Hà Nội at Midnight
Translated & edited by Quan Manh Ha and Cab Tran
Texas Tech University Press 2023
“A soldiers’s life, like a sigh, was full of sorrow and boredom,” writes Bảo Ninh, whose collection of ten short stories evoke deeply emotional and heartbreaking memories of the Vietnam War in his book, “Hà Nội at Midnight.” Bảo Ninh’s writings were banned in Vietnam because he didn’t present the conflict as “noble and heroic,” but rather, he sees the war as “a cause of deep ongoing psychological suffering.”
… a gut-wrenching but valuable read …
Now, after thirty years of silence, the author has permitted ten of his stories to be translated into English. The stories are fictional but based on memory. At age 17, the author enlisted in the North Vietnamese army and was present in Sái Gón the waning days of the war
The story, “Farewell to a Soldier’s Life,” is narrated by a solider, who, like the author, survives the war, then years later flies into Sái Gón. Repressed emotions emerge as he recalls the final days in April 1975 when he cried “tears of triumph.” But now, the radiant days of victory are long over.”
He describes in vivid prose what he saw and felt when USA bombers dropped Agent Orange on Vietnam: “The entire forest was shedding its leaves …as if a “raging tempest had passed,” the soldier laments.
“Giang” is tender and poignant story. A soldier returning from leave encounters a young woman drawing water from a well. During brief hours together, a bond is formed without intimacy. They never meet again, but the soldier clings to the memory throughout his life.
In “Beloved Son,” a trunk is moved from one location to another years after the war. Inside are dozens of letters a mother sent to her son to the place he was stationed, all returned to sender.
“Untamed Winds” details how a flood from a destroyed dam changes the course of many lives. Through the voice of a character, images emerge — the frailness of life, and the monstrosity of war: “Like fields set ablaze, can burn us to ash in a single moment.”
Other stories draw on the emotional loss of family, a loved one or loss of a home. The author also describes Vietnam’s beauty before war devastated the countryside.
Bảo Ninh’s prose lays bare the agony of war from both sides, the North Vietnamese Army and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. All, he writes, had lovers, parents and sons, and daughters.
“Hà Nội at Midnight.” is a gut-wrenching but valuable read, focusing on universal experiences of war. It brings to mind the carnage we witness daily in Ukraine. And praise must also go the translators and publishers who have made the works of Bảo Ninh available to English readers.