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Chapter Five

No sooner did we step into the “battlefront” than we had to throw ourselves at once into… hill farming!

In the 5th zone battlefront area, we had to put up not only with “pháo bầy” (coordinated artillery barrages from warships and firebases, all falling on one location), pellet bombs, B57 and B52 bombers, and mopping up operations, but also with many other things no less terrible, such as hunger, malaria, disease, and scarcity. We lacked everything: food, clothing, medicine, and even light, because we were active at night, working in the deep jungle, hiding in underground shelters that were wet, humid, and moldy; we even lacked air to breathe as we suffocated in the shelters.

Whether you were a journalist or an agitprop artist, nobody cared. You had to produce your own food for self-reliance for six months, cultivating land to grow corn or rice for the rest of the year, while the army would supply food for six months only. In the 5th Zone, food rationing was reduced further to five months, and in film units, it was reduced by another ten days. This meant that every year, we had to grow “self-reliance” crops that would last for seven months and twenty days.

Our most terrible experience during the war was hill farming. There were people who did nothing but this work throughout the year. I would get into a rage whenever I thought about this. If they wanted us to grow crops, then why the hell didn’t they just let us stay in the North and do it in Hòa Bình, instead of coming all the way down here to suffer? Many people died of hunger. The people in our film unit had to forage for food all year long, clearing a number of hills which were so large and far apart that we couldn’t hear each other even by hailing; then, after the clearing was done, we had to wait for the grass to dry out, so we could set fire to it. In burning grass, we were inadvertently telling the enemy where we were. That was how the enemy knew where to find the VC! Yet, we kept on doing this diligently, enduring hunger to clear the hills for farming, and burning whatever we could. Then we used sharpened sticks to punch holes in the ground to put corn seeds in, then waited for the harvest to allay our hunger! We worked in pairs, one person punching the holes, and the other putting the seeds in. This primitive punching and planting routine would make anyone dizzy! With the war raging on, and with equipment and manpower invested at great hardship and sacrifice, we had thrown everything aside to be preoccupied with food! We had to wait for the corn to sprout and bear ears, so as to have something to put in our mouths! Some people did nothing but hill farming throughout the year. Even on fine days when there were events worth filming, we were unable even to touch our cameras!

Compared with my companions on the same journey to the South, such as Dân, Hiếu, and Sửu, I was lucky, in that I was able to go down to the lowlands early, while Trường and Tâm had to continue further to the South.

Going down to the lowlands was dangerous, but our stomachs were pretty full as local people would feed us! Here, we also had to sneak around furtively, but we had something to eat and recovered a bit; and it was also a place with military activity, so there were some stories to put on film. Of course it was more dangerous and closer to death. By wheedling with my superiors, I was given a very good 16-millimeter camera, a Paya Polex, with thirty canisters of film.

As I didn’t know much about film stock, I was quite reassured when my superiors told me, “The film stock you received consists entirely of Agfa color negatives produced in West Germany; it’s really good. The film and camera were all left behind by a Chinese film crew—there’s no way we could have imported such equipment.”

Who could have known that this excellent Agfa color film would later on plunge me into misery!

The Thu Bồn River has a vast sandy islet in the middle where the Chiêm Sơn Bridge crosses over it. South of the bridge lay the village of Xuyên Trường. I have many recollections of the days when I shot the film People of My Homeland. There was an old man who did paintings there, Teacher Niên, an educated man. He had translated pamphlets into Mandarin to explain the war to the South Korean troops. Later on, a spy reported his activities, and the Korean troops killed him.

I stayed at the old man’s house many times. He had a son who had gone to the North, and who later became a ranking official. After 1975 another son, Mr. Toàn, older than me, became the head of the education department in Duy Xuyên District. From time to time, he wrote me letters couched in very affectionate terms.

The old man’s hamlet lay right next to the Thu Bồn River. During the war we had to be careful—wherever we were, everything had to be within arm’s reach; we couldn’t leave our pants in one place and our shirts in another. There would be no time to gather them—we had to scoop everything up in a few seconds and run at top speed—whether down to the river or down to an underground shelter depended on circumstances. The problem was not about our possessions, but rather that things left behind were evidence that someone in the area was protecting the Viet Cong, so houses would be burned and people killed.

