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Gender in War: The Case of the Vietnam War and ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’

mahoKo KyouraKu

This article reviews some aspects of the author’s research conducted as a member of an inter-university team under a Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research. It presents the Vietnamese government’s title and position of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ and discusses the origins and some social implications of this politically- constructed identity in Vietnam.


The issue of gender in war is a very important topic in peace studies. Until now studies have focused on the subject of women soldiers 1 . However, gender experience in the post-conflict society is also very important. In this article I will present the problem associated with the notion of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’, through which I shall analyse some important aspects of gender in a post- conflict society. ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ is an honorary title given in Vietnam to mothers whose children were martyrs in the Vietnam War 2 . It also entitles them to have social security. There are 46,398 women with the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ in Vietnam 3 . Specifically my study indicates that the system of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ is giving rise to new social effects, including a new type of postwar conflict in Vietnam. The following discussion is an account of research conducted in Vietnam from 2007 to 2009 and the issues that emerged.

As it is well known, there are many difficulties with interviewing people in Vietnam, because the Vietnamese

government practically restricts free research activities. So, I asked for help from official organisations. The War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City agreed to help me and introduced several persons whom I could interview

as part of my research. I interviewed several people

concerning the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City. Two of them are ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mothers’ and one is the

husband of one of them.

I would like to introduce my three interviewees 4 .

Ms. Nguyen Thi Que was born in 1928 in Quang Nam Province in the southern part of Vietnam. She joined the Revolutionary movement in 1945. She married Mr Phan Quang Hong and gave birth to a daughter in 1949. She was arrested by the South Vietnam Government and interned in the prison of Con Dao 5 from 1959 to 1975. During her absence, her daughter also joined the Revolutionary movement and died in a street fight in 1968. Ms. Nguyen heard about the death of her daughter while in prison in 1970. She received the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ in 1995.

Mr. Phan Quang Hong was born in 1926 in Quang Nam Province. He joined the Patriotic movement in 1945. He was arrested by the French Army in 1949, the year when his daughter was born, and was put into the prison of Con Dao until 1954. After release, he continued to participate in the Revolutionary movement and, as a result, was arrested again by the South Vietnam Government. He returned to the prison of Con Dao from 1959 to 1973. He also heard about the death of his daughter in the prison. In 1975 he was reunited with his wife, Ms. Nguyen Thi Que, with whom he since has been living in Ho Chi Minh City.

Ms. Bui Thi Me was born in 1921 in Vinh Long Province in the southern part of Vietnam. She married in 1940 and gave birth to four sons and two daughters. From 1955 she took part in the Revolutionary movement. Her four sons were enlisted as patriotic soldiers in 1967. But in 1968, three sons became martyrs and one son received a serious wound. She was so shocked that she was hospitalised for one week. She received the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ in 1995.

I interviewed Ms. Nguyen on 12 September, 2008, Mr. Phan on 19 September, 2009, and Ms. Bui on 20 and 21 September, 2009. I interviewed them either in a room of the Museum or at their house with the interpreter of Japanese and Vietnamese. In the following section I will examine some prominent issues raised through these interviews.

What is a ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’? In 1994 the Vietnamese government, in its political move to recognise the important role played by the ‘Vietnam’ War (or American War, as it is called in Vietnam), created the system of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. This is a social security system to support old women who lost their children in the revolutionary war.

The regulation on ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was issued on 29 April, 1994. It is called ‘Regulation about conferring honourable “Vietnamese Heroic Mother’s title”’ 6 . At the beginning of the text, three goals of this regulation are mentioned. These are:

a. To remember that mothers of Vietnam contributed to

the State and, in doing so, made huge sacrifices.

b. To teach people about the revolutionary tradition of

the nation and encourage patriotism, and

c. To requite the mothers.

There were four criteria applied in order to be selected to this title, as follows:

a. To have one child 7 who was a revolutionary martyr, or,

have two children, both of whom were martyrs.

b. To have three or more children who were all martyrs.

c. To have one child who was a martyr, and both her

husband and herself were martyrs 8 .

d. To have two children who were, as well as either her

husband or herself, martyrs.

Ms. Nguyen corresponds to the first case, while Ms Bui corresponds to the second.

According to the regulation, applicants to the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ should submit an application form, but my two interviewees did not apply for the title by themselves. Ms. Nguyen said that she did not know how to apply, and she learned that she had been awarded the title when she was telephoned by the Department of Labor, Invalid and Social Affairs in 1995. Ms. Bui learned about her acquisition of the title from newspaper. Ms Nguyen said that she was glad to get the honorary title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’, although she is not comforted by it. The death of her daughter was the most tragic thing in her life. The two women were both thankful to the State officially, but expressed mixed feelings in private.

The ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mothers’ receive a monthly allowance and are supported in various ways for the duration of their lives. For example, Ms. Nguyen receives 1,191,000 Dong per month as a ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. She also receives 1,408,100 Dong annuity per month and 619,000 Dong per month of war disablement pension. The monthly allowance of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ is a decent sum to live on in Vietnam.

