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

Translator’s Introduction


He: How beautiful you are, my darling!

Oh, how beautiful!

Your eyes behind your veil are doves.

Your hair is like a flock of goats
descending from the hills of Gilead. …

She: Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you –
if you find my beloved,
what will you tell him?
Tell him I am faint with love.

Song of Solomon 4:1, 5:8 (NIV)

What do these poetic verses from the Song of Solomon have to do with the book you are about to read? Is there any connection between the hills of Gilead, a mountainous area near the Jordan River and Jerusalem, and the hills surrounding the Perfume River and the city of Hue? As you will see below, the connection is with the author of Giải khăn sô cho Huế (Mourning Headband for Hue), Nhã Ca. Nhã Ca, meaning “courteous, elegant song” in Vietnamese, is the pen name of one of the most famous Vietnamese writers of the second half of the twentieth century.1 Her real name is Trần Thị Thu Vân. She was born on October 20, 1939, in Hue and spent her youth there. Her father, Trần Vĩnh Phú, worked for the Office of Public Works in Hue and was a leading figure in one of the Buddhist communities of Hue. A middle child of a devout Buddhist family, she grew up in and among different Buddhist pagodas, closely acquainted with many dignitaries of Vietnamese Buddhism.2 She attended Đồng Khánh School, which she mentions in the account, and while there she started to publish poetry and short stories under her real name in some literary magazines in Saigon, most notably in the newspaper Văn Nghệ Học Sinh (Student Literature and Arts). This newspaper was established by a group of students from the North who had relocated to the South after the partition of the country in 1954. Among those who published in it were future famous writers and poets Dương Nghiễm Mậu, Lê Tất Điều, Lê Đình Điểu, Nguyễn Thụy Long, Đỗ Quí Toàn, Viên Linh,3 Nhã Ca’s future husband Trần Dạ Từ (b. 1940), and a number of others. In 1956 Nhã Ca saw this newspaper in a bookstore in Hue and established a connection with it.

In 1959 Trần Thị Thu Vân left Hue for Saigon and started her writing career. There she published in a variety of different magazines. In 1960, while reading the Old Testament translated into Vietnamese, this young woman, although raised as a Buddhist, was immensely impressed by the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, also known in its Catholic version as the Canticle of Canticles – one of the most poetic books in the Bible – pulsating with passion between its protagonists, a man and a woman. The word “canticle” was translated into Vietnamese as nhã ca. The love, passion, longing, and poetic power that permeated each word mesmerized and overwhelmed Trần Thị Thu Vân, so much so that she decided to take the word “canticle” as her pen name. Thus, the author Nhã Ca was born. From 1960 Nhã Ca’s poems and short stories were published in South Vietnam’s leading literary magazines. In 1963 she founded a short-lived weekly newspaper, Ngàn Khơi (Forests and Seas). She also worked at a number of the most popular newspapers in the South, such as Hiện Đại (Modernity), Văn (Literature), Dân Việt (Vietnamese People), Sống (Life), Hòa Bình (Peace), and Độc Lập (Independence). She also associated with members of a group that published a literary journal called Sáng Tạo (Creativity).

Indeed, until the mid-1960s Nhã Ca stayed away from political topics and focused her writings on love, passion, and longing. Many other authors wrote along similar lines. The literary scene in the South, especially after the overthrow of President Ngô Đình Diệm in 1963, presented a wide palette of publications. More than a hundred privately owned newspapers, magazines, and journals were published at that time; some of them survived only a few months while others found a significant readership that followed them for years. According to Neil Jamieson, “There were nearly 700,000 copies of Vietnamese-language newspapers printed daily in Saigon.”4 Though the contemporary Vietnamese publishers I consulted think that this number is exaggerated, this vibrancy, the lack of which was evident in the North at the time with but a few newspapers and extremely tight censorship, demonstrated the relative freedom in the South. The predominant feature of many literary works of the time revealed that the war did not “seem to have [found] its way into literature and the arts. … The favorite theme of the great majority of poetic and prose works is love.”5

Nhã Ca’s first book, published in 1965, is a collection of poems called Nhã ca mới (New Canticles). An instant and huge success, it describes the joys and sorrows of a woman’s life through Nhã Ca’s exploration of her own feelings and experiences; this book recieved a National Literature Award for poetry in 1966.6 The same year, she started working for the Voice of Freedom radio that transmitted programs into North Vietnam. Nhã Ca was a staff writer and also in charge of some music programs and programs focusing on women. She included no politics in her writings there, either. Nevertheless, her focus started to steadily shift. While women and their feelings still played an important role in her writings, family became more prominent in her work, which she began to situate within the intensifying war. Moreover, Nhã Ca began to explore new genres, including longer works of prose.

In 1966 her first novella, Đêm nghe tiếng đại bác (At Night I Hear Cannons), appeared and became a best seller. Reprinted six times and selling over 100,000 copies, it describes the plight of a family waiting in vain for their young male members – a son and a son-in-law – to come back from the front to celebrate the most important Vietnamese holiday, the Lunar New Year called Tết. The son of the family was killed and the son-in-law went missing.7

In At Night I Hear Cannons, Nhã Ca sided with neither political faction in the ongoing conflict. She stood for the family. Even as prose, this work was her canticle for perseverance, for human love, for family. But it also lamented the situation that put the family into these unbearable circumstances of hope and despair caused by the civil and international war ravaging her country. Nhã Ca’s voice became more powerful in her next work, Mourning Headband for Hue.

By 1968 Nhã Ca and her husband, fellow poet Trần Dạ Từ, had been married for seven years. They had two young children and lived in Saigon. Their success as authors afforded them financial freedom with a very comfortable life in an affluent neighborhood. On January 25, 1968, Nhã Ca’s father died in her native city of Hue and she left for his funeral, which took place on January 29. The next day the Communists attacked, beginning the Tết Offensive.8Nhã Ca was stranded in Hue during battles that lasted for almost the entire month of February. Her experiences and the experiences of those around her in Hue shocked her. Longing for peace, she decried the war in the book she completed in November 1968 with the title that speaks for itself, Một mai khi hòa bình (One Day When There Is Peace). In 1969 she wrote almost simultaneously three works about Hue: a collection of stories, Tình ca cho Huế đổ nát (A Love Song for Destroyed Hue), and a sequel to it titled Tình ca trong lửa đỏ (A Love Song in the Fire).9 The latter is a story of love between a South Vietnamese girl and a North Vietnamese soldier. Bringing these two people together, Nhã Ca again demonstrated her faith in a shared humanity that could transcend political difference and put an end to the atrocious war. It was also in 1969 that she wrote Mourning Headband for Hue.

All people and events in this work are real. Nhã Ca either witnessed the events she described or heard about them from people she encountered during the ordeal. It is an account or a collection of accounts written in the wake of the tragic events.

Mourning Headband for Hue is infused with a plaintive love for the city of Hue, for its people, for the country of Vietnam, and for life itself. In its language, however, it is very different from the poetry of a song; its staccato tempo fires at the reader like the machine guns used in Hue in February 1968. The frequent repetition of the same words, compounds, and phrases create a rhythm of both monotony and anxiety, dramatically and palpably reflecting life in raw and desperate eloquence in the middle of the battlefield that was Hue. Each day, day after day, people struggled to survive; they fled from one place to another; they searched for food and shelter; they buried the dead; always the same and always anew and always in fear. The rhythm of the language demonstrates a sense of immediacy and at the same time reflection. Nhã Ca’s goal was to bring these events out for display, to remember the atrocities that were committed upon the city of Hue and its people, and to take responsibility for them. Her account of events is not perfectly polished – a quality that usually betrays (and requires) a much greater distance from a traumatic event – and in this lies one of its greatest values. The language burns and smokes with the horrific violence and mayhem that war visits upon civilians.

Mourning Headband for Hue is also an accusation. Nhã Ca is very explicit in her antiwar message. One can hear her shouting against the geopolitical calculations of big powers engaged in the Cold War that took advantage of divisions among the Vietnamese. She conveys this idea through a comparison of Vietnam to a “small dog floundering in the water,” not being able to reach the shore because of the constant shots that bored soldiers fire at it for their own entertainment. One can also hear Nhã Ca’s clear and loud voice against brutality, having seen Vietnamese killing each other in what was also a civil war.

Her voice becomes especially bitter when she describes atrocities committed by the Communists and those who joined forces with them. Indeed, the Communist and their allies’ brutality during the Tết Offensive of 1968 pushed Nhã Ca for the first time to move from blaming the war itself for the tragedy of the Vietnamese people, as she does in At Night I Hear Cannons, toward a more pronounced anti-Communist position. It also pushed her even further away from the original Canticle of Canticles and the subjects it raised, which were so close to her heart before the mid-1960s.10 However, she did not make sweeping generalizations regarding Communists, Nationalists, or Americans by depicting them in black and white. Even amid the nightmare of Hue, and later while writing about it, she described positive examples of humanity in each group of combatants. In her “Small Preface” to Mourning Headband for Hue, she assumes the responsibility of her generation for the plight of Vietnam and of Hue, having let the country fall into a ruinous civil war that left a broken legacy for future generations. As I discuss below, it was and is not a view accepted by everyone, then or now.

Nhã Ca’s account was first published in 1969, serialized in the daily South Vietnamese newspaper Hòa Bình (Peace) from March 30 to August 18. She remembers being threatened by the Communists, who sent letters demanding that the publication be stopped, but she continued anyway. Later in 1969 her serialized account was issued as a book by the publishing house Thương Yêu (Love), founded by Nhã Ca herself.11 That same year it also published the abovementioned One Day When There Is Peace and A Love Song for Destroyed Hue, and then in 1970 it published the sequel to the latter, A Love Song in the Fire.

But Mourning Headband for Hue was (and still is) Nhã Ca’s most famous work. The author donated all the proceeds from the first and later Vietnamese editions of Mourning Headband for Hue to her beloved city of Hue to contribute to its restoration after the destruction of the offensive. In 1970 Nhã Ca received a governmental honor for Mourning Headband for Hue – third prize in the Presidential National Literary Award in the category “Long Stories.”12

The literary scene in the South at that time was incredibly diverse. As was already mentioned above, hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and journals were published, and numerous publishing houses printed new and old works. A prominent Vietnamese writer, Võ Phiến, described this burgeoning diversity: while such writers as Vũ Khắc Khoan, Nghiêm Xuân Hồng, Vũ Hoàng Chương, and Võ Phiến himself “had gone from political concerns and subjects to thoughts of a world far removed from current events. … Phan Nhật Nam, Nhã Ca, and Dương Nghiễm Mậu denounced communist atrocities all they wanted while Thế Nguyên, Nguyễn Ngọc Lan, Nhất Hạnh, Nguyễn Trọng Văn, Lữ Phương, etc. continued to accuse the government (of the South) of being dictatorial and corrupt and the society (of the South) of being unjust and decadent.”13

While some, like Võ Phiến, saw Mourning Headband for Hue as a denunciation of Communist atrocities, it is also an undeniably antiwar, and in many ways an anti-American, work. The relationship between Nhã Ca and the Saigon government was not an easy one. The government repeatedly censored some of her publications, as it did those of many other authors. But the fact that Mourning Headband for Hue could not only be published but also win a national governmental prize demonstrates that writers in the South enjoyed a much greater degree of intellectual freedom than did their counterparts in the North.

In 1971 director Hà Thúc Cần started to shoot a movie titled Đất khổ (Land of Sorrows) partially based on Mourning Headband for Hue and At Night I Hear Cannons.14 Nhã Ca wrote the script for the movie and joined the production team. A well-known songwriter, Trịnh Công Sơn, who, like Nhã Ca, also lived through the nightmare of Tết Mậu Thân in Hue and who, like Nhã Ca, hated the war, starred in the film. It was completed in 1972 when the South was in a dire situation amid another Communist offensive and negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam that led to American withdrawal from the war with disregard for the South Vietnamese.15 The South Vietnamese government banned the film because of its strong antiwar message.

In 1972 director Lê Dân made a movie titled Hoa mới nở (Flower That Just Bloomed) based on Nhã Ca’s novel Cô hippy lạc loài (A Stray Hippie Girl). This book vividly pictures the degradation of groups of Vietnamese youth caused by the war, the presence of Americans, and the Americanization of Vietnamese culture.

Nhã Ca remained in Saigon until the end of the war, publishing more than thirty volumes of poems, stories, and novels. Moreover, she and her husband were chief editors of the newspaper Báo Đen (Black Journal), which existed from 1971 to 1973. They also organized a magazine with the title Nhà Văn (Writer), but only several issues were published before the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975.

