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The World | COLUMN ONE

Vietnam's Women of War

They answered their country's call and fought the Americans. But when peace came, their own society cast them aside.

January 10, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

NINH BINH, Vietnam — They were the girls of war, teenage volunteers who took up arms in one of the largest female armies any nation has put on a modern battlefield. For years they fought, sustaining themselves with a dream central to Vietnamese culture:

When there was peace, they would find a good husband and bear children.

For many of them, it was not to be. When they came home at war's end in 1975, they were perceived as less desirable, as damaged by the disease, malnutrition and other hardships they had endured in the jungle.

Young men, themselves just back from the war, did not return their glances on the street. If love bloomed, parents would often cut it short, forbidding their sons to marry women who appeared too weak to give birth or raise a child.

"Oh, how the jungle aged me," said Vu Hoai Thu, one of 500 women from the town of Ninh Binh, 60 miles south of Hanoi, who fought in what the Vietnamese call the American War.

"Finally, I did find a nice boy. He asked me to marry, but his parents wouldn't allow it. He did not want to leave me, but I convinced him he must. I was weak from malaria and malnutrition. I did not think I would ever be strong enough to give him children."

Women like Thu are in their 50s now, and when they meet to commemorate their sacrifices, they speak of losing the springtime of their youth on the Truong Son Road, as the Vietnamese call the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

They talk of coming home to lives that were tougher than the ones they had left. Bitterness lingers that for many years they were forgotten soldiers in a war that made heroes of the men who fought, but not the women.

"I thought my life after the war would be simple and happy," said Nguyen Thi Binh, who came home weighing 85 pounds. "But I let my boyfriend go. I told him that with my diseases, with my wounded leg, I would be a burden on him."

Binh lived on her own for 17 years, a form of exile in a family-oriented society in which barren women and childless couples are objects of pity. Then, at the urging of her former comrades in a women's brigade, the 559, Binh "took a husband for the night" and bore a daughter.

She and the child, Lan, now 10, live together on a small rice paddy that Binh farms.

"The good people offer me understanding and sympathy," Binh said. "And I appreciate that. But sometimes bad people will bring their children to my house and say, 'Don't be like that woman.' "

But if the "patriotic call went out" to fight in a future war, Binh said, she would let her daughter march off to battle, just as she did. "We have a saying in Vietnam," she said, "that if the enemy comes, even the women must fight."

Vietnam has a long history of women warriors. Two of the country's most revered heroes are the Trung sisters, Trac and Nhi, who led an insurrection against China in A.D. 40 and liberated Vietnam. One of their commanders, Phung Thi Chinh, is said to have given birth during the battle and to have continued fighting with her infant strapped to her back.

Another woman, Trieu Au, rode an elephant into battle against the Chinese in A.D. 248, leading a force of 3,000. Defeated in battle, she committed suicide at the age of 23.

Military historians estimate that in the 1950s, nearly a million female guerrillas took part in the war against colonial French forces. In the conflict with the U.S., 40% of the Viet Cong's regional commanders were women. One of them, Nguyen Thi Dinh, was a general.

Hundreds of thousands of women, most of them young and single, served in combat zones in that war. They operated antiaircraft guns, built roads under frequent bombardment and went on patrols in mixed-gender units.

"We lived and slept together but did not touch," said a woman in the 559 Brigade, who attributed the restraint to cultural conservatism. "I don't know of a single pregnancy in our unit. We thirsted for love, but only in our hearts."

Other women collected intelligence, spied, and ferried troops and supplies along riverways in small boats.

Mai Thi Diem volunteered to fight after the U.S. bombed the communal farm where she lived, killing 100 people, including many of her relatives.

"I weighed 35 kilos [77 pounds] when I went to enlist, and the army said I was too small," said Diem, who still walks with a limp, the result of a land mine injury. "I told them I would throw myself off the bridge and commit suicide if they didn't take me. Finally, they said OK."

Le Minh Khue, a Hanoi novelist, has written of the powerful bonds forged by the war effort. "I loved everyone with a passionate love," wrote Khue, who lied about her age and joined the army at 15. It was a love, she said, that "only someone who had stood on that hill in those moments could understand fully. That was the love of the people in smoke and fire, the people of war."

Phan Thanh Hao, a journalist and co-author of a book on Vietnam's female warriors, served in the Truong Son Mountains along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

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