Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

10 Responses to “Tran thi Thuong-Thuong – Letters to a Teacher”

  1. Logophile

    This sounds absolutely fascinating. I would love to learn more about this period of Vietnamese history, as so much of what I know of that country comes only from either the French or American perspectives…I’m going to add it to my wish list to revisit when the stack of books at my bedside drops a little. Thanks for writing about it!

  2. Ann Darnton

    Thanks so much for writing about this. I’ve added it to my wish list straight away. As someone who has spent all her life teaching I’m sure there will be much that I can relate to simply because of the differences in our experiences.

  3. Dew

    What an exciting project this book must have been for your friend! I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  4. verbivore

    Logophile – I also really enjoyed reading about this particular moment of Vietnamese history. I get the sense that the Vietnam War that followed this period tends to generate a lot more interest.

    Ann – I hadn’t thought about it from a teaching perspective, but you are absolutely right. Her book would be fascinating reading for a teacher – she writes about how they had to make their own ink and clean the blackboards with leaves. When she began principal at her school, the accounts only had enough money to buy the equivalent of one egg. Pretty dire circumstances.

    Stefanie – Good, it would be fun to see what you think!

    Dewey – It really was. And her translation is just wonderful.

  5. Amateur Reader

    I know an ESL teacher who has taught many Vietnamese immigrants over the years, and would greatly enjoy this. But I’ll read it before I give it to her.

  6. verbivore

    Amateur Reader – for someone working with Vietnamese immigrants, I can see these letters as quite fascinating reading. I think they really detail what their young life must have been like for an entire generation of people.

    Eva – glad you think it looks interesting! And especially with your particular interest in politics, you might find the information on vietnamese style communism really fascinating.

    Litlove – Happy to! I’ve been so excited about her project for a while now and so glad it finally came together.

  7. logan

    I have been living next door to Tran and her husband for years, and I just now discovered their past. Her memoir is absolutely fascinating and their story is incredible. I’m so grateful to know this part of their lives… Tran is also an incredible artist. These things I never knew about my neighbors have just enriched my life.

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