A Kitchen God: how a stove helped save lives

November 06, 2022 - 08:15
The iconic Bếp Hoàng Cầm has kept Vietnamese soldiers well-fed for decades
HEATING UP: Young soldiers cook on the Hoàng Cầm double wood stove, making sure everyone has hot food every day. VNA/VNS Photo Danh Lam

by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà

If you have ever visited war museums or revolutionary sites, the chances are that you will have seen a wood-burning stove model where you can cook food, but no firelight nor smoke can be seen coming out of it.

Today, if you are an 18-year-old joining the military for the first time, you will learn how to dig a double wood stove to cook for up to 60 people within a short period.

Anyone spending time in the military cannot forget the popular double stove that is the Hoàng Cầm stove. The three words: Bếp Hoàng Cầm stands for warm and freshly cooked meals anywhere the soldiers are stationed.

In a recent social media post about how soldiers cook, thousands of people have expressed their respect and admiration for the creation of this specific stove, which helped save many lives, and fed millions of soldiers through several wars since 1952.

"If anyone deserves to be a hero, Army Captain Hoàng Cầm is the hero of all heroes! We all owe him our gratitude," said Nguyễn Phú Ninh.

Many veterans have shared their experiences with the Hoàng Cầm stove.

Trần Văn Hùng wrote, "I marched along the Trường Sơn Mountain Range during the anti- American war. And in all the fierce battle on our post, we all had hot food and boiling water thanks to the Hoàng Cầm stove."

Another veteran Trịnh Hoàng wrote, "We always dug up a Hoàng Cầm stove to cook food. No smoke by day, no light by night. The US recon aircraft OV-10 could not detect us. That decreased our human losses enormously along the legendary Hồ Chí Minh Trail."

MILITARY MAN: Navy Lieutenant colonel Cao văn Hà with 30 years in the army, stationed in the Spratly islands for more than 20 years, remembers having a Bếp Hoàng Cầm installed everywhere he went. VNS Photo Đoàn Tùng

Making of a kitchen king

In the war against French colonialists in the mid-1950s, the young Vietnamese army, founded only in 1944, lacked everything from staple food and ammunition to antibiotics and transport. Troops mostly walked from base camps to battlefields. Heavy losses were inevitable.

When his unit took part in the Hoàng Hoa Thám and Hòa Bình campaigns in 1952, military cook Cầm saw the human losses his comrades had suffered. There were so many mortalities, and those who survived were weakened due to lack of nutrition. The two main reasons were that the enemy warplanes bombed his troops, and the daily food supply was inadequate.

Cầm realised that the war was getting fiercer every day. One issue was the cooking process. When he cooked at night, the firelight can be spotted by enemy recon aircraft, and during the day, smoke showed the place where the soldiers were stationed. There were many incidents when a cook started burning his stove, a cloud of smoke came out, and enemy planes would soon arrive and bomb and shell their garrison. Many died from such attacks.

The cooks switched to prepare food at night only. When they heard an airplane coming, they would use water to stamp out the fire. But the rice was left uncooked, making it hard to consume. Also, food cooked at night that had to be eaten during the day was cold, hardly the morale-boosting meals a soldier needs to fight a war. After all, an army is said to march on its stomach.

TRAINING DAY: Hà Nội's Phan Huy Chú high school students in army uniforms learn survival skills without the help of technological appliances. They are pictured here during a demonstration on making a Hoàng Cầm stove. Photo courtesy of qpan.vnu.edu.vn

Cầm tossed and turned for many days and nights. He wanted to help reduce the human losses.

The story about how the kitchen stove was conceived has become a legend, retold countless times in and out of military circles. One morning, during his early shift, Cầm took a walk along the stream and saw the smoke hanging under a thatched roof. He suddenly thought of a wood stove, which diverts its smoke so it would not come up in the air and reveals the fire underneath. If successful, it would mean he could cook food during the day, and no smoke would be seen.

Cầm started working on channelling the smoke into a system of tunnels like a rat's cave. He put it on paper, dug into a hill and tried digging various types of stoves. He dug dozens, with many tunnels that spread the smoke around the ground surface. He then tried to cook rice on that wood stove. The results were not bad, but the flickering light was still seen, and the smoke still came up, though lighter.

