Duong discusses her brief experiences of the Vietnam War in her childhood, and her more liberal upbringing, which has shaped her understanding of the conflict in her later life, as she was too young to participate in the war effort.
Transcript 11: Duong
The interview took place in her house in Cau Giay district on the 9th of November, 2020. After all the introduction of the purpose of the interview, her rights to pass any questions she does not feel comfortable to answer and to not reveal her identity, and other small chats. The interview begins as follows. The following conversation is, however, only the English version one, meaning it is the info the translator interpreted and/or translated based on the questions I ask and the answer the interviewee gives. In this transcript I refer to the translator as “TSL” and myself as “TN”. The interviewee is given the pseudonym “Duong”.
TN: Are you originally from Annam, Conchinchina, Tonkin, Nam Bo?
TSL: So, when you say Nam Bo, that is actually from French time. So, backed in 1944, the French…this is….Bac Bo, Nam Bo, Tonkin, according to Geneva Convention Annam was the entire one. And Nam Bo, Bac Bo, there is only two and that is how they had it until 1975. After the unification then divided into three, Central, North and the South.
TN: So your mom is from…?
TSL: She was born and raised in Ha Noi. But, her family is from the Central.
TN: Which city?
TSL Danang, Quang Nam.
TSL: So, I guess for question number one, she was born here but her root is in Quang Nam.
TN: Right. How did you get here?
TSL: So, her parents…they …in 1935 they lived in Quang Nam. But then in 1944, the Geneva Convention happened and it was agreed that the country will be split into two parts; the Tonkin and Conchinchina. There will be election in 2 years. That is what they agreed on. ehmm…for the unification to see if they want to unify and so the Communist Party wanted to recruit few people from the South, who living in the South. They said, “okay, we’re gonna pick out few good ones, get them to coming to the North” because even though they living in the South, they are communist. So, picked out these communists and moved them to the North and so at that time both of her parents working for the Communist Party and was elected to go to the North and originally it was supposed to be for 2 years because it was the agreement said and so they moved to the North. But then it never happened. The 2 years, the general election never happened and so they had to settle down and you know make the live in Ha Noi sort of….they have just had that and my mom was born in 1957. So, that is the answer for the question no. 2. Do you remember about your life before joining the force?
TN: yea. If she was involved. In any way. Maybe just supplying food, etc.
TSL: So, in her perspective, there was no any war, no fighting in the North and so all of that, in her perspective, only happened in the South..sorry Central Viet Nam, you know Viet Cong and the Saigon Government.
TN: Saigon Government supposed to be the South?
TN: What’s the name of the General from the South who got elected, the President?
TSL: Ngô Đình Diệm. The Saigon government in the South and Ho Chi Minh is in the North.
TN: Okay. So he was the President. Saigon government.
TSL: Yes, in 1954.
TN: Right. The Geneva Convention?
TSL: Yes, after that in the North Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh..
TN: What do you call it in Vietnamese? Communist Party Viet Nam?
TSL: Viet Cong
TN: Not Vietminh?
TSL: Viet Cong, Vietminh. The same. Vietminh, Viet Cong means Communist people living in the South.
TN: aa...So, your parents were Vietminh. Okay.
TSL: I think she was talking about Vietminh, Viet cong as the same thing.
TN: Is it something prohibited to say, something taboo?
TSL: So, at the personal level we don’t. but, officially, you never supposed to use it. and those people are “liberators” in the government’s term. That is what they called it. But, it’s a term that comes from…Saigon government and American.
TN: Ah...so it was imposed on Vietnamese, that is why they don’t like it?
TSL: Exactly. But, I unconsciously used it in public space. so if someone overheard you, they will be like looking at you, but then “whatever”. But, to say it in public space with so many people are a no no.
TN: How do you say “revolutionist” in Vietnamese?
TSL: In the North “revolutionist” is quân Cách Mạng and “liberator” is quân giải phóng
TN: So, the fight against the US started in 1954?
TSL: She said there is no real start to the war. Ehmm…but after the Geneva Convention and the country was split, the American jus slowly insert themselves into the South when the French left.
TN: Right. But there was also some kind of attack from the Vietnamese side in Tonkin?
TSL: So, your question is?
