“War does not have a woman's face”

A war within: Vietnamese women warriors search for inner peace in Zen

Leaving their youth behind, they brought home physical and emotional pains that could not be healed but only eased by their faith in Buddhism.

It was a night in early March 1971 when nurse Bui Thi Doan was handed a new-born baby. She was on duty at a hospital in Thai Binh, a northern province sitting 105km (65 miles) southeast of Hanoi.

She was given the baby by a woman who said she needed to use the restroom, but never returned.

Doan had been a military volunteer during the war, a job that left her with both physical and emotional scars that stayed with her when she returned home. Having seen her fellow female comrades give birth to children with disabilities after being exposed to toxic chemicals, she was petrified of marrying and having a baby of her own.

Tuan's birth certificate.

She was desperate to keep the baby that had been dropped into her arms, and battled with the hospital until they agreed to let her take him home.

Her dream of becoming a mother had come true. Doan named the little boy Tuan and raised him in poverty, feeding him rice porridge with sugar.

She got him a birth certificate and promised to raise him as her own, but tragically, the boy died just two months later. She has kept the birth certificate to this day.

Ten years went by and Doan was forced to retire in 1981 due to ill-health. After returning to her home in Hung Ha District, Doan had nothing to win or lose, so she knocked on the door of Van Pagoda, and 30 years later, she is now the abbess.

Doan is a typical example of many female volunteers from Thai Binh Province who gave up everything during the war before finally finding inner peace.

Most volunteers sent to the front line during the Vietnam War were from Thai Binh. Now 20 pagodas in the province have become homes for those female volunteers.

They returned from the war, leaving the most beautiful years of their lives on the battlefields. Alone, weak and obsessed, Buddhism seemed like the only path for them.

Storm of war

Goi Station, Nam Dinh Province, 4 p.m., August 20, 1966. 

A Vietnamese military train packed with essential goods and equipment was heading for the front line. 

As it was pulling out of Nam Dinh Province bound for Thanh Hoa Province in the north central region, U.S. planes showered the train with bombs.

Military volunteers rushed to save the equipment as the train went up in flames. Bui Thi Doan and her comrade Nguyen Thi Phuong were among them.

That was 50 years ago, but their memories of that day have not faded. The two women share the same story: barrels of chemicals exploding, spewing toxic chemicals onto them and suffocating them in dense smoke. 

The last thing they remember was blacking out in a hospital in Hanoi surrounded by people from the station. They were right: 23 people were killed in the incident, while 256 were injured or poisoned.


Doan at Van Pagoda.

None of the victims completely recovered from the Goi Station attack.

Doan lost her mind.

Everything she knows about that day comes from her comrades, who said she had been left wandering around in a daze.

After regaining her senses, she returned to Thai Binh to work at the provincial hospital, but she regularly fell ill.

Phuong’s story is just the same.

She is now the abbess at Cau De Pagoda in Vu Thu District, but does not like recalling that day.

Asked about her life story, she answered simply: “Pham Tien Duat has already written about it.” It turns out the late poet had put Phuong’s life into one of his works.

Nun Thich Dam Phuong at prayer in Cau De Pagoda

After Goi Station, she returned home and worked as a kindergarten teacher, but after learning that her love had died in the war, she gave up everything and became a nun, the poem says.

Doan and Phuong cannot explain why so many female volunteers from Thai Binh left their homes to become nuns. They only know they found each other again after saying farewell to their old lives.

In the place of Zen

So what have they found? 

Another nun named Dau at Dong Minh Pagoda is also incapable of answering the question coherently. There is a large scar on her head left from a piece of shrapnel that is still wedged in her skull.

She often gets headaches and wanders off from her pagoda in Dong Hung District.
Given her mental illness, Dau cannot become the abbess of a big pagoda like Doan and Phuong. She looks after a small temple where people worship Buddha, and lives off only rice and vegetables picked from the garden.

She told the story of a man named Trac, an alcoholic who had no home or job and was causing problems for the villagers. Dau gave him a place to live in the temple, fed him and tried to teach him not to steal from others.

But Trac did not change. He yelled at Dau and even pulled a knife on her. The nun, surprisingly, was not scared.

“I was not afraid, even during the war,” she said, smiling.

“I’m willing to die so that the villagers can have a peaceful life. It would be meaningless if I lived and other people died,” the nun said.

That night, Trac brought a knife into Dau’s room and threatened to kill her and burn down the pagoda, but the nun ignored him. Trac responded by torching the pagoda, but luckily, the rain and villagers arrived almost at the same time to extinguish the flames. He is in prison now.

Dau stands by what was left of the bed that Trac set fire to.

Unfinished chapter

People in Thai Binh still tell the sad story of Than, a nun at Dong Am Pagoda in Quang Binh Commune, Kien Xuong District.

Than and her lover, a soldier, made a promise to reunite after the war, but when Than returned she decided to become a nun. The reason: she was exposed to Agent Orange and could not have children.

To make the story even more bitter to swallow, her lover, thought to have died in the war, returned to find her. For years, he stood at the gates of the pagoda pleading with Than to marry him, but she always refused.

The stories of these nuns shed a little light on the quiet life of the women who lost everything to the war. Whether they have found peace now is something only they can tell.

Duc Hoang

By Duc Hoang