For my generation, born after the “Renovation” reform of Đổi Mới in 1986, “The War”—as most Vietnamese call what almost everyone else calls the Vietnam War—only exists in history books. At school, we learned to express pride in the heroic victories of Vietnamese soldiers, men and women fighting to gain the nation’s independence and later to protect it, even at the cost of their youth and lives. But more often than not, things we learned at school were retained only hazily and seemed to have little if any reference to our perceived realities.
At home in Hanoi, my grandparents and parents never spoke of the war. They would instead remind us of the famine and poverty after the war ended. It seems to me that the memory of the so-called “subsidy period” (thời bao cấp) outlasted that of the war itself. My grandfather, a journalist during the war, would always make sure that we, the grandchildren, had visited the Vietnam National Museum of History, which hosts a re-enactment of the daily lives of the Vietnamese during that time. But the Ho Chi Minh Museum, showcasing the victories of the Vietnamese, seemed never to come into his mind. My grandmother would often remind us to finish our meals, refrain us from extravagant purchases, or even suggest we store as much rice, fish sauce and oil as we can, never noticing our astonishment.
For Vietnam, where more than half of the population is under 30, the war is remote from the daily lives of the younger generation living in the cities. I would even venture to suggest, perhaps controversially, that few of them give it a second thought. An eagerness to improve the conditions of their lives allows progress and innovation to determine their thinking and acting.
The Vietnam War only exists outside of Vietnam, perhaps in the USA and in the perceptions and experiences of the 1968s generation in Western Europe.
45 years have passed since the Vietnam War formally ended. These two books indicate that the scars have not yet healed.
Despite, or better because of this, two recent volumes from Cornell and Columbia University Presses, both dealing with the memories of the Vietnamese, deserve attention. Although both address the international audience more than the Vietnamese in Vietnam themselves, they provide a first-hand insight into how the war was perceived, experienced and lived by Vietnamese people. The books complement each other.
Other Moons is a collection of short stories in translation. Most of the authors, born between the 1930s and the1980s, are veterans or the next generation, born around the country after the war ended. The book serves as a timeline marking significant moments in Vietnamese politics and consequent impact on the development of Vietnamese literature. Dating from the 1970s through the first decade of the new century, the stories show a diversity of literary genres from French romanticism to socialist realism. Authors from Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) were left out as they were unfortunately perceived by the editors as being from the diaspora or already internationally well-known. However, given the book’s subtitle “Vietnamese Short Stories of the American War and its Aftermath”, the omission of these authors—either those who lived through the transition of political systems in the South or those that left—leaves a lacuna.
Bảo Ninh (born 1952 in Nghệ An), internationally known for his novel The Sorrow of War (1994), contributes both an emotional foreword and a short story. For Bảo Ninh, the Vietnamese deal with the aftermath of the war with an active rejection of hatred; the Vietnamese have found their way to forgive and learned how to “quietly close down the past” in order to move forward. It is a lesson which the country has learned from over two thousand years of invasions. His story White Cloud Flying is remarkable in its attentive observation of the Vietnamese people. He describes the social and psychological clashes during the increasingly modernized Vietnamese society of the 1990s where the traditions of the old generation had to take a step back to allow the next generations to catch up with the world. This shift engendered both absurdity as well as considerable sincere empathy and deeper understanding from both sides. While some of the war’s survivors still struggled with trauma, loss and remembrance, others seem to be ready to move on.
Birds in formation by Nguyễn Ngọc Tư (born 1976 in Cà Mau)—one of the most prolific and popular Southern writers—deals with the emotional challenge of uniting a country and the traumatic aftermath of the war as seen in the daily lives of rural people. Born one year after the war ended, the author shares her own family’s experiences: her father and uncle fought on different sides and only one survived. Gently describing the psychological burden and mental suffering of her grandmother and her father’s feeling of guilt, Nguyễn Ngọc Tư recounts the war she experienced second-hand as an open wound and as a ghost permanently haunting her and her cousin from their childhood on.
In They became men, Phạm Ngọc Tiến (born 1956) addresses soldiers’ wartime experiences and celebrates women and their sacrifices. Phạm Ngọc Tiến deals with the taboo: sex, sexual frustration and sexuality of soldiers; he even goes further by focusing on female soldiers. Some lived out their sexual life and slept with multiple men while many were raped by their male comrades as the latter wanted to “become a man” before they died. By placing the experiences of female soldiers at the center of his story, the author also reflects on the Confucian values which shaped the Vietnamese society for thousands of years and dictated the role model of “virtuous” women. Experiences of female soldiers have been glossed over and have never been adequately acknowledged; they still struggle with social stigma and discrimination.
