MOURING HEADBEAND FOR HUE
Mourning Headband for Hue is a personal account of what happened in Hue during the month-long occupation of parts of the city by communist troops during the 1968 Tết Offensive, a very bloody episode of the Vietnam War that inflicted extremely heavy losses on the civilian population in both human and material terms.
Stranded in Hue where she had come to visit her family, the author found herself face-to-face with the war…. Horrified, she recounts her experiences day by day as if weeping and wailing in the remembrance of the atrocities she has seen and heard. It is indeed a book laden with blood; sweat, and tears but records events without distorting them. With explanatory information on many persons and events provided by the translator, the book is a valuable document for the history of the Vietnam War.
NGUYEN THE ANH, Rector of Hue University at the time of the events described in this book; professor emeritus, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris-Sorbonne; and author most recently of Vietnam: A Journey into History (in French)
MOURNING HEADBAND FOR HUE
An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968
Translated and with an Introduction by Olga Dror
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS Bloomington & Indianapolis
Frontis: Nhã Ca with a mourning headband, at her father’s funeral on the eve of the Tết Offensive in Hue.
This book is a co-publication of
INDIANA UNIVERSITY PRESS Office of Scholarly Publishing Herman B Wells Library 350 1320 East 10th Street Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA iupress.indiana.edu Telephone 800-842-6796 Fax 812-855-7931
© 2014 by Nhã Ca (Trần Thị Thu Vân) and Việt Báo Daily News, Inc.
English translation of Giải khăn sô cho Huế © 1969 by Nhã Ca (Trần Thị Thu Vần) Translation © 2014 by Olga Dror
All rights reserved
No part of this book maybe reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical; including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. The Association of American University Presses’ Resolution on Permissions constitutes the only exception to this prohibition.
∞ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences-Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.
Manufactured in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nhã Ca, [date] author.
[Giải khăn sô cho Huế. English] Mourning headband for Hue 5 an account of the battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968 / Nhã Ca I translated and with an introduction by Olga Dror. pages cm
Includes bibliographical references. ISBN 978-0-253-01417-7 (cloth: alk. paper) – ISBN 978-0-253-01432-0 (ebook) 1. Nhã Ca, [date] 2. Vietnam War, 1961-1975-Personal narratives, Vietnamese. 3. Vietnam War, 1961- 1975 – Campaigns – Vietnam – Huế.
4. Tet Offensive, 1968.1. Dror, Olga, translator, writer of introduction.
II. Nhã Ca, [date] Giải khăn sô cho Huế. Translation of: III. Title. DSS59.S.NS96132014 959.704 3092-dc23
2014005693 12345 19 18 17 16 15 14
In Vietnam, when a person dies, the family members tie a white crepe mourning band around their heads.
THE WORK YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ; GIẢI KHĂN sô CHO HUE (Mourning Headband for Hue), was written by a prominent South Vietnamese female writer, Nhã Ca, and is an account of events as seen through her own eyes and the eyes of other civilians caught in the midst of the Tết Offensive in the city of Hue between January 30 and February 28,19 68.
In the course of my work on Mourning Headbandfor Hue, I consulted with many Vietnamese who were on both sides of the war and who in its aftermath have held different views about the book, and this has afforded to me a more inclusive, if not comprehensive, perspective on Nhã Ca’s work and the events in Hue during the Tết offensive. Some of the people I consulted are mentioned by name in my introduction, and I would like to express here my sincere appreciation for their willingness to share their views. The names of the others I do not provide, not out of disrespect but in honoring their wishes, as the events in Hue during 1968 are still a highly sensitive topic both in Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora. While for the readers they remain anonymous, I warmly remember all of them as a great source of encouragement for my work and of knowledge about the country and the language. I also felt their love for their country and for their countrymen, whether in Vietnam or overseas.
I benefited from anonymous reviewers who supported the publication and who drew my attention to the places that could be improved.
Shawn McHale of George Washington University, Patricia PelJey of Texas Tech University, and Dale Baum, Terry Anderson, and Brian Rouleau, my colleagues at Texas A&M, read and commented on my work at various stages, lending their kind hearts and sharp eyes and significantly improving the manuscript. Peter Zinoman of the University of California, Berkeley, has been a strong supporter of the project, its careful reader, and a treasury of excellent advice.
