Tran Thi Dong, 90, first answered her country’s call-to-arms in 1943 as a Viet Minh recruit to fight the Vichy French and Japanese. It was her first taste of wartime service, the first of three victorious fights against foreign powers.
“They called for a movement, a patriotic movement, and the young like me were very eager to join the forces,” recalled Dong at a house in Hanoi.
A veteran of the second world war, the anti-colonial war against France and the war against America, Dong, 90, lost her son and husband as they fought for what they considered a war of liberation from imperialism.
But while Dong carries a medal awarded for her service, she draws no pension. As all her immediate relatives are dead in a country where elder care is the responsibility of the family, she is forced to live in a centre for the indigent elderly.
She said her medical condition, which requires six light meals per day due to a gastrectomy, goes ignored by the staff, who provide her only with the same two daily meals the other residents eat.
“They think it’d be better for me to die so they don’t have to spend time to take care of me,” she said.
While Vietnam frequently lauds war veterans from its bloody mid-20th century conflicts, not all of them feel appreciated as they enter old age.
“They honour and respect the veterans by mouthpiece words rather than by real activities,” said Phan Trong Khang, 68, who served in an elite unit of the People’s Army of Vietnam fighting against the Americans and their puppet South Vietnamese regime.
Wounded four times in battle, he was so badly injured at one point that his family received a false death notice. In addition to a disability pension, he has supported himself in the informal economy by, among other things, working as a driver and selling petrol.
“In theory, they say the veterans are well treated but in fact all of us must try hard to work on the pavement for our living as the others,” he said.
Thomas Bass, author of The Spy Who Loved Us and Censorship in Vietnam, who has spent almost three decades researching and documenting the lives of veterans, alluded to The Sorrow of War, a novel by North Vietnamese war veteran Bao Ninh describing life during and after the Vietnam War.
“I imagine Vietnam treats its vets like the US,” said Bass, who teaches English at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
“They chew them up and spit them out, while waving over their heads lots of patriotic flags,” he added.
After her retirement from the civil service – Dong was never technically in the military – she was told she did not qualify for a pension because she had served only 18 years out of the necessary 20. The missing years, she said, were due to complications related to malaria contracted during the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Dong first joined the Viet Minh at age 16 while the second world war was in full swing. Although she didn’t serve on the battlefield, she was part of a clandestine support network for guerillas held in French and Japanese prisons. She would prepare balls of rice, which were smuggled into the jails along with news about the struggle.
Upon Japan’s defeat, Ho Chi Minh declared independence on September 2, 1945. In a speech in Hanoi, he invoked Thomas Jefferson, declaring that all men were “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
France, however, had other ideas. Almost immediately after the war’s end, Charles de Gaulle ordered troops to Vietnam to assert control over its renegade colony. Dong stayed on with the Viet Minh, which vowed to crush the colonialists.
She joined Vietnam’s fledgling Communist Party, keeping her Catholic faith secret due to the party’s staunch atheism. She would make the sign of the cross secretly, she said, by turning her face away from her comrades during meals.
After spending much of the war carrying supplies through the Laotian jungles, she was assigned to Dien Bien Phu in 1954 for the war’s climatic final battle.
The French troops positioned themselves in a valley with the goal of cutting off Viet Minh supply lines and forcing the guerillas into open confrontation.
But the Vietnamese artillery was so well entrenched in the surrounding mountains that the French were unable to shoot back. The French artillery commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Piroth, grew so frustrated that he committed suicide during the battle by blowing himself up with a hand grenade.
Among the thousands of Viet Minh surrounding the valley was Dong. Her task was to carry the essential artillery shells to the gunners across the mountains, at times carrying as much as 35kg of explosives across difficult terrain. Dong said she had been full of enthusiasm that trumped her fear. “At that time I was very young, and was eager to do any kind of work and didn’t care much about the danger,” she said.
After the battle, which ended with the enemy being overrun and more than 10,000 French troops captured, she walked hundreds of kilometres back home full of joy.
“When I came back from the Dien Bien Phu campaign, I went back home on foot all the way, and during the long walk I sang the whole time I was so excited,” she recalled fondly.
But while Vietnam was finally rid of the French, a new enemy emerged upon the country’s partition.
In accordance with the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended French colonialism in Indochina, Vietnam was to be temporarily split in half with the north controlled by the victorious communist forces and the south under American sponsorship.
While elections were expected to take place in 1956, they were scuttled by the south as Ho Chi Minh was the favourite to win.
The Viet Minh were reorganised in the north as the People’s Army of Vietnam and in the south as the National Liberation Front, which the US dubbed the Viet Cong. In the absence of elections, they planned to reunify Vietnam by force.
Dong once again found herself serving the cause of ridding Vietnam of what she considered foreign invaders. She made three trips down the perilous Ho Chi Minh Trail hauling food and ammo to the front lines of Quang Tri province, which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war.
The trips were plagued by American carpet bombing, and while she never picked up a gun to fight, she got close enough to spot the American soldiers.
Having seen her share of war already, she was jaded to the danger.
“I was absolutely not scared at that time, because you get used to the bombs and the battles,” she said. But when asked about her son, Dong broke into tears. After joining the army at age 16, he was killed in action by either an American or South Vietnamese air strike.
“I suffered much from the death of my only son,” she said, crying. Her husband, too, was a casualty of the war. Although he returned home alive at the war’s end, he never got over complications related to malaria and died soon after his return. In another tragic twist of fate, her daughter died in a vehicle accident.
After failing to draw a pension when she retired in 1982, Dong improvised.
She began raising chickens, and after saving money she was able to switch to cows. But she was not able to keep up her business as she aged, and in 1997 she was committed to an elder centre. She was bitterly annoyed, reasoning that she could take care of herself if only she had her pension.
For years she has made a three-hour train ride on a monthly basis when she is well enough to travel to plead her case at the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs. She often brings banners praising the revolution, with slogans reading “Long Live President Ho Chi Minh”, reasoning that the central government may be more willing to help than her local township.
Although proud of her service and unflinchingly supportive of the cause her family died for, she feels let down by the current government and sees it as ironic that while she received a medal for her service in 1997, she is not sufficiently provided for despite her desperate need.
“I want to live as a human being,” she said, “to have enough food and a quiet life.” ■