Painful memories of South Vietnam 1975-1981

Painful Memories of South Vietnam

1975-1981

Vinh-The Lam, M.L.S.

Librarian Emeritus

University of Saskatchewan

CANADA

Although I had been provided by the U.S. Embassy with all documents required for the evacuation of my family out of Saigon in the final days of April 1975, I was stuck there because My Mother, being already 74 years old at that time, refused to go.

SURVIVING UNDER THE NEW REGIME

In the afternoon of April 30, 1975, around 2:00 PM, I rode my Honda C-50 motorcycle to the campus of Vạn Hạnh University, trying to find out what happened to the office of the Vietnamese Library Association (VLA), of which I had been elected President for 1974-1975. Right in the middle of the school yard was a huge pileup of fire-arms of all kinds, mostly M-16 rifles, picked up by the opportunist red-banded youth from the surrounding quarters (on this day, April 30,1975, you could find all kinds of fire-arms and uniforms abandoned and littered everywhere in the city of Saigon by the former soldiers of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam – ARVN). Luckily, I found a friend of mine, Dr. Huỳnh Văn Tòng, a professor of the Department of Journalism, who was also wearing a red band around his right arm, and had some authority on the campus. I let him know of my intention and he brought me to the used-to-be office of the VLA. As soon as I stepped into the office, I could see that all the file drawers were ransacked and the floor of the office was littered with all kinds of papers, among them pages of the textbook on Cataloging and Classification I had used in the First Term of the Library Science Department program just a few months before, which had been printed by Van Hạnh University Press and were about to be bound. I knew right away that I would not be able to find any files of the VLA in that office.

On the next day, May 1, 1975, Saigon, the capital city of the Republic of Vietnam was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. A Military Administration Committee was created with Lieutenant General Trần Văn Trà as Chairman to take care of the city management. The Committee issued an official call for all Republic of Vietnam government officials to present themselves at their agencies. At 10 AM, like other Faculty of Pedagogy, Saigon University (FPSU) personnel still present in Saigon, I had to present myself to the newly created unit of the Military Administration Committee at the school. This registration was proceeded quite simply and smoothly: everyone just signed in, with their position at the school, on a sheet of paper placed on a table at the entrance to a large classroom. We were then asked to take a seat in the classroom and listened to the presentation of the policy of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam given by a representative of the military administration unit. When it was done, we were allowed to go home, totally free, no questioning, no harassment whatsoever. Most people, including myself, therefore, thought that their lives would go back to normal, just like in the past. They would soon discover that they were wrong, deadly wrong. Their lives would be turned completely upside down, and never be the same again.

SPIRITUAL LIFE: BEING BRAINWASHED

Political Indoctrination

After having used their armed forces to seize South Vietnam, the Vietnamese Communist Party carried out its determination to re-educate the whole South Vietnamese population. For ordinary people, everybody, from cities to villages, had to participate meetings in their wards or hamlets, almost every night, to listen to the cadres preaching the superb achievements of the Vietnamese Communist Party. The former members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), according to their rank, were instructed to present themselves at designated locations to attend some form of re-education. Non-commissioned officers and soldiers were following local 3-day courses and then were released. Commissioned officers were grouped and sent to long-term re-education concentration camps all over South Vietnam, while high-ranking officers and generals were sent to similar camps in North Vietnam. The periods of re-education for them varied but for most of the cases not under 3 years. A large majority of these officers would spend more than 10 years in these camps in North Vietnam.

Within universities, the academic year of 1975-1976 was not a regular school year at all. The teachers did not teach and the students did not study. Everybody attended some form of political indoctrination but at different locations, following different programs.

For the teachers, during the first days, this political indoctrination program was carried out at the Thống Nhứt theater on Thống Nhứt Boulevard, facing the British Embassy and the old headquarters of the General Branch of Political Warfare of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam. I really can’t tell exactly how many teachers were attending the program but I strongly believe that the total number should have been at least more or less 500 since all teaching staff of all public and private universities of Saigon were there. This program, during that period of time, was almost exclusively for propaganda purposes, aiming at featuring the absolute superiority of the Vietnamese Revolution (i.e. the Vietnamese Communist Party), which had defeated all imperialist forces, from the Japanese to the French and the U.S., to achieve the independence and unification of the whole country. Because the participants representing the intelligentsia of South Vietnam, all lecturers were selected from high-ranking cadres and party members from Hà Nội. After about a week, the teachers were instructed to return to their schools for group discussions. At the FPSU, we were grouped in teams based on the school’s departments, e.g., Mathematics Team, Physics-Chemistry Team, Biology Team, etc. For me, since FPSU did not have a department of Library Science, I was put in the English Team because it was known that I had studied in the U.S. Although theoretically we were instructed to “discuss” but, in reality, the “discussion” was just recitation. At the end of this period of “discussion,” everyone had to write an essay called “thu hoạch” (harvesting), showing what you have already learned. In fact, it was once again another form of recitation.

After that period of study of a more propagandistic than educational characteristic, university teachers began their really serious political indoctrination with formal lessons, which lasted until the end of the academic year of 1975-1976. Their study program included almost all components of the Marxist-Leninist Political Economy Course required in all higher educational programs in Vietnam, such as:

  • Dialectical Materialism
  • Scientific Socialism
  • History of the Party (i.e. of the Vietnamese Communist Party)
  • Marxian Economics (Labor, Goods, Production Relationship, Surplus Value, etc.)

