Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)

Chapter 10. Little Child of Hue, Little Child of Vietnam, I Wish You Luck

On the trip from thanh lam to phú bài, our car runs at full speed. We could be attacked at any moment. But nothing happens. OK, I can’t die yet. The Phù Lương market appears, and the car stops. A bowl of noodles with beef and hot pepper tearing my mouth apart is my light breakfast before we set off again. I eat greedily. This dish makes tears flow from my eyes. In the desolate house in An Cựu amid the denuded garden, my mother’s heart is now certainly on fire. “Oh, child, listen child, have a safe trip,” my mother advised me from the courtyard when I was leaving. Several nephews, some of them holding my hands and others grasping my shirt: “Auntie, you are going to Saigon; you’re afraid of guns, right, auntie?” Those children’s voices made me want to stay in Hue until I can see Hue quiet and safe again or until I die together with Hue. But my children loudly call for me. My insides ache as though someone cuts through them. The sound of artillery has become muffled and distant, but it still seems to pound a cadence in my heart, never subsiding: boom, boom.

A grassy plot, which makes a helicopter pad, can now be clearly seen. I jump from the car. There’s also a fellow passenger, Quế, who goes with me to Đà Nẵng. The grassy plot is empty; there is nothing waiting for us on the pad, but a lot of people are sitting, stranded outside a barbed wire fence. We present our papers to several guards and then enter the gate to the grassy pad. Pandemonium breaks out among the people sitting along the barbed wire fence; they get up, intending to flood in after us, but the guards block them.

Poor Thái and Bé, whose posts were near our house, before seeing me off went and bought some boxes with American cookies and several chocolate bars: “Elder sister, you are setting off – eat while on your trip.”

I put my small piece of luggage on the grass and sit on top of it. My fellow passenger with whom I am going to Đà Nẵng brought along his old mother and two small children. The two little ones run, romping out on the grass, picking up pale-violet flowers. They lightheartedly frolic around, reminding me of my own sweet children. At the same time, the image of small children who hold their bowls of rice in their hands and listen to the reverberating sounds of artillery and whose faces have turned pale green, who drop their bowls and run to press their faces against the wall, stretching their small hands and hugging their heads, this image rends my heart. My mother, elder brother, younger sister, and a flock of nephews are lying on the bank of the river of war. The flaming ring of war, will it shrink in size or will it expand and spin further? I am the only one who has left it behind and has heartlessly escaped, fleeing by myself. My heart is suffused with a harassing and painful misery.

The people in the group gathered outside of the encircling barbed wired ring are more and more numerous by the moment. They inquire about flights. These people have escaped from Hue, have come to Phù Lương, and are still anxious; they want to escape even farther from Hue. Bundles and suitcases are heaped on each other topsy-turvy. Few of them are able to get the soldiers to allow them into the grassy pad.

Arguments erupt, very insistent, imploring, and begging. Then those who are left outside watch the people sitting inside with angry and envious looks.

Quế, my fellow passenger, informs me that every day now for more than a week these people come up to the barbed wire fence and wait and wait in hopes that perhaps they will be lucky enough to get a helicopter ride to Đà Nẵng. A person says:

“There’s a ship near Gia Hội transporting a lot of refugees to Đà Nẵng.”

“It’s very dangerous. People say the Việt Cộng have shot and sunk several ships, and all the refugees are drowned in the sea.”

No further discussions. Then suddenly the weather dries up for good. The drizzle that had started early stopped some time ago. Soft light comes from the sky. The grassy expanse is covered with fresh green color. Never before have I seen such an utterly clean, brilliant, and vibrant shade of green. Blades of grass soaked in rain now stretch up with all their strength. Here trees and plants remain absolutely calm and quiet. The mountain ranges and rows of hills spread far and wide, calm as a picture painted of a landscape in a time of peace and prosperity. But into this scene jostles the groups of absolutely pitiful and desolate people outside and inside the barbed wire fence. These people still seem to be full of smoke, to be scorched by fire, and to be punctured with bullet holes. But grass still grows here, right?

