Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 - Nha Ca (2014)
Chapter 4. Hodge-podge
After a night of shouts and screams, exasper ation, and flaring gunfire, the shadows of night fade gradually away. As soon as the sky lights up, sounds of gunfire also fall silent.
The sun looks like it had exploded into pieces quite some time ago. Daylight flickers with the sadness of tragedy. This morning waking up, no sound of crowing cocks or of singing birds, no sound of temple bells and church bells, not even the sound of chickens and ducks is heard.
The sky looks as if it is about to overflow with water. Gardens are suddenly desolate, abnormally gloomy; grass is soaked with dew; apricots are trampled and crushed to bits; scattered everywhere are rags, shell fragments, and traces of blood. Streaks of blood on the surface of the road connect one garden to another. Some puddles of blood still stagnate in the courtyard, beside the water tank near a golden apricot tree that looks shy because of its own very cheerful colors.
Along with the bland morning light, an innumerable number of men and women [the Việt Cộng] suddenly appear on the roads. Men wear khaki clothes, with their pants long or short; women wear black pajamas, their hair plaited, not let down loose but tied up high in a pleasingly tidy manner. Gripping their weapons, they glance at each other with solemn faces. Other, smaller groups stand guard at the entrances to the roads and in front of many houses, or they lie and sit everywhere in the gardens. There are a lot of dead bodies and wounded people at the foot of the slopes. A few bodies lie stretched at full length; right in the middle of the road lie several prostrated dead bodies. Next to a group of guards at the beginning of the bridge are several beheaded bodies, with pieces of arms and legs scattered all over. At the side of the road, a number of wounded are lying, moaning and crying; some men and women carry them into a nearby garden. Inside the garden there is a big house, but there is no trace of people living in it anymore.
A young woman with sharp eyes carrying an AK rifle comes out into the middle of the road; she raises her arm and speaks loudly:
“Comrades, carry the wounded into the garden; as for the corpses, gather them in one place.”
She repeats the order several times. Her voice is the first sound to be heard in the morning. Her loud talk seems to shake and break through a lot of doors, and it bursts inside the tightly locked houses. Her voice also makes the sounds of moaning and crying seem louder.
For a long time, groups of wounded people are being carried away. Another unit comes up from the bottom of the slope; still another group comes down the slope from the mountain. The young woman asks anxiously:
“How is it over there, comrades? Report the situation on the ground.”
“It’s all over now. The enemy has been silent since four o’clock in the morning.”
“I’ll be in charge of the wounded. A number of comrades who sacrificed their lives are entrusted into the care of Comrade X-10.”
“Up there are around a hundred wounded comrades.”
“Bring them up by the pagoda on the slope.”
“Under the bridge, there are more than fifty wounded; there are even more of those who sacrificed their lives.”
“Bring them to the garden; we will find a location to evacuate them.”
“There is some other news.”
“B-3 sent an order to the comrades to divide into groups and go into houses to prevent compatriots from running away and causing trouble. We must restore order this morning, right now.”
A lot of voices say: “Carry out the order.” People divide into groups and disperse. At once, there is no one left from the unit, except for several small groups of guards along the roads.
A young soldier with an AK on his shoulder wipes his forehead with his hand, even though there is not a single drop of sweat there at the moment. He waits until his comrades disappear and turns and goes toward a house in front of him.
A pathway from the gate leads to the house, which is rather far. The garden is dreary and screens an ancient house with a tiled roof. The young soldier hesitates, then knocks on the door.
But after knocking for a while and hearing no response, he leaves. “Strange, it is clear that there are still people living in the house,” the soldier mumbles. He crosses a wide courtyard and stops next to the water tank beside the golden apricot tree. All the houses look absolutely identical; each has a water tank, a rock garden, and a golden apricot tree. He looks carefully at the ground. There are a lot of traces of blood stretching all the way to a corner by the bamboo thicket. The soldier raises his arm and lightly shakes an apricot branch. He throws a glance at the house, then lets out a light sigh and goes away; he leans with his back against a pillar of the entrance gate and, with his gun at the ready, stands guard.
A moment later inside the house there are sounds of light steps going through a door. It’s still dark there. A silhouette of a man cautiously groping his way moves one step at a time. He approaches an ornate wooden bed. The corpse of a person lies there, covered by a sleeping mat. He lifts the mat and says in a low voice:
A woman, the man’s wife, comes over and stands behind the man. The man lifts his hand and closes the old man’s still glowering eyes, then says to the woman:
“Grandpa has passed away.”
The woman takes a step back, then bursts out crying. But then suddenly remembering something, she covers her mouth with her hand to stop herself; her eyes are open and scowl at the man. She looks panic-stricken and delirious. The man wipes his tears and then also tightly covers his own mouth to stop himself. Both of them enter into a small inner room. There are sounds of discreet whispering in the pitch-black darkness; a lot of people are lying and sitting, crawling and squatting:
“What, child, is it quiet outside now?”
“Sssh. Ask quietly, did you not hear he just knocked on that door!”
“Child, how’s your grandpa?”
The man presses his wife to sit down:
“Sit down – don’t stand anymore.”
The man sits down next to his wife.
His voice chokes with tears:
“Mother, Grandfather has passed away.”
The sounds of weeping about to burst out are suppressed. There are sounds of adults sobbing and of children in distress. The man stands up again:
“Enough – stop crying. If they hear, they will be here. Mother, Mother: don’t cry.”
But having said this, the man himself emits a small sound. He goes out of the room and peeps through a slit in the front door. A group of men and women are entering the courtyard. The man quietly comes back. The house is completely silent.
