Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 3. On a Boat Trip
I Manage to collect many trifling bits of stories, everyone telling something different about the first several days when the Liberation Army came to Hue. I gather some of them while I am at the church and some when we just arrive at An Định Palace. The very thought of eventually getting to An Định Palace had cut in half the misery of the difficult road leading there because I knew that as soon as I set my foot there, I would hear people chattering about what was happening:
“Here, there are airplanes of our [Nationalist] army. They call on residents to try and move to the right bank of the river.”
“The right bank is here.”
“There are rumors that our side lets planes take off to reconnoiter; the planes have been under their [the Communist forces’] fire that shoots up in a torrent and they have to fly very high so that they can’t be seen.”
“But really, elder sister, did you hear all these announcements made through loudspeakers from the airplanes?”
“Of course I did. How is it, fellow countrymen, that you did not hear them? They said that everybody must run to the right bank of the Perfume River, right here. People in other areas are stranded. People from areas up there, Phú Cam, Bến Ngự, Từ Đàm, no one has come back here from those places at all.”
“Is it possible to cross Tràng Tiền Bridge?”
“Not at all! They completely occupy the post office.”1
Each person has one’s own story, and I learn only vaguely about the general situation in the city. I tell my mother and my uncle that we are on the right bank and I’m certain that it’s safe here. But as soon as we find a place to sit and before we are able to take a handful of rice brought all the way from home, the guns explode again, and we slip into the middle of a battle. I lie down between the legs of a table, filled with the odor of people and of dogs, and I wait for death. When I am sure that I will die, that the palace will collapse, burying us in fragments of bricks, suddenly the guns fall silent for several minutes. Survived! A loud crying sound echoes in my head, and I open my eyes to look at each person around me. They sit up in a daze as sand and dust continue to fly through the gloom while broken windowpanes have yet to stop falling. I look up at the ornate bed of Her Majesty and see there a copper tray decorated with a dragon and a phoenix for betel and areca nut and a multicolored blanket. Her Majesty has already been carried away. I don’t know whether or not she has escaped with her life. No one has yet had time to exchange a word with anyone when the sound of a B40 rocket swishes over the roof. Bang, and a piece of the roof collapses; dust flies, blinding everybody, and we all pull our heads back and cower down again. In the window are only a few sharp pointed fragments of glass left that look as though they have gotten a strong kick, and then the shadow of a person jumps inside, swift as an arrow. Several screams burst out, and there are several mumbling sounds but no words. They have already burst in! Several people cover their faces with their hands. I open my eyes and look, frozen; this is not a soldier of the Nationalist Army, nor is he from the Liberation Army – this is Thái. His body is covered with blood. He looks around in bewilderment, searching, then pulls my mother and shakes my uncle and the entire family to wake up:
“Run, run auntie; run elder sister.”
I pull him to duck down and shout:
“Younger brother, you made people’s hearts sink to their boots. Where is there to run? It’s the end now.”
Thái pulls me to sit up. Only then do I see that my hip is dripping wet. Blood, blood still fresh and bright, streams down my leg. I’ve been wounded. Wounded – but why don’t I feel any pain at all? I turn quickly:
My mother watches me, her eyes open but listless. I burst out crying and spring to reach my mother:
“Mother, you’ve been wounded.”
My mother shakes her head. Thái suddenly pulls me up, and I lean my head against his body:
“Stretch up, stretch up.”
I press myself against the shoulder of my younger cousin Thái. Only then do I compose myself to look carefully at a big dog huddling next to my hip, badly wounded. Perhaps it has died. I don’t see it move or stir at all, but the blood from its wound still oozes. Thái says in a low voice into my ear:
“Elder sister, tell aunt that we must run right now; they are squeezing the siege outside – not running now means death.”
Not running now means death. The word “death,” like a slingshot, shoots me to the window and then swift as a doe I plunge headlong outside, not even knowing whether the window is far from or near to the ground. I fall out fast and simultaneously the panels of the main door open, and Thái and Bé, seeing me flee, follow in a panic, running out through the big door. Several pieces of the still-remaining glass fall with a clatter. My uncle, my mother, Bé’s wife, Thu Hồng, and several small children, panic-stricken, also follow. I look around. There is absolutely not a single shadow of a person. But it’s clear that the two sides [the Communists and the Nationalists] are in dread of each other and are shooting at each other. While inside An Định Palace, I had heard the sounds of gunfire as though coming from the direction of the door, or even from right inside. But now I perceive no one at all. Seeing me disorientated, Thái pulls me by the arm to run. It seems that a lot of other people are following us and also running.
The riverbank blocks us in front. We have left An Định Palace far behind.
The sound of gunfire behind us intensifies again, fiercer than ever. But the gunfire gradually moves in the direction of the field at the side of the church. We slowly move away from the dangerous place. A group of people run down from the bridge area, and Thái asks them:
“Is it possible to cross the bridge?”
Several heads shake at once. I shout loudly:
“Don’t run there; they are fighting each other there.”
But those in the group seem not to hear; they still keep running without turning their heads. Several children trip and fall, crying like trumpets, then crawling on all fours, getting up, and continuing to run. Then at this moment Bé’s wife shouts:
“We’ve left all our possessions up there in the palace.”
“So what? We left our possessions. You don’t care about death, but care about a handful of stuff …”
Bé’s wife moans:
“There are still several handfuls left of cooked rice; if we don’t bring them along, we will starve to death.”
At this moment, I am running in short steps behind Thái. I suddenly gasp when I see blood on his neck flowing down his shoulder. I pull his arm:
“Thái, you’ve been wounded.”
He sighs and keeps running:
“The entire tiled roof crashed on my head. So, I had a lucky escape. Not a big deal, elder sister.”
A river wharf appears and Thái shouts for joy:
“There is a boat. There is a boat. We will be able to cross the river now.”
The section of the river here is so serene, fig trees next to the river wharf are still luxuriantly green, the water surface is quiet, and several boulders on the wharf are still clean, smooth, and shiny. I am stunned; it seems that I see this scenery in a dream or else my eyes have been dazzled. We’ve just stopped at the wharf when behind us there are several other people running up and Thái asks:
“Where are you coming from?”
“From the church area.”
“From An Định Palace.”
“Did you see anything?”
“The palace has completely collapsed; shelling is very fierce there.”
Thu Hồng runs down to the wharf. Several small boats look abandoned; there are no people in them. We call and call, and only a middle-aged woman emerges from behind us.
“Let us cross the river with you, ma’am.”
The woman shakes her head:
“Impossible. They are still fighting each other over there. If we get out in the middle of the river, how will we avoid a direct hit?”
