by Quyen Truong
After the Fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975, every South Vietnamese man, from former officers in the armed forces, to religious leaders, to employees of the Americans or the old government, were told to report to a re-education camp to “learn about the ways of the new government.” Many South Vietnamese men chose to flee on boats, but others had established lives and loved ones in Vietnam, so they willingly entered these camps in hopes of quickly reconciling with the new government and continuing their lives peacefully. According to my father, the government said re-education would only last for ten days, and at most two weeks. However, once there, the men were detained for many years in grueling labor camps.
Excerpts from My Father’s Oral History
The best way to describe these camps is through the words of someone who lived through it. In Spring 2003, I interviewed my father and learned about his experiences in totality for the first time. Here are excerpts from accounts of his seven years in re-education camps:
“I was married for less than eight months before I had to go to re-education camp. Communists said one thing—only ten days! They wrote that we’d only need to pack clothing and food and money for ten days, so everyone believed. We all signed contracts that said this! But after ten days, after three months, after six months, after being moved from place to place by the Communists, I knew we were in for the long haul. In June of 1975, they brought me to Hoc Mon, then transferred me on a cargo boat to the North.”
My father believes he was kept at the re-education camps for seven years because of his Military Intelligence (MI) status. “Communists were afraid of Military Intelligence because we could reveal information, so they brought MI to the North.” Here, the re-education camp became known as labor camp due to the notorious back-breaking work forced upon prisoners. “Their main goal was not to teach us, but only to detain us. Many of them didn’t even have an education beyond the 8 th grade; how could they teach us?”
The time of imprisonment was physically demanding and morally disheartening. “The Communists put people like me into the jungle so that we would get sick and slowly die off. That was their goal… Everyone was miserable. Many people died of sadness… One week I’d see one gravesite. As the weeks went on I saw more and more graves.”
Prisoners endured long days of menial labor and physical pain. “Everyday I needed to get 20kg of bamboo shoots. We had to peel the outside until we reached the soft white middle to collect. I worked in the jungle where there were leeches skinny as chopsticks. But once they stuck onto you and sucked on your blood, they would swell like fat sausages. I would lie there at night, tired and not knowing why, and my friends would see a big leech on my foot and pry it off.”
“We were broken up into different labor units. The building unit made houses, the equipment unit made spades and there was a unit that grew wheat, a unit that grew vegetables, a unit that cultivated tea… In camp, our unit’s specialty was building. I would carry cement, wood and everything needed to make buildings. I had to carry 16 pieces of brick, or carry tureens full of water and walk barefoot on a steep road.” My father’s unit also made and transported equipment for people to build houses. “I had to walk through the fields and streams to give equipment to the construction unit… It was heavy work, especially carrying the water. Sometimes I had to walk with the water for 1-2 km.”
The fatigue wore down the men and made them more susceptible to accidents. My father relates, “People who didn’t know how to cut bamboos properly died when branches they chopped fell on top of them.”
“Another time, there was a bamboo that fell on my head.” While other prisoners chopped bamboo trees around him, my father was caught amidst falling bamboo branches. “Fortunately, I held a knife in one hand. A bamboo tree actually fell on my knife and split in half. My other arm wasn’t so lucky. It swelled and hung in a cast without medication for two weeks. To this day, my right arm is weaker than my left!”
When accidents or sickness occurred, very little could be done for the prisoners. “When I was sick, only two out of the 70-some people in my unit could stay home to rest, so I continued to work.”
After a strenuous day of work, prisoners had very little time to themselves. “At night, after returning from work and entering the camp, at 7 p.m. there would be a conference to plan the next day and evaluate the current day. They’d tell us what we did well and what we did badly. It took two hours. If someone said ‘Truong didn’t do a good job today,’ then I’d have to stand up according to Communist protocol and accept shame and excuse my fatigue and promise that I would do a better job tomorrow.”
“Each person got two hands’ span of space to lie down. To do this, we had to lie like canned sardines. One person lay one way, the adjacent people lay the other way to have enough room to lie down. In each little room there were about 60-70 people, sleeping on a floor that was a little elevated over the bare earth.”