I found a most patient and engaged ally in Robert Sloan, the editor- in-chief of Indiana University Press. He guided me gently but firmly through the entire process. Michelle Sybert very effectively managed the production of the book. In Julie Bush I found an extremely thorough and astute editor who not only improved my English rendition of Nhã Ca’s work but also identified my typos in Vietnamese without knowing the language – not a small feat. Her ability to do this will always remain a mystery to me and is proof of her excellent editorial work.
My parents, Ella Levitskaya and Alexander Massarsky, and my grandmother, Olga Zhivotovskaya, all lived and suffered through World War II in St. Petersburg; Russia. They have always been a source of strength and inspiration for me. Their lives, as well as the lives of my other close relatives who lived through the war ignited my desire to better understand the experience of civilians in wartime. In many ways my work on this book is a legacy of their influence on me. My son, Michael Dror, read portions of the translation and helped me to clarify my introduction, posing pertinent and well-focused questions. My husband; Keith Taylor of Cornell University and a veteran of the war in Vietnam; was and is always there for me and for the translation, and perhaps he knows it already by heart; he also made the map.
Finally, my deepest gratitude goes to Nhã Ca, the author OỈMourning Headband for Hue, and her husband, poet Trần Dạ Từ, for their generous cooperation and willingness to share with me their painful memories of the war.
All the mistakes are mine.
NOTE ON TRANSLATION
WHATEVER PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THE WAR IN VIETNAM, MOST agree that in many ways Americans appropriated that war and very often did not try to understand their Vietnamese allies and opponents. Thus, my main goal in translating Mourning Headband for Hue was not to misappropriate Nhã Ca’s work by turning it into an American wartime horror story with Vietnamese names but rather to give readers a chance to hear otherwise silenced Vietnamese voices. To achieve this, I tried to stay as close as possible to Nhã Ca’s original work while at the same time not forgetting that it should be easily accessible for English-speaking readers. This proved to be a difficult task. I often consulted with Nhã Ca to be sure that I did not violate her intent. She helped me with amazing grace and patience.
The work was written In 1969; in the midst of war, with the author still in a state of shock. Thus, there were some points in her writing that needed clarification. I intentionally chose to translate the original 1969 edition so that I could work with the unadulterated voice from the time of the war, the version written shortly after the events of the 1968 Tết offensive and the tragedy of Hue took place, not the later, perhaps slightly edited, version that was published in the United States in 2008 on the fortieth anniversary of the events described in Mourning Headband for Hue. As requested by the author, I made some minor corrections in the text, and they should not be perceived as mistranslation. I also made necessary clarifications because of the Vietnamese grammar or because of some confusion that became apparent during translation. In addition, with the permission of the author, I reordered chapters 3 and 4 for the sake of the flow of the narrative.
I attempted to stay faithful to the Vietnamese spirit and idiom of the work. I found it to be important to keep, at least partially, the Vietnamese system of personal pronouns when people address each other because the Vietnamese language does not have a simple “you.” Unlike in English, Vietnamese pronouns reflect the structure of society and a constant awareness of one s position vis-à-vis other people, be it at work, with neighbors, or within a family. Thats why the “you” on the following pages will be in such forms as “elder brother/’ “elder sister/ “aunt/ and “uncle” but also in compounds like “I and my sister/ in which the word order will immediately indicate that the person calling himself or herself “I” in any situation is older or holds a more important status in age or position than the other person being mentioned. There is nothing denigrating or even impolite in these pecking orders. On the contrary, all these elements highlight the intensity of human relations on which the account is based and which give some semblance of order amid the chaos of war.
While I have adjusted certain features of the original to increase its accessibility to readers of English; I have retained other aspects that may seem odd or stilted in certain respects but that nevertheless help to convey the strangeness of encountering not only another culture but also a society directly experiencing the terrible fear and violence of war. For example, the original contains very few exclamation points. Some readers may imagine that this book should be studded with exclamation points, but adding them not only would disfigure the translation with emphases not in the original but also would remove the understated quality of the author’s voice as she narrates horrific events that had become everyday occurrences. The entire text is an exclamation point; and to use exclamation points would simply imply that there is something in the text not needing such punctuation.
These and some other elements hopefully help to preserve Mourning Headband for Hue as a faithful document of wartime Vietnamese culture and history and to establish it as a necessary text for a better understanding of the Tết Offensive and of the war in Vietnam from a voice of that time. Many dozens of people come to life (and die) on the pages of book; some of them remain anonymous while others are identified. I provide a list of the recurring names before the beginning of the translation to assure an easier comprehension of the work.
