The first time I saw a photograph of Vo Thi Sau I had no idea who she was. I had wandered into a small bookshop on the corner of Pho Ho Hoan Kiem in Hanoi, to avoid the rain. I was browsing through the bookshelves when I noticed her image on the cover of a book that was simply called Vo Thi Sau (A Legendary Heroine). As most of the other books were about the American/Vietnam war I was curious to find out who this enigmatic looking young girl was and what had she done to deserve having a whole book dedicated to her.
I arrived in Hanoi just as they were experiencing the coldest weather for seventy years. Everyone was wearing heavy Winter jackets and huddled around makeshift fires lit in braziers on the street. Despite the cold, they all seemed in good humour, getting on with daily life and excited by the prospect of snow. I flew in to Hanoi from Ventianne, Laos, where the weather had been a sweltering 33 degrees. I had lots of teeshirts but just one longsleeve top which meant I was ill-prepared for the unexpected cold snap. My main priority, on arrival, was to get a jacket and I was definitely in the right place for that as all the top end weather gear is available on every street corner in Hanoi. These days all the big brand companies have manufacturing bases here. The shops are filled with factory seconds at rock bottom prices and travellers flock here to pick up bargains. After searching round the markets and some serious bartering I finally got one. The cold weather eventually gave way to rain that cascaded down in torrents like a waterfall from the heavens. I was on my way to Hoan Kiem lake, which sits elegantly in the centre of the city, with the lively backpacker district at the top end and the ritzy, chic area at the lower end of the lake. Hoan Kiem is a lively hub of vibrant activity, as young and old, rich and poor mingle together on the shores of the lake. Some walk across the brightly lit Huc bridge to the Temple of the Jade Mountain, on Jade island, built in honour of the legendary 13th century general Tran Hung Dao. On the weekends the whole area is traffic free and young people gather to sing, dance and listen to music while children play safely in the street. In the early mornings the older generations gather by the lake to exercise, do Tai Chi and other healthy activities as the sun comes up. It is a place where people come together as a community to enjoy their leisure time with their families. It is a great place to go to get to know the locals on the weekend. The lake itself has an interresting history steeped in local mythology. In1428, the emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake when he was approached by the golden turtle god, Kim Qui, who asked him to return his master’s sword. Le Loi was given the sword by Long Vuang, the Dragon King to help him with his war against the Ming dynasty. When the emperor eventually returned the sword he renamed the lake Hoan Kiem which means Returned Sword in Chinese. Hoan Kiem is actually Chinese as the language was in common use in Dai Viet (former name for Vietnam) at the time. There is a rather picturesque tower standing on a small island in the lake called Thap Rua or Turtle Tower The original name of the lake was Ta Vong or Green Lake because the colour of the water is always green. There have been turtles in the lake for many years but their numbers appear to have dwindled in recent times. As the rain lashed down relentlessly, I was glad I had the protection of my recently acquired jacket, but I knew it was unlikely to withstand the deluge that was about to descend. It was at that point I decided to duck into Artbooks to seek refuge. It was, thankfully, near at hand just as the heavens opened. Bookshops are invaluable, as a safe haven from inclement weather, wherever you are, and its great to feel at ease whenever you drop in. Generally, you are left to your own devices and can browse while you wait, without feeling the need to buy anything. On this occasion a very polite young lady asked me if I needed assistance. I looked out at the rain, beating hard against the glass, (distorting everything in sight as though people were melting in front of my eyes) and knew I would be there for a while. “I will let you know if I need anything.” After that I was left alone. The bookshop itself had great charm with lots of interesting books in English, French and Vietnamese. I already had the impression that Hanoi was a city where culture, art and literature were highly valued and an important aspect of city life. I have since learned that art and literature were always considered as a necessary framework of learning and the great leaders of the past insisted that their military commanders were just as conversant in the arts as they were in the art of war. The Temple of Literature, built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, was Vietnam’s first university and still stands as a is living testament to the value placed on learning in Hanoi. Its ancient, well-seasoned, teak hard, wooden pillars support its physical structure while, at the same time, symbolising the enduring strength and quality of wisdom and learning housed within. It reflects the tranquillity and serenity that flows from learning and, like knowledge itself, it survives and grows on down through the centuries.
