Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
translated by Andrew X. Pham. Harmony Books, New York, 2007, softcover 19.95.
Dang Thuy Tram’s chronicle, in its sensationalized English version, is perhaps the only Vietnam-related book to touch all sides of that tragedy. It was difficult to keep the back story, the incredible passage of her pages, in the background of this much-anticipated war diary.
In March 2005, just prior to the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, two Vietnam veteran brothers gave a nondescript and scarcely attended talk at Texas Tech University’s Vietnam Center. Their presentation was about a diary penned by a Viet Cong doctor that had been kept for 35 years by ex-Army intelligence officer Fred Whitehurst, one of the brothers. His Vietnamese interpreter had advised him to spare the war booty, saying, “Fred, you can’t burn this, it already has a fire in it.”
Dr. Tram, fondly known as “Thuy,” would become a folk hero four months later, perhaps more famous in Vietnam than anyone from the “American War” with the exception of Ho Chi Minh. With the help of scholars and another Vietnam veteran, Whitehurst managed to track down Thuy’s family, and her diary would become a national bestseller overnight. Nearly half a million copies of it have been sold so far in Vietnam, where few books sell more than 5,000 copies. It is understandable that Thuy’s original words struck a chord with so many in her war-ravaged country that rarely talks about the human cost of the glorious victory over the Americans. She was only 27 in 1970, and full of nationalism and naiveté, when an American soldier shot her as she and her medical team were fleeing their camp.
The English translation of Thuy’s diary, ironically enough, was done by a former boat person who had fled Communist Vietnam in the late 1970s. Vietnamese-American memoirist Andrew X. Pham had to enlist the help of his father, a reeducated former South Vietnamese. Last but not least, there is a long introduction—a drawn-out overview of the war—by antiwar Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Frances Fitzgerald.
Unless readers can lay out the original diary next to its English brethren and are fluent in both languages, it will be difficult to determine whether the latter more resembles the writing of Thuy or the publisher’s chic and dramatic editing. The narrative is thick but raw, and only saved by Thuy’s entries of exuberance and jubilation amid her combat tour to treat and support wounded Communist soldiers. “Oh, Thuy! Overcome these pains in your heart. Be joyful…You cannot live with sentiments alone, you stubborn girl?” Furthermore, unless one is a Vietnam veteran, the battlefield context of time and place will be hard to comprehend. Footnotes appear on nearly every other page.
Thuy’s account is feverishly anti-American, for the inordinate damage caused by artillery and airstrikes. Surprisingly, not much is revealed of her feelings toward the South Vietnamese. Ultimately her diary is an insider’s feelings about life, loss and love, captured in their rawest state and preserved for her country to comprehend. During a time when America is involved in another controversial war where the enemy is misunderstood and misidentified, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is a necessary reminder of war’s brutality. Whether or not Thuy’s words will be widely read like Anne Frank’s diary (as promoted by the publisher) remains to be seen.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.