Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 9. A Dog in Midstream
We Sleep through the night; when we wake up, IT’s already light and the roads are suddenly bustling. A lot of [Nationalist] soldiers from Phú Bài are coming up National Highway No. 1. They go on foot along the road one by one, carrying their rucksacks. They walk and look around, looking at both sides of the road, and smile, greeting people who stand by the road following the soldiers with their eyes. I don’t know for how long she had kept it, but an old woman displays a basket full of cigarettes to sell at Xay T-junction. Several soldiers stop:
“Mother, sell me a box of Ruby, Mother.”
“If you want a box, go ahead and take it. How would I know which one is Ruby?”
Someone’s voice asks:
“So, where are these cigarettes you sell from, Mother?”
“Ah? Where are the cigarettes from? Yeah, I evacuated and came here; I saw an abandoned house, and there was this basket with cigarettes under the bed there. When I saw you passing by, I thought to sell them to buy food.”
“How much do you want, Mother?”
“How would I know? Anything will do.”
The soldier pulls out his wallet and takes out a banknote of two hundred dongs and hands it to the old woman. The woman is astonished:
“So much? A few tens are enough.”
“Mother, take all this and spend it.”
“No, no. You are going to fight the enemy; take it and buy food for yourselves. I give you the cigarettes as a gift, not this …”
Several other soldiers stop; they draw out banknotes – a hundred, two hundred – and take cigarettes. In a moment all the cigarettes are completely gone. The old woman holds a fistful of money, banknotes of hundreds. She runs after the soldiers:
“Oh, elder brothers, I don’t take money. Why did you give me so much?”
Several heads turn, laughing:
“Mother, keep it and buy food. As for us, we don’t know if we die or live.”
“We are going to face the bullets, Mother.”
“Wish you luck, Mother.”
The unit goes ahead and leaves the old woman far behind. Another unit is coming up; seeing the old woman, running and shouting, they don’t understand what’s going on. They pull from their rucksacks small cans and toss them down at the woman’s feet:
“Are you hungry, ma’am? Here, take something to eat.”
“Ma’am, are your children still alive?”
A lot of inquiring voices. A lot of small cans fall next to the woman’s feet. She has not yet managed to pick them up when several children appear out of nowhere and pick everything up. Several soldiers chide them in good spirit:
“Shame on you. Leave all this to the old person, you brats.”
The children break into a run. Some cans are handed to the old woman. Several soldiers are solicitous:
“It’s enough, ma’am; please go back home. Don’t run after us; it’s very dangerous.”
The soldiers continue to walk. I and Thái stand, expectantly looking to see whether any groups of refugees are coming back. But when people see many American soldiers coming up, they do not risk being out there anymore. My mother rushes into action to make the shelter; she forgets that we do not yet have any sandbags. Units of soldiers keep going by until around noon and then stop. With our minds at peace, we set the table to eat. For a long time we haven’t had such a complete and sumptuous meal. Uncle Giáo’s wife continues to regularly send up food to us. Today we have meat cooked in a fish sauce and fresh papaya. Aunt Vạn is thrifty with food; the cooked meat is really salty, but we eat it and it still tastes as delicious as ever to us. When my mother inquires about what the situation with food and drinks is at Từ Đàm, Hà says that, thanks to Mr. Minh, food and drinks were very much in abundance. Whenever Mr. Minh came back, he brought meat and vegetables. But during several days when the fighting was really intense and he was busy with transporting wounded, the house ran out of food and several children started crying.
Having finished eating, Thái walks down toward Mù U hamlet, hearing that a market gathers down there. But at Trường Bia post, soldiers chase him back up.
Mr. Minh keeps his promise and indeed returns. When we have just finished eating and are preparing for our noon nap, he wheels his bicycle into our courtyard. The entire household rushes out to invite him into our house:
“Sir, how are they up over there?”
“It’s completely quiet and nothing’s going on. Your son, teacher Lễ, heard that I found you, aunt, with the entire family, and he was very happy.”
Hà bustles in and out:
“I’m going up there with Mr. Minh. What road shall we take, sir?”
“We still go by way of the mountain. A lot of shooting’s going on. I had to tie up the flaps of my tunic, carry the bicycle on my shoulders, and run.”
Hà looks enthusiastic:
“I’m going with you. Mother, I am going to get ready to go with Mr. Minh.”
My mother is worried:
“Is it possible to get through, child?”
“Possible, indeed possible.”
“If so, why hasn’t Lễ come back yet?”
“It’s possible to get through for people who are just by themselves, but he’s tied up with wife and children, and on top of it, Hy, Lễ’s wife’s younger sister, is wounded, so how would they go?”
Then Mr. Minh speaks:
“Hà, go get ready. Vân” – addressing me – “pour me a bit of water.”
Aunt Vạn asks:
“Sir, have you brought rice to distribute?”
“Certainly I have. There’s a bag of rice over there.”
Hà has finished her preparations; she wheels her bicycle out and is ready to go with Mr. Minh up to Từ Đàm. My mother takes a little bit of food and forces Hà to take it up over there. Hà says she’ll be back in the evening, and we’ll have sandbags. After they go, I and Thái look for a place to dig a shelter. We decide to dig right in the front yard. Thái starts working. We disassemble the old shelter to make another new shelter.
This afternoon, Hà comes back without Mr. Minh; she also doesn’t have her bicycle. Two students are with her; their faces are pale green as though they have long been deprived of sunlight. Their hair is disheveled and tangled. Hà says:
“Here are a couple of students – Chữ and Hát.”
My mother asks:
“How come these young guys were able to leave and Lễ couldn’t?”
“Mother, it’s impossible for him to escape from there. They watch very thoroughly up there. If elder brother Lễ goes, they would know immediately. I had to pretend to go in and out tens of times and only then managed to sneak these guys out.”
“So, they didn’t see?”
“They did. There was a guy there on guard in front of the door and he saw. I was scared to death and was afraid he would shoot. But when he saw us, he didn’t say anything at all. He just followed us with his eyes.”
“Did you wink at him, elder sister Hà?”
“Monkey, I was afraid to death, and you’re annoying me. But that guy, he’s still young, and he’s very kind.”
“Has he ever talked with you, elder sister?”
“No, very little.”
“Has he looked at you, elder sister?”
“Looks like he likes you, elder sister.”
The two students smile reluctantly. My mother invites them inside:
“Please, come into the house – don’t stand outside there, or else they [the Communist forces] will be spying on us.”
Hà leads the way:
“Come in, come into the house and take a rest.”
The two students trudge in, each carrying huge bundles of sandbags. “It’s now enough to build a shelter,” says Hà. My mother asks why Mr. Minh hasn’t come down. Hà says he’s busy transporting the wounded. Americans have already gotten to Bến Ngự Bridge; thanks to them getting up to the bridge, the Liberation Army had to withdraw to the mountains, and then all at once a lot of people were able to flee. Hà tells us that up at Từ Đàm, artillery lobs down like rain, each day more and more fiercely.
As soon as evening comes on that day, the entire household joins efforts to dig the new shelter. Not until the following day do we finish building it. We still keep the old shelter inside the house because there are too many of us. We have been able to buy some food, and each time Mr. Minh comes down we send up there with him a little food for the family of my elder brother.
The next day, an audacious family escapes from Từ Đàm by way of Tây Thiên and is able to come to An Cựu. They carry on their shoulder poles a lot of their stuff because the husband and wife are owners of a provision store. Passing by our house, they rush in and ask to stay with us temporarily. My mother agrees immediately. They at once occupy the kitchen quarters and hurriedly take off the door to make a shelter. The head of this household was also able to bring along a moped and even kerosene. He has a daughter named Nga of the same age as Hà. Thus, the two young girls discuss with each other how to go up to Từ Đàm and get in touch with the people who are still stranded there to help them escape to An Cựu.
