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Chapter Six

The Chiêm Sơn Bridge across the Thu Bồn River was a railway bridge, second only to the Long Biên Bridge up in Hanoi. I had to submerge myself in the water to film it. When the bridge was blown up, great waves swelled up and rolled toward me, one after another. Each time this happened, I had to hold the camera high up to keep it clear of the waves. Once the filming was complete, I had to move immediately, because fighter-bombers would come right away and artillery would rain down. Just as I started to move, my foot struck against something hard down in the mud. I had just enough time to dive and pluck it up. It was a steel box. On opening it, I found it was filled with gleaming bullets. I asked a guerilla how long the ammo box might have been there, and he told me that two years earlier the enemy had conducted a sweeping operation through the area. It occurred to me at once that I could use this steel box to carry film in. Pouring out the bullets, I saw that they were bandoliers to be wrapped around a person’s torso.

So the ammo box became my film box. It was a fine box; after I put the film in, there was some leftover space on both ends, large enough to stuff in some roasted rice as a safeguard against humidity.

There was no way I could carry such a great quantity of film on my back to all the places I went to during my time in the lowlands. It would be like having an entire studio on my back! So it occurred to me that I must go in search of more ammo boxes of the same sort. Once the film was shot, I could throw it in a box and bury it wherever I happened to be. Identification signs for the burial spots would be big trees, river bends, and boulders… But then the surface of the earth could be turned upside down by bombing. Burying film in that manner would be extremely risky, as it could be lost any time, and then what could I say to my superiors! But miraculously, even though the amount of film I shot was huge during all those months of wandering here and there, I was able to dig up all of it, wrap it up, and, at the conclusion of my mission, carry it back intact to the mountains.

Trần Văn Thủy leaning against a tree in a forest.

I often found it strange and “illogical” that I had not yet died!

I recall that during my years of filming in the battlefield, I often found it strange and “illogical” that I had not yet died! Surely, it would only “make sense” to die hundreds of times!

We were coming down from upstream, moving along in the Thu Bồn River. A band of guerillas was just then coming up in the opposite direction, talking and laughing noisily. As I gazed into the shallow water, intent on wading, a pair of white long legs suddenly appeared. I looked up and saw a girl, the only girl in the group of male youths. She was wearing a tight pair of shorts, revealing smooth, off-white long legs, supporting a tall, slender figure. Her face was refined, with an aquiline nose, and a pair of bright eyes…

But only one side of that face beautiful as an angel’s was intact! The other half was horrifically deformed (I learned later that she had been injured by a bullet hitting her squarely in that side of her face).

The girl gazed straight into my face. Our four eyes met for a second.

Then she shifted the Garant rifle on her shoulder to her back, turning sideways and kicking the water with her long legs with a swirling motion like a ballet dancer, sending sprays of water in the air. Countless pearl-like drops of water flew up and then followed each other, making gleaming arcs in the air as they fell under the early sun. And a clear, spontaneous peal of laughter resounded on the wavy surface of the river…

Now, forty-five years later, I still, at this very moment, remember the exact sound of her laughter. It was a laugh unlike any other I have heard in my life; it seemed tinged with some kind of thirst for revenge…

Hỷ, our photojournalist leading the way, said, “That’s Xoa, Văn Thị Xoa, chief of Xuyên Châu village militia.”

I was terribly obsessed by her beautiful, yet half-destroyed face. A few days later, I suggested to my colleagues that we organize a shooting sequence about Xoa and other guerilla girls of Xuyên Châu.

Dozens of people gathered to do this, but before we could begin, artillery began to rain down on us, forcing us to run in all directions. The whole area was devastated. Only after another three months was I able to communicate with them again. I suggested to Mr. Lai, the Duy Xuyên District party secretary, that he let Ms. Xoa go down to my place near Bàn Thạch Market so we could film her there. Mr. Lai was so conscientious that even in the midst of such intense and desperate fighting, he sent the village militia chief all the way to our location, so we could make a film.

But, split off from her own unit and her familiar surroundings, with no Thu Bồn River and green fields of mulberry, she was no longer the dynamic, natural, enterprising, self-confident Văn Thị Xoa that she had been before! We tried one approach after another, but she was still stiff and dry, devoid of life. Finally I had to give up after three days and returned her to her unit.

Only long afterward, when we went to Xuyên Châu where Xoa and her unit were active, to make a film on the spot, did we succeed. Only then did the image of Văn Thị Xoa become vivid, as was seen in the film we made of her.

One night, anh Tý and I left the sandy seaside area in Thăng Bình District to go up the hills in the opposite direction. We were accustomed to traveling at night to avoid encounters with the other side. We came to a very broad river. This was the Châu Giang, a name that Tý used to name his first son.

