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

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

Paperback(Reprint)

$22.00
View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details

Overview

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253021649
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 378
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nha Ca, meaning a "courteous, elegant song" or "canticle" in Vietnamese, is the penname of one of the most famous South Vietnamese writers of the second half of the 20th century, whose real name is Tran Th Thu Van. She was born in Hue in 1939 and spent her youth there before moving to Saigon where she became a popular and prolific writer and poet. Initially her works focused on love but starting from the mid-1960s in many of her works she began to describe the fighting, atrocities, and suffering inflicted by the war that was ravaging her country. The most significant and famous of these works is Mourning Headband for Hue, which describes the experience of Vietnamese civilians in Hue during the Tet Offensive. This work was one of the winners of South Vietnam's Presidential Literary Award. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Communist authorities put Nha Ca into a prison camp where she remained from 1976 to 1977. Her husband, the poet Tran Dạ Tu, was jailed for twelve years. In 1989, a year after he was released from prison, the couple and their family received political asylum from the Swedish government. Later they moved to the United States and now live in Southern California, where they publish the Vietnamese-language newspaper Viet Bao. Born and raised in Leningrad, USSR, Olga Dror received an MA in Oriental studies from Leningrad State University in 1987 and later pursued an advanced degree from the Institute for Linguistic Studies in the Academy of Sciences, Moscow. She worked for Radio Moscow's Department of Broadcasting to Vietnam. In 1990 she immigrated to Israel, studied international relations at Hebrew University, and worked for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its embassy in Riga, Latvia, from 1994 to 1996. She continued her study of Vietnam and earned a PhD from Cornell University in 2003. Now an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University, she is author of Cult, Culture, and Authority: Princess Lieu Hanh in Vietnamese History and editor of two volumes on Vietnamese and Chinese religions. Her current research concerns the identities of Vietnamese children during the war in Vietnam.

Read an Excerpt

Mourning Headband for Hue

An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968


By Nhã Ca, Olga Dror

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Nhã Ca (Tran Thi Thu Van) and Viet Báo Daily News, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01432-0



CHAPTER 1

First Hours


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.

The room is too cramped with people; moreover the bed takes up half of it. My elder brother Le rolls under the bed; one person piles onto another. A chamber pot beneath the bed tips over; from time to time it is bumped and rolls around with banging echoes, adding to everyone's fright.

Lying in silence for a moment, we regain our composure; all of us begin to listen intently. I lie with my ear pressed against the brick floor. A niece has rolled down to lie next to me, holding her head with both hands, her legs entangling with mine. I ask quietly:

"Ti Na, isn't it too cramped to lie like this?"

"No, auntie. I am very frightened."

"Don't cry."

I caress her. But at this moment deafening sounds of explosions burst in. Ti Na drops her hands and squeezes me tightly; her body shivers; her teeth chatter. Oh heavens, there are gunshots even in the backyard. I hear the gunshots very clearly and with piercing pain. My younger cousin Thái whispers into my ear:

"Now these are AKs. That's it – they [the Communist forces] are now back."

I pull him down:

"Duck down."

"It doesn't matter, elder sister. Let me sit."

The window shutters suddenly burst open, and at the same time the two panels of the door open, then slam back, keeping pace with loud explosions. The sounds of bullets back in the garden become truly intense. My mother slips into the room:

"The Transportation Station has already been hit."

"No, it's Truong Bia military post."

"No, they are striking at the same time everywhere. I hear it from the direction of the Transportation Station, the direction of Truòng Bia post, the direction of the rice fields, the direction of the railroad."

"Shhh! Be silent, please, I beg you! Oh heavens, heavens, heavens."

