When I was 19 years old I had this tattoo put on my arm. It says “Born the North to Die in the South.” I was still in school then. But after I got the tattoo I changed my mind. I did not want to die in the South. And when it came my time to go into the military, I tried very hard to stay out of the army. I was able to stay out until the war in the south was over. I wasn’t in the military until 1977. I became a soldier, finally, because I was forced to. I was conscripted.
I was living in Hanoi in 1972 when I got to tattoo. I was in the 10th grade. That year the war became more intense and the school I was I went to had to be relocated outside Hanoi. Then I didn’t go to the school at all anymore. I stayed behind. I was in Hanoi when the bombings took place in Christmas in 1972.
As I recall it, from 15th of December to the 27th, the bombers came over Hanoi. Before the 15th there had been bombings around Hanoi in the suburbs, but from the 15th to the 27th they bombed in Hanoi itself. The An Duong area was the first area to receive very heavy bombings. After the radio station was hit they begin to bomb everywhere in and around Hanoi. The An Duong area was the first area to receive very heavy bombings. Basically they bombed Hanoi only at night. I could not see anything at night but flashes of light. But I remember in the early morning once I saw planes dropping bombs. Another thing I saw was on the night of the 24th, near the morning of the 25th, there was another B-52 bombing in the Kham Thien area. A hospital was hit there, the Bach Mai hospital.
We were not afraid of being killed by the Americans. I thought, “if I have to die, then I have to die.” Of course we stayed away from very important targets and many people were evacuated from the city. But also a lot of people died. You need to understand this. In the beginning, in 1964, the people of the North were afraid of war and of the American planes. But as the war went on, people became sort of toughened; they were not afraid of the bombings and they would not give in. Instead of being afraid, they wanted to stop the bombers.
We received no explanations of the bombings from the government.
I didn't have any deep thoughts on the issue of the bombing. I saw some pilots escorted around Hanoi, but that was in 1967, not later. My house was near a generator building, and since that was the building that gave electricity for the city of Hanoi, it became an important target for bombing; so I got to see pilots who were shot down, taken prisoners, and being paraded around. The people were not allowed to get close to the prisoners or talk to them. I only saw them from a distance. I did not know anything about them, but I wondered why they bombed us.
At that time I didn't have any feelings about the war or about the Americans. I just wanted to go to school, and I was not paying attention to political news or war reports from the South, but other people in the north were very interested in the fighting and finding out what was happening with the war. They were really avid listeners and readers on the progress or non-progress of the war.
I do remember in 1972, Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger were involved in some sort of meeting preparing for the Paris treaty. Hanoi was bombed while the meeting for the peace treaty was going on.
The Northerners, the civilians, wanted to not have war anymore. And they were really interested in the development of the negotiations and anything that had to do about discontinuing the war.
Many people died for the ideal of reunification. In my thinking, North and South are both Vietnam, so they should be one country. As I grew older I read more, and I became aware that the time came in 1956 when they were supposed to have a general election and there would be peace in Vietnam through politics. – peaceful measures – not fighting with weapons. But I learned that they did not agree on what was supposed to happen and that this is why we have the war.
I think that Ho Chi Minh was a hero. I really admire and respect him, as he was a very talented and astute leader. He was like Hitler was in Germany. He started out as a regular citizen, yet he traveled all over the world to try to find a way to regain independence for Vietnam from the French government. He also fought against the Japanese occupation. And that is why I have great respect for him.
I also respect Vo Nguyen Giap. Let me tell you of his positions. He was a general. He was a member of the Politburo. He was the Minister of the Defense Department. He was a talented person. He can speak many languages. He did not have as much respect as Ho Chi Minh did. Ho Chi Minh was a great national hero. Even after 1975 when there were a lot of important people whose names should be remembered in history, people didn’t bother to know those people. They remember first Ho Chi Minh , second Pham Van Dong, and third Vo Nguyen Giap.
When I was around 18 or 19, I thought that if the war was ever to end, it would not end until 1979 or 1980. I never thought the end would come so soon. Not in 1975. Yet I never had any doubt that we would win the war.
