Interview with Mrs. Dao Thu

Ninh Binh native Mrs. Dao Thu recounts her experiences of life during the Vietnam War and the early postwar years.

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Ninh Binh native Mrs. Dao Thu recounts her experiences of life during the Vietnam War and the early postwar years. She discusses three phases of her life and career that she had to transition through in this period: her time as a civilian high school student in the village, her military service, and her nursing career after the war. Her recollections provide insight into Vietnamese women’s experiences of the war, and the social and cultural norms that they had to navigate in doing so. Further, she also discusses the extent and the boundaries of the war in Vietnam. This narrative nuances understandings of what the various sites of contestation were in Vietnam’s conflict with America, both on and off the battlefield; as she highlights how religious sites evaded the destruction of the war. Spirituality also brought her solace in the face of the conflict, contrary to the presumed atheistic nature of Communist societies in the West. She also reveals that the psychological reality of the war persisted even after open combat had ended, which shows how the Cold War conflict in Vietnam was fueled and sustained by domestic processes of knowledge production.

Mrs. Dao Thu begins by recalling her life as a high schooler in her village in Ninh Binh. Her education included standard science subjects as well as communist politics, Vietnamese and world history, and even foreign languages of other Communist Bloc countries, but not English. She was also exposed to communist songs and the poetry of Ho Chi Minh. As a student, she was not obligated to work but took a summer job as a farmhand in the paddy fields to support her family. She remembers being paid in rice through a scoring system, where workers would be awarded points in accordance to their daily productivity, and given rice commensurate to the points they had accumulated over the month. Wealth disparities were minimal in her rural community, with her more affluent neighbors merely having more rice to eat. She also recalls being raised to follow the traditional gender norms of Tam tòng, tứ đức1; while her modest background did not afford extravagant clothes like her urban peers, she was taught to maintain a presentable appearance even in farming attire.

These gendered expectations also found new expression when she was conscripted into military service during the war. Though trained broadly in first aid, weapon use, and combat support skills, she spent most of her wartime career as a kitchen assistant. She notes that her parents were proud of her participation in the war effort, and shared how she would visit the temple to perform ancestor worship for protection, even though she could not afford to make offerings. She also observes that temples were not targeted by American bombers, surviving the war largely unscathed. Public support was high; affluent Vietnamese urbanites donated to sustain the war effort, and even farmers spared food for the soldiers. After the war, she was given the opportunity to study nursing at a military institution in the 1980s, but with the expectation that war could break out again. While she never entered the frontlines, after 3 years of training, she tended to war veterans who had been injured resisting the American forces.

Mrs. Dao Thu’s final reflections reveal a guarded sense of gratitude for having survived the war. She concludes by stressing the importance of choosing peace over war, and the need for young Vietnamese to learn their nation’s war history in order to prevent it from repeating. Her recount of life in Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s shows how the Vietnam War posed both challenges and opportunities for women, and how she synthesized both her traditional upbringing and her pursuit of the opportunities for career advancement due to the war.

Transcript interview no.1: Mrs. Dao Thu

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 the purpose of the interview, her rights to pass any questions she does not feel comfortable to answer and to not reveal her identity, the interview begins as follows. 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 “Dao Thu” (pseudonym) and myself as “TN”. The interviewee wishes to remain anonymous. 

TN: “okay. So, it’s 9.30… [writing the time and date] 

TN: Are you originally from Hanoi?

TSL: Ninh Binh 

TN: Ninh Binh. Okay. When were you born?

TSL: 1961

TN: 1961. Okay. Do you remember what your life at that time like before joining the war, before joining the   force?

TSL: She was student. Then joining the army .and before that doing farming at home. 

TN: What school did you go to? cultural center? government’s?

TSL: So, she’s joining the army, and study later..Medicine

TN: Medicine? what is that exactly?

TSL: Nursing 

TN: Nursing. Okay. So, High school finished…then joining the army and then college. Nursing?

TSL: Yea 

TN: Is it for 3 years?