Cầm didn't give up. He dug dozens more, doubling the tunnel lengths and adding more turns. He would place tree branches on the tunnels and then cover them with dirt so no visible smoke could come out. He also dug a large hole in front of the stove, covered with a plastic mat, where he could store cooking tools on top, and cover the light. Underneath, the hole was like a smoke cell, giving more air for the fire to burn stronger.

OVEN READY: A Phan Huy Chú high school student in Hà Nội learn to dig a Hoàng Cầm double wood stove and then cooks rice on it. Photo courtesy of qpan.vnu.edu.vn

At last, Hoàng Cầm invented the fire stove as he wished. A fire stove dug into a hill's foot or on the ground, with the smoke channels like a squid's tentacles. The channels were then covered with tree branches and damp dirt on top. Smoke from the furnace spread out into the channels and was screened and blocked by the ground. It rose but looked just like the morning mist and quickly vanished.

Little did Cầm know then his invention would still be used in the army kitchens 70 years later, long after he died.

In the early days of the young democratic republic, people thought little about possession and private property. Patent registration didn't even exist, and intellectual property was a concept that would come to Việt Nam some half a century later.

During those days, the Vietnamese offered all they had to the common cause to fight for freedom from French rule, giving up their houses, gold savings, and privileges. In that same spirit, Cầm's invention soon became the model stove made across all regiments of the people's army. All soldier-cooks lauded it.

The double wood stove invented by Cầm fit perfectly with soldiers during the war: it's close, not revealing firelight, and smoke stays close to the ground. Having dug this stove, cooks can cook rice on one stove and meat or veggie soup on the other. Chefs can cook during the day and at night without fear of detection by enemy recon warplanes. Soldiers in battle could have hot rice and soup every day.

In October 1952, the army gave this new kitchenette a name: the Hoàng Cầm stove, after its inventor.

Revolution of its own

Since its birth until now, the Hoàng Cầm stove has been widely used in the Vietnamese army and is a must for use in all units.

This invention gave soldiers hot food every day, and they got hot water during winter. Frontline medical staff had boiling water to sterilise their operation tools. This creation brought enormous practical benefits when soldiers had to move from one location to another.

Since cooks were not afraid of enemy recon airplanes whenever they started a fire. The soldiers didn't have to eat cold food cooked the night before.

In his memoir, Road to Điện Biên Phủ by General Võ Nguyên Giáp, he wrote of the stove: "It would have been a shortcoming if I won't mention here an initiative which improved the life and health of our soldiers on battlefields."

When the resistance war ended, Hoàng Cầm was awarded the Điện Biên Soldier Badge and the Victory Order, third class. He was among the proud soldiers marching in their battalion to Hà Nội on October 10, 1954, two years after his creation solved the daily food issue on the frontline.

ICONIC COOKER: Even in the Củ Chi guerrilla-warfare tunnels on the outskirts of Sài Gòn, a Hoàng Cầm stove provided its magic cooking power on a daily basis for liberation fighters during the anti-American war.Photo courtesy of vov2.vov.vn


In 1958, the entire army shifted to a peaceful period, cutting the number of active soldiers. Thousands of soldiers who had gone through the actual war were demobilised to go home with their families or moved to other workplaces, including cooperatives and factories.

In early 1959, Hoàng Cầm was demobilised from the army as a lieutenant.

For many years he lived with his family in Tam Đảo town, working in the local cooperative. He had taught fellow neighbours to make icecream sticks from bamboo, then he packed the sticks onto his bicycle and cycled to Hà Nội to sell for Thủy Tạ ice cream shop by Hoàn Kiếm Lake. According to the local cooperative, during his tenure as head of the cooperative, he sold 12 tonnes of ice cream sticks, earning money for cooperative members to buy rice.

This prompted avid veterans to laud him as the Labour Hero, an honour bestowed by the President to individuals with outstanding work achievements.

His family later moved to Hà Nội where he died at Military Hospital 108 at 80 years of age. He was promoted to the rank of Captain posthumously.

He perished, but his legacy lived on. Today Bếp Hoàng Cầm is still in the syllabus of all military academies. It was even mentioned in one of the most sung war songs by composer Huy Du, Let's Turn the Fire on!

Hoàng Cầm's incredible legacy will surely never be forgotten. VNS