individuals fall down. At once others turn their heads and run back, like a scattered swarm of bees. I quickly pull everybody to run and hide in a destroyed house just at the edge of the road. The house has collapsed and only some desolate walls still remain. We crawl to the back of a wall and climb up on a large pile of bricks. This house has a sand shelter, but it has been reduced to smithereens by a direct artillery hit; sandbags are completely torn up and a lot of broken pieces of wood are thrown all over the place. Amid the sandbags that have been dug up and amid large slats of wood lies the corpse of an American in a prone position with his face looking out. His hand is tightly clenched in front of his face. I look at him carefully from curiosity; from his fist sticks out a small photograph of a Western woman pressing her cheek against a small plump girl. The two, the mother and the daughter, are laughing together, fresh and beautiful, in a lushly green garden of fruit trees. The American is still very young, not yet thirty years old; his fair hair is smeared with stagnant blood. Around his dead body lies an open leather wallet with papers and letters that had fallen out, scattered around, along with a lighter and strings of unused cartridges broken into pieces. Tam is more curious; he looks closely into the hand of the American and manages to read lines of small letters on the backside of the picture. Tam translates under his breath: “My husband, I implore God to send you our words of prayer and best wishes for the New Year in Vietnam. The war will be over and our family will be reunited.” In the pile of letters scattered around, Tam manages to pick up another picture, also of the same woman, almost without any clothing covering her body, lying exposed in a prone position on a wide bed with a line inscribed on the back of the picture expressing a tragic and heartrending yearning for her husband.
I don’t know what day of the month it was, ten-odd or twenty-odd, when Americans came here. Perhaps they came and were pushed back. Fortunately, we have found our way here. When we got outside from the shelter it seems that on the road where we live there is not a single family left anymore. They’ve all died or left a long time ago. Hường, dejected, sits leaning with her back against a pile of bricks; she raises her hand and covers her eyes, not daring to look at the dead body.
The oldest woman in the family of the neighbors who came for refuge in our house crawls out to look around and then waves to us:
“People are now continuing on the road. Let’s go.”
Again we go, coaching and supporting each other. But wherever we pass at a run, we instinctively look for places to avoid bullets and duck down, pressing ourselves against the ground whenever we hear the rattle of gunfire over our heads. Each time there is a rattling sound over our heads there is also an explosion of artillery. In front of us a bullet hits someone, and behind us a bullet hits someone. A group of people fleeing the fighting suddenly gathers near the city gate. My body shivers. I think: “Surely, it’s a checkpoint.” We approach the gate. There is a unit of the Liberation Army there. They don’t stop anyone, but the group of people automatically stops in front of the dreadful barrels of the guns that look like they are about to cough out bullets. I pull the scarf to cover my hair and the lower part of my face.
My mother quickly slips into the pocket of my undershirt a small packet with money, and then she picks up Hường to carry her.
“Women can pass. Young males and adult men go back.”
Soldiers from a unit of the Liberation Army sit with their backs leaning against the gate; a firm voice from the unit issues the order. Tam’s face turns pale; he tries to mix with the crowd of young women and children. I hold my breath to pass through. Several pairs of eyes glower directly at my face. Suddenly a voice says:
“You, elder brother over there, stop.”
I am startled but don’t dare to look back. Are they talking to me or to someone else? But someone’s hand has pushed my back to go straight ahead. Hường groans like she is in a huge pain. I know that a part of her is really in pain and another part, screaming and shrieking, simulates it. Suddenly Tam shakes himself loose and runs forward in a rush. A round of gunfire chases him, but it seems that the guns are fired only into the air. A very large group of people rushes out of the city gate. Thanks to this, Tam keeps running, elbowing his way forward. Hearing the gunfire, guns from the outside fire back in response. The two sides fire at each other at random. We are separated, running more dead than alive. A round of bullets lashes out past my ear. I hastily duck down to the ground, and when I manage to get up, my mother, my younger sister, Tam, and the neighbors are now out of sight, having run away somewhere and disappeared. I am stunned – my mother and younger sister, are they among the people of that group that dispersed in all directions, or do they lie in the pile of corpses that have just fallen behind my back and are still warm, overflowing into the next life? I want to turn back, but it’s impossible. The gunfire pushes me to run forward nonstop. I’m now on Phan Bội Châu Street.
Just a while ago, I clearly heard a lot of guns shooting at Đông Ba Gate, and the Việt Cộng army from the inside of the Citadel responded. But why, while getting up to here, haven’t I seen even a shadow of a single living person? There are only dead bodies – Việt Cộng corpses dead for a long time or still fresh and corpses of civilians seeking refuge. I see a lot of very pitiful scenes. Dead women firmly holding their children in their arms, dead pregnant women whose newborns have spilled out. Seeing how dangerous it is to run outside, I push a door into a nearby house.
