California Literary Review

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace by Dang Thuy Tram

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August 13th, 2007 at 11:27 am

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Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
by Dang Thuy Tram
Harmony, 225 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Diary of a Viet Cong Doctor

Between March and December of the pivotal year 1965, 200,000 members of the armed forces of the United States were added to the limited number of American military advisors already in South Vietnam. This marked the onset of the ground war in that small and impoverished nation of farmers and fishermen, the beginning of an era that still haunts our national psyche.

One of the many North Vietnamese who volunteered to make the three-month trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to help fend off the Americans was Dr. Dang Thuy Tram. It was 1967. She was twenty three.

She was called by her middle name, Thuy, by friends and family. At first she seems an unlikely candidate for such an arduous undertaking. She was a child, not of wealth, for no one was wealthy in North Vietnam, but of culture and education. Her long walk ended in Quang Ngai province in central Vietnam. Quang Ngai is an area both formidable and lovely at once, a region where the imposing mountains of the Truong Son range sweep down to the topaz grandeur of the South China Sea.

Thuy was the oldest of five children. Her mother was a pharmacologist. Her father was a surgeon–when he was eventually informed of Thuy’s death, he collapsed and died a short while later, this calling into question U.S. Commander General William Westmoreland’s assertion that ”The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.”

While Thuy’s formal training was in science and medicine, she was also fond of music. She was a guitarist and enjoyed listening to both European classics and popular Vietnamese music. She also relished poetry and literature. Her classmates recall her as alluring, wholesome and friendly, the girl with that charming smile.

Thuy was a public health service physician. In South Vietnam, she worked under the aegis of the National Liberation Front; the Viet Cong. In her small hospitals sequestered in the forested mountain redoubts of Quang Ngai, she received as many as eighty wounded soldiers at once. The hospitals were generally located in “free fire zones,” areas in which American policy allowed any Vietnamese to be shot on sight, the assumption being that they were either enemy soldiers or collaborators. Three of her hospitals in succession were overrun or destroyed by American aerial bombardment.

Whether amputating a shrapnel-torn limb or performing an emergency appendectomy, Dr. Tram proved to be remarkably adept. The diary entry for 8 April, 1968 reads, “Operated on one case of appendicitis without adequate anesthesia. I had only a few meager vials of Novocain to give the soldier, but he never groaned once during the entire procedure. He just kept smiling, to encourage me.”

The operation proved to be life-saving. The patient, Huyn Doan Sang, now approaching 70, still works in his family’s noodle shop in Duc Pho.

Thuy often evidenced a deep animosity toward the Americans, as in her July 25, 1968 diary entry, “Oh, my God. How hateful the war is. And the more hate, the more the devils are eager to fight. Why do they enjoy shooting and killing good people like us? How can they have the heart to kill all those youngsters who love life, who are struggling and living for so many hopes?”

Thuy’s prose is at times lyrical as well as emotionally charged: “Afternoon in the forest, the rain has left the leaves wet and fragile, pale and lucid in the sunbeams, these emerald hands of a maiden imprisoned within a forbidden fortress.”

She wept as she held the hand of a dying soldier, longed for her home and her family of origin, and pined for the love of her life, the mysterious “M” who was a captain in a North Vietnamese Army unit also in the south.

If Dr. Tram’s love-struck longing for “M” is a bit repetitious at times, this is readily forgivable. She is struggling with unrequited love as well as all the loneliness, fear and homesickness that are a young soldier’s due. She did not, after all, set out to be the writer of an historical document. The reader is engaged in the vaguely voyeuristic act of reading, without her permission, her private thoughts. She does demonstrate herself to be intelligent, sensitive, and caring. She’s also possessed of a streak of romanticism as wide as the Mekong River.

The diary, actually two small diaries, came into the hands of a young U.S. Army intelligence officer, Frederic (Fred) Whitehurst. He was preparing to burn the diaries but his South Vietnamese translator said “’Fred, don’t burn them; it already has fire in it.” Whitehurst kept the Diary for 35 years, always wanting to return them to the family, but unable to locate them. In 2005, he attended a conference concerning the Vietnam War at Texas Tech University. There, photographer and Vietnam veteran Ted Engelmann offered to attempt to locate the family on an upcoming trip to Vietnam. Aided by Do Xuan Anh, a staff member in the Hanoi Quaker office, Engelmann was able to find Tram’s mother, 82-year-old Doan Ngoc Tram, and present Thuy’s diary to her.