The sound of knocking on the door initially seems rather sporadic and then becomes more persistent. A male voice belonging to a person from a different area in Vietnam rises:
“Open the door. Open the door. The Liberation Army is here.”
Inside the small room, the woman holds tightly the hand of the man. Mother’s hand firmly covers a child’s mouth, in fear that he will moan or cry. The knocking on the outer door becomes stronger:
“Open the door. Open the door or we will shoot.”
A voice of a young man:
“Just now I knocked and knocked for a long time, but there was no one. Clearly they have all run away.”
“Absurd, where would they run in the night? No one has left the house yet.”
Then another voice, loud and dignified:
“I will count from one to three, and if you don’t open the door, I will shoot. Is there anyone in the house? One …”
The man’s wife pushes her husband toward the entrance door; she trembles so much that it produces a small noise. Outside, there are muffled laughs, followed by a loud call:
The man has gotten to the door; he raises his hands over his head:
“Yes, please sir, sirs, I implore you, sirs, implore you, sirs, I am opening, yes, I obey, let me open …”
“Ah, you got it. Open the door.”
The man trembles for a moment and then opens the door. A group of people pour into the house. There are approximately ten of them, some with rifles on their shoulders, others with haversacks. The eldest man among them has really big eyes and his face is very pale; he glances quickly throughout the house:
“Comrades, guard all entrances and exits.”
Several people go toward the windows. The face of the master of the house turns green, his legs and arms shiver, his teeth clatter, and he is barely able to say:
“I implore you, sirs; we are honest people.”
“Damn it, then why when we kept calling to open the door didn’t you open it? You’re creating a chance for puppets to flee, that’s why, isn’t it?”
“I implore you, sirs, I am too afraid.”
“There are not any ‘sirs’ here. We are the Liberation Army.”
“Yes, please sir.”
“Call all the people who are in the house to come over here. Quick!”
Then turning he says:
“Comrades. Open the windows.”
The light streams into the room clearly illuminating the face of an old man lying on an ornate bed of ebony wood. The sleeping mat previously wrapped around the corpse had opened, and a blanket covering the man is covered with dried blood. The senior person steps closer and looks into the face of the dead man, then he growls in a hoarse voice:
“He is already dead, isn’t he?”
“Yes, please sir.”
“Please sir, venerable sir … sir-liberator, since one am, a whole lot of blood has come out.”
“Comrades, let’s take the corpse outside into the garden; give me a hand here.”
Several men are about to gather around. The woman trembles all over:
“I entreat you, sirs, please sir, I entreat you sirs-liberators, please sir, allow us children to bury him.”
“Leave it to them.”
Several men approach the ebony ornate bed and then hesitate. One of them stares angrily around the room:
“Call everybody in the house to come in here. Everybody must come in. Anyone who doesn’t come in will be shot.”
First, several children come in, then a middle-aged woman and several young women and girls; one of the women carries a little child in her arms. Their faces all turn pale. The middle-aged man [senior among them] with a blue scarf barks out an order:
“You all stand in the corner.”
“Whoever is in there, please come out.”
There is nothing but silence. But the middle-aged man gives a sign with his eyes.
A few other liberators step up. A panel of the door from the inner room suddenly bursts open. A silhouette rushes out. A sound of a gunshot, dry and cold, cuts in. There is a shout outside of the window and sounds of women screaming. The middle-aged man snickers:
“Search this house very thoroughly.”
“Carry out the order!”
They all divide into groups and go to search the house; the old woman and the young woman carrying a child in her arms cover their faces, sobbing their hearts out. The faces of several young women turn pale, drained of the last drop of blood. A man tightly hugs a little lad climbing up onto him. After a while, the crowd of liberators searching the house return, and one of them says:
“There is nothing left here anymore.”
The middle-aged man jerks out his chin:
“Go see whether that guy has died.”
“Yes, sir: I’ve already looked; he’s dead.”
At once, many sounds of crying burst out. Several young female cadres crowd together; their bold looks that were apparent at first have now disappeared. One of them approaches the grieving young woman:
“Don’t be sad, elder sister – don’t be afraid. We only execute people who are guilty; as for regular citizens, it’s our duty to protect them.”
The young woman wipes her tears:
“He is my younger brother, he is. How’s he guilty?”
“Because he ran away. In our position, we have to act in self-defense.”
The middle-aged man throws a glance at the trembling pale faces. His voice is slow and monotonous:
“Mother and elder sister, don’t be afraid. We came here to give protection to our compatriots.”
The young woman who was crying suddenly stops short, dazed and confused. Several girls cuddle up with each other. There are sounds of feet running in from the gate. Two other liberators come in. They also have blue scarves around their necks. The middle-aged man asks:
“Is something wrong?”
One of the two says something in a very low voice directly into the senior’s ear. He nods his head in agreement, then turns around and says to the female cadres and several liberators:
“Comrades, stay here. And I will go with Comrade Thu up to Chùa hamlet.”
With the sound of feet moving out of the gate, a female cadre raises her hand:
“Comrades, we will stay here and prepare provisions, and then we will help with transporting the wounded and delivering supplies.”
“Comrade Xuân says the truth. Supplies will be delivered here soon.”
The female cadre named Xuân smiles, pats the young woman on the shoulder, and says intimately:
“Now, let me ask you, comrades, to help the master of the house to take care of the two dead bodies. Dear elder sister, this is …”
Xuân points at the old man’s corpse. The mother hastily responds instead of her daughter-in-law:
“Yes, please dear young aunt, this is their grandfather.”
Xuân waves her hand:
“Oh hell, Liberation Mother, I ask you, Liberation Mother, don’t call me ‘aunt.’ I ask you to consider me as your child, as you consider other women and men in your family who are here.”
