HOW THE CHINESE GAVE ME A DEADLY BIRTHDAY GIFT

The SOHA magazine has kindly invited me to share these memories from the Chinese-Vietnamese conflict. Here is a link to the Vietnamese version. Below is the original English text.

The Chinese aggressions against Vietnam did not end in 1979, when China withdrew from the war in Lang Son. Here is what happened 5 years later, in June 1984, when a Danish journalist suddenly found himself under fire from Chinese artillery in Ha Tuyen

By Thomas Bo Pedersen

Photos: Ole Johnny Sorensen

BOOOOM, BOOOOM, BOOOM.

I begin to understand that we are under fire, when the young Vietnamese soldier throws me on the ground, covering my body with his own. A whistling sound above our heads and then the detonations some 20 meters to my left. My heart is racing, my adrenaline surges crazily trough my body as panic takes over. My first time ever under fire.

As pieces of stone, wood, leaves and dust settles around me, I look for my photographer. He is also on the ground a few meters to my right. Like me, his body is covered by a young Vietnamese soldier, who is holding on to his arm, with blood seeping through his fingers. He must have been hit by shrapnel from one of the grenades.

Just an hour before, I had posed this question to the Vietnamese official, now lying there on the ground next to me, vice-chairman Pham Dinh Di:

“In interviews with Western media the Chinese government has claimed that China needs to defend itself against Vietnamese provocations?”

Now I realize, why Pham Dinh Di had looked at me in absolute disbelief.

******

We had left Hanoi very early the same morning with our Vietnamese military escort. To my surprise, our interpreter Le Hoai Phuong and her colleague from the foreign ministry presented me with flowers and a cake, to celebrate my 29th birthday – at 4.00 am. 

“We saw in your passport that it is your birthday, so we wanted to celebrate with you, since you are a far away from your family,” Phuong said with a shy grin. 

Little did I know that I was to receive another birthday surprise later that same afternoon, a deadly gift from the Chinese army. 

Vice chairman Pham Dinh Di and myself after the attack.

As we leave Hanoi and drive through the Red River delta, it looks like it will become a typical hot and humid summer day in Northern Vietnam.  

It had taken us more than one hour to cross the famous Long Bien Bridge, crammed with thousands of bicycles, other thousands of people walking on their feet, and just a few cars.  In those days Long Bien was the only bridge connecting Hanoi with the provinces, a lifeline supplying the capital with food and commodities.

The destruction of war is still very visible in the Red River delta that morning, nine years after the end of the war.  Here and there the green rice fields are scarred by barren moonscapes with huge circular holes, some turned into ponds. 

The soil had been pressed so hard by the detonations of the American bombs that it was impossible to grow anything there.  The bombings in Vietnam had escalated into incredibly numbers: Four times as many bombs had been used in Vietnam than during the entire WW II.

A few hours on the narrow country roads, and then we leave the delta and head into the first range of green mountains, our car comes to a halt at a military control post. Once approved for onward traveling the remaining trip will be in a military convoy.

Into the war zone

“It looks like we are heading into a war zone,” my photographer notes with a nervous grin, as we slowly move forward on the narrow mountain road towards the Chinese boarder. The landscape is stunningly beautiful with green mountains all around us, contrasted by the deep red soil of the dirt road we are riding on in a military convoy with dozens of trucks carrying young Vietnamese soldiers and military hardware to the border.

Back in Hanoi, we had heard the rumors of recent Chinese attacks across the border, mainly by artillery barrages. 

“The Chinese generals remember the lesson we taught them in 1979, when many of their soldiers were killed by our strong border defense. Now, it seems they only harass us from time to time with medium range artillery fire over the border. I have a brother, who just came back from the border on a short leave. He says that it has become much more intense in the past couple of weeks” a Vietnamese source had told me a few days before over very strong coffee and the customary cigarettes back in Hanoi.

It had taken some persuasion to get permission from the authorities to visit the border areas. During an interview with the head of the international department of the Central Committee, Le Mai, I tried my luck with some very direct questions on the status of the Chinese-Vietnamese relations, including a request to see for myself, what the situation was really like in the border areas. Le Mai agreed to bring forward our case to the military command, and just a few days later, we got the permission to visit and took off before daybreak on June 1, 1984.

******

“BOOOM, BOOOM.”

Suddenly, we are hearing distant explosions. 

“I hope it is just a training exercise,” interpreter Le Hoai Phuong says with a nervous grin. The tense looks of the soldiers around us tell us that Phuong’s hopes might be all too naive, but after a few more explosions the guns become quiet again. 

We stop for lunch at a small village, the villagers are obviously poor, but they take good care of us, with fried chicken, vegetables, and rice. A bit of fresh sugar cane with the bitter green tea, and then we are off again to cross the last mountain range to reach Ha Giang, the border town which has been repeatedly under fire in the past couple of weeks according to the rumors.

Pham Dinh Di one of the many damaged houses.

10.000 people evacuated

Ha Giang seems totally deserted. The streets are empty, the shops are closed. There are no sandals or well-worn shoes on the doorsteps, the normal evidence that people are at home.  A small group of men in civilian clothes are waiting for us at the provincial chairman’s office. Deputy chairman Pham Dinh Di greets us with a grin all over his handsome face.