The diary was first published in Vietnam. In a land where an average press run is 2,000, the diary sold 350,000 copies in its first year and continues to sell vigorously in a variety of languages. Thuy Tram became a folk hero. Her remains were moved from her remote grave and placed in a hero’s mausoleum.

On 20 June, 1970, Tram wrote, “No, I am no longer a child. I have grownup. I have passed trials of peril, but somehow at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one or that of an acquaintance would be enough. Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”

Two days later as Dr. Tram fled down a jungle trail, she and her companions were spotted by a patrol from the Americal Division. The Americans opened fire. Dang Thuy Tram fell dead with a gunshot wound through the forehead.

Her rucksack was found by her body. It contained a small Sony radio, bandages, Novocain, and sketches and notes concerning wounds she had treated. There was also a photograph of a North Vietnamese Army captain bundled with a number of poems written to him. The two books that made up her diary lay on the forest pathway close by. The long and perilous war of Dr. Dang Thuy Tram was over. She was 27.

  • Lacey Burnette

    I was so happy to find this review. I’ll be at the bookstore first thing Tuesday morning.

  • JOHN TRIPP

    I WAS THERE WHEN SHE DIED………..

  • Dang Shou Zang

    Very interesting, I like her,but north vietnamese weren´t saints,it´s sound like business…hmmm like Kerry and Fonda.And she wasn´t Anna Frank of course, who was the idiot that said that?

  • D’Anna

    john tripp,

    were you really there?

  • mayuri trivedi

    very interesting review….

  • Need

    John Tripp, It you were there, Can I ask you a question about her attitude when the soldier shot her? I want to know about that.

  • http://www.a1cstore.com Jim Dutton

    I was married to a beautiful Vietnamese girl in the year Thuy’s diary writings where being published. Anyone with open eyes can still see reminisce of her war torn country, the bomb craters, 30 year old coconut trees, battle scared temples and the even in the people’s eyes. I would recommend this book for the review of the greatest sacrifice of life. Thuy devoted and sacrificed her life for her country, the people and her dream of their unity. Although; in Thuy’s writings we have only her last two books to grasp an understanding of the life that all Vietnamese where forced to Sercombe to during the “American War” it is a full heart wrenching account of love and devotion. Thuy’s uncompromising devotion has the ability to make all readers enduring to her spirit and the spirit of all the Vietnamese people. Mr. D

  • http://stevelogicstupiddoes@yahoo.com Steve Nelson

    (Sorry I don’t understand your unlabled yellow strip that say’s ‘Required’, What is required? I had to Guess it was my e-mail address?)

    I just finnished listening to Dr. Tram’s book on cd. What a wonderful book! I think I fell in Love with her too! Some of the flowery language was a bit beyond me but it was just wonderful anyway. You can see some of the LIE that was Vietnam. Millions of Vietnamese died and 58,000 Americans and the country was devestated while the Rich got Richer! Example: Monsantose, ever heard of them, How about Agent Orange, ya they made it. They’re also are getting Richer today making stuff like ROUND UP.
    And the Beat goes on…

  • http://www.dodo.com.au James

    A wonderful story of youth, innocence, love for her country and a man. And any one of us would have reacted in much the same way had our country been attacked. I am very happy for her mother that she was able to read her daughter’s thoughts, and that her family after all those years and chain of events were given that opportunity. I consider myself fortunate seeing the book in a store and after reading the back cover venturing inside and knowing that it was one of those books that are special to me. My thanks to everyone who had a hand in putting this book together.

  • sarah(:

    Agh, i’m doing a report on this book- and it’s so confusing to write a 2 page summary on. There isn’t THAT much to talk about!! :[ the names were so confusing aggh i hated it.

  • http://Donthave Hoang Huu Truong

    Wonderful! Althought this is just a diary but truly interesting. I love Dr. Dang Thuy Tram too. I read the books so many times but I still like it. Hope everybody in the work share their time to read it to understand more about Vietnam.Welcome everyone to Vietnam.

  • http://www.what?.com J.K.J.

    Sarah…I am not even sure where to begin with your comment! You found the book confusing to write a two page paper on? There is plenty to write on! I want to assume that you are probably in high school and you are being forced to read this book. Props to your teacher.