Quite often Nhả Ca uses the pronoun “they” or an equivalent. In most cases it refers to the Communist forces. As she wrote in the book: “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?” While it was apparently clear at the time to the Vietnamese to whom she referred in such cases, it is not always as clear in translation. Thus, to avoid possible confusion in ambiguous contexts, I clarified in brackets to whom reference is being made. I used “the Communist forces” to identify the Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese Army and “the Nationalists” for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and its supporting units, for whom Nhã Ca uses the term lính Qụốc gia. This term is distinct from the term translated into English as the Armed Forces of South Vietnam (ARV N). Quốc gia has different meanings: “country/” “state,” “national,” or “nationalist” as, for example, in the expression chủ nghĩa quốc gia— “nationalism.” I could not use the term “state” because Nhã Ca uses it as an adjective in expressions such as xác [corpses] Quốc gia, referring to the corpses of the people from the South Vietnamese anti-communist forces. Moreover, North Vietnamese forces were also state forces. I also wanted to avoid the confusion between the Communist forces in the South known in English as the National Liberation Front and members of the anti-communist forces of the Republic of Vietnam, who considered themselves to be nationalists. Thus, referring to South Vietnamese forces I use the term “nationalist.”
After much deliberation and consultation, I decided to keep Vietnamese script with diacritical marks in the text for a number of reasons. First, I hope that it will help to preserve some of the Vietnamese spirit. Second, for those who know Vietnamese, it will be easier to identify people and places as they know them. Third, the diacritics will not prevent those who do not know Vietnamese from engaging with the text. They can be disregarded in most cases; however, sometimes they are important as most Vietnamese are mentioned here only by their personal names, and some of these personal names, while pronounced differently (for example, Lễ and Lê), look identical in print without diacritics, thus causing confusion. Including diacritics also precludes instances of similarity, in the absence of diacritics, between English and Vietnamese monosyllabic words. For example, the often-mentioned Vietnamese name “Bé,” when occurring without its diacritic as the first word in a translated sentence, might cause confusion about whether it is a Vietnamese name or an English verb. As an exception, I dispensed with diacritics for the names of two cities – Hue and Saigon – as they are already firmly rooted in the English language in this form.
Working on this project, I envisioned myself as merely a conduit for Nhã Ca’s voice and, through her, for the voices of the people of Hue at the time of the Tết Offensive. It was a hard and exhilarating task as the amount of information that can be and should be brought to light and that I read; heard; and collected is overwhelming. In order to keep my focus on her work, I have tried to stay as concise as possible in my introduction to the work so that it will provide only necessary information and not turn into a thorough study of the Tết Offensive, the Hue massacre, or the general situation in the South.
Each of these subjects deserves separate study, and while some aspects of them are covered extensively elsewhere, others still wait their turn. This project is not about these topics. My aim is to bring into English, for the first time, the voice of one of the best South Vietnamese writers who, along with her countrymen, lived through the nightmare of war: the nightmare of Hue during the Tết offensive.
In the notes to my introduction, I have attempted to give a significant number of references to English-language sources for those readers who do not know Vietnamese but would like to read further on the subjects touched on in the book.
THE AUTHOR AND HER WORK
He: How beautiful you are, my darling!
Oh, how beautiful!
Your eyes behind your veil are doves.
Your hair is like a flock of goats
descending from the hills of Gilead—
She: Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you- if you find my beloved, what will you tell him?
Tell him I am faint with love.
Song of Solomon 4:1, s:8 (NIV)
What do these poetic verses from the Song of Solomon have to do with the book you are about to read? Is there any connection between the hills of Gilead, a mountainous area near the Jordan River and Jerusalem, and the hills surrounding the Perfume River and the city of Hue? As you will see below, the connection is with the author of Giải khân sô cho Huế (Mourning Headband for Hue), Nhã Ca. Nhã Ca, meaning “courteous, elegant song” in Vietnamese, is the pen name of one of the most famous Vietnamese writers of the second half of the twentieth century.1 Her real name is Trần Thị Thu Vân. she was born on October 20,1939, in Hue and spent her youth there. Her father, Trần Vĩnh Phú, worked for the office of Public Works in Hue and was a leading figure in one of the Buddhist communities of Hue. A middle child of a devout Buddhist family, she grew up in and among different Buddhist pagodas, closely acquainted with many dignitaries of Vietnamese Buddhism.2 She attended Đồng Khánh School; which she mentions in the account, and while there she started to publish poetry and short stories under her real name in some literary magazines in Saigon, most notably in the newspaper Văn Nghệ Học Sinh (Student Literature and Arts). This newspaper was established by a group of students from the North who had relocated to the South after the partition of the country in 1954. Among those who published in it were future famous writers and poets Dương Nghiễm Mậu, Lê Tẫt Điều, Lê Đình Điểu, Nguyễn Thụy Long, Đỗ Quí Toàn, Viên Linh/ Nhã Cas future husband Trần Dạ Từ (b. 1940); and a number of others. In 1956 Nhã Ca saw this newspaper in a bookstore in Hue and established a connection with it.
