Guilt and Death, North and South

At noon on April 30, 1975, when news that the liberation forces had captured Saigon spread to the North, we thought: “The war has ended. Now happiness will immediately arrive.” All of us, the youth volunteers of Hanoi who were digging a big lake in the suburbs, were allowed to go home, and the next day was May Day, a holiday.

I was so thrilled to head home and enjoy my afternoon off. National flags were flying everywhere. Young people cheered and chanted, “Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh! Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!”

But then the image of a friend who had been in the North Vietnamese special forces appeared in my mind. He had been among 1,000 soldiers who had gone out to fight together, and one of only four who returned. Their mission had been to ambush dangerous Saigonese agents — and sometimes Americans.

Soon after his return, he and I sat together on a pile of straw, and he told me a war story. He and his group had happened upon some Americans, who started shooting. My friend and his comrades had been ordered to avoid capture, even at the cost of their lives, so they tried to escape. The Americans were drunk, but chased after them. When one American was about to jump on one of our soldiers, my friend stabbed the man from behind and he fell, mortally wounded.

My friend turned him over on the ground and saw his young and handsome face. “Mama,” the man said before dying — the same word so many of our own soldiers uttered before they died. My friend’s heart tightened and, from then on, he said, he could never forget the American’s cry.

No one could understand why my friend later decided to return to battle. I’m told that he was killed somewhere in the jungle. Only years afterward did I come to believe that after hearing the plea of the dying American, he had felt guilty about living. But why did I think of him that day, at that moment, among the cheers?

Phan Thanh Hao, a poet and translator.