Nghien was a good student and upon graduating from high school was chosen to study medicine, an honor reserved for no more than a handful of boys. Five years later, in 1966, he became a doctor and took a step crit¬ical for anyone who expected to make career advancements in North Vietnam: He joined the Communist Party. “I thought communism, or socialism, provided a good example for working, studying, helping when you’re trying to build a country,” he said.
By then the American War was raging in the South, and the North was under heavy U.S. bombardment. The rice paddies and villages south of the DMZ had become a no-man’s-land, but unlike most of the DMZ’s inhab¬itants, Dr. Nghien’s mother and family decided to stay put rather than seek safety farther south. “Where would we have gone?” Mrs. Nheh asked. “This was home. Besides I was old, even then. So we lived with the war.”
Mrs. Nheh sat quietly, hands folded on her lap. Thunder rumbled overhead. Her three sons, laughing and chatting at the little kitchen table next to her, had to raise their voices to be heard over the drumbeat of rain pounding through the bamboo thicket. Mrs. Nheh tilted her head to bet¬ter hear their stories but said little.
“I always believed one day my brother and I would meet again, because we were separated by a border, not by our hearts,” said Tinh, a farmer with callused hands and skin darkened by years in the sun-baked fields. “Really, it made no difference who fought for which side. That was just circumstances.”
In the North, Dr. Nghien met a beautiful young nurse named Hop at a lecture for treating war wounds. They were married two years later. By foot and bicycle they moved from town to village to commune and finally to the forests as the U.S. bombing intensified in the late 1960s. They dug shelters for patients, conducted operations by candlelight, and, Nghien said, never once considered the possibility the North might lose the war.
Years later Hop would say, “I believe I’m a stronger person today for what we went through. That’s my generation’s contribution to the young—strength and peace and a better standard of living. I just hope they have the wisdom to avoid the trouble my generation knew.”
Hop was pregnant with their first child when Nghien went off to East Germany on a scholarship to study physical rehabilitation in 1971, a year before the United States bombed the hospital where he would eventually take up residency. Nghien felt guilty being in Europe while his homeland was in flames. “I was very afraid Hop would be lost in the Christmas bombing,” he said. “So many hospitals and doctors and nurses and pa¬tients were. But, except for my worries and loneliness, I liked East Ger¬many. The professors were good. The people were very kind to us. Living standards were high and I saw more freedom than we knew in Vietnam. I realized how little knowledge we had in Vietnam. Catching up with the rest of the world was not going to be easy once peace came.”
By the time Nghien took up his studies in Berlin, young North Viet¬namese volunteers were pouring down the Ho Chi Minh Trail toward southern battlefields. But the call to duty that was answered so willingly in the North met a less enthusiastic response in the South.
Nghien’s youngest brother, Kien, managed to avoid South Vietnam’s draft for four years by using a doctored identification card that showed him to be too young for military service. His other brother, Tinh, the farmer, was just as reluctant to fight a war that stirred no passions except the will to survive. He refused to volunteer.
“The Americans had pulled out of Quang Tri Province by the time I was old enough for service,” Tinh said, “and before, when I was a boy tending water buffalo, I mostly only saw them at a distance, on patrol in the paddies. They scared me. They were so big, their skin was so pale. They had so many weapons. They appeared strange. I thought they had come to invade our country.”
Eventually both boys were drafted into the South Vietnamese Army, Kien as a tank driver and Tinh as a bugler. Kien was in Ban Me Thuot on March 9,1975, the day Hanoi’s tanks rolled into town, beginning the rout of South Vietnam’s forces from the Central Highlands. Seven weeks later Tinh watched the North’s soldiers march into Saigon. “I really didn’t care who won or lost the war,” he said.
Both brothers had the same reaction to Hanoi’s victory. They dis¬carded their South Vietnamese uniforms, stole civilian clothes and food, and by foot, bicycle, and bus made their way back to their mother’s village outside Dong Ha, on the doorstep of a Demilitarized Zone that no longer existed.
“I returned to Hanoi from East Germany about that time,” Dr. Nghien said. “My first son had been born while I was gone. I had never even seen him. Hop met me at the airport. We embraced. She was very thin and wearing a torn dress. She told me she had lost thirty-five pounds while I was gone. Everyone was so thin, so gaunt. They were so very, very poor. I was very moved. I couldn’t imagine how much they had suffered. On the way back to our home I cried.”
It had been twenty-one years since Dr. Nghien had seen—or had any word of—his family. He journeyed south in late 1975, crossing a rebuilt bridge that spanned the Ben Hai. The river had been swollen by a month of rain, and he wondered if it was now too deep for a small boy to wade across. After two days of travel, he reached his village. There was nothing left, not even a house.

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