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COLUMN ONE

Day to Day Among the Viet Cong

A young doctor kept an intensely personal journal of her life on the front lines before she was killed in 1970. It's a bestseller in Vietnam.

August 04, 2006|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

HANOI — "No, I am not a child. I am grown up and already strong in the face of hardships, but at this minute why do I want so much a mother's hand to care for me? ... Please come to me and hold my hand when I am so lonely, love me and give me strength to travel all the hard sections of the road ahead."

-- Final diary entry of

Dr. Dang Thuy Tram

Duc Pho, Vietnam, June 1970

*

HANOI -- As a young doctor in a country at war, Dang Thuy Tram chose a life of sacrifice. She spent three years at the front lines in South Vietnam treating wounded Viet Cong guerrillas, battling sorrow and self-doubt, until she was killed by American forces. She was 27.

Now, more than 35 years later, she has come to life again with the publication of her diary. Written in the field hospitals and foxholes of the Vietnam War, its honest portrayal of a young woman seeking love while eluding the American "pirates" has made it a runaway bestseller in Vietnam.

A kind of Vietnamese version of "The Diary of Anne Frank," Tram's heartbreaking journal has the same kind of personal insights and observations on the hardships of daily life, overlaid with a sense of impending doom. At times, she comes across as a romantic schoolgirl seeking love from the boys around her, at others like a battle-hardened veteran who wants vengeance against the foreign invaders.

"Sadness soaks into my heart just like the long days of rain soak into the earth," she writes in April 1968 after treating several seriously wounded Viet Cong fighters, the communist insurgents in the South. "Oh! Why was I born a girl so rich with dreams, love, and asking so much from life?"

The diary vanished from Vietnam soon after Tram's death in 1970 and didn't resurface until last year, when former U.S. Army intelligence officer Frederic Whitehurst gave it to the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

In 1969 and 1970, his job was to burn captured documents that had no intelligence value. He kept two volumes of the diary at the urging of his translator, who said the handmade notebooks already had "fire" in them. The center tracked down the doctor's mother last year and gave her a copy.

An emotional account of sacrifice, love and bloodshed, the diary humanizes an enemy of America once demonized as ruthless and sneaky. The young doctor, sometimes addressing herself by name, confides her hopes, ambitions and fears. At times, she is overwhelmed by the death of so many people she knows and the destruction wrought by the Americans' awesome firepower.

"Why do they enjoy shooting and killing a good people like us?" she asks. "How can they have the heart to kill all those youngsters who love life, who are struggling and living for so many hopes?"

The 322-page diary, published last year, has become Vietnam's bestselling postwar book, with 400,000 copies sold, said its publisher, Vuong Tri Nhan. Typically, a book is considered a success here if it sells 2,000 copies.

An English-language version is scheduled for release in the United States next year.

In a society increasingly consumed with economic growth and material goods, the book has revived a sense of idealism. Written in a simple but powerful style, it reminds war veterans of their sacrifices and educates a new generation -- born after the war's end -- about the hardships their elders faced.

"This is the first book to talk about the lives of people during the war," said Nhan, 63, who went to high school with Tram in the North and later served as a North Vietnamese army journalist. "Old people want to relive memories. Young people want to know how their parents lived during the war."

The diary also has struck a nerve because so many Vietnamese don't know what happened to their loved ones during what they call the American War. Of the estimated 3 million Vietnamese who died during the conflict, 1 million remain missing.

"I will perish for the country, tomorrow's victory song will not include me," Tram writes after surviving an artillery attack that killed five others. "I am one of those people who give their blood and bones in order to take back the country. But what is so special about that? Millions and millions of people like me have fallen already yet have never enjoyed one happy day, so I am never sorry."

Since the publication of the diary, the family has received thousands of emotional phone calls and letters from readers moved by Tram's account. Visitors to her grave in Hanoi have filled three large notebooks for her family with outpourings of sympathy and compassion. A fourth is nearly full.

"Many of them are young people," said Tram's sister Dang Kim Tram. "They say that before reading the book, they didn't believe their parents' stories about the war. Now they understand how difficult it was."

She says she typed the diary for publication and wept with every page. "I typed it while I cried," she said.

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