They make several attempts to get through, but only once are they able to sneak up there. My elder brother Lễ sends word back that they will escape down here to An Cựu, but for fear of being detected they are waiting for the Liberation Army to withdraw first. My mother is the most anxious, and throughout the day, whether sitting or standing, she cannot stay calm. She goes out and comes in; she makes inquiries of evacuees who come by from the Bến Ngự or Từ Đàm areas. Communication with Mr. Minh is cut off for several days. Artillery strikes the road in the mountains, and Hà and the other young girl Nga don’t dare to venture out anymore. But several days later, Mr. Minh comes again; he drops his bicycle with a broken handlebar in the middle of the courtyard and then, sighing, comes into the house. My mother asks immediately:
“What? What’s going on up there, sir?”
“Very dangerous. They are lining up troops and are about to fight each other. Artillery pours down like rain; in a few more days everything will be utterly destroyed.”
“Oh heavens, so what will happen to Lễ’s wife and children?”
Mr. Minh gives a heavy sigh:
“I’m also worried. Whatever it takes, we have to save his family.”
“So, what road did you take here, sir?”
“I went along the side of the river; bullets were falling like rain. Plenty of people running from the dangers of the fighting were wounded. I’ve just taken a wounded person to a hospital in Hue, and then I came here. Over there is now quiet and one can go back and forth. At the post office and the treasury building, several Việt Cộng corpses still lie sprawled with their feet tied to machine guns; it was so sickening to see …”
The two students run out, and Mr. Minh says:
“And you brats, you haven’t gone to the hospital yet? You must go to the hospital and help people there. Out there it is quiet, so nothing bad will happen.”
Mr. Minh turns back to Hà:
“Child, go check if there’s a place that can fix the handlebar for me, child.”
Hà carries the bike away on her shoulders and then brings it back:
“There’s no one to fix it. Sir, take my bicycle.”
“Yes, fine. Auntie, give me a piece of betel. I have to leave now.”
My mother again sends a bit of food up to Từ Đàm. These several days near Trường Bia post there was a market and people slaughtered a whole pig to sell for meat, and there were vegetables brought up from Mai market to sell. I hold Hà’s hand and we see Mr. Minh out to the road. Hà looks hesitant and keeps reminding Mr. Minh:
“Sir, listen sir, remember whenever you have some spare time, come down here. Sir, don’t stay over there anymore.”
Mr. Minh turns back to Hà and scolds her:
“Silly child, don’t be sad. I’m still taking care of many people over there. Let me bring your elder brother with his family here. Put your mind at peace – don’t worry.”
When Mr. Minh finishes speaking, he climbs up on the bicycle and immediately pedals away toward An Cựu Bridge. Thái runs out, and the three of us also walk toward the bridge. Americans stand guard there, and the Transportation Station also has soldiers guarding it. Our area is now completely safe; we worry only about our elder brother and his wife who are still in the most dangerous area. Young people who fled the fighting and came back here have pedaled bicycles out to Kiểu Mẫu School to check on the situation in the streets. The battles on that side seem very ferocious. Certainly, up at Từ Đàm it’s also like this. When we are walking, we meet a group of people coming from the direction of the bridge, some by motorized transportation, some on foot. We hear a moped stopping next to us. I look up and shout for joy:
“Elder brother Trai.”
Here’s my cousin sitting on a moped, happy and asking excitedly:
“Has Lễ already come back here? Is all your family fine?”
I reply sadly:
“The family is fine, but Lễ and his wife are still stranded at Từ Đàm.”
Trai laughs. His attitude toward us continues to be very cheerful:
“He has already returned back to his house up there. Listen, when things calm down, come to visit. Don’t worry about Lễ; nothing has happened. Is there any news for him?”
Trai intends to leave, then puts down the brace of his moped:
“Shame on stupid me … I have this.”
He slips his hand into the pocket of his coat. There’s something big bulging in it. Trai fishes for something in his pocket and pulls out a fertilized duck egg, still warm. He keeps pulling out several more eggs:
“To each person a fertilized duck egg.”
Before he leaves, Trai recommends:
“Don’t go out to the bridge. Americans are guarding there and they shoot incessantly. People who flee the fighting are crying out there.”
“From where are they coming?”
“I ran away from there as fast as I could, so I didn’t ask.”
There are several sounds of scattered gunfire, and Thái pulls me to go back.
That day, Bé comes down to help us pile more earth on top of the shelter, and he says that he will go to report for duty. He says that tomorrow he will bring his family down to Phù Lương to a refugee camp because they have run out of rice for food. Thái is also burning with impatience and asks to go to report for duty, too. Several Regional Forces [Nationalist] soldiers pedaling their bicycles past us let us know the news: the [Nationalist] army has closed up on the right bank and has successfully completed suppressing the Việt Cộng, so people are just now returning, and all those who are members of the military or government employees must report for duty immediately. One can go up to the Provincial Seat or to Kiểu Mẫu School, where there is also an office. Thái goes at once to change his clothes, even though my mother and I attempt in vain to hinder him.
Two hours later, Thái comes back. He says that it’s now possible to use the road on the right bank; American and South Vietnamese armies have completely occupied it. In the streets, bullets fall like rain and smoke rises, darkening the sky. At Từ Đàm, Americans and Vietnamese have not yet completely suppressed the Việt Cộng, and they dare not rush across Bến Ngự Bridge or Nam Giao Bridge. Civilians who are fleeing the fighting shout and cry on the other side of the bridges. Thái also tells us that the buildings of the Provincial Seat and the Bureau of Representatives are still full of Việt Cộng corpses, which no one has buried yet. The two students who came with my younger sister Hà say good-bye to our family to go to Hue hospital to care for those who are hurt from the fighting. Seeing that it makes sense, we don’t hold them back. I ask Thái whether he has already reported for duty. Thái says that he has and will go tomorrow to receive his weapons and assignment. Thái lets us know that his commanding officer was killed, and furthermore a woman, who was a low-level cadre at the Ministry of Rural Development, was beheaded and her arms and legs completely chopped off. The Provincial Seat is vacant, and it seems that the head of the province has also been killed. A lot of rumors – random and awfully disgusting.
Also on this afternoon Thái leaves for a while; when he comes back, he brings our family half a bag of rice, which he procured thanks to his talent in conducting a lively conversation. My mother looks at the bag of rice and is happy to the point of tears.
Since the day when I was able to get in touch with my office, I have been without any means of communication. I borrow a moped belonging to the family temporarily lodging in our kitchen quarters and call for Thái to go down to Thanh Lam with me again. This time we are more fortunate, and I manage to get in touch directly with Saigon and am assured that my family is still safe and sound. I only need to wait for an airplane, and then I will be able to escape. Another day passes. Từ Đàm is still mired in smoke and fire, amid bombs and bullets, and we have absolutely no news about my elder brother. Then people from Bảo Quốc Pagoda1 flee here, and people from Bến Ngự are able to get here. Mr. Minh disappears without a trace. Everyone is absorbed in his or her own business. I try to do my best to discover any information about his whereabouts but have no luck. Two days later, a young man named Khánh passes by and drops in for a visit; he gives us the news that Uncle Đội Hòa, my mother’s brother, has passed away. Uncle was in charge of music at the royal palace. He was old but still in very good health. His house is next to the steps of Bảo Quốc Pagoda. It was a simple thatched hut, and in the courtyard were flowerpots and pots with ornamental trees. In his house there was an abundance of different kinds of musical instruments, from really ancient ones to the most modern. When I was little, I always dreamed that uncle would give me a zither, and he would say:
“If you study well, child, I will give you an instrument from the old times, which belonged to His Majesty; His Majesty played so skillfully that ghosts would stand outside to hear him.”
But I didn’t learn anything about national music, and I didn’t dare ask for that precious instrument, either. Now Uncle Đội Hòa has died? Where did he die? When he was fleeing the fighting or at home? What about the fate of the instruments, of the thatched hut? My voice trembles when I ask the young man. Khánh says that Uncle Đội Hòa fled to the place in front of Khánh’s house near the post office. Over there it was still quiet, but suddenly a stray artillery shell fell down. Uncle was directly hit by a small shell fragment that went into his temple, and so he fell down and lay there, his body spread out; he was in full possession of his heart and mind, waiting until all his blood would run out, his body would dry up, and he would die. Tears overflow from my eyes. I have cried too much. Before the upheaval of this Tết, I cried because of the death of my father. When the city was crumbling into pieces, I cried together with so many people, and now I’m crying for a kind uncle-artist who always tried to maintain an old-fashioned, dignified appearance in front of the children. And I also cry for the instruments; so many of my uncle’s treasures were also the last treasures of our national music, and they, like my uncle, are no more either, buried in the smoke and fire of war.
