Nhung recalls his early life as a student, and his long career in construction, both during and long after the Vietnam War.
Nhung recalls his early life as a student, and his long career in construction, both during and long after the Vietnam War. Discharged early from the military for medical reasons, he found employment as a construction worker for the government, and contributed to the development of public infrastructure in his community. However, members of his family had served in the wars against the French and American forces, which he discusses. His recollections of the war center on his experiences of food scarcity and the need to hide and survive air raids. While he considers it a shame that he was not able to serve as a soldier, some of his construction projects remain standing, and are a source of pride for him. Nhung’s views of the wartime military are moderate; and he was not strongly ideologically driven to serve. His testimony represents an important subgroup of civilians, men who did not serve as soldiers, destabilizing traditional notions of a gendered division of labor in wartime Vietnamese society.
Born in 1955 in the Dong Da District of Hanoi, Nhung remembers facing hardship in his early and teenage years, as agricultural methods and technology remained underdeveloped in North Vietnam. He attained middle school education (7th grade) under a free public school system. It had a diverse curriculum of 11 subjects across the sciences and humanities. In Literature classes, he was taught nationalist songs and poems, including women heroes. Occasionally, students would gift their teachers small presents such as flowers, but he finds that the culture of gifting on Teachers’ Day was not as strong in the past as it is in contemporary times.
The oldest of four sons, at age 18, he received an enlistment notice from the military, and had to clear two levels of medical screening, first at the commune level and then by the military. Though his parents had taught him the importance of serving the country, and encouraged him, they were saddened by his conscription; and he too, saw it as an unavoidable obligation, but one he was partly reluctant to accept. He remembers being cleared at the commune level despite being underweight, so as to allow his district to meet the minimum quota for potential conscripts. His community was atheistic, and conscripts were sent off with a feast, but no prayers or ancestor worship.
But he did not clear the military’s internal screening, and was discharged early after a 3-month stint. He then joined a government vocational school to be trained as a construction worker, which even paid him a meal allowance while undergoing the 1.5 year training in building and electrician roles. After graduating, he would participate in various public infrastructure projects, building factories and hospitals. He particularly enjoyed electric soldering, and would remain in his construction career until 2017. Some of his wartime projects received funding from the rest of the Communist Bloc, but not China.
During the war, he did not witness any bombings or the destruction of any of his projects, but recalls needing to hide in small air raid bunkers for up to 30 minutes at a time. He also notes that food scarcity was more pronounced in rural regions than cities, as the latter operated a food stamp system. As a government worker, Nhung was entitled to 20kg of rice. While he did not want to join active combat in his youth, he reflects in retrospect that it is a shame that he did not serve as a soldier, given that two of his uncles were war veterans.
In the postwar era, many of his works continue standing, and since the 1980s, some receive development assistance from the West. They remain a source of pride for Nhung, who shares his war experience with his grandchildren, from the perspective of a non-combatant government servant, to remind them of the hardship he braved in the war.
Transcript 7: Nhung
The interview took place at his house in Dong Da. the 17th 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”.
TN: What time is it now? is it 8?
TN: Ready? Are you originally from Ha Noi?
TN: Yes... Okay. which district?
TSL: Dong Da
TN: When were you born?
TN: 19………55. Okay. So, at that time the war already started, yea?
TN: Okay. What do you remember about your life as a son, teenager I suppose?
TSL: He went to school and life is a little bit difficult, hard.
TN: ehhhmm...in what way it was difficult for you?
TSL: So, he said it was hard because of the war and the agriculture is not developed. We don’t have, they don’t have any tools and technologies.
TN:ehhhhhm…So, at that time did you do some kind of farming, and…. you know may be working on other things like factory. How did he meet the daily needs?
TSL: he was a construction worker
TN: Okay. in what factory? Was it around Ha Noi? Was it like government project? You know...
TSL: yea. . for the government
TN: For the government. In Ba Dinh area? In the city? Or outside province?
TSL: So, the company he used to work for is now like…...a Ministry of Construction…it was under the city level.
TN: City level. Okay. Ministry of Construction today. okay. At that time, what do you build usually?
TSL: Hospitals and factories.
TN: Hospitals and factories. Okay. And how long were you working for this factory at that time?
