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Female drivers and glorious tracks on Trường Sơn Mountain



TREACHEROUS WORK: Female drivers take a rest on the Trường Sơn Mountains route. Photo courtesy of Dung

 By Minh Thu

When Vũ Thị Kim Dung, 75, opens an album of old photos, her eyes shine brightly. She recalls her time serving the Army as a truck driver on the Trường Sơn Mountains route. There are few words that can explain how hard those days were. However, she still feels proud of being part of a female driver platoon, the only one of its kind formed during the anti-American war.

Between 1966 and 1967, the US and Sài Gòn armed forces increased their attacks against the liberation forces in the South. The US-Sài Gòn air forces also tried to disrupt the supplies and reinforcements from the North to the South.

The need for transporting army supplies and personnel for the southern battlefield became more urgent than ever. That’s the reason why the Female Drivers Unit was founded officially under the name of army heroine Nguyễn Thị Hạnh in 1968.

The female drivers were given the task of transporting goods, soldiers and the wounded. They made history as a heroic platoon. They often suicidally crossed many dangerous places, heavily bombed by US air force, that male drivers were scared of – Đồng Lộc road junction in Hà Tĩnh Province, High Point 050, and Heaven’s Gate Pass in Quảng Bình Province.

A letter written in blood

Dung was born to a poor family in the northern province of Hưng Yên. She was the oldest among five sisters. Her father died when they were young. The family burden was put on her shoulders.

When the Anti-American Youth Volunteer Brigade was established, many young people in the North enthusiastically volunteered to go to war.

In 1967, there was a call for young people to go to the battlefield in the central province of Quảng Bình. Dung registered without her mother’s knowledge. 

A day before enlisting, she was unable to hide the news from her mother and confessed everything. She hadn’t seen her mother cry so much since her father passed away. Mother and daughter kept hugging each other and crying because the battlefield was so dangerous. Her mother didn’t want to let the young girl go.

Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt Ánh and her husband Trần Công Thắng. When the country reunited, they met each other again and got married. Photo courtesy of Ánh

Dương Thị The joined the female driver team at the age of 20. She had a boyfriend and wanted to marry him, but she was determined to leave for the sake of the country. She registered to join the army under the name of her older sister. Her parents knew about this decision.

“When I got on the train to the battlefield, I saw my father run after the train. He was angry and threw a rock at the carriage. Seeing that scene, my tears poured out of pity for my father, he did not want me to go into the way of the bombs,” The recalled.

Lê Thị Hải Nhi joined the female driver team at the age of 17. She was an orphan so she felt free to join the army. Because she was too young to register, she cut her fingers, using blood to write a letter expressing her strong will to go.

The girls then gathered to join a training course lasting 45 days. They learned to drive and fix the large military trucks. Many of them hadn’t even seen a real car because they lived in rural areas. So driving a truck made them scared and excited at the same time.

A gift from President Hồ

The Female Drivers Unit was officially founded in 1968 with 40 members. Dung still remembers that she was too small to drive a truck. She weighed just 38kg. She had to put a bag behind her back to reach the wheel.

REUNITED: (From left) Drivers Bùi Thị Vân, Vũ Thị Kim Dung, Nguyễn Thị Hòa and Nguyễn Thị Kim Quy. VNS Photo Minh Thu

To stay safe and hidden, they drove at night, and hid the trucks in the bushes during the day. Only one light beneath the truck was turned on, just enough to light up about one or two metres ahead. The drivers felt better driving in moonlight. The roads were treacherous, one side a steep cliff, the other an abyss. They could have been bombed by the enemy aircraft at any time.

“We also had to learn how to fix the trucks. Changing tyres was hard because we weren’t as strong as the men. Sometimes we felt angry and cried because of helplessness,” said Dung. She broke two front teeth with a wrench while she tried to fix the truck.

The female drivers had to use their mouths to suck the petrol out when they hid the trucks. If not, the trucks may explode if they were hit by a bomb.

“Petrol was very precious. We sucked gasoline out and put it in a barrel, then poured it into the car again from the barrel when we were ready to go. Sometimes we accidentally swallowed the liquid, which is very toxic,” Dung said.

The hardships increased when the women got their periods. 

“When we got our periods, we went down the stream to wash, then put the cloth and clothes under the bonnet for the heat to dry them so we could use them again,” Dung said.

“We were so young that we were not afraid of death. Like other girls that age, we were scared of ghosts, the dark and wild animals instead.” 

