Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam
IX. Accounts of Imprisonment and Reeducation
Includes examples of an important literature from Vietnam: narratives of prison life. Most of the accounts in this section are autobiographical and many are written by Vietnamese exiles, and so they could be listed in Section V, "Autobiographical Accounts", or Section X, "Accounts of Imprisonment". They are collected here to highlight this important category of literature from the war. Most accounts recommended are by Vietnamese now in the West who spent time in communist-run " reeducation" camps after 1975. The introduction explains the significance of these prison narratives and presents some background information on reeducation.
Most of the accounts in this section are autobiographical and some are written by Vietnamese exiles, and so they could be listed in Sections V or X, but there are good reasons for highlighting them in a special section. Roughly half of the Vietnamese writers listed on this bibliography have been imprisoned at some time in their life. Some were in colonial prisons run by the French, or, as in Ho^' Chi' Minh's case, in Chinese prisons, or they have suffered in "reeducation camps," which were also prisons, run by the communists after 1975. Other Vietnamese have been imprisoned by anti-communist Vietnamese regimes and their American allies. Sadly, the experience of prison is widely shared by Vietnamese: literature about prison life forms an important part of Vietnam's literary heritage.
In a speech on May 1, 1960, Ho^' Chi' Minh announced that the thirty-one current members of the Vietnamese Communist Party's Central Committee had spent a cumulative total of 222 years in French colonial prisons. He called for revolutionary memoirs (ho^'i ky' ca'ch ma.ng) documenting this experience and other aspects of the anti-colonial struggle.1 Unfortunately only a few of these memoirs have been translated--accounts by Nguye^~n Duy Trinh et al., Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh, Tra^`n Tu+? Bi`nh, and Vo~ Nguye^n Gia'p (See Section V). Although all these authors spent time in prisons, their narratives are not focused on their prison experiences.
Most of the accounts below are by anti-communist Vietnamese who spent time in reeducation camps after the war ended in 1975. We have quite a few accounts of this experience because many former inmates have later come to the U.S. either as "boat people" or by plane under the Orderly Departure Program, a program negotiated with Vietnam that provides for safe emigration out of the country. In 1989 the U.S. negotiated a bilateral agreement with Vietnam that gives priority in the ODP to those who have spent at least three years in reeducation. As of August, 1995, 405, 000 Vietnamese have been admitted to the U.S. under ODP, including 123,000 persons (includes former prisoners and their families) under the Former Re-Education Camp Detainee subprogram.2
In the frantic days and hours leading up to the final collapse of the Saigon regime, many Vietnamese had to make quick decisions as to whether to stay or to try to make it out to one of the American ships waiting to take them to the U.S. Those who stayed did so for a variety of reasons-- because they did not want to leave their homeland, because they couldn't find a way to escape, or because they felt they had nothing to fear from the communists and wanted, now that the war was finally over, to contribute their energy and talents to the rebuilding of their country. Some, like Nguye^~n Long and DDoa`n Va(n Toa.i, had opposed the war and been imprisoned by South Vietnamese authorities, and so believed the communists would not bother them. Soon after the communists took over, former officers in the armed forces, religious leaders, intellectuals, employees of the Americans, officials in the former government, and some men, who, like Jade Ngo.c Quang Huy`nh, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, were asked to report for reeducation. Usually they were told to pack enough clothes and personal effects to last ten days or two weeks. Many did not return for several years. Some remained until 1988, a period of fourteen years.3
In introducing To Be Made Over, Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng explains that
[t]he term 'reeducation,' with its pedagogical overtones, does not quite convey the quasi-mystical resonance of ca?i-ta.o in Vietnamese. Ca?i ('to transform') and ta.o ('to create') combine to literally mean an attempt at 'recreation,'at 'making over' sinful or incomplete individuals. Born again as 'Socialist men and women' (con ngu+o+`i xa~-ho^.i chu?-nghi~a), they will supposedly pave the way to the Communist millennium. (x)In reality, however, the camps were terrible places in which men were forced to work at hard labor with not enough food and no medical attention. They were also placed in terrible moral dilemmas. In a moving section in his Lost Years, Tra^`n Tri Vu~ explains that just before he was released after four and a half years in reeducation he was told by a cadre that as a condition of his release he had to denounce any fellow prisoners who opposed the revolution or had not yet "achieved a good education" (376). The cadre handed him a pen and a piece of paper. His face flushed and his heart pounding at the prospect of freedom, of seeing his wife and children again, he sat dumbfounded. Freedom was almost in his grasp but it could only be achieved by betraying the trust of his fellow prisoners. Finally, he hit upon a solution: he would denounce himself, admit what he knew his wardens already knew, that he had made some tables and chairs for another prison guard who had sold them. The tactic worked for Tra^`n Tri Vu~ but this episode and others in these accounts hint at the compromising decisions that prisoners had to make.