My mother also sits stunned for a moment. I’m certain that my mother calls to mind times when she, together with uncle, lived in the resplendent Royal Citadel – the sounds of musical instruments and the sounds of castanets, mornings with elegant music resounding far and wide, dresses and hats and the sound of music on the days when the king held court. My mother also used to study music with my uncle when she was small. When Grandfather became angry over her lack of talent, my uncle would protect her from his wrath.
“But are you certain that it’s Mr. Đội Hòa himself indeed, or did you only hear someone talking about it?”
“No, I saw with my own eyes. He died in my house.”
I firmly hold my mother’s hands. Her hands are shaking. A moment passes and then my mother asks, choking with emotion:
“And what about his wife?”
“Please madam, nothing with her, she has survived.”
My mother turns to me:
“There’s nothing we can do but to go fetch her and bring her here, child.”
But Khánh shakes his head. There or here it can be safe and quiet, but it can also be that stray artillery shells will fall at any moment. Besides, there’s no certainty that my uncle’s wife has not yet left. Khánh tells us that my uncle’s family left their house when it was burning. My uncle turned back, appealing to Heaven and Earth, wanting to rush back into the house to die together with his instruments. People had to drag him away. Since then, uncle did not say a word to anyone until he was directly hit by a shell fragment and died.
So, this is the end, from the eldest person, the most ancient one like my uncle, to little crossbred Vietnamese Americans – they all have been killed in the whirlwind of war. How many tons of ammunition are pouring down on the heads of people in the city of Hue? These several days the airplanes flying over the city are countless. Standing by the National Highway, we can see jets flying swiftly like lightning and dropping load after load of bombs, followed by the sounds of explosions, which even though reverberating from far away are still endlessly terrifying. We go out farther and stand on this side of the river looking across: Đông Ba market has become flat ground; houses in the downtown area seem to be tightly wrapped in smoke and dust. With each explosion, dust and bricks and tiles fly up in bits and pieces, as if a gigantic firecracker explodes, throwing corpses up into the air.
My mother hears the news about Uncle Đội Hòa’s passing, but when no news comes about Mr. Võ Thành Minh, she becomes dismayed. Sometimes when she’s sitting and eating, she sets aside her bowl and chopsticks, takes her face into her arms, and cries. I am afraid that my mother is going crazy. In this situation, anyone can go crazy – like an old acquaintance of my family fleeing the fighting and passing by whom my mother takes in. The woman cries nonstop; she tells stories that don’t make any sense. Then suddenly she bursts out laughing:
“I’ve never seen such a huge blaze. Dead people burn like pigs on a spit.”
After finishing laughing, the woman suddenly again takes her face into her hands and cries. Every moment her craziness is apparent.
At noon the next day, Thái manages to get in touch with his unit. When he comes back, Thái reports the news:
“A lot of people from Từ Đàm and Bến Ngự have come here. Our side used airplanes to appeal to people, advising them to flee from there so that the army could stream up there, unobstructed, to fight the enemy.”
My mother jumps up and down like a child:
“Really? Who will go to pick up Lễ and his family? Go at once.”
I, Thái, and Hà immediately volunteer to go. We go out toward An Cựu Bridge. I suppose that my elder brother and his wife, if they go, would be able to go only by the riverbank. The Liberation Army will withdraw up into the mountains, and surely up there gunfire is shaking the sky. We walk out to the bridge. Many people are fleeing the fighting. They run, carrying poles on their shoulders with two baskets containing their belongings, putting even children into the baskets. Thái wanders about, inquiring, but no one wants to reply or, if there is a reply, the response doesn’t help us in any way. Several American soldiers stand guard at the two ends of the bridge watching groups of disheveled and bedraggled people fleeing the fighting; the soldiers laugh among themselves, narrow their eyes, and make jokes, and sometimes they raise their guns up and fire warning shots into the air. When the groups of people hear the gunshots, they take to their heels and rounds of amused laughter explode behind their backs.
People run with dogs; dogs run with people. Dogs from somewhere run following the groups of people, and there are so many of them. A black dog is trampled upon by jostling feet rushing from the end of the bridge down to the river shore. Suddenly a gunshot rings out and the dog emits a pitiful sound, rolls, and falls down into the water; noisy laughter bursts out. Several black and white Americans stand on the bridge and keep shooting to prevent the dog from swimming to the shore. The dog gradually gets farther and farther away from the shore, howling plaintively; it’s absolutely heartrending. The bullets are still fired nonstop, but it seems they don’t intend to kill the dog, only to prevent it from getting to shore. Some bullets are off target and hit the road on the riverbank; other bullets ripple under the water. A group of evacuees runs up in confusion; their shouts and cries echo in the sky. The louder grow the shouts and cries, the louder the laughter of the Americans. The people fall and then get up, get up and then fall headlong. Why is my nation in this position? Why is the dog over there still trying, with great difficulty, to get to the shore to regain its life? I feel such a pity for my people, for my country, that human life is worth less than a joke, less than a dog. I bend down and pick up a stone and hold it firmly in my hand. I tightly squeeze the stone as though I squeeze my own heart. Throw it – sling it into their faces: barbaric inhuman thugs. At some point I see a group of people running with difficulty, shrieking and crying, frightened. I suddenly feel deep resentment inundating me. A small yellow-skinned nation – what profit can be gotten from it? The dog has roamed nonstop during so many days that its saliva has dried out, and it is covered with sores all over its body; its heart fails. I raise the stone up. Go ahead – throw it. Throw it into their faces, then whatever comes, let it be. But no, what will the stone achieve? The dog is very far from the shore. It tries to make several more sounds, then its front paws can’t swim anymore and it strikes the water right and left at random. I release the stone, and it falls down on the ground. The screaming group of people has passed over a section of the road where a number of parcels fell down and did not get picked up. Another group of people continues to go forward. The dog now has completely sunk under the water, letting the cold stream take it along while the red blood turns to pink on the surface of the blue water. I swallow my saliva, my throat is dry and bitter, and tears are about to well up in my eyes. Thái stands at my side, silent. Both his and Hà’s faces are pale in an agony and a humiliation that will never be possible to wipe out.
A black hand raises and waves to us. A tin with meat is tossed and rolls to my feet. Not knowing what to think, Thái strongly kicks the tin with meat. It rolls, falls down into the river, and sinks into the deep. Several peals of vile laughter resound. I raise a kerchief to wipe tears and, choking with emotion, tell my younger siblings:
“Let’s go back.”
Before leaving, I again pick up a stone and hold it in my hand but eventually do nothing with it. Just a single stone, but the consequences of throwing it at the soldiers could trigger three shots – and three lives. At this moment, any yellow-skinned person could be an enemy with just a glance from the foreigners with blue eyes.
Cry … cry … scream without restraint, cry with the beloved native land that is squirming as its spine is being broken. A group of people passes by, and then another one follows. Faded, soulless eyes, hands firmly clasped to bundles with clothes and possessions that remain – they continue to go by. Burned grass, fallen trees, and collapsed houses. The turquoise stream of the river, poetic in springtime, has been swollen with the blood of people and of dogs. Piles of bricks grow higher day by day. The stone I firmly hold in my hand – what is it for? I hurl it at a destroyed house. The stone disappears at once without a trace.
