The Mountains Sing
By Nguyen Phan Que Mai
One World Publications, 2020, 342 pp., $29.99
The Saigon Sisters, Privileged Women in the Resistance
By Patricia D. Norland
Northern Illinois University Press, 2020, 253 pp., $45.00
These two books, one a novel and the other a narrative history, reveal the personal costs of the Vietnamese fight to free their country first from French colonialism and then the US-led invasion.
The two books’ value is in highlighting the strength of women in the struggle.
Novelist and poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai was born in 1973, three years before the Liberation. She grew up in northern Vietnam surrounded by the devastation the war left in its wake.
She worked as a street vendor and a rice farmer before winning a scholarship to an Australian university. She has eight published works in Vietnamese; this is her first in English.
The Mountains Sing is an epic novel weaving together stories of four generations of the fictional Tran family. It depicts events under French domination, the World War II Japanese invasion, the return of the French and surviving the rain of US bombs.
The family is torn apart by the war. Sons, fathers and mothers go down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the front and come back physically and psychologically wounded – or simply do not come back at all.
But also featured is the early-1950s land reform in North Vietnam.
The Trans are a large landowning family, depicted here as benevolently patronising their poor neighbours. In North Vietnam there was enormous land hunger – and physical hunger – with about nine million poor peasants crammed into the Red River Delta, their villages ruled by rich landlords.
The land reform became increasingly violent as poor peasants, organised by Communist Party cadre, invaded the landlords’ property and redistributed it. The reform broke the political power of the rich in the countryside, but was heavy-handed to say the least. Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed.
The novel paints a powerful picture of these events, but entirely from the point of view of the rich. The Tran family home is expropriated and nine poor families end up inhabiting it, which gives an accurate measure of the village-level wealth disparity, the irony of which escapes Nguyen.
At times the writing becomes quite simplistic. Grasping, ignorant poor peasants, are notable for physical deformities, while the rich Trans are superbly strong, endlessly tolerant and attractive.
Throughout the story all problems, such as the need to wage war to liberate Vietnam, are ultimately the fault of the Communist Party.
However, for the most part the novel is poetic, absorbing and illustrative of the enormous sacrifices of the Vietnamese people, particularly the women.
The Saigon Sisters, by a US sociologist, gives balance to The Mountains Sing.
It is based on interviews with a group of nine women who first met as students at the prestigious, French language-only, Lycée Marie Curie (high school) in late 1940s Saigon. All participated in the liberation movement.
To put it mildly, these stories are gripping.
For most of French colonial rule, Vietnamese children were provided with second-class education. But after WWII the lycées were opened to the children of Vietnamese functionaries.
Paradoxically, as Norland writes in the foreword, “the colonial classroom probably provided the best space for these privileged Vietnamese teenagers, boys and girls alike, to discover politics and develop a political activism that would push many of them into action and into the maquis”.
One of the philosophy teachers was the Communist Georg Boudarel, who moved to the North and joined Ho Chi Minh’s government. As one of the women says, having studied the English, American and French revolutions in the Lycée Marie Curie: “We concluded we had to have our own revolution.”
Within the school the young girls organised demonstrations – defying police violence – and distributed leaflets. To make hundreds of leaflets they formed a pad out of agar, used a pen to hand-write slogans in it and then pressed sheets of paper on the pad.
They could make about 10 leaflets before having to re-write the slogans in the agar. The messages were necessarily simple: “A bas le colonialisme” (Down with colonialism) and “Vive Bac Ho” (Long live Uncle Ho).
It was not long before many got security police files and choices had to be made. Many parents sent their radicalising children away to school in France to avoid trouble.
As one of the women says: “Our generation was the generation at the crossroads.” The alternatives were: rebellion, collaboration or exile.
A few of the women were sent overseas for study, but chose to return to their homeland and the struggle.
Vietnamese society was drenched in Confucianism, so for young women to defy their families, leave home and join the Viet Minh (later the Viet Cong) in the jungles or to work clandestinely for the resistance was as astonishing as it was courageous.
Some of the ‘sisters’ joined the marquis, some stayed in Saigon, operating underground. Some were called to the North by the Party and served in various capacities. Not all joined the Party, but all worked for liberation.
The privations they experienced for the cause were extraordinary. They demonstrated courage under bombs, dealing with deadly snakes and malaria in the jungle or under police surveillance in the city.
One woman, needing to maintain her underground cover in Saigon, had to leave her new born daughter with her sister. She would occasionally organise a rendezvous so she could see her child, but the meetings had to be staged in such a manner that trailing cops would never recognise the connection between mother and child.
The daughter would be left in a pram outside a shop while the aunt went inside. The mother would stroll along the street, stop and seemingly spontaneously, coo over the baby.
Another mother, working in the North, had to leave her children with peasants in the countryside to escape Operation Rolling Thunder, the 1965-68 US bombing campaign.
“On Sundays, I bicycled thirty or forty kilometres to see the children,” she remembers. “I left at four in the morning, in the dark to avoid the bombing. Reaching their village around nine, I bathed them and cooked, and we ate together.”
She would get back to Hanoi about seven or eight at night. “All mothers did this; that’s what Sundays were for. Sometimes my husband came; sometimes he had work.”
The only protection the people had against the US bombs were crude shelters and jackets and helmets made from tightly woven straw.
The friends did not reunite until well after the 1975 Liberation.
Taken together, these two books offer inspiring stories about the strength of Vietnamese women and their powerful contribution to the struggle.