Short story by Dang Huynh Thai

Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού

Author: Dang Huynh Thai. Year of birth: 1939. Hometown: Minh Quang Commune, Kien Xuong District, Thai Binh Province; Current residence: Hanoi City

Profession: Thirty years of journalism, Radio and Television Editor. Member of Vietnamese Journalists Association, member of Quang Ninh Provincial Literature and Art Association.

Main published works: Many scripts for the documentary film and feature films; Many short stories; Special Novel “Earth and Blood” published by Vietnamese Writers’Association and already translated into English; Many short scripts and autographed reports in magazines and online newspapers…

Short story

Miss Van

Author: Dang Huynh Thai

Translated into English by JyKhanh

Flash! Operation order to support the battlefield in the South. Soldiers still wearing miners’ clothes let go of their hammers and took guns to cross Truong Son to save the country.

At Luc Dau Giang ferry, American planes bombarded day and night with heavy smoke and bombs. Mining town on the shore of Ha Long Bay, houses were dilapidated, ruined back to the stone age. The President of the United States proudly declared that!

Not afraid of bombs falling or exploding, the army of miners lined up across the ferry for many kilometers. Last night they came out of the oven, their faces still covered with coal dust, patting the sleeping child’s head on the bed, kissed their wife on the cheek, and hurried away.

At the top of the coal floor, next to the carts full of wagons, Mr. Nguyen Duc Binh, an electromechanical repairman, brought his girlfriend to come here to be alone, holding his lover’s hand and whispering: “Wait for me to come back! We will make a big wedding on the vast and windy Bai Tu Long beach.” Ms. Huong, a teacher and lover, quietly gave him a small scarf embroidered with two seagulls flying in the blue sky. Stroking the sideburns on his cheek, she softly sang:

“Once upon a time, the sea didn’t have sand like now

Once upon a time, there were no waves on the sea…

And the wind, the wind sings so softly

And clouds, clouds float so gently

The sea was innocent, and it was not what it is now…

Then one day you come, the sea sings to you

The song has some joys, so enjoyable…”

He didn’t understand which musician this song belonged to, she sang so messy, slow, quiet and overflowing with emotions. Mr. Nguyen Duc Binh pulled her hand up to dab her tears, then slowly let it go, gently releasing it, following in the footsteps of his teammates getting farther and farther away…

Twenty-two-year-old Bui Ngoc Diep, a mine technician, the only son in the family, just been married for ten days, refused to study mining engineering in Poland, took his backpack and set off. “Cutting along Truong Son to save the country”.

Engineer Vu Thanh Thien, a native of Thai Binh, received news that came like lightning yesterday afternoon: “Mother is seriously ill, come back immediately to get married before she closes her eyes…”. Wedding before the funeral? War? Marry who? So many questions arose. When studying in hometown, Thien only knew that Mai Hoa was the most beautiful in the class, but she didn’t good at studying and didn’t pass any university entrance exam. Ngoc Lan was not so very pretty, but she was good at literature and art. Her father worked in the province, allowing Lan to follow the political path. As for the other three, none of them satisfied him. But my mother called back to get married, everything turned to confusion. Last year’s he came home, the eldest sister had aimed one girl in the next village, she was two-year older. She said: “Hue is his daughter, the martyr against the French, she very polite, a wife two years older than husband or a husband one year older than wife is beautiful.” Came to think of it, the eldest sister was wise, the family had four sisters, the second brother was a martyr without a wife and children. The eldest sister and the third sister went to get married to the next commune. Thien was the youngest who had gone on a business trip, now he joined the army, who would take care of the old and weak mother. Married to Hue, everything was in place, only old age could carry it. Today children were very different, it was like raising a child from nowhere. The eldest sister learned from her life, her previous husband was also a martyr. He died in battle with American aircraft at Ham Rong bridge. Turned into a widom before having a child of her own. Holding the pain down, she took care of her husband’s family and fulfilled her responsibilities as a wife. “Sanding” for her husband’s “beautiful grave”, was also the time of her job place to reduce the number of employees and she had to quit her job, with a little money of one-time allowance. Sometime later the husband’s family gathered. They advised her, life was still ahead… She started her new step to meet a new person, and unexpectedly she was cut off from the regime of the martyr’s wife when she took “one more step”. Asking and running around couldn’t work. To be fair, the law was the law. The second husband was lazy, drinking, and gambling. Under such circumstances, how could she take care of her mother?

