Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 1. First Hours
I Don’t know when I first heard the sound of gunfire, but in the middle of the night I am suddenly awake with explosions shredding my dreams.
As soon as I roll out of the wooden plank bed, my ears are ringing with the sounds of guns firing from all directions. What’s happening? What is this? Oh heavens! Someone’s panicked scream prods me to scramble from the outer to the inner room. Someone’s arms pull me hurriedly into the middle of the room. I lie there pressed against someone’s body, young and cool. A faint shout drowns in the chaotic sound of guns and shells outside. When I eventually manage to collect my thoughts, a young child sits up and cuddles neatly against my heart. Is there anyone else? Oh heavens, who lights a match? Put it out! Put it out, I beg you! Voices are barely audible as if these are someone’s last words on a deathbed, filled with anxiety. The matchstick dies out fast, but the glimmering light of a candle penetrates from the outer room. My younger cousin Thái crawls toward this wavering light, then sitting up bumps into my cheek. That’s enough. Please extinguish the candles beside the altar and also extinguish all the incense at once. I start to feel stifled and want to choke because of the human odors, the incense, and the burned candles.
The room is too cramped with people; moreover the bed takes up half of it. My elder brother Lễ rolls under the bed; one person piles onto another.1 A chamber pot beneath the bed tips over; from time to time it is bumped and rolls around with banging echoes, adding to everyone’s fright.
Lying in silence for a moment, we regain our composure; all of us begin to listen intently. I lie with my ear pressed against the brick floor. A niece has rolled down to lie next to me, holding her head with both hands, her legs entangling with mine. I ask quietly:
“Ti Na, isn’t it too cramped to lie like this?”
“No, auntie. I am very frightened.”
I caress her. But at this moment deafening sounds of explosions burst in. Ti Na drops her hands and squeezes me tightly; her body shivers; her teeth chatter. Oh heavens, there are gunshots even in the backyard. I hear the gunshots very clearly and with piercing pain. My younger cousin Thái whispers into my ear:
“Now these are AKs. That’s it - they [the Communist forces] are now back.”
I pull him down:
“It doesn’t matter, elder sister. Let me sit.”
The window shutters suddenly burst open, and at the same time the two panels of the door open, then slam back, keeping pace with loud explosions. The sounds of bullets back in the garden become truly intense. My mother slips into the room:
“The Transportation Station has already been hit.”
“No, it’s Trường Bia military post.”
“No, they are striking at the same time everywhere. I hear it from the direction of the Transportation Station, the direction of Trường Bia post, the direction of the rice fields, the direction of the railroad.”
“Shhh! Be silent, please, I beg you! Oh heavens, heavens, heavens.”
Appeals to Heaven and Earth suddenly fall flat on the tips of our tongues. The sky lights up with dazzlingly bright flames; the earth violently shakes as if there was an earthquake. Our anxiety is growing. And I cannot lie quiet to hear the sounds of shooting that reverberate and squeeze my chest. I want to sit up to hear more clearly, but the place where I lie is very tight, and it is impossible for me to move. At that moment my younger cousin Thái elbows a space for himself, his legs under the bed and his head half out the door. He strikes a match and immediately there comes scolding in a low voice: “Monkey, put out the match.” The match goes out fast. But in the dark, I now begin to imagine things. We all tremble in synch: I, my mother, my elder brother, my younger sister. We all curl up together, trying to overcome our violent trembling, swelling our chests with air to keep the explosions from pressing so much upon us. My younger cousin Thái listens intently for a moment, and then he sits up and crawls into the outer room. The rest of us hold our breath and wait. In a moment, he crawls back and whispers to each person:
“They [the Communist forces] are here; our yard and garden are full of them.”
Suddenly a lot of hushing sounds sift from people’s mouths like the rustling of a light wind.
My elder brother Lễ’s voice is a bit sharp:
“They shoot like firecrackers out there; there is no way they can hear our small noises.” Then he continues:
“There is nothing strange about them coming back and hitting Trường Bia post. Last time they also struck all night long, and in the morning they completely withdrew.”
I rejoice inside. By now, we have perhaps endured for a couple of hours. I try to bring my hand closer to my neck to see the face of my watch, but unfortunately my watch does not have phosphorescent hands. And, except for me, there is no one who keeps time with a watch. Anyhow, we place our hope in the upcoming morning. Suddenly, my elder brother Lễ cries out with an urgent stomachache and diarrhea. So, the chamber pot proves to be useful. We are in trouble as moment after moment our little ones demand to go pee. Over and over Lễ moans from stomachache, but the chamber pot is too small. We are all lying down, trembling and trying to keep our arms and legs under control to avoid involuntary motions. I try to think about something to suppress my bouts of fear, but no, I can’t think of anything. The sound of gunfire reverberates in my brain. My limbs shudder and shiver despite all my efforts to suppress them and to overcome my worry. There are a lot of times when my limbs and my body no longer obey me.