TN: There was violence, physical violence already in Tonkin. They didn’t meet what they said in the Geneva Convention, so violence broke out?
TSL: She just said that after 1954, the war…the war happened but in the Central area and also in the Conchinchina area and there was no war in the North. The war only happened between those two government. But it happened sort of in the South and in the Central Viet Nam right now between Saigonese soldiers, the Saigonese government and the liberators. It’s fight for territory. And then...but then in 1964…. there was …. sorry August 1964…. there was an event, in English it’s sort of the Northern territory event…the Gulf of Tonkin.
TN: yea... that’s the one I remember. But was it true though the Vietnamese initiated the attack?
TSL: She said, it happened. The fact is the Vietnamese did fire. But the Americans provoked first.
TN: So it was a response?
TSL: Yea and that’s why the Americans then used that excuse to launch an attack.
TN: Okay. I want to ask this again. Do you also use the term “revolutionary”? because there is no use of this in the books I have read so I wonder if this is new.
TSL: So the term “revolution”, that was the term used before. During the time when the Vietnamese government has to overthrow the French, the French war. That is why it’s revolution because it uproots and then in 1960, they use the term “liberator”. I’m sure that must be the term they are using. So after 1960...ee…there was Liberation Front. That was officially for..the Liberation Front.
TN: A movement?
TSL: To her she wouldn’t say a movement. It is a force. You can say it is vanguard. But officially it’s a force. When….during the Paris Agreement the people representing the Liberation Front had a seat in in the table and there were four sides; the North, the Liberation Front, the American and the Saigon Government.
TN: Ngô Đình Diệm?
TSL: No. He died in 1960. So it was someone else. Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.
TN: Okay. What’s the agreement?
TSL: In 1973, the Paris Agreement
TN: Did they represent, how to say, peasant, worker, that kind of thing?
TSL: No. They represent the will to liberate the South
TN: yea. Whose will?
TSL: In their eyes…. okay…you ask, “who is Liberation Front, who is the leader, etc., right. It’s officially the people of the South. The people who lived in the South, from the South and they want to be free from the grasp of the American and so,
TN: and they were Vietminh?
TSL: So she said Vietminh is…they used it in French war and Viet Cong, that is now. Is during the US and so Liberation Front ...they are... ehm….from…they supposed to be people from Conchinchina, the South. But they want to liberate the country from the grasp of the US. They want to overthrow the Saigonese government.
TN: Because they were backed up by the US? I assume Saigonese government represents the South though?
TSL: That’s the thing, the tricky bit. The Liberation Front called themselves the real force of the South.
TN: But it was not official? They do not have political stance?
TSL: exactly. That’s why, she said, even though that Front, they are Southerners, right. But they are actually, …. obviously supported by the North. But the North did it behind the scene. The Liberation Front…because they can’t say that…. they don’t want to break Geneva Convention…by invading the South. So, instead of invading, they set up a Liberation Front because you can’t invade the South. So, ehm...in the Northern perspective, the Liberation Front was there because the US, the Saigon government are horrible. That is the northern perspective. But, obviously from the Southern, they have their own country, everything going well and then suddenly there is a group of invader that cause rebellion and they always knew that Liberation Front was not the liberation front. It was just something that controlled and sent by the Northern side. So for the longest time, the Liberation Front was never recognized. But then in 1973 during the Paris Agreement, the US and Saigon had to recognize them and that is the biggest success of the Northern Government. That is why at the table there were four sides.
TN: Oh. I see
TSL: That is why the…. I guess they were pretending that they represent different interest, but two of them are the same
TN: Okay. wow. I need to go back to……are we still on the number 4?
TSL: you were and the answer is she never joined the force because she never knew the war life until the American bombed the North.
TN: Okay. when was that?
TSL: after the Gulf Tonkin. From 1965 she had to evacuate Ha Noi because of bombing
TN: Okay. What is the name of the Village?
TSL: It used to be closed to Ha Noi, Vân Đình,Tuy Lai. all of this in ...backed then in the province of Hà Tây. Now is part of Ha Noi. So moving onto different question. So what do you do for living before joining the war?
TN: Number 6.
TSL: And capitulation tax. Capitulation tax, no. blood tax. What is Blood tax?
TN: Okay. let me back up a bit. Does she have brother or sister?
