Pham Kim Hy, 70, holds pictures of her son, Ho Viet Dung, who was 20 when he died in the war. She has spent her life looking for his remains.
By Seth Mydans, , April 19, 1999
HANOI, Vietnam -- At the end of April, on the 27th anniversary of her son's death on the battlefield at Dak To, a tired-looking woman named Pham Kim Hy will kneel before a glass bottle filled with dirt and pebbles, light sticks of incense and pray for his soul.
Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Mrs. Hy, who is now 70, has devoted her life to a search for her son's remains, writing letters, distributing his portrait, talking to his fellow soldiers, studying maps and hiking into the jungle, over and over again, to dig for his bones.
She says she will know when she finds him because of the fine shape of his jaw.
"I climb into every hole and feel around with my hands," she said, describing her excavations. "All I ever find is dirt and pebbles, so I've begun to take a little bit from each place. I thought, 'This is the soil where my son fought and died. His blood is on this soil.' So I keep it, if I may say, as the soul of my son."
Her son, Ho Viet Dung, was 20 when he died. He is one of an estimated 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers who are still missing in action, and who will probably never be accounted for.
Although the Vietnamese government has set up a well-equipped, well-run office to assist the United States in the search for about 1,500 American soldiers who are still missing, it has no organized program to search for its own missing soldiers.
So parents like Mrs. Hy are left to search on their own, enlisting the help of military units and local officials and organizing small expeditions into the mountains and jungles.
A government-run search like the American one would simply be too vast, too expensive and too unproductive in this poor and backward nation, said Gen. Vu Xuan Vinh, a leading official of the Veterans Association of Vietnam.
Even if bodies were found -- as they sometimes are -- there are no dog tags or dental records or DNA tests available, as they are to the Americans, to try to identify them.
The North Vietnamese Army and the southern Communist Vietcong lost nearly 1.5 million soldiers in the war. About 185,000 soldiers died fighting for the South Vietnamese government in Saigon. About 58,000 Americans died.
Dr. Le Cao Dai, who ran a mobile field hospital during the war, described the disappearance of fellow soldiers during heavy bombing raids virtually before his eyes. Nothing but bits of clothing were found.
"Maybe the time has already passed to search for the missing," he said. "In my opinion, it's a waste of money, a waste of time, to keep looking for them. Best to just build a memorial."
Such a memorial, though, would only honor the dead who fought for the victors. Wartime animosities linger among the Vietnamese and the soldiers who fought for South Vietnam are considered traitors by the government in Hanoi.
Mrs. Hy said she pities the mothers of those soldiers, bereaved women who cannot share with her the consolation of being honored as the mother of a hero.
Saigon's missing soldiers are posthumous exiles from their country's history, uncelebrated and even uncounted: They are not included in the estimate of 300,000 missing in action, Vinh said. Heroes' cemeteries around Vietnam do not contain their bodies; a major cemetery in the south that holds some of Saigon's war dead is abandoned and overgrown with weeds.
"How do you expect us to help these people, who fought against us hand to hand and then fled to other countries after the war?" the general said with sudden bitterness.
"First of all, in terms of dignity, the positions of soldiers from the north and the south are not comparable," he said. "Those from the north fought to liberate and unify the country. Those in the south fought against the Vietnamese nation. Some were bad soldiers who even carried out massacres. The past is the past. It cannot be changed."
But he expressed no such rancor toward the Americans who were the allies of these southern soldiers and whose remains the government is seeking as part of a diplomatic effort to gain access to American markets. "We'd like to have a brighter future and forget the past," he said, offering the official government line.
The search for missing Americans, with full Vietnamese participation, remains in high gear, and the American ambassador, Douglas Petersen, said in an interview that it continues to produce "some pretty fantastic successes."
A full-time search command operates out of Hawaii, with a detachment of six officers stationed in Hanoi and periodic search operations that the ambassador said can deploy well over 100 military personnel.
He noted that the U.S. government and some American veterans had passed on information and material recovered from battlefields to help the Vietnamese find their own missing. Vinh said this information had helped locate the remains of 400 Vietnamese soldiers.
Peterson, himself a former Navy pilot who was shot down near Hanoi, put the search for missing Americans at the top of his list of priorities in U. S.-Vietnamese relations, above trade and regional stability.
He said: "The commitment the United States has made to the MIA recovery effort is not just for families suffering from loss of closure but to acknowledge the commitment that the United States government has given to each person wearing a uniform today that, should there be a loss, they can rest assured that we are committed to make a determination and return them to their families to the best of our ability."
Some Vietnamese expressed weariness at this continued insistence by the United States.
"It's crazy for the Americans to keep asking us to find their men," Dai said. "We lost several times more than the Americans did. In any war there are many people who disappear. They just disappear."
Nguyen Khuyen, editor in chief of the English-language daily Viet Nam News, said, "The MIA issue is an overblown one on your side. You are still looking for MIA's in Korea, even Normandy. And now you want every case cleared up in Vietnam. It's nearly impossible."
Mrs. Hy said she knows this applies to missing Vietnamese soldiers as well, and to her own long search.
"As soon as the war ended," she said, "everyone rushed to look for their missing sons. We went to their army units, we went to the areas where they served. Now people have become more careful. They only go if they have some new information. Otherwise they know it's probably useless."
Over the years, following information from her son's military unit and from local villagers, Mrs. Hy said, she has visited 14 locations in the mountains at Dak To and has made 45 separate excavations.
"We went deep into the jungles, crossing streams and climbing steep mountains," she said. "Whenever I went, soldiers came with me to help cut through the bushes."
Failing to find her son's remains, she said, she lights incense sticks deep in the jungle and prays to the four points of the compass.
"In a way, I consider that area to be his cemetery now," Mrs. Hy said. "It's a beautiful area, you know, Dak To. I sometimes feel that it has become my home because I know that is where my son is."
A mother roams the jungles of Dak To, a former battlefield.
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 1999 by Neil Mishalov