The house is deserted. I am surprised when I see a big gaping hole carved in the wall, connecting this house with other ones. I wonder whether the Việt Cộng used this passage to move about. But I don’t dare to venture climbing over into other houses. This house has not been completely destroyed, but after a long search I can’t find any food whatsoever. Reluctantly, I have to move to another house to find something, absolutely anything edible to alleviate my hunger. Just as I pick up a bag with dry bread next to the body of a long-dead girl already bloated and smelly, I am directly hit in my arm by a bullet. I dress the wound by myself with the shirt of the dead girl. The bullet is still firmly stuck in my flesh, and perhaps what hurts me the most is this wound.
I don’t understand how I manage to survive when I run to the bank of the river. I don’t know, I don’t clearly remember what part of the river it was. When I see the water, my throat burns from thirst; my body is shriveled up with not a drop of sweat left. Behind my back and over my head I hear guns firing. I suddenly feel a sharp pain all over my body, and it seems that blood runs out of my body like a spring. Regardless, the current of the blue river in front of me is very calm; at first the blue color dazzles my eyes, and then the current catches me and takes me down to drown. I flounder toward the shore. My face dips into the water and my entire body goes down; the water is fresh and cold as though it wants to turn me into a block of ice. Then I scream and splash about: “Save me, please save me.” I am lifted up into a boat, and I pass out.
When I regain my consciousness, the boat has crossed the river. I have been wounded rather seriously in several places. I empty my pockets of whatever money was there to pay the boatman who saved my life. I say good-bye to the boatman and try to crawl, dragging my feet up the road.
It seems that I am crawling past a lot of dead bodies. I come to Kiểu Mẫu School. Here it’s already very crowded with people fleeing from the fighting, so crowded that there is no place for me to lie down. I get a simple dressing for my wounds and get something to eat and drink. People advise me to go to An Cựu hamlet. According to them, over there it is quiet now, and if I am fortunate and run into the [Nationalist] Army, it will transfer me to Phú Bài, where there is medicine and bandages. I go down many small roads and also cut past the post office; if there is gunfire in one place, I move to another place. Near the post office, I see several Việt Cộng corpses with their legs chained to machine guns. Dead. In another place I see something similar. When I come to An Cựu Bridge, I see our [Nationalist] soldiers and Americans there. I don’t have time to approach them before gunfire breaks out, and I hastily shuffle my feet onto a small road to avoid bullets.
Just as I went across this part of the road, you, elder brother, you saved me. I was shot and immediately fell down to the ground. I kept trying to crawl to a bomb crater to avoid a random bullet. When I was at Kiểu Mẫu School, I saw a lot of new graves there. People said that each day several people die – those who were wounded earlier or those hit directly by bombs. I thought that if I could make it here, perhaps I could make it down to Phú Bài. But now I’ve lost all hope. I don’t understand why now I still feel alert enough to be able to tell you, elder sister and elder brother, my story. Perhaps the airplanes are now far away.
Enough, elder sister and elder brother, don’t mind me; run from here before they [the Communists] flood in. Please set me up near the door – no, near that column, it will also work. I will still be able to see rain, grass, and trees. The shrubs in front of my face don’t have any traces of shells that come to destroy us, and the rain will wash everything up squeaky clean for me to see …
Thái puts the youth’s body up against a column so he can see a corner of the garden. There’s a pot containing a shrub. Several flowerpots with dahlias are still blooming in white and purple. Farther away there is a large shrub bent over as if listening to the rain patting it. Perhaps airplanes will indeed return. Thái wants to take the youth along. But the youth smiles and shakes his head. His hands start shaking; his lips have turned black and blue; his eyes blink fast as though they want to take in the sky and the scenery before him. His eyes gradually turn empty as though a curtain has been pulled over them. Thái tightly holds the youth’s hand. From the corners of the youth’s eyes, which are about to dry up, there suddenly slip out two tears, and his mouth gently moves. He tries to open his eyes wide as though he wants to collect all the images, and then his eyes stop moving. Thái shakes his head. I pull back and stand behind Thái’s back. Thái lightly closes the eyes of the young man and then puts his corpse to lie in the open near the water tank.
The drops of rain are becoming heavier. Dazed and confused, I follow Thái out into a lane. At the entrance of the lane are several corpses of Việt Cộng who have just died. Some lie prone with their faces down, others on their backs with their faces upward. Thái closes the eyes of each of them and then pulls my hand to go. I am suddenly panic-stricken and want to spurt out to run forward. Thái asks:
“What’s this, elder sister?”
I am saying something but only my breath comes out; I stretch out my arm, but it drops down dead. The eyes of a Việt Cộng that Thái has just closed by mistake suddenly open and glower as though following us. Thái pushes me forward:
“Enough of this, damn it … go … go elder sister … go … go fast.”
Thái’s own legs are also out of control. The two of us, going hand in hand, run, escaping by a small road. The next moment we get to An Cựu post and see somebody’s basket of duck eggs turned upside down with the eggs scattered all over the road. Thái picks up a few of them, which are still intact, and puts them into his pocket.
The image of the youth named Khâm who has just died in a strange house will haunt me forever. He was telling his story with such full possession of his senses; why on earth did he die so fast? Death occurs easily, and sometimes no explanation comes for it. He had been living in a place that was shelled by artillery for so many days, and he had been wounded so many times. He hid and fled, hid and fled, and he almost got to a quiet and safe place, but he suddenly died because of some bullet shot from behind a bamboo grove. Death really seems to be a joker.