TSL: she has 2 older sisters
TN: Okay. at that time, as far as I know, everybody is supposed to join the war whether men or women. So for example, your parent does not want to join the war, then they need to pay money as the tax.
TSL: Then it does not apply to her. She was still too young. So she said that the Blood tax was…when...during the French War. She said that it was not even an option. Perhaps she did not know well. But, from what she just told me, it was not an option. Backed in the day for the women, they’re urged war on a voluntary basis. But the boys it is compulsory. If you have son in your family, he has to go. And if you have two sons, at least one has to go. Three sons, at least two. They don’t force all of your sons to go, but it’s like…. if they go to your house and they see your son sitting there out of war, they will be like” Okay, do you have siblings”? if in that household none has gone to war, then someone has to.
TN: Alright. That is interesting. who’s “they”?
TSL: The government and I asked her specifically, what if we want nothing to do with the war, if I don’t want to go to war, do I have the option to pay Blood Tax? And she said, no. almost every….one ever said no, most people just said yes.
TN: number 6,7 doesn’t apply to her because they enforce this thing during French war. So no. 8.
TSL: What do you mean by respectable?
TN: Like the head of the village, teachers, you know sometimes the head of the village cooperate with the enemy or the people, or both like double agent. That’s what I want to know.
TSL: No. She doesn’t know.
TN: Okay. No. 9
TSL: Yes, every year on the National Teacher’s day on the 28th of November. She always brings fruits like Oranges, sweets to the teachers.
TN: Okay. Next one. Wait let me ask this. Was she part of elite class?
TSL: Complicated question as it turns out. So, back at the communist day we have the stamp system. you don’t have money, but you have stamp.
TN: Is it for food?
TSL: Yea, for food and food related. Back then we don’t have money. The way they operate economy, organize that is you have no money, but stamp is how you get food.
TN: But this is for what class?
TSL: Everyone. That is one of the key features of communist society. stamp, equality.
TN: oh. Wow. what if you have land?
TSL: They get taken away. All lad is owned by everyone. Up until now the land still belongs to the people and right now if you own a piece of land, it means you only own the right to it. not the land itself.
TSL: But if I haven’t told you about the levels of the stamp. So if you are just normal person, you get a stamp with let’s say N. if you are worker, old people, children, student, people who are not working for the government.
TN: ordinary citizen
TSL: Exactly. And if you are worker for the government, you get stamp from E- A. and if you move up in your rank, you will get A- E stamp. So to answer your original question of elite class, originally we were kind of high up in the society. she said that when her father died in 1960 he was probably equivalent of the B stamp because he was very important man in the ministry of culture and media. He was the editor for the Nhân dân publication. He was in the editor until he passed away and before that he was just the editor of Nhân dân.
TN: what does it mean to have B stamp here?
TSL: More meat and there are stores that only sell to people with B or A stamp. Luxury good.
TN: Can you use the stamp to buy something for education related good?
TSL: No... no. the stamps are only for you to purchase things. But an easy way to tell which class are you part of usually. we were high up but when my grandfather died, my grandmother had E stamp and my mother had an N stamp.
TN: So every member of the family will have a stamp?
TSL: yes. Everyone has one. My mom has N stamp, my grandma had an E stamp. They were struggling for a little while until she re-married and her new husband has a C stamp.
TN: What about education. Did your mom go to cultural or government school?
TSL: Education is equal to everyone. But from elementary school until high school, if you want to know how to determine who goes where, it is supposedly has something to do with your address. If you live in this district, you are going to school in that district. And so that is how they determine who goes where and if you want to enter university, you will take the same test and the test score determine if you get into it. So, everything up until that point is very equal. But if you want to study abroad then they will take into account your family background. What your parents do, job, are you working for the government and then you will get extra points if you come from good family. but, she said it is just small. When people consider to study abroad, it helps if your parents come from good background. She said that even without that extra point, her score was high. So she said here is an example. She..her score 20, and having good family background you get one extra point. So she could have 20 or 21 points. But the point required to go to Russia is 17. That is how she describe the situation.
TN: Would you consider yourself upper class?
TN: How did you feel about upper class?
TN: Do explain
TSL: Having important job. But right now she does not feel that way about upper class. Just at that time when she is growing up. She has a lot of respect.
