Ba Tran briefly recalls his life as a student before the war, and discusses his military career as a conscript in the North Vietnamese forces.
Ba Tran briefly recalls his life as a student before the war, and discusses his military career as a conscript in the North Vietnamese forces. He recounts how life in an agricultural commune was difficult, but that he did not experience total starvation. Life in Hanoi was largely more peaceful and stable even during the early years of the war, but stories of American bombings circulated and seeded hatred towards the United States amongst the Vietnamese populace. When he was conscripted, he received basic combat training and was posted to Laos, and later to a car maintenance unit as a guard. He recalls needing to hide military vehicles in the forest and encountering American air strikes with Napalm designed to destroy the forest cover. Ba Tran remains involved in veteran activities, and continues to be recognized by the state for his service.
Born into a farming family in the Hoang Mai District of Hanoi in 1953, Ba Tran recounts that farming life was especially difficult for his family because they did not have a buffalo, and that he did not have much time for personal endeavors besides studying. However, he notes that while food was scarce, the major famine only occurred in 1945, before he was born, and that he never endured starvation. At home, his parents taught him to be a well-behaved son, to study hard and work hard for his success, but did not emphasize the need to serve the country. During this time, he notes that Vietnam was facing American bombings, but that Hanoi was relatively peaceful until the 1970s.
Ba Tran attended a public school until seventh grade, which offered highly reduced tuition rates. He studied Physics, Chemistry, Math, and Literature, and was exposed to historical figures and nationalistic poetry by Vietnamese poets who wrote about the war in Vietnam, many of whose works still remain in the contemporary curriculum. Due to the scarcity and hardship during the war, however, the tradition of students gifting teachers on Teachers’ Day was not strongly upheld, and he remembers being unable to afford such gifts. His community was also not very religious, and families only performed ancestor worship for the safe return of conscripted children at home altars.
In 1966, he received an enlistment letter to join the military. While his parents were proud of their son, both he and his parents were reluctant about his conscription. During his service, he could only write to his parents once every few months, but would receive no replies as mail would not be delivered to the field. In the military, he received basic training on weapons and was then posted to serve in the Laotian Civil War in support of the Communist faction. He was later transferred back to Vietnam into a vehicle maintenance unit. His unit maintained and repaired cars and small trucks (modified civilian vehicles) and delivered them to other combat units. During these drives, he recalls needing to hide his vehicles under dense forest cover to evade detection by the enemy. The US too, responded by destroying the vegetation with napalm strikes. Ba Tran recalls this as the most memorable aspect of the war; he was not afraid and even used these times of hiding in the forest as a break. He also had to bury fallen comrades and evacuate casualties to hospital.
Ba Tran highlights the bombing of the Beach Mai Hospital from December 1972-January 1973 as an important event that seeded hatred against the American forces, as many civilians died. The bombing ceased in 1974, and he returned to Hanoi for peacetime duties. In retrospect, he primarily views the Vietnam War as a time of great economic stress for the country, and finds that South Vietnamese soldiers were not truly fighting for their country, unlike the North. After the war, he was sent to Cambodia as a technical specialist in cars in 1986.
Today, he remains involved in veteran group activities, and continues to receive state recognition and a pension for his military service, which funds his healthcare expenses. However, he does not share his war experience with the younger generation, whom he feels live in better times, and from whom he too, needs to learn from
Transcript 8: Ba Tran
The interview took place in a café in Hoan Kiem district on the 24th of December, 2020. After all the introduction of what the purpose of the interview is, his rights to pass any questions he does not feel comfortable to answer and to not reveal his identity, the interview begins as follows, and other small chats. The following conversation is, however, only the English version one, meaning it is the info the translator interpreted and/or translated based on the questions I ask the question and the answer the interview gives. In this transcript I refer to the translator as “TSL” and myself as “TN”. The interviewee is given the pseudonym Ba Tran.
TN: Okay. we start at 3. 15. Ready?
TN: Are you originally from Ha Noi?
TN: what district?
TSL. Hoang Mai
TN: Skip no.2. Number 3. Do you know if this applies to him?
TSL: Number 3. No
TN: When were you born?
TN: 1953. So, the war started in 1954, or 1955….
TSL: starting in 1970 in Hanoi
TN: The war started until 1970? Or, from 1950 in Ha Noi?
TSL: 1964, 1965. But there was a time when they struggle in the South. They are debating whether……if we have big election between the Ngô Đình Diệm party in the South. They can’t decide and there is no big election. And there is a struggle few years between …before the war actually starts.
TN: Oh...I see. So, it was sort of peaceful time here?
