30 YEARS STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY IN VIETNAM: Looking Back at the Past, Aiming For the Future
Nguyen Van Nhu
After that sad day on April 30th 1975, the day that all citizens of South Vietnam were pitted to hell by the Northern Communists, many people left their homes and possessions to escape that dark day. Also that was the day the whole country cried. But everyone cried in silence because if they cried out loud Viet Cong policeman would find out and imprison them!
There was no freedom to talk, even when crying, you couldn’t cry freely. Many people met with too much oppression, they committed suicide ending a life that had no hope. Many bizarre stories happened as the abusive government of Viet Cong ordered: “During a funeral session if a person cries, he or she must paid a ‘stupid person’ fee.” When alive you are being harassed, when dead couldn’t be left alone! A normal life consists of something to eat, something to wear, a place to live or a shed to stay in. And when deceased there are a coffin and a tombstone. Such a life did not exist under the regime of Communist Vietnam.
At that time, there was a new owner in Saigon. The new owner was greedy and senseless. In actuality, the owners were Soviet Union and China. And the leaders of the Communist Party in Vietnam were the puppets.
The puppets were always ruthless. They confiscated all possessions from the people for their “big bosses”, and also searching for a little pocket money for themselves. Those were the oppression and abusive attitude that have never been seen in any primitive society or modern civilization in the world. Only the thievery government of Communist Vietnam applied those rules. They ordered a decree of borrowing. They borrowed everything from houses to properties, automobiles. They borrowed everything that the citizen of South Vietnam had. The word “borrow” meant “confiscation.”
Fifteen days after they took control, they ordered the South Vietnamese soldiers to register. Normal soldiers spent three days in reeducation program. Officers must spend 10 days! The officers must bring their own rations for those 10 days. But there were people who stretched their incarceration for 18 years of hard labor. When talking about those officers, it was such a tragic story. I do not know anything about reeducation camp. I found out through Monsignor’s Nguyen Huu Le’s book, titled “I Must Live.”
I can recall back then about September 1975, there was a rumor of changing currency. Ordinary citizen were frantically stirred. The controlling regime tried to calm the public. They broadcast on the announcement system that the government would not change currency. They broadcast all day long on the speakers saying: “Don’t listen to the rumors of the clandestine American puppets.”
Yet the next day, there was a curfew in the afternoon. The next morning there was an immediate change of currency. That was another lie by the Communists to the people. For each old 500 dong (unit) a new dong was issued. There was a limit to the exchange. Each household received only 200 new currency units. The rest must were kept in the National Bank. After the exchange many committed suicide. I knew the Dong Khanh Bank’s owner in Cholon who held a big bag of money in his body and jumped from a high-rise building.
However because of the size of the bag he wasn’t killed. The bag busted under him spreading money everywhere. He only suffered a broken leg. After the currency exchange, there were assets confiscations of private enterprises. Those in the category were the small import, export businesses. In the beginning, they urged the young volunteers from 18 to 25 year old; some were in their 30s, to join the Youth Volunteers.
Youth Volunteers consisted of young men, university students and youths. Boys and girls joined their respective groups. Then entered 15 days of training camp of different location according to the order from above. It meant that they have to go to a different region other than their hometown. North went south. South went north. After being organized, a curfew began and everyone must stay inside. Then the troops barged into those homes and businesses that were categorized as private enterprisers. They confiscated all of their possessions. At that time I realized that the Youth Volunteers were trained for possession confiscation.
They were divided into groups. Each has a policeman with weapon and about seven youth volunteers. Outside, soldiers surrounded the house. Since the curfew was indefinite, no one realized what was going on. Even my next-door neighbor, an ethnic Chinese woman who sold motorbike parts was audited without my knowledge. The next day, I didn’t know whether the curfew was over. I only saw people went back and forth, so I started inquiring.
