They were the girls of war, teenage volunteers who took up arms in one of the largest female armies any nation has put on a modern battlefield. For years they fought, sustaining themselves with a dream central to Vietnamese culture:
When there was peace, they would find a good husband and bear children.
For many of them, it was not to be. When they came home at war’s end in 1975, they were perceived as less desirable, as damaged by the disease, malnutrition and other hardships they had endured in the jungle.
Young men, themselves just back from the war, did not return their glances on the street. If love bloomed, parents would often cut it short, forbidding their sons to marry women who appeared too weak to give birth or raise a child.
“Oh, how the jungle aged me,” said Vu Hoai Thu, one of 500 women from the town of Ninh Binh, 60 miles south of Hanoi, who fought in what the Vietnamese call the American War.
“Finally, I did find a nice boy. He asked me to marry, but his parents wouldn’t allow it. He did not want to leave me, but I convinced him he must. I was weak from malaria and malnutrition. I did not think I would ever be strong enough to give him children.”
Women like Thu are in their 50s now, and when they meet to commemorate their sacrifices, they speak of losing the springtime of their youth on the Truong Son Road, as the Vietnamese call the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
They talk of coming home to lives that were tougher than the ones they had left. Bitterness lingers that for many years they were forgotten soldiers in a war that made heroes of the men who fought, but not the women.
“I thought my life after the war would be simple and happy,” said Nguyen Thi Binh, who came home weighing 85 pounds. “But I let my boyfriend go. I told him that with my diseases, with my wounded leg, I would be a burden on him.”
Binh lived on her own for 17 years, a form of exile in a family-oriented society in which barren women and childless couples are objects of pity. Then, at the urging of her former comrades in a women’s brigade, the 559, Binh “took a husband for the night” and bore a daughter.
She and the child, Lan, now 10, live together on a small rice paddy that Binh farms.
“The good people offer me understanding and sympathy,” Binh said. “And I appreciate that. But sometimes bad people will bring their children to my house and say, ‘Don’t be like that woman.’ ”
But if the “patriotic call went out” to fight in a future war, Binh said, she would let her daughter march off to battle, just as she did. “We have a saying in Vietnam,” she said, “that if the enemy comes, even the women must fight.”
Vietnam has a long history of women warriors. Two of the country’s most revered heroes are the Trung sisters, Trac and Nhi, who led an insurrection against China in A.D. 40 and liberated Vietnam. One of their commanders, Phung Thi Chinh, is said to have given birth during the battle and to have continued fighting with her infant strapped to her back.
Another woman, Trieu Au, rode an elephant into battle against the Chinese in A.D. 248, leading a force of 3,000. Defeated in battle, she committed suicide at the age of 23.
Military historians estimate that in the 1950s, nearly a million female guerrillas took part in the war against colonial French forces. In the conflict with the U.S., 40% of the Viet Cong’s regional commanders were women. One of them, Nguyen Thi Dinh, was a general.
Hundreds of thousands of women, most of them young and single, served in combat zones in that war. They operated antiaircraft guns, built roads under frequent bombardment and went on patrols in mixed-gender units.
“We lived and slept together but did not touch,” said a woman in the 559 Brigade, who attributed the restraint to cultural conservatism. “I don’t know of a single pregnancy in our unit. We thirsted for love, but only in our hearts.”
Other women collected intelligence, spied, and ferried troops and supplies along riverways in small boats.
Mai Thi Diem volunteered to fight after the U.S. bombed the communal farm where she lived, killing 100 people, including many of her relatives.
“I weighed 35 kilos [77 pounds] when I went to enlist, and the army said I was too small,” said Diem, who still walks with a limp, the result of a land mine injury. “I told them I would throw myself off the bridge and commit suicide if they didn’t take me. Finally, they said OK.”
Le Minh Khue, a Hanoi novelist, has written of the powerful bonds forged by the war effort. “I loved everyone with a passionate love,” wrote Khue, who lied about her age and joined the army at 15. It was a love, she said, that “only someone who had stood on that hill in those moments could understand fully. That was the love of the people in smoke and fire, the people of war.”
