Short story by Le Hoai Nam

Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού

Writer: Le Hoai Nam (Vietnam)

His biography: Born in 1953, in Lieu De town, Nghia Hung district, Nam Dinh province, Vietnam. Was a soldier during the war against the US, became an officer in the army. In 1987, he changed his job to become vice president of literature and art association of Ha Nam Ninh, Nam Ha, Nam Dinh province. Was editor-in-chief of Van Nhan magazine. Currently living and writing in Hanoi capital. Published 24 books, such as the novels “Reputation and darkness”, “Beauty in the grass lands”, “Red crane”, “A pass away life”, “A collection of short stories by Le Hoai Nam”. His 4 short stories were adapted into screenplays. Award for short story contest of Military Arts magazine, 1981. Award of Van Nghe newspaper’s short story contest, 2013. Award for novel contest 2016 – 2019, Vietnam Writers’ Association. Prizes of the Vietnam Union of Culture and Arts in 1995 and 2002.

Barbed wire fence

Short story by Le Hoai Nam

Translated to English by Vu Hoang Linh Chi

On the morning of the first day of the Lunar New Year, the first person to come to Mr. Quynh’s house in the Old Quarter near the foot of Long Bien Bridge was a guest from afar. He was about the same age as Mr. Quynh, who has a very masculine face, ant mustache, and wears glasses with large dark brown rim. The betel nut colored shirt stood out against the white pants. The faint scent of foreign perfumes made Mr. Quynh have an intuition that this guest had just returned from abroad. Hesitating for a moment, the guest walked through the door, went straight to the old cushioned sofa, where Mr. Quynh was sitting, and extended a hand to shake Mr. Quynh’s hand: “It’s me, Tu Bon! Tu Bon was the Infantry fighting vehicle commander of the Republic of Vietnam. We got to know each other on the day the Paris Agreement came into force…”. “If you didn’t say your name, I would still have doubts – Quynh said – because you look so different now. You get fatter. Very handsome. I heard that you and your family settled in America?”. “That’s right, brother. Being complimented on my health, I’m so happy. Actually, living there, I am jobless, I just live on unemployment salary. Meeting the brothers and sisters in the old band when we were active in the country, the artist’s blood emerged, I’ve been singing with them for a few years. Now that I’m old, I want to stand behind the scenes serving to earn some money, they also accept it.”

Receiving a cup of hot tea from Quynh’s hand, sipping a few sips, Tu Bon continued: “It’s okay, the brothers and sisters in the old band also love me, so this Lunar New Year, the government invited the band to return to the country to perform, brothers and sisters let me go with them. Last night I spent New Year’s Eve at the hotel. Am I the first footer? “Yes true, you are the first footer. I’m very happy about this visit, because I don’t think I’ll see you again, Tu Bon.”

Two children, a boy and a girl, were married and had their own house. In the house in this old quarter lived the couple of Mr. Quynh. At this time, Mr. Quynh noticed that since Tu Bon entered, Mrs. Nga, his wife, after greeting guests, retreated to the inner room. Quynh called his wife: “Hey, come out here. Tu Bon is my special guest. Please give us some typical Hanoi dishes that goes with wine.”

In fact, Tet food was already prepared. Mrs. Nga rushed into the inner room and brought out a tray with lean pork paste, fried spring rolls, green rice flake meatball, pig bladder cooked with bamboo shoots… Mr. Quynh took out a bottle of wine cooked with yellow-flowered glutinous rice made by his cousin in the hometown, he sent the wine during Tet, then poured into two cups. He raised a cup to congratulate Tu Bon, then they ate while reviewing old stories. Mrs. Nga did not know how to drink, but she served wine and listened to the stories of two men very enthusiastically.

