In Vietnam, pain and memories linger on decades after China border war

Living with broken bodies and minds, the horror story isn't over for many people in Ha Giang Province.

Trang A Dui fled his home one chilly morning in early April 1984. He was a little boy, so little he can't really remember much before that, only the things that came after.

He remembers his family and their neighbors waking up screaming as mortar shells rained down on the village. They managed to make it to a trench, before spending the next three days walking south, away from the border.

From their new homes, he and the other children used to look to the north every time they heard the sound of thunder.

“They’re shooting again,” his mother would say.

Bon Van Ban from Vi Xuyen, Ha Giang

Bon Van Ban, Dui’s father, said they didn't dare to light torches at night for fear that the shells would find them.

After setting up their new homes, Ban and the other men still returned to check their old houses in Vi Xuyen District, either to untie their buffalos or to have another look at their paddy fields.

They kept going back until the Chinese guns found their houses and there was nothing left waiting for them except ashes.

If there had not been the order to evacuate our homes, we would have stayed. It’s our land.

Bon Van Ban

The attack that sent Ban’s family running was just the first in a series of heavy bombardments on the district.

People at the time described the attacks as “crazy downpours” of shells that reduced mountains to dust.

Satellite images from 1984 (left) and 1995 show a stark difference in Vi Xuyen District of Ha Giang.

Fighting back

On July 12, 1984, Vietnamese soldiers launched the MB84 campaign to take back Vi Xuyen District. More than 1,000 of them were killed.

Another 3,000 died in following battles over the next six years, fighting more than 500,000 Chinese soldiers.

Half of their bodies are still unaccounted for.

They are mourned as those who did not get a taste of peace, who jumped into a war shortly after 1975 but did not live to see the end of it.

But to some survivors, that taste is still bitter.

Tran Van Son, a veteran, said he received his enlistment orders before finding out he had been accepted by a university.

On September 26, 1989, the tensions eased. Two years later, Vietnam and China announced the normalization of relations.

Son returned home at the age of 25, physically and psychologically torn.

I was 18. It would be too much to say I was following an ideology. I was just following orders, and I had no idea war could be so harsh.

Tran Van Son, a veteran

In February 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.

It remained tense near the northern border over the next decade, particularly at the Vi Xuyen Front.

For political reasons, there were no official reminders of the bloody war for several years.

But for those who were there, the war did not end with a handshake.

When Ban returned to his village, there was nothing left, and he was reduced to tears.

He and the other men who had returned with him set to work putting up tents, plowing fields, raising cattle and clearing as many unexploded bombs as they could.

Then the women and children followed.

There was a time when people in the village made a living from digging up bombs to sell as scrap metal.

Some lost their legs, arms and even their lives doing the dangerous job. Others were killed simply plowing the fields.

Nguyen Van Kim lost both his arms in an explosion in his corn field, while some people just live on with vivid memories of what the war took from them.

Choong, a local woman, still feels guilty that she has not been able to give her daughter a proper tomb with a palm leaf roof, according to local tradition.

Her daughter was killed by shrapnel that struck her in the chest in 1984.

Choong points to the exact spot on her chest every time people ask her about the war.

Duc Hoang - Hoang Phuong

By Duc Hoang - Hoang Phuong