My afternoon with Mr. Trung Trung Dinh

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For the past twenty years, I've continued to translate Vietnamese poetry and introduce Vietnamese literature to my American college students.

During that time, I've become aware of Mr. Trung Trung Dinh's life a highly regarded writer who is considered one of the most important modern novelists in Vietnam.

He has published twelve collections of short stories and novels, the most well-known of which is the novel "Lost in the Jungle." Translated into English and published in Canada, it is a beautifully written and painfully autobiographical novel set in the center of the worst of the American War.

In 1967 I didn't know anything about Dinh, although as it turns out, we spent some time being very close to each other him mostly watching me through the dark. How could I have known anything about him except that he wanted to kill me?

I was eighteen years old, not well read, ignorant of the important facts of history, blindly faithful to my government and to the ideals of our Constitution, and ready to do what I was told in defense of Democracy.

I arrived in Vietnam on December 7 and by the middle of the month I was already at the 1st Air Cavalry's basecamp that was then at An Khe in central Vietnam. It wasn't a large base, and it was surrounded by some small villages and by a dense jungle terrain. Even though I knew nothing about Vietnam, and little about the actualities of war, I could tell from the moment that I stepped on base that most of the people around me were on edge, worried about something no one was talking about. My fellow soldiers even seemed unfriendly, at first, keeping to themselves. Taking care of their weapons. Working. Or filling sandbags.

I went to work immediately too. I was part of an advanced communication and intelligence team, and it became clear to me very quickly that all signs pointed to the fact that we were basically surrounded by the enemy in the form of the Popular Resistance Forces.

Those weeks and months at An Khe may have been the first time in my life that I believed there was a good chance that I would die. I was not afraid of dying but of leaving my family behind. I was eighteen years old and I knew that it would kill them too.

On New Year's Eve there was a rocket and mortar attack, and an assault on the perimeter which was driven back. For a short time, the fireworks overlapped with the exploding mortar rounds so you couldn't tell one from the other. The air was also filled with rapid small arms and M-60 machine gun fire. From inside our small bunker, we could hear indistinct shouting nearby, a few more very loud explosions that shook us to the bone, an agonizing call for Medic, Medic, and then absolute and shuddering silence. 

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The attack was over for now, but 1968 would become the deadliest year of the war in terms of losses on both sides, but especially among the Vietnamese. I left An Khe with the Division shortly after that night and was happy to be gone. I had come to believe that there was a chance that what my country was doing, what I was doing, was wrong. I didn't know then how my time at An Khe had changed me, or how I would never see the world in the same way again, or how the night would always hold for me the sound of spirits moving through the brush, whispering in a language just beyond my understanding.

Decades later, we met again at his office surrounded by friends and interpreters during a literary conference in Hanoi.

Dinh told me that he had read my daughter's translation into Vietnamese of my memoir, The Circle of Hanh, and that from it he had learned that I had served at An Khe. I told him I had. He smiled and shook his head enthusiastically. We began to get closer and closer in space and time to An Khe.

Dinh's journey began as a boat ride from Hai Phong to Vinh and then walked a thousand kilometers to An Khe. Many of Dinh's comrades were killed or wounded along the way and Dinh himself was seriously wounded by an M-79 grenade.

They had no antibiotics, anesthesia, or any other kind of medicine, so his comrades covered him with honey, known traditionally among indigenous people as having curative and even antibiotic powers. He told me that when they cleaned his wounds with honey, they had to tie him down to the table that he can still feel the knife cutting the grenade fragments from his body. The Bahnar ethnic minority people helped him survive this horror, and he told me that his scars were a constant reminder not of his unimaginable suffering, but of his love for those people.

His voice trailed off and then the room was quiet.

Then, he asked me if I'd ever been back to An Khe. I never had the desire or curiosity to go back there, I said, and he understood.

He had felt the same way about An Khe for a long time, and then he told me about a trip he'd taken back there in 2000. He told me that the Bahnar people that he had lived among, and who had taken care of him and other wounded VC soldiers, were so happy to see him that many families brought jugs of wine in a traditional welcoming. He said that at the end of the day, there were over three hundred jugs of wine.

After more tea and cigarettes, Dinh began to talk about An Khe, again. He told me about how he and his comrades would sometimes steal our food when it was dropped by helicopters nearby, and how they had watched us at the base camp and wherever we went from a very close distance.

He told me how horrible the helicopters had been for them: frighteningly noisy monsters that could hover so close to the ground, and how frightened they were by their power and by the power of their weapons, and how sometimes they could not hide from them.

Dinh can no longer sleep in a room with an overhead fan for how it moves and makes a sound like a helicopter blade. Nor can he sleep through the night in the same room as his wife because of the night terrors that still haunt him awake. He paused again and smiled again.

He said that we would go back there together one day and I told him he would be the only person I'd go with. We agreed that we should write a book together about An Khe, and perhaps someday we will.

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