Ngo Thi Thuong, 64

Ngo Thi Thương, born 1946, photographed in her bedroom in Huế, Vietnam with a portrait of her with General Võ Nguyên Giáp taken when she was honored for shooting an American F-101 Voodoo in June 1968. July 2010.

After I finished high school, I took the university entrance exam, but didn’t pass it, so I couldn’t go to university.  My father was the deputy chairman of the Party forestry farm, so told me that I should go work as a laborer there.  I ended up working on the farm, taking care of the cows and digging holes to plant trees.  It was a very tough job, but I got the title of “Good Worker,” so they sent me to study at a university in Hanoi, as an accountant.

Then the war started. At the time of the war, our country was in danger – we saw the war and it was very intense.  Both of my parents were people who loved their country, and were determined to help it to overcome difficult times.  So our hatred, our feeling toward the enemy was very intense.  We were not afraid of anything, we just tried to accomplish whatever our task was.  Whatever we can do, we do.

During the war, I worked as a militant for the North, which was very important work.  We had to bring rice, weapons, and ammunition to the soldiers in the south.  One day in June 1968, when we were transporting goods, three US airplanes discovered us and began to shoot at us.  So we took our guns and fired back.  When I shot the first time, I didn’t hit the plane.  So I lay down and placed the rifle against the tree and aimed.  When I shot the second time, it hit right at the gas tank, and the whole airplane exploded, and crashed into the next hill.

Then I saw something falling from the sky – I thought it was a bomb, but actually, it was the pilot parachuting down.  So I ran, followed the parachute. When the pilot landed, he had already untied one side of his parachute, but I came and put my gun right to the guy’s neck and said, “Stay still.”  He raised his hands, and I told my friends that they should cut up the parachute rope, so we had something to tie him with.

Then, I saw something that I thought was a signal, but I didn’t know what it was.  So I grabbed it and smashed it.  Then, about three minutes later, 9 or 10 airplanes came and surrounded the area.  That signal was sending messages to the American army!  But we hid and were not hurt.

You know, I was not scared during the attacks.  Bombs were very normal things at that time.  At night, they used to fire rockets at us, from the ocean to the land.  At night, they had bombs coming down from the airplanes.  The border between life and death was very thin.  Death was something very normal.

When the other army unit responsible of taking care of prisoners came to take the American pilot away, he asked to meet me.  We shook hands, and then they took him away.

Thirty-six years later, a man from a government office called me.  He asked, “What did you do during the war, did you achieve anything?” After I told him the story of shooting down the pilot, he told me that General Võ Nguyên Giáp had been looking for me for 36 years.  They invited me to the Army Section 4 to meet and take photos with General Giáp, and to receive a diploma and a medal for my brave fighting during the war.  When I met with General Giáp, he asked me, “Why are you so good?”  I responded, “It’s probably also luck, but I just followed the words I was taught.”

I now have a very good relationship with the local Party chairman, and I go to visit him every once in a while.  The people there receive me very warmly.

I now have three children.  The first is a girl, and the second two are boys.  My daughter is now living inside of Huế city, and all three of them are married.

I talked about the war often with my kids when they were growing up.  I told them, even though I do have this achievement, it is just a small thing to contribute to the war.  But somehow, I do hope that not only my children, but also future generations may learn from this example, that it can help them learn how to become good people.

We are living in peacetime now.  But if something happened, if there was an enemy, I would encourage my daughter to go to the war.  We would go to war right away.  No problem.

Of course no one wants war. The life of the human being is sacred. You don’t want war, you don’t want to fight, but when the enemy comes you have no choice. We had to protect our country.  Had to protect the life of our people.

Ngo Thi Thuong, born 1946, photographed in her bedroom in Huế, Vietnam with a portrait of her with General Võ Nguyên Giáp taken when she was honored for shooting an American F-101 Voodoo in June 1968.  July 2010.


Lê Thi My Lệ, 68

Lê Thi My Lệ, born in 1946, photographed in her home in Huế, Vietnam. July 2010.

I was born in 1946, about 15 kilometers from Hue in Quang Binh Province, by the Nhật Lệ River.  That is why I am named My Lệ.  It means beautiful.

Growing up, my family was very poor, so I had to work as a housekeeper and babysitter for other families from when I was 7 to when I was 10.  I could not go to school.  When my family’s condition got a little better, they were able to send me to school to study.  But you need to be a lower age to study – if you are over a certain age, you cannot study.  Which is why, even though I am 68, on paper I am 65.

I always studied very well and always worked hard.  After studying and taking the high school exam, I worked at the communications department of the locality here.

In July 1965, I heard the appeal from the government, which said that because the war was so fierce, they needed volunteers who could support, who could help. I really wanted to become a youth volunteer, but I was still too young.  But because they really needed people, they accepted me anyway.  I was nineteen.

