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Chapter summary

Chapter Seven

After the Tết Offensive in 1968, came the second and third wave of counterattacks by the other side. We were dispersed, devastated, broken up. We kept running and kept suffering repeated blows.

My mission was to protect the film I had shot and carry it back to the North, where I was supposed to deliver it to the Cinema Department, without allowing any part of it to be lost or damaged. At that time, I was thin as a rail and sick with malaria, and my hair fell out, leaving only stray wisps. Someone said to me, “When I sit near you, I smell the odor of death.” That was chị Tú, the younger sister of chị Thúy Bằng, the wife of the musician Văn Cao (the author of many famous songs, including the Vietnamese national anthem). She was at the time working there with her husband in the News Agency of 5th Zone.

To be in the arts, culture, propaganda and training department was cumbersome, especially with its printing facilities, film studio, film stock, projectors, cameras, and a lot more, all quite different from the situation of print journalists and writers who were encumbered only with pen and paper, and could fly like the wind…

Let me tell the story of Trần Thế Dân. Much earlier, Dân had studied cinema and photography at a film school in Beijing, and spoke excellent Chinese. After graduation, he came back to work at the Feature Film Studio in Hanoi and later became vice director of the Cinema Department, and then Deputy General Secretary of the Cinema Association. Everything Dân thought and did was in complete conformity with the rules, with all he had been taught at school and in his family.

As for his relations with me, he was extremely kind, and I have many fond memories of our times together in the war zone. Dân cared for me wholeheartedly, especially after I fell ill. Once Dân had me lean against a pillar while he gave me an ịnjection. When he withdrew the needle I fainted and fell down to the ground. Dân hastily picked up the tube of medicine to see if he had administered the wrong substance—but it was only vitamin B1…

Once Dân cut some slices from his last piece of ginseng for me. It had been given to him by Mrs. Hảo, the wife of the musician Nguyễn Văn Thương (author of the famous melancholy song “Đêm Đông” or “Winter Night”) and the sworn elder sister of Dân. At another time when a mission took him to a neighboring area where crops were grown, he carried back a bunch of water spinach to give to me. Since he was on the road for three or four days, almost all the water spinach dried up and withered, so we had to sort them out bit by bit to see which stems were still edible. Later when I set out for the North, Dân shared some rice with me.

Dân was completely deaf in one ear, yet he was given the “special favor” of being allowed to go to the war zone. When there was an explosion, he had to turn around in a circle in order to determine in what direction it came from. For the same reason, Dân could not go down to the lowlands where bombs fell everywhere and where one could meet with enemy troops at any time. He remained in the highlands and made the film The Wild Game Hunters of Mount Đak Sao, which won a gold award at a film festival held in Moscow. Very few people, if any, could have done that, given such bombing, starvation and illness… Dân was so thoughtful in his behavior and so kind by nature that he was liked by everybody…

The counterattacks of the other side after the Tết Offensive in 1968 pushed us into Laotian territory. Every time we changed location, our unit had to carry along some sick or disabled men. My presence had become a burden for my colleagues—nobody would be able to carry me around on their backs or on a stretcher. And besides, the quantity of film was so great that it appeared necessary to see if it could be turned into movies or if the negatives had images or not.

They therefore decided that I must go back to the North. I had no needs that impelling my return. If I had been healthy, it wouldn’t have been necessary for me to return to the North—someone else could have carried the film back there for processing, post-production and “montage”; and my role would simply have been writing explanatory notes and names of locations concerning each section of the film.

Such was the background at the time of my return. There were quite a few cases of “B quay” (meaning a ‘U-turn” made by people who refused to go or stay in the South) before completing their duties, by making up excuses that they were so sick or handicapped to go on.

When I set out, I left everything I had behind for my colleagues, including my best rucksack. I took along only a cloth bag, which, filled with rice and tied with a string, became a sort of makeshift rucksack. I left my hung go (cooking pot) behind as well, taking only an empty can with a steel wire wrapped around it for cooking on the way, and two sets of uniforms. It was hard to say when I would reach the way stations, so my colleagues gave me a ruột tượng (a long tubular bag) with rice contributions from the others, a can from some, or half a can, or a handful, from others. At that time I was so weak that whenever I urinated, I had to hold on to a tree for support. So how could I carry all these things? My colleagues let me try by loading them up on my body, that now looked like a chopstick. When I stood up, the rice bag slipped down to my feet, for I had no hips or any protrusions for it to hold on to. And when I put the rice bag on my shoulders, I couldn’t bear the load and fell down, though the rice wasn’t that much, just a few kilograms… Yet, I had to carry a few dozens of canisters full of negatives up hill and down dale…

So I went.