“We woke up really early in the morning. They hit a cowbell to wake us all up: ‘Keng keng keng!’ We had to bring water into the sleeping area so that in the morning we could wash our faces. Each day before work we’d eat breakfast. At noon we had lunch and after work we had dinner.”
Besides the constant fatigue, my father remembers being very hungry. “We ate very little. Every day, we ate a portion of rice as small as a quit (small fruit, like an orange) and some salt water. They didn’t give us much because they feared that people would hoard food and escape… We ate just enough to survive.” Pain punctuates his narrative. “Since we lacked food and medicine many people died. Sometimes I’d lie awake at night, not knowing when my turn would come, because a friend had died just two days ago, and a week after I would bury another friend in the fields. I’d bring another friend to the hospital, only to have him die. So I didn’t know when my turn would come…” Even with his positive temperament, my father was miserable and constantly fearful of death. He speaks with resentment about the lack of food. “I was very weak when I came home (from the labor camp in 1982). During the time I served for the South Vietnamese army, I weighed 53 kg. But after two years in the camp, I weighed only 39 kg!”
Many people couldn’t take the inhumane camp conditions and hoarded their rice rations and attempted to flee at night. Unfortunately, communist guards usually caught prisoners as they climbed the fence that surrounded the camps. “I never tried to leave. I had friends who tried to escape, who were shot dead.” If they survived, the punishment was severe. Five to six soldiers beat prisoners who were brought back. “I had a friend who was beaten until he vomited blood… (there were) welts all over his body.” Afterwards, guards jailed him in a small box for three to four months.
My father helped his friend survive. Everyday, his duty included bringing rice to those imprisoned in the boxes, so he used this opportunity to feed his friend. “Before I brought my friend his portion, I would pack a lot of rice really tightly into the bowl and sprinkle a little rice on top of it. When the soldiers inspected the portion, it would look small and they would allow me to bring the food to my friend.”
“My friend went through that and survived. During the war, he served as a Vietnamese SEAL, so he was very strong. That’s how he withstood the camp conditions. He lives in the US today.” My father continues to correspond with his friend through letters and more recently, e-mail.
Occasionally, the prisoners were allowed to communicate with loved ones. “Every three to five months, we got permission to write home.” However, my father did not trust the Communist postal services. “I was never sure that your mother received all the information because sometimes they would send the letters, sometimes they wouldn’t. Many times, the Communists did not send the letter to Saigon but kept it at the reeducation camp. I know because a Communist man asked me why I bothered to write; then he showed me the pile of letters.”
“They kept the letters because they didn’t want people at home to know the situation or news from reeducation camp. Sometimes I’d write a letter in February and a letter in May, but they might send the May letter first and then send the February letter later to lose the time continuity.”
My father tried to communicate with his wife in code, referring to memories that would indicate his whereabouts. “I would write, ‘Here I really miss my father.’ In the past, Grandfather worked in Lau Cai, so your mother would understand that I was in the North near Lau Cai.”
In addition to written correspondence, prisoners were allowed to receive two gifts and one visit annually. “The Communists would issue a ticket, and with that ticket, we could receive packages.” Resentment and irritation creep into his voice. “Even so, sometimes I got the gifts, sometimes I didn’t… When I went up to the Communist offices to clean up, I would see opened cans of fish, labeled with your mother’s handwriting. Then, I would know that they kept and ate everything instead of delivering her package.”
Seeing loved ones was even more difficult. “The distance from the South to the North was very far. Every time your mother came to visit, she would have to take the train for three days and four nights to get to the North. From Hanoi, she would need to take a ferry, then walk, and then wade through deep water to visit me. All this, for an hour visit!” Simultaneously infuriated with the Communists and grateful for his wife, my father marvels at the trouble Ai-Mai had to go through to visit him. “Once in camp, she got questioned. They interviewed her for half an hour about her education and family… Then we got to talk to each other for half an hour. We sat so far away from each other, our hands could not have touched if we reached out.” During their conversation, a communist soldier sat at the head of the table, dispelling any intimacy and privacy. “We could only talk about the news before they took her away. After she left, the soldier would look through the gifts she brought to see if there was anything worth keeping. Then they would take it and claim to throw it out, but actually kept the stuff for themselves.” Nevertheless, Ai-Mai made the journey to see her husband. “Every year, your mother would visit once.”