TN: Are we talking about the liberators?
TSL: No. because the liberators are Southerners. So back then everything is governed by communist economy. No capitalism. Absolutely no private business. Everything is owned by the government which is impossible to thrive if you are a businessman. That is not how the economy work. in order to become member of elite society, the only way is to be part of the Vietnamese government. And if you work higher up it means you are an elite. That is why she said she has respect for those people because they have important job in the government. And the stamp system E, C, D, A and then N is also how they distribute houses. The ones with A and B got nice houses, completely different from the rest.
TN: Okay. I want to make sure that I understand this. So is it safe for me to say the level of respect during that time was determined by sort of how they behave and how the level of love for the country, that kind of thing?
TSL: How they behave?
TN: How they behave. I’m referring to Confucian culture you know filial piety because at that time, it is part of the propaganda to love the country. I was wondering if people being respected in this situation because of what they do for the country that she observed herself, or something she read somewhere?
TSL: You will love this. She said it is not….so I asked if they way she respect them has something to do with the government planting ideas in her head, she said no. she just thought that people in that high class, elite position, they are so different from the elite class now.
TN: In what way? Morally?
TSL: She thought they were people with good moral. Ehm….the government ending the war, get people united and that is where her sense of respect comes from with the government back then.
TN: Did she see any bombings?
TSL: yes. So she said she has never seen people actually got blown up. But she has actually seen what the bombing did. So she saw the effect. In 1972 when the American laid of B-52 bomb down to Ha Noi. That is what she witnessed. B-52. The Americans bombed Ha Noi with this and there is so many bombs that she said they laid a carpet of bomb down there. At that time, she said, it was in December. She was away evacuating. But upon her return home, in Ha Noi. Everything was gone and there were only bricks left. Nothing else but scraps and she heard something tik tok..tik tok and this is the only thing that she gathered from there [showing me a watch]. The only thing that survived.
TN: oh. Wow. That is how she came to have the respect for the elite because this kind of suffering they want to end?
TN: Okay. Is it still painful when you see that watch?
TN: Oh. Wow. Next question. Number 11
TSL: No. Number 12
TSL: No. just because the way that our family was raised is more liberal
TN: Okay. then next one.
TN: Okay. number 14.
TSL: She doesn’t see her life difficulty as the result of karma. In fact, it is entirely opposite, she is living a very decent life. but bad karma, difficulty kept happening to her.
TN: Does she believe in the idea of karma?
TSL: She actually doesn’t believe it. but everyone else she knows believes it and says that it is true. So she is like “okay”.
TN: Are we referring to common people here?
TSL: The society in general. So she read the book from a Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han. So because everyone says it, she believes it. Okay. next one. So she said that during the time that she was evacuating in the villages. She never felt famine because there was always enough rice and 13 kg/ month per person. But you only get like a hundred of 200 gr of sugar and only 100 gr of meat per month. So she said that evacuating time because of this diet she was not hungry in terms of…she doesn’t feel like “oh... I need more rice to fill my stomach with”. But like she did not have many sugar and meat. So she feels very hungry for that. So not like she is not hungry but missing sugar.
TN: wow. She actually had a special stamp right?
TSL: No. no. E. the lowest. Because she was a child. Sorry, she just said that the stamp system is only applicable for Hanoian. And also other provinces as well if you are part of the government system like get stamp. But the people in the village that she was visiting they did not have stamp.
TN: Why? They are not part of Vietminh?
TSL: They were just not part of the distribution system. She said that the government raised cattle, they grow their own cattle, their own rice, vegetables, that kind of thing. So they were not provided with stamp system. So she said that stamp for the city because you can’t grow your own food. That is the reason and farmers don’t need the stamp. But in reality when she went to evacuate to other villages she saw that people were very hungry as well. They didn’t have rice to eat. So, they have to eat potatoes, sweet potatoes.
TN: I think the next one, let me rephrase this a bit.
TN: 16. As an ordinary citizen, did you learn how to shoot?
TSL: No. There is a small training. I had it as well. It is more like you’re learning how to get to formation, not even fighting formation. More like marching formation. That’s it. even though it is like military training but just walking around making formation.
TN: Like in the scout?