PAINFUL MEMORIES: Vũ Thị Kim Dung looks at war memorabilia displayed at the Hỏa Lò Prison. She joined the team of female drivers when she was very young. VNS Photo Minh Thu

Bùi Thị Vân never forgets the day in 1969 when she thought she would never come home. Her truck was bombed, but luckily, her teammate saved her from the destroyed vehicle.

Another time, she carried many wounded soldiers. They had been bombed again and were seriously injured even more.

On the way, one soldier told Vân to sing any song she knew. Vân was surprised but tried to sing because music may sooth the pain of the soldiers. She sang many songs, from lullabies, quan họ (love duets) to patriotic songs. When they reached the shelter, one soldier died. His friends told Vân that her singing consoled him in his final moments. Vân burst into tears. She never forgot that day.

Driver Phạm Thị Phàn from the northern province of Thái Bình did something extraordinary. She was one of the first two female drivers of the army to surpass High Point 050 in Quảng Trị Province which even experienced male drivers were afraid of.

The night was so dark and the vehicle was just inches away from the edge of the cliff, but she remained calm and followed the route. Her bravery was highly appreciated. President Hồ Chí Minh gave Phàn and her comrades a watch as a gift. Recently, she donated this watch to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

FRIENDS AND COMRADES: Female drivers reunite at Hỏa Lò Prison in Hà Nội. VNS Photo Minh Thu

Coming home wounded

The battlefield is arduous and fierce, but it is also the place where many beautiful relationships flourished. The love story of Nguyễn Thị Nguyệt Ánh and her husband Trần Công Thắng is one such case.

They met by chance at a concert in 1966. She was a driver and he an engineer in the army. They fell in love but in 1968, his unit was ordered to go southward and move into Laos.

Although apart from each other, their feelings never faded. He gave her a notebook, in which he had written poems and love letters. Ánh said she overcame the troubles during the war thanks to this notebook.

“Every word he wrote helped motivate me to carry on. We waited until the day the war ended,” Ánh recalled.

When the country was at peace, the female team drove in the parade ceremony at Ba Đình Square in Hà Nội. When Thắng heard there was a female driving team from Trường Sơn Trail, he ran to the square. They found each other at long last.

In 1977, he moved to the General Department of Logistics and Ánh applied to the Ministry of Finance to be a driver. They now live together happily. The little house in Long Biên District, Hà Nội, is always full of laughter from their grandchildren.

Returning from the front, some people enjoyed peace and happiness, but others came home with wounds and scars.

When the country was reunified, Dung returned to her homeland. She had lost confidence and turned down many proposals of marriage, because she had passed through the most dangerous roads soaked with poisonous Agent Orange sprayed by the US forces along Trường Sơn Mountains.

“I saw some of my comrades die of cancer. We all swallowed gas which is very poisonous. I also had lung disease. I am an invalid, so I was not comfortable or confident to marry anyone,” Dung said.

A neighbour set her up with Chu Minh Tuấn. He was also a soldier, a war correspondent. His wife, a teacher, had died in an accident. At this time, he had three children. He sent Dung a letter with sincere words, expressing how he sympathised with her. The letter touched Dung and they married in 1990.

“I became a wife but can never be a mother, it is a constant regret in my life. Fortunately, my husband’s children all love and respect me,” said Dung.

Even so, Dung is delighted with her present happiness. She confided that many other members of the team were even more miserable, some lived in poverty, some never married and lived alone with beautiful memories of their youth.

Despite the fragile border between life and death, all the female drivers survived and came home after the war.

Even 50 years later, they regularly meet up to recall the old stories that stay forever in the minds of the heroic drivers.

 “We reunite every year. I am very happy that we all still respect each other. We have passed along the edge of life and death together,” said Dung.

The female drivers sacrificed their youth to the nation. Today, they hope that young people will contribute more to society and respect the value of peace. VNS


Your Vietnam

Children in Da Nang spend one-of-a-kind summer break



As she saw her five-year-old son standing in front of a TV attending his virtual school losing ceremony in late May, Tran Phuong Chi, 36, could not imagine how he would spend the stay-at-home summer break. 

Chi’s city, Da Nang, was hit hard by COVID-19 and put under strict lockdown in May.

It was a time when local residents needed day-passes to enter markets.

A lot of restrictions had been lifted before they were reinstated in June given the resurgence of the stubborn coronavirus.

Everything has not yet come back to normalcy. 

More challenges, more skills

In previous summers, Chi and her husband traveled with their children or brought them to the countryside before coming back to the city for summer classes. 

