Today marks the 61st anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War (Nov. 1, 1955). In honor of those who lived through that period in history and to those who died during the war, we’d like to welcome Cie Cie Tuyet Nguyen to talk about the war and a new book, Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom.
Please provide the author with a warm welcome:
How did you view the Vietnam War as a young refugee?
The Vietnam War was always the background of my memories. The images of war, death, and other atrocities were always somewhere—on the television, billboards, streets, classroom. I was considered luckier than most because I was a Saigon dweller, living in the capital city of Vietnam. Like most capital cities, it was well protected. I was comfortable in my family environment, surrounded by as much tranquillity and civilization affordable to us at that time. Of course, it was constricted. We were never carefree in our movements or enjoyments, as I was often reminded by the adults or by awful news on the television or radios, from explosions or the terrible number of deaths in a rural primary school or at a rowdy Saigon bar. Alternatively, the bad news could be brought about by a distraught relative banging on the door in the middle of the night telling us that her husband had just perished in action during his last battle.
I was not a refugee during the war, but I often saw an exodus of battered refugees running away from the battle zone or from a lost city when I was little. Politics were bewildering to me and my understanding of the Vietnam War was never clear back then. However, I loved my country and I always wished for peace. I hated the Vietcong who kept pushing for war because I could not have what I wanted.
My father lost his son during the Tet Offensive in 1968. He was my half brother and in his early twenties when he died. I was only five or six then. A grenade exploded in a bar when he was having a beer with his friends while on his short leave from duty. As a mere soldier trying to enjoy a few moments before going back to his bloody battle, fate was unkind to him.
It was funny how I remember clearly those sad times.
I remember standing in front of my gate looking out. There was black smoke and fire on the horizon where the dense population of blue-collar workers lived.
There were people running wildly on the streets, some covered in blood. They cried and screamed. Children and mothers clung to each other in terror. I was scared, but I still wished I could go out and play like on a normal Tet day, oblivious of the gunfire. At first, I thought it was firecrackers on New Year’s Eve, but it was real gunfire and my parents were so upset. Then we were ordered to go to bed without any usual ceremony of a Tet day. I yearned for New Year to be able to wear new clothes, to receive lucky money, or li xi, and eat festive food like banh tet, or rice cakes, and thit kho, or slow cooked pork in coconut juice and fish sauce. And I cried so hard because I knew that was impossible. It hurt so much, but no one noticed and no one paid any attention. And I cried in bed that night.
Then I was so disappointed when it was just gunfire, bombing, and people running on the streets the next day. There were no firecrackers, no smiling, no wishing of good luck and best of health or prosperity, and no laughter. Just crying and screaming. I only thought of my disappointment, and I did not care if the children were scared to death out there, away from their homes. It was very selfish of me, wasn’t it?
I was scared of the cruelty the Vietcong had brought to the city of Hue in the Tet Offensive in 1968. Almost every year when Tet was near, the ghastly documentary film showing the brutal execution of many people or mass graves of people being buried alive was a long lasting, horrifying image for me. However, I did not fully believe those atrocities were true or the ideology of communism was absurd. We as Southerners were gullible and ignorant to the real threat of the communists because we were happy where we were. The war did bother us a lot, but we had our freedom and ‘relative’ democracy.
I only became a refugee three years after the fall of Saigon when peace finally arrived. A peace that came without happiness, love and forgiveness, reconstruction and reunion. Instead, it brought despair, hatred and revenge, destruction and separation, nightmares, brutality and the lot, to us all.
I was not a refugee of war. On the contrary, I was a refugee of peace!
And how do you view it now?
In hindsight, I came to understand the Vietnam War better as an adult. In my opinion (albeit the opinion of a mere war survivor!), the Vietnam War was handled badly by our leaders, both from the Vietnamese and the allied armed forces. It was a political war, but it not dealt with in a politically correct way. We tried to solve the conflicts by force and destruction, showing off our mighty power. Unfortunately, the world did not allow us to create total chaos and therefore, it was applied half-heartedly. We were stopped midway many times because the cry for humanity is always stronger than the need for brutality. To win a war, one might have to be a total savage. I think that was the original idea, annihilation in the shortest time possible. Sadly, it extended longer than necessary and in the end that strategy was outdated.