As I browsed through the books, with one eye still fixed on the weather I could not help but notice that many of the titles related to war. This was not surprising, as the country’s recent history had been dominated by this topic for so long. It was not that long ago since the conflict had ended in 1973 so it was still fresh in the memory for people both North and South. There were quite a few titles on display that sparked my interest. I grew up when the war in Vietnam was on our television screens most evenings and in the papers almost every day. The point of view, whether pro or anti war was nearly always American. I don’t recall seeing an interview with anyone from the Viet Cong or hearing about the their suffering, except when an outrage such as My Lai or the napalm bombing of villages occurred. Photographers like Don McCullin captured the horror of the war but most young people in the sixties were, almost overwhelmingly, against the war. We intuitively knew it was wrong and our whole youth culture understood railed against it. We saw people like Muhammad Ali make a principled stand and we were part of a youth movement that wanted peace not war. All our rock star heroes within a vibrant counterculture spoke out against the war. In Ireland we heard about someone’s brother or cousin being killed or maimed in action. We knew how unpopular the war was in the United States. It was not that long since the second world war had ended. We were still in the middle of a cold War with Russia and we were being warned about a potentially greater threat emerging from China. Back then young people just wanted to smoke pot, make love and listen to music. We were sick of war and the pompous hypocrites intent on pursuing it. Nixon was like some strange beast who had scrambled out of the primordial ooze intent on defecating on all our aspirations. In Vietnam the war is more aptly referred to as the American war. America lost 58,000 troops in the war and this came as a great shock to the people back home. It turned the tide against the government and military who were ready and primed to escalate further if and when the opportunity arose. The Vietnamese losses were huge by comparison. The figure stands at over 2 million which in itself is mindboggling. This figure includes, not just the combat victims, but also those who died as a consequence of chemical defoliants, famine, disease and relentless bombing campaigns which killed so many innocent civilians. Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people were prepared to lose everything they had in order to prevail. Ho once said that “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.” This statement reflects the iron will and determination of a people who would never give up the struggle. In the end they did prevail, despite the cost. It was this war that dominated the bookshelves because it was fought against the world’s most powerful nation. Before the Americans got involved, another conflict had been raging against the French who were the dominant colonial power in the region since the 1840s. Their influence had extended into Laos, Cambodia and parts of Thailand which were collectively known as Indochina. Ho Chi Minh and his followers, the Viet Minh, had fought a bitter war of attrition against the French which had eventually ended in 1954 when the French were finally defeated.
France sought to impose its cultural, religious and moral values on the Vietnamese and other countries in the region. Like most colonial powers of the time it siphoned off as much wealth and resources as it could find, to support an empire satiated with ever increasing profligacy and excess. They introduced Christianity to countries that already had their own well established belief systems that had existed for centuries. The colonial style architecture that still exists is, without doubt, often elegant and impressive. Their are many, arguably, positive aspects of colonialism that are visible in Vietnam or Laos to this day. The quality of bakery and pastries is markedly superior in Vietnam than elsewhere in South East Asia and the women have a sense of style and elegance that would not be out off place on the boulevards of Paris. However, none of this was requested or wanted by the people. It was imposed by a foreign power that invited itself into their land with the intention of extending their influence in the region. Vietnam has always taken pride in its ability to govern its own affairs and, historically, it has resisted foreign invaders down through the centuries. The great Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, who ruled the Yuan dynasty, invaded Vietnam (or Dai Viet as it was then known) in 1257. The Dai Viet army was initially defeated but their forces remained intact and managed to make a clever tactical withdrawal. In 1258 the Dai Viet army, counterattacked and drove the Yuan army back. They returned in 1285 when the brilliant general Tran Hung Dao was in command of all the Vietnamese forces. After a few battles the Yuan army retreated to China having had little success and suffering greatly from tropical illnesses. In 1287, Kubla Khan, still smarting from the lack of success in the previous campaigns sent an army under the command of his favourite son, Prince Toghan. He had five hundred thousand men and a fleet of 500 ships and he was determined to teach the Vietnamese a lesson and demonstrate his overwhelming superiority and power. Tran Hung Dao predicted the movement of the Yuan/Mongol army and more importantly he lured their navy onto the Bach Dang River where he laid a very clever trap for them. They were blockaded on the river from both ends so they could not go back or forward. The Mongol fleet was completely annihilated and their expedition was an absolute disaster. It was such a humiliating defeat for the Yuan/Mongols that they swiftly retreated back to China. Kublai Khan, who by then, had lost his appetite for further conquest, was more than happy to negotiate peace with Dai Viet, who, buoyed by their victory, ensured they got a great deal. The Vietnamese, therefore, are very proud of their history of resistance against foreign invaders and their ability to overcome what seem like impossible odds.