I plop down right on the wet grass and lean my head on my luggage. The wind from the mountains permeates my body with cold. I have to take my father’s coat and drape it over my shoulders. During the days of fleeing from the fighting, I wore this coat like a talisman, and now it has become a keepsake of my dad. My eyes attentively observe the grassy surface. The grass is so long that it looks like it wants to reach my face. A few small clumps of grass growing along the barbed wire fence, fertilized by the iron, grow taller than clumps elsewhere; a few violet flowers with small fragile petals are in bloom. Suddenly, I am stunned. The violet flowers that come back in springtime to the courtyard of Đồng Khánh School – have they now managed to bloom under the feet trampling upon them? When still at school, we called these flowers “dazed with longing.” Before leaving for Phù Lương, I heard that the roof of my beloved former school had collapsed and a lot of people died; many people who fled the fighting were staying there.

We wait until noon and still there’s no aircraft. Some waiting people bring out bread and other provisions to eat. I eat only a small piece of cookie and feel half full. The bowl of noodles with beef that I had in the morning still feels like daggers drawn in my stomach, and its stinging hot taste from time to time engulfs my throat. Perhaps because of the long days of food shortage, I have forgotten the dainty taste of delicious food.

The two little children put their heads on Quế’s feet and fall asleep. Quế hugs his children; he sits next to his old mother, who is moaning out her grief to a fellow passenger also waiting for a ride.

“My entire family is no more.”

“Nothing is left of my family. I lost two children. They were taken away [by the Communist forces]; I don’t know whether they are alive or dead, or what happened to them, or where they are.”

I’m fed up with hearing stories about the people who fled the fighting, about deaths, and about arrests. I close my eyes, trying to sleep for a moment, to forget the burning impatience of anticipation.

But in a rather short time, up in the sky there seems to be the sound of something moving in the distance, then the sound of approaching helicopters gradually grows clearer and clearer. From behind the mountains appears a group of helicopters, five or six of them. Everyone gets up in excitement. The group of people outside of the barbed wire fence starts to scream, weeping and moaning. They carry their stuff to the place where the guards stand on both sides of the barbed wire. But out of five helicopters, only two are landing, while three continue flying forward. The people outside of the barbed wire fence have still not despaired; they elbow, call out to each other, and beg boisterously. The helicopters come in low, and I can’t hear anything anymore. The sound of the engines is too loud and two sets of propeller blades are whirring, making a lot of people bend down, about to fall over. The grass that was just stretching up boldly suddenly bends all the way down to the ground. A moment later, the engines come to a complete halt as the propeller blades stop spinning. People and vegetation draw themselves up again. Two Americans and two Vietnamese officers step down from the helicopters. My fellow traveler, Quế, calls to me and then leads his mother and two little children to go to present their papers. We are allowed a place to stand for boarding. The group of people on the grassy patch is evenly divided up for transport in the two helicopters. But the sound of noisy protests, weeping, and moaning from the group outside of the barbed wire fence becomes more and more ferocious with every minute. The guards are not able to restrain them and a lot of people flood in. Several gunshots are fired into the air. Hearing gunfire, the people being left behind recoil. They stand stupefied, looking at each other. Gunfire here is somehow quite gentle – the bullets fly and disappear without hitting anyone; however, several people here and there think that they are bleeding.

The two divided groups of people are led to board the two helicopters. I am surprised when I turn back and see a small lad tightly clasping a flap of my coat and following each of my steps. When I get up into the helicopter, the little guy steps up too, following me, but someone’s hand keeps him back. An officer blusters:

“Hey, who’s this little guy with?”

The boy is pulled down. He stands hunched over, his eyes moist with tears, looking at all the people climbing onto the helicopter. I get a seat next to the door, so the boy’s eyes seem to be firmly glued to my face. I move a little so that I can give the boy a tiny spot to sit. The officer, after he pulled the boy down, rushes up and sits next to the pilot. The small guy’s eyes suddenly brighten, and he looks at me making signs, begging for help. I hold tight to the seat with one hand and stretch the other one down and pull the child up. He climbs up with alacrity and sits down so swiftly that he tumbles inside behind the luggage. But all this doesn’t escape the eyes of the officer. He jumps over and browbeats the boy:

“The helicopter is cramped; you can’t go. Get off.”

