Searching for the truth about my mother
- 30 April 2015
- From the section Magazine
When I was 16 months old my mother went to war. Duong Thi Xuan Quy became North Vietnam's first female war correspondent, but - and it's a familiar story in a country where three million died - she never came home. We are still searching for her remains.
My mother was 27 when she decided it was time to prove herself as a journalist. She sought approval from the family, pleading with her father to sign the papers and let her cover the Vietnam War. She told him this was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to witness history unfolding.
She chose to go to central Vietnam which had the reputation of being the fiercest battlefield in the conflict. Full of energy and determination, she left Hanoi and went on foot along the Ho Chi Minh trail - a network of jungle and mountain paths used by North Vietnam to send supplies and troops to the South.
She was the only woman in a group of more than 100 writers, artists, musicians and photographers on the trail at that time.
Quy carried her own food, a hammock to sleep in at night and the rest of her belongings on her back - her pack weighed as much as she did.
It took her two months to reach a camp for writers at a Vietcong holdout in the mountains west of Da Nang. Here she was reunited with my father, also a journalist, who had left to cover the war a year earlier. They didn't have long together, though - they were embedded with different units and involved in different operations.
Then, on a spring night in 1969, Quy disappeared. The group of Vietcong guerrillas she was accompanying was caught in an operation by South Korean marines, who fought alongside US troops.
The marines opened fire and Quy fell at the foot of a guerrilla, who then lobbed a grenade at the attackers to hold them off. The guerrillas successfully escaped but left Quy behind assuming she was dead. She was never seen again.
It's 40 years since the war ended but her remains still have not been found. My mother's story, and the search for the facts about what happened to her as well as for her physical remains, is still a cause of great anguish for my family.
We have visited the area many times over the years.
A trip back to Vietnam this year was part of my continuing search. I have contacted US and Korean veterans' groups for information and they have promised to try to help us. We have even employed clairvoyants in the hope that they could tell us something.
We excavated the entire area by hand, helped by local farmers. All that has been found are a single button and a hair clip, both possibly hers but possibly not.
On the spot where Quy was last seen, we erected a stone in her memory with the help of local villagers. We took it from Da Nang's Marble Mountains - a wartime holdout for communist fighters, and today a tourist destination. It comforts us to know that her soul now has somewhere to rest. But we still have many questions.
We talk about her almost every time I call home.
There is barely a family in this country who wasn't touched by the "American War", and that doesn't still grieve for someone who was lost in the conflict.
In Vietnam, we venerate our ancestors. Almost every home in this country of 90 million people has an altar where prayers are offered to parents, grandparents and others who have died. The past is never truly gone.
Many years after she died, my family handed me a copy of my mother's diary - she left it with my father before accompanying the guerrillas into the battlefield. I was shocked to realise that she wrote to me every single day.
In one entry, while describing how she had escaped an American bombardment that killed units of North Vietnamese soldiers ahead of her and behind her on the Ho Chi Minh trail, she wrote that leaving me to cover the war was the hardest decision she ever made.
She spoke of her fear of dying and not being able to bring me up. This thought was on her mind so much that she promised to return home after covering the operation, the very one in which she lost her life.
In another one, she detailed how she marked my second birthday in the jungle. She wrote, ''To my dearest daughter, little Ly. My little one, today is a beautiful day where I am. The sunlight is blooming, so fresh and strong after days of rain. Your birthday has to be beautiful. But my poor little one, you don't get a birthday present, sweets and new clothes from me on your special day. My heart breaks when I think of you.''
Six years after she wrote those words, on 30 April 1975, the day that South Vietnam finally fell to the communist forces of the North, my family experienced both jubilation and grief.
In the North, as a member of the Child Pioneer Brigade, I was marching through the streets of Hanoi, head held high, waving a home-made communist flag and singing revolutionary songs.
A few days earlier, and after years away, my father had returned from the war, finally confirming the news of my mother's death.
Although her death had been suspected, my grandmother trembled and quickly grasped the side of a cupboard, the nearest support she could find. She stood like that, in silence, for a long time.
I was at her side. I clutched my grandmother's hands, feeling lost. It was the first time I had seen my father since I was a baby.
The whole family didn't know how we should feel - sorrow or happiness. At night we mourned my mother's death. In sunlight we laughed, in darkness we cried. That's the way it was.
In the following days, we set aside our grief to celebrate the return of my father and the end to war.
There was proud talk of a family member who had been part of the North Vietnamese delegation that negotiated the 1973 Paris Peace Accords on ending the conflict.
The Vietnam War
1954 - Geneva Accords signed dividing Vietnam in two - the communist North helps guerrillas in the South fight US backed Southern troops
1964 - US bombs targets in North Vietnam
1965 - The first US combat troops arrive in Vietnam
1973 - The Paris Peace Accords on "Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam" are signed, officially ending direct US involvement - but fighting between North and South continues
30 April 1975 - North Vietnamese troops enter Saigon - South Vietnam is controlled by communist forces and the country is reunited ending the war
It's estimated that more than three million people were killed in the conflict
We were also excited about a reunion with the half of the family that lived in the South.
But 1,500km away in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, a member of our family, a lieutenant colonel in the South Vietnamese army, was taken away by North Vietnamese forces. He spent the next 13 years in a re-education camp. Another member, who worked as a doctor in a military hospital, also served four years in a camp for having treated soldiers who fought against the North.
But one relative managed to get through a sea of frantic civilians, on to a US ship and left Vietnam.
Many more members of the family in the South took to the sea or left by air fearing reprisals from the North. They later resettled in the US, Canada, France and Belgium. Forty years on, some still refuse to return home to Vietnam. "We don't want to open an old wound and to be hurt," they say.
Today, my family avoids mentioning the conflict at family gatherings. We remain deeply aware that good memories from some could cause pain to others.
We still refer to each other as "the Down-South half" and "the Up-North lot".
One half talks of the conflict as the Vietnam War and the other as the Resistance War against the US.
Yet we survived. And my mother is remembered. Not long ago, I found a street named after her in the city of Da Nang, near roads named after my grandfather and three other members of the family.
Quy's family were well known. During the days of French rule, in the late 1930s, her father was a member of parliament. He was also the founder and editor of several newspapers and magazines, some of which were later closed by the French for being vocal in their opposition to colonial rule.
Her elder sister had been part of the national independence movement against the French. In 1945 when Ho Chi Minh publicly proclaimed Vietnam's independence in a square in central Hanoi, a member of the family hoisted the national flag. Another was the first female radio announcer on Voice of Vietnam.
We think of my mother almost every day. I have not given up hope that one day we will find her final resting place, her remains, and discover what happened to her.
As for me, my mother was the reason why I became a journalist. Now I work for the BBC and have been to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa and the Middle East. By following in her footsteps, I feel close to her. I live for the life that she lost too soon.
Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.