Down In the Valley
Two Weeks With the PRG
Published in American Report, July 8, 1974
Photographs and Text by John Spragens, Jr.
Special to American Report
SAIGON — There’s a farm scattered over the ridge of a long mountain in Que Son district of central Viet Nam’s Quang Nam province. In front of the thatched farmhouse there is an arbor with gourd vines almost covering it. The chickens sleep there, after a long ritual of challenging each other to flap their awkward way up among the vines, safe from the foxes.
The sun starts coming up past the vines around 5 o’clock — Hanoi time, since this area is controlled by the Provisional Revolutionary Government (PRG). Standing near the farmhouse on the mountainside terrace, one looks down on a valley that seems like some sort of jewel, with green and golden grain in the fields. A few minutes more and farmers will be heading out to do their morning work before the heat of the day becomes unbearable.
Following on toward the sun, past the valley are more mountains — two peaks just beyond the valley, and between them a more distant peak with the blaze of the rising sun silhouetting it against the sky.
“See that peak?” one of our guides said. “There’s a Saigon outpost there, an illegal one, set up last June in our liberated area.”
It’s too far to see clearly, but the raggedness of the outline does suggest one of those sandbag and barbed wire blemishes that are scattered over so much of South Viet Nam. There are 50 illegal outposts in this district, we were told.
When the sun is higher, it is possible to see the scars on all the mountains surrounding the valley — bomb and shell craters aggravated by erosion. I liked the time just before sun-up because it was possible to forget about the war that has raged up and down the valley. But the red-brown scars on the green flanks of the mountains reminded me that just over the ridge, in a field not yet opened for cultivation again, is an overgrown bomb crater big enough to hold the house where we’d been sleeping.
Now, back in Saigon, I ride down the street thinking about how to write this article, and the guy beside me, on a bare-tired bicycle with no brakes, slaps his right-foot sandal up against the tire to slow down. The mood is wrong. I should have written this while I was there. Or maybe not. My mind was always jumping back and forth then, seeing contrasts, noticing similarities.
Going into the PRG area had been almost like walking across a map, crossing lines from one zone to another. Clustered at intervals along Route 1 was the usual assortment of buildings — from brick and plaster shops to tumble-down squatter shacks. For a few hundred yards to the west of the highway was a fairly prosperous belt of farms and farmhouses. Saigon, to a large extent, controls this strip during the daytime.
From there to the railroad route, about a mile in from the highway, the farms were noticeably poorer and people’s clothes were in worse shape. The only evidence of the old railroad line itself was a section of track bracing the top of a bunker where we (another American correspondent and I) rested and talked to a farm woman who complained about Saigon raids.
Next was a barren sand flat — white sand with next to nothing growing on it. We flinched every time we heard the sound of helicopters. Walking across in the middle of the afternoon, we felt terribly exposed, but the teen-aged girls leading us just laughed and told us not to worry.
I wasn’t really convinced. Several friends who had tried to visit the liberated zone in the past few months hadn’t made it for one reason or another, and I was feeling fatalistic. Even after we had somehow met the right person at very much the wrong place (and, as we later found out, almost a week late), I couldn’t believe we had made it. There still might be a Saigon patrol or a helicopter coming along.
I didn’t believe it until we were resting in a house just beyond the sand flat and a young cadre came to meet us. Pistol on his hip. Sky blue jacket. Round cloth hat. We were really there!
That stretch was sparsely populated, and most of the farm land was lying pocked with craters and covered with weeds. Soon, though, we were in the secure area, alive with people, and farms producing again in spite of occasional unfilled bomb and shell holes.
The blues we saw in the cadre’s clothes were the most common colors throughout the PRG zone. Not the dark Chinese blue, but shades from a light sky blue to a deep sea green blue, made of sturdy cloth and not, as I had imagined, in patches. I asked one of our guides about the color and he said, “Blue is the color of peace.”
Almost everyone we met on the trails had a smile and a word of greeting for the troops and cadre with us. The change in expression when they first noticed two Americans was more difficult to read. Some still smiled, after a double-take, and nodded to us. Others’ faces were clouded with something which seemed to hover between anxiety and anger, reflecting pent-up emotions we might guess at but could never really imagine. Still others seemed simply incredulous.
