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Nguyễn Thị Định, the Major General Leading Bến Tre's 'Long-Haired Army'

Hidden down an alley in Saigon’s District 3 is the house that was given by the government to Vietnam’s first woman general, Nguyễn Thị Định, after the country’s reunification in 1975.

Cluttered with fruit-juice vendors and plastic chairs, the cramped alley leads to an open courtyard filled with greenery and the three-story structure where Định’s niece now lives.

A winding staircase leads to the upper room of the home where Định suffered a heart attack that led to her death in 1992. Today it acts as a shrine to Định, displaying memorabilia such as her medals, sunglasses, tarps pilfered from American troops, the radio she used to listen to the BBC while hiding in the jungle, and photos of her and her family.

Nguyễn Thị Mẫn, Định’s niece, as well as her assistant during the last decade of the American War from 1965 to 1975, reminisced about her aunt when showcasing these items.

“She was a really special woman,” Mẫn said, while a collection of cats darted around the room. “Her greatest talent was giving people motivation to get through difficult times, giving them hope to get through the pain of the long-term fight.”

The story of Nguyễn Thị Định is one of how a scrawny child with asthma fought her way into Vietnam’s revolutionary efforts, becoming a prominent leader in the fight to oust French colonialists. She would later also lead a guerilla uprising against the government of southern Vietnam in 1960, regarded by some as the “real start of the Vietnam War.” But the plight of women was always at the heart of Định’s revolutionary zeal.

“As women under a feudal, colonial regime, we never had any rights at all,” Định told an American film crew six years after the end of the war in 1981. “We only served as child bearing machines and instruments of pleasure for the ruling class and the imperialists who trampled our dignity. Therefore, I joined the revolution.”

Not only was she a trailblazer as Vietnam’s first female Major General, but she was also an advocate for the preservation of Vietnamese women’s history in the post-war period. Her legacy lives on not only in the streets, schools, and parks named after her, but in the scholarships given to girls in her name, and charitable activities in her honor. But just over 100 years since Định’s birth in 1920, knowledge of her legacy is fading among younger generations as a society once defined by revolutionary struggle enjoys enduring peace and growing prosperity.

Định and her niece, Nguyễn Thị Mẫn, in 1968. Photo: Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

“Dinh’s passion was to free Vietnam and she involved all of her life in that,” Nguyễn Thị Tuyết, vice-director of the Vietnamese Women’s Museum that Định founded in 1987, said. “She would do anything to help Vietnamese women to develop and improve their lives.”

Mẫn herself was one beneficiary of Định’s push for female empowerment, as she began working as her assistant after she received a phone call from her aunt in 1965.

“Cô Ba [Định] called me and asked me to help her,” she said. “At that time, she had become the deputy commander [of the National Liberation Front] and she needed someone to help her.”

Without the option to travel by car, motorbike, or even bicycle, Mẫn walked through enemy territory for roughly 150 kilometers from Ben Tre south of Saigon to meet her aunt in Tay Ninh near the Cambodian border.

“I was really excited because I could work closely with my auntie. I was not scared,” she said.

Much of the time that the two spent together during this period was spent living in the jungle and secretly walking between bases.

“That is why I am so strong now,” Mẫn said with a laugh.

Nguyễn Thị Định’s home in Saigon. Photo: Govi Snell.

Định was born in rural Ben Tre, a province in southern Vietnam made up of three islands connected by branches of the Mekong river. Ben Tre is known for its rice, coconuts and waterways – but also as the cradle of revolutionary efforts, with uprisings during the period of French colonial rule, and later during the American War. Định was a leader in both.

In No Other Road to Take, Định’s memoir published in 1976, she recalled how joining the revolution was a fight in and of itself. Thin as a stick as a child, as she described herself, and often suffering from the symptoms of her asthma, Định stayed home from school and studied under the tutelage of her eldest brother, Ba Chẩn.

Định first became cognizant of the revolution when Ba Chẩn was arrested for his involvement with the Indochinese Communist Party. Every day Định, the youngest in her family and least likely to draw the attention of prison guards, would row a boat to the prison where her brother was being kept to bring him food. It was there that she first witnessed scenes of torture and became resolute in her desire to join the movement to remove the French.

As she grew older, she wanted to join the revolution in a more outright capacity, but was told her focus should be on marriage. After swatting away suitors, she conceded that marrying a like-minded individual was the only route by which to reach her goal and coupled up with one of her brother’s peers, Nguyễn Văn Bích, as a teen.

“I must tell you that as far as I am concerned it was still too early for me to get married at the age of 19,” Định told the US film crew. “But, because I wanted to do revolutionary work I had to get married.”

Nguyễn Thị Định. Photo: Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

The newlywed’s time together would be short-lived. Three days after the birth of their son, police barged into the couple’s home and arrested Bích. Soon after this, Định was sent to Ba Ra prison camp where she was forced to spend the first three years of her 20s. It was after her release that her career in the movement for independence began in earnest.

In 1945, she led the insurrection that seized power against the French in her hometown of Ben Tre, and in 1946, she headed to the revolution’s stronghold in Hanoi to bring military supplies back to the south to arm the resistance there. Định disguised the boat loaded with weapons that she’d bring back to the south by bringing fishing nets onboard and arranging fish sauce jars along the deck.

Nearly 15 years later, in January 1960, Định again led an uprising in Ben Tre where she was the leader of an all-female armed force referred to as the “long-haired army. The guerilla fighters, a portion of which were led by Định, reclaimed land from landlords and redistributed it to farmers. This rebellion, some historians say, marked the beginning of the Vietnam War.

