Commemorating deceased ancestors and family members who were dead has been a
tradition in Vietnam since time immemorial. On the date of their death on the
lunar calendar, their living descendants or members of their families hold
service in commemoration of them at home or sometimes at pagoda. Offerings --
usually food, fruit, wine along with flowers and incense sticks - are presented
to them on the altar. The relatives pray for them and show their love, respect
and gratitude prostrating in front of the altar.
The tradition also goes beyond the limit of family members and ascendants. On
the 15th day of the 7th month every lunar year, Vietnamese Buddhists conduct
rites that are more elaborated at pagodas. The congregation prays for the dead
in general, particularly for the dead without offspring, soldiers killed in
action, war victims... The rites may last a week or even 15 days in pre-war
Such tradition is the same in Hue City, the ancient royal capital of Vietnam.
People in this city, however, have more to do with the war dead. In the 5th moon
each lunar year (around late June to early July), every Buddhist family in the
city holds commemorating services at the family altar as well as in all pagodas
with offerings, to pray for innocent civilians killed by the French invaders in
the late 19th century. On the 23rd day of the fifth month, the year At Dau (or
the Year of the Rooster 1885), the French forces conducted a fierce counter
attack against the Vietnam royal army who defended the capital city.
Unscrupulous French fire power killed about 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers and
Although the date is the 23rd day of the 5th month, people are free to hold
service for the dead on any date to their family's convenience, providing that
it is within the 5th month. If you visit someone in Hue during the 5th month,
you will certainly be invited to such feasts, probably every day if you have a
lot of friends and relatives living in this beautiful city.
Besides the Fifth Month Commemoration, for the last 28 years, Buddhists in
Hue have also held services in the first month of the lunar year for war victims
in the 1968 Tet Offensive. (Tet is the Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam).
In the darkness of the 1968 Tet's Eve, North Vietnamese Communist Army units
conducted a surprise attack at Hue City, while the two sides were in a truce
that had been agreed upon previously. South Vietnamese Army units defending the
city were not in good positions to fight as they expected that the enemy would
abide by their 4-day cease-fire promise, as they did in the preceding years. On
the first day of the new year - the Year of the Monkey - Hue City streets were
filled with NVA soldiers in baggy olive uniforms and pithy hats.
The communist cadres set up the provisionary authorities. The first thing
they did was call all SVN soldiers, civil servants of all services, political
party members, and college students, to report to the "revolutionary people's
committee." Those who reported to the communist committee were registered in
control books then released with promise of safety.
After a few days, they were called to report again, then all were sent home
safe and sound. During three weeks under NVA units' occupation, they were
ordered to report to the communist committee three or four times. In the late
half of January 1968, the US Marines and the South Vietnamese infantry conducted
bloody counterattacks and recaptured the whole city after many days of fierce
fighting that forced their enemy to withdraw in several directions.
Meanwhile, those who were called to report the last time to the communist
authorities disappeared after the Marines and South Vietnamese Army units
liberated Hue. Most of the missing were soldiers in non-combat units and young
civilians. No one knew their whereabouts.
In late Feb.1968, from reports of Vietnamese Communist ralliers and POWs, the
South Vietnamese local authorities found several mass graves. In each site,
hundreds of bodies of the missing were buried. Most were tied to each other by
ropes, electric wires or telephone wires. They had been shot or beaten or even
stabbed to death.
The mass graves shocked the city and the whole country. Almost every family
in Hue has at least one relative, close or remote, who was killed or still
missing. The latest mass grave found in the front yard of a Phu Thu district
elementary school in May 1972, contained some two hundred bodies under the sand.
They had been slaughtered during one-month occupation of an NVA unit. Sand left
no sign of a mass grave below until a 3rd-grader dug the ground rather deep for
Besides more than two thousand persons whose deaths were confirmed after the
revelation of the mass graves, the fate of the others, amounted to several
thousands, are still unknown.
The 1968 massacre in Hue brought a sharp turn in the common attitude toward
the war. A great number of the pre-'68 fence sitters, anti-war activists, and
even pro-Communist people, took side with the South Vietnamese government after
the horrible events. After April 30, 1975 when South Vietnam fell into the hand
of the Communist Party, it seems that the number of boat people of Hue origin
takes up a greater proportion among the refugees than that from the other areas.
Since April 1975, the Vietnamese Communist regime deliberately moved many
families of the 68-massacre victims out of Hue City. People in the city however,
still commemorate them every year. Because the people are mingling the rites
with Tet celebrations, Communist local authorities have no reason to forbid
Most Americans knew well about the My Lai massacre of US Army Lieutenant
Calley where from 200 to 350 persons were killed. The '68-massacre in Hue
however, has not been covered at the same proportion by the English language
media. When a Tet Offensive documentary film by South Vietnamese reporters was
shown to the American audience of more than 200 US Army officers in Fort
Benning, Ga. in November 1974, almost 90 percent of them hadn't been informed of
the facts. Many even said that had they known the savage slaughter at the time,
they would have acted differently while serving in Vietnam.
The US Navy has a warship named "Hue City." It is not known how many of her
sailors realize that the city she carries as a name suffered so much. Would it
be a good idea to have a rite once a year in the Tet season on the "Hue City"
for the dead whom the US Marines were fighting for in February 1968?
Animosity should not be handed down to younger generations, but our
descendants must be taught the truth. War crimes must not be forgotten, and
history is not written by one-sided writers.