Journalist Hoang Phuong
Ho Tuan sat in a coffee shop next to the Bang River in the northern province of Cao Bang, a few days before the Lunar New Year.
He was to meet with a group of Chinese tourists visiting Vietnam through a local tour agency.
But these were not ordinary Chinese tourists. They were also veterans who fought in Vietnam during the Sino-Vietnamese border war. It was they and their fellows who spilled over the border and sought to wipe clean the town of Cao Bang itself back in 1979.
Tuan remembers those days very well.
Forty years ago, he was part of a military regiment tasked with holding off another Chinese division from invading the province for 12 days straight.
Among the tourists he met that day were old faces. Tuan knew, since he was the one who aimed his cannons at them many years ago.
“You invaded our country; you forced us to retaliate,” was Tuan’s ice breaker. The Chinese group responded with silence.
But then the conversation picked up. They started to talk about their lives, their jobs and their families.
The war and battles were not mentioned much after Tuan’s opening salvo.
Before the Chinese group returned home, they dropped by a local cemetery to pay respect to over 400 Vietnamese martyrs who lost their lives in the war. They simply asked for some group photos, gave Tuan a cigarette packet, and then went back.
The moment Tuan shook their hands good-bye, he no longer saw them as enemies.
“They are no longer soldiers. They are just normal people now, like you and me,” he said.
Another Cao Bang resident, Quyen, remembered how the children in her neighborhood jumped and cheered in joy when Chinese trucks carried supplies from the north to the south to support Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War. Through the eyes of a child back then, Quyen saw them as good Samaritans who provided rice, medicine and ammunition to help her country take one step closer to independence and freedom.
But, just a few years later, Quyen also saw her village burned to the ground by the same people she thought of as saviors. People found out that a Chinese man, who was once adopted by the villagers, was the one who led Chinese troops into the village in the first place. The very next day, Quyen decided to join the army.
After the war ended, the Chinese snitch returned to China. But his two daughters stayed in the Vietnamese village, got married and had kids. The villagers bore no ill will towards the two women.
Quyen refused to disclose the identities of the women when asked, because she wanted them to have “a peaceful life.” For her, they were just another two fellow villagers. They bear no responsibility to the sins their father committed, she said.
Niem, who lives in Na Sac Village, still has fond memories of the people on the other side. Forty years ago, when the road connecting Na Sac with the border was still an old, dusty trail, Niem often went to the other side to buy groceries and attend weddings of friends and acquaintances. The Chinese were like brothers and sisters to him, he recalled.
But everything changed when the war happened. Upon seeing numerous signs in the markets near the border calling for Vietnamese to be beaten, Niem felt betrayed.
Niem, too, followed his fellow villagers and placed traps and planted bamboo around the area to deter the eventual invasion. The friendly neighborhood, once welcoming to the people from the other side, had now become a defensive fortress.
However, it wasn’t until Niem saw his father die from a piece of shrapnel in his chest when Chinese troops attacked the village on February 17, 1979 that he really saw people from the other side as sworn enemies. He saw firsthand how his village, home to about 40 families, lush with corn fields, was reduced to dust and rubble, and experienced the pain the destruction inflicted.
Today, Niem lives in an earthen house that oversees a border checkpoint and its fences. The roads connecting the two sides have now become some of the most traffic-heavy ones in the area, with trucks routinely moving in and out to deliver supplies from and to both countries. Niem, now an old man, sits on his front porch every day, watching the continuous trail of vehicles as drops of sunlight fill up his home and his mind. Maybe now, he is finally at peace.
Women carry rice up to the hills in Cao Bang Province to support Vietnamese soldiers during the border war in 1979. Photo by Tran Manh Thuong
Tuan, Quyen and Niem’s stories are not their own. Along the northern borders, millions suffered loss, pain, sorrow and anger caused by the war of 1979.
But they never lost their compassion, forgiveness, empathy and humanity.
They may not know how “China is an important economic partner for Vietnam,” but they know that everyone is only trying to improve their livelihood and find happiness.
They may not know about the politics behind the war itself, but they knew enough to differentiate between the warmongers and the people who had to pick up their guns due to circumstances.
They know not to look at what makes us different from each other, but at what makes us all the same.
These people are living testaments to the horrors of war and the lessons they taught.
It’s miraculous how in Cao Bang, where the forests were once burned to ashes and the land was stained with the blood of the fallen, people still remember the painful past, but do not let it control their future.
Ultimately, their humanity in the face of so much suffering does not just heal their wounds, it redeems all of us.
*Hoang Phuong is a journalist based in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are her own.
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