In 1959 Trần Thị Thu Vân left Hue for Saigon and started her writing career. There she published in a variety of different magazines. In i960, while reading the old Testament translated into Vietnamese; this young woman, although raised as a Buddhist; was immensely impressed by the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, also known in its Catholic version as the Canticle of Canticles-one of the most poetic books in the Bible – pulsating with passion between its protagonists, a man and a woman. The word “canticle” was translated into Vietnamese as nhã ca. The love, passion; longing; and poetic power that permeated each word mesmerized and overwhelmed Trần Thị Thu Vân, so much so that she decided to take the word “canticle” as her pen name. Thus, the author Nhã Ca was born. From i960 Nhã Ca’s poems and short stories were published in South Vietnam’s leading literary magazines. In 1963 she founded a short-lived weekly newspaper, Ngàn Khơi (Forests and Seas). She also worked at a number of the most popular newspapers in the South; such as Hiện Đại (Modernity), Văn (Literature), Dân Việt (Vietnamese People), Sống (Life), Hòa Bình (Peace), and Độc Lập (Independence). She also associated with members of a group that published a literary journal called Sáng Tạo (Creativity).
Indeed, until the mid-1960s Nhã Ca stayed away from political topics and focused her writings on love, passion, and longing. Many other authors wrote along similar lines. The literary scene in the South; especially after the overthrow of President Ngô Đình Diệm in 1963; presented a wide palette of publications. More than a hundred privately owned newspapers, magazines, and journals were published at that time; some of them survived only a few months while others found a significant readership that followed them for years. According to Neil Jamieson, “There were nearly 700,000 copies of Vietnamese-language newspapers printed daily in Saigon.”4 Though the contemporary Vietnamese publishers I consulted think that this number is exaggerated; this vibrancy, the lack of which was evident in the North at the time with but a few newspapers and extremely tight censorship, demonstrated the relative freedom in the South. The predominant feature of many literary works of the time revealed that the war did not “seem to have [found] its way into literature and the arts…. The favorite theme of the great majority of poetic and prose works is love.”5
Nhã Ca’s first book, published in 1965, is a collection of poems called Nhã ca mới (New Canticles). An instant and huge success, it describes the joys and sorrows of a woman’s life through Nhã Ca’s exploration of her own feelings and experiences; this book recieved a National Literature Award for poetry in 19 66.6 The same year, she started working for the Voice of Freedom radio that transmitted programs into North Vietnam. Nhã Ca was a staff writer and also in charge of some music programs and programs focusing on women. She included no politics in her writings there, either. Nevertheless, her focus started to steadily shift. While women and their feelings still played an important role in her writings; family became more prominent in her work, which she began to situate within the intensifying war. Moreover, Nhã Ca began to explore new genres, including longer works of prose.
In 1966 her first novella, Đêm nghe tiếng đại bác (At Night I Hear Cannons), appeared and became a best seller. Reprinted six times and selling over 100,000 copies, it describes the plight of a family waiting in vain for their young male members-a son and a son-in-law-to come back from the front to celebrate the most important Vietnamese holiday, the Lunar New Year called Tết. The son of the family was killed and the son-in-law went missing.7
In At Night I Hear Cannons, Nhã Ca sided with neither political faction in the ongoing conflict. She stood for the family. Even as prose, this work was her canticle for perseverance, for human love, for family. But it also lamented the situation that put the family into these unbearable circumstances of hope and despair caused by the civil and international war ravaging her country. Nhã Ca’s voice became more powerful in her next work, Mourning Headband for Hue.