TSL: 3 years 

TN: 3 years. Okay. So, what was your life like as teenager before joining the force. Beside farming in your home town? Did you do some household chores, that kind of thing?

TSL: yes 

TN: yes. Okay. like cooking, cleaning…? 

TSL: and she do farming in the summer

TN: okay. helping your parents? or was it paid?

TSL; yes, paid with rice. in the summer only as student

TN: and this is before she’s got married?

TSL: yes

TN: how much rice she’s got, paid for?

TSL: So, there is a score system.

TN: score system?

TSL: she will be paid by score. If she can do 20 score today, and 20 score tomorrow, it will add up together and they will summarize how much she did that month and she will be paid the total score.

TN: Okay. So, the rice will be paid to her at the end of the month?

TSL: yes 

TN: But, what do you mean by score here..because farming can consist of many works like planting the seeds, clearing out the land from previous plants, that kind of things. I mean how do they earn score?

TSL: So, if you show up for work then you’ll get 12 score, and for the task that you do, you will get a score and all the task will have the same score. 

TN: Okay. How many score are they? I mean these other tasks.

TSL: They count by the area that you do the work.  1 sào is equal to 360 square meter and it is worth 30 points.

TN: Okay..and do you do special work at that planting the seeds, giving manure to the plants,. What kind of job specifically she covered?

TSL: she do all things

TN: how many score do you need to earn 1 kg of rice?

TSL: 10 points

TN: 10 points. Okay. this is the salary per person yea?

TSL[Y]: yea

TN: okay. was this obligatory to every student or youth at that time? in her time to join the farming?

TSL: it is optional and you can register to join in because she was still students at that time that she can have it only in the summer. She wants to do it to gain more rice for her family.

TN: okay. So, this one [salary from the farming] is the addition to food stamp?

 TSL: No. Because she lives in not in the city. She lives in the village, so they do not have a food stamp. Only if you are worker in the city that you have food stamp. 

TN: okay. So, Ninh Binh did not have food stamp system, so she had to work.

 TN: Do you remember what did you study at school? Math, history, Literature? 

TN: English?

TSL: No. She can choose between Chinese. Even Russian in other schools. You can study foreign language in High school. Beside you study Math, Physics, chemistry, Literature, History, Geography, Politics. 

TN: Politics? what kind of politics?

TSL:  It is like policies of the communist party 

TN: okay. and what about literature? Like short stories, novels, poems

TN: for history, it is about Vietnamese heroes of the past? or also world history?

TSL: it is about world history too

TN: DO you remember any poems, songs from your time?

TSL[Y]: Tố Hữu, Ho Chi Minh

 [about 5 minutes’ interruption of kids coming downstairs and talking loud, so I noted down the answer she gave to my translator and I chatted with her about it]]

TN: Ho Chi Minh was a poet?

TSL: yea. He wrote in jail

TSL: Songs. Vì nhân dân quên mình, Cô gái vót chông, Trường Sơn Đông Trường Sơn Tây.

TN: Do you remember any books, novels you read at that time?

TSL[Y]: Nhãn đầu mùa, Vùng trời. 

TN: Do you write poem? Or do you sing?

TSL[Y]: no

TN: do you remember bringing gift, flower, cookies, to your teacher, during Teacher’s day, or during Tet?

TSL: she brought  Chưng cake

TN: chưng cake is not Bánh chưng?

TSL: it is Bánh chưng

TN: okay ..she brought for her teacher during Tết. Besides that, no. 

TSL: okay. But was it pricey during war time? Chưng cake

TSL: it was it herself. It is for hometown teacher

TN: okay. So, I want to ask about family education. Do you remember what your parents taught you when you are still single, young, about being woman, good woman, that kind of thing?

TSL: They want her to become well behaved girl

TN: Okay. in what way?

TSL: ehmmm...studying hard

TN: Studying hard. What about working hard?

TSL: yes 

TN: yes. Okay. What about being selfless, sacrificing, or putting her needs before others, that kind of thing. Before the country, before society, before her brothers and sisters?