TSL: Yes. Peaceful and there is bombing but not until Ha Noi [read; not in Ha noi]
TN: Okay. What do you remember about your life as a son at that time? Before joining the force?
TSL: he is studying and do some farming and joining the army.
TN: Okay. What kind of school was it?
TSL: So, he study at school until 7 grade, and then at the 1966 he joined the army.
TN: okay. was it village school, like communal school? You know organized by the village, maybe by the head of the village, or maybe some kind of poet, that kind of thing
TSL: he said, he study at government school like public school. There is tuition fee but it’s cheap. Not much..
TN: Okay. What kind of subjects did you study back then? Like Math, geography, literature?
TSL: At 7 grade he study Math, literature, physic, chemistry
TN: Okay. About Literature, do you still remember some books, or maybe poems, songs that you study back then?
TSL: So, he……there is …. the author Văn Cao. He wrote songs and poet is Tố Hữu. artist. He wrote…. poems about the war. He is very famous artist.
TN: Do you think I can still find his poems online?
TSL: Yes. We still have to learn his poems now.
TN: Song. The song is also about war or culture?
TSL: It’s about the war
TN: Okay. Do you….do you yourself write poem or story, or something?
TSL: He did not wrote any song. But, he can sing song about the war. Like Trường Sơn Tây
TN: Do you know this song?
TSL: I just know the title, not the melody. It is like the army song
TN: And he writes poem?
TSL: No. Only Sing. Because they are …they are in the army and there are songs to uplift their spirits.
TN: What about journal and newspapers from his time?
TN: Yea, journal, newspapers, book….
TSL: the newspaper ….e..e…e… do you know Nhân Dân ..?
TN: yea. I know this Nhân Dân
TSL: People’s Army
TN: yea..I still have the link..I think they have it online
TSL: yea..they are big newspaper
TN: So, no. 20. Do you ever bring gift, cake to your teacher? Or anything...
TSL: He said, it’s a different time back then. So, he didn’t have anything to give. It was not habit at that time because of the difficult lie like could not afford to buy something.
TN: Right. . Okay. We go back to farming. No. 5. Beside farming, what do you do before joining the war, before joining the force?
TSL: Beside farming?
TN: yea. Maybe there is something else that he did before…
TSL: Just farming because they don’t have the…. it’s a difficult life back then. They don’t have buffalo
TN: Before joining the force, does he know how to fight, or any skills at all before joining the force?
TSL: He said that he did not learn any skill fighting before but when he join the army at first he was in 30 unit, fighting with the Laos and then. after that he was transferred into e..e…e…. like the guard of the factory of the car and protecting the cars, delivery it to soldiers, repairing..
TN: Making cars?
TSL: No. like guarding the factory of the car….like storage. .
TN: Okay…then, can I say…….e.e.. the first group he joined was just sort of in the village area…provincial or national?
TSL: It was under the ministry of defense
TN: Okay. How did he got recruited? What is the process?
TSL: He said that at a certain age, they call you for the army duty and then he joined because it is the duty to protect the country.
TN: Okay. So, it was obligation, yea?
TSL: yea. Obligation
TN: And can I say, based on last interview, minimum 17? 18?
TSL: About 18
TN: 18. So, it is obligation …e…does he have any brother or sister?
TSL: He has 3 older brothers and he is the youngest amongst the four
TN: and the elder brothers joined the war as well?
TSL: So, the eldest one, he is a factory worker at that time producing steel and that factory is belongs to government …the other two brothers also joined the army.
TN: Two of them
TSL: Two of them
TN: until after the war? After the war they continued to serve?
TSL: So, one, the second child, he changed after he is discharged. He changed to another job and then the third child, he ….after the fight with Laos, his health decreased, not good, he is retired.
TN: Okay. Do you still remember who recruited you at that time?
TSL: So, they issue letter call for duty. The commune send that letter to your house.
TN: So, it’s not like somebody will knock on your door, that kind of thing?
TSL: No. They mail it to your house.
TN: Mail it. okay.
TSL: Like physical letter
TN: Right. And how did his parents react to him joining the fight? I mean I know it was no choice for him. But, were they sad, or? No. 29
TSL: His parents are okay. not crying. Okay for him to go for health check before going
TN: oh. They have health check?
TSL: Yea. They have health check
TN: What happens if somebody is not suitable for the war? They need to do something else in the army, or?
TSL: They will not be chosen
TSL: and they just stay home and do other things like farming and something else
TN: OH. Okay. So, it was obligation but then you still have choice if you are sick or something?