TSL: he used to join the army. But, because of his condition…health condition is not good so he is discharged early and he was in construction sector until he is retired.
TN: Okay. Ee……So, he joined the army?
TN: Okay. So, when did you join the army?
TN: 1973 until?
TSL: Just 2 or 3 months.
TN: 2 or 3 months. So, were you sick or something?
TSL: his physical is……. he was too thin.
TN: Okay. So, okay…so, it was the requirement to be at certain weight?
TSL: Mainly just weight. It doesn’t matter if you are short.
TN: Okay...okay…...alright. So, then he started working in the factory from sometime in the 1973 until…………when did you retired?
TN: oh...wow...oh my god
TSL: like 3 years ago
TN: Okay. So, first he joined the army..ee…how did you become part of the army at that time?
TSL: When he was 18, there was a call from army sent to your house, and then...
TN: he got tested. He was okay. you know because some people, they have to go through some health checks, right?
TN: So, okay. he was okay initially and discharged because he is under weight?
TSL: So, he go tested twice. First one is the commune check
TN: Commune check, like I the village level?
TSL: yea….and they accept him. But, then when he got check in the army, they let him go.
TN: Okay…okay. So, how these two are different? You know, in the commune check…...can he describe the differences between commune check and army check? Was it more thorough, that kind of thing?
TSL: So, commune have to follow e…...e…. e…number of requirement that……like they have to ehhmmmm…. Have 5 people from this district.
TN: For example,
TSL: for example, and the commune check is just show. They just want to meet the number
TN: Okay. So, commune has to meet the number, certain number so they don’t care whether you’re under weight?
TSL: And health check between the two are the same
TN: Okay. So, in the army they did …sort of more thorough checking? Like health check, that kind of thing.
TSL: No. it is just the same. Basically the commune level knows that you are under weight. But they still need to meet the number. So, they just send you.
TN: ahh…Okay. But, before you were in the army, what did you do beside schooling?
TSL: Just be a student and just helping with the housework.
TN: Okay. what did you study at school? Math, Geography, Literature?
TSL: So, he said it’s 11 subjects; math, physics, chemistry, literature, history, geography, industry-technology, agriculture- technology, technics, PE.
TN: Okay. ee…. for the literature, do you remember any poems, songs, story ...you know from the old time that you study?
TSL: Poem from Tố Hữu
TSL: Can I find it online?
TN: What about song?
TSL: Just in the syllabus, or…?
TN: well, maybe, if they don’t sing any song at that time, may be from the surrounding, the village, may be popular songs
TSL: So, this is main songs; Trường Sơn Đông, Trường Sơn Tây, Cô Gái Mở Đường, Cô Gái Vót Chông
TN: Are they about war? About hero from the past time? The song, the poem?
TSL: yes...these are girls
TN: girl...women hero?
TN: Okay. Do you write or read poem these days? Or maybe before, when he was young?
TN: No, okay. the he attended to, was it cultural center or like government school?
TSL: Public school. So, it is like the whole district only have one school at that time.
TN: Okay. But, it was funded by government, yea?
TSL: Yea. He said it was hard to join high school at that time because you have to pass the exam which is very hard in……e…e…like the whole district only have 1 or 2 people that go to high school.
TN: So, at that time, how does the school system work? primary school, then…?
TSL: So, it was not unlike today. today is have 12 grade. But they only have 10 grade at that time; beginner, and then primary school from 1st to 4th grade, and then secondary school from 5th until 7, and 8 to 10 is high school.
TN: So, this one...what’s the difference between them is it about the subject that they study, or the difficulty of the materials?
TSL: So, it is just like today. as you advance to the next level, they will add more subjects.
TN: Okay, So, at first you will have, may be one, two or three, and then add it again and again?
TN: Okay. Did you ever bring gift, cakes, or anything like that to your teacher?
TSL: Mostly not...like rarely. Sometime they give them flower, a bunch of flower…not frequent …like they don’t visit teacher’s house with gift like today.
TN: Yea...well, difficult time. Okay. do you….do you have any skills to fight before joining the army?
TN: Do you ever experience not having food to eat during that difficult times?
TSL: There are food to eat. But, just little…and they are rice ...but not much. So, he said that in the city, there are more food than in the village because they have the food stamps. For example, kids got 12 kg of rice, for one. And adult is like 15—17 because they work.