No one talked to each other. The curfew was indefinite unlike the other times! This communist regime did not give any rights to the citizens. The next day, I saw the ethnic Chinese neighbor. When greeting her I noticed that she was sad and silent. I did not know anything during the auditing. Not until later, I found out that the auditing team came into her house, counting all the goods from her store and her personal assets. Then they told her to keep a copy of the auditing which included all the items counted. They warned her to guard all the items on that piece of paper. If anything missing, she would be punished by the law.
A week after, there was another curfew. That night the whole neighborhood witnessed a caravan of trucks and buses entering the area. They were filled with soldiers carrying guns and volunteer men charged into houses like the other day. I peeked out of my door seeing them stacking motorcycle parts and furniture from my next-door neighbor’s house. At the end, they ushered the people onto the bus. The men were handcuffed. The following morning, I realized that the curfew was to confiscate assets that belonged to the private businesses and relocating them to the New Economic Zone.
Fortunately the ordinary people did not have to go. But that did not clear us from worries. That was the situation of the next-door neighbor who was a small merchant. The larger entrepreneurs, import exporters, wholesalers of auto parts and large manufacturers received more punishment. They interrogated the spouses or children to reveal the hidden assets. It was horrifying, hell on earth for the people who lived under Communism. From a peaceful society of South Vietnam turned into a Communist state, the pressure was placed on the South Vietnamese with terrorism and imprisonment on everyone.
That terror was not over. A week later, the next-door ethnic Chinese who was forced to a new economic zone reappeared. She stood right outside our door and asked if she could come in to rest. We ushered her inside and offer her refreshment. Her face looked haggard unlike before. Minutes later after recomposed herself, she told us what happened.
After they confiscated her possessions, they took her that night to an unknown place. Since she had never been to this area before it appeared to be a total wilderness. The area was surrounded by rain forest. Reeds and wild grass were taller than her. The drivers let them off on an empty field without a house around. This was a wild area without many inhabitants. The few there were the Communist cadres who took the furniture from the New Economic Zoners for their own use. They used the tables and chairs for their office space. Then they ordered all the personal jewelries like earrings, rings and bracelets to be kept by the authority to avoid robbery while adjusting to the New Economic Zone. Their warning of the State Authorities was a way to inject fear into the new settlers.
The New Economic Zoners quietly followed. They emptied their pockets. Then the authorities brought a caravan of wooden canoes about ten meters long and 7 feet wide with single motor. They appoint one person per household, man or women who are strong to claim their new plots. Everyone thought that these New Economic Zones were already established. The people rushed to go in order to claim a good spot.
They departed early in the morning. By noon the canoe caravan returned. The volunteers went to their family and told their families not to go because of the dangers they saw. The people became restless and began to stir. They demanded their possessions to be returned. They wanted to come back to the city. They disobeyed the order to go to the New Economic Zone. They said: “The government tried to kill us by pushing us into this dangerous area.” And: “the area they chose was a non habitable area during the war, wild plants and bushes grew above human heads. A few thatched huts and tents used for military guard posts were the only structures. Now the water came up to the knee. Snakes coiled on the ground. It was horrifying!!”
The communists tried to kill the people in a very discreet way so no one would find out, even the international community. This group of people in an isolated location where they just arrived began loudly demanding the possessions that were previously stripped by the cadres. The cadres saw the determined people protesting began to worry. They withdrew and reasoned that the group that took the people’s possession were someone else not them. Communism robbed the people in bright daylight again. When the people looked around and did not see any cadres left, they began to disperse and returned to the city. Some were too weak and starved; they died during their returning journey. The ethnic Chinese woman told us.
The place our neighbor told us I thought was Nam Can, Ca Mau (Southern tip of Vietnam). The communists placed their revenge on the people by moving them into that area. The remaining people returned to the city without places to stay. Some lived in the streets, built temporary shelters out of cardboard and lived under bridges. They were homeless, scouring for food in the daytime. At night, they returned to their street corners. Those were the former, well-to-do entrepreneurs I used to know.
