Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968

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Vietnam, January, 1968. As the citizens of Hue are preparing to celebrate Tet, the start of the Lunar New Year, Nha Ca arrives in the city to attend her father's funeral. Without warning, war erupts all around them, drastically changing or cutting short their lives. After a month of fighting, their beautiful city lies in ruins and thousands of people are dead. Mourning Headband for Hue tells the story of what happened during the fierce North Vietnamese offensive and is an unvarnished and riveting account of war as experienced by ordinary people caught up in the violence.

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10 Slices

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1 First Hours

ePub

I Don’t know when I first heard the sound of gunfire, but in the middle of the night I am suddenly awake with explosions shredding my dreams.

As soon as I roll out of the wooden plank bed, my ears are ringing with the sounds of guns firing from all directions. What’s happening? What is this? Oh heavens! Someone’s panicked scream prods me to scramble from the outer to the inner room. Someone’s arms pull me hurriedly into the middle of the room. I lie there pressed against someone’s body, young and cool. A faint shout drowns in the chaotic sound of guns and shells outside. When I eventually manage to collect my thoughts, a young child sits up and cuddles neatly against my heart. Is there anyone else? Oh heavens, who lights a match? Put it out! Put it out, I beg you! Voices are barely audible as if these are someone’s last words on a deathbed, filled with anxiety. The matchstick dies out fast, but the glimmering light of a candle penetrates from the outer room. My younger cousin Thái crawls toward this wavering light, then sitting up bumps into my cheek. That’s enough. Please extinguish the candles beside the altar and also extinguish all the incense at once. I start to feel stifled and want to choke because of the human odors, the incense, and the burned candles.

 

2 The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer

ePub

The Sounds of distressed crying gr adually subside, and all the candles go out. Thái arranges a place for my mother to lie rather comfortably. I and Thái think that the best place to lie down is on the benches. Everyone is afraid; they just lie shrinking among or under the empty benches. We choose two benches next to each other. We lie on them and talk to each other in a discreet whisper. But then, hearing the sound of an explosion from time to time, I start worrying and suggest:

“Let’s lie down on the floor.”

Thái prevents me:

“Stop it, elder sister – no need of it.”

Indeed, in the moment of panic when I lost my calm, words help me regain my composure. Hearing Thái say that there is no need to do anything greatly eases my fear. Moreover, I don’t dare to lie down on the floor because I just realize that down there, very close to us, under the benches, there is the sound of someone groaning in pain. Hearing an explosion, my mother springs up:

“Get down, everyone get down now.”

 

3 On a Boat Trip

ePub

I Manage to collect many trifling bits of stories, everyone telling something different about the first several days when the Liberation Army came to Hue. I gather some of them while I am at the church and some when we just arrive at An Định Palace. The very thought of eventually getting to An Định Palace had cut in half the misery of the difficult road leading there because I knew that as soon as I set my foot there, I would hear people chattering about what was happening:

“Here, there are airplanes of our [Nationalist] army. They call on residents to try and move to the right bank of the river.”

“The right bank is here.”

“There are rumors that our side lets planes take off to reconnoiter; the planes have been under their [the Communist forces’] fire that shoots up in a torrent and they have to fly very high so that they can’t be seen.”

“But really, elder sister, did you hear all these announcements made through loudspeakers from the airplanes?”

“Of course I did. How is it, fellow countrymen, that you did not hear them? They said that everybody must run to the right bank of the Perfume River, right here. People in other areas are stranded. People from areas up there, Phú Cam, Bến Ngự, Từ Đàm, no one has come back here from those places at all.”

 

4 Hodge-podge

ePub

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.

 

5 A Person from Từ Ðàm Comes Back and Tells His Story

ePub

Four Days in a row I lay in a dark underground shelter, and out of the four days there were two days that I had to go without food. This morning a girl crawled up out of the shelter, foraged somewhere, and found a piece of bánh tét, thickly covered with mold. She crawled back down, peeled off banana leaves covering the cake, and began feeding people, offering one person after another a bite.

I had already been fed up with all that was going on and was in despair. Several hours earlier, I had a feeling that if I continue starving like this I would come to the point of exhaustion, drop off, and go into eternal sleep, and that it would be really fortunate for me. But it would be even more fortunate to stay in the world of the living, though we have yet to endure a lot of ordeals. However, when I notice the smell of sticky rice and of moldy banana leaves, and when a piece of the rice cake is passed close to me, suddenly my mouth opens wide, a happy sensation makes me merry, and joy overflows me when a piece of cake gets into my mouth. Saliva gushes and mixes with the fine taste and sweet fragrance of sticky rice to the point of causing me to faint dead away.

 

6 Going Back into the Hell of the Fighting

ePub

We Run through several abandoned fields covered with water and through some empty plots of land overgrown with weeds, and then a road leads us to a small hamlet. There are houses scattered here and there. Thái joyfully shouts out:

“Our [Nationalist] army has just now occupied this area!”