The Vietcong was smarter. They manipulated their people skilfully and consciously. They were making sure that their people only had one single goal: southward to liberate the Southerners. The power of the mind was stronger in comparison to the power of force and destruction. The Communists insinuated hostility and resentment into the peasants’ unsophisticated minds, along with the concept of anti-landlordism, anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. They led them into believing the fight was for equal rights and freedom from foreign oppression.
To many Southerners, the frustration of defending their border was enough to tire them of the war. At heart, we are a peaceful and fun-loving people, gentle and simple. The majority of the Southern population are farmers and peasants. Their fertile land and extensive, intricate system of rivers and dams easily provided plenty of rice, freshwater fish, and prawns for the whole country in the past and even in wartime.
The complications of politics and power struggles were not in their best interest, and most of the time they left it to the people of the north or central regions. They were content with their lifestyle. That was their biggest weakness.
The majority of the Southern peasants had limited education. Unfortunately some literate ones were given freedom of choice, albeit partially. Nevertheless, they still had some freedom of speech and exerted their influence on others. However, they did not understand the sophisticated information given to them, that or it was not explained. So it was easily confused by the misinterpretation of Communist infiltrators. The peasants thought they would have equal rights and share wealth if they were living in the communist system. On one side, the South’s sole purpose was to defend the homeland, and on the other side was to attack, to take over. The Northerners were fed limited, distorted news or biased truth and were totally ignorant of the outside world for the entire duration of the civil war. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist Party were successful in misleading their people and exerting a powerful determination to “liberate South Vietnam and reunify the country.”
That was stressed by the name chosen for their army: the National Liberation Front, which included many patriots from the South who volunteered to follow Ho Chi Minh to the North after the anti-French revolution and the Geneva Agreement in 1954.
We were poorly led. Our leaders did not use politics as skilfully as they did. We should have had some goal. If the South had initiated the advance toward the North and put forward the great cause of liberating the people from Communism, then perhaps we would have had a greater chance of winning. It was a pity the South did not use that possibility. They were content and prosperous in their own land. Perhaps their selfishness prevented them from thinking that, as they might have had to share their wealth with the North once it had become their responsibility.
Our fertile land and high standard of living might have failed us in this last war. We did not see the need to fight. However, it was the opposite for the North. Their standard of living was always poorer. They never had a staple diet from their own food supply but relied heavily on the South in the undivided country of the past. Ho Chi Minh and his party
members relentlessly pushed forward solely for the profitable gain they were going to reap once they got hold of the South. On the pretext of a noble mission, the Vietnamese Communist Party led the whole nation into ghastly, prolonged bloodshed and the transformation of the North into a poor, undeveloped, and backward country. Everything seemed to stop growing or flourishing since his leadership began in 1954.
Then, because of the guerrilla fighting and the demoralisation of the GIs, the antiwar activists used this extensively and artfully in their campaigns. Obviously, they had won over the confidence of a small proportion of the South population, the U.S. citizens, and congressmen as well as the rest of the world over the prolonged period of fighting. Thus the cry for peace was louder than the real threat of communism, and so they had to give up! The troops had to leave us without help and support.
Pessimism was only made worse by the evacuation operations from the U.S. embassy. An act that seemed helpful and humane from their point of view, but in reality, it destroyed the spirit of all the Southerners. They were lifting Vietnamese civilians among their citizens. Then, everyone wanted to be safe, to get away from this war zone, to arrive at a peaceful destination. Then, no one wanted to fight anymore. Why fight if you are the only one left standing? Why fight if they see a hope of leaving all this horror behind? Who can blame them?
Many of them just wanted to return home to take care of their families and to be rescued by the U.S. embassy. Being safe and away from the danger zone suddenly became the priority, rather than the urgency of defending the last frontiers of the South.
Without a backward glance, the Americans left in haste and in doing so created a vacuum for the Vietcong to easily take over Vietnam. We were poorly prepared by our leaders and we surrendered because we had had no moral support. Our leaders left us high and dry!
What were the most shocking results of the war for you?
Strangely, I had a real shock with the arrival of peace. Everything was taken away swiftly. Freedom, prosperity and dignity were destroyed and replaced with oppression, poverty, degradation, and revenge that left peace a lonely part in my peculiar jigsaw puzzle, like a pitiful hostess in an empty house full of ghosts. I could not understand it at all. Without realizing it, what I had wished for dearly had obliterated everything I valued most.
