Nguyen Ngoc Dung and Nguyen Binh Thanh
Nguyen Ngoc Dung and Nguyen Binh Thanh were resistance fighters during the French War and later became members of the National Liberation Front delegation to the Paris Peace talks to end the American War. They did not meet until 1965, but they lived parallel lives. Both women came from educated, privileged families in South Viet Nam. Their fathers worked for the French, yet their families nonetheless supported the nationalist dreams of Viet Nam. Both joined the struggle against the French colonists, and early on, they drew strength from women in the movement.
Dung was convinced to go underground in 1947 by a friend who was a member of the Association of Women for National Salvation. She married and had her first child in 1951 as bombs fell around her in the Mekong Delta. “Ten hours after the delivery I had to go to a shelter that was full of waste deep water. I put my baby daughter in a basket and floated it on the water.”
She had her third child, a son, when the Geneva Agreement was signed in 1954. Dung, her husband and baby son went to North Viet Nam as part of the repatriation agreement hammered out in the Geneva Accords. She left her two daughters in the care of her older sister, believing they would only be separated until elections were held two years later.
The two-year separation turned into six years when the elections were thwarted by the American and South Vietnamese governments. Dung returned to the South in 1960, making the well-traveled trek on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and she immediately began working with the newly formed National Liberation Front.
Nguyen Binh Thanh was born in Sai Gon. Her father was an engineer under the French and he sent his four daughters to a French lycée. Thanh was swept up in the student demonstrations of 1950 when protesters burned the city’s central marketplace, the Ben Thanh Market. “After that the lycée expelled us, so we had no other choice than to go to the jungle.” Thanh and her younger sister waited at a friend's house for a liaison to take them to the forest in Tay Ninh.
"My father sent my elder sister to the house to look for us. She wept and said, 'mother is very unhappy, so please go home.' We said no. We were very determined and nobody could make us change our minds. Finally, our parents gave up, so my sister came and said, 'at least come home to see them for the last time.'” Thanh also went North in 1954 and didn't return to the South until 1965.
Dung and Thanh met in 1965 in the jungles of Tay Ninh. They worked as propagandists, publishing leaflets and going abroad to speak at festivals and conferences, to anyone who would listen as they made the case for Viet Nam's independence. They traveled all over the world -- Cuba, Algeria, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Canada and finally to France as members of the Vietnamese delegation to the Paris Peace talks. "I had no difficulty making people understand why Viet Nam must fight for its independence,” said Dung. “We women had an advantage because we spoke from the heart about the real victims. People don't want politicians and propaganda. What they needed was real information."
Dung and Thanh spent four years in Paris, the entire length of the peace negotiations. Dung served as a press information director and Thanh translated for Madame Nguyen Thi Binh, the foreign minister of the National Liberation Front. Thanh remembers: “The day of the signature of the Paris Agreements was indeed a great day. We were hailed and greeted by enthusiastic crowds of Vietnamese residents in Paris, as well as French friends and friends from other countries waving our flags and signs. Those are moments that we are proud to live through and unforgettable memories for us all.”
Dung and Thanh’s last assignments with the Foreign Ministry were at the Vietnamese Mission in New York, during the early 1980s. They remember that as a difficult period because people attacked Viet Nam as invaders for occupying Cambodia to stop the Khmer Rouge border incursions. Dung said, “I remember telling people that though they could not share Viet Nam’s position, they try to understand the reality. Now the situation is clearer; it takes time for the world to understand.”