TSL: Yes..if you are sick or …
TN: I see. I believe he will know these organizations. No. 30
TSL: Okay. Do you want to ask about specific names like last time?
TN: Which one?
TSL: Like..Ly Thai Bach…
TN: Oh..yea, we will get there?
TN: he knows all of them?
TSL: He knows only the third one
TN: the third one. Thanh Nien . Did he join it or not?
TSL: No. just know. He did not join.
TN: ehhmm..about the training, we go back to the training time. Ehm…do you remember where did they train you? In the village or somewhere in the city area?
TSL: He said that when he was called, they all transfer them to Thường Tín district. It was not a…like training school.
TN: Okay. What was the name of the district?
TSL: Thường Tín, Hà Tây
Mr. Tu: Ha Noi
TN: is it village area?
TSL: It used to be. But now…it was not like school. It was just like meeting place for them. they stay there for 2-3 months and then went to Hòa Bình and then he joined the unit.
TN: What kind of lessons, skills did they teach you in Thường Tín and in Hòa Bình?
TSL: So, he did not have any training in Thường Tín. It is just a place to wait, for people to come.
TN: for 3 months...? okay
TSL: yea. And then unit come to pick up their soldiers belong to the unit and then at Hòa Bình, he beginning to have training. He learn about how to shoot, shooting and e…e..jumping on the tank
TN: okay, like up and down?
TSL: Up and down because they will have to fight [alongside] with foot soldiers
TN: okay..and what do you remember the most from your training?
TSL: the position of the shooting..he remember most about 3 positions of the shooting. Shooting the AKA, first position is standing, second is half kneeling, and then lying down
TN: Okay...e…wait...did you, before or during the duty in the force, did you hear any news from the enemy side, about how many died.bla...bla, to motivate them, or…
TSL: He said he did not hear any story about the enemy as well as the Vietnamese side. They just follow order because they are soldier.
TN: Okay. can we jump into the second one because he was in the army, about his life in the force? Page 7. What was your responsibility in the army?
TSL: He said that he was a guard for the car storage and then he deliver it to the soldier in the unit 59. So, he deliver to unit 59.
TN: He deliver it on his own or with a team?
TSL: it is a team
TN: it is a team. And how many people in it?
TSL: He did not remember exactly. It depends on the number of the cars
TN: depends. Roughly, it is more than 5 people?
TSL: Around 20
TN: wow. Okay. and what kind of cars we talk about here? Like tank, or?
TSL: this kind of truck [showing me a picture]. Cars with trunk behind
TN: yea, like pick up
TN: So, they produced it at that time in Viet Nam?
TSL: We can’t produce car at that time. We can just repair and it is not military car.
TN: So, if I understand it correctly, because he needs to deliver it to unit 59, then he needs to drive it yea?
TN: Okay. and remind me, what was the name of the unit he was part of?
TSL: J-126. He drove the car from the countryside and deliver it to soldier
TN: Oh. Wow. No. 4. What was the scariest, the most memorable moment during his duty?
TSL: He said, he was in B-5 battle field in Quảng Trị.
TN: Okay. this is the scariest moment?
TSL: No. He said he was not afraid of anything. He was soldier and he said it is common thing for him to sleep in the basement and he eat vegetable, forest vegetable, and then the US….
TN: he was in the forest?
TSL: yes and the US, they fire e…e..e. The canon from the East sea and almost every afternoon.
TN: okay. for how long is this going on? for how many days this US attack takes place?
TSL: he did not mention about the duration. But he said that e…e.e..US…they start firing from…4 in the afternoon until 8 and they use war area in the East sea and they fire long distance canon and they can destroy any storage.
TN: Yea. Does he remember when this happened?
TSL: the year?
TN: if he does not remember the year, then maybe. special occasion like tet, for example?
TN: 1972. Okay. this is interesting story. By sleeping in the forest, do you mean sleeping in the forest like hiding?
TSL: So, he said that the car, they park it under trees, so they have to stay there.
TN: So, he was just taking a break? Because, well he has the cars and so I assume he was about to deliver it and he takes a break coz he parks the cars. Or what? I mean there is canon being fired, so they need to sort of hide in the forest area. Is that what happened instead?
TSL: He said that they place it I the forest to hide it from the US army and the US army, they try to bombing and then put the chemistry toxic in the forest to destroy it.
TN: it is not Agent Orange?
TSL: Agent Orange is used for the battle field with people. Here is just forest and they just use bomb Napan . So, they use it in the forest to destroy the trees, leaves.
TN; it is not like they put it in the water?
TSL: No. they fire it and it will burn
TN: So, it has bigger effect that normal bomb?
