|Notes on Vietnamese Names and Language||11|
… We are reporters, not fiction writers. We simply and honestly record the facts of what we heard and saw firsthand on the battlefront, in the communist re-education camps, and on the open sea. Sometimes the truth surpasses anything in the human imagination…
… In the transition from conducting war journalism to running a media company, we’ve gone through many changes. But deep inside, we are still searching for the truth, and we offer our lives to join in that search with everyone.
… I will forever be grateful to them and people like them. It is humanity at its best -- ever ready to move forward, never shy to face a challenge, always strong in their love of others and of each other…
|Part I: The Vietnam War's Aftermath||21|
|Chapter 1: The Fall of South Vietnam||23|
… At ten o’clock in the morning on April 30, 1975, “two-day President” Duong Van Minh ordered the people and soldiers of South Vietnam to lay down their arms. Forty-five minutes later, a T-54 tank crashed through the gates of Independence Palace. The stronghold of the South, the home of our presidents, and the last symbol of the South Vietnamese government surrendered.
… Fear is a strange thing. In movies, characters caught in terror may simply freeze. But on this last day in April, fear was like an electric shock that struck all the citizens of Saigon, making them behave in a demented manner. People were like windup toys with their strings taut, running here and there, going around in circles with no real direction.
… The last image the South Vietnamese have of their great ally the United States is that of a helicopter taking off from the roof of the American embassy with desperate people dangling from the rope ladder amid the cries and pleading of those abandoned below.
… Bullets cut through the air, resulting in casualties among innocent people in the streets. Bodies lay crumpled next to bundles. Victims fell where they were with no one to tend to them. No one tried to help another. Everyone just wanted to get away.
|Chapter 2: Double Bind||49|
… My parents tried to convince us to leave the country together, immediately. “The Voice of America,” declared Papa, “says the U.S. Seventh Fleet is patrolling international waters off the coast and is prepared to rescue anyone who makes it there by boat. We have to make our move before the communists blockade the shoreline.”
… When Papa heard Phuc ask the fishermen to take us back with them, he became very upset. He tried to convince us to stay with the rest of the family, believing that Phuc would see the wisdom of this once we docked in a free port. But Phuc had made up his mind. For my part, I was alarmed to see the two men I loved most in the world locking horns.
… I had always been Papa’s girl, and I always relied on my parents. I never really thought that one day I might have to choose between them and my husband and child in a matter of life and death. But all my life I was taught to be brave and do what I thought was right. And so, despite my heartache and fear at returning to live under the communists, I had to leave my Papa and Mama and follow my husband back to Vietnam. I believed it was the right thing to do. Still, years later, I am haunted by the image of my dear Papa turning away so I could not see him cry.
… If the return trip at sea had drained me emotionally, then the bus trip from Bac Lieu had been a nightmare that wounded me physically. The experience that day troubled me. The long time spent holding my baby on the roadside by the guard post begging others to pity me and save my husband made me feel both ashamed and frightened. I feared for the dark future we faced, and at the same time, I worried about my parents and siblings out on the sea. Would they make it? As for me, would I survive in Vietnam? Had I done the right thing?
|Chapter 3: Life Under the Communists||63|
… The city of Saigon changed its face under the communists… Now, instead of cars and motor scooters, only bicycles filled the streets. The city-dwellers suddenly became subdued, skittish, and resigned to their fate. Women no longer wore the ao dai, the light dress with flowing skirt panels over silky pants, nor modern attire, but rather the ao ba ba, the purely functional dark shirt and pants of the working class… From now on, the people of the South were to dress “properly,” no longer in the manner of the “petty bourgeoisie,” in keeping with the image of a “socialist” population. Women were also ordered to remove their nail polish to erase these “vestiges of the Americans and the illegitimate society” that violated the “good customs of Revolutionary beauty.”
The city’s customary cacophony of color suddenly disappeared as if behind the curtain of a devilish magic show. The former capital of South Vietnam was transformed from a vibrant, radiant metropolis once called “The Pearl of the Orient” into a drab, subdued place where people were afraid to let go a sigh lest they rankle “Mr. Revolutionary.”
… The communists organized the population into a hierarchy of divisions. A “cell” comprised three families, several families made up a “neighborhood,” and several neighborhoods formed a “ward.” In this way, they managed to control everything from what we discussed in public to what we ate each day.
… The life of a prisoner in a communist “re-education” concentration camp was one of extreme hardship, entailing every physical and mental abuse. Meals consisted of either a half cup of rice mixed with tough sorghum and a few spoonfuls of salt water or dry, rotten manioc with hard corn. Even then, the portions were quite small, and I was always hungry.