These accounts reveal much more, however, than the physical and mental agony of incarceration. They contain moving sections that describe the mutual sympathy that sometimes developed between prisoners and their guards, some of whom suffered in the camps along with the inmates. Jade Ngo.c Quang Huy`nh, for example, explains how he was befriended by a guard, a fellow southerner, who resented his comrades from the north. In this case, regional loyalty overcomes political ideology. Nguye^~n Ngo.c Nga.n describes how he was intrigued by a guard's dream to learn English and to attend a university in Hanoi when he was demobilized. He agreed to teach him English secretly, a dangerous activity for both of them, using a dog-eared copy of English for Today that the guard had brought back from Saigon.
In these accounts we see the clash in cultures between the sophisticated, typically highly-educated prisoners from the South and their uneducated guards and carefully-indoctrinated teachers. We see this clash in almost every account of reeducation but perhaps nowhere more vividly than in Vo~ Ky` DDie^n's portrait of Brother Ten, his teacher in a political training class for teachers of the former regime. Lips dark from smoking too much tobacco, hair as yellowish as cornsilk, weakened by malaria, Brother Ten passionately presents his view of Vietnamese and world history. The author knows Brother Ten is absurdly misinformed but still marvels at his theatrical performance.
In summary, we should emphasize these accounts because they depict an important aspect of the war, one that affected many Vietnamese, including many Vietnamese who now live in the U.S., and because they are moving narratives of people adjusting to stress. These accounts can also be used to restore a more balanced view of the Vietnamese conflict. Some accounts by Western academics romanticize Vietnamese revolutionaries. The narratives in this section present a less rosy view of what it is like to live under communism. Nguye^~n Long, for example, describes in detail how the communists set up ward and neighborhood information networks so that everyone becomes involved in watching everyone else, a system that destroys personal and family privacy.
In the U.S., so much attention has been focused on American prisoners of war that it becomes easy to forget the large number of Vietnamese on both sides that spent long periods of time in prison. Readings in this section make it clear that captivity was an experience shared by both Americans and Vietnamese.4
In one sense, however, this section of readings may encourage a distorted view. It contains no accounts by Vietnamese communist soldiers who spent time in prisons run by the South Vietnamese government (often with American assistance). Though I know such accounts must exist, I have not been able to locate any.5
- DDoa`n Va(n Toa.i and David Chanoff. Vietnamese Gulag. Trans. from the French by Sylvie Romanowski and Francoise Simon-Miller. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Account by a participant in demonstrations against the government of Nguye^~n Va(n Thie^.u who was imprisoned by the communists in June, 1975. After paying a bribe in 1978, he was allowed to leave jail and fly to the West. Marr finds his recollections of jail life to be "too precise to be credible" and suggests that his accounts of pre-1975 political activities be checked against other sources (Vietnam, p. 152).
- Ho^' Chi' Minh. Prison Diary [Nha^.t Ky' Trong Tu`]. In Reflections from Captivity. Trans. Christopher Jenkins, Tra^`n Kha'nh Tuye^'t, and Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng. Ed. David G. Marr. Southeast Asia Translation Series, Vol. I. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1978. 67-98.
A collection of short poems written during a fourteen-month period (1942-1943) when Ho^' Chi' Minh was in many different prisons in Kwangsi Province, China. He was arrested by Kuomintang police, who didn't recognize him, on his way to Chungking to meet Chiang Kai-shek and other potential allies in the fight against the Japanese. The poems describe the harsh conditions (scabies, leg irons, hunger) and suggest Ho^' Chi' Minh's determination and sharpness of mind.
- Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng, ed. and trans. An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966. See Section VI for annotation.