TSL: Yea..ha..ha..ha the whole country has to have it. I had it at one point. when you are in high school. Quick corp. she doesn’t understand it, I did not either.
TN: Do you feel more patriotic after?
TN: Okay. number 17.
TSL: She said number 17 is definitely more for people who lived in the French war. She went to normal, government school. I’ll ask number 18. The answer is no. she read poems but doesn’t like them
TN: Okay. what kind of poem?
TSL: she does not remember
TN: Okay. what about song?
TSL: too many
TN: Can she name some of them that related to war?
TSL: Xa Khơi, Tình Ca
TN: What about newspaper, journal or book? Number 20.
TSL: Quân đội nhân dân. That Quân đội nhân dân means the people’s military.
TN: Do they still have it?
TSL: Yes. She likes another called Văn nghệ. It means arts. But it is so different from arts in English word.
TN: what do they publish?
TSL: Short stories, poems, critics of artworks. It is owned by the government but belongs to the Vietnamese literature association.
TN: Okay. next one. 21
TSL: They didn’t talk about being rich and they just said that she had to study hard, graduate from high school, graduate from university.
TN: Okay. 22.
TSL: No. But she understood that is supposed to be. She felt that if she is in a situation that she has to do, then she will do it.
TN: Okay. 25-26 not applicable. 27.
TSL: No, she has heard of it. but she doesn’t understand it truly. Next question. 28, 29. No, but many places, house have it. she only has an altar inside for ancestor. The way the altar set up is bigger than the person’s house. that is new. That they refer to the gods and Buddha and then the dead family member, that is new.
TN: since when?
TSL: After the 1985 when there is more prosperity. personally I think because there is more wealth and the fear of losing it that drives them.
TN: yea. 30
TSL: Cao Dai, Hoa Hao. She knows them, they are from the South. Next one, she knows Nguyen Ngoc Dien, Nguyen An Ninh, Nguyen Binh Khiem, Sun Yat Sen. 32-33 not relevant. 34. She said Annam Communist Party is the first name of the Vietnamese Communist Party. And she said Indo-China Communist Party was the first name in 1930. And they changed it into Labor Party of Viet Nam, and then Viet Nam Communist Party. And Thanh Nien and its organization that goes alongside with the Viet Nam Communist Party and she was part of it. So everyone in the country. it is part of the education system. when you were young, when you were 8, you then join ...I forgot the name...where you wear the red scarf, then when you’re 14 you join Thanh Nien. It is a must.
TN: Okay. number 35-36 not applicable. 37.
TSL: She heard of it from the radio. She heard stories about how the enemy would go into villages and wipe everyone out.
TN: That is an everyday thing?
TSL: Once a while
TN: What about from publishing source?
TSL: short stories. Many forms of publication she said. It can be part of the newspaper we mentioned earlier. It can also be part of published books. Novel, that’s one of the way of publishing stories.
TN: and many people read it, do you know?
TSL: She said the only first-hand story se received is from one of our relatives. Our aunt lost her son as part of the war effort. He was a, not intelligent officer. The one that delivers info. So he will get info and delivers it.
TN: Okay. about the news from the radio, did they have a public radio that broadcast it in the village?
TSL: No. everyone has a radio in the house.
TN: Okay. Skip 42-43. We already asked that. Number 45.
TSL: Yes, it is part of history education program.
TN: Okay. skip 46, not applicable. 47.
TSL: yes, she agrees
TN: the next one
TSL: She said she couldn’t understand this concept of duty because she was so small. She just goes with instruction go where people go, evacuate when people said so. She just wishes that there was never a war.
TN: Okay. 49.
TSL: Mostly for the country. apart from that during the revolution against the French, they did it because they want a change. They want to change their life.
TN: Right. 50.
TSL: Just evacuation
TN: Okay. skip 51. 52.
TSL: They all focus on doing this duty to take care of their family and then their duty toward the country. very strong.
TN: By joining the war?