This year, they can do nothing but stay at their home in Hai Chau District. 

Overcoming several COVID-19 waves, Chi’s children got used to studying online with teachers.

The young mother has also developed activities to help them have a not-so-boring summer break.

As she also works from home, it is easier for her to spend more time playing and studying with her children. 

At night, nine-years-old Bich Quan, who is Chi’s daughter, is in charge of making a to-do list and schedule for the next day.

Chi gives her some small tasks such as reading a book and then summarizing it for her sibling or mopping the house and revamping her own room. 

By completing the tasks, Quan will be rewarded with textbooks, stationary or toys. She also has her brother help to do housework. 

After two weeks of summer break, Quan found new interest in watering plants and cooking simple dishes such as fried eggs or soup. Her brother is now responsible for doing the washing-up 

Bich Quan and her brother wash dishes together. – Photo: Phuong Chi/Tuoi Tre

Bich Quan and her brother wash dishes together. Photo: Phuong Chi / Tuoi Tre

Nong Thi Huong Xuan, 38, in Son Tra District, enjoys her children’s assistance in running an online business.

Working as a TV reporter, Xuan sells organic food as a side job. 

Besides helping her children with studying, working out, and doing housework, Xuan instructs them to make fruit advertising clips in English and Vietnamese. 

They think up their own ideas and Xuan gives comments on communication skills to help them perfect the final products. She also shows them how to display, weigh, and sell fruits. 

“I am sure that they learn something, how to calculate profits and do marketing, for example,” the parent said.

“These experiences help them apply bookish knowledge into reality.” 

Xuan’s children help their mother sort fruits. – Photo: HX/Tuoi Tre

Nong Thi Huong Xuan’s children help their mother sort fruits. Photo: H.X. / Tuoi Tre

Playing safe 

Amid the pandemic, Doan Phat Ha, 39, in Lien Chieu District, and his wife still have to go to work. 

Worrying that his son would feel lonely staying at home, he connected him with a classmate to spend summer days together.

They have a daily schedule for English study and recreational activities. 

Sometimes, he calls home to check whether they are doing well or asks a neighbor to pay a quick visit, reminding them to have lunch and take a nap. 

“After work, we ride bikes, play soccer, or fly kites together,” he said. 

“These activities help keep my son active and healthy after a long day staying indoors and sitting in front of a monitor.

“It is fun that we have a lot of things to share at dinner time.”

Psychologists warn against forcing children to stay at home all day as they will get irritable.

They might get addicted and negatively affected by overusing computers and other smart devices. 

Dr. Nguyen Thi Quy from the psychology department under the Da Nang University of Pedagogy said parents should spend time talking, reading books, and making toys with their children.

Depending on their ages, parents can also ask their children to help with housework as a way to share responsibility and better understand each other. 

“To ensure children’s social connection, parents can let them play in small groups with peers who have not traveled from COVID-19-hit areas,” Quy said.

“When they go out, parents should make sure they play within the safe range of pandemic prevention.”

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In Vietnam, child thrown out of mother’s womb in tragic accident grows happily



On the way to the hospital after going into labor, a pregnant woman was run over by a concrete mixing transport truck in Vietnam, causing the fetus to be squeezed out of her womb seven years ago.

The tiny unborn baby survived the crash and has grown into a healthy and happy one-legged boy.

It happened on October 25, 2014 in Long Xuyen City, An Giang Province, located in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.

The husband was driving his wife on a motorbike.

The wife died on site. The fetus came out with one leg lost, so did his father.

Following a deep coma, a limb removal operation, the lack of his mother’s milk and warmth, the baby still beat all the odds.

The tin soldier

Despite his tragic birth, Nguyen Quoc Huy has braved the ordeal of having one leg and leads a happy life with his father.

“My job is simply to see him smile each day,” said Nguyen Van Nam, his 39-year-old father, who lives in Cho Moi District, An Giang, which is considered a ‘rice bowl’ in the Mekong Delta.

They keep their chin up although each has only one leg left.

The physical disadvantage did not deter Nam from hard work. Whenever the rice crop season approaches, he is extremely busy. 

“During this time the pests are everywhere, so I have to be in the fields all the time,” he said.

“I can hardly be home with my child.

“I miss him a lot, but I can’t leave until everything is properly taken care of.”

Coming home after days apart, the father rushed to embrace his young boy, who clutched him and showered him with kisses on the cheeks.