Appeals to Heaven and Earth suddenly fall flat on the tips of our tongues. The sky lights up with dazzlingly bright flames; the earth violently shakes as if there was an earthquake. Our anxiety is growing. And I cannot lie quiet to hear the sounds of shooting that reverberate and squeeze my chest. I want to sit up to hear more clearly, but the place where I lie is very tight, and it is impossible for me to move. At that moment my younger cousin Thái elbows a space for himself, his legs under the bed and his head half out the door. He strikes a match and immediately there comes scolding in a low voice: "Monkey, put out the match." The match goes out fast. But in the dark, I now begin to imagine things. We all tremble in synch: I, my mother, my elder brother, my younger sister. We all curl up together, trying to overcome our violent trembling, swelling our chests with air to keep the explosions from pressing so much upon us. My younger cousin Thái listens intently for a moment, and then he sits up and crawls into the outer room. The rest of us hold our breath and wait. In a moment, he crawls back and whispers to each person:

"They [the Communist forces] are here; our yard and garden are full of them."

"Shhh!"

Suddenly a lot of hushing sounds sift from people's mouths like the rustling of a light wind.

My elder brother Le's voice is a bit sharp:

"They shoot like firecrackers out there; there is no way they can hear our small noises." Then he continues:

"There is nothing strange about them coming back and hitting Truòng Bia post. Last time they also struck all night long, and in the morning they completely withdrew."

I rejoice inside. By now, we have perhaps endured for a couple of hours. I try to bring my hand closer to my neck to see the face of my watch, but unfortunately my watch does not have phosphorescent hands. And, except for me, there is no one who keeps time with a watch. Anyhow, we place our hope in the upcoming morning. Suddenly, my elder brother Le cries out with an urgent stomachache and diarrhea. So, the chamber pot proves to be useful. We are in trouble as moment after moment our little ones demand to go pee. Over and over Le moans from stomachache, but the chamber pot is too small. We are all lying down, trembling and trying to keep our arms and legs under control to avoid involuntary motions. I try to think about something to suppress my bouts of fear, but no, I can't think of anything. The sound of gunfire reverberates in my brain. My limbs shudder and shiver despite all my efforts to suppress them and to overcome my worry. There are a lot of times when my limbs and my body no longer obey me.

I don't have any control over my body – only endurance. There comes a time when my shivering gradually subsides. And unexpectedly my body, little by little, becomes more spirited. It seems that we have persevered long enough and that dawn is near. I hear the morning commotion in the hen coop behind the wall, coming through the window shutters along with the chaotic sounds of shooting.

Thái has calmed down and sits leaning against the wall puffing on a cigarette. I grope for his hand and hold it tight:

"Thái, has it calmed down a bit?"

"How can I know? We all have to endure this."

I then ask Le, who had stretched out on the bed because he could no longer stand to jostle with others on the floor:

"Elder brother, tomorrow morning it will surely end, won't it?"

"How would I know? I'm in this, too."

I begin to despair. Flashes of fire no longer whiz past the window, but the two panels of the door still swing back and forth with the loud explosions. Large and small guns explode in salvoes from National Highway No. 1, from the pagoda area, and from behind the railway. I reckon that our house, which is also our ancestor-worshipping house, being located in a secluded spot, will survive the surrounding fighting. The National Highway and the edges of fields are directly in front of us; the railway is behind us. Two directions, two enemy sides. One side tramples on Truòng Bia post, the other side tramples on An Cuu Transportation Station.

I cannot lie quietly waiting for the morning. I start a conversation:

"When it's quiet in the morning, it will be frightening to go out on the road."

Thái blows cigarette smoke right into my face:

"That's too bad; if I had a gun, it would have helped against the fear. If I had known, last evening I would have returned to my unit."

"Don't you know whether it will be quiet in the morning?"

I endlessly ask the same question like an idiot: there is no way to know. But now I must be quiet. Morning is here, and they must pull out, or else we will all be dead.

"Oh heavens. Don't talk. They are in the garden."

My younger sister Hà giggles:

"Mother, please don't be so frightened. Elder sister Vân" – she says to me – "in the morning you will go with me to watch the fighting. And you must pay close attention so that when you return to Saigon you can write a Tet war reportage vivid with details."

"Don't be so silly in a situation like this," my mother murmurs in response.

But our bouts of fear gradually abate and we start talking, and when we speak, the words also help to relieve our anxiety. The gunfire in the garden has slowly faded away, but elsewhere around there are still explosions. I am lying down but my eyes do not leave the shutters of the window above the head of my younger sister. I am waiting for when the pitch darkness of the sky out there will be sucked away to diminish the absolute blackness.