I don’t have any control over my body - only endurance. There comes a time when my shivering gradually subsides. And unexpectedly my body, little by little, becomes more spirited. It seems that we have persevered long enough and that dawn is near. I hear the morning commotion in the hen coop behind the wall, coming through the window shutters along with the chaotic sounds of shooting.
Thái has calmed down and sits leaning against the wall puffing on a cigarette. I grope for his hand and hold it tight:
“Thái, has it calmed down a bit?”
“How can I know? We all have to endure this.”
I then ask Lễ, who had stretched out on the bed because he could no longer stand to jostle with others on the floor:
“Elder brother, tomorrow morning it will surely end, won’t it?”
“How would I know? I’m in this, too.”
I begin to despair. Flashes of fire no longer whiz past the window, but the two panels of the door still swing back and forth with the loud explosions. Large and small guns explode in salvoes from National Highway No. 1, from the pagoda area, and from behind the railway. I reckon that our house, which is also our ancestor-worshipping house, being located in a secluded spot, will survive the surrounding fighting. The National Highway and the edges of fields are directly in front of us; the railway is behind us. Two directions, two enemy sides. One side tramples on Trường Bia post, the other side tramples on An Cựu Transportation Station.
I cannot lie quietly waiting for the morning. I start a conversation:
“When it’s quiet in the morning, it will be frightening to go out on the road.”
Thái blows cigarette smoke right into my face:
“That’s too bad; if I had a gun, it would have helped against the fear. If I had known, last evening I would have returned to my unit.”
“Don’t you know whether it will be quiet in the morning?”
I endlessly ask the same question like an idiot: there is no way to know. But now I must be quiet. Morning is here, and they must pull out, or else we will all be dead.
“Oh heavens. Don’t talk. They are in the garden.”
My younger sister Hà giggles:
“Mother, please don’t be so frightened. Elder sister Vân” - she says to me - “in the morning you will go with me to watch the fighting. And you must pay close attention so that when you return to Saigon you can write a Tết war reportage vivid with details.”
“Don’t be so silly in a situation like this,” my mother murmurs in response.
But our bouts of fear gradually abate and we start talking, and when we speak, the words also help to relieve our anxiety. The gunfire in the garden has slowly faded away, but elsewhere around there are still explosions. I am lying down but my eyes do not leave the shutters of the window above the head of my younger sister. I am waiting for when the pitch darkness of the sky out there will be sucked away to diminish the absolute blackness.
Now I need calmness; I need strength. I open my eyes wide and shake myself once; I gather up my stamina and energy. I hope for the morning sky, and now the sky is almost light. Several leaves from the trees float outside the window, first appearing vaguely and then gradually growing clear. My nephews and nieces are thirsty and cry. We wait until the sound of gunfire subsides a little, and only then does Thái go out to bring a glass of water for the two little ones. The sound of gunfire seems to be more occasional; the screen of night diminishes and with it the sense of being caught in a crossfire. My elder brother Lễ hopes more than anyone else:
“Thái, watch for when the guns are quiet and bring out the Honda motorbike; wait until all is calm, then go up to Từ Đàm. For sure, my wife and children are very scared over there.”2
My family is now divided into two. Lễ is the most fretful. But everything must be all right. When morning comes, it will be quiet, and here is morning already. My mother’s lips are less purple, and her limbs tremble less. But our joy does not last long. Exactly at the moment when I hear the sound of hens crowing in the hen coop, the sounds of gunfire again burst out. Immediately there is a loud noise of banging at the door along with sounds of numerous running feet outside in the courtyard.
“Open the door. Open the door.”
That’s it. We’re finished. They [the Communist forces] are here. They are about to flood into the house. My mother’s face turns pale; she decides to run around turning off all the lamps that she had just lit. Artillery down at Phú Bài3 is booming. The sounds of small arms are earsplitting. The door panels are about to burst open from the banging on them. Thái crawls out into the center of the house.
“Shhh, let me go out.”
Then he runs out and opens the door wide. There are a lot of familiar screaming and shrieking sounds outside. Just as soon as the door opens wide, the entire house fills with people. My uncle, who lives by the railroad close to the foot of Tai Thái Mountain, and his son Bé, Bé’s wife, and the family of his daughter-in-law and other families from his village have flocked into the house. Children and adults make the spacious middle room of the house overcrowded. Several young children are startled out of their wits and collapse in the middle of the house, trembling uncontrollably and peeing in their pants. My uncle says to my mother through tears:
“Oh, elder sister, everything has completely fallen to pieces. Up there, the place is shelled by mortars; old lady Nghệ next door to us lost half of her house.”
