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.

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 …

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Letters

The New Vietnam: An Opposing View May 12, 1977