By 1968 Nhã Ca and her husband; fellow poet Trần Dạ Từ, had been married for seven years. They had two young children and lived in Saigon. Their success as authors afforded them financial freedom with a very comfortable life in an affluent neighborhood. On January 25, 1968, Nhã Ca’s father died in her native city of Hue and she left for his funeral, which took place on January 29. The next day the Communists attacked, beginning the Tết Offensive.8 Nhã Ca was stranded in Hue during battles that lasted for almost the entire month of February. Her experiences and the experiences of those around her in Hue shocked her. Longing for peace, she decried the war in the book she completed in November 1968 with the title that speaks for itself, Một mai khi hòa bình (One Day When There Is Peace). In 1969 she wrote almost simultaneously three works about Hue: a collection of stories, Tình ca cho Huế đổ nát (A Love Song for Destroyed Hue), and a sequel to it titled Tình ca trong lửa đỏ (A Love Song in the Fire).9 The latter is a story of love between a South Vietnamese girl and a North Vietnamese soldier. Bringing these two people together, Nhã Ca again demonstrated her faith in a shared humanity that could transcend political difference and put an end to the atrocious war. It was also in 1969 that she wrote Mourning Headband for Hue.
All people and events in this work are real. Nhã Ca either witnessed the events she described or heard about them from people she encountered during the ordeal. It is an account or a collection of accounts written in the wake of the tragic events.
Mourning Headband for Hue is infused with a plaintive love for the city of Hue, for its people, for the country of Vietnam, and for life itself. In its language, however, it is very different from the poetry of a song; its staccato tempo fires at the reader like the machine guns used in Hue in February 1968. The frequent repetition of the same words, compounds, and phrases create a rhythm of both monotony and anxiety, dramatically and palpably reflecting life in raw and desperate eloquence in the middle of the battlefield that was Hue. Each day, day after day, people struggled to survive; they fled from one place to another; they searched for food and shelter; they buried the dead; always the same and always anew and always in fear. The rhythm of the language demonstrates a sense of inmediacy and at the same time reflection. Nhã Ca’s goal was to bring these events out for display, to remember the atrocities that were committed upon the city of Hue and its people, and to take responsibility for them. Her account of events is not perfectly polished – a quality that usually betrays (and requires) a much greater distance from a traumatic event – and in this lies one of its greatest values. The language burns and smokes with the horrific violence and mayhem that war visits upon civilians.
Mourning Headband for Hue is also an accusation. Nhã Ca is very explicit in her antiwar message. One can hear her shouting against the geopolitical calculations of big powers engaged in the Cold War that took advantage of divisions among the Vietnamese. She conveys this idea through a comparison of Vietnam to a “small dog floundering in the water,” not being able to reach the shore because of the constant shots that bored soldiers fire at it for their own entertainment. One can also hear Nhã Ca’s clear and loud voice against brutality, having seen Vietnamese killing each other in what was also a civil war.
Her voice becomes especially bitter when she describes atrocities committed by the Communists and those who joined forces with them. Indeed, the Communist and their allies’ brutality during the Tết offensive of 1968 pushed Nhã Ca for the first time to move from blaming the war itself for the tragedy of the Vietnamese people, as she does in At Night I Hear Cannons, toward a more pronounced anti-Communist position. It also pushed her even further away from the original Canticle of Canticles and the subjects it raised, which were so close to her heart before the mid-1960s.10 However, she did not make sweeping generalizations regarding Communists, Nationalists, or Americans by depicting them in black and white. Even amid the nightmare of Hue, and later while writing about it; she described positive examples of humanity in each group of combatants. In her “Small Preface” to Mourning Headband for Hue, she assumes the responsibility of her generation for the plight of Vietnam and of Hue, having let the country fall into a ruinous civil war that left a broken legacy for future generations. As I discuss below, it was and is not a view accepted by everyone, then or now.
Nhã Ca’s account was first published in 1969, serialized in the daily South Vietnamese newspaper Hòa Bình (Peace) from March 30 to August 18. She remembers being threatened by the Communists; who sent letters demanding that the publication be stopped; but she continued anyway. Later in 1969 her serialized account was issued as a book by the publishing house Thương Yêu (Love), founded by Nhả Ca herself.11 That same year it also published the abovementioned One Day when There Is Peace and A Love Song for Destroyed Hue, and then in 1970 it published the sequel to the latter, A Love Song in the Fire.