Contains prison poetry by communists and non-communists. Includes works by Ho^' Chi' Minh, Nguye^~n Chi' Thie^.n, To^' Hu+~u, Tra^`n Huy Lie^.u and others.
- ________, ed. and trans. To Be Made Over: Tales of Socialist Reeducation in Vietnam. La.c-Vie^.t Series No. 5. New Haven, CT: Yale Council on Southeast Asia Studies Studies, 1988.
Collection of memoirs and stories translated from the Vietnamese about life in communist reeducation camps. Annotations for four selections are included in this bibliography. See articles by Hoa`ng Ngo.c Thanh Dung (Section V) and by Nguye^~n Ngo.c Nga.n, Tu+o+'ng Na(ng Tie^'n, and Vo~ Ky` DDie^n in this section.
- Jade Ngo.c Quang Huy`nh. South Wind Changing. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1994. See Section V for annotation.
- Nguye^~n Chi' Thie^.n. Flowers from Hell. La.c Vie^.t Series No. 1. New Haven, CT: Yale Council on SEA Studies, 1984.
A bilingual edition of poems by Vietnam's most famous anti-communist prisoner of conscience. Nguye^~n Chi' Thie^.n was first arrested in 1958 when he and some friends tried to publish a journal containing romantic poems and other material objectionable to communist authorities. He spent thirty of the next thirty-seven years in prison until he was released after pressure by Amnesty International and other groups. He came to the U.S. in 1995 under the Orderly Departure Program. He managed to get this collection to the British Embassy in Hanoi in 1979. From there it made its way first to London and then to Europe and the U.S. Some poems are stridently anti-communist. Many are agonizing cries from the heart of a man who refused to be broken by prison.
- Nguye^~n DDu+'c Thua^n. The Victor. In an unnumbered issue of Vietnamese Studies (Dec., 1965): 3-47.
An account of the author's experiences in prisons in South Vietnam between 1956 and 1964. He was violently interrogated and sent eventually to Co^n So+n prison island, but never betrayed Party comrades.
- Nguye^~n Duy Trinh et al. In the Enemy's Net: Memoirs from the Revolution. Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1962.
Four autobiographical accounts by communist party members of their revolutionary activities. The authors describe imprisonment and hair-raising escapes. The first two narratives take place in 1930-31 when French colonialists, alarmed by strikes and demonstrations, cracked down on suspected organizers. The third account takes place in 1941 and the fourth describes events leading to the August Revolution in 1945. The authors later held important positions in the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
- Nguye^~n Long with Harry H. Kendall. After Saigon Fell: Daily Life Under the Vietnamese Communists. Research Papers and Policy Studies Series of the Institute of East Asian Studies. Berkeley: University of California, 1981.
In 1973 Nguye^~n Long returned to Vietnam from the U.S. with a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. When the Saigon government fell in 1975, he stayed on and experienced life under communism until he left as a "boat person" in 1979. Interesting vignettes and descriptions of daily life under the new regime. Particularly good account of how the communists organized the people into family clusters and wards and set up neighborhood information networks.
- Nguye^~n Ngo.c Nga.n. "My communist Warden and I." Trans. by Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng. In To Be Made Over: Tales of Socialist Reeducation in Vietnam. 135-146.
An account by a well-known exile writer (now living in Canada) of his relationship with a warden in a reeducation camp. Author offers a sympathetic and moving portrait of Tha^n, the warden, who dreams of going to a university in Hanoi and asks the author to teach him English. Instead the warden is sent to fight in Cambodia.
- ________ with E. E. Richey. The Will of Heaven. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982.
Christopher faults the author for "unintentional self-revelation," "doctrinaire anti-communism," "cloying pro-Americanism," and other sins (See The Viet Nam War/The American War, Section IV), but she is much too hard on him. This is a very readable story about a former ARVN officer who was wounded twice as a soldier, suffered for three years in a communist prison, was told to report to a New Economic Zone when he got out, and lost his wife and son when their refugee boat crashed on the coast of Malaysia. His narrative focuses on the three years he was imprisoned.
- Nguye^~n Qui' DDu+'c. Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1994. See Section X for annotation.