After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, and the subsequent unification of Vietnam under Communist rule, Mourning Headband for Hue was publicly burned alongside many other South Vietnamese works officially deemed subversive. Authorities nevertheless put a copy on display in the Museum of War Crimes Committed by Americans and Their Puppets, established in September 1975 in Saigon, re-named Hồ Chí Minh City. The movie Land of Sorrows was also banned.16

The author, like her book Mourning Headband for Hue, was deemed subversive. By March 1976 the Communist government launched an official campaign against South Vietnamese intellectuals. Neil Jamieson, a scholar of Vietnamese literature, describes the situation in South Vietnam after 1975 that affected the writers, poets, and journalists of the Republic of Vietnam: “In April 1976 those literary artists who had not already fled the country or been arrested were rounded up in a series of swift raids, as if they were dangerous criminals, and trucked off to forced labor camps like a consignment of pigs to the market.”17

In his thought-provoking book Bên thắng cuộc (The Winning Side) the Vietnamese correspondent Húy Đức, who interviewed many participants of the events of that time, discussed this painful period in the life of South Vietnam. He recounts that on April 3, 1976, Nhã Ca and her husband, Trần Dạ Từ, were arrested as a result of this campaign and, like hundreds of other intellectuals who were perceived as a danger to the new regime, sent to reeducation camps.18 By that time they had six children, aged from one to thirteen years old, who, as a result of their parents’ arrest and the confiscation of their property, were left without a means for survival. The eldest daughter, still herself a child at the age of thirteen, had to take care of her siblings. Eventually the children moved in with their relatives. After fourteen months, Nhã Ca was released,19 but Trần Dạ Từ was kept in the camps for twelve years. To survive during that time, the family started to peddle food. While Nhã Ca did not attempt to leave Vietnam without her husband, she did repeatedly try to send some of her children with the groups of boat people who started to leave Vietnam by the thousands. However, each of these attempts ended in failure with her children apprehended and sometimes put into labor camps.20

In 1977 a prominent literary figure named Mai Thảo, another northerner who had moved to the South in 1954 and was the founder and editor-in-chief of literary magazines and journals such as Sáng Tạo (Creativity), Văn(Literature), and Nghệ Thuật (Art), managed to escape by boat from Vietnam. He did it with Nhã Ca’s assistance. When he settled down in the United States, he revealed the dire situation of South Vietnamese writers and other intellectuals to PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) International, a worldwide association of writers. The vice president of PEN International at the time was Thomas von Vegesack, who was also the president of PEN in Sweden. Through him, the Swedish media learned about the plight of South Vietnamese writers, and Tom Hansson of the Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish daily newspaper, went to Vietnam to learn more. In 1982 he met Nhã Ca and a number of other intellectuals. He also collected information on the pitiful situation of the intellectuals: not only were many of them still imprisoned in the reeducation camps but some had died there, such as the talented writer Nguyễn Mạnh Côn. Hansson reported his findings in the media and communicated them to the Swedish PEN.

In November 1985 Nhã Ca’s and Trần Dạ Từ’s eldest son, aged twenty at the time, managed to escape from Vietnam and by September 1986 had reached Sweden, where he was assisted by the Swedish PEN.21 Due to the efforts of these people, as well as Amnesty International and prime ministers of Sweden Olof Palme and Gösta Ingvar Carlsson, Nhã Ca’s husband, Trần Dạ Từ, was released in 1988, and the family was allowed to move to Sweden.

There Nhã Ca resumed her writing. In Sweden she wrote three books, one of which, A Diary of a Person Who Lost Her Days and Months (Hồi ký một người mất ngày tháng), describes the family experience from the arrest of the parents on April 3, 1976, until their departure from Vietnam on September 8, 1988.22 In 1992 Nhã Ca and Trần Dạ Từ relocated to California and founded a Vietnamese-language newspaper, Việt Báo Daily News, which now has branches in Houston, Texas, and Tacoma, Washington. There are now seven children in their family, five of whom reside in the United States and two in Sweden.


I grew up on this side of the Perfume River
The river splits my life into patches I long for –
Fruit trees of Kim Long, iron and steel of Bạch Hổ Bridge,
The gateway of mercy greets me with great warmth as I step into the river,
Into the turquoise transparent water of my innocent childhood,
Ancient stupas, bells from times past, gentle river, small waves.

NHÃ CA, “Tiếng ChuÔng Thiên Mụ” (Bell of Thiên Mụ Pagoda)

The beautiful city of Hue lies in central Vietnam, about four hundred miles from Hanoi in northern Vietnam and about seven hundred miles from Saigon (now Hồ Chí Minh City) in southern Vietnam. The Perfume River runs through the city. For several centuries Vietnam was divided between two ruling families: the northern lords ruled from Hanoi, and in the seventeenth century the southern lords, the Nguyễn, established their capital at Hue. In 1802 one of the Nguyễn lords was able to unify all the Vietnamese lands under his authority, and he placed the national capital at Hue. The city became an imperial enclave with palaces, mansions, and royal tombs. These were concentrated on the northern bank of the Perfume River in the part of the city called the Citadel, which was surrounded by fortified walls. By 1968 between 120,000 and 140,000 people lived in Hue, and most of them resided in the Citadel. There were also newer but significantly smaller residential areas south of the Perfume River. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that in 1954 partitioned Vietnam into two parts lay forty-five miles north of Hue.

Because of its imperial legacy, Hue became a symbol of education, culture, and tradition. One of the most famous schools of colonial Vietnam, a Franco-Vietnamese lycée named Quốc Học (National Academy), was established there in 1896. Among its founders was Ngô Đình Khả, father of the first president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Ngô Đình Diệm, in office from 1955 to 1963, and of Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Hue from 1960 to 1963.23 Ngô Đình Diệm studied at that school as did many other prominent Vietnamese figures, including Ngô Đình Diệm’s opponents Hồ Chí Minh, known during his time at school as Nguyễn Tất Thành, and General Võ Nguyễn Giáp, both later leaders of North Vietnam. Many famous poets, writers, and scientists who later joined different sides of the conflict in Vietnam received their education at the National Academy.

Hue was also the Buddhist stronghold of the country. Historically, Buddhists were often on the defensive. Before the French colonization of Vietnam in the second half of the nineteenth century, Buddhists contended with the prevailing Confucianism, which had become the official socio-philosophical basis of Vietnamese society. After the French conquest, they struggled with Christianity and French colonialism itself. This tendency toward resisting authority continued after the French left Vietnam. Hue Buddhists became a consistent source of opposition to the ruling regimes in Saigon. Hue-based Buddhist uprisings in South Vietnam included the campaign of 1963 against the president of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm. Pictures of the self-immolation of one of the Buddhist monks, a Hue native, shocked the world and brought relations between the United States and Ngô Đình Diệm to a breaking point.

The Buddhist movement did not end after the assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm during a military coup on November 1, 1963. The Buddhists, joined by students, continued to demonstrate against the various governments established in 1964 and 1965, and particularly against the government established in June 1965 by a group of military officers, which finally brought some stability to the political situation in Saigon. For nearly a year, southern Vietnamese politics was dominated by the triumvirate comprising air force marshal Nguyễn Cao Ký and army general Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, a Catholic, both of whom were based in Saigon, and army general Nguyễn Chánh Thi, commander of the I Corps in charge of the region that included the cities of Hue and Đà Nẵng, the second and third largest cities in South Vietnam. In 1965 Buddhist monks together with students established the Military-Civilian Struggle Committee, also known as the Struggle Movement, in Hue. The tension escalated further and climaxed in 1966 when Nguyễn Cao Ký dismissed his rival Nguyễn Chánh Thi, who was popular among troops in the northern part of South Vietnam. The Struggle Movement led an uprising in the spring of 1966. The uprising was suppressed by the government with the assistance of the United States. A substantial number of supporters of the uprising and members of the movement fled to the mountains and joined the Communist forces there. During the Tết Offensive in the spring of 1968, these people returned and played a significant role in events during the Battle of Hue.

The Tết Offensive was launched on January 30, 1968, during the most important of Vietnamese holidays – the Lunar New Year, commonly called Tết in Vietnamese. Among Vietnamese, this offensive became known as Tết Mậu Thân, indicating the 1968 New Year specifically. It was a part of the Communist winter–spring campaign of 1967–68. Forgoing the usual guerrilla methods employed by the Communists previously, this campaign employed conventional warfare, fought chiefly in mountainous areas near the northern and western borders of South Vietnam. The primary striking forces in this campaign were North Vietnamese regular army units.24

The Tết Offensive was the second phase of the winter–spring campaign. This time, the Communist forces, jointly known as the Liberation Army, consisted of members from South Vietnam belonging to the National Liberation Front (NLF) and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF), known in the South as the Việt Cộng or Vietnamese Communists, as well as units of the regular North Vietnamese Army (People’s Army of Viet Nam, PAVN). During the Tết Offensive, the Communists employed a strategy completely different from that used in the winter campaign. They made extensive use of guerrilla tactics and simultaneously attacked cities, towns, and hamlets all over South Vietnam, including Saigon and major provincial administrative centers. With this large-scale operation, they aimed to achieve a military victory. They hoped that the people of South Vietnam would support them and rise up against the Saigon government. It did not happen.

The Communists suffered a crushing military defeat. However, the political effect of the Tết Offensive in the United States marked the turning point of public opinion against the war, with Americans increasingly opposed to any further involvement. On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection in the upcoming presidential elections in November. Within a few months, the offensive led to the beginning of negotiations between the Americans and the North Vietnamese and to the end of American bombing of North Vietnam. Richard Nixon replaced Johnson in the Oval Office and began to disengage from the conflict.

The battle for Hue started with the Communist assault in the wee hours of January 30, 1968. The defenders of Hue – the side opposing the Communists – consisted of the Nationalist Army (ARVN or Army of the Republic of Vietnam) supported by local militia units (Regional Forces and Self-Defense Forces) and by the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Air Force.

The initial Communist assault was strong, organized, and successful. By the dawn of February 1, the Communists had established control over the entire city with the exception of the headquarters of an ARVN division and the compound housing American military advisors. The ARVN and the Americans started to reinforce their positions in the face of Communist attacks.

The Communists established their main stronghold in the Citadel, the heart of the imperial capital. The Communists also occupied the western side of the city, while the ARVN and the Americans controlled the other three sides. Initial efforts to retake the Citadel from the Communists by relying primarily upon firepower failed, so in the third week of February, Nationalist and American soldiers entered the Citadel and engaged in a difficult battle with close-order combat, block by block, yard by yard, house by house.

On February 24 ARVN soldiers replaced the Communist flag that had flown over the Citadel of Hue for almost four weeks and raised their own flag of the Republic of Vietnam. On February 26, 1968, the Communist forces were pushed out of Hue by the Nationalist and American forces.

The battle for Hue was the heaviest in the history of urban warfare in Vietnam. The Communists lost an estimated 5,000 people in the city itself; the ARVN losses stood at around 400, and the Americans had 216 killed in action. Some 80 percent of the city of Hue was destroyed, mainly by American and ARVN firepower and bombing.25

Regular North Vietnamese forces – North Vietnamese Army, NVA – shouldered the brunt of fighting at Hue. The South Vietnamese NLF was in charge of organizing liberated zones, conducting indoctrination sessions, rationing food, conscripting youth for labor and fighting, and dealing with those in the local population whom the NLF identified as its enemies. Along with the Communist forces, many former members of the defunct Struggle Movement who had left Hue after the defeat of the Buddhist Uprising in 1966 returned to the city. Intimately familiar with the city and its inhabitants, they, as Mourning Headband for Hue shows, were a major force behind the executions in Hue. Not only were government and military officials massacred but innocent civilians, including women and children, were tortured, killed, or buried alive.

Douglas Pike, one of the scholars of Vietnamese Communist strategies whose writings will be discussed below, has divided the period of Communist control of Hue into three phases. During the first stage, immediately upon taking control of the city, “the civilian cadres, accompanied by execution squads, were to round up and execute key individuals whose elimination would greatly weaken the government’s administrative apparatus following Communist withdrawal.” Those arrested were brought into kangaroo courts. Their trials were public, lasting about ten minutes each, and “there are no known not-guilty verdicts. Punishment, invariably execution, was meted out immediately.”26

Alje Vennema was a Dutchman who had been in Vietnam from 1962 as a medical volunteer running a provincial hospital and later was the director of Canadian Medical Assistance to Vietnam. His account corroborates Pike’s findings. According to Vennema, who was a medical volunteer in Hue at the time, tribunals were conducted at a “small seminary in the Catholic area of the town,” in the Citadel, and in a neighborhood just east of the Citadel wall called Gia Hội, a location mentioned numerous times in Mourning Headband for Hue. Vennema also reports about the people who appear in Nhã Ca’s book:

At the seminary, a drumhead court had been presided over by Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong [Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường], a Hue University graduate, and in 1966 a prominent student leader of the Buddhist Government Struggle Committee. At Gia Hoi [Gia Hội], a man, Nguyen Dac Xuan [Nguyễn Đắc Xuân], previously a Viet Cong [Việt Cộng] informer who had suddenly reappeared, presided, and in the Citadel two students, Nguyen Doc [unidentified] and Nguyen Thi Doan [Nguyễn Thị Đoan Trinh], a girl, had been in charge. At the session of these tribunals menacing words often mixed with propaganda slogans, accusations, threats, and warnings were commonplace. Most of those who were dragged before the tribunals were convicted for unknown reasons. All were sentenced; some were sentenced to die immediately.27

Phase 2 began after several days of the Communist presence in Hue. Some 68,000 refugees from the city escaped and settled in refugee camps, and reports about massacres started to appear in the Saigon press.28 Pike defines Phase 2 as a period of “social reconstruction, communist style,” that is, rounding up those who presented a potential danger to the Communist order. However, only a small number of executions were done publicly to set an example, while “most of the killings were done secretly with extraordinary effort made to hide the bodies.”29 Among those executed were not only government officials, police, and military personnel but also Buddhist bonzes, Catholic priests, intellectuals, and leaders of social movements. Sometimes their families were rounded up and executed with them. Don Oberdorfer, a journalist for the Washington Post who was in Vietnam at the time, added that not only Vietnamese but also Americans, Germans, Filipinos, Koreans, and other foreigners were executed by the Communists.30 One of the examples he presents is Dr. Horst Gunther Krainick and his wife. Dr. Krainick was a German pediatrician and professor of internal medicine who arrived in Vietnam in 1960 to help establish a medical school at Hue University. On the fifth day of the occupation, the South Vietnamese Communist soldiers came to their house: “Elizabeth Krainick screamed and when she and her husband were led away she was heard to shout in English, ‘Keep your hands off my husband.’ The couple and the two other German doctors in residence, Dr. Raimund Discher and Dr. Alois Altekoester, were taken away in a Volkswagen bus. The four bodies were found later in a shallow grave in a potato field a half mile away, all victims of executioner’s bullets.”31

Phase 3 started when the Communists began to lose control of Hue and strove to eliminate witnesses. “Probably the largest number of killings came during this period and for this reason. Those taken for political indoctrination probably were slated to be returned. But they were local people as were their captors; names and faces were familiar. So, as the end approached they became not just a burden but a positive danger.”32 Determining whether those killings were done due to rage, frustration, and panic or were a result of calculated decisions will require additional research, if and when documents in Vietnam about the events of Hue are made available to scholars.