When I first came down to the lowlands, I was a good-looking young man. With a movie camera on my back, walking down to the marketplace in the liberated zone, people would call me “thằng tây con” (junior expat), since I looked so bewildered… Once we were sleeping next to Bàn Thạch market when an artillery barrage started. At such times you have to roll to the ground at once or crawl into a shelter, but I kept lying in my hammock. Tý said,

“This fellow’s crazy!”

“How so?” said I.

“Get down from the hammock and crawl into the shelter now!”

Later Tý said, “Why were you so careless?”

When artillery barrages came, I felt no urge to lie down—I was merely bewildered like a bull in a china shop, because I thought that my body would be the same size, whether standing or lying. I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do, because nobody had trained me for this.

The whole area was devastated, houses blown apart, with pigs and chickens on the loose… It was because of this that Mr. Tý took pity on me and followed me around. Speaking with some superiors, Mr. Tý said, “If you don’t let me go with him he’ll sooner or later end up dead! He doesn’t know a single thing!”

It was tense and ferocious, with never a moment to relax. We lived in perpetual fear. Among the people in our group, there were Sơn, a teacher from Hải Phòng, and Ba, a local guerilla who had a Lambretta (pedicab). Another person who was very important to my moviemaking in the 5th Zone was the above mentioned Mr. Tý—he was born in the year of the rat (Mậu Tý), and his pen name was Triều Phương. He was a poet and educator who for a period of time was the head of the education department of a district, and at another time was the head of the performing arts troupe of Quảng Đà Province. This man took pity on me, and followed me everywhere, of course with the approval of our superiors. Later on, Tý wrote me many letters, even after I had returned to the North. His letters were immensely touching, and his children still preserve them.

Once in Xuyên Trừơng, near the house of Teacher Niên, we had gathered together to pass the night exchanging jokes, when at about 4:30 in the morning of the next day, a swarm of choppers flew right over our heads, so one could guess that troops would soon be pouring out from them. And this in fact was what immediately happened; there were so many troops that they could have encircled the whole area holding hands. They started a mopping up operation. Having no time to flee, we all threw ourselves into underground shelters. The shelters all had ventilation holes leading to clumps of bamboo or reed brush. But it had rained the previous night, and the ventilation holes were plugged up. I jumped into a one-man shelter, then Mr. Ba, and a moment later Mr. Tý jumped in as well. So the three of us crouched in a small shelter made for one person with the ventilation hole blocked. With the entrance cover closed, we could hardly breathe; I was unaccustomed to this.

Wherever we went in those days, we had to check out the shelters first before washing, seeking food, or discussing work. We couldn’t do anything before knowing where the shelters were.

Anh Sơn, the teacher from Hải Phòng, who had lain chatting with us during the night, was shot dead the moment he ran out. Running after him, we could see him lying face down, his upper body submerged in water. When I recalled this later on, I was always obsessed with the thought of his parents—what would they have felt if they had seen that tragic sight?

Down in the underground shelter, there was only a brief interval before I began to suffocate. Unable to bear it any longer, I said, “Anh Tý! Let me get out!”

I thought that if I remained inside, I would surely die—die like Lê Anh Xuân. If I crawled out, they might not see me; if they saw me, they might not fire; and if they fired, they wouldn’t necessarily kill me.

The sound of helicopters. The sound of people shouting. The sound of gunfire and exploding grenades… I don’t know when I lost consciousness. When you can’t get oxygen, death comes in a strange manner; you have to experience it to know what it’s like. It felt like a steel band around my head growing tighter, ever tighter, ever tighter. My brain was about to break apart. When I started to lose consciousness, I had only one thought: “This is too shameful, too illogical.” I could imagine all other types of privation in life: food, clothes, medicine, love, sunlight—but I could not imagine lack of oxygen.

