Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

V. Autobiographical Accounts, Personal Memoirs, Reportage, Tu`y Bu't

This section includes non-fiction prose by Vietnamese--accounts narrated in the first-person. Some accounts are by Vietnamese exiles. If a non-fiction account by an exile concentrates on life in Vietnam, it is listed here rather than in Section X, "Exile Narratives". The introduction gives some political, cultural, and linguistic reasons why non-fiction prose in the first person is not a highly developed genre in Vietnam.

Discussion: The First-Person in Vietnamese Prose

The now-familiar canon of literary works by Euro-Americans on the war is heavily weighted toward autobiographical accounts, memoirs, and reportage by low- ranking soldiers and working journalists. These genres, particularly autobiography, are not as highly developed in Vietnam, for a variety of reasons. Autobiography, a genre in which the emphasis is on the author's developing self, encounters obstacles in Vietnam where literary, linguistic, and cultural traditions have not encouraged writers to see the world or to write from a first-person point of view. In Vietnam the individual perspective has been submerged within the collective. It was only in the 1920's and 30's, when larger numbers of Vietnamese students were encountering French literature in Franco- Vietnamese schools, that "to^i" (I) became commonly used in Vietnamese literature. The critics Hoa`i Thanh and Hoa`i Cha^n describe its arrival in poetry:
The first day--who can say exactly what day it was--that the word ''I' appeared in Vietnamese poetry it was truly surprised. It was as if it were lost in a strange land. This is because it brought with it a perspective that had not been seen in this country: the individual perspective. Since ancient times there was no individual in Vietnamese society. There was only the collective: a large one, the country, and a small one, the family. As for the individual, the individual aspect was submerged in the family and in the country like a drop of water in the sea.1

The arrival of the "I" in non-fiction prose is described in Greg Lockhart's "First Person Narratives from the 1930s," his introduction to The Light of the Capital, which contains translations of two examples of reportage and one example of autobiography (See Section II). Lockhart provides information that helps us understand why something long familiar to Western readers--narration in the first person--has had to struggle to gain acceptance in Vietnam. In pre-modern Vietnam, the pronoun "to^i" ("I") meant "servant" or "subject." It was used, for example, in the phrase "vua-to^i" (king-subject) to refer to first of the three most important Confucian bonds (See Section VI). Its use was associated with the monarchy and with the vertical and hierarchical social and moral system that formed the basis of the emperor's power. Within the family and village, Vietnamese kinship terms did double duty as personal pronouns, so a son or a daughter would refer to him or herself as "con" (son or daughter) when talking to a parent and as "cha'u" (nephew or niece) when talking to an uncle or aunt. "Fictitious" kinship terms were used when addressing people who were not close relatives but were well known to the speaker, so a boy might refer to himself as "cha'u" when addressing a friend of his father's. "To^i" was rarely used in conversation. It was rarely used in traditional literature because toi was too self-deprecatory and also because most traditional story tellers presented their stories as retellings in the third person of ancient tales, not as completely original first-person accounts of their own life and times.2

When the French conquered Vietnam, they set in motion events that promoted the use of "to^i" as an active, egalitarian pronoun. The monarchy was stripped of most of its power. Unable to survive in the countryside, many peasants came to the towns and cities where they became servants, rickshaw drivers, and workers in various trades. These displaced peasants were wrenched out of the old political-moral order. Tam Lang, the author of I Pulled a Rickshaw, was a member of the upper class: his father was a Confucian scholar. By becoming a rickshaw driver and reporting on his experience in I Pulled a Rickshaw, thought to be the first example of reportage in Vietnam, Tam Lang disrupts the old vertical order. His use of "to^i" in his title is not passive and self-deprecatory but assertive: it suggests the possibility of a new more horizontal, more democratic relationship between people who pull rickshaws and those who ride in them (Lockhart 7).