…my colleagues walked with me for some distance to see me off and encourage me: “Go, and do your best, okay?” And at last, I had arrived at the destination. Now I know how powerful the spiritual motivation is.

I wasn’t dragging my corpse-like body back North just to rest, eat good food and get medical treatment. The yards and yards of film on my shoulders were filled with so many images of so many people, so many stories, so many battles…

On the way up to the way stations network, I had to cook food for myself. I was so sick that whenever I ate, I would vomit and have diarrhea. It was miserable. But when I mixed the American orange juice packets with spring water, I could drink it right away and this helped the diarrhea as well. When I started running a high fever from malaria, I put on all my clothes, and carefully wrote the following note that I placed in the film pack: “These are all film negatives shot in the war zone, not yet developed. If they should fall into your hands, please take the utmost care to preserve them and deliver them on my behalf to the office responsible for Cinema. They must not be opened.”

When I fell so ill with high fever on the way, I spread out the nylon tent, and lay on it, half exposed and half covered, with my arms protectively wrapped around the sack of film, lying right on the trail which was no more than a meter wide, so that if I died, anyone passing by would see me.

I had seen dead people by the wayside many, many times. Once when I went to get cassava tubers on the hillsides, I saw someone on a hammock groaning miserably, still with hat, canteen, and a backpack… and on the way back, I saw only a twisted corpse, with no possessions left. I had seen such deaths, many of them, time and time again.

I thought that if I died, anyone who happened to run into my corpse would know what I was carrying. I lay there burning up with fever and groaning, as drops of rain fell here and there on the top of the tent. Many people died from malaria like that, not just from bombs and bullets…

And then I heard some voices of people conversing in the distance… and sound of heavy footsteps as if from young and healthy people, probably from paramilitary volunteer youths or frontline workers.

As the footsteps came closer, I was overjoyed. Their voices were enthusiastic as if they were young and strong. One person came up to me: “Oh, there’s a fellow lying here, perhaps he is dead already.” Another person lifted the flap of the tent. Our four eyes met. “Hey guys, he’s still alive.” They closed the tent flap and went on their way.

On one occasion when I was too weak to keep up with the others, I said, “You all go on ahead, just make marks along the way for me to see—I’ll get to the way station without getting lost.” The night was black as ink, another fellow and I went along groping our way forward in the dark and I had no idea how we could finally make it to our destination.

This fellow was a disabled soldier. Of those going back to the north, nearly all were disabled, missing a foot or a hand, sick with malaria, carrying children with them… it was in fact a band of disabled troops. Although physically intact, I was very sick and carrying a big load of film.

This fellow had broken a foot and a hand. He said he was good at swimming. I too was good at swimming; I could cross any river no matter how fast the current. Now, at seventy-something, I still swim twelve or fifteen hundred meters every afternoon at Ba Đình swimming pool (a club for retired officials in Hanoi). If I hadn’t known how to swim, I would have been dead many times.

This fellow could wade across a stream if it was shallow, but whenever it became so deep that he had to swim, he would look pitiful as the current swept him away with only one hopelessly working hand. How can you swim with just one arm and one leg! The dividing line between life and death is indeed fragile.

Once our way was blocked for fifteen days by a large band of special forces that had been dropped into the area. The first day, we each ate one can of rice; the second day, less than one can; the third and fourth days, half a can; after that, not a grain was left. We had to gather wild roots and leaves in the forest, such as taro, to cook and eat. Later on, I would shudder whenever I smelled it. Taro is similar to the elephant-ear plant. We would cook the leaves until they turned into a horrible sort of soup, and add a pinch of salt and glutamate powder. And this was the food that everyone ate, both the sick and the healthy.