That memorable January 28, 1973. Before that historic hour came the most terrible and longest night in the lives of soldiers on both sides. Our motorized infantry company had to face a marine battalion on the “national” side. The fire squad, led by Sergeant Quynh, was stationed in a critical position, close to the barbed wire fence separating the garrison of the other side from the people’s arable land. Fighting until dawn, ammunition ran out, Quynh ordered the soldiers in charge of 12.7mm to save ammunition, to aim the target carefully before firing short bursts. Where they clustered, anti-tank guns B40, B41 had to be used, although it was a bit expensive, but there was no other way. The firepower of the “national” army was much stronger. In the sky, A37, OV1O hovered and fired rockets and released flares. From the direction of Cua Viet sea, their cruisers fished in cannons. From the south, they fired all kinds of cannons, drills, M79 grenade launcher, 106.7 heavy mortars. The soil was plowed over and over again like it was kneaded. Our company sacrificed up to several dozen lives. Quynh’s fire squad sacrificed three people along with a 12.7 mm gun with its shells screwed. The transport team brought the martyrs back for burial. Two other soldiers were seriously injured and had to be taken to the operating station. Squad leader Quynh and three more soldiers, namely Mui – gunman with B40, Vinh – gunman with B41; Nha holding  the trophy AR15 were the ones being alive. Quynh’s quick-grip AK had remained loyal to him from the first day of the campaign until now.

At 8 a.m., the Paris Agreement took effect, the guns pounded a few more times and then stopped completely. Quynh and three soldiers, holding the liberation flags that were distributed, rushed up and planted them at the foot of the barbed wire fence. On the other side of the fence, “national” soldiers also ran to plant three-striped flags. Suddenly, an M113 vehicle from the “national” side burst through the fence and entered our territory. Corporal Vinh was leaning against the wall of the tunnel to sleep after a long night of staying awake, when he heard the roar of the car, he woke up and quickly lifted the loaded B41 and fired a warning shot. Quynh quickly raised his hand to stop: “Stop shooting! We can make sacrifices, but we won’t violate the agreement!”

The M113 stopped. One by one, jumping out of the car were five soldiers wearing camouflage suits, their faces looking very “dramatic”. The leader wore the shoulder badge of sergeant major. Four people followed, one wearing a sergeant shoulder badge, one wearing a corporal shoulder badge. They walked in a line, headed straight for the fortifications of our fire squad. Quynh said loudly: “You have violated the agreement, encroaching on our land! What do you guys want?”.

The sergeant major, who was the commander, the smoke and fire of the battlefield did not make him lose his good looks, raised his hand and waved, saying: “We came to visit you guys, we want to know what is your structure, what you eat and drink that makes you guys fight so fiercely! We have to go by motor vehicle for convenience! If you think the car has trespassed on your territory, keep it as a souvenir – he glanced at the smoky faces of the four liberators, and continued – “And you all look so kind!”.

He pulled out a pack of Ruby cigarette and offered one to each of our soldiers. After a few minutes of caution and precaution on both sides, the sergeant major asked the soldiers to take some parachute fabric and spread it on the ground, and lay out a few packages of candies and USA branded bottles of water. He said curtly: “Motherfuck! I’m fed up with fighting! Now, I don’t care if the communist party or the “national” side comes to power! We are just pawns on the chessboard! Sit down and celebrate the reunion guys!”

  Quynh and the three soldiers sat down. Quynh picked up a piece of candy and put it in his mouth. He opened a bottle of water and took a few sips. Probably because he was hungry for a long time, the candy taste and the cool sweet ginseng water quickly melted in each blood vessel, making him sober.

  One “national” soldier said: “Last night, we marched from the base, crawling to the foothills, it was too dark, the car went down a hole. I sat on the gun turret, looked around and noticed that there were many such holes next to each other. Did you guys dig a grave first for yourself?”. “That’s right” – Quynh replied – “In the previous battles, so many soldiers died, the regiment policy team couldn’t bury them in time, so they buried it carelessly. The burial was at night, in the morning, we saw that there was a grave with the feet of the dead still sticking out of the ground. Yesterday afternoon, before leaving, we told the policy guys, please just dig a grave for each of us. This battle was likely to be the last bloodbath. If we die, we must also lie down in a proper grave! The policy guys said, “It’s very easy for us to do that. But unfortunately, when the new soldiers see it, they lose their fighting spirit, it can’t be!”. I came up with the idea: “Then dig in many places, each place has about twenty graves”. The military force immediately seized the initiative. “Just daring to dig a grave for yourself is enough to see your bravery,” said the “national” sergeant major. “But, hearing about death, graves is not suitable at this time, let’s talk about something different!”.

