|Getting their hands dirty: Malaysian and Vietnamese volunteers with the Green Summer Volunteer Campaign load sand to build a road in Phu Xuan Commune in HCM City's Nha Be District. — VNS Photo Van Dat
After her parents' shooting in 1963, Le Thanh Lan was determined to join the Youth Volunteer Brigade. Her story and others have inspired countless Vietnamese students to help those in need. Van Dat reports.
Le Thanh Lan was 10 years old when she saw her parents shot dead in 1963 at their home in a war-torn rural commune in Ca Mau Province's Cai Nuoc District.
After the killings, Lan was determined, despite family objections, to become a member of the Youth Volunteer Brigade, founded by President Ho Chi Minh in 1950 during the resistance war against the French.
|Across generations: A young volunteer speaks with a lady on Ly Son Island. — VNS Photo Che Trung
As she could not read or write, and had never attended school, she had to sign her commitment paper with an X, Lan said in a recent interview in HCM City.
The Youth Volunteer Brigade, which still exists, is one of several volunteer organisations founded during the two Indochina wars. By the end of 1954, when the conflict with the French ended, there were thousands of youth volunteers, and by 1975, after the end of the American war, the force had grown to tens of thousands.
The force of young volunteers aided the Vietnamese resistance army's effort immeasurably, and its spirit lives on today in the many other volunteer groups that have been founded since that time.
While the deaths of her parents prompted her to change her life, the events of that day have not lost their chilling resonance.
Recalling the shooting, which occurred shortly before dawn, Lan said that her mother had heard a familiar voice calling for her outside the house. As soon as the mother stepped out the front door, she was shot and killed. Seconds later, at the back of the house, a burst of gunfire could be heard, killing her father.
Hiding from the assailants in a corner, Lan and her elder brother were able to escape. Within days after the horrific killings at her home, Lan was living with relatives and working as a day labourer.
But after joining the volunteer force, she and more than 100 other volunteers made a decision that would alter their lives forever. For 79 days, they walked from Ca Mau, the southernmost region of the country, to reach the southeastern province of Tay Ninh, which borders Cambodia.
After arriving, Lan received three months of training in first aid, weaponry, food transport, and clearing of battlefields.
"People were afraid that I wasn't strong enough to do the toughest tasks and that made me cry," Lan said.
They wanted her to stay in the concealed areas in the forest, and cook and clean, but she refused, saying she wanted to work outdoors, transporting food and ammunition to the front for armed forces.
|Female fortitude: Thousands of women volunteered to serve in the front or back home. After the war, their men did not return and they stood up to face life with children on their own, then still a taboo in Vietnamese society. One thousand four hundred bank books have been given to former volunteers who are struggling on Viet Nam's Women's Day in 2013. — VNA/VNS Photo Nguyen Thuy
During the Tet Offensive in 1968, she often carried rice and weapons to battlefields, and helped take wounded soldiers to medics. One of her many tasks was to bury fallen soldiers, Lan said.
She and other volunteers were often in danger. One day, she and 17 youth volunteers were transporting ammunition to the front and picking up wounded soldiers. The enemy ambushed the group, and five of them were killed.
"I saw my parents die. I saw a number of people killed. Almost no one died with an intact body. The scenes deepened the hatred in me, so I didn't care whether I lived or died," she said.
To transport ammunition, Lan first carried 30kg on her back, and then increased her load to 40kg and 50kg. After learning how to ride a bike, she began transporting 100kg, and then tripled the load.
"I tried to work better than the others. I was from Ca Mau, so I was used to rowing boats. I didn't know how to ride a bicycle," she said.
During her service, Lan was offered training in school subjects taken in the first through fourth grades. She completed her studies within two years.
"It's very hard to describe my happiness at learning how to read and write," she said.
|Starting off: The green summer, during which student volunteers go to the countryside and teach children who cannot go to school. — Photo VNA Thanh Vu
In 1972, she was assigned to support a campaign in Laos, and one year later, after the Paris Peace Accords were signed, she and other volunteers at Tay Ninh's Thien Ngon airport received 5,000 Vietnamese who had been Sai Gon regime's political prisoners.
When the helicopter was about to land, the prisoners threw their clothes out of the plane. "Seeing the clothes in the sky, I could feel their happiness," Lan said.
Shortly after, she was trained as a nurse, and worked for nearly two years, helping the former prisoners recover their health.
After the war ended in 1975, Lan moved to HCM City and began work as a supervisor of telephone operators at the city's main Post Office. She married and had two children.
In 1995, at the age of 42, she received her bachelor's degree from the HCM City Economics University and was promoted as deputy head of the post office's equipment and materials department. In 2000, Lan was selected as chair of the post office's labour union. She retired five years later.
The volunteer work of Lan's generation during a long period of military conflict has inspired countless other young people in the country to take part in voluntary organisations and groups, both small and large.
One of the largest youth volunteer programmes is the Green Summer Volunteer Campaign, organised by the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union.
Several young volunteers of the group worked recently in Phu Xuan Commune in Nha Be District of HCM City, transporting and mixing construction materials to build a 250 metre-long paved road.
Ngo Duong Minh Xuan, 21, a third-year student at International University, who has volunteered for two consecutive years, said: "I know our task now is much lighter than what volunteer youth did in the past, but our job continues the tradition of previous generations. Our contribution is nothing compared with what our fathers, mothers and grandparents did."
|Making a difference: Youth volunteers pick up garbage at the Rach Cut Canal in Go Vap District, HCMC, in the 21th Green Summer activities in 2014. — VNA/VNS Photo An Hieu
Bui Tuan Anh, a fourth-year student at HCM City Open University, said he had volunteered in Binh Thuan Province to assist farmers and teach local children how to read and write.
"We don't do a big thing, but we do something that is necessary for local people," he said. "When our programme finished, the people cried when they said goodbye to us. Now, as the country has developed, we need to have volunteer campaigns suited to the current demands of society."
Mohd Syafig Bin Abd Aziz, 20, who studies aircraft engineering at the University of Kuala Lumpur, worked with the Vietnamese volunteers on the road in Phu Xuan, a rural commune in HCM City.
He is one of 15 Malaysian students living in Viet Nam for a month to learn about the Green Summer programme.
"It's very helpful. We're learning a lot from our Vietnamese friends. They've helped us gain more experience, and we'll contribute what we have learned here when we return to our country," Mohammad said.
"Only Viet Nam has this kind of organised large volunteer activity in Asia. In Malaysia, we don't have this type of programme," he said. "I see that all universities in HCM City have their students participating in voluntary programmes in the summer, but in our country we don't have that. We want to bring back what we are learning here to Malaysia."
Mohammad said he heard many positive comments about the Green Summer programme before coming to Viet Nam.
"We plan to build roads and houses for the poor in Sabah after we return home," he said. "Vietnamese volunteers are very active and hardworking. That's why we come here to learn from them." — VNS