And the other private entrepreneurs, which other New Economic Zone they were forced to go to who would know? What were their fates? Those ordinary citizens like me, one wife and three kids without many assets, what would our lives be? We weren’t left alone. In the beginning they told us to go work on the new irrigation system proposed by the government. It is mandatory that everyone had to work on the project 3 days a week. Then it was increased to 5 days. Months after months we worked until we had no more energy. We had to bring our own rations, not compensated by the government. My family had no other means to make a living. We began selling our possessions to get by. Household furniture or religious altar, we sold them all.
At the end, without any solutions we must find ways to escape. The communist cadres called us the southern traitors. We didn’t have any relative that fought for or lived in the north. Therefore we didn’t get the governmental supplement. How would we live? The regional police asked me to the station for an interrogation. They suspected that I was in the South Vietnamese Army and avoiding reeducation camp. Fortunately, I still kept a document that exempted me from the draft. The excuse written clearly on the document was: “The only remaining son with elderly parents” by Colonel of Gia Dinh province Chau Van Tien in 1973. I gave that document to the local police so they would leave me alone. Our lives were filled with tension. Every few days the police called me to the station to work. Mentally, I was constantly terrorized. Until September 1979, my family found a way to escape.
This time we set out with 36 companions at sea. A day later government fishermen caught us. They took us to an old military base in Vung Tau for detention. A month later, the prison guards demanded us to work in the field and shouted insults at us. They called us betrayers and criminals looking to run away because we did not want to live in a social regime of Viet Nam. We were labeled as the whores who like to lick the shoes of the Americans and their puppets. They said that even if we escaped, we only enslaved ourselves to the foreigners.
While in prison, I befriended a cellmate named Hai Luu. He and I played chess each day and confided in each other on our escape experiences. Hai Luu promised to contact me after he is released. My family was release first. Hai Luu was still being booked. My situation was getting very difficult. We did not have a home. Fortunately, my sister and mother lived in the confine of Huyen Si church in Saigon. They let us stay there temporary. Everyday, my wife and I went to the market to make a living. At night, we return to the church to sleep. Each day, we submitted to the same routine without a future.
Sometimes, I wished to be able to find little gold so I can send my two sons to escape with my friends. At that time, I never thought my wife and I could leave anymore. All my possessions were gone, my house lost. If my sons stayed they would be the baits for the draft. My oldest daughter escaped with her friend and arrived in Malaysia safely. We were happy for her. But each night after returning from the market I often thought about the dark future of my two sons. We prayed that we could flee the communist’s grip. Even if my sons’ fortunes took them to the ocean bottom, I would even more satisfy than having them under the communist rules.
Days passed to the beginning of April 1980. About 9am that morning, Hai Luu, my friend from prison in Vung Tau came and found me. He inquired about the details of my previous escape. Because of the hardship I dealt with each day, I barely remembered him. He wanted to recruit me to his new endeavor. He obtained a boat and some funding for another escape. My family would get to come along for free if I cooperate with him. But first, he wanted to borrow my map of the potential launching area to study it. Then we would work together for the departure.
He said he would borrow the map for 3 days. I thought hard about this decision. If I let him have it, he could leave without me? I thought about it again and again, but then I was so desperate to leave, mostly because of my disdain for Communism, I gave the map to him. Nevertheless, I was worried. Hai Luu took the map. We anxiously sat there and waited. We panicked when he did not return in 3 days. And day 4 came, there was no sight of Hai Luu. On the morning of the 5th day, we still did not see him. That afternoon, about 3pm, he reappeared. Seeing Hai Luu again made me more happy than seeing my dead ancestors come alive. He gave me the map back and said: “We have no time, you must help me this week. We depart the week after.” He complaint: “Your map took me to all the checkpoints. How would I avoid being caught?” I thought that was the reason he returned; he needed my personal guidance.
The week preparing for the trip was treacherous. I worked hard to employ the water taxis. These are the small dinghies from Vam Lang, Go Cong to Ong Lanh Bridge and Muoi Bridge. At the times, the popular transportation modes on the Mekong River were these out boarded bigger boats pulling as many as 60 or 70 small dinghies behind. I used the dinghies to sneak the passengers through the network of police in the countryside.
