Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 8. Returning to the Old House
Someone has returned to the house in front of US. Before Tết, I saw that this house was very crowded; children filled its courtyard. When my father died, the head of that household came by to express his condolences. But now only two boys have come back. They wear clothes of profound mourning and have white hats on their heads.
I learn that they are back because I hear the sound of crying. One day, right before noon, when we have just crawled out of the shelter to help Aunt Vạn by bringing water to wash the rice, I suddenly hear sorrowful crying in the house across the lane. Aunt Vạn waves her hand:
“Be silent, someone’s crying so scarily. Someone’s crying as though at a funeral.”
“It seems to me like it’s a male voice.”
Thái inches outside:
“The crying is from the house in front of ours; it seems to be Uncle Năm’s house, don’t you think so, elder sister?”
“It sure is.”
“Let me go to the courtyard; perhaps I will hear or see something.”
Thái rushes off into the courtyard. I hastily run behind him. Indeed, the crying comes from the house in front of us in the lane. On a grave in front of the courtyard someone has lit incense; very fragile wisps of smoke hang low, close to the ground, then, thinned, they melt away very quickly. Thái stands in front of a coconut tree, looking in. A head, then two heads stick out - the two elder sons of this family. Their faces are reddish and their eyes have not yet dried from tears. Thái inquires:
“Have you all now come back?”
“No, just us, and we are leaving at once. We’ve come back to see what’s happened to the house.”
Thái points at the grave:
“This is the grave of your mother, isn’t it? She was lucky to be buried given the current situation.”
“My mother died right here at the house. My younger sister was not yet dead, but her life was in danger.”
“Your sister was seriously wounded?”
“She is now also dead.”
The elder brother raises his arms to the sky and points back toward the city with rising smoke:
“I swear that I will not walk under the same sky with them.1 Look, elder brother, my younger sister was wounded on the first morning when the house was in flames. My father took my sister to a hospital. When they were somewhere over there, they learned that the Việt Cộng had completely occupied the city. It was clear that Americans and Việt Cộng were firing at each other, and then our house was burning. My mother inside was directly hit by a bullet - not by B40s but by an American bullet fired from outside. My mother died because of an American bullet, not a Việt Cộng’s. Then my father took my younger sister - my elder sister also went along - and in the middle of the road they were directly hit by artillery or something like that and died at once. They are buried outside of Kiểu Mẫu School. Oh heavens, I went there but saw only several ID cards and a thermos with boiled water that had already grown cold. All these things were placed next to several shallow graves.”
“Have you found your father’s grave?”
The two brothers melt in tears. They wipe their tears:
“Several days ago I heard that they [the Communist forces] are coming here, so we had to run for our lives and I thought we would die. Then we came back here to hide from the shelling when it started. There was no one in the hamlet. It was so terrible - a bomb or something like that, I don’t know what it was, fell down and the roof of the house collapsed, and we quickly crawled into the shelter; the warhead was stuck upside-down, pointed upward like an arrow, but it didn’t explode. We closed our eyes waiting for it to explode; it didn’t explode. Then we ran out of the shelter. Now we’ve come back, and it’s still here and has not exploded yet. When we fled, I kept worrying that when it explodes, it will destroy everything.”
I am so afraid that I turn pale. It turns out that for the several days since we have returned, we’ve been living next to a house containing a large warhead. If it explodes next to our house, we will not escape calamity.
“Where are you going now?”
“Now we are going back to Phù Lương. It’s very scary here.”
The two put together several necessary things, go out to light more incense on the grave of their mother, then bid farewell to us and leave. Thái runs behind them to ask:
“Are you walking?”
“No, when we got down from Mù U, there was a Lambretta motor scooter2 there. The scooter took us up this way.”
I’m happy as though I found a gold mine:
“Really? Please, elder brother, may I ask if the motor scooter can pass by Thanh Lam?”
I suddenly remember a place where I can rely on support. In Thanh Lam there is a small office, a branch of the place where I work. If there is a motor scooter, I will get off there to ask the workers to help me return to Saigon. One of the two responds to me while he still keeps going:
I rush into the house. My mother asks who cried there. I don’t respond to my mother’s question but instead chatter nonstop and boast:
“I will soon be able to get to Saigon.”
“Hee-hee. You go to Saigon.”
“Now it’s possible to get to and from Thanh Lam. I will go there and ask for transportation to get to Saigon.”
My mother is doubtful:
“Is this so? I can’t believe it.”
I tell her the story of the two brothers from the house in front of us in the lane. My mother understands and rejoices. If I manage to escape, I will join my husband and children. I suddenly feel absolutely dumbfounded. My husband and children in Saigon - are they still safe and sound? There is fighting in Saigon too; people flee too, and die too, like in Hue. My children. Do they wait for their mother to come back? My tears suddenly stream down. My mother scolds me:
“You think rubbish. Surely nothing has happened there.”
My mother’s words don’t comfort me a tiny bit. If something has happened to my family in Saigon, I’d rather die here with Hue. But being afraid that my mother will be even sadder, I quickly wipe my tears.
That afternoon, Thái takes me back to Mù U to wait for the motor scooter. But there is no motor scooter.
I hear that Bực Bridge was detonated and heavy traffic can’t go through. But when the day draws to a close, a lot of American vehicles drive up here. Then a lot of American vehicles drive back. Each column of vehicles coming up here brings a few families returning from evacuation; columns of vehicles going back down take some families who are evacuating. Even in this situation with people leaving and people coming back, still no one knows what place is safer than any other place. People continue to flee; if you are still able to flee it means you are not dead yet.
When that day draws to a close, Túc comes up to visit. Túc tells us that National Highway No. 1 is very quiet by day because Americans guard it. By night Americans withdraw, and Việt Cộng flood down from the mountains and conduct searches in every house, forcing young people to follow them up to the mountains.
That evening, I and Thái discuss our plan: tomorrow the two of us will walk back to Thủy Dương, then will borrow Túc’s motorbike to go to Thanh Lam. That night I am not able to get a wink of sleep.