TSL: yes 

TN: Yes. Okay. Did they ever mention about Tam tòng, tứ đức?

TSL: yes

[the interviewee took a while to think about the terms. So, I interjected]

TN: I mean if she does not know Tam tòng, tứ đức, then what her parents taught her about being good woman in relation to brother, elderly, society, country?

TSL: They want her to respect older people and care for the younger and also be respectful, loving your neighborhood, and their friends, respect teacher.

TN: what about the country?

TSL: too. They are very willing to serve the country. For the men, they went to go army.  Tam tòng, tứ đức is for women 

TN: was it difficult to live as woman at that time? during the war 

TSL[Y]: during the war?

TN: yea

TSL: she said, it is not very difficult thing. She was trained in a very discipline way and so that she can serve and help people who are injured in the war. They have something called 12 things, Discipline

TN: in the army?

TSL: in the army...12 things they want me to do in the day; wake up at 5, breakfast at 6, 7am go to work, rest time, and even they have time to read newspaper.

TN: During the rest So, this is the 12thing.

 TN: Do you ever lack of food to eat during the war time?

TSL: No, she is in the army. They always have something to eat.

TN: But, what about before joining the army, in Ninh Binh?

TSL: she said, they have enough food to eat. Rice. But, they still have to add other things like cassava, potatoes. But they still have food

TN: Going back to women questions. Do you think women in your time, what were they like, women in your time? Did they speak softly? Character wise, what they were like, you know? Did they also portray Tam tòng, tứ đức thing?

TSL: She speak about 4 traits. DO you want me to…?

TN: Yes. What are they?

TSL:  the first one is household. You have to know how to cook. [The second one is] beauty, physical beauty. You have to pay attention to your face, how you dress. You can’t look messy going out at the street. [third one is] is speak softly, you can’t swear, speak in calm way and in kind-hearted way. It is like virtue. [the last one is] virtue. Being kind.

TN: ehmm... I want to know more about the physical beauty. So, women in your time, do they dress in áo dài, That kind of thing? How do they dress?

TSL: They do not wear very much áo dài in Ninh Binh. It is Hanoi. They just dress like today with trouser and shirts.

TN: Okay. in farmer’s clothes?

TSL: yea. because the good clothes expensive. They just wear shirt and pants.

TN: Okay. But not in revealing way, yea?

TSL: No. They can’t wear revealing clothes

TN: What about physical beauty? Long nose? red lips? White skin…haha?

TSL: No. No standard like that. They are more into ethics. Inner beauty.

TN: Okay. So, do you still have the same view of beauty now as before?

TSL: yea. She still values that traditional culture

TN: Okay. So, I want to move to the army life. When did you join the force?

TSL: December, 1980

TN: Do you remember how did you get involved in the force? May be somebody came to her? Was it through some woman, like your aunt?

TSL: They called, and she went up, she went for health check up

TN: So, they called for her. Letter? Like a call?

TSL: letter 

TN: Letter. Okay. So, she is okay for the weight? I thought civilian do not need to do health checkup?

TSL: So, when the letter was sent to her house, then she came for health checkup. They examine the height, weight, heart beat rate, blood pressure, and she got qualified with health in A status which means good. So, she joined and when she was trained, she is trained on the regulations of the army, on how to shoot, 12 Things to do, they can help in the kitchen and cook, they assign different team for different day, learn AK gun shooting, and marching.

TN: where was the training? Was it in Ninh Binh? Or in Ha Noi?

TSL: Sơn Tây 

TN: for how long?3 months?

TSL: 3 years 

TN: 3 years? For the training? So, do you learn how to shoot in 3 different positions, standing, kneeling and on the ground?

TSL: yes

TN: Do you also learned about first aid skills?

TSL: yes

TN: okay. first aid skills. And to hide?

TSL: hiding 

TN: So, this 3 years’ time period, was it sort of everyday training? and while you do the training, did you also work at the logistic department [read- the kitchen]?