“Elder sister, there are direct hits like that here, too.”
“I’d rather die alone. I am left all alone.”
The voice of the woman is cold as ice. Thái entreats:
“Elder sister, do us a favor; help us to cross to the other bank of the river. On the other bank there is the house of an acquaintance; if we are not able to get there, we will all die here.”
“There are too many of you to transport.”
My mother humbly requests:
“You do us a favor making several trips. At the time of war there are merits to be earned through helping others, so you could bequest them to your children.”2
“I am alone and there is no one to get any blessing from my merits. I haven’t gone anywhere but am here waiting to see whether or not my man will surface in this section of the river.”
We’ve vaguely surmised her story. For certain, her husband has just died and she’s gone completely crazy. We continue our humble requests. The woman agrees to make several trips to transfer us. When we cross this narrow river, Thái offers money and forces the woman to take it. She holds the money in her hand and turns the bow of her boat to cross the river to carry other people waiting on the other side at the wharf.
The sounds of gunfire in the direction of An Định Palace and the fields seem quieter. When we get up to the main road we don’t have any strength to figure out what’s going on. This area is exceedingly peaceful. Not a single house has been damaged. Bé says:
“I will look for the house of our acquaintance for us to stay there, and then tomorrow we’ll return home. Our area is next to the National Highway, and certainly they’ve completely withdrawn from there by now.”
“Nothing of the kind! Making such wrong assumptions will bring us nothing but death.”
“American vehicles are running on the National Highway up to Đồng An Cựu, but you keep arguing and arguing …”
“American vehicles going up there – so what? Listen to the sounds of the guns; can’t you hear them or what?”
We continue to run. I ask Bé what area this is. Having left Hue a very long time ago, I have forgotten almost all the roads. Bé says it is Tân Lăng Road and in a short while there will be a pagoda.
Hearing about the pagoda, my mother is very pleased:
“We’ll go inside of the pagoda and ask to stay. Surely, they don’t dare to destroy a pagoda.”
“The church, remember? And it was fired at and destroyed. They have no more regard for pagodas than they have for churches. Try to think about it.”
I am tired, unable to go anymore. Only now I feel a biting pain in my feet. I’ve lost my sandals. My foot has been cut with a piece of glass and oozes with blood. I plop down on the ground:
“I can’t go anymore, Mother.”
My mother coaxes me:
“Try just a bit more; listen to me, child, try to go a bit more. We are already close.”
But my mother is also extremely tired. Now looking back at her, I see that she is still carrying the bag with clothes in her hands. Fright made my mother forget how heavy the bag is. Thái still tightly holds in his arms my leather briefcase. While talking, my mother sits down next to me. Thu Hồng, following us, is also sitting down, and several small children also plop down on the ground. In some houses, doors open to see us, then hastily close again. I don’t have any hope that they will help us at this moment. Thái and Bé turn around and see us sitting right on the ground, and my uncle is torn between wanting to sit down and wanting to go; they signal with their hands for us to stop.
“Stop; we will go to the pagoda to see what’s going on.”
But they go only a short distance and then come back. Only then do we pay attention to groups of people fleeing from the fighting, one group going ahead and another group running in the opposite direction. Asking them, we learn that whatever directions one goes, there is fighting. Bé’s wife, who is sitting, suddenly gets up:
“How could I forget, in this hamlet lives my acquaintance U; we will go to her for a while and then we’ll send Thu Hồng back home to evaluate the situation.”
I also hope for a place to sit and rest, to drink a gulp of water. From morning till now, I’ve not yet had a bite of food or a drop of water. Bé enthusiastically leads the way. We enter a small hamlet; all houses have thatched roofs. Only after Bé knocks and knocks on the door for a long time does he see a person coming to open the door. It is U.
Bé shouts with joy:
“We thought for sure that you had evacuated, elder sister. You’re all right, aren’t you?”
“No problem. It has been several days and nothing is happening. Nobody has left the place.”
“Mortars are not firing in?”
“No, the inner hamlet was hit. But here, on the outskirts, we have dug underground shelters. Nothing to be afraid of.”
Then, suddenly, seeing a large group of people standing behind Bé, U asks:
“Are those your relatives?”
“Yes, please elder sister; this is my father’s sister-in-law and my siblings and cousins.”
Addressing my mother, Bé says:
“Auntie, this lady is the acquaintance of my wife.”
“Come in, come on into the house, don’t stand out here like this; they [the Communists and their sympathizers] are keeping an eye on what is going on, and a big group of people can be suspicious.”
The entire group enters the house. The house is small and cramped. Thái spreads a blanket on the floor so that we can lie down. U, the mistress of the house, gives up her small bed to my mother, to Bé’s wife, who just gave birth, and to several small children. They lie close to each other, turned slightly so that they can drop down to the floor if necessary. I, Thu Hồng, and Thái are to lie down on the floor. It starts drizzling; it’s terribly cold. On top of fright and cold, longtime hunger crashes in, and I shiver all over. U hands me a bowl of cold rice, which I eat with soy sauce. I eat as though I’ve never had such a delicious meal, so incredibly tasty. When I finish eating, by now the evening has set in. Thái asks the woman to check to see whether the Liberation Army is here. The woman laughs brightly:
“No, no, don’t you worry. They come back now and then. They walk around outside, but don’t worry about them. They are very decent.”
“Have they been checking the houses?”
“Only for a while at the beginning. The first several days they asked children to carry ammunition and transport wounded. But now, it’s over. They are people, too. What’s there to be afraid of? They are very decent.”
“Did you talk with them, madam?”
“We talked many times. What’s the big deal?”
U lives with an old woman, the mother of her husband, who is in her seventies, and with a seventeen-year-old son. U’s husband left for the previous war of resistance against the French, and there has been no news from him since. When I learn this, I am not surprised anymore by the sympathy our mistress expresses toward the liberators.
In the evening we don’t dare to sleep in the house but go down to sleep in the underground shelter dug in the courtyard. My uncle, Thái, and Bé go to sleep in the ancestor-worshipping house of a large family in the hamlet. The ancestor-worshipping house is built according to the old pattern with big stones and is very sturdy. I and the other women along with the children go down to the underground shelter. The shelter is tiny but now has to hold more than ten people; we don’t have enough space to lie down.
Around ten o’clock, artillery from Phú Bài starts lobbing shells into the city. Flares brightly light up the entire sky. The sound of planes is close and then moves away. A big confrontation is in the air. The entire city of Hue seems to be completely submerged in an inauspicious omen that it will soon be demolished. I tightly hug my mother, put my head on her shoulder, and sleep. My mother never stops praying, and I pray for my children to get through the calamities. Let my children live.