Unless you live in a Communist state you would not understand why I think this way. You see the South thought that it would win in the North Knew that it would win. There is a famous proverb in Vietnam regarding military tactics: KNOW YOURSELF, KNOW YOUR ENEMY, AND THEN IF YOU DO THAT, YOU WILL ALWAYS WIN.”
The South did not know anything about how it was in the North. With the North knew everything about the South.
The Northerners were never afraid of the American military forces. Why? A long time ago when I was still a small kid, I heard this declaration from somebody in the American government – some general – who said they would “bomb North Vietnam into the Stone Age.” They told us this in school. And then I remember how the Northerners were being made enthusiastic and patriotic by Ho Chi Minh, and he said that the war would last 5, 10 or 15 years and therefore we had to be prepared all the time. I remember being asked to analyze those statements in school. Then we became aware of our position and our standing in the war. From that understanding we became no longer afraid of the war.
You see, when people are pushed into a corner, there is no choice but to stand into meet trouble head-on. And so there was no more fear, because we had to go on. We were forced into accepting our situation and our fate. We looked above us and there were the Americans dropping bombs on us, and we could only shoot back at them from the ground. If we could restrict the number of bombings, that was good. But what can we do and where could we go to do that? There was no way for us to do anything but accept the situation and do the best we could and not be afraid anymore. And if we wanted to stop the bombing, we had to go to the South and push the Americans out of the country.
That was the only way we believed. That was the only way we can protect ourselves.
Life in the north was not normal because of the constant bombings and the strain of the war. People tried to do what they had to do and everybody went about his business every day. The way things were produced, they were not good quality because of the status of the country. Good quality would have come if we were at peace.
When Saigon surrendered, everybody celebrated and everybody was happy, I think there were four reasons why we celebrated.
First, the families that had members who were sent South to fight were happy and they celebrated because the country was reunited and there would be no more fighting and their loved ones would come back to them.
Second was the new emotional and mental status of the Northerners. Before, life was always hard and people worried; and now with the war finished, people didn’t have to be worrying about things like bombers and living or dying all the time anymore.
The third reason has to do with the ability to reunite with loved ones. Remember, in 1954, there were a lot of people relocated to the South, and during the years that the war was going on, they lost touch with each other, and they didn't know what had happened, who had lived in who had died. Now, with the country being one again, they could renew their relationships.
Another reason, is that the younger generation wanted to visit the South and make comparisons and see what life was really like there.
So, was life really better after 1975 in Hanoi? Yes and no. As far as material life went, it got even worse after 1975. But it was better if you are talking about spiritual, psychological, or inner life. We had a more relaxed mental state after 1975, I would say, and that was good.
But prior to 1975 the Northern government received foreign aid from the European bloc of friendly socialist nations and from China and Russia. Before the end of the war, those countries gave us aid so we could regain control of the South and reunify the country. They had a reason then to give us assistance. But with the victory in 1975, they started to take away aid, so we did not have anything to go on with. Another factor is that after so many years of war the rice fields were destroyed and the roads were destroyed in the rail lines were destroyed – everything was totally or partially destroyed. How can we expect to recover right after the war, after so many years of bottoming instruction?
Let me use an analogy. In the North, my friends and I used to talk about our lives, and we compared ourselves to leaves in a river. Life was a river we said, and we were but leaves floating in that river. We had no control over our lives, or over our fates. Like leaves we were propelled by the stream, helpless to do anything but float along. And leaves can become stuck in clear water or they could be stuck in murky water when they moved along the stream, but they had no control. We had no choice but to live the sort of life that was given to us. Like leaves in the river we were propelled by the current, we moved along, and like the leaves we had no way to choose where or when we would stop. This is how we saw the life that was given to us. This is what it felt like.
When we talked about our lives and our fate there was always a part of me that wanted to break away from that kind of life. There was always a part of me that wanted something more. Something different.
I wanted to be able to be myself and to be able to do things that I chose to do and not what someone else chose for me. I am just a regular, normal person and that is all I ever wanted to be.
The war was planned and carried out by others. We normal citizens had nothing to do with that. We were all like regular people anywhere in the world. We worked every day and we had to try very hard to live a normal life.
And we dreamed.