TSL: So, they assign her with helping the kitchen task. That is, it. 

TN: So, the training was mixed with the kitchen assignment? You know what I mean? Training usually take place for certain period of time?

TSL: yes

TN: which one is yes?

TSL: the mixing 

TN: did you do the preparing vegetables, cooking, or the distributing the food?

TSL: Distributing, like dividing the portion

TN: what do you remember the most from your training and from being stationed in that division?

TSL: So, she said, they do not have enough food to eat. They feel hungry and they have to went out to buy more cassava to eat, to study in the evening, to revise lessons during the day, to take exam. 

TN: this not having enough food, is it only onetime thingy? Or it happened a lot?

TSL: No. rarely. They have to prepare for exam, so they feel hungry at midnight.

TN: So, they have to go outside to buy food to eat?

TSL: They went out around 9 and there were no soldiers to escort. They just need to tell them that they will be back. They did not go too far. It is against the rule to go outside at night. But, they just go outside to buy food in the civilian around the school.

TN: what kind of lessons did you have to study for exam? What subjects?

TSL: It is hard subject because that is about anatomy and also medicine. Medicine, you need to remember the amount of medicine to give to the patients and also name of the medicine are also hard to remember. So, you need to stay up late and wake up early in the morning to revise

TN: so, this is your study during the war?

TSL: They study in the peaceful time, like 1980, but they do it in a way, in assumption that the war will happen again. So, to be ready if they have to work in war time.

TN: Right. So, she joined the force in 1980, but she did not go to base camp like your aunt did. So, she was going back to normal life and go to Đại học to study this, or she lived in the army base camp and study at the same time?

TSL: this is like an army school for medicine

TN: Oh..I see. Okay. She is actually doing her study in army school and at the same time working, helping the kitchen. Was it free? The nursing study?

TSL: yes, for 3 years. The army will give you food and clothes 

TN: Do you remember any funny stories, or may be scary stories during living in here, the base camp helping with the kitchen?

TSL: when the school show a movie to students. they are movie that the school show to students

TN: about what?

TSL: it is war movie all Vietnam. It supposed to be for students. But, civilians from outside, they came to see as well, and also the patients in the army hospital 105

TN: what is scary about it?

TSL: this is funny because civilians are not supposed to see the movie

TN: why not?

TSL: because the movie is just meant for students. But it is interesting, so they came to see it as well

TN: does she remember what’s the title?

TSL: Đến hẹn lại lên

TN: no scary story?

TSl: scary story is when she visits patients in that hospital and a lot of people in that time, they fight against the US, and they got hit by bomb and they lost their body parts and she saw worms came from the wound because they lay for long time

TN: were you helping to take care of the patients?

TSL: yes.

TN: were you okay? were you passed out, step back, she could not eat?

TSL: she could not eat for days 

TN: were you sad looking at these patients?

TSL: she got sad, she could not eat because they are people that are still very young. They seriously injured related to brain, or spine so they can’t walk again.

TN: Beside sad, that made her angry, or more patriotic?

TSL: she feels sad, ad sorry for them. mostly sad. She helps them with’s filling, she cared for them, and help them to wash their face, putting the mosquito net for them. merely help them.

TN: during this period of time, did you hear any, beside seeing it herself, did she also hear some kind of stories about the enemies or the wounded Vietnamese soldiers as well?


TN: what do you like the most about being a nurse at that time, and then cooking, helping?

TSL: she has to be ..ehm…enthusiastic ..treat them with passion so that they, the injured soldiers will heal and come back to fight again if necessary. So, mostly she needs to do her work with all her education.

TN: did she also happen to, sort of tell them something like ..ehm..”O. this will be over soon”, good words.

TSL: yes

TN: can you tell us how do you comfort them? what kind of Vietnamese wisdom she know to comfort ..” .you are doing good for your country..” may be, or some other thing?

TSL: She basically give them medicine regularly based on their dosage and also encourage them to eat well, to recover fast.