I know that my mother worries for me the most. My husband and children are in Saigon – certainly they are in sorrow and distress because of me. But why do I believe that my husband and children are at leisure to worry about me? The news and rumors circulate that all of Saigon and the provinces have been lost. So, my husband and children have moved somewhere.
I want to say: “Mother, I am so afraid.” But I must exhibit courage to give my mother breathing space for a bit. I say:
“They fight each other in a big way; clearly they will soon calm down.”
My voice is really low, but in the cramped shelter everyone hears everything. A young chubby woman sitting next to me raises her voice:
“There are a lot of them, elder sister.”
The voice of U’s son follows hers:
“This girl, she went to carry dead bodies, elder sister – a lot of dead bodies.”
“Where did you carry them?”
“Carried them right up to the mountains. They have lots and lots of dead. I lost count.”
“Elder sister, weren’t you frightened to carry them?”
“Scared to death. I trembled carrying them. On top of it, it was getting colder. My knees were about to cave in, both of them at the same time. I was scared to death. Each corpse was also sticky with blood all over it. As for the wounded, they were piled on the vehicles like piles of fish, one person heaped on top of another. I don’t know how I could have survived.”
“Were all of the corpses and wounded from the Liberation Army?”
“Yes, all of them were. They ban anyone else from being taken there.”
“When you were done with carrying, did they let you return?”
“They still forced me to carry ammunition, but I escaped. No doubt they will return tonight and force me to go again. I escaped and asked to spend a night here. Over there, the mortars have been firing in.”
I don’t ask anymore, but the young woman has momentum and continues to talk:
“They buried people in a garden next to my house. It’s so scary to see protruding legs.”
“You must be telling fibs!”
Hearing the mocking remark of U’s son, the young woman gets mad:
“This dumbbell of a boy who hides in the underground shelter all day and night, what can he know? Go outside and see for yourself. Behind the pagoda over there, they bury dead bodies with protruding arms and legs. When you see it, it’s terrifying. Now, do you know the barber named Tư?”
“Yeah. He was forced to go outside in the garden to dig a pit to bury dead bodies, right in his own garden. He was horrified but managed to escape.”
“I really hate this guy [Tư]; let them catch him at once.”
“You talking like this: it’s disgraceful. Why do you hate him?”
We hear U’s voice, annoyed and barely audible. A flare is falling really close and sluggishly comes down. Its light brightly illuminates the entire shelter through an opening. I look at the face of the young girl. My mother pulls a torn piece of mat to cover the shelter opening. We sit through that entire night. The sound of artillery fire is deafening and omnipresent, but fortunately no shell falls into our hamlet where we are sheltered from danger. The sound of artillery never ceases and reverberates all over the place. My eyes are like a dozen fires following each explosion, and the entire night my heartbeats are very fast and thick with sticky fear until morning.
There is another stroke of luck. At dawn the sound of artillery gradually quiets down, still exploding in rumbles but at a distance somewhere in the mountains. After waiting for another hour, we get out of the shelter, rinse our mouths with grains of salt, and wash our faces with rainwater. It’s still a spray-like rain and very cold. I drape over my shoulders the overcoat left from my father and together with Thái slowly go out to the alley.
Becoming bolder little by little, the two of us get to the river. From different directions groups of evacuees are still trickling in. Thái meets them and makes inquiries; there are people who let him know they were from the An Cựu field, or from the An Cựu market area. There are people who let us know that they ran over here from the church area. Does An Cựu Bridge still exist? People respond that it does, while others say that it has collapsed, and we don’t know whom to believe. Thái tells me that we were incredibly lucky; last night in the church the Việt Cộng burst in and arrested all the men and government employees and took them away. He says this and his face is so deathly pale that if you’d make a cut not a single drop of blood would come out.
From the direction of the railway there are still people coming. Thái points out to me groups of people moving in different directions over the railways, appearing and disappearing behind short shrubs and trees.
When we come back, Thái suddenly looks at an electric pole. On the top of the pole there is a bamboo rod with a two-colored flag – red and blue – on top of it.3 The flag is fluttering in the wind. The day before when I went past there and looked up in the sky to see if there were any airplanes, there was nothing on that pole. When Thái tells everybody about it, no one is surprised:
“They keep hanging them. They’ve even hung them in the pagoda, at Xay T-junction …”
But by noon of this day, no one in this entire small hamlet can keep calm anymore. Artillery has been lobbing up here. The sound of planes roars and tears the dreary ash-gray sky apart. At noon, we crawl back into the shelter. Others go into the ancestor-worshipping house. The sounds of explosions are very close; sometimes it seems like they reverberate right in our heads. Still, hearing the explosions does not yet mean death. Thái presses my hand:
“Elder sister, close your ears tight and lie down to lessen the anxiety.”
In some houses there are sounds of crying. Lying in the shelter, it is extremely tight, suffocating, and impossible to breathe. Thái waits until the sound of artillery abates and pulls me to swiftly run into the ancestor-worshipping house. From noon till late afternoon that day, the artillery doesn’t stop, but the shooting has moved farther away.
In the afternoon, we go outside for about ten seconds and then crawl back into the shelter. At night, I don’t enter the shelter again but go to sleep under a shelf in the ancestor-worshipping house. Some of my relatives, including my mother, join me in that house. After several sleepless nights in a row, I’ve become dead tired. Despite the guns, despite the shells, despite life, despite death, I sink into sleep. In the middle of the night I am awakened by the sound of airplanes and the thunder of shells, but then those are also on the wane and a bout of heavy sleep takes over everything. Next morning Thái wakes me up by shaking my neck:
“Elder sister, do you know what happened last night?”
“They’ve returned here in full. They knocked at the door but did not hear a sound; everything was quiet so they’ve already left.”
My mother is gloomy:
“This is absolutely scary. Vân, child, I slept so deeply last night, I didn’t hear anything at all. Explosions are near; surely our house and all our possessions have been destroyed.”
My mother starts crying. Bé’s wife crawls from under the altar, then comes my uncle’s turn to get up, too:
“Obviously we have to flee farther. It’s dangerous here now.”
My uncle’s voice is perturbed. My mother tells Bé and Thu Hồng to go fix rice but then remembers that there’s only a bit of rice left; she says:
“Cook porridge to have something to eat.”
My uncle grumbles that at home there is still fifty kilograms of rice left but when Thu Hồng went back yesterday she did not get to the house to bring it back. Thu Hồng indeed went back to the hamlet, but seeing it completely deserted, she got scared, gave up, and came back.