TN: and what stamp did you get at that time?
TSL: So, he got 20 kg per month.
TN: That is for rice?
TSL: That’s for rice and they can buy it based on …. kind of more cheap price…got incentive price from the government. There are times when they don’t have rice. So, they have to eat other food like corn, potatoes or beans
TN: But, it did not happen a lot? Or, it happened few times during that war times when they don’t have enough rice to eat?
TSL: it happens every month. And it gets harder if there is a war.
TN: Okay. But, at that time, what was the society around you look like? Were there any rich people and did they help those who... you know, in need, that kind of thing?
TSL: No..he said, there is not elite class at that time because they are all the same in society…because it’s the state subsidize, they don’t get to sell things on their own. Everything is controlled by the government.
TN: right, and then divided
TN: ehmm…do you remember…ehmm...the kind of lesson your family taught you? Maybe about being…you know hard-worker, being a good person, that kind of thing?
TN: yes, what kind of lesson?
TSL: What do you mean?
TN: I’m trying to see if they tell him about how to work hard, to sacrifice for other people, for the country, that kind of thing?
TSL: So, it’s like traditions in Vietnam family. his parents encourage him to serve the country.
TN: Okay. have you heard of the terms Tam tòng, tứ đức?
TSL: Yes. So, he said that …ee……. e…. this saying is about women. When she is married, she has to follow the husband’s decision. If the husband die, she has to follow the son’s decision.
TN: Did people apply it during your time, during the war?
TN: Okay. Do you have brother or sister?
TSL: He has 4 brothers and he is the oldest in line
TN: he is the oldest. Did they join the war?
TN: Do you have to encourage them to join the war?
TSL: he doesn’t have to because they all have to join.
TN: But, do you really want him to join the fight?
TSL: No. he doesn’t want to because …e.e... e…e. he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want that happen to his brother as well because life in the army is hard and they can lost the life during the war. Even to him or him brothers.
TN: Yea. Okay. How did your parents react to your brother and you being called to join the war?
TSL: Sad. Because they all think of the worst. They encourage them but they still express the sadness on the face.
TN: Yea...yea...Do you know if your parents at that time prayed for your safety, and your brothers’ safety? You know...may be in the altar.
TN: Okay. Do you any of these...? No. 25
TN: Which one?
TSL: Nguyễn An Ninh, Lý Thái Bạch, Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Gandhi, Tôn Trung Sơn
TN: Okay. Do you have to go through certain training before working at the factory, or it was training on the job?
TSL: He has to undergo 1,5 years training.
TN: that long?
TSL: in school
TN: So, in school. It was like a special school?
TSL: yes, like a training school
TN: Funded by the government?
TSL: He don’t have to pay.. and he got like money to eat.
TN: and in Ha Noi?
TN: What kind of lessons did they teach you at that time for the training?
TSL: So, he is industry welder. So he has to learn about electricity.
TN: how to install electricity in the house?
TN: and to draw for building?
TSL: yes. It’s a must. Technical drawing.
TN: is there anything else that he has to learn for this long [1,5 years]?
TSL: He learn about safetyness……safety
TN: What kind of safety? Like you have to wear helmet, that kind of thing?
TSL: Yea. Anything has to approve safety first. He learns about the dis……...like…. the amount of correct in one item…. like if this cup for example 10cm, it can’t be longer plus one cm, or minus one.
TN: So, the accuracy in measuring something?
TN: What do you remember the most from your training? In this 1,5 years
TSL: He remember the most about thợ hàn điện, electricity welder because it applies to his job.
TN: Okay. is there any interesting story that you still talk about these days? you know…building during war time must not be easy. So, must be different from building after the war. There is bombing, that kind of thing. The situation was scary.
TSL: Yea. It was difficult...like they have to leave if there is any plane sound to avoid the bombing. They have to leave during the war to evacuate
TN: Did they run to hide in the bunker down there, or they have to run to different city?
TSL: So, he said, there are tunnels...every…. every street, everywhere...like tunnel to avoid the bombing
TN: it must be big tunnels, …so many people can go in there?
TSL: So, it’s …. small and like….80cm wide. like the hole…kind of hole, and with lid cover. If there is plane sound, they go to tunnel and put the lid on.