TN: How did your parents react to you joining the war? Were they sad, proud?

TSL: proud

TN: do you have brothers and sisters?

TSL: yes

TN: and they also joined the war?

TSL: yes. She has two brothers and one sister. Her bothers joined the war and came back to university to be teacher like you?

TN: yes. On their own. And you did not need to encourage them?

TSL: she has to encourage too because they are still university students back then. But, it is like final call from the army, and it is on larger scale, on the national wide..they are obliged. All men to join the war. 

TN: do you know if your parents prayed for your safety, and the safety of your brothers at that time? At home, in anyways?

TSL:  yes

TN: how? Ancestor worship?

TSL: they prayed on the ancestor altar

TN: did you also do it?

TSL; yes 

TN: when you were in the army school?

TSL: yes. Actually before the exams she and her friends going to temple to pray. 

TN: do you remember what temple you went to?

TSL; near her school 

TN: So, in the army school, was there any specific alter for students to pray?


TN: So, they just pray on their own, or they go to temple?

TSL: they go to temple

TN: was it monthly, daily?

TSL: it is not. She.. she just did it when she has the time like for example in Sunday she pray

TN: did you bring any kind of flower, fruits, any kind of offerings, or just more simple because of war time?

TSL: no need offering because the time was difficult back then, and she just burnt incense and pray.

TN: But, incense, was not something expensive at that time?

TSL: prepared by the temple. The temple prepared for them.

TN: was there any temple that got bombed?

TSL: No. Because it was peaceful.1972 was. Ninh Binh was okay. The US bombed just mainly in hospital like Bach Mai hospital, not temple.

TN: Do you remember if this temple you went to, organize big festival where many people joined in and do some kind of communal praying, or it was just individual prayer?

TSL: yes

TN: and they prayed for the safety of the soldiers, for the war to end soon, that kind of thing included in it?

TSL: yes

TN: it was also simple one, or included many offerings?

TSL: Simple So, basically they burnt incense to show their respect to the one who died and pray. They did not have money to put offering in the altar at that time. So, mainly just pray and offering with their honesty, and kind heart. 

TN: Do you know any religious people who happened to help the war? The soldier. Religious organization may be monk, may be other thing giving soldiers any help?

TSL: No. She heard that monk in the South, the monk helped the soldiers joining the movement, or burning themselves. the monk. If they disagree with the US government. But, in the North, in Sơn Tây, they did not help. .like the time did not require them. And..the army and the army doctors helped the soldiers already. So, they do not need to.

TN: Do you think the victory on the side of Viet Nam was also sort of the result of the help of spiritual being, Buddha, or may be ancestor’s blessing, that kind of thing?

TSL: Yes. It is people’s… hardworking of the Vietnamese people. But, it also demonstrates philosophy of Buddhism. The right people, and the righteous people will always win.

TN: Okay. This will be a bit off topic. Do you do, do you practice Pure Land Buddhism, A-di-đà Phật, a Vietnamese Buddhism, The chanting thing? It has been around since the war time. So, I was wondering if that was also Buddhism she was referring to.

TSL: She said…she said she did not follow Buddhism. Just worshipping ancestor.

TN: Were you part of any vanguard, Xa-Viet Tien Dao, at all?


TN: Okay. DO you think you being involved in the war as nurse and helping in logistic department, as a way to express your duty to family, to society, to other Vietnamese, to country, or mix of them?

TSL: Yes

TN: do you have any specific tricks, something that other people did not do, to keep yourself safe during the war? Like many women, I was told, putting something red on their skirts so not get raped.

TSL: No. She said...she is nurse…. [a brief interruption from a visitor]. So, she did not do any disguise. It is just the soldiers in the front line putting trees on their helmets. 

TN: I want to ask if she ever seen farmers helping soldiers… {another interruption from the kids coming downstairs. .so my translator had to ask me the question again]

TN: Yes…if she ever saw any farmers helping the solider, may be giving food, a place to hide, that kind of thing?

