Remembering a Long-Dead Soldier

Fifty years ago next month, shortly after the Viet Cong stole up from the banks of the Huong River under the cover of darkness and took control of the building that anchors our hotel today, there was a soldier on duty in one of the hotel’s buildings. He wasn’t Viet Cong, but a North Vietnamese ally, and he was leaning out the window. It was an unfortunate decision.

All the way across the Huong (or Perfume) River, a sniper allied with the Saigon government, took aim and shot the man dead. His comrades buried him on the building’s grounds. There was so much fighting in the city then, during the Tet Offensive, that there really was nowhere else to put him. After the battle receded from this city, the buried soldier was forgotten until workers were excavating the earth for Le Parfum Restaurant 12 years ago. That’s when he was re-discovered.

I wasn’t working here then, but the hotel’s 56-year-old chief of security, Mr. Nguyen Dinh Thiet was, and he told me this story one day. What I remember most about the story was Thiet’s memory of this dead soldier’s commander, returning to hotel, not only to confirm that this dead man was part of his unit, but to remonstrate the long dead soldier for baring himself in that window. He’d talked to the dead man directly, as if this man could still hear him!

In Vietnam, we think of our dead differently than people do in the West. They’re much more a part of our daily life, and we don’t quite believe they’ve drifted as far from us as people do in the West. Some Westerners do understand this. William Faulkner, for example, once wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

In addition to the unfortunate man leaning out a window, several other soldiers’ graves were discovered during the redevelopment of this hotel 12 years ago. We keep a small temple on the hotel grounds, not far from where these men were discovered.

In February, we’ll remember all of our departed ancestors during Tet, and here at the hotel, we’ll be remembering this one dead soldier especially. If you smell jasmine in the hotel garden’s at Tet, it’ll be burning for him.

By Phan Trong Minh, General Manager La Residence Hotel & Spa