By the end of that morning I hear more very sad news. In the city of Hue, it looks like the fighting is almost finished. Tràng Tìền Bridge is destroyed, and American army engineers try to install a temporary bridge to transfer troops across the river; heavy machine guns, automatic rifle fire, and airplanes shoot down like rain on houses already destroyed. In the city, people do not dare to run outside to escape, so they dig holes in walls from one house to another and in this manner escape toward Gia Hội or run in the opposite direction up to Kim Long. People tell about the death of Mr. Tinh Hoa, the owner of a bookstore, who, being extremely hungry and thirsty, rushed outside. Before going outside, he had researched a way to flee by zigzagging, crossing back and forth to avoid bullets. But bullets were still shot at him, and he fell face down and died on the spot. Some people guess that it was the Việt Cộng who shot him, and other people are absolutely sure that it was the Americans who shot him; but whoever fired the shot, Mr. Tinh Hoa nevertheless got killed.
I think about the people still trapped in Từ Đàm and in the Citadel. The entire Citadel is enveloped by high walls: Chánh Tây Gate is the evacuation route for Việt Cộng troops, and in the directions of Thượng Tứ, Đông Ba, and Sập Gates, bullets from airplanes, American bullets, fall like rain. How many people are nervously struggling with this? The sturdiest underground shelters can withstand guns only of small caliber; how can they withstand the penetration of missiles and tons of bombs dropped down each day? And furthermore, what about the venerable old Citadel, the last vestiges of a historical era with golden branches in jade palaces, ancient porcelain vases painted with flowers from hundreds of royal generations, and an abandoned, empty golden throne? Now it’s all finished; Soviet Russian and Czech guns along with American guns have razed to the ground and crushed into bits a venerable old city, a city of history. Never can it be rebuilt again. I have no more hope. Usually I pay little attention to such things as preserving our inheritance from the past, but now, watching tons of bombs being dropped on the Citadel, my heart is squeezed with pain. My mother used to tell me stories about the imperial palace in times past – about the golden mansions and jade palaces and about His Majesty’s residence, and about music in early mornings, and about bells ringing in the evenings, and also about the days of the funeral rituals for Emperor Khải Định, when white tigers were brought to court. So many of these legends, so many of these fantastic episodes were woven into the stories I heard during my childhood; they were even more beautiful and interesting than ancient tales.
That afternoon, something else happens unexpectedly, to the point that our entire family is stunned and flabbergasted; we pinch ourselves to be sure what we see is happening in reality. Having finished our lunch, the entire family sits around, retelling stories for everyone to hear, when there’s a voice calling from the outside:
“Mother, oh Mother.”
My mother forgets everything, slips into her shoes, and rushes into the courtyard. A child named Mai, a maid for my elder brother Lễ and his wife, is carrying one end of a hammock; at the other end is a strange man still very young; and in the hammock is Hy, a younger sister of my sister-in-law. Lying in the hammock, Hy is trying to lift her head to see what’s going on. Mai is shouting, “Mother, oh Mother,” and energetically waving her hand. Hy is carried into the house as Mai points to the road both crying and saying:
“Oh Mother, Master Lễ is running behind, and he is still out on the street.”
I rush outside before anyone else and my mother follows me, then Hà comes, then Thái. Just as we reach the lane, my elder brother comes into view. He pushes a metal children’s stroller in front of him and goes barefoot with his hair hanging down to his ears. In the stroller are two small boys, their faces covered with Mercurochrome,2 and they are about to cry.
I hold my nephews in my arms. The elder niece Ti Na, who runs behind in short steps, also falls onto my chest. My eyes overflow with tears. My nephews also sob. My elder brother points back, behind him:
“My wife is behind over there.”
I leave the children and run up to the bridge. But just as I turn onto Xay T-junction I see her sitting plopped on the ground, her ragged hat on one side. She holds in her arms the tiny one, the newborn, and her face is soaked with tears. I hug the baby and show the way. My sister-in-law doesn’t wear sandals; exhausted, she follows me. Entering the house, my elder brother and his wife stand in front of my father’s altar. My sister-in-law bows her head and cries. Following her lead, the young children cry too. From the eyes of my mother, myself, and Hà, tears stream down, tears of joy and self-pity.
A bit later, only when my elder brother and his wife fully regain their composure, they tell us the story of how they managed to flee the fighting. I inquire what road they took, and my elder brother recounts:
“Shells over there are shot awfully fiercely. The Việt Cộng could not control the area anymore. The American troops came to Nam Giao and Bến Ngự Bridges. Yesterday at nightfall an underground shelter collapsed and crushed to death a little child, a great-grandchild of Venerable Prince Cường Để,3 and another child was wounded. I carried in my arms two little children completely covered in blood. Mrs. Xếp carried another child in her arms. The little ones were set to go first, holding white flags in their hands, and we went down to Bến Ngự Bridge to bring the children to the hospital. Several people also ran following us, and when we got to Bến Ngự Bridge I asked for permission to cross, but I saw that it was very crowded with Americans who were very suspicious and who waved their hands to drive us back away. But our entire group didn’t have time to turn back before the Americans fired at people’s feet with bullets that also grazed next to people’s ears and swished over their heads. The children were crying awfully, and our entire group had to withdraw. The little wounded child could not bear the pain and died.”
My sister-in-law adds:
“Lễ was very brave, Mother. He carried in his hands two small children and was himself all covered in blood. Lift your shirt, Lễ, so that Mother can see.”
My elder brother lifts his shirt; bloody traces have turned bluish-black. He’s thin as a lath, his eyes are dirty yellow, and there’s no blood in his face at all. The children demand food. Hà rummages for food for our nephews. My mother assails Lễ with questions:
“When you got out from there, what happened then, son?”
“Oh, there is nothing left to tell, Mother. Our house is destroyed. There was nothing to take with us. My children had only the sets of clothes they wore. When the guns quieted down, our maid Mai went back to bring some of our stuff stored at the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan. I don’t know whether in a couple of days the altar there will still be intact. Last night, guns still rained down bullets; when it was dark, they [the Communist forces] came back, raised their flags, and trapped our troops. The two sides fired at each other. I was sure that the next day our side would manage to get up over there. I knew that to stay meant death because of the ferocious fighting. Mr. Minh advised us to leave immediately.”
My mother has not yet calmed down after her excitement:
“What road did you take, son? Where was it possible to come down?”
“We followed the railway, Mother. All thanks to Mr. Minh.”
My elder brother points at the young man who had helped to carry the hammock with Hy:
“Mr. Minh had to go up to Tây Thiên and asked this young man to go down with us to help carry Hy. Alone, I would have had to deal with several little children, with Bê who has just given birth, and also with our stuff. Mr. Minh took care of everything; I feel so sorry for him.”
Bê is the name of Lễ’s wife, my sister-in-law. Hà is confused and she asks:
“Why didn’t you ask Mr. Minh to come with you?”
“Mr. Minh was still helping wounded, transporting them. He said that he still couldn’t leave; if he left, he would leave so many people stranded in the circle of artillery, and Mr. Minh could not put his mind at peace about this.”
I pour some water into a cup and invite the young man to drink it. He is around thirty years old, and the features of his face are firm. My elder brother doesn’t hold back his words of gratitude. Hà looks immensely sorrowful and worried about Mr. Minh. My mother inquires about the neighbors. Bê, Lể’s wife, lets us know that the stout Mrs. Xếp, of whom Hà told us earlier, is coming along behind; her maid is lightly wounded, and she limps while helping her mistress. My mother keeps hugging one grandkid after another. I feel sorry for them; they, like a flock of small wounded birds, tremble and shiver whenever they hear the sound of artillery from behind Trường Bia post and raise their hands to cover their heads.
When he finishes his cup of water, the young man who helped to carry Hy is determined to request to take his leave to go back to Tây Thiên. My mother invites him to stay, but he doesn’t want to listen to it as he’s made his decision. He says he must go see Mr. Minh. My elder brother is afraid that something unfortunate may happen on the road. The young man borrows a bicycle and says he’s going by way of Ngự Bình Mountain; surely there won’t be any problem there. My mother solicitously advises time and again that the young man in any case should convey to Mr. Minh her invitation to come over here.
A moment later the stout Mrs. Xếp arrives. Her maid limps, holding her mistress’s hand. When she enters the courtyard, Mrs. Xếp starts to sob:
“Has teacher Lễ arrived yet? Has he arrived yet?”