Revolution and the First Person

Revolutionary leaders in the communist movement accepted the use of "to^i" but did not like excessively individualistic and romantic poetry, nor were they fond of autobiography. Most of the Vietnamese poets who wrote very individualistic poems in the 1930's joined the revolution (See Jamieson, "Shattered Identities," Section IV) and stopped writing the kind of poetry that had made them famous before the war. Instead, they wrote poems that supported the war effort, works that stressed the collective strength of the people. "Today, a poem must have steel, / A poet must learn to wage war," Ho^' Chi' Minh wrote in 1942.3

This leader's stress on "steel" in literature and the communist emphasis of the collective over the individual discouraged revolutionary writers of poetry or prose from telling stories of their developing selves. Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u, a well-respected solider-writer, mentions another reason why writers avoided personal accounts. If writers in the resistance wars, he says, had allowed themselves the luxury of individual cries of pain and anguish, they could never have defeated the French and the Americans.4

Once they leave Vietnam, Vietnamese adapt to the Western demand for more personal accounts. Autobiographical accounts in the form of oral histories appear in David Chanoff and DDoa`n Va(n Toa.i's Portrait of the Enemy. These compilers interviewed refugees in the West who had played various roles in the communist-controlled regions of Vietnam. One interesting account is by Xua^n Vu~ who joined the Resistance as a teenager, wrote stories promoting revolutionary heroism, and then abandoned the communist cause. Another interesting narrative, part autobiography, part memoir, is Le^ Va(n Ha?o's "The Path of a Patriotic Intellectual," an account by an anthropology professor at Hue^' University who surfaced as a member of the Liberation Front during the Te^'t Offensive.

Personal Essays, Memoirs

Although non-communist writers in central and southern Vietnam produced autobiographical accounts after 1945, some favoring an approach that resembles reportage and others working in a genre that the Vietnamese call tu`y bu't--literary essays filled with personal impressions--no reportage and only a few tu`y bu't essays by Vo~ Phie^'n have been translated.

In both communist and non-communist Vietnam, writers have felt more comfortable with memoirs, a genre which because it stresses group achievement is more compatible both with traditional Vietnamese literature and Marxist ideology. In the 1960's, Party leaders encouraged the writing of revolutionary memoirs (ho^'i ky' ca'ch, accounts by participants in the revolutionary struggle. Not many have been translated, but some have, including Tra^`n Tu+? Bi`nh's The Red Earth, Nguye^~n Duy Trinh et al.'s In the Enemy's Net, Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh's No Other Road to Take, and Vo~ Nguye^n Gia'p's Unforgettable Days.

In both communist and non-communist Vietnam most of the memoirs that have been published are by high-ranking political and military leaders, not common soldiers. Communist writers, no doubt fearing charges of bourgeois individualism, are careful to avoid making their accounts excessively personal. If they include personal details, usually they are ones that reveal their growth in revolutionary consciousness. Since these memoirs are only sporadically personal and since some of them fit nicely into other categories (Colonial Literature, Accounts of Imprisonment), I haven't always placed their primary entry (with annotation) in this section, but all of them are listed here.

Strong Recommendation: No Other Road to Take

One memoir that I would definitely assign is Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh's No Other Road to Take. Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh grew up in Be^'n Tre Province and joined the revolutionary movement when she was in her teens, rising eventually to the rank of Deputy Commander of the National Liberation Front Armed Forces. In her memoir, she emphasizes her warm feeling toward her family, particularly her older brother Ba Cha^?n whose revolutionary activities inspired her own. She describes how pleased she was when an older cadre, a friend of her brother's, proposed to her, and her sadness when she learns he has died in prison not long after their marriage and the birth of their son.

Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh wrote in Vietnamese for a Vietnamese audience. Mai Elliot's translation allows students to overhear a discourse that was not written for them but that can teach them a lot about the motivations and way of thinking of people in the revolutionary movement (Pelzer 98). In explaining what inspired them to join the military, American writers such as Philip Caputo and Ron Kovic speak of the powerful influence of John Wayne movies. Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh speaks of gathering with her family to listen to her brother read Lu+?c Va^n Tie^n, a 19th century poem glorifying the Confucian virtues of loyalty, filial piety, kindness, and humanity. When she grew older, Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh explains, she realized the landlords who kept her family poor were like the wicked characters in Lu+?c Va^n Tie^n. Between John Wayne's The Sands of Iwo Jima and Lu+?c Va^n Tie^n lies a world of difference. It is a gap not easily bridged, but a course on the literature of the war can begin to study the myths that help us understand behavior. Aided by works such as John Hellman's American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam and Loren Baritz' Backfire, we can help students discover intertextual links between John Wayne movies, John Kennedy's speeches on counter-insurgency and the New Frontier, stories of frontier heroes such as Davy Crocket and Daniel Boone, and the Puritan John Winthrop's speeches about America being a City upon a Hill, a moral example to the rest of the world. In Section VI, I've listed some works that will assist students in understanding the myths and legends that have motivated Vietnamese.


