The Perfume River Unit: The Women Who Fought the Vietnam War


When most think of the Vietnam war they picture young men going into battle amidst backdrops of jungles and torn apart cities. Most don’t think about Vietnamese women. They were a huge part in Northern Vietnam’s battle against foreign invaders. They didn’t delve into combat, but would work as spies, guides, cooks, messengers and nurses.

One of these brave women was named Hoa and she was based in the imperial city of Hue. When soldiers would pass her by they would likely see nothing more than a street trader, but she was actually keeping track of enemy movements. She’d then report what she knew to the North Vietnamese commanders.

Hoa joined the war movement as a spy in 1965. At the time she was only 17-years-old but absolutely determined to have liberation. In an interview with AFP, Hoa stated “I wanted to liberate myself, liberate my homeland, and liberate other women… there was no other path beside joining the revolution,”

Two years after working as a spy she joined the Perfume River unit. The year was 1968 and Hue became one of the primary targets in the Tet Offensive. The offensive made up of many surprise attacks by more than 80,000 Northern Vietnamese. Casualties on both sides were huge.

The assault swiftly drove back the American army and Southern Troops, but they would come back with a counter assault that would last 26 days. It was one of the longest during the war and so bad that the Perfume River unit was actually called to take up arms and fight. Until that point they were working mainly as nurses for the onpour of injured troops.

Women would base themselves around markets and stadiums and relentlessly fight. Hoa remarked, “We just kept fighting… if we didn’t fight, they would have get us, so we just kept fighting.” The use of women for battle showed how desperate the fight was getting. Every hand was thrown into the battle.

The efforts of the Perfume River unit didn’t go unrecognized. Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader wrote a poem for them. Praising them for crushing the bones of their enemy and cementing their heroism. These girls are still celebrated today for their efforts.
Hoang Thi No, a Perfume River Unit fighter recalled, “When we received that letter, everyone cried. We didn´t expect it, we were just a small unit, and so many people passed away.”

The poem didn’t make to four member of the unit. Sadly, they passed during the battle. “My comrades died… and our anger mounted, as did our determination to fight to get revenge for our sisters,” Hoang Thi No recalled.

Two more passed on before the war ended, but Hoang Thi No, Hoa and three others remain. The girls regularly visit the cemetery where on the outskirts of Hue where their fallen comrades are buried.