1967: A Year of Progress
Que Son — Cinnamon Mountain. “This is where Westmoreland tested his helicopter assault tactics,” we were told, “and failed.” Lots of things were tried out here. Back in Saigon I glance through the official U.S. military wrap-up for 1967, A Year of Progress, and check out the Que Son valley:
“Driving back into action on 26 May, the Marines initiated UNION II in the same valley areas. Before the first day of the operation was over, 161 North Vietnamese soldiers had fallen to the Leathernecks. ... In 11 days of contacts with the enemy, Marine ordnance had accounted for 701 NVA and Viet Cong dead and the operation ended 5 June.”
We had heard about the Marines. Maybe this was the operation in which, we were told, 700 Marines had been killed in one battle. People told us about the suffering under the operations — whole families wiped out around the dinner table when a bomb fell; people herded off their land and moved up to Da Nang, 25 miles to the north; those people still clinging to the land forced to live in dugouts. But there was at least as much proud emphasis on the struggle, fighting back against the invasion. The province is proud of the slogan it was awarded by the NLF: “Quang Nam, loyal and determined, going first to wipe out the Americans.”
It seemed insane to think of American soldiers fighting there. In the rice fields it was one thing. At least you could have seen where you were going. But pushing through the mountain trails must have been truly insane. Beginning with the little things I noticed as we made our way along the paths. Our guides wore the tire tread and inner tube sandals that American troops had dubbed Ho Chi Minhs. Walking through streams and waterlogged paths was no problem for them. But my boots became soggy with water, and such sloshing would quickly have given American soldiers away.
Or there was the simple fact that we Americans are much too big for the trails. Moving behind our guides it was all right. They could show the way and let us concentrate on dodging the branches. But trying to imagine Americans on patrol there was almost too much. I was glad to have avoided that part of the American experience.
Where Are The Men?
A few days before we arrived on the PRG side of Que Son valley, a reporter from the Saigon daily Chinh Luan had been in Que Son — not, of course, on the PRG side. There isn’t much of the valley, as far as land goes, on the Saigon-controlled side he saw, but there are a lot of people — people we didn’t get to talk to.
To give you some idea of Chinh Luan’s politics, let me mention that it’s the only Saigon paper that has survived the see-saw censorship — for almost 11 years since Ngo Dinh Diem was eliminated. It’s a dull, respected paper, perhaps respected most because it has survived.
The first thing the reporter, Tuong Hao, noticed was that “all the people were women. All you could see was women everywhere ... or maybe a few militia men riding by.” He was exaggerating, of course, but not so very much. We did see men on the Saigon side of the lines. They were in the army, mostly, and didn’t seem terribly happy about it. But I know the sensation of going into a village and seeing what seems like no men at all. It’s a common sight in the Saigon zone. So it was one of the first things that I’d noticed when we got into PRG territory — that there were young men around.
It was also impressive to see the positions they were holding. Ho Dac Su, just 23, was the chairman of the village security committee in Phu Dien, the first village of the secure liberated zone. He was nearly always cheerful, even though he had been wounded six times. The worst time, he lost an eye and the tips of three fingers to an exploding artillery round. But he made clear that he was still ready to fight if he had to.
Once while we were there, he did have to. He excused himself, with a concerned expression, and was gone for several hours. When he got back he explained that Saigon troops from three outposts had teamed up to launch a two-pronged attack against a village in the PRG zone. They had hoped to capture a group of village cadre who were there for a meeting — hoped to catch them by surprise by coming late in the afternoon when the Saigon troops seldom ventured out of their camps. But the local guerrillas put up a fight for an hour while Su and others organized reinforcements, and they chased the ARVN units back to their camps with no casualties on either side. “That,” we remarked to Su, “is the best way to end a battle.”
Later, in Saigon, I talked with a young working class man about Su with his blind eye and chopped off fingers but not afraid to die. It was hard for him to conceive. “If anyone in the ARVN was injured like that, he’d use the excuse to get out.” That was the voice of someone about to go into the ARVN. It didn’t seem a glorious prospect to him.
The chairman of Phu Dien’s village committee was Nguyen Ngoc Tam, 28, a year younger than I. It must have been the closeness in age that made it easy for us to talk with him. Our experiences were so totally different. Tam had a good bit of schooling in Saigon government schools in the days of Diem. But when Phu Dien was liberated in 1965, he was with the liberation side all the way.
