Peasants of Vietnam
Peasants often faced adversity,
Widespread poverty, still abounds,
So far removed from that contrast world,
Dominating in most towns.
Their religion stressing selflessness,
More tolerance and peace, instead;
One’s soul tied up in land and soil,
And in ancestors, now long dead.
A few villages well-constructed,
Some homes of stone, with terracotta tile;
Simple, but neatly appointed in,
Old French colonial style.
Yet, most existed as flimsy walls,
Of tin sheeting, cane shutters and doors;
Roofs of palm fronds, lashed to bamboo,
And matting covered plain dirt floors.
Smouldering fires outside each hut,
Scrounging fowls, pigs, odd rat;
Women performing daily chores,
Although contented, none grew fat.
Siblings carried, upon daughters’ hips,
A cane pole balanced across a back;
Pots of water hanging from each end,
Fresh from a well, just down the track.
Banana palms around these huts,
And other plants grew there to suit;
‘Veggie’ gardens and tamarind trees,
Herbs and spices and breadfruit.
And also very obvious,
Few men of military age;
Conscripts off to ARVN, or,
Volunteered for a Cong’s paltry wage.
And every few days, to market,
In Baria, or Vung Tau;
Perhaps to Saigon, or Dat Do,
In any vehicle, somehow.
Crowding aboard, old French buses,
Whatever someone could start;
Motorbikes and trucks, diseased with rust,
Or slow moving ox-cart.
Lambrettas meant for just a few,
They’d load them with much more;
Gear stacked inside and on each roof,
People hanging out the door.
Delayed in queues, at our checkpoints,
Searching for VC in disguise;
Mainly poultry, pigs, fish and produce,
Sometimes guerrillas’ arms supplies.
That land, a mix, along this coastal strip,
Mountains, mangroves, swamps and plains;
Extensive paddies and jungle bands,
Drenched by fierce monsoonal rains.
Dien Bien Phu brought no relief,
War resumed with ‘Uncle Sam’;
Yet, most peasants supported ‘Uncle Ho’,
Throughout Viet Nam.
* * *
Thick jungle combed, for wild herbs,
Pawpaws and sugar bananas;
Conical cane hats, rubber sandals,
Dress ’twas cotton black ‘pyjamas’.
Entire families and neighbours ,
Women, their children, old men,
Wielding sharp long curved machetes,
Some loading or helping a friend.
A ubiquitous boy, riding bare-back,
Cane stick in one hand for control;
Buffalo turning ancient soil,
Crude plough exposing its soul.
Up on bridges, or wading paddies,
Someone squatting out on a dyke,
Perhaps fishing or just ‘pretending’,
‘Coca-Cola boy’ rides by, on his bike.
On dusty roads, trudge beasts of burden,
Pulling old ox-carts, laden down;
Wood or charcoal, fresh from kilns,
Sold as fuel back in some town.
And ‘rubber’ plantation workers,
Slice bark for white liquid on tap;
French connections still draining wealth,
In the form of latex from sap.
In spite of these many hardships,
Resentment well hidden beneath;
Smiles, flashing gold or silver,
Between betel nut stained brown teeth.
All children revered by adults,
A faith in Buddha, or the Catholic line;
Social life mainly games and gossip,
And perhaps a little rice wine.
Crop planting took place in ‘The Wet’,
Cut in ‘The Dry’ with sharp scythes;
Stacked in piles during harvest time,
Hand-thrashed by daughters and wives.
Simple village life, traditional,
Free from greed, which knows no bounds;
Yet, war brings change and alternatives,
Bright lights lured girls to towns.
Troops, of course, had little say,
Whether native, or from foreign shores;
Their duty done, as best they could,
As ’twas the case in other wars.
Every lie, quite well designed,
By ‘pollies’ and ‘high brass’ at base;
Like mushrooms fed, kept in the dark,
All ‘grunts’ obey and know their place.
We may question now our tactics,
And our motives ... were they good?
Do we comprehend the total cost?
I wonder if we ever, ever could!
Two cultures met, ’twas bound to clash,
Seems some just didn’t give a damn,
That peasants suffered misery,
Throughout Viet Nam.
This poem endeavours to capture a glimpse of the lifestyle of the Vietnamese peasant, that section of the population which made up the majority. Life for the peasants was and still is a harsh one and it was they who carried most of the burden during the Vietnam War. Their loyalty was often torn between both sides in the conflict.
Yet, the West remained blind to the fact that for people caught in a poverty trap, lacking power to fight against corruption and nepotism, then socialism/communism was always, in the main, going to be their preferred option.
Sadly, under their new regime, most have found that little has changed for the better. This poem is a tribute to them, for their endurance and suffering.
“One of the most distinctive and important features of
village life was the way in which cultural and sacred
practices were tied to ‘a sense of place’.” - John Murphy in Harvest of Fear, 1993.
“ Vietnam was the grass that gets trampled when the elephants fight!” - Buddhist dogma.
“History, culture, geography, politics and individuals have all
played their part in the nightmare of Indochina. If there is one
lesson worth retaining from the travails of the Cold War and the
miseries it brought in its wake, it is the folly of seeking simple
answers to complicated questions. It’s a lesson which governments
show no signs of learning. They would do well to ponder.”
- Philip Short in The History of a Nightmare, 2004.
Searching for hidden armaments etc - Nui Dat checkpoint, July 1966
Peasants of Vietnam