On the first morning of Tet, the Vietnamese awoke to a seemingly abandoned land. City streets were deserted. Every shop was closed. No farmers or water buffalo worked the rice paddies. In a country where shopkeepers routinely work twelve or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, and farmers labor sunrise to sunset for months on end, it was an odd sight to see Vietnam devoid of bustle and honking horns and crowded sidewalk cafes. In home after home, families dressed in their best clothes and gathered around small altars where incense burned and flowers, fresh water, pears, plums, and a hand of unripe bananas had been placed for dead ancestors. The families ate banh chung—sticky steamed rice stuffed with pork and egg and wrapped in a banana leaf—and were exceedingly careful to be polite and never show anger. Even bossy moth- ers-in-law made peace with their daughters-in-law. Any transgression from civil behavior could bring bad luck in the year ahead.
My assistant at work seemed agitated in the days leading up to Tet, and I couldn’t figure out why. It turned out he was having difficulty deter¬mining who the first visitor to cross his doorstep should be in the new year. The matter was one of grave importance: If that visitor were some¬one who had known misfortune in the old year—such as losing a job, suf-fering ill health, or experiencing a death in the family—my assistant’s family could be cursed with bad luck throughout the Year of the Snake. Mr. Hung overcame his dilemma by stationing his wife at the door to keep away unwanted visitors. Then at the stroke of midnight, he crossed his threshold upon returning from a short walk. He was his own first vis¬itor, and there was nothing in the mix of mythology, tradition, and reli¬gion that constitutes Tet to suggest his choice wasn’t perfectly sensible. My waiter-friend Dai gave me It xi, lucky money—a 1o,ooo-dong note (about sixty-six cents) in a small red envelope—and asked me to be his first visitor. He prepared a Tet meal for me in his one-room apartment, and although I had trouble getting down the chunks of pig fat, I was honored.
I wrote a story about Tet and its traditions for the Times. An acquain¬tance in Los Angeles sent back a note, saying she enjoyed learning about Vietnamese culture and hadn’t realized Tet was a holiday. “I always thought it referred to a Viet Cong offensive,” she said.
TET HAD BEEN TWICE SHATTERED by significant battles in Vietnam’s history. In 1789, Vietnamese forces launched a surprise offensive under Emperor Quang Trung to drive China’s occupying forces out of Hanoi. And in 1968, communist forces struck South Vietnam in a series of coor¬dinated attacks that changed the course of the American War. The mag¬nitude of the offensive became clear with five simple words spoken by the U.S. Marine guard who awoke Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in his resi¬dence at 3 A.M.: “Sir,” he said, “Saigon is under attack.”
The Viet Cong had begun infiltrating Saigon in threes and fours dur¬ing the days just before the Year of the Monkey. Their first stops were the graveyards, where weapons had been buried in coffins, thus explaining the large number of funerals that had been held in Saigon in recent days. Not until several hours after Ambassador Bunker had been awakened and hustled off in an armored carrier to a safe house, still wearing only his bathrobe and pajamas, did intelligence analysts learn the full extent of the offensive: Heavy fighting had engulfed 100 South Vietnamese provincial and district capitals.
In Saigon, nineteen barefoot commandos breached the U.S. Embassy before being killed. In Hue, the Viet Cong flag flew atop the Citadel and would remain there for twenty-six days until U.S. Marines retook the city, inch by inch. In a Danang hospital, three doctors performed more than 100 operations a day for two weeks. Communist troops roamed through Pleiku, Nha Trang, Dalat, Dong Ha, and Can To. In North Vietnam’s port of Haiphong, Bob Eaton, an American Quaker who had arrived with a shipment of medicine for civilians, found the city abuzz. Residents who could understand English walked the streets with transistor radios pressed to their ears, listening to news of the offensive from the U.S. Armed Forces Radio—an American-run military network that the North Vietnamese found more trustworthy in its accounts of the war than their own state-run broadcasts. “The Americans aren’t going to have a sense of humor about this,” Eaton remembered someone telling him in Haiphong. “They’ll level the city. You better get out.” He did.
Militarily, Hanoi suffered a profound setback in the Tet Offensive. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces took back every town, usually in a matter of days. The popular uprising in the South that the communists envisioned never materialized. Viet Cong guerrillas suffered as many dead (about 58,000) in one month as the United States did in its eight years of direct combat involvement in Vietnam. The offensive left the Viet Cong’s infrastructure so shattered that North Vietnamese regulars had to take over the brunt of the fighting.
“The Tet objectives were beyond our strength,” General Tran Van Tra, the commander of the Viet Cong’s attack on Saigon, wrote in 1982—an assessment that ran counter to Hanoi’s official line and led to his being purged from the Party. “They were based on subjective desires of the peo¬ple who made the plan. Hence our losses were large, in materiel and man¬power, and we were not able to retain the gains we had already made. In¬stead we faced myriad difficulties in 1969 and 1970.”
One of those difficulties was growing tension between the Southern indigenous Viet Cong guerrillas and their communist allies from the North, who, after the military debacle of Tet, began playing an increas¬ingly influential role in the affairs of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) and its Provisional Revolutionary Government. Hanoi’s men were a testy group, weaned on unyielding Marxist ideology and disdainful of the bourgeoisie; their love affair was with the proletariat. Before long they began treating non-Party Viet Cong officials like second-class citizens. “This was a new attitude and an unsettling one,” wrote Truong Nhu Tang, a founder of the liberation front.