Bé, an adult son of my uncle, holding at once two children in his arms, gasps for air and at the same time talks without a pause:
“There are a lot of them. Auntie, our place up there is now full of them.”
I ask inquisitively:
“How were you able to run down here?”
“All our relatives have fled down here. Up there, mortars busted all the houses. As I ran down the road I saw Việt Cộng in groups of three or five sitting in the front yards of people’s houses.”
Suddenly, my uncle looks around and is seized by panic:
“Where is Thu Hồng?4 She carried little Điện5 and ran somewhere. Oh death … my children, my grandchildren …”
My uncle attempts to tell us more but falls down with a thud because a B40 grenade6 scores a direct hit on our tile roof. I gape and brick fragments fill my mouth.
Bé rushes out to look for Điện and Thu Hồng.
Someone kicks the chamber pot left under the bed, and it spills out over the floor. Lying pressed to the floor down here, I feel like vomiting because of the stink that penetrates right up into my head, but there is no way to move anywhere else. Children cannot endure the discomfort and join in a chorus of crying that resounds throughout the house. But the sound of crying is immediately suppressed because hands gag their mouths just in case the salvoes of gunfire might pause. Oh heavens, it’s already morning; why is it not yet quiet? I turn and anxiously ask Thái:
“Did it last as long last time?”
“No, last time the shooting was less; there was not so much artillery lobbing in as now. And in the morning, they all withdrew.”
My cousin Bé is back and crawls to my side:
“Oh heavens, elder sister, you cannot even imagine. I saw them [the Communist forces] covered with blood sitting near Aunt Quyệt’s garden, and I ran down here as soon as I saw them.”
“When they saw you running, did they let you go?”
“They ran after me shooting their guns, and I ran for my life. Up there, it is death for sure, elder sister.”
While speaking, he clasps his daughter tightly to his heart. His wife frowns:
“You were going to look for Thu Hồng with little Điện, not to run down the street by yourself to be shot at.”
My mother says in a temper to Bé and his wife:
“Death is everywhere and you don’t care! Why would the two of you not run to look for them together?”
“Why would we run together? The one who’s stronger is the one to run; staying alive now is almost beyond belief.”
The husband and wife keep silent, but just a minute later I again hear them arguing. Soon there is the sound of sporadic shooting. Bé rushes into the courtyard and gradually gropes his way to the road. Around twenty minutes later, Bé returns; in one of his arms Bé carries his son Điện, and behind his back walks Thu Hồng. Bé approaches me and lowers his voice:
“Elder sister, I went to look for Thu Hồng and little Điện. I had to cross a road behind the garden. Along the railroad, I ran into them [the Communist forces]. They asked me where I was going and arrested me. There were three of them; one was wounded. I begged them, saying that I am looking for my children who got lost. At first, they decided not to let me go. They asked me what I do for a living. I said: ‘I’m a carpenter, and I have lost my children.’ Then they let me go. I was thinking that if they tried to seize me, I would risk death to snatch a gun. One of them was wounded, almost dead. Another one was lightly wounded and could not hold a gun. As for the third one, he was even weaker than me …”
Hà, my younger sister, blusters:
“Enough. You and snatching a gun; you are just showing off.”
“I tell the truth; I do serve in the army …”
Then he all of a sudden remembers his army camp and his fellow soldiers, and he sits down, sad. A moment later, he sighs heavily:
“Another moment and I would have been dead.”
People from the upper hamlet who came into my house along with my uncle and my cousin Bé now regain their composure. One bares her breast for a child to suck. Others begin to exchange stories. Each one tells a story that roughly consists of the same elements: seeing a gang of them [the Communist forces], then running, barely escaping death, seeing their bullets, big and blazing red, as though destined to pierce people’s faces but for whatever reason missing.
Suddenly, at eight o’clock in the morning, the sound of gunfire bursts from the Phú Cam area.7 Shells from the cannons at Phú Bài stop falling. Only then do we shuffle out to the yard. The garden with its trees is tranquil, not a shadow of a person, but on the grass and on the ground there are spots of dried blood.
Some tree branches are broken, and the bamboo hedgerow at the end of the garden has fallen, opening the way to the railroad; dry branches were pushed wide apart, making an unobstructed path. Some of us siblings are extremely happy, and everyone quietly rejoices that things have calmed down. My elder brother Lễ gets ready to go back to his home up at Từ Đàm. I go out to the water tank in the front yard to scoop some water to rinse my mouth and brush my teeth. Occupants of our house, carrying children in their arms, are in a hurry to go back to their hamlet. My uncle fearlessly rushes out of the house before anyone else, not knowing whether his house is still there or has been destroyed. I try to get on my toes to see the mountains.