Prisoners learned to be resourceful with the few items they owned. “In the North, all the clothing I wore had holes, so I had to make my own needle and smuggle thread to mend them.” Each year, Communists only issued one shirt and one pair of pants. “I had to get pieces of cloth to sew another layer of clothing, or even underwear.” Most of his clothes were from 1975, when he initially thought he’d be in camp for only ten days, or sent from his wife and her mother.
Despite the harsh conditions in the North, my father made the distinction between Communists and Northerners; he never harbored any anger towards villagers. Likewise, local people empathized with prisoners. “Many Northerners cried when they saw that we worked so hard. They were good people. There was a family who lived near our camp. Every day, they lent me their treasured ladle to get clean water.” My father tried to return the favor. “This family had a boy who wore a tattered shirt all the time. I saved and hid a Communist-issued shirt that wasn’t branded to give to the boy.” However, when he offered them the shirt, the mother thanked him but refused the gift. “She was such a good person. She told me that I should save the shirt because I never know when I’ll leave the camp and need it.”
Besides interaction with the locals, my father remembers simple pleasures. “What was best for everyone was the chance to bathe, because we were so dirty. Everyone desired to bathe. Afterwards, we’d take our clothing and wash it in the water.” Reflecting back on how they walked back to camp, dripping wet, he feels lucky that he never caught pneumonia.
Despite the conditions, men found camaraderie and entertainment in each other. “One time, there was theater in camp, and I had to act and dance. The play was called ‘Nguoi Van Do,’ which meant ‘Person Who Lived Near the Sea.’ It was all for fun, to amuse the others. We went to a theater and practiced, and everyone who wanted could perform. I dressed up as a woman, wearing a dress! We only got 5 weeks to practice and then perform the play. In the morning, we would practice, and in the afternoons we would work. In prison camp we only had this form of amusement.”
In camp, the dehumanization and the challenge to one’s rank grated on many prisoners’ nerves. Before the fall of Saigon and during the Vietnam War, My father was treated with the respect accorded to his rank and age. “Whatever I said, people would have to follow my orders; but when I entered reeducation camp, there would be a small kid about (my son) Quang’s age (16) and they’d tell me this and that, and I’d have to follow their orders. Even though I was older, they ordered me around.” This breach of respect also countered traditional values of deferring to one’s elders. Many prisoners became disillusioned with the new regime. “After reeducation camp, many people felt they couldn’t live with the Communist rule, so they left. Uncle Hien served as a General in the army and was also in reeducation camp. After he was dismissed from reeducation camp, he immediately jumped a boat (to leave Vietnam).”
“I left re-education camp in 1982. There were people who stayed in camp even longer than I did! I stayed seven years, and that year they had begun to dismiss people.” My father was detained until Communists judged that the South was stable enough to permit his release. In 1987 at least 15,000 people were still incarcerated in labor camps. When their term of imprisonment expired, they were simply sentenced to three or five more years of re-education. [Reeducation Camps: Vietnamese Information Resource, April 16, 2003.] My father affirms, “There were people (at the camps) for eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, even thirteen years!” He feels lucky for getting out. “I still have no idea why they let me go when they did.” The day he was released, guards gathered all the prisoners and read out names. “They read the name of one person higher-ranked than I, and I feared that I would’t be allowed to leave. Then they read my name, and I was shocked. I stood to one side. They kept me at the camp for another 10 days to do some work, but there was no longer a soldier following me everywhere. I got to go bathe and work by myself. Afterwards, I took the train to go home.”
By the time my father was released in 1982, my mother’s entire family had fled to America. Left in Vietnam, my mother gave birth to me in 1983, and my brother Quang in 1986. My parents raised us in Saigon. In 1990, my grandmother was able to sponsor our family to come to America. The first years in the U.S. were difficult. My parents juggled learning a new language, attending English classes and technical school while working part-time jobs to support my brother and me. Fortunately, we had the support of my grandmother and our extended family. For the first three years, we lived with my aunt Thuy. After graduating from technical school, my father quickly found a job as a machinist at Masterson’s Manufacturing company. Here, his workmanship and attention to detail, as well as his gregarious nature made him a favored employee. Meanwhile, my mother worked part-time at Stop & Shop and pursued additional schooling to expand her opportunities. In 1993, the family saved enough to buy a small house in West Hartford, CT.