My elder brother comes out to greet her and invite her into the house. The woman leans her cane against the leg of a chair and looks around and around, and when she sees my mother she starts crying again:
“Oh auntie, I thought that we wouldn’t see each other again … Heaven and Earth, it seems that everything has turned upside-down. Our family is all safe, isn’t it, auntie?”
“Please, ma’am, sit down and rest. Our family is safe. Thanks to Heaven, thanks to Buddha.”
“Glory to the Amitabha Buddha, goddess of compassion; I was so afraid that they would arrest teacher Lễ.”
“I was down here and in a torment of worry about you all the time, ma’am.”
My mother also bursts out crying. Seeing this, Hà jokes with Mrs. Xếp to distract my mother:
“When the Liberation Mother departed, why didn’t the Liberation Children [the Communist soldiers] detain her?”
“Yes, yes … they [the Communist soldiers] have all fled now. They even abandoned their own fathers and mothers.”
The words of Mrs. Xếp make everybody sad, then they also make us burst out laughing, but Mrs. Xếp herself wipes tears:
“Well, aunt, to see each other is precious by itself. The family is still here, and the property is still here …”
Hà asks my elder brother:
“Up there, have they [the Communist forces] completely withdrawn yet?”
My elder brother makes a wry face:
“In fact, they are extremely smart. They have almost withdrawn; only several Việt Cộng guys have remained; they run to a corner and fire back several rounds of bullets, then they get to another corner and fire back several rounds of bullets. The American troops down by the bridge thought there were a lot of them, so they didn’t dare to come up and waited until the Việt Cộng had almost completely withdrawn, leaving only several tens of people with orders to hold their position like that. I have to say, it’s really funny that several of those Việt Cộng guys who stayed behind to tease with their shooting were able to stop the American troops. As for the roads to the mountains, they [the Communist forces] lined up their troops to withdraw there and departed while singing. It seemed that they went as reinforcement to somewhere in the area of Chánh Tây Gate.”
I inquire about an old friend of mine, also a grandchild on the paternal side of Prince Cường Để.
“Has Thạch Hà been able to evacuate?”
“She was hiding together with us at the ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan. When the shelter collapsed, Thạch Hà lost a child. So, I carried that small child in my arms down to Bến Ngự Bridge, and the children, Ti Na and Nô Răng, carried white flags. Mrs. Xếp with several other people followed us. But they [American soldiers] were shooting at our feet to scare us off. Thạch Hà evacuated up to the Tây Thiên area. Thanks only to Mr. Minh, who checked the roads, were we able to come down here.”
My little niece boasts:
“Auntie, auntie, our family’s milk fruit tree has broken down; I picked up two pieces of fruit and they are ripe and smell good.”
I feel both pity and joy. A good healthy tree that for years had been supplying so much fruit – it is nothing to celebrate that, broken and withered, it now yields only two pieces of fruit, which nevertheless the children will enjoy.
After returning to An Cựu, my elder brother becomes calmer and more peaceful. We take care of reorganizing our life. There certainly won’t be enough rice to eat if this situation continues, but our family cannot go back into the evacuated areas to obtain rice or money. Thái has to both report himself and take care of buying rice. I again go to get in touch with my office to see about an airplane to Saigon. But before going to Saigon, I must take care of Hy because her wounds have been left unattended for a long time and now are getting infected. I no sooner request assistance at the office than the roads are again becoming difficult to get through. I reconcile myself with trying to wait.
The next afternoon, more families come down from Từ Đàm, and among them is the family of an old teacher of mine with his children, who are also teachers, and their little children. My elder brother Lễ greets them and brings them into the house; everyone is barefoot and looks exhausted. We get to know more about the situation in Từ Đàm. We learn that after my elder brother had escaped, the Việt Cộng returned again and took away with them some young people. Only those very clever at hiding were able to escape. Mr. Minh, it seems, has also been detained. Hà, frightened, shouts out:
“How can it be that Mr. Minh was also arrested?”
Teacher Liên, the old teacher of mine, has aged; he shakes his head in despair:
“Last evening they still shot several young people near the school.” My mother asks:
“Up there, have the guns subsided yet, teacher?”
“Oh, they explode like rain with a cascading noise, each day fiercer and fiercer. We took the risk of dying when we decided to leave. Thanks to Heaven and thanks to Buddha, only when we got here did we know that we will live.”
Our house is filled with utter joy. Next morning, everybody is making underground shelters. Each family occupies a corner of the courtyard; anything still remaining in the house that can be pulled out for making shelters is used. But we don’t worry about anything; even if we disassemble the entire house to make one more shelter, everyone works with all his or her strength and is happy to do it.
Families from other nearby houses are coming back, making a lot of noise; they also make underground shelters to protect from artillery. A small market assembles in front of the road leading to Trường Bia post. A few taverns have opened. Vitality rises really fast; only several days ago houses and neighborhoods were desolate, as though they would never breathe again. And just two or three days later, people have returned. Everywhere there are people, there is breath, and it means that there are taverns, there is smoke from cooking, and there are meals to eat. But it’s also absolutely heartbreaking that next to this scene, about a kilometer away, perhaps two kilometers, blood still continues to flow. In the morning, units of [Nationalist] Special Forces troops, paratroopers, and marines cross the National Highway, their faces still ruddy. In the afternoon, their corpses are brought back to the same road.
Although our area is calm and quiet now, by night the Việt Cộng continue to come back and arrest people. By day American soldiers come up to guard roads and garden areas and to watch people’s activities with suspicious eyes, without a trace of sympathy. If they hear so much as a single suspicious noise, a magazine of bullets is shot into a shelter full of people. A single gunshot fires and an entire small hamlet behind the field bursts into flames. American soldiers standing guard wave their hands, prompting people to run out of the houses, but they can’t take anything with them. The sounds of screaming echo into the sky and resound over the earth. People run out of their houses to stand and watch the flames. The area becomes increasingly populous as new evacuees arrive. When the Americans’ gun barrels point at them, they resign themselves and weep as they once again run from danger. Each time my elder brother sees an American soldier entering our courtyard, he calls up the entire house and urges people from all the shelters to get out of the shelters and into the house. Seeing how many people there are in our household, with a lot of women and children, they [the Americans] do not suspect anything. It is clear that residents returned earliest and in the largest numbers to the hamlet where we live. No one has yet dared to return to neighboring areas, even though it has now become calm and safe.
[Nationalist] Regional Forces soldiers seize the moment when the owners of houses leave; they break in and carry all the stuff out of the houses. A lot of people become rich. I even see men carrying past my house Honda motorbikes that are still locked. I also see scenes of [Nationalist] paratroopers coming from afar to chase after Regional Forces soldiers caught looting. A marine from Saigon comes out and shows Thái a mechanical pen with two engraved names overlapping with each other. He says that he picked it up from the corpse of a young woman – some young dead Hue woman who also left her really long wig, which made him feel an unfathomable pity for her.
A few other families who have just been able to escape from Từ Đàm and come here confirm that Americans have crossed Bến Ngự Bridge but have not yet gone up the hill and are still lying in wait. I think about the artillery shells that will lead the way for the military units. Everything has been reduced to bits; surely there will be more that will be squashed into the ground even deeper. People talk about corpses along the roads. The young people don’t have time to bury them, so they are thrown topsy-turvy into the bushes or buried among piles of brick. Packs of dogs, hungry for a long time, suddenly have an opportunity to get full. Some people are in agony, some die abandoned, and there is nothing but packs of overindulging dogs. I notice that around my area there appear a lot of dogs. In addition to worrying about protection from artillery and from the Việt Cộng who come back to arrest people, we also have to save some bricks to throw at the dogs. Each time when we arrange for a meal, a pack of dogs flies into a rage outside. Although the dogs are many, so is the number of people in my household, so the dogs can’t flood into the house. Thái regrets:
“Several days of starving, almost to the point of death, I didn’t see a single dog – otherwise I would have caught one to fill up my stomach.”