But Mourning Headband for Hue was (and still is) Nhã Ca’s most famous work. The author donated all the proceeds from the first and later Vietnamese editions of Mourning Headband for Hue to her beloved city of Hue to contribute to its restoration after the destruction of the offensive. In 1970 Nhã Ca received a governmental honor for Mourning Headband for Hue– third prize in the Presidential National Literary Award in the category “Long Stories.”12
The literary scene in the South at that time was incredibly diverse. As was already mentioned above, hundreds of newspapers, magazines; and journals were published, and numerous publishing houses printed new and old works. A prominent Vietnamese writer, Võ Phiến, described this burgeoning diversity: while such writers as Vũ Khắc Khoan, Nghiêm Xuân Hồng; Vũ Hoàng Chương; and Võ Phiến himself “had gone from political concerns and subjects to thoughts of a world far removed from current events Phan Nhật Nam, Nhã Ca, and Dương Nghiễm Mậu denounced communist atrocities all they wanted while Thế Nguyên, Nguyễn Ngọc Lan, Nhất Hạnh, Nguyễn Trọng Văn, Lữ Phương, etc. continued to accuse the government (of the South) of being dictatorial and corrupt and the society (of the South) of being unjust and decadent.”13
While some, like Võ Phiến, saw Mourning Headband for Hue as a denunciation of Communist atrocities, it is also an undeniably antiwar, and in many ways an anti-American, work. The relationship between Nhã Ca and the Saigon government was not an easy one. The government repeatedly censored some of her publications, as it did those of many other authors. But the fact that Mourning Headband for Hue could not only be published but also win a national governmental prize demonstrates that writers in the South enjoyed a much greater degree of intellectual freedom than did their counterparts in the North.
In 1971 director Hà Thúc Cần started to shoot a movie titled Đất khổ (Land of Sorrows) partially based on Mourning Headband for Hue and At Night I Hear Cannons.14 Nhã Ca wrote the script for the movie and joined the production team. A well-known songwriter, Trịnh Công Sơn, who, like Nhã Ca, also lived through the nightmare of Tết Mậu Thân in Hue and who, like Nhã Ca, hated the war, starred in the film. It was completed in 1972 when the South was in a dire situation amid another Communist offensive and negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam that led to American withdrawal from the war with disregard for the South Vietnamese.15 The South Vietnamese government banned the film because of its strong antiwar message.
In 1972 director Lê Dân made a movie titled Hoa mới nở (Flower That Just Bloomed) based on Nhã Ca’s novel Cô hippy lạc ỉoài (A Stray Hippie Girl). This book vividly pictures the degradation of groups of Vietnamese youth caused by the war, the presence of Americans; and the Americanization of Vietnamese culture.
Nhã Ca remained in Saigon until the end of the war, publishing more than thirty volumes of poems, stories, and novels. Moreover, she and her husband were chief editors of the newspaper Báo Đen (Black Journal), which existed from 1971 to 1973. They also organized a magazine with the title Nhà Văn (Writer); but only several issues were published before the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975.
After the fall of Saigon on April 30,1975, and the subsequent unification of Vietnam under Communist rule, Mourning Headband for Hue was publicly burned alongside many other South Vietnamese works officially deemed subversive. Authorities nevertheless put a copy on display in the Museum of War Crimes Committed by Americans and Their Puppets, established in September 1975 in Saigon, re-named Hổ Chí Minh City. The movie Land of Sorrows was also banned.16
The author; like her book Mourning Headband for Hue, was deemed subversive. By March 1976 the Communist government launched an official campaign against South Vietnamese intellectuals. Neil Jamieson, a scholar of Vietnamese literature, describes the situation in South Vietnam after 1975 that affected the writers, poets, and journalists of the Republic of Vietnam: “In April 1976 those literary artists who had not already fled the country or been arrested were rounded up in a series of swift raids, as if they were dangerous criminals, and trucked off to forced labor camps like a consignment of pigs to the market.”17
In his thought-provoking book Bên thắng cuộc (The Winning Side) the Vietnamese correspondent Húy Đức, who interviewed many participants of the events of that time; discussed this painful period in the life of South Vietnam. He recounts that on April 3, 1976, Nhã Ca and her husband, Trần Dạ Từ, were arrested as a result of this campaign and, like hundreds of other intellectuals who were perceived as a danger to the new regime, sent to reeducation camps.18 By that time they had six children, aged from one to thirteen years old, who, as a result of their parents’ arrest and the confiscation of their property, were left without a means for survival. The eldest daughter, still herself a child at the age of thirteen, had to take care of her siblings. Eventually the children moved in with their relatives. After fourteen months, Nhã Ca was released19 but Trần Dạ Từ was kept in the camps for twelve years. To survive during that time, the family started to peddle food. While Nhã Ca did not attempt to leave Vietnam without her husband, she did repeatedly try to send some of her children with the groups of boat people who started to leave Vietnam by the thousands. However; each of these attempts ended in failure with her children apprehended and sometimes put into labor camps.20
In 1977 a prominent literary figure named Mai Thảo, another northerner who had moved to the South in 1954 and was the founder and editor-in-chief of literary magazines and journals such as Sáng Tạo (Creativity), Văn (Literature), and Nghệ Thuật (Art); managed to escape by boat from Vietnam. He did it with Nhã Ca s assistance. When he settled down in the United States, he revealed the dire situation of South Vietnamese writers and other intellectuals to PEN (Poets, Essayists and Novelists) International, a worldwide association of writers. The vice president of PEN International at the time was Thomas von Vegesack, who was also the president of PEN in Sweden. Through him, the Swedish media learned about the plight of South Vietnamese writers, and Tom Hansson of the Svenska Dagbladet, a Swedish daily newspaper, went to Vietnam to learn more. In 1982 he met Nhã Ca and a number of other intellectuals. He also collected information on the pitiful situation of the intellectuals: not only were many of them still imprisoned in the reeducation camps but some had died there, such as the talented writer Nguyễn Mạnh Côn. Hansson reported his findings in the media and communicated them to the Swedish PEN.