To this very day, after the passage of nearly half a century, I still remember the mysterious sensations of that night by the sea, listening to the breezes chasing each other over the tips of the phi lao (seaside pines), and smelling the warm salty aroma of the ocean. Peaceful, reflective moments such as those were very rare. Suddenly Tý asked, “Do you see those lights on the other side of the river?”

“Yes, certainly.”

“That’s Bà Market. My wife and family are all over there. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone back to visit my wife.”

“So could we take this opportunity to make a quick visit then?”

“Let me see. If I went alone, it would be all right, but with you along, I’m afraid something would happen, and then we’d be in big trouble.”

“So are the enemy stationed there?”

“No. By day, the enemy’s there, but at night we’re usually in control.”

“Then let’s go. I too would like to visit your family and meet your wife.”

We decided to swim across the river. To call a ferry would be dangerous. If someone should inform on us, things would be insecure. So we stripped off all our clothing, wrapped our gear and cameras in many layers of nylon, and then, arrayed like the legendary Chử Đồng Tử (i.e. stark naked), gently put our wrapped bags into the black water, pushing them ahead as we swam. There wasn’t a sound.

By the time we reached the middle of the river, a swarm of small fish, imagining that we were some kind of exotic morsel, began nibbling enthusiastically on the area of our bodies that should not be touched. The tickling sensation was hard to bear, but we continued to swim as if nothing were happening.

On reaching the other side, about a kilometer away from the lights, we put on our clothes again and arranged our gear. Taking my hand, Tý pushed me into a clump of shrubbery and told me to lie low, so he could go in first to test the situation, after which he would come back and get me.

I sat without moving in the shrubbery while the mosquitoes bit me to death. About half an hour later, Tý returned and said, “Things are very quiet. Let’s just go in.”

The family of anh Tý’s wife was moderately prosperous; they did business in Bà Market. It was a two-story house; on the lower level they sold herbal medicines and miscellaneous goods. There were many bedrooms on the upper level. We bathed and brewed some tea. Moments later, a little boy came up. With respectfully folded arms, he said, “Mrs Hai wishes to invite you two gentlemen to come down to the lower level and have dinner.”

We went down and saw a tray of hot “trứng vịt lộn” (half-hatched boiled duck eggs) and glasses of cold beer to start with, and lots of other dishes arranged in the middle of the room. And so the two “ravenous ghosts” got to eat their fill, making up for their endless days of hunger and misery.

Next morning the local militia posted guards in the area to keep a lookout for the enemy, so we were able to film the activity going on in the marketplace. Such crowded, merry scenes were very seldom seen in the so-called “liberated” areas. Chị Hai Hoàng, anh Tý’s wife, went out to the market, where she stood out as an elegant beauty arrayed in off-white silk. I don’t understand why the enemy didn’t come that day to search through Bà Market. We later departed peacefully amid the fond goodbyes of Chi Hai Hoàng and her family. Those memories remained deeply implanted in my mind and subsequently turned to sorrow when Chi Hai Hoàng was arrested and imprisoned. Anh Tý sent me a poem he had written to his wife in her prison cell, as follows:


(written for Hoàng)

I wait for you as dusk awaits the wind
To disperse the clouds, reveal the starry sky.
Sails spread before the wind, returning to the pier,
As lines of windswept pines confide in whispers to each other.

Mrs. Hoàng and her children became close friends of my family and have remained so till the present day. She and her children have been to Hanoi a couple of times to stay at my home, and I have also gone back to see them…

Underground tunnels and shelters were closely bound up with our lives in that region. Some shelters were dry and others were wet, with toads, snakes, and centipedes. Sometimes we remained in shelters for days—we had to use these places for purposes of elimination too, and then breathe in the aroma of what had been “eliminated.” Yet, that was not the worst. In some areas, the surface of the earth was barren, so the shelters couldn’t be dug in the usual manner. The entrance had to be dug underwater at the edge of a stream or pond. To enter them you had to plunge beneath the water and then go up vertically, as in the lairs of otters. Every time you wanted to enter one, you had to feel around with your hand to find a cave, like a cave for crabs. The frogmen rangers on the other side also regularly submerged themselves in the water and felt around with their hands to identify the entrances…

Sometimes at night we got word that rangers had crept into the area. It would be silent, with not even the sound of a dog barking. Within five or seven minutes we had to wrap up our gear and crawl noiselessly out to the river. The things that filmmakers like us brought along were not weapons, but cameras and film, both exposed and yet-to-be-exposed, and clothes as well, including the clothes we were wearing! We would wrap up all these things securely in a few layers of nylon, until they were like rubber floats, so we could submerge them in the water and conceal them for later use. Then arrayed like Chử Đồng Tử (stark naked), we slid easily into the water and lightly pushed the buoyant nylon sacks ahead of us. On reaching the entrance to a tunnel, we would pause and take in a great breath of air, so we would have enough oxygen in our lungs to push our gear downward, move it five or seven meters forward, and crawl into the tunnel! I was quietly grateful for all those days in my childhood when I had run away from home to practice swimming at the Children’s Palace in Hanoi in 1954.

