Ba X recalls her transition into adulthood in the midst of the Second Indochina War. Her recollections reveal a narrative of the total mobilization of Vietnamese society on all levels to support the war effort. She reflects on a diverse range of her experiences, as a student, working civilian adult, and as a volunteer in the local militia forces, all of which were inextricably linked to her country’s experience of war.
Ba X recalls her transition into adulthood in the midst of the Second Indochina War. Her recollections reveal a narrative of the total mobilization of Vietnamese society on all levels to support the war effort. She reflects on a diverse range of her experiences, as a student, working civilian adult, and as a volunteer in the local militia forces, all of which were inextricably linked to her country’s experience of war. The traditional Vietnamese values that were inculcated in her from childhood also greatly shaped how she navigated her war experience and how she interprets that experience to this day. She emphasizes how these values and the gravity of the war in Vietnamese history need to be passed onto the younger generations, but observes how contemporary youth do not fully grasp the depth of the nation’s war experience.
Born into a farming family in the Ha Dong District of Hanoi during the famine in 1945, she begins her recount from her late teenage years as she completed her education at age 17. She remembers being trained to abide by the traditional feminine virtues of traditional gender norms of Tam tòng, tứ đức by her mother. At school, she studied humanities subjects and mathematics, but not foreign languages. With the curriculum strongly focused on Vietnamese history and the deeds of national heroes, she is still able to recite nationalist songs and poetry she was taught decades earlier. Her teachers also strongly emphasized Vietnamese values of upholding community spirit and placing the collective above personal interests.
This moral education in the home and school would later significantly shape her response to and interpretations of the war, as she took a government job in the city sewing garments 2 years after graduation. The job also gave her access to government food stamps. She later moved to Yen Bai further north for a factory job.
Although she never joined the national military and did not experience direct combat during the war, she was part of a local youth militia group in Yen Bai, which operated a watchtower to provide early warnings of air raids. There she was trained in weapons handling and first aid skills, and participated in digging trenches and A-shaped canals for soldiers and civilians to hide in when under enemy fire; eventually rising to the rank of vice president and managing the roster for the lookout post. This was a completely voluntary effort with no official conscription notice from the state, and she recalls that her parents, state employees themselves, were supportive and proud of her contributions to the war effort.
Beyond direct paramilitary support, Ba X also explains that the civilian populace participated indirectly in the war effort in various ways. She recalls how farmers would always spare food for soldiers and that scarce resources were always prioritized for the military. Others showed support in non-material forms by praying at ancestral temples for soldiers’ safety, a swift end to the war, and for fallen ones to find peace. She also remembers hearing of Buddhist monks who would hide soldiers in the temples, and of women who voluntarily married war veterans who lost limbs in combat to care for them.
Collectively, Ba X’s reflections show how the war seeped into every aspect of Vietnamese society, and how every citizen came to be mobilized, and more importantly, grew to have a stake in and proactively contribute to the national war effort. Her closing remarks about the challenges of passing on the same strong sense of involvement in the national agenda that she felt to future generations also shows how Vietnam’s national memory of war is changing and being renegotiated in recent times.
Transcript Interview No. 2: Ba X
The interview took place on the 27th of December, 2020 at the house of the interviewee in Hoang Mai District, Hanoi. After all the introduction of what the purpose of the interview, her rights to pass any questions she does no feel comfortable to answer and to not reveal her identity, the interview begins as follow. The following conversation is, however, only the English version of the interview, 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”, the interview as “X” and myself as “TN”. In addition, the interview also wishes to remain anonymous.
TSL is speaking with the interviewee about her family, and then introducing the goals of the interview, etc.
TSL: just speaking about my family
TSL: and she is the third person that my aunt refers to.
TSL: that she wants us, for us to interview..that she is okay
TSL: that is the one
TN: I thought we just do the couple
TSL: the what?
TN: the husband and wife.
TSL: that one and this one.
TN: Okay. three people…in the same group yea? Veteran group?