We began our escape on April 26, 1980. At 8am I guided people to the water taxies. I finished my task about 3pm. I counted 65 passengers. The boat began pulling the water taxies from 4pm. It did not make it to Vam Lang, Go Cong until 11pm. The mother boat was a riverboat used for carrying rice in the Mekong River. It was not a sea-going vessel. The boat was 10 meter in length and 2.7 meter wide. It had a Japanese 10 horsepower diesel engine. We started to load people on the mother boat until midnight. Then it began to head out to sea. By the morning, we passed Con Son Island aiming for the east.
Hai Luu was the pilot and the boat owner. He was a fisherman since he was 17. When we left, he was 47, therefore the sea was his familiar workplace. He did not need a compass to find direction. In daytime he used the sun, at night, he looked for stars. Hai Luu knew the sea was calm that season, therefore the river going boat can make it in the ocean. On the other hand, he operated the river going boat so the authority would not suspect an escape. He often said: “Even an old lady can go to sea in March.” It was true, that morning the sun peaked through the flat horizon. The sea was like a mirror surface. It was so calm we saw sea snakes coiling themselves on the surface.
The boat moved slowly carrying 107 people onboard. Two days later the water pump gave way. Hai Luu ordered 2 men to cool down the engine on each 2-hour shift. One to scoop water from the ocean and poured it on the engine, the other bailed the water out from the hull. That was how the engine performed until April 30, 1964.
On that morning, there were two engine planes flying over our heads. They were painted with Thailand flags. We made torches with our shirts soaked in diesel to signal for help. The planes dropped a white box made out of foam in the ocean. We fished it out of the water and opened it up. Inside, we saw a communication device. On the device, there was instruction in Vietnamese and English. Basically, the instruction told us to use the device to express our needs.
On the boat, there was a former helicopter pilot from the South Vietnamese Air Force named Nguyen Huu Dung. He recognized the device and used it to pass on our message. He spoke in English and Vietnamese. The airplane returned and circled our boat, and then it dropped another box. We plugged it out of the water. This time there was another communication device. It was bigger and looked more sophisticate. Dung again spoke into the device. Later the plane came back and dropped a box half the size of an office desk, in the water. It floated on the water surface. We opened the box. Inside there was a carton box. On top a piece of paper instructed us to use the food and water inside while waiting for another ship to come by to rescue us. It would take from 4 to 24 hours. In the end it said: “Thank you, Good bye,”
In the box there were drinking water, Coke and Sprite sodas, apples, grapes, and cookies. After several days of hunger, the food was a welcoming sight. It was like the bread that God let fall from the sky when the Israelis searched for their Holy land, which was told in the Bible.
After consuming the food, there were several men urging Hai Luu to start the engine and continue on. He refused and many people onboard agreed. The men said if the boat does not go, they would capsize the boat. There was a potential mutiny on the boat. But we were not afraid of the threat. We thought, if the boat was capsized, would they survive? It is ridiculous to think of the insanity of some people. Even in a desperate situation, we were not in a complete union. It was sad for our people.
About 5pm that day while the struggle continued, we spotted a dot far away. As time went by, the dot became larger. Our hope rose while our eyes glued to the object. True enough, when the dot came near, it turned into a giant ship. It stopped about a mile from our boat. We were happy like we came alive again. In the rear of the ship, there were many sailors appeared. Medical personnel were among them. A canoe was lowered from the ship with 3 people in it. The pilot wore a white hat, a medic with a Red Cross symbol and a marine holding an M16. The canoe came near us slowly. They asked if any of us speaks English? Many onboard spoke English but we voted for Dung to be the translator. They began by asking what we need? Dung answered that we need rescue because our engine broke down. They asked permission to come onboard to help. After checking the condition onboard they returned to the canoe and called the ship. The ship signaled back with lights for several minutes.
I looked at the soldiers with tears rolling down my cheek. I thought about the foreigners, the Americans who entered our country and involved with our people. After 5 years of absence, they still opened their hearts and rescued us. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese Communists, they are also Vietnamese, same people as us. Why didn’t we love each other, embrace one another to build our country for the future? The union of South and North Viet Nam should alleviate the poverty caused by communism. Together we could rebuild our country that was ravaged by war for half a century. If they could think like that, Viet Nam could be the Dragon or the Tiger of Southeast Asia instead of a lowly worm like today.
