Veterans all over the country polished their metals and dressed in uniform to attend celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Tet offensive.
North Vietnamese veterans and their families on the 50th anniversary of a critical year in the Vietnam War.
“I never talk about the war. Nobody asks. People don’t want to hear about it”. A North Vietnamese war veteran sits in his living room and starts to remember. As he speaks, his memories play out before his eyes. His wife is by him. Around them, there are four interviewers and note takers, and a Vietnamese interpreter. Several communist party officials, police, and government representatives sit silently in the background for two hours or more, listening to stories they’ve never heard before. There is a sense of momentum in the room.
It’s a scene that would be repeated over 100 times in a three-year effort to document the lives and memories of North Vietnamese veterans and their families. In three different periods (May 2015, May 2017, and January 2018), a team of 30 professionals completed about 40 days of fieldwork in Hanoi, Hai Duong, and Quang Tri. Dozens of pages of interview transcripts and hundreds of portraits later, here is a summary of our work, devoted to the Tet offensive in its 50th anniversary.
Americans know very little about their old enemy
Americans know very little about their old enemy. They rarely hear stories from the other side. Instead of abstract analysis and statistics, we present the personal stories and aging faces of those who survived. Vietnamese people who have a name, a family, and a memory. Nearing the end of their lives, they seek some kind of closure, 50 years later. Providing testimony is part of that process to find common ground.
In the same spirit, the photographs aim to demystify them, so that they appear as they really are: ordinary people going about their lives, at home, laughing, crying, praying, playing, cooking, gardening, and remembering. They become human, so that they are finally worthy of compassion, which is an important step on the long way to reconciliation.
It may still take many years for the Vietnamese public to learn about the memories, hopes and dreams of those who fought for Hanoi against America the way they are presented here. It will take even longer for them to learn about those who fought for Saigon. Very much like in the United States, the war is taboo, particularly for younger generations.
Peace and reunification come at the cost of justice.
The Vietnam Government holds a tight grip on their version of what happened, the winners’ side of the story, in a country with no freedom of expression and no freedom of press. They want to own the memory of the past, without making much noise, to avoid the ghosts of civil conflict. In Vietnam today, like in many other countries that are healing from civil war, peace is more important than justice. Peace and reunification come at the cost of justice, for now. It’s why this project is rare -because storytelling is risky in that environment.
The war ended, but its shadow is long. Vietnam faces the lasting effects of UXO and Agent Orange, as well as the enduring social complications stemming from a civil war. In the United States, the wounds from Vietnam are equally open and painful. Despite the distance between both countries, 50 Tets later, preserving the living memory of war is a way to bring people together.
“After the Tet Offensive, I felt regret.”
Pham Vinh Cat, 80, at home in his native village of Le Hong, Hai Duong, where he lives with his wife. Cat joined the army in 1962, and served as a medical nurse in Da Nang during the Tet offensive in 1968, where he treated thousands of wounded soldiers. The underground hospital where Cat worked became so full of patients during the offensive that they had to redirect soldiers to improvised clinics in the forest. “At first I was scared. The sight of blood and wounds made me dizzy, but there were so many hurt soldiers that I learned to cope with it. After the Tet offensive, when I returned to my base, I felt regret and heartbreak. We lost so many men, and those who survived were so badly injured.”
“I don’t know yet how to forgive the United States.”
Pham Phu Phong, 93, at his deathbed in Binh Giang, Hai Duong. At the time when Phong joined the North Vietnamese army, he had already graduated from high school, and was married with 8 children. His responsibility was delivering supplies to the front. A Tet offensive veteran, Phong replenished his inspiration nightly when he sat down in a circle of his teammates to sing together and to share stories about families back home. When this picture was taken, in May 2015, Phong was in the last stages of terminal cancer. “I never entered battle because I was too old, but I survived many bombings and got exposed to Agent Orange. I did everything I could, but I don’t know yet how to forgive the United States.”
At Friendship Village in Hanoi, a government-funded effort, North Vietnamese Veterans and victims of Agent Orange are able to relax, share stories, and heal together.
“I lost touch with my family for six years.”
Vu Van Liet, 82, fixing his war decorations at his home in Hai Duong. Liet served in the North Vietnamese army for 9 years as an infantryman since 1967, leaving his wife and five children behind. During the Tet offensive, he led a 40 men unit on a night attack at an ARVN base in Tay Ninh. But he quickly lost 10 men and retreated to the jungle. “During my first three years of service, I was able to received letters from my wife. But as the fighting intensified, I lost contact with her for the next 6 years. I didn’t know if she and my children were alive. When I returned home, I was so relieved. She had raised our five children alone with the help of her sister and my mother, but I hardly knew them anymore.”