The instructional method during this study phase was exactly the same: lecturing, group discussing, and finally “harvesting report” writing. The big difference in this study phase was the inclusion of three field trips, called “reality trips,” each trip lasting 3 days, with participants having to be responsible for their own foods, and to negotiate with local people for their lodging:

  • The first trip was made to the Province of Bến Tre, District of Mõ Cày, Village of Định Thủy, to learn the people’s experience in the movement called “Đồng Khởi = Mass Uprising,” since the Village of Định Thủy had been the central location of that movement led by Mrs. Nguyễn Thị Định, later nominated Vice-Commander of the Armed Forces of the National Liberation Front (NFL)
  • The second trip was made to Củ Chị, an outer district of Ho Chi Minh City, to visit the area called “Đất Thép = Land of Steel” with its famous tunnels, which had been used by the NFL forces to infiltrate Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive
  • The third trip was made to New Economic Zone of Lê Minh Xuân, in the District of Bình Chánh, also an outer district of Ho Chi Minh City, to participate in the digging of irrigation canals required for the Zone

Book Burning

Going hand in hand with the above-mentioned political indoctrination imposed on all walks of life in Southern Vietnamese population, the Military Administration Committee of Ho Chi Minh City also initiated a huge operation all over the city called “chiến dịch quét sạch những tàn dư văn hoá phản động và đồi truỵ.” (operation to wipe out all residue of the reactionary and corrupt culture). This operation was carried out by the Đoàn Thanh Niên Cộng Sản Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh (Communist Youth League of the Ho Chi Minh City).

“Ngày 23-5-1975, trên nhiều đường phố Sài Gòn, “khí thế ra quân” của chiến dịch vô cùng sôi nổi: “Đoàn thanh niên nam nữ đi qua các đường phố và hô to nhiều khẩu hiệu đả đảo văn hoá ngoại lai đồi truỵ mất gốc phản động. Đi đầu là xe phóng thanh với một biểu ngữ dài có ghi: ‘Đội thanh niên sinh viên học sinh xung kích bài trừ văn hoá dâm ô phản động’. Theo sau là sinh viên, học sinh sắp hàng bảy, hàng tám xuất phát từ trụ sở của lực lượng thanh niên tự vệ Thành phố, số 4 Duy Tân. Đoàn diễu hành kéo dài có đến hàng cây số đường, tất cả mọi người đều có một tấm biểu ngữ trên tay…” [1] (“On May 23, 1975, on several streets in Saigon, the beginning of the operation appeared exalted: Groups of young boys and girls marching through the streets, loudly chanting slogans “down with corrupt and reactionary foreign culture.” Leading was a truck equipped with loud speakers and carrying a long banner bearing the following: “League of assault youth and students against salacious and reactionary culture.” Following were young adults and students in lines of seven or eight, all marching out of the headquarters of the City Young Guards, on 4 Duy Tân Street. The parade group was stretching for a few kilometers on the streets, everyone on the parade was carrying a small banner…”)

The Parade — Source: Internet

The result of this operation was that thousands and thousands of books, published in South Vietnam before April 30, 1975, totally indiscriminate of their contents, were amassed from publishing houses, printing shops, bookstores, even from private homes, (where the too fanatic members of the Thành Đoàn (City Communist Youth League), without authorization, entered, searched, and confiscated [2]), were brought out into the streets and burned, like we see in the following photo:

Book burning in Saigon in May 1975 – Source: Internet

It was quite certain that this issue of book burning was discussed within the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee. Around the end of the year, on October 30, 1975, the daily newspaper Sài Gòn Giải Phóng (Liberated Saigon) printed this official announcement:

“…một danh sách năm mươi sáu tác giả có tác phẩm bị liệt vào hàng “phản động, dâm ô, đầu độc,” bi ̣cấm lưu hành, trong đó có Hoàng Ngoc̣ Liên, Hà Huyền Chi, Phan Nghi,̣ Võ Hữu Haṇh, Nguyên Vũ, Lê Xuyên, Nhã Ca, Văn Quang, Chu Tử , Doãn Quốc Sĩ, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Mai Thảo, Dương Nghiễm Mậu.…” [3] ( “… a list of fifty-six authors whose works classified as “reactionary, salacious, poisoning,” are now banned, including Hoàng Ngọc Liên, Hà Huyền Chi, Phan Nghị, Võ Hữu Hạnh, Nguyên Vũ, Lê Xuyên, Nhã Ca, Văn Quang, Chu Tử, Doãn Quốc Sĩ, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Mai Thảo, Dương Nghiễm Mậu …”)

PHYSICAL LIFE: BEING IMPOVERISHED

Introducing A New Currency

After its complete success of incarcerating all officers of the former ARVN in re-education concentration camps, the Communist regime decided to replace the South Vietnamese currency with a new one. On September 22, 1975, this action, code-named “Operation X-3,” was carried out simultaneously in every district all over the South with the following regulations:

  • 1 new Dong was worth 500 old Dong
  • Each family was entitled to exchange a maximum of 100,000 old Dong, resulting in only 200 new Dong
  • The sum of money over the limit of 100,000 would be converted to new Dong and deposited into a savings account, the owner of which would be allowed, upon submitting a request with good reasons, to withdraw 30 Dong a month (at the end of 1976, however, all accounts were frozen and people were no longer allowed to withdraw money)

Author Huy Đức was absolutely right when he wrote in his book:

“Quyết định đổi tiền được báo Sài Gòn Giải Phóng coi là để kết thúc “30 năm sống dơ và chết nhục của đồng bạc Sài Gòn.”… Không biết “tủi nhục” đã mất đi bao nhiêu sau Chiến dịch X-3, nhưng rất nhiều tiền bạc của người dân miền Nam đã trở thành giấy lộn.” [4] (The decision to introduce the new currency was praised by the daily newspaper Sài Gòn Giải Phóng (Saigon Liberated) as having put an end to the “30 years of living dirty and dying dishonored of the Saigon currency.” … We don’t know how much “dishonor” was lost after Operation X-3, but we are certain that much money of South Vietnamese people has become just waste paper.”

Almost three years later, on May 3, 1978, the new government issued again a new currency under the pretext for the whole newly reunified country. This time, the rate of exchange was: 1 new Dong, issued on September 22, 1975 in the South, was now worth only 10 cents of the new currency.