I shall recount here another thing that happened on the way. Our group included all sorts of people—men and women, old people and children. One woman had brought along a four or five year old child—I still remember that his name was Vinh, little Vinh. Everyone in our group loved both the mother and the child. We gave them the best spots to sit and, whenever there was anything to eat, shared it with them. A liaison soldier caught a stone crab when crossing a forest stream and brought it back for the child, for the boy had nothing to play with. He used a long cotton thread to tie one of the crab’s claws at one end, and tied the other end to the stake to which my own hammock and that of the mother and son were tethered. I lay on my hammock and gazed down at the child playing with the crab. The poor little boy was hungry like the rest of us, and also had nothing to play with.

When night came, my hunger and thirst became unbearable; I was overpowered by a desire to eat something. There was some roasted rice in the sack with film, but I wouldn’t have dared to eat a grain of it, even if I had to die of hunger. The roasted rice was there to protect the film from moisture. I remembered that a crab was tied to one end of my hammock. An “ideological struggle” (a much-used term at the time) took place in my mind—should I steal the crab, so as to roast and devour it?

After thinking this over and over, I decided to eat the crab. When the mother and child had fallen asleep, I crept out of my hammock without a sound, opened my backpack, and took out a water-filled canteen. The water had been obtained for me by the liaison soldier, as I had no strength myself to go down to a deep stream. I scooped up a little salt and put it into a Chinese metal bowl.

Then I carefully disengaged the crab from its string and stealthily brought it down to the kitchen hut. The cooking hearth still had some red embers. I took a little water and washed the crab clean. Then I stirred up the embers and placed the crab on top, turning it over again and again until the crab was roasted brown. I was consumed with hunger, so I no doubt did this hurriedly. I broke off the crab’s smallest leg, dipped it in salt and put it in my mouth. I chewed and chewed it, then washed it down with a mouthful of spring water. I went on in that manner until I had eaten the biggest claw, eating each part and then washing it down with a mouthful of water. I took the crab apart and ate its upper shell, and finally its body, throwing away nothing! It was half an hour or so before I had eaten the whole crab.

Having finished, I quietly sneaked back to my hut and crept without a sound into my own hammock. The following morning, the little boy burst into tears because he had lost his crab. I felt utterly ashamed.

All of us in the group kept together as we traveled. We exchanged items of clothing for cassava and honey. A pair of long pants for a few cassava tubers, and a shirt for half a liter of honey. I gave the boy some cassava and honey. If god has allowed little Vinh to live on, then by now he would be close to fifty—no longer young at all.

Actually, in situations of absolute want and hunger, such as this one, human beings sometimes start behaving like beasts. At night, for example, someone might steal some honey in my backpack, spilling it on the ground.

I must add that the ethnic peoples living in the remote areas of the Trường Sơn Mountains led a poor and miserable existence in no way different from that of the Khù Xung and Toong Lương peoples with whom I had lived in the Northwest in former days. They lacked everything, including the simplest scraps of clothing, and needles and thread to sew with… Normally, bringing gifts for our highland brethren and sharing a few things with them would be a source of happiness, but we were too hungry, too sick and weak, for this—so we had no choice but to seek anything available to exchange, so that we might have something to fill our mouths with. The tribesmen didn’t know how to measure, count, and make calculations like us Kinh (“terrible”) Vietnamese—“terrors of the jungle.”1 A spool of thread could be exchanged for two cassava tubers, but if you unwound a spool and divided the thread into lengths of two outstretched arms apiece, the tribesmen would still give you two tubers for each length. And so our “beastly” natures turned imperceptibly into blood and flesh—our own.

No matter how unfortunate my life became, I managed to live on, and even got to travel to many far-flung places…

About thirty years later when, as an invited guest, I sat in lavish banquet rooms in Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, London, Boston, New York with important dignitaries such as officials from the French Foreign Ministry, the mayor of Yamagata, Australian and Japanese cinema directors, a British House of Commons member (Mr. Chris Moulin), famous American movie directors, and even the presidential candidate John Kerry (on the 20th anniversary of the William Joiner Center in Massachusetts, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2002)… I would still occasionally remember my feelings of shame in those days—especially the dark night when I had stolen a crab from little Vinh to roast and eat it, or the days when I had lived like a hungry ghost in the Trường Sơn mountains and broke rolls of thread into arm-length spans, to exchange for two small cassava tubers given me by the impoverished, swarthy tribesmen. I wish I could turn all these things into a feature film…

But then people would say it was all made up.