Never mind, all the chores at home were taken care of by uncles, aunts and sisters. The road to the battle was a straight road, turning sideways was eating bullets and lying down in the grave for life – Rotating calves. Thien sat down and wrote a letter to his mother. Please forgive me and set a date for victory, I will listen to you to marry anyone you tell me. Just finished the letter in the morning, put on the backpack on the road, and did not have time to put it in the post office box.

Two thousand miners of the Northeast coal basin shook the ground and moved to the battlefield, honoring the tradition of “discipline – concentricity” of the heroic mining children. Together, they sang the song “Beyond the bomb”, the battle song, the beloved Motherland song. The oath resounded: “If we have not defeated the American enemy, we will not return”.

Mothers in the mining town rushed out to give them such as sticky rice cakes, chung cakes, making dry food to eat gradually. Those talkative girls were giving each person a towel. Some were embroidered with a pair of peaceful birds. Some were embroidered with two fighting-cock mountains, the symbol of Ha Long Bay. Another notebook and a fountain pen. Tight handshakes. The deep kisses brought the scent of black locusts to the battle.

Many letters from soldiers who were in a hurry to leave before they could send them home asked people who stayed home to move the letters for them. With tears in her eyes, Ms. Van from the postal held the hat full of letters that still smelled of ink written last night. Vu Thanh Thien put the letter in the hat, and softly said: “Sister! My mother called me to go back home to get married. Is this the right time for me to do that, sister?”. “You just go! Me and all Vietnamese girls will wait for you for the rest of our life!”. Ms. Van wrapped her arms around Thien’s neck, holding tight, tears were ready, slowly rolling down their cheeks. Thien softly said: “My mother is waiting to see the letter. Please send it in time. Sister. Thank you very much”. “Let’s see each other on the day of victory, meet at Ha Long Bay”.

Miss Van walked along the army line. Kissed each soldier on the cheek to say goodbye. Those were deep kisses on behalf of mothers, wives, and lovers who had not been able to cuddle when they were in a hurry to leave.

Soldiers without letters wrote down in her notebook: the addresses, mailboxes, and hometown addresses of relatives. All faith and hope were placed in the heart of love and humanity. Miss Van.

The miners who went to war had become legends, having made the enemies feel “horrified”. Foreign radio reported that “The special forces of the Vietnamese army, including all miners from the Mining Region, are marching to the South, an elite army”. So the US military tried to drop bombs on the way of operation, in order to stop a special force, highly disciplined, and full of morale on the way straight to the front line. The soldiers on the battlefield were excited, at the back people of the mines were stronger with hammers and guns. The workers’ cinema was so huge, seven hundred seats was still not enough for them. The culture room then organized an outdoor movie screening, in the evening thousands of people eagerly went to watch and follow the footsteps of the mine soldiers on the battlefield through the documentary film called “Battle Diary”. On the screen, each army hurriedly climbed the pass, waded the stream and marched. Blind bomb battles. The children sat down on the grass and looked up at the screen and shouted loudly: “You guys, that’s my father, his hand holds the gun and attack, father…”. Another one, shouted: “That is my father, full of camouflage leaves… there, there”. In the blink of an eye the pictures disappeared, no one was sure, right or wrong. Well, let the soldier be the father, uncle, and miner.