Since this title is given by the government, the recipient must pledge loyalty to the State. In Vietnam, people associated with the former South Vietnam government are excluded from this title. Thus, not all mothers who lost their children during the war receive this title. Moreover, from among all mothers who lost their children during the war, the government selected those who suit the government causes best. Their intention is clear from the fact that the political position of each mother receives careful scrutiny.

Some Key questions that Emerge from the ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ Concept Why does the state honour parents who lost their children?

In Japan, by comparison, the issue of supporting wives who lost their husbands in war has been the main consideration 9 . In Vietnam, the government focused on the parents of martyrs. In Vietnamese culture, children are expected to support their parents, since patriarchy remains deeply rooted in the society, even under socialism 10 . If the parents lost their children in war, the government must support these parents. Mothers who lost their children, who should have supported her, have grown old. This system of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was decreed in 1994, twenty years after the end of the War.

Why is it ‘Mother’, and not ‘Father’? When I interviewed Ms. Nguyen, she said that her husband, Mr. Phan, was unhappy that he could not get the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Father’. Ms. Huynh Ngoc Van, the vice-head of The War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and who was present at my interview with Ms Nguyen, agreed. They proposed that there should be equality between genders. While the government is not likely to establish the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Father’, in 1994−the same year as when the regulation on ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was issued−another more inclusive law was enacted. Under this decree, the families of martyrs were given many distinctions, for example condolence money and regular allowances. Not only mothers but also fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces came to be supported by the government. Mr. Phan consequently receives 794,000 Dong (AUS$47) per month as the family of a martyr.

However, in Vietnamese society, mothers are special. The old proverb in Vietnam says, ‘When you drink water, remember its source’. By these words, we can understand clearly the gender system of Vietnam, where mothers are honoured. In a patriarchal society, the State values women as mothers, not necessarily in their own right.

The number of women who do not marry is increasing in Vietnam after Doi Moi 11, with some women choosing to follow their own independent futures without having children. Moreover, those aging women who hold the title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ will pass away, leaving only the title behind. However, it is likely that this politically- constructed social system, which honours only mothers as the priority women’s role in society, will give rise to a new conflict between women who are mothers and women who are not.

Why Does the Government Select Among Mothers? In the application form for ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’, there is a question concerning the applicant’s political stance: ‘Which party did you support, north or south, at the time of the liberation of Saigon, 30 April 1975?’ Only mothers who supported the Communist Party at the end of the war can become a ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. Even

those who began to support the Communist Party after the war cannot become a ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’.

When I asked my interviewees what they thought about distinguishing mothers by their political stances, Ms .Nguyen answered, ‘Nothing can be done about it, because it was war’. She also added, ‘That is what it means to be in war’. Ms. Bui said that a mother’s pain at losing her children is the same for all mothers but in this society only those whose children died for the Revolution are honored. ‘But now’, she continued, ‘We don’t distinguish mothers. We hope to respect the feelings of all mothers who lost their children, their causes notwithstanding’. They seemed to feel awkward in discussing this issue.

Many mothers lost their children in the war, but the government made a selection that demonstrates that desirable mothers for the state are the supporters of the Communist Party, who sent their children to the ‘revolutionary’ war. In Vietnam, the State requires patriotism to a great extent from its people, especially from mothers.

Conclusion There have been some interesting developments in recent times concerning ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ and I will conclude by briefly discussing these.

The first of these was a new exhibition room in the Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi, focusing on the ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. The Regulation concerning ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’, a model application form for the title and many pictures of the Mothers were on display. Through this exhibition, the Vietnamese government seems to be giving ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ an important place in the national history.

The second instance is in the renewal of the exhibition in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi was established on 20 October, 1995 and is the primary research center on Vietnamese women. It is currently undergoing renewal work and will reopen in 2010, on the occasion of the one-thousand-year anniversary of the founding of the old capital Thang Long, present day Hanoi. Currently, there is a temporary exhibition.

In the old exhibition, the focus of the display was on women’s activities during the Vietnam War. In 2007, a new display focused on the ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ indicating that the museum is trying to place ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ in the context of women’s history of Vietnam as it sets out to renew the national vision of the past.

The third indication of promotion of the concept of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ is the construction of a

monument to honor ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’. The construction began in Tam Ky City in central Quang Nam Province 12 on 27 July, 2009, which is War Invalids and Fallen Soldiers Day. The monument will be completed in 2011 13 .

The status of the ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ will be officially honoured into the future not only by the creation of the title but also by such monuments. The new gender policy created by the Vietnamese government, commending mothers faithful to the state, will be consolidated.

In the past, Ho Chi Minh set forth his plan to use female power, which had been oppressed in patriarchal society, in the revolutionary movement and gained women’s support. Women took arms themselves, participated in production activity and acquired their rights in the process. The ideal of the socialist state of Vietnam was one where women built the state together with men. However, the notion of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ re-introduced perspectives of the conventional patriarchal system into the society. How will Vietnam overcome this contradiction?

Finally, I would like to present a bestseller novel of Vietnam of 1989. It is The Swallows Fly (original title: Chim en bay) written by Nguyen Tri Huan. It won the Vietnam Writers’ Association Award for the fiscal year 1990.