When she finishes, Xuân turns to her friends:
“Now, Comrade Tiến and Comrade Bình, please help take care of the two corpses, the old man here and the young one, outside in the garden.”
Then, with the expression on her face changed to sorrow, Xuân turns again to the master of the house:
“It is indeed such a pity; what happened is not something that was intended. Please let me share your grief with you, Mother, and with you, elder brothers and sisters.”
The man of the house turns his face away, hiding tears rolling down. The bodies of the old man and of the youth are wrapped in sleeping mats and then taken out and buried in a shallow grave in a corner of the garden. A moment later, several female cadres befriend a few young women from the household, and the liberation soldiers divide up to go to the garden to guard and establish communications. Xuân talks with the old woman.
“Dear Mother, is there rice in your house?”
The old woman is very honest:
“Rice, there are two bags of it. It’s Tết, young lady. We even still have bánh tét, young aunt.”
“Mind you, Mother, please don’t call me ‘young lady’ anymore. Please address me as your child, like you address men and women from your family here.”
She laughs and continues:
“Perhaps in a few days the army will deliver provisions here. Mother, let us borrow two hundred kilograms of rice. In several days, when we completely take over the city of Hue, Uncle Hồ will come to visit us, and I will respectfully ask him to consider your case. Now, sign your name into Uncle Hồ’s golden register book.”
Xuân turns around and calls:
“Where is Comrade Nữ? Bring the register over here.”
The female cadre named Nữ is a chubby young woman, but her complexion is nevertheless pale. She promptly pulls out of her shirt a notebook and holds it out toward the old woman:
“Dear Mother, here it is. Please sign it, Mother.”
The old woman is trembling:
“Yes, I wish to, please madam, but I don’t know the letters; how can I sign there?”
Xuân laughs and tells several young women from Hue standing bunched together in the corner:
“Well then, you, elder sisters, jot down her name and then sign for her. Oh, let me jot her name down, it will also work. Please madam, dear Mother, what is your name? Yes, it’s done! Please, elder sister, sign here.”
A small young woman swiftly scribbles on a page in a scrawling handwriting. Nữ passes the notebook to Xuân. The old woman is silent, mopping her tears. Several young women are still standing bunched together in the corner, tightly holding each other’s hands; Xuân laughs:
“This afternoon we will celebrate the victory.”
Pieces of sun break into loose bits and gradually assemble again, but they are fickle, hiding in a sky full of clouds, fog, and cold wind.
Dots of blood mixed with dew scattered on the grass have dried, leaving purplish black traces. In the garden there are many marks of soil freshly dug for people’s graves. All the wounded are brought up to a pagoda, and female first-aiders demonstrate their abilities in dressing wounds. The joyous fresh looks that were on their faces in the morning have disappeared. Comrades from the Liberation Army dash about, guarding approaches to the roads or, divided up into groups, bursting into people’s houses.
At a T-junction, in an abandoned small tavern, some slightly wounded men sit, nursing their wounds. A young soldier named Thu, carrying a rifle, is on guard at the corner of the road. Next to a patch of grass where he sits, a puddle of someone’s blood has dried and several green flies buzz about randomly; now and then some of them cruise before his nose and want to stick to his face – he brushes them aside, completely absent-mindedly.
A number of houses are wide open, and people see male members of the Liberation Army along with female cadres enter them. From time to time, some children run out into a courtyard, and immediately an adult runs out to grab them and in panic rushes back into the house out of sight. The atmosphere is absolutely calm. Just last night the sound of gunfire shredded the sky and shook and destroyed houses; now all this noise has slipped away and disappeared along with the night shadows, but it has left the sun in shatters, and panic still firmly sticks to the ground covered with blood, to the broken-off tree branches, to the green leaves fallen and amassed in the gardens.
In all the houses people sit, huddling, in groups. They apprehensively look at the soldiers from the North, whom they are allowed to call the Liberation Army and who scurry around with expressions on their faces sometimes elated, sometimes grave and mysterious. People in the houses don’t dare answer any questions from this crowd of strange people.
People in the hamlet are also startled when they see a few of their neighbors, with whom only yesterday they exchanged Tết greetings, and this morning these same people are holding guns in their hands with red and blue scarves wrapped around their necks, looking back at them with threatening and haughty expressions in their eyes.
These people now openly go to visit their neighbors. A blacksmith who only last night was drunk and with a sniveling drawl got into an argument with several young women carrying water from the well now carries a gun and goes from house to house. When he meets someone, he is adorned with a big smile and brags:
“Compatriots, calm down, fellow villagers, calm down. In a few days, Venerable Hồ will come here, and then we will have a merry party to everybody’s hearts’ content.”
“For sure you didn’t know, uncle, did you? I have been following the Liberation Army for a long time. I have been underground and conducting guerrilla activities in the enemy’s rear.”
Everyone looks at the blacksmith with pale faces. Everyone is afraid; usually in the daytime this man was just a polite blacksmith, but most late afternoons he would get drunk, talk obscenely, and pick quarrels with children and young women carrying water. How can one know that he was not harboring grudges against many people in the hamlet? Several boys, children of a woman who sells pork in the market, excitedly show up, carrying guns for the liberation.
An old man, a beggar who usually sits in front of stalls that sell drinks, today has an extremely radiant face and goes around to all the houses propagandizing boisterously:
“Listen, the Liberation Army is here! I am so happy! I tell you all seriously, none of you has done anything here that I don’t know all about.”
This utterance sounds like a threat, and people shift their gazes from one to another, looking worried and sorrowful, unable to conceal their feelings anymore.