Didn’t know, someone had eavesdropped on the program “Chieu Hoi” of Saigon Radio Station, the title of the song was “Day of Return” by musician Hoang Giac. A Northern voice groaned: “Brothers of liberation soldiers who are fighting for blind ideals with guns, put down your guns and surrender to the army of the Republic of Vietnam. Our homeland, old mothers, and children are waiting, our bloodshed is the blood of the nation that is flowing. I used to be a liberation soldier who crossed Truong Son to save the country, but mistakenly stepped into the blood of the nation, calling on everyone to come back, in front of our eyes is a beautiful and wide road…”

The next morning at the construction site, while waiting for the shift, the carousel drivers Hien, Hop, Cai… huddled together. Hop quickly said:

  • Broadcasting on Chieu Hon radio is Phung, the youngest son of the Phung family, that’s him, still with the broken voice of an adolescent, and his face is full of acne. Such a “conceited”.

Cai said more:

  • On the day of the march to the front, he tried to hide in bushes, using the excuse to urinate. He was just so scared to piss himself.

Hien chirped:

  • Tsk, her children were selling shrimp paste mixed with bricks, and fish sauce mixed with water. A whole wedding hundreds of people were poisoned, and three people died. He got caught, but then he hid in the deep forest of Si Man. His whole family is a traitor, having the same genes.

Vu Thanh Thien was no strange to Phung, once Thien was unfairly got beaten. Tuyet ran the pump in the pit, Thien went to check the technique and found that the pump was not running, the water in the pit rose, and some equipment was about to be flooded. Tuyet lay sprawled next to the machine unconscious. Thien quickly carried her and ran to the ambulance. On admission, the appendix ruptured. The doctor in the province came to wash the intestines for two hours.  That night Thien slept over to take care of her. After completing her apprenticeship, Tuyet went to the mines to work, without family or relatives. The next late morning, the door of the hospital room slammed on the wall, Phung rushed in, grabbed Thien’s collar, and punched his face and stomach several times. It was so sudden that Thien didn’t have time to resist, Thien fainted, and blood covered his mouth. Everyone intervened, loud words were everywhere. Phung shouted: “He’s messing with my fiancé. I have to teach him a lesson”. No one listened to the crazy man, the security kicked him out of the gate. Later, when Tuyet was discharged from the hospital, she announced severing the relationship with him. The day Thien went to battle, Tuyet arrived, but the car was already gone. Sitting in the car looking back, Tuyet faded away behind the wagons full of coal on the harbor.

The story of Phung, the son of Phung’s family surrendered to the enemy was spread everywhere. Tuyet also added some spices for the story to have more “taste”. Wanted to know the truth we had to wait until the liberation day, but didn’t know if he was still alive to carry the body back? Despicable bastard. After hearing the story, everyone said the same thing. So humiliated.

The speaker system of the Workers’ Radio Station was pulled to the door for everyone to hear the daily victory news of the People’s Army radio broadcast. Everyone was happy and convinced that the army of miners had taken over Ta Con airfield, Quang Tri, and then campaigned on the Nine road, Khe Sanh. In the “War notebook” section, the broadcaster reported and commented eloquently: “Nha Be gasoline depot was on fire, tens of thousands of liters of gasoline were burned. All reinforcements were surrounded and stopped the enemies attack on the battlefield. Our soldiers had returned safely, especially soldier Nguyen Duc Binh was awarded the title of Hero to destroy America…”

The whole people in Hoa Binh spread the news: “Is it Binh from the mechanical workshop?” “Of course it’s him, go find Huong and let her know…”

Along with the students evacuating in the basement, teacher Huong and the children ran up and shouted: “Victory, victory! Please Binh hurry come back home, Bai Tu Long is singing and waiting for you – it’s so much joy…”

The good news of the rear of the Mining Region, as brilliant as the red myrtle flowers in the middle of the forest. “The campaign to produce coal for the South’s blood” and “Twenty thousand tons of coal for the Reunification of the land”… had captivated the whole country, raising the soldiers’ footsteps deep into the enemy’s heart.

Loving kisses and imagine of beautiful and gentle Van always followed Vu Thanh Thien, on all roads of the country. Out there was the war of bombs and bullets, in his heart was boiling dream – Ms. Van. The first letter he received after the battle was from Ms. Van. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he read:

“… I have already delivered your letter to your mother. I miss you guys so much, when you’re gone, bombs still explode and destroy the mines. I can hear them in the distance, your cheers of victory in the gunfire. The South won, please come back home! I’m waiting.”