In November 1985 Nhã Ca’s and Trần Dạ Từ’s eldest son, aged twenty at the time, managed to escape from Vietnam and by September 1986 had reached Sweden, where he was assisted by the Swedish PEN.21 Due to the efforts of these people, as well as Amnesty International and prime ministers of Sweden Olof Palme and Gösta Ingvar Carlsson, Nhà Ca’s husband, Trần Dạ Từ, was released in 1988, and the family was allowed to move to Sweden.
There Nhã Ca resumed her writing. In Sweden she wrote three books, one of which, A Diary of a Person who Lost Her Days and Months (Hổi ký một người mât ngày tháng), describes the family experience from the arrest of the parents on April 3,1976, until their departure from Vietnam on September 8, 1988.22 In 1992 Nhã Ca and Trần Dạ Từ relocated to California and founded a Vietnamese-language newspaper, Việt Báo Daily News, which now has branches in Houston, Texas, and Tacoma, Washington. There are now seven children in their family, five of whom reside in the United States and two in Sweden.
HUE AND ITS PLACE IN THE TẾT OFFENSIVE
I grew up on this side of the Perfume River
The river splits my life into patches I long for –
Fruit trees of Kim Long, iron and steel of Bạch Hổ Bridge,
The gateway of mercy greets me with great warmth as I step into the river,
Into the turquoise transparent water of my innocent childhood,
Ancient stupas, bells from times past; gentle river, small waves.
NHẢ CA, “Tiếng Chuông Thiên Mụ” (Bell of Thiên Mụ Pagoda)
The beautiful city of Hue lies in central Vietnam, about four hundred miles from Hanoi in northern Vietnam and about seven hundred miles from Saigon (now Hổ Chí Minh City) in southern Vietnam. The Perfume River runs through the city. For several centuries Vietnam was divided between two ruling families: the northern lords ruled from Hanoi, and in the seventeenth century the southern lords, the Nguyễn, established their capital at Hue. In 1802 one of the Nguyỗn lords was able to unify all the Vietnamese lands under his authority, and he placed the national capital at Hue. The city became an imperial enclave with palaces, mansions, and royal tombs. These were concentrated on the northern bank of the Perfume River in the part of the city called the Citadel, which was surrounded by fortified walls. By 1968 between 110,000 and 140,000 people lived in Hue, and most of them resided in the Citadel. There were also newer but significantly smaller residential areas south of the Perfume River. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that in 1954 partitioned Vietnam into two parts lay forty-five miles north of Hue.
Because of its imperial legacy, Hue became a symbol of education, culture, and tradition. One of the most famous schools of colonial Vietnam, a Franco-Vietnamese lycée named Quốc Học (National Academy), was established there in 1896. Among its founders was Ngồ Đình Khả, father of the first president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Ngô Đình Diệm, in office from 1955 to 1963, and of Pierre Martin Ngô Đình Thục, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Hue from i960 to 1963.23 Ngô Đình Diệm studied at that school as did many other prominent Vietnamese figures, including Ngô Đình Diêm’s opponents Hổ Chí Minh, known during his time at school as Nguyễn Tất Thành, and General Võ Nguyễn Giáp, both later leaders of North Vietnam. Many famous poets, writers, and scientists who later joined different sides of the conflict in Vietnam received their education at the National Academy.