- Phan Bo^.i Cha^u. Prison Notes [Ngu+?c Trung Thu+]. Reflections from Captivity. Trans. Christopher Jenkins, Tra^`n Kha'nh Tuye^'t, and Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng. Ed. David G. Marr. Southeast Asia Translation Series, Vol. I. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. 9- 56.
An important work in Vietnam's canon of prison literature. The author died in 1940 before the war with the French, but he was an important anti-colonial leader. Describes his travels all over Vietnam and to China and Japan to seek assistance in overthrowing colonial oppression. Written in 1914 while imprisoned in Canton by a warlord opponent of the Kuomintang. Contains personal information rarely found in Vietnamese works of this kind.
- "Prison Poems by Communists." Trans. Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng. Vietnam Forum 13 (1990): 140-143.
Poems written in the late 1930's by Tra^`n Huy Lie^.u, Xua^n Thu?y, and To^' Hu+~u.
- Tra^`n Da. Tu+`. Writers and Artists in Vietnamese Gulags. Elkhart, Ind.: Century Publishing House, 1990.
Short one-page biographical sketches of writers and artists imprisoned in communist reeducation camps. The author--a journalist, editor of literary journals, and poet-- knows of what he speaks: he was arrested with his wife, the writer Nha~ Ca, in 1976, and while she was released after nine months, he remained in prison for 12 years. Also contains cartoons by the well-known political cartoonist Choe (real name: Nguye^~n Hai Chi), who spent 12 years in re-education, and two prefactory essays by the author: "The SRV Campaign against Writers and Artists" and "Choe's World before and after April, 1975."
- Tra^`n Tri Vu~. Lost Years: My 1,632 Days in Vietnamese Reeducation Camps. Trans. by Nguye^~n Phuc. Indochina Research Monograph Series of the Institute of East Asian Studies. Berkeley: University of California, 1988.
Account by a junior officer in the ARVN of his four and half years in several re-education camps. The author in matter of fact, non-hysterical language describes his experiences completely and in great detail. He brings you almost all the way there. Though a long work (381 pages), it contains many fairly self-contained, excerptable episodes that are moving and revealing of life in the camps.
- Tu+o+'ng Na(ng Tie^'n. "Communism and Guigoz-Canism." Trans. Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng. To Be Made Over: Tales of Socialist Reeducation in Vietnam. 164-172.
A Guigoz can was an aluminum container that once contained powdered milk imported from Holland and was used by prisoners in the author's reeducation camp to place food that they had scavenged during the day. When released, the author finds that those outside prison use these cans too. Around this can the author weaves an entertaining commentary of life in post-war Vietnam.
- Vo~ Ky` DDie^n. "Brother Ten." Trans. Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng. To Be Made Over: Tales of Socialist Reeducation in Vietnam. 26-35.
Describes how Brother Ten, a Party member, taught a political training class designed for teachers who had been associated with the former regime. The author, a student in that class, portrays Brother Ten, a poorly educated spouter of Marxist-Leninist jargon, critically but not completely unsympathetically.
- "'With the Only Weapons We Have' . . . Resistance in Saigon's Prisons." Indochina Chronicle. No. 4 (April, 1975).
Not available for review, but David Marr in an endnote in Reflections from Captivity (p. 99, note 3) suggests it contains writing by Vietnamese imprisoned by the Saigon regime of Nguye^~n Va(n Thie^.u.
1. Peter Zinoman, Abstract of his talk "Reading Revolutionary Prison Memoirs," Abstracts of the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 1996). 243.
2. These figures come from a report on behalf of the President submitted to Committees of the Judiciary of both the House and Senate on August 1, 1995.
3. According to testimony to a House subcommittee by Dinah Pokempner of Human Rights Watch/Asia, thousands of reeducation camp inmates were released in 1987 and 1988. "At present," she testified, "all such 'reeducation' detainees who were held continuously since the 1975-76 period without trial have been freed." The date of her testimony, which was before the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, was July 26, 1995.
4. Teachers could compare Vietnamese and American accounts of imprisonment. In The Vietnam War: Teaching Approaches and Resources, ed. by Marc Jason Gilbert (Greenwood Press: New York, 1991), several bibliographies of works by Americans about their POW experience are listed. See pages 147 and 221.
5. A Vietnamese acquaintance in the U.S. told me such accounts may be rare because communist soldiers were expected to resist until death. Those who didn't aren't eager to publicize the fact.