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

Small Preface: Writing to Take Responsibility

I was born in Hue, Raised in Hue, But When I Grew up I left my family, departed the city, and went off.1

Before Tết Mậu Thân, the Lunar New Year of 1968, on the twenty-third day of the twelfth month of the Year of the Goat, when I, along with my husband and children, was honoring the Kitchen God,2 I suddenly received a telegram from Hue: “Come back at once, father is on his deathbed.”

With my things hurriedly thrown together in a single piece of luggage, I – a prodigal child of the family and of the city – returned to Hue to mourn for my beloved father. And then, along with so many other people, I at once had to endure the gigantic death of the entire city when the upheaval of Tết Mậu Thân erupted.

After a whole month of struggling with great difficulties, rolling through the hell of Hue, I survived and returned to Saigon, but time and again I could not get a wink of sleep because I felt that I should tie a mourning headband for Hue, should write a diary about the death-agony days and hours of Hue. But the events of the days following the Tết Mậu Thân upheaval were deafening. And alongside Hue’s storm of agonizing lamentations, people were still busy with uncovering sensational details of the fighting and of military victories achieved on ashes. Truly, at first, it was not yet the time to write about the brokenhearted self-pity and shame that, although the most mundane of sentiments, are yet at the same time the most profound for a city on its deathbed.

Exactly because of this, after I outlined a few basic sketches in the Sống [Life] newspaper at that time and despite requests to continue from the newspaper’s editorial board and thereafter being pressed by many publishing houses, I nevertheless tried to pause. I had to pause, if not to consider more thoroughly everything that happened then at least to separate good intentions from the hectic situation, to wait for calmer, quieter moments to write about Hue.

That waiting period has lasted for almost two years. In two years, the bones of all the ten thousand people of Hue3 who were slaughtered – buried in shallow graves in hedges and bushes, thrown down into the bottoms of rivers, the bottoms of streams – have gradually been collected. Mass graves, for the time being, have grown over with grass. Destroyed houses have been provisionally rebuilt. So, the wailings over the sufferings of Hue, the city’s voices saying all kinds of things, have lost some of their clamor.

Now, in 1969, this is exactly the time when we together can wind around our heads mourning bands and light small joss sticks in the immeasurable darkness of the night of war, death, and grief, to reminisce about Hue.

A lot of salvoes of artillery, a lot of death and grief exploded and destroyed Hue. I don’t know the origins of this, but regardless of the causes, it is precisely our generation, it is precisely our time that should bear responsibility for the crime of destroying such a historic city as Hue.

It is precisely here among our own generation that there was Đoan,4 who at some point studied in the same school with me, attended a university in Saigon, then suddenly returned to Hue wearing a red band on her arm and carrying a gun at her side, enthusiastic about tracking down this person and shooting that person, becoming an evil spirit on the deathbed of Hue.

It is precisely here in our generation that there was Đắc,5 a young enthusiastic student. In times past Đắc wrote poetry, Đắc joined the struggle, and then he left the area. Later he came back to Hue to establish people’s courts and to hand out death sentences to whole groups; then he forced his old classmate and friend, with whom he previously had a disagreement, to stand on the edge of a hole to carry out with his own hands the death sentence.6 The friend of Đắc’s, named Mậu Tý, raised up a red armband, the insignia of the Liberation Army, and implored Đắc:

I beg you, elder brother. Now I am on your side, yes, I am. I am already wearing a red armband, yes I am. Long live the revolution … Long live Chairman Hồ!

But despite Mậu Tý’s pleas and “long live” cheers, Đắc still decided to pull the trigger on his friend.7

It is precisely in our generation that there were crowds of people, hundreds of people, including Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, old people, and children, each of them holding a white flag in their hands to signal their surrender to any side of the conflict; they stumbled around in a city full of flames and continued to run up and down, up and down, until almost all of them fell.

Also, it is precisely in our time, during the twenty-odd days of Hue’s deathbed, that there was a small dog stuck between two lines of bullets, running off and barking at no one in particular on the bank of Bến Ngự River. The dog became a target for entertainment from muzzles of rifles at the ready on the opposite bank of the river. They fired until the terrified animal fell down into the river. Then, they fired again at the bank to which the small dog swam with great difficulty. These mischievously teasing gunshots were not intended to kill the small dog but only to exasperate it so that it would flounder in midstream, and thereby they would get an amusing war story. The city of Hue, and perhaps our entire suffering homeland as well: how does our fate differ from that of the small dog floundering in the water? 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.

About two years have passed, and today it is the time around the second death anniversary of the upheaval that destroyed Hue; please allow me to take this occasion to write and to send to readers this Mourning Headband for Hue, and please consider it as a bundle of incense and a candle that I contribute to the death anniversary.

Please allow me to invite you, friends, to all together light candles, to burn incense, and to take responsibility for the homeland, for Hue.

Saigon, Year of the Rooster [1969]

Nhã Ca

1. Nhã Ca assumes the responsibility of her generation for the plight of Vietnam and of Hue for what she considers the wrongdoing of her entire generation that had fallen into a civil war that ruined the country and left a broken legacy for future generations. (All notes are by the translator.)

2. A custom in Vietnamese families: Vietnamese, as well as Chinese, pray to the Kitchen God for the health and happiness of their households. According to the tradition, several days before Tết (the Lunar New Year) the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor, the highest deity, on the events that took place in every family during the year.

3. According to the author, this was at the time an estimate, which she believed to be correct, of the number of people who died in Hue. For the later, revised figures, see the Translator’s Introduction.

4. Full name Nguyễn Thị Đoan Trinh. She studied at the University of Saigon. Being a follower of the Communists and an active member of the University of Saigon’s student council, Nguyễn Thị Đoan Trinh came to Hue just before the Tết Offensive and assumed command along with Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Phan, and Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường with the security units. She is mentioned in Alje Vennema’s account on the events in Hue (The Viet Cong Massacre at Hue [New York: Vantage Press, 1976]). See the Translator’s Introduction.

5. Full name Nguyễn Đắc Xuân. See more on him in the Translator’s Introduction and the List of Characters.

6. The verbatim translation of the last part of the sentence should read as follows: “then, with his own hands, he dug a hole and forced his old classmate and friend, with whom he previously had a disagreement, to stand on its edge to carry out the death sentence.” However, the author explained to me that the syntax of the sentence was jumbled and her intention was to relate the idea as it appears in the translation above. This is an example of the few changes I made in consultation with, or at the request of, the author, which in some places make the translation slightly different from the original.

7. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân describes this episode differently in his memoirs. According to him, Trần Mậu Tý was a member of the Student Anti-government Movement but then switched sides and joined the Nationalist Party, which was strongly anti-Communist. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân states that he did not have anything to do with Trần Mậ Tý’s demise. He heard about Trần Mậu Tý’s death a year after Tết Mậu Thân. Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, Từ Phú Xuân đến Huế [From Phú Xuân to Hue] (Hồ Chí Minh City: Trẻ, 2012), 2:259–60; 3:142–50. This episode will be elaborated in chapter 7.