Saving Hanoi: ‘Little giants’ who put their lives on the line

By Viet Tuan   December 31, 2018 | 07:28 pm PT
It was war, they were boys, but Hanoi and the nation depended on them to keep battlefield communications open.

A power station exploded and Hanoi went dark.

It was the opening salvo of the anti-French Resistance War in Vietnam, otherwise known as the First Indochina War. 

It was about 8 p.m. on December 19, 1946. 

Within minutes, the sounds of gunfire echoed in the air starting from Phao Dai Lang Street in the west of the capital.

Over the next 60 days, a fierce tug of war ensued between the French and Vietnamese forces to gain control of Hanoi. It was not an equal battle. France had approximately 6,500 soldiers, 40 tanks, 19 planes and numerous other war vehicles mobilized for the battle, while Vietnam had only 1,500 and 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 guns to defend the city. 

And in the thick of the battle, as cannons roared and bullets whizzed, it was of crucial strategic importance that there was communication between soldiers fighting in different areas of the city. But this was not easy. It required great courage, agility, presence of mind and knowledge of the city’s intricate network of alleys and lanes.

Incredibly, almost unbelievably, it was a group of children aged 9-15 who stood up and performed the task. 

A squad of Hanoi soldiers seizes a French machine gun at the Hang Dau intersection in 1946. Photo acquired by VnExpress from the archive

Hanoi soldiers seize a French machine gun at the Hang Dau intersection in 1946. Archival photo

Passwords and barricades

Phung De, now 85, still remembers clearly how he and his peers had to slip through many barricades on the streets and memorize the make-shift "tunnel systems" within houses in the city to deliver battlefield updates to military headquarters. The young scouts used codes to relay information and prevent spying by the other side.

"When I met a stranger, and I said ‘hoa,’ the other person had to respond ‘binh’. If he didn’t, we would capture him," De recalled. (Hoa Binh means ‘peace’ in Vietnamese, something that people were pining for).

Dang Van Tich, 87, recalls how pots, pans and other household objects were used to block roads and create fake minefields to impede the French army in the capital city.

De and Tich were among the 200 or so scouts who helped Vietnamese troops communicate with each other during the Battle of Hanoi in 1946.

The value of their work can never be underestimated because it ensured safe passages for citizens to evacuate and helped prevent the capital from falling into French hands.

These young scouts, young in age and stature, displayed heroic courage, unwavering tenacity and love for their country. 

This is how their incredible story unfolded.

French war criminals

Towards the end of 1946, despite having signed two treaties with the Vietnamese government, France didn’t stop sowing the seeds of war across the country. Thousands of Vietnamese people were killed in the port city of Hai Phong and dozens living on Hang Bun Street in Hanoi died in multiple skirmishes in December.

On December 18 that year, France sent an ultimatum to the Vietnamese government, demanding that its forces disarm and concede Hanoi to the French army.

The government refused. Ho Chi Minh rallied all citizens to take up arms and fight the French invaders.

As the Battle of Hanoi broke out December 19, citizens and selected troops were evacuated to northern regions to preserve manpower and resources. Only a portion of Vietnamese forces stayed behind to defend the capital and buy more time for the evacuation.

Five battalions of the Vietnamese army made their last stand in the city. Supporting them was the squad of very young scouts yet to reach their teens. Their small stature and nimble feet made them adept at zipping in and out of the battlefields and avoiding enemy detection. Their task was to ensure communication throughout the city, keeping constant tabs on the battlefield to relay vital changes to military headquarters.

"We were too young to be called soldiers. We were like the younger siblings of the main troops back then," Tich recalled.

Former Hanoi scout Dang Van Tich. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Tuan

Former Hanoi scout Dang Van Tich. Photo by VnExpress/Viet Tuan

When the rallying call was broadcast on December 19, Tich, then only 15, decided to break away from the stream of people evacuating Hanoi and join the fight as a scout operating near the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square in Hoan Kiem District.

Tich and his fellow scouts led numerous soldiers to safety while delivering food and documents to military headquarters.

"We were like family. After the sounds of gunfire died down at night, the older troops often carried us scouts to bed. Since we were small children, we always got to taste treats like delicious bowls of lotus seed sweet soup," Tich said.

He does not look back at that time without regret. More than the bombing and the shooting, Tich’s abiding regret is that he never saw his father again. 

It was only in 1955, when the Vietnamese forces finally regained control of the capital, did Tich learn that his father had already died, the family house had been sold, and his siblings were no longer there.

The horrors

Phung De still remembers how a mother and child was stabbed to death with a bayonet right in front of him as the French army massacred the residents of Hang Bun Street just two days before the Battle of Hanoi. 

The memory haunts him to this day.

Orphaned since the age of four, De was taken in by an aunt and learned shoemaking to survive. The night the battle began, like Tich, De refused to evacuate and decided to stay and fight. But he was too young to join the army back then.

De didn’t give up. Seeing soldiers digging trenches near Cau Go Street, he decided to lend a hand. Shortly after, he was assigned to be a scout.

The last stand

By January 1947, while the Vietnamese forces were able to hold off the French within the capital, the battle had taken its toll on them, with food and ammunition slowly running out.

Ho Chi Minh then ordered most Vietnamese troops to retreat from the capital to save resources and manpower. Only a handful, about 500 people, was told to stay behind.

All the Hanoi scouts were also ordered to leave the city at that time.

"When I roll called the troops, there were 1,200 people who stayed back in Hanoi, including 175 scouts. [The scouts] hid in closets, under beds, on roofs... wherever they could in order to stay back and fight," said Vu Trong Ham, a colonel who was part of the Hanoi defending troops in 1947.

The boys were not immune to the violence of war.

A soldier holds a lunge mine to face against a French tank in Hanoi, 1946. Photo acquired by VnExpress from the archive

A soldier holds a lunge mine to face a French tank in Hanoi, 1946. The indigenously devised weapon meant certain death for the one who used it. Photo acquired by VnExpress from the archives

Former medic Vu Thi Ngam, 86, remembers a particular boy named Tran Van Lai, who was a scout during the 60-day Hanoi battle. 

On February 12, 1947, the French was close to gaining control of a local school in O Quan Chuong Street. The school was of great strategic importance; losing it would have been cutting of an escape route for Vietnamese troops to leave the city.

As soldiers retreated from the French army’s advances, Lai, who was only 12, managed to run back to headquarters and ask for reinforcements. When he tried to make it back to the school, the French shot him.

Lai succumbed to his wounds not long after. But thanks to him calling for reinforcements, the school didn’t fall that night.

After the battle, the late legendary general of the Vietnamese army, military architect of the army’s victories against the French and the U.S. Americans, Vo Nguyen Giap, wrote: "They are our scouts, our patriotic youth who deserve to be called ‘little giants’, who vowed to protect their country to their last breaths."

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