“Elder sister, do you see anything there?”
I let out a sigh:
“It’s for sure that last night, on the mountain, graves were treaded upon and disturbed. Father’s grave is still fresh.”
Thái hangs down his head. He goes out to the water tank to scoop water. My mother shouts, pointing at the chamber pot:
“Thái, take it out and pour it out at the back of the garden.”
Lễ finishes dressing. The Honda motorbike is already waiting in the yard. I say:
“Let me go up to Từ Đàm with you.”
“No, it’s quiet now, but no one is out on the streets.”
However, my brother has not yet finished speaking when we hear the sound of many vehicles driving into town from the direction of the National Highway.
We are just standing in the yard looking out. A column of trucks carrying Americans and artillery slowly comes to a stop outside. American soldiers jump down. Thái bursts out loudly:
“Hey, auntie, it’s quiet now, and the American army has just arrived. I am going outside; I will see what’s going on.”
My mother calls out:
“Everyone come inside; come in or they will shoot you.”
My elder brother blocks the way:
“Everyone must stay where they are. Stay quiet, don’t run, or they will think that you are Việt Cộng and they will kill you at once.”
A unit of American soldiers jump down from the trucks and get to the gardens, crawling along the edges of the road toward the fields. In a moment, my garden is filled with American soldiers. I try to keep my cool, sitting silently and clenching my teeth.
Several American soldiers watch us carefully, then they slip to the garden, scowling, rifles pointed at the shrubs before they move to another garden. Nothing’s happening here. The situation is completely calm. We are going into the house and sit quietly on a wooden trestle bed. Don’t go outside now. It’s dangerous. Everybody thinks this way. Perhaps American soldiers are searching here to seize Việt Cộng. We are silent, sitting and looking at each other, waiting nervously. Two American soldiers cut across the yard with their rifles ready. They enter the house. We try to keep natural expressions on our faces. My mother looks like she is trying to display joy. Two American soldiers stop; then, throwing knowing glances at each other, they enter the veranda, jerking up their chins to signal all of us to go stand next to the door. An American soldier says two words, not in the American language.
Stupefied, we look at each other. The American soldier with an angry appearance shouts out an order:
My elder brother Lễ asks them a question in English, but the American still yells with distorted pronunciation:
My mother is the one who understands first; she says loudly:
“Mr. American asks for our ‘identity cards.’”
The American soldier nods in agreement. His companions point their guns right at us. But when I hand my card, the American soldier shakes his head. They ask identity cards only from males. Returning the card, one of them, speaking in heavily accented Vietnamese, thanks me and then slips out to the garden. We haven’t had time to sit down again on our wooden trestle bed when we hear several loud explosions. Thái, acquainted with the types of weapons, cries:
“That’s it - these are now the Việt Cộng’s B40s.”
The sound of B40s, falling like rain, comes from the mountainside and the direction of the railway. Outside, armored vehicles carrying 40-mm mortars vehemently shoot in response. Roof tiles are blasted or grazed by bullets and fall in a clutter upon our heads and necks. Everyone in the house creeps into the inner room. At the same time, strange crying sounds rise up from out by the street. What is it? Thái wants to run out there first. My mother grabs his shirt and holds him firmly. But Thái keeps begging and begging her and finally he disappears out the door, moving back and forth because of the gunfire flashing across the roof. Boom. Boom. Several big trees in the garden are knocked down. We all lie pressed to the ground, passively awaiting our fate. This time it’s the end of us. Pray! The screams and crying beside the yard, just in front of us, become increasingly heartrending.
Several Americans hiding in the yard rush out toward the road from where moaning and crying are heard. At this moment bullets are raining down, while the sound of B40s gradually slackens and then entirely stops. The sounds of screaming and crying are heard very distinctly. We all together, without saying a word to each other, run out into the yard. In the yard in front of us there is a house in flames, and American soldiers are trying to extinguish the fire. I now regain my composure a little. My mother is worried, not knowing whether or not the fire might spread to our house. She shouts, calling the grandchildren to take care to wrap up whatever small part of our belongings that can be carried away. In the crackling sound of the fire and the noise of submachine guns resounding from all corners of the yard, the sound of crying becomes more distressing by the minute: “Oh my aunt, my uncle, my mother are dead. I beg you … help me!” Screams, crying, sounds of running feet come from neighboring houses despite all the gunfire. My mother pushes us into the house. Thái goes to help put out the fire. Several Americans circle around again through the courtyard and look in at us. The American who checked our papers only a short time ago shows several fingers and bubbles a phrase in Vietnamese, the gist of which is that outside there are some dead people.