Tam was the first Vietnamese who ever told me he or she was a Communist. Tam is a member of the People’s Revolutionary Party. He said it with a certain embarrassment, not as though he was ashamed, but as if he didn’t want the honor of being a party member to go to his head.
A Spare, but Satisfying Life
We talked with Tam about all sorts of things. One of his special concerns was the schools. Theoretically, he told us, the school system runs for 10 years, but his village has only the first four grades — the primary school. Even that is not all in one place. Classes are dispersed because they are worried that the children might be hit by artillery or caught in an ARVN raid.
The Chinh Luan correspondent wrote that schools are in short supply on the Saigon side, too, especially for families being moved back from refugee camps. In fact, they were short of everything, according to the article. They had received only 14 sheets of roofing. A lot of what the refugees are supposed to get has always stuck to the fingers of Saigon officials on the way down the line. What they were hurting most was for food:
“An old woman nearly 80 told us (the Chinh Luan reporters) that her family had seven mouths to feed. For over a month her family hadn’t had so much as a single grain of rice. The only staple they had was manioc that was hard as rocks, gnarled tubers no bigger than your toe that all seven, young and old alike, had had to scavenge from the old furrows.”
The part of Que Son we saw, the PRG part, wasn’t feasting and banqueting. They were mixing sweet potatoes and manioc with their rice. They weren’t eating a lot of meat. But we didn’t see anyone who was hungry, either. The land was in production, and people returning from refugee camps were given food for six months along with seed and tools, and help putting together a house. It was a very spare life, but appeared satisfying.
Life After Dark
“Do they have any snack shops?” people back in Saigon asked. “What do they do at night?”
No, no snack shops. There are little shops with notebooks and pens and C rations and canned milk, and there are tailor shops in thatched houses with two or three treadle-type Singers, and there are open air markets, though the one we saw was packing up for the day when we passed so we couldn’t tell what they had been selling.
People didn’t seem to be hurting for entertainment. We could hear kids’ after school gatherings at a house near one place we stayed for songs and games, with a man from the Liberation Youth League to help out. Older folks mostly made their own entertainment, too. We were told about traveling movie projection teams and touring art troupes. But what we saw and heard was people sitting around in houses after dinner talking and joking, sometimes singing, plus teasing and arm twisting among our younger escort party. There obviously were serious discussions, too.
The main source of “imported” entertainment is undoubtedly the radio. We saw radios and heard radios everywhere. Cadres carried them along in custom sewn zip-up pouches slung over their shoulders, and most every family had one at home. Sony. National. I asked if they had any Chinese radios. No, came the answer, they’re all Japanese. (So were the watches.)
Those everpresent radios were tuned to Radio Hanoi or Liberation Radio. One night we got both at once in mal-coordinated stereo. Somebody even tuned in the tag end of a mournful long song on Radio Saigon once. It turned them off, so they tuned it out.
People, or at least the late teens and 20’s who dominated our escort, had a clear preference for the mostly music programs. They knew all the times and frequencies. They did listen to some heavier stuff. The news. And one night a group was listening to a Radio Hanoi discussion of U.S. foreign policy during the Eisenhower years.
People usually turned in about 9, except when meetings lasted late into the night. Days started at 5 in the morning. That gave time for breakfast and calisthenics and an hour or so of cleaning up or being lazy before getting down to the work of the day.
Thinking about the schedule, I remembered a friend in Saigon complaining about the midnight curfew. “There’s no real security reason for the curfew now,” he griped. “And if they didn’t have a curfew these stands would be open until all hours of the night. It would be much more pleasant later. Quiet.”
For our hosts, with their 5-to-9 days, it was the other end of the curfew that would have been a bother. They didn’t have any official curfew in the liberated zone. But farmers in the Saigon zone do complain about it. Can’t get out into the fields until so late they have to work into the blistering heat of midday.
Swinging in a hammock one afternoon during my visit to the PRG area, I mused on the difference between urban and rural people and how they see things. I was talking with Truong Van Tam, a 35-year-old correspondent for Liberation Radio. He seemed very urbane himself, much inclined to analysis. At the time, he was working on a feature article about the effects of defoliation in the area. The article was a warm mix of sketches of people he had met and scientific explanations of why erosion and flooding had been worse in the central provinces because of the defoliation, bombing and bulldozing of trees.
