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Life in the New Vietnam

André Gelinas is a French Canadian Catholic priest, a Chinese scholar, who went to live in Vietnam in December 1948 and stayed on for twenty-eight years, until fifteen months after the arrival of the North Vietnamese troops in Saigon. Before he was expelled, he worked at the Alexander of Rhodes Educational Center in Saigon. What follows are parts of a long account he gave last autumn to Pierre Doublet and Christian D’Epenoux of the Paris L’Express.

I

What struck me during the fifteen months I lived in Saigon after the takeover was the continual hardening of the regime. When the Bo Doi [the Liberation Army soldiers] entered Saigon on April 30, 1975 the first reaction among the people was one of fear. And then slowly they began to go out again. There were few acts of violence and, it seemed, few executions. The great “campaign” for “purification of morals and culture” took the form of vast autos-da-fé. All the adornments of “bourgeois” culture were to be destroyed. In our Center we had some 80,000 volumes, a large number of which we had to burn. Lists were compiled of all those who had collaborated with the old regime and of all “intellectuals,” i.e., those who had passed their first bachot or had gone beyond it.

A more real ordeal began when the government imposed restrictions on the money supply. After freezing bank accounts on June 10, the government announced in September that everyone had twelve hours to take their money to the banks before it became valueless. Each family henceforth had the right only to the equivalent of 1,000 French francs [i.e., about $225.00]. An epidemic of suicides followed. Thousands of ruined and desperate Vietnamese put an end to themselves, feeling that they could no longer survive in Saigon and that they would have to leave for “New Economic Zones,” the areas where the regime was sending large groups of people to clear and work on the land.

They also feared, after several months, that the regime’s propaganda would divide families, setting the young against the old. Entire families killed themselves with revolvers. A former police officer shot his ten children, his wife and his mother-in-law, and then himself. A father, after explaining to his family at dinner that they had to put an end to their sufferings, distributed poisoned soup. Some came to see me before such suicides to ask whether it was a grave sin. Here and there someone who had been saved just in time would tell what had happened. A young woman told me that she had awakened in a hospital corridor piled with hundreds of bodies. Those who were still living had their stomachs pumped out. Group suicides went on for several weeks.

To eat, to survive—that was the main problem. When I left I was little more than skin and bones, and I gained over thirty pounds after I returned [to France]. But still I was one of the privileged; as a foreigner I had the right to receive money from abroad and so we had rice right up until we left, manioc, bananas. Fish is a luxury. The fishermen are no longer allowed to go out to sea because people used the boats to escape, and many of the motors were removed to avoid this. At Vung Tau, the large port near Saigon, the authorities decide every morning which fisherman can go out, and he is “accompanied,” while his family, as a guarantee, must stay on land. Nonetheless I know someone who left the port of Phan Thiat last December along with two Bo Doi who escaped with him.

There is no famine; but many live in misery. The two staple foods are rice and the Chinese potato, the khoai-mi, which is normally eaten by animals but is now mixed with rice to make it go further. It’s a good day when one can get hold of some shrimp, and meat is very rare and impossibly expensive. Two pounds of meat costs half of one month’s salary of 15,000 piastres, a good salary. Dogs and cats disappeared long ago; if one didn’t eat them, they would be stolen.

So people manage the best they can. The rich from time to time sell an object, a piece of furniture. Those able to do so still trade on the black market with the Bo Doi. The soldiers and cadres use special state stores—successors to the American PXs—and can resell the merchandise to the population at ten times the price. But it’s mainly some of the old shopkeepers who can still buy and barter, at least the ones whose stocks were not seized and who can sell their merchandise off bit by bit, spending as much as they earn since there is no way to import or invest.

In principle, of course, holding on to supplies and concealing them is “antipatriotic” behavior and therefore forbidden. Now and then someone is arrested and killed but all this is rather unsystematic either because of inefficiency or calculation: so long as there are supplies of goods a source of possible profit remains for those in power. One of my students, the son of a big shopkeeper, told me that he would have to be away for two or three weeks. The police had come to the store to arrest the entire family, but the officer in charge had proposed a deal—for eight million piastres he would hold off for a month. So he and the rest of the family had to try to borrow the money from friends and relatives and then quickly sell off their goods to pay them back.

