The following three interviews were conducted during the author’s visit to Vietnam in December 2003 and January 2004.
General Nguyen Duc Huy
Nguyen Duc Huy was born in Hung-Yen province in 1931. After joining the Viet Minh in 1948, at age 17, he went on to serve with distinction in Vietnam’s Communist army — through its various name changes — for the next 50 years. He retired in 1998. During his long service, General Huy participated in some of his nation’s most important military engagements, from Dien Bien Phu to Khe Sanh (where he commanded the NVA’s vaunted 351st Division) to the final General Offensive that concluded the war in 1975. Huy is a man of considerable fame in Vietnam, and not unused to interviews. With the aid of my interpreter, Nguyen Viet Bac, I interviewed the general in his lovely five-story home in an exclusive residential area of Hanoi. As we sat sipping tea in his living room — decorated with fine Oriental artwork and framed photographs of him with such legendary figures as General Vo Nguyen Giap, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro — he graciously answered my questions.
Vietnam:General, what were you doing when you first joined the army in 1948 — fighting the French?
General Huy:Yes, fighting with the French people. I was only 17 then, so I was just a common soldier. You know, just in a trench shooting a rifle at the French, with them in a trench shooting rifles back at us.
VN:Did you fight at Dien Bien Phu?
Huy:Yes, and by then I was an officer.
VN:What did you do after 1954 and the Geneva Agreements that divided Vietnam into North and South?
Huy:I still was in the army and now I was going to the South. At that time I was commanding 2,000 soldiers, uniformed soldiers. There was only low-intensity combat until 1968. From 1954 to 1960 I also took various military courses. Then there was really big fighting from 1968 on. I was at Khe Sanh.
VN:At Khe Sanh you were up against U.S. Marines. Did you consider them to be good fighters?
Huy:Yes. My division was fighting mainly with the 3rd Marine Division and they were very good, experienced soldiers. You know that 3rd Marine Division has a very long history of combat. They were very good, very well trained. And that division was very large; it had about 20,000 men, and they had much more firepower than we did.
VN:Many American history books about Vietnam estimate the Communist forces at Khe Sanh at about 50,000. Is that your recollection?
Huy:No, that figure is wrong. We had nearly 100,000 at Khe Sanh when your air force arrived with more than 1,000 aircraft and also helicopters bringing in more men.
VN:The United States used Boeing B-52 bombers at Khe Sanh, and also used napalm extensively. Were any of those strikes made against your division?
Huy:Yes. Those bombs killed many of my men, more than 1,000 men in my own division. My division was the 351st Division, one of the strongest and most famous divisions in the North Vietnamese Army. We had on average about 12,000 soldiers, sometimes more, sometimes less. After those bombings we had some 1,000 fewer. It took some time to build the division up again. Both sides lost quite a lot at Khe Sanh.
VN:It has long been speculated in the United States that the Communist siege at Khe Sanh was just intended as a diversion to cause the Americans to draw more forces northward and thus weaken themselves in the South, thereby giving your own forces a better chance in the South when you launched the Tet Offensive. Is that speculation correct?
Huy:I refuse to answer that question. Many people have asked me that question before and to this day I refuse to answer.
VN:You might refuse to answer this next one, too. There has always been a question whether or not General Giap was personally present at Khe Sanh and directing operations. Some speculate that he was there for part of the battle, but once the heavy bombing started he was pressured into leaving for fear that he would become a casualty. Is that true?
Huy:Yes, all of what you have said is true. He was there, but he left — not only because we feared for his safety but also because he had urgent duties elsewhere. You know he was directing the fighting everywhere.
VN:Some military historians consider Giap a military genius, perhaps not quite on the level of Napoleon, but still a genius. Would you agree with that assessment?
Huy:Yes. He was very clever, the cleverest of generals. And he was very experienced, having fought from the time he was young until he was old.
VN:After the war, Giap told a group of Western reporters that Communist losses in the Tet Offensive were so devastating that if the Americans had kept up that level of military pressure much longer North Vietnam would have been forced to negotiate a peace on American terms. Do you agree?
Huy:If the American army had fought some more, had continued, I don’t know. Maybe. I can’t say what would have happened.
VN:What did you do with your dead?
Huy:The dead soldiers were evacuated to the rear of the division. Other men would then bury them. Letters would be sent to the soldiers’ families notifying them. Our wounded would go to a hospital, but not a hospital in a city. Sometimes our hospitals were in among the trees, but usually they were in caves.
VN:What did you do with dead Americans?
Huy:Usually American planes would circle a battlefield and keep us back until they could send in helicopters and recover the dead bodies themselves. But whenever we did find American bodies, we did bury them. We didn’t remove their dogtags. We knew what those were for, and we buried the bodies in places where they would be easily found. We buried them in shallow graves, and we grouped the graves together like steps. We knew eventually American or South Vietnamese forces would come along and find those bodies, get the tags and notify [the] families.