The boy is white-faced; his arms and legs tremble. The little fellow is alone; clearly he got separated from his family or his family is dead. I tell the officer:

“This little boy was sent with me. I didn’t put his name into the papers because he’s just a child.”

The officer looks at me with suspicion. But then he leaves. I look at the little guy, trying to give him a friendly smile. But he’s not through with his fit of trembling yet; his arms and legs shake convulsively as he tries to shrink his body to fit amid the baggage and the careless feet of adults wanting to step on his body.

The helicopter starts to take off. The propeller blades start to rotate. So, I have escaped. I bid farewell to Hue, to underground shelters that continue to be smashed and broken, to unburied corpses. I also bid farewell to Phù Lương with its church entirely filled with refugees, hungry and suffering.

The engine of the helicopter grows louder. The propeller blades spin faster. We are able to take off. The helicopter gradually rises higher. The people outside the fence and those who are still on the grassy pad follow us with their eyes in despair. We make another turn, really fast, and fly high so that I no longer see those eyes following us.

I put my hands into my coat. The higher we get, the more a cold wind numbs my skin and flesh. How far has the helicopter been able to get by now? No doubt, soon we will be out of the town. Looking down, now I will certainly see a green mountainous area. I greedily want to lock this green color into my eyes, but when I do look down I am abruptly spellbound. It seems that the helicopter is returning to the city of Hue. I raise my eyes to Quế. Quế and his small children are sitting on the front bench, next to the pilot. I make a questioning sign. Quế says something really loud, but his voice drowns in the noise of the wind and the engine. I vaguely guess: Making a circle or something like that … but it is certain that the helicopter has now returned to Hue. When it gets to the beginning of the National Highway, near the entrance to the city, the helicopter suddenly spurts up higher and picks up at a frightfully fast speed. With my hand, I clasp the seatbelt more firmly and tighten it, then turn my body around to look down at the city.

What is that over there so tattered like a colored parasol, shattered, smashed, torn into shreds by the wind? Oh, is it the city of Hue, or what? Destroyed houses and desolate gardens look like the fur of a poor dog exposing a hundred gaping wounds.

Who has just squeezed my heart, and who has just squeezed tears from my eyes? A gigantic dead body is lying with arms and legs outstretched – fallen, torn, with skin and flesh coming apart. The enormous corpse of Hue has lost its face, its arms, and its legs, and whatever remains is but a heap of slime turning to mud. The spine of the city is broken. And my spine has also been broken.

The propeller blades of the helicopter still whir, pressing down on my heart that has become like a hard callus. My heart has died and has gone rigid. How is it that I still breathe? How marvelous is the strength of life.

I blink my eyes so that I can see. The helicopter flies past a hilltop and dips slightly. Does my father’s grave lie down there? Why does the grave still shine brightly in my memory, with fresh buds breathing dying breaths under a new layer of earth while waiting for a chance to stretch up toward sunlight? Is it my garden over there? Broken-off coconut trees, a collapsed roof, and an empty gateway join with other houses and gardens, bridges and roads, turning into the slimy skin of a corpse. The eyes of Hue are still open and frowning at the fire and the bullets. Another blink of my eyes so I can see and another spin of the propeller blades to let something else appear, and then the engine, trying to ascend, bursts out crying as if to break. I’ve already heard it – the sound of crying, isn’t it? It is the terrifying screaming in the middle of the morning, at noon, in the pitch-dark night – isn’t it? The woman giving birth and falling down in the church; the corpse of the baby wrapped in a bundle being sung its mother’s lullabies during so many days of fleeing from war …

Let the eyes blink one more time, shall I not? A group of people from Phú Cam is fleeing, staggering with panic, carrying food, children, and dead bodies, following priests and bonzes with tattered white flags. Where’s An Định Palace, the place ruled by the obsolete empress, where she could still hear soft sounds: “I will carry thee, Your Majesty, on my back, and run”? Where has Her Majesty fled … how many steps has she been able to take in the circle of fire? A corner of the roof of the ancient palace collapsed; now where are the traces of its bricks on the corpse of the city? That group of people fleeing the fighting – have all of them managed to cross the bridge yet? The dog drifting in midstream is dead and drowned, thanks to a bullet’s favor; otherwise it would still be trying with great difficulty to swim to shore. Enough – now go.