I wanted to get him to do some scientific/human analysis of what it was like for someone coming from an urban environment to the rural liberated zone. I thought he would have some interesting perceptions. Maybe he does, but he didn’t share them. It was frustrating to hear him talking about the transformation of people into liberation fighters as if it were a miracle from the clouds. No matter how I approached this question, or the relationship between majority Vietnamese and mountain tribes people, he insisted there was no problem: “The liberation struggle does work miracles.”
Maybe so, but I wanted him to help me understand the human processes involved, and he just wouldn’t. I know it is not a taboo subject. I’ve read about it in books published by the National Liberation Front, including some that have been translated into English. Maybe a discussion would have come too close to some personal sensitivities.
It was impossible to evaluate such impasses. Or things like the way certain people were obviously designated for us to talk to, whereas if certain others happened to start a conversation with us, a cadre would come up and suggest that the unauthorized person ought to be doing some task elsewhere. How much of that was an attempt to make a controlled presentation to us because we were foreign journalists? Or how much of it happened because of the suspicion our fouled-up papers caused?
Another source of frustration was the status of being an honored guest. Our hosts seemed to be people with whom we could have felt completely at home. But we couldn’t — were never quite allowed to — because we were honored guests. We got special food, with meat at almost every meal, and were served separately. When the others went off to do some sort of work, we were encouraged to take a rest because “you must be tired,” even if we hadn’t been doing anything but sitting around all day — which was usually the case.
Being an honored guest was, for me, even worse than being a prisoner — and I was both. That may sound strange, but then it was a strange sort of imprisonment.
It happened because I had come without a visa. Phillip McCombs, the Washington Post bureau chief, had tracked me down in the middle of a Saigon street and said, “How would you like to go — tomorrow morning at 7?” He needed an interpreter.
I said yes, of course, but then I was an illegal immigrant in the liberated zone, so there wasn’t much they could do but arrest me, at least until they could get in touch with somebody who might know who I was. None of the radiograms they sent reached Tan Son Nhut, where the PRG delegation would have known me from their press conferences, so I was under detention until the end.
But the detention (they didn’t call it arrest) was the kind of thing where the soldiers who were staying with me would go out to do some work and their AK-47’s would be hanging on pegs inside the house where I could have touched them as I lay swinging in my hammock. And they kept trying to stuff me with enough food for a field laborer.
There were a couple of times, during the three days when McCombs went deeper into the district, when I got to move beyond being an honored guest. One afternoon while he was gone, a storm started to blow up. The farmers that my escorts and I were staying with had their manioc crop, sliced like silver dollars, spread out on reed mats to dry in the sun. They ran to start scooping the manioc into baskets, and in a minute the soldiers were out helping. It was starting to rain, though, and I thought I just might try breaking through the guest barrier. I wasn’t as coordinated as they were, but they didn’t mind the extra set of hands.
Later, during a visit in the downhill part of the house, I slipped over to the work shed and helped some of the troopers who were pulling peanuts from the plants that had been brought in from the fields that morning. I wasn’t very good at that either, but they let me try.
People of the PRG
Many faces will stay with me from the trip. Trinh is one. Cao Thi Le Trinh. We had met a number of women before Trinh. In fact, our trek through the contested area near the highway was organized and led by women. But Trinh was the first woman we got to know. It was our first night in the liberated zone, and we had settled into the house where we would stay the first three days. Trinh came in, a slender, beautiful woman in a grey blouse and dark trousers, and shook hands.
At first, she was very distant, even cold. She had been appointed quartermistress for our trip, and was expert in carrying out her responsibilities. But it was her first meeting with Americans, and, while she was strikingly self-possessed, it was obvious there were deep emotions churning beneath the surface.
She told us, once, of a story that was engraved in her mind, of village women not far from her home raped to death by American soldiers. It was painful to hear. A second glimpse of the spirit that moved her came when we asked to hear some of the songs of the liberated zone. After some discussion in another part of the house, Trinh agreed to sing one for us. The song was “Liberate the South!” — the anthem of the PRG.