But even before the porridge is ready, we hear again the sound of airplanes coming and then artillery from down by Phú Bài lobbing up shells. The entire household is in the shelter, but the next moment we realize that the gunfire is not aimed at this area, and I and Thái crawl out because it’s so stuffy down there. The two of us run outside and over to U’s house, then grope our way for the alley. There are muffled sounds of gunfire, shooting like rain in the Phú Cam area. “Surely they are firing at the airplanes,” Thái whispers. The flag of blood and blue colors is still fluttering at the top of the bamboo rod installed on the electric pole. There are still evacuees running around outside; we hail them and make inquiries, but nobody is inclined to answer us. They run away crying. An armed unit from the direction of the bridge pulls up to Phú Cam, and Thái shouts for me to run into an abandoned store. The unit crosses the road, its soldiers’ faces taciturn; they carry rifles on their shoulders. Their hands are in bandages, their clothes in disarray; Thai whispers: this is the North Vietnamese Army. I try to watch them to distinguish whether they look any different from the Việt Cộng, but Thái has already figured it out. As for me, I give up on this and don’t dare to ask Thái.
In a moment when the unit comes up, we decide to run away from them to return home, but from the side of Phú Cam suddenly reverberate sounds of feet running, of screaming, and of crying. Then another group of people appears just before gunfire goes off like rain; the sounds of airplanes shred the sky, and artillery explodes as if it has no time to pause for breath. A group of people slowly gets closer. Thái is flabbergasted:
“Oh heavens, the people, people fleeing from the fighting.”
The group approaching us consists of about a hundred people; the leaders of the group are several Catholic priests and a couple of Buddhist monks. In their hands they hold white flags made of tattered cloth, flags of unconditional surrender, flags of fright. They walk, then run like children in a hurry. Following the white flags, the leaders and their followers go supporting each other. People carrying loads on their shoulders go at a jog trot. Thái stands up on the edge of the road and lifts his hand in greeting:
“Venerable Father, what’s going on up there?”
The priest shakes his head, his mouth frothing at the corners. A monk carries in his hands a wounded child, blood dripping in small drops onto the road; the monk stretches out his hand and waves, giving us a sign to follow them. Don’t stop; it’s dangerous. But the monk does not say a word. The group of people slowly runs like this in front of us, women carrying children in their arms, men carrying loads on their shoulders, children going at a jog trot. On top of it all, they also carry the wounded. A man wounded in his leg runs, limping and hobbling. From time to time he falls on the ground, then forces himself up again. There is someone with a loose arm connected to his body by only a little bit of skin. Another person has something swelling on his head; still another one has a fractured forehead with small drops of blood on it. They chase after the several pieces of white cloth of which the white flags are made and which flap, leading the way in search of security. The people in the group run, moaning, crying, and praying; a fellow recites a Christian prayer, and another one appeals to Heaven and calls on the Buddha.
More people run, zigzagging, down to the bridge, then suddenly run in the opposite direction, turning back, then run again in the opposite direction, retreating, continuing in the direction from which they had previously run. The sound of gunfire from the Phú Cam area is still pouring like rain; several people are feeble and scuttle behind at a significant distance from the rest of the group, screaming in despair as though death is around the corner:
“Oh Father, wait for us. Oh Father, save us, your children. Oh Lord, the devil is chasing us, your children …”
I help a woman who has just fallen face-down on the road:
“Come up over here to take rest, elder sister; there is no fighting here yet, come in here.”
The woman has been wounded in her thigh; blood is streaming, but she still forces herself to get up.
“I am running after the father; my husband and child are over there with him.”
The woman resumes running. Thái follows her:
“Up there, is still anything left?”
“Nothing left, nothing left. But yes, a lot of people still stranded there, still more than a hundred young people are stranded, couldn’t flee.”
“How did they get stranded?”
“They [the Communist forces] shoot, they shoot … Oh Father, wait for me, oh Father.”
The woman is running, but the group has left her very far behind. I hear the extremely loud sound of an explosion. I cover my face. Thái hugs me tightly:
“Run, elder sister, run. Hold my hand, here.”
Thái pulls me by my hand and we slip into the hamlet. In the distance, the group of people is in utter disarray; then, through puffs of smoke and layers of dust, I see them again, continuing to run.
When I enter the ancestor-worshipping house, my mother is lying close to the door, waiting. She browbeats me for a while and then pulls me and thrusts me down under the dais. As in days past, my mother still thinks of me as a child, still a baby. I swiftly slide in and look for a place to rest my head, but there isn’t one. My mother lies outside and I hear her question:
“Lie quietly, Vân, child, where are you? Listen to me, don’t lie down outside.”
My mother says this, but she herself lies outside. Thu Hồng whispers into my ear:
“The pot of porridge is burned already.”
At this moment I don’t feel any regrets about the pot of porridge, even though before this, hunger gnawed at me. Thu Hồng says:
“Wherever you go, elder sister, auntie insists to go look for you; I have to hold her in my arms.”
I am on the brink of tears. I lift my hand and hold firmly to a bamboo brace propping up the platform holding the altar. I wish I could hold my mother’s hand; it’s only a short distance away, but it’s impossible. In the dim light I see a small dot of dazzling fire. For sure, it’s Thái and he found cigarettes somewhere. He tells me:
“I asked auntie whether it’s all right to smoke here.”
I ask him where he found the cigarettes; he says:
“I have an entire full box. I picked it up when a group of people passed by. For sure someone dropped it.”
I think about the drops of blood scattered along the road. How far do these drops of blood stretch? Unexpectedly, I shudder. Thu Hồng asks:
“Are you cold, elder sister?”
I shake my head, but Thu Hồng undoubtedly doesn’t notice. Thái hands me a cigarette and tells me to give it to my mother to help lessen the cold. As soon as the cigarette gets to me, it falls from my hands. Afraid of making a sound by my movement, I don’t dare grope for it. From that moment till noon, we don’t dare open our eyes to look at the light outside. Artillery shells lob in as though they are right here. In my head, around me, the sounds of explosions reverberate; it seems like they split my rib cage open, that they break my head. My mother calls everybody to duck down and press into the ground. We duck down and press into the ground, and then when it proves not to be enough to be able to bear the situation, we firmly take each other into our arms so that when death comes, we will die together, in one heap. But no, I can’t die here in this one heap. I must live to be able to return to my children regardless of whether Saigon still exists or has been lost, and my children also must live to wait for me to come back. Don’t let death in. Let me live.
