Reliving love and war through letters
Few accounts of life in northern Vietnam as it was during the wartime era are available in English, and those that have been published are usually political in nature. The book we officially released early in June at an intimate launch party, held in the original L’Usine on Dong Khoi (where the book is available on sale), is an exception to this rule.
Letters in Love and War was written by Vu Tu Nam and Thanh Huong, who were war journalists at the time they met; they are now regarded as distinguished literary figures in Vietnam. The book, published for the first time in English, is certainly not apolitical—and yet it has nothing of propaganda nor any agenda; its contents are merely letters exchanged between husband and wife, not originally written for anyone else to see. They are thus inherently honest representations of everyday life as it was in that time and place, windows into the age that are entirely trustworthy.
The world of Letters in Love and War spans 18 years of Vietnam’s wars of resistance. It is a world in which death is constant and unsurprising, of total immersion in the wartime environment. War affects everything; as a young mother, Thanh Huong must visit the markets at night to avoid the bombs; Vu Tu Nam, convalescing in a “jungle” hospital far away from military targets, is nonetheless “bothered” by bomber planes and alarms on a nightly basis.
Yet this is not a book about the war or death; it is a simple record of an unfolding love between two writers whose letters are a means of expressing their devotion to each other during times of separation; first as lovers, then as newlyweds, and then as the parents of two young children.
At the same time, this book is not a romance in the conventional sense— the beauty in these letters lies not so much in their extremes of passion as it does in their universal familiarity. Nam and Huong’s love is not at all difficult to relate to; their exchanges focus on common concerns that young couples might face in any age—the welfare of their children, news of close friends, worry for each other’s health and wellbeing. In as such, they present their world unintentionally and in surprising detail, rendering life in war comprehensible even for those who have always lived in times of peace.
Vu Tu Nam and Thanh Huong lived through important and interesting times; they knew and met with Ho Chi Minh, they were involved in supporting key victories, and they continued to write for the people of Vietnam through the years that followed the wars. Still together and in love almost 70 years after exchanging their first letters, they still have much to teach new generations about the nature of war, struggle, and lifelong love.
Excerpts from Letters in Love and War :
Phat Diem, 7.10 pm, January 12th 1955
Huong, my very beloved ‘lady officer’
Do you feel what I feel? Listening to the chanting of the children and the elders feels a bit sad and touching. The house I’m in, there are only two elders left, one of them is 83, maybe you already know her, they are chanting before they sleep. I’m sitting here alone, the night is quiet, the soldiers are all on their way to some activity somewhere, the clock is frozen. It is supposed that at this time, I have the right to have you by my side, just as our people around here, who have their whole family united and working together. Our ‘sacrifice,’ as you say, has no meaning to compare with the extreme suffering of our people caused by the enemy. For the whole afternoon, I spoke with the old woman, my hands are still full of words. She cried many times, missing her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She mentioned a ‘lady officer’ who laughed when she said that a soldier told her that it was only 16 months until they withdraw, H., why did you laugh and didn’t clarify it for her?
Today, both morning and evening, I recorded some good material. The afternoon felt joyful, delightful; walking by the river bank, I wished I could see you just for a little while, to talk freely. Do I not affect your business while I’m so close to you like this? Your mind is forbidden to be distracted! Each of us has our own business, right? Don’t you feel ‘sorry’ for me, too? Do you agree that we will just ‘keep it secret’ so that no one knows we are a ‘couple’?
Is it beneficial or harmful?
So since the day I saw you (November 13th), Brother Can had to evacuate, it has already been two months so far! I just hope you are well, very well. I took all the fish oil you bought, and am taking Calcoléol. Back at the commune, I had pickles, rice and porridge; I ate well and ate much. Maybe it’s because I don’t have to stay up late at nights, and am able to sleep in coziness. I have been recording quite a lot, it’s good progress. Also I want to write poetry but no ideas have occurred yet.
I’m supposed to give you some books, but there was a wedding in the commune, so I gave them to the young couple. They love them, is that OK, H.? It means I’m just writing to you! Do you think I was ‘indifferent’? I repeat: we cannot see each other due to business, it’s normal, why do we have to wonder, right? It’s called self-mastery!
These two days, I feel like we haven’t married, and don’t really know each other either. It’s so funny, who on earth is writing to each other like a ‘boy and girl’ while staying close to each other! Shake your hand 100 times, kiss you 1,000 times, 10,000 times.
This is the first letter of the new year (1955) and the last letter of the lunar year. Forever remember last Tet when I felt both happy and sad, but maybe felt sad more because of my health. This year, I’m healthy, still happy even if away from you—of course, it’s just relatively happy.
Afternoon, April 4, 1955
My dear Nam,
This afternoon, I want to write to you so much. It should be short, but it must be written. Last night, our meeting came to a close quite early. It was 9 pm or so. I kept regretting not having made you stay here. The room was so bright, and there was a rose in a white cup upon which was printed the word ‘peacekeeping’. We have too few chances to be together, don’t we? Yesterday when I was beside you, I felt sad that we can’t completely enjoy our just-married days together. And now, we spend even more time chasing our work and have no reason to be together for three or five days at a time. I think that there are so many stories that we would have to tell each other in the afternoons, and that we would read books together in the evenings. Brother Thanh once said: “That’s what married life is supposed to be like.” I smiled alone, having no idea when we can live that life. Yesterday when we said goodbye, I felt so sad.
Sometimes when I’m in bed, I lie still to listen to ‘her’ movements inside of me. After a working day, such moments give me a strange, peaceful feeling. Maybe you can never feel that, only mothers can feel their child’s presence right from the moment they start to move in their wombs. Actually, I didn’t think about having the baby before now. But over the past few months, I’ve been realizing that I’m definitely going to have a baby very soon, and this gives me those touching and joyous feelings that only a mother can experience. There are difficulties, but I still think that when someone loves something and appreciates its purpose, she can endure, sacrifice normality and simple happiness, and overcome every trouble. I have no parenting experience, but I gained other experiences during those days of mobilizing the masses, of campaigning against migration. During those days in Phat Diem, after I found out that I was pregnant, I didn’t feel like eating anything and I was extremely tired. I could still run all day long, on average staying up until 1-2 am. There were nights of extreme cold, without comfortable blankets. We had to get up every two or three hours for meetings in Ba Lang. I didn’t consider it tough. Just like the days when we were on a ‘three togethers’ movement in Thai Nguyen, I once carried 25-26 kg on a 10-kilometer journey under the hot sunshine. That was a job that I really never thought I could ever do. At those moments, I thought that what I was doing was something natural. So I think that later on when I have our baby, when I go through those common difficulties and worries of a mother, I can do it easily, and nothing will be ‘terrible’. All the other sisters here who have children said as much.
I promise you that I’ll perform a mother’s duties faithfully, but in the meantime I will keep working, moving forward as hard as I can. I just hope I’m fine, and that our baby will be fine too. And so you also, you must stay healthy. Recently, I noticed that you look healthier, but too thin. I don’t know what else to tell you, but please take care of yourself.
We see each other pretty often, but I just keep writing letters to ‘hand’ them to you. How unrealistic I am. One embarrassing thing is that at times I still have those feelings of the days when we’d just started our love, I still have such emotions. The urge of writing to you sometimes is also a form of fresh and young love at the very beginning.
Together we will do our best to avoid letting our love grow ‘old’ after having a child. Some time when we can have our baby looked after, we will ride a bicycle around the lake … at night!
I love you very much, my N.!
Images provided by The Anh