The first monument, a powerful modernistic pillar, rises about 60 feet above the green countryside of the delta.
However, reinforcing rods sprout from broken chunks of the concrete ring that encircles it. There are no inscriptions, and the stairs are rotting and ridden with weeds. It could be Stonehenge.
The second monument, a few miles down the road, is an obelisk. It bears the words, “For those who died for the country,” and workmen were placing potted plants around the marble base.
The first marks the Thu Duc Military Cemetery, where soldiers of the U.S.-backed Army of the Republic of South Vietnam were buried. It was built on the orders of President Nguyen Van Thieu, whose rule as South Vietnam’s last president was toppled 10 years ago today.
Now, it is a ruin.
The second monument rises amid the Ho Chi Minh City Cemetery, a burial ground for fallen soldiers of the North Vietnamese army and the National Liberation Front, the Communist guerrillas who were called the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
In the war that took 58,000 American lives, an estimated 1 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed. Those buried at the Ho Chi Minh Cemetery, 18 miles outside the city formerly known as Saigon, will be honored this week. There are, however, no plans for any observances at the Thu Duc Cemetery.
Families occasionally come to Thu Duc to pay their respects, or to disinter a soldier’s remains for ritual removal to his home, say Thuc and An, two peasant women who have tended the grave sites since the Communists came to power in 1975. The visitors pay Thu and An to take care of the graves.
“Seven generals were buried here,” Thuc said, but all have since been taken elsewhere.
The soldiers who remain lie beneath rectangular cement slabs, their headstones listing their name, rank, date of birth and date of death. Some display a sealed photograph of the soldier, but many of the photos have been defaced, the face scratched out or the eyes pierced.
Many display Christian crosses or the symbols of the Buddhist faith:
--Cpl. Vo Mau. Died June 16, 1968. He was 33 and a Christian.
--Cpl. Tran Ba Loi. Died June 23, 1968. A Buddhist.
--Second Lt. Hoang Dinh Yen. Died August 25, 1968. Yen was born in Nam Dinh in North Vietnam, and his family probably moved to the south after the country was divided at the 1954 Geneva peace conference that ended the Vietnamese war against the French.
--Cpl. Ng Minh Tam. Died April 23, 1969. Inscribed on the headstone is his nickname, Tuc Thinh, meaning “prosperous.”
The Communist cemetery is off the highway, up a red dirt road through a rubber plantation where families hold picnics and young couples sit beneath the trees.
The rows of headstones are free of weeds, and the cemetery is still active. Burials continue for Vietnamese soldiers still fighting, now outside their borders.
--Nieu Van Hien. Died June 14, 1981, at age 25. The marker does not say where; perhaps it was in Cambodia, which the Vietnamese invaded in December, 1978, 3 1/2 years after the war ended here.
--A large stone marks the grave of Pham Ngoc Thach, who died in South Vietnam on Nov. 7, 1968. He was from Qui Nhon, a southern city, but had moved to the north where he became minister of health, according to a government official. During the war he went south to be a soldier and to die at 59.
--Pham Thi Chinh, a woman, died Aug. 25, 1964, at age 34. Her stone bears a Buddhist inscription, but it is not clear what she did in the war.
There is more detail on the gravestone of Nguyen Hue, a North Vietnamese army colonel. He was born in Nghe An province, the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. He died Feb. 5, 1970, at age 61.
Viet Cong Section
Viet Cong soldiers lie in another section of the cemetery:
------Col. Ha Dinh Mu. Died June 23, 1968. From security Force Unit T-4. Beside Mu’s grave lie a handful of others bearing the remains of other members of the unit.
“I don’t know,” said the government official. “Maybe it was some sort of underground unit in Ho Chi Minh City.”
Other Vietnamese war dead are buried elsewhere, and many bodies were never recovered. Some are buried with the barest of details on their headstones.
One Communist grave is marked merely: “Comrade Minh.”