Huy readily asked his father to buy him a toy water gun at a nearby store.

Now the boy has grown up to be smart, cute, and sociable.

“His mother was still alive when he was forced out,” recalled Nam.

“I looked at her, telling her to pray to the Buddha.

“My son was flung meters away.

“That has been a haunting sight until now.

“It does not bother me, but reminds me of how valuable our lives are.

“I love my son even more every time I think about that incident.”

The struggle

Following the traffic accident, Huy was admitted to Children’s Hospital 1 in Ho Chi Minh City, while his father was hospitalized at a local place before his transfer to Cho Ray Hospital in the same city.

During his month-long hospitalization, family members kept him in the dark about his son’s condition for fear that it might be too much for him to bear.

The boy moves around briskly despite his physical disability. Photo: Thanh Nhon / Tuoi Tre

Nguyen Quoc Huy, seven, moves around briskly despite his physical defect. Photo: Thanh Nhon / Tuoi Tre

Nam only got to visit his baby after his discharge from the hospital.

“A nurse got me a wheelchair. She pushed me to my son’s room,” he said.

“It was a fleeting moment, but I had mixed feelings.

“I was anxious, happy, and distressed.

“I felt sorry for the baby.”

Nam made it back to his hometown as he regained his health. He prayed for his wife there, then returned to Ho Chi Minh City.

The pain of the widower seemed to double seeing his baby with only one leg left.

Yet the man suppressed it all. He had to be both his father and mother.

“It was quite a struggle at first because I lost one leg too, especially when my boy needed his regular health check in Ho Chi Minh City,” Nam said.

“The checks were one week apart at first, then two weeks, then one month, and three months.

“Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out [last year], we haven’t been going to the city anymore.”

Hearing his father mention the term ‘COVID-19’ to a correspondent from Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Huy was quick to comment: “The COVID virus? Don’t go near it, dad! Dangerous!”

Learning to walk with an artificial leg at 11 months old was the toughest task for the young boy.

Watching the baby attempting to get the hang of it and crying out loud due to frustration, even Nam broke down in tears.

The father and son regularly had their health checks and walking lessons at the hospital.

“He could barely walk until two years old. Now, Huy only needs his artificial leg at school,” Nam said.

“He removes it the moment he’s back home.

“He can still run around.

“Unlike me. Without my fake leg, I lose to him every time.”

During his first years of life, Huy was prone to sickness. His father had a few sleepless nights taking him to the doctor.

“Now he’s fine. Sometimes, he cries to get a toy or some new cakes. That’s it,” said his father.

They actually received a donation from a philanthropist after the accident. With that, Nam rebuilt his house and purchased a piece of land in Hon Dat District, Kien Giang Province for use as rice fields.

“I had never owned such a fortune in my life. Thinking about my life now, at times I burst out in tears,” he said.

A father’s hope

In recent days, Nam is deeply involved in his plantation work. He has to take care of the rice plants, the irrigation system, the fertilization process, and then the harvesting.

He needs a good earning for his child’s life.

Nam can be days away from home every ‘business trip’ to the rice fields.

The 60-kilometer distance did not stop him from rushing to Huy for some snuggling, then immediately back to his farm work.

“When the summer comes, he forces me to get him to the field,” Nam said.

“The boy likes to swim. He loves the canal and goes there every afternoon. He got a real tan after several days.”

There are two rice crops every year, according to Nam. From the seventh to the ninth lunar month, commonly known as the ‘floating season’ in the Mekong Delta, he spent all his time with Huy.

“I’d stay with him and teach him to read,” he said.

Huy is enrolled in an elementary school near his home. He gets to school in an electric toy car –quite a curious sight for those seeing him the first time.

Yet that has become too familiar to his teachers and peers.

“At first I drove him to school. It felt dangerous and difficult for him,” Nam said.

“I was worried a lot. What if he got bullied? But luckily, he was nice, so his teachers and friends, and even our neighbors love him and help him a lot.”

According to his father, Huy is a little ‘behind’ his friends in school achievements. However, the boy got encouragement from his father rather than rebuke.

“I myself loved to learn, but my family was poor so I couldn’t get to school,” Nam said.

“So now I have to make sure he gets a good education. I am so pleased to see him make progress.”

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Vietnamese IT engineer turns restaurateur, hopes to build culinary career from hometown specialties



Much to his family’s objection, Nguyen Han Thien took it upon himself to quit his high-paying IT job and opened a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, serving iconic dishes from his hometown to realize his childhood dream.