The events in the city not only took a deadly physical toll on its people but also produced a heavy breakdown in morale. As one old man related to a correspondent of the newspaper Sống (Life) after the battle, people of Hue were like scared birds because of what they had gone through; they had seen how some Communist soldiers killed their own friends and relatives. He asked rhetorically: “Now who is it possible to trust?”33

Dương Nghiễm Mậu, a famous Vietnamese writer, like many other writers a northerner who moved in 1954 to South Vietnam, lived in Hue initially. In 1967 he joined the ARVN and became a war correspondent. He was in Hue on the eve of the Tết Offensive and during its first several days, and then twice he visited the city in the post-offensive period in 1968. At the beginning of 1969 he published a diary, Hell Is Real, in which he reflected on the unbearable confusion among people after they witnessed how their neighbors and friends turned into completely different people during the days that followed Tết Mậu Thân in Hue: “Now when people see something, they doubt it, they don’t dare to believe anything, don’t dare to reveal their attitude to anyone, don’t dare to talk with anyone because possibly this other person has a different truth.”34 He compared a picture of Hue before and after the Tết Offensive. Before Tết Mậu Thân, “amidst rounds of whisky and packets of American cigarettes and American candies, everybody was talking about war and peace, against the war. I lived in this atmosphere during my first visit to Hue. The vivacious ancient capital with afternoons of drinking and laughter – the people of Hue go to work and then come back with fresh and smiling faces.”35 But in his later visits his impression of the city changed dramatically:

Hue was alive but panic-stricken as it emerged from the terrible nightmare – doubtful looks, surreptitious whispering to each other of secrets and of things that people don’t want to talk about, don’t want to recollect. Not only traces of bullet holes and bomb craters … wounds can be bandaged, destruction can be repaired, but there are traces that will not disappear, will not fade, not only for those who live now but also for those who will live later. … These are devastations of confidence, imprints of powerlessness in the consciousness – they have become facts of life and bitter-sweet illusions.36

This situation was further aggravated by the fact that thousands of people were missing. People did not know where their loved ones were. They were roaming the streets, searching buildings, digging, and finding bodies. People dug up corpses even in the heart of the imperial city, in the Citadel, and around the emperors’ mausoleums outside of the city. A correspondent, Huyền Anh, wrote at the beginning of April 1968: “Exhumed corpses of victims were rotten and slimy. After about ten minutes in the air the newly dug up corpses, grey-black and swollen, would gradually start leaking stinky water.”37

On May 1, 1968, the Chicago Tribune cited an official report released in Saigon about the number of civilian victims in Hue rising to 1,000: “Evidence indicated that many victims had been beaten to death, shot, beheaded, or buried alive. … A number of bodies showed signs of mutilation. Most were found with hands tied behind their backs. It was estimated that nearly half the civilian victims were found in conditions that indicated they were buried alive. Some were tied up on [sic] groups of a dozen or so, with eyes open, with dirt or cloth forced into their mouths.”38

The number of bodies continued to rise; in April 1969 the newspaper Trắng Đen (White and Black) reported that with 580 recently recovered bodies, the count was up to 2,000. The article said that people were able to recognize their friends and relatives only by the clothing found on them.39 The people of Hue kept digging and finding corpses through the fall of 1969. The condition of the bodies further deteriorated to the extent that only bones and skulls could be extracted from the mass graves.40 By late 1969 the total number of bodies unearthed around Hue had risen to around 2,800.41

Aside from the terrible death and destruction caused by battle, the massacre of unarmed civilians on such a scale in Hue by the Communist forces left a deep scar in the memories of survivors because it meant that the war had reached such a point of mistrust and hatred that a shared sense of being Vietnamese could no longer be taken for granted.

As in other matters concerning the events in Hue, there are different opinions about who were the perpetrators of the mass murders. Stephen Hosmer, a researcher for RAND Corporation, contended in 1970 that “the savagery and indiscriminate nature of much of the repression in Hue seemed uncharacteristic of the Viet Cong’s Security Service. It is possible that some of the more brutal killings were not carried out by security cadres at all but were performed by the North Vietnamese or other military forces.”42 On the other hand, that same year Douglas Pike suggested that

as far as can be determined, virtually all killings were done by local communist cadres and not by the PAVN troops or Northerners or other outside communists. Some 12,000 PAVN troops fought the battle of Hue and killed civilians in the process but this was incidental to their military effort. Most of the 150 communist civilian cadres operating within the city were local, that is from the Thua Thien [Thựa Thiên] Province area. They were the ones who issued the death orders. Whether they acted on instructions from higher headquarters (and the communist organizational system is such that one must assume they did), and, if so, what exactly those orders were, no one knows for sure.43

No one knows still.


For most Americans, the war always has involved selective
consciousness, and now even these memories are fading.

JOHN W. DOWER, Japan in War and Peace

In this statement, John W. Dower, a renowned scholar of Japan, referred to another war, the Pacific War, and how it was seen and is remembered by Americans.44 But I would be hard-pressed to find a more apt description to apply to the war in Vietnam.

There is no lack of literature on the Tết Offensive – memoirs along with works of literature, journalism, and scholarship produced by Americans have appeared in abundance, presenting different vantages on the American involvement and describing a plethora of American experiences while analyzing events and seeking to establish or to refute various versions of the facts. Not so, however, with Vietnamese perceptions of the conflict. There exist relatively few English translations of Vietnamese works from any time period. Even fewer have come out from the war period between 1965 and 1975. Most of those that have been translated during and after the war have come from the North. The voices from the South have been intentionally or accidentally left in silence.45

Although a number of South Vietnamese short stories have been translated and published in the United States, they have failed to achieve any significant exposure to the reading public. South Vietnam boasted many excellent writers of different political and intellectual persuasions, but for decades after the war no major works found their way into the hands of American readers. Mourning Headband for Hue was the first major account of wartime experience by a major author that appeared in South Vietnam during the war. The existence of the work has been mentioned by journalists and scholars alike in English-language publications with significant differences. While journalists such as James Markham and Barbara Crossette and such scholars as Neil Jamieson highlight the work’s antiwar spirit, prominent Vietnamese literary figures such as Võ Phiến stress its anti-Communist character.46

The lack of previous attention to South Vietnamese literature perhaps reflects an overall skewed perception and representation of the war as one solely between the United States and the Vietnamese Communists. South Vietnam’s government and its people – those not allied with the Communists – were either labeled as “American puppets” by the Communists or were given very little regard by Americans because they did not fit into the framework of the dominant representation of the conflict. Yet the war was very much about South Vietnam and its people. Without their voices, an understanding of both sides of the long, tragic conflict is unattainable.

Mourning Headband for Hue fills a serious lacuna in our knowledge of the events that transpired in Hue in 1968 and in our knowledge of South Vietnamese writings. This book uncovers an event not widely known to the American public during and after the war: the actions of the Communists that resulted in thousands of civilians being shot, bludgeoned, and buried alive in mass graves, horrible events that survivors have since considered a massacre.

Tết Mậu Thân in American Media during the War

In 1968 the American media of course covered the Tết Offensive. The fighting was “brought home” when it appeared nightly on U.S. television. To claim that no information whatsoever appeared about the Hue massacre in the American media would be incorrect. In some major publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune, scores of articles described or mentioned Communist atrocities committed in the city.47 However, they were overshadowed by the explosive news about the presumed Communist successes during the offensive and discussions about the hopelessness of the American cause in Vietnam. Moreover, at that time even the people of Hue did not know how many people had been killed; they only realized that thousands had disappeared. Gradually the local citizens started to discover and unearth, one by one, mass graves. Hundreds of names were moved from the category of “unaccounted for” to “dead,” but thousands were still unaccounted for.48

While the discovery of the atrocities unfolded in Hue, the attention of the American public was diverted to the shocking domestic events of 1968: on March 31, 1968, President Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection; on April 4, 1968, the leader of the African American civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated, an event that provoked days of rioting in American cities; on June 6, 1968, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated; in August 1968 violent clashes between police and protesters accompanied the national convention of the Democratic Party in Chicago; and, finally, the tumultuous presidential campaign resulted in the election of Republican Richard M. Nixon. The fate of the Hue victims did not break through these headlines.

Then, even though in Hue local people continued to unearth corpses of missing people through September 1969 and the numbers of uncovered dead were rising into several thousands, the news of another tragedy overshadowed Hue again. On March 16, 1968, less than a month after the events in Hue, a U.S. Army platoon entered the Vietnamese hamlet of Mỹ Lai and within several hours killed between three hundred and four hundred of its inhabitants, including children, old men, and women. Many women, even old ones, were raped. The military tried to sweep news about Mỹ Lai under the rug, but in March 1969 information about the event began to surface. On November 12, 1969, journalist Seymour Hersh broke the Mỹ Lai story on the Associated Press wire service, and shortly thereafter it appeared in several major publications, including Time and Newsweek. Information about the terrible events in Mỹ Lai, accompanied by graphic pictures of the atrocity, captured the attention of the American public. Americans were rightly appalled by the actions of their countrymen in Vietnam, and the Mỹ Lai victims of Americans pushed the Hue victims of the Communists from the American media and, by extension, from the attention of the American public and of the world.49 Stanley Karnow, a journalist and historian, author of the much-cited and much-acclaimed Vietnam: A History, and later chief correspondent for the thirteen-hour PBS television series on the war in Vietnam, described the reaction of U.S. citizens to the tragedy of Hue during the war: “Paradoxically, the American public barely noticed these atrocities, preoccupied as it was by the incident at Mylai [sic].”50

Tết Mậu Thân, Douglas Pike, Gareth Porter, and American Politics during the War

Rather than becoming common knowledge, as happened with Mỹ Lai, and rather than becoming a point of serious reckoning about the nature of the war, the events of Hue turned into a political football. Both sides of the American political aisle used it in their constant scrimmages. While Don Oberdorfer’s book on the Tết Offensive, published in 1971, provided more than casual information about events in Hue, two other people proved to be especially influential in providing arguments for the contesting camps. One was Douglas Pike, who was instrumental in bringing to light the events that took place in Hue. A professional journalist, Pike joined the U.S. Information Agency in Vietnam in 1960 and stayed there for many years. By 1968 he was also working for the State Department and by the time of the Tết Offensive had already gathered a number of materials on and written a significant amount about Vietnam, Communist strategies, and the National Liberation Front.51 After Tết he conducted research, using documents seized from Vietnamese Communists, and made his findings known both in interviews and in books written specifically about Tết and, after the war, on Vietnamese Communism more generally.52 He argued that Communists had committed a massacre in Hue, killing thousands of people when they controlled the city.

