In July, I went to my father’s village for the death day commemoration of my great-grandfather. His village lies in Quảng Trị Province, home to the infamous border at the 17th parallel that divided North and South Vietnam during the war. The village itself lies less than 40 km (25 miles) from the dividing line and was essentially entirely destroyed during the war. Being there is always a bittersweet experience for me, as beyond the childhood memories of family reunions and picking wildflowers by the rice paddies, I also remember the stories my father told me and the people that I have met who are living testaments to Vietnam’s turbulent history in the 20th century.
As with most ethnic Vietnamese on the central coastal plains, my father’s family can trace its roots back to the first generation that settled the village after leaving the northern plains. At family reunions, we are usually counted by generation, a practice that also helps with relationship titles, as titles such as “aunt” or “uncle” trace themselves back to the nearest common ancestor. I am the twentieth generation since the settlement of the village, which would date the foundation of the village to about the early 1600s.
My grandparents are illiterate, while my father remembers a childhood of hardship, where he had to walk for hours to collect firewood as a ten-year-old. Even as a child, I still remember when the fields were ploughed by water buffaloes, and the road was still a dirt road that snaked through the fields. My grandparents’ house did not have an indoor toilet – I remember being terrified of the outhouse at night, and the only source of water was from a well in the front yard. Today, the sealed road through the village is lined with streetlights, my grandmother has air-conditioning, and WiFi is available at my cousin’s just a few houses down. While visiting my grandparents has become immeasurably easier, sometimes I still miss the moonlit nights on the rice paddies, when the moon is so bright that it can cast shadows. Living in the cities, we forget the power of the moon, but out in the depths of the countryside, moonlit nights filled with the sound of chirping crickets took on a magical quality.
Every time I’m there, I hear new stories that reveal aspects of the village’s history. Just this past trip, my dad told me a story of how he used to find old jars and urns filled with beads from an abandoned Cham cemetery across the river. It’s a poignant reminder that prior to 1307, this was the northernmost province of the Kingdom of Champa, given to the Vietnamese state (along with what is now Hue) as a bride price for the Princess Huyen Tran.
The village itself lies on the plains by a river, and across the river are the white sand dunes that extend for tens of kilometres along the plains here. The sand is so white it resembles snow. My dad’s village is lucky in that the dunes are across the river – villages in the middle of the dunes used to be inaccessible in the summer, as the villagers, who were too poor to afford shoes, could not cross the hot sand on foot. In emergencies, a villager needing to leave would carry a stack of banana leaves to tie on his feet as each leaf became worn out. When my dad was younger, the dunes were all bare and would shift with the winds – now, forestation campaigns means that the sand is held in place by trees.
Today, green fields surround the village, extending all the way to the forested peaks of the Truong Son Mountains. However, my dad told me that, during the war, the peaks and much of the fields would all be barren and red, with all foliage destroyed by defoliants or burned to cinders by napalm.
Meeting people in the village also means meeting living pieces of history. I remember greeting an old lady at the entrance of the village. After we exchanged pleasantries and she went on her way, my dad explained to me that her mother was killed when she was fleeing the village, shot in the back by French soldiers while carrying her child in her arms. Her relatives later found her child, the old lady, still clinging to her dead mother’s breast. Another man I met at my dad’s cousin’s place was the sole survivor among his three brothers in 1968. His two brothers, aged 4 and 6 at the time, were shot by American helicopters while they fled across the fields, leaving him, only 8 at the time, as the sole survivor.
It is hard to imagine the neat little village with flower-lined paths nestled among the green fields was the scene of such terrible violence. However, remembering history reminds us of the value of the peace and prosperity we have today