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Vietnam: The Bitter Truth

South Wind Changing

by Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh
Graywolf Press, 305 pp., $20.00

In the fall of 1992, shortly after Washington lifted the ban on travel by United States citizens to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the writer Susan Brownmiller arrived in Hanoi on assignment from the magazine Travel and Leisure, and was met at the airport by one Mr. Kha, her official guide “Mr. Kha wears glasses,” Brownmiller observed, “which is rare for a Vietnamese. Not that their eyesight is better than ours, as a nation, but because eyeglasses cost three weeks’ wages for the average worker.”1

A few years earlier, there might have been another explanation for the relative scarcity of bespectacled Vietnamese. Following the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam in 1975, the North Vietnamese conquerors sought to consolidate their power by waging a campaign of “re-education,” which included imprisonment, torture, and death for suspected opponents. As Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh describes it in South Wind Changing—a memoir of his life in wartime and postwar Vietnam, his escape as a boat person, and his eventual resettlement in America—determining who was an enemy of the people was often so arbitrary that simply by wearing glasses one could be persecuted as an intellectual or a “bourgeois elitist.”

Huynh was an eighteen-year-old university student in Saigon when the city fell and he was sent to re-education camps. He describes one self-criticism meeting in which the camp commander, Comrade Son, explained that killing recalcitrant prisoners could serve as an example to the rest of them—a speech which the assembled inmates, surrounded by armed guards, automatically applauded with a chant of “Long Live Ho Chi Minh.” Then, as if to illustrate, Son ordered a new prisoner, “who wore glasses,” to come before him.

You look handsome with your glasses. You are an intellectual from the south, huh? You know too much… You are a traitor, you are an idealist. Am I right, our citizens?” he rasped in his heavy accent full of scorn. Then he grinned….

No, comrade, I’m not an intellectual person. I’m a mechanic in the army and I never held a gun to anyone. Look, look at my hands. They’re all dirty with calluses. I’m not a traitor. Please forgive me!” He raised his voice louder and louder, repeatedly, but the crowd’s voices were overpowering his.

Don’t lie to the party,” Comrade Son shouted. “I have all your files here. You were working for the secret police. You have to confess to us now!”

The crowd quieted. The prisoner kneeled down and crawled over to him and begged for forgiveness… Son pushed him away. He crawled back again, but this time the guard who stood next to Son raised his gun and knocked him down. The blood began to dribble from his mouth.

Who will volunteer to punish our traitor?” Comrade Son asked.

One of the men in the antenna group, the prisoners who spied for the guards, stood up… Son threw him a rope. He held it, pulled the prisoner’s arms to his back and firmly tied the left thumb to the right toe and the left toe to the right thumb. He jerked the man toward the flag pole, dragging him in the dirt like an animal… He couldn’t see anything without his glasses, his face was close to the ground. He pushed with his head, trying to sit up, but he didn’t succeed. Son walked over to him and pulled him up. The inmate stood silently, his mouth bleeding. Son held his glasses in front of his face.

Are you trying to act blind? We are the people; we are the justice. We know you so well, traitor. Why don’t you come and get them?”…Son dropped the glasses into the dirt, lifted his foot, then brought it down grinding glass into the dust. He laughed. The leader of the antenna group walked over to the captive, spit in his face, and kicked his stomach. The man fell down. The guard yanked him up. The next inmate stepped forward to continue the execution. We all lined up in a line, spit on him, and called him traitor. We held our confession papers, giving them to the guard as we walked up.

Huynh’s account may seem familiar to readers in the late twentieth century. But while such scenes have been played and replayed in country after country, to date relatively little has been published in America about the postwar terror which destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, and which produced over a million refugees.2 America’s obsession with Vietnam has been largely a matter of self-regard. In our literature the Vietnamese have appeared, whether as victims or villains, primarily as bit players in an American tragedy. Yet, as Huynh writes, after the American withdrawal “a new revolution, a new regime, and a new Vietnamese class conflict had just begun.”

South Wind Changing documents the abuses of that new Vietnamese order, as Huynh witnessed its workings in the camps and during his efforts to flee Vietnam. Much of the book’s power and authority derives from the fact that Huynh is not a political or ideological person. As a southerner, he evinces a subtle cultural disdain for northerners, but he regards both the Saigon and Hanoi regimes, as well as the Americans, as corrupt and destructive to the best interests of his homeland. He envisions instead a vague and romantic utopia which he describes to a friend in the book’s only attempt at sustained political discussion:

Vietnam is a nation for the Vietnamese, but both the northern and the southern governments import foreign theories and foreign weapons to try to increase their own power…. We need our own government, based on Vietnamese culture, philosophy, and values… I want to see a Vietnamese president who has no escort, a normal citizen like any other Vietnamese who is well suited for the job…. If people wanted to see the president, they could come to his house and eat what he had and stay at his house and talk to him anytime…. I want all the Vietnamese to have an education and expose themselves to the world to broaden their minds…. We don’t need aid from any other nation, if we know how to apply good technology to our farmlands.