Closer to noon, the Liberation Army arrives and pushes everybody, down to the last person, outside, into the courtyards. The soldiers summon young males to go carry ammunition, young females to transport wounded. Everyone over fifteen must go; only mothers, whom they call “Liberation Mothers,” and women in childbirth and pregnant women, whom they call “Liberation Elder Sisters,” stay at home to help the liberation soldiers prepare food. Some wounded people unable to endure their suffering inhale their last breaths. But the Liberation Army does not bring them to be buried in the gardens anymore; it transfers them, following the groups of wounded people to the upper areas where the roads lead to Tây Thiên, up the stream to Thiên An, up to the imperial tombs. At noon, the doleful and silent houses nevertheless have steam and smoke, signs of mealtime.
A lot of sounds of crying burst out, tearing hearts apart. In many houses, a lot of people are dying from their wounds due to the lack of medicines and bandages. The young soldier Thu standing guard at the T-junction listens intently, then lights a cigarette. Several liberators in a nearby tavern are inquiring back and forth:
“Who is crying and where?”
“In some houses over there.”
“For sure there are dead people, right?”
“Just residents. Our army has transported all of ours.”
The soldier looks at a house hidden in a garden with trees and asks:
“Do you know what’s there?”
“The ancestor-worshipping house of Venerable Phan.”1
“A hero, a revolutionary, isn’t he?”
People in the tavern continue asking:
“We have taken over several posts, haven’t we?”
“I haven’t had any news about this yet.”
The young soldier is silent. The sounds of crying in many houses grow louder; he lights another cigarette, then frowns. He hesitates, then boldly approaches the closest house.
This is a thatched house located directly on the road near the T-junction guarded by the soldier. He comes close to the door and then looks inside the house. On a wooden plank bed is laid a dead body with its face upturned; the entire family swarm around it, moaning and crying. An old woman, another woman holding a child in her arms, and two young children crowd around the corpse: “Child, oh, child” … “husband, oh husband” … “Father, oh Father, oh Father.” Voices of the mother, of the wife, of the children of tender age tear the hearts of those who hear them. The North Vietnamese soldier, stunned and unable to act, reaches out his hand to lightly bang on the door.
The door is ajar; as soon as he stretches his hand to knock, it moves by itself and opens. He enters straight in. Two panic-stricken women look at him; several children stop crying. He comes close to see the dead body; it’s not one but two dead bodies. On the farther side of the man’s corpse there is also the corpse of a child, no older than three; its face is bruised and still sticky from being covered with blood. The old woman elbows her way to stand in front of the soldier as though shielding the dead bodies; her eyes look at the liberation soldier with a beseeching, pleading expression.
“Oh sir, everybody has died; there is no one for you here to arrest.”
The old woman points to the woman holding a small child in her arms:
“As for her, she has under her arm three children of tender age. Sir, please spare me and her …”
As soon as the old woman finishes, she bursts into tears; her daughter-in-law and small children, following her, start crying. The soldier looks around the house; the furniture reveals the family’s poverty: in the middle of the house is a wooden daybed, in the upper wing there is a table with chairs, behind the table and chairs is a small altar, and on the left side sits a bamboo bed. On the altar are several rice cakes, and several dishes with jam-filled cakes are left intact. On the wooden table covered with a piece of flashy-colored nylon is a vase with a branch of golden plum stuck into it. Several cups and several mugs are turned upside down on an aluminum tray. The soldier asks the old woman in a soft voice:
“Is this house yours, Mother?
“Yes, please sir, there are my children and grandchildren here, too.”
The woman points alternatively to both the dead and living people. The North Vietnamese soldier unwraps his scarf from his neck and covers the face of the man with it; then he pulls out a handkerchief and wipes away the dried bloodstains on the child’s face. He pulls a blanket and tightly covers the face of the little lad. Right at this moment there is a noise down in the kitchen, a sound of a bang on the door, then the face of a woman with her hair disheveled emerges from behind the door:
“Madam Bổng, do you have a bit of oil for me, just a tiny bit? Do you have a bit of the red medicine for me, just a tiny bit? She will die soon, Madam Bổng.”
The woman hurriedly comes into the house, sees the two dead bodies stretched out on the wooden plank bed, and then backs up:
“Oh heavens, what to do? What to do, oh heavens?”
The woman shifts her eyes and looks at the faces of all the people. When her eyes come to the liberation soldier, the woman raises her hand to her mouth, her already pale face now turning gray.
The old woman pushes the newcomer on the shoulder:
“Elder sister Trùm, go back. Don’t run back and forth anymore.”
The woman named Trùm trembles:
“Madam Bổng, do me a favor and give me please a bit of medicine for a compress for the child Bê’s wounds; a lot of blood streams out and she’s passed out.”
“Bê? Is she wounded?”
“She was wounded in the wee hours of the morning. Oh, Heaven and Earth, devil and spirits, my poor family, what have we done that Heaven inflicts such utter destruction on us like this? Oh heavens.”
Then looking at the two dead bodies, the woman finds the courage to say:
“Oh, Heaven and Earth, and what about Tanh with the little one? Why are their bodies like this, oh heavens!”
Hearing her neighbor’s lamentations, Tanh’s wife bursts into violent sobbing. The old woman takes the child from the arms of her daughter-in-law, her own mouth twisting, about to cry.
“That’s enough, child, go and fix a small bowl of rice, put a joss stick in the bowl for our dead ones, to honor them. Why such a woe on us? Oh heavens, incense has gone to ashes, the smoke is cold …”
“Who shot, who killed them?”
“Who knows, elder sister Trùm. I only know that my child and grandchild are dead.”