TSL: Yea. So, to specify about what she’s said, that she thought Vietnamese women at that time were really strong. She gave the example of our grandma. She, her duty at war was not directly first effort, but she was not in the front fighting with people. But, she had a job. She was working for Nhan Dan. The newspaper. When my grandfather went out, every single week she had to fight from Ha Noi where she was working. And she had to travel all the way to the village where my mom and her sister were staying in order to visit them. it is really difficult to fulfil both her duties. Her duty in Nhan Dan newspaper and her duty as mother to her two children. That was very difficult. She said that my grandmother was very strong to be able to do that and I guess that what she means by contributing, duty to the war.
TN: Yea. We can combine 53-54 together.
TSL: yes, and yes. She said at that time her mother would assign her children a task and then she just taught them all those chores. It is the same for everyone.
TN: Okay. Okay. 55
TSL: There was no makeup. But you can get perm for your hair. There was no lipstick at all. She said like traditional beauty of Vietnamese women during the war. She said if someone wear those 7 cm heels with long, silky, black trousers and then just straight blouse. They didn’t have it during the war. Before the war blouse like Ao Dai was common, you wear it during occasions like tet. but during the war it was not the case.
TN: Okay. how do you define beauty now?
TSL: Healthy and modern. in the past she said the same. She doesn’t like the one that is too girly, too feminine.
TN: Okay. 57.
TSL: she answered it already. 58. She said there was nothing specific regarding her mother teaching her about being woman. there was none that teaches her that.
TN: Okay. 59.
TSL: at her time, no.
TN: alright. 60, no. Okay. we can take a break.
Resume to the interview.
TN: Okay. first question. What is Viet Nam war to you?
TSL: To her, the Viet Nam war is just the bombing of Ha Noi. She was almost 10 when the bombing happened and then she …e..e.e….the war briefly devastated the economy for everyone. But she found something positive during that bombing is the fact that she could go to countryside...ha. haha...ha...
TN: Okay. why it’s so special?
TSL: Because she has a lot of good memories. The time…. she actually enjoyed her time evacuating the country.
TN: What about that pain attached to the watch she still feels?
TSL: So at the time absolutely horrible that she didn’t know where to live. She had no idea where to go. But in retrospective, it was not something permanent. She did not feel like…she overcame it. after that house collapsed. She moved to the stepfather’s house and even though it was more enclosed. The space. she was okay with it.
TN: Okay. number 3, 4 skip that ones. Number 5.
TSL: She said there were no benefits, nor injury. There was none in her family that died.
TN: number 6
TSL: She said she was in awe at the liberator’s courage because they are, she said, a lots of them have to quit schools, they were students of the university. But they were deciding, they are going to quit school and go to the South.
TN: There were no age limit?
TSL: The age requirement is 18. But if someone is interested outside that age. So, it is still possible. Yea...so she said that the life of a Northern soldier is much. much...much worse than the Southern, because the liberators life was much worse than the Saigonese soldiers because in order to get to the South from the North, or vice versa, they have to walk very far up against the mountain. On the top of that, they were being bombed by the Americans who were trying to stop them from reaching out to the South. So, they have to face so much danger just moving from the North to the South. And when they meet the enemy in the South, the Americans and the Republicans armed to teeth. They have everything. Vietnamese soldiers didn’t have much. So it was really imbalance. They have to live in the forest as well. So it was really courageous, she said, to see those soldiers going out there, deciding to do this knowing what’s like. And she asked if you have seen the BBC documentary on the American- Vietnamese war?
TN: No I haven’t
TSL: She said it is based on the interview of both sides. In her eyes, it is very objective look of the Viet Nam war.
TN: The question on Buddha.
TN: Okay. Skip number 10. We already asked that.
TSL: No. there were only farmer-spy who assigned to see American plane that is about to bomb. Like they will provide location, that’s it.
TN: Okay. now life after the war. Number 5.
TSL: She has visited.
TN: Okay. The last one…
TSL: She got chill when she visited Hoa Lo museum because of how horrible it was to see everything. She also went to visit Paolo Cando Island. She said it was more horrible than Hoa Lo.
TN: Is it an exiled place for people who are against the government?
TSL: yes. Cando has been there since French time and back then and up until the point of the American war. They both sending the revolutionists and liberators to work in that Island.
TN: Okay. Last one. How’s your life now?
TSL: she is retired.
TN: She doesn’t have any trauma?
TSL: She didn’t get it from the war more from her personal life after.
TN: Okay. I think that’s it. Thank you. Finally, It’s quite long interview.