… I belonged to the element referred to as My-Nguy, that is, “Americans and members of the illegitimate regime.” With my background as a daughter of “traitors to the people,” so-called because my parents fled the country, and the wife of a “soldier of the illegitimate army” who was now undergoing re-education, I couldn’t get a job anywhere, not even low-paying menial labor. The security police warned the neighbors that I might be a CIA spy who was kept in the country to continue operations. During cell meetings, they often used me as an example of a “My-Nguy family.”… Outside the cell meetings, almost no one dared talk to me for fear of drawing attention to themselves. The security police enlisted the families who lived around me to keep watch and report my activities, gestures, and words.
… The campaign against the bourgeois compradors was a means of nationalizing the private property of the wealthy merchants, and the money change served to financially strip the citizens. Afterward, there was nothing left in Saigon of the free and prosperous life it had known before April 30, particularly in private commerce. All goods were under the control of the communist authorities. Necessities such as rice, milk, sugar, meat, fuels for cooking (including oil, charcoal, and firewood), materials for making clothes, and so on, were rationed to each family based on the household registry.
To purchase these items, people had to wait in line, sometimes for an entire day. Those who couldn't wait in line hired stand-ins. Otherwise, they lost their chance. Whatever was left over was snatched up by cadres and sold on the black market at a rate several times higher than the official price. For years South Vietnam had been the world’s second-biggest exporter of rice, and its people always had more than enough. And yet, in just half a year of communist rule, for the first time, people had to eat their food mixed with manioc, or sorghum provided by the Soviet Union. Russian sorghum was especially hard to swallow, needing to be soaked overnight before being cooked with rice. Even then it was tough to chew and didn’t digest well.
|Chapter 4: Re-education & Rehabilitation Camps||85|
… Trang Lon may have been the first prison camp to execute an inmate, a sentence that was carried out right in the assembly yard. Ngo Nghia was an army lieutenant. I don’t know how he escaped; I only heard he was captured outside the fence. They locked him in a CONEX box (a shipping container) for several days before meting out the final punishment. The commandant officer, who issued the brief, single-page order, read it at the execution. All the prisoners had to line up at the firing range and witness our comrade being bound to a post and shot by a firing squad of ten camp guards. The sight was gruesome.
… Christmas that year was bone-chillingly cold. At night the icy wind seeped through cracks in the walls of the blockhouses, biting the flesh of the undernourished prisoners. Even though I put on all the clothes I had and covered myself with rags, I still shivered. We lay curled up on the beds, which consisted of random boards we had gathered and laid on the cold ground.
… We were all in the same boat: our husbands were “illegitimate soldiers, illegitimate officials” who were in re-education camps. We were labeled as “living off the bones and blood of the people,” and so were relegated to the fringes of society, isolated within our homeland. Because of our family backgrounds, we were unable to find work, and so our lives grew increasingly miserable. We sold off our possessions to raise the capital to engage in a little marketing, from buying dried shrimp to sell cheap at the market to selling bean pudding right in front of my house. But since we were inexperienced in calculating sales or were too embarrassed to take our friends’ money, in the end, we lost both our profit and capital.
… From then on, the four of us contributed whatever we had to the survival of the whole group. Though poor in material possessions, we were generous with our love for one another. We supported each other spiritually as well and relied on each other to get through. Our children enjoyed playing together like sisters and brothers in one family. Although they had no fathers, four doting mothers took turns caring for them. We made a collective pledge that if anything happened to one of us, the others would take on her children. With that peace of mind and the earnest love we shared, we were able to pass through the hardest stage in a life filled with sadness and despair.
… We created a secret world that was magical, full of love and trust and devotion—qualities that no longer existed in the outside world. We were closer than sisters. Through our friendship, we not only were able to survive under the communist rule, but we also found the strength and passion for meeting challenges.
… The communists tried to purge society of people like us, labeled as having a “blood debt with the people and Revolution,” and encouraged neighborhood groups to ostracize us to force us to the New Economic Zones. But by joining together, the women of the South were not only able to remain in Saigon but also had more optimism, strength, and hope. Our shared spirit reinforced our sense of importance and confidence and gave us a special kind of joy.
… The camp on Phu Quoc was in a remote place that rarely saw any civilians, which made us feel more isolated from the outside world and more uncertain whether or not we’d ever be released and sent home. To combat hopelessness and hunger, we re-education prisoners clung to the memories of our family even as we created circles of friends among our fellow inmates for comfort and support. As for me, my sole purpose for staying alive was so that I could see Thuy and An again.
… Only someone who has experienced a communist prison camp can fully comprehend that the cruelest, most troubling aspect of the communists’ relationship to their prisoners is the “policy of deliberate abandonment and privation.” They didn’t need to commit a bloodbath, to slaughter large numbers of people in a series of executions that would make them subject to the world’s condemnation or spark popular resistance. Rather, they applied a more subtle brutality, destroying the prisoners’ spirit by prolonged hunger. The desire for food obsessed us day and night—there was never a moment when we didn’t crave something to eat. The thought of even a piece of sweet potato or manioc or some charred rice was enough to torment us and give us no rest. Hunger caused many to lose their willpower, their feelings for others, their very humanity…