By the end of the second world war French Indochina was rapidly unravelling. Germany had occupied France in 1940 and the Vichy government based in the south was just a puppet administration with no real power. Despite this they still tried desperately to hold on to their possessions in South East Asia. France fought against Thailand during 1940 – 1941. The Thais saw the German invasion of France as an opportunity to regain some of its disputed border territories and a number of battles ensued. The Thais were quite successful against the French army on land but the French navy was superior. The Japanese, as the new dominant power in the region, intervened and brokered a peace between them to avoid an all out war in the region. The situation in Vietnam was disastrous. The French were generally disliked for their incompetence and heavy-handed treatment of the people. Like most colonial powers before them they treated the locals as an inferior race whose sole purpose was to serve them. This gave rise to a powerful Nationalist movement which was led by Ho Chi Minh. He inspired his people to stand up and take matters into their own hands to free their country from the yoke of colonialism. He roused them with his words, “We have to win Independence at any cost even if the Truong Son mountains burn.” He united the nationalist movement under one banner with diverse tribes and ethnic groups forming a cohesive fighting force that became known as the Viet Minh. The French occupied most of the North of the country but Ho and the Viet Minh fought an ever growing and successful guerrilla campaign against them. He recruited men and women, young and old from small towns, farms and villages as well as infiltrating his people into key areas of French administration. Every single person had a role to play whether great or small. This instilled a sense of unity and loyalty in his people that they shared a common cause that would eventually lead them to victory. At the end of the second world war President Truman was concerned about the situation in Indochina and identified the French as the main part of the problem. He wanted them out and was, for a while, considering supporting Ho Chi Minh. But when the British joined forces with the French against Ho Chi Minh, America had to support its wartime allies. This left a void that was soon filled by the Russians and Chinese who provided arms and support to Ho and the Vietminh. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 1948, Vo Thi Sau was just a young fourteen year old schoolgirl when she joined the Viet Minh. When I first saw her photograph I was struck, not just by her youth, but also by the strength of will and determination in her eyes. She looked like she was staring out into the void at something that the rest of us could not see or understand. When I picked up the book and started reading through the pages I noticed that the English translation was not word perfect but this just gave it a certain air of charm and authenticity. Initially, I assumed it was about the sixties war but as I read further it became clear that it related to the earlier conflict with the French. I did not know a lot about the Viet Minh or French Indochina, for that matter, but I had read about Dien Bien Phu and its significance as the battle that brought an end to French occupation in the region. But who was this young girl called Vo Thi Sau? What had she done and what did she achieve? Why had this book been written about her? So many Vietnamese had died in the wars so what made her so special? I wanted to know what had set her apart from other Vietnamese heroes. There is something strange and haunting about that image on the cover of the book. She looks as though she already knows and understands her destiny and excepts it without question. She appears to be looking out beyond her own life and, perhaps, into a better future. I was struck by her youth and the extraordinary circumstances that thrust her into the frontline of the conflict. In another era she would probably have chosen a very different path. She would probably just be one of the many young women you see today in Vietnam, lively, carefree, embracing the modern world with all its innovations. She was a product of her time and inevitably influenced by the rapidly changing world she lived in. Many of her friends and family had joined the Viet Minh and the rising tide of Nationalism, (inspired by Ho Chi Minh), had swept across the land carrying all before it. When I left the bookshop as the rain subsided I had a copy of Vo Thi Sau A Legendary Heroine (by Nguyen Din Thong) in my pocket.