Trùm looks at the liberation soldier and suddenly realizes that the question she blurted out could be dangerous, and she says nothing more. But the soldier still absent-mindedly looks toward the altar. The incense has turned into ashes, and two candles burned almost to the end have been extinguished some time ago. A moment later, the soldier sees the woman hurrying down to the kitchen, and he says after her:
“If someone’s wounded, take her to the pagoda, and there the army’s first-aiders will dress the wounds.”
“Yes, I’ve already taken her over there, and they say there is not enough medicine for the Liberation Army.”
The woman disappears behind the kitchen. The sound of feet taking a roundabout route moves off toward the alley. The liberation soldier takes a look at the dead bodies one more time, then tells the old woman:
“That’s it, Mother, don’t cry anymore; it is unavoidable that people sacrifice their lives for our victory in the war.”
The old woman does not understand a word. The wife of the late man wipes her tears:
“Heavens, oh heavens, how will I and the kids live now? Oh heavens.”
The exploding sound of a gun – only a single sound – and then silence. The liberation soldier runs to the T-junction; he looks bewildered. Another liberation soldier guarding a house approximately ten meters away raises his hand and points to the shrubs on the side of the road. The young soldier sees a youth who tries to crawl into the road; he has been hit by a bullet, and his blood trails in long streaks on the ground. The young soldier runs to him. The arm of the youth is extended as though he wants to lift it, but he does not have enough strength and his arm falls on the ground with a thudding sound. His mouth gently moves, trying to articulate a couple of phrases, and then he turns over and stays motionless. The liberation soldier stands transfixed. The voice of his friend asks from a distance:
“Is he dead?”
The young soldier nods. He raises his hand to his neck as though he wants to feel his scarf, but it’s not there anymore since he used it to cover the dead man’s head in the house. He grips the collar of his shirt and firmly holds it. From behind his back approach two female cadres; seeing him stopped dead, they burst out laughing:
“Comrade Thu, what are you doing standing there? The place you have to guard is there, over at the T-junction. Go back to your post; perhaps this evening our army will retreat to the mountains.”
One of the young female cadres sees the corpse:
“What’s this? Who shot him? Was it you, comrade?”
A friend standing farther away shouts loudly:
“He wanted to escape. I saw him. He was behind the shrubs, so I opened fire.”
Another female cadre, seeing the corpse, laughs with disdain:
“This thug is awfully fat; he ate American butter and milk, that’s for sure.”
The young soldier stretches out his hands and looks at them, and then he goes back to his post. In another house there are sounds of moaning and crying:
“Help, I beg you, oh fellow villagers, my child, my child …”
No doubt another person has just died. Several heads stick out:
“What’s going on in that house over there?”
“How many people?”
The young soldier shows two fingers, then suddenly remembers and hastily adds another finger. From the tavern come loud voices:
“Thu, come in here to eat special Tết bánh chưng [glutinous rice cakes]. These are Hue rice cakes. Comrades, someone go replace Comrade Thu.”
The young soldier shakes his head and says:
There is a sound of running feet and some people, all of them women and children, run toward the place where the corpse lies in full view:
“Child, oh child, you went out, what did you do that they shot you, my child?”
The mother’s voice is heartrending. The liberation soldier comes by and asks:
“Is it your child, madam?”
“Yes, please sir, it’s my child.”
“Why was he not at home? What was he doing outside at this hour?”
“His younger sister was wounded and he went to seek banana sprouts and leaves to apply a compress for her.”
“Is it so?”
The soldier returns to his post. Several women and children crowd together, take the body of the youth into their arms, and, carrying it, disappear out of sight into a small alley. The friend standing guard across the way steps closer toward the soldier named Thu:
“Comrade, you have to uphold your vigilance. The upper ranks issued an order not allowing us to get close to and talk at random to the Hue residents; they are all lackeys, through and through, of the Americans and of their puppets.”
The two people both return to their old positions. From under the bridge a group of people come up carrying wounded. There are several girls from Hue, still very young, their faces pale; behind them are several liberation soldiers and female cadres. They walk fast, their faces taciturn. It is obvious that the young Hue girls are terrified and exhausted almost to death. People lie on stretchers, blood all over them. The young soldier goes toward the road and looks at each face of the wounded carried past him. When the last person gets close, the soldier clings to the stretcher:
The young person on the stretcher made of white cloth opens his listless eyes and looks at the face of the person who called him. The soldier named Thu bends down to the stretcher:
“They’ve got you.”
The wounded slightly parts his lips in anguish:
“I’m sure I will not survive. Thu, when you go back to the North, remember to let my parents know.”
He gives a sign to his friend to undo a silver chain hanging on his neck and says in a barely audible voice:
“Remember to give it to my mom, Thu.”
Thu hastily lets his friend’s hand go. The female cadre in the first-aid unit has raised her voice ordering the two young Hue girls who are working hard carrying the stretcher to go faster. The wounded tries to open his eyes wide to see his friend and attempts to extend his hand to wave but doesn’t have enough strength.
The soldier named Thu stands transfixed, looking at his friend being carried farther and farther away. His hand still firmly squeezes the silver chain. “Mịch,” he calls out loudly. But the stretcher has been carried far away; only the silver chain is left in his hand, and he lifts his hand to wipe his eyes as though shutting his friend’s eyes on his deathbed. From under the bridge another group comes up, also carrying wounded. Thu still squeezes the silver chain tightly in his hand and, as though hypnotized, looks at each stretcher carried past him. But he does not look at each wounded person’s face anymore.
