At dusk, on January 17th 1960, women from the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam began preparations for the most daring military ruse. Their husbands still absent in the North due to military obligations, the women acted to fulfil the armed struggle the Communist Party had recently endorsed. Having fashioned ‘rifles’ out of spare wood and acquired firecrackers before morning, they encircled the local South Vietnamese military base in the Ben Tre Mo Cay district and set off the firecrackers. Smoke filling the air, loud bangs, and chaotic movement woke the armed soldiers of the base. These illusions of a show of military force played on earlier rumours of an attack circulated by the women. The soldiers abandoned their base and ran away, leaving behind weapons for the women to seize. With such ingenious tactics, the women of the Mekong Delta took the base without any bloodshed.
Even the most fevered McCarthyite of the time would have had to admit the moxie of such an act, but such nerve is not peculiar to modern Vietnamese women. In 40 AD, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led an insurrection that vanquished the invading Chinese. They followed their victory with setting up an independent state in which they were Queens. This was followed by Trieu Au who led another revolt against China in 248 AD; he led an army of men into battle following the precedent set two hundred years earlier. These stories of Vietnamese history attest to a nation that has seen a unique place for women within Vietnam’s society, and within its national memory. This however, came under question during the independence wars against France and later, the United States.
Under the socialism of North Vietnam, the order of the day was self-abnegation to the party and the country. Self-sacrifice was deemed as the cost for independence; independence for the country meant no independence for the individual. This however, like many other aspects of Vietnam’s history, was rejected by some of Vietnam’s most notable women living under socialism.
Nugyen Thi Binh was born in central Vietnam and lived much of her early life in South Vietnam. She began her revolutionary activity by organizing student protests against the French occupation of Vietnam. These activities gave her a grounding in what she called ‘people-to-people’ diplomacy, that would guide her later diplomatic work. Thi Binh represented the National Liberation Front and the provisional government of South Vietnam at the Paris Peace Talks. She travelled across the world building support from anti-war movements, from Scandinavia to Southern Africa. At a table dominated by men, she showed the world that Vietnam was led by both men and women.
Her memoir, Family Friends and Country, is filled with boring official language that Elfriede Jelinek once called ‘officialese’. Far from it being a personal account of a remarkable individual, much of the book, like her life, is dedicated to the communist party, and the independence movement. Purely prosaic, her statements of allegiance, dedication, and solidarity have the diplomatic timbre of rehearsal and performance. One could easily assume that it was written by a committee, party, or some other humourless round table of bureaucrats. In sacrificing much of her book to the politics of the Vietnam independence movement, there is little room for individuality; little, but some. When speaking of her own realizations, about the failures of certain socialist policies, or the role of China, she breaks out into an honest, more individual voice. Constrained by her remarkable political past, and the intentions of a memoir, Nguyen Thi Binh largely failed to convey herself where her Vietnamese sisters (dare I say, comrades) succeeded.
The diary of Dang Thuy Tram has been described as the parallel of Anne Frank’s diary, with its humanistic and tragic elements. From 1966 to her death in 1970, Thuy Tram worked as a wartime doctor in central Vietnam, often working under covert and extreme conditions. Her diary records her thoughts and her days as she struggles to reconcile the difficulties of being a intelligent ‘bourgeoisie’ individual within a time and place that required her total self-abnegation. In the theme of womanhood in Vietnam, the greatest detail and sincere writing is reserved, beyond herself, for the mothers and daughters of Vietnam. Although her immediate work placed her among the physical horrors and injuries of the war with male soldiers, her focus was on the mothers who couldn’t let their sons return to battle, and the daughters not ready to mend phosphorous burns in the middle of a jungle.
Unlike a memoir, the diary holds no obligation except to the writer, and Dang Thuy Tram’s writing reveals that. Some pithy and humorous statements find comfort in the personal pages such as her epigram: ‘One cannot measure love with objects, but they are signs’. Though within party circles she was punished and held back for her individuality, her diary holds her character better. As she writes: I always keep a little bit of a bourgeois girl’s pride’, she continues, ‘I cannot do otherwise’. While the tragedy of her ultimate death is less by comparison to Anne Frank, who was purely a victim, it is nonetheless tragic.
These women have been buried with communist notions of sacrifice, duty, and sentimentality. Their voices have been drowned by the clamouring politics of the time they lived in, and they struggle still to be heard as themselves. Susan Sontag noticed this suffocating feeling when she visited Hanoi in 1968. She wrote in her own diary: ‘What makes it especially hard to see people as individuals is that everybody here seems to talk in the same style and to have the same things to say’. Continuing to note how this saturation even affected her, forcing her to be an actor with a part to play, she tapped into the fundamental contradiction between socialism and individuality. The women of Vietnam are one of the best examples of how the individual can survive, with difficulty, in a socialist environment. They were women of character and stand in memory as that above all else.