My heart pines in a way that is hard to describe. Only now do I sense how infinitely self-centered and narrow-minded I am. Amid death swarming around, I alone feel happy because of a fleeting hope that comes from nowhere and leaves for nowhere. Oh Mother, Mother. Oftentimes when the artillery lobs and roars in the night, I, in a flash, vaguely hear something like the voice of a child, either bursting out of my memory or echoing my grief and love.
The battle that went on for so long is now coming to an end. And how many more dead bodies has the city gotten today? Lying in silence in the dark, in the deep shelter, I can’t imagine the scale of the destruction of the city, the misery of the city. So many guns, so many cannons, so many bombs have torn to pieces this entire small city, the beloved native place of mine. I am surprised when I think why all the artillery from America, from Russia, from Czechoslovakia suddenly lands in the hands of North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese to pour down on a small city that is as good-natured as is the city of Hue. Ammunition from all the faraway countries, sent here in the name of helping the South, assisting the North, suddenly focused on a small city, tearing into pieces its innocent flesh, chopping off the arms, legs, and faces of so many people. Images of pieces of arms and legs seen along the roads; scenes of furtive love expressed amid gunfire in a corner of a solemn Catholic church inundated with screaming and crying. An image of the corpse of a newborn baby bundled in its mother’s blouse … oh life … why must life still go on? It seems that I can still breathe during this terrible night here. No, it seems that not only in Hue but in so many other provinces, including Saigon where my children and my husband live, there too, there are such images. Also bombs and bullets, burned houses, destruction, and death. But I suddenly feel certain that there is no other place that has endured such utter suffering as Hue, the place where we are enduring.
Outside it looks like the rain has become heavier. But the sound of rain tries to weave a melodious and refreshing curtain that is being torn into shreds by flares, gunfire, blood, and tears. I think about fresh graves hastily filled up with earth - tonight the rain will penetrate down there; the rain will open the eyes of the dead, will suck out even more of the tiny bit of vitality of life that has not had time to melt from the body because death was so sudden. The rain will also wash the ears of the dead so they can hear better - the sounds of the earth sighing, the sounds of bombs and bullets making everything shake violently. This night, how many more dead bodies yet will there be with no time for burial and no one to close their eyes, whether they lie with faces downward or upward. So many eyes will be open and staring with one image or another still glued onto the ground or up in the high, ponderous sky. How many roads or how many streets and alleys are like arms and legs? Those arms have already died, are torn to bits and scattered everywhere, and there is no longer any strength left to comfort persons searching for their way.
And this night, the group of people that includes Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, and ordinary people supporting each other and carrying white flags, running back and forth, where has it gone? How many people remain along the roads; how many legs and arms continue to move in desperation? And I still lie here. Praying to Buddha. Praying to God. Asking Buddha, asking God to protect me. I suddenly feel awfully ashamed. Because now for so many years, I haven’t been thinking of Buddha, I haven’t been thinking at all of God. But it’s useless … futile hopes. Why would Buddha or God save only me, take pity only on me, but not take pity on so many other people?
In the morning when I awake I suddenly feel a tranquillity that makes my body shiver. I stare for a long time into the darkness. The oil lamp in the corner of the shelter with its wick turned down low has run out of oil and has been extinguished for some time. I touch my arms, my feet - they are so cold. Why is it so? Why is nobody breathing? No, as soon as I touch someone’s chest I feel it’s steaming hot.
“It’s morning - get up.”
I wake up everyone. My mother is exhausted:
“Yesterday evening I couldn’t sleep; in the morning I fell asleep and don’t have any idea what time it is now.”
So, it turns out that last night everybody remained awake the whole night. Thái gets up with a start, crawls out of the shelter, and opens a window. A bit of light shines in and makes the darkness fade, but we still aren’t able to see each other. When outside of the shelter, I still feel wrapped in thick silence. Have they stopped fighting already or what? No sounds of small guns; there are not even sounds of large guns anymore. Thái gives me a sign to stop at the door and then he runs outside. In a moment he runs back in:
“Elder sister, people are evacuating. Isn’t it strange?”
“Where are they going?”
“They’re going back down, surely to Mai market in Phù Lương.”
I shout for joy:
“Let’s go down to Hương Thủy.”
“Elder sister, will you be looking for your office?”
I express my intention to my mother. At first she stops me, but then she sees many people going to Phù Lương and agrees to let us go. Coming out to the lane, my mother still admonishes:
“Listen child, if you see that it’s not possible to get through on the road, turn back.”
I have to promise time and again for the sake of my mother’s concern. We follow a group of people who are evacuating on foot and head to Thủy Dương. When we get to the market, we stop at Uncle Giáo’s house to borrow a moped. But the moped is out of gas, and there’s no way anymore to find where to buy gas. We resign ourselves to continuing on foot. When we cover some distance, we meet up with a group of people in front of us. They are carrying loads of goods from down in the market, loads of fresh green lettuce leaves. It turns out that here the market is still going as usual. The Việt Cộng flood into these areas only by night and conduct arrests, but by day the market is absolutely secure. Even so, looking at the group of houses, I still sense that there is something terrible ready to break out.
In another section of the road, passing by wide fields, we have to go close by the edge of the road to yield the way to a column of vehicles hurrying up in the opposite direction. The vehicles are full of American soldiers. Thái pulls my hand to crouch down close to the edge of the desolate field, soaking wet. This column clearly goes up to Hue as reinforcement. When the middle of the column is passing us, there is a big explosion, like a mortar opening fire, then a barrage of guns, large and small, pouring like rain from inside of a green grove beyond the field. The front part of the column keeps moving forward and fires at the same time. The back part of the column stops and all the American soldiers get off the vehicles and rush into the edge of the field. We quickly roll down into the field with half of our bodies soaking under awfully cold water and our heads sticking out over a wet grassy edge. Thái immediately commands:
“Bow down your head really low, elder sister. Lie quiet and don’t run.”
Fire and returning fire from both sides fall like rain and glide over our heads. We are caught in crossfire. I am at once awfully afraid and repentant. When we were leaving, my mother dissuaded us from doing this, but I didn’t listen to her. Now if we die here, it’s really meaningless. But luckily, guns inside the grove gradually move farther away and then fall completely silent. They’ve withdrawn. No one has been wounded, the column of American vehicles is only slightly damaged, and five minutes later they continue on their way.
