Linh Chi recounts her experiences in both Indochina Wars against the French and South Vietnamese/American forces
Linh Chi recounts her experiences in both Indochina Wars against the French and South Vietnamese/American forces. She speaks of enduring poverty during the two wars, and needing to work to support her family, particularly after her husband became ill. She served in the Communist Party as an agricultural instructor, and joined her local Youth Union’s paramilitary self defense group, but never entered combat. Vietnamese society, in her view, was undergoing a transition across the two wars, where traditional gender norms, while still acknowledged, were being renegotiated. Despite her involvement in the Communist movement, she also mentions finding ways to sidestep regulations such as evading the payment of blood tax. Her recollections reveal greater complexities in the Vietnamese people’s views of, and involvement in, the war effort, destabilizing dualistic labels of wholly supportive or apathetic responses.
Born in Hanoi in 1941, Linh Chi experienced the 1945 famine, recalling that rice was scarce and had to be substituted with alternative starches, but that she never experienced starvation. Under French rule, she lived in poverty and worked as a servant in an affluent household. Her father served in the war against France, but the family’s circumstances did not improve after the French were defeated. She also performed as a singer at cultural performances of revolutionary songs, where she met her husband. She was eventually recognized for her academic abilities and given the opportunity to attend university, where she majored in agricultural sciences. However, her financial difficulties continued into her marriage in 1963, when both she and her husband had to take jobs as teachers at the vocational school to support their family. She taught practical lessons in agriculture, while her husband trained schoolteachers. The need for both parents to work left them with little time at home with their children.
The key difference she highlights between the wars against the French and the Americans is that the wealthy landowning class was eliminated by the second war. Under the communal cooperative system, she remembers neighbors being more caring and helpful towards one another, accepting hardship as a fact of life. The only differentiation between families was how some had more to eat. She also joined the local Youth Union’s militia group and received training on weapons handling, but was never deployed into combat. Despite her involvement in the Communist movement, she was not willing to participate in the war enterprise, and mentions finding ways to avoid conscription and evade the blood tax. She was exempt from these contributions as her husband was declared clinically unfit to serve in the military after contracting malaria.
With an ill husband, she had to assume greater responsibilities for her family. She notes that the war years were a time of transition for Vietnamese society, where traditional notions of gender norms were still present, but not actively enforced. Women had to take on new roles during the war; learning to juggle domestic duties with work and contributing to production. While traditional beauty standards derived from Chinese culture were still valued, she did not actively abide by them.
However, some traditional practices, such as ancestor worship, persisted through the war. Victims of air raids ensured that the reconstruction of their homes always began with the altar. Communities continued to pray for the soldiers’ safety and victory in the war. Ultimately, Linh Chi concludes that the wartime generation was motivated by a complex combination of love for their country, their fellow citizens, and a desire for freedom from suffering. Her recollections show that citizens skillfully navigated pragmatic and personal concerns while remaining committed to the war cause.
Transcript 6: Linh Chi
Linh Chi (pseudonym) was a high rank member of the Communist Party [CP] before she retired. She is the grandmother of the translator. Like other former soldiers we are not allowed to ask questions related to politics. The interview took place at one of her sons’ in Ha Dong. the 14th of November, 2020. After the introduction of what the purpose of the interview is, his rights to pass any questions she 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 and the answer the interviewee gives. In this transcript I refer to the translator as “TSL'' and myself as “TN”. On this occasion we were joined by her son who occasionally joined in the conversation and whom I refer to as “dad”.
TN: Alright. So, we just go from one question to another. So, are you originally from Hanoi?
TSL: her country actually……. the original home town was in Nam Dinh, so in the North. But, she was born in Ha Noi.
TN: Okay. was born when?
TN: 1941, okay. So, the second question does not apply. Were you married by that time? She was married by the time of the war?
TSL: What war do you mean?
TN: Okay. She experienced only Viet Nam War, the American war, not the French one?
TSL: Also the French
TN: she was not married by the time of the French war. But, was she married by the time of American war?
TSL: So, she got married by the time of the war. When it was like …1963……. during the war with the US.
TN: Do you remember about your life as a daughter and wife?
TSL What time?
TN: During the American war, she was married…….
TSL: So, after she got married?
TN: Yea. What is it like as a wife back then and as a daughter, well during the French war? Was it difficult?
TSL: She was very poor...she had to be servant. So, like……at the French time, she was very poor and she had to…like…. earning living as servant in the rich family.
TN: Yea..yea..and then French got kicked out…? What happened...
TSL: She only remember she was very poor at that time. Even after victory over French.