Vo Thi Sau was born in Phuoc Tho Commune, Dat Do District in 1933. She was the fifth daughter of Nguyen Thi Dau (mother) and Vo Van Hoi (father) in a family of six. Her parents were not wealthy but the children were well brought up and cared for. She was noticeably tall compared to other Vietnamese girls of her age. Her mother said that she was always a good, well behaved child but quite independent minded. Once she decided on a course of action she was always determined to see it through to the end. Vo Thi Sau, like many young people of her age, was swept up by nationalist fervour and the desire to be free from colonial oppression. The Viet Minh provided the perfect outlet for this. People of all ages had joined the movement inspired by Ho Chi Minh who was determined to drive the French out. The Vietnamese people wanted to control their own destiny even if it meant that “The Truong Son mountains would burn.” She was just starting high school when she volunteered for service in 1947. She was detailed to carry out reconnaissance work on troop numbers and movements in the locality. She showed great aptitude for this work. It is likely that her age and gender helped her to avoid detection. This brought praise from her superiors but she wanted a more direct role in the action against the enemy. She had an intense hatred for the French colonists and was probably aware of the atrocities that had been perpetrated on the local community. She may well have seen the French committing these acts first hand or certainly have known individuals, friends and family who had suffered. She wanted to be at the forefront of the struggle and was willing to take whatever risk necessary to achieve it. Her opportunity arose when it was decided to attack a platoon of French troops at a local event. On 14th July 1948 she went to Dat Do market, armed with a grenade. She managed to get near enough to a group of soldiers and threw the grenade straight in amongst them. The grenade exploded killing one French officer and injuring up to a dozen soldiers. When she had completed her task she managed to escape without detection. Today some people might look on this as an act in of terrorism and many European countries, including France have recently suffered from these atrocities. I would be the first to condemn acts of violence against innocent people wherever it happens. But Vo Thi Sau, despite her age, was a guerrilla fighter intent on freeing her country from colonialism and France was the sworn enemy. It is clear that she was committed to a cause that required exceptional people in extraordinary circumstances. Should someone so young have been involved in the first place. If we judge her by today’s standards the answer would probably be no. But those standards did not apply in her time and there is no evidence to suggest that she was forced to do anything against her will. It is likely that many other young people her age were involved in one way or another but she stood out among them. The French had ruled the whole region for over 100 years. Laos, Cambodia and some parts of Thailand had come under their influence. With the exception of Thailand, European powers had colonised most of South East Asia. Colonialism, by its very nature, favours the colonists at the expense of those colonised. The inhuman treatment of the rightful inhabitants in so many colonies across the world is well documented. It is an inevitable consequence of colonialism that people will be subjugated in order that they do not resist, while their resources are being pillaged. It is also inevitable that the downtrodden will rise up, at some point, and strike back. They will fight for their freedom because it is a fundamental part of human nature to want to be free. They will seek the right to self determination to make their own decisions, (whether right or wrong), and have the freedom of choice. Vo Thi Sau was a willing participant in Vietnam’s march towards self determination and the right of the people to chose their own destiny. Her involvement might well be controversial, if judged by today’s standards, and perhaps there might be some justification for this. But Freedom movements are born in exceptional times and give rise to individuals and circumstances that are unique to that particular time, place or event. She was forged from the anvil of a resistance movement and became its young, passionate, standard bearer.
The attack on Dat Do market was seen as a clear victory for the Viet Minh and Vo Thi Sau received praise for her part in it. At that time there was a Vietnamese Governor of the region who was hated by everyone because he was seen as a French lackey. He had identified many local men involved with the Viet Minh against the French. Many had been imprisoned, tortured or killed. He was earmarked for assassination by the Viet Minh and Vo This Sau was chosen to carry out the attack because of her success with the previous raid. The second attack took place in February 1950. She boldly walked into the governor’s office and threw the grenade at him while shouting “traitor” and “Long live the Viet Minh.” On this occasion the grenade failed to explode and she was caught while trying to run away. She was taken to the local prison by soldiers and interrogated. It is understood that her interrogation was brutal and no concession was made for her age or gender. She refused to give her interrogators any information and was eventually transferred to Chi Hoa prison in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Her mother was unable to find out where she had been taken as the authorities did not want to allow her any visitors. After pleading with the prison and army for some time her mother was given permission to make some restricted visits. She remained unbroken despite the ill-treatment and abuse from her captors and had lost none of her previous commitment or desire. There is, ironically, a number of interesting similarities with her story and that of the French patron saint Joan of Arc. Joan, also known as The Maid of Orleans, took up arms against the English during the Lancastrian War, (The Hundred Year War). Joan was just sixteen when she said she heard the voices of St