Day after day we go outside and stand watching airplanes dropping bombs near the Citadel. The airplanes roar as though shredding the sorrowful firmament to pieces. Columns of smoke continue to rise up, as high as the mountains. There are a few people who have managed to escape from Gia Hội; when asked, they cry and say:
“Death – it’s all death … death … nothing but death. They established a headquarters at Gia Hội School, set up trial courts, and killed people there day after day: so abhorrent.”
“What about the Citadel?”
“People evacuated to Gia Hội.”
“Elder brother, is there anyone else in your family?”
“I’m the only one who survived. To cross the river by boat I had to pay three thousand dongs. Well, good-bye everybody.”
“Come in here; rest two or three days and then leave.”
A lot of people invite him in, but the lonely man declines. Surely he wants to go farther from the puffs of smoke, from blood and death, and the sooner the better. He walks so fast that it seems like he runs down the National Highway.
Another person recounts:
“They [the Communist forces] have started to kill people very ruthlessly. When they see a man, they shoot. If an informer accuses someone, they shoot. I was hiding for twenty-odd days on top of a water gutter; some days I was so hungry that I had to pull out moss and chew it. I had to catch the water in the gutter to drink. Look, people, my stomach got swollen like a woman afflicted with ascites.4 I must go to Phú Bài and ask to be put in the hospital.”
People also tell a story about how an entire family died because of a television set at Gia Hội.
The family was asked by a Communist soldier who came to search the house:
“Is this device to communicate with the enemy?”
“Please sir, but no, sir, the TV machine is to watch songs and dances.”
“Turn it on – let’s try to listen to it.”
When the TV was turned on, there were no programs with songs or dances on the screen. One magazine of bullets – a woman and her little children fall dead on the ground. The verdict was announced: it was done to give compatriots a lesson. Small children died not having time to close their eyes. And again, two crossbred children of a Vietnamese mother by an American father: their mother had gone to Vũng Tàu and left them with a woman who would breastfeed them. “These are children of an American imperialist who are left here to harm the future of the nation” – such was the Việt Cộng verdict. No need to waste bullets. The heads of the two little children were smashed against the wall. Brains and blood splattered and spilled all over.
There are still wounded to transport. They are either the ones who flee the fighting and get wounded, or they are those who long for their property and return exactly at the moment when the two sides clash and are then hit with a bullet. So many deserted houses, so much abandoned property. The Liberation Elder Brothers liberate only bones and blood, and they grab “by mistake” inconsequential things like watches, mechanical pens, and tiny, pretty, funny, or curious objects. As for what was left after them, it’s saved for those who take advantage of murky water to cast their lines, and however much they take it’s still never enough.
People also say that a hunchback youth, still very young, the son of a jewelry store owner, fled, taking with him ten-odd liangs5 of gold. He was shot to death right in the street: one gunshot – which side’s bullet it was is not known – and the gold flowed out together with his blood, leaving only the corpse of the unfortunate person lying on the ground.
But there is more. There’s still much more destruction and death. Youth and men are lured with the sweet words of the Việt Cộng and go to study for fifteen days – no one has ever seen any of them again, and more people are still being taken away. What will be the fate of these people? They [the Communist forces] have intentionally detained people to bring them along to make targets for warding off shells and bullets when they make a last stand. But as for the people: some died, some escaped – certainly, not many have survived. The screams in the middle of the night, the verdicts, the sounds of guns killing people with no reason – how do people dare to stay, dare to believe?
Day after day I go out to stand on the road, hoping that in the crowds of refugees there will be Mr. Võ Thành Minh. I met him only several days ago, but I appreciated and loved him with all my heart. Some people are vile while others are courageous in this period of turmoil; everyone shows their real face. Today, hearing news that Americans have advanced to Từ Đàm and that the two sides are fighting each other, disputing every inch of ground, I think that undoubtedly Mr. Minh cannot remain safe over there, but in his spirit of setting an example, he continues to transport the wounded. No one still with the strength to survive until today should die from a bullet. I hope that Mr. Minh will return. Why would they arrest him? Surely, he will manage to escape and I will see him before I leave Hue. I have been able to get in touch with my office and am preparing for the day when I set off for Đà Nẵng. But why is it that I still don’t want to go? I am waiting for that gigantic pillar of smoke rising up from inside the Citadel to gradually stop. Certainly it must abate little by little. A woman leading a little child goes to the National Highway and with tears recounts:
“Oh fellow villagers. My house has burned down, my husband has been arrested, and also my child has gotten lost.”
People inquisitively ask her:
“Who is that little fellow whom you are leading behind you? Isn’t it your child, or whose is it?”
“My child has gotten lost, neighbors. I was holding him by his hand and pulling him along and running. Then when I looked back he was not there, and I met this child.”
The woman keeps crying, keeps talking, and keeps dragging along the little fellow. She calls out for her own child, and the child whom she is pulling along calls out for his own parents. The scene looks really funny, but tears also well up in people’s eyes. In my native place, how many children and how many mothers have suffered like this? There is no way to tell everything. Another day goes by and then still another day. An Cựu area looks more calm and peaceful than before. In the morning, I have been able to eat a bowl of porridge with pig intestines and also some pork sausage that peddlers sell. We don’t have to huddle down in the dark shelter throughout the day anymore. But the air outside seems extremely venomous. Everybody’s eyes are always stingingly hot. The tear gas of the allied armies spreads everywhere to force out the liberation troops that still remain. Right behind our garden, a few houses from mine, there’s an abandoned house and an abandoned shelter; people [American and Nationalist soldiers] spray tear gas to force out a wounded liberation trooper who was abandoned by his comrades-in-arms. And when he comes up and sees the light, he breathes his last and dies. In the shelter, even though being in pain, the man also was writing a diary, writing letters to his mother and his girlfriend. What was special is that he also had a letter, written in unsteady hand, opposing the war:
When I die, I want to put my head on the land of the North, even though my legs are in the South. I’ve caused bloodshed in this city and I must leave my blood here too, so that it dissolves together with the streams of blood from the people of Hue and of my nation that is being unjustly spilled.
The Special Forces soldier, when he finishes reading the above lines, hastily crams the letter into his pocket, then silently takes the enemy corpse, the corpse of a Vietnamese, and goes out into the garden. He digs a small hole to bury the corpse of the northerner who died together with the people of South. He looks around, calculating back and forth to figure out where North is to make the place for the head of this fellow in an unhappy grave.
I want to ask the soldier for the letter, but I see that his face is taciturn and that he carries a very heavy rifle on his shoulder, and I stop short. Only a moment later, when I get out on the road, I see this same soldier firing a salvo of gunshots into a shrub. There are no people, only a sick dog there. The dog runs out, its eyes blazing with fire; it holds in its jaws a piece of human bone. Enough, I don’t want to tell anything anymore.
People continue to spread rumors that in the Citadel the dead bodies of the residents and of the Việt Cộng have piled up high. People fleeing the fighting who are hit by bullets lie in heaps on top of each other. Corpses of Việt Cộng fill holes; corpses are down in the ditches and on the sides of the roads, scattered like dead fish caught on dry ground.
Also starting from this day, no one comes here from the areas of Nam Giao and Từ Đàm. It seems that no people remain there to flee. Nearly all have already left, and those who remain are now trapped in crossfire, between two long lines of bullets and shells. I continue to lack news about Mr. Minh. My elder brother gives a long sigh each time he hears me mention Mr. Minh. My mother is able to buy a bit of areca and betel to keep for him. I don’t understand the basis for it, but my mother believes that Mr. Minh will be safe and sound.
I myself do not believe this. Perhaps he was arrested and led away, as the rumor has it. According to the rumor, Mr. Minh was taken away along with Master Đôn Hậu.6 So, perhaps he has not been killed. Isn’t it possible? But I still doubt it very much. Two crossbred Vietnamese American children – what was their fault? A Buddhist monk like Master Đôn Hậu, a leader, and a fighter like Mr. Võ Thành Minh. Heavens, why amid sounds of gunshots, amid the bloody scenery, amid the innocent deaths of so many people, why am I still uneasy about things like that? The necessary things that I must do are to get out of Hue, to survive, to return to see my children, to meet my husband. I will get out, leaving behind a devastated, destroyed, and shattered Hue. I will leave my mother, my elder brother, my younger sister, nephews, relatives, and neighbors. Perhaps if I stay for another night, my turn to be arrested will come. Sounds of hooting owls, foreshadowing death, still persist each night – sometimes in the distance, sometimes nearby. I bring up all these thoughts of mine with my elder brother. My elder brother advises:
“When you manage to find a way to get to Saigon, you must leave here at once; don’t wait around. When you get back there, I will feel that our family is more at peace.”
