Faces of death haunt Vietnam war survivor

Vilien Thang remembered the summer she was 14. Many young strangers came into her life.

“They were just young men as we were,” she said, “Naive, vigorous.”

She never felt scared of them. She was too young to understand what their arrival meant.

It was in 1964. American troops began to take position in Vilien’s hometown, Ho Chi Minh City, which was named Saigon at that time. It was the time of the war in Vietnam.

American soldiers were popular among the Vietnam populace. They were well educated and generous.

“They never bargain over the price,” she said.

The local economy flourished because of their arrival.

They brought in things from the outside world, such as radio sets, fancy soaps and miracle burn ointment. For the first time, Vilien Thang tasted apple juice.

“Its flavour still remains in my tongue,” she said.

When off-duty, the soldiers stayed in pubs for the whole day, dancing, drinking, flirting with Vietnam girls. They usually ran through the monthly pay as soon as they got it.

“They seemed always carefree,” Thang said.

They had their fling because they were scared of the unpredictable destiny. Vilien Thang’s sister-in-law, who did laundry for the army, told her once a soldier tipped much more than usual.

“Take it. I am going to the battle tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t know if I could come back.”

In January, 1968, Viet Cong launched Tet Offensive, killing 2,500 American soldiers.

When government lifted the martial law, Vilien Thang went out home. She was shocked when she saw hundreds of American soldiers’ bodies lying on the street. Those young faces, which used to be so naive and vivacious, were covered by dust and blood, turning stiff and distorted.

“They died thousands miles away home without decent burying,” she said. “I really felt sad for them.”

Almost half a century has passed. Surviving all battles and perils, drifting from Asia to another continent, however Vilien Thang could never forget those faces.