First, she explained it to us. Her explanation ranged beyond the simple, determined lyrics. She talked of the sufferings of the common people under the French colonialists and the American imperialists, and under the feudal Vietnamese regime. The song, she said, expresses the determination of the Vietnamese people to throw off those yokes of the past, to build a new society in which all can prosper and enjoy life, in which the Vietnamese will have control of their own country.
Trinh is 25. She has grown up under the revolutionary administration, and gained her view of life from the NLF and PRG children’s and youth organizations. Now she has a child of her own — three years old. When she sang, the determination we came to expect of her was there. At the same time, her voice lent the melody the wavering tenor of a central Vietnamese lullaby.
Of all the people we talked with, Trinh was probably the most curious about our personal lives. It was only fair, of course. In our own interviews we were probing deeply — deeper than I have yet probed with some friends in Saigon I’ve known for months.
We asked Tam, the village chairman, about how he had met his wife and how they got married. Tam was bashful about telling how they met, but he did share an interesting picture of the wedding. In the new society, Tam said, the primary decision is that of the two people whose lives are involved. No more marriages arranged by the parents without consulting the children. The children do still consult their parents, though. “If the marriage is going to work, it will take the support of the parents.” The organizations where the two work are also asked for their opinions.
The wedding is also a community affair. It’s not just the families of the couple who bear the expense; everybody in their groups and villages and families helps organize the dinner party. In front of banners proclaiming their commitment to the struggle, the couple tell the assembled family and friends how they met and what they hope for the future. “We need to remind ourselves that we can’t personally be happy and have a good life until the country is free,” Tam explained.
We never did find out about Trinh’s husband. Our relationship with her seemed more fragile, and we didn’t want to push too hard.
Trinh also thought we were being over-polite to her. She was in charge of the cooking, and always asked us for comments on the day’s meals. Since they were always delicious, and always much more than we could possibly eat, we seldom had criticism to offer, and she was convinced we were holding back.
One day, trying to explain that she was giving us better food than I was used to eating in Saigon, I told her that I eat in a very simple restaurant because I think that if a journalist really wants to understand the life of the people, he should try to share it. “If that’s true,” she said, “I think that’s good.” We were still a mystery, but she was beginning to open to us.
Another time Trinh was asking me about houses in the States. “Do any people live in thatch houses?” No, I said, houses are mostly of wood or brick. “Then America really is rich,” she said half to herself.
This valley was once rich, too. Time after time it was mentioned to us that before the war the houses here had been brick. We saw old foundations, polished columns and beams of beautiful wood, and intricately carved rafters. But the houses themselves had all been destroyed in the years of fighting. The people were hoping to rebuild — some day. Now it is still too dangerous, too unstable. We stayed in one house that, we were told, had been rebuilt just a few months before after being burned down by ARVN troops on a sweep through the area. We saw the remains of a pagoda, the statue of Buddha still standing, that had been destroyed in a major operation in June, 1973, nearly six months after the “peace” of Paris.
People made it clear that things were better now than they had been before the Paris agreement. They made it equally clear that they would not be satisfied until real peace returned. One woman we met in Xuyen Tra, who was running a little shop in the corner of her house to supplement what she made from farming, made the point unmistakeably.
We tried to compliment her on her shop, but she shot back, “What do you mean it’s nice? It won’t be nice until I can move it back to Phu Dien!” That wasn’t possible yet; not enough security.
If the trip in was a geography lesson, the exit was a silent film motion study. We made our way down nearly to the sand flats in the daylight, then shared our last meal with PRG cadre while we waited for dark. We found some strips of cloth to tie my noisy bell-bottom jeans. Someone teased that if the Saigon soldiers caught me with my pants legs tied like that, they’d say I was VC for sure. The troopers who were going to lead us out moved barefoot, their black peasant pants rolled up to the knees.
No talking. No noise. No lights. Those were our instructions. I had to concentrate to keep from scuffing the heels of my hiking boots, which now seemed hopelessly cumbersome. It was only when we stopped that I could really notice what was happening.
The Last Night
Just before moving on from the sand flats, we sat and waited while three or four troops carrying M-16’s slipped off to find the way through the tree line and make sure it was safe. Quiet. Hardly a word spoken. The same way when we moved into a cluster of farm houses. It was as if the men had grown up there. They slipped instinctively into positions where they could see anything happening in the surrounding fields. A whispered word, and one of the farmers brought out a bowl of tea and passed it around to us.