The sound of explosions seems to grab me and throw me into red fire. One sound … two sounds … another sound. Prayers to Heaven and prayers to the Buddha have not achieved their goal. One more sound and my heart will jump out of my throat. Bang, I hear the sound of a loud explosion. So, who’s lamenting my death like this now? Who is crying like this outside? Another bang. The entire roof of the house seems to be about to collapse on my head. My chest breaks open and my blood bursts like flowing from a tap. I roll back and forth. No, I haven’t been hit yet; I am still alive. The sound of crying bursts in:
“Vân, Vân, where are you, child? Elder sister, where are you, elder sister?”
Thái’s arm, then my mother’s arm, too. Sand and dust from the house roof still keep falling down. I can’t make a sound. This time, it is death for sure; artillery has not yet moved away any distance at all. After the sound of the explosion, my body is not even able to shudder anymore. That’s it, all my family, everyone in this familial ancestor-worshipping house, is waiting for death.
But then the moment of horror passes. The sound of gunfire stops, then scatters in different directions. As soon as the sound of gunfire stops, it is replaced with sounds of crying. I dash out; my mother pulls me back:
“Hey child, don’t, don’t go.”
But Thái has also already gotten to the courtyard; I can’t help but hesitate at the door.
Outside, trees and plants are in tatters; bricks and tiles have fallen topsy-turvy in the courtyard. In front of the ancestor-worshipping house, a fragment of a shell whirls in a huge pit in the ground. Several glass windows are shattered into pieces; a screen covering the front window is tilted. Right at that moment, Thái runs inside, white-faced:
“Very lucky, elder sister, the place in the back corner of the ancestor-worshipping house has just been hit by a bomb; it’s where the papaya tree is. The papaya tree is knocked down.”
Thái lifts his hand and points at the edge of the wall in the back where the wall has crumbled into big pieces and the tiles have caved in, exposing a piece of ash-gray sky. Life is really wonderful. If the bomb had slanted a bit more, we would have been finished, for sure. Thái tells us that behind us at a distance of two or three houses there is a house that is completely destroyed by the direct hit of a bomb. Several iron-sheet roofs were blown up and thrown far away, and there is a piece that flew up and cut off the top of a coconut tree. Several houses have been demolished, several people killed. From that moment till evening, we don’t dare step away from the altar’s platform. Bé’s wife boldly goes to fix some food, and it’s only in the evening that we sit down to eat. While eating, we hear that a lot of people fleeing from the Bến Ngự area are coming here. Thái swiftly runs to the courtyard. A group of people from Bến Ngự run, straight and without a stop, up to the railway; only a father and a child, starving and exhausted, don’t go; they plop down on the edge of the road. The people bring them into the house, a man around forty years old and a girl about fifteen years. After each is given a bowl of rice, they are reborn to the world, and the father and the daughter return to their senses. The girl crouches in the corner of the altar’s dais; her eyes open and, with her face completely distorted by fear, she gazes toward the door. A soft noise makes the child tightly hug her father. Only when the man comes completely back to his senses does my mother ask inquisitively:
“Did you come from Bến Ngự, sir?”
“Yes, madam, I’m from Bến Ngự.”
“So, up at Từ Đàm, is there anyone who managed to flee?”
The man did not have time, however, to respond because my mother, burning with impatience, announces:
“My son, my daughter-in-law, and my daughter with a bunch of grandchildren are stranded up there.”
The man says something, but his lips are still mumbling indistinctly:
“I live in the area under the bridge, close to the bank of the river, so I could hide. Up at Từ Đàm is rough, they [the Communists] guard really ferociously there.”
“No one managed to flee?”
“No, it’s for sure.”
I hear my mother’s heavy sigh, full of despair. The man still hems and haws, his lips tremble, and he mumbles unclearly:
“There’s not a single tile left on my house.”
“How did you manage to get here?”
“My house was not directly hit but reverberations knocked off all the tiles just the same. The two of us, I and my child, hid in the shelter for days, and so by now we’ve gone without food for three days. When the sounds of gunfire abated, I crawled out of the shelter. Horrendous, frightful. All the houses around were collapsed, and we saw not a shadow of a person. So, I went down to the shelter and pulled my daughter out to flee from the house. We ran like crazy. I trod upon people’s corpses and don’t even know how many of them. I heard countless moans among the piles of bricks left after the destruction of the houses. Damn it, the two of us ran more dead than alive up to here and then, exhausted, we resigned ourselves to sit down on the road to let life take its course.”
“So, you didn’t run into the liberators on the road, did you?”
“No, that would be the last straw. They are busy digging shelters, busy transporting wounded, and because of this we could escape. My little child, she is so afraid that she becomes stiff. We had to get off the road several times and lay shaking like epileptics. I had to pull her with all my strength; her arms and legs suddenly became completely pale and bluish.”
Someone asks from the dark: “There are only two of you, you and your daughter, sir, aren’t there?”
“No sir, no; it is I and my wife with my children. On the first day of Tết, my wife and children went back down to Bao Vinh, her native home place. Such a tragedy, oh, my wife and children, I don’t know what’s going on down there; my wife and children are stranded down there.”
“Oh, who has the strength to worry? One knows whether one’s self is alive or not – what else is there to worry about?”
My mother asks the child:
“Are you still hungry?”
No answer is heard from the child. The man says:
“The lady asks you, so why don’t you respond? Yes, venerable lady, she is very afraid, and that’s why she seems maddened. Several days lying in the shelter, starving and scared, she seems deaf like this. Enough, this trip, it’s the end of me; no one else is left, oh, my wife and children. I walked and I trod upon people’s corpses not even knowing how many of them. Bullets were behind me and in front of me. I thought I would not make it here to wait for my wife and children.”
The man seems to choke, on the brink of tears.
There is the sound of a child crying and the sound of a young woman grumbling:
“Enough, let me sleep outside the shelter; there is more space there. Inside here it’s too cramped; how can a kid endure it?”
A man’s voice responds:
“Damn you, death is around the corner, and you are still arguing. Father, mother, and the child must all be in the same place. If we die, we must die together, not that some must survive and some die.”
The woman cries, sniffing. Outside, the light of flares illuminates the entire sky. The gunfire starts to explode again. I don’t know in what area the fighting is still going on because from what I hear it seems that each area has gunfire. At night, there are endless pitter-patters of feet outside; we all hold our breath. The girl and the man, the newest evacuees who arrived this afternoon, have no place; the two of them lean against the dais. The girl shouts from time to time: “Oh, father, I am very scared.” The man comforts her: “Don’t be scared; it’s nothing.”