At first they asked me to work on transportation, transporting things by bicycle –food, ammunition – and also working as a road construction worker.  Also, they took people who had a bit of education, like me, so that we could teach other youth volunteers learn how to read and write.  Whoever had studied the second grade, taught the first grade.  Whoever had studied the third grade, taught the second grade.  And so on for the elementary and secondary school programs.  A lot of people at that time, we during the day they worked, and studied at night.  That was the work of the youth brigade.

We had about two hundred people in the youth brigade, and about two thirds of them were women. I was in charge of a unit, which was ten people.  I was the only woman in the unit.

As the head of the unit, whenever the bomb explodes, you have to go see what kind of bomb it is, what shape it is, and you have to use math to calculate how many people you need to cover it up.  If you send too many, then if another bomb comes, too many people will die.  After one hour, the bomb crater has to be covered so the road can be useable by the soldiers.

Whoever joins the youth brigade, you make a vow that you are ready to fight for the country.  And it’s very strange – at that time spirits were so high, we were not afraid of death at all. But now, we have children, we have a family, we are afraid of death.

In terms of working, there was no difference between men and women’s jobs.  Everything that we need to do we do.

At that time, everyone is so carefree, and you know, sometimes people were lying in the hammock at the shelter together, male and female soldiers, and they talked and laughed, without any kind of romantic sentiment.  They just listen to each other. After work, you know, we work hard, so we try to laugh, we joke with each other and tease each other.  If we need to cover the road then we do, if we need to transport food, then we just go out and do it.

There were some differences between men and women, however.  Sometimes the mail would come, and we would rush out to look for the mail from our families and whoever had letters was so happy.  And the ones that didn’t have mail felt very sad and sometimes even cried, because all of us, we are homesick.  But this was just something us women would do.

In the political training, they taught us that if we are not in love yet, then don’t fall in love during the war.  If you are in love and engaged, okay, but don’t get married.  And if you are married already, then delay having children.  Everything needs to focus on fighting the enemy to unite the country.  They called this The Three Delays.

There were some that fell in love while at war anyway, but they were very secretive.  They felt that they were in love, and both of them knew it, but neither said anything.  They were very in love, and love was something that they really treasured and respected.  They felt it very strongly.  But they did not betray it – they can understand it through glances and gestures.  But love during the war it is against the ideology, the teaching of The Three Delays, so they kept it quiet.

In my unit, everyone was very strict, correct.  But one couple fell in love, and the army let them go, basically fired them, told them to go back to their village.  The couple cried, they didn’t want to go back.

I fell in with my husband love before I went to work at the youth brigade.  My boss told me that because the man that I loved was ten years older than me, that I should go home and have a child before it’s too late – that we were a special case.   But I said no.  I was the head of the unit, so I wanted to make a good example for the people and follow The Three Delays regulation.  But in 1968, when there was a ceasefire for sometime, I went and got married.  Then I went back to the war.

After I went back, I didn’t work as a unit head anymore, but instead they sent me to study – to work with mechanics, electricity, statistical analysis.  During this time, my husband was still serving as a professional soldier at Côn Co’ island.

I had my first child in 1971, while the war was still going.  Having a child during the war was hard, because my feelings changed after I had my daughter.  I wasn’t scared while fighting in the unit before I was a mother.  But after I had my daughter, I was.  I was afraid of death.

I had two more children – one boy in 1973, and another in 1975. When I gave birth to the youngest one, I called him “Great Victory.”  I said to my husband, “The war is finished now honey, so you’re not going to die,” and that’s why I named my son “Great Victory.”

Because my husband was a professional soldier, he remained at Côn Co’ island even after freedom in 1975.  He lived very far away until he retired in 1988.  I only got to see him when he would go to Hanoi to do military reports, and then he would stop by Quang Binh Province to visit.

Raising my children by myself was very, very hard.  I cannot even say it. I grew the vegetables and the fruit in the morning, and had to take it to the market to sell before I taught in the afternoon. Whenever I need to go somewhere, then I ask my mother to take care of the kids.  There was no salary from my husband.

You know, it was dangerous when I was fighting as a youth volunteer in the war.  You can die anytime.  But you are young and you have friends with you, so you are very happy.  But raising my kids by myself was so tough.  Very sad.  Sometimes, I would just sit by myself and cry.

My situation was also hard because my youngest boy developed a problem with his brain, because my husband was exposed to Agent Orange.  Sometimes, he acts crazy and shouts at his father and me.  Other times he is a good boy.  But I can tell that there is something happening inside him.  He has refused to take medicine.

When I returned from war, I talked about it a lot with my children, especially when their father was still away.  I would tell them stories about how I went to jungles with waterfalls and forests.  I told them about the work my unit did.  And my daughter would say, “That sounds quite fun, when I am grown up I would also like to go!”

Now my children are grown men and women.  They are old enough, so they learn about the war through television and books.  My story is only one I told them when they were small.

The thing that the younger generation has to remember is that when your country needs you, don’t fear death, just go.  My own spirit is such that, because I have been through hardship and dangerous situations so many times, I became able to bear it. I saw bomb explosions and had to shout, everyone lie down!  I had eight out of ten people in my unit die and become wounded at once.  But amazingly, during this time, none of us was afraid of death.

