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Of scorched earth and mountain memories

(No.10, Vol.3, Nov 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

My paternal grandfather had participated in the construction of buildings on Tam Dao, a hill station near Hanoi, during the 1920s and 1930s. Nowadays, ascending Tam Dao, one can still see an assortment of buildings that have been utterly destroyed, down to their foundations. After inquiring, I learned that these building foundations now belong to new owners and that this urban resort was once demolished during the period when French imperialists returned to invade Vietnam over sixty years ago. The resistance was advocated by the government at the moment in time when Vietnam was forced to take up arms to protect her nascent independence, during a campaign called the ‘Scorched Earth Resistance War’, to destroy what the French could make use of, including food, houses, communication and transportation works.
Recently, I visited Ba Vi, where Saint Tan is worshiped. Today, it is a national park. At the elevations of 800 and 1,000 metres, I suddenly recognized that in the thick of the forest were vestiges of numerous buildings that were completely ruined such that only their foundations remained or such that just a few tree stumps stuck out, resembling tombstones that recorded the lives of times past. Many trees rose up on the old building foundations. Only after asking people and looking through books did I understand that a town had once been built deep in the forest at a time when the French thought that they would abide for a long time in the lands of Vietnam and, hence, they sought out many locations at high elevations, where the climate suited Westerners’ physiological conditions. Thus born such resort towns as Dalat, Ba Na, Bach Ma, Tam Dao, Ba Vi, and Sapa. It can be said that, except for Dalat, virtually all of these extant landmarks were damaged in similar circumstances just over sixty years ago.


Tam Dao in 1930s.
Photos provided by Duong Trung Quoc

On Ba Vi Mountain, also near Hanoi, there is another recognized heritage site: the building where an assault by the Vietnamese army was directed at the highly elevated encampment of a French army unit and the ideal quoin-of-vantage of Ba Vi peak in order to control the arteries that led up to the front that saw the bulk of the Vietnamese liberation army’s resistance. Looking at the foundations of the building and their positions, one can visualize the beauty of the former villas and a landscape with a purview of its surrounds. Not only were the French housing complexes atop the mountainous resort region devastated, but one could say that the war did not spare a single place in the land. Many people are familiar with the picturesque beauty of Dong Hoi City before the war, the magnificent, unique sight of Ham Rong (Dragon Jaw) Bridge, which, without buttresses, crosses the Ma River in Thanh Hoa, as well as Can Chanh Hall and a number of structures in the palace of the former Hue capital, all of which were targets of the country’s patriotic campaign. Destroying one’s own homeland and even one’s own home were common memories for the contemporary generation.


Tam Dao in 1930s.
Photos provided by Duong Trung Quoc

‘Scorched-earth resistance war’ is jargon for a method of implementing war that dates back to the distant past—such as with the ‘empty homes and gardens’ policy of the Tran Dynasty in their fight against the Mongol Yuan Dynasty invaders and the experience of the Chinese in their resistance against the Japanese. The method was mentioned in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
After calling for the entire country to wage war in resistance on the night of December 19, 1946, in less than a month, on January 1, 1947, President Ho Chi Minh issued a ‘call to destroy for the sake of the resistance war’ in strong and confident language:
‘To fight we must destroy. If we don’t destroy, then the French will. Therefore we must destroy first before the French can make use of anything. Now, we shall destroy in order to stop the French without allowing them to advance or make use of anything. We shall sacrifice for the country by enduring hardships for the time being. When the day comes that we are victorious, together we will restore everything without difficulty.’
‘Therefore, I earnestly implore all compatriots, everyone to make every effort to help out and destroy. One strike of a compatriot’s hoe is just like a warrior’s bullet that is fired at the enemy army. I also reverently promise my compatriots that once the resistance war is victorious, I will exert myself to the utmost along with my compatriots to restore and repair everything. We will make the roads, bridges and sewers more deftly and the houses even better so that they are worthy of a freer and more independent people.’
Certainly at that time, the leader of the resistance war against the French never suspected that after that he would have to go on to a resistance war against the Americans that was just as fierce. It went on for over three decades and once more, Ho Chi Minh spoke wistfully when he said, ‘when the day comes that we defeat the American invaders, we shall rebuild tenfold what we have today.’
When I met the director of Ba Vi National Park, I unexpectedly learned from him that just two decades ago these buildings, which went through the war, still had their shapes. When the ‘earth was scorched,’ people only ruined them so that they were rendered useless. As for their utter extirpation down to their foundations, that took place at no time other than the hardship-ridden 1980s, when, with the policy of exporting scrap iron and steel, people resorted to demolishing the buildings to pieces just so that they could take the assorted scrap iron.
A few days later, I went to Hue and visited the Chin Ham (Nine Pits) heritage site, where the deeds of Ngo Dinh Can, who interned political prisoners and dissidents in tiger pits that were built previously by the French for storage purposes, are recorded. I also learned from the guides that the nine pits were also demolished down to their foundations during the same period of scrap iron collection. Only in modern times did the museum profession manage to restore but one pit.
The museum workers also informed me that since the period of foraging, the collection of war relics—from small bits of shrapnel to cannons and the remains of massive tanks and the steel-carpeted field combat airport runways—are increasingly rare because they have been loaded in mass onto ships for export. People point out that was the period in time when even the massive ‘McNamara line’ [an electronic anti-infiltration barrier system that cut across Vietnam during the Vietnam War] vanished from the borders.
*Duong Trung Quoc is a well-known
historian in Hanoi

By Duong Trung Quoc*
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