Bidding farewell to his well-paid information technology job at three different companies, including one reputed IT group he had worked for nearly 10 years, Thien charted a new direction for his future and invested his savings in opening a bistro.

He is now the owner of Bep Nguoi Hoi An (Hoi An Kitchen) restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City.

The only and hottest items on his restaurant’s menu are com ga (chicken rice) and mi Quang (noodle served with shrimp, pork, peanuts, and banh da nuong, or grilled rice paper wrapper), the specialties of Thien’s hometown in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Nam.

His restaurant all comes down to Thien’s childhood dream, long-cherished passion for cooking and his years working as a busboy for his mother, who had been running her eatery with the special noodle soup for decades. 

Thien, along with his siblings, grew up on earnings from his mother’s eatery while inheriting her sense of detail and infatuation with their hometown’s hallmark soup.  

Until now, the man remembers the extra care he took in boiling water on the wood stove for hot, fragrant tea, the drink commonly served to diners.   

During his college years, he again found himself immersed in a culinary world centered around delicacies from the central Vietnamese region when he stayed with his distant uncle, whose restaurant made quite a splash in Nha Trang City, a coastal town in the south-central province of Khanh Hoa.

Thien said what he had observed and picked up during that time was just what he needed to turn his childhood dream into reality.

Upon graduation, the young man headed to Ho Chi Minh City, where he landed a financially rewarding gig in information technology, a perfect fit for his college major.

For nearly 10 years, he worked at three different companies, including one big IT group, and won awards for outstanding performance. 

Though his office work brought security and a good income, part of him craved change, as the man always dreamed of the day when he could run a restaurant of his own.

Seeing that the iconic dishes from his hometown would become fixtures in the southern metropolis, he bravely quit his job and opened his dream restaurant after meticulously weighing the pros and cons of such a career move.

The man was determined to show how his resolve to pursue his dream has ever grown stronger.

He stood his ground firmly as his mother fiercely rejected his plan to leave the office for a risky venture and all the hard work that would lie ahead.

“The last thing I want for my son is dipping his toes into the restaurant industry and experiencing all the hard work I’ve been through,” said Hang Thi Tam, Thien’s mother.

Without formal training in the hospitality sector, Thien began working out his own formulae and seeking reliable procurement sources, making sure the ingredients and packaging are of high quality and environmentally friendly.

His eatery uses paper packaging instead of single-use plastic boxes.

“The restaurant is funded by my savings from my previous working years,” Thien shared.

“When the time came, I quit my IT job to focus solely on my current business.”

The enterprising man is already on his path, sparked by his long-cherished dream, with his restaurant now bringing in enough cash for him to feel financially secure.

But it was not an easy start, especially when his inauguration came during the social distancing period, which was in place in the metropolis and other localities to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak last year.

During the low season, Thien’s eatery became a haunt of poor laborers whose livelihood was disrupted by the social distancing measures.

They came to the eatery to receive gift packs of necessities, with the fund donated by Thien himself and his like-minded friends.

Thien is no stranger to charity work.

For the past several years, he and his group have prepared gratis meals for inpatients and their caretaker relatives at local hospitals on a regular basis.

Whenever he had no time to spare, Thien made donations to support his group’s good deeds.

His eatery has successfully tapped into takeout and online ordering business to cope with the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic since its opening more than one year ago.

Business is currently good thanks to online food shopping and delivery amid the country’s fourth and most ravaging outbreak.

In pursuit of more consumers, Thien has made the most of his IT expertise and SEO techniques to make sure his restaurant and dishes always come first on search engines.

“We’ve survived the pandemic so far and attracted a stable following,” Thien said proudly.

“My restaurant is raking in profits and I no longer have to offset losses as we did during the first few months.”

Thien’s eatery is also frequented by many of his friends.

“Thien’s restaurant attracts customers not necessarily for its good food, but rather for his dedication and eye for detail,” noted Du Tran Nhat Quang, from Thien’s charity group. 

“His attention to detail is clearly seen in his sophisticated interior décor, which reminds us of Hoi An Ancient Town, and the extra mile he goes to in preparing the delicacies.

“The place is also a haunt of friends.”

Spurred on by this success, Thien even dreams of going ‘large scale’ and stretching far and wide.

“As my childhood dream is taking shape, I’m charting a new direction for the future,” the former IT engineer shared.

“I’m thinking of opening a chain of eateries in Ho Chi Minh City, offering a range of delicacies from my hometown.”

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