Today, my father continues to work at Masterson’s and enjoys gardening and reading in his spare time. My mother is working towards a nursing degree, and my brother Quang studies International Relations and Philosophy at Boston University. I graduate from Brown University in May 2005 with a degree in Visual Arts.
Step-by-step: Walking through the Exhibition
Stories Translated into Paintings: A Transformative Process
In Spring 2003, I was inspired by Beth Taylor’s Writing the Southeast Asian War class to interview my parents and learn from their experiences. Growing up, I had always heard snippets of war stories and camp details from my father, especially at dinner time when he would encourage me to appreciate my food by regaling me with stories about hunger pangs. However, I never heard the complete story until that spring, when we sat down with a tape recorder and discussed in detail the seven unaccounted years of his life. I was stunned, touched, overwhelmed by what I heard. Writing the oral history helped me better understand better his experiences, but I needed to create something else to truly appreciate and process the stories. Struck by certain images my father evoked in retelling his stories, like “canned sardines,” and inspired by anecdotes about hunger, work, and camaraderie in the jungles, I made five pen and ink drawings, illustrating the experiences as I imagined them. Even though they are complete drawings in themselves, these drawings continued to haunt me. During my third year at Brown, I realized I wanted to create larger paintings, to interview more Vietnamese re-education camp survivors, and to exhibit these stories on a wider scale.
In Fall 2005, I took Jim Blight and janet Lang’s Vietnam War Re-Visited class, which helped me revisit ideas from my sophomore year and carry my Viet Nam Re-education Camp project to another stage. The class taught me a lot about external U.S. forces that influenced the escalation of the Vietnam War, and impressed upon me the importance of discussing my father’s experiences to provide a fuller picture of unforeseen war consequences. I had a series of meetings with Jim to discuss possibilities for exhibiting the paintings, and agreed to create them for my final class project.
In addition to in-class and out-of-class discussions, Jim, janet and I made a trip to Newport to check out Roger LeBrun’s photography exhibit. Roger captured compelling images from orphanages on the fringe of the Vietnam War, showing glimpses of happiness, hope and life amidst a violent, deadly and rapidly degenerating civil conflict. Conversations with Jim and viewing Roger’s photos made me reconsider my sketches—I wanted to paint moments of humanity shining like gems in the dark depths of despair, show camaraderie and compassion glowing in the gloom of the worst conditions. Therefore, although the paintings are inspired by the drawings, they are original pieces.
I chose to use black ink, charcoal, and oils in blended harmony to limit my palette, to show the stark situations without interference from associations that come with color. Painting on gessoed light muslin, I got the effect of working on rice paper and was able to roll the canvas into scrolls, which is an appropriate format for the subject matter. The style of the paintings are meant to allude to ghosts, spirits and hallucinations, and are influenced by German expressionists as well as photographs and artwork from the Holocaust. In particular, I was inspired by Scandinavian artist Edvard Munch and German artist Kathe Kollwitz. What you see is the result of several years of asking questions, reflecting, and transforming ideas into reality with the endless support of professors, friends and family.
My intentions for creating these paintings is not to horrify anyone, or remind ourselves of atrocities we can commit upon each other. Rather, these paintings are meant to honor my father’s experiences and those of the men who suffered alongside him. Furthermore, these paintings are a testament to these men’s strength and courage in the face of devastating conditions.
The Vietnamese have deep beliefs in ancestral worship, Buddhist notions of karma, and superstitions. In the scroll-like paintings, my intention is to evoke the spirits of the Vietnamese people who have survived and transcended these re-education camps. Moreover, I want the work to pulsate with life and with the daily struggles of re-education camp detainees.
Despite the many instances of inhumanity portrayed in these works, there was also a lot of humanity shared among the prisoners as they supported each other in their quest for survival. The men who suffered through the worst of the corporal punishments still had a lot of life left in them to persevere, leave the camps, and create lives anew both in Viet Nam and in the United States. Unfortunately, many of these re-education camp survivors have been unable to speak about their experiences, and their stories are left unheard. These paintings are meant to evoke the stories we all carry within, so that we can celebrate our lives and those that came before us.