When finished, they go to their vehicle, and the column roars on its way into the city. But several minutes later, even before their vehicles perhaps get to An Cựu Bridge, we hear frightfully violent explosions of different kinds of guns. In a moment, the American column of vehicles withdraws, and on its way back the soldiers don’t spare anything or anyone - bullets are raining along both sides of the road. The returning vehicles are very few and seem to be those that were at the end of the column. Perhaps these vehicles are going back to transport more ammunition while the front part of the column slips in to establish an ambush.
The sound of gunfire in the bridge area gradually subsides.
Around fifteen minutes later, when we look out at the road, we see a unit of people in yellow uniforms, bareheaded, with rifles on their shoulders. I hurry into the courtyard thinking: that’s it, now they [the Communist forces] are retreating, and our [Nationalist] soldiers are coming back. I am happy like crazy and stretch out my hand to wave when I suddenly realize that they carry haversacks at their sides. Nationalist soldiers carry rucksacks. I freeze again. The unit is not big, only several tens of people.
At this moment, Thái sees them too and gets frightened:
“It’s the end of me; if they learn that I am a Rural Development8 cadre, there’s no way for me to survive.”
I tell him to hand me his identity papers for safekeeping. I carefully put his papers into the pocket of my coat, which I fold into an untidy bundle of clothes wrapped in a large piece of cloth. My elder brother tries to exude confidence and tells Thái:
“I am a teacher; surely it’s not a problem. If they ask you, tell them that you are a student.”
Thái politely agrees but his “yes” sounds weak and deflated. Bé’s family hurriedly prepares to flee with several jute bags of rice, clothing, pots, and pans. My uncle is not with them; he is already back at his house by the railroad. My mother implores Heaven and Earth to persuade Bé and his family to bring my uncle back down here, but they say that he is staying up there to guard the house. There is an old underground shelter there made after the previous shelling. My mother does not put much trust in this shelter. Thus, she nevertheless makes Bé go to call my uncle back down here. Bé goes but soon returns in a hurry:
“Aunt, they [the Communist forces] have returned and are as numerous as ants. They are gathering at Xay T-junction;9 they are hanging flags and making appeals to the people. They have already seized all of Hue. People say that near Phu Văn Lâu road they raised a really big flag of pure silk. Just when I got close, I saw them installing loudspeakers. I quickly sneaked into Bác Ai garden and then back here; fortunately, they did not see me.”
I ask if there are any wounded. Bé says he saw a lot of them in the morning, but now they have all been taken to someplace else. My mother wonders whether it is possible for us to evacuate to Từ Đàm where my elder brother’s house is; Bé lets us know that all the roads, each and every corner, are guarded by the Việt Cộng. I repeatedly ask if he saw it all with his own eyes, and he becomes annoyed: he says that as soon as he saw them, he, risking his life, ran to return here; the Transportation Station looks completely deserted as though no one is there, and the walls of the Citadel are all utterly destroyed …
It’s now around eleven o’clock in the morning. We don’t stand around anymore but sit again, looking outside, waiting. My mother soon sends one of the grandchildren outside to see if anyone is going anywhere, but the roads are still absolutely deserted. Several times Bé decides to sneak over in the direction of Xay T-junction but does not have enough courage to get there. He has glimpsed a Việt Cộng flag hanging there and returns with a gloomy face:
“Heavens, if all [Nationalist] soldiers are like me then Hue will surely be lost. Had I known this would occur, I would not have left camp to come back here.10 I left, even though I was aware of the order to stay in the camp.”
Bé is sad, as he must be, for, whatever good reasons there are for thinking that Hue is still ours or has already been lost, he wants to be with his fellow soldiers. But when my father died at the end of last year, Bé obtained permission to have several days at the beginning of the year to help take care of our family business. Now the candles on my father’s altar are dazzlingly bright, and each of us lights incense and prays. This is the only ancestor-worshipping house for my branch of the family; only after a life of chaos and suffering, hard and honest work, was my father able to build it. The house was not yet fully furnished, but my father had a place to sit there. The guns and shells last night and this morning have been unimaginably kind to our family’s house of worship.