VN:That was considerate.
Huy:Let me tell you something else. Six years ago, your General Raymond Davis, a four-star general, brought a military delegation here to Vietnam to meet with a military delegation of ours. I was on that delegation. We did all we could to help them locate more American bodies. While General Davis was here he asked me my opinion on why America lost the war when they had so many more weapons and much better weapons than we had.
VN:That was going to be one of the next questions. How did you answer him?
Huy:I gave him three reasons. First, and most important, I told him that the North Vietnamese soldiers were fighting from their hearts for our freedom. Second, we knew the battlefield….We knew the mountains; we knew the rivers; we knew so well the terrain. And, third, we watched the Americans very closely. [Here General Huy does a little pantomime pretending he is crouching through the trees and jungle, observing the Americans with binoculars, which he pans left and right.] We tried to guess everything the Americans would do in advance. We attacked them very carefully. When we could, we would attack them from the rear. We also used our tunnels to approach them undetected. One thing General Davis told me…was that for 30 years he had been wondering how North Vietnamese tanks could so suddenly appear on a battlefield and catch the Americans by surprise. He said it seemed like magic, that they came out of nowhere. He asked me how we managed to do that. I told him that is a secret we still keep in case we ever have to use it again. Would you like me to tell you now?
Huy:No! I still refuse to answer [laughs]. But I will tell you this. We had more than one way of doing that. There was more than one trick to doing that. [This leaves one to speculate on what those tricks might have been: an especially effective camouflage system? Burying prepositioned tanks? An ingenious system of disassembling and reassembling the tanks? Heretofore undisclosed use of Soviet heavy-lift helicopters? The possibilities would seem quite limited.]
VN:Did you hate the Americans at the time of the war? And what about now?
Huy:During the war — of course! Our deaths were very, very many. Of course I hated them. But about six years ago when I met with the American military delegation I decided we could become friends. We talked together so that we could forget the past and look to the future.
VN:Have you ever heard of a plan an American think tank proposed for winning the war? Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute proposed a buildup of American troop strength in Vietnam to a total of one million. That would be enough American soldiers to link arms and stretch the entire length of South Vietnam’s land borders. They could simply prevent any more NVA from entering the country. They would be supported by tens of thousands of specially trained dogs that could detect any tunneling activity beneath the borders. While the Americans and the dogs secured the borders, the ARVN would concentrate on tracking down and destroying the VC and Communist sympathizers within South Vietnam. Does that plan sound crazy to you, or could it have worked?
Huy:I think that’s quite funny. The South Vietnamese army could never have tracked down all of our Viet Cong and Communist sympathizers within the country. There were just too many of them — men, women, the farmers. They could never have been stopped.
VN:Do you have anything else you would like to tell the readers of Vietnam Magazine?
Huy:One thing: The war is over and I look to the future. But the poisons Americans dropped on the land continue to harm many of our people — not just this generation, but the next and the next, with diseases and birth defects. You should tell this to the American government. They should be doing something to help us with this problem. I hope relations between America and Vietnam improve rapidly. It would be good for the economies and the lives of both of our peoples.
Nguyen Van Khien
On December 19, 2003, I traveled south of Hanoi to Ha Nam province with interpreter Nguyen Viet Bac, his employee Nguyen Duc Hanh, and a hired driver. There in the village of Thanh Ha we interviewed Nguyen Van Khien in his humble home. We sat on low stools sipping tea in the living room of the three-room dwelling. His granddaughter played in the corner on a plastic mat laid on the bare concrete floor. Dogs, cats and chickens scurried about and occasionally poked their noses through the open door. His wife looked on.
Mr. Khien showed me a framed certificate on the wall and a wallet card, both of which identified him as a ‘First Class War Invalid — a veteran who had suffered the most grievous wounds. There is no doubt of that. His entire left leg had been removed, and his right leg — as he rolled up his trouser leg to show me — had most of the flesh missing, right down to the bone, in portions of the shin and thigh. He has a bright, cheerful demeanor and seems eager to please.
VN:When and why did you join the North Vietnamese Army?
Khien:I joined when I was 17 years old. I served from 1974 to 1979, but much of that time I was in hospitals. Why did I join? Because I loved my country and I wanted to fight for its freedom.
VN:What happened once you volunteered?
Khien:We were trained in the North for six months and then sent to the South. We went south on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was a very hard journey. We had to sleep under the trees in the forest. We had very little to eat. When we reached rivers we swam across them. We were bombed often. We were on the trail three months. My unit was R-856. We moved in stages and traveled only at night. I was in a group of 400. There were many groups of 400 before us and following us, but we were spread out. If the groups were larger than that they were easier to be spotted and bombed by airplanes, so we stayed spread out.