That night, Thien hastily wrote:

“Dear my beloved sister! Can I call you that? Mother must be happy to receive the letter. She might cry! I know she is emotional. As soon as I put the letter in your hand, I fell in love with you and belive in you. You lifted my steps. War can destroy life, but love remains forever. All day today I have only walked nearly two kilometers because the enemy has dropped thousands of bombs to crush Truong Son. I’m sitting on a burning tree trunk, and writing this letter to you. Life and death are not determined by days but by hours. All my life, all my strength, what have I devoted to the country?

In the next letter, I will tell you more.

I love you and miss you so much!”

It took a long time for a postman to cross the forest, and Thien quickly wrote it down. Comrade in the post office took it and said: “Wow! There’s a smell of bombs and dirt, that’s the battlefield. Give it to me”. Thien dumbfounded, waiting. “You have a letter. Read it!”. Overjoyed, Thien jumped around to the stream bank, a few soldiers without letters, ran along to read. Van’s beautiful words were here:

“Dear brother! Mother is gone!…” He couldn’t see and no longer knew anything, just softly called “Mother, mother…”

A soldier continued to read:

“I came to see mother. She was very happy! Before she closed her eyes, she had saw her daughter-in-law. Knowing that she was very longing, I risked not asking your permission. I put on a mourning towel to take her to her resting place. Please forgive me, brother. After you come back from victory, will you love me, marry me or not, it’s not even matter. But at that time, time must be in that way. So mother could pass away in peacefully. Please just rest assured in the battlefield. It’s not just me, everyone in this country is the same. Tears are shed for sorrows and hurtful. Tears for those who yearn for peace…”

The whole squad had tears in their eyes, and there was no incense in the middle of the forest. The platoon leader read the letter loud as an order. A minute of remembrance, bowing in silence. In the sky, the plane was still roaring, and the bombs and bullets were still roaring in front. The squad followed the army to the Central Highlands.

The war was getting fiercer, the soldiers had to go deeper into the battlefield. The postman could not catch up, communication was interrupt, there was no letter to send. After that painful letter, Thien wrote a letter every week, put it on the bottom of his heavy backpack, climbed the pass, waded in the stream, carried “her” on his back, held the gun in his hand, aimed directly at the enemy – Shoot.

It was not yet morning in the Central Highlands, it was raining heavily, bombs and bullets created green flashes and loud explosions. In the distance, an ethnic woman suddenly appeared, rushing down the mountain, with a child lying inside. On the sky, the helicopter was chasing around, a series of bullets flew next to her and her daughter. A few minutes ago, when we marched here, we had been exposed, we had to lay down on the hillside waiting for orders. The helicopter circled around, the scream of a child above the continuous gunfire. Thien clearly saw that she had taken her child out of the bamboo basket and held her tightly in her lap. After stopping the gunfire, Thien and the trio were ordered to rush forward, toward the mother and daughter. The soldiers rushed down the hill to the village. She stammered, not good at Kinh: “Did anyone die in the army?”. Surprised, she didn’t ask about her child, about her, but asked about the army. Thien comforted: “Let us bandage you and your child. How can the soldier die?” “I’m not in pain”. With just a few sentences like that, everyone hurriedly carried down the Pré village. The Chu Ru people lived in the middle of the lowest slopes of the Central Highlands. The houses on the hillside, under the shade of ancient trees, face the field stretching to the foot of the mountain. They lived peacefully like the owner of the highland region, still ate “forest fortune”, enjoy the sweet fruits from the land and always know how to preserve the quintessential and pristine values for their people. The scent of “heavenly-given” pearl coffee, was ripe and radiated from the garden that no one picked. The houses in the Pré village all closed and bolted. All went up to the forest, down to the basement, avoiding planes and bombs, only a glimpse of the old villager Ya Loc remained to live and die with bombs and bullets, heating up the fire in the cold winter days of the holy land. Seeing the soldiers carrying the mother and daughter into the village, Ya Loc said: “Her name is Hieng”. He turned to speak to Hieng in the language of the Chu Ru people. It was mean that, Hieng was plant corn in the fields, seeing a lot of soldiers in the forest. The plane roared in the sky, it shot down, but the soldiers didn’t know the way out, they would die. Hieng risked her life and chased the plane. She and her daughter rather been dead then soldiers. Who fought for the enemy, who captured the wild animals in the forest so that the villagers could grow corn and cassava.