After a few hours of fitful sleep we slipped the last few minutes to the house where we would spend the night. In the Saigon-controlled zone. By dawn we had managed the final few hundred yards on our own, and were standing back on Route 1, not five feet from the place we had charged across the paddy fields two weeks earlier to begin our encounter with the PRG.
When we came out, we were picked up by troops on the Saigon side, and shunted to the police who drove us to Da Nang and escorted us to Saigon. They were curious but not really pushy. Our film was confiscated, but we were luckier than some on that. The film was returned just a couple of days later.
We didn’t have many photos, though, partly because the PRG people were nervous about our taking pictures, and partly because there were some we just didn’t try to get when we should have. We could have kicked ourselves for not asking to take Trinh’s picture, after she had stuffed us day after day with such good food. Or Mr. Hong, the middle-aged provincial cadre who was the head of the delegation sent to welcome us — an easy-going country sort. Because he was the head of the delegation he had to pass on the news that we would have to be placed under arrest. It seemed almost more unpleasant for him than it was for us.
There was Tuan Anh, too, the English-speaking provincial cadre who interpreted for Mr. Hong. It was several days after we met him that he finally told us about his family. They had all been killed. Fourteen of them, including the wife he had married only two years before. The news hadn’t reached him until two months later. When he returned home, there was nothing but bomb craters. He’s 29. So are we.
No picture of Xuan Thu, either. She was delegated by the provincial committee to make sure we stayed healthy. Almost 25, she said, after a guessing game about her age. She’s an assistant doctor. Assistant doctor, she explained, isn’t a regular degree in the medical system. In theory the medical students will study six years and become doctors. But because of the war conditions, they have organized the first three years of study to prepare people as assistant doctors.
When conditions are better, she will go on to complete the full course. Even now she, like other assistant doctors, is studying a specialized area part time. Thu’s is surgery.
We didn’t need anything that drastic. She passed out anti-malaria pills and vitamins to us, plus cold pills for me. I asked her to check a couple of cuts on my feet. They were minor, but feet were unusually important to us there. Besides, I wanted to see some people’s medicine. Thu was very matter-of-fact about it. I was carrying a tube of American antibiotic ointment, and after looking at the label she said, “That’s good stuff; let’s use it.”
Malaria is the worst medical problem in the province, she told us. The old bomb craters are perfect breeding ponds for mosquitos. That article in Chinh Luan describes malaria as a “terrible epidemic” in the Saigon-controlled part of Que Son. Thu gave us figures for the liberated zone. Twenty percent of the population gets malaria at some time during the year. One of the young troopers in our escort party came down with the characteristic chills and fever the day we were leaving. He managed to force a smile when he bid us good-bye, but it was a bad day for him.
The photo I should have taken of Quan would have shown him lying in his hammock. One of a kind. Quan was one of the regional infantry men providing security for us. His hammock was brilliant lavender, and was surely his most prized possession. His wife made it for him, he told me with a quiet glow.
Quan was one of the people who stayed behind with me when McCombs went off for his three-day “deep” tour. We had adequate but hardly exciting soldier cooking the first night after McCombs left, and then Quan went off to his home village to bring back a young cousin who could really cook. Besides, it gave him another chance to visit his son, almost two who, he told me, hung on to daddy’s leg as he left until Quan finally had to dislodge him, point him toward and house and say, “Go.”
In the three days we waited for McCombs, Quan and I had several hammock-swinging conversations. One time he was telling me enthusiastically about the new society they were building. Of all the things which angered him about the old society, the worst seemed to be that one person should have to hire out to another. “In our new society no one will exploit the labor of anyone else.”
When peace finally comes, I asked him during another conversation, where would you like most to go in the world? “I’ll go wherever I’m needed,” he answered with no hesitation. But, I insisted, if you could go any where you wanted to, where would you like to go — maybe just for a visit? “To the socialist north.”
When we got back to Saigon; we found a new batch of propaganda slogans up along the streets. One caught my eye: DON’T LISTEN TO THE THINGS COMMUNISTS SAY BUT LOOK CAREFULLY AT THE THINGS THE COMMUNISTS DO. Quan, Xuan Thu, Mr. Hong, the farm couple with their three-month-old baby — I think they would really like it if people could have the chance.
Copyright John Spragens, Jr.
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