However, from my understanding of it now, the death of two million civilians, more than one million Northern troops and a quarter of a million South Vietnamese combatants, was also shocking.
What advice would you give government leaders about current conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere?
Oh dear! I really would like to answer this question very much if I were a war expert or had chosen politics as a subject in my career! I am a mere pharmacist who has gone through a troubled childhood in a war torn country and a refugee who had survived the challenges of rising from nothingness. I do not think I have any confidence to discuss that topic.
However, speaking from my humble views about the American involvement in Vietnam back in the 70s, I would say that in any conflicts between a mighty and a mousy party, the latter is usually in favour of the public. People always seem to lean toward a weaker group. Their chivalrous inclination is to protect the mousy one and condemn the mighty, especially the younger and radical groups. The Vietcong used that concept exclusively in their war. They always tried to appear humble and bullied. Similarly, that is how I think the terrorists gain ground with sympathisers.
I believe in natural evolution. The Darwinism theory of biological evolution developed by the English naturalist Charles Darwin states that all species of organisms rise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. Social and religious evolutions are very similar. However, those evolutions can only happen if information is available to feed enough fuel for change. People can only differentiate living conditions, science, and mythology by education. Ignorance is dangerous. Outdated social or religious rules would eventually be destroyed over time with enough information, same as outdated ideology. Whether we are patient enough to wait for it happen naturally or force it by violence is the cause of war.
How has your experience as a refugee of war impacted your life for the better?
I remember how we could laugh and cry at the same time. With stoic endurance and a strong will to survive, I think the human race could manage to go through any crisis in their life as long as they refuse to give up.
What do you want Americans to know about the Vietnam War and their government’s involvement?
The Americans got involved out of the kindness of their hearts, but they put their people into our war needlessly. They should have only provided help and advice without actually sending their troops onto our land. Their presence gave the Vietnamese Communists a strong motivation for their war, the noble thrust of patriotism in their people’s hearts to throw the Americans off our land and regain independence. They won because of that too, I think.
With skillful propaganda, the Communists formed resistant guerrilla units scattered throughout the length of Vietnam that brought havoc and vexation to the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army into terrorist combat. The horror and dread of not knowing who were friends or foes in the guerrilla war was enough to discourage many of the Vietnamese soldiers and U.S. GIs.
The cultural differences were barriers that prevented comradeship between the armed forces personnel and the civilians, I think. I remember the adults were always referring to the Americans in an objectionable term.
I remember being wary of the Americans, too. We, ‘decent girls,’ did not want to have anything to do with them. The Western culture was a hundred miles away in contrast to mine. My minimal knowledge and understanding did not help. The Southerners did not hate them as the Northerners were taught to, but we were not pleased at their presence. It seemed to me they were destroying women’s dignity by disregarding our Oriental culture. Perhaps part of it was the stigma the U.S. GIs thrust upon us by giving rise to prostitution and wild nightlife, which lead to children born in neglect between them and the Vietnamese women.
I cannot thank them enough for their involvement and help and I feel deeply for their losses; more than fifty-eight thousand members of the U.S. armed forces were dead or missing. I understand the anger and frustration of families who had lost their fathers, brothers, and sons. My heart goes out to every mother who suffered. I empathise with the
post-traumatic syndromes of the Vietnam War veterans, as well as the terrible ordeals disabled veterans have to face in their daily lives. I apologise for the barbaric treatment of the Vietcong upon the Americans in captivity and their backward hostility in dealing with missing in action American GIs. And I wish there were not a needless war that lasted too long!
However, the American’s presence in the Vietnam War demoralized the Southerners’ spirit and cause.
About the Author:
CieCie Tuyet Nguyen was born in Saigon and witnessed its fall in 1975 when she was 13-years- old. After continuing to live there for three years under the communist regime, she escaped with her family by boat to Malaysia in 1978. After staying in a Pulau Besar Refugee camp for three months, she resettled in Sydney, Australia, where she has remained ever since. She graduated with a bachelor of pharmacy in 1985 from Sydney University and has operated her own pharmacy since 1989. Nguyen has self- published two short stories and memoirs in Vietnamese, one in 2011 and one in 2016. Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom is her first novel.
For more information about Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom, please visit Nguyen’s website or Facebook page.