Politicians used Pike’s findings, as well as some of the reports published at the time, to argue that an inevitable bloodbath would ensue in Vietnam if the Communists took over the country.53 In his famous “peace with honor” speech delivered on November 3, 1969, Richard Nixon used Hue as justification for avoiding a sudden withdrawal from Vietnam: “We saw a prelude of what would happen in South Vietnam when the Communists entered the city of Hue last year. During their brief rule there, there was a bloody reign of terror in which 3,000 civilians were clubbed, shot to death, and buried in mass graves.”54 A month later, Senator George Murphy from California advanced the same idea on the floor of Congress,55 citing an article in the Los Angeles Times, for which Douglas Pike was the primary source.56

Pike’s antagonist was Gareth Porter, an antiwar activist, political scientist, and journalist. He was in Vietnam as Saigon bureau chief for Dispatch News Service in 1970 and 1971. Even before he left for Vietnam, he was opposed to viewing the events in Hue as a massacre. In 1969, as a graduate student at Cornell University, he coauthored an article in Christian Century that argued that the killings in Hue were committed on a smaller scale than had been reported and were “the revenge of an army in retreat and were not the deliberate policy of Hanoi.”57 As with Pike’s findings, Porter’s views were appropriated by politicians. On May 19, 1970, in a response to Nixon’s argument about a potential bloodbath in case of a Communist victory, reiterated by the president during a news conference on May 8, 1970, Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon evoked Porter’s point of view by citing New York Timescorrespondent Tom Wicker’s article on the events in Hue, which was based solely on Porter’s 1969 piece in Christian Century.58

After returning from Vietnam in 1972, Porter, a research associate at Cornell University, published a work rebutting the claims that the Land Reform in Vietnam in 1953–55 had resulted in a bloodbath that took the lives of thousands of people.59 In his later works he continued to press his view of the events in Hue and tried to refute Pike’s findings. In 1973 Porter wrote: “For professional apologists of American imperialism, Hue has already served as a catchword which helps them to justify years of American war crimes. But it was the work of the U.S. Information Agency and the ARVN Political Warfare Directorate, who used both overt and official propaganda and more devious semi-covert methods, such as misrepresentation of captured documents to the press and fabricating the testimonies of defectors to back up the official account.”60 In 1974 he wrote: “A careful study of the official story of the Hue ‘massacre’ on the one hand, and of the evidence from independent or anti-communist sources on the other, provides a revealing glimpse into efforts by the U.S. press to keep alive fears of a massive ‘bloodbath.’”61 Antiwar politicians used this 1974 work in their arguments to disengage from Vietnam. For example, Senator George McGovern of South Dakota accused the Nixon administration of using the events in Hue as a pretext to continue American involvement there; he went as far as referring to the killings in Hue as the “so-called Hue massacre.”62

To support his argument, Porter cited an unpublished manuscript by Alje Vennema, mentioned above.63 Indeed, until the events of Tết Mậu Thân in Hue, Vennema was a strong Communist sympathizer. According to Vennema, he was appalled by the war and by American involvement. He felt that “the National Liberation Front offered the only solution to the corruption and incessant warfare.” But Vennema was in Hue when the tragedy unfolded, and it significantly changed his perspective. He remembered later: “My stay in Hue, however, showed me another aspect of war, which was that the enemy had even greater disregard for human life – by capturing innocent bystanders, eliminating them in cold blood, or letting them rot away in jungle camps until death rescued them.” Vennema left Vietnam in April 1968 when the scope of the tragedy had not yet emerged. He was approached to refute the South Vietnamese government claims about the losses in Hue, and it made him reflect on what really happened in Hue, especially because more and more mass graves were being discovered. Obsessed with the urge to find out what really happened there, he “returned to Hue several times, again and again looking, searching, tracing contacts, visiting villages and families of the bereaved.”64 In 1976 Vennema’s book was published, detailing the killings in Hue. A source of invaluable information, it did not make a splash back then, perhaps because after 1975 Americans wanted to forget about that war altogether and because both politicians and the public tried to move on, leaving the tragedy of Vietnam behind. His book almost slipped into oblivion, becoming a rarity to find for nonspecialists.

The lack of attention to the events in Hue continued after the war. Unlike the Mỹ Lai massacre, which is mentioned in the majority of general books on the war and analyzed in dozens of specialized books published from the 1970s to the present time,65 the events in Hue have not received any serious study and have largely, if not completely, faded from the radar of American memory and scholarship. Some continued Porter’s line on the fabricated nature of the Hue tragedy.66 Other postwar writings on the war in Vietnam either dispense entirely with any discussion of it or mention it only briefly.67 James Robbins, a senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at the Washington Times, is one who, besides Pike, Vennema, and Oberdorfer, has discussed at significant length the massacre in Hue and press coverage of it.68

Tết Mậu Thân in the Soviet Union and Russia

While the victims of the Hue tragedy have received little attention in the United States, they have received even less attention in the country with which the Vietnamese Communists were allied, the Soviet Union. No mention of the massacre occurred in the Soviet press or in any other forum in 1968 or in later years; it was as though it never happened. Those who knew and had the courage to speak out had no way to raise the topic in Soviet discourse. In 1973, while still in the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, one of the most famous Soviet dissidents, managed to publish an open letter in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenpost denouncing what he called the Hue massacre and the lack of attention to it in the West. He blamed the liberals for their willingness to look the other way when “the bestial mass killings in Hue, though reliably proven, were only lightly noticed and almost immediately forgiven because the sympathy of society was on the other side, and the inertia could not be disturbed. … It was just too bad that information did seep into the free press and for a time (very briefly) did cause embarrassment (just a tiny bit) to the passionate defenders of that other social system.”69 Shortly thereafter Solzhenitsyn was expelled from his motherland. As far as I know, his letter was the only public acknowledgment of the events in Hue to emerge from the Soviet Union, but predictably not from within the Soviet Union.

On a personal note, during the 1980s when I studied at Leningrad State University for my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Asian studies with a specialized focus on Vietnam, my classmates and I were not taught about the Hue massacre, just as very few students in the United States are exposed to knowledge of this issue even now. The people of Hue failed to attract the attention of either of the two superpowers that were waging a Cold War in pursuit of their own goals in the hot war then tearing Vietnam apart. Not much has changed since then. In 2012 I gave a presentation about Mourning Headband for Hue at a conference in Moscow titled “Current Issues in Russian Vietnamese Studies.” The attendees of the panel repeatedly interrupted me, saying that what we must talk about is American atrocities in Vietnam. My attempt to call their attention to the fact that American atrocities and those committed by the South Vietnamese government have been exposed time and again and that we have to take a look at all sides of the conflict in order to better understand the past fell on deaf or openly hostile ears. Even as some Americans did not or do not want to consider the tragedy in Hue, preferring to focus on American guilt, the Soviet approach and that of the contemporary scholars of Vietnam in Russia, at least of those who were present at this conference, remains landlocked in Communist self-righteousness. Nhã Ca’s name or work did not ring a bell to the audience of the Russian scholars of Vietnam; some of them characterized her as an unknown woman whose stories could not serve as a basis for scholarly consideration and instead would distract us from the consideration of American and South Vietnamese atrocities. Not only did I feel as if I were back in the country that I had left almost twenty-five years before, but more than ever I felt the necessity to make the voices of the people of Hue heard, to bring up the issue of Hue, not to replace the issue of the atrocities committed by Americans and the South Vietnamese army but to join it.

The proceedings of the conference reiterated the hostile scholars’ position. The text reads that the attendees “reminded the presenter” that it was the Saigon (not the Communist) troops that distinguished themselves with the cruel treatment of the population, especially of those known as Communist sympathizers.70


Believe me, it is not easy to rationalize the stamping out of
vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored.

KURT VONNEGUT, Armageddon in Retrospect

There are different ways to deal with a tragedy: it is possible to discuss it and through this discussion to potentially initiate a process of healing, or it is possible to pretend that it never happened and forget it, to pretend that if it is not discussed it will go away. There are numerous examples of both approaches in human history in dealing with tragedies of different scales. There has been significant willingness and openness in Germany to discuss and analyze German policies and realities prior to and during World War II that led to the unimaginable sufferings and deaths of millions and millions of people. There has been much more resistance and reluctance to do the same in Japan, and this has resulted in numerous difficulties and tensions in the relationship between Japan and other Asian countries, specifically China and Korea. The U.S. military authorities tried to sweep the tragedy of Mỹ Lai under the rug in 1968, and if they had been successful it would never have become a point of reckoning for Americans.

It took fifty years for the Soviet government to acknowledge what happened in 1940 at Katyn Forest, a wooded area near Gneizdovo village outside the city of Smolensk, where on Stalin’s orders the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) shot and buried thousands of Polish service personnel and civilians who had been taken prisoner when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939 in alliance with Nazi Germany. The Soviets blamed the Germans for the atrocity until 1990, when then-president Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt and, subsequently, archival documents were opened to give a fuller picture of what happened there. Gorbachev said that the truth of what happened in the forests of Katyn is one of the “historical knots” that has complicated Soviet-Polish relations.71

The situation in Vietnam is in many ways more complex because the Hue events unfolded not only against the background of the war between the Vietnamese Communist forces and the United States but also in the context of the civil war with contesting powers in North and South Vietnam. Since then, one of the Vietnamese sides (the Communists) won; the other side (the South Vietnamese anti-Communists) lost. The price that both sides paid is enormous. The Communists suffered the destruction of the northern economy and infrastructure from bombing and thereafter were enmeshed in another long and devastating war as a pawn in the Sino-Soviet competition to dominate Indochina after the American withdrawal. For the anti-Communists, the losses continued long after the war through reeducation camps, discriminatory policies in education and employment, or exodus by boat from unified Vietnam with a loss of their homeland, if their escape succeeded, or with a loss of their lives to sea, pirates, or harsh conditions, if their escape failed.

Now the situation seems to have stabilized with one Vietnam and millions of overseas Vietnamese. A possibility of reconciliation or at least partial healing might be there for many Vietnamese, not in the absence of discourse about the war in general and of Tết Mậu Thân in Hue in particular but through it. It may become a reality not through silence but through an open, if extremely painful, discussion of the history and the course of the conflict. In such a discussion, Mourning Headband for Hue and the views expressed in it would become but one of the voices.


When the events in Hue were unfolding, the Vietnamese government in the North and the Communist forces in the South did not address the tragedy. On February 2, 1968, just days after the beginning of the Tết Offensive, the command of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam heralded the success of the Communist forces: “The People’s Revolutionary Committee of Thừa-thiên province and Hue came into being to accept the glorious responsibility of the people’s government in the province and in the city.”72 On March 3, 1968, after the Communists had already lost the battle in Hue, the Central Committee of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam still proclaimed a victory over the enemy, stating that in addition to inflicting serious damage to the American and South Vietnamese government forces and installations, the Communist forces also “killed enemy thugs, wiped out evil-doers, essentially liberated the entire countryside, established the revolutionary administration, and expanded the national unity against Americans to save the country.” The document continued: “The city of Hue has demonstrated a brilliant example of spirit and ability to launch an offensive against the enemy, with stamina and sense of purpose, defeating all enemy counterattacks, creatively applying tactics of people’s war in the city against the enemy, beautifully combining together military attack with political attack.”73 On March 19, 1968, the command of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam further reinforced these ideas, citing not only the Communist forces’ heroism and success in strategy but also “richness in creativity and wit” in applying those strategies.74 The main publishing house of the government in Hanoi produced these documents in April 1968, thus giving them its stamp of approval.

On April 27, 1969, following a series of discoveries of mass graves in Hue and its suburbs, Hanoi Radio reacted: “In order to cover up their cruel acts, the puppet administration in Hue recently played the farce of setting up a so-called committee for the search and burial of the hooligan lackeys who owed blood debts to the Tri-Thien-Hue compatriots and who were annihilated by the southern armed forces and people in early Mau Than spring.”75 This statement, as well as the one from the southern Communist forces cited above, openly admits the killings of at least some people but does not reflect any willingness of the Communist side to shoulder responsibility for them; on the contrary, the Communists portrayed the killings as a necessary act against “enemy thugs,” “evildoers,” and “hooligan lackeys.”

Since the end of the war, the government of Vietnam has not yet acknowledged, or at least openly discussed, the events of Tết Mậu Thân in Hue. At the beginning of the 1980s Stanley Karnow interviewed General Trần Đỗ, one of the senior Communist architects of the Tết Offensive, who flatly denied that Hue atrocities had ever occurred, contending that films and photographs of the corpses had been “fabricated.”76

Personal Perspectives: The Communist Side

TRƯƠNG NHƯ TẢNG AND BÙI TÍN. Two high-ranking officials from North and South Vietnam, while not directly involved in the events in Hue, have offered their insights about them. The first is Trương Như Tảng, a founding member of the Communist movement in the South and former minister of justice of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, an underground government in South Vietnam formed in 1969 in opposition to the Saigon government and consisting primarily of the members of the National Liberation Front, the Việt Cộng. Disillusioned with Communist policies after the fall of Saigon and reunification of the country, Trương Như Tảng fled the country by boat in 1978 and currently resides in France. In his memoirs written in exile, Trương Như Tảng describes his conversation with the chair of the Provisional Revolutionary Government, Huỳnh Tấn Phát. According to Trương Như Tảng, Huỳnh Tấn Phát expressed his sorrow and disappointment about what had happened and explained that discipline in Hue had been seriously inadequate, which resulted in fanatic young soldiers indiscriminately shooting people and angry local citizens who supported the revolution on various occasions taking justice into their own hands. Huỳnh Tấn Phát stated that there was no policy or directives from the NLF to carry out any massacre: “It had simply been one of those terrible spontaneous tragedies that inevitably accompany war.” When Trương Như Tảng heard this explanation, he did not find it “particularly satisfying,” but neither did he “pursue the issue.”77

Unlike Trương Như Tảng who was in the South, Colonel Bùi Tín served with the general staff of the North Vietnamese Army, who during the fall of Saigon in 1975 accepted the surrender from the last South Vietnamese president, Dương Văn Minh. After the war, Bùi Tín worked as vice chief editor of the official daily newspaper of the Communist Party, Nhân Dân (People). Similarly disillusioned with Communist authority, he asked for and received political asylum in France when attending a conference organized by the French paper L’Humanité in 1990.

