Day to Day Among the Viet Cong
“No, I am not a child. I am grown up and already strong in the face of hardships, but at this minute why do I want so much a mother’s hand to care for me? ... Please come to me and hold my hand when I am so lonely, love me and give me strength to travel all the hard sections of the road ahead.”
-- Final diary entry of
Dr. Dang Thuy Tram
Duc Pho, Vietnam, June 1970
HANOI -- As a young doctor in a country at war, Dang Thuy Tram chose a life of sacrifice. She spent three years at the front lines in South Vietnam treating wounded Viet Cong guerrillas, battling sorrow and self-doubt, until she was killed by American forces. She was 27.
Now, more than 35 years later, she has come to life again with the publication of her diary. Written in the field hospitals and foxholes of the Vietnam War, its honest portrayal of a young woman seeking love while eluding the American “pirates” has made it a runaway bestseller in Vietnam.
A kind of Vietnamese version of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Tram’s heartbreaking journal has the same kind of personal insights and observations on the hardships of daily life, overlaid with a sense of impending doom. At times, she comes across as a romantic schoolgirl seeking love from the boys around her, at others like a battle-hardened veteran who wants vengeance against the foreign invaders.
“Sadness soaks into my heart just like the long days of rain soak into the earth,” she writes in April 1968 after treating several seriously wounded Viet Cong fighters, the communist insurgents in the South. “Oh! Why was I born a girl so rich with dreams, love, and asking so much from life?”
The diary vanished from Vietnam soon after Tram’s death in 1970 and didn’t resurface until last year, when former U.S. Army intelligence officer Frederic Whitehurst gave it to the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
In 1969 and 1970, his job was to burn captured documents that had no intelligence value. He kept two volumes of the diary at the urging of his translator, who said the handmade notebooks already had “fire” in them. The center tracked down the doctor’s mother last year and gave her a copy.
An emotional account of sacrifice, love and bloodshed, the diary humanizes an enemy of America once demonized as ruthless and sneaky. The young doctor, sometimes addressing herself by name, confides her hopes, ambitions and fears. At times, she is overwhelmed by the death of so many people she knows and the destruction wrought by the Americans’ awesome firepower.
“Why do they enjoy shooting and killing a good people like us?” she asks. “How can they have the heart to kill all those youngsters who love life, who are struggling and living for so many hopes?”
The 322-page diary, published last year, has become Vietnam’s bestselling postwar book, with 400,000 copies sold, said its publisher, Vuong Tri Nhan. Typically, a book is considered a success here if it sells 2,000 copies.
An English-language version is scheduled for release in the United States next year.
In a society increasingly consumed with economic growth and material goods, the book has revived a sense of idealism. Written in a simple but powerful style, it reminds war veterans of their sacrifices and educates a new generation -- born after the war’s end -- about the hardships their elders faced.
“This is the first book to talk about the lives of people during the war,” said Nhan, 63, who went to high school with Tram in the North and later served as a North Vietnamese army journalist. “Old people want to relive memories. Young people want to know how their parents lived during the war.”
The diary also has struck a nerve because so many Vietnamese don’t know what happened to their loved ones during what they call the American War. Of the estimated 3 million Vietnamese who died during the conflict, 1 million remain missing.
“I will perish for the country, tomorrow’s victory song will not include me,” Tram writes after surviving an artillery attack that killed five others. “I am one of those people who give their blood and bones in order to take back the country. But what is so special about that? Millions and millions of people like me have fallen already yet have never enjoyed one happy day, so I am never sorry.”
Since the publication of the diary, the family has received thousands of emotional phone calls and letters from readers moved by Tram’s account. Visitors to her grave in Hanoi have filled three large notebooks for her family with outpourings of sympathy and compassion. A fourth is nearly full.
“Many of them are young people,” said Tram’s sister Dang Kim Tram. “They say that before reading the book, they didn’t believe their parents’ stories about the war. Now they understand how difficult it was.”
She says she typed the diary for publication and wept with every page. “I typed it while I cried,” she said.
She was 15 when her sister died. Now 50, she remembers her as “very beautiful, very gentle and very fragile. I cannot imagine her working in such difficult conditions.”
Nhan, the publisher, recalls that Dang Thuy Tram was popular in high school and believes her interest in literature as a student helped her as a writer.
“She understood other people’s feelings,” he said. “She could put herself in others’ shoes.”
After taking the diary home to America at the end of his tour, Whitehurst always hoped to return it to Tram’s family. But he soon joined the FBI and believed it would be improper for him to approach the communist government of Vietnam.
When he retired in 1997, he began searching for the family, without success. Last year, he gave the diary to the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech, where it remains. The center located the family within a few months, and Tram’s mother and sisters flew to Lubbock in October to see the diary for the first time.
Whitehurst visited Vietnam soon after and was warmly received. Despite Tram’s oftexpressed desire for revenge, the Vietnamese have been remarkably forgiving since the end of the war. “We don’t want to keep hatred in our heart,” said sister Dang Kim Tram. “We want to forget the bad things in the past.”
The diary’s popularity comes at a time of improving relations between America and Vietnam. U.S. warships stopped here for shore leave over the July 4 holiday, the fourth such visit and the first time two vessels came together. Donald H. Rumsfeld recently made his first visit to Vietnam as Defense secretary, and President Bush is expected to make his first trip here in November for a meeting of AsiaPacific leaders.
Today, diarist Tram might not recognize her country or her beloved Hanoi. Vietnam’s population has more than doubled since 1970, to 84 million. Hanoi has become a crowded, frenetic city, where young people talk on cellphones and zoom around on motorbikes -- sometimes at the same time.