“Welcome to Ha Giang. You are the first foreigners visiting us here. I am afraid we cannot show you how lively our town really is. After the artillery shelling has become more intense, we have evacuated almost everybody – about 10.000 people.”

We are invited to sit down in a very simple office on bamboo stools, having the customary green tea along with the dry green bean cake, which is always hard for foreigners to swallow. 

“During the first attacks two weeks ago, we had to rely on our local self-defense militia, in case the Chinese would launch a real invasion attempt. But so far, we have only suffered artillery bombardments. In the past week several units from our Quan Doi Nhân Dan have arrived. I promise you it will become very costly for the Chinese army, if they try to invade our country again.”

“In your opinion what are the reasons for the present conflict between China and Vietnam?”

“You should ask that question to the Chinese! I assume that they are frustrated to see that their ideological and economic war against our country has failed completely. So now they are trying to increase the pressure on us by military means, just like they have done many times before for the past 2.000 years. They never succeeded, and we will do everything we can to make sure that they will also fail this time.”

Pham Dinh Di invites us to join him for an inspection tour to assess the damage of the bombardments that we heard from a distance on our way to Ha Giang.  We join him in a military jeep. We follow an army truck full of armed soldiers, assigned for our protection. As we move closer to the border, half destroyed houses start to appear. 

The dead children of Lang Suu

We make a stop in Lang Suu village, 4 kilometers from the Chinese artillery positions.

“This is the site of the very first surprise attack. The kindergarten was hit, three children were killed, and four others seriously wounded.”

Pham Dinh Di points towards a big burned-out spot. The structure on it is almost completely gone, except for some blackened pieces of wood and a few charred bricks.

“This was the central food storage of the village. Unfortunately, it was full, so almost the entire spring harvest was lost, “says Pham Dinh Di.

He takes out his notebook and reads aloud.

“This is my record of the destruction in the past 3 months due to the Chinese bombings. 28 of the 31 villages have suffered major damage. 15 percent of the harvest has been destroyed. 38 civilians have been killed, 36 people seriously wounded.”

Pham Dinh Di takes us to the local power station. 

“This is one of the most frequent targets. We just finished repairing it once again, and now our electricity supply is back. I am sure we will see a new attack soon on the power station. The Chinese know of course that it is of vital importance to us.”

Photo: Ole Johnny Sorensen.Artwork: Pham Trinh Phuong Thanh.

Running for our lives

This morning, my photographer is doing the only shooting in the seemingly peaceful mountain valley. If not for the clicks of his Nikon, it would be a blissfully quiet afternoon right there in the beautiful green scenery. Pham Dinh Di is pointing to the mountain range right in front of us. 

“There is a Chinese artillery unit right there, I….”

He is interrupted by a BOOM, one more BOOM, and then the third one.

“Xuong!” a soldier yells, and we don’t need the translation at all, but get down on the ground immediately, before the grenades come whistling and detonates some 20 meters away.

After that first artillery barrage, we huddle together in a ditch. The water immediately soaks my pants. Pham Dinh Di offers us a survival training course on the spot. 

“We need to get away from here before they are able to adjust the shooting to hit us directly. When the soldiers give the signal, we run as fast as we can. If we hear the boom again, you need to stop running and lay down flat. You will have a much better chance of avoiding the shrapnel. Most people get killed when they try to run away in panic.”

“Go, go!”

Somehow my sandals get stuck in the muddy ditch, and I run like crazy on bare feet.  All too soon, the pain of the sharp branches on the ground slows me down too much. Two soldiers grab my arms and forces me to stay on my feet at their pace. 

Then the BOOOM, BOOOM, BOOOM again.

I am down on the ground on a dirt road with my face buried in red soil and my bodyguard on top of me. As soon as the detonations are over, we get on our feet again. Then two or three more times, until our ordeal is finally over.  

I look at my watch, but have no real idea, for how long we have been under fire. “Around 45 minutes,” my photographer estimates. He has lost a very expensive camera lens somewhere during our frantic escape; Two soldiers are slightly wounded by shrapnel. Today’s modest casualties.

From somewhere a couple of bottles of warm beer appears. We toast each other.

“Congratulations. You had your first war experience today. I could see you were scared. Honestly, I think we all were. I don’t think you ever get comfortable with enemy fire,” Pham Dinh Di says with a grin.

One more event, a pleasant one, is awaiting us in Ha Giang: A simple but very delicious birthday dinner with live performance of the local militia. Men and women.  It is all about glorious victories in historic battles against the Chinese.

******

Two days later, I find myself back in Hanoi, I have been granted an interview with Vietnam’s legendary foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach.

He receives me with a hearty laughter:

“Tell me please. What do you prefer: Chinese or Vietnamese hospitality?

Co Thach knew all about our border experience from that morning’s edition of the Nhân Dannewspaper. 

Phuong laughs just as heartedly as the foreign minister when she translates the headline for me:

DANISH JOURNALIST: THE VIETNAMESE RECEIVED ME WITH FLOWERS, THE CHINESE WITH GRENADES.

Nhan Dan newspaper on the attack.

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