NGUYEN THI LE HADN’T TALKED ABOUT her husband’s role in the war for twenty-three years, until I showed up at her house with my inter¬preter. Sheets of monsoon rain swept over Ho Chi Minh City that day, and the narrow alley where she lived,’ several hundred yards from the main street, was so badly flooded I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pants, and waded through the knee-deep water.
Le was fifty-one and had lived in her two-room, government-owned house for half her life. Twelve children and grandchildren were crammed with her into the clean, simple quarters. She was two years in arrears pay¬ing her $5-per-month rent and often had trouble scraping together enough money for the next bowl of rice. She sat drinking tea on one of the ten-inch-high plastic stools the Vietnamese favor, near the door through which her husband had last passed in 1972 to join an ARVN ar¬tillery unit.
“I don’t know how he felt about the war,” she said. “We never talked about it. We just hugged and said goodbye when he went. That was it.”
For a while he wrote faithfully every month. (June 10,1973: “Time has gone by so fast, hasn’t it, honey? It is already three months on the front. I am so sad that our lives are so far apart.” July 20, 1973: “Life is difficult here but I have good friends. Do not worry. I miss you always.”) Then the letters stopped, and one day in November an ARVN officer came to her door bearing a telex sent by her husband’s unit. Truong Van Hai, age twenty-five, was missing in action.
“My life was over,” Le said. “I kept waiting, thinking perhaps he would return, but the days came and the days went, and now my children are grown, and I am still here, waiting.”
Most of her neighbors burned letters from their husbands and scrap¬books that held pictures of smiling, cocky young men headed off for war, fearing they somehow could be used by Hanoi’s cadre as incriminating evidence. Le kept hers, hidden at the back of a kitchen cabinet and se¬cured in a plastic bag. She did not know where Hai fell, or how he died, or if he received a proper Buddhist burial. She would like to have searched for his remains, she said, but that would require money for travel and food, so she had put the thought out of her mind.
Le did not begrudge the communist government for not giving her a military widow’s pension. The Saigon government hadn’t given her one either. I asked if she weren’t uneasy talking to me about Hai and the ARVN. She said no, it didn’t matter any more. Ten years ago, she said, she wouldn’t have breathed a word, but Vietnam had changed, and she had no fear of the authorities.
“I’ve heard that Northern widows get pensions and mothers of the dead and missing are called ‘Heroic Mothers’ of martyrs,” she said. “Here we get nothing. Our husbands and sons were considered traitors. Hai, I can tell you, was no traitor. He loved Vietnam.”
Open your eyes and look around here.
Who’s left who is Vietnamese?
A million people have died.
Open your eyes and turn over the enemy corpses,
Those are Vietnamese faces upon them.
Going over the human corpses,
Who have we been defeating all these years?
The homeland has withered.
Brothers and sisters of North, Center, South:
Go forth to preserve the mountains and rivers,
Have hope in your hearts for a tomorrow Looking at this land,
Joyfully cheering thefag of unification,
With footsteps passing over all three regions.
Open your eyes and look around here.
Who’s left who is Vietnamese?
Artificial hatreds,
Open your eyes.
Look at this day of Vietnam.
So many years of tattered lives,
Our people bathed in fresh blood.
—ballad written and sung by Trinh Cong Son, a Southern poet and peace activist, in the final years of the war (translation by Neil L. Jamieson)
To this day, Hanoi’s Party leadership insists the conflict that led to Vietnam’s reunification was not a civil war. It was, according to the offi¬cial line, an uprising of Southern indigenous people—the Viet Cong and its supporters—against a corrupt regime that answered to imperialistic invaders, the United States. Hanoi’s negotiators even managed to sit straight-faced through the Paris Peace talks, contending there were no North Vietnamese soldiers in the South, only Viet Cong. Its support of the Viet Cong, Hanoi said, was in direct response to U.S. aggression. But Hanoi was preparing for civil war in the South—planting agents in the countryside, starting work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, repairing the rail line, building one of the world’s largest armies—years before the first U.S. Marines landed at Danang in 1965. America’s involvement raised the stakes and complicated Hanoi’s game plan to control the South but oth¬erwise probably didn’t affect the eventual course of history.

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