Đàm Trung Pháp
A POEM BY QUANG DŨNG
Quang Dũng (1921 – 1988) penned the ballad “Tây Tiến” (Westward March) in 1948, a year after his Capital Regiment (Trung Đoàn Thủ Đô) left Hà Nội. This regiment first saw action in late 1946, when 8,000 intellectual youths of the capital city defense faced 4,500 French troops. The battle was the first effort by these young people to prevent the return of the French colonialists. Quang Dũng was the pen name of Bùi Đình Diệm, who was born in Phùng village, Phượng Trì district, Sơn Tây province. His father was a literary man and a canton chief. Quang Dũng was the oldest child and had four sisters and one brother. He attended Bưởi High School and then the Normal School (Trường Sư Phạm) in Hà Nội. He graduated from the teacher-preparation institution, but he gave up his teaching career to become the chief of Yên Bái railroad station. At this time he joined the People’s Party (Quốc Dân Đảng).
Quang Dũng’s famed ballad was cherished by his fellow soldiers and widely circulated. However, it was not published until 1986 in Hà Nội – two years before his death. “Tây Tiến” is a matchless ballad about the Vietnamese people’s valorous resistance against French colonialism. It recalls the daunting expedition of the Westward march soldiers. Each recollection of the expedition is a salient painting and a stirring song about an unforgettable martial experience.
Through such vicarious experiences involving strong emotions and harrowing adversity, readers can catch a glimpse of the perilous selfless life led by the brave soldiers of the Westward March. Among poems on resistance written by different individuals between 1945 and 1954, “Tây Tiến” stands out, head and shoulders above the rest. It does not mention leaders, it does not touch on patriotism, yet every verse in it is imbued with an ardent love for the country, nature, friendship, and a determination to go to war to stamp out French colonialism.
An English translation of the ballad, alongside its original in Vietnamese, appears below:
Yet thinking of jungles and mountains is still a staggering nostalgia – Nhớ về rừng núi, nhớ chơi vơi
In Sài Khao  fog concealed the worn-out soldiers – Sài Khao sương lấp đoàn quân mỏi
The upward slope was dauntingly tortuous – Dốc lên khúc khuỷu dốc thăm thẳm
Among desolate banks of cloud, gun muzzles sniffed the sky – Heo hút cồn mây, súng ngửi trời
A thousand meters ascending, another thousand descending – Ngàn thước lên cao, ngàn thước xuống
Someone’s house in rainy Pha Luông  far away – Nhà ai Pha Luông mưa xa khơi
A weather-beaten companion stopped marching – Anh bạn dãi dầu không bước nữa
Slumping on his helmet and gun, he left life behind – Gục lên súng mũ bỏ quên đời
In the evening thundered majestic waterfalls – Chiều chiều oai linh thác gầm thét
At night in Mường Hịch tigers teased people  – Đêm đêm Mường Hịch cọp trêu người
Oh Westward March, with the scent of steaming rice – Nhớ ôi Tây Tiến cơm lên khói
Her season of fragrant glutinous rice in Mai Châu  – Mai Châu mùa em thơm nếp xôi
The barrack brightened up for a bridal gala – Doanh trại bừng lên hội đuốc hoa
Lo and behold, she was already dressed up – Kìa em xiêm áo tự bao giờ
Coy she was as the pan pipe  played a Man tune – Khèn lên Man điệu nàng e ấp
Toward Vientiane  the music inspired poetry – Nhạc về Viên Chăn xây hồn thơ
Those of you who left for Châu Mộc  that misty evening – Người đi Châu Mộc chiều sương ấy
Did you notice the spirit of reeds along river banks – Có thấy hồn lau nẻo bến bờ
The allure of lasses in dugouts – Có nhớ dáng người trên độc mộc
Floating on swift-flowing water like flowers  – Trôi dòng nước lũ hoa đong đưa
Westward March troops went bald  – Tây Tiến đoàn binh không mọc tóc
Pale like leaves yet we stayed fierce like tigers – Quân xanh màu lá dữ oai hùm
With wide-open eyes we sent reveries across the border  – Mắt trừng gửi mộng qua biên giới
At night we dreamt of Hanoi and its charming beauties  – Đêm mơ Hà Nội dáng kiều thơm
Scattered along the frontier were graves away from home – Rải rác biên cương mồ viễn xứ
Of those who left for battlefields without regretting their youth – Chiến trường đi chẳng tiếc đời xanh
Shrouded in uniforms instead of reed mats, they returned to earth  – Áo bào thay chiếu, anh về đất
The Mã River roared a solo-journey dirge – Sông Mã gầm lên khúc độc hành
Westward March soldiers left without promises – Tây Tiến người đi không hẹn ước
Their remote expedition meant in itself a separation – Đường lên thăm thẳm một chia phôi
Those who joined Westward March that spring – Ai lên Tây Tiến mùa xuân ấy
Had their minds set for Sam Nua, not the plains  – Hồn về Sầm Nứa chẳng về xuôi
 The Mã River starts in Northwestern Vietnam, winding from Điện Biên through Sơn La, Laos, and Thanh Hóa before joining the sea at the Gulf of Tonkin.
 and  Mường Lát town and Sài Khao village are in Thanh Hóa province. The town and the village are separated by steep slopes and tricky trails. The area is also notoriously foggy. In such poor visibility at night, the troops had to use torches, making them look like “flowers.”
 Pha Luông mountain is in Thanh Hóa province. It was on this mountain that many worn-out Tây Tiến troops simply “slumped on their helmets and guns, leaving life behind.”
 and  Mường Hịch village is a short distance from Mai Châu town in Hòa Bình province. Mường Hịch was known for its daring tigers which brazenly stole pigs for food.
 The pan pipe (khèn) is a wind instrument consisting of bamboo tubes connected to a wooden sound box. It is very popular with such ethnic groups in Vietnam as the Thai, the Man, and the Hmong.
 Vientiane (Vạn Tượng) is the capital city of Laos. It is in the central part of the country, on the Mekong River.
 Châu Mộc is a beautiful town in Sơn La province. In this ethnically diverse place, festivals are organized every spring for boys and girls to meet.
 Girls in dugouts often helped troops get across the river. Maneuvering their dugouts on swift-flowing water, the lasses looked like floating flowers.
 A scourge for the troops, malaria was caused by anopheles mosquitoes that infested their area of operations. The disease made their hair fall and their skin turn pale.
 and  This elegant couplet became an albatross around the poet’s neck. His detractors charged that the verses were too embarrassingly sentimental and thus could adversely affect the troops’ morale.
 The dead soldiers’ burials were worse than those for paupers, whose corpses would be shrouded in reed mats (chiếu) before interment.
 Sam Nua (also written as Xam Nua and Sam Nuea) is the major city of Huaphan province in Laos, adjacent to Vietnam’s Sơn La and Thanh Hóa provinces.