Private Nha leaned the AR15 on his shoulder, pointed his finger at Quynh, and said: “Our squad leader here was studying in Literature Department in the General university when he joined the army, he has a lot of interesting stories.”

One “national” soldier said: “Why do you have to be a squad leader when you are learning in the university? In our side, with such high education, they will be able to get training at the Da Lat martial arts school to become an officer immediately! Like Bon here is our chief, who joined the Swan troupe to go to the battlefield to serve the coalition in seasons and campaigns. Suddenly, his superiors discovered that he had graduated from Saigon University of Literature, and immediately grabbed him and sent him to Da Lat to become an officer. Bon just got married, couldn’t stand the separation, so he ran away to Saigon. Then he was arrested again, punished, and he was only made the captain of the chariot, and went to the battlefield!”

  Vinh B41 said: “Then the two sides have a predestined fate. On my side, the squad leader studied literature at the University of Hanoi. Next to you, the chief Infantry fighting vehicle studied at the Saigon University of Literature. Let’s talk about literature on two fronts, it’s interesting!” “Very reasonable” – said Sergeant Bon – “I would like to ask you Hai Quynh: in your opinion, which literary works of the world are the most valuable, which you have read the best?”

Quynh thought for a moment, then replied: “It was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Giuilet, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Turgenev’s Spring Torrents, Liev Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Resurrection, Gogol’s Petersburg Tales, The Raspberry Cluster – Short Stories by Chekhov, Victor Hugo‘s the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Banzac’s The Human Comedy, Boule de Suif – a collection of short stories by Maupassant… Modern literature is Hemingway’s The Old man and the Sea, Solokhov’s The Silent Don, Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Live …”. “Wait” – Sergeant Bon signaled for Quynh to stop, then said – “Why haven’t I heard that Remarque has that work?”. “It is Remarque’s best novel, depicting the love of a soldier and a girl…” “That’s clear,” said Bon, “translated in Saigon under the title A Time to Love and a Time to Die. It must be translated like that to be literal, brother. Looks like you guys out there avoid the word “death”, that’s why you changed your name like that, right?”

Seeing that Quynh avoided answering, Bon continued: “But it’s a small matter. The important thing is that the works you just mentioned, both the communists as well as the “national” side find them good. Great literary works stands above politics, or in other words, it is superior politics, because it enriches the human soul, arouses humanity in people. I know that, during the second world war, the greatest commissar of the Soviet Red Army was the novel “How the Steel Was Tempered!”.

Probably because he felt that the story seemed to be “haughty in philosophy” philosopher’s face”, Bon skillfully switched to another field: “What about music, what songs do you guys like, sing it for us?”. “We have a lot of good songs” – Quynh said – “But we will sing for you the song that we still sing every day. Sing to raise the fighting spirit. Come on, I crossed the high mountain of Truong Son, two three!

All three soldiers in the squad sang along with Quynh. But when singing I went to the far land, the wind brought my feet back to my homeland…, Senior Sergeant Bon and the four “national” soldiers also clapped their hands to the beat of the song. At the end of the song, Quynh told them: “I’m surprised because you guys sing this song as proficiently as the soldiers on our side!”. “We still have the radio to listen to you guys sing!” said Sergeant Bon. “Now it’s your turn to sing for us!” – Squad leader Quynh suggested. “We’re ready,” said Sergeant Bon, “Come on, comrades, let’s sing Through the Delusion.

All five “national” soldiers sang a tune that was still quite strange to the soldiers in our fire squad, but they sang passionately as if they were enticing people’s hearts: One day after the dream / Away from floating life/ I’m back with you / The days of wind and rain are gone / So the road is long / We ignore the love to roam...  The song Through the Delusion ended, no need to wait for the liberation soldiers to ask, five ” national” soldiers sang a very typical song of war, tragedy and pain: The sun is black, so black, as black as our life / Our lives, we have longed to escape to see the distant sky / Life is like a wild animal wandering at night…

  Unexpectedly, soldiers from both sides of the front line who just held guns and fired at each other at night, now had such a touching voluntary reconciliation meeting. The first moment of peace was still quite fragile, not allowed to last. When they parted, Sergeant Major Bon seemed to be interested in Quynh, he shook Quynh’s hand and spoke softly enough for Quynh to hear: “Please tell me the address of your family, when the country reunites, I will visit?”. “My house…if you don’t have a pen, write it down in your memory” – Quynh said – “House number… street… three hundred meters from Dong Xuan market, five hundred meters from Long Bien bridge. Very easy to find…”.