Now I need calmness; I need strength. I open my eyes wide and shake myself once; I gather up my stamina and energy. I hope for the morning sky, and now the sky is almost light. Several leaves from the trees float outside the window, first appearing vaguely and then gradually growing clear. My nephews and nieces are thirsty and cry. We wait until the sound of gunfire subsides a little, and only then does Thái go out to bring a glass of water for the two little ones. The sound of gunfire seems to be more occasional; the screen of night diminishes and with it the sense of being caught in a crossfire. My elder brother Le hopes more than anyone else:

"Thái, watch for when the guns are quiet and bring out the Honda motorbike; wait until all is calm, then go up to Tu Ðàm. For sure, my wife and children are very scared over there."

My family is now divided into two. Le is the most fretful. But everything must be all right. When morning comes, it will be quiet, and here is morning already. My mother's lips are less purple, and her limbs tremble less. But our joy does not last long. Exactly at the moment when I hear the sound of hens crowing in the hen coop, the sounds of gunfire again burst out. Immediately there is a loud noise of banging at the door along with sounds of numerous running feet outside in the courtyard.

"Open the door. Open the door."

That's it. We're finished. They [the Communist forces] are here. They are about to flood into the house. My mother's face turns pale; she decides to run around turning off all the lamps that she had just lit. Artillery down at Phú Bài is booming. The sounds of small arms are earsplitting. The door panels are about to burst open from the banging on them. Thái crawls out into the center of the house.

"Shhh, let me go out."

Then he runs out and opens the door wide. There are a lot of familiar screaming and shrieking sounds outside. Just as soon as the door opens wide, the entire house fills with people. My uncle, who lives by the railroad close to the foot of Tai Thái Mountain, and his son Bé, Bé's wife, and the family of his daughter-in-law and other families from his village have flocked into the house. Children and adults make the spacious middle room of the house overcrowded. Several young children are startled out of their wits and collapse in the middle of the house, trembling uncontrollably and peeing in their pants. My uncle says to my mother through tears:

"Oh, elder sister, everything has completely fallen to pieces. Up there, the place is shelled by mortars; old lady Nghe next door to us lost half of her house."

Bé, an adult son of my uncle, holding at once two children in his arms, gasps for air and at the same time talks without a pause:

"There are a lot of them. Auntie, our place up there is now full of them."

I ask inquisitively:

"How were you able to run down here?"

"All our relatives have fled down here. Up there, mortars busted all the houses. As I ran down the road I saw Viet Cong in groups of three or five sitting in the front yards of people's houses."

Suddenly, my uncle looks around and is seized by panic:

"Where is Thu Hong? She carried little Ðien and ran somewhere. Oh death ... my children, my grandchildren ..."

My uncle attempts to tell us more but falls down with a thud because a B40 grenade scores a direct hit on our tile roof. I gape and brick fragments fill my mouth.

Bé rushes out to look for Ðien and Thu Hong.

Someone kicks the chamber pot left under the bed, and it spills out over the floor. Lying pressed to the floor down here, I feel like vomiting because of the stink that penetrates right up into my head, but there is no way to move anywhere else. Children cannot endure the discomfort and join in a chorus of crying that resounds throughout the house. But the sound of crying is immediately suppressed because hands gag their mouths just in case the salvoes of gunfire might pause. Oh heavens, it's already morning; why is it not yet quiet? I turn and anxiously ask Thái:

"Did it last as long last time?"

"No, last time the shooting was less; there was not so much artillery lobbing in as now. And in the morning, they all withdrew."

My cousin Bé is back and crawls to my side:

"Oh heavens, elder sister, you cannot even imagine. I saw them [the Communist forces] covered with blood sitting near Aunt Quyet's garden, and I ran down here as soon as I saw them."

"When they saw you running, did they let you go?"

"They ran after me shooting their guns, and I ran for my life. Up there, it is death for sure, elder sister."

While speaking, he clasps his daughter tightly to his heart. His wife frowns:

"You were going to look for Thu Hong with little Ðien, not to run down the street by yourself to be shot at."

My mother says in a temper to Bé and his wife:

"Death is everywhere and you don't care! Why would the two of you not run to look for them together?"