When I pleaded to get out, Mr. Tý said, “Impossible! If they find out, they’ll burn the house and kill everyone up there, not just you.”

But then Mr. Tý couldn’t bear it in the shelter either; he knew that remaining in it would end in an awful death. As a local man, Mr Tý was familiar with these games and, as the last to enter the shelter, he was still clear-headed. He gently pushed the cover up a bit. When I came to, I saw that he was propping up my chin and pressing my nose to the slight opening. Awakening thus in Mr. Tý’s arms, I was very moved.

It was then about 10:00 am I said, “Enough, anh Tý—let’s just get out!”

“Impossible!”

“Let’s do this, anh Tý. We can’t bring up all our gear. If we’re still alive, then we can come back to find it. I’ll leave everything here; just let me get out. Whether you two get out or not is up to you.”

I raised the cover and crawled up, leaving my hat, sandals, film and camera, and everything else, because I had to crawl. After crawling a few meters from the underground shelter I turned over on my back and gasped. This was a field of leafy grass that people used to thatch their homes. Never before in my life had I felt that air was so precious, so sweet!

A moment later I felt someone bump my foot. Mr. Tý had come up. A few minutes later, Mr. Ba came up as well. The three of us lay stretched out next to each other. The grass field was a few hundred meters wide.

The sound of gunfire had died down. A group of American soldiers was carrying a big mirror out of a house. They slapped soap on their faces and shaved, then opened some cans and had a meal. One thing at a time, just the style of Americans! We’d all go to perdition if they saw a few Viet Cong fellows reflected in the mirror!

The three of us lay on our backs gazing at the sky, filling our lungs with delicious air. A flowerpecker was hopping about on a chinaberry branch: “Cheep, cheep… cheep, cheep.”

It was so happy, so free—not miserable like us.

Tý thrust an M26 hand grenade into my hand. Quietly, I asked, “How do you throw it?”

“You remove this rubber button and then throw it. Don’t let this lever spring off in your hand, or we’re all goners.”

After crawling some distance with the grenade, I found that it greatly impeded my progress, so I gave it back to Mr. Tý, to get some relief. I had never received any training in weaponry.

I had only a pair of shorts and a short-sleeved shirt (just as I would be when thrown down at the edge of Unification Park in Hanoi a number of years later). I followed the other two, crawling like a centipede, without hat or sandals, through orchards, through ditches, through water buffalo stalls and latrines, my hands and feet all scratched.

“Where are we crawling to?”
“Up to Dựng Mountain.”
“When will we get there?”
“It’s not far at all, a few kilometers only.”

Though we were moving through an area under the surveillance of American and ARVN troops, there were times when we could stand up and walk. By the time we reached the mountain slope, afternoon was shading into dusk. The three of us were all wearing the same “uniform”: shorts and short-sleeved shirts, dirty and ragged, and with nothing in our stomachs.

By nighttime, we had crawled to Mount Dựng. This was a branch of the mountains that jutted out to the ocean, very near the infamous place known as the “Vĩnh Trinh Dam,” where a massacre occurred in the time of Ngô Đình Diệm.

We came to a cave—it was a sort of crevice where the rock had split horizontally. Inside there were spots where water had collected, and spots that were dry. It was high enough only to sit or lie in. When we first entered it, it seemed utterly silent, but after that we heard whispering in which were mixed the dialects of north, south, and central Vietnam.

Around 4:00 am I said,“Anh Tý, let’s just go on. One way or another, they’ll discover this place. If they spray us with flame throwers, we’ll all be burned up.”

In the silvery moonlight and chilly mist, the surroundings were silent, though from time to time there would be some strange, ominous echo of sound. We started to crawl from the cave. But where to? Wherever we went, we would end up being in the same area. All day we wandered about in abandoned gardens and homes, great numbers of them, all utterly desolate. There were even some bonsai and some stately old trees around the houses, but they had become gaunt, empty shells. And there was nothing whatsoever to eat. When night came again, we didn’t return to the cave, but sat at the edge of a rice field. The mosquitoes swarmed; the only way of dealing with them was to break off a leafy branch and keep waving it back and forth until the branch lost all its leaves, and then break off another branch and do the same, otherwise the mosquitoes would turn us into dead meat.