TSL: Yes. It is cheaper bomb
TN: but, is it more deadly?
TSL: bomb Napan is specialized for clearing the forest...to destroy leaves
TN: Oh. So, they can clearly? Because that is where Vietnamese army hide at that time
TSL: yes. To disguise the car and it is a lot ...it is used to clear the land for the helicopter to land
TN: Okay. wow. But this experience was not scary for him. It is normal. Memorable but not scary?
TSL: No. not scary. He said that it is memorable for him
TN: Did he ever see people being shot, or injured by the bomb?
TSL: He did witness. Actually his comrade died and he was the one who buried him himself. And he even remember about the name and the hometown of this comrade.
TN: what was his name? comrade…
TSL: Voi, hometown in in Vĩnh Phúc
TN: from his division?
TSL: No. he was bombed by plane B-52 in Quảng Bình and he died.
TN: Did that even make him feel something, not scared maybe, but sad, angry, or anything at all?
TSL: he said that he did feel angry and he hate the US army. But, it was not only him. But the whole people Viet Nam because there was event that plane B-52, they bombed Ha Noi for 12 days and they bomb Bach Mai hospital. A lots of people die
TN: Okay. So, what happened in the forest was part of this 12 days?
TSL: No. it was different event. He just mentioned it as a proof that all Vietnam people hate the US army because they bomb the Bach Mai hospital
TN: Do you remember what year? Bach Mai
TSL: 1973, 13 of January. December 1972
TN: December to January?
TN: and What does he feel about it now? does he still feel angry about this event? Does he feel the same when he remembers it?
TSL: He said he does not feel that way. The two countries has good relationship now. fair
TN: because he joined the war, I want to know if he feels………you know war is not easy to face so I was wondering if he feels…. usually soldier when they come back from war, usually they have difficulty adjusting to life because of PTSD.I was wondering if he experiences the same thing, or he can just live life like normal people?
TSL: He said that he was okay to return back to normal life. in 1973 there was a Paris Treaty to stop bombing. In 1974 he came back to Ha Noi and do duty as normal
TN: Okay. So, no difficulty at all. Let’s go to number 6 page 7. What does he think of Vietnamese army in the South and in the North?
TSL: So, he feels like DRV is people fighting for the country and meanwhile the RVN is just ……they are just soldier hired for Ngô Đình Diệm government, South government. Vietnamese who were fight for the US.
TN: okay. does he think the victory over the war on the part of Viet Nam has something to do with Buddha or any supernatural being, or it was pure struggle of Vietnamese?
TSL: No. pure struggle
TN: Okay. remember your father saw some people still doing religious things in the army? I was wondering if he ever seen people doing religious thing during his duty? Or maybe his mom praying or anything?
TN: no. and his parents?
TSL: for his parents, they did the praying with the ancestor. They burn incense to pray for his safety
TN: okay. was it inside the house, or somewhere in the garden?
TSL: Inside the house like every house did that.
TN: Oh. I see. Okay. did he ever see they do it in village level? Maybe doing village festival
TSL: Nothing at village level. Just in family. personal prayer
TN: Okay. does he know any of these back then, or may be nowadays? Cao dai..Hoa Ho
TSL: No. he said that it was not religious
TN: Does he ever see farmers helping soldiers?
TN: Okay. we go back to page 7 number 5. I was wondering if there is injury due to his involvement in the army?
TSL: No… he said he remember about the memory he had to carry an injured soldier to the army hospital for them to cure him. If the soldier is in your unit, then you will have to bury him.
TN: okay. What is Viet nam war to you? How does he see Vietnam war?
TSL: he feel that Viet Nam war to him is distressful because the Vietnamese people are still poor and difficult times. They hit by the US army in like 30 years, a long period of time.
TN: okay. can we switch to cultural questions, or he has to go now?
TSL: it is okay
TN: Do you remember any respectable people in your time and if they are on the side of the enemy or the Vietnamese?
TN: number 9 does not apply to him. Then number 10. Page 2, no. 10. Do you remember what your parents told you about being a boy, being a son? If they tell him about being a good boy, sacrificing for others, for the country, that kind of thing?
TSL: His parents remind him about good boy, well-behaved at home, study hard, work hard. That’s it.
TN: Okay. What about the importance of sacrificing yourself for other, serving others ad country?
TSL: his parents does not do that
TN: Okay. have you heard of the terms Tam tòng, tứ đức ?
TSL: he heard of it. but he did not know well about it.
TN: During his time, does he ever lacked of food?
