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.
When the secret police evict Huynh’s family, he writes simply: “They put my father on the people’s court to execute him.” Huynh does not explain what this process entailed, whether it was common, or what charges may have been brought against his father. He tells us only that he “narrowly escaped death” because “the people defended him, saying that he was rich because he had worked hard and not because he had received land from my grandfather.” Huynh’s vagueness may be a function of deliberate caution—his parents still live in Vietnam—but, once again, it is regrettable that he leaves one to speculate about his family’s situation. In the next sentence, he writes, “All my brothers were placed in labor camps,” and, here, too, he does not suggest why, or whether the families of neighbors were similarly devastated.
Huynh himself is permitted, for the moment, to return to school in Saigon. Shopping for dinner one day, he is caught in a raid on the black market. He identifies himself to the police as a student, and shortly after his eighteenth birthday, in June 1975, he is sent to his first labor camp at Hiep Tam, on the site of a former US helicopter base. There, for six months, he labors with his fellow inmates to break up the landing field with axes and convert it into a garden.
At self-criticism sessions the prisoners are required to elect their “laziest” member to be punished by being shut up in an ammunition storage container left by the Americans, “a small metal box,…oven-hot during the day and freezing at night. You were lucky to be let out in two days, and fortunate to be alive if they put you in the box for a week.” Ordered by the guards to use their own excrement to fertilize the gardens, the prisoners jockey around the open latrine pit, “competing for a piece of shit to fertilize our vegetables, afraid that if we didn’t make our vegetables grow bigger we would get in trouble.”
But these were minor sufferings compared with what Huynh endured when he was transferred to a new camp, fifty kilometers from Ha Tien, to the southeast of the Mekong River, on the volatile border with Cambodia. It was here that he witnessed the torture of the prisoner who wore glasses, and his labor details included groping through deep weeds for undetonated mines, a chore which ended for at least one fellow prisoner in a fatal explosion. He was always hungry; once he found himself competing with lizards for crickets to eat. He watched as one friend died of a snake bite incurred while hunting for rats, and saw another friend, Hung, reduced to a vegetable state after being tortured for sneaking out at night to dig yucca root to eat. “They filled up a barrel with water, put him in it, and closed the lid. They hit it with a stick for a minute and then took him out. He said he didn’t know anything but blood, which came from his eyes, nose, ears, and mouth.” For a short while after he returned, Hung moved among his fellow prisoners like a zombie. Then he was removed from the barracks one night, and shot.
Huynh was certain that he, too, would die, which seemed the only way to be released from the camp. Once, after a prisoner escaped, he writes:
They ordered us to stand in a circle, beat each other, and yell, “You have to report to a comrade if someone escapes.” We kept hitting each other until we couldn’t move our hands. Our skin bruised and swelled. They pulled our arms back and tied our toes to our thumbs and left us in the sun to burn. They didn’t give us any food or water for a whole day…. The hungrier I felt the colder I got. I wished they would just shoot us.
Huynh understands his survival as he regards his imprisonment—as an accident of fate. He mentions finding solace in Buddhist prayer, yet when he recalls his thoughts from that time, what one hears is not faith but a sense of stoic despair.
What is our purpose for existence? Is life a crime? But what is our crime? Do we ask to be born to this world? We are born, age, sicken and die. And does this all mean anything, does it lead to something?… Is it worth it to fight for life, I wondered….
Who brought these circumstances to us? Are the Communists the cause of this? Is it the Americans, the northerners, or the opportunists? Is it individualism or is it just the idealism people want to practice on us? How do I know? Who cares? We’re such a small voice with no power. What can we do in this big world?
As his anger and his hatred for his captors mount, Huynh harbors fantasies of rebellion and escape. Earlier, he has expressed “sorrow and much pity” for the sadistic guards—“they are like frogs who live at the bottom of the water: how do they know a world exists above the water outside the lake?” But as he watches other prisoners die, he realizes that he must try to flee with his body, and not just in his mind. At first, disturbed by the prospect of abandoning his fellow internees, Huynh plans a prisoner revolt. The hopelessness of this notion is made clear when he and a few friends disrupt a camp meeting with cries of “Snake!” The guards level their guns on the rebellious crowd, and Comrade Son himself shoots a prisoner at random.
Huynh next thinks of setting off an uprising among former Vietcong guards from the south, who appear to chafe against their northern bosses. He befriends a guard named Chu Tu, a southerner who spent thirty years as a VC cadre, and is now weary of the revolution—its cruelty, its disregard for the individual, its failure to create a more just society. Chu Tu is susceptible to Huynh’s attentions, and Huynh finds himself becoming fond of the guard, a man of mixed emotions and ambivalent loyalties, who only longs for a peaceful old age as a subsistence farmer. Chu Tu joined the VC, he tells Huynh, to fight the French, not his fellow Vietnamese; and he gave up everything for the fight, including the lover whom he had to abandon when Ho Chi Minh mandated that all guerrillas must accept arranged marriages within the Party.
Chu Tu is Huynh’s most fully realized portrait, and their wary friendship animates his underlying conviction that politics has done far more to divide than to unite the Vietnamese people. When Chu Tu falls and badly injures his ankle during a jungle patrol, Huynh becomes his unofficial nurse, eventually accompanying him to Chau Doc city for treatment. Outside the prison wire, Huynh’s dreams of leading a camp rebellion give way to the understanding that his own survival and escape are the most he can hope for. But he doesn’t run away because Chu Tu warns him that his flight would mean severe punishment for his fellow prisoners—and for Chu Tu.