"Why would we run together? The one who's stronger is the one to run; staying alive now is almost beyond belief."

The husband and wife keep silent, but just a minute later I again hear them arguing. Soon there is the sound of sporadic shooting. Bé rushes into the courtyard and gradually gropes his way to the road. Around twenty minutes later, Bé returns; in one of his arms Bé carries his son Ðien, and behind his back walks Thu Hong. Bé approaches me and lowers his voice:

"Elder sister, I went to look for Thu Hong and little Ðien. I had to cross a road behind the garden. Along the railroad, I ran into them [the Communist forces]. They asked me where I was going and arrested me. There were three of them; one was wounded. I begged them, saying that I am looking for my children who got lost. At first, they decided not to let me go. They asked me what I do for a living. I said: 'I'm a carpenter, and I have lost my children.' Then they let me go. I was thinking that if they tried to seize me, I would risk death to snatch a gun. One of them was wounded, almost dead. Another one was lightly wounded and could not hold a gun. As for the third one, he was even weaker than me ..."

Hà, my younger sister, blusters:

"Enough. You and snatching a gun; you are just showing off."

"I tell the truth; I do serve in the army ..."

Then he all of a sudden remembers his army camp and his fellow soldiers, and he sits down, sad. A moment later, he sighs heavily:

"Another moment and I would have been dead."

People from the upper hamlet who came into my house along with my uncle and my cousin Bé now regain their composure. One bares her breast for a child to suck. Others begin to exchange stories. Each one tells a story that roughly consists of the same elements: seeing a gang of them [the Communist forces], then running, barely escaping death, seeing their bullets, big and blazing red, as though destined to pierce people's faces but for whatever reason missing.

Suddenly, at eight o'clock in the morning, the sound of gunfire bursts from the Phú Cam area. Shells from the cannons at Phú Bài stop falling. Only then do we shuffle out to the yard. The garden with its trees is tranquil, not a shadow of a person, but on the grass and on the ground there are spots of dried blood.

Some tree branches are broken, and the bamboo hedgerow at the end of the garden has fallen, opening the way to the railroad; dry branches were pushed wide apart, making an unobstructed path. Some of us siblings are extremely happy, and everyone quietly rejoices that things have calmed down. My elder brother Le gets ready to go back to his home up at Tu Ðàm. I go out to the water tank in the front yard to scoop some water to rinse my mouth and brush my teeth. Occupants of our house, carrying children in their arms, are in a hurry to go back to their hamlet. My uncle fearlessly rushes out of the house before anyone else, not knowing whether his house is still there or has been destroyed. I try to get on my toes to see the mountains.

Thái asks:

"Elder sister, do you see anything there?"

I let out a sigh:

"It's for sure that last night, on the mountain, graves were treaded upon and disturbed. Father's grave is still fresh."

Thái hangs down his head. He goes out to the water tank to scoop water. My mother shouts, pointing at the chamber pot:

"Thái, take it out and pour it out at the back of the garden."

Le finishes dressing. The Honda motorbike is already waiting in the yard. I say:

"Let me go up to Tu Ðàm with you."

Le says:

"No, it's quiet now, but no one is out on the streets."

However, my brother has not yet finished speaking when we hear the sound of many vehicles driving into town from the direction of the National Highway.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Mourning Headband for Hue by Nhã Ca, Olga Dror. Copyright © 2014 Nhã Ca (Tran Thi Thu Van) and Viet Báo Daily News, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Note on Translation
Translator's Introduction
Small Preface: Writing to Admit Guilt
1. First Hours
2. The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer
3. Hodge-podge
4. On a Boat Trip
5. A Person from Tu Dam Comes Back and Tells His Story
6. Going Back into the Hell of the Fighting
7. Story from the Citadel
8. Returning to the Old House
9. A Dog in Midstream
10. Little Child of, Hue Little Child of Vietnam, I Wish You Luck!

What People are Saying About This

"A superb piece of work. I have never encountered anything remotely like it in the voluminous literature on the Vietnam War. Nha Ca's voice is so powerfully immediate, and her caring determined eyes carefully guide the reader into the thick of a chaotic world painfully under siege. A wonderful testimonial history but also a great work of commemoration."

