By Trần Văn Thủy and Lê Thanh Dũng


The year was 1946.

The Franco-Vietnamese war erupted in Hanoi and then spread rapidly to all the provinces. My home was in the city of Nam Định. One day French soldiers climbed over the surrounding wall and fired randomly into the house. They fired into the second and third stories, and even into a couple of passenger vehicles sitting in the front yard.

Abandoning his spacious villa with its yard and garden, my father led the entire family to a place of refuge in the countryside: An Phú Village in Hải Hậu. A life of misery and privation began. Though it lasted no more than two or three years, my life in a farming village in the Red River delta sowed beautiful memories in the six or seven year-old boy’s soul that would never fade for the rest of my life. The melody of some country songs sounded to me like the heartbeat of the countryside. Though in later years, I would hear them sung again and again, they would never seem as beautiful and touching as those I heard and sung as a child.

Mrs. Nhuận was a servant in the family, but we brothers and sisters all called her “Auntie Nhuận,” Her husband and children had all died in the terrible famine in the year of the rooster (1945). She couldn’t read even half a word, but was a treasure house of traditional tales, such as Tống Trân and Cúc Hoa (a verse narrative about a husband who seeks his deceased wife in the other world), Phạm Tải and Ngọc Hoa (a verse narrative with many supernatural elements concerning a domestic love story), Hoàng Trừu (a verse narrative about the relationship of a Chinese prince and a Vietnamese princess), and many others. When the year of the (terribly destructive) land reform came, they attempted to imprison my father and then force Auntie Nhuận to “denounce” him, saying that he had cruelly exploited those who worked for him. Auntie would have none of this, and replied that my father was her benefactor—during the famine of 1945 he had helped many survivors and seen to the burials of countless unclaimed dead people. He also donated money for food to help people build a dyke in his district, a long dyke—and a long story—that old folks still talk about it to this day.

Auntie Nhuận was a kind and honest person. Mr. Song, a paternal cousin who, with his wife and children, shared the house with them for a time, had a bit of gold that he feared might get lost in the upheavals, so he secretly buried it beneath one of the pillars of the house. Later, when he moved back to the city with his family, he confided this secret to Auntie, telling her the spot where the gold had been buried, and entrusted her with the task of digging it up and sending it to him. Auntie Nhuận used every possible means to have the gold conveyed to the city and delivered intact into his hands.

She was the same age as my father. They were born in 1902, when the French built the Paul Doumer (now Long Biên) Bridge in Hanoi. When she was 62 or 63 years old, my father bought a burial casket for her, and he even crawled in and lay down in it to try it out. Everyone in the house was aghast with horror, but also amused. Auntie used the casket to store rice. It was not until twenty years later (in 1983) that she died, beloved and grieved for by all. Her death anniversary is the first one in the year in our family: the twelfth day of the first month of the lunar calendar. This is recorded in our book of family records.

Auntie Nhuận left a deep impression in my soul. She looked after all five children in the family, one after another, as if they were her own, and they all loved her like a mother. Later on, in the film There Was a Village (1993), I incorporated this story about her in the conclusion, and it was highly appreciated by the Japan Broadcasting Company (NHK), the sponsor of the film.

Lê Thanh Dũng: Was she the “auntie” to whom you refer in the book And If We Go to the End of all the Oceans?

Yes, exactly. Auntie Nhuận was the person whom I asked where we could go once we had gone to the end of all the oceans. As “erudite” as she was, though, auntie Nhuận was stumped and unable to give an answer.

The story begins as simply as this. Like many other naïve little children in those days, no doubt I believed that the face of the earth was flat, like an enormous mat, that went on and on as far as your eyes could see. That was the cause of my perplexity—if you just kept on going and going, where would you get to? One day, my teacher brought a globe of the earth to the class, and only from that point on did I realize that the earth was round. But at such a tender age, I surely could not imagine where someone might arrive after endless travel.

Trần Văn Thủy and Lê Thanh Dũng “are three years apart in age and three minutes apart by motorbike.” Schoolboys together, they now speak or write nearly every day.

Lê Thanh Dũng writes, “For several decades, Thủy has given numerous interviews to hundreds of newspapers within and outside the country, but there were still many stories he didn’t tell. There were episodes of hardship accompanied by deep and intense feelings that he could talk about only with his closest friends.

The idea of making a record of these stories didn’t spring into being all at once, but took form gradually in my head. I would try to record not only the stories, but also their atmosphere, and the spirit of the narrator recounting them, because these things made a powerful impression on me…

And then I became aware of a development that was like the drop of water that makes a cup overflow: at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012, two American specialists came to Vietnam and asked to meet and work with Trần Văn Thủy, so as to carry out a research project with the title: “Trần Văn Thủy’s ‘Story of Kindness’—Spirituality and Political Discourse.”

I spoke to Thủy as follows:

“Since you are to talk of spirituality and politics in a Vietnamese setting—no one understands these things more deeply than the Vietnamese. Surely the Vietnamese should be the first with whom you share your thoughts about these stories!”

He found my argument persuasive and started telling me many things. Nearly everything he said I had heard about or read somewhere in the papers, but he had never before cared to recount these things in full detail.

And so we chatted, one person relating, the other listening, as we discussed world affairs, our jobs, old friends, former days, and human destiny… our conversations carried us along, and at times we would even skip from one topic to another—as life itself, in a similar manner, often skips from one thing to another.