TSL: Yes. They…the farmers give soldier food. They are very willing to help soldiers and give them what they have because they need to prioritize the soldier to help the soldiers fight the enemy. 

TN: Okay. What about rich people may be in your area? Were they also willing to help? Or they were more selfish?

TSL: Yes. In the village, in rural areas, the rich…the difference between the rich and the poor is not very distinguished. They just have a little more rice than the poor. But, in the city, a lot of rich people donate goats, or their house for the higher up like generals or important people. 

TN: Now, looking back, what do you think of Viet Nam war? What is Vietnam War to you?

TSL:  She said that...wait. ehmm... she felt that this war should value the peace more and others country should not attack ad bring loss to the people because children and elder people, they are very vulnerable and the war is very fierce and bring a lots of damages and loss to people. And she also feels that she…she lost the people who is the leader of the war like General  Võ Nguyên Giáp and also Ho Chi Minh. Võ Nguyên Giáp is…he used to be…

TN: general Võ Nguyên Giáp, he survived the war? 

TSL: He survived the war, but she said, he used to be history teacher. But he did not get to do his job because of the war. He has to join the war...the army. He has to...ehmm... going to the cave with dark condition and talking to friends in the army to support the war. They are very patriotic people and they contribute their best to the country. 

TN: what do you feel about getting involved in the war? whenever she remembers her memories in the war, how does it make her feel, when she remembers her stories being involved in the war? You know what I mean?

TSL: She feels lucky . she is survivor. 

TN: How do you see your contribution to the war in relation to younger generations nowadays?

TSL: She wants the youngster to learn the history so they will feel grateful for the ones who died, the ones who got injured. They sacrificed their life, their youth, health to help the country to gain independence. 

TN: Do you ever tell your war stories to your kids?

TSL: To respect the elderly for the sacrifice. To acknowledge the effort, the contribution, to respect and acknowledge. What is your question again?

TN: If she ever tells this story to her kids or grandkids? 

TSL: Yes

TN: I guess I want to ask what was the most challenging as a woman in the army?

[About 5 minutes’ interruption from the visit of her neighbor]

TSL: okay 

TN: just a few more questions. So, what was the most challenging thing as woman in the army at that time?

TSL: everything, every standard, the 2 things to do is applied to all. It is just about discipline. It is more difficult in the war time and it was okay because she is nurse. 

[another interruption from the same neighbor]

TN: the last question. Did they ever get thank you note, certificate from the government? Just to say thank you

TSL; No 

TN: certificate?

TSL: It is not from the government. But, she has got certificate from doing good work in her unit, in the hospital.

TN: Medal?


TN: DO you ever visit Hỏa Lò?


TN: How is your life now? do you still work as a nurse?

TSL: she has retired now

TN: Well, that is it. all questions done. But, if there is anything…I’d love to hear it. Otherwise, thank you very much.

TSL: what about this question? [she is pointing to question no.25]

TN: No. No. Well? Yea...yea...

     The translator asks her the question

TSL: Nguyễn An Ninh? 

   Y: yea 

TSL:  Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm?

 Y: yea 

TN: Sun Yat Sen? 

TSL: yea

TN: Gandhi?

TSL: no

TN: Okay. Thank you very much...

Interviewer: Tini

Interviewee: Mrs. Dao Thu

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Transcript Notes

  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.)

  1.  How did the Cold War conflict shape the notion of citizenship for Mrs. Dao Thu (and other Vietnamese like her)? Consider also how the various intersectionalities (gender, socioeconomic status etc) influenced this process in Mrs. Dao Thu’s experience.

  2. Where, and on what levels, was the war being fought on in Vietnam? Conversely, what remained outside of the scope of the war? What does this suggest about the nature of the Cold War in Vietnam?

  3. To what extent were the Vietnamese responding to, and to what extent were they creating the domestic reality of the conflict (global and local) in the Cold War Era?

  4.  Consider the role and function of memory (personal and national) in both fueling and preventing conflict, in light of Mrs. Dao Thu’s recollections.