The man who found peace on Kham Thien Street

By Calvin Godfrey, TN News

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As the country prepares a series of traffic-stopping martial parades to mark the end of a war that cost millions of lives, Dinh Xuan Hieu reminds us we should all be happy enough with peace.

Dinh Xuan Hieu, a field nurse during the war, remembered running through Kham Thien as the bombs fell.

During a recent reporting trip to Hanoi, I spent my last day on Kham Thien Street.
Back in 1972, President Richard Milhouse Nixon sent the people of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam bombs for Christmas.
For nearly two weeks, 20,000 tons of ordnance rained down on cities in the North. Vietnam officially claimed 1,624 civilian casualties—a number some argue was understated.
In any case, the Boxing Day bombing of Kham Thien Street ranks high among the most horrible things that happened during the war.
Today, the street certainly doesn't look like the scene of a mass murder. Bright-billboards scream loud over everything from trendy soymilk shops to dingy draft beer halls. Traffic moves at a frenzied pace.
The only physical evidence of the crime sits behind a locked iron gate.
If you happen to have a key, you can ascend a staircase lined with fanzipan trees and gaze at a bronze statue of a mother cradling her dead child.
Or you can just talk to anyone over the age of 40.
One local cadre invited me into his house to tell me about how he’d spent all of Christmas Day manning an anti-aircraft gun with his colleagues from at a state-owned printing press.
In the morning, he returned home to learn he’d lost his wife, his cousin and his developmentally disabled son in a single bunker. They had returned to Hanoi in the belief that the Americans wouldn’t dare to drop bombs during Christmas.
Later, I spoke to a mother who fled the city with her six children—leaving her husband to mind the house.
Her eldest son eventually secured permission from the Navy to head back to Hanoi to find his dad.
And he did find him: standing upright beneath their bombed out staircase, intact but bleeding from both ears. He ran toward the old man, only to realize his father had been killed from the force of the blast.
Like everyone else in the neighborhood, she built a shack atop the rubble where her home had been and went to work in a collective chili packing factory until she had enough to build a home.
"We had goggles," she said. "But my eyes burned every day. I still have problems with them."
Every few years, she made improvements. Now it was many stories tall. Her children were mostly living abroad and working good jobs.
The last man I interviewed that day was sitting on the steps of the monument waiting for bus number 9.
Dinh Xuan Hieu had no teeth, a face lined with wrinkles and tiny, rheumy eyes--all of which seemed locked in a permanent smile.
He kept his cane wrapped in colorful gaffing tape at hand along with a battered vinyl briefcase full of poems about the death of General Giap and the beauty of life.
Hieu's brother wandered south in 1950 and took a job as a secretary to Nguyen Van Thieu--the uber-corrupt army commander cum penultimate president of the Republic of Vietnam.
While his brother was down in Saigon typing away, Hieu joined Hanoi’s volunteer youth force and ended up being trained as a field nurse. Though he could barely walk now, he remembered running through Kham Thien as the bombs fell.
"I didn't care about the bombs," he said. "I just ran around and around saving as many people as I could."
Most of them were factory workers from surrounding provinces who had huddled into shelters that proved no match for the 500 pound bombs.
Hieu spent the night digging them out of rubble and trying to load them onto flatbed trucks bound for hospitals on the outskirts.
When asked if he recognized the dead or injured, he shook his head no.
All Hieu cared to remember about that night was the smoke. Smoke everywhere, illuminated only by burning houses.
"I couldn't see anything," he kept saying over and over again. But his expression suggested he wished to un-see the things he’d seen.
Due to his talents with a pen, Hieu took a job at the Voice of Vietnam.
He didn't offer any answers to questions about the growing problems of corruption or wealth inequality.
Come to think of it, I don't believe he mentioned anyone who's looking after him these days.
The revolution hadn't made Hieu rich. But he didn't seem to mind. That wasn't the idea, after all.
Even his brother, who had fled to California, had returned to live out the remainder of his life in Ho Chi Minh City.
Hieu was trying to read my palm using a series of charts he kept in his briefcase when his bus pulled up.
Just before being yanked into the open door by the driver's assistant, he said this:
“Everything is better now; Vietnam has peace.”

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