TSL: in the neighborhood and yea
TN: Okay. So, thank you for inviting us to your house and letting us to hear your story. Are you originally from Ha Noi?
TSL: Ha Dong
TN: When were you born?
TSL: during the hunger
TN: the famine
TSL: the famine ..yea..
TN: okay..okay . DO you remember what your childhood looks like back then, and teenager, as daughter, as teenager?
TSL: she was a student…and then she ,..her family is farmers..and after school she went to do..ehmm…sewing ..sewing for the government.
TN: oo..okay..like factory?
TN: Do you remember at what age? at what age?
TN: Did you get paid for this?
TN: Monthly. With rice or money?
TN: Do you remember how much per month?
TSL: about 25-440 thousand Vietnamese dong
TN: Did you have food stamp at that time?
TSL: yes. She said, food stamp. She said she used to work in Ha Dong, then move to Yen Bai for factory.
TN: Is it in the North?
TSL: Yea..in the North
TSL: a big… big factory in Yen Bai like more than 150 people
TN: More than that.
TSL: yea..more than that.
TN: Okay. Wait..ehmm.. this one after she graduated from school? Moving to Yen Bai?
TN: DO you remember what year was that?
TSL: So, she study in Yen Bai,
TN:O..study in Yen Bai.
TSL: she finished in the age of 17, 2 years later she work in the factory.
TN:Okay. So, she studied in Yen Bai, then graduated at the age of 17, and then working at the age of 19?
TN: yes. Okay.So, she worked in 2 places, the sewing place in Ha Dong, this in Ha Dong, and then in Yen Bai another factory?
TSL: No Ha Dong. So, this one is the same factory. She moved..
TN: Okay. Right. This big factory. Okay.
TN: Do you remember what did you study at school, Math, Literature, History, language?
TSL: Yes. History, Math, Geography, literature.
TN: No. Okay.
TSL: Yen Bai is mountainous area so the…
TSL: condition..the learning environment is not very good. They have to learn and, like collect leaves to make a roof for the house.
TSL: wooden desk and chairs
TN: So, it was village school, or government school?
TSL: Village school from the government
TN: government school. Okay.
TN: DO you write poem or sing?
TSL: Yes…yes.. she wrote poem until now. and she just wrote a poem about Covid. You want to see?
TN: Yea..she can recite it because it will be recorded if she reads it out loud. It will be recorded.
[she recites her poem in Vietnamese language]
TSL: she has more poems
TN: Okay. and sing too?
TSL: yes ..She joins in..ehhmm.like a group of people who sing in the provincial level.
TSL: in the area
TN: in the area
TSL: yea..in the area. If there is any occasion like independence day and if there is any songs related to that thema.
TN: Do you remember any poem from …ehm..how do you say it, like from the poets in the pas, or songs from singer in the past, book story, novel, that kind of thing?
TSL: She just told me 4 songs; Trường Sơn Đông, Trường Sơn Tây, Chiếc gậy, Trường Sơn
Now you want to know about the book as well?
TN: Yea..May be story that inspire her until now.
TSL: she..don’t do reading that much. Busy
TN: right. I was wondering if she knows Hyunh Phu So?
TN: Nguyen An Ninh?
TN: Ly Thai Bach?
TN: Nguyen Binh Khiem?
TN: That’s it probably. Sun Yat Sen would be okay.
TSL: Tôn Trung Sơn?
TN: That’s very interesting. What about history, what do you remember about history? Did you study Vietnamese heroes from the past? world history?
TSL: mainly just Vietnamese heroes
TN: So, you were single yea when you are in Yen Bai? She was still single? She’s married already?
TSL: she was single
TSL: you want to close the door?
TN: yea..Is it possible?
TN: Do you remember what your parents taught you about being good woman?
TSL: Yes. Her mother taught her to remember ..the traits of woman,
TN: tứ đức, Tam tòng..
TSL: and she still reminds that to other people when she went to the wedding ceremony
TN: and to her grandkids as well?
TN: What about being hardworking?
