Written by Xueling Yeong
In some countries, it is an ever-present entity, sometimes taken for granted. In other countries, it is something that can only be dreamt of.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is a heart-warming, touching story of a young doctor serving in the Vietnam War. Known as the Vietnamese version of Anne Frank, she kept a series of diaries in the midst of the fighting, unrest, and the hectic life she led. Unlike other accounts of war stories, her diaries not only speak of patriotism and bravery, but also of her personal insecurities, homesickness, and self-analysis.
The Girl Behind the Diaries
Dang Thuy Tram was born in the 26th of November 1942, into a family of intellectuals. Her father was a surgeon at St Paul’s Hospital, and her mother a lecturer at the Hanoi School of Pharmacology. Her home in North Vietnam was filled with books, flowers, music and warmth. She grew up in this privileged surroundings to become a compassionate and sensitive young woman, with a love for music and knowledge of literature and poetry. Her literary interest is often reflected in her writings. She often quoted examples from literary works such as Vietnamese poetry as well as Western classics.
Following her father’s footsteps, she studied medicine at the Hanoi University Medical School, and trained as a surgeon. However, after the call of duty, she left a life of ease and comfort, choosing instead to serve the wounded soldiers in the perilous South, where war raged and bombings were common.
She was shot on the 22nd of June, 1970 after the location of her clinic was exposed to the Americans by an informant. A few days before that, her situation at the clinic was desperate as many had left, and food became very scarce, with only enough rice for only one more meal. Two of her colleagues went out to seek help, leaving her to guard her patients alone. Her diary ends with,
“Sister Lanh and Xang leave, and I stand there looking at them, pants rolled up to their thighs, wading through the stream, my eyes blurry with tears….
…I yearn deeply for Mom’s caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one of that of an acquaintance would be enough.
Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”
It is like an ending in itself, the diary stopping at this point with a lingering sadness.
After she was shot, her diaries landed into the hands of an American, Fred Whitehurst, whose duty was to burn documents with no intelligence value. As he was about to thrust it into the fire, his interpreter, Sergeant Nguyen Trung Hieu stopped him, saying, “Don’t burn this one, Fred. It has fire in it already.” He decided to return it to her family eventually, but it was thirty years before he managed to do so. When finally he was able to meet the family at Hanoi, he was surprised to see the reaction of the people who welcomed them. Thuy, the author of the diaries, had become a national heroine, an inspiration for the younger generation who were born after the war, and only knew about it through their textbooks.
Overall, Thuy’s diaries speak of the hardships of the war, and how she and her comrades managed to keep a cheerful and hopeful stance despite the fact that her life was in constant danger.
“…I keep my smile. I keep it blooming even when gunships and HU-1As launch rockets down on my head…”
She experienced flooding, sleeping in shelters infested with mosquitoes, saving the lives of patients, and watching her loved ones fall, one after another. She witnessed the pain of a young soldier who was burnt by a phosphorus bomb, and dug a grave for a comrade killed in action. Many times she dreamt of her family, of her home.
“So many times in my dreams, I have returned to Hanoi, to the loving arms of Mom and Dad, to the clear laughter of my young sisters, and to the brilliant light of the city.”
“In the house, a vase of fresh flowers just cut from the garden this morning. In the middle of the room, beautiful sunflowers cast intricate shadows on the shiny wooden table….Voices and laughter of visiting friends.
Oh, that is but a dream—a daydream!”
There were moments when she felt sad, alone and vulnerable.
“Watching my own behavior, I realized I have been unreasonably frustrated the past few days….Oh Thuy, you cannot be like that. Be strict with yourself….your prestige comes from the respect and affection of the people, not from your own assessment.”
But despite her moments of weaknesses, courage and fearlessness shines through every page. Realising the precariousness of her situation, she writes,
“Dear Mom, if your daughter has to fall for tomorrow’s victory, cry just a little. Be proud because your child has lived a good life. Everyone dies only once.”
Thuy was well-loved, by her patients and her comrades. She established deep relationships with some, calling them her ‘younger brothers’ and often exchanging correspondence. The love between her and her adopted brothers were affectionate but pure and free of desire, though many often mistook it, and she was upset because of the jealousy and misunderstandings from some parties.
However, there were times—many instances when she expressed extreme hatred towards the Americans, as she watched her clinics crumble under the relentless gunfire, and her beloved friends perish in the cruelty of war. She vowed to avenge their deaths, directing her anger at the Americans who killed so many Vietnamese. This display of rage and hatred seem to be in stark contrast with her gentle and sentimental nature, but it was understandable, given the situation then, in the midst of a long war.
Overall, it is a great read, although there are instances when I got confused by the names of the people and places. As I am not too familiar with the history of the Vietnam War either, I often got muddled up with certain references in the book. But one does not need a sound knowledge of Vietnamese culture or history to enjoy it. One only needs a touch of humanity to hear her gentle yet persistent voice speak beyond the pages, a distant echo from history.
Forty years have passed since Thuy’s death. But she lives on, her personality as bright and shining as ever—through the pages of her diaries.