Nguyen The Anh]]>

Mourning Headband for Hue is a personal account of what happened in Hue during the month-long occupation of parts of the city by communist troops during the 1968 Tet Offensive, a very bloody episode of the Vietnam War which inflicted extremely heavy losses on the civilian population in both human and material terms. Stranded in Hue where she had come to visit her family, the author found herself face-to-face with the war. . . . Horrified, she recounts her experiences day by day as if weeping and wailing in the remembrance of the atrocities she has seen and heard. It is indeed a book laden with blood, sweat, and tears, but records events without distorting them. With explanatory information on many persons and events provided by the translator, the book is a valuable document for the history of the Vietnam War.

Peter Zinoman

The stunning formal techniques the book employs to convey the horrors of [the Vietnam War] endow it with a measure of universal literary significance that lies outside the local arenas of Vietnamese politics and culture. . . . A Mourning Headband for Hue is, quite simply, a great piece of modernist war writing and it deserves to be read alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, Homage to Catalonia, Johnny Got His Gun, The Naked and the Dead, The Things They Carried, and Black Hawk Down.

Nguyen The Anh

Mourning Headband for Hue is a personal account of what happened in Hue during the month-long occupation of parts of the city by communist troops during the 1968 Tet Offensive, a very bloody episode of the Vietnam War which inflicted extremely heavy losses on the civilian population in both human and material terms. Stranded in Hue where she had come to visit her family, the author found herself face-to-face with the war. . . . Horrified, she recounts her experiences day by day as if weeping and wailing in the remembrance of the atrocities she has seen and heard. It is indeed a book laden with blood, sweat, and tears, but records events without distorting them. With explanatory information on many persons and events provided by the translator, the book is a valuable document for the history of the Vietnam War.

Shawn F. McHale]]>

In this searing and unsparing memoir, Nha Ca bears witness to the mindless violence against civilians in war. Her civilian focus is important: in all of the writing on the Vietnam War, too little has been written on the civilian experience of conflict, a conflict that profoundly shaped the lives of millions of Vietnamese. It is important that we read about this violence, and through first-hand accounts: the further we move away from the Vietnam War, and the more we clinically dissect the war in terms of high politics and military strategy, the less we seem to remember that the war, on the ground, could be vicious, brutal, and devastating. A Mourning Headband for Hue is an anguished testimonial to that reality.

Peter Zinoman]]>

The stunning formal techniques the book employs to convey the horrors of [the Vietnam War] endow it with a measure of universal literary significance that lies outside the local arenas of Vietnamese politics and culture. . . . A Mourning Headband for Hue is, quite simply, a great piece of modernist war writing and it deserves to be read alongside All Quiet on the Western Front, Homage to Catalonia, Johnny Got His Gun, The Naked and the Dead, The Things They Carried, and Black Hawk Down.

Shawn F. McHale

In this searing and unsparing memoir, Nha Ca bears witness to the mindless violence against civilians in war. Her civilian focus is important: in all of the writing on the Vietnam War, too little has been written on the civilian experience of conflict, a conflict that profoundly shaped the lives of millions of Vietnamese. It is important that we read about this violence, and through first-hand accounts: the further we move away from the Vietnam War, and the more we clinically dissect the war in terms of high politics and military strategy, the less we seem to remember that the war, on the ground, could be vicious, brutal, and devastating. A Mourning Headband for Hue is an anguished testimonial to that reality.

Heonik Kwon]]>

A superb piece of work. I have never encountered anything remotely like it in the voluminous literature on the Vietnam War. Nha Ca's voice is so powerfully immediate, and her caring determined eyes carefully guide the reader into the thick of a chaotic world painfully under siege. A wonderful testimonial history but also a great work of commemoration.

Heonik Kwon

A superb piece of work. I have never encountered anything remotely like it in the voluminous literature on the Vietnam War. Nha Ca's voice is so powerfully immediate, and her caring determined eyes carefully guide the reader into the thick of a chaotic world painfully under siege. A wonderful testimonial history but also a great work of commemoration.

Customer Reviews