Reducing Income Level

Before April 30, 1975, my salary was already above 50,000 old VN Đồng (VND), and, thus, should be equivalent to above 100 new VND. But my new salary was only 45 new VND, i.e., not even half of the old salary. In 1980, before I resigned from my job in order to emigrate to Canada in the family reunion program, my salary went up to only 91 new VND. My wife’s case was even worse. She had worked as an accountant, with a salary of a bit over 60,000 old VND, for the French import-export company called Denis Frères on Tự Do Street, across the famous Tea Room and Dancing Maxim’s. Denis Frères Company was confiscated and renamed Công Ty Đánh Cá Chiến Thắng (Victory Fishing Company). Her salary, thus, should have been converted to over 120 new VND but, in fact, it was set at only 35 new VND. Even before 1975, because of the galloping inflation within the Republic of Vietnam during that time, with the combined income of almost 120,000 old VND, my family of 5 people (my wife and I, our 11-year old son, my mother and my aunt, younger sister of my mother) was having some difficulty to maintain our middle-class standard of living. I had to take a few part-time jobs, adding about 50,000 old VND to the combined income, in order to maintain my family’s middle-class standard of living. Now, from a level of combined income of around 170,000 old VND, which should be equivalent to 340 new VND, our income fell down to only 80 new VND, i.e. not even a quarter of the old level. In order to maintain some part of our standard of living, we had no other option than to gradually sell our belongings and properties.

Beating the Capitalists and Reforming the Industrialists and Merchants

In fact, the beating of the capitalists, codenamed “Operation X-2,” had already started on September 10, 1975, even before the introduction of the new currency. A large number of capitalists, mostly of Chinese origin, holding extremely important positions in the control and manipulation of South Vietnamese market economy, had been arrested with their properties confiscated:

“Vào lúc 7 giờ 30 phút sáng ngày 10-9-1975, Ủy ban Quân quản Thành phố Sài Gòn họp báo, đưa ra “Bản Tuyên bố của Chính phủ Cách mạng Lâm thời Cộng hoà Miền Nam Việt Nam,” ra lệnh “bắt giữ một số tư sản mại bản có chứng cứ đầu cơ tích trữ, phá rối thị trường: Mã Hỷ, vua lúa gạo; Lưu Tú Dân, lũng đoạn vải vóc; Bùi Văn Lự, nhập cảng, đầu cơ phụ tùng xe máy; Hoàng Kim Quy, thầu cung cấp kẽm gai cho quân đội Mỹ; Trần Thiện Tứ, độc quyền xuất cảng cà phê … Những gì mà Cách mạng lấy được của “nhà giàu” trên toàn miền Nam được liệt kê: “Về tiền mặt ta thu được 918,4 triệu đồng tiền miền Nam; 134.578 Mỹ Kim [trongđó có 55.370 USD gửi ở ngân hàng]; 61.121 đồng tiền miền Bắc; 1.200 đồng phrăng (tiền Pháp)…; vàng: 7.691 lượng; hạt xoàn: 4.040 hột; kim cương: 40 hột; cẩm thạch: 97 hột; nữ trang: 167 thứ; đồng hồ các loại: 701 cái. Trong các kho tàng ta thu được: 60 nghìn tấn phân; 8.000 tấn hoá chất; 3 triệu mét vải; 229 tấn nhôm; 2.500 tấn sắt vụn; 1.295 cặp vỏ ruột xe; 27.460 bao xi măng; 644 ô tô; 2 cao ốc; 96.604 chai rượu; 13.500 ký trà; 1000 máy cole; 20 tấn bánh qui; 24 tấn bơ; 2.000 kiếng đeo mắt; 457 căn nhà phố; 4 trại gà khoảng 30.000 con và một trại gà giá 800 triệu; 4.150 con heo; 10 con bò, 1.475.000 USD thiết bị tiêu dùng; 19 công ty; 6 kho; 65 xí nghiệp sản xuất; 4 rạp hát; 1 đồn điền cà phê, nho, táo rộng 170 hecta ở Đà Lạt” [5] (“At 7:30 AM of September 10, 1975, the Military Administration Committee held a news conference, presented the “Announcement by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam” ordering “the arrest of a number of capitalists guilty of activities of market speculation and sabotage: Mã Hỹ, king of rice; Lưu Tú Dân, king of fabrics; Bùi Văn Lự, importing and speculating of motobike accessories; Hoàng Kim Quy, bidder of barbed wires for US. Army; Trần Thiện Tứ, monopoly in exporting coffee beans … Following are what the Revolution has taken from the “wealthy people” all over the South: “Cash: 918.4 million old VND, 134,578 USD [including 55,370 USD deposited in banks], 61,121 VND of North Vietnam, 1,200 French francs…; gold: 7,691 taels; precious stones: 4,040; diamonds: 40; jade:97; jewelry: 167 pieces; watches of all kinds: 701. In stores and depots we confiscated: 60,000 tons of fertilizers; 8,000 tons of chemicals; 3 million meters of fabrics; 229 tons of aluminium; 2,500 tons of iron scrap; 1,295 pairs of bicycle guts; 27,460 packs of cement; 644 automobiles; 2 high-rise buildings; 96,604 bottles of wine; 13,500 kilograms of tea; 1,000 Kohler engines; 20 tons of biscuits; 24 tons of butter; 2,000 eye glasses; 457 single houses; 4 farms with around 30,000 chickens and another chicken farm worth 800 million; 4,150 pigs; 10 cows; 1,475,000 USD in home appliances; 19 companies; 6 depots; 65 producing enterprises; 4 theaters; 1 plantation of tea, grape, apple of 170 hectares in Đà Lạt.”

After “Operation X-2” was ended, with the above-mentioned huge amount of wealth confiscated, the new government still thought that it was not enough to completely eliminate the influence of the capitalists and of the free market economy in South Vietnam. Two and half years later, in late March 1978, they decided to carry out another operation called “Reforming the Private Industrialists and Merchants” aimed at total abolishing of the free economy in the South.

“Sáng 23-3-1978, khi người dân Sài Gòn chưa kịp thức dậy thì trước những cửa tiệm, lớn có, nhỏ có, đã lố nhố từng tốp thanh niên, mặt mày nghiêm trọng. Họ chỉ chờ chủ nhà thức dậy là ập vào, kiểm kê, niêm phong hàng hóa và bắt đầu chốt giữ.” [6] (“In the early morning of March 23, 1978, even before the Saigon people woke up, groups of young people looking serious gathered in front of big and small retail shops. As soon as the owners opened their shops, they entered, made inventories, sealed all goods, and started to guard the shops.”)