TN: yea. How many people can go in there usually?
TSL: only 2 people.
TN: How long………the longest time you had to hide there? How long was it? a few hours? Couple hours? A day?
TSL: So, around…like …. the longest time that he has to hide is 30 minutes because there as an alarm. They will told you that ……. when they are about to bomb and they hide. And there are not just one plane, but they can turn around to ……like second bombing. And there was like another plane and they go bomb again. So, they still have to hide until the alarm said it was okay and they all go out.
TN: Ahh...okay. So, they don’t need to bring some food, or something?
TN: Okay. So, during that time, building in the time of war, how did you get the materials; stone, sand, cement?
TSL: They still have the material from the factory. But, they sometime …they have to suspend because it’s war time.
TN: Yea...yea. ehmmm..is there any moment when you build the building and then suddenly got bombed by the US? Is there any moment like that?
TSL: his co-worker?
TN: No... the building itself, got bombed so they have to rebuild it. and maybe ye, we can ask if he ever witness somebody being killed, bombed at that time.
TN: What about that bombing in Bach Mai hospital?
TSL: He said because he is feeling……it was vacant house so there was no people living inside. So, it is not a target of the enemy and plus, there is the alarm from the commune loudspeaker and they will announce if the plane is away from Ha Noi 50 km, or 30. We can be prepared and hide in the tunnel. That is why they don’t see us.
TN: and Bach Mai hospital was not around his area?
TSL: No. It was far away from him.
TN: Okay. About the announcement from the loudspeaker, did you ever hear any story being broadcasted from that speaker? About …maybe the enemies who died, maybe the Vietnamese soldiers who died, that kind of thing?
TSL: No. He said that there was two kinds of loudspeaker…The alarm. One is from the city. Its noise is very loud. Everyone can hear and the second one from commune level..like village level. They just announce victory of Vietnamese army.
TN: Not those who got wounded?
TN: Okay. wow. Ee…do you think we can ask this question?
TN: were there any groups in your area, like Xa Viet..vanguard and if he was part of it?
TN: What do you think about this saying that being virtuous individual by doing your duty to your family is the foundation of good society? no. 35
TSL: So, being a child in the family means you have to respect other members and because family is the component of which make up country, so this saying is right.
TN: Okay. Do you think getting involved in the war by being soldier is a way to express duty to family, or to country, to fellow Vietnamese or simply to free oneself from colonialism, or combination of them?
TSL: So, you combine two questions?
TSL: So for question no. 36, he said that it is true because participating in the war is a way to fulfil your duty to family. and family is component of country. so, it applies. And the next question, he went to do his duty to the country and so to free himself from suffering.
TN: Okay. What did you do to keep yourself and family safe during that war time? Maybe he knows local tricks. For example, I read that some women at that time have to rub red thing on their skirts so US soldiers don’t rape them. maybe he has his tricks.
TSL: He said that there is no trick because there is no way to guarantee your safety at that time. The only way he could think of is to join the war. But, he was not able to. So, it’s shame.
TN: So, he just followed instructions, you know...like if he have to hide, then hide?
TN: Okay. ehm..going back to his experience working in the factory, what was….what did you like the most from working in the construction? Was there any scariest experience, or maybe funny experience?
TSL: So, there was a time when he was doing construction for this building. He has to climb to the sky well to allow wind to enter your house…it’s spin…and this block and tackle is sliced and he split and he nearly fall. But, he grabbed on something. It was scariest.
TN: Did he get hurt?
TN: How do you see working in construction helping to win the war? You know, contribute to the victory. The building activity
TSL: he doesn’t know if his construction contribute to the winning the war or not. But, he feel proud because he build very famous and important buildings. For example, the Children Hospital. We have it now in La Thành street. And also the factory in Lĩnh Nam.
TN: What kind of factory is it?
TN: that makes uniform for the army?
TSL: No. Just material for clothing. It makes normal clothing, not for the uniform.
TN: This existed during the war time?
TSL: Yes.. this factory originate from Germany…West Germany.
TN: Oh..wow..ehhmm..the hospital is from Viet Nam?
TSL: So, the hospital receives money from Sweden.
TN: During the war?
TSL: no. after the war. 1980.
TN: and the hospital existed during the US-VN war?
TN: What buildings that you built during the war that still exists?