We wait for the column of American vehicles to completely disappear, far away, and only then do we climb up to the main road. On the edge of the field, on the other side, there are a lot of people who also strenuously crawl out and then get up. They are also evacuees. When we cover some distance, we run into a woman with a load of lettuce; she is seriously wounded and her load of vegetables is scattered all around. We stop to check her wounds and don’t know what to do yet when, fortunately, a motor scooter comes up from Phù Lương. The driver sees a big crowd, jumps off, and asks:
“Has there just been a clash here?”
“Yes, right now, right here. American vehicles were passing by and they [the Communist forces] fired at them.”
“The vehicles have managed to now get through, haven’t they? This woman, is she wounded?”
“Very seriously. Please, sir, be so kind as to take her down to Phú Bài where the American hospital is located; if she gets into the American hospital, perhaps she will survive.”
“I thought the same thing; I was hiding down there and as soon as I heard the guns calm down over here I drove up to check whether women, children, or anyone was hurt. Oh heavens, in this situation, if we don’t pity each other, who will?”
The driver, together with several other people, carries the wounded woman and puts her on the scooter. He says:
“I will give a ride to anyone who needs to go. I don’t take money. But you have to sit tightly together.”
“Take us over there to Thanh Lam.”
The scooter takes off at once. I look back at the place where just now there was fighting, and there is no trace of it there except for the load of vegetables that fell and got scattered around. Fields are still glossy with water and groves in the distance are still silent, keeping their secrets. The driver tells his story in a loud and powerful voice that mixes with the noise of the scooter’s engine; sometimes he can be heard and sometimes not. In general, he informs us that since the start of the fighting he has transported a lot of wounded. Also, on the road are a lot of wounded people who cannot bear the pain and die, and our driver has been taking them back to his village and immediately burying them.
We have to shout really loudly until our voices become hoarse, and only then the driver hears us and stops the scooter so that we can get off in Thanh Lam. I enter the office alone. Only when I stand in a spacious room do I feel that my body is wet and cold; the water not only runs from my clothes but also seems to ooze from my skin and flesh. My body is as stiff as a block of ice.
The person in charge of this small branch of the office runs out:
“Oh heavens. These several days have been frantic; we didn’t know what to do, how to find you, elder sister. How come you are here? Sit here, sit down here …”
I don’t have enough strength anymore to sit down. My arms and legs have completely disappeared. Only my brain remains, not yet hardened, and it issues orders to me to produce words …
“Elder brother V - -, do you have any news from Saigon?”
“Ah, you’re worrying about your husband and kids, aren’t you, elder sister? Nothing happened, nothing happened to them. Just yesterday evening they called to ask whether there’s news about you. A couple of days ago your husband went to the main office to ask for news about you. Put your mind at rest, elder sister.”
“Have you heard anything more specific about my family, my children?”
“The children are fine. Over there, there was also a big fight, but everything is calm by now. Your place over there is safe and secure - no problem. I guarantee it. Don’t worry.”
A wisp of warm air suddenly bursts out from my chest, and now it seems that my heart at once beats and exudes fire, exudes hot air. This wave of warm air very quickly runs through my veins; I suddenly sense my arms and legs. I softly move my lips:
“Are you telling the truth, elder brother?”
“I guarantee you that your family over there is completely safe. The other day the main office called to make us go look for you, elder sister. But we did nothing. Still, you’ve managed to get down here.”
“I walked on foot.”
“Now, elder sister, stay right down here so that I can find a way for you to get to Saigon.”
I think about Thái, who’s standing outside waiting for me, and also about my mother, my younger sister, my elder brother and his wife, and my nephews. No, I must stay, I can’t allow myself to walk away alone at this time. But there’s no certainty that if I stay here, I will later find a way to leave safely. By night, military posts and offices are still their [the Communist forces’] targets, their delicious morsels of prey; here it’s also very dangerous. I say:
“I will come back tomorrow. Now I must go up to An Cựu.”
Having lingered for a moment to hear what’s going on in Saigon, I turn and go out, carrying with me a liter of gasoline so that when we get to Thủy Dương and borrow the moped, we can return to Hue early. Thái is waiting for me at a small tavern. The two of us walk on foot to Thủy Dương.
Fortunately, nothing happens along the road. When we get to Thủy Dương, we go to Uncle Giao’s. His wife has put aside for us a little bit of sweet potato leaves, sweet potatoes, and a bit of pork. Having poured the gasoline into the moped, we take the provisions back to An Cựu.
I tell the story about Thanh Lam for the entire family to hear. When my mother learns from me that nothing has happened to her grandchildren, she is happy to the point of tears. But being this happy for her daughter’s grandchildren, she feels miserable and worried and starts crying about the brood of her son’s grandchildren still stranded in Từ Đàm.
As that day draws to a close, suddenly in the abandoned house on the other side of the road there are two men, strangers, who come and stay there. They look very pale and very frail. Cautiously, they come over to our house and ask for temporary refuge. As soon as my mother saw them entering the lane, she gave Thái signs and pulled him into the corner of the shelter. The two men converse with my mother while at the same time they look around the house with disrespectful eyes. They try to modify their voices; I can’t guess what their regular voices are like, but the manner of their speech doesn’t seem very familiar:
“Dear aunt, we have fled back here from the dangers of the fighting; please, aunt, let us stay here for a short while.”
My mother quickly responds, drowning their voices:
“Please, sir, in my family there are only I and children. Yes, sirs, by day down here Nationalist soldiers take control; by night gentlemen-liberators come back and take control. The house is really in plain sight; please look for another quieter place.”
“Why haven’t you fled, aunt, but have come back - to do what?”
My mother pretending to wipe tears, points at my father’s altar:
“Please sir, three grandchildren have just disappeared without a trace … I and my children don’t want to go anywhere anymore; enough, we completely entrust ourselves to fate.”
“This woman is your child, aunt?”
“Surely she does a government job.”
“No, sir. She and her husband are tailors. She came back for the funeral, and her husband is stranded in Quảng.”
One of them asks me while sneering.
“Elder sister, do you make European or Vietnamese clothes?”
I respond at random:
“Please sirs, neither European nor Vietnamese. I make several items of peasant clothes for relatives and neighbors over there.”