After this operation, the new government was in real control of South Vietnam’s economy, including the private sector, even small businesses. South Vietnam became a copycat of the goods distribution system applied in the North through government-owned stores and people’s co-operatives in villages (rural areas) and wards (urban areas). Together with the family control police system, South Vietnamese people, from now on, had to live in the total government-covered and standard-based system, exactly like the way of life of North Vietnamese people from 1954 to 1975.

PROFESSIONAL LIFE: INTERRUPTION

Red Is Better Than Competent

The Ho Chi Minh City’s Teachers College decided to keep me as its Chief Librarian because nobody in the school’s Military Administrative Committee had been trained in librarianship. I saw it as a very good luck, totally unthought of or expected since I had been trained in the U.S., a hostile country and still having no diplomatic relations at all with Vietnam at that time. But everything was no longer like before April 30, 1975.

Of course, my physical life of a person belonging to the losing side, surviving the imposed political indoctrination and the impoverishment, was not an easy one but still could not be comparable with the mental pains having to witness all of our contributions to the development of our country’s library community being brutally discarded.

Like other professional associations of the Republic of Vietnam, the VLA, of which I was re-elected President on January 12, 1975, just less than 4 months ago, ceased to exist. A number of important members of the Executive Committee was successful in getting out of the country. The other members, still stuck in Vietnam like me, shared the same fate with me as survivors in the new regime. The VLA, having just gained a decent place within the cultural community of South Vietnam, with some significant achievements, was suddenly defunct, with all of its remaining money deposited at the Directorate General of Finances confiscated, with all of its publications banned, and with all of its files at its office on Vạn Hạnh University campus destroyed.

Like other private, especially religious, universities of Saigon, Vạn Hạnh University was closed down, and, of course, so was the Library Science Department. That was the first Library Science Department of the Republic of Vietnam, which was considered by our group of friends, namely members of the Executive Committee of the VLA, as the most significant achievement of our library development work for South Vietnam. It was now just vanished like in a dream. So was my textbook for Introduction to Cataloging and Classification, which I had used to teach in the 1974 Fall Semester and was just printed by Vạn Hanh University Press.

In my position as Head Librarian (later, after the College Management Team was appointed, it was call Head of Library Department), and on a daily basis, I had to face with the backwardness of librarianship of North Vietnam now imposed on the South. The Ho Chi Minh City Teachers’ College Library was not an exception. In terms of the management of the library, the Military Administrative Committee, and later, mid-1976 onward, the College Management Team, always appointed a non-librarian party member as my deputy. The intention was having someone to keep an eye on me but it turned out to be beneficial to me. My first deputy, Mr. TVQ, was a party member just out from the R [7] Zone. I discussed and Q. and we came to the decision to divide our responsibilities as follows: I would take care of all technical issues, and Q. would be responsible for organizational, including political, issues. The College Management Team was very happy with that plan and I was also happy with it because I was able to escape from the political part of the job, which, theoretically, should be conforming to the “Red Is Better Than Competent” standard of the new government.

Regarding library professional activities, in technical services, North Vietnamese libraries, even academic libraries, still had catalog cards on thin sheets of paper cut out from notebooks with hand-written entries, arranged in rudimentary non-standard wooden catalog drawers. Meanwhile, in the South, from mid-1960s, in most libraries, catalog cards had been typewritten on internationally-approved standard 3 x 5 cards, and arranged neatly in standard catalog drawers made of wood or metal. A number of academic libraries, e.g., Vạn Hạnh University Library, have already taken a further advanced step: typing the main entry cards on a special kind of stencils and then using a specially-designed mimeograph machine to print the remaining added entry cards, all in standard 3 x 5 cards.

In users’ services, libraries in the South all already had Reference Rooms, and open stacks, with library collections arranged in subjects while libraries in the North, even academic libraries, did not have Reference Rooms, and still practiced closed stacks with collections arranged in size.

In terms of collection development, I had a quite surprising discovery, which helped me understand the truth about the academic libraries in the North. During the first months after April 30, 1975, still attending the political indoctrination program, I had learned that all of the academic libraries in the North had quite sizable collections, much larger than the ones in their counterparts of the South. Now that I started doing acquisitions work, I finally saw why they had such large book collections. The reason was very simple: all of these collections comprised almost 100% of textbooks for students’ use. For each title, the libraries had to buy hundreds of copies, sometimes even thousands of copies for students to check out for whole semesters or even whole academic years. The total number of book collections, therefore, was always very high, going up to tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousand items, but in terms of number of titles the whole collection may consist of only a few hundreds or at most a few thousands. For years, North Vietnamese university and college students, therefore, have only learned from these textbooks, never being exposed to other kinds of research and/or reference books.

Regarding descriptive cataloging, in the South, the issue of making main entry for Vietnamese authors under surname or given name had been a topic for debate for years. This dividing issue was finally resolved at the VLA 1974 Summer Meeting: Main Entry for Vietnamese authors to be made under Surname, in accordance with the 1967 AACR (Anglo-American Cataloging Rules), the international standard already adopted by most countries in the world. In the North, cataloging work has not followed any established rules, each library observing its own rules, resulting in a lot of inconsistencies, which has always been considered a taboo in the international library community. Now this unruly practice was imposed on South Vietnamese libraries. In classification work, the VLA 1974 Summer Meeting has adopted the Classification Committee’s Table of Expansion for the Dewey Decimal Classification treatment of Vietnamese Literature and History-Geography. Now, libraries in the South were instructed to use the totally outdated Russian book classification system BBK, just like all libraries in the North.

All achievements by the VLA in the development of South Vietnamese librarianship before April 30, 1975 were abolished and all libraries in the South have fallen victim to this terrible backward interruption until after 1990, when the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was at the brink of collapse as a result of the total disintegration of the socialist bloc in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. They had no other choice but to implement the new policy called Innovation.