TN: Yea...and then after that time, she directly met the husband, or she needed to wait for sometimes? I assume the husband was the one who works for the family.
TSL: So, at that time both of them earn the money. So, both of them were teachers.
TN: Oh. Wow. What did she teach?
TSL: It’s like vocational school for……so my grandfather teacher vocational school for education. My grandmother for agriculture.
TN: Okay. as a wife, as working wife, was it difficult for her?
TSL: It was very hard at that time. In general, at that time is too difficult.
TN: I see. Then no. 5. Teaching. I think she answered that question already. No. 6. You know Blood tax?
TSL: I think she knows
TSL: So, my grandfather was sick at that time. So, they didn’t call him into the military. So, he used to teach in the Malaria area. So, he got that Malaria. So, they did not call him into the military.
TN: So, she did not need to pay any tax?
TSL: No. They just...like……So, they don’t have ……. it’s like they just try to go against the law…. [by]To make themselves not meeting the standard, so they did not have to pay anything.
TSL: There are several ways for them to avoid being called into war
TN: there are several ways?
TSL: Yea. Like trying to…………. sick or something
TN: ah...But your grandfather was seriously ill?
TSL: Yea. He was seriously ill. So, he did not have to go
TN: Okay. Ehhmmm…...Do you remember any honorable men or women in her area and how they behave?
TSL: So, only in the area yea?
TN: Yea. Maybe village leader
TS: So many people
TN: So many people. Were they protecting their neighbors, Vietnamese, or rather, you know?
TSL: They helped each other. She said it is not like the French time. At that time people really care for each other.
TN: Did you ever bring any traditional cakes or gifts for her teachers?
TSL: For her teachers, or the teacher of my parents?
TN: the teachers in the war time or maybe other honorable people, to pay respect, to express love, that kind of thing
TSL: oohh...wait. I think at that time it will be the teacher of my father…
TN: The teacher of your dad?
TSL: ehhmmm...she was mother...and yes she brought gift. But very little. It was just symbolistic. The value…. the money value is not high.
TN: It was mostly food?
TSL: Chè, cigarette
TSL: Yea. But low quality. Whatever they got in hand
TN: What did you feel about rich people in your area at that time?
TSL: During US and French?
TN: US only I suppose…because she was still small during French
TSL: No rich people.
TN: land owner?
TSL: No. The land belongs to the collective. So, no rich people. There is only people who have enough to eat, or not have enough to eat. But, no rich people.
TN: Okay. Then this one. No. 10 is no. No. 11. Do you remember your parents telling you about knowing your place as a woman, that kind of thing and then maybe an example of specific event?
TSL: The parents were very poor. They were just never being at home to teach their children.
TN: Okay. ehmmm... No. 13. Di you think of life difficulty as a woman was a result of karma, or it was just life?
TSL: By the time she was born, everybody was the same and she just accept it. It’s just something that happen. They understand because at that time our country was in difficult situation. They just understand and accept it. nobody complain. But it just happens.
TN: Okay. Do you remember about any famine in your time?
TSL: Okay. So, in 1945 there was a huge famine in Viet Nam. But, after that time, people were hungry but not to the point if famine. So, they did not have rice to eat, but they eat cassava, or sweet potatoes. So, they have little to eat, but not nothing to eat at all. They survive on porridge or cassava, not rice.
TN: Did she join any force?
TSL: No, they are women
TN: As civilian, did she get trained in how to protect themselves?
TSL: Yea. They were trained to shoot, to hide, to take shelter
TN: Did you attend communal, cultural school, or ….?
TSL: Universal school. So, it is kind of ….it is not government official school…
Dad: teachers not professional
TSL: Like…. not…. the literate teaches the illiterate. So, it’s very local- based.
TN: So, like community school?
TN: No payment needed?
TSL: No. they volunteer
TN: Is it how to write and read?
TSL: Yes, and calculation. At that time, they want to end altogether illiteracy.
TN: Did you write or read poem?
TSL: She used to write poem when she was small. She got the second prize in the city.
TN: Do you remember any of it?
TSL: “When uncle Ho comes...”
TN: That is the title?
TSL: No…no. that is the first sentence. It was poem to …children’s admiration toward uncle Ho [Ho Chi Minh}
TN: And she wrote it?
TSL: Yea. She wrote the poem for uncle Ho and then won the second prize.
TN: Was it in the communal school?
TSL: she studied in the primary school, state primary school
TN: After the communal school?
TSL: yea, after the communal school
TN: So, after the communal school, and then the primary school, …
TSL: Only poor people can join that school
TN: Which one, the primary school, or the communal?