From Bùi Tín’s memoir published in 1993, a reader can deduce what, in Bùi Tín’s opinion, constituted three main contributing factors of the Hue tragedy. The first factor stemmed from the frustration of the Vietnamese Communist forces. According to him, “During that time in the tense atmosphere that permeated the city [of Hue], seeing that people did not rise [against the South Vietnamese government], but on the contrary fled, with very few people coming to greet [Communist forces], to help the [Communist] army, was a reason that when the army took over the city, it was already prejudiced against the people of Hue.”78

The second factor concerned the Communist loss in Hue. As Bùi Tín explains, when in retreat, an army wants to eliminate witnesses because they might be in a position to disclose information that an army desires to keep secret.

Bùi Tín saw the third cause in the Communist education system existing at the time, which was, in his opinion, rooted in hatred. “Education in hatred, necessary at the time of war, was elevated to the extreme, [and] directions were spread that ‘mercenaries-killers,’ [and the other] most dangerous enemies, must not be allowed to escape.” As Bùi Tín put it, such an education system created a basis for the disastrous massacre.79

Like Huỳnh Tấn Phát to whom Trương Như Tảng referred, Bùi Tín suggests that there were no execution orders issued in advance. Even though both Huỳnh Tấn Phát, as expressed by Trương Như Tảng, and Bùi Tín deny the existence of orders from the top authority in advance of the offensive, they differ in their explanations of the killings – the former suggests spontaneity from the rank-and-file, while the latter suggests a possibility of such orders from an unspecified body at the time of the Communist forces’ retreat. Neither addresses the issue of killings taking place long before the retreat started.

Bùi Tín relates that the decision-making process of the government and the Communist Party has never been disclosed, but he contends that the party and the government did not put significant effort into a thorough investigation or subsequent punishment: “Leaders of the Communist Party have a tendency to see ‘leftist deviations’ as light-weighted as, for example, [it happened] during the Land Reform and anti-religion campaigns” when people and issues were “all dealt with summarily.”80

Bùi Tín names three people who were “criticized” for the Hue tragedy. General Trần Văn Quang, commander and political commissar of the area where Hue was located, was criticized but continued his military career and in 1981 was appointed deputy minister of the Ministry of Defense and promoted to the rank of colonel general in 1984. Major General Lê Chưởng, political commissar of the South Vietnamese Communist forces of the NLF, upon criticism was transferred to become deputy minister of Education. He died in 1973 in a car accident. The third criticized person, according to Bùi Tín, was Colonel Lê Minh, a commander of military operations on the left bank of the Perfume River. According to Bùi Tín, Colonel Lê Minh died of illness after that.81 Bùi Tín does not indicate Lê Minh’s time of death, but Lê Minh certainly lived long after Tết Mậu Thân. Moreover, in 1987 he wrote an essay for a commemorative volume, Huế, Xuân 68 (Hue, Spring 68), published for the twentieth anniversary of Tết Mậu Thân in Hue in 1988, five years before Bùi Tín’s book was published.

LÊ MINH. Lê Minh’s essay in Hue, Spring 68 stands out from the other essays written by politicians and participants in the events. In some ways it represents a significant departure from the official treatment of the tragedy. Lê Minh notes that atrocities are an inevitable part of war. He highly and predictably praises the performance of the Communist forces in Hue during Tết Mậu Thân: “It should be said that after we retreated up into the jungles, if there was something still firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of the people of Hue, first of all, it was the uplifting image of ‘Venerable [Uncle] Hồ’s [Hồ Chí Minh’s] soldiers.’” But then he digresses into the topic of the killings in Hue: “When we were retreating, the enemy counterattacked us with great vigor.” He admits that there were some instances of people belonging to the puppet army and administration who were apprehended and who resisted the Communist forces. “In these conditions, some brothers and sisters of our military masses (army, guerilla, self-defense, etc.) were unable to abstain from some shallow [italics mine] actions in this situation. We were in such an extremely difficult position that we were not able to control the actions of every fighter and every guerilla … including even a number of regional cadres, in their reactions to events.”

Indeed, his focus remains rather narrow – he does not mention the number of victims, but from his description they seem to be insignificant and limited to the South Vietnamese military and government officials. Nevertheless, he suggests a measure of culpability to be attributed to the Communist forces, not distinguishing whether it was northerners or southerners. Additionally, he actually assumes his own responsibility for the actions of the Communist forces as the commander of those forces. He concludes on an even more striking note: “The current task of the revolution now is to bring to light the injustice suffered [minh oan] for the families and the children of the people who died in that situation when the revolutionary law never had an intention to put them to death.”82

His essay is especially significant because, unlike Trương Như Tảng and Bùi Tín, who lived outside Vietnam and whose books were published in the United States after Lê Minh’s essay, it was published in Vietnam. It is hard to imagine that it was a “rogue” work and that it did not go through a regular censorship process. It is possible that because the book was published in Hue, located at some distance from the central authority in Hanoi, the regulations were not as rigid. For comparison, a similarly titled volume, Mậu Thân 68, published in Hanoi by the Central Department of Propaganda and Ideological Education at the same time and on the same occasion, highly praises the Communist achievement at the time and does not even discuss Hue.83 However, it is more likely that with the advent in 1986 of the đổi mới (renovation), the analogue to the Soviet perestroika, the country experienced a series of drastic economic and less drastic but still significant political changes. The latter allowed or were expected to allow at the time a larger degree of freedom of expression than previously existed. I would like to think that if Lê Minh’s essay was sanctioned by the authorities, perhaps it was a step to open up a possibility of a further discussion. My assumption is supported by the fact that Lê Minh’s essay was mentioned by Nguyễn Văn Diệu, a Communist Party foreign liaison officer, to Keith Richburg, a correspondent for the Washington Post, who included it in his article “Vietnamese Admit ‘Mistakes’ in Hue,” published in 1988.84

While I am not aware of anything that the Vietnamese government has done about what Lê Minh referred to as “bringing to light the injustice suffered” after the publication of the essay, the appearance of his voice not only confirms the fact of the killings but also demonstrates that among those who fought on the Communist side, there are people who feel and/or express guilt for the tragedy of Hue.

HOÀNG PHỦ NGỌC TƯỜNG. Ten years after Lê Minh’s essay, in 1997, another person moved even further than Lê Minh in his assessment of the killings in Hue: Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, a native of Hue who during Tết was one of the leaders of the Communist forces in the South. He is directly implicated in the killings in Vennema’s account and indirectly implicated in Mourning Headband for Hue.

Through his writings we can see a drastic change in his consideration of the Hue tragedy. In 1971 Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường wrote a book titled A Star on the Top of Phu Văn Lâu: A Chronicle (Ngôi sao trên đỉnh Phu Văn Lâu). Phu Văn Lâu is a tall pavilion in the Citadel of Hue. The title of the book reveals the time and the contents of the events described in it – the period of Communist control in the Citadel when the Communist flag, with a star, fluttered from the top of Phu Văn Lâu pavilion. The date at the end of the book indicates that it was written in 1969; however, it appeared in 1971 from Giải Phóng (Liberation) Publishing House. While the North Vietnamese government and later the government of unified Vietnam claimed that this publishing house was located in the South, in fact it was located in Hanoi.85 With the publications in the North controlled by the government, it is safe to conclude that the northern authorities were aware of the book.

Unlike in Mourning Headband for Hue, there is nothing in the book that goes against the grain of the party line about the events in Hue. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s chronicle concentrates on battling Americans (Korean forces are also mentioned several times), on the enthusiasm of the population of Hue in greeting the Communist forces after having had to live under the authority of Americans and their Vietnamese puppets, and on the good relations between the population and the Communist forces. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường also describes some of the people who left the city in 1966 and returned with the Communist forces. The book ends on an enthusiastic note, describing how before the Communist defeat, one of the Communist fighters told his mother, “It’s peace already, Uncle Hồ will come to visit South Vietnam. He will come to visit you and me.”86 The book does not talk about the indoctrination campaigns, kangaroo courts, mass killings, or mass graves. When I read this book, I could not get rid of the feeling that it was a de facto response to Mourning Headband for Hue: Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s chronicle versus Nhã Ca’s account.

At the beginning of the 1980s Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường was very explicit in his opinion on the killings in Hue. Interviewed by Stanley Karnow for the broadcast series Vietnam: A Television History, Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường said: “The people so hated those who had tortured them in the past that when the revolution came to Hue they rooted out those despots to get rid of them just as they would poisonous snakes who, if allowed to live, would commit further crimes.”87

On July 12, 1997, literary critic and journalist Thụy Khuê, hosting programs on literature and arts for Radio France Internationale (RFI)88 in Vietnamese, interviewed a sixty-year-old Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường. By that time Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường had become a prominent historian of Hue and an author of literary works. In the course of the interview he reflects on his earlier interview with Karnow, the events in Hue, and Mourning Headband for Hue.

Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường identifies the person who contacted him for the interview in the series Vietnam: A Television History as Burchett. He apparently was referring to William Burchett, an Australian journalist and strong supporter of the Communist cause who during the war accompanied the Communist forces in the South when they were battling the Americans and South Vietnamese troops.89 Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường reminisces: “It was a long time ago, I simply improvised [when I was giving the interview]; I don’t remember exactly everything I said.”90 Since Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường had not had a chance to see the film, he did not know “whether his thoughts were reproduced correctly.” He only remembered that at the interview for the series, he distinguished three categories of victims. The first was made up of those who died because of the punitive actions by the Liberation Army, intended for those who were guilty. The second category included victims of injustice. The third category consisted of victims who died because of American bombing or who were shot and killed by the South Vietnamese government’s forces in their retaliation against people during the counterattack. This categorization, as Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường reintroduced it in the interview with Thụy Khuê in 1997, significantly differs from how he expressed his views to Karnow in the early 1980s.

The difference between the two interviews is apparent both in content and in tone. His tone shifts from derogatory to pensive. The difference further deepens when Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường addresses the suffering of the people of Hue. According to the RFI interview, it greatly pains him, as a son of Hue, when he thinks “about heart-rending deaths and grief that many families in Hue had to endure being victims of injustice by the uprising [Communist] army at the Hue front in 1968. This is a mistake that cannot be supported with any reasoning, looking at it from the point of view of national conscience and the concept of revolutionary war.”

He also dwells, if reluctantly, on the issue of responsibility. Basically, he follows the lead of Lê Minh. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường contends that the people responsible for the tragedy were local commanders, that the revolutionary policy was not to blame for this since similar tragedies did not happen in other places. He also, echoing Lê Minh, suggests that “what should be done now is that the leaders of Hue must clear the injustices for the families of the victims of Hue, to give clear and fair treatment to do them justice and to acknowledge the legitimate rights of citizens toward their relatives.” Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường evidently heavily draws from Lê Minh’s essay. He contends that he himself is “not sufficiently competent [in the knowledge of the events] to evaluate any individual.” Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường obviously wants to distance himself from the tragedy of Hue.

Whether or not Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường was actually present in Hue during Tết Mậu Thân is a controversial issue itself. Vennema, as cited above, and the majority of Vietnamese who lived in Hue and with whom I discussed the issue indicated that, in their opinion, he was there. However, Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường himself does not agree on this point. According to him, he “was absent from Hue during Tết Mậu Thân, participating in the Resistance War in the jungles, from summer 1966, and came back to Hue only after March 26, 1975,” when Hue was taken by the Communist forces. He says that until then he was the secretary general of the Alliance of Nationalist, Democratic, and Peace Forces of Hue headquartered in Hương Trà District of Thừa Thiên Province, which he locates fifty kilometers (thirty-one miles) from Hue.

The question about Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s book A Star on the Top of Phu Văn Lâu: A Chronicle, written in 1969 and published in 1971, never emerged in this or other interviews, as far as I know. But the existence of this book seems to be potentially important as it raises a number of questions: on what basis did he write his 1969 chronicle about the events in Hue if he indeed was absent from Hue from 1966 to 1975? Without knowing the provenance of the sources, can this book really be considered a chronicle? Was Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường in Hue but does not want to acknowledge this? Or did he, being far away from Hue, write a work, a kind of response to the account of Nhã Ca (who actually was in Hue during Tết and explains her sources), distinguishing between his account and what she witnessed herself and what she heard? My attempt to approach Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường to ask him to help me clarify some of the aforementioned points was unsuccessful. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s health is declining.

In a rather strange twist in the interview with Thụy Khuê, he states that in Mourning Headband for Hue, Nhã Ca exonerated him, “saying that he did not return to Hue during Tết Mậu Thân, but if he did, [he] surely did not kill.” He expresses his gratitude to Nhã Ca for allotting him this very important objective point of consideration. In fact, in chapter 7 of Mourning Headband for Hue, Nhã Ca relates the words of a young girl named Hường who believes that Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường did not come back to Hue, but later Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s comrade-in-arms, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, confirms the opposite, that Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường was in Hue and was at Gia Hội School. Gia Hội School was the location of one of the most infamous tribunals that conducted kangaroo courts and sentenced people to immediate execution. While one can wonder if the information that Nhã Ca indirectly conveys is correct or not, the book does not support his claim that he was absent from Hue. It remains unclear to me what prompted Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường to offer this assessment of Nhã Ca’s portrayal of him. It is possible that his memory was failing him. I am reluctant to think that Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường did not carefully read the book or that he thought her credibility as a witness was strong while at the same time he supposed that what Nhã Ca had actually written was unlikely to be known by or checked by the listeners of his interview.

