The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: North Vietnam: the soldier's tale: The 1994 Independent Foreign Fiction Award has gone to a remarkable novel by an ex-soldier, Bao Ninh

In this extract from 'The Sorrow of War', the two central characters, the soldier Kien and his girlfriend Phuong, travel from Hanoi towards the front.

War] War] The sea roared out the message in the small hours of 5 August 1965. A small storm began far out across the Tonkin Gulf and the group looked on as distant forked lightning seemed to signal the start of the war. Nearby the other students in tents around the fire also began to wake up and slowly, realising something new was upon them, began to gather round the fire and talk over the news.

Kien and Phuong slipped out of the campfire circle to a quiet spot where they couldn't be heard or seen. They embraced urgently. The realisation they would certainly soon be parted and their world would soon be changed heightened the desperation. They whispered innocent, passionate vows to each other, promising never to waver in their love.

And they spoke of death.

When they returned to camp it was to an unruly scene; the wind had whipped up and the distant storm had quickly found them. Blankets rolled off along the shore, sand blew in sprays and tents broke from their pegs, and just as the howling wind died down the heavens opened and the short-lived seaside vacation was washed out.

That's how the war started, with a storm. For Kien the storm continued for nearly 11 years, and even after the war his mental skies were clouded for another ten. Now, 20 years later, he let the pictures flow back across his mental screens. He pictured himself and Phuong on the goods train, heading for Vinh. It was a crazy adventure. Kien was now a different man from then; Phuong was perhaps not so much changed.

Their goods train had not stopped at Phu Ly, as they expected. It turned a little east and rushed on towards Vinh, on the coast, blowing long, sorrowful whistles as it gathered speed in the night. Phu Ly, Nam Dinh, Ninh Binh, all flashed by and were left behind to the north. Everything seemed to be going well.

'Good for us,' said Phuong, pleased the escapade was being prolonged. Her sense of adventure was heightened with every mile and she cuddled up to Kien, whispering to him, 'The further we go, the more I'm lost, the better it is. We'll see what war's like.'

Now, it seems like fiction, some imagined story on the fringe of his war memories. But it was real enough.

The train howled on through the night, never stopping at stations. Once, on a straight run through some grain fields, it stopped for a few minutes. Several men furtively climbed aboard and the train started off again.

As the newcomers moved in, everyone moved along and space became tighter and tighter. Who were they? Soldiers? Merchants doing quick deals? Highway thieves? More smoke, more stink.

One of them imitated a station master shouting after their train speeding through his small station: 'Doonnnngg Giiaooooooo-whosh]' Phuong laughed softly. 'How far to the killing fields?' she asked.

'So, you can't sleep either?' Kien


'Sleepy, but can't sleep.'


'What if there's no tomorrow?'

And so their intimate nonsenses had continued for the next hour, a period of delirious romantic joy in extraordinary circumstances. . .

They clutched together in furious embrace on the floor of the rough goods car, surrounded by unseen but close, shadowy figures, snoring and smoking and murmuring. Yet they were a world apart and Phuong stretched herself invitingly against him time and time again as if lying on a soft bed in a first-class sleeping-car. Kien's passion would rise and he would move in close, only to withdraw at the last moment . . . She urged him on. 'Come on, darling. Are you afraid?' Kien was about to respond, he recalled now. What would it have been? Finally, their pure spirits joining in true love in those strange conditions?

A strange, whistling sound came to them from above, then other sounds, like the howling of engines high in the air. 'Planes] Bombers]' someone shouted and the mob in the car began scrambling in the dark.

Jet planes had found the train. High above, in the very early morning, they were circling, then diving.

Kien was slow to react. He was still dazed by the activity as he heard orders being shouted: 'Stop the train. Alert, alert]' As the train was slowing, terror reigned. The compartment door was jerked open with a crash and men in panic began jumping from the braking but still moving car, hitting the tracks and sleepers with sickening thuds. Kien was standing up close to the door trying to get his bearings when the first direct attack came. 'Kien] Kien]' he heard a girl call. It must have been Phuong, but it came from a different corner of the car, and he couldn't see anyone in the dark. The planes dived again, strafing with increasing accuracy as flares lit the scene.

Blinded, he turned inward and saw in the blinding light the incredible sight of Phuong, lying prone on the floor, fighting a big man on top of her. She was struggling desperately, her hair flowing, her clothes being ripped from her, her mouth covered by a massive, brutal hand as he settled over her in a rhythm.

A blast hit Kien and he was flung from the car onto the rail embankment and he rolled roughly, striking metal with such force that he fainted. When he came to his chest was burning, blood had begun seeping into his mouth, bringing a salty taste, and he felt sick. He looked at the train, with cars broken but basically intact, and heard a whistle. With some urgency the engine began puffing away and the cars one by one clanged as the slack was taken up and began moving slowly on.

Kien jumped up and opened a compartment door. But Phuong was not there. Nor was she in the next, or the next. In panic, he jumped onto the steps of an escort locomotive, fearing he would otherwise be left behind. Two mechanics, wearing overalls smeared with oil, looked over at him with sympathy. Their faces were smeared with coal-dust and oil, their eyes shone chalk-white through these strange masks. One of them picked up a shovel and began stoking the furnace. The older man, the engineer, pulled on a cord and a screaming hoot was emitted. Kien sat there hardly taking any of this in. He began to fall sideways, into a faint. The young stoker supported him, wiping blood from Kien's chin with the inside of his glove. Kien looked at the blood on the glove disbelievingly.

'Cheer up, son,' the old engineer told him. 'This is kid stuff. The first whistle in the war. Nothing to it.'

As the fog lifted Kien seemed also to regain his faculties. He suddenly remembered what he thought he had seen in the compartment, and what could still be happening there. He was to remember that as his first war wound, not the blood from his injuries now staining the glove.

It was that moment, when Phuong was violently taken from him, that the bloodshed truly began and his life entered into bloody suffering and failure. And he would understand true sacrifice; friends who would die to save others.

The Sorrow of War is translated by Frank Palmos, based on a version by Vo Bang Thanh and Phan Thanh Hao, and published by Secker & Warburg ( pounds 8.99). Copies can be ordered direct from the publishers on a credit card line: 0933 410511.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?