Then, in the rat-infested hospital at Chau Doc, an untrained former jungle fighter, who has claimed the title of “doctor,” treats Chu Tu’s already healing ankle by amputating his leg. The guard, Huynh reflects, “was a victim, a human being caught in a stupid conflict of ideology, like myself, and I felt compassion for him. But now I was in his hands and he still wouldn’t let me go, even though freedom seemed so near, a real possibility.”
Huynh finally decides to leave. But he knows what his decision might mean for Chu Tu and for the other prisoners he is abandoning, and the prospect of independence is deeply tainted by guilt. While he never regrets his escape, he feels shame at being a deserter, and humiliation that his survival depends on this shame. These feelings, and a corresponding sense of solitude, cast a pall over Huynh’s freedom throughout the remainder of his book.
Huynh walked away from the hospital and made his way to the home of a school friend, Hanh, in Sa Dec, midway along the Mekong River’s passage through Vietnam to the South China Sea. For the next year, he lived under assumed identities, while he and Hanh contrived to escape Vietnam by boat. Although one knows from the outset that he will succeed, for his book is proof, Huynh’s adventures as a fugitive in the Vietnamese underground are full of suspense. At every turn, he must trust strangers who might hand him over to the secret police, and he develops a keen eye for the corruption and duplicity, suspicion, and betrayal that mark postwar Vietnam.
We could never say what we wanted to—we lived like deaf people, always pretending not to hear, not to know. You only speak the way the Party wants you to… They trained the children to sing the Communist song, encouraging them to report whatever their parents or relatives said at home… You had to be a good citizen in order to vote. A good citizen is someone who turns you in, kills your relatives, or makes you do exactly what they want you to do.
The first time Huynh sets sail, on a leaky fourteen meter boat packed with 124 people for the thousand-mile trip to Thailand, the voyage ends after two days of storms, with a dead engine and capture by the Vietnamese navy. As the refugees are towed back to land, Huynh grabs a buoyant plastic barrel and slips overboard, drifting until he washes up on Hon Khoai island, off the southern tip of Vietnam. A second voyage proves similarly ill-fated. At last, Huynh, his brother Lan, with whom he has been reunited, and Hanh outfit their own ship. Again, they get lost at sea, and drift. They run out of food and water, and drink their own urine; they are helped by Thai fishermen, and are attacked by Thai pirates, who rob and rape the refugees—common experiences for boat people who took to the South China Sea in the 1970s and 1980s.
When Huynh’s party reaches Thailand, they are detained by police, then admitted to a refugee camp, where local thugs and corrupt, violent guards make daily life tense and miserable. As Huynh and Lan are being processed to receive asylum in Canada, a letter arrives from their brother Tuong, who had been a pilot in the South Vietnamese air force and had disappeared after the fall of Saigon. It turns out that he is living with his wife and four sons in a trailer park in Corinth, Mississippi. In November 1978, Huynh and Lan are flown to Memphis, then driven to Corinth, where they move into Tuong’s trailer. Huynh is twenty-two years old. “I got drunk that day,” he writes, “and fainted in the bathroom.”
After a four-year struggle to find his footing in America, often in the face of severe anti-immigrant sentiment—working at the McDonalds in Corinth, and in a sheet metal shop in San José, California—he drove across the country, and within a year he and his two teen-aged brothers were established in Bennington, Vermont. There Huynh won a scholarship to Bennington College. The shift in South Wind Changing from a chronicle of political terror to a heartening adventure of the American road might seem to give Huynh’s story a happy ending. But the pain of his memories, his guilt, and the loss of his parents and his country remain fresh in his book. He describes his successes and his woes with equal modesty. It is odd to say of an autobiographer that he does not draw attention to himself, but this is true of Huynh; it is the episodes that shaped his life that one remembers.
South Wind Changing is more remarkable as a work of testimony than of art. It lacks the formal brilliance, the distinctive voice, and the wisdom of Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and other of the genuine masterpieces of what has come to be known as “the literature of witness.” Huynh’s training as a writer at Bennington, and later at Brown University, where he earned an MFA, has served him well, but his prose is often touched with an awkwardness that seems as much a consequence of his ferocious compression of events as of his still developing mastery of a new language. Yet his book is often lyrical, and it is always lucid; if at times it feels rough cut, that, too, seems part of its truthfulness.
Huynh is not unaware that his book poses a challenge to American sensitivities about Vietnam. Writing of his life as a prisoner of the Hanoi regime, he observes: “Torture was happening everywhere in the labor camps around the country, but people did not seem to know or care, especially the people who negotiated this kind of ‘peace’ for Vietnam.” The reproach is clear and Huynh leaves it at that. The recent press coverage of America’s tentative rapprochement with Vietnam has generally been colored by a mood of celebration, and for America the promise of new markets and tourist destinations comes with a sense of laying ghosts to rest. But Huynh’s own ghosts will not be so readily appeased, and at least his book may prevent them from being entirely forgotten.
December 22, 1994
Susan Brownmiller, Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart (HarperCollins, 1994), p.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. ↩