There are two women in this novel, who reached an understanding after the Vietnam War. One of them was a woman soldier of the Communist Party (North party), who killed a man who supported the South government. After the war, she says to the man’s wife, ‘We can talk to each other in equal terms as women who were both fated to unhappy destinies during the war, although we were then in the opposite camps’. Mutual understanding was reached in the novel. But is it possible to reach such consensus in reality when the state is promoting bias for its own purposes?

Acknowledgment This work was supported by Grant-in-Aid for Scientific Research (B) (KAKENHI 19402005).

I would also like to give special thanks to Ms. Bui Thi Me, Ms. Nguyen Thi Que , Mr. Phan Quang Hong and Ms. Huynh Ngoc Van.


1. For example, Gottschang-Turner 1998; Sasaki 2001.

2. The war fought between Vietnam and U.S. from 1954 to

1975 is called ‘the American War’ or ‘the Anti-America War’ in Vietnam. In this article, I will call it ‘the Vietnam War’ following

established practice of academic field in Japan.

3. This number is shown on the exhibition panel of the Vietnam

Military History Museum in Hanoi. I saw it on 3 September 2008. This number is dated to December 2003 and the moth- ers who received the title after death are included.

4. My three interviewees agreed to have their names and

speech revealed.

5. Con Dao was a ‘political prison’ established by French Army

and used by the South Government. It was notorious for inhu- mane tortures.

6. Papers on the regulation concerning ‘Vietnamese Heroic

Mother’ can be seen in the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi.

7. Sex of the martyrs was not relevant.

8. The title of ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’ was also given to

mothers who were already dead.

9. Kawaguchi 2003.

10. Iwai 1995.

11. Le 2006.

12. Quang Nam Province was where fiercest battles were

fought, so there are many ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mothers’.

13. ‘The Communist Party of Vietnam Online Newspaper’ 28

July 2009.

References ‘The Communist Party of Vietnam Online Newspaper’ 28 July 2009.URL: Modules/News_English/News_Detail_E.


Gottschang-Turner, K. and Phan Thanh Hao. 1998. Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam. New York: Wiley. Hasui, S. et al. 2009. A Framework for Understanding and Analyzing Mitigation of Local/Regional Conflict. Shakaikagaku ronsyu Ibaraki daigaku Jinbungakubu-kiyo 48. Mito, Japan: 111−126. Imai, A. 2000. Doimoi ka no Betonamu ni Okeru Sensouno Kioku (The ‘Memories of the War ’under the Doi Moi in Vietnam). Quandrante 2: 50−66, Imai, A. 2005. Hochimin Jidaino Eiyuutachi: Betonamu ni Okeru Eiyuu Senyou to Jinmin (The ‘Heros’ in the Age of Ho Chi Minh: The ‘Enhancement of the Hero’ and the People in Vietnam)’. Toukyou gaikokugo daigaku Ronsyu 7,Tokyo: 151-171 Iwai, M. 1995. Kazokusyugi to Syakaisyugi (Familism and Socialism) In Motto Siritai Betonamu (More Knowledge about Vietnam), ed. Y. Sakurai. Tokyo:

Koubundou. Kawaguchi, E. 2003. Sensoumiboujin: Higai to Kagai no Hazamade (The War Widow: among Damage and Infliction). Tokyo: Domesusyuppan. Kyoraku, M., Ito T. and Iwasa J. 2009. Betonamu ni Okeru Sensou to Josei: Hansen Undou to Eiyuu no Haha (The War and Women in Vietnam: Anti-war Activities and ‘Vietnamese Heroic Mother’). Ningen bunka, 25, Hikone,Japan:15−25 Le, T. 2006. Single Women in Viet Nam . Hanoi: The Gioi Publishers.

Nguyen Tri Huan 2002. Tsubame Tobu (The Swallows Fly), Translation by S. Kato. Tokyo: Terainku. Sasaki, Y. 2001. Souryokusen to Josei Heisi (The Total War and Women Soldiers). Tokyo: Seikyuusha. Yoshizawa, M. 1999. Betonamu Sensou: Minsyuu ni Totteno Senjou (The Vietnam War: the War Field for the Peoples). Tokyo: Yoshikawa Koubunkan.

Author Mahoko Kyoraku is a Professor in Gender History at University of Shiga Prefecture, Japan.

Brown Thongs

The man with warm skin, bald head, round glasses

walks over, hangs the newspaper on its rack

saunters back, looks down at his feet

announces to a table full of people

I thought my thongs felt funny

Twelve eyes look down to see

his big toes over wood

brown rubber high around the little toe

I thought my feet felt funny

I’ve got them on the wrong feet!

his face is playful, enlivened

– a mischievous boy

A man has just remembered

– his body has reminded him

the way it felt when he was six

the day he put his shoes on wrong feet

and his mother laughed – with him

in this unexpected return to innocence

for a few joyful moments the boy

buried decades deep within the man

grins wide again

K*m mAnn Henley BeAcH SoutH


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