TSL: Police office, Yết Kiêu
TN: Where is it?
TSL: Yết Kiêu . Post office 66
TN: So, these are from war times?
TSL: Yea... and the friendship Labor Cultural Palace building
TN: the government building?
TSL: like Russia
TN: So, the money was from Russia? All of them?
TSL: just this one... the friendship Labor Cultural Palace building
TN: Friendship with Russia?
TN: still until now?
TN: I wonder where other buildings got the money from? China, Russia, other communist country?
TSL: For the Post office and the Police department, he does not know. But, not from Russia.
TN: Interesting. So, none from China?
TN: So, at that time it was give in the form of money, not materials?
TSL: Yea. . like official development assistance.
TN: Okay. Do you know if they still receive this funding after 1986 when Doi Moi happens? The funding, did it continue after the war, funding from Russia?
TSL: He does not think so. Like 1990, the old Russia collapsed.
TN: Okay. Do you have any special place to pray at home when you were young, during the war? Your mom, like ancestor altar
TN: Did his parents ever used it in the war time? Maybe not only for the war to end soon. For the safety of many people, that kind of thing.
TSL: Yes. They always pray for that.
TN: Okay. What about at the village level. Was there any ritual at the village level, may be to welcome back soldiers, to pray for their safety, that kind of thing?
TSL: No. They only have farewell ceremonies for those who leave the house when they first join the army, when they got letter to join the army.
TN: Can you describe what kind of activities included in it? maybe eating together, may be giving them advices, you know some soldiers in the North were given advice like to be virtuous, that kind of thing?
TSL: Yea. So they have big eating and no advice, just eating and good bye
TN: some prayers involved in it?
TSL: No. Just wishing because we don’t follow Christianity.
TN: Okay. What about local beliefs, maybe belief in spirits, ancestors to protect them?
TSL: No. They don’t…. they are member in the Communist Part and they don’t believe in that kind of thing.
TN: Okay. Do you ever hear any religious organizations like these one, Cao Dai…?
TSL: He knows Cao dai, Hoa Hao. Thiên Địa hội from China? And he doesn’t know this one and the last one.
TN: is it from China?
TN: Which one?
TSL: Thiên Địa hội, Ông Đạo, he asked.
TN: Well, it’s actually in the South, in the Black Mountain.
TN: Did you get any injury from war time?
TN: Or maybe witness someone died?
TN: Okay. What is Viet Nam war to you? How do you see it?
TSL: it was a hard war and a lot of Vietnamese died. A lot of casualty.
TN: Are you engaged in any veteran activity these days?
TSL: I don’t think so
TN: ma be we can ask
TSL: So, his family passed. Two people died..his uncle and his paternal grandma. Heroic Vietnamese hero.
TN: fought against the French?
TSl: She has two sons; one fight against the French, one is the US.
TN: His uncle?
TN: is the uncle died during the US- VN war?
TSL: the US. And she was a heroic mother because she has two sons died during the war and they called by that title.
TN: So, they put it before their first name?
TSL: Noo. It’s like title …certificate that they got from the government for their loss.
TN: Okay. did they also get some kind of money?
TSL: yes. They receive money and money support from the government and that certificate.
TN: may I know how much per month?
TSL: they received it when she was alive. Now she died, there is no money.
TN: So, it is like pension?
TSL: It’s support as long as she lives and that money is used for memorial for her son. And no veteran activity.
TN: Did you ever visit Hoa Lo Museum?
TN: Why not?
TSL: not interested.
TN: Did you ever tell your war time stories to your kid, grandkids, other people?
TSL: Yes. He told them
TN: how is your life now? do you still work?
TSL: No. he is retired.
TN: On the side? He does not work?
TSL: No. just at home chilling. Just taking his grandkids to school.
TN: Okay. I am actually done but if there is any important info he wants to share, I am here.
TN: Okay.. Thank you very much.
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 Nhung’s wartime experience destabilize the traditional gendered division of labor in wartime Vietnamese society?
What does the arrival of foreign funds for the construction projects suggest about the nature of the Cold War in Vietnam, during and after the Vietnam War?
What does the reaction of Nhung and his parents to his enlistment notice suggest about the extent of ideological motivations for supporting the war amongst the Vietnamese public?