One of them points at the house on the other side of the road:
“We are over there, aunt. If something happens, just call us, aunt, and we will come and help you.”
“Yes, elder brothers, thank you.”
The two men enter the house, look around, and gradually move toward the shelter opening. My mother quickly runs after them:
“Please, elder brothers, please sit down: be my guests, and drink some water. Please, elder brothers, it’s very smelly in that shelter. For several days we didn’t go outside, several small children pooped and pissed, so there is a stench. Please, elder brothers, sit down and be my guests.”
But the two strangers bid us a farewell and then go directly out to the lane. They enter the house across the road. Dusk falls and we don’t see them anymore.
When night comes, the sounds of guns resound in the areas of Phú Cam and Bến Ngự. Artillery continuously falls in that direction. We lie in the shelter, listening to the reverberating sounds of artillery buzzing in our ears. Then, two or three explosions bang and it seems that some part of the house is blown off. Bricks and tiles rain down on the roof of the shelter. We lie close to each other, reaching out in search of each other with a constant feeling as though another beloved person is getting ready to depart into the darkness of the night.
Only in the morning do we learn that the shutters of the window that Thái closed tightly with a steel cable were blown away and fell behind the veranda. More tiles fell from the house, breaking down the walls a bit more. We go outside into the garden to see the place of the explosions. Two or three houses away beyond the veranda were directly hit by artillery fire. We have to make a circle out to the road and enter an alley, and only then can we approach a house that was shelled. The house has completely collapsed, and there is a large pit right at the base of the house. A coconut tree in the front yard was uprooted, and several pieces of sheet iron were propelled up on the roof of a nearby house, damaging a third of the roof. Because the owner of the house had dug a shelter in the courtyard, no one died; only several people are lightly injured.
Another nearby house has an old man who still remains there; his children and grandchildren have all fled from the dangers of fighting. The man is very old, definitely over eighty, and cannot go anymore. He didn’t dig any shelter or hole and keeps sleeping on a wooden plank bed, but he has not yet been hurt. I and Thái enter the house of the elderly man and see that the fragment of a shell flew through and destroyed the front wall of the house. The old man looks at us with his eyes half-closed:
“You’re back? Why haven’t you fled? If this place gets a direct hit, you’ll die.”
“Dear sir, where did your entire family go?”
“When hell is here, there’s nowhere to go. Damn it, I told them don’t run away; my entire family has fled, and I hear they have all died somewhere near Kiểu Mẫu School. I’ve remained alone, old but not dead, but children and grandchildren have all died.”
The man raises his eyes up to the altar; a vase with withered marigold flowers, several desolate incense bowls, and cups of tea from the evening of the first day of Tết that have almost dried out - all these are covered with a thick layer of dust that turns their gold color into red. The old man sits on the wooden plank bed, raising his hands and repeatedly rubbing his eyes. I don’t know whether it’s dust in his eyes or he’s crying. The man sits with his back to us, mumbling something nonstop. The crumbling, deserted house gives us shivers. The old man is like the shadow of a long-dead person. On the altar, there’s a picture of an elderly person, absolutely toothless and smiling; the eyes have completely lost the photograph’s tin-like color, turning white like the eyes of a ghost … I and Thái don’t say a word to each other … together we hastily slip back out the door.
A big crowd is still assembled outside the house directly hit by artillery. It turns out that in this hamlet quite a lot of people have come back, but no one dares to show their faces outside; they dig shelters and live inside, in hiding. Thái says that there are families who evacuated from other places and came over here, then stayed put right here and didn’t move anywhere else.
Those in the crowd discuss many things but without any sense of resolution and then suddenly rush out to the road. Another big crowd assembles at the end of the alley. Thái pulls me to run over to it. This crowd surrounds a small young girl who is seriously wounded. The girl is set down to lie on an old piece of canvas spread on the edge of the wet grass.
According to the people discussing matters back and forth, the house of this young girl is up near the railway tracks. At dawn, an artillery shell hit directly in the back garden of her house and its fragments pierced the girl’s body. One of the fragments entered her stomach and pierced the intestines, which now dangle outside. The entire body of the girl is tightly wrapped in an old blanket, but blood has completely soaked it; if you could squeeze her body, there would barely be a drop of blood left. The face of the girl is pale green; her eyes are open and listless. Her father sits on his heels next to his daughter, crying and imploring obsequiously:
“I beg all of you, fellow villagers, please find a vehicle to help me transport my child down to Phú Bài to the American hospital to save her.”
But there are no vehicles on the roads; there is nothing but groups of evacuees, from what areas we don’t know, who go through here and then continue right on to National Highway No. 1. Thái bends down to examine the wound of the young girl, then shakes his head. A person says:
“If we give her help at once, with some luck she will make it.”
But the young girl continues to lie waiting on the side of the road until noon; she tries to open her eyes wide but has lost her spirit and looks up at her father, making a hiccoughing sound and scowling.
Her father wails loudly for a long time; he takes his child in his arms and holds her, and then he runs with her along the National Highway, running and crying absolutely heartbreakingly. Several soldiers standing guard at Trường Bia post run after him to hold him back, but no one is able to hold him back anymore. After going for a stretch, the man sits down on the edge of the road and waits as with each minute his daughter’s breath becomes weaker and weaker. Thái says:
“Enough, elder sister, go back to the house.”
We go back along the road. Thái asks a group of people running by:
“Where’re you coming from?”
“Where’re you from?”
Thái shouts for joy and, holding my hand tight, pulls on me to run. When we come into the house, Thái yells loudly:
“Evacuees from Từ Đàm are coming over here. There are people coming from there.”
But when my mother runs outside, the group of people is already long gone. Other groups of people continue to come by. They are from other areas: from the city center, from Bến Ngự, from over by the station, from Phú Cam. A person from Bến Ngự informs us that up at Từ Đàm people are still very much confined; the Việt Cộng headquarters is still set up there and the American army has lined up on the other side of Bến Ngự Bridge.
My mother is desperate again. At our midday meal, even though there is delicious food sent up from Thủy Dương Hạ, no one appreciates it. The image of the young girl with a dangling pile of intestines awaiting her death by seconds and minutes on the side of the road makes me anxious.