Phan Thanh Hao, a journalist and co-author of a book on Vietnam’s female warriors, served in the Truong Son Mountains along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“Women tipped the balance toward victory in the war,” she said. “Other than the Soviet Union in World War II, no country comes close to having the number of women in direct combat roles. Still, it was hard for us to become normal again. For my generation, our hearts tighten to this day when we hear a plane overhead.”
The girls of war came home to families that were poor. Having another mouth to feed was a problem. Emaciated by disease and malnutrition, their skin weathered by years in the jungle, they were perceived as less attractive than when they had set out from their villages.
In addition, so many young men were killed during the war that the pool of prospective husbands was reduced. Even today, there are 97.6 men for every 100 women in Vietnam, one of the lowest ratios in Southeast Asia.
“I was lucky,” said Nguyen Thi Nhong, 51, a veteran of the 559 Brigade. “I met a young man, very handsome, on Truong Son. He was from a nearby village and we married. But I know so many others who fell in love on the battlefield and searched and searched after the war but could never find each other.”
Many of the women recovered their health and married. Others who remained single went to live in Buddhist pagodas or in government housing projects.
In the early 1980s, in a step to ease their isolation, the government sought to lift the taboo against bearing children out of wedlock. Unwed mothers and their children, it was announced, would be considered families and eligible for a grant of land to grow rice. Thousands of women took a “husband for the night.”
Perhaps because of their history as warriors, or because the communist leadership was successful in appealing to women as a revolutionary class, Vietnamese women today enjoy a measure of the equality guaranteed by the country’s constitution.
A third of the members of the National Assembly are women. A woman, Nguyen Thi Binh, is the country’s vice president. Women receive the same salaries as men in government and fill important jobs in state and private industries.
They are Vietnam’s economic backbone, managing the rice harvests and operating the markets. The rate of death during childbirth is low by regional standards; female school enrollment is high. It is rare for women to stay home as homemakers, regardless of their societal status.
“How did Vietnam’s women reach that level of achievement and well-being? Because of war and the important role they played in it,” said Nisha Agrawal, a World Bank economist versed in women’s rights. “So at first you say, ‘This is great. There are no women’s issues.’ Then you start talking to poor people in the villages and you say, ‘Wow, there are still a lot of problems.’ ”
When war ended, men resumed their domination of the family. Men decide how money is spent, determine the size of a family without consultation with their wives and maintain deed to all property. Their disregard for contraception makes abortion the country’s No. 1 means of birth control. Their fondness for alcohol contributes to domestic violence.
Though recognition has been slow, women are starting to receive credit for their contributions to the war effort. Those who lost two or more sons in battle were declared Hero Mothers in 1991 and are entitled to special benefits.
A Women’s Museum opened in Hanoi in 1995. All schoolchildren now write an essay on women’s role in the war. A monument is being built on the banks of the Nhat Le River near the old demilitarized zone, honoring a woman who ferried men and supplies in her boat despite bombardment.
And the women of the 559 Brigade who went off to war as teenage volunteers have been given a special medal as “Soldiers of Truong Son.”
Three of those soldiers wore their old uniforms to a recent reunion in Ninh Binh. They and half a dozen others gathered at a small restaurant to honor the 40 comrades who didn’t come back from Truong Son and the 50 others who returned as invalids.
They exchanged small talk and memories, and when lunch was served, the brigade commander, Tran Thi Binh, stood and announced that she wanted to share a poem she had written, “Young Girl’s Time.” It was long, and she recited from memory in a singsong cadence, her eyes closed.
I’d like to burn a simple incense stick for the unlucky girls who died.
Though they never come back, we who lost our youth keep waiting.
We are the Truong Son girls, now gray and full of memories,
Remembering our unfound love partners who have gone far away.
The other women at the table looked away. A few buried their faces in their hands. Several dabbed at their eyes with tissues. When Binh finished, there was an awkward silence. Then someone said, “Let’s make this a happy day.”