There are calls begging for help, then sounds of gunfire. Thái, firmly holding my hand, whispers:
I remember the face of the liberation soldier who guarded the bridge we crossed. A North Vietnamese soldier, naive and innocent, he looked for anyone who belonged to the American puppets. He shouted and arbitrarily stopped people, but finally everybody ran across the bridge. I think that he most certainly saw nothing but people fleeing from the fighting – men, women, and small children – and he supposed that with only one night of shooting, the bands of American puppets were all eliminated. I remember an empty military post [of the Nationalist Army] not guarded by a single soldier. I didn’t see a single corpse thrown across the fence there either. So what does it mean that the first night there was no firing or attacks at the military posts? It’s impossible that so many soldiers in the city could all be dead. The man fleeing with the child, the one who arrived in the afternoon, has just let us know that the Việt Cộng have not yet taken over a single military post, but every military post is abandoned and empty.4
The man also lets us know that the Liberation Army soldiers are like ghosts; they hide and appear here and there. During the three nights when he was lying in the underground shelter, the man imagined that people were continually walking back and forth on the top of the shelter, but when he ventured to run out, his collapsed house looked as though it had been deserted for a very long time.
Night comes and the air is heavy to the point of suffocation. Added to this, several more refugees arrive, and the ancestor-worshipping house seems to be devoid of oxygen. The smell of bullets and shells has inundated the place. Furthermore, the omnipresent sound of gunfire returns and intensifies. In the middle of the night there are several screams sounding hoarse with fright outside in the alleys and on the riverbank. The stampings are echoes of running feet. Moreover, there are even sounds of digging in the ground. I have no more fear of dead bodies with cracked heads, of chopped-off arms and legs, but at that moment in the atmosphere of crowding together in the dark ancestor-worshipping house, I have an impression that the smell and the coldness of death is gradually encroaching upon us, and if we stay here for several more days, we will die of suffocation or illness.
The next morning, the area of this hamlet is completely suffused with the sound of gunfire. Artillery fires at the place, then large guns and small guns. Furthermore, lying down under the dais of the altar we hear even the sounds of automobiles moving out on the road. Thái presses his ear to the ground and tries to figure out what areas have fighting going on. Some trees in the courtyard are directly hit and knocked down. Thái guesses that for sure there is fighting in the market area. Perhaps they are fighting on the other side of the river now. They fire back and forth, which means that we must flee. Perhaps this night they will strike against this Tân Lăng neighborhood. My mother listens and talks at the same time, shaking and hugging me tightly:
“What to do? I have resigned myself to death, but you, child, you still have two children of your own; who will raise them, oh my child.”
I firmly clench my teeth. In this city, so many people are dead – so many children and adults; so many mothers have given up, leaving their children desolate and lonely. But those young children, can they survive until the battle ends? While in the church, I saw some children whose parents were killed by bullets, and they followed groups of refugees. They ran back and forth, punch-drunk, being bullied by some, being shouted at by others. Starving, they steal and snatch from other people. What if I die, or if I don’t die, yet all the same still lose my children?
The image of the woman hugging the dead body of her child, which generated the awful smell in the church where I hid for the first several days, has ripped my heart and mind to pieces.
An hour later, we wait for the sound of gunfire to fall silent for a moment so that we can flee from the ancestor-worshipping house; each person clasps his or her remaining possessions, bags with clothes, a blanket that Bé took from An Định Palace. Thái runs ahead of everybody, and we run behind him. After several continuous days, only now do we see daylight, though the daylight is stifled in the numbingly cold spray of drizzling rain. When we rush out from the house, a number of other people also rush out, following us. The pair of father and daughter run toward the riverbank; Thái waves for us to go up to the railway. But after going only a short distance from the house, we suddenly are besieged by the sound of explosions from all directions.
They are still fighting each other. Thái calls out for everyone to take cover, and we roll into the brush at the side of the road. We lie in a heap on top of each other. The father and the daughter also duck down. The artillery fire intensifies, roaring from all directions. Gunfire also seems to surround us; we are in the middle of it. A house, directly hit, goes up in flames. Children and adults rush out of the house. The fire spreads to many other houses, and more people run out. We hear sounds of screaming and crying. Ahead is pitch-dark from gun smoke; behind, as a man informs us, there is a huge battle going on. Water rushes through the roadside ditch in search of a good, more peaceful place to rest. An artillery shell noisily explodes several tens of meters from us. It seems like we are buried in fragments of the shell and in the thick screen of dust. Thanks to Heaven and the Buddha, no one is hit. When the smoke disperses, we don’t see the pair of father and daughter anymore. They were running in front when the shell exploded and smoke rose in a blinding cloud. Thái calls loudly:
“Run fast to this shell-hole that the artillery just made and duck down.”
My body trembles all over and I am not able to run anymore. Leave me alone. Thái pushes me, I push my mother, my mother pushes Bé, and pushing continues from the back to the front. Thái moves us down to a very deep shell-hole with dust, smoke, and gunpowder darkening the air.
“Lie here. It can’t be, auntie, that two shells would hit the same spot twice. I was in a battle and I know.”
Thái’s statement helps me to calm down for a couple of minutes. But why does my body still keep trembling all over? It’s been almost a week. I haven’t changed my clothes; the coat I wear on top of everything is full of dried blood and has started to stink. Thái rolls close to me:
“Elder sister, don’t tremble, you must calm down to help ease your mother’s fears.”
My mother opens her eyes and sluggishly looks at me with eyes of fear, of despair, of boundless worry, and of love for me. I burst into tears. At this moment, my fear of death diminishes. I have my mother next to me; if death comes, we will see each other’s faces at that moment. Sounds of weeping and of moaning echo from afar. I open my eyes wide to look around. From within the puffs of smoke and fire, from within the sounds of bombshells in front of us, a woman and a child pushing an oxcart are coming over. The woman walks while crying and screaming crazily:
“Where is the Lord? Where is the Buddha? Oh heavens!”
In the cart, there is a corpse of a man covered in dried blood and stiffened, but his eyes still stare intently. The dead body does not have any piece of clothing on it. Thái jumps out from the shell-hole, takes off his felt overcoat with red stripes, and covers the man’s face. The woman and small child continue to push the cart, completely absorbed in it, and go forward where the artillery booms. I tightly hold on to my mother’s hand:
I emit but one outcry and choke with emotion. My mother continues to look at me with that dreamy expression of hers. Thái jumps down into the shell-hole and wipes his hands on his pants:
“Whatever this woman does, she will end up dead anyway. Down there they are fighting very fiercely.”
Artillery is still lobbing monotonously. I hear several salvoes of gunfire seemingly shot from within the yards of adjacent buildings. Thái suggests:
“They will certainly be fighting here soon. Run, run right now, auntie.”