So my fate, the fate of my family … there’s no guarantee for us. I have fled all over the place – I left for the countryside and then turned and went back to Hue. In the countryside there are also dead people because of stray artillery shells. When I came back to the city, looking for the safest place, there also were stray, absolutely senseless bullets. I am suddenly completely stunned thinking about the days in the church, in An Định Palace, about the days of flight from Tân Lăng back to the railroad. Each place is full of death but we don’t know yet that although we are not yet dead, it certainly does not mean that we cannot die.
At first I hear that Việt Cộng soldiers have been carousing at the An Cựu post for three days; then I hear that it has been for seven days. And then there is news that Venerable Hồ [Chí Minh] is coming to visit with the people. Venerable Hồ has not yet arrived but half of the city is already dead, almost completely destroyed, reduced to ashes. On the day of his arrival, surely the children who are still alive will be sent to cheer for him. Looking at the dead compatriots, my heart can’t help but feel stinging grief; but looking at the corpses of the Việt Cộng, neither can I feel hatred. They also died en masse so that Uncle Hồ can enter Hue. Thái says:
“Why, elder sister, are you crying for no reason?”
I can only respond that I am awfully afraid. Certainly, Thái also thinks about the same things that I saw, and his eyes are full of grief. As we return home, my mother looms at the door. She dashes to pull us into the house, crying and scolding us at the same time:
“You’re really insolent. Insolent you are; I lost my soul, my senses worrying about you.”
Then she pulls us into the house. From my father’s altar I smell the aroma of incense. Aunt Vạn is fixing rice on a kerosene stove in a corner of the house. She says:
“Listen, you insolents, for lunch we had a cooked papaya. It was brought up here from Thủy Dương, sent over here by Uncle Giáo’s wife.”
Thái is stunned:
“Who came up here? How’s it possible to come up here? They’ve just been fighting with each other, haven’t they?”
“So, he came up and then got stuck in Mù U. He drove here very fast as though flying, and when the gunfire subsided he immediately went back.”
I then understand who this “he” is that Aunt Vạn is talking about. It must be the son of Uncle Giáo.
My mother says:
“Listen – don’t open the door. By now people have returned to a lot of houses. If you open the door, I’m afraid the Việt Cộng will know that we’re here.”
That noon while eating our meal we hear an explosion like a thunderbolt over our heads. The entire family drops everything, and covering our heads we scurry into the shelter. Are they fighting each other again? But there’s only one loud sound and then it’s over. The shutters of the window, which were closed, burst open and some more tiles shatter, exposing pieces of sky the color of lead. Only several hours later do we learn that a unit of American soldiers was passing by An Cựu post. They had sat down for a break on the side of the road, and when they checked they found that a gun was missing. So, they went into the most beautiful deserted mansion, laid a mine, and detonated it to vent their anger.
This chapter is in the voice of Khâm, the young man whom the narrator and Thái met under tragic circumstances as described at the end of chapter 6.
1. The seat of the Nguyễn emperors was located in the section of Hue called the Citadel, which occupies a walled area on the north side of the Perfume River. Inside the Citadel was a “Forbidden City” where only the emperors and those close to them were granted access.
2. In 1966, while a student, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân had been a leader of the Struggle Movement and a commander of the Buddhist “Suicide Squad,” which took a very active part in the Buddhist Uprising between General Nguyễn Chánh Thi and the Saigon government. When the uprising was suppressed, he fled and joined the Việt Cộng. During the Tết Offensive he returned to Hue with the Communist Forces and is mentioned in various accounts as one of the leading perpetrators of the atrocities. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân denies this. After the war, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân became a researcher of Hue history and of the last imperial dynasty of Vietnam, the Nguyễn. He has extensively published his research (see more on him in the Translator’s Introduction).
3. The Struggle Movement, also known as the Military-Civilian Struggle Committee, was an offshoot of the opposition movement against the Saigon government that came into existence in 1965. Prior to and during the Buddhist Uprising of 1966, the Struggle Movement was active. It supported Buddhist general Nguyễn Chánh Thi, a commander of the area that included Hue, against the then prime minister Nguyễn Cao Ký. The movement mainly consisted of Buddhists and students.
4. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường was a teacher at Quốc Học School, an elite secondary school established in 1898, and subsequently during the Tết Offensive he became a member of the Revolutionary Committee under Professor Lê Văn Hảo. He is a prolific and renowned author and poet and currently resides in Hue.
5. Full name Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Phan. He is a younger brother of Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường and like his brother is also a writer. At the time of the Tết Offensive he was a medical student. Together with Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, he is also mentioned in Alje Vennema’s account (see Translator’s Introduction).
6. A province of North Vietnam on the coast, located on the border with South Vietnam.
7. Not to be confused with Võ Thành Minh, who appears in several other chapters.
8. A province in North Central Vietnam, the northernmost province of the Republic of Vietnam, located north of Hue.
9. In the original the name is mistakenly written “Xuân.” See a discussion on this issue in the Translator’s Introduction.