TSL: The primary school
TN: Did she go to the next one?
TSL: She got to Đại học
TN: university. What did you study in university?
TN: Agriculture. Okay
TSL: Because she studied so well. She was excellent. So, she got into the university.
TN: I see. She’s smart.
TSL: She was agriculture engineer
TN: Oh. Wow. agriculture engineer. What does she do. Like engineering plant, food?
TSL: So, …. like…. plants……production, like plants doctor
TSL: it is something to do with chemical
TN: Do you know any songs from your time?
TSL: She was singer during her time. I think she met my grandfather when she engaged in the activity.
TN: in public?
TSL: in kind of cultural events. So, the songs are mostly revolutional
TN: Oh...like hero war songs. Does she remember any of the title? Can I see it on Youtube
TSL: When she went to school, there was even songs for children on the war. So, like to commemorate uncle Ho. Trống Cơm. You know at that time we have to produce rice for the front, for the war.
TN: During the US war?
TSL: Yea. So, in the North, they, the fore activity is producing rice, not movement. That we have to produce and then share it together. So, there is that song.
TN: Can I find it online you think?
TSL: yes. Sure
TN: People singing it when they plant rice ...hahaha... Do you know any newspaper or journal, or books from war time?
TN: No. 19
TSL: Thanh Niên, Nhân Dân. These are like…. from the Communist Party
TSL: Thanh Niên is for the youth
TN: What about books? No?
TSL: So, all kind of……like a …Russian…USSR books called “the Steel was not tempered”,
TN: How the steel was not tempered? It was Russian?
TSL: “Thép đã tôi thế đấy” . So, communist book
TN: okay. How the steel was tempered
TSL: Most of them communist books. Many of them translated……communist
TN: is it history book. Or is it fiction, novel?
TN: Okay. No. 20. I think we’re already got the answer. No. 21.
TSL: So, the spirit at that time, everyone go to fight against the US and the country. So, everyone at that time have the same spirit.
TN: Their parents did not need to tell the children to go?
TSL: her father used to be soldier and got injured.
TN: Against French?
TSL: yea... against the French
TN: Was he still alive by the time of US- VN war?
TSL: He died I around……. around 1967
TSL: He died in 1967
TN: So…she was not involved in any war directly. So, no. 22 does not apply.
TN: Well, do you remember …….
TSL: I think this does not apply because ….
TN: She does not have brothers?
TSL: Yea... and also my uncle too young at that time.
TN; okay. then no. 25
TSL: Tam tòng, tứ đức was like a obligation before her time. In her time, it was like transition from old times to the new times, from the feudal regime to the war. So, it was less stressed.
TN: Okay. She did not apply it that much?
TN: What about no. 36? It doesn’t need to be Buddhist; it could be anything. No. 36.
TN: oh...yea. sorry.26.
TSL: This obligation for every Vietnamese
TN: At that time? During the war?
TSL: Yes. Even for the houses that was destroyed by the bomb. The first thing that they rebuilt was the altar
TN: Oh. Wow
TSL: It’s very importance for Vietnamese, whether poor or rich, they worship. Even some piece of wood hanging is also worship
TN: Oh. So, it doesn’t need to be big [the altar]?
TSL: No. small of it. we all have to have altar, you know.
TN: Okay. So, at that time, in her place, inside or outside?
TSL: Inside. Every house, inside. That is for worship ancestor.
TN: Okay. No. 27. I think….do you remember seeing or performing ritual at home or in the village?
TSL: Once a year, there was a ……. like a village festival in the village.
TN: Even during the war time? They do it?
TSL: Yea. Maybe less …. they do have, but like……not big
TN: What is it? do they pray for the safety of the village, or …………...?
TSL: The health, for the harvest, for the health of the children, and for soldier to return safely
TN: But, at that time, because soldiers were most of them in the field, so it was mostly women who organized it?
TSL: old men. Old men in the village contribute rice or money to organize it. So, they cook sticky rice and distribute it. The whole village joining the preparation and everyone got their share.
TN: No. 28. If she does not know these one, your grandma knows other organizations
TSL: She knows, but does not follow
Dad: No. Atheist
TN: this one is more different people. No. 29
TSL: They really respect the hero of Vietnam
TN: Sun Yat Sen?
TSL: So, in the North, they mostly know Chinese leader. She knows. About his policy, people’s policy
TN: No. 30, no. 31, no. ehhmmm…. okay no. 32
TSL: Of course…hahahha...she knows. She is the member of Communist Party. She joined the Youth Communist union
Dad: She is communist leader
TSL: Yes, of course. Even I know, because we study in the history in school
TN: She is the leader? Which one?