Nevertheless, Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường very positively evaluates Mourning Headband for Hue: “Despite such intentional or unintentional factual mistakes of the author, in my opinion, Mourning Headband for Hue [contains] interesting notes written about Hue during Tết Mậu Thân; I read them several dozen years ago and then re-read them, I still feel a heartache.”

NGUYỄN ĐẮC XUÂN. Another person who appears in the pages of Mourning Headband for Hue, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, has a very different attitude toward Nhã Ca’s work. While still a student, as described by Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, he was one of the leading figures of the 1966 Struggle Movement and a commander of the “Suicide Squad” fighting against the South Vietnamese government. This squad consisted mainly of Buddhist students.91 He and his squad took a very active part in the confrontation between General Nguyễn Chánh Thi and the Saigon government in 1966, known as the Buddhist Uprising. When the uprising was suppressed, he fled and joined the Việt Cộng. Currently, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, like Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, is a researcher of Hue history and of the history of the Nguyễn dynasty, having published dozens of books. Both men are also members of the Writers’ Union.

From his articles and memoirs, it is evident that Nguyễn Đắc Xuân does not share Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s positive sentiment about Mourning Headband for Hue. In 1999 and in a number of later publications, including the most recent in 2012, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân reminisces on his first impression of reading Nhã Ca’s work.92 He claims not to have felt angry at the author for her portrayal of him because he understood that it was “a story to serve [the purpose of] cheap psychological war.”93

Nguyễn Đắc Xuân flatly denies Nhã Ca’s portrayal of him in which, according to him, he is described as “killing in a tragic manner” his own friend and classmate Trần Mậu Tý.94 If Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường errs on the positive side in his (mis)interpretation or (mis)representation of Nhã Ca’s portrayal of him, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân goes in somewhat the opposite direction. In fact, Nhã Ca does not say in Mourning Headband for Hue that Nguyễn Đắc Xuân actually killed Trần Mậu Tý. When she refers to him in her “Small Preface” and later in chapter 7, she describes a scene where Nguyễn Đắc Xuân cruelly tortured Trần Mậu Tý by holding him on the verge of death. She does not say that he killed Trần Mậu Tý. However, it is significant that Nguyễn Đắc Xuân interpreted it as an accusation of murder, which, as he states, affected his relationship with many people in the course of his life.95

He suggests that it is not he but another person whom Nhã Ca brings to the pages of Mourning Headband for Hue because in the book Nhã Ca refers to him as Đắc, not Xuân, which he says is his personal name.96 Nguyễn Đắc Xuân’s reaction to the new edition of Mourning Headband for Hue is bitter and sharp and deserves to be briefly considered here. In 2008, he wrote in his journal Sông Hương (Perfume River), published in Hue:

The content of the new edition of Mourning Headband for Hue is still the same as the one published in 1969, I saw only ONE WORD [emphasis in the original], only one word changed, that’s it. This is the word XUÂN (my name) on p. 376 in the first edition, which has become Đắc on p. 234 in the new edition (to bring it into accordance with the name of the character Đắc in Mourning Headband for Hue). About forty years have passed, and she changed the name from Xuân to Đắc like this, it shows that she realized the difference between the real person Nguyễn Đắc Xuân and the character named Đắc in her Mourning Headband for Hue. Such a change has been done because of legal reasons, so that she can defend herself by saying: “I wrote a story about Mr. Đắc, not about Mr. Xuân.”97

Reading this passage, one can see an understandably desperate person trying to find an exit from a bad situation. First of all, during my work on the translation, I constantly compared the first edition on which I based the present translation with the one published in 2008. I can assure the readers that Nguyễn Đắc Xuân’s assessment is imprecise: more than one word had been changed in the new edition; in fact, on average, more than one word has been changed on each page.

As for the name itself, while Nguyễn Đắc Xuân’s last name is Nguyễn, customarily the name Xuân would be considered his personal name. But Nhã Ca in the first edition consistently calls him Đắc, not Xuân, and when once – indeed, on p. 376 of the Vietnamese edition – she calls him Xuân, under circumstances that do not allow any doubt that it is the same person to whom she previously referred as Đắc, this should be considered a pure mistake in writing rather than an attempt to implicate a wrong person. But indeed, for the sake of consistency, he should have been called Đắc. And Nhã Ca fixed this mistake in the new edition of the book. I do not think that she did it in order to avoid potential legal complications – she still meant the same person, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân. It seems that, despite Nguyễn Đắc Xuân’s claim to the contrary, at least during the time of Tết Mậu Thân, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân was called Đắc, not Xuân, by more than one person, as I found an identical and unequivocal reference to him also as Đắc, and not Xuân, in Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s book A Star on the Top of Phu Văn Lâu.98

I have no intention or ability to evaluate here the role of Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, or anyone else in Tết Mậu Thân, both because of the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of gaining access to relevant archival materials and because this lies beyond the goal of my introduction to Mourning Headband for Hue. I have solely focused on their memories and memoirs where they reflect on Nhã Ca’s work.

Personal Perspectives: The Anti-Communist Side

Unknown to anyone in the West but to specialists in Vietnamese studies, Mourning Headband for Hue means something different for different Vietnamese people and different camps. For Communists it was, and perhaps is, anathema. For some South Vietnamese, who lived through the war and its aftermath, either in Vietnam or abroad, based on the materials I have read and on the conversations I have had, it is a painful and treasured representation of what happened in Hue and an anti-Communist accusation.

But there exists one more point of view to be considered. It sees Mourning Headband for Hue as too lenient toward Communists. One of the voices supporting this position is that of Nguyễn Tà Cúc, who was a member of the Vietnamese Writers Abroad PEN Center and in 1995 was briefly chair of its Writers in Prison Committee. She also has been an assistant editor for the Khởi Hành (Departure) literary magazine in California since 1996. Nguyễn Tà Cúc disagrees with Nhã Ca’s call for collective responsibility as expressed in her “Small Preface: Writing to Take Responsibility,” where Nhã Ca assumes responsibility for the situation in Hue in particular and in Vietnam more generally, not only on her own behalf but on behalf of her entire generation of Vietnamese, saying: “Our generation, the generation that likes to use the most beautiful and showy words: not only must we tie a mourning headband for Hue and for our homeland, which are being destroyed, but we must also take responsibility for Hue and for our homeland.”

Nguyễn Tà Cúc questions who these “we” are. In her opinion, Nhã Ca refers to her generation of South Vietnamese, and Nguyễn Tà Cúc raises a question: who authorized Nhã Ca to speak on behalf of other South Vietnamese? She rejects Nhã Ca’s idea of taking collective responsibility. She asks why “we,” if it includes other South Vietnamese, should take responsibility for the Communist actions. Why should “we” take responsibility for the destruction of Hue, if it was the result of the Communist actions? Why should “we” feel responsible for the massacre of more than three thousand people? Nguyễn Tà Cúc also questions why Nhã Ca did not address the fundamental problem that if North Vietnam had not attacked South Vietnam, Americans would not have been there in the first place. Nguyễn Tà Cúc sees Nhã Ca’s antiwar stance and her willingness to share responsibility “for the destruction of such a historic city as Hue” as a weakness, if not an outright betrayal of the anti-Communist cause of South Vietnam.99 In the aforementioned article penned by James Markham in the New York Times in 1973 after the American withdrawal, based on his interview with Nhã Ca, she finds “everyone guilty” in the conflict, and some South Vietnamese see this admission of guilt as a validation of American abandonment of South Vietnam and as at least partial exoneration of the North.100

As an alternative assessment of the nature of the war, Nguyễn Tà Cúc suggests the view of another prominent Vietnamese writer, Lê Tất Điều, as expressed in a passage from his work Ngừng bắn ngày thứ (Ceasefire – Day 492), which he finished writing in Saigon on April 17, 1975, less than two weeks before the fall of Saigon. “In the course of several dozen years of war, the free world held and pulled, threatened South Vietnam, demanded that the South must conduct war in a moral way, must search ways to achieve peace. In the end, victory fell into the hands of those whose hands don’t shake when they pull a trigger even though they know that at the end of their bullets’ trajectory are women and children.”101 This passage indeed differs from Nhã Ca’s position as expressed in Mourning Headband for Hue about sharing responsibility for the tragedy of Hue and of Vietnam. Comparing these two points of view about responsibility, not only in terms of message but also in consideration of the times and circumstances of their expression, might be a separate, engaging, and important project, which I am not going to undertake here.

Nguyễn Tà Cúc is not alone in her views. One person with a similar perspective is Nhật Tiến, the vice president of Vietnamese PEN before 1975. One of the most active literary figures in South Vietnam during the war, whom Neil Jamieson described as one of Saigon’s finest and most respectable writers,102 he fled Vietnam on a boat in 1979. Comparable considerations have been expressed by some other members of the Vietnamese American literary community, who prefer to remain anonymous.

It is evident that if for some, especially those on the Communist side, Nhã Ca’s portrayal of the Communist role in Hue was too much, for others it was too little. I realize that in addition to the array of views presented here, there might exist other views that I have not considered. If so, it is because I am not aware of them, not because I am trying to silence them. While working on this introduction, I decided that it is important to present, as much as I could, the fullest accessible range of representative Vietnamese reactions to Mourning Headband for Hue – for the sake of the people who hold them, for the sake of the work, and for the sake of our understanding of this work and the tragedy of Hue in the contemporary context.

Among the views that I have noted here, Mourning Headband for Hue occupies a middle ground representing disillusioned people who took a neutralist position in the conflict, condemning the war. Despite possible ideological controversies, Nhã Ca’s work is distinguished by its strong voice elucidating the experiences of civilians trapped for weeks in a horrible battle.


Until now, Hue has not been officially allowed to have a common commemoration day when all people would turn their hearts to those who died a painful death during the Tết Mậu Thân.

NHÃ CA, Giải khăn sô cho Huế (Morning Headband for Hue)

There may not have been a bloodbath after the fall of Saigon and the unification of Vietnam, but there were consequences. Many thousands of people were put into reeducation camps, including Nhã Ca and her husband, Trần Dạ Từ; hundreds upon hundreds of thousands fled or tried to flee by boat, with many thousands dying at sea or in transit or apprehended even before they left the shores of Vietnam. A senior-ranking ARVN officer, Nguyễn Công Luận, reflected on the Hue events in his excellent memoir:

Years later, in 1972, the horrible images of 1968 mass graves drove many tens of thousands of people from all walks of life in Huế and Quảng Trị to take the route of war refugees. The press corps named it “voting with their feet.” Panic evacuations from South Việt Nam’s northern cities happened once again more tragically in March 1975 before South Việt Nam fell. It was later apparent that people from Huế and the adjacent provinces made up a significant proportion of the Vietnamese boatmen fleeing Việt Nam after the RVN collapsed on April 30, 1975. After April 1975, communist authorities evicted a large number of close relatives of the 1968 carnage victims in the Huế area and resettled them in remote “New Economic Areas.” The living conditions in the “New Economic Areas” were much harsher.103

Nearly half a century has passed since 1968. The Vietnamese government still trumpets Tết 1968 in general and the battle of Hue in particular as a huge victory. On January 1, 2008, for example, the Ministry of Defense and the Provincial Committee organized a conference, “Offensive and Uprising of the Spring Mậu Thân 1968,” to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the event. Lê Khả Phiêu, the former secretary general of the Communist Party (1997–2001); Colonel General Phan Trung Kiên, a member of the Party Central Committee and deputy minister of the Ministry of Defense; and other officials and scholars attended. The issue of the massacre and who was responsible for it was not officially addressed.

Lê Minh’s and Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường’s reflections on the Hue tragedy, discussed above, show a crack that potentially can lead to more openness, and perhaps even in the direction of having “a common commemoration day when all people would turn their hearts to those who died a painful death during the Tết Mậu Thân.”104 Despite many years having passed after those reflections appeared, nothing has happened yet.

Those who lived through the nightmare of Hue and those who want to see those events recognized have constructed literally dozens upon dozens of websites with pictures and testimonies from that time. But without the official acknowledgment of Hanoi, a dialogue is not possible. Nhã Ca’s works have not been published in Vietnam after the war; though many of them, including Mourning Headband for Hue, are accessible on the internet, this does not lead to a dialogue with the academic and political establishment or to public consideration in Vietnam today.

It is important not only for Vietnamese but for Americans, too. Whether Nhã Ca’s voice and other South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese voices that may potentially be brought to public attention can change our perspective on the war and on what happened in Hue, or at least open a discussion, I do not know. In any case, this is not my most important goal, even though I would be happy if it happens and if one day the people of Vietnam would be able to together commemorate those who died at the time of Tết Mậu Thân in Hue, as Nhã Ca also desires. My goal with this publication is to make our consideration of the war more inclusive and to encourage anyone who wants to think about this issue to have a broader basis for reaching his or her own conclusion.