At this point, we still have to think about food. Lunch can be fixed quickly, but there is no food. On the last day of the year, we finished with the funeral business. On the first day of the New Year my family was on a vegetarian diet to pray for the deceased.11 Instead of celebrating Tết in the house of my elder brother Lễ in Từ Đàm, we, including Lễ himself, my mother, my younger sister, several young nephews and nieces, and several children of my uncle, Bé’s father, volunteered to stay here to say prayers. The ancestor-worshipping house is not a place to stay and lacks what is needed for daily life. To get some household goods, we break open a door to go down to the old servant quarters being rented to a teacher from An Cựu School, who with his wife went to his native place to celebrate Tết.12 There we get some cups and bowls and look for some seasonings like fish sauce, salt, and pepper. It’s too bad that we didn’t plan on staying here and didn’t stock up on rice. Now, sounds of gunfire are no longer heard, or, if they are, they only resound softly at a distance, from some other area. Then where do they come from? There is not a single plane, not a single vehicle.
At this moment a column of American vehicles enters the city, dispersing in all directions. The Việt Cộng, who just recently gathered at Xay T-junction, are suddenly completely scattered. My uncle in the hamlet up there, separated from us only by the railway and several gardens, why has he not come down? Now and then we see a group of people on the street going somewhere in the city from the direction of the National Highway. Our ancestor-worshipping house is in An Cựu, close to the suburbs, right where the National Highway connects Phú Bài to Hue.
We can’t fathom at this moment what’s going on in the city of Hue. The entire household gathers together to fix the old shelter under the kitchen in the servant quarters. The sound of gunfire increases while the afternoon wears on, and the street suddenly becomes completely deserted. In the kitchen and upstairs, refugees from the hamlet lie everywhere in some small rooms sheltered by several walls. My mother sends her niece-in-law, Bé’s wife, to light a fire and fix a pot of porridge, though surely nobody has the heart to sit for an afternoon meal. But just when the pot of porridge is ready, Thái again sees people walking outside. Despite the sounds of gunfire exploding everywhere and despite the shells that might burst right over our heads, our entire household spills into the courtyard and then goes out to the main road. A couple of people ride bikes from the direction of An Cựu Bridge, weaving back and forth; Thái waves at them and asks:
“Is there anyone out there?”
“All the people have evacuated to the other side of the river.”
My mother shouts loudly:
“Is it possible to get up to Từ Đàm and Bến Ngự?”
“For sure it is.”
As soon as we hear this assurance, my whole family is brimming with hope. Nephews and nieces urge that we must evacuate across the river or go up to Từ Đàm where Lễ’s house is; otherwise, to stay here is certain death. The Việt Cộng have already returned and taken over all the houses and roads. Our house sits right between the two camps, and Thánh Giá hill lies right behind us. If there is hand-to-hand fighting here, the entire An Cựu village will certainly be reduced to ashes. My mother hastily gathers up some of my father’s clothing, things of his that remain that were not used to prepare his body for the burial. She carefully wraps them up. Several younger members of my family take care of carrying the poles with containers of rice, clothing, pots and pans, and other necessary implements. I carry a purse and a small bag.
My elder brother wheels the Honda to take my younger sister Hà and his own two children to Từ Đàm first. When we get closer to An Cựu Bridge, my mother tells my elder brother Lễ to go ahead with my sister and the children, then to come back to get the others, one by one, with the motorbike, to make it faster. Thái takes a bicycle to look for a way through the streets on his own. We part in front of the Transportation Station. We see several groups of people there. Each group is in a hurry, at full stride, with people carrying children and parcels in their arms, running toward the bridge. We follow them, but when they reach the bridge, nobody is allowed to go anywhere else, to Tân Lăng or to Phú Cam, and they are waved away from the bridge. When we run up there, one of the two men guarding the entrance to the bridge stretches his hand and blocks us:
“Wherever are you are going, fellow countrymen? Stay put in your house; no one is allowed to flee.”
I stand there, transfixed, behind my mother’s back. The two men wear yellow khaki uniforms and have sandals on their feet. If they are not Nationalist soldiers, then surely they are part of the Liberation [Communist] Army. I stand stupefied, looking at them, not saying a word, reduced to silence. My mother sounds on the verge of tears:
“Our house is in ruins; oh, sirs, please, where can we live? I am going to my son’s house on the other side of the river.”
I could no longer see the silhouette of my elder brother Lễ transporting my younger sister and his two children. I think that he has escaped. Two soldiers wave us across the bridge. Several puddles of stagnant blood in the middle of the bridge have not yet dried up; coal-black flies and bluebottles swarm around. Though we have only passed a short distance, I’ve seen a great many sandals, shoes, stockings, torn clothes, haversacks, rucksacks, all flung about topsy-turvy and mixed with blood and pieces of flesh.
My mother says that upon crossing the bridge we must continue along the riverbank to find the road leading up to my elder brother’s house in Từ Đàm. But after going a short distance, we see people in front of us turn around and run rapidly back while crying out. When we ask them what’s the matter, they cannot speak but continue retreating, making waving signs. I stop a small young woman:
“Why are you going back this way, younger sister?”