A big surprise occurred in mid-1976. The Ho Chi Minh City Teachers’ College received order to take over the physical facilities of the former Vạn Hạnh University at 222 Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Street (called Trương Minh Giảng Street before April 30, 1975). The school management decided to move all school units to this new location and called it Location I, with the old location being renamed Location II. The main library was now located at the old Vạn Hanh University Library. I was very happy to see that the sizable collection of Vạn Hạnh University Library was still fairly intact, not having fallen victim to the “book burning” campaign in the city in mid-1975. Based on my recommendations, the school management issued the following instructions:

  • The Library will continue to keep and provide good maintenance for this important collection
  • Only the school professors as well as professors and/or researchers from other universities and/or research institutions, with permission signed by the School Principal, will be allowed to read (at location, not to borrow) the materials in the collection

This valuable collection of the former Vạn Hạnh University Library, therefore, was kept, well-maintained, and more or less put in use by researchers throughout the time I served as Library Head until my resignation in July 1980, getting ready to leave Vietnam for Canada. Besides, thanks to this take-over of Van Hạnh University, I was able to help a group of former employees of Vạn Hạnh University Library, who had graduated from the two training courses offered by the VLA in 1974. My recommendation to keep them was accepted by the School Management. One member of the group, Mrs. H.T.M.T., who had graduated top of one of the two training courses, was later nominated by me to head the Technical Services Department of the Library.

DECISION TO LEAVE VIETNAM

An Unbearable Life

Although they had imposed very hard and unpopular measures and programs in order to assimilate the recently-conquered South Vietnam into the same system with the North, the new government continued to encounter more and more difficulties, political, economic and even military, resulting in an unwelcome and dissatisfactory reality, i.e., people’s daily life getting from bad to worse, with the number of people trying to escape by boats increasing day by day, among them there was a quite sizable number of intellectuals, university professors, etc. The movement called “Boat People,” with reported dramas in the East Sea, in the Gulf of Thailand, reaching its peak in 1978-79, had a serious impact on the conscience of the whole world, including even countries and peoples who had supported the Communists during the Vietnam War.

Politically, the Communists have completely failed in their determination of imposing the political indoctrination program on the South Vietnamese population, who had to resign themselves physically to the program but mentally refused to believe in it. The result obtained by the Communists was only the apparent obeyance of the people in the South, exactly like the one they had obtained from the people in the North before 1975. The North Vietnamese people had been living a double life for all these years: outside they always praised the regime, the Party and the leaders, inside they cursed them all the time. The main reason was that they had witnessed the blatant lies pronounced daily by the Communists. On the one hand they professed a just society. On the other hand, they created a totally unjust system of goods distribution system. The North Vietnamese people have bitterly described this system in the following folk poem:

Tôn Đản là của vua quan

Nhà Thờ là của trung gian nịnh thần

Đồng Xuân là của thương nhân

Vỉa hè là của nhân dân anh hùng. [8]

(Tôn Đản is the place for the king and the mandarins, i.e., high-ranking government officials

Nhà Thờ is the place for the intermediate-level and loyal officials

Đồng Xuân is the place for the merchants

Sidewalk is the place for the heroic people)

Beside that unjust treatment of the people, the Vietnamese Communist Party has also blatantly lied to the people that the South Vietnamese people were living under the Americans’ and their puppet regime’s oppression, and in extreme poverty, and thus in need of being liberated from that unbearable existence. After April 30, 1975, Vietnamese people, including the soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, have painfully discovered the truth: South Vietnamese people had been living a much better, much more comfortable life than they did in the North. Huy Đức, a reporter who was born, raised and educated in the socialist North Vietnam, has stated very clearly in his work “Bên Thắng Cuộc” (The Winning Side) as follows in the introduction “Mấy lời của tác giả” (A few words from the author):

“Cuốn sách của tôi bắt đầu từ ngày 30-4-1975 – ngày nhiều người tin là miền Bắc đã giải phóng miền Nam. Nhiều người thận trọng nhìn lại suốt hơn ba mươi năm, giật mình với cảm giác bên được giải phóng hóa ra lại là miền Bắc.” [9]

(My book begins on April 30, 1975, the day a lot of people believe that the North has liberated the South. Many cautious people, looking back through more than thirty years, are startled with the feeling that the liberated side was unexpectedly the North.”

Economically, because of their dogmatism, the new government had imposed the whole cooperative agricultural system of the North on the already fairly developed agriculture in the South. South Vietnamese farmers refused to follow that unproductive system of the North by breaking the legs of their cattle so that they did not have to register to the agricultural co-operatives. Agricultural production was going down very clearly. In some rural areas, food shortage began to be felt. In cities, government officials and workers have seen their monthly rice rations disappeared and replaced by millet, or sweet potato, or cassava. Factories were closed because the lack of foreign currencies inhibited the import of necessary raw materials. After the rice rations, government officials and workers began to see their supplies of industrial items drastically dwindled. For the whole nation, life has become almost totally unbearable.

Militarily, right from mid-1975, the Khmer Rouge had begun to attack, sporadically, a number of locations on the South-West frontier. Their main attack in large-scale, at division level, happened in the night of April 30, 1977 when they crossed Vietnamese borders in the Province of An Giang, attacking several posts of border guards and pushed almost 10 km into Vietnamese territory. Vietnam responded by sending in the 330th Division to recapture the lost territory. The war with Cambodia really began.

Around mid-1978, the overall situation in the South had reached an alarming level. Author Huy Đức has recorded the reaction of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee as follows:

“Ông Võ Văn Kiệt quyết định gặp gỡ giới trí thức Thành phố. Với hy vọng có được sự chia sẻ từ những người Sài Gòn vốn được coi là có cảm tình với “Cách mạng,” ông Kiệt đã nói khá chân thành: “Anh em cố gắng ở lại, trong vòng ba năm nữa, nếu tình hình vẫn không thay đổi, tôi sẽ đưa anh em ra phi trường.” Cả hội trường im lặng. Rồi, giáo sư Nguyễn Trọng Văn đứng lên: “Chúng tôi sẵn sàng ở lại, nhưng nếu ba năm nữa mà tình hình không thay đổi thì tôi cho rằng người nên ra đi phải là các anh”.