My film passed through countless jungle rainstorms, watery submersions, underground burials, storage in tunnels and shelters, and traversals through streams and rivers… Yet, when I went up to the North, before any processing of the negatives, Mr. Đoàn would at once exclaim, “This film isn’t mildewed at all!” As for the story concerning Mr. Doàn and the film I brought back from the war zone, I’ll recount that later.

“How could this be! Given the intense hostilities of the war, with everything being turned upside down by bombing and shelling, that you could preserve your lives, and bring back intact all the films you shot is almost unthinkable! Just the fact that you were able to keep the film from suffering damage or getting moldy is a miracle!”

When we heard Mr. Đoàn say that the film wasn’t moldy at all, I also was indescribably astonished and overjoyed!

Trần Văn Thủy.

My foremost duty was to… live, in order to shoot scenes and bring the film back… (the documentary films didn’t get moldy, but this photo did!)

It must be added that the photojournalist filming scenes in a war zone must necessarily put his life in danger, going to places where the fighting is most intense, choosing locations that command the widest view from different angles; standing in high places, so as to capture the best pictures, yet he must not… die! The film must not be damaged. His duty is not to gain victories in battle, nor to use his body to support a machine gun or to block the gunfire from a bunker. His foremost duty is to… live, in order to shoot scenes and bring the film back to the studio for processing—only then does he fulfill his duty! Death would be totally useless: all the hard training, all the expensive equipment, all our important stories and unfinished work would be as if cast into the ocean!

As a rule, people who survive aren’t honored to the same extent as people who die, but no one is so stupid as to choose death. Đặng Thùy Trâm was the same. Naturally death carries the possibility that you may gain a heroic name, be praised to the skies, and be remembered for generations… Putting it this way may sound very rude and naked, but it is the truth, a very cold, hard truth. In a war zone with bombs falling and bullets flying everywhere, life and death is not up to individual will or wisdom alone, but is also up to fate, to God’s will. A great many of my colleagues didn’t come home after the war, but departed this life forever, leaving gaps that cannot be filled among their families, relations and colleagues, from the North to the South. There are a great many such cases, but here I will only recount the story of one colleague who was closely associated with me, immersed in the affairs of the same war zone, at the same period of time. I had the opportunity to write about him in a newspaper article that appeared some thirty years ago:

My encounters with Nguyễn Giá

Compared with my other colleagues, I made Nguyễn Giá’s acquaintance late, and perhaps knew him less well.

I feel a bit reluctant going over these memories of events that seem to have occurred only yesterday, and then realizing suddenly that they have already receded far into my youth, at the outset of life’s journey.

In the years of the cruel and terrible war, almost all filmmakers and photojournalists like myself went out to the war front. It was in 1967, at the headquarters of the 5th Zone party committee, when we heard that Nguyễn Giá, who had just completed a course of training in Russia, had come to Quảng Đà. I had never met the fellow before. What sort of person might he be? What would he do, all alone, to cope with these terrible war zone conditions? We didn’t say anything to each other, but we all understood that Nguyễn Giá had decided to throw himself into an uneven fight. It was also in mid-1967 that I was lucky enough to get a camera and film, bid farewell to hillside farming, and come down to Quảng Đà. For many months on end, bombs rained and bullets flew, and the enemy came through on sweeping operations. I had met thousands of familiar and unfamiliar faces, but I had not been able to meet Giá. Such was the harshness of the war in Quảng Đà. Sometimes we would be only one rice field, one small canal, one secret tunnel apart, and then, in a flash, an artillery barrage would start, enemy troops would pour out of helicopters, and bullets would fly all about—and then we would disperse in all directions.

When we had filmed the final scenes for the film “The People of My Native Land” in Duy Xuyên, we were subjected to a ferocious sweeping operation the like of which I had never previously experienced in my life. I could never have predicted that it was just in that moment of supreme peril that I saw… yes, without doubt, it was Giá that I saw! Helicopters swarmed like flies over our heads, and shouts of Americans resounded in all directions leading into the village. From Mt. Dựng outpost, the RSVN troops descended, kicking over the fences. Bullets kept whizzing by at belt-level and above. I had just then been suffocating in a secret tunnel and had been dragged out by the armpits to an open place so I could breathe, when someone cried out:

Giá! Look, that’s him!

