At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Ming City, Vietnam, I paid the princely sum of fifteen US dollars for the diary of a dead woman I had never heard of. As I began to read, the realization dawned on me that hers was a true rendering of history – and every word was dynamite. This was no ordinary woman, no white-collared doctor, no run-of- the-mill revolutionary. She had the heart of a humanist, the soul of a poet, and the grit of a guerrilla fighter. “For the first time I dig a grave to bury a comrade. The shovel hits a rock, and sparks fly like the flame of hatred in my heart.”
On 22nd June 1970, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram, barely aged 28, was shot dead by American soldiers as she walked along a remote trail in Duc Pho with three others. Her diary made its way to the United States and remained for decades in the possession of Fred Whitehurst who worked for the FBI, turned whistleblower, and finally tracked down Thuy’s aged mother in Hanoi to hand over the precious memoir. Published in 2005, the diary was an instantaneous hit. The English translation emerged in 2007. Thuy’s last words express her deep anguish and sense of hopelessness in the face of a powerful destiny: “I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”
Born in a cultured, ‘bourgeois’ family, Thuy learnt to play the guitar and the violin. She qualified as a doctor and was accepted for higher studies in surgical ophthalmology. Yet she chose to move south and join the resistance in December 1966. Her beloved country was at war and America was no mean foe. Part of her motivation was her desire to re-unite with the love of her life, a man she simply calls ‘M’. Thuy had loved him from an early age but he had joined the North Vietnamese army four years earlier. The truth about their break-up remains shrouded in mystery. Thuy’s diary is actually the second volume, the first having been lost in the war zone during a miraculous escape on 31st December 1969. Did she write about her heartbreak in the first volume? We may never know.
The pocket sized diary was often scribbled in dark, humid, underground shelters or narrow caves in the mountainside. US President Richard Nixon is a “mad dog.” American soldiers are “devils” or “bandits”. Thuy speaks of revenge but never kills a fly. She only saves lives. Thuy speaks of young men dying in her arms, of performing amputations without anaesthesia, of a great many medical challenges. In mid 1969, she wrote, “I will not be there when they sing the victory song.”
Of her broken relationship she says little, but her words are powerful. “The trust stemming from ten years of waiting and longing does not erode easily, but when it cracks it’s hard to repair.” And, “I know the roots of my love still lie deep within my heart, dormant but not dead. It can sprout, it can grow if spring returns. A part of me is still that young girl you know, the one who loves to feel cool raindrops on her face.”
Her writing is embellished with simile and metaphor, and the play of emotions mingles with practical descriptions of life’s harshest realities. There is poetry in every sentence. One marvels at the ebullient romanticism of the young woman in an environment shrouded by the horrors of war. Bravery and optimism, pathos and idealism – a plethora of intense feelings gives the diary a powerful voice that reaches out to even the most disinterested reader. Some excerpts:
- My soul is as full, as tumultuous, as a river after days of torrential rain.
- My youth has been soaked with the sweat, tears, blood, and bones of the living and the dead.
- The hand-basket is heavy, but my worries are much heavier.
- Hatred is bruising my liver, blackening my gut.
- This war has robbed me of all my dreams of love.
- Oh! Cruel American bandits, your crimes are piling up like a mountain. As long as I live I vow to fight until my last drop of blood in this thousand-year vendetta.
The diary begins on 8th April 1968, when Thuy had already spent two years among the fighters. The words she used to pay tribute to a fallen comrade are entirely appropriate and applicable in her own case: “Your heart has stopped so that the heart of the nation can beat forever.”
Overall Assessment: Must read.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
AUTHOR: Dang Thuy Tram (translated from the Vietnamese by Andrew X Pham)
Date of Publication: 2007
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.