Mourning Headband for Hue was written in the months after the events in Hue. It presents an opportunity to become acquainted, albeit belatedly, with a South Vietnamese view on what happened in that city. It is a look at the war not through the eyes of a soldier or a politician but through the eyes of civilians. Those civilians did not have a choice in the conflict but were pushed into the middle of a terrible battle by the same military people and politicians who articulated the war policies, conducted the war, and later wrote books about it. This book depicts the experiences of ordinary people whose lives were drastically changed or cut short by wartime violence; it is about the “others,” those caught in the crossfire, those who survived, and those who did not. It is not a novel, not a work of fiction, but an unvarnished account of the events as seen through the eyes of the author and of those who surrounded her at that time. It gives us “snapshots” of the ruined and scarred lives at the time of the Tết Offensive. But it also demonstrates a variety of views on the Communist, Nationalist, and American sides of the conflict from the vantages of different people. Some passages in the work relate the same events or describe the same figures as they were perceived by different people, and this adds to our understanding of the complex situation in South Vietnam at that time and creates a style slightly reminiscent of Rashomon, the famous movie of the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa based on Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s story “In a Grove.”

Regardless of one’s political persuasion, Mourning Headband for Hue prompts us to mourn for the people of Hue, for the Vietnamese, for the self-absorption of great power policies in Vietnam, and for our unwillingness to learn more about “others,” which even today continues to haunt our policies toward other countries.

Olga Dror

January 2014


  1. The information about Nhã Ca and her work comes primarily from my correspondence with her as well as from the works cited here.

  2. Neil Jamieson mistakenly identifies Nhã Ca as a Catholic writer. Neil Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 321.

  3. Dương Nghiễm Mậu currently lives in Hồ Chí Minh City. Nguyễn Thụy Long died in Hồ Chí Minh City in 2009. Lê Tất Điều currently resides in California. Lê Đình Điểu and Đỗ Quí Toàn established the first Vietnamese Daily newspaper in California in 1978. Viên Linh is a publisher and editor-in-chief of Khởi Hành (Departure) magazine, a monthly Vietnamese literary magazine in California.

  4. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, 291.

  5. According to the PhD dissertation of Hoang Ngoc Thanh, completed at the University of Hawai’i in 1968. He also suggested that there were notable exceptions like Doãn Quốc Sỹ, Đỗ Thúc Vịnh, Diệp Lan Anh, and Ngô Thế Vinh. Cited from the later publication of portions of the dissertation: Hoang Ngoc Thanh, Vietnam’s Social and Political Development as Seen through the Modern Novel (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 310.

  6. Công Huyền Tô Nhữ Nha Trang, “Women Writers of South Vietnam (1954–1975),” Vietnam Forum 9 (Winter–Spring 1987), 174.

  7. Đêm nghe tiếng đại bác (Saigon: Nam Cường, 1966). This work was translated into English by James Banerian in 1993 but remains only in copies published by the translator himself. In 1997 it was translated into French by Lieu Truong and published by P. Picquier in Arles under the title Les canons tonnent la nuit.

  8. Called Tết Mậu Thân by Vietnamese to indicate New Year’s Day of 1968.

  9. Respectively: Một mai khi hòa bình (Saigon: Nhà xuất bản Thương Yêu, 1969); Tình ca cho Huế đổ nát (Saigon: Nhà xuất bản Thương Yêu, 1969); and Tình ca trong lửa đỏ. The last work was serialized in Hòa Bình starting August 19, 1969, the day after the last installment of Mourning Headband for Huewas published in the same newspaper and later published as a separate book in 1970 by the Thương Yêu publishing house.

10. Well-known Vietnamese writers and literary critics Võ Phiến and Thế Uyên delineated the politicization of Nhã Ca and other authors in the literary journal Bách Khoa (Encyclopedia). “Tác phẩm và cuộc đời nói chuyện với Võ Phiến” [Conversations with Võ Phiến about Literary Work and Life], Bách Khoa no. 302 (August 1, 1969): 59–72; “Vài vắn đề với Thế Uyên” [Several Issues with Thế Uyên], Bách Khoa no. 303 (August 15, 1969): 72–74.

11. It was reissued in 1970 and 1973 in Saigon by the same publishing house, and a revised edition was published in California by Việt Báo publishing house in 2008.

12. The first and second prizes went to two other female writers: the first to Túy Hồng for the work Những sợi sắc không (Illusions); the second to Nguyễn Thị Thụy Vũ for the work Khung rêu (Frame of Moss).

13. Vo Phien, Literature in South Vietnam, 1954–1975 (Victoria, Australia: Vietnamese Language and Culture Publications, 1992), 137.

14. The movie is available on YouTube and Amazon. On the history of the creation and the distribution of the movie, see Nguyễn Xuân Nghĩa, “Ngậm ngùi với Đất khổ” [Grieving with the Land of Sorrows], Việt Báo, Spring 2008, 56–57.

15. See Larry Berman, No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 2001).

16. See for example Trần Trọng Đăng Đàn, Văn hóa, văn nghệ phục vụ chủ nghĩa thực dân mới Mỹ tại Nam Việt Nam 1954–1975 [Culture, Literature, and Art Serving American Neo-Colonialism in Vietnam in 1954–1975] (Long An: Thông Tin, 1990), 618–72.

17. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, 364.

18. Huy Đức, Bên thắng cuộc [The Winning Side], vol. 1, Giải phóng [Liberation] (Saigon, New York: OsinBook, 2012), 51.

19. Neil Jamieson’s statement that Nhã Ca was imprisoned for several years is incorrect. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, 364.

20. Tom Hansson, “Han flydde från Vietnam – men familjens hålls kvar” [He Fled from Vietnam – But the Family Still Held There], Svenska Dagbladet, April 19, 1987, reproduced in Nhã Ca, Hồi ký một người mất ngày tháng [A Diary of a Person Who Lost Her Days and Months] (Westminster, CA: Thương Yêu, 1991), 524–33.

21. Hansson, “Han flydde från Vietnam – men familjens hålls kvar,” 524–33.

22. The other two books are a novel, Hoa phượng, Đừng đỏ nữa! [Flamboyant Flowers: Please Don’t Bloom Again] (Westminster, CA: Thương Yêu, 1989), and a collection of short stories, Sài gòn cười một mình [Saigon Smiles Alone] (Westminster, CA: Thương Yêu, 1990).

23. Nguyễn Văn Minh, Dòng họ Ngô Đình: Ước mơ chưa đạt [Ngô Đình Clan: Dreams Unrealized] (Garden Grove, CA: Hoàng Nguyên Xuất Bản, 2003), 12–13.

24. For an informative contemporary analysis of the Vietnamese side prior to and during the offensive, see Victoria Pohle, The Viet Cong in Saigon: Tactics and Objectives during the Tet Offensive (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense/International Security Affairs and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, 1969). There is a somewhat less researched and more politicized work on the offensive giving coverage of each area in South Vietnam: Pham Van Son and Le Van Duong, eds., The Viet Cong Tet Offensive, 1968 (Saigon[?]: Print and Publications Center, A.G./Joint General Staff, RVNAF [1969?]), which discusses the Battle of Hue, including the massacre, pp. 248–96. See also Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, Hanoi’s War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 87–109, for an analysis of the political struggle in Hanoi prior to the Tết Offensive.

25. Don Oberdorfer, Tet! The Story of a Battle and Its Historic Aftermath (New York: Doubleday, 1971), 232.

26. Douglas Pike, The Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror (Saigon: For the United States Mission, Vietnam, February 1970), 54–55. There is also a brochure based on this work: Massacre at Hue (Bangkok, Thailand: SEATO, 1970).

27. Alje Vennema, The Viet Cong Massacre at Hue (New York: Vantage Press, 1976), 90, 94.

28. “Huế vẫn tiếp tục chiến đấu dù bị Việt Cộng tàn phá” [Hue Continues to Struggle Although Devastated by the Việt Cộng], Sống [Life], February 19, 1968. The newspaper continued to report on atrocities in Hue throughout the month of February.

29. Pike, Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror, 53.

30. Oberdorfer, Tet!, 232.

31. Ibid., 214.

32. Pike, Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror, 58.

33. Huyền Anh, “Một ngày đi moi những hầm xác ở Huế” [A Day When I Went to Extract Bodies from Graves in Huế], Sống, April 3, 1968. This newspaper published a series of articles on the findings in Hue.

34. Dương Nghiễm Mậu, Địa ngục có thật [Hell Is Real] (Saigon: Văn-Xã Xuất Bản, 1969), 16.

35. Ibid., 86.

36. Ibid., 87.

37. Huyền Anh, “Một ngày đi moi những hầm xác ở Huế,” Sống, April 1, 1968.

38. “Find: Reds Murdered 1,000 Hue Civilians,” Chicago Tribune, May 1, 1968, C10.

39. Trắng Đen, April 17, 1969, 1.

40. For a concise timetable of the discoveries of bodies in Hue, see Massacre at Hue, 10–14.

41. Stephen Hosmer, Viet Cong Repression and Its Implications for the Future (Lexington, MA: Heath Lexington Books, RAND Corporation, 1970), 50. RAND Corporation (RAND standing for Research and Development) is a nonprofit global policy think-tank first formed to offer research and analysis to the U.S. Armed Forces. Mai Elliot gives the estimate of between two thousand and three thousand government employees, police officials, and common residents executed by the Communist forces during the offensive. Mai Elliot, RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010), 294. David Anderson puts the number higher (up to six thousand). David L. Anderson, The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 98–99.

42. Hosmer, Viet Cong Repression, 50.

43. Pike, Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror, 52–53.

44. John W. Dower, “Race, Language, and War in Two Cultures,” in Japan in War & Peace: Selected Essays, by Dower (New York: New Press, 1993), 257.

45. James Banerian, who studied Vietnamese at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and currently resides in San Diego, translated in 1979 a collection of short stories presumably written for children by a famous writer, Lê Tất Điều, a northerner who moved to South Vietnam in 1954 and rose to fame there. While perhaps written for children, the author of the foreword to the collection, C. A. Boren, characterized the stories as “like Mark Twain’s so-called children’s stories. [They] could be read on many levels.” The collection was published by the Vietnamese Artist Association. Then, in 1986, Banerian translated another collection of South Vietnamese short stories, which were published by Sphinx under the title Vietnamese Short Stories: An Introduction. In 1993 he very skillfully translated Nhã Ca’s first piece of prose, a novelette titled At Night I Hear Cannons, but unfortunately it seems not to have yet found a professional academic or commercial publisher. Like his first two translations, this work is also very difficult to find. Another book is a collection edited by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích and titled War and Exile (East Coast, USA: Vietnamese PEN Abroad, 1989). It includes some wartime writings. Poetry is slightly better represented: Nguyen Chi Thien, Flowers from Hell, trans. Huynh Sanh Thong (New Haven, CT: Council on Southeast Asian Studies, Yale University, 1984); Trần Dạ Tự, Writers and Artists in the Vietnamese Gulag (Elkhart, IN: Century Publishing House, 1990). Some other publications include poems from the South: Huỳnh Sanh Thông, ed., An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996); Philip Mahony, ed., From Both Sides Now: The Poetry of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (New York: Scribner, 1998). In 2013 a Vietnamese American author and translator, Linh Dinh, published a collection of translated Vietnamese poetry with Chax Press called The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry. It includes many poems from the South. Scholarly works are equally limited in numbers, though they are engaging and informative: Công Huyền Tôn Nữ Nha Trang, “Women Writers of South Vietnam,” 149–221; Hoang Ngoc Thanh, Vietnam’s Social and Political Development as Seen through the Modern Novel (New York: Peter Lang, 1991); Vo Phien, Literature in South Vietnam; Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam; John C. Schaffer, “Phan Nhật Nam and the Battle of An Lộc” Crossroads 13 (1999): 53–102. In this publication Schaffer introduces an account from one of the best South Vietnamese war correspondents, Phan Nhật Nam, about one of the most important battles of the war in Vietnam, which took place in 1972 and in the course of which North Vietnamese forces were stalled on their way to Saigon. Schaffer also published a very interesting and poignant book that introduces the South Vietnamese literary scene: Vo Phien and the Sadness of Exile, trans. Võ Đình Mai (DeKalb: Southeast Asia Publications, Northern Illinois University, 2006). Also see his “The Trịnh Công Sơn Phenomenon,” Journal of Asian Studies, 66, no. 3 (2007): 597–643. Schaffer’s analysis of this famous songwriter is very useful for understanding the literary scene in the South during the war.

46. James M. Markham, “Saigon Writer Finds Everyone Guilty,” New York Times, November 8, 1973, 60; Barbara Crossette, “On Eve of Tet, Vietnam Tries to Ease Friction,” New York Times, February 12, 1988, A9; John Gittelsohn, “Family Bound by Music: A Song for Christmas,” Accent, December 23, 2001, 1, 4. In academic works, Mourning Headband for Hue is mentioned or discussed in Công Huyền Tôn Nữ Nha Trang, “Women Writers of South Vietnam,” 149–221; and Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, 321, 349. Vo Phien highlights a different perspective: Vo Phien, Literature in South Vietnam, 135, 147, 148, 175.