Like other North Vietnamese students of her generation, Tram was taught the ideals of communism and Vietnamese nationalism and was prepared to make sacrifices for the war effort.
After graduating from medical school at 24, she volunteered to leave the North and work in the central coastal district of Duc Pho, then part of the U.S.-backed South, where she was assigned to care for Viet Cong guerrillas and local villagers. It was one of the most dangerous combat zones of the war.
Her early days in Duc Pho remain a mystery because at least one of her early notebooks was taken by U.S. troops in a raid. It disappeared and was probably destroyed.
The published diary begins in April 1968 with her description of performing an emergency appendectomy on a guerrilla with only a few tubes of Novocain for anesthesia. His appendix doesn’t burst, but she fears he will die of an infection because she doesn’t have adequate antibiotics.
“Patients like you who I cannot cure cause me the most sorrow,” she writes.
But as her diary hints, Tram went to the South not just out of patriotism and idealism. She also was in love.
The object of her affections is the shadowy M, who apparently spurned her before the book begins. She first mentions M in the fourth entry, saying: “I have strength to bury nine years of hope deep in the ground.... Day by day, love for M fades away.”
Nevertheless, her passion for M is a recurring theme as she seeks to prove herself as a doctor and revolutionary.
Although his identity is never revealed in the book, publisher Nhan said M was a cousin on her mother’s side and a Communist Party member who had gone to the region to take a post as political officer. Tram volunteered to serve there so she could be near him, the publisher said. M survived the war and died shortly before the diary was returned to the family.
The diary has resonated with many readers because Tram is bluntly honest, even when writing about the Communist Party. Denied membership for years, she complains of petty jealousies, attempts by party members to control her behavior and discrimination against her because of her middle-class background. Her mother was a university lecturer, her father a surgeon.
“Because she wrote for herself, she wrote the truth about the war,” said her mother, Doan Ngoc Tram, 81.
Introspective and often self-critical, Tram wonders why her life seems so much more difficult than others’.
“The way I travel is so very hard, the way of a girl student becoming a leader,” she writes. “Something causes me to be different from others. Is it my way of life, a life of love, a life of too much thinking with my heart?”
At other times, she seems consumed with the desire for revenge.
“With those pirates robbing our country, every time I think about you [dying] my heart is so filled with hate I cannot breathe,” she writes after losing a friend in combat. “We must force them to pay for their crimes.”
She spends much of her three years in Duc Pho fleeing and hiding from the Americans. At times the troops attack and destroy her field hospitals, which she and her comrades work to rebuild. More than once, she says goodbye to friends only to have them brought back to the clinic soon after, badly injured or dying.
“Death still continues to make the hearts of the living bleed,” she writes after trying in vain to save the life of one guerrilla who had led her to safety only a few days earlier. Two weeks later, American planes bomb a village where she knows many of the residents. “From a place not too far away I quietly watched, my heart filled with hate for those burning fires,” she writes. “Who is burning? In the explosions, who is burning in the bomb craters?”
One night, she joins a Viet Cong unit on a night rescue operation and is momentarily caught in American searchlights, which reminds her of performing in school musicals.
“Now I am also an actor on the stage of life: I am playing a girl of the Liberation with a black dress, every night following the guerrillas in their activities in our area close to the enemy,” she writes. “Maybe I will meet the enemy, and maybe I will fall with my hand carrying the red-crossed box, and then people will also feel sorry for the girl sacrificed to the Revolution during her dream-filled youth.”
By late 1969, the tide of war in Duc Pho favors the Americans. Her entries are less frequent, dwelling more on the war and less on her dreams for the future.
“Is the conflict gradually taking away the thoughts of one who knows how to think about life?” she asks. “No, I don’t want it to be that way, but the job weighs heavily on me and every day the sorrow of dead comrades makes me forget personal matters.” She never expresses regret over her decision to volunteer but is saddened by the toll the war has taken on her and her country.
“My youth is over: Fire, smoke and war have robbed my youth of the happiness of love,” she writes “The 20-year-olds of this generation have given away the dreams and happiness which they should have had. My youth is soaked with sweat, tears, blood and the bones of those living and those already dead.”
In June 1970, the situation becomes desperate. U.S. troops are closing in and able-bodied guerrillas evacuate. With her clinic destroyed, she is left behind with five wounded fighters who can’t be moved. Two young women stay behind to help her.
“The situation with the enemy is tense and if they come here how can I leave the wounded soldiers?” she writes on June 14.
Food supplies, never plentiful, run short. In her final entry, June 20, she reports that there is only enough rice left for one meal. She thought help would have arrived by now. Her two assistants leave, and she wants to cry as she watches them wade across the river.
The Americans attack on June 22. One GI reported later to Whitehurst that the doctor tried to fight off the heavily armed soldiers with a single-shot rifle.
There were no Vietnamese survivors to tell her story; the five wounded guerrillas were killed with her. But her remains, buried by villagers and turned over to the family in 1976, also indicate that she stood her ground.
“When I went to pick up her bones, I saw a bullet hole in her forehead,” Dang Kim Tram said. “I imagine that she would pick up a gun. I know for sure that she faced the enemy.”
Four days before her death, Dang Thuy Tram seems to recognize that the end is near.
“When you live like this, then you understand the value of life,” she writes. “Oh, life changed by blood and bones, by the youth of so many people, how many lives have ended in order to allow other lives to be fresh and green?”