Talking on and on like this is perhaps simple, but it is surely deeper than interviews and dialogues with people from foreign and faraway places who do not share the same culture, history, and experience and language…

A further important point I wish to mention is that in this book there are portions that Thủy related to me verbally and that I then wrote down in my own words according to my own perceptions as an understanding friend, and as a person who has passed through many similar experiences. But there are other portions that I set aside entirely for him to record his own thinking and points of view concerning various concrete situations; he wrote them down and read them for me to record.”

Trần Văn Thủy had met Wayne Karlin around 2002 when two friends asked the documentary film-maker to play himself in a feature film, as an old war correspondent meeting an American veteran. Thủy agreed on the condition that the other actor be an actual combatant from his part of the war.

Wayne, it turns out, may well have fired a machine gun from a helicopter in Thủy‘s direction. The two became fast friends, touring the United States together, their conversations becoming part of an early publication of this book, in Vietnamese in California.

Wayne undertook the editing of the Vietnamese volumes into one English book, from a translation prepared by two more old friends of Thủy: Eric Henry and Nguyễn Quang DyEric explains, “When Nguyễn Quang Dy and I were working on the translation, each chapter went through three stages.

Stage One: I would translate an entire chapter. Stage Two: N.Q.D. would go through what I had done and make revisions in blue (these didn’t all have to do with the meanings of words and expressions; he also had a journalist’s gift for conciseness).

Stage Three: I would go through N.Q.D.’s revised chapter and make revisions in orange to his revisions, with a view to making the whole thing idiomatic in English while retaining his corrections and good ideas. My revisions of N.Q.D.’s revisions were then regarded as final.”

Wayne Karlin then undertook to find a publisher and shepherd the manuscript into a book. Afterwards he explained to his collaborators,

I started this project with the sense I just wanted to make minor stylistic changes and some adaptation but that the book would give to its American readers a chance to try to inhabit not only anh Thuy’s experience but the way his Vietnamese readers would perceive it: in other words I followed a much more “purist” philosophy of translation/adoption (assuming it would be for a much more limited audience; readers who already know a lot about Vietnam).

I understand now, after the responses of [publishers] that this more intrusive and surgical adaptation had to be done in order for the book to be published here and also reach, hopefully, a wider audience. Basically, I’ve tried to respect the intent and spirit of the book—and to explain to readers not only more context, but also what changes I made and why.

Wayne further notes, “The ‘intrusive and surgical’ adaptation consisted of re-sequencing or at times eliminating chapters and or sections of chapters, the structuring of the book into titled thematic sections, and explanations to American readers to introduce each section.”

Eric adds, “When I went to Hanoi in 2017, I found that many of Thủy’s friends—and for that matter Thủy himself—thought that In Whose Eyes was a better, more coherent book than the original, Chuyện Nghề Của Thủy.

Excerpts here at Viet Nam Literature Project draw from the complete draft of the translation by Eric Henry and Nguyễn Quang Dy, available at <> with further details on Wayne Karlin‘s editing of the book.

Jack Harrison, director of design and production at the press, made the cover of In Whose Eyes: the Memoir of a Vietnamese Filmmaker in War and Peace (University of Massachusetts, 2016) from a photograph of Trần Văn Thủy by a comrade, an ethnographic film-maker who loved him dearly, on the road that ran from Ha Noi to the ground war in the Republic of Viet Nam and back. Damp on the trail had already enhanced Trần Thế Dân‘s work with the tracings of mold.

The English book appeared in the series Culture, Politics and the Cold War established by historian Christian Appy, whose doctoral thesis at Harvard in American Civilization appeared from the University of North Carolina as Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (2000). Readers around the world enjoy his book of interviews, Patriots: the Vietnam War Remembered from all Sides (Viking, 2004). Chris lives in Amherst where he serves on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts.

The series began in 1998 with historian of religion James T. Fisher‘s life of Thomas Dooley, the Roman Catholic missionary in revolutionary Viet Nam and has published more than 40 titles.  Edwin A. Martini, historian at Western Michigan University in the farm country of Kalamazoo, author of the series title  Agent Orange: History, Science, and the Politics of Uncertainty (2012) and Scott Laderman, historian at the University of Minnesota at the port city of Duluth, author of Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory (Duke University, 2009) carry on the series as Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond.

In Whose Eyes is one of the University of Massachusetts books developed by citizens of the United States and Socialist Republic of Viet Nam who made friends at the meetings of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the Boston harbor campus near the John Fitzgerald Kennedy library. Founder David Hunt eventually published his life work, Vietnam’s Southern Revolution: From Peasant Insurrection to Total War (2008), with the press.

Founder Kevin Bowen edited Vietnamese Poetry from the Wars, 1948-1993: a bilingual collection (1998) for the the press with Nguyen Ba Chung and Bruce Weigl. Chung and David and Kevin and Ngo Vinh Hai presented Le Luu‘s novel A Time Far Past (1997) in English for the press.

The Cold War series advances the New Left tradition in American Studies that developed in the resistance to intervention in Viet Nam. Works from the William Joiner Center share the harvest of reconciliation between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

Executive editor Matt Becker has developed still other Viet Nam titles at the University of Massachusetts with the author Thomas Bass, exploring the disenchanted world past revolution and reconciliation. His second edition of The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game (2018) will follow on Bass’s account of translating the previous edition into Vietnamese globally, Censorship in Vietnam: Brave New World (2017).

Viet Nam Literature Project works to make the products of a fragmented Viet Nam, and the United States that nation’s revolution split apart, attractive and accessible to readers. The works of the University of Massachusetts press exemplify the books we would like more people to learn about and read. 

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