How many days passed like that? Six days! On the other side, they might call it “hành quân” (a military maneuver), but on our side we called it “trận càn” (a mopping up operation).

On the sixth day we came to a large stream. This was a semi-mountainous region; the banks were steep on both sides. The three of us stripped and went down to the stream naked, so as to bathe and wash our clothing to relieve our itching. Suddenly, thunderous artillery fire began raining down on the area where we were bathing, and we ran for our lives, still naked.

We thought it would be simple—just keep running along the sloped riverbanks—we’d be safe. But we had no inkling that the stream was on the enemy’s maps. The commandos would peer down at us through their binoculars and call in artillery to fire on us at the coordinates. Artillery fire followed us wherever we ran—I don’t understand why we all survived intact. Later—perhaps when we ran beyond the range of their observation, or of their coordinates—they ceased firing. If the three of us hadn’t run along the stream, but had instead spread out, then we wouldn’t necessarily have been pursued by gunfire.

We ran on to the Vĩnh Trinh Dam. Right next to it was a railroad. People had removed the railroad ties to build an A-shaped shelter. The three of us crawled into it.

Only a few minutes later, they started bombarding again. Helicopter gunships came and attacked thunderously. The bombardment would hurl dirt from the hillside over the roof of the shelter and then would blow the dirt away to expose the roof again.

The bombs and shells were so abundant that they were wasting them. Smoke from the bombs obscured everything, turning the sky black. It was around eleven or twelve o’clock at night. We were hungry, tired, despairing, and desperate.

For six or seven days we had eaten nothing. What was there to eat anyway? So we sneaked back to the village of Xuyên Trường again, whereupon we met some guerillas, who said, “Get out now! The enemies are all over the place here!”

They turned on their flashlights, and we saw each other’s faces for the first time. We all looked like black zombies, eyes white, teeth white, and faces full of mud and dirt, blackened by smoke from the bombs. In later years, Mr. Tý would write about all these things in his letters.

I was consumed with anxiety, fearing that my film and camera would be ruined.

“Is there anything to eat?” I asked the guerillas.
“Not a thing,” they said.
“Then where are we to go?”

“You must turn around and climb past this mountain. Then go back until you reach Xuyên Thanh Village.”

It was in the middle of the night. Our stomachs had been empty for six or seven days, our feet were waterlogged and bleeding, and our clothes were ragged and drenched. Where could we find strength to go on?

“We’re horribly cold. Do you have any pieces of dry clothing?”

“Yes, right away, right away,” said one guerilla.

With this, he withdrew a dagger and sliced off a few broad banana leaves, made holes in the middle and put them over our heads. Then he folded over the front and rear halves and used banana tendrils to tie them around our waists. Thus we all had leafy “overcoats.” This done, he shouted, “Move!”

The three of us then groped our way back through the gloomy shadows of the night across Mount Dựng, and at last reached Xuyên Thanh Village. Tý said “Let me lead the way.” There were again culverts and ditches, stalls for water buffalo, and latrines… Then Tý led us into the home of his elderly paternal aunt. She looked at us as if we were three ghosts.

“Come on in then, get washed up first, then come into the kitchen to get warm by the fire.

She went off to cook rice. And then we ate it with “mắm” (a sauce made from fermented bonito). We had never had anything so delicious in our lives!

On the afternoon of the next day, we returned to Xuyên Trường Village, this time taking with us a few packs of steamed rice. All around, there were burned houses, dead bodies, sounds of people calling to each other, sounds of weeping and mourning. The place was devastated, destroyed, in pain… I made my way back to the grassy field, opened the cover of the underground shelter, and found the film and camera, and the rucksack with clothes intact.

It was a cruel and terrible war; people suffered, and the film and camera also suffered. Bombs and shells plowed up the earth, everything got buried or flooded, and people wandered about in all directions…

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