Suddenly one bomb and then two bombs slow-exploded in the coffee garden, Ya Loc and everyone fell to the ground. Thien rushed to hug the mother and daughter, a bullet pierced his body. Hieng and her daughter were saved. Thien was bleeding a lot of blood and was unconscious. Ya Loc, who knew to treat diseases for the village, took the Cu li cotton to cover the wound, he carried Thien into the house, and closed the door.

Orders to march quickly, the soldiers rushed to the road, without hesitation, Ya Loc said: “You guys go quickly, leave him here for me, Hieng will give him medicine and food, don’t have to be afraid that he will die!”.

The wound was too severe, he was in a coma for months. The medical soldiers of the regiment went to search for wounded soldiers, and quickly transferred Thien to the field hospital, a few days later, his comrades carried him through the forest to the North for treatment. Thien didn’t see Ya Loc and Hieng and the daughter again to say thank you.

After leaving the hospital, he went back to the old place at the Cua Luc river ferry station, he asked everyone, and everyone said that there were a lot of people named Van, Van coal picker, Van coal sweeper. Van engineer… Every Van had a husband who was in the army, if asked for Van in the post office, went to the post office to ask. On the way to the post office, a girl passed in front of him, quickly turned around and asked:

  • Is that Mr. Thien? It’s me, Tuyet!

Hesitating and then realizing, Thien shouted:

  • You recognize me, Tuyet?
  • You look much more mature.
  • Of course, I got trained by the battlefield and bombs.
  • How’s your Phung?
  • Don’t have to talk about him. He followed the enemy and died when the plane went to the seance. He deserved that. And did you know the news?
  • No, I didn’t.
  • Ms. Van is a martyr now!

Wiping tears from his eyes, Thien read the stele in the city’s Martyrs cemetery: “Martyr Ngo Bach Van heroically sacrificed herself while transporting ammunition and reinforcements to the anti-aircraft hill”.

Tuyet said: “At that time, it attacked very fiercely, all self-defense men and women had to support artillery battles on high hills. Van and I carried bullets up the high hill together. When things got quiet, we talked with each other, then I knew that she went back to your hometown to be your mother’s daughter-in-law, giving your mother peace of mind and serenity in the golden stream. She also told me that if she had to sacrifice, I must find you and apologize for her. So, please accept her apology! Please, promise.”

With tears in his eyes, Thien opened his pack back, took out hundreds of unsent letters, and sat down to read them to Van. Order by date. The last letter read first:

“After many days without writing to you, I was injured, my teammates carried me through the forest to the North for treatment. Now I’ve been cured, tomorrow I will come home with you. Will you be happy to see me? Pick me up, and we will go to my hometown to burn incense for my mother. Ask mother for a wedding night and honeymoon, and take a boat trip to Ha Long Bay together. I’m the sky (Thien) you are the clouds (Van). The sky is blue and white clouds are floating…”

Unable to read all the letters, Thien burst into tears. Tuyet read the letter for him slowly in every word. Many scenes were as powerful as the army marching under the military flag. Many sad moments, missed mother, missed Van. Many of the paragraphs were like bombs falling and exploding, tearing the enemy apart. Tuyet’s hand was shaking, sweat-soaked, burst into tears, leaning on Thien’s shoulder that both of them didn’t know.

Lighting a fire, Thien thought that in some distant place, Van would read it. Although someone said: “don’t burn because in every letter, there is fire”*, but he still burned it, warmed for love – Eternal.

Summer, 2022

*Dang Thuy Tram’s diary