Several young Hue girls walk even faster, passing by the muzzle of Thu’s rifle; it seems that they are afraid that some random bullet might fly and pierce their bodies. The soldier lets the muzzle tilt down toward the ground. In one of the windows from the house near the T-junction, located in a spacious area among trees and plants, Thu catches a glance from a pair of eyes looking very hesitantly. The soldier does not dare to look again; he is afraid that this pair of eyes will disappear. Those are eyes of a small young girl around fifteen or sixteen years of age. Behind her back there is a hand grabbing her by the shoulder:
A woman of around thirty years old determinedly pulls the young girl back from the window and whispers:
“Don’t look. They’ve just shot to death a person at the T-junction over there.”
The young girl pulls her head back around and sticks her tongue out.
“Elder sister, there is a Việt Cộng fellow, incredibly handsome, elder sister. He guards the T-junction.”
The woman resolutely drags her small younger sister away, scolding her:
“You are talking rubbish. Go back.”
The small young girl retreats from the window. The woman, holding in her arms a baby girl, stands at the door of a room and speaks to someone inside:
“Grandma, since the break of day a lot of dead bodies and wounded people have been carried past here; too many, Grandma.”
The old woman’s voice is shaky:
“Speak softly; come on in here and then talk.”
They all crowd together in the room. The older of the two young women speaks softly into the ear of the old woman:
“For sure they will soon have completely withdrawn up over there.”
“I hope so too.”
“In one day so many of them are dead, Grandma.”
“Certainly in the morning our army will have come up here. Clearly they [the Communist forces] are now preparing to withdraw, aren’t they?”
“No doubt that’s how it is.”
“Grandpa, has he been seen yet?”
“He’s still stranded in the Việt Cộng’s hands.”
The small girl suddenly leaves the room. In the room, her elder sister says in a really low voice:
“Don’t let Hợi go down. Grandma, in a moment you can take a handful of rice upstairs to feed him so that he doesn’t pass out.”
“When they come into the house, they will look up upstairs; I’m afraid to death that Hợi will be arrested.”
Outside, where the small girl is looking out, the North Vietnamese soldier still stands, watching several female cadres practicing riding a motorbike, pushing a Honda. Their hair is plaited and their trousers are rolled up above their knees.
The young girl watches two young female cadres pushing another one sitting on the motorbike; even though there are two people supporting it on both sides, the handlebar still turns back and forth.
The young cadres laugh and joke around cheerfully, but the young soldier doesn’t laugh. His face is gloomy and frozen; he looks down the slope where several women are running and crying for help:
“Save my child, I beg you, oh fellow villagers, I beg you. Save my husband, save my father.”
Several young female cadres scamper in front of the young soldier’s eyes, laughing and chattering:
“There are a whole lot of motorbikes here; after the victory we will have them to use.”
One of them says loudly:
“Comrade Thu is too zealous, isn’t he?”
The young woman imitates the Hue dialect, which is very difficult to understand. The young soldier Thu frowns. He looks sideways at the house in front of him. The small young girl hastily pulls her head back inside. Incomprehensibly, either out of anger or sadness, Thu lifts his rifle and aims at tree trunks in front of him as though he wants to shoot. No sound of a bullet explodes. The female cadres laugh conciliatorily, and in a flash they’ve gone halfway down the slope.
A dog, its body sticky with dried blood, shuffles its feet out from the brush; the liberation soldier picks up a stone and hurls it sharply at the dog. Hit in one of its legs, the dog is still able to run on the other three legs but can make only a short distance, and then it crawls and eventually lies flat in one place. The soldier comes closer to it and lifts his rifle to the animal’s head, intending to shoot, but no sound of explosion comes out. The dog sticks out its tongue; its mouth is full of saliva, and its eyes look up watching the person standing in front of it. The light in the animal’s eyes makes the soldier quickly turn around and return to his post. Several female cadres turn around and come back up, passing in front of the young soldier. Some other cadres continue to strenuously push the female cadre sitting on the motorbike; her forehead looks like it’s been sprayed with sweat, but her face is still extremely cheerful.
Never has the city of Hue had such an atmosphere filled with death and panic. Dead bodies along with wounded soldiers have been taken up into the mountains. But each hour in each hamlet, some wounded people in the absence of medicine die. From morning till afternoon, crying bursts out, resounding from one house to another. The sounds of crying spread very quickly, catching like an epidemic. Amid death, pain, and sadness, joy spreads also like an epidemic among the liberation soldiers. In the morning, they were still cautious of the local residents, but by noon, by afternoon, an internal order was very quickly transmitted by word of mouth and they have changed their behavior, turning into modest and courageous fighters, sympathetic to the people, easily and harmoniously coexisting with them.
Bags of rice together with bánh tét, bánh chưng, and mứt bánh [cakes filled with jam] collected from people’s houses during the several days after Tết are now brought to the courtyards to be piled up on trucks to transport them to the upper areas, but, according to the liberation soldiers, they borrow all this only temporarily for the Liberation Army. In several days, when everything is finally settled in the city, rice will be dirt cheap – no exorbitant prices like those of the American puppets, who sold a bag of rice for as high as a thousand dongs. They also appeal to those whose houses have a “three-stick flag” (the three-stick flag is a flag of Vietnam, yellow with three red stripes);2 they have to bring it out and burn it and replace it with the flag of the liberation, the flag of Uncle Hồ. Anyone who still has rice or cakes must bring them out to present to the Liberation Army; they make a special notebook to register residents’ property so that in several more days, when Venerable Hồ comes, he will repay appropriately for the favor.
They also call on young people not to flee; instead, they must report themselves to receive a pardon. Funeral homes must make sacrifices to help compatriots in distress take care of interring those who are dead. No one is allowed to leave one’s residential area. In the garden of every house, people bury their kin. They also heighten vigilance; residents are not allowed to go outside and are not allowed to assemble unless they receive permission from the Liberation Army, and then they can go only for studying and training.
