|Unforgettable: Veteran Nguyen Manh Hiep shows off his collection of wartime memorabilia to visitors. — VNS Photo Trung Hieu
With his brother a martyr, an 18-year-old patriot did not have to enlist, but he insisted. After the war, he collected memorabilia to commemorate those who fought and sacrificed their lives. Trung Hieu reports.
Having taken great pains to visit old battlefields and scrap stores during the last quarter of a century, veteran Nguyen Manh Hiep, 66, has collected about 1,000 wartime memorabilia and a thousand pictures, which he displays at his private museum.
Located in Hiep's residence on An Duong Vuong Road of Tay Ho District in Ha Noi, the museum showcases wartime souvenirs and is a familiar destination for many people, especially veterans from the Tri Thien military zone, who are his teammates.
To create more space for displaying the memorabilia, his family inaugurated the 100 square metres-museum to celebrate the establishment anniversary of the Viet Nam People's Army on December 22, 2011.
"I felt so happy, as we can admire the war souvenirs every day, which helps us relive the wartime memories," Hiep said, while sipping hot tea.
In 1967, when Hiep was just 18 years old, he was exempted for army enlisting because his brother had already died on the battle field, but Hiep still insisted on becoming a soldier.
After joining the army, the young Hanoian was posted to Battalion 420 of Division 320B.
After three months for being trained, he was sent to the Southern battlefield.
"Marching constantly over hundreds of kilometres during the three months from the northern province of Ninh Binh to A Luoi District in Thua Thien-Hue Province, we witnessed bombs and shells exploding around us. We grappled with permanent hunger, only cassava and wild vegetables were the main food throughout the day, not to mention us suffering from prolonged malaria, but my teammates and I finally reached the place," Hiep recalled.
Following that, he was appointed as a reconnaissance soldier in the Tri Thien military zone.
The liberation fighters on Tri Thien battlefield faced many difficulties, including a shortage of food and weapons.
The enemy troops conducted raids day and night, and many of Hiep's teammates were seriously injured or killed.
The battle where his Division 324 countered a raid by 13 American battalions on Abia Hill (also called Hamburger Hill) in A Luoi in 1969 is something Hiep will remember forever.
"The battle was given a romantic name Snow on the mountain by the American Army, but our army turned it to 'Blood fell on the mountain," he said.
The turning point in his military career began in 1969, when he was seriously wounded in Hai Lang District of Quang Tri Province and was moved for treatment to the northern province of Ninh Binh.
Later, he was appointed as an officer in charge of recruiting new soldiers. In 1972, Hiep was demobilised and moved on to work for the culture ministry.
"Having witnessed many soldiers falling down, I felt deeply sorrowful. Preserving memorabilia is a way to commemorate my comrades," he said.
"I can never forget the times when I would awaken in the morning to see that one of the comrades lying next to me had died because of malaria, which was heart-breaking for me," he sighed.
From 1990 onwards, Hiep travelled to different provinces and cities all over the country to collect memorabilia from the old battlefields and from former teammates. He spent his own money to buy most of the memorabilia for his private museum, and much of it from shops selling scrap.
Hiep has travelled to many provinces, including Son La, Lai Chau, Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, but he has procured a lot of war items in Quang Tri.
Initially, his wife Phan Hong Lien felt uneasy seeing her husband bring home a lot of old things that looked like scrap. But gradually, as she understood his motivation, she supported him.
Each time someone informed him about some memorabilia being available, he would ask his wife to give him money and clothing to begin a new trip.
In 2009, he heard about a 500-kilogram bomb shell found in Khe Sanh in Quang Tri. Despite the stormy weather, he took a bus to Quang Tri. As he didn't have enough money, Hiep had to borrow money from a friend to rent a truck to transport the shell back to Ha Noi.
"I spent VND5 million to buy the bomb, but the cost of transporting it was more than VND7 million."
On the road, the bomb shell was almost seized by the traffic police, but after listening to Hiep's explanation that he was taking it home to be placed in a museum, the police allowed him to proceed.
When Hiep returned home, he had run out of money, and even though he was wet, cold and hunger, he felt happy.
The museum now has glass cases displaying the artefacts. Outside its door is the 500kg bomb and two 175mm artillery shells dubbed "King of the battlefield" of the US Army. There are various kinds of mortar shells, an American pilot bullet vest, a "tropical tree" (electronic intrusion detector), and war equipment used by both the Vietnamese and American armies.
Hiep also has a collection of items from the two armies, such as a pillbox, belts, a telephone, electric torture equipment, and memoirs.
He also has about a thousand vivid pictures of the Viet Nam War era that are yet to be published, including the portrait of 10 young women, who sacrificed their lives in the Dong Loc T-junction of Ha Tinh Province.
Veteran Colonel Nguyen Xuan Hoat, living in Vinh City of Nghe An, said he respected the efforts made by Hiep.
"This museum is so significant because it is preserving items that belong to both our army and that of the enemy. Veterans from across the country, who visit Ha Noi, often go to see the museum to reminisce our blood-and-fire past. I myself have also presented some memorabilia, including a soldier's hat to the museum."
"The museum holds immense significance in educating the younger generations about their forefathers' efforts," Hoat said.
Veteran Colonel Ho Huu Lang said Hiep had devoted his heart to his comrades.
"I was moved by his efforts to set up the museum, so I devoted a collection of about 40 wartime photos and a lot of items to the museum," Lang said.
He said the museum was like a destination or a club for the veterans.
"This is a significant destination for everyone who wants to study the American war. Locals should be proud that they have such an interesting place located in their area," he said.
Col Hiep now dreams of having enough money to buy a US Jeep and an old command car belonging to the Vietnamese army.
"I hope the local authorities will support us more in popularising the museum. I also hope that enlarging the museum will also allow us to have a better place to publicise the glorious feats of our army before a greater audience, especially the students," he said. — VNS