TSL: So, the biggest famine is in 1945 in French colonial time and he was not born at that time. In the time of fighting the US, he just see like…we generally have less food, but we still eat. Not rice.
TN: okay. number 27. Nguyen An Ninh…
TSL: He knows Nguyen Bien Khiem and Ly Thai Bach as public figure in the history
TN: Does he know any other public figures I don’t mention here?
TSL: For the poet, there is Tố Hữu. wrote poem about the war.
TN: Okay. we go to page 4 .ehmm… 36-38..political questions..?
TN: Okay, then 39
TSL: He said that he thinks about his duty to his parents, to respect them and then for the country, it is like…very…..it is a big concept for him. He is too small, can’t fulfil it.
TN: Okay. with him being involved in the war, does he see it as a duty to serving the country?
TN: Does it also serve as his way to express his gratitude to his family because if I understand it correctly, in Vietnamese culture, if you can serve the country, it will bring good to family.
TSL: he said that obligation for them to join the army. His parents did not think much about the honor and the fame. They are just proud that his son join the army and they came back, they return safely.
TN: They are proud. Okay. did he ever get a chance to contact his family during his duty?
TSL: He can only wrote for his family in 2 or 3 months. He can only write to his family but his family could not write back coz they won’t delivery letter to the field.
TN: Okay. It is hard. Now we go to page 8. So, we are focusing here on how he thinks and feels from nowadays’ perspective. How do you feel about getting involved in the war?
TSL: he feels that it is fierce war Vietnamese people are …….have to struggle and they suffer from difficult time and how the situation has changed and our life condition has improved much.
TN: Okay. now we go to number 2. How does he feel seeing his hard work now comes to fruition for the younger generation?
TSL: he said that the younger generation has things to learn from him and he has things to learn from younger generation because they are very smart
TN: Right. Does he still get involved in any veteran activity?
TSL: Yes. He still join the veteran meeting and there is an activity of visiting sick people in the community, donating.
TN: what kind of donation?
TSL: money, clothes, money for people in the middle of Viet Nam. They donate clothes for people in the border. He hold that activity for mainly for each other veteran
TN: in the city in Ha Noi?
TSL: his veteran group is in Hoang Mai
TN: When is the next activity?
TSL: He does not know when. He follow order from above
TN: Okay. Do they accept books?
TSL: No book. Just clothes, food and money for old people
TN: Is it okay for outsider like us to join the activity?
TSL: No. he said that he needs to ask permission from above
TN: Okay. go back to this. Number 4. Do you receive any thank you, certificate from the government?
TSL: he receives a lots of medals, certificate. Even from Cambodia?
TN: Why Cambodia?
TSL: in 1986 he went to Cambodia as specialist and he was awarded by the government
TN: What did he do?
TSL: in 7 of January 1986 he went to Cambodia checking the cars for them
TN: What do you mean by checking? The quality?
TSL: the quality for them to do the army parade
TN: Okay. does he ever visit Hoa Lo?
TSL: he haven’t
TN: Why not?
TSL: he said that his home is far away from Hoa Lo. It is just historical place for outsider, foreigner
TN: Okay. Do you ever tell your war time stories to your kids or grandkids?
TSL: No. only talk with his wife
TN: Do you still work?
TSL: No. Only join the veteran community
TN: how does he meet every day needs?
TSL: he lives on the pension around 3 or 4 million per month. For him alone he spends it on medicine and food
TN: is it enough?
TSL: he makes ends meet if he spends it economically and he still buy and sell. you know Grab.
TN: Okay. we are done but if there is something he likes to share I am here.
Interviewee: Ba Tran
Tam tòng, tứ đức is the Vietnamese localization of the Three Obediences and Four Virtues for women in Confucian thought. A woman is expected to remain obedient to her father, husband after marriage, and then sons after his passing, in order of seniority in age. She is also expected to uphold feminine virtue in Ethics (moral behavior), Speech, Visage (keeping up modest appearance) and Works (bearing sons and chaste daughters, remaining committed in a chaste monogamous marriage arranged by the clan etc.)
How does Ba Tran (and his family’s) reluctant acceptance of his conscription destabilize traditional notions of a zealous Vietnamese populace that mobilized in support of national sovereignty and freedom?
How does Ba Tran’s deployments overseas enhance our understanding of the global dimensions of the Cold War in Asia?
Consider the environmental history of the Cold War in Vietnam in light of Ba Tran’s reflections. How could environmental history approaches enhance our understanding of the lived experiences of the Cold War in Asia?
Consider the role of one's personal networks in helping the Vietnamese populace navigate the war, its aftermath, and its memory.