Thái jumps rashly up out of the shell-hole. Bé holds children in his arms so that his wife can follow Thái and jump out too. We don’t give a damn about leaving behind a lot of stuff; many things are thrown out into the shell-hole. Thái takes the lead to check the road. Bé goes last. Thái carries my mother’s bundle with clothes in one hand and also carries Bé’s three-year-old son on his back. My mother clasps a blanket to her chest as though she wants to protect her thin, weak body. I go in front of my mother behind Thái. My uncle follows behind us, walking and grumbling. He is hungry and afraid of death, and at the same time he craves wine. He leads Bé’s eldest daughter by her hand. The small child is peeing all over her pants from fear and her pant-legs get stuck together; she can’t walk and is being dragged in a rush. My uncle grumbles:
“Going in a huddle like this is very dangerous. Run fast to find a place to hide. They are bursting in here.”
In the gardens I see people’s heads, a lot of them scattered around. Clearly they are hiding in foxholes. Barrels of guns are ready to fire from the foxholes. Shrubs and trees rustle. There is the thundering sound of a collapsing wall.
“Run fast – death is around the corner.”
Then I hear a voice speaking with a slight accent from a different region. I run as though chased by ghosts and leave my mother behind by several tens of steps.
But we don’t go far before the battle moves with us. The gunfire pours like rain, and we are caught in crossfire.
“Run!”Thái calls out loudly.
We duck down. My body does not have any self-control anymore but is controlled by Thái’s shouts. My mind is almost empty, ready to follow any command, any order, whatever it may be.
“It’s not over yet.”
Thái urges my mother, my uncle, Bé’s family, and Thu Hồng to go into a house. But people hiding inside don’t dare to open the door. We run again and get lost, scrambling from one area where there is fighting to another area where there is fighting, and I can no longer remember how to recognize whether it’s a place I know or some other area. The sound of gunfire is very close. It is impossible to go back and also impossible to go ahead. A group of people in front of us has a lot of wounded; they lie in the throes of death in the middle of the road near old corpses whose stomachs are grossly distended, as if blown up with water. I have to jump into a shrub to avoid the corpse of a dead woman near a couple of baskets with hangers and a shoulder pole still leaning against her shoulder. Next to puddles of dried blood mixed with dirty sand are corpses with their chests split open, their heads broken, their arms and legs chopped off and missing as though someone stole them. I think about packs of stray dogs, roaming the city during the last several days, but I don’t have any capacity to be afraid anymore. Now, first of all, we must run to escape all this. A number of wounded people are lying, moaning and groaning, with their arms fluttering around in the air, stretching, clasping, and pulling at the pant legs and coats of the people running by. There are shouts, begging:
“Bring me along. Save me, oh heavens.”
But I still stomp past them and keep going; many other people stomp past them, too, and keep going. Someone’s hand catches the leg of my pants and pulls it down. I pull strongly and there is the sound of tearing cloth. I don’t give a damn; first and foremost, I must survive, even if only for another second, another hour, or a few more hours.
“This place is very dangerous; for sure they will soon clash with each other at this place.”
Thái has not yet finished speaking when we hear the sound of gunshots from the gardens pouring down in the direction of the riverbank. From the direction of the river, salvoes of submachine guns and heavy machine guns fire up fiercely. Thái does not have time to add any further thought. He leaps to avoid a bomb crater:
We run following him. The sound of gunfire from the gardens shooting down toward the river is random. We can run no more; we crawl and roll on the ground.
“Let’s crawl forward, roll, roll over, roll and follow me this way.”
Thái calls out loudly but the sound of his voice comes and goes:
“Auntie, run to that place over there. Run behind that wall.”
Thái again firmly holds my hand:
“Let auntie run in front, elder sister.”
My uncle, my mother, Bé, his wife, and their children rise up and run to escape toward the wall. Thái pulls me – run fast. But the sound of gunshots seems to come from behind the wall. Duck down. Thái pulls me by the hand, and we dive down to the ground. We try to crawl forward to a house over there. Amid bombs and bullets, amid gun smoke, that brick house still stands firm and looks to be without a trace of a shell. The house juts out like a miracle. Thái bends, lifts his foot, and kicks a panel of the door. The panel breaks open very easily. I dash inside.
But what’s this? I leap inside, then feel that my legs are stuck as though firmly glued, and there is no way I can lift my legs anymore. I bring my hand up to my mouth and gasp, about to shout. But I feel like I have died standing up.
In front of me, around me, everywhere is full of dead bodies. Some lie prostrate, some with their faces up. Some are twisted; some scowl, their limbs scrawny. Pieces of flesh and stagnant puddles of blood are all over the floor. My feet cannot take one step farther, but neither is there any place to step back.
I don’t understand where my reflexes came from when I stepped into the house. It seems that when I stepped in, my feet didn’t even touch the ground yet, but my eyes encountered the horrific scene inside the house, and some force carried my feet to avoid landing in puddles of blood. I find a spot where I can put one foot while the other foot touches only lightly to the ground with the heel.
I want to scream; I am about to fall and pass out. But no, I am still able to distinguish puddles of blood and pieces of arms and legs; I must try to remain on my feet.
Then fright squeezes me very tightly, rushing from my feet to the top of my head, from the top of my head back down to my feet, pressing me to emit a loud shout. Thái has already gotten behind me, in readiness. He lifts me on his shoulders and carries me, running, as though flying from this horrific house regardless of the bullets and shells, regardless of danger.
When I gradually come back to my senses, Thái has just put me down to the ground. Puddles of blood shimmer before my eyes. No, oh no, I rub my eyes, real blood, droplets of blood, blood stagnating in puddles around many still fresh corpses.
“Where’s my mother?” I ask Thái.
He lifts his hand, wipes his eyes, and then says:
“At the corner of the wall over there.”
My mother, my uncle, and Bé run up to us. Bé says:
“Oh heavens, we thought you, elder sister, and Thái had gotten lost.”
My mother grabs me by the shoulder:
“Sit down, sit down, child.”
My vision is dazzled. I see how branches of green leaves in front of me undulate lightly; then spin around so fast that it’s impossible to see them. Amid this blindingly dizzy spinning, it seems that someone’s drops of blood and pieces of arms and legs spin with them also.
There are a lot of sounds of bullets flying and of houses collapsing. I lie and roll on the ground. From a distance of about ten meters from where I am, a man is crawling toward me.
“Save me, I beg you, people, save me, please.”
The man’s chest and arm bleed profusely; I roll very close to Thu Hồng. Thu Hồng screams. My uncle covers her mouth. The man, dragging himself with great difficulty, slowly gets closer. His mouth doesn’t stop shouting and screaming. He lifts his bloody hand to his mouth and sucks on it; his mouth is gaudy red, his eyes glare. I watch him roll around once then squirm convulsively. My vision is overwhelmed again. I dig my fingernails into my hand and press my face into the ground.
