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Letter to the Wall
By Le Ly Hayslip
From the Unknown Soldier Gravesite on Route 9 Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Dear Names On The Wall, In Washington USA, I just returned from Vietnam, our Motherland, where you lost your lives. You are so much luckier than my countrymen in Vietnam. At least your names are here on these beautiful black marble walls, standing right in your capital near the White House where they made the decision for your life to send you away to Vietnam.
Since I was a young girl growing up in my village I heard the name "Dãy Núi Trường Sơn" (Annamite Mountain Range) to describe the many mountains around us. Later, when the war against you and your country broke out, Trường Sơn become something very sensitive and secretive. Our parents always looked at the mountains with sad faces and told us many ethnic groups lived in the mountains. We saw the smoke rise up after some airplanes dropped something on them.
I came to the US in 1970 and learned from the English language news that the Ho Chi Minh Trail was in the Trường Sơn Mountains, where the US carried out heavy bombing and killed hundreds of Vietnamese almost every day. They are tall mountains with deep jungle, covered with heavy vegetation and forests extending over 1,100 km in length. These mountains extend from north to south Vietnam and were used by the north to infiltrate troops and supplies into South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the US war in Vietnam.
For the last 32 years, I learned from people in Vietnam who traveled on foot for months from south Vietnam to the north to join the People's Army in Hanoi. Some were badly wounded and had to be carried by two men on a stretcher walking for months before reaching Hanoi for treatment. I also talked to people, like my brother, Bon Nghe, and countless cousins who left families and villages in 1954 to join Uncle Ho's army in the north. He was only 17 years old and walked most of the way.
In 1972 Bon Nghe and our cousins walked from the north back to central Vietnam. They walked for four days, stopped for a day of rest, then continued on amidst heavy aerial bombing, mortars and artillery fire from every direction and watched human beings killed like ants. It took brother Bon and his comrades years to arrive near our home where they fought to liberate the south. On the way, they buried as many dead comrades as they could.
On March 28, 1975, they achieved their goal: Danang, Quang Nam, and all of central Vietnam were liberated. Bon shared with me many stories of bravery and horror about the Trường Sơn Mountains and Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Ho Chi Minh Trail was used by the National Liberation Front from 1959 to 1975 during heavy fighting and bombing.
After 1975 until about five years ago, Vietnam opened up tours for world visitors to come and visit old battlefields and hot spots all over Vietnam, in places like Khe Sanh, Dien Bien Phu, Hamburger Hill, Hue city, Phu Bai, etc. They widened the old Ho Chi Minh Trail into a big highway for tour buses to carry veterans from the US, France, Japan and many other countries so that veterans who fought there could return to show their families and friends the places and battlefields where they saw so many of their comrades fall. For a long time, I wanted to visit these places to capture the experiences that my brother Bon and others told me about while they walked in the Trường Sơn Mountains. Many advised me not to visit, worried that I could not take it! So, I resisted this urge until my trip to Vietnam last April when people invited me to join them on two major spiritual events that I could not resist.
The first event was to honor the memory and sacrifice of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thay Thích Quảng Đức on the 56th anniversary of his self-immolation at a busy intersection in Saigon on June 11, 1963, to protest against the war. The ceremony was held at the famous Linh Mu Temple in Hue, and I was one of 10,000 national and international guests on that day, April 23, 2019.
After a huge ceremony and lunch for several thousand monks, nuns, and guests, by noon there were just ten monks and thirty of us. We headed to the Trường Sơn Mountains to the location of the Trường Sơn Martyrs' Cemetery on Route 9, where most of the unknown soldier gravesites are located. It is the largest military cemetery of the People's Army of Vietnam. Without knowing what I was getting myself into, I was shocked when we reached the gravesites.
While monks and disabled people were working and praying for the souls of those fallen comrades to be released from earth to heaven, I walked around to see the full expanse of this gravesite and how many graves were there, but that would have taken me days to complete.
I have visited many of the largest military cemeteries and sites of massacres in the world, including US Civil War sites such as Andersonville National Cemetery in Georgia, the Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz, the Passchendaele battlefield in Flanders, Belgium, Battlefield 1 in Australia, just to name a few, but nothing was like the Trường Sơn National Cemetery. Not only was it so large, but the powerful spiritual force present there deeply affected me both physically and mentally in that moment. No matter which country or military cemeteries I visit, they are all victims of war.
I walked and walked, crying in the hot sun. Finally, I sat and meditated under a tree to let my soul be with the spirits in the mountains, the frost, and death. Their spirits spoke to me; I prayed for them and asked for the release of their souls. I was deep in meditation when a vision came and showed me the story of human struggle in battles and the aftermath of wars as deep as the waters in the sea. Seemingly never-ending fighting. When forced to choose between life and death, we always choose life. A voice came. "Against all odds, we chose to be heroes and recognize our destiny to protect our Motherland by following our government's demand to make a sacrifice. That's why we are here at this lonely military gravesite on Route 9 of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We never did make it to the south." Then I heard a song coming through the winds above, the song "Mẹ Việt Nam" which every single Vietnamese mother can relate to, including my own mother, never to see her son return.
The monks and disabled ones prayed hard in the four-hour ceremony in hopes that all the souls in these mountains be released from earth and move to a higher realm, to be with their loved ones, ancestors and their God to find peace. I joined the monks and the group praying to ask those souls to forgive and be forgiven and to move on.
There was a soldier who left home in springtime / He left his poor family and their bamboo hut and never returned / His name is now engraved in the mountain stone / Clouds cast a shadow on the yellow flowers by his grave / Clouds in late afternoon cross the blue sky / Old mother still waits for her son to come home / Old mother keeps looking at the path where her son walked / Oh Mẹ Việt Nam, Oh Motherland Vietnam / Tall mountains just like the love of our mother / The four seasons have whitened her hair / Still, she looks for her son to return / Oh Việt Nam ơi, Oh Motherland Vietnam / Fire is burning in the mountains where you fell / Red flowers bloom there / Showing the beauty of the evening sunset.
Phung Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese writer, memoirist and humanitarian.Through her foundations, she has worked to rebuild cultural bridges between Vietnam and America following the Vietnam War.