Throughout the day, the female cadres seek acquaintance with one household after another to inquire about the state of the inhabitants; they get to know men and women of all ages. Old women who were just looked upon as evil spirits now have the title of Liberation Mother conferred upon them; younger women are now called Liberation Elder Sisters. All adults receive them [Communist cadres] with doubt and caution in their eyes, but children seem very elated. It’s been only since the morning that the Communists forces were around, but children have already gathered around the female cadres and the soldiers. They are delighted to closely follow the motorbike antics of the female cadres or to assemble around the soldiers. In each house, members of the Liberation Army come to inquire, and they cook rice or eat and drink right there in the houses. Strong and healthy young girls are “borrowed” to cook rice for the soldiers. Young males, adolescents of fourteen or fifteen years old, are “borrowed” to carry guns and ammunition and are issued guns for themselves; they are divided into groups to help soldiers who are about to organize training sessions.
On the first day, a lot of young males and adult men hid themselves in the corners of rooms or in the lofts of houses. But by the second day, many people heard that the liberators called those hiding to come out to report themselves: “Whoever is in that house, we will never dare to touch a resident; we certainly are people’s friends.” This is a refrain that the liberators keep repeating. Although all areas are forbidden to communicate with each other, people in a few neighboring houses have been able to inquire about some things, and a whole lot of rumors are circulating around. For instance, by noon of the second day, a lot of people hear that the most luxurious and elegant car of an American advisor in Hue was confiscated and a high-ranking Việt Cộng commander drove it all over the city. Another piece of news says that a lot of military vehicles driven by liberation soldiers are on the streets and the roads, loaded with bánh chưng, bánh tét, and bags of rice. The liberation soldiers are increasingly joyous; they inquire of the people and, if some woman mentions these rumors to them, they laugh with confidence.
“The Liberation Army has already occupied Hue; now we are trying to hold it to restore order. We are waiting until the fighting is finished in the provinces, and then there will be peace.”
A lot of people are stunned by these revelations. They would listen to the radio but for the fact that the liberation soldiers have requisitioned every radio in every house down to the last one. They confiscate and say that at this time compatriots need to hear only what the Liberation Army has to say because the Americans and their puppets can spread false news to make the masses confused. A lot of people manage to conceal their radios, but they don’t dare to turn them on to listen anymore. People in houses that have dead relatives look for cloth to wind around their heads as mourning bands; from some houses the scent and smoke of incense floats out before the completely indifferent eyes of the liberation cadres, who indulge themselves in eating and drinking. Each and every family had put aside enough provisions for the celebration of Tết. But then as the second day and the third day pass, they run out of meat, and only some houses furtively fix pork or chicken. The Liberation Army finagles its way to find out where to buy people’s property dirt-cheap. Then, on the third day, they organize assemblies: in the morning for young women and in the afternoon for young men. At the same time, they pull back the army to concentrate in several places, temporarily leaving the houses of common residents, but at any time the cadres still worm their way into each house under the pretext that they come to visit.
The first study sessions are organized in a spacious pagoda or in schools. People can’t help but be surprised when they see people’s representatives appear in one house after another. These people only yesterday were a cyclo driver or an old drunkard vegetating in his hopeless circumstances, and now they are leaders of their hamlets. The common residents also can’t help but be surprised when they hear loud laughter among some people who just several days ago looked absolutely lethargic but now have turned into extremely animated personalities; on the hamlet’s roads they walk, calling upon people and propagandizing for the Liberation Army.
On the afternoon of the second day, the third day of Tết, there are several areas that have witnessed the scenes of punishment of the guilty. A number of people in the hamlet have been arrested and condemned as followers of the armies of the Americans and their puppets. They are brought into a school, and young people, both male and female, are gathered in groups there. The familiar faces are of people who had been assigned to live in areas occupied by their enemies, and they are now authorized to judge the accused people. Verdicts are reached in a hurry. Many sentenced people are led away, then immediately in the afternoon of the same day rumors spread that those people have been executed. No one has regained composure yet from the night of the first day of Tết when guns exploded horribly and in the morning people opened their eyes to see plenty of blood and dead bodies; they thus now start to be afraid because of the Liberation Army’s search-arrest-hold-a-trial operations. Even though the Communists outwardly appear to be very kind to the inhabitants, at the same time they launch arrests and trials. Schools, preschool establishments, pagodas, churches, any other places of worship – they are all turned into locations for assemblies and for the people’s courts.
From time to time there are sounds of gunfire, scattered or in a salvo. All the people, like wounded birds, quickly drop to the ground and swiftly creep under tables or plank beds. Children have also gotten used to the atmosphere of tension and fright – they have seen blood and death and thus when they hear the sound of gunfire there is no need for anyone to remind and admonish them to run; they look for adults and hold on to them tightly, or they lie with their faces pressed to the ground. But the sound of gunfire is now sporadic, and in the long silences there is nothing but the sounds of the liberators laughing and talking in the streets and in taverns.
Night falls and outside the air is silent and tranquil to the point of taking one’s breath away; people hear the sound of owls hooting. The sound of hooting owls fills the entire city. People are in disbelief because, amid bombs and in the atmosphere reeking of the cold stench of death, a flock of owls dares to return to stir up a disturbance in the paralyzed city. Are these the sounds of owls or of people exchanging secret signals and thus hooting in the night? People stop breathing and wait; they don’t know whether or not what they are waiting for will arrive, but the premonition is that there will be nonetheless a number of unfortunate and miserable events ahead. Husbands suddenly look at their wives with more love and tenderness; mothers hug their small children as though they are afraid that they will disappear. Grass and trees, houses, people, domestic animals suddenly seem to feel a bond that is hard to describe.