TSL: Yes..her parents remind her to hardworking, honest well- behaved,
TN: What about being self…not selfish, sacrificing your needs, or putting your needs before others, elderly, brothers, before country?
TSL: She is still… her parents taught her to be not selfish, selfless, and put the whole team first, before individual, herself and she still remind her child and grandchild about helping others.
TN: Okay. I’m speechless..ehmm..do you also learn how to cook and take care of the house from your parents?
TN: Do you think women in your time also know how to cook and adhere to the same idea of beauty as you are?
TSL: You combine two questions yea? Do you…
TN: Do you know if women in her time also know how to cook, and also have this kind of belief in being good woman. You know what I mean?
TN: And..what was the idea of beauty, women’s beauty, in your time like? I mean was it good traits, or anything else, like about having internal qualities, and physical wise, what was it like?
TSL: It’s not about the appearance, whether you are short or have ugly face. It is just more about ethics, inner beauty, you to be well behave, be kind to other people.
TN: This kind of thing, you did not learn at school? Only in family?
TSL: The teachers also remind them
TN: Okay.. but not in the book?
TSL: No, just remind them.
TN: Okay..the teachers ..just teachers
TN: Do you think people, women especially, in your time speak calmly and softly?
TN: Do you feel proud that your parents taught you this lesson, or feel something else? What kind of feeling?
TSL: Yes, she feels grateful because her parents taught her to be a good person..ehmm..unlike nowadays there are a lots of people with [read-without] that ethics..they do not get good teaching from their parents.
TN: Okay. When did you join the war? Did she ever join the army force?
TSL: It’s like a local group
TN: Local group? What’s called, xa-viet..? Local group in Yen Bai?
TSL: Yen Bai
TN: What they do there? Training?
TN: xa-viet Tien Dao, yea?
TSL: DO you know mi….mili……
TSL: Militia..self-defense. They have like a tower watch and if they see any plane flying, then they will ring the bell to notify the villager to hide.
TN: a…in the village, in the village level, okay.
TN: Do you remember how you get involved in it? I mean somebody recruited you?
TSL: Until certain age, they join this group because they are all in like the waiting status to join the war.
TN: So..waiting status, is it before 17 or 18?
TSL: At the age of 17, even 16, they are willing to join, because that time the fighting spirit is very high.
TN: Okay..so she joined this in the local village at the age of 16, 17,18,or 19 because she moved to Yen Bai at the age of 19?
TN: Did you do special duty at that time in the force?
TSL: She ….she ..is the vice president of the team. So, she assigns people to watch the tower and she also handle guns.
TN: Handle gun?
TN: In what way she is handling it? Distributing, or shooting?
TSL: She got one gun for self-defense and yea, watch.
TN: AKA, or small one like pistol? Small one?
TSL: No..like the…[making gesture to AKA type gun]
TN: AKA, okay. AKA something
TSL: Like auto type. You can shoot many shoots
TN: This group were for women only, or mix of sex?
TN: hmmm..and what kind of training did they teach you when join as a member?
TN: Communication..may da..may da?
TSL: ehhmmm..she learns how to shoot, they train her how to shoot like the correct position,
TN: 3 positions?
TSL: No. ehmm…that you need to put your gun above your shoulder, the last part on your shoulder..your gun is close to your chin, your cheek..cheek..then aim the target
TN: and how to hide?
TSL: what is your question?
TN: what other training they got here? Shooting only? And then something else? Like how to hide, how do first aid.
TN: first aid skills? And hiding?
TN: Do you have bunker, something you did underground?
TN:hmm..is it big one?
TSL: There is a tunnel which is shaped like A
TN: A- shaped tunnel
TSL: the tunnel that is small..the one..this one is big one
TN: this one is big? How many people can get in there?
TSL: there is one hole..long hole
TN: like canal?
TSL:yea..like canal for you to hide from the bullet, then you rise when you shooting, in the army.
TN: that is for soldier to hide?
TN: when they fight with the enemy?
TN: But, this one [I point to the A-shaped drawing I made] is for civilians?
