Remembering Vietnam's bloody border war with China

By Hoang Phuong   February 16, 2017 | 09:00 am PT
Many children, pregnant women and senior citizens died in the sudden Chinese onslaught of February, 1979.

On February 17, 1979, a force of over 600,000 Chinese troops crossed Vietnam’s northern border, kicking off a 17-day attack.

Military newspaper Quan doi nhan dan reported that Chinese forces launched a fiery artillery attack at around 4 a.m., when residents living along the 600-kilometer border were still asleep.

Casualties were reported in Cao Bang, Ha Giang, Lai Chau, Lang Son, Lao Cai and Quang Ninh.

The conflict claimed thousands of lives on both sides, but hasn't received the same attention as similar fights against the French and Americans. The history of Vietnam's battle against western colonial aggression remains a major part of the country's national curriculum, but Vietnam's fight against the Chinese only began receiving renewed media attention following the escalation of tensions in the East Sea, internationally known as South China Sea.

Memories of the war in Cao Bang were captured by Tran Manh Thuong, a photographer for the Van Hoa Publishing House.


Chinese forces left laid the eponymous capital of Cao Bang Province to waste 38 years ago.


A young girl helped her infant brother flee the assault. Thuong says he still wonders what became of the pair whom he said were tired and hungry on that day.


A soldier helped this little girl join the fleeing crowds after a bullet injured her mother. “Everyone was confused and shocked,” Thuong said.


An iron bridge was destroyed by the Chinese army. Many homes, schools and hospitals were also damaged.


The ruins of a kindergarten.


The invading army destroyed everything in its wake, even livestock.


Nong Van At cried as he recounted to a foreign journalist how Chinese soldiers killed his pregnant wife and their four children, aged 3-10, and threw their bodies in a well.


Nong Thi Ty tells a journalist from the Czech Republic how 43 children, pregnant women and old people died in an assault on her village because they could not run fast enough.


The Chinese attack occurred when Vietnam’s main forces were tied up battling the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; a force of around 50,000 Vietnamese soldiers were sent north to battle a Chinese invasion force 12 times its size.


Vietnamese soldiers stand victorious on a disabled Chinese tank. According to Quan doi nhan dan, 12,000 Chinese soldiers were killed and 140 Chinese tanks were destroyed during the first five days of the onslaught.


Many Chinese weapons were captured during the battle.


President Ton Duc Thang issued an urgent enlistment on March 5 and tens of thousands of young men answered the call.


Volunteers load up bed mats for the soldiers at the front.


Food for the front. China recalled its forces after Vietnam issued a conscription order, but the northern border remained tense for a decade to come.


Guns and uniforms seized from Chinese soldiers. The one-month war left nearly two million of Vietnamese border people homeless.

It remained tense near the northern border over the next decade, particularly at the Vi Xuyen Front in Ha Giang Province. Between April 1984 and May 1989, China sent more than 500,000 soldiers to the Vietnamese border district, killing thousands of Vietnamese soldiers but failed to penetrate further into Vietnam.

Photos by Tran Manh Thuong

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