Margaret, St Catherine and Michael the Archangel beseeching her to approach Charles V11 (The Dauphin) and ask him to allow her to lead his army against the English. He was known as an indecisive man, (in his early days), and at first refused her. After petitioning him a number of times he finally relented and Joan rode out, at the head of the army to the town of Orleans. After nine days the siege was lifted, the English were routed, and Joan became a hero. Charles was crowned king of France soon after. Joan, like Vo Thi Sau, was just a young girl when she first experienced combat and she shared the same passionate hatred of the invaders that had seized her country. She was determined to drive them out and free her people. It is likely that she probably witnessed atrocities and knew family and friends who had been subjected to torture and brutality. Joan was also taken prisoner by the enemy but in her case she was betrayed by her own people and burnt at the stake as a witch. It is said that Charles, having done nothing to prevent Joan’s death, suffered great remorse afterwards and this spurred him on to find his courage and drive the English out of France. Joan was posthumously pardoned by the pope in 1456 and eventually canonised in 1920. She became an iconic symbol of French national pride and is always linked with their struggle for freedom. Like Joan, Vo Thi Sau was a simple country girl but, unlike Joan, she was inspired by the words of Ho Chi Minh who was very much a living person. They both shared a deeply held conviction that spurred them on to act against the invaders. Vo Thi Sau was not betrayed by her own people but the Vietnamese collaborators who worked for the French would have welcomed her arrest. She remained in Chi Hoa prison for two years while her fate was being decided. She often sang to keep her spirits up. She was allowed some visits from her mother who kept her informed of what was happening back home. The French, on their part, were faced with a big dilemma. They wanted to make an example of this young resistance fighter to show they were still in control and that they could be tough on anyone who took up arms against them, regardless of age or gender. They were, however, faced with one big problem. According to French law at the time, a woman could not be executed for murder and a minor could not be put on trial. The case of Vo Thi caused a stir in some sections of French society. After the war the Socialist movement was quite strong in France having played a significant part in the resistance against the Germans. Concerns were raised about her case, so her trial was delayed until a petition had been heard in the French parliament. The argument about her age and gender were aired but then dismissed on the grounds that the law, as it stood, only applied to citizens living in France and did not extend to those living in a colony especially a colony that was in open rebellion against them.. The state was determined to show a strong hand when dealing with the rebels. The same country that had made a national hero of a young woman, martyred by the English for fighting against them, was completely oblivious to the case of a young Vietnamese girl who they were about to make a martyr of. Martyrs are unique individuals and usually created from the callous and unjust acts that are perpetrated against them. They are more often than not, an unintentional by-product of a myopic oppressor who fails to recognise their actions will serve only to create a rallying point for those oppressed. The unshakeable resolve and spirit that is kindled in the flame will not be extinguished for generations to come and the martyr will live on in the hearts and minds of the people. This was how Joan rose from the ashes to become a symbol of strength and hope for her country. The French were, unwittingly, about to provide Vietnam with its very own young martyr.
Despite the fact that French law forbade the trial of a minor or the execution of a woman Vo Thi Sau was tried in a French court without proper recourse to justice. The verdict was a foregone conclusion before the trial had even begun. She did not deny her part in the attack or plead for mercy. She was unrepentant, which made the judge’s task a lot easier. When the charges against her were read out to the court she responded by saying that she did not consider it to be a crime for a patriot to fight against the invader. The judge was not interested in justice as the accused was considered to be a an enemy of the state. Her actions represented a direct challenge to French authority in the region. The Judge saw his role as both the arm and clenched fist of the state that would wrestle back control and restore French authority in its colony. Vo Thi Sau was sentenced to death but this did not dampen her spirits in the least. When the sentence was read out she shouted out in the court “Down with colonialism “and ” The Resistance will be victorious” French nationhood began in earnest as a direct consequence of the execution of a young woman whose spirited resistance against the invader had rallied her countrymen behind their king. This same country was now prepared to ignore its own laws and history and take the life of this young Vietnamese woman. In hindsight it seems like an act of supreme arrogance, stupidity or both by a desperate beast frantically flailing about in its final death throes. Considering that France had just recently been invaded by Germany you might expect them to have a more acute awareness of the situation and the presence of mind to deal with it. But the corridors of power are, more often than not, populated by strange people who live in a constant state of paranoia and tend to react incompetently when faced with situations that require poise, cool heads and calm thinking. The consequence of their actions is usually disastrous leaving a bigger mess than the one they had already made. It seems like everything they did, in those final days in Indochina served only to re-inforce their reputation for incompetence. This helped to spur the Viet Minh on to further their efforts in the final push for independence. Vo Thi Sau’s act forced the hand of the French, as it was a