47. The events in Hue were also covered in the British and Italian press. For example, Richard Oliver, “More Than 1,000 Civilians Slain in Battle for Hue: Murder of an Ancient Imperial City,” Guardian, February 23, 1968; “400 in Mass Killings,” Observer, March 10, 1968, 4; Tony Mockler, “The Mourning and Desolation of an Imperial City: Struggle for Hue Cost the Lives of 2,500 Civilians,” Guardian, March 15, 1968; “Vatican Says Reds Killed Many Catholics in Hue,” an article from L’Osservatore Romano [Roman Observer], a daily newspaper published in the Vatican, reproduced in the Washington Post, March 14, 1968, A21.

48. For analysis of press coverage of the Tết Offensive in general and the Hue killings in particular, see Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, initially published in 1977 by Westview Press and then republished by other presses in 1977, 1978, 1983, and 1994.

49. There were a few exceptions. For example, London’s Time published an investigative report conducted by Stewart Harris, a correspondent of the London Times, under the title “An Efficient Slaughter,” confirming executions in Hue (see April 5, 1968, 36).

50. Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), 530; the book was reprinted in 1987 and in 1997.

51. For example, Douglas Pike wrote the following works: Documents on the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (1959–1966) (Chicago: Center for Research Libraries, 1967); National Development in Vietnam: 1967 (Saigon: U.S. Information Service, 1967); Viet Cong: The Organization and Technique of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (Delhi: Altma Ram and Sons, 1966); Politics of the Viet Cong (Saigon, 1968).

52. Pike also wrote Catalog of Viet Cong Documents (Saigon, 1969) and Hanoi’s Strategy of Terror (Bangkok: South-East Asia Treaty Organization, 1970). More of his general works: War and Peace and the Viet Cong (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1969); History of Vietnamese Communism, 1925–1976(Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1978); PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1986).

53. The Hue atrocities were also addressed in Oberdorfer, Tet! A chapter in this book titled “Death in Hue” (197–235) deals, in part, with civilian experiences during the battle. Don Oberdorfer was then a correspondent for the Washington Post. His third extensive assignment in Indochina coincided with the Tết Offensive. Hosmer, Viet Cong Repression, also supplies a significant amount of information and analysis.

54. “Televised Address to the Nation,” November 3, 1969, republished in many newspapers. The citation here is from the New York Times, November 4, 1969, “Text of President Nixon’s Address to the Nation on U.S. Policy in the War in Vietnam.”

55. Congressional Record, December 10, 1969, p. 38223.

56. Robert S. Elegant, “Hue Massacre Effort to Destroy Entire Society – Authority Says Murders Were According to Plan and Perhaps 6,000 Died,” Los Angeles Times, December 6, 1969.

57. D. G. Porter and L. E. Ackland, “Vietnam: The Bloodbath Argument,” Christian Century, November 5, 1969.

58. Congressional Record, May 19, 1970, p. 16061; Tom Wicker, “In the Nation: Mr. Nixon’s Scary Dreams,” New York Times, May 12, 1970, 38.

59. Gareth Porter, The Myth of the Bloodbath: North Vietnam’s Land Reform Reconsidered (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, International Relations of East Asia Project, 1972).

60. “National Liberation Front Political Operations (DV). Hue ‘Massacre,’” Porter MSS on the Hue Massacre – April 1973, p. 6, folder 13, box 13, Douglas Pike Collection: Unit 05 – National Liberation Front, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University, (accessed September 2, 2013).

61. D. Gareth Porter, “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre,’” Indochina Chronicle 33 (June 24, 1974). Also see D. Gareth Porter and Edward S. Herman, “The Myth of the Hue Massacre,” Ramparts 13, no. 8 (May–June 1975), 1–4.

62. Congressional Record, February 19, 1975, p. 3515.

63. Porter, “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre,’” 1.

64. Vennema, preface to The Viet Cong Massacre at Hue, pages unnumbered.

65. Here are some examples of the books published in the last seven years: Nick Turse, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013); Michal R. Belknap, Vietnam War on Trial (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2013); William Thomas Allison, My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012); Gary W. Bray, After My Lai: My Year Commanding First Platoon, Charlie Company (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010); Kendrick Oliver, The My Lai Massacre in American History and Memory (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2007); Heonik Kwon and Drew Faust, After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

66. See, for example, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights (Boston: South End Press, 1979), 348, 353; and Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990 (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 217–19.

67. Stanley Karnow, in his much-cited and much-acclaimed Vietnam: A History, briefly addresses the tragedy that unfolded in Hue and refers to it as a “holocaust” (531). James Willbanks also talks in short about the events in his history of the Tết Offensive (Tet Offensive: A Concise History [New York: Columbia University Press, 2006], chapter titled “The Battle of Hue”). Two books that I have found to be particularly useful and good for my classes on the war in Vietnam at Texas A&M University are George Herring’s America’s Longest War (New York: Wiley, 1979; 4th ed., Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002) and George Donelson Moss’s Vietnam: An American Ordeal (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990; 6th ed., 2010), but they are also very brief on the tragedy in Hue. George Herring’s reference to the Hue killings is powerful, if brief: “The bodies of 2,800 South Vietnamese were found in mass graves in and around Hue, the product of NLF and North Vietnamese executions, and another 2,000 citizens were unaccounted for and presumed murdered” (4th ed., 231–32). Moss’s treatment of the Hue tragedy is similar to that of Herring’s, succinctly occupying several lines in the chapter on the Tết Offensive. Citing Oberdorfer’s work, Moss adduces similar numbers and states that Communists “summarily executed about 3,000 people, often in brutal fashion, or they buried them alive” (6th ed., 228). On the other hand, Moss singles out the events in Mỹ Lai into a separate sub-chapter titled “Massacre at My Lai” (259–61) and also places this title into his index (430). Killings in Hue are not mentioned in his index.

68. James S. Robbins, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (New York, London: Encounter Books, 2010).

69. Reprinted as “Peace and Violence,” New York Times, September 15, 1973, 31. Also cited in Robbins, This Time We Win, 206.

70. “Введение: Актуальные проблемы российского вьетнамоведения” [Introduction: Current Problems in Russian Vietnamese Studies], Вьетнамские исследования [Research on Vietnam], no. 3 (Moscow: Far East Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, 2013), 14–15.

71. Esther B. Fein, “Upheaval in the East; Gorbachev Hands Over Katyn Papers,” New York Times, April 14, 1990, 1.

72. Bộ Chỉ Huy các Lực lượng Vũ trang Nhân dân Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt-Nam [The Command of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam], “Thông cáo đặc biệt số 3 của Bộ Chỉ Huy các Lực lượng Vũ trang Nhân dân Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt-Nam” [Special Communiqué No. 3 of the Command of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam], February 2, 1968, Tiến công đồng loạt, nổi dậy đều khắp, quyết chiến quyết thắng giắc Mỹ xâm lược! [All Together Launch an Offense, Rise Everywhere, Be Determined to Fight until Victory, Be Resolute to Achieve Victory over the American Aggression!] (Hanoi: Nhà xuất bản Sự thật, 1968), 48.

73. Ủy ban trung ương Mặt trận Dân tộc Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt Nam [The Central Committee of the National Liberation Front, South Vietnam], “Quyết định của Ủy ban Trung ương Mặt trận Dân tọc Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt Nam tuyên dương công trạng quân và dân toàn Miền Nam trong những ngày tiến công toàn diện đầu xuân 1968” [Resolution of the Central Committee of the National Liberation Front, South Vietnam, Commending Distinguished Services of the Army and of the People of the South during the Days of the All-Out Offensive at the Beginning of Spring 1968], March 3, 1968, in ibid., 60.

74. Bộ Chỉ Huy các Lực lượng Vũ trang Nhân dân Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt-Nam [The Command of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam], “Thổng cáo đặc biệt số 4 của Bộ Chỉ Huy các Lực lượng Vũ trang Nhân dân Giải phóng Miền Nam Việt-Nam” [Special Communiqué No. 4 of the Command of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam], March 19, 1968, in ibid., 79.

75. Congressional Record, May 19, 1970, p. 16079.

76. Karnow, Vietnam, 530.

77. Trương Như Tảng, A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath (New York: Vintage, 1986), 154.

78. Thành Tín, Mặt thật: Hồi ký chính trị của Bùi Tín [True Face: Political Memoir of Bùi Tín] (Irvine, CA: Saigon Press, 1993), 184–85.

79. Ibid., 184–86.

80. Ibid., 186.

81. Ibid., 184–86.

82. Lê Minh, “Huế, Xuân 68” [Hue, Spring 68], Huế, Xuân 68 (Huế: Thành Ủy Huế, 1988), 73–76.

83. Mậu Thân 68 (Hanoi: Ban Tuyên Huấn Trung Ương, 1988).

84. Washington Post, February 3, 1988, A8.

85. Interview in the summer of 2013 with Thái Thành Đức Phổ, one of the editors of the publishing house from 1969 to 1975 in Hanoi, for my research on a different project. After the war, Thái Thành Đức Phổ was transferred to Saigon/Hồ Chí Minh City in 1975 and continued to work until 2004.

86. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, Ngôi sao trên đỉnh Phu Văn Lâu (Hanoi: Giải Phóng Publishing House, 1971), 78.

87. Stanley Karnow, chief correspondent, “Tet 1968,” Vietnam: A Television History, PBS, WGBH Educational Foundation, Boston, 1983.

88. Radio France Internationale broadcasts from Paris in foreign languages, including Vietnamese.

89. After the war, Burchett traveled to Cambodia, where he initially praised the Khmer Rouge, a Communist group that took over Cambodia after the end of the war and is known as responsible for carrying out genocide against the people of Cambodia. Later, Burchett condemned the Khmer Rouge. One of the sources on Burchett is Ben Kiernan’s Burchett Reporting the Other Side of the World, 1939–1983 (London: Quartet Books, 1986).

90. Thụy Khuê, correspondent, “Nói chuyện với Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường về biến cố Mậu Thân ở Huế” [Conversation with Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường about Upheaval in Hue during the Tết Offensive], RFI, July 12, 1997, (accessed September 21, 2013). All quotes from Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường in the next few paragraphs are from this source.

91. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, Ngôi sao trên đỉnh Phu Văn Lâu, 65.

92. For the most recent ones see Nguyễn Đắc Xuân describing his road to becoming a member of the NLF in one of the most popular current newspapers, Tuổi Trẻ (Youth), in a series of articles that ran in installments titled “Huế – Những tháng ngày sục sôi” (Hue: Boiling Months and Days) from January 8, 2012, to January 14, 2012, with the last installment being “Trở thành Việt Cộng” (I Have Become a Viet Cong) and a three-volume memoir, Từ Phú Xuân đến Huế [From Phú Xuân to Hue] (Hồ Chí Minh City: Trẻ, 2012).

93. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, “Hậu quả của ‘cái chết’ của tôi” [The Consequences of “My Death”], Nghiên Cứu Huế [Research in Hue] 1 (1999): 255; Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, Từ Phú Xuân đến Huế, 3:136.

94. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, Từ Phú Xuân đến Huế, 3:145.

95. Ibid., 2:259–60; 3:142–50.

96. Ibid., 3:135.

97. “Đọc Nhã Ca Hồi ký – Bình luận của một người trong cuộc” [Reading Nhã Ca’s Diary: Comments of an Insider], Tạp Chí Sông Hương [Journal Perfume River], no. 235, September 30, 2008: 33. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân again brought the point about Nhã Ca’s mistaken usage of his name in 2012 – Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, Từ Phú Xuân đến Huế, 3:135n1. Nhã Ca and Nguyễn Đắc Xuân met after the war and wrote two very different accounts, worthy of their own analysis in a separate work, about this meeting. Nhã Ca, Hồi ký một người mất ngày tháng, 477–81, and Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, Từ Phú Xuân đến Huế, 3:136–39, respectively.

98. Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường, Ngôi sao trên đỉnh Phu Văn Lâu, 65.

99. Nguyễn Tà Cúc, “Nhà thơ kiêm nhà văn Nhã Ca” [Poet-cum-Writer Nhã Ca], “Nhà văn như người hướng dẫn đư luận” [Writers as Leading Figures in (Formation) of Public Opinion], unpublished manuscript, cited with the permission of the author. The author arrived in the United States in 1975. In 2010 Nguyễn Tà Cúc also wrote an MA thesis, “Regarding Literary Friends and Foes: The Story of Vietnamese Exiled Writers in the United States,” Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg.

100. Markham, “Saigon Writer Finds Everyone Guilty,” 60.

101. Ngừng bắn ngày thứ 492 (Des Moines, IA: Người Việt, 1977), 75.

102. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, 243. Nhật Tiến communicated this to me in personal correspondence in September 2013.

103. Nguyễn Công Luận, Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars: Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012), 581–82n3.

104. Nhã Ca, Giải khăn sô cho Huế (USA: Việt Báo, 2008), 9.

Mourning Headband for Hue


Map of Key Places Mentioned in the Book