In December of that year, Định would become a founding member of the National Liberation Front and five years later was appointed as Deputy Commander of its armed force. That same year she was appointed Deputy Commander of the South Vietnam Liberation Armed Forces, and in 1974 she was promoted to Major General, the first woman to receive this title.

Định with the troops. Photo: Vietnamese Women’s Museum

With the fall of Saigon, the end of decades of war and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975, Định’s focus would shift towards women’s empowerment and recognition, as she sought to preserve female contributions to the war effort.

“Even after independence [in 1975], she spent most of her time working,” said her niece, Mẫn. “She was kind of a workaholic.”

After the war, one of the project’s Định immersed herself in was building a women’s history museum. Tuyết, the vice-director of the women’s museum Định founded, said about her efforts to gain support for the project.

“In the 17th meeting of the Vietnam Women’s Union in 1986 [the socio-political organization formed in 1930] Định asked all of the women around the country to support the museum project,” said Tuyết.

“They sent her everything that they had, food, money, and even their bonuses to build the museum,” Tuyết said.

The communist movement has long promoted egalitarianism as central to its identity, with the North Vietnamese government banning wife-beating, forced marriages and child marriages in the 1960 Marriage and Family Law. This nod to gender equality was also prominent around war mobilization efforts, with Ho Chi Minh launching the “Three Responsibilities Movement” in 1965, imploring women to fight and play supporting roles on the frontline. Định was among several prominent female figures in the war effort.

Today, the museum holds some 40,000 artifacts dedicated to spotlighting the role of Vietnamese women in war efforts and wider society. It is easy to imagine how without the museum, everyday items like undergarments used to conceal secret documents, teapots, fake ID cards, bracelets, lamps, and the stories behind the owners of revolvers and sabers would be lost.

“She made sure women were getting promoted and she especially focused on education for women, to give women freedom,” Mẫn recalled.

Today, Định’s legacy can also be seen in girls’ schooling supported in her name. Since 1996, 200 girls in Định’s hometown of Ben Tre have been given Nguyễn Thị Định scholarships sponsored by the German charity Kinderhilfe.

German NGO Kinderhilfe has partnered with the Vietnamese government since its founding in 1976. Today, the charity donates $8,800 annually to studious girls from poor families in Ben Tre.

“Our partner there is the Women’s Union of Vietnam in Ben Tre,” Christoph Kunz, the deputy chairman of Kinderhilfe, said. “They are a local social institution who select the girls in need and supervise the correct use of our funds. The Women’s Union has dedicated this programe to Mrs Nguyễn Thị Định, for obvious reasons.”

Định on the museum’s opening day. Photo: Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

Despite Định’s role in the country’s independence and her work to safeguard women’s history, there is a generational divide in the remembrance of her own place in history.

This can be seen in the stories of the women associated with the Nguyễn Thị Định award, which honors women in Ho Chi Minh City for their organizations which empower women in the city. The award, which is delivered by the Women’s Union and approved by the People’s Committee, has celebrated women for a wide-range of activities like that of a women’s culture club, efforts to provide daycare for the children of women working at a mattress company, and charities related to helping people with HIV.

“I really didn’t know about Nguyễn Thị Định before they told me about the award,” Lê Thị Thái Uyên shared. The award nominee, in her early 30s, founded the charity Góp Một Bàn Tay (Give a Hand) which supports women and children living with HIV.

“But, when I learned about her, I felt really happy and proud,” she said.

Nguyễn Háo Thanh Thảo, a 32-year-old Saigon resident, also shared that she was unaware of Định before working on this story as an interpreter. She believed her similarly-aged peers would also likely not know of the female general.

“We should have been taught about her at school,” she said. “It’s sad.”

Lê Thị Thái Uyên. Photo: Govi Snell.

In contrast to the women in their early 30s, Ngô Thị Ánh Đông, a doctor for four decades, was well aware of Định when she won the award in 2019.

“I always admired her,” said Đông, who attended Định’s public funeral in 1992. “The Vietnamese Women’s Union asked me to join Nguyễn Thị Định’s funeral ceremony at Independence Palace.”

Regardless of what they knew about Định, the award has had a profound impact on both nominees.

Đông has fought stigma towards HIV in Saigon since 2000, both as a doctor and by bringing together the female family-members of patients with HIV to support them. Uyên has made similar inroads into improving HIV prevention and support in Vietnam. Her organization encourages testing in at-risk communities, provides monetary support for medical treatment, and filing paperwork to get government aid.

“Some people, when they die, don’t have family or anyone to buy a coffin for them, so we help to arrange that too,” Uyên said.

Since Uyên has been recognized by the Women’s Union, getting her work done has become easier as their pull within the government can help her in her work.

“When I have a problem with anything, I tell the Women’s Union and they support me,” she said.

Though her revolutionary efforts, on and off the battlefield, are fading in Vietnam’s collective memory, Định’s legacy lives on as an emblem of female contributions to Vietnamese independence efforts, and in the continued betterment of society for women and girls in her name.

“There is a famous Vietnamese saying: Giặc đến nhà, đàn bà cũng đánh [if the enemy comes to the house, even the women will fight back],” Tuyết said.  

This article originally appeared on Southeast Asia Globe and has been republished with permission as part of a collaboration between Saigoneer and Southeast Asia Globe.