I still dream about the war.  Sometimes I dream exactly about the scene of the war in which the bomb is about to explode and I tell all the people, I shout to my unit to lie down.  I tell my sister to lie down.  Now my wish now is that there is no war in the world, that we can help each other lead our lives instead of fighting.  That is my message.  I want peace.  When you have a war, the people, the family members are divided between husband and wife, parent and children.  War is cruel.  Cruel.

Lê Thi My Lệ, born in 1946, served as a head of a unit in the youth brigade for the North Vietnamese Army during the American War.


Hoàng Thi Nơ, 61

Hoang Thi No, photographed in her bedroom in Hue, Vietnam with her helmet from the American war. July 2010.

I was born in 1949 in the countryside outside Hue, where I lived with my parents.  I joined the war when I was about 15 years old.  At that age, I could understand, could see that the Americans had come and were trying to control and take my country.  At that moment every woman and man joined the war, and I wanted to as well.

When I joined the war, I joined the group that gathered information. We would go around and see what the Americans were doing, and then we would send that information to the leader.  A bit later, I joined the group that rounded up other women to join the war.

I worked with many other women during the war, and men and women were treated the same.  It was the same war, the same thing.  There are a lot of common things among them, so there was no need for things to be different.

During the war, I shared a small room with ten other women.  We eleven became very famous after the fight in Hue, in the spring of 1968.  At that fight, the others and I fought to free Hue.  After this fight, my group received many certificates and took many photos with Ho Chi Minh.

At the time, all the women and I were very young, and we didn’t know really about the war and its plan.  We just had to believe in the government, that everything would be okay.   If we had any problems, even though we didn’t really know the grand plan or the next step, we were always happy to be fighting for our country.  We were ready to die.

After the war ended in 1975, I came back to Hue where I now live with my husband.  My parents live nearby. I have two daughters – both are married – and one lives near here.  I now have two grandchildren as well.

After the war I was very happy because freedom ruled over my country, and because I didn’t lose anything in the war.  While some of my friends may have died, my family was safe.  My parents, my tribe, my husband were all still alive.

I sometimes talk with my daughters about the war.  But because the ten other women and I were very famous, many people have come to our house to talk with me about the war, so my family knows very well my success in the war.  There was little need to talk with my daughters, because they knew a lot about the war already.

Also, I never wanted to talk a lot about my success in the war or about my history with my daughters.  Maybe my children are proud about me, but I didn’t ever want to emphasize that I am famous or successful.  I wanted them to grow up better, to not to simply follow my achievement in the war, but instead to become different people.

When I do talk my daughters about the war, I talk to them about how to love and trust other people.  The past time in the war, yes there were many difficulties.  Everyone was very poor, but everyone loved each other and tried to trust each other.  Now, we have freedom, maybe life is easier, but money controls many things.  I tell my daughters how people followed the laws, the rules of the government during the war.

The women in each family are the most important – they have to work very hard, because they have to finish all the housework and take care of the children, but then also have to work hard in society.  So to become a good woman is very difficult.

As a daughter to your family, you should live with all your heart and your mind to take care of your parents.  Not because they took care of you before, not because they are your parents, but because of the way people should care for each other.  If you are a mother, then you know that everybody is sacred because they love their children.

Hoàng Thi Nơ, born in 1949, served as a spy and a militant from 1964 to 1975 for the North Vietnamese Army during the American War.

commentary, photography

Women at War: Hue, Vietnam

Relaxing at the beach at the end of the workshop!

Hello from Hoi An!

The Exposure/VII Photo Workshop in Hue, Vietnam led by Gary Knight and Mort Rosenblum just finished up a few days ago, and it was a whirlwind.  Seven of us had been prepping for the trip since May, doing researching on the region and generating story proposals so that we could hit the ground running.  And with the help of Gary, Mort, and our wonderful fixer Chau, we did!  The group’s topics ranged from rice farming to youth culture to faith, and everyone emerged on the other side with a strong piece and many stories to tell!  One of mine includes fainting in the home of a woman who shot down an American F-101 Voodoo during the war – but we’ll get to that later.

The story I was looking at is called “Women at War,” in which I spoke to six women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army during the war with the United States.  Each told stories of how she came to join the fight, what serving as a woman was like, and how her time as a soldier carried over into her life as a mother after the war.  Some were reluctant to talk at first, and some began speaking before I even asked the first question.  Some others refused to talk to me at all.  Some spoke of how the war was formative to gender equality within the country, others of how it tore their family apart.  Many spoke of how they continue to think of the war, and pass stories from it down to their children and their children’s children.

I’ll be posting their accounts here, along with a few photos and some of my own reflections, over the course of the next few days.  This is still a work in progress, so I’d love to hear any suggestions or recommendations for other readings you may have.  Leave a comment here or shoot me an email – and thanks!!