First she withdrew a pair of baby shoes, wrapped in plastic. Then a tiny silk shirt and a child’s pillow embroidered with the name “Viet Dung.” She had carried them with her ever since her son joined the mat tich of Dak To. Twenty-five years, she sighed. “Dung has been dead longer than he lived.”
The night before he was to leave for the Southern Front, Dung and his family gathered at their small home in Hanoi. They ate a dinner of rice and spinach, enhanced by a special treat in wartime North Vietnam— chicken. They gave Dung small presents they hoped would be useful: a needle to patch his uniform, cigarettes, candy, a towel, two pairs of warm socks. Later, his father sat with him and for the first time related his wartime experiences fighting the French at Dien Bicn Phu.
“Dear Mother and Father and Thang,” Dung wrote in March 1972 from Dak To, where five years earlier North Vietnamese and American troops had fought one of the war’s bloodiest battles:
I am preparing to go to the battlefield. Please, don’t worry. My friends and comrades, we love each other. We are living together as a family, sharing our happiness and hardships, and that makes me feel better. There were no more letters.
“I had a mother’s feeling something terrible was about to happen,” she said, and when she heard the news of a big battle around Dak To, she knew it had. Then for three years, there was only silence, broken at last, along with her heart, by a ritual repeated perhaps a million times in the North during the war. There was a knock at her door. On the steps stood a group from the local People’s Committee, and the red-bordered docu¬ment from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam they handed her began: “The Fatherland will never forget your son.” Pham Kim Ky was now offi¬cially a “Vietnamese martyr in the struggle against America.”
Ky wrote a lullaby to her son, and neighbors passing by her house would see her seated by the open window, singing softly:
I see you in the shadow of the Truong Son mountain,
In the blooming of flowers and the singing of birds.
This is my lullaby with all my love for you.
I’m always with you until the end of my life.
In the Vietnamese culture that combines Buddhism with local tradi¬tion, the dead are exhumed three years after burial. Their bones are washed, then reinterred, so that the soul may forever live in peace. Rela¬tives tend the graves and pray over them often. They treat the dead as still-living members of the family, worshipping them in every home at al¬tars on which fresh flowers and fruit are placed daily, talking with them through psychics, burning small paper replicas of clothes, TVs, electric fans, and beautiful homes so the dead may live comfortably in the after¬life. (“Our most difficult order was for a sewing machine,” said a woman who makes the paper cutouts. “But what the living have, the dead also need. This isn’t superstition. It’s about faithfulness and showing serious feelings to your ancestors.”) For those whose death date or grave is un¬known, a special day of worship is set aside—the fifteenth day of the sev¬enth month of the lunar calendar—but on other days their families carry a terrible burden. Since the souls of the missing cannot be taken care of properly, they are said to be destined to wander aimlessly, forever lost. “Pity . . . the souls of those lost thousands,” the poet Nguyen Du wrote. “They are the ones for whom no incense burns.”
Pham Kim Ky knew she must find her son’s remains—but how? Where? Had he even been buried? Unlike the United States, Vietnam had no vast sums of money to assist a family’s search and no computer¬ized records. Casualty lists were sketchy. Countless thousands of nameless dead had been buried with just the words liet sy—“martyr”—on their headstones. Battlefields had been napalmed, incinerating the KIAs. Ter¬rain had been transformed by Agent Orange and by B-52 strikes. Bodies had been stripped of wallets, identification, and family pictures by sou¬venir-hunting GIs. Many commanders and colleagues who might have remembered Ky’s boy were dead.
With Dung’s soul wandering somewhere in the Truong Son Moun¬tains of Kontum Province, Ky began her quest in Hanoi and its outlying areas. For months, sitting behind her surviving son on the family motor scooter, she explored crowded alleyways and country roads, seeking out veterans of Dak To. She and Thang would get home at dusk each day. Her husband, Trinh, his right leg disabled by injuries suffered in the war against France, would hobble to the door and ask, “Any news? Anything at all?”
From her inquiries, Ky learned that Dung’s unit, the Baza Brigade, had been the lead element in an attack on the Dak To airfield. Dung had been killed on April 21, 1972. She learned of no heroic deeds, no stirring last words—just vague details of one ordinary soldier’s death. “It was a begin¬ning,” she said. “I knew I had to be patient.”
The veterans she talked to described the terrain and drew maps. With her husband she set off one rainy February morning in 1976 for Dak To, nearly 1,000 miles south, on the first leg of four long trips to the southern battlefields. They traveled by train, bus, army truck, bicycle, and foot. Of¬ten she wept, knowing she was tracing the very steps her son had taken. During those four treks, which spanned twenty-one years and often de¬pleted the family’s $100 monthly pension, Ky and her husband questioned army commanders and villagers. They scoured battlefields, climbed mountains, struggled through jungle so dense that soldiers escorting them had to hack a pathway with machetes.

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