TSL:soldiers and civilians
TN: hmm..okay. Did you get involve in digging these holes? Did she get involve in digging..the digging of the holes…two of them?
TN: was it easy? The land, the soil in in the mountain, was it easy to dig, or was it difficult? And how many are we talking about?
TSL: how many what?
TN: because it is A-shaped, so how many holes? and for this one [pointing to the drawing of canal] how long? like 2 meters, 3 meters because canal.
TSL: So, you want to know how many?
TN: ehmm..for this one how long because it canal, it will be like pipe
TSL: yea..how long? And then..
TN: for the A-shaped, I suppose A-shaped would be like this ..[me drawing a couple of A-shaped that are not connected to each other], or they are connected to each other? how many? More than one?
TSL: So, for the A-shaped, it depends on your needs; if that area too many army, the enemies is often shoot through that area, and you need more than just regular area. for the canal, about less than 100 meters
TN: less than 100 meters. Okay.
TSL: 10-20 meters
TN: So, did you ever use it to hide? As hiding place
TN: Both of them, yea?
TN: How long was it, the longest..?
TSL: it tend to always a group of soldiers..
TN: yea..yea..to shoot the enemies and hide when the enemies pass?
TSl: for the canal..for the one who Join to fight enemies and who is in the guarding post. So, she used to use it.
TN: the A-shaped?
TSL: the A-shaped and the canal shape
TN: right. What was the longest hiding you had to do at that time? The longest one
TSL: like minutes, hours..?
TN: yea..like minutes, hours
TSL: like 20, 15-30 minutes
TSL: She said she contribute to the war for long time and after the war she still contribute to the group of building the country. work for the government, like my dad she warded for the government worker to recognize her effort, her hard work.
TN: okay. right. We will go back to it later again. Do you ever had to use your gun?
TSL: still haven’t got the chance
TN:hahhaha…..Okay. what do you remember the most from your training?
TSL: So, she feel most about the communal… [interruption from the granddaughter]
TSL: She remember the most about the steps that…the steps to shoot, if you follow the steps, then you will shoot at the center..center at the target.
TSL: the center of the target is divided by the numbers. If you shoot the center, you get 10 points, for example, and 9,8,7,6 like that..and if you failed during the process that you are aiming, then you will miss the target. And she fell very proud when she hit 99 or 10 that means the target is at the center of the target.
TN: the center is not 10?9?
TSL: it is 10
TN: like this 10,9. 8, [me drawing the target board with numbers..]
TN: how long was this training for?3 years? Few months only?
TSL: 2 weeks
TN: 2 weeks. Okay. And you..you did not know how to shoot or other skills before joining the force, yea?
TSL: No. She knows it after the training and steps to shoot, and ..
TN: Did we know how she happen to get involved, yea? in the self…in this group in defense. Somebody introduced it to her, or it was a call, like letter?
TSL: it is voluntary
TN: for women voluntary?
TSL: for all. The patriot back then is very high. They love country. they all willing to join the force, the army. This defense force. Unlike nowadays
TN: Okay.So, it was voluntary and so many people want to join the army
TSL: They have to win the enemy, win the war so they can get the country back and for us to be safe, guarantee us safety.
TN: did you serve here until the end of the war? In this group?
TSL: She works many many jobs at that time. When….while she is part of this self-defense force, she is still work for the clothing factory.
TN:oo..yea. the sewing
TSL: the sewing…and also she is an official member in the People’s Committee at the village level, and later provincial level, Yen Bai provincial
TN: this one is after the independence? The official member
TSL: Yea..that one is after the independence and she is assigned, like they assigned her for many jobs. She can say no, but she wants to take it as contribution for the society because she feels as a proud job and she think she can do it.
TN: right. This sewing factory, is it for army.. the sewing, or clothes for ordinary people?
TSL: It is for civilians
TN: For civilian.Okay. ehhmm..how did your parents react when they knew that you joined the force? Were they proud, scared, glad?
TSL: No fear because her parents also work for the government. They even encourage her to join.