TSL: No, she is just in the high rank in the Communist Party Viet Nam. These are different
TN: About the training how to shoot before, and how to hide when danger comes, where was it?
TSL: everywhere... on the road
TN: On the road? The training, on the road?
TSL: So, it’s for the street. So, she was in Ha Noi, in the city. So, it is not in the village street. So, if you are in the village, the training would be in the village. But, she is in the city, so they organized it by street.
TN: Okay. At that time, she was in the city
TSL: Yes. Like they teach each other.
TN: Okay. well, the lesson was how to shoot, to hide, yea?
TN: No. 35
TSL: This is part of propaganda system of the Communist Party, so everyone knows.
TN: What kind of stories, people die, or?
TSL: So……they [the US] are evil…So, …. like invader, invade Viet Nam.capitalism was like brutal……exploitative. So, we did not do anything to the US, but the US like…e…. fought us. So, they were evil. The same for the French. We did not do anything to them, but they invade us.
TN: Did they also broadcast how many people died every day?
TSL: Yes. Mostly about how many people from the enemy died…but they did not tell how many people from our side died. They only talk about the enemy.
TN: right. How do you know if your family member safe or not then?
TSL: only some died you will get death letter
TN: not through the radio?
TSL: no. no. radio does not talk about it, only talk about the enemy.
TN: Okay. So, they will get a letter
TSL: yes. Only if they receive the death letter, they know
TN: Okay. then 36. It is about Vietnamese army.
TSL: So, Vietnamese army, but in the north, is smarter because there is also the Vietnamese people in the South also fought with the North. You mentioning about the communist, the Vietcong.
TN: But, did she also hear about the wounded army from the South, or only from the North?
TSL: So, it was the same with the dead. they did not mention anything about the wounded from our side, even if the war machines damaged. They only talk about the enemy’s machine damage, not talk about our side. You know only if there is someone go back from the frontline. But, there were no official information about our deficiency, only about our enemy.
TN: and the purpose is I suppose to keep motivating the army?
TSL: They talk about the deficiency to motivate, but they did not mention about our people so not to get people panic.
TN: I see. Okay. Alright.
TSL: he said that it is same with all kinds of war
TN: Yea…Okay. 40-41, I’ve got the answer already. no. 42.
TSL: that is how they are educated. How we are educated in Viet Nam
TN: this only happens during the war?
TSL: No. That is the tradition. Family and the country is the same.
TN: family and country are equal?
TSL: No. even in the war, the country will be stressed more than family…more prioritized. So, they are ready to sacrifice family.
TN: right. I think 43 would be the same. No. 44 is a bit different. Did you see people being involved in the war as doing duty to your country, or your love for your fellow Vietnamese, or to free yourself from suffering?
TSL: it is a mix ...combination of all
TN: what did you do to keep yourself safe during the war?
TSL: She joined the people’s army. So…………do you know that system of local based army?
TN: Yea.like village based army?
TSL: Yea. Thanh Niên…calling for young people, women too, to go to the war. Thanh niên xung phong
TN: Women and men have different duties in the war?
TSL: So, for the women it was mostly for farming
TN: During that time, did she take care of the wounded army, cooking, ….?
TSL: She was trained to fight, but not to go
TN: Okay. but, did she actually go to fight, or she didn’t use that skills at all?
TN: So, what she ended up doing was what? Cooking?
TSL: she only receives training. She did not actively join.
TN: She said joining the force, but does not mean actually doing it?
TSL: Joining the local army. But, they did not actually fight. Only when the enemy comes. But, at that time, she was in the North. So, she did not have to go to fight. But, they always have to prepare, just in case.
TN: ahh…I see. Was there any bombing at all in Hanoi though?
TSL: Yea. And they have to evacuate to the surrounding village
TN: Okay. I think no. 46, I’ve got the answer already. No. 47 then
TSL: they were humble people, strong, really care for the husband and the children, skillful, very tactical, in many things. A lot of Vietnamese women were capable in taking care mostly like internal affairs like cooking, sewing, taking care of children
TN: So, women, if I understand it correctly, women at that time, they need to know how to sort of fight, and then taking care of their family?
TSL: Yes, and even work in production
TSL: They were the main workers. Women at that time, they have to work. So, men go to war, so women at that time have to work. so, the men, they just went to the war, and everything else, producing, manufacturing, farming, fall into the hand of women.
TN: Did she do it? Did she do any of these?
