Even if your knowledge of the Vietnam War comes exclusively from Hollywood films and Texan textbooks that only refer to it as "that one the good guys lost," you've probably heard about the Viet Cong. They were a bunch of jungle-fighting guerrilla warriors who killed American boys via night-time ambushes and terrifying traps. Well, that's one side of the story. Here's another: They were a bunch of scared (mostly) young kids fighting in a massive conflict for very personal reasons. We sent a writer out to Vietnam to speak with Nguyen Hoa Giai. He fought as a Viet Cong from the late 1950s to the end of the war in the mid-'70s. Here's what he told us.
8We Weren't All Communists; We Just Wanted Independence, or Revenge
I became a Viet Cong guerrilla in the late 1950s, when I was 15. It wasn't because I was a Communist, or because I ran away to join the circus and just got wildly sidetracked. My uncle actually fought on Ho Chi Minh's side of things during WWII when the resistance against Japanese occupation was actually funded by the Americans and Brits. Here he is palling around with Allied soldiers:
"Everybody stop the colonial exploitation for a minute and scrunch up!"
I was just mad at how the South was pushing all of its excess money into the major cities like Saigon. The South Vietnamese government seemed to ignore small towns and villages, like mine. Ngo Dinh Diem (the leader of South Vietnam at the time) even took away our farms and put them under the control of a single rich guy who'd supported the French in World War II. This happened all over South Vietnam and was called "land reform," rather than the far more accurate "serious, deep, and exploratory boning."
The French, who had controlled Vietnam since the 1800s, always saw the locals as "lower," and we never forgave them for refusing to give us independence. Ho Chi Minh was snubbed twice, and after the second time he reacted. My uncle also wanted independence and would do anything, including support Communism, to get it.
Via War Remnants Museum
Banner politics don't really leave a lot of space for nuance.
Once the fighting started, a lot of people died, well over a million on our side alone. For the war to continue, a constant stream of new fighters had to join up, and they didn't have the benefit of such luxuries as "functional equipment" or "the slightest idea what to do." Over 90 percent of these new recruits were teenagers or younger. Many of them weren't even particularly invested in the "cause" itself. Supporting Communism or the dream of a united Vietnam was less a motivator than wanting revenge for the death of a parent, loved one, or child. The Viet Cong (literally: the National Liberation Front or just "the front") were just a means for securing that revenge.
Most of them were aware that Stalin and Mao each had movements named after them (Stalinism and Maoism), so they just assumed Socialism was named after a guy named Social and Communism was named after a guy named Commun. A distressing number of my co-soldiers still thought we were fighting France. They knew of Ho Chi Minh, but only in vague propagandistic terms, not the man's actual history. When we told them we wanted a Socialist society, they just said yes because they were mostly poor, grieving peasants living through a shortage of damns, and thus had none to spare for politics.
7We Were Just as Scared of the Jungle as the Americans Were
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Your movies tend to portray the Viet Cong as deadly jungle warriors, blending into the foliage and melting out of the wild to launch continuous surprise assaults on various Rambos. That's all a big load of crap: Many of us (including me) came from border towns and grew up in the hills or the mountains. We had no more mastery over the jungle than a kid from Oregon has over Death Valley.
Your bamboo-frame bicycles and gluten-free kale fritters won't help you here, fellas.
So the jungle was alien to many of us, and unlike most of the American soldiers, we were stuck spending our entire war there. My uncle and I didn't trust the tunnel systems many of the other VC used. They were prone to collapse, and if that happened over a barracks or a mess hall it was likely to kill more people than an air raid. So we did most of our moving around outside, under the questionable cover of grass mats. This meant we were not only completely open to rain storms ... but also to murderous animals. It's easy to forget, amid all the drama of war, that there were tigers in that jungle. Easy to forget until you met a goddamn tiger, that is.
Tom Brakefield/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Despite what The Jungle Book may lead you to believe, alpha predators
are very rarely interested in singalongs.
Tigers may be shy, but every once in a while one of us would disappear in the middle of the night, and we'd all just sort of understand why. Tigers don't exactly do end-zone dances after every kill, after all.
And so many people were killed by snakes. There were also rats as large as cats, mosquitoes, spiders, and centipedes to contend with. While you won't usually die from a centipede bite, one of my co-guerrillas committed suicide after being bitten because the pain was so intense.
Armed adversaries give you comparatively good odds of survival. Mother Nature has things uglier than bullets in her arsenal.