When we reached the headquarters of “Đoàn 559” (the name of the army formation in charge of the extensive system of Ho Chi Minh trails from North to South), my strength was utterly exhausted, so I had to remain there, unable to go any further.

Everyone had left their huts to work. There were so many huts that I had no idea which was which. I lay down in the corner of a deserted hut and covered myself with a reed mat.

I was awakened by a shout: “Who’s this guy? Why’s he still lying here at this hour?”

A polite voice gave a reply: “Sorry sir, this is not someone from our station. He’s a journalist from the front. He’s ill with fever, so he’s staying here.”

“Then something must be done—why do you let him lie here? Move him to the infirmary!”

“Yes sir, but he keeps stubbornly hugging this bag, saying it’s the film he shot at the front, that he has to bring back to the North.”

“That’s all the more reason why he can’t stay here. You must find a way to take him back to the North.”

After the man had left, I stuck my head out and asked the soldier, “Who is this man?”

“He’s the Chief!”

“What’s the Chief’s name?”

“Mr. Đồng Sĩ Nguyên!” (Commander of Đoàn 559)

The commander had left, but he still left an order that I must be taken away.

I was treated with some concern, not because of my personal condition, but because of the stack of film I was holding on to.

(LTD:) “So before, you carried the film in; now it was time for the film to carry you out!”

(TVT:) “Exactly. But In any case, I’m very grateful to that commander, because he helped me to carry out my duty and fulfill my hopes. Whether he regarded a human being as film, or the film as a human being is all the same to me. Such is my work and my fate. I’ve been associated with film all my life.”

The next morning, someone said to me, “There’s an automobile.” I thought he meant some small vehicle. It turned out to be a truck. The back of the vehicle had no roof, as was the case with all vehicles that went to the front. A huge diesel generator filled almost all the space in the back; it was tightly secured with steel wire to guard against shock and to keep the machine from shifting position and causing the truck to turn over. Someone found a canvass mat, to cover the spot on the floor of the truck near the cabin, making a sort of nest, and said,

–“Here you are, your place is up here.”

The canvass was dirty and torn, and it stank.

–“How about the cabin?”

–“There’s no more room in there.”

Later, I realized that there were two others in the cabin aside from the driver. I hugged the sack of film and lay on the filthy nest, raising a corner of the canvass to shield myself from the sun and rain. When there was anything to eat, they would throw me some of it.

As the truck crossed the Bến Hải River to the northern bank, I lay on my back gazing at the canopies of trees speeding over my head. Using my depleted strength to crane my neck to look out the side of the truck, I saw a distant church spire… a village… I was overjoyed, thinking that if the truck would stop, and if my legs were strong enough, I would be able to walk there. I recalled how in the war zone I would hide behind grave stones in a cemetery and gaze at cars and lambrettas zooming past only a few hundred meters away, and having no way at all to go up to the highway and set foot in one of those vehicles. That was why gazing at the scenes around me now made me feel strange…

And so after several more days and nights, we reached Unification Park in Hanoi. Someone banged the side of the truck with a heavy thud, and shouted,

“We’ve arrived, get down!”

The truck had come to a stop by an entrance into the park along Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street near what is now a club where chèo opera is performed. Back then the park was very simple; it had no walls or fences…

Later on, people were unable to imagine how I could have gone straight from “Đoàn 559” headquarters to Unification Park. I myself also found it unbelievable.

As a rule, people coming back from the South were supposed to be issued some money and clothing on crossing the 17th parallel, but I never got the slightest glimpse of any station there, and never received any rations, any clothing, or any cent.

The three people in the cabin, too, were not mistreating me in the least when they threw me down from the truck. The war was like that.

As I was getting down from the truck, hugging my sack of film, one fellow said, “My house is on Bông Nhuộm (a downtown street). When you’re feeling better, let’s get together.”

And so we parted ways.

I sat on the sidewalk, thinking. They should have taken me back via the waystation network. That way I would have arrived at the “Ban Thống Nhất” (Department for Unification in charge of receiving returnees from the South) or “Ban Tổ chức Trung ương” (Central Department for Organization) or the K25 Rehabilitation Camp, or any other comparable organization, where I would have been welcomed and given food and clothing, with all appropriate paperwork and formalities…

But now they had thrown me into Unification Park! What could I do in a situation like this?

1. The word kinh can mean either “ethnically Vietnamese” or “terrible,” as in kinh khủng.

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