When we finish eating, we see several units of [Nationalist] soldiers outside, entering the city through An Cựu from the direction of the National Highway. They carry rucksacks and guns, keep a distance of around half a meter from each other, and are completely silent. They don’t look at the houses on either side of the road. Thái recognizes special task force troops, then another group - paratroopers - and then marines. Regardless of how much my mother dissuades him, Thái still runs outside, raises his hand, and waves. I also run after Thái. In a number of courtyards of other houses there are a lot of people who stand and, raising their hands, wave and ask questions. These soldiers seem to come from afar; they are covered with dust and look very weary. They smile and respond to waving hands and to inquiries. Thái gets out close to the road:
“Elder brother, where are you coming from?”
“This group has just got out from Saigon.”
The soldier responds to Thái while still moving on. The next soldier who follows right behind slips his hand into his rucksack, gets two small cans of food, and tosses them at Thái’s feet:
“Gift, friend. Glad you’re still alive, friend.”
The next soldier pulls out a pack of cigarettes; the next one after him tosses some more canned food. I run after them to return them:
“Elder brothers, hold on to them to eat; there is still a lot of fighting ahead.”
“Stop it, young lady; keep them. We don’t even know whether we’ll survive, so food doesn’t mean much to us. We are on a suicidal mission.”
Some smiles, some shrugs. I stand motionless, following them with my eyes. These several days there is a lot of news disseminated about [Nationalist] soldiers3 coming to pacified areas and putting their grip on everything, taking the stuff of the people who fled. People hasten to come back to protect their property, and because of this hurriedness a lot of people die as victims of injustice. But this army unit is certainly completely different from these stories. In addition, a candy bar lands at my feet. I don’t have strength anymore to bend down and pick it up.
“Glad you’re still alive, friends.”
Several soldiers at the rear keep shouting. Hands of people along the road wave, stretching to return the goodies, and we continue to greet each other with smiles. Gradually, as the unit passes by, I am able to bend down and get a firm hold on the chocolate bar, and unintentionally at some point I crush it into bits. Never before have I seen such amiable soldiers. They are soldiers who’ve come here from faraway places to die in Hue. They are men from Saigon, men who migrated from the North, men from provinces in the South, in the Center, in the North. They’ve come to die with Hue. Oh heavens, I think about the Regional Forces soldiers,4 some of whom deserted their posts on the first day, some of whom are waiting for a bit of quiet to rush outside and carry off some rice on their shoulders, to enter deserted houses to loot them. The good food had been carried away by the Việt Cộng during the first several days of the upheaval; what remains goes to the outcasts who fish in the murky water5 of the lawless situation. I once saw two soldiers taking away a Honda motorbike and several other people carrying a chest, chairs, or bundles with useful things taken from destroyed houses still reeking of dead bodies. Thái has picked up several boxes with stuff and prods me to return back inside. When my mother hears what we have seen, she gets very emotional, on the brink of tears.
“Shame on you; why take from them? You should’ve left it for them so they could eat and get strength to fight.”
Aunt Vạn expresses her concern over and again:
“They indeed deserve pity. Who would think that they’re so friendly, unlike those bastards who cast their fishing lines in the murky water, stealing and looting in the hamlet? And those bastards are still alive, while these soldiers have to endure suffering and enter rough battles.”
We hear the sound of gunfire resounding in the distance. Surely, men are fighting each other again. I think about the soldiers who just tossed me tins with meat and candy bars. They laughed there on the road, but by now, among them, there are those who have fallen down. What will Hue do for them in the days to come? Nothing … Hue is also emaciated, only bones and skin, already completely destroyed. But certainly Hue will still survive, even if it will be made of dying flames, cold ashes, and human bones. Among those soldiers will be men who survive, who even will return to their homes, and who will remain to protect Hue.
Thái has lit a cigarette. He puffs out the smoke that turns into rings; a dot of fire on the end of the cigarette flickers, now small, then big, like a hope that gradually gives me wings and then extinguishes again in my soul.
Precisely at that moment I am suddenly stunned by a noise in the courtyard. Then a voice calls:
A girl’s voice. My mother sits up, on alert. The entire family flocks out of the shelter. “Oh, Mother, oh Mother, oh Mother, oh Mother …” The voice calling “oh, Mother” doesn’t stop. The panels of the door are wide open. A bicycle flops with a thudding noise on the ground and Hà jumps and rushes to throw her entire self on my mother’s chest: “Mother, Mother, Mother …”
“Child, child … Oh, good God, Hà, three souls and seven vital spirits,6 Hà … you’ve managed to come back, you’ve managed to come back.”
I suddenly look out to the courtyard and see an old man wearing a long black traditional tunic holding the handlebars of a bicycle; he smiles, looking into the house.
My mother shouts:
“Mr. Minh. How did you come back?”
Then my mother cries, cries with happy tears, cries noisily:
“Oh, sir, sir come in here. Sir, please come in here, sir.”
The old man, unruffled, sets his bicycle upright, strokes the flaps of his long black tunic, and then, ascending the doorsteps, enters the house. My mother still holds Hà firmly in her arms. The old man whom my mother calls Mr. Minh points to Hà:
“I’ve brought this little devil down here for you, aunt. She has been demanding to go for several days now, and she has been tormenting me, indeed without any fault of my own.”
Hà wipes her tears:
“Mr. Minh has brought me down here, Mother.”
Mr. Minh, while sitting down on a chair, looks around the house:
“What luck, the house hasn’t been seriously damaged at all.”
My mother, prodding me to bring some water, at the same time asks Mr. Minh:
“Sir, how are Lễ and his family up there?”
“Not bad. They indeed are still up there. Your son teacher Lễ burns with impatience; he was so determined to go down here to look for you, aunt. I had to prevent him. The two of us, I and your child, every day were looking for a way to come down here, but it was impossible to do it.”
“Have any of my grandchildren been hurt?”
My mother stops; her eyes turn pale in expectation. Mr. Minh drinks a mouthful of water:
“Not bad. Oh, only Hy, the younger sister of Lễ’s wife, was directly hit by a piece of shell, which entered her leg. But not bad, there are several medics over there, and they have bandaged her.”
