Then she saw the first two sons—the two who had been soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN)—sloshing up the muddy path to her home. And behind them, sheltered by an umbrella, their older brother, Dr. Nghien, who as a teenager had crossed the Ben Hai River into North Vietnam and spent the war patching the wounded and burying the dead.
“Hurry, children,” she called out, “or you will be wet.” And Dr. Nghien shouted back, “But Mother, we are already wet!”
Dr. Nghien bent to kiss his mother’s cheek and hugged Nguyen Xuan Kien, eleven years his junior. “Ah, my little brother,” he said, squeezing hard, and turned to Nguyen Xuan Tinh: “And you, Tinh. How lucky we are to be united. I wish Father was alive to see us together again.”
For two decades, when Vietnam was a country divided by the Geneva Accords, the separation and silence between Dr. Nghien and his family was so vast that neither knew if the other were alive or dead. But on this morning, Mrs. Nheh’s home once again glowed with the warmth of small talk, just as it did whenever the Nguyens gathered to share bonds restored by peace and to consider their good fortune in surviving a war they never voluntarily spoke of any more.
Compared to many families—one mother who lived close by had lost eight of her nine children in the war—the Nguyens had been lucky: No one in their family was killed. But like the Mason-Dixon Line of the U.S. Civil War, the Ben Hai River that split Vietnam into North and South from 1954 to 1975 pitted brother against brother. The story ot how families like the Nguyens dealt with the division and the eventual reunification is the story of modern-day Vietnam itself.
I asked Mrs. Nheh if, having children on both sides, it hadn’t been dif¬ficult to know whether to support the North or the South. Her jaws worked hard on a wad of betel nut gum. “Oh, really, I never distinguished between North and South,” she said after pondering the question a mo¬ment. “What was the difference? I wasn’t interested in politics. I just wanted my sons back. And peace. I wanted peace.”
The Nguyens had lived in Quang Tri Province along the DMZ for, well, forever, Mrs. Nheh said, and the war—or wars, really, first against the French, then the Americans—had dragged on “for longer than I can remember. I lived with war most of my life.”
French soldiers had burned down her house and most of her village in 1952, and she hated the former colonialists for it. “They didn’t even ask the people to leave. They just burned,” she said. “I could never understand why the French were in Vietnam in the first place.” But at night she didn’t have to deal with them. They withdrew to the safety of their base camps, and the Viet Minh—the forerunners of the Viet Cong—would sneak into the village to instruct the children in propaganda and basic skills like reading. On rare occasions, they brought medicine. In the process they began winning hearts and minds, just as the Americans would try to do more than a decade later without much success.
On May 8,1954, a day after the defeat of the French garrison at Dien Bicn Phu, representatives of eight countries met in Geneva and, alter two months of negotiating, partitioned Vietnam at the Ben Hai. The division was to be temporary, until free elections could be held in 1956 to reunify Vietnam, under either the North’s Ho Chi Minh or the South’s leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Catholic who once contemplated the priest¬hood and a fervent anticommunist whose brother had been assassinated by the Viet Minh. Like Ho, Diem’s nationalistic credentials were beyond reproach.
Mrs. Nheh’s husband, Nguyen Xuan Nghinh, believed Vietnam had not seen the last of war with the departure of the French. Nghicn, the fu¬ture doctor, was his brightest son and the only one in the family who could read, and the father started making plans for him. He sent him to Dong Ha to learn to be a tailor. When the boy had learned the craft well, the father gathered his family one evening and said he wanted his son to go to the North. The schools were better there, and they were free. “You will stay only two years, until the election,” the father said. “Then you will come home and we will be waiting.”
The next night, just after dusk, young Nghien waded alone across the waist-deep Ben Hai, carrying only a plastic bag with a change of clothes he had sewed in the tailor shop. He was thirteen years old and knew not a soul beyond the river’s northern banks.
Neither South Vietnam nor the United States had signed the Geneva Accords. Washington wanted free elections and democracy in Vietnam, but not if that meant the communists would come to power. And Diem, believing, probably correctly, that Ho would win a popular vote, refused to hold elections. The country remained divided, and the DMZ—a buffer zone thirty-nine miles long and five miles wide that roughly fol¬lowed the 17th Parallel—became to Vietnam what the Berlin Wall would be to Germany. For the next twenty-one years, Nghien would not see or communicate with his family.
He moved in with a family of peasant farmers in the village of Vinh Linh. “Oh, I was homesick, so homesick, at first,” he said. “My brothers, my parents, my village, I missed terribly.” Nghien tended the farmer’s cows in the morning, went to school in the afternoon, and studied until late at night. Each year the state gave him two shirts and two pairs of pants. Food and health care were free. No foreigners bossed him around. All in all, life was better in the North than it had been in the South, he thought. He liked the communal spirit and sense of shared dreams he found in his new home. People helped each other without being asked. Was that because of communism? He wasn’t sure.
I had heard a little about Ho Chi Minh,” he said, “but I didn’t know anything about him being a communist. I didn’t even know anything about communism. I just knew he was promising independence. I thought of him as a patriot.”

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