direct challenge to their power that would require a firm response. After the decision was taken to execute her she was transferred to Con Son island in the Con Dao Archipelago. She was the first woman to be sent to Con Son prison and was held in the police quarters away from the main body of prisoners. The execution was to be carried out as quickly as possible avoiding contact with the other prisoners. Con Son is frequently referred to as an island paradise but behind its scenic beauty lies a dark and unpleasant past. It was built in the 1860s to detain political prisoners and other violent criminals. It is thought that up to twenty thousand people may have died there during the time it was in use. They were buried in the nearby Hang Duong cemetery. French, Americans and Vietnamese have used Con Son as a prison. The prison housed the notorious “Tiger Cages” originally built by the French. There are approximately one hundred and twenty and they were built away from the main prison. The cages were dug in pits in the ground and were exposed to direct sunlight. A metal grill was placed over the pit so that when the sun beat down the occupants would have stripes on their bodies which gave rise to the name. The soldiers would poke sticks through the bars and beat the prisoners. They would then throw lime over their open wounds and urinate on them. The prisoners could barely stand up or move. Left out in the searing heat these cages had an agonising physical and mental effect on the unfortunate occupants. In nineteen seventy, a U.S. congressman, Tom Harkins, hearing of the inhumane practices at the prison, visited Con Son and discovered the cages were still in use and the prisoners were suffering all manner of deprivation. When he returned to the U.S. he exposed the inhuman practices to Congress. Today the island is once again a tranquil paradise that welcomes mostly tourists and visitors. Some former prisoners and their warders still live on the island in peace and harmony together.
Vo Thi Sau spent just two nights on Con Son island before she was executed. The French prison commander probably did not want her to be near the other prisoners as this would likely have caused disruption. She was detained in the police quarters just outside the prison itself. After the attack on the Governor, which led to her capture, she had spent just under two years in prison. She was nineteen years old, ironically the same age as Joan of Arc when she was executed. Remarkably, Vo Thi Sau still showed no sign of fear and continued singing in her cell, to keep her spirits up, the night before she died. This unnerved the Captain and his men who were anxious to have the execution over and done with as soon as possible. The prison chaplain visited her to give her the opportunity to confess and receive absolution. She told him, defiantly, that she had nothing to confess since she had not committed any sins. She said he would be better served hearing the confessions of the Captain and his men who were the real guilty ones. There is no evidence that she practiced any religion but, regardless, she was more than satisfied that she would meet her end with a clear conscience. She told the chaplain her only regret was that she did not kill more soldiers. Her fellow prisoners sang a well known patriotic song, Chien Sy Ca that could be heard resonating throughout the prison. The Captain tried to persuade her to wear a blindfold for her execution but she refused. She said she wanted to see her homeland one last time and she also wanted to look her enemy directly in the eyes before they shot her. The Captain was reluctant to grant her this final request saying that it was against the law of his country to execute a prisoner without a blindfold. She reminded him that it was also against the law of his country to put a minor on trial or to execute a woman so why the sudden concern now for her legal rights. He reluctantly agreed and she was led out, under escort, to face the firing squad. She was taken to a spot near the graveyard, under the shadow of Mount Chua and tied against an old tree stump. They tried to put a blanket over her face but she would not allow it. All through this ordeal she continued to sing Tien Quan Ca (now the Vietnamese national anthem) a favourite song of the Viet Minh. The firing squad consisted of seven men, some of them hardened veterans who had served in many campaigns. They were issued with two bullets each but generally, with seven soldiers firing simultaneously, the second round should not be needed. Vo Thi Sau stared down the firing squad with her piercing gaze and kept on singing until the moment that the Captain began to bark out the firing orders. At that point she stopped singing and shouted “Down with the colonial occupation” and “Long live Ho Chi Minh.” The rifles cracked out seven shots but astonishingly Vo Thi Sau still remained alive and standing. She had been hit in the hip with one bullet and another bullet slightly grazed her face but all the others had missed her. It is possible that some of the firing squad had been drinking in order to give them the courage they lacked.. Many soldiers do not like this duty but are obliged to follow orders. Sometimes they drink to take the edge off the task, understandable, if asked to shoot a nineteen year old girl. It has also been said that they deliberately shot wide in defiance of the order because they believed they were dishonouring their country and their flag. Most Vietnamese believe that it was because Vo Thi Sau’s gaze was so piercing, and her spirit so unwavering, that it unnerved the firing squad so much, they missed their target. Whatever the reason it was clear the Captain was well and truly rattled by this turn of events. Instead of ordering a second volley he walked up to Vo This Sau, put his revolver to her head and shot her dead. It happened on 23 January 1952 when she was only nineteen years old. In his book Nguyen Dinh Thong mentions that one of the firing squad, an old veteran, threw down his rifle in disgust, after the execution, and said he would never fire another shot again, because of what he had witnessed that morning. Shortly after, he left the army for good.