TSL: Yes, farming
TN: Oh. Farming. she is not only teaching?
TSL: So, not only teaching. So, it’s like training on the job. 3 or 4 am, morning because she was agricultural engineer. So, she officially trained on the job, on the farm.
TN: I see. She did not teach in class?
TSL: Practice, training techniques, skills; ploughing, sowing, spraying chemical. Training on the job.
TN: Okay…So, that’s working at that time?
TN: no. 48. I already got the answer. No. 49.
TSL: She said, at that time people are ignorant. So, they use DDT. They did not know about the impact of agro-chemical. So, they spray DDT. They spray DDT and she said…. everyone was lucky that they did not get affected. Only later that she knew about the harmful effect of that kind of chemical.
TN: that kind of chemical was expensive?
TN: would that be more effective if thy use animal manure?
TSL: That’s fertilizer
TN: Ah...Right. So, No.49.
TSL: in general, the mothers cook and the children will ………like watching
TN: I see. Okay. No. 50
TSL: So, women always oval face, slim waist, long and thick hair, small chin, straight nose. At that time the most important thing was the eyes.
TN: Okay. What kind of eyes? Like Chinese eyes
TN: Oh. Slanted eyes. Okay. how, back to the present, how do you define beauty and beautiful women? No. 51. Nowadays.
TSL: White skin, high nose, the lipstick should be like what you do…..shouldn’t be too red. She does not like wearing too sexy, she does not like revealing clothes.
TN: Okay. No. 52, already answered. Well, no. 53.
TSL: Should love and take care of their husband and children, be hard-working.
TN: Alright. No. 54.
TSL: yea. she used to be worried about women scolding their husband. Especially when…. nowadays…. she does not like the women when spoiled, they scolding their husband.
TN: Okay. Well, I need to ask again no. 55, just want to be clear.
TSL: yes, but because my grandfather was weak. He did not go to the war. He was sick. He could not do hard things even checking the water from the river. She had to do it. he was sick.
TN: Okay. Skip no. 56
TSL: it’s just Vietnamese people joining collectively to protect the independence of the country. So, the most important in education was to educate children about like……. loving their country.
TN: Okay. No. 2,3,4 and 5 no. number 6, yes.
TSL: So that for the country, for the army they fought with all their mind. There were cowards also.
TN: Okay. almost done. No. 6
TSL: Most of us worship the Buddha. But, we also respect other religions. We also encourage them to love the country. it is just like…we have a phrase which is, “we live well in our lives, we live well in religion; so, try to do both”.
TN: Okay. So the fact that Viet Nam won also had something to do with the Buddha?
TSL: She said that we could not know
TN: when she prayed, did she get stronger inside?
TSL: Praying toward Buddha was for our own health; for the humanitarian teachings of the Buddha, so not for our own money. She went to Nepal. She brought Buddha statue from Nepal.
TN: Did she find Buddhism in Nepal similar to Viet Nam’s.
TSL: there were similarities
TN: Alright. No. 9 skip no. 8
TSL: Yes, she already answered it.
TN: No. 10
TSL: What period, what do you mean by farmer?
TN: those who grow rice, was there any riots against the colonialist?
TSL: yes, there were many. 90% of Vietnamese are farmer
TN: Organized or unorganized?
TSL: there were leaders, not unorganized. It was organized.
TN: ready, life after the war section?
TSL: it was for everyone. It was obligation to protect the country
TN: No. 2
TSL: So….it was being role model for young people. The whole family was very proud of her
TN: are you still engaged in any activity related to war veteran?
TN: Okay. no. 6
TSL: yes. She saw that Vietnamese armies were so perseverance. They were so amazing
TN: No. 7. Do you ever tell your war time stories to kids or grandkids?
TSL: No. young people have a lot of work and also school. They do not have to tell much.
TN: Okay. well, no. 8
TSL: She is 80 now. she just got the pension. She did not have to rely on the children.
TN: Okay. Xin Cảm ơn.
Interviewee: Linh Chi
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 did Linh Chi challenge traditional Vietnamese gender norms? What does the response (or lack thereof) to this suggest about the transformation of Vietnamese society during the war years?
To what extent was Vietnamese society being transformed under the Cold War reality? What continuities remained?
What was the role of religion and culture in the Vietnamese people’s navigation of the war years?
How does Linh Chi’s recollections illustrate the agency of ordinary Vietnamese citizens in navigating, and crafting their experience of the war?
How does Linh Chi’s experience destabilize traditional understandings of Communist sympathizers and their views about/commitment to the war effort?