The sounds of screaming, shouting, crying, and the sounds of American soldiers laughing as they shoot at the dog floundering farther away in midstream while it struggles to the shore – why are these sounds still stuck tight to my eardrums?

Now we approach something closer – is this streak of blood the span of a broken bridge connecting the two parts of the city? Where’s the post office with corpses of the liberation soldiers? What else is there to wait for when one’s feet are tied to machine guns? Who tied their feet? I blink many times and open my eyes many times; tears stream from my eyes many times. I watch gigantic pillars of smoke licking up the lead-colored sky like the tongue of a demon. If I try to bend a little bit lower, I can see waves of shells and bullets whizzing like rain, destroyed houses, and deserted roads.

How truly surprising when under the bloody-red tongue of the demon, amid bombs and shells that plow up the earth in such a way, there are still groups of people fleeing in all directions, seeking a way to survive. I’m even more surprised when I see myself sitting in a helicopter flying back for another look at the destroyed city.

The helicopter has not yet reached the Citadel walls when it abruptly turns around and goes back. There seem to be streams of fire shooting down at those walls – so many innocent civilians have died over there: groups of people tied up by the Việt Cộng so that the airplanes would shoot them from above.

Those people have reconciled themselves to connect their fate with Hue; they have contributed to Hue’s slimy piles of skin and flesh.

The helicopter returns to Phù Lương, one more time hovering above the hilltop where my father’s fresh grave is. The area of my father’s garden has been diligently tended. During so many days on the patch of earth trampled by war over there, I hardly ever thought about the close bond between the land and myself. But now sitting high up and looking down, I clearly see why suddenly I think about the land with such sadness and longing. Down there, isn’t that the land where my father is buried? Not only that, but also exactly on this big expanse of land I also buried a small and innocent child.

I am up high but there is no separation; I am indissolubly connected with the land. Down there lives my family. The land is very close and dear to me. Right down there, now being broken into bits, is Hue’s body with my footprints, not only from each and every day of running away from the fighting but also from so many years of childhood and of growing up to adulthood.

The land beloved by so many people and with which so many people are bonded … The expanse of land down there is for me not only the keeper of my customs and habits, of my ties, of my kin, but even more, something to which I have entrusted a part of my own bones and blood.

The helicopter gradually moves farther away and approaches slopes of green mountains. A blink of an eye, and the entire destroyed city has disappeared. My body convulses. It seems that there are a lot of small drops of water like dust sticking to and covering my face. The sky starts drizzling again. The rain is light and gentle; how can it overcome the red tongues licking the blackness of the entire expanse of the sky? Over there now the Citadel is still dark in the shellfire. How much longer will it take to cease fighting? Let me keep blinking.

It seems that in the helicopter there are still long discussions about Hue: about a woman whose head, arms, and legs were chopped off; about two crossbred Vietnamese children fathered by an American who were detained and their heads smashed against the wall – guilty of being American imperialist thugs; about another familiar personality, Mr. Tinh Hoa, a bookstore owner who hid in his house for the entire month but because of hunger and thirst had to venture out to look for water – one gunshot and the man was dead and his story has become the talk of the town. It’s not over yet; the war very much continues wantonly without restraint. Everyone has a right to suspect others. Over there, they suspect that these little Vietnamese born from an American father will grow up to be a danger to society, so – kill them. The American soldiers, as soon as they hear a noise, a small sound, they immediately burn an entire hamlet, they destroy a house, or they fire salvoes of bullets into underground shelters swarming with women and children. There are shelters that still have the breath of living people, and there are shelters full of the flesh and blood of dead people. And then, for example, there is the small story about a pharmacist who no sooner made it out of his shelter with his two hands still raised up over his head than he was hit by a full magazine of bullets.

There are so many of these stories: why do I remember them all, why bother to carry all these bloody images in my small head? It’s such punishment for me now. My memories are really chaotic – an image of my elder brother hugging with both arms two wounded neighbor children gasping their final breaths, a flock of my young nephews going in front of the group and carrying white flags to cross Bến Ngự Bridge. Bullets from the bridge fall like rain, scratching people’s heads, landing under people’s feet. Americans are very good shooters, like in the movies, and a small flock of people fall; they roll on the ground in somersaults, screaming and crying. My elder brother makes up his mind to carry two small kids in his arms, children of a neighbor woman at death’s door who turns back to go up to the area occupied by the Liberation Army. It’s no fault of Americans here, right?