“The smoke blinded us. We could not breath.”
Pham Dinh Rong, 75, performing breathing exercises in his kitchen as he prepares food. He joined the North Vietnamese army in 1962. Rong’s main role was to transport goods and weapons across the Ho Chi Minh trail, which was constantly bombed. During the Tet offensive in 1968, he was stationed in Hue, the scenario of one of the bloodiest battles during the conflict. Suddenly, his job in Hue became transporting wounded soldiers to nearby clinics in the jungle. “There were a lot of helicopters roaring in the sky in Hue. A smoke bomb landed near us. The grey smoke blinded us. We could not breathe. We had to hold wet tissues to our noses. We were hungry. I could only hear the roar of the helicopters and the sound of the shootings. Later, as the wounded soldiers arrived, I did not have the courage to ask them how was it like in the battlefront.”
“I sit and weep with the mothers of other children like mine.”
Nguyen Thi Hen, 70, had four children with her husband, three of whom are deaf and mute as a consequence of her husband’s exposure to Agent Orange. Duc, her husband, a Tet offensive veteran in Dai Loc, served in the war for nine years. “I feel extreme sadness and heartbreak for my children, and that such a tragic thing can happen to innocent children who had absolutely no role in the war, who weren’t even alive during the war. I sit and weep with the mothers of other children like mine.”
“My husband returned from war to find his first wife had married another man.”
Tran Thi Mai, 72, at home with one of her granddaughters. Mai’s fiancé was killed in the war, and her husband’s first wife remarried, believing he was dead. The first day of the Tet offensive in 1968, her husband was badly wounded at Bien Hua airbase near Saigon, and later rescued by American soldiers. After recovering, he became a prisoner of war. “After five years as a prisoner of war in a South Vietnamese prison, my husband returned home to find his first wife had married another man, and they were living together with my husband’s first son.” Married in 1974, the couple has two children together, plus her husband’s son from his first marriage. “Our grandchildren are our greatest joy. Family is everything to us.”
The Vietnamese New Year, or Tet, is the most important celebration in the country. It is a time to honor the past and celebrate family.
“We are still looking for my brother’s body.”
Vu Dinh Dang, 73 and his wife Pham Thi Phinh, 69, reviewing war memories at home. The first day of the Tet Offensive Dang was part of a team of 200 soldiers that took the Quy Nhon citadel in Binh Dinh province. Dang was shot in the right hand and the chin during the fourth day of fighting. After seven days, they evacuated the citadel, surrounded by the ARVN and a South Korean battalion. Dang’s unit had lost 150 men. “I thought I would die in the citadel, but we made it out”. Dang’s wife, Phinh, lost her brother in a battle in Quang Ngou. The couple is still looking for his body. “Not finding my brother’s body has devastated our family. We’ve gone back to the field that he was killed in, but we cannot find him. I want to find his body and bring him to our cemetery because he belongs to our village.”
“I let down my team. It still haunts me.”
Pham Van Cham, 83, holding his official military portrait at home. Cham served in the army from 1965 until the end of the conflict, leading a small team focused on logistics and road maintenance. “I failed my mission during the Tet offensive. I led a team that was responsible for protecting our major supply warehouse in Laos near the Ho Chi Minh trail where we stored most of our food and supplies. The enemy bombed it and it all went up in flames. There were burnt bodies everywhere. Twelve of my friends died. I let down my team. It still haunts me today.”
During the 8-month duration of the Tet offensive, roughly 75,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
Local veterans associations bring people together to share memories and give back to communities.
“I kept running away. I did not feel any pain.”
Dang Minh Soan, 71, on the street in Hai Duong, indicating the five areas of his back injured by a grenade during the Tet offensive in 1968. The first day of the offensive, Soan led the North Vietnamese troops to take the Saigon airport. “When we were approaching the airport, the local villagers helped and guided us to reach our target”. They took the airport in a few hours and kept their position for three days, under heavy attack from American troops. Soan made multiple efforts to recapture the airport, until he was injured in April of that year. “I kept running away. I did not feel any pain”. Later on in the war, Soan was heavily exposed to Agent Orange in the Truong Son mountain range, the effects of which were passed down to his daughter.
“They hung me from my arms for 24 hours at a time.”