Câu nói của giáo sư Nguyễn Trọng Văn gây rúng động. Tối hôm ấy, tại số 56 Trương Định có một cuộc họp của Thường vụ mở rộng, Tổng Thư ký Hội Trí thứcYêu Nước Huỳnh Kim Báu được mời dự. Hầu hết ý kiến phát biểu đều phê phán Giáo sư Văn gay gắt, ông Mai Chí Thọ đề nghị: “Bắt!.” Ông Báu kể, Võ Văn Kiệt làm thinh, nhưng cặp mắt đăm chiêu. Cuối cùng, ông nói: “Sau khi nghe anh Văn nói, tôi cũng bị sốc, rất sốc. Nhưng rồi suy nghĩ, tôi thấy, anh Văn đã phát biểu rất nghiêm túc. Tôi cho rằng, nếu ba năm nữa mà tình hình không thay đổi thì rõ ràng người ra đi không thể là các anh ấy.” Kết luận của ông Kiệt khiến cho mọi người im lặng, và nhờ nó, Giáo sư Nguyễn Trọng Văn đã không bị bắt.” [10]

(Mr. Võ Văn Kiệt decided to have a meeting with the Saigon intellectuals. Hoping to have the understanding from the people of Saigon, who had been considered as sympathetic with the “Revolution,” Mr. Kiệt said quite sincerely: “Please try to stay with us for the next three years, if the situation is not improved, I will personally see you leave at the airport.” A total silence was felt in the whole conference room. And then, professor Nguyễn Trọng Văn stood up: “We are ready and willing to stay, but, if in three years the situation is not improved then I think the people who must leave should be you guys.

Professor Nguyễn Trọng Văn’s statement created a big shock. In the evening, at 57 Trương Định Street, there was an extended meeting of the Permanent Secretariat, and the Secretary-General of the Patriotic Intellectuals Association, Mr. Huỳnh Kim Báu, was invited to attend. Almost all statements made at the meeting were highly critical of professor Văn, with Mr. Mai Chí Thọ even proposing: “Arrest him!” According to Mr. Báu, Võ Văn Kiệt was silent, but his eyes showed that he was deeply in thinking. Finally, he said: “I was shocked, very shocked by his statement. But after having carefully thought about it, I found that brother Văn has made a very serious statement. I think that, if the situation is not improved in the next three years, it is clearly that the people who should leave will not be them.” Mr. Kiệt’s conclusion brought a total silence in the room, and thanks to it, Professor Văn was not arrested.”)

By the end of 1978, the economic life of my family has almost reached the bottom. We no longer had any cash reserve after the second currency change of May 3, 1978. Most of our valuable properties were sold to have some cash for absolutely necessary expenses. First of all, we had to sell our car, an N-360 Honda, because it had become totally useless for two obvious reasons: 1) gasoline was no longer available; and, 2) having a car could be seen as belonging to the wealthy capitalist class. We sold it at the beginning of 1976 so that we could have some extra cash to buy from the black market some packages of SMA powder milk for infant, in preparation for the birth of our second child. After my wife quit her job, we sold the C-50 Honda scooter that she had used to go to work. And then, those household things, deemed very much non-essential, like the Sharp T.V. set, the transistor Phillips radio set, etc., one after the other, were sold too. It was in such misery, we were dealt another terrible blow caused by the passing away of My Mother.

Loss of Mother

In early 1979, my oldest sister’s family found a way to join the “semi-official cross-border exodus for Chinese people.” This operation to send the Chinese people out of Vietnam was carried out by the new government through the provincial Public Security forces, and was codenamed “Solution II,” which was described in details by author Huy Đức in his book:

“Cũng trong những ngày ấy, ở miền Nam, công an bắt đầu triển khai “Phương án II.” … Phương án II là một kế hoạch được “phổ biến miệng để giữ bí mật,” theo đó: Người di tản được đóng vàng để công an mua thuyền hoặc đóng thuyền cho đi mà không sợ bị bắt hay gây khó khăn. Việc thực hiện Phương án II chỉ do ba người là bí thư, chủ tịch và giám đốc công an tỉnh quyết định. Công an được giao làm nhiệm vụ đứng ra thu vàng và tổ chức cho người di tản. … Kết quả kiểm tra của Ban 69 cho thấy có một sự khác biệt rất lớn giữa báo cáo của Bộ Nội vụ và thực tế thực hiện Phương án II. Báo cáo của Bộ nội vụ nói rằng: “Từ tháng 8-78 đến 6-79, mười lăm tỉnh, thành đã cho người Hoa đi nước ngoài bằng tàu, thuyền gồm 156 chuyến với số người là 59.329 người, đã thu 5.612 kg vàng, năm triệu đồng Việt Nam, năm mươi bảy ngàn đô la Mỹ, 235 ô tô, 1.749 nhà và gian nhà.” Nhưng, số liệu sau khi Ban 69 kiểm tra cho thấy: “Số tàu đã cho đi: 533; Số người đã đi: 134.322; Thu vàng: 16.181kg; Ngoại tệ: 164.505 đô la; Tiền ngân hàng VN: 34.548.138 đồng; Một số tài sản khác: 538 ô tô, xe du lịch; 4.145 nhà và gian nhà.” [11]

(During these days, in the South, the Public Security forces have begun to carry out the “Solution II.” … Solution II” was a plan that was “ordered only verbally to safeguard its secrecy,” as follows: The evacuees were allowed to pay in gold for the Public Security forces to buy or build boats for them to go and would not be afraid to be arrested or face difficulties. The implementation of Solution II was responsible by only three persons [in the province]: the Secretary [of the Provincial Party Committee], the Chairman [of the Provincial People’s Committee], and the Director of [provincial department of] Public Security. The Public Security forces were responsible to collect the gold and organize the departure of the evacuees. … The results of the inspection by the Section 69 showed that there was a big difference between the report of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the reality of the implementation of Solution II. The report of the Ministry said: “From August 1978 to June 1979, fifteen provinces and cities had organized for the Chinese to leave by boats: 156 boats, 59,329 persons, collecting 5,612 kg of gold, 5 million of VN Đồng, 57,000 USD, 235 automobiles, 1,749 houses and apartments.” However, the data provided by the Section 69 showed: “The number of boats was 533; the number of persons leaving: 134,322; gold collected: 16,181 kg; foreign currency: 164,505 USD; Vietnamese currency: 34,548,138 VN Đồng; other properties: 538 automobiles; 4,145 houses and apartments.”