I hear soft sobs. Are those sobs my own or someone else’s? I raise my hand and rub my eyes to gradually melt away those haunting memories. But as the helicopter gets farther and farther away from the city, those images cling; they stick fast to me more and more. I think about the group of people still sitting on the grassy pad – will they be as lucky as I am to get a seat so that they can go and search for a more peaceful place? But it’s not only on that grassy pad. My Hue compatriots are also inundating Phú Bài Airport. Only when I come there do I see hundreds of people standing and sitting outside of the fence, screaming frantically, begging Americans to let them get on a helicopter to seek refuge. They scream, weep, and cry as American military men sit, doleful and exhausted, next to the corpses of their comrades wrapped in nylon bags, arranged in a long line and left waiting for an aircraft to come and take them away.

The helicopter passes over rows of green trees and mountain slopes to get out to the sea. The wind is biting cold and the raindrops are thicker. Raindrops fanned in by the helicopter’s propeller blades splash into my face, painful as pricks from needles. All the people sit bunched up together. One person rummages through his luggage; another opens a cloth bag to get a raincoat and puts it on. A woman holds a bamboo hat in her hands, not very firmly, and it gets blown away from the helicopter by the wind and slowly falls down to the sea, turning into a small round dot on the blue surface of the water rippling with waves. I don’t know whether or not these people are like me and have left their souls back in Hue and so now are crying, but is everyone’s face now soaking wet from rain or from tears? A few soft sounds of sobbing – I have to look very carefully and listen very attentively and only then do I get it: several small children lie snugly against their mothers’ hearts covered by two or three layers of blankets. These small children also fled from the war by many routes and through many places in the city during the past days.

The rain is beating down terribly. The little lad who followed me while I boarded the helicopter now simply sits shriveled up into a ball among the bags and parcels. The boy appears to be stuck there and unable to move and seems to not dare to take a deep breath. He has no space to move or to even turn his back to the outside. Only now do I notice that the little lad is clad only in a very light shirt and underwear. His face has turned pale green and is about to turn the color of lead; it seems that he’s filled with frost and cold to the point of absolute misery. As if without the strength to endure it, his lips cannot stay calm but tremble, and his teeth are clattering. Noticing that I’m watching him, the boy opens wide his round reddish eyes and looks back at me. In these eyes I read: “Oh, what have I seen making goose bumps cover my whole body – a city, a stream of blood, pieces of arms and legs. Stray dogs running in the streets, uncontrollable, with pieces of human leg and arm bones in their mouths, running to hide in the shrubs, rushing across the roads and behind verandas of the houses. What else have I seen – a city whose wings were clipped, whose future is wiped out, youths with sad and pitiful deaths.” “Enough, little brother … blink your eyes, don’t open them wider: the glimmers from your glance are enough to chill all your future days.” It seems that the little lad’s lips stammer indistinctly. “Do you want to say something, little brother? It’s only a short distance between the two of us, but even if you, little brother, scream out, I will still not be able to hear you.” The sky is covered in thick fog, the rain is covered in thick fog, the sea is covered in thick fog; the helicopter flies high and the noise of the machine wipes out all our small noises. “But you are very cold, little brother, aren’t you? I must share something with you.” I take my bag in my hand and only with great difficulty I manage to drag out the only overcoat that remains from the days of fleeing from the fighting. I throw it straight to the boy.

His two arms spring out with unexpected strength. And hastily, with great difficulty, he unfolds the coat and puts it on. The boy’s arms and legs still tremble, but regardless of this, the coat helps him to get a bit warmer. He doesn’t say anything but opens his eyes wider and looks straight into my face. I turn to look outside so that raindrops splash into my face.

Getting out from the dangerous area, the helicopter leaves the sea and flies over the land. Houses and vegetation appear below. The helicopter flies lower, and sometimes it seems like we are too close to the tops of the trees; the roofs of houses are clearly seen and gradually become bigger and bigger. I look down and see a few thatch huts in square plots of land. And in their courtyards, several children raise their hands to the sky and wave vigorously.