Thanks to the old man wearing a black silk tunic and Hà, who give us their accounts, I learn much more about the situation up at Từ Đàm. My elder brother Lễ’s family had to abandon their house and move to hide at the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan. Around it, everything has been almost completely reduced to rubble. During the first several days, the Việt Cộng occupied a pagoda for a barracks and a makeshift hospital, but later they gradually withdrew up to the mountains and assigned only a few of their people to stand guard and dig underground shelters for combat. Mr. Minh tells us that now in the pagoda there are hundreds of refugees, and around the pagoda a lot of houses have completely collapsed. On both sides of the road from the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan going down to Bến Ngự Bridge, not a single house has remained intact. My elder brother’s family fled to the house of Venerable Phan along with a lot of other families and refugees. Hà points at the old man:
“Do you know who this is, elder sister? This is Mr. Võ Thành Minh.”
Seeing me stupefied, she adds:
“Mr. Minh is the person who played a flute on the shores of the lake in Geneva where he opposed the division of our country in 1954, elder sister.”
I look at the old man, who is still busy recounting stories for my mother. Hà continues:
“You don’t know Mr. Minh, elder sister? He is also called Võ Song Thiết.”
I surely know about him but never before met him in person. I ask in a low voice:
“What does he do now?”
“He is in charge of the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan; he was Venerable Phan’s comrade, elder sister. Listen: during the several days of fighting, thanks to Mr. Minh, a lot of people have escaped death. It’s very joyful.”
“You’re calling it ‘joyful’? Oh heavens, death is everywhere, and you say ‘joyful’?”
“Mr. Minh says that in any circumstances we still must try to enjoy life. Mr. Minh isn’t afraid of death at all. He is on the go throughout each day, elder sister. He goes to distribute rice, to transport wounded, to visit places …”
I look very attentively at the old man. He wears a black silk traditional tunic, pants made of white fabric, and on his head a black beret.
I don’t know where my mother found betel, but she brings it out and offers it to Mr. Minh to chew at his leisure. His face is intelligent and kind. Looking at him, it is easy for people to quickly feel at ease and to be sympathetic with him rather than to be suspicious or to want to cross-examine him. Two bicycles are still in the courtyard. The drizzle has not yet stopped, and the sounds of guns still resound in the distance. My mother suddenly asks:
“What road did you take to get here, sir?”
“We took all kinds of roads. We’ve been trying for several days. One day we went down past Đua-Ra Mansion and saw fighting there with heavy gunfire, so we had to turn back. Hà was boiling over with impatience.”
My mother raises her eyes full of reproach and looks at my younger sister. Hà bows her head and gives a light smile.
Mr. Minh continues his denunciations:
“When I would tell her to stay in the house, she wouldn’t listen to me. When I went somewhere, she would go with me. Several days ago the two of us climbed up Ngự Bình Mountain to watch the fighting, with an intention to again look for a road to come down here. While they were fighting, artillery lobbed in - bang, bang - we climbed up the mountain to find cover and the two of us rolled down from halfway up the mountain and then lay buried in a bomb crater. A real horror. But somehow Hà liked it very much. This child, her guts are indeed the guts of a courageous revolutionary.”
My mother attentively listens to Mr. Minh, and her face is at times pale, at times joyful. She sighs when she looks at Hà, who looks at her, and she laughs:
“Ah, you’re really something!”
“Yes, the two of us went up to Đua-Ra Mansion and Hà took along a still brand-new pair of shoes.”
“It was so scary, sir. The entire Đua-Ra Mansion is covered in blood, isn’t it?”
“Monkey, it is so, and you still went. You’re really …”
Perhaps afraid to worry my mother, Hà turns a deaf ear to her words and switches to another story:
“Mr. Minh, here, my elder sister is here, sir.”
I have to nod my head to greet Mr. Minh. Having just met him, I immediately feel sympathetic toward him. Thanks to the words of the youth Lê7 who escaped disasters, came here, and told us his story some days before, I don’t feel a stranger, even for a moment, with Mr. Minh.
“Hà has been always talking about you, elder sister.”
“Oh, sir, please don’t address me as ‘elder sister’ anymore. I’m just a child for you. Consider me to be like Hà.”
Mr. Minh nods:
“All right. It will be easy to address you the same way. What a pity. You, child, have come here and gotten trapped, right?”
“How many children do you have?”
“Yes sir, two.”
“What a pity.”
Hà pitches in:
“Listen, elder sister, Mr. Minh is very artsy. Up in Từ Đàm they are fighting and the shooting is roaring, but Mr. Minh keeps getting together with young people who escaped in the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan, and, moreover, he plays musical instruments and sings songs all day long.”
“The Liberation Army left you in peace, sir, when you were making such a noise, correct?”
“The first several days it was the case. Then, we started to worry about getting young people out of there. I told several young people to go down to Bến Ngự Bridge and to go on a hunger strike opposing the war.”
I find this hilarious:
“Sir, surely you’re joking.”
Hà winks at me, giving me a sign not to talk anymore. Then she turns to Mr. Minh:
“Sir, show my elder sister the paper the Liberation Front gave you to be able to travel.”
Mr. Minh laughs, gently and good-naturedly:
“Hà, you’re saying nonsense. This paper is nothing. I can go anywhere because I’m nobody’s slave. I am absolutely against war - the war itself is what I am against.”
Hà keeps talking:
“Mr. Minh still writes letters to Hồ Chí Minh and even to the American president expressing his opposition, and he also appeals to the world.”
“I act alone, so what goal can I achieve? But even so, I still keep doing this; right, child?”
He raises his eyes to me and smiles. I nod. He continues:
“Will you dare to go out with me to sit under the bridge to oppose the war?”
“You’re kidding, sir.”
My mother pitches in:
“Sir, could you help to bring Lễ with his wife and children down here, sir?”
“I and Hà scrabbled our way to come down here. It’s so difficult to escape. Today we had to circle around Đua-Ra Mansion, then circle down to the railroad crossing, but it didn’t work. We then circled around to Tây Thiên intersection. Up there, artillery was shooting like rain, and only when we went up to Tây Thiên did the explosions abate.”
Seeing tears running in long streaks from my mother’s eyes, Mr. Minh comforts her:
“We are in the same boat with others. Listen - if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about anything.”
