Tây tiến

translated and annotated

Dr. Đàm Trung Pháp
Professor Emeritus
Texas Woman’s University


“Tây tiến”

Quang Dũng


Quang Dũng 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 on “the day for a nation-wide uprising” in 1946, when 8,000 intellectual youths of the capital city defense forcefaced 4,500 French troops. The battle was the first effort by these young people to prevent the return of the French colonialists [1].

Quang Dũng was the pen name of Bùi Đình Diệm (1921-1988), who was born inPhùng 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. In 1954 his mother, one of his sisters, and his brother left North Việt Nam for South Việt Nam when the Geneva Accord halved the country.

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 soon 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); the French even went to his native village to look for him, but all their efforts to arrest him were in vain. Among the young people who supported the secret activities of the People’s Party was a young woman named Bùi Thị Thạch, who later became Quang Dũng’s wife.

The ballad Tây tiếnwas written by Quang Dũng in his notebook. His fellow soldiers in the Tây Tiến Regiment [2] cherished it and it was widely circulated. It was the heartfelt appeal from not just one member of that regiment, but from almost every Vietnamese youth who participated in the resistance against French rule, leaving behind their beloved capital city.

The famed ballad was banned in the North, but it was valued in the South. Its author, because of his past affiliation with the People’s Party, was discharged from the military. Later, because of his participation in the Humanities – Fine Literary Works (Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm) movement, he was imprisoned and forbidden to write. After that, he had to earn his living by working as a proofreader for a newspaper. While Quang Dũng’s poetry was published, read, recited, and set to music in the South after 1954, his poem Tây tiến was not published in a poetic collection until 1986 in Hà Nội, two years before his death. The bed-ridden poet was too weak to autograph his books for his admirers.

The anguished appeal radiating from the hearts of Hà Nội’s youths shines through every line of Tây tiến.But their lives in the poem were totally different – they were now living, not in that capital city, but on a Northwest battlefield in the middle of deep jungles and high mountains. As the Westward March was winding down, Quang Dũng started having the sentimental recollection of this military expedition, the jungles, the mountain slopes, the ethnic minority hamlets, the worn-out troops. It was this nostalgic longing that inspired him to write this exquisite ballad.

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.

Below is my English translation of the entire ballad, stanza by stanza, followed by annotations and references.

Tây tiến

Sông Mã xa rồi Tây tiến ơi!
Nhớ về rừng núi, nhớ chơi vơi
Sài Khao sương lấp đoàn quân mỏi
Mường Lát hoa về trong đêm hơi

Westward march

Way behind us is the Mã River [3], Westward march troops!
Yet thinking of jungles and mountains is still a staggering nostalgia
In Sài Khao [4] fog concealed the worn-out soldiers
In Mường Lát [5] on a steamy night the flowers returned

Dốc lên khúc khuỷu dốc thăm thẳm
Heo hút cồn mây, súng ngửi trời
Ngàn thước lên cao, ngàn thước xuống
Nhà ai Pha Luông mưa xa khơi

The upward slope was dauntingly tortuous
Among desolate banks of cloud, gun muzzles sniffed the sky
A thousand meters ascending, another thousand descending
Someone’s house in rainy Pha Luông [6] far away


Anh bạn dãi dầu không bước nữa
Gục lên súng mũ bỏ quên đời!
Chiều chiều oai linh thác gầm thét
Đêm đêm Mường Hịch cọp trêu người

A weather-beaten companion stopped marching
Slumping on his helmet and gun, he left life behind!
In the evening thundered majestic waterfalls
At night in Mường Hịch tigers teased people [7]

Nhớ ôi Tây tiến cơm lên khói
Mai Châu mùa em thơm nếp xôi

Oh Westward march, with the scent of steaming rice
Her season of fragrant glutinous rice in Mai Châu [8]


Doanh trại bừng lên hội đuốc hoa
Kìa em xiêm áo tự bao giờ
Khèn lên Man điệu nàng e ấp
Nhạc về Viên Chăn xây hồn thơ


The barrack brightened up for a bridal gala
Lo and behold, she was already dressed up
Coy she was as the pan pipe [9] played a Man tune
Toward Vientiane [10] the music inspired poetry

Người đi Châu Mộc chiều sương ấy
Có thấy hồn lau nẻo bến bờ
Có nhớ dáng người trên độc mộc
Trôi dòng nước lũ hoa đong đưa

Those of you who left for Châu Mộc [11] that misty evening
Did you notice the spirit of reeds along riverbanks
The allure of lasses in dugouts
Floating on swift-flowing water like flowers [12]

Tây tiến đoàn binh không mọc tóc
Quân xanh màu lá dữ oai hùm
Mắt trừng gửi mộng qua biên giới
Đêm mơ Hà Nội dáng kiều thơm

Westward march troops went bald [13]
Pale like leaves yet we stayed fierce like tigers
With wide-open eyes we sent reveries across the border [14]
At night we dreamt of Hanoi and its charming beauties [15]

Rải rác biên cương mồ viễn xứ
Chiến trường đi chẳng tiếc đời xanh
Áo bào thay chiếu, anh về đất
Sông Mã gầm lên khúc độc hành

Scattered along the frontier were graves away from home
Of those who left for battlefields without regretting their youth
Shrouded in military uniforms instead of reed mats, they returned to earth[16]
The Mã River roared a solo-journey dirge

Tây tiến người đi không hẹn ước
Đường lên thăm thẳm một chia phôi
Ai lên Tây Tiến mùa xuân ấy
Hồn về Sầm Nứa chẳng về xuôi

Westward march soldiers left without promises
Their remote expedition meant in itself a separation
Those who joined Westward March that spring
Had their minds set for Sam Nua, not the plains [17].



[1] There was a huge mismatch in weapons in this battle in Hà Nội. While the Vietnamese youths armed themselves with small guns, sticks, and spears, the French used machine guns and tanks [Ngô Văn Chiêu, as cited by Hoàng Cơ Thụy (2002) in Việt Sử Khảo Luận, Paris: Nam Á.]

 [2] Less than two months after the Hà Nội battle, in early 1947, the youths in the city defense force had to flee from the city. Some took refuge in China while others joined the Westward March campaign as soldiers in the newly-formed Tây Tiến Regiment, leaving behind 1,300 killed or missing in action and 2,500 injured [Hoàng Cơ Thụy (2002). Việt Sử Khảo Luận. Paris: Nam Á.]

 [3] 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.

[4] and [5] The town of Mường Lát and the village of Sài Khao 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.”

 [6] The 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.”

[7] and [8] The village of Mường Hịch is a short distance from the town of Mai Châu in Hòa Bình province. Mường Hịch was known for its daring tigers which brazenly stole pigs for food.

[9] 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.

[10] Vientiane (Vạn Tượng) is the capital city of Laos. It is in the central part of the country, on the Mekong River.

[11] 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.

[12] Girls in dugouts often helped troops get across the river. Maneuvering their dugouts on swift-flowing water, the lasses looked like floating flowers.

[13] 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.

[14] and [15] 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.

[16] The dead soldiers’ burials were worse than those for paupers, whose corpses would be shrouded in reed mats (chiếu) before interment.

[17] 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.