VN:You entered South Vietnam after most Americans had already left. What was the most important action you participated in?
Khien:The liberation of Saigon. We got into Saigon. We were fighting and got into the city. A lot of my friends were killed inside Ho Chi Minh City. That was in 1975.
VN:What was the fighting like in Saigon?
Khien:We were fighting house-to-house in Saigon’s streets. We were fighting everywhere: in the houses and out of windows, in the trees, in the streets, lying under cars. I had a large Russian rifle, an AK-47. I hit several people. I don’t know whether I killed or wounded them or what, but I did hit them.
VN:What were you thinking about during the fighting?
Khien:I thought just about the nation and serving it. [A pause.] But really in combat I thought nothing — only fighting.
VN:When and how did you get wounded?
Khien:In 1976. The war was over and I was going back home to North Vietnam. It was in the forest near the Cambodian border. I stepped on a mine. When I stepped on it I heard a loud noise and I felt my leg get very cold, and then I went unconscious. The leg halfway down was blown off immediately. It was blown clear off. My comrades took me to a small army hospital in the forest. I lost much blood and they cut off more of my leg — above the knee. My other leg was also in bad shape.
VN:How long did you stay there?
Khien:One day. Then they transferred me to a large hospital in Hue City where they removed more of my leg.
VN:What were your emotions after that?
Khien:[Very animated.] I felt very, very sad and I cried. I didn’t want to think about anything. I told the army doctors to do anything — cut anything they wanted off of me — I didn’t care. But they worked hard to save my other leg. I had a very bad feeling of both the spirit and the body for a very long time, but I didn’t want to kill myself. Today I’m still happy to be alive. Life is still good.
VN:Has your government taken good care of you?
Khien:Yes. I get some money every month, enough for living. Later I got married and now I raise some chickens and pigs.
VN:Whom do you blame for your injuries?
VN:Are you still angry?
Khien:I forgive now, and I try to forget. Now I blame no one, and I’m okay.
Dang Thi Phuong
Dang Thi Phuong is the wife of Nguyen Van Khien. I interviewed her on the same day. A shy woman, and a little reluctant to be interviewed, Phuong smiled and was cheerful, but spent much of the interview hiding her face behind her hands. As a woman of the old school, she was hesitant to speak before the men present. Moreover, Bac, my interpreter, informed me that I was the first foreigner she had ever seen, let alone met and spoken with. Phuong may have been shy and demure, but there is no mistaking the fact that physically she was very tough. Although in her 50s, she was fit, and had the deep tan of a Vietnamese farm woman.
VN:When did you serve in the army?
Phuong:From 1970 to 1979.
VN:Did you wear a uniform?
Phuong:Yes. A North Vietnamese Army uniform.
VN:What did you do?
Phuong:At first I worked in the rear area, cooking rice for the army. Then I worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were many young girls like me who worked on the trail. We were cutting down trees and widening the trail for trucks. This was near Laos.
VN:Were you ever bombed?
VN:What was your life like while you worked on the Ho Chi Minh Trail? Where did you sleep?
Phuong:We slept under trees, or in caves, or in the mountains. We had a blanket, but it was never enough to keep me warm.
VN:I don’t ask this to embarrass you, but were the female soldiers bothered by the male soldiers?
Phuong:No. We had very strict army rules about that, so I was very safe in the group.
VN:Where did you meet your husband?
Phuong:We met at the hospital in Hue. I had become an army nurse, and because he was a first-level injury, my husband was assigned a personal nurse to be with him 24 hours a day — that was me. That was in 1978, and after two years we got married.
VN:What qualities attracted you to him?
Phuong:It was a very special love. [At that point Phuong spoke to my interpreter directly, and Bac informed me that Phuong wanted to end the interview soon.]
VN:Is there anything else you would like to say?
Phuong:Only that we love each other and have sympathy for each other.
As we prepared to depart, Bac suggested to me that since this was such a very poor household, I might like to make them a small money gift beyond the sack of fruit we brought them. To avoid humbling the man and his wife, he advised me to hand the money (the Vietnamese equivalent of $20) directly to their four-year-old granddaughter and indicate it was for her.
William L. Adams, Ph.D., is a member of the social sciences department of the University of Texas at Brownsville. He is the author of the book Valley Vets II: Korean and Vietnam Veterans of the Rio Grande Valley. For additional reading, see Eric Hammel’s Khe Sanh: Siege in the Clouds and Phillip B. Davidson’s Vietnam at War.
This article was originally published in the October 2005 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!