The canoe, after communicating with the ship for several minutes, received permission to board the refugees. They told us to have the children and women lay low. They would tow our boat to the ship. The ladder was lowered. On it sailors lined up from the deck to the ocean surface. When the canoe arrived they helped the women and children onboard first. The men went up the ladder by themselves. We were all congregated and sat on the deck. They then gave us cathartic to clean out our system. They also passed out cigarettes that fitted our liking.
I admired the Americans for their thoughtfulness and understandings. After drinking water and smoking cigarette, they ushered us inside. There was a group of people filling out immigration documents. They brought out bags of clothing and allowed us to freely choose our wardrobes. They set up makeshift bathrooms and washed our old clothes. That afternoon, we were treated with fried chicken. All 107 of us were in heaven.
Then we were informed that the USS Long Beach of the Seventh Fleet had rescued us. The long Beach was populated with about 2000 soldiers. It was the first nuclear powered ship after World War II. Even with that many soldiers onboard, the security was tight. There were only 10 sailors providing services to us.
That afternoon, they inquired about the owner of our boat. Hai Luu was worried. Dung asked the Americans why they want to know who the boat owner is? They wanted to know whether he wants to keep the boat? Hai Luu agreed to have it destroyed. The canoe then towed the boat far away from the ship. The soldiers told us to keep our eyes on the boat. About 5 minutes later, the boat exploded into the ball of fire and sunk to the ocean like it was in the movies. The Americans have plans for everything including the fall the South Vietnamese government, I thought to myself.
That evening, the soldiers made a screen and showed a Bruce Lee film. It was a very suitable choice for the Vietnamese. After the film, approximately 11pm, we asked to listen to the Broadcast of Voice of America on the radio. It announced that at 5pm this afternoon, the USS Long Beach rescued 107 people off South China Sea. These people are automatic accepted to the U.S. And it was the 93rd rescue of the U.S. Navy since the end of the war. We excitedly applauded when heard the news. The soldiers nearby did not understand, asked us what’s going on? We explained to them the good news.
We floated on that ship for 3 more days then the sailors told us that in one hour we would meet another refugee boat. They told us to lookout. Rightly so, another boat was rescued. This boat had 36 people onboard. Thai pirates raped all the women and young girls on the boat. The men were beaten. Blood still stained their boat as the refugees laying, waiting for death when the Long Beach came.
The ship continued to the 6th day when they arrived in Thailand. The Thai army trucks took us to Leam Sing refugee camp. This camp located on the coast. The refugees built their own houses and then transferred from one to another as they get resettled. The UNHCR did not build any housing for the refugees. We stayed in the refugee camp from May 6, 1980 to July 20, 1980, then transferred to Lumbini holding center in Bangkok waiting to be resettled in the U.S.
Three days later we were taken to Bangkok airport. From there we were flown to Italy at 12 noon. The WTA plane then took us to New York on July 24, 1980 at 5pm local time. There, the representative from the Lutheran Refugee Services came to receive us. She gave us each $10 USD and took us to a hotel. We showered, ate and listened to live music like a person on a land of freedom that night. We were no longer in the communist regime of Viet Nam.
The next morning, the LSS representative came to the hotel to take us to the airport for Washington DC. There someone would meet us. Even knowing so, we were nervous. When the plane landed in DC, I walked out carrying a plastic bag printed with LSS logo and my name written on the bag. Another representative of LSS saw me and shouted out: “I’m a representative of Lutheran Refugee Services here to greet you. Please come with me to the office.” Hearing that, I was so relieved. The representative was Le Thi Hien, a caseworker for the refugees. She asked attentively about my family.