The sounds of guns gradually move a bit farther away. There are thudding sounds of running feet, sounds of someone calling out loudly. The sounds of feet reverberate in my ears; it seems like they are stepping through my head. After the clatter of explosions, my face is blazing hot; Thái makes me get up:
“Run fast, or you will burn to death.”
I grip Thái’s shirt and pull him back, treading indiscriminately upon the bodies of those who are dead and of those who are alive. I call: “Mother, oh Mother.” I hear my own voice, and it sounds like the last call of a person who is about to die.
“Hey, child, I’m here.”
I hear my mother’s voice responding to me, and she is crying too. I’m not dead yet. I can still hear. I can still see. Definitely, I am still alive. I again go back to running.
The sounds of gunfire gradually subside. We still run. I aim myself at Thái’s back and run following him. Many hands from down on the ground stretch up, beseeching me for help.
“Someone save me, please. I don’t have any strength left anymore.”
When I run into Thái’s back and stop, my entire family is sitting down on the side of the road. The sounds of guns have by now subsided. Artillery has also stopped. I suddenly open wide my eyes. My vision is not dazzled anymore. So it means that only when I have an impression of imminent death in front of my eyes do I see amazing distortions. Now I am calm and alive. We sit on the side of the railway track. How did it happen that our several children are still unharmed? I am surprised and count forward and then back again. Even in the whirlwind of war, human life still seems so full! My eyes are overflowing with tears, and the eyes of my uncle, of my mother, of Bé, and of his wife are also overflowing with tears. Thu Hồng holds little Điện tightly in her arms; the little fellow is about to pass out from fear. Thái gently pats the old railway track and says:
“We will follow this railway to get back home. They’re fighting everywhere. Let’s go back home, auntie.”
“Go back home? But if the fighting comes over there, what shall we do?”
“Now everywhere it’s still the same; to make it through, auntie, we must take a chance.”
“Is our house still there or is it destroyed?”
No one responds to this. But this afternoon, before dark, we grope our way toward home. Thái says that our house is close to the National Highway, and clashes easily erupt over there. In the end, we move into my uncle’s house behind the railway near several small hills at the foot of Mount Tam Thái.
Earlier, to avoid shells, Bé dug a deep underground shelter in the front of the house to hide from danger. When we arrive, the shelter gets a do-over. Thái and Bé take it upon themselves to dig soil and fill bags for piling up at the entrance of the shelter.
All adjacent buildings remain silent in a strange way. The house next to my uncle’s has been half-destroyed, hit by a missile on the morning of the first day of Tết; several bamboo trees in the back of the garden were knocked down, destroying the entire frame of the house. I think that for sure there is no one left in the hamlet, but in the evening Thu Hồng finds out that there are a lot of houses with people still living in them. She discovers dots of oil lamps or hears soft sounds of cautious movement. Through the entire first night of sleeping in the shelter, we hold our breath. Thái has his doubts as he sees signs suggesting that we must stay on alert. There are people in a lot of houses, but it’s not certain that they are area residents. Sometimes it might be “they.” We usually use the word “they” to refer to the Việt Cộng and to avoid the word “liberators.” In fact, would it not be ironic and cruel to use the word “liberation” at the sight of such pain and utter destruction in the city? Even when we just entered the narrow lane leading to my uncle’s house, I saw at once a flag of the liberation, tattered, hanging on a guava tree in front of a collapsed house.
The entire night, we listen to the constant sounds of hooting owls. The sound of owls hooting from all four directions seems to carry some supernatural significance. Each time the owls hoot, I have an impression that a scythe of death from the black sky is coming down to chop, ready to hit anyone, anything.
At dawn I hear sounds of people’s feet outside in the yard. The sounds of feet are very soft, sometimes close by, sometimes far away. We hold fast to each other’s hands. Bé prepares to put his hand over the mouth of his youngest child, who was born a little more than a month ago, in order to be ready to silence the child in case he cries.
Looking at the large hands of my younger cousin loosely covering the mouth of his child, my heart feels unbearable pain to the point of anguish. If there is just one sound of feet stopping at the entrance to the shelter, just one flashlight shining down into the shelter, Bé’s child would not have time to scream when his father’s hand would tightly and strongly cover his mouth. Just several convulsions, then it would be over. This night, how many deep underground shelters are there with no sound of crying children? Has there yet been any hand pressing hard over the mouth of a child? And the faces of adults, at once self-pitying and heartless in a toxic atmosphere, ready to inflict death on anyone …
But another night has also passed, and we are surprised to see ourselves still alive amid a deserted, silent hamlet. However, we are mistaken, for in several houses there are still people living; there are old men and old women who could not flee, following their children and grandchildren, and a number of immobilized families that were too afraid to leave.
The following morning I hear a lot of noise, and a lot of faces stick out. Waiting for the sounds of gunfire to subside, an old lady crawls in to visit us, but then she does not dare to go back. Thanks to the old lady, I learn more about the situation. During the past several days, the hamlet has been full of the Liberation Army, and at the present time the soldiers are digging underground shelters and foxholes at the foot of the mountain.
The area close to Trường Bia post is still full of Nationalist soldiers, and from the top of the mountain behind the practice range they shower shells into the Long Thọ and Kim Long areas. My mother loudly appeals to Heaven: “We have been so stupid to come back to be near where they are.” Thái pulls the old lady down to the shelter:
“Don’t let them know we are back.”
But the old woman is utterly sure that by day they [the Communist forces] all go up to the slopes of the mountains, so they don’t know anything. The old lady absolutely advises us to not light lamps.
At noon, a family from this hamlet finds its way back; their house has been destroyed, and they ask to dig an underground shelter right inside my uncle’s house. The old lady waits and waits until afternoon, when her small grandchild dashes over to pick her up; the house of the old lady is only a courtyard away and across a narrow lane from my uncle’s.
The fighting still surrounds us. Night falls, and we again hold our breath in the shelter. We wait, relying on chance, but our lucky chances are indeed slim; the entire household is emaciated because of starvation, but no one has enough strength to moan about this.
There is yet another period of waiting full of horror. The sound of an explosion bursts, but we no longer listen, no longer know anything at all.
1. The post office was at a strategic location from which access to the bridge could be controlled.
2. The concept of “merits” was similar to the Buddhist idea of karma.
3. The red and blue Việt Cộng banner with its gold star.
4. Most Nationalist soldiers had been given leave to celebrate Tết at home during the holiday ceasefire and, as a consequence, were not at the military posts.