In 1995, twenty years after the formal end of the war, the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam established diplomatic relations. The early 1990s marked a pivotal period for the country’s economy and politics, as well as on the diplomatic front, the improvement in relations among major powers: the normalization of relations with China came in 1991, and the accession to the ASEAN in the same year of the establishment of diplomatic ties with the USA. These political milestones brought forth changes in the economy for they also activated access for entrepreneurs, tourists, journalists and diplomats alike coming to Vietnam for various different purposes.
Two recent books—Sherry Buchanan’s On The Ho Chi Minh Trail and Patricia D Norland’s Saigon Sisters—are the result of just such visits to Vietnam at the beginning of the country’s “openness” toward the West. Both authors, having had roles in journalism and diplomacy during this period have now written the stories of women they were fortunate enough to meet. Both aim to raise awareness about the role of women in this crucial war, something which has not been emphasized sufficiently either in academic or popular literature.
Sherry Buchanan describes her journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 2014, also known as Đường Trường Sơn, a 16,000 km network traversing Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia built between 1945 and 1975. The trail played an essential role as the road system allowing transportation of manpower and materiel to the National Front for Liberation of South Vietnam and the People’s Army of Vietnam during the Vietnam War (as it was called in America). Buchanan first came to Vietnam in 1991 as a columnist during which time she developed an interest in the art and culture of the country. Many years later, working as an editor and author of several monographs on Vietnamese Propaganda Posters, Buchanan undertook a long journey along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 2014, searching for the women whom she first came across through the motifs of the posters and of the war drawings by Vietnamese war painters. Intrigued to know more about the War from female perspectives, her book is guided by interviews with former female soldiers who contributed to the building of the trail or fought in the war against the US Army.
Buchanan makes a point of noting her interest in Vietnam was sparked—as it was for many Westerners of her generation—by experiences filtered through media and in particular images of the War on television and popular magazines of the time.
The book is conveniently structured in chapters, as each marks a point in her journey from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. In each city or place, she meets the female soldiers whose contribution to the war still has not been sufficiently appreciated and adequately honored in Vietnam. These are women balancing ammunition boxes on their shoulders, who fought side by side with their male counterparts, and who still remain traumatized by the horrors of the war they experienced first hand.
Buchanan wishes to meet these women “face-to-face” and to hear how they “had been actors during the war rather than victims”. Through the journey, the author
learned that women ran the logistics. Women built the road, the tunnels. They tended camp, they nursed the wound, and they defended North Vietnam’s territory against American bombing.
Furthermore, Buchanan notes that “60,000 Youth Volunteers were between the age of 17 and 24 defended the mountainous trail as there were 1.7 million women who were married with children” while they at the same time managed to “defend the coastal trail and the home front, when the men fought on the southern battlefronts”. While perhaps revelatory to the author, this enormous contribution by women to the war effort is well-known to the Vietnamese.
On The Ho Chi Minh Trail is as much an exercise in travel-writing as a discourse on the War. High-quality images of the landscape going along with anecdotes about ambivalent relationship to the Vietnamese green tea she got offered at each visit and how she slowly learned to enjoy the bitter sweet taste of the black coffee she got served each morning from the hotels she stayed at. Although Buchanan undoubtedly had the best of intentions, and while the journey was long and arduous (as she mentions), these vignettes reinforce the fact that she is traveling and writing from a position of privilege; unlike her subjects, she experienced the war from television. And this is where, at least when seen through Vietnamese eyes, the book can seem problematical. Knocking uninvited on the doors of women and engaging them in spontaneous discussion (via a translator) about their war experiences requires them to relive their sacrifices.
The Saigon Sisters takes another approach. The book describes the lives of nine privileged and well-educated Saigon women who lived through the upheavals of colonialism and War. Although they began as francophile students at the Lycée Marie Curie—a prestigious French school established for Vietnamese girls during the second half of the French colonial period—living carefree lives as few Vietnamese could at the time, they would later become anti-French activists. Author Patricia D Norland follows their biographies from innocent youth to nationalist awakening at French colonial schools to their serving in the resistance against first the French and then Ngo Dinh Diem as they also pursued careers as pharmacist and doctor, soldiers, translators, diplomat, lawyer, educator, music conductor, performer and spy. After the fall of Saigon, they served the now Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Norland first came to Vietnam in 1988 as a member of the US diplomatic corps aiming to build up diplomatic relations between the former enemies. She became friends with the women who would ultimately serve as her case studies, gaining their trust and recording their stories one by one over the years. The book’s strength derives from her evident ability to listen and to make space for her case studies to speak. She recedes into the background: there is no mention of her own experiences in and with Vietnam, or her impressions of the women she depicted. She gives them a platform to talk directly to the reader, and lets the reader take her place as a careful listener, thereby revealing the women’s double and even multiple lives, full of contradiction and inner conflicts caused by the complexity and long duration of the war years. From the perspective of these women, this was not just a hot war between two nations during the Cold War but also a civil war which tore apart friendships forged as classmates, stealing their youth, breaking families up through separation and death and ultimately defining both their lives and fates. The author also collected and included letters between these women and their friends, husbands and children, providing yet more insights into their characters and lives as women and mothers.
One of these women, Trang, was born in 1933 and studied at the Lycée from 1943 until 1950. In 1956, the resistance asked her to take an alias and live with another agent to serve as a liaison. As a reward for her sacrifice to the resistance, the government in Hanoi arranged for her to study music in the Soviet Union; she became the only Vietnamese in her class to complete a degree in conducting. When she returned to Hanoi in 1968, she learned that her husband died fighting during the Tet Offensive. All that remained from him was his diary, conveyed to her by his friends. She and her husband, she recounts, were “prepared for any sacrifice or risk.” Her one-time classmate Xuan, returned to Saigon from studying in London in 1965. As a trained pianist, she kept a low profile teaching piano and raising four children. Without getting into politics, she still despised the “dictatorial regime whose injustice the people had to bear daily” by Ngo Dinh Diem. Her husband worked undercover for the Viet Cong and was put in jail until 1972 while she was left raising their children on her own. Thanh, born in 1932, used of love for French and English to serve the National Liberation Front (NLF), the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and eventually the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SVR). Working as translator, she was the right hand to Mme Nguyen Thi Binh on the Central Committee of the NLF, who later became the foreign minister of the NLF.
Some of them have passed away in the last few years while a few remain. One noted that their generation faced a “crossroads offering three choices: rebel against foreign domination, collaborate, or leave their beloved country.” Another said that “We worked toward the same goal. We all want to serve this country. It is the flame that still burns.” There may have been two sides in the War, but—despite the widespread pain and suffering of women throughout the country—only one people: what matters is the common pain and suffering for, as Thanh noted, “we are, after all, human beings.”.
The Saigon Sisters is a substantial collection of thoughts, memories, moments of pain and joy in individual lives. Although their lives took different paths, these women shared the same spirit, shaped by the unquestioned love for their country and people. Their remarkable stories shift our focus of the war, and contribute enormously to a “herstory” of the wars in Vietnam. What remains after closing the last page of the book is the question: why did it take too long?