Nguyen Nhu The, 73, at home in his garden. On the first days of the Tet Offensive, he led a small team to destroy a bridge that connected Saigon to Long An. During the operation, his team was killed. He was shot in a leg and taken as a prisoner by American troops. Until 1973, when he was released, he spent time in four prisons. “The worst conditions were at the prison on the island of Phu Quoc. I was starved, beaten and tortured. They hit me in the legs with water pipes and hung me from my arms for 24 hours at a time. I lost my hair. Things only improved after a team of Americans came to investigate the prison conditions.” More than 5000 prisoners of war died in Phu Quoc. “I visited Phu Quoc a few years ago to try to find some closure. But I experienced such mixed feelings. For most people it is a beautiful island, but for me it is an island of blood.”
Women played crucial, often overlooked roles during the conflict. They held their households together alone for years. Many were also critical in war efforts.
“You cannot avoid the ammunition. The ammunition avoids you.”
Pham Van Tam, 84, reenacting his guerrilla tactics in his home village in Hai Duong. On the first day of the Tet offensive, Tam’s platoon of 29 fought for 12 straight hours on a hill in Gia Lai. Only 12 of them survived. “That day, bullets flew in every direction. In this kind of battle, you cannot avoid the ammunition. The ammunition avoids you.” Later on, Agent Orange became a problem for his troops. “We were sprayed frequently with Agent Orange. We’d urinate on our towels, put them over our heads and into our mouths as we ran to escape the spray. I still have lung problems and difficulty breathing, and two out of my five children were born with disabilities.”
“We looked like ghosts in the night.”
Nguyen Van Dinh, 69, demonstrating his war movements at his home, and showing the wound on his right shoulder that almost killed him. He joined the war in 1967, without his parents’ permission, when he was 18. At the start of 1968, Dinh fought in a special division tasked to infiltrate an airbase near Khe Sanh, one of the biggest battles of the Tet offensive. “We covered ourselves with black paint from head to toe, and only wore black underwear. We looked like ghosts in the night. We carried bags of snakes to distract the ducks that Americans placed in trenches as living alarms. We released snakes to divert Americans’ attention. But as I was crawling near the base, they opened fire. A bullet went straight through my right shoulder. I cannot remember details, only chaos. Khe Sanh was a scary battle. We were 20 men but only 10 survived the fight.”
North Vietnamese soldiers tattooed themselves to be identified in case of death. Many surviving veterans live with more sobering reminders.
“The effect of Agent Orange on my children has broken my heart.”
Phuc, 71, married Tran Huu Naghi, 74, a decorated North Vietnamese soldier who was shot through the neck and sprayed with Agent Orange in Da Nang during the Tet offensive. Of their four children, two suffer severe health problems passed down genetically by their father: “The effect of Agent Orange on my children has broken my heart. One was born with a cleft palate and her jaw doesn’t line up. People are afraid of her and tell her she shouldn’t speak at all. My second daughter was abandoned by her first husband because she could not conceive.’”
“Forgiveness is easier when you don’t see your enemy face to face.”
Nguyen Van Bien, 73, smoking a cigarette at Friendship Village in Hanoi. Bien enlisted into a North Vietnamese artillery brigade with whom he travelled on foot for over a month to reach their final encampment in Laos. There he lost the outer three fingers of his right hand and sustained wounds to his neck and jaw while being shelled by American troops. After his injury he tried returning to college but ended up serving as a logistics officer in Quang Tri. “Forgiveness is important. But it’s easier to forgive when you don’t see your enemy face to face.”
There are over 3 million Vietnamese still suffering from health problems caused by exposure to Agent Orange. Hop, above, is a social worker in Hanoi responsible for the welfare of children born to veterans exposed to the chemical during the war. “It’s difficult for families to care for children with such difficult physical and mental problems, so they bring them here.”
On the right, Dinh Truong Xuan, 77, shows his government issued agent orange victim card, which affords him a pension of about 80 US dollars a year. Xuan, a Tet offensive veteran, lost three children due to Agent Orange related maladies. “Many are still not receiving help, including the third generation of Agent Orange victims,” he says.
“Young people in Vietnam don’t want to learn about the war.”
Nguyen Manh Hiep, 69, has converted his house on the outskirts of Hanoi in a museum of war memories –one of the most important private collections in the country. He was a captain for the North Vietnamese army at the Battle of Hue in 1968. He was injured in the fight. Among Vietcong black plastic sandals, US Air Force helmets, letters and pictures, the most precious object in his collection is a green cotton blanket that he used during his convalescence in the jungle. “Young people in Vietnam don’t want to learn about the war. It’s difficult for us to talk about it. Vietnam has moved on.”