I tried to raise my sagging body and looked up. The real flesh-and-blood Giá was rushing by in a bent-over posture, about ten meters from us. He was about my age. He was a bit dark, well built, attired in rural green “pajamas,” and had a sack on his back, probably for a camera. What underground shelter had he just darted out from? How did he intend to escape from the enemy encirclement? It was all like a hurriedly taken snapshot.

My films were shot, so, after bidding farewell to my friends, and to anh Tý, I followed some liaison guides up to the base camp. There was no more hope of meeting Giá. I had gotten only a glimpse at him! He seemed like a tough guy.

Perhaps nowadays the living and working conditions have changed, and people can travel around by automobile or aircraft to make film, so the need to meet others is not so strong. But back in those days at the frontline, meeting with colleagues and hometown compatriots was a big comfort.

The road through the piedmont area up to the base-camp was remote and endlessly long. On the afternoon of the fourth day, at a liaison station, I received an order from a leader in the regional party headquarters: “You are to return at once to the Quảng Đà front.”

“To do what? My films are all shot.”

“This is an order from the regional headquarters. Your mission will be given to you later.”

“I don’t have a single scrap of film left.”

“Just return. We’ll talk about film later.”

So I had no choice but to turn around. To tell the truth I had no particular reluctance to return—at least I was familiar with the roads and underground shelters there. Furthermore, that fellow Giá had just returned from Russia, but had chosen to stay there. The only annoying thing was that the bosses hadn’t told me what to film or where to get film.

On the eve of Tết Mậu Thân (New year of 1968, the year of the monkey), war journalists of every sort (newspapermen, broadcasters, news agency reporters, photographers, and film-makers), as well as musicians and writers regrouped or, more correctly, were herded into a large bomb shelter. This was perhaps the largest and most unexpected gathering in the war. A commander read out an order for a general offensive and uprising throughout the South Vietnam!

I had not yet understood anything when suddenly I saw Giá. He looked exactly the same as he did when I had seen him running at full tilt during the sweeping operation in Xuyên Trường. He was sitting in a corner of the shelter, still with a bundled sack on his back. His facial expression was natural and relaxed, as if he had never run from a sweeping operation.. I approached him.

“Giá, right? I’m Thủy.”

“Yeah, yeah… Triều Phương [anh Tý] told me you’d gone back up to the base camp, right?”

Giá’s voice sounded like that of someone from Lai Xá.1 But this was not a time and place for us to chat socially. So I said briefly, “The order that was just read isn’t for me—I can’t film with an empty camera.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll give you some film,” he offered. “I have a little black and white film, but I’ve left it all this time in Điện Hồng.”

Giá was without a doubt someone from Lai Xá, very kind, with no nonsense, and reliable. He pulled me out of the shelter and the two of us suddenly craned our necks to look up at the sky. The night before Tết and the sky so full of stars? Or was the sky in the Central Region like that? There were surely no stars in the Hanoi sky at this time. Giá rushed ahead, and I followed him almost running. High over our heads, some highflying B57 bombers glistened like stars.

And as happened every day, a long, horror-filled wail would come, upon which the earth would be lit up, shaken violently, and consumed in flames…

“Where are we going, Giá?”

“Up to… Điện Hồng!”

If we’d been up in Hanoi, I would have concluded that this fellow was a psychopath. Điện Hồng village was way up in Điện Bàn District. We had to swim across the Thu Bồn River, stumbling up and down steep paths, rolling and crawling in the pitch-black night for twenty kilometers!

After having crawled in and out of several partially burned out shelters, we found the one where Giá had his film stored.

As Giá crawled out of the shelter, I touched the bundle of film that he was holding in his arms.

“Is this all you have?”

“Yeah… they said they’d send some more later. Go ahead and take half of this.”

The “half” that Giá referred to was half of a canister containing 300 meters of 16-millimeter film. I’ve always been a cunning fellow, but Giá was so sincere and generous! How could someone up in Hanoi have made such a promise to him? In a few more hours, Tết would arrive, and gunfire would erupt throughout the South, instead of the usual Tết cease-fire (as our superiors had announced).

The two of us hugged the 300 meters of film with no cassette and no bobbin (to divide the film into smaller sections) in our arms. How could we film? Giá was a newcomer, but he already had many local friends and acquaintances. He took me along as he groped around for a while and then crept into the house of a blacksmith.