Vo Thi was hastily buried in an unmarked grave in Hang Duong cemetery. The French wanted to erase her name from history as though she had never lived. But some of the prisoners who had discreetly watched the soldiers knew where she was buried. That evening they went to her grave, under cover of darkness, and erected a makeshift headstone made of bricks they had gathered from their work. When the soldiers discovered it the next morning they destroyed it and scattered the bricks everywhere. This did not deter the prisoners. They returned at night and built it up again. Despite the fact they received severe beatings when they were caught near her grave they continued to rebuild the headstone whenever the French knocked it down. Vo Thi Sau had kindled a flame that would not be extinguished that easily. It would shine on through Vietnam’s turbulent history to light the way on the path to freedom. At the Battle of Dien Bin Phu her name was shouted out as a rallying call by the Viet Minh troops. French rule in Vietnam came to an end in 1954, two years after Vo Thi Sau’s death, but this was only a temporary respite for the Vietnamese people who would face a far more powerful foe, the United States, in a war that would go on until 1973. This war would take the lives of many Vietnamese, old and young, fighters and civilians as well as American troops. Vietnam is a peaceful place today and has, incredibly, moved on from its recent past. It now has excellent relations with many of its former foes. It is a young and vibrant country full of hope and promise. Con Son island has become a place of pilgrimage where people, young and old, go to pay their respects to Vo Thi Sau. Candlelit vigils are held at her grave and she has assumed an almost saint-like status as a martyr for her country. Her memory lives on as an example of the unselfish sacrifice that she willingly made for her country.
When I first read the book Vo Thi Sau I was captivated by her story. As far as I am aware she is not very well known in the West and I really wanted to tell her story. I made a few attempts to write it while at home in London but for some reason it did not happen. When I was due to fly to Thailand in September this year I thought about packing the book just in case I might get some inspiration and finally write her story. Unfortunately, I forgot to pack it so it is still sitting on a bookshelf in my apartment. After a couple of weeks in Chang Mai I started writing again and after completing two short stories I decided it was finally time for Vo This Sau. I started to write the story but realised I was lacking some crucial source information contained in Nguyen’s book. I continued as best I could, piecing together information from the internet with my own recollections and using anything I could find. As I knew I would be returning to Hanoi I thought I would just wait and get another copy of the book there. As luck would have it my accommodation was just a short walk from Artbooks were I had bought the original copy some three years ago. I went there, eagerly expecting to put my hand on the shelf and just lift a copy, only to find they no longer had it in stock. I scoured all the main bookshops in Hanoi and they all gave the same answer. They knew the book but hadn’t had it in stock for some time and thought it might be out of print. I continued to write the story, as best I could, and have finally completed it. It has been such a great experience to come back to Hanoi and finish the story here. This is my third visit and each time I enjoy this city more. I cannot believe the pace of change that is happening here right now. It is such a young and vibrant place and so full of promise. I have always found the people friendly and welcoming as indeed has been my experience in Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh city. When I look at the young people enjoying peace and modern living I think of Vo Thi Sau and all the others who sacrificed their lives to make this new, outward-looking Vietnam possible. When I mention her name to young people they all know of her but their world today is very different to hers, with their mobile phones and pop music. Vo Thi liked to sing so I am sure she would not disapprove. I’m sure she would join in with them. Her spirit lives on in the laughter of youth that is possible today because of her and all those others. I walked around Hoan Kiem lake on Sunday evening when all the young people were out, singing and dancing or strolling with their partners. It was quite emotional for me to be there watching all the youthful enthusiasm that contributes so much to the life in this city. I felt privileged to be part of it and to have the opportunity to write about Vo Thi Sau.
Wednesday 14 November 2018
Special mention for Nguyen Dinh Thong and his book Vo Thi Sau (A Legendary Heroine)Con Dao Tourism for the useful and helpful information
The people of Hanoi and all my dear friends in Vietnam