What has he seen that my elder brother dares to be so firm? I look up at the altar of my father. My sister-in-law has lit two candles and a big joss stick. The smell of the incense is like subtle perfume. In this city, how many graves are cold and desolate, are lacking the smoke of incense? Oh Father, despite dying, you are still lucky. Does not the fact that we were able to properly perform all the burial ceremonies give my elder brother hope, Father? Father, if you with enormous effort had lived a few more days, what would have happened to you? I don’t dare to keep thinking about this. Oh Hue, on the day that I returned to mourn for my father, I also had to mourn for the city.
In this upheaval, how many of my old school friends are left? To what extent has the destruction taken the building of beloved Đồng Khánh School, a nurturing place of my childhood and of my growing-up years? Flame trees,7hollows of tree trunks full of memories – why do I still have an impression that the hollows of tree trunks full of my memories in the courtyard of the school are also full of blood that oozes from them?
I want to see again the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the place where I escaped calamity during the first several days, and I want to again drop by An Định Palace to see how huge the piles of bricks and debris are there. I want to go to Tân Lăng to check on elder sister U’s house and to check on the family ancestor-worshipping house – whether it is still intact or full of what is left from bombs and bullets. I want to go to the places where I took refuge and where I entrust a bit of memory, those places where I saw blood, saw death, and also saw birth. Oh, the gallery in the church where so many babies were born – amid abhorrent scenes of agony, the sound of a newborn infant crying was both a huge struggle and a stretching up to the utmost of pride in the vitality of life. It happened not only in the gallery but also in the bell tower of that church. It has been almost a month that all over the city of Hue, in dark shelters, on roads, on edges of ponds, in puddles of blood already grown cold, next to severed arms and legs, so many other children have also been born. The earth muffles doleful shouts, and life also opens for the sound of crying newborns.
No, Hue will never be reduced to ashes and destroyed as if it were the end of the world. In a ring of fire and a scene of bombs and bullets, people again gather in markets, and those who survived have returned to their daily routines, determined to wait it out. And down in the ditches on the sides of the roads, in the dark soil, how many dead people with open, frowning eyes are waiting? I also meet more people who fled from various places and came here – from Gia Hội, from Bến Ngự, from Kim Long. So Hue has been emptied. A survivor recounts that in order to save more than several tens of people who were stranded in a small hamlet, [Nationalist] soldiers had to sacrifice their lives in rather significant numbers. Another person says that just as he was almost able to escape from hell, he was arrested by the Communist forces:
“A group of us were arrested and a long rope bound one person to another. The group was led up toward the mountains. When it came to an empty plot of land, a liberator issued an order to release the rope and forced people to dig trenches. Those brand-new trenches were next to trees and plants that were still fresh and green. A group of people was lined up. A round of bullets does a favor: liberation. Some of us were spared: ‘Push them down into the trenches and cover them with earth,’ ordered the Communist soldiers to the survivors. Afraid to cry, we swallowed our tears, so no teardrops flowed out of our eyes, but hot as fire they ran burning down through our chests and guts. And was not the fate of the remaining to be the same? But I, why am I so fortunate that I escaped death? My ancestors have saved me. Heaven and the Buddha or demons and spirits have saved me. Farewell everybody, farewell! I must run and hide from them [the Communist forces]. I must go and find my wife and children. I’m going to run away from here – all you people go and hide. Hide right now.”
The man finishes his story; he’s very anxious and has clearly gone mad. I wish him to go mad so that he can forget. To be able to go mad – what a blessing it will be for him.
Another person holds a different point of view, and he tells his story with tears. He is not crazy; on the contrary, he remains lucid and full to the brim with emotion.
“They [the Communist forces] stayed in my house for ten-odd days. They brought in a lot of wounded. Many who suffered could not make it through and died. Do you know, my fellow villagers? They also know how to be compassionate. They saved my son when he was wounded by a fragment from an artillery shell. A young North Vietnamese soldier lamented and sighed with me – think again, my fellow villagers, don’t hate their young ones. They only know how to carry out orders from above. Their families are also far away and poverty-stricken. Seeing how compatriots die is painful for them, too. Out in the North, they hear propaganda to go to the South to fight the Americans – how would these youths know what reality is like here? They also deserve pity … they also hate the war very much.”
“Why have you fled here, uncle?”
“They’re all gone now. In my house, there were only dead bodies. There was also one young guy, wounded, who remained; he advised that I must go, because to stay would mean death. Now I’m going; I’ll go to the safest place. Here it’s still not safe yet.”
They [the Communists] are also people, aren’t they? Oh Hue … do you, Hue, do you hate and resent them? Eyes that remain open deep down in the black soil, glowering there in that lightless world, do you hate and resent them? Surely you do, right? But you must not hate and resent them; rather you must hate and resent the bullets brought into this country to transform us into people who are killed or arrested, forced to kill people, kill siblings, fathers and mothers, those of our own flesh and blood. I have seen so much of torn human flesh and entrails during the past month. How much more will be enough so that we will never forget? My younger male relatives, Thái and Bé, have gone to report for duty. Thái was able to get back to Phù Lương, and Bé returned to his unit. On the right bank of the river they have started to check the population. People who returned gather in groups to go and get control cards. My elder brother has already received a card.
Around the area where I live, it seems that nearly all the people have now returned. One family has lost its mother; another has lost its father; some have lost children. Sounds of heartrending cries burst out, connecting one house with another. People tell us about the days when they fled the fighting, about tragic deaths, and they cry inconsolably. Mourning headbands have started to appear.
My office has sent word that there will be a helicopter to take me from Hue to Đà Nẵng, and that from Đà Nẵng I will get a plane to Saigon. I am very happy. But I don’t dare to show this happiness of mine to my mother or my elder brother. As days have gone by, my mother and my elder brother increasingly express their sadness and are overcome by bouts of emotion; our initial panic has gradually settled in and turned to stone in everyone’s heart. At night we still must sleep in the shelter, and by day we choke on our tears from the tear gas. But we still have confidence that the disaster will soon be over. I dare to break the news from the office about the airplane to my mother and elder brother only during the evening meal of that day. My mother advises:
“Child, you must find a way to go early. Look, Hue is not yet safe; I gather there are still a lot of unfortunate things happening.”
I know that my mother wants to tell me about stray bullets, stray artillery shells, the sound of owls hooting by night, footsteps groping for a way in the dark. I tell the entire household:
“I can’t put my mind at peace yet and just leave like this. If I go, I alone escape, and then what if something happens here at home …”
“If anything else happens, we will brace ourselves to endure. Such is fate, younger sister.”
Those are the words of my elder brother Lễ. His eyes look up at my father’s altar. The candles still glimmer and the columbine still emits a subtle aroma.
My mother says:
“Perhaps, child, you will go on the morning the day after tomorrow. Tomorrow afternoon you must go to Phù Lương and stay there, child. I’m afraid that something unexpected will leave you stranded on the way, child. To take care in advance is better.”
My nephews get into a ruckus:
“Auntie, you’re leaving because you are afraid of guns, aren’t you?”
“So, are you children afraid of guns?”
“We were afraid only the first days, when we came down here, but we’re not afraid anymore at all.”
That night I can’t sleep. There’s only one more night left to sleep in this house, the house where I returned to mourn for my dad, and then later I shared mourning for the entire city. I have an impression that in the darkness of the night, our garden is still filled with feet walking around. From time to time, hooting sounds and screams still reverberate in my subconscious. My mother doesn’t sleep either; she lies close to me, and in the darkness with her hand she gropes for my wrist:
“Sleep, child; you must be in good health, child. Why are you still awake?”