Huynh is just seventeen in 1974 when this conversation takes place, but throughout his book he maintains the view that practical politics is a cynical power game. Throughout, too, he resists imposing any interpretation on his harsh experience. He seeks only to describe, plainly and directly, the destruction of Vietnam that continued after the war.

Huynh was born in the village of An Tan in the Mekong River Delta, in 1957, one of seventeen children of a prosperous farming family.

I grew up in the house on the temple estate my great grandfather had built, studying Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and traditional earth medicine with the monks who lived and studied there. I also studied martial arts and meditation to keep me healthy, and chanting. I worked in the garden and sowed rice in the fields…. I can still hear the breathing of the water buffalo in the banana grove as it lay down looking for a place to rest, chewing its cud. The peace seemed so eternal.

Huynh does not tell us anything about his family’s political views that might help to explain their postwar persecution. If his parents supported the Saigon regime they seem to have done so quietly, and when neighbors and relatives took jobs at a nearby American base, Huynh’s father preferred to remain independent. The war does not figure in Huynh’s childhood memories until the Tet Offensive of 1968 swept into An Tan and reached his backyard.

Huynh’s recollection of Tet is a montage of vivid cinematic moments: one of his younger sisters is killed; his family’s house is destroyed; he rescues a crying infant from a dead mother’s bloody embrace; American and Vietcong bullets come at him indiscriminately; streams of refugees converge on the road seeking lost loved ones amid the chaos; the rescued child dies; across from Huynh’s family’s second home in Vin Binh City, he watches a shoot-out between an American adviser and Vietcong guerrillas. Later, when the fighting eases, Huynh writes,

The [American] helicopters came and sprayed powder over our garden and rice field, over everything in our village, constantly. It looked red to me but people said it looked orange. I didn’t know what kind of powder it was, but every time they sprayed, the leaves curled up on the plants and the trees died. The powder dropped down and dissolved into the river, stream, and creek. We drank the water daily.

Huynh did not know the name, Agent Orange, at the time, and he does not name it here, for he never provides retrospective knowledge. He sticks to the limited perspective of each moment as it happened to him or as he observed it, and his early memories can seem affectless, childish, and disjointed, but these qualities also give his work the ring of truth.

Just as suddenly as the war bursts into Huynh’s life, it recedes. We find him back in the village, a student at the local Catholic school, warmed by his mother’s devotion and by a touchingly described first romance with a girl named Di. Then, when Huynh is accepted as a student at Saigon University, his only concern is whether to study the law or literature, and he presents his dilemma as if he had never seen black-pajamaed Vietcong fighters squatting in his front yard. In such passages, the absence of the war seems almost an act of authorial will. Huynh refuses to allow politics to interrupt his concentration on his immediate perceptions, and he does not, as a historian might, fill in the blanks left by the compression of private memory.

In the last weeks of April 1975, as the South falls, Huynh wanders the streets of Saigon, then returns to Vin Binh, and watches his world turned inside out. Southerners’ books are confiscated and destroyed, there are mass arrests, and secret police are everywhere. At Party education meetings, the local citizenry is ordered to sing the songs of the conquerors, and to cheer when traitors are executed.

The guards held their guns up, aimed at the young men, and shot them. I saw their blood sprinkle all over as their bodies shook while their heads fell to one side and they died….

Long live Ho Chi Minh! Long live the Communist Party!” the executioner shouted into the microphone, applauding.

The execution had sparked the crowd. They repeated what the executioner said and clapped their hands to worship the leader without any hesitation.

Later, we marched to the cemetery to watch as they used a bulldozer to raze all the southern soldiers’ graves…the smell of decay thickened the air. Coffins broke as the bulldozers ripped through them, and worms crawled out. We could not move until they ordered us to leave.

  1. 1

    Susan Brownmiller, Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart (HarperCollins, 1994), p.2.

  2. 2

    See also Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives, by the anthropologist James A. Freeman (Stanford University Press, 1989), an excellent collection of oral history narratives, in which a diverse group of fourteen Vietnamese refugees now living in the United States tell their prewar, wartime, and postwar life stories.

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