TN: Okay. Do you have brother and sister?
TN: They joined the war too?
TSL: Remind me
TN: the encouragement to the brothers, or sister. She did not need to do it?
TN: She did not need to encourage her brother and sister, did she? They join voluntarily?
TSL: No. They all voluntary. None force them
TN: right. Yes. It is part of the duty.
TN: was it difficult as woman to be in the war and in the army, for you?
TSL: No. she feel that women and men ae the same and she has to walk through this bridge ..the one with only one tree branch ..very small
TN: was it easy for someone who never tried it?
TSl: you need to try the bamboo one
TN: This is part of the training, yea?
TSL: Part of the training. They all overcome it.
TN: Okay. But, what was the most challenging thing in the force during her duty in the force, in the militia defense..what was the most challenging thing that she had to overcame?
TSL: nothing. They are patriotic. She need to overcome everything.
TSL: she is very familiar with bullets and bombing ad she feels it triggers something in her that helps her to overcome all the challenge
TN:So, because you are familiar with bomb and bullets, it sort of kills your fear, yea? Makes you brave.
TN: No.She is familiar with bullets. Familiar with bullets, bomb so I sort of triggers her to be braver, kills the fear? Is that what happened?
TN: you can ask. Is that what she said?
TSL: Near her house, there is this school teach medicine for people and it was bombed by the enemy and she…she..
TN: In Ha Dong, or Yen Bai?
TSL: Yen Bai
TSL: and she saw three bomb holes which is very large, near her house and because the enemy drop that bomb in that school a lots of people die ad when she did the soil to do farming, she saw a lots of dead body and clothes,
TN: oh..wow. how did you feel finding that dead bodies?
TSL: She feels sorry, angry for them because they are students who are very young like the age of her grandchild now, just about 20 years old, they very young and they come to the school to learn how to save people but instead they lost their lives. it is very regretful.
TN: Right. Yea. Did you ever see any other people suffer from this war? Beside this one
TSL: like injured people?
TN: ehmm…or may be got bombed, may be injured-survived, injured-died
TSL: Yes. There are people who lost their body part like both legs, lost one arm, injured soldier like invalids in different kinds of level; level 1,2,3
TN: This one all in Yen Bai?
TSL: In Ha Noi and Yen Bai. She saw it everywhere because the war is on national scale
TN: Before this event, did you ever hear news about wounded Vietnamese, may be in the south? Or wounded enemies? From both side..you know the wounded soldier and the…
TSL: story about them?
TN: yea..story about them before she saw this event
TSL: She met nurse, and she told her about wounded vietnamese soldiers ,not US..not the enemy
TN: ehmm..So, if you see this kind of sad thing everyday, how did you and your friend motivate each other to stay strong, to stay brave, that kind of thing?in the camp..in the militia, or around in the community?
TSL: there are people..they are voluntarily to marry the invalids to take care of them..
TSL: Married male soldiers who lost their legs..to take care of them
TN: oh..wow. I see. Do they have gathering everyday to sort of encourage those who got injured, to, I don’t know, to be able to stay strong. Gathering..to give psychological motivation..support..emotional support , that kind of thing?
TN: no. back then
TN: and you never get injured?
TN: No. Okay. Do you ever see, may be your parents?Did they ever pray for your safety, your brother’s, and sister’s?
TN: where? in sort of ancestor worship?
TN: Okay. Do you remember seeing any, may be communal praying in the village level, to pray for the safety of the soldiers, for people to get, for those who got wounded to heal faster.?
TN: yes.Praying..for the war to get over soon
TSL: yes.They come to the temple..to pray for the lost soldiers and hope that they will rest in heaven and hope they can have good after life.
TN: this one is after the war?
TSL: No. In the old days
TN: Did they also do it back then in the village where you live?
TSL: they do not have time to do that
TN: Okay. no then
TSL: They are busy fighting
TN: yeah. Did you ever hear, may be Buddhist monk, or other religious people helping soldier in any way?