“Elder sister, look outside, see? Mr. Minh’s bicycle is over there. It has a bag for rice. He has carried and distributed a lot of good rice, and what remains are only broken pieces. All day long, Mr. Minh distributes rice and transports the wounded. He has only that bicycle.”
Mr. Minh’s bicycle is set against the pillar of a flower arbor, and from the handlebars dangles a rice bag made of fabric stretched to its utmost. I look at Mr. Minh; he had taken his hat off, and now suddenly he hastily puts it on:
“That’s it; I must go. I must go back up to Từ Đàm.”
My mother begs him insistently:
“Sir, stay to have a meal; then you’ll leave. Now, sir, listen, they are fighting.”
“Fighting each other, never mind them. I am leaving. See, this afternoon, I still have to go to transport wounded and to find provisions. Up there they are now out of food.”
“When will you come down here, sir?”
“Tomorrow when you, sir, come down, I will go up again with you, OK?”
My mother scolds:
“You are just inventing funny stories, aren’t you; why would you demand to go?”
Mr. Minh sides with Hà:
“It doesn’t matter - the matter of life and death is all in the hands of fate, aunt. Listen, this child is very brave. If I’m still able to make a revolution, I shall immediately let her follow me.”
My mother, careful not to hurt Mr. Minh’s feelings, keeps silent. Hà reminds Mr. Minh time and again to remember to come back tomorrow. I and Hà take Mr. Minh outside and up the lane; he says:
“That’s it - now go back inside. It’s very dangerous to stand outside.”
“Oh sir, when you get back there please tell my elder brother about us, in case he’s worried. Say that mother and I and the entire family are down here and are completely safe.”
“Sir, will you remember tomorrow to come down here, sir?”
Mr. Minh gets on his bicycle and pedals away, his black robe gradually disappearing behind a turn. I say:
“That’s it. Let’s go inside.”
“Down here is very quiet, right, elder sister?”
I don’t have the heart to tell my younger sister about artillery lobbing at random at dawn. I also keep quiet about the clashes occurring each day on the National Highway. If there are a few shots of AKs or some B40 grenades behind the fields and our hamlet, then the entire road can be destroyed by the returning fire. Right on the first day of gunfire, the American army also managed to get up here to An Cựu to check the situation, then later went back to lie low at some place, letting the Việt Cộng rampage here. While they were cutting across to avoid an intersection, a gunshot from somewhere in the direction of Đại Càng Shrine was fired. A unit of the American army stopped, and several Americans went inside the closest house and dragged out a young man. This guy could speak English; he was a student in a pedagogical school in Qui Nhơn who had come back to visit his family. He handed them his papers and conversed with the Americans. But what did they need to know? One gunshot exploded and the unfortunate young man fell down to the ground, his body twisted in death. The Americans climbed on their vehicle and drove back to Phú Bài. From the nearby house everybody poured outside, hugging the corpse of the young man and wailing. Several liberators garrisoned in the houses behind that one came out:
“Down with the American army ruthlessly killing people.”
“Please accept our condolences. This is a valiant death, a person who died for the people, for the country.”
A flag of the blood-red color was placed to cover the face of the dead. A moment later everybody went away. Only the relatives of the dead person remained, their crying and wailing not yet abated, but then their crying was gradually drowned in the sounds of gunfire and explosions resounding far and wide. There are still a lot of other things, but why would I tell them to my younger sister? Only several days ago, the American army lost a rifle and so the soldiers blew up a multistory house. Only several days before that, a family had just returned to one of the houses on the other side of the road. That night, the Liberation Army came in and arrested the head of the household, and he disappeared. That person was a custodian, or bike keeper, or did some kind of a similar job for a branch of the police. He was old and definitely by now has passed into eternity.
Hà is still at my side as we return into the house. She asks:
“Has our family already dug a shelter?”
“If we hadn’t, we would have been dead by now. Each day there are stray bullets, and artillery shells fall close by. It has been quiet here only for the last few days.”
“Over there is very scary. Elder sister, do you know artillery shells fall nonstop, then bombs from the airplanes? The other day several people died, and people are too afraid to go out to the garden to bury them. Airplanes fire down shells like rain, awfully scary.”
My mother has met us at the door. As soon as we slip through the door, she closes it tight once again.
Thái also crawls out of the shelter:
“Hi, elder sister Hà.”
“Wow, when I came, where were you?”
“Hiding in the shelter.”
“Why didn’t you come out?”
“It’s really scary to get out. If I had known it was you, I would’ve come out. But if you turned out to be someone from the liberation, then what?”
“What a monkey you are. I came back and you are not glad.”
“I’m just joking. When I heard your voice, I was as happy as I could be. When I heard a male voice, I thought there were a lot of people, so I got scared. Listen, elder sister, these several days they come back and arrest people; they are very cruel. If you hear the hooting of owls, it means they’re back.”
“Wow, is it so similar to what’s going on up there? Up there each night the hooting of owls is heard everywhere. Awfully scary.”
“This is their secret signal.”
My mother has not completely clarified some things for herself:
“But how is it that they let you go, child?”
“The first several days they forbade it, then artillery fired up so much that they let those who wanted to leave go. But if adult men or young men wanted to leave, they would be arrested.”
That evening, fortunately, I and my younger sister lie next to each other, with Hà telling me stories from Từ Đàm. She lets me know that all the pagodas have collapsed. The Liberation Army hung a flag and established its headquarters right at Linh Quang Pagoda, and it organized classes and training there. The first several days no one got out of the houses. In the houses, shelters were made. Outside, the Liberation Army dug foxholes. The atmosphere seemed to be very tense. But the first several days were quiet; no one was very worried or scared … but then when artillery started lobbing up there, people began to panic and evacuate. But to go outside meant death. I ask Hà whether they had hung a red flag with a yellow star. Hà says they had only blood-red flags. During the first day they were ordered to take down the “three-stick-flag” and to find fabric to sew blood-red flags.