The above-mentioned information provided by author Huy Đức showed very clearly that “Solution II” was not purely a political solution aimed at expulsing the Chinese people out of Vietnam so that they would not be able to play the role of a “fifth column” in the case of a war with China, but also a means to rob the Chinese people of their wealth. It also showed that the provincial Public Security forces had pocketed up to 2/3 of these robbed wealth and properties.

By its special characteristic, i.e., organized by the Public Security forces themselves, thus totally guaranteed of success, no fear of being arrested and put in jail, this method of border-crossing escape required a much higher price, up to 12 taels of gold by person, while the ordinary way required only 3-4 taels of gold. My sister’s family, by warranty of the person in the link, was required to pay only one part of the total gold taels required, the remaining part would be paid by installments after they were safe in a third country. I still remember the day when they left Saigon for Mỹ Tho: it was exactly the Day of Seeing the Kitchen God Going Back to the Heaven for his Annual Report, namely the 23rd Day of the 12th Month of the Lunar Calendar of that year (19-February 1979). We could never imagine that the trip, which we believed would be an easy one, and we would be hearing from her soon after she has each her destination somewhere in the free world, would turn out to be the worst nightmare for our family.

From mid-February to mid-June, my family has not received any news from my sister. My Mother and my whole family were very much worried. The reason was quite obvious: normally, around one or two months after the trip began, people should hear from their relatives, either the good news that the trip was a success and they were already in a refugee camp waiting to be accepted by a third country, or the bad news that the trip was a failure and they were in jail somewhere waiting for their family to do something to get them out. It was now four months and we have not heard from them. It was a terribly frightening silence. What happened to them? If something happened, such as the boat sank and there were casualties then there should have been some news in the press, like the Cát Lái incident.[12] My family did not have any possible answer to the question, and, My Mother once again was more and more worried.

On June 20, 1979, we received a package from my brother, which contained the sponsoring papers for my family to emigrate to Canada. My Mother was very happy. The Immigration Canada papers were signed by my brother to sponsor my Mother as a head of the family that included 6 persons:

  • My Mother: head of the family
  • My aunt: younger sister of my Mother
  • Me: her son
  • My wife: her daughter-in-law
  • My two sons: her two grandsons

Immediately, My Mother and I went to the Public Security office in our Ward to register as applicants for exit permits to go to Canada. The local authorities, however, only accepted my Mother’s and my Aunt’s applications and rejected my application under the pretext that I was still a government official. My Mother was very angry and decided to withdraw her application and her sister’s one as well, and we went home. The joy brought by my brother’s sponsoring papers, which helped boost my Mother’s morale, was gone and my Mother fell back to her anxiety and depression. About more than a week after that, My Mother had a massive stroke, was paralyzed in the right-side half of her body, and fell into coma. After she was hospitalized, I went to Saigon Post Office and sent a telegram to Canada informing my brother of the situation. The public health situation in Vietnam at that time had been deteriorating to an alarming level, with a very serious shortage of all kinds of medication. Already in coma, My Mother was in need of getting saline intravenous drip but the hospital did not have the fluid. The treating doctor told me to get it from the black market. As I have mentioned earlier, my family did not have any more extra cash, and we did not any more valuable things to sell either. I had no other choice than to sell one of the two taels of gold, which my sister had given me before she left and told me to use them only at my Mother’s and My Aunt’s funeral. With the money after selling that tael of gold, I was able to buy 4 bottles of the required saline liquid and a pack of Lasix prescribed by the treating doctor. Having witnessed the bad situation in the hospital and considering her old age, I fully realized that My Mother would not have a good chance to survive. And it happened exactly like I had already thought: after almost one week in coma, My Mother was released from the hospital, and on the next day, July 4, 1979, she passed away at the age of 79. Thanks to the money that my brother sent from Canada just in time, I was able to provide My Mother with a decent funeral with cremation, and with her ashes kept at Vạn Thọ Pagoda in Tân Định.

Leaving Vietnam For Canada

My Mother’s passing away led me to a quite serious mental depression. Being an orphan at the age of seven, I was raised and educated by My Mother, and lived with her for almost 40 years. All I had, my existence, my education, my family, even my achievements, were given by my Mother, directly or indirectly.[13] Having lived almost in absolute poverty for a few years and at the same time feeling totally devastated before the complete collapse of my professional achievements after years of hard work, I was now suddenly realized that I have really fallen to the bottom of my misery since with my strongest point of support, my Mother, was forever gone. And I made the decision that, by all means, and at all cost, I had to escape from this physical and mental misery by leaving Vietnam so that my family, in particular my two sons, could have a better life. But first, what I had to do and should do was to fulfill my duties as a son during the first 49-day period of mourning after the death of my Mother, according to our Buddhist belief. That was why, beside the 7 weekly sessions celebrated at Van Tho Pagoda, I recited the Kşitigarbha Sutra every night for that whole period of 49 days. It was the first time, and also the only time in my whole life, that I recited that Sutra for 49 consecutive nights.

