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Mourning Headband for Hue, originally published in Saigon in 1969 as Giải khăn sô Huế, was the first book-length account of the Tet Offensive. Its author, a prominent Vietnamese writer, Trần Thị Thu Vân, wrote under the pen name Nhã Ca. In late January 1968, she had traveled to Hue, where she was born, to mourn the death of her father. The North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong attacked the next day. She remained trapped in Hue with her family for more than a month, until US and South Vietnamese forces finally prevailed in bloody urban fighting. Returning to Saigon, she wrote a forceful, fearful, poetic account of the devastating impact of war on civilians; its title invokes the white headband worn by Vietnamese grieving their dead. The book attests to the communist forces’ horrendous killings of thousands of Vietnamese in the Hue Massacre. Olga Dror’s translation now makes it accessible to an English-speaking audience.
Born in 1939, Nhã Ca became a prominent poet and writer in Saigon in the early 1960s. Her themes were “love, passion, and longing” (xvi). Raised a Buddhist, she adopted her pen name after reading the Old Testament “Song of Solomon,” also known (to Catholics) as “Canticles” (the approximate meaning of “Nhã Ca” is “canticle”). In 1966, she joined the Voice of Freedom, a radio station broadcasting into North Vietnam. Her first major work, At Night I Hear Cannons, was reprinted six times and sold over 100,000 copies. It tells the story of a family waiting, in the end futilely, for a son and son-in-law to return from the war to celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year. While decrying the cost of war, its author yet takes no sides.
Olga Dror (Texas A&M), a scholar of Vietnamese history, worked closely with the author to capture her “unadulterated voice from the time of war” (xi). Her long “Translator’s Introduction” sketches Nhã Ca’s life and work and explains how the special “staccato tempo” of Mourning Headband “dramatically and palpably [reflects] life in raw and desperate eloquence in the middle of the battlefield that was Hue” (xviii). Especially valuable is Dror’s detailed and fair-minded analysis of contemporary reports of the massacre, the political uses of that reportage, and the rare and little known personal comments on the atrocity from the communist side. The current Vietnamese government has never acknowledged or openly discussed the massacre and there is no serious scholarly study of it.
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