    I am a student studying history at ASU. Her diary speaks of her devotion to her family, friends, the horrors of war, her yearning for love, and her struggle to prove her loyalty to her country. If you cannot fill up two pages with relevant information from this extraordinary, historical document, then I am not sure what to tell you.

    Being 22, I personally believe that the Vietnam War is a war that is not mentioned in many history classes. I didn’t know much about the war until taking a class on it. “Last Night I Dreamed Of Peace” is an amazing piece of work; offering the enemy’s personal thoughts and experiences…I believe anyone interested in the Vietnam War or war in general should read this diary.

  • Nguyen Bich Hang

    I have read the original version in Vietnamese, and this review of the book in an English version. I shed tears reading it. Very very touching! I was a child at her time, living in the same street as hers. I myself experienced the American bombarding raids on Hanoi at the time. I wish no more children had to experience any war any more!

    As a high school teacher I wish I had an English copy so I can enjoy the translation.

  • Gordon Fortescue

    I found this book in a Bangkok bookstore, it had obviously been browsed by many and its pages had lost their crisp newness and looked out of place amongst the plastic wrapped offerings in the foreign language section. I guess I found my self like many others before me standing in the narrow aisle skipping over the pages. I stopped to read through the accounts of September 1968; I was twenty years old then living in London England and was newly married in that month. It was that personal fact that drew me in to this beautifully expressed sometimes emotional, account by this remarkable young woman, ‘living’ her life for the greater good, fighting for her beliefs. Thuy, through her strengths and weaknesses as portrayed in her writings has reinforced my belief that the human spirit is global and not constrained by boundaries of nations. I fought back my tears as I held up my own account of that time against Thuy’s life played out in what is now familiar territory for me. I now use this book as a resource for my students in Thailand.

    gdf .

  • Aurora

    I am still in the beginning of the book, but i just get goose bumps thinking of all the things she went through. I would tell everybody to read this diary. it really shows the passion she has and the drive.

  • Nghi Dang

    Yeh. I read this book because my dad and my uncle brought back the Vietnamese version when they came back to Vietnam. I literally cried at the first 5 pages. My family laughed at me for being a crybaby but oh well. But anyways, I love this book. The way it was written, the way she told the story and the pictures at the back was nothing but AMAZING!!!! If I was a teacher, I would recommend it to my students and make them write a report about it and take a test.
    No, I am only a freshman who currently study at Bella Vista High School. I wish American people would read this book as much as the Vietnamese did. That way, the war in Iraq might stop.
    BTW….. I’m not related to her in anyways. We have different surnames and middle names.

  • Nam Phuong

    It’s difficult to contain emotions-mine through hers. The diary hits me personally. I was born to the lullaby of this war. I grew up witnessing its savagery engulfing lives & humanity… Indeed, the diary has the fire within. Her words are raw & achingly vivid as she accounts amid the atrocities, annihilation & dehumanization of war the very core of human conditions, existence & veracity. Fate did deny her life. But chances & choices, death can’t deny her. Her voice echoes eternally. She is extraordinary. Do read this book with one’s own sense of humility & openness to understand & embrace peace- the inner peace.
    (please post if anyone knows where i can get the Vietnamese version. Thank you.

  • Hai-Bang Vu

    She was brainwashed, like most of the North Vietnameses. It was a war that people from the North participated without knowing the other side of the coin. It’s tragic.

  • tony nuyen

    My tears are running whenever I read this story.

  • springriver

    Hai Bang Vu,

    She was as brainwashed by the North as much as you were by the South, and the American soldiers were by the US government. Tram felt every emotion the Southern Vietnamese soldier felt when losing fellow soldier, family to the bombs and rockets and bullets. Hers were quite normal the pains, the joys, the hatred; they came or would come to every one who lived or will live, fought or will fight in a war, regardless of what side one was or will be on. Did you live in the North during those years? What do you know about the North? If you did not live there then how do you come to your conclusion?

  • Arch Mutuc

    I just finished reading Thuy’s diary and enjoyed every page of it. I wouldn’t have had a chance to read it without the recommendation of a simple vietnamese girl whom I met when I visited Vietnam a year ago.

    Thuy has made her country proud and left a valuable legacy to her people.

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