This gentleman woke up at once, as alert as if he had never closed his eyes (only later did I learn that people living in areas subject to bombs and artillery were accustomed to waking up without any yawning or stretching). In accordance with Giá’s requests, he pulled out a set of tools: flare canisters, pincers and punches…

Giá placed a bobbin before him to use as a model: a Paya Polex movie camera bobbin! This blacksmith was utterly zealous—he went to his work with a habitual disdain for the modern manufacturing techniques used in civilized countries. As for us, we were hungry and tired, and could think of nothing better to do than to sit stupidly and wait.

In the end, the hand-made bobbin was finished. Aside from their differing colors, it was hard to distinguish what this blacksmith had made from the product made in Switzerland. I noticed that Giá was sweating profusely, though the night was now advanced, and was beginning to get cold. He opened his back sack, pulled out his camera and put the hand-made bobbin inside.

We were all nervous about the outcome. We wound up the spring on the camera and pressed the start button to see what would happen. The machine ran and whirred for a spell, making our eyes brighten, and then… it got stuck and stopped. He tried fixing it this way and that way, taking it out and reinstalling it, but the machine still would not run satisfactorily; it would run for a number of seconds and then get stuck again. We had to say good-bye to the blacksmith.

When we thanked him and shook his hand, we could see that he had never previously accepted defeat in the face of modern technology, not even that of the machines all around him, making such a clamor in the sky and earth for so many years. Giá was sad and deeply worried, more than I was. We miserably searched for expedients until the hour of Tết arrived. From somewhere, here and there, the roar of gunfire began to encircle us.

The Cẩm Nam river is south of the town of Hội An. The place is right next to the sea, so by about 4:00 a.m. the light was clear enough to distinguish people’s faces. Hundreds of big and small boats from the south were filled with people advancing toward the town with drums and gongs. Our superiors had told us to go and “capture those in power.” Giá rode in one boat, and I in another. When the boats had departed from the pier for a few boat-lengths, I saw him waving his hands toward the sky as signal. I didn’t understand what he meant. I saw only that gunfire from the city was coming at us thick and fast. Someone shouted: That’s our fire, we’re in control of the town. We’re firing to mislead the enemy!” (only later did I learn that the man was lying.) And so, after the shouting, the boats kept crossing the river en masse. Gunfire from the town rained down on the river, with high-speed automatic fire like red water drops sprayed from a hose. A number of boats took hits, foundered, and sank.

Sounds of people shouting and cursing… Some boats turned around, but the gunfire was fiercer than ever. I have never afterwards been able to remember how we returned to the southern bank. So Giá and I were separated again and wound up in different places.

After the second wave of the general offensive, the other side counterattacked fiercely. Then came the third wave. The liberated zones gradually shrank, until nothing of our territory was left in Quảng Đà. It was perhaps for this reason that when I left the base-camp and was on my way to the North, I unexpectedly ran into Giá again at the edge of a jungle. We were overjoyed. When Giá learned that I was going to the North, he couldn’t restrain his tears, and he embraced me—embraced the scrawny, stinking bundle of bones that I had become. As for Giá, he looked older, thinner, and shrunken. “With such bombing and gunfire, his mere survival must be due to the blessings of his ancestors,” I thought to myself. The two of us spent the night together. When morning came, Giá found two tins of rice somewhere and pushed them into a tubular bag for me, but I declined: “When I reach the way stations, there will be something to eat.”

Giá gave me an enclosed letter and a small pack of gifts for his wife and children. We walked together for a long stretch before parting. His eyes swimming with tears, Giá said, “I’ll return later—please remember to tell my wife. The thing is, I can’t go back empty-handed. I must film something or other, you understand?”

That was my third and last meeting with Nguyễn Giá. My film-making friends and colleagues, like Xã Hội, Đức Hóa, Phạm Thự, Ma Cường, Nghiêm Phú Mỹ, Lô Cường, Hoàng Thành, Mai Lê Yên, and especially Trần Đống, who stood in the forefront of cinema in the 5th zone during the war, are able to relate many stories concerning Nguyễn Giá. He had an unshakeable determination not to return to the North empty-handed.

His life was full of setbacks; no sooner did he make his way to some location, then that area would be subject to ferocious sweeping operations. The first load of film he sent back to the North for processing went “foul”—the film flicked by with no images. When he went with Lê Bá Huyến, Huyến was captured. When his first child was born, he never got to see the infant’s face.

And after all this, most tragically of all, he died while shooting his last lengths of film, that he had devoted heart and soul to, in Quang Ngãi.

—Trần Văn Thủy, September 1985

1. Lai Xá is a place in the Hanoi area known as a “photography village.”

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