As we arrived to the office, we were given two rooms: one for me and my wife and another for my sons. The bed was roomy catered to the size of westerners. Everyday, they gave us money for food. As days gone by, two weeks then three weeks later, I asked Hien about our situation: “When would we get settled?” She said to wait for few more days. “Your family of four is a unique situation. Regular households cannot sponsor you. You need an organization.” Sure enough, on August 27, 1980 the Dan River Baptist Association of South Boston, Virginia representing 33 churches in Halifax County sponsored us.
In the beginning we stayed with Chi and Van, another Vietnamese family in the town. Mr. Chi was an electrical engineer working for Westinghouse. Chi was in his 30s and had an 8-month old son. With them, we had a supporting system when we first arrived. Within four days, the church found me a job before I received my social security number. I started to work as a repair technician for Climate Control, Inc., a heating and refrigeration company. This company was one of the largest facilities there. My wife also had a job as a seamstress in a clothing manufacture called Sale Knitting.
Three months later, the church rented us a two bedrooms house near downtown South Boston. We left Chi’s house but still gathered together with his family and other Vietnamese from nearby Danville every Sunday. On Sunday mornings, we all dressed up in nice outfits, waiting for the church’s representative to come and pick us up for church. This was our appearance to the sponsoring churches as each week we went to different church to attend masses and had breakfast with the congregation. These were the opportunities for us to thank the people who sponsored us. Our consolation was the courteous assistance from the American people. Because of that we were contended to live on a foreign land.
Virginia was one of the most beautiful states in the U.S., I was told. But in the winter, snow covered everything and it was cold. For Southeast Asian, this was not comfortable. So we stayed there for two years then looked for another area with a larger Vietnamese community to resettle again. In July 1982, we left our sponsors and went to Houston, Texas. I went to Houston before my family because my sons were still in school. A year later, they came and joined me. In the beginning, I worked all odd jobs such as food preparer for Burger King fast food to cashier at convenient store to paper delivery for the Houston Post to make a living. Then I found a job working as a technician for Hilton Inn near Houston International Airport. Then moved to another job at The Houston Fine Art Museum. Later, I became air-conditioning and heating independent contractor.
This was my profession from Viet Nam. I declared that to my sponsors when I first came. Thus, I found a job that fitted my skill. I was fortunate, not like many other countrymen who must start a new career. I was able to learn new technologies and had an easier time to make a living. My children were also blessed and because of their ambition to study succeed. My oldest daughter is now a real estate broker in Houston. My older son studied and worked as air-conditioning, heating repairman like me. He is also an independent contractor. My youngest son Duc Nguyen now lives in Los Angeles. He received a bachelor degree in Mass Communication from UC Berkeley. He has more than 10 years of experience in television and entertainment industries. From 1997 to 2000, he was a producer for GTE mainstreet, an interactive television company. His work allowed cable television user to access the internet through their television. He also produced a documentary named Mediate Reality. The film shot in Cuba during the time of Elian Gonzalez. It examines America mainstream television portrayal of the story and offers views from ordinary Cubans and U.S. travelers that television viewers don’t get to see.
Duc is an avid traveler and had gone to Vietnam, Cuba, climbed the Andes and swam the Amazon, South America. In 2002, he went to Ecuador a month to document archaeologists looking for a pre-Inca civilization. In 2003, he was an assistant editor for the PBS series “New Americans” and “My Journey Home.” These documentaries followed many people from different ethnic groups throughout the globe while they search for a place called home. Currently, he is producing a documentary called “Bolinao 52.” This film chronicles the plight of the Vietnamese Boat People. For more information: www.rhimp.com/bolinao .
Currently, I’m retired and have the time to look back at my life the past 30 years. Through my painful experience with the communist in my country, then our resettlement in America, I owe my gratitude to God and the government of the United States for extending their help to my family and gave us new lives. My children, although neither rich nor famous, were able to live normal lives. If we were still in Communism Viet Nam, what would happen to us?
I’m willing to do anything that the Vietnamese community overseas asks to bring justice and freedom for the people of Vietnam. I volunteer with the local organization to attend the gathering in Washington DC on April 30, 2005 to thank the people and government of United States and fight for democracy for Viet Nam.
Nguyen Van Nhu
January 5, 2005