A friend of mind has just published a lovely little book called Letters to a Teacher: Six years in the Vietminh War Zone 4 and I want to write about it in the hopes of generating some interest in her project. The book is a translation of a series of letters written by Tran thi Thuong-Thuong, my friend’s mother, to her former school teacher. The letters were written in 1995 when Tran was finally living in the United States and were sent to her teacher who had also relocated to America and who was at that point bed-ridden, quite elderly and longing to remember the country she had left behind.
Tran has an incredible story to tell about a short period of her life (1946 to 1952) when she was living and teaching in the Communist-controlled area of North Vietnam during the First Indochina War. The book contains five richly detailed letters just bursting with stories about the necessity of teaching every lesson with a Marxist-Leninist slant, about trying to help students learn while all around them their world grew more and more violent, about having two young children in such a frightening and unstable situation.
Eventually, Tran and her husband decide they will escape to the South in the hopes of securing a better future for their children and reuniting with Tran’s family (whom she had not seen or heard from in years because of the fighting). They escape separately, Tran going first with her two children – she tells of hiding her three-year-old daughter under a load of bananas to avoid detection and then watching as the bananas get covered in water by soldiers, preparing bamboo arm sheaths to ward off attacks by orangutans in the jungle, and watching her five-year-old son walk hot railroad tracks for miles and miles and never once complaining at the blisters and welts that soon appeared on his feet.
Quite an incredible memoir. Tran remembers what she calls the death of her youth with honest precision and painstakingly explains what went on for ordinary citizens at a time of such political and social turmoil. Many of the stories are frightening – about torture, brainwashing and poverty, while others describe endless indoctrination meetings and the dwindling trust between former neighbors and friends along with the frustrating necessity of negotiating a complex and often terrifying government system.
For anyone looking to learn about this period of Vietnamese history, Letters to a Teacher provides an excellent entry. And in a more general way, it is quite simply a moving story of one woman trying to be a teacher and a mother under some extraordinary circumstances.