“Up there, at Phú Cam Bridge, the place is full of them; they are on guard and they chased us back.”
“Still, is it possible to break through? I am fleeing from the fighting!”
“They’ve already shot several people.”
My mother clutches at us. Bé is also panic-stricken and tells his family to hurry back. “They,” who those people ran into, are Communist soldiers, and surely it’s not safe for us to continue.
Miraculously, as we cross the An Cựu Bridge they don’t ask us for any information. When my mother asks whether we can cross the bridge, the throng of us just keep running in a file. Perhaps the Communist soldiers are busy with groups of people behind us, so we escape.
Only when we have managed to cross the bridge do I dare to look at the two sides of the road. An Cựu market looks like a battlefield; blood has not yet dried up, and red imprints of blood are on walls pitted with bullet holes. A tank had gone over the curb and crashed into a house, from which a sign still dangles. Several houses no longer have any shape. There is not a single house facing the road that has remained intact. The middle of the road is filled with barricades, blood, clothing, garbage, scrap iron, and wooden planks. We go by working our way through the debris. Not a single pair of eyes looks out of the doors, and the houses look like they are completely deserted. We don’t know anymore where else to run for peace and quiet. My mother speaks in a rush:
“Enough, let’s take a risk to find a road up to Từ Đàm, to get the family reunited, then either in life or death we will be together.”
We make our way to the end of a short road and go down along Lê Lợi Road. The road in front of us that leads to the post office and Tràng Tiền Bridge is completely deserted. Sounds of gunfire in front of the post office explode like popcorn. One group of people approaches, another group runs away; they ask each other questions, but they have no time to hear each other’s replies, and so they run in circles through the areas that are still not under Communist control. In the end, we are all driven into the church of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
There is nowhere else to run. The people in front of us have all run back. Behind us, there is no escape. My mother implores Heaven and Earth. My elder brother has disappeared without a trace. Gradually there are fewer people outside, and the sound of many guns is getting closer. Everyone rushes into the church. All gather in the nave. The sound of gunfire seems to envelop the area around the church.
My mother shouts to us to go down to the basement shelter built under the nave, but there is no room to put a foot there. We pull each other into a corner space. Bé spreads an old sleeping mat, and the entire household, more than ten people - adults and children - jostle against each other for a small seating space. Only when I finally manage to find a place to sit do I hear a buzz coming up from the basement shelter, sounds of children shrieking and crying and sounds of quarrels and of fighting among people for a corner spot. Outside, the sound of gunfire continues to explode loudly. When the gunfire stops for a moment, a number of other people run into the church. I run out to the courtyard and meet Thái as he enters. He grips my shoulder:
“Go in, elder sister, there is still a whole lot of shooting.”
“Why did you come back? Did you see Lễ?”
“No, elder sister, I went up to Kho Rèn Bridge, decided to cross it, ran into them [Communist forces], and they summoned me to come over to them and arrested me. I nagged and begged until they let me go. I thought I would be captured again.”
I ask Thái whether he saw anything unusual. Thái says that near the approach to the edge of the bridge, there are still corpses all over the place. Some people were arrested and were sitting on the other side of the bridge. Several Americans were tied up and led away.
More people burst into the church. I approach them and ask whether anyone came from the Bến Ngự Bridge area and saw there a man transporting two little children and a young woman. A small boy says: “Yes, a man transporting two little children with a young woman on a large motorbike went across the bridge at high speed. Several shots were fired at them, and the motorbike almost ran headlong into the river. They were detained, and then I saw them being set free to go toward Bến Ngự Bridge.” Thái hears this and is firmly persuaded that Lễ has escaped. I lead Thái to the place where my mother sits. My young nephews and nieces sit, eating square sticky rice cakes. My mother throws me an inquiring look. I recount for my mother the story I’ve just heard. Thái groans from thirst and twists the tap, but there is not a drop of water. Several small children urinate directly on the sleeping mat.
People constantly ask one another about the things they saw or heard. I inquire from Thái about the road to Từ Đàm. Thái says that it’s possible to cross Tràng Tiền Bridge but not to get up to Nam Giao. He did his utmost but did not find a way and had to turn back and go to the church, not expecting to meet the family here. I and Thái13 keep listening to the gunfire. When it subsides we go out into the courtyard and stand there waiting until dusk, but we don’t see my elder brother coming. Leading each other we enter the church. Thái takes an overcoat left from my father and drapes it over my shoulders:
“Wear it; otherwise you will get cold, elder sister.”