I turn over, sigh, and talk with my mother:
“Guns fire quite a lot, mother.”
“Sure, it’s in the Citadel.”
“I don’t know whether at Từ Đàm the fighting is over yet or not.”
“Child, put your mind at rest; when it’s quiet up there, we’ll go and get our stuff. Surely, not much has gotten scattered around.”
“Mother, you don’t believe that the house of elder brother Lễ has collapsed?”
My mother is confident:
“No, even if it collapsed, it’s still not razed to the ground.”
“When it’s safe, Mother, will you consider leaving Hue? Or will you let me come and arrange to move our entire family to Saigon right away?”
My mother responds “no” very quickly, without thinking. Why leave, right, Mother? Right, Hue? I imagine my father’s grave on a slope of the hill, surrounded by the graves of my grandfather, my grandmother, my uncle, and other close relatives. Then there is my garden and the ancestor-worshipping house that are still here. Only after being defeated so many times during his entire life was my father able to create this garden and to build this house. Trees and plants are still striving to live, even if they are withered and broken. My father’s hands nurtured everything in that garden. Now my father is dead. During this calamity in the city, so many people have also died. But trees and plants will continue to grow, will continue to be green, as though the deaths of the people who are in the graves under them continue to give more strength for life to the abundant vegetation above the ground. My mother’s voice is still flat:
“I think we will still be alive; we will still be able to reestablish everything.”
Then she changes the topic:
“Child, when you get to Saigon, remember to find a way to let me know how the family is there.”
I assure my mother that Saigon has become quiet and safe again, and there’s information that my family is also safe and sound. But my mother remains uneasy:
“When you get there, child, remember to make a shelter. During these times, one must make a shelter to be on the safe side.”
For my mother’s peace of mind, I politely agree with her over and again. That night I keep crying silently for a long time. Lying there, I hear gunshots exploding in salvoes from within the Citadel; the monotonous lobbing of artillery shells is like the voice of someone seeing off the souls of innocent victims. Tomorrow I alone will leave Hue to find security for myself. But is there still any secure place? In my native land, everywhere is blood and everywhere is fire. What do I wish for Hue in this?
Next morning, Hà, along with several young girls who stay with us, goes for a bike ride, trying to find a way to Từ Đàm. But in the afternoon Hà comes back, her face covered with dust. She says that it’s impossible to get through on any road. Up there, there’s still fierce fighting. All the roads going up and down are completely blocked.
I am busy preparing to go down to Thanh Lam. I say just for the sake of words that I’m preparing, for in reality there’s nothing to prepare, apart from the fact that I loathe to part with my relatives in the house.
Before I leave, I and Hà go around the area where I live. We go up to my uncle’s house; the entire family has gone down to Phù Lương for safety. Around there, there are only a few neighbors who have come back. The houses have been directly hit by shells, and every day they get damaged more and more; it is utterly desolate. Walking around on this small road leads us toward the mountains. Over there is my father’s grave, but I don’t dare go any farther.
The two of us go down to An Cựu Bridge. There are still plenty of American soldiers standing guard there; we want to go farther, but someone says that it’s very dangerous. The area of Kiểu Mẫu School is eaten away by shells fired from the opposite side of the river. When we return to the house, we see that there’s a stranger in the house. An old gentleman is sitting and drinking water and talking with the whole family. This old gentleman is about eighty years old. My mother explains that he lives in one of the houses behind our garden. All his children and grandchildren evacuated, but he remained alone in that house from the first days when gunfire started up until now. I am curious to inquire more, to ask something so that he would tell us another story. But just a moment later I realize that he is both weak-sighted and deaf. I say loudly:
“Great-grandfather, living alone do you have anything to eat?”
“I sure do. A whole lot. My kids and grandchildren left for me dried bread, special Tết cakes, rice, now …”
“Great-grandfather, you’re not afraid of guns, are you?”
I have to repeat this question of mine two or three times, and gesticulate too, and only then does the old man understand me:
“What guns? What for? I am deaf – if I hear anything, I hear sounds as though popcorn explodes – that’s all.”
“During those first days, Great-grandfather, did you meet them?”
“Did you meet them?”
“Who are they?”
“Việt Cộng, Great-grandfather.”
I shout up to the point that even my throat gets dry. The old man nods his head and looks like he understands:
“Yes, yes. Việt Cộng. I did, I did. They entered the house, saw that I’m old, what to do with an old man, to eat his shit …”
I’m sad but also can’t hold back laughter. The old man tells us more:
“The bunch of my children and grandchildren, I told them, but they didn’t listen. I told them not to go, but they still went. People say a bomb hit their group and they died. All dead and left me all alone. Is it not painful?”
“Now, Great-grandfather, what are you planning to do?”
“I heard a lot of people have come back here, and I wanted to go to ask for the way to find their corpses. Such a disaster, aunties and children. I told them not to go, but they didn’t listen. Look at me, I eat my fill, then I fall asleep. Though I don’t care about guns or bullets, I am still alive to die somewhere like this, oh heavens. And them, they didn’t know that devils and ghosts led the way, and they all went.”
My mother advises:
“Sir, go back home and don’t go to look for them. Whoever died, people have already buried them, and who knows where to search?”
The old man lifts his hand and rubs his eyes:
“Are buried already, eh? Buried where?”
“Wherever they died, people have buried them there.”
I look at the two sparse streams of tears that run down the old man’s shriveled cheekbones. He doesn’t say good-bye, doesn’t ask anyone anything, but just goes out the door. I follow him to help him; I give him my hand, and he lets me lead him back home.
Indeed it’s extremely strange. Half of his house has completely collapsed, and it is still full of debris from bombs and shells. But the old man is unscathed. I point at the traces of shells on the wall. He says:
“They shot here.”
He searches near the collapsed wall:
“The house is about to fall down. I heard something and there was only one bang and my body bounced a little bit, and when I opened my eyes the wall had already collapsed.”
I see at the corner of the house several liberation flags covered in blood; a few flies still swarm over them. The flags emit an unbearable stench. Seeing me looking at them, the old man explains:
“They belong to some mister-liberators who left them here. They were here only during the first several days and then they died, and then there were a lot of wounded. They brought them over here and over there, put them to lie in that corner of the house, and then carried them away – I don’t know where they went.”
“Who do you live with now, Great-grandfather?”
“Do you have anything to eat?”
“In another few days it will be quiet and I will ask the government. My children and grandchildren are all dead now. I will ask the government for help.”
I say good-bye to the old man and go back. When I get home, I see the office car, ready and waiting. My mother is standing and talking with several people inside the house; when she sees me, she runs out:
“There, they’ve already come to pick you up, child.”
I clasp my mother with sudden haste. I want to cry but can’t. However, my mother bursts out crying easily:
“Enough, child, go in; get ready and go.”
“Go get ready child; go.”
In the atmosphere of disarray on a chilly day, my mother seems to dry her tears, and she looks at the tops of high hills. Up there is my father’s grave.
Before I leave, I light a joss stick on the altar. It seems like I want to pray for something, but my memory is completely fogged.
I carry a small bag. I hug … cry … and wave good-bye to everybody. I go out on the edge of the road. The car’s engine starts, waiting, ready to go. Right over my head, airplanes roar without cease, hovering in circles. And in the distance, over there, at the Citadel, pillars of smoke rise high, squirming amid the sound of explosions that blast debris into the air.
How can it be that I am now about to really leave Hue?
1. The largest Buddhist temple in South Vietnam.
2. Mercurochrome is the trademark for merbromin, a green crystalline organic compound that forms a red aqueous solution used as a germicide and an antiseptic.
3. Prince Cường Để (1882–1951) was a prominent member of the royal family. He and Phan Bội Châu were early leaders against the French colonial occupation of Vietnam.
4. An accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity.
5. A liang is approximately thirty-seven grams or 1.3 ounces.
6. Full name Thích Đôn Hậu, who was a leading figure in the Hue Buddhist community.
7. Phượng vỹ or “phoenix’s tail” is a popular urban tree in much of Vietnam. Also called “students’ tree” because it usually blossoms at the end of the school year.