People are unable to learn anything besides the news transmitted by the female cadres and the propagandist-liberators. During assembly sessions, a lot of old men report in a detailed manner on the news. Young women go to assemble, and when they come back they say that an old man who sells cháo lòng – pork stomach porridge – was elected to be chairman of the training sessions; he opens gatherings and usually talks about the war situation in the country. Not only illiterate but also not accustomed to speaking, he usually gets the names of radio stations wrong and incorrectly uses terms, but no one dares to set him right or to laugh. He discusses news about the fighting and always starts by saying: “According to the radio stations A, B, and C, the Liberation Army has occupied Saigon and other cities and provinces. The Liberation Army is complete master of the situation.” At each gathering the man chews these phrases over and over. Young male students exchange secret signs. Young women look with bewilderment at each other. It is rare to hear a talk that would bring such a good laugh, but at this moment no one dares to laugh. The gatherings are ostensibly mandatory, yet people whisper into each other’s ears wondering how it is that fewer and fewer young males and adult men show up without the cadres noticing.
By the afternoon of the second day, the atmosphere of elation among the liberation comrades is losing its ebullience. After a tailor suspected of being a liaison for the American puppets is killed and his corpse is tossed out for display at the T-junction and after two young people in a small shelter are shot on mere accusations of evading the Liberation Army, the female cadres are completely withdrawn to appointed places to stand ready and are no longer on duty to visit people’s houses. From that day on, scattered sounds of gunfire begin to explode in remote areas and return to the right bank of the river.
The liberators talk among themselves about an American tank coming up to reconnoiter in the area of the National Highway; possibly there will be a violent fight. But the source of this information is not reliable at all; in several areas there are liberators who loudly announce:
“Young males and adult men take care to prepare fifteen-day stocks of rice to go and take part in a study group to learn about the policies of the Liberation Army.”
The Communist forces dig underground shelters and foxholes, and they transport weapons. The tension in the air escalates. Out on the streets, in the gardens, and at the entrances to narrow lanes resound the sounds of shovels and hoes as the liberators dig underground shelters.
Young males and adult men begin to look for places to hide; faces, young and old, stick out from behind the shutters of open windows to watch liberators with determined faces digging underground shelters – no one dares to chat merrily anymore as they did just several hours ago.
The night of the third day comes, and the entire city is suddenly awakened by flares and artillery. The soldiers and female cadres are no longer seen anywhere; they, like ghosts, have slipped away into the darkness of the night. People hear only sounds of moaning and crying that have become familiar since the night of the first day of Tết. Nobody has had time to dig underground shelters to avoid the bombs; this night the areas of Từ Đàm and of the royal Citadel, Gia Hội, and Kim Long endure the heaviest artillery fire.
The following morning, people hurriedly dig underground shelters for themselves. They dig them right in their courtyards, in their gardens, or right inside their houses. Liberators stand guard only sparsely at the intersections of roads. Residents spill out into the roads, inquiring in one house after another. Some families quarrel about evacuation, but liberators stand guard at the crossroads and signal that no one at all is allowed to leave. In a rush people dig underground shelters; all the windows, the iron gates – everything is dismantled to build underground shelters. At some houses without enough materials, people go out to lumberyards or chop down bamboo.
At some lumberyards, in a flash there is not a single board left. In the absence of boards, people take even coffins and coffin lids to carry back home and prop up the earthen ceilings of underground shelters. There are houses that have already dug underground shelters, and when the entire household goes down to hide, they feel that it’s too cramped so they dismantle and redo the shelter. By noon artillery fire intensifies, and some people eating their meals abandon their food and slip down to the shelters. Liberators slip down into foxholes. They are not in the people’s houses anymore, but when there are sounds of gunfire, they, out of nowhere, overflow the gardens and the roads, and they camouflage the foxholes.
When the sound of gunfire temporarily stops, the digging of underground shelters resumes. Several groups quarrel with each other, cursing each other while fighting for boards in lumberyards or for soil and sand. Shelling comes suddenly, without notice, leaving a number of residents and soldiers of the Liberation Army killed or wounded. The liberators again enter each house to seize young men and women as transporters up to the mountains. People are in a pandemonium, and rumors spread that they [the Communist forces] are establishing their headquarters over there. On the left bank, the headquarters is established at Gia Hội School. In this area, the liberators’ activities are more enthusiastic; even though artillery intensifies, they still organize study and training sessions. In the Citadel, where the royal palaces are located, the Liberation Army takes over completely. There are cadres who stay behind in the enemy’s rear and young people who have been missing for a long time who suddenly reappear. They wear armbands and take charge to scour each house, looking for guilty ones. Several hot pursuits end in arrests. Several people are shot and fall in the middle of the road; their corpses are left there, and nobody dares to go and bury them. There are corpses that have started to smell, blood stagnates and dries up, stenches spread, and swarms of flies mass around; it looks absolutely terrifying.
The days began when Hue opened the door to hell.
This chapter is an account based on stories told to the author by various people she encountered during her time in Hue during the Tết Offensive.
1. Phan Bội Châu (1867–1940) was a prominent twentieth-century Vietnamese nationalist who advocated independence from French colonial domination and favored emulation of Japan in its ability to successfully transform itself from a backward agrarian feudal society in the middle of the nineteenth century into a modernized state that emerged victorious in both the Sino-Japanese War (1894–95) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905).
2. A derogatory term used by Communists to refer to the South Vietnamese flag because the expression “three sticks” in Vietnamese bears a strong negative connotation. According to the author, when she was writing the book this term was not yet widely known, and thus she included an explanation in parentheses.