Hue was also the Buddhist stronghold of the country. Historically, Buddhists were often on the defensive. Before the French colonization of Vietnam in the second half of the nineteenth century, Buddhists contended with the prevailing Confucianism, which had become the official socio-philosophical basis of Vietnamese society. After the French conquest, they struggled with Christianity and French colonialism itself. This tendency toward resisting authority continued after the French left Vietnam. Hue Buddhists became a consistent source of opposition to the ruling regimes in Saigon. Hue-based Buddhist uprisings in South Vietnam included the campaign of 1963 against the president of South Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm. Pictures of the self-immolation of one of the Buddhist monks, a Hue native, shocked the world and brought relations between the United States and Ngô Đình Diệm to a breaking point.
The Buddhist movement did not end after the assassination of Ngô Đình Diệm during a military coup on November I, 1963. The Buddhists, joined by students, continued to demonstrate against the various governments established in 1964 and 1965, and particularly against the government established in June 1965 by a group of military officers, which finally brought some stability to the political situation in Saigon. For nearly a year, southern Vietnamese politics was dominated by the triumvirate comprising air force marshal Nguyẻn Cao Ký and army general Nguyèn Vàn Thiệu, a Catholic, both of whom were based in Saigon, and army general Nguyèn Chánh Thi, commander of the I Corps in charge of the region that included the cities of Hue and Đà Nẵng, the second and third largest cities in South Vietnam. In 1965 Buddhist monks together with students established the Military-Civilian Struggle Committee, also known as the Struggle Movement, in Hue. The tension escalated further and climaxed in 1966 when Nguyễn Cao Ký dismissed his rival Nguyễn Chánh Thi, who was popular among troops in the northern part of South Vietnam. The Struggle Movement led an uprising in the spring of 1966. The uprising was suppressed by the government with the assistance of the United States. A substantial number of supporters of the uprising and members of the movement fled to the mountains and joined the Communist forces there. During the Tết Offensive in the spring of 1968, these people returned and played a significant role in events during the Battle of Hue.
The Tết Offensive was launched on January 30, 1968, during the most important of Vietnamese holidays – the Lunar New Year, commonly called Tết in Vietnamese. Among Vietnamese; this offensive became known as Tết Mậu Thân, indicating the 1968 New Year specifically. It was apart of the Communist winter-spring campaign of 1967-68. Forgoing the usual guerrilla methods employed by the Communists previously, this campaign employed conventional warfare, fought chiefly in mountainous areas near the northern and western borders of South Vietnam. The primary striking forces in this campaign were North Vietnamese regular army units.24
The Tết Offensive was the second phase of the winter-spring campaign. This time, the Communist forces, jointly known as the Liberation Army, consisted of members from South Vietnam belonging to the National Liberation Front (nlf) and its military wing, the Peoples Liberation Armed Forces (plaf), known in the South as the Việt Cộng or Vietnamese Communists, as well as units of the regular North Vietnamese Army (Peoples Army of Viet Nam, pavn). During the Tết Offensive, the Communists employed a strategy completely different from that used in the winter campaign. They made extensive use of guerrilla tactics and simultaneously attacked cities, towns, and hamlets all over South Vietnam, including Saigon and major provincial administrative centers. With this large-scale operation, they aimed to achieve a military victory. They hoped that the people of South Vietnam would support them and rise up against the Saigon government. It did not happen.
The Communists suffered a crushing military defeat. However, the political effect of the Tết Offensive in the United States marked the turning point of public opinion against the war, with Americans increasingly opposed to any further involvement. On March 31,1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his decision not to seek reelection in the upcoming presidential elections in November. Within a few months, the offensive led to the beginning of negotiations between the Americans and the North Vietnamese and to the end of American bombing of North Vietnam. Richard Nixon replaced Johnson in the Oval office and began to disengage from the conflict.
The battle for Hue started with the Communist assault in the hours of January 30,1968. The defenders of Hue — the side opposing the Communists – consisted of the Nationalist Army (arvn or Army of the Republic of Vietnam) supported by local militia units (Regional Forces and Self-Defense Forces) and by the U.S. Marines and the U.S. Air Force.
The initial Communist assault was strong, organized, and successful. By the dawn of February 1, the Communists had established control over the entire city with the exception of the headquarters of an ARVN division and the compound housing American military advisors. The ARVN and the Americans started to reinforce their positions in the face of Communist attacks.
The Communists established their main stronghold in the Citadel, the heart of the imperial capital. The Communists also occupied the western side of the city, while the ARVN and the Americans controlled the other three sides. Initial efforts to retake the Citadel from the Communists by relying primarily upon firepower failed, so in the third week of February; Nationalist and American soldiers entered the Citadel and engaged in a difficult battle with dose-order combat, block by block, yard by yard, house by house.