It drizzles; for a whole day I was not able to pay attention to the sky or to the vegetation. I look up at the heavy, lead-colored sky. Drops of rain cling to my hair and to my face without making me feel any colder. In just one day, cold, numbness, worry, fear, and uncontrollable trembling have pressed sharply into my flesh, and my body feels frozen as if in a deep freeze. When I return to the church, I step over the feet of several wounded people, lying all over the small room next to the entrance door. Some men are dressing their wounds; they seem to be very absorbed in this. Candles are lit on several daises and on the benches. As soon as I make it down several steps from a high platform around the center of the nave with the statue of the Holy Mother, I suddenly squat down. It seems like Thái also pulls my arm down. There is a dry sound of cracking and a sound of a person screaming. When I regain my senses and decide to look around, I see that one of the two ceramic basins planted with trees arranged on two stone platforms has toppled over. An older woman lies on her stomach on the brick floor beside broken porcelain fragments. She had rested her head against the basin and dozed. When the basin fell over, it pushed the woman to sprawl headlong. Many curses resound in many dark corners. I sit, bundled, next to my mother and Thái. My mother has not eaten anything yet, and neither have I. Thái asks me whether I am hungry and then runs off; in a moment he returns with some bánh tét [a traditional sticky rice cake filled with green bean paste and pork fat]. Holding a piece of the cake, I bring it to my mouth but cannot swallow. I am neither hungry nor thirsty. I can feel a hundred things gnawing at my heart.
A whole day has passed, and I have not thought about my husband and my children. How is my family’s small house in Saigon now? Is it peaceful? What are my husband and children doing? I imagine the face of each child, the appearance of my husband as he leaves the house and comes back, and also all their dull and tasteless meals. Meals prepared without a woman’s hands, a vacant seat, it’s very pitiful and sad. My mother holds my hand tightly:
“Child, lean against me and sleep. Listen to me, child, try to sleep a little.”
Thái stands up; he says he must go to try to find a better place. I put my head on my mother’s shoulder. Several nephews and nieces are crying, demanding water, food, milk. I hear the sound of iron door panels banging at the main entrance. There is no one left outside on the road or in the courtyard. The spacious nave has a curved roof with stained glass inserted in many places; the walls are thick and the partitions have ironwood doors that close tightly.
Many loud sounds of bullets fly through the area of the church, followed by the banging sounds of explosions. My mother pulls me to lean against her. I sit like this with my eyes glued to the candles set in front of my face at the legs of the benches. The flames do not remind me of anything, nor do they bring me any hope whatsoever.
I hear soft sounds of crying; they are so numerous that I can’t count them. A scream rises from a corner of the room. Surely someone has just died over there.
There is the sound of sandals shuffling on the floor, from a small passage connecting to the annex. Then a huge shadow appears against the front wall. Then other small shadows crowd in, and a head with half a body also appears immediately behind them. I turn around; on the high platform, under the statue of the Holy Mother, a man in a black cloak stands holding a torch high up. A father, a Catholic priest. All the weeping that sounded softly for a long time and all the secret whispering disappear as swiftly as an arrow. I hear a voice from over there:
“Put out all the candles; I will put this torch right here. Everybody remain calm and find a place to sleep. God will protect us.”
The torch illuminates people’s heads; their shadows sit or crawl up in utter disorder over the wall, but the shadow of the priest gradually shrinks and then disappears.
1. This is the house of the narrator’s family in An Cựu, a close suburb of Hue. The author’s parents lived with their eldest son Lễ and his family in Từ Đàm, another suburb of Hue. The author’s father had built this house for worshipping ancestors, which was the custom in Vietnam. Because he was building the house by himself, he added some living quarters where he could stay while he worked on the house. When he became terminally ill, he and his wife moved into the ancestor-worshipping house, and he died there.
2. Lễ lived in another hamlet, Từ Đàm; his wife and children were there at that time, not having come to An Cựu.
3. Phú Bài was an enclave with an airbase south of the center of Hue, the only airport in the area.
4. A female relative of the narrator’s family.
5. Bé’s son.
6. The B40 was the first rocket-propelled grenade launcher designed in the Soviet Union.
7. An alternate spelling is Phủ Cam.
8. The Rural Development units were established in 1965 by the Saigon government to assist in carrying out the local self-development programs. Organized into paramilitary groups, its cadres were charged with motivating and organizing the local population to assume their own self-defense and raise the living standards of the villages.
9. Nghẹo Đường Xay is an appellation of a T-junction in An Cựu.
10. Bé left his camp to mourn for his uncle, the narrator’s father.
11. According to Buddhist tradition.
12. The servant quarters were in a separate building.
13. As indicated in the Translator’s Introduction, I have kept the original Vietnamese syntax that reflects people’s position vis-à-vis one another. In this case, the older person, the author, is mentioned before her younger cousin.