A moment later, the helicopter descends gradually. I can see a big river, then dirt roads looking as though they were just recently constructed, rows of houses covered with sheet iron, and smokestacks of factories. “Have we already arrived in Đà Nẵng?” I ask myself. The helicopter suddenly stops and hovers, the engine works more lively and strenuously, and then we go gradually down and slowly land.

Seatbelts are unfastened very quickly. People compete with each other to jump out, carrying their stuff. I wait until everybody else gets down and only then do I jump down too. There are people’s voices calling each other: “Hey, hurry up, don’t be late for the ferry; staying on this side of the river will not do any good.”

Where is “this side”? Is it Đà Nẵng yet or not? I ask Quế:

“We haven’t got to Đà Nẵng yet, have we?”

“This place is Sơn Trà; to get to Đà Nẵng we have to cross the river. We have to take a ferry.”

I make a little sigh; the sound of my sigh vanishes, swallowed by the sound of the engine. The second helicopter also comes down. The place where the two helicopters perch is a grassy expanse on the side of a road that is carefully covered with earth. The wind from the propeller blades makes the vegetation bow low to the ground. The words of people calling out to each other scatter and fly away without leaving a trace. People hold tightly to their clothes and their scarves, and they bend down low to avoid the wind as they go up to the edge of the road.

The sky dries out completely, but as the day draws to a close, clouds are very low and gloomy. Surely it drizzles in Đà Nẵng just like in Hue. I stand on the main road and wait for Quế, who leads two small kids and his old mother to come up. Now I can clearly hear the voices of the people calling to each other. People hastily get into a group and go quickly forward.

It seems that someone pulls down on a flap of my coat. I turn back. It’s the little lad. His eyes are big – he blinks and then opens them, letting me see many images of destroyed Hue reflected there. I softly ask:

“What’s this, little brother?”

The boy silently hands me back the overcoat that he has carefully folded. His eyes are still wide open; he watches me and his mouth very softly says, “Thank you.” I keep asking:

“Where are you going now, little brother?”

He shakes his head. His eyes look down at his small feet. Then suddenly he says, “Thank you,” one more time and leaves, walking really fast. The boy’s disappearing figure is lonely, pitiful, mixing with the crowd that hastily gets on the ferry to cross the river and enter another city.

Little beloved child, little beloved child of Hue, little beloved child of Vietnam – I wish good luck to you.

Nhã Ca

Nhã Ca, meaning a “courteous, elegant song” or “canticle” in Vietnamese, is the penname of one of the most famous South Vietnamese writers of the second half of the twentieth century, whose real name is Trần Thị Thu Vân. She was born in Hue in 1939 and spent her youth there before moving to Saigon where she became a popular and prolific writer and poet. Initially her works focused on love, but starting from the mid-1960s she began to describe the fighting, atrocities, and suffering inflicted by the war that was ravaging her country in many of her works. The most significant and famous of these works is Mourning Headband for Hue, which describes the experience of Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the Tết Offensive. This work was one of the winners of South Vietnam’s Presidential Literary Award. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Communist authorities put Nhã Ca into a prison camp where she remained from 1976 to 1977. Her husband, the poet Trần Dạ Từ, was jailed for twelve years. In 1989, a year after he was released from prison, the couple and their family received political asylum from the Swedish government. Later they moved to the United States and now live in Southern California, where they publish the Vietnamese-language newspaper Việt Báo.

Olga Dror was born and raised in Leningrad in the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. She received an MA in Oriental studies from Leningrad State University in 1987. She then attended the Institute for Linguistic Studies in the Academy of Sciences, Moscow, and worked as correspondent, translator, editor, and anchor for Radio Moscow’s Department of Broadcasting to Vietnam. In 1990 she immigrated to Israel, where she continued advanced study at Hebrew University, focusing on international relations, and worked for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Israeli embassy to the Baltic States in Riga, Latvia, from 1994 to 1996. She then went back to the study of Vietnam and obtained her PhD from Cornell University in 2003. Presently she is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University. She has published a monograph and two edited volumes on Vietnamese and Chinese religions. Her current research concerns the identities of Vietnamese children during the war in Vietnam.

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