In 1974, Quynh was transferred to the Navy, and was assigned to the Marine Brigade. Operation April 30, 1975, as a platoon leader, Quynh and his unit followed the ship “open mouth” to the sea to liberate the Spratly Islands. On the day of victory, Quynh was taken to the Military Hospital in Saigon to treat his wounds. In the fall of 1976, when he was discharged from the hospital, Quynh received the decision to go to Nha Trang to attend an officer school. On a Sunday afternoon, the person in charge of the school’s visitor station came into his room to report that Quynh had a family member visiting. The stationmaster of the guest station also joked: “In such a fierce battle, do you have a miracle to find such a beautiful Southern girl?”. What, I don’t know a girl like that? Quynh entered the guest station. A young woman was sitting on a stool, immediately got up and went to the door to meet Quynh. She has a graceful, charming beauty, typical of a southern girl. “Sir” – she said – “are you Hai Quynh, from Hanoi?”. “Yes, it’s me” – Quynh replied – “And you?”. “I’m Sau Huong, in Go Vap, Tu Bon’s wife, do you still remember him?”. “I remember” – Quynh replied – “You are so beautiful, Mr. Bon was sent to Da Lat to study officers’ school yet he fled to Saigon for you, only to be punished, only to hold the position of Infantry fighting vehicle chief, go to the battlefield to fight against us…”. “Oh, you know that too” – a touching smile appeared on the young woman’s lips. “We only met for a few minutes, but it was enough for both sides not to misunderstand each other” – Quynh said. – “You have come here to find me, you must have something to do”. “It’s about my husband Tu Bon ” – Sau Huong said – “After liberation, he was ordered to focus on studying and re-education. During the past two years, he was praised by camp officials for his good spirit of reforming and actively participating in the camp’s letters and arts programs. But after the last Lunar New Year, someone reflected, Tu Bon was the bloodthirsty Infantry fighting vehicle chief, when the Paris Agreement came into effect, he also let motor vehicles knock down the barbed wire fence to attack the land of the Liberation Army. Tu Bon wanted you to write some testimonies for him, so that camp officials wouldn’t misunderstand him”…

Quynh went to the stationmaster’s room to ask for a full page of paper and sat down in front of Sau Huong, he wrote his testimony in neat, very beautiful handwriting.

“Dear leaders of Yen Ha camp. My name is Nguyen Nhu Quynh. Sergeant Major. Student of the Political system of the company, Naval Officers School. I confirm…” Sau Huong received the paper, she was moved to tears, said thank you, then walked back to the main road and hitch-hiked in the opposite direction of Yen Ha camp.

The story was being reviewed till that point when the meal finished. Mrs. Nga took the tray away. Quynh asked Bon: “Was my certificate at that time valuable?”. “Yes,” replied Tu Bon, “The camp leadership has treated me differently. I was released from the camp ahead of time. Later, when I moved to the USA to settle down under the HO category, it was also very convenient. So what about you, how’s your job after that?”. “I graduated from school and returned to the unit for a while, the wound recurred, I was no longer healthy enough to be a commanding officer, I was directed to the university and continued my studies. After graduating from school, I was assigned to teach literature at a high school in this city. Now I’m retired.” “Are you satisfied with your life?” – Bon asked. “Soldiers who have gone through the storm of war like you and me, living to this day is a great blessing, what more could you ask for?” – Quynh said. “You must have read Buddhist books carefully, so he has that way of thinking” – Tu Bon said – “I will learn from you this way of thinking, so it will be easier to live …”.

When parting, Tu Bon held Quynh’s hand tightly and said: “In a few days, our overseas band will go to Hanoi to perform, there will be an invitation to you,try to be there!”. “Thank you in advance. I love watching musical performances!” Quynh said, then sent Tu Bon out the door.

Hanoi, winter 2014

Edited, fall 2018