TSL: She heard that some monks, they hide solider in the temple from the enemy
TN: Okay. what about the help from farmers? may be food, info, that kind of thing
TN: yes. Okay.
TSL: yes, because they always put solider first. We will support them by any way. In any way.
TN: right. Okay. I need to [flipping pages of the questionnaire]
TN: Do you ever see your contribution to the war as your way to express your duty to family, to country, to Vietnamese, and to the nation?
TSL: Joining the war?
TSL: Yes. She said, it is her responsibility to protect the family and the country as well
TN: Okay. what do you think about being good individual as the foundation of good society and good country?
TN: During your life time, in your area, was there any rich people around and were they helpful to the cause, to fight the enemies?
TSL: to soldier?
TN: yes..to fight the cause
TSL: To fight the cause?
TN: Yea..during the war..the cause is the goal. Okay, let me rephrase it. were they helpful to the soldier?
TSL: Yea. They did help
TN: Do you every lack of food. Not being able to eat?
TSL: No. She said, during the war time, they had to be supportive ..all the good food for the soldier so that they have strength to fight the enemy. They eat rice together with other stuff like potatoes, cassava. Prioritize soldier
TN: Okay. do you think the victory on the part of Vietnam has anything to do with the divine being, or it was pure the struggle of Vietnamese people?
TSL: it is the effort of the Vietnamese people. A small part is more ancestor’s blessing and also the help from foreigners like Russia
TSL: Foreigners friends
TN: Okay. Nowadays, looking back at the past, what do you think of Vietnam war?What is Vietnam war to you?
TSL: Vietnam is a strong country and they are small but they are very heroic. They can win against very large country..powerful country back then
TN: okay… If you remember you story, how do you feel now about being involved in the war?
TSL: she feel proud, she has contributed to the war ..although she contributed very little in the whole world, but she still feel she has something to do with winning
TN: yes..and then how do you see what you did back then for generation nowadays?
TSL: It is not very related to your question, but I will..ehmm,,she feels that living conditions then in the war time is different. It is more difficult and it makes people strong, more patient, more sacrificing more for the country. now young generation is not like that. They are selfish, they are weak and they are afraid..and compared to that time, she thinks that if people back then achieve like 10 points, the youngster nowadays only got 3.
TN: Okay hahha..
TN: are you still engaged in veteran activity?
TSL: no. she joined the group and the other group, not the veteran activity. She is old now. she can only participate in the some groups
TN: Okay. Beside that [me pointing to the certificate hanging on the wall], do you receive any other thank you?
TSL: certificate. It is from the city, not government, one medal and one certificate from Yen Bai
TN: okay. Do you ever tell your story to grandkids a, or may be kids?
TSL: yes ..but the kids do not..
TN: did you every visit Hoa Lo? Or do you want to visit Hoa Lo?
TSL: she has not gone to that, but she wants to go
TN: Do you think you were being so strong, one of the reasons was because you adhere to the traditional teachings, you know …about being good person, sacrificing for others. Was it also part of the reason why she was so strong in her spirit to fight. You know what I mean. She is believing in the idea of being good person, sacrificing for others, that kind of thing. I was wondering that is one of the reason she thinks why she was so strong in the spirit. You know, and can overcome anything that comes on her way.
TN: hhmm..everybody in your time like that?
TN: Okay. final question. How is your life now? do you still work?
TSL: No. she has retired.
TN: That is it. thank you. Xinh com on.
Interviewee: Ba X
1. 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.)
To what extent can we consider the Vietnam War as a “rupture” in the historical trajectory of Vietnamese society? What changes and continuities can we observe across the duration of the Cold War in Vietnam?
How does Ba X’s experience illustrate the agency of Vietnamese civilians in responding to the outbreak of war?
What challenges and opportunities did the war present to Vietnamese society?
How far was the Vietnamese people’s responses to the war shaped by traditional values, culture, and earlier history? What were the mechanisms of knowledge production about, and surrounding, the war? How did the experience of war shape the notion of citizenship for the Vietnamese people?