The poor have no such recourse. They have to try simply to subsist in Saigon. I began to see a good many with swollen stomachs, a sign of bad nutrition. Or they must go to the “new zones” and that can be worse. Or they could beg, but now that’s forbidden and no one has the right to help a beggar; it would be helping a “parasite” to exist and against government policy, which is to send such people away from Saigon. [Catholic] religious people have been severely condemned for aiding beggars.

At the beginning of the new regime, one saw people hawking goods on every street corner in order to live—a cup of tea, a bowl of soup, a few cigarettes. But last June the authorities “cleaned up” the streets. The famous “thieves market” has now disappeared, but one can still see some small-time peddlers, always on the lookout and ready to run. At first you could buy practically any medicine in the street; would-be suicides had a wide choice, since a great many druggists had fled, leaving their stocks to be seized or pillaged. People knew that there would soon be a shortage of medicine and today it is difficult indeed to get medical care. Doctors have left or been sent away for “re-education.”

With so many shortages, possibilities for corruption and black-marketeering abound. When I left, the black market was thriving more than ever, for without it there were many things you simply could not get, for example simple writing paper. If you wanted to obtain some you had to specify why; which meant you had better not ask.

Individually the soldiers you dealt with were not bad fellows, although with some you had to be on guard. Under such a system you can always be found in violation of some rule and made to feel guilty of something. If you have a bicycle you have to have a receipt for it. Either the receipt has disappeared or it’s a phony; and even if it’s authentic they’ll prove to you that it’s false, that your bicycle vendor was a forger, etc. If you have a typewriter, again you’re likely to be in violation of the rules; for all typewriters have to be taken to the police who examine them to see if they typed the dissident tracts that sometimes circulate. But once the police have your typewriter you never see it again, so people prefer to keep them “illegally.”

At the beginning the regime evidently felt it had to take the population in hand and instill fear. One day in the street I saw a little vendor who did not get out of the way quickly enough; a soldier took out his pistol and fired a bullet right next to his head. The boy was terrified but the soldier continued along calmly. For the soldiers such acts seem natural enough. They have been formed by violence. One would watch them strolling along like big children with their weapons, free to use them, to do as they pleased. At the corner of the intersection of Yen Do and Van Dayet streets right near our Center, a thief grabbed a bracelet from a young girl. A Bo Doi caught him and then asked those who gathered around what he should do. They didn’t know what to say. He took out his pistol, grasped the thief’s hand, and put a bullet through it.

There were a great many thieves at the beginning because of the misery, but now it’s too risky, the police are better organized. And the Bo Doi themselves never steal. Many can be bribed, but if they want something they pay for it. The Bo Doi also act as guardians of “good morals” and “correct dress,” which consists of the pajamas worn by peasants. Since they’re expensive and the material is hard to get, people wear their old clothes, often of “Western” cut, and so may find themselves pushed about and questioned by soldiers who accuse them of “insulting the people” and “displaying their riches.” Coquetry is seen as capitalist, bourgeois. From time to time a soldier will enter a bus with a small scissors and cut the nails of young women if they seem too long. Although there are no more night clubs or bars there are still prostitutes. One sees them on the rue Tu Do, the old rue Catinat, leaning against the trees as they always did. The clients are mainly cadres and soldiers. The official line that the girls have been sent away for “re-education” is simply propaganda.

From time to time the newspapers announce the execution, imprisonment, or dismissal of certain officials for “dishonesty,” abusive acts of seizure, etc. It’s impossible to say whether these announcements are true or merely bluff. Such questions are decided entirely in secret. By contrast, a citizen can be arrested simply for saying yes or no. The regulations are such that everyone is always a little guilty. Walking in the street you may see that the police have cordoned off a house, the family waiting in the street while a search takes place. If they want to arrest someone they can always produce, as coming from the house, something they’ve brought in themselves. And so you see them coming out with a radio transmitter, a submachine gun, etc.—evidence of a “plot.” In the countryside, when they want to arrest a priest or a so-called “traitor,” they often accuse him of rape. There are always four or five sturdy women, whose rape one would think quite unlikely, to swear that they have been violated. No one believes it, but that makes no difference.

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