I recognize silhouettes of some military men on the move, carrying rifles, appearing intermittently behind the crowd of evacuees; I see them appearing and disappearing as they stand guard in front of gates and fences. Finally – our deliverance from calamity; we have arrived at a peaceful area. My mother runs out from a tavern: “I’m here, I’m here.” Thái pulls me into the veranda of the tavern. The tavern is deserted; in the middle of it is an enormous shelter made of sand, occupying almost the entire building. Next to the tavern is a deserted brick house; American and Vietnamese [Nationalist] soldiers stand guard in front of it. An American soldier and two soldiers of the Republic check the papers of each of us. I don’t remember where I put my identity card, but then I manage to find it.

 

7 Story from the Citadel

ePub

I Don’t understand how, Thanks to what miraculous trick, our house remained intact.

We live in a narrow, crowded shelter dug deep underground; sandbags are piled up over the shelter opening and around it. We have been living like this for ten-odd days.

What’s the story? Ah, the first several days. The first several days there is no panic at all. As in other areas, the night of the first day of Tết we lie down, pressing ourselves close to the ground, crawling all the way under the beds because of gunfire everywhere. In the morning the Việt Cộng fill the house and the garden. They walk outside; there are so many of them that they seem to be everywhere. Uniforms? No. They wear all kinds of clothes. There is a small group wearing khaki, as expected, but a large number of them are clad in shorts. What is special – everybody wears colored bands on their arms or scarves around their necks.

So, what has happened? Has Hue already been lost?

We look at each other questioningly; we want to run across to our neighbors to ask them about any news, but that is impossible now. People stay put in their houses. And they [the Communist forces] issue an order that each household must dig its own underground shelter and begin to learn how to withstand hardships for the sake of victory. “We have already occupied Hue. There is still fighting in other places, and we expect to take over the entire country, which will mean victory.” This is what the Liberation Army said.

 

8 Returning to the Old House

ePub

Someone has returned to the house in front of US. Before Tết, I saw that this house was very crowded; children filled its courtyard. When my father died, the head of that household came by to express his condolences. But now only two boys have come back. They wear clothes of profound mourning and have white hats on their heads.

I learn that they are back because I hear the sound of crying. One day, right before noon, when we have just crawled out of the shelter to help Aunt Vạn by bringing water to wash the rice, I suddenly hear sorrowful crying in the house across the lane. Aunt Vạn waves her hand:

“Be silent, someone’s crying so scarily. Someone’s crying as though at a funeral.”

I say:

“It seems to me like it’s a male voice.”

Thái inches outside:

“The crying is from the house in front of ours; it seems to be Uncle Năm’s house, don’t you think so, elder sister?”

“It sure is.”

“Let me go to the courtyard; perhaps I will hear or see something.”

 

9 A Dog in Midstream

ePub

We Sleep through the night; when we wake up, IT’s already light and the roads are suddenly bustling. A lot of [Nationalist] soldiers from Phú Bài are coming up National Highway No. 1. They go on foot along the road one by one, carrying their rucksacks. They walk and look around, looking at both sides of the road, and smile, greeting people who stand by the road following the soldiers with their eyes. I don’t know for how long she had kept it, but an old woman displays a basket full of cigarettes to sell at Xay T-junction. Several soldiers stop:

“Mother, sell me a box of Ruby, Mother.”

“If you want a box, go ahead and take it. How would I know which one is Ruby?”

Someone’s voice asks:

“So, where are these cigarettes you sell from, Mother?”

“Ah? Where are the cigarettes from? Yeah, I evacuated and came here; I saw an abandoned house, and there was this basket with cigarettes under the bed there. When I saw you passing by, I thought to sell them to buy food.”

 

10 Little Child of Hue, Little Child of Vietnam, I Wish You Luck

ePub

On the trip from thanh lam to phú bài, our car runs at full speed. We could be attacked at any moment. But nothing happens. OK, I can’t die yet. The Phù Lương market appears, and the car stops. A bowl of noodles with beef and hot pepper tearing my mouth apart is my light breakfast before we set off again. I eat greedily. This dish makes tears flow from my eyes. In the desolate house in An Cựu amid the denuded garden, my mother’s heart is now certainly on fire. “Oh, child, listen child, have a safe trip,” my mother advised me from the courtyard when I was leaving. Several nephews, some of them holding my hands and others grasping my shirt: “Auntie, you are going to Saigon; you’re afraid of guns, right, auntie?” Those children’s voices made me want to stay in Hue until I can see Hue quiet and safe again or until I die together with Hue. But my children loudly call for me. My insides ache as though someone cuts through them. The sound of artillery has become muffled and distant, but it still seems to pound a cadence in my heart, never subsiding: boom, boom.

 

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