The Vietnamese at war
The title of this blog post will likely conjure images of US helicopters carrying troops into the jungle, napalm explosions, and anti-war protests in the USA. The 'Vietnam war' is portrayed in the west as an American tragedy in which the Vietnamese themselves only play a background role. In most Hollywood movies there is barely a glimpse of an NVA or VC soldier, and an almost complete absence of Vietnamese civilians. TV documentaries focus on the American side of the conflict with maybe a brief mention of Ho Chi Minh or Vo Nguyen Giap. There really is very little to tell the Vietnamese side.
Many westerners won't be aware that for the Vietnamese, the 'Vietnam War' is the 'American War'. In the last sixty or so years they've also fought against France, China and Cambodia. The later two of of which you'll find trouble seeking any reference to in history books.
Despite the huge imbalance of work focusing on the western perspective, there are a few literary sources available which give a really good impression of the Vietnamese at war; 'Last night I dreamed of peace'- the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, is a good place to start. It's an English translation from the diary of a Doctor serving with the Viet Cong and shows quite vividly what a terrible existence these people endured- definitely not light reading. I'd also recommend 'The sorrow of war' by Bao Ninh, which despite the fact that is a semi-autobiographical fiction, is equally as harrowing as Dang Thuy Tram's diary. Giap himself has also penned several histories, although perhaps somewhat biased, is essential reading.
A guide at the Cu Chi tunnels demonstrates how various booby traps worked.
Sources in Vietnam
A visitor to Vietnam is likely to take a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels where they'll be given a tour and shown the different improvised weapons, traps and tools the Vietnamese used during the war. You'll be able to go down small sections of tunnel which have been widened for tourists and eat a meal akin to what an NVA soldier might've had. It's pretty interesting and I'd recommend it; I've been twice. If you're lucky in your timing of the visit then you might get to meet one of the soldiers who served there during the war.
The best untapped source of the Vietnamese perspective is from the people themselves. There isn't much interest in Vietnam to produce anything relating to the war. The government would rather forgive and forget; things stirring up the past are frowned on. Vietnam has a lot of trade and for the most case good relations with the countries they've previously fought, they don't want to be seen as gloating over past victories.
There was a Xe-Om (motorcycle taxi driver) who operates from Nugyen Thai Binh street in Saigon who gave me a brief first-hand account which ignited my interest. He often used to insist I sit with him and drink beer; he was usually drunk, spoke only broken English and often tried to press me into hiring him as a driver for the day, but he had an interesting, if brief tale to tell;
'Everyone was going to Cambodia to fight. I didn't expect to live. I told my wife- find a new husband because I won't be coming back. All my friends died. Nobody I went there with came back. Only me.'
Luckily for him, his wife didn't find a new husband and was waiting for him to return. I tried to press him for more information, but the bottles of Saigon beer were piling up and I could sense he didn't want to get too far into it. Later I began asking people I knew if they had any relatives who fought in the wars. Not many did, or were interested enough to have ever asked their relatives about it. One friend had an interesting story about her parents met when her father was a soldier and her mother was signing for troops during the Cambodian war. It was harder to find anyone who was involved in the 1979 war with China; not surprising as the conflict took place in the very north of Vietnam, pretty far from Saigon.
I plan to (at some point) produce a book in the future giving first-hand accounts from Vietnamese involved in their various wars in order to help partially redress the imbalance of available sources. However, there is currently an American spy drama entitled 'Perfume River' in early stages of production which will feature Vietnamese characters during the Tet offensive, so it appears there is some consideration for seeing 'the other side' of the conflict in Hollywood after all. In the meantime, I'll write up a short history of Vietnam's 'other conflicts' over my next couple of blogs.