“I had to rebury my friends multiple times.”
Buy Van Doai, 72, removing his uniform at home. Doai walked for four months and two days from his village to Binh Long province to join the fight in 1967. His assignment was to transport supplies, usually carrying about 80 pounds on his back at any given time. During Tet, he was stationed near Hue. Only half of his 13 people unit survived. “During the Tet offensive, I would carry up to five injured men on one bike at the same time. Three who were capable of sitting were sat on the seat, and the others were placed on the two sides of the bike on wooden planks. I saw many soldiers die. American soldiers constantly dug up graves to check for hidden weapons. I had to rebury my friends multiples times.”
The Truong Son National Cemetery in Quang Tri is one of the country’s largest honoring the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. There are no cemeteries to honor the South Vietnamese.
Ho Van Phuc, 26, is a volunteer caretaker at the Truong Son National Cemetery. Here he is placing a hand on one of the graves. “Over 40 years later, families still mourn their dead. There are over 10,000 graves here and I have cared for each one. I feel especially connected to the unknown soldiers, because they have no visitors.”
“The war smelled of burnt nylon.”
Doan Trong Hau, 72, praying at home, right above the candy shop he owns in Hai Duong. Hau joined the North Vietnamese army in 1965 and served as a transporter of weapons, goods, and soldiers from the F32 base to the battlefield at Quang Tri during the Tet offensive. His memory was heavily affected by the constant spray of Agent Orange, and he suffered spinal injuries while trapped in a bunker which collapsed from the impact of a B52 bomb. His truck and his passengers were often primary targets. Hau was able to save many lives during his service using diversionary tactics. “The war smelled of burnt nylon. I was not disgusted to see blood. I was grateful to the soldiers I transported to the clinic.”
“I am grateful to live a simple life.”
Pham Van Ti, 82, working in his garden. Ti assisted in the transportation and storage of weapons during the Tet offensive in the battle of Quang Tri. While transporting weapons in this battle his team was attacked by an American unit hidden in the trees and Ti lost five comrades. His memory was affected heavily by the constant bombing and he was forced to take a leave of absence. “I continued dreaming of peace and believed deeply we would win.” He now lives happily at home with his wife tending to their garden and raising chickens. “I have come to appreciate the normal daily life we have here. I do everything with my wife. I am grateful to be living a life of simplicity.”
Unexploded ordnance (UXO) are the most visible manifestation of how the war continues today. Quang Tri province is the most heavily bombed area in modern warfare. On the left, Bui Trong Hong, 64, works for Project Renew on UXO removal in Quang Tri. Since 1975, 40,000 Vietnamese have died in UXO incidents. One cluster bomb has the power to clear out an area the size of three soccer fields.
“I have a positive mindset.”
Ho Van Lai was 10 years old in June 2000, playing with three of his cousins in what he described as “beautiful fields of sand”. Lai and his cousins were chucking rocks at each other. Lai threw a rock that hit an unexploded cluster bomb. The explosion killed two of his cousins instantaneously and injured the third one. Lai lost his right leg from the knee down, his left foot and right forearm. The explosion severely deformed his left hand. He was blinded in his right eye, and has reduced vision in his left. “I think positive and have a positive mindset. I try to give back to society. Being a good person and doing good things is crucial. I try to help people.”
This project was produced by DAWNING. It is an independent effort, self-funded, non-partisan and non-ideological, in the tradition of social science and journalism in the public interest.
Project Director: Raul Roman
Executive Editor: Nick Parisse
Fieldwork Logistics Manager: Don Tuan Phuong
Research Lead and Editor: Rafe H Andrews
Creative Director: Joey Rosa
Fieldwork Assistants and Translators: Nguyen Tranh Mai, Le Ngoc Xuan Mai, Hoang Trung Duc, Pham Thi Thu, Lien Anh Tong, and Thuy Duong
Photographs, Interviews and Transcripts:
Jackie Plaza, Brian Wilhemi, Gerald Wilhemi, Luz Martinez, Trent Navran, Paco Panchon, Diane Law, Shaelyn Kerr, Leland Schlein, Daniel In, Philip Penta, Aysha Akhtarmalik, John DeSanto, Susanne Ruttinger, Carlos Fernandez, Amira Karim, Shellee Peck, Thomas Pereira Da Silva, Yuliya Gosnell, Rafe H Andrews, Nick Parisse, Joey Rosa, and Raul Roman.