As for reportage, during colonial times, investigative reporting of political events was a dangerous activity, so writers favored the fictional reportage (pho'ng su+' tie^?u thuye^'t) that I've already discussed in Section II. After 1945, fictional reportage exposing injustice ceased in the communist- controlled areas. The reportage that was done was a type of revolutionary journalism represented in the Vietnamese Studies issue entitled Vietnamese Women. One could assign Xua^n Vu~'s account of the uprising in Be^'n Tre, both as an example of this type of writing and also as a companion to Xua^n Vu~'s oral history mentioned earlier: this was the kind of writing that, according to Xua^n Vu~, the communist culture and propaganda cadres insisted he write--stories glorifying revolutionary achievement. In the South, beginning in the 1960's some journalistic accounts appeared, including, for example, Phan Nha^.t Nam's vivid accounts of combat, but I know of none that have been translated.

During Renovation (See Section XI), reportage documenting the ills of society was revived and, ironically, some of the new reports published in the 1980's describing life under the communists resemble accounts in the 1930's and 1940's depicting life under the French colonialists (accounts by Ngo^ Ta^'t To^' and Nguye^~n Co^ng Hoan, for example; see Section II). Readers in Vietnam were quick to notice the similarities.5 To my knowledge, the only example of recent reportage that has been translated is Phu`ng Gia Lo^.c's "The Night of That Day, What a Night!", an account which reveals that communist officials can squeeze taxes out of poor peasants just as mercilessly as mandarin officials could during the period of French domination. In an interview Phu`ng Gia Lo^.c says that after his story was published in Literature and the Arts in 1988, local communist officials interrogated his wife and five people mentioned in his story. They all told the officials that everything in the story was true--that conditions if anything were worse than his story suggested.6

The novels by Ba?o Ninh and DDu+o+ng Thu Hu+o+ng (See Section XI) are not classified as reportage, but like Phu`ng Gia Lo^.c's story they document suffering and injustices and are clearly based on the writers' actual experiences. Like their predecessors who wrote in colonial times, modern writers in Vietnam know that it is usually safer to express truth in the guise of fiction.



1. Thi Nha^n Vie^.t-Nam [Vietnamese Poets](Saigon: Hoa tie^n, 1968) 52. This work, a well-known critical anthology, was originally published in Hanoi in 1942.

2. For a comparison of traditional and modern styles of prose narration, see Cao thi. Nhu+-Quy`nh and John C. Schafer, "From Verse Narrative to Novel: The Development of Prose Fiction in Vietnam," Journal of Asian Studies 47 (1988): 756-777.

3. The four-line poem from which these lines come is included in Ho^' Chi' Minh's Prison Diary, p. 97. See Section IX.

4. Nguye^~n Minh Cha^u, "Writing about War" [Vie^'t ve^ Chie^'n Tranh], Va(n Nghe^. Qua^n DDo^.i[Army Literature and Art]: (Nov., 1978). Rpt. in Tra(m Hoa Va^~n No+' Tre^n Que^ Hu+o+ng: Cao Tra`o Va(n Nghe^. Pha?n Kha'ng Ta.i Vie^.t Nam (1986-89) [A Hundred Flowers Still Bloom in the Native Land: Dissident Literature and Art in Vietnam] (California: Le^ Tra^`n, 1990) 103.

5 After the story by Phu`ng Gia Lo^.c described in this section appeared in Literature and the Arts, several readers wrote letters to the editor in which they commented on how this story resembled fictional reportage by the older writers. Two of these letters are reprinted in the issue of Manoa that contains Phu`ng Gia Lo^.c's story.

6 A translation of this interview appears in the issue of Manoa that contains Phu`ng Gia Lo^.c's story. Phu`ng Gia Lo^.c insistence that his account is true suggests that we should consider his work an "essay in realist literature" as opposed to a "documentary fiction," to use the terms favored by Ngo^ Vi~nh Long (See the introduction to Section II).

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