Thái inquires about a group of Rural Development cadres who were stationed at the high school several days before Tết. Hà turns melancholy - they ran away somewhere and completely disappeared from the time the gunfire started; their belongings were scattered all over. When Hà went up there, there was nothing left of them. Hà describes for me young female Việt Cộng cadres. They would go to visit with people, entering each house to inquire about those inside, but when they would enter any house they would scare the hell out of the children and old women. Hà tells me a story of a stout Mrs. Xếp. She says:
“Listen, elder sister, it’s very funny: liberators elected Mrs. Xếp to be Liberation Mother. In no time, they [the Communist female cadres] also started to call her Liberation Mother. She was very scared of them. So, each time she saw them coming into her house, she blubbered nonstop: ‘Liberation Mother, Liberation Mother. Here, children, take the bottles with oil from the mother.’ No matter how many bottles of the ‘Double Heaven’ oil were for sale in her shop, she gave them all away to the cadres. When Mrs. Xếp saw them, she would fall down and bob her head up and down on the floor kowtowing - bruising her face and brow.”
I ask Hà whether she was afraid; she says that yes, she was, but the first several days, thanks to having Mr. Minh, it was very merry. Mr. Minh gathered young people to sing songs at the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan. He requested them to write letters opposing the war. The first several days there was no gunfire and Mr. Minh was sitting and typing, clop-clop, and then he would organize singing. He said that singing like that decreases the amount of spare time to be scared. Hà tells us that when she was walking in the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan, she encountered the wife of Professor Lê Văn Hảo, the person whom the Liberation Army made mayor of Hue. I am curious and inquire further. Hà says that the wife said that before Tết, Mr. Hảo told her to buy rice to keep in reserve but didn’t inform her about anything else. Contrary to the words of the young man Lê who also gave us an account of her, Hà says that Mrs. Hảo is very easy to like and also has a child named Nai. Mr. Minh has been helping the woman with all his heart. Mrs. Hảo, like other women, is afraid of artillery fire and is, in general, easily frightened. She is not at all clear about what exactly her husband does.
My mother says that whatever it takes, we must bring my elder brother Lễ and his family down here. It seems that Americans have advanced to Nam Giao Bridge. The two sides are spoiling for a fight and hold defensive positions. If they start fighting, how many people who so far have survived will die?
“Tomorrow Mr. Minh will come back and I will go up to Từ Đàm.”
My mother falls silent. Hà asks:
“Elder sister, will you go up there with me tomorrow?”
I don’t promise Hà; I am still in an infinitely dangerous position. If they know about me, they will find me, and I will certainly be arrested as so many other government officials have been. Thái asks:
“What way can be taken?”
“Go toward Ngự Bình Mountain. There’s no one there; they [the Communist forces] have already completely pulled out from there. The other day, I went with Mr. Minh up Ngự Bình Mountain to observe the two sides firing at each other. Artillery lobbed up to there, and it was very scary … we rolled down the mountain and there are still plenty of scratches on my arms, elder sister. I also went with Mr. Minh to Đua-Ra Mansion. Everywhere is covered with blood and stinking dead bodies …”
“When you were going there, did you see corpses of Americans?”
“Behind Đua-Ra Mansion I saw a few of those. They are bloated and very scary to look at.”
Hà raises her hand and, touching the wall of the shelter, says:
“A shelter like this is very scary. Let’s redo the shelter. It’s quiet here now, but I’m afraid if artillery lobs up here and there’s a stray direct hit, it will be the end.”
My mother remembers several artillery shells that at dawn made a house collapse, killing people, and she gives a heavy sigh:
“What will you use to make a shelter?”
“Tomorrow I will go up there and will buy sandbags and will bring them back. Over there, there’s no shortage of anything to buy.”
Thái also pitches in:
“Up by uncle’s, Bé’s father’s, place, there are still a few sandbags. Tomorrow I will go up to ask elder brother Bé.”
We keep discussing the issue of digging the shelter. Hà says we must not make a shelter in the house, that it’s very dangerous. If the house collapses and the shelter does not collapse, we still can’t exit and might end up dead because everything will be clogged up. In the end, we discuss making a shelter tomorrow outside in the courtyard. My mother says: “That’s it; go to sleep now.” Hà hugs me, and I also circle my arms around her. It’s really fortunate that while so many people have died and so many families have been destroyed, I and my younger sister can still lie next to each other. Talking and talking, we forget even the sound of gunfire, which is still roaring, now close by, then far away. A moment later Thái says:
“Shooting is very fierce, elder sister.”
Hà gives her opinion:
“It’s not really fierce here. Up there, explosions roar everywhere; it always seems like they are about to explode on top of your head.”
“So are the Việt Cộng dying?”
“Sure, they are. We stayed in the house; in the shelter it was good but still not completely quiet, much less for them when they are in those tiny foxholes. In front of our house, there was still a guard-liberator.”
“Did he talk with you?”
Hà falls silent. My mother bursts into angry words in a low voice:
“Sleep now; you are talking nonstop. Go to sleep; tomorrow morning we will need strength to dig a new shelter.”
I think about my elder brother; now he is with his wife and children in a dark shelter, not knowing whether or not American and Vietnamese armies will attack Từ Đàm tonight. In just an hour or a minute everything can change completely. Who knows whether tomorrow my younger sister will be able to come back from up there? The same for myself - who knows whether or not we are now in a safe area and whether or not it will still be possible for me to go to Saigon to see my husband and children again?
But then I don’t have strength to keep thinking. I close my eyes and sleep peacefully amid the sounds of artillery exploding fast and thick, plowing and crushing a dreamy, romantic, and beautiful city.
1. The author indicated that her use of the pronoun “them” here was not supposed to condemn either side of the conflict but reflected the grief and frustration of the son who lost beloved members of his family. Implicitly, however, again according to the author, the son was accusing Communists who seized Hue and provoked American and South Vietnamese forces to counterattack.
2. Referred to as xe lam from the trademark “Lambretta.”
3. According to the author, the Communists spread these rumors to agitate people.
4. Another group of local militia along with the Self-Defense Forces.
5. A common Vietnamese metaphor for those who use war as an opportunity to loot.
6. This expression reflects the Vietnamese belief that a person has several souls and vital spirits, which can disappear in the moments of danger. According to the author, the mother here appeals to Hà’s souls and vital spirits to return into her since the mother thought they had deserted Hà on her way full of dangers.
7. Lê is the youth who related his story in chapter 5.