The topics and plots of the stories in Other Moons are diverse, ranging from innocent love among young soldiers, deep friendship loyalty to family and marriage difficulties from the war coming between. What they all have in common is an attachment to melancholy and a certain fatalism yet without any accusation.
While voices of Saigon authors are absent from Other Moons, prominent figures of the former Republic of Vietnam (RVN, ie South Vietnam) tell their stories and tribulations in The Republic of Vietnam 1955–1975: Vietnamese Perspectives on Nation Building.
The book is guided by the question of what happens with people—contemporary witnesses who experienced the RVN’s rise and fall—whose nation no longer exists on the global map but remains omnipresent in the memories of its erstwhile citizens. How much could the individual’s memories enforce historical values? And to what extent do they contribute to the historiography of a country?
Approaching the contributors’ subjective experiences, and the interplay between them, within the context of this historical event, the editors breath life into the memories of administrators, artists, educators, journalists, military officers, politicians and writers back to life. The first part of the volume concentrates on the so-called “Vietnamization”, the first stage of the nascent nation that aimed at a smooth transition from French colonialism 1863–1954 to a potentially independent republic. This transitional phase was perceived differently by the authors, who include senior officials in the several ministries including that of the economy and education. Some see their achievements as “relatively successful, bringing several years of peace, economic growth and prosperity”, while others emphasize the myriad difficulties of monetary transfer and liberation of financial authority from the French government. Later, when the war intensified between 1956–1973, the RVN economy was threatened by the huge military expenses despite American military and economic aid.
As the authors ascertained in retrospect, there had been a lack of capital, manpower, institutional infrastructure as well as expertise. Nevertheless, they still believe they had laid a solid foundation for growth and stability which would have allowed South Vietnam to “follow in the footsteps of South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore” if it had had the chance to.
While also sketching a picture of the vibrant civil society in South Vietnam, the life stories of these contemporary participants display a common commitment to constitutionalism and republican values. Between the lines, one reads a common fear that their stories have been forgotten or omitted in the historiography of the Vietnam War. According to Nu-Anh, assistant professor for Southeast Asian history at the University of Connecticut, the generation of her parents who immigrated to the USA during the 1970s “feared that their experiences of the RVN would never become part of the collective historical memory.”
The second part of the book focuses on the life experiences of prominent cultural figures. Among them, Kiều Chinh and Nhã Ca, the female author of Mourning headband for Hué (Hòa Bình. Giải khăn khô sô Huế, 1969) and late 1960s movie star respectively, stress their role in nation-building. Seeing themselves as cultural ambassadors they connected the RVN to the non-communist world. Both also emphasize that there was determined resistance to communist offensives between 1968 and 1975.
In her vivid memory of this time, only 20 years long, Saigon was for Kiều Chinh and other actors a “beautiful dawn”. Calling herself as “a survivor of wartime massacre and postwar imprisonment”, Nhã Ca—the only woman blacklisted as a “cultural guerrilla”—often reminds herself to “reflect on the past” in order to “maintain hope” and to “take a step forward”. She also recalls the diverse cultural and literary environment of RVN Saigon. In her memories, Saigon nights were creative and energetic, nourished by the presence of many Vietnamese intellectuals – out of nearly a million Northerners – in exile in Saigon. According to her, the year 1955 “marked the start of a journey shared by many generations representing the literati of a unified Vietnam.” To Nhã Ca, their achievements in literature, music and arts belonged not just to South Vietnam but to the entire Vietnamese people as they “emerged from colonial rule”. She sees herself as “a writer of the South during the division of the nation. A writer of the Republic of Vietnam” and therefore “a Vietnamese writer.”
Forgiveness is not the only thing the Vietnamese have learned: they let go of the past.
45 years have passed since the Vietnam War formally ended. The two books indicate that for the first and second generations, the scars of the war have not yet healed.
On 30 April each year, the country celebrates the end of the war and the day of the country’s reunification. Yet the streets in Hanoi and in Ho Chi Minh City are unusually empty despite the vibrant red and yellow Vietnamese flags that flutter among the strolling tourists. Many Vietnamese take this day off, going on holiday to escape the noise and the rush of the cities. Forgiveness is not the only thing the Vietnamese have learned: they let go of the past.
Finding forgiveness might not be the main consideration for my generation and for those that follow. Our enemies are not people but the difficulties and struggles of our daily lives and the endless seeking for a place in a globalized world. The key to dealing with the war might be a willingness to approach those who have experienced it and are conscious of the history of the country. Curiosity, indeed an eagerness to ask questions, combined with the capacity to listen critically to our grandparents’ and parents’ stories could serve us as the first step before their memories of the war disappear with them.