After I finished that 49-day period of prayers for the salvation of My Mother’s soul, I started to feel much better. The feeling of desperation was gone. Gradually, I went back to my old habit of going out for coffee in the evening with my friends. Most of them encouraged me to submit the sponsoring papers from my brother with the local authorities and register with them for an exit visa. At the beginning, I would not listen to them at all because I believed there would have been some chance for my family if my Mother were still alive and would be able to act as a head of family in this family reunion program. Now, without her, my family would not have any chance, so why bother. Then one night, around mid-September 1979, I went out for coffee with L., a colleague from the Teachers’ College. L. told me the case of his cousin, who was also sponsored by his brother in Canada, and whose application for an exit visa was already accepted by local authorities. L. told me that he thought there should have been some change in the government’s policy regarding the family reunion program so that the local authorities now accepted his cousin’s application. He urged me to reconsider the whole issue and added: “Anyway, what you’re gonna lose?” That night, I discussed with my wife about my colleague’s suggestion and we both agreed that his reasoning sounded good. The next morning, I searched and retrieved the separate sponsoring papers for my aunt and for my family that my brother had made and sent in June. In the morning of September 21, 1979, the three of us, my aunt, my wife and I, went to the office of the Public Security of our Ward to submit the sponsoring papers, and register our applications for exit visas in the family reunion program. This time, everything went very smoothly, exactly like what L. had told me the other night. Our applications were accepted very easily. The Public Security officer gave us stamped receipts acknowledging the acceptance of our applications. He also graciously gave advice to my wife and me not to quit our jobs yet, just wait until exit visas were issued so that we could continue to buy foods at the special price for government employees. The process of application for exit visas was so simple but the process of issuing exit visas was way more complicated.

The Office of Services for Foreigners

All applications for exit visas, regardless of countries of destination, after being accepted at the local ward offices of Public Security, were sent to the Office of Services for Foreigners (OSF), located at 161 Nguyễn Du Street, District 1 (in the house that used to be the Canadian Embassy in Saigon), a unit directly under the jurisdiction of the Service of Public Security of Ho Chi Minh City. The OSF’s responsibility was to examine the applications, report to the Service, and upon approval from the Service, will issue exit visas to the applicants. The OSF was, therefore, the most important link in the whole process of getting exit visas. At that time, the Head of OSF was lieutenant-colonel (later moving up to a full-colonel) Nguyễn Văn Năm, known under the secret name of Năm Thạch, an underground agent of the National Liberation Front, who had been working for several years as the Manager of the famous Cải Lương Group Thanh Minh – Thanh Nga of Saigon.

All families with applications for exit visas knew that the OSF was the place they had to “work with” and they were also ready to “work with” in order to obtain the exit visas. Compared to the escape by sea with all of the dangers, e.g, possible arrest by the local Public Security and imprisonment, or even loss of life at sea, this method of getting out of Vietnam was way much better, and really worth spending money for. In such a situation, I fully realized that I could not behave differently, i.e., I had to “work with.” But at the same time, I also knew that I did not have the resources to do it. I had to write to my brother in Canada asking for help. About 3 weeks after my letter was sent, one person came to see me at my home and gave me 7 taels of gold, equivalent to 3,000 Canadian dollars. It was the same person that came and gave me money during the time of My Mother’s funeral. With the resources now in my possession, I began to look around for a link to “work with.”

The problem was how to “work with”, where the link was, and was the link reliable. At the beginning, for lack of experience, I fell victim to a false link. Through an acquaintance, Mr. T., I was introduced to a link with a cadre working at the OSF. The cadre, Mr. Đ., required a payment of 2 taels of gold for getting my family finger printed and promised that we would get our exit visas two weeks afterward. I only had to pay after the finger-printing was done. I immediately accepted to “work with.” On the scheduled date, my family was invited to the OSF and it was Mr. Đ. himself who performed the process of finger-printing for all members of my family. The next day, Mr. T., came to my home and I gave him 2 teals of gold. But after that, one whole month passed and my family still did not get the expected exit visas. I began to have some doubt that I might have been an unknowing victim of a scam. I came to Mr. T.’s home twice to ask him and was told by him to wait. When I came to his home the third time, I was told by the landlord that Mr. T. no longer lived there and his new address was unknown. I finally knew for certain that I was duped but I could not do anything because it was not something that you could file a complaint with the Public Security. About two months after that, I learned that Mr. Đ. was no longer working at the OSF.

There is an old saying that “in the bad luck always exists a good luck.” My bad luck was my loss of 2 taels of gold, but thanks to that event, when my family was invited to the OSF for the fingerprinting process, I was able to get into the working area of the OSF staff and to have seen one person. At that moment, I was not concerned very much about that person, I got only a passing feeling that I had already met him somewhere, sometime, but I could not remember where and when. That’s all. Now, with the link provided by T. and D. gone, I was forced to find another link, and it led me back to that person, whom I saw at the OSF. I kept digging into my memory and, finally, I remembered where and when I had met him. He was the son-in-law of Aunt Three, a close friend of my Mother. I remembered that I had met him the day, about a week after My Mother’s funeral, I came to Aunt Three’s home, bringing a basket of fruits, to thank her for her assistance during the funeral. His name, coincidentally, was also Đ., and he was the husband of Sister H., Aunt Three’s oldest daughter. At that moment, I was sitting and talking with Aunt Three in the living room. Sister H. and Đ. were leaving to go shopping. Aunt Three introduced me to Đ. and I stood up to shake his hand. My meeting with Đ. lasted less than 2 minutes. It was more than six months ago. That’s why I just could not remember him when I saw him at the OSF. I was so glad that I have now finally found the link I badly needed, and more than that, I would not need any intermediary. I talked to my wife of this discovery and she was very glad too. We spent some time discussing the situation and decided that we needed more information about Đ. before we could “work with” him because we did not want to commit that kind of mistake with the other Đ. again.

At that time, my resignation from the position of Head Librarian was already accepted by the management of the Ho Chi Minh City Teachers’ College, and I was able to participate in the activities of a group of families that had been applying for exit visas to go to Canada. Within this group, some families have already obtained exit visas, some have not. Each morning of the working days, the group usually gathered in the small park across the street from the office of the Ho Chi Minh City’s Service of Foreign Affairs, trying the get some information about the Canadian Immigration Delegation. I was soon able to form an intimate sub-group of 5 with some of my friends and colleagues. Among our small group, one family had already obtained exit visas; their parents and two younger brothers had passed the medical examinations required by Immigration Canada, were issued entry visas and had already left Vietnam for Canada; the guy with our group, V., and his two younger sisters failed the medical exams, had to follow the required six-month medical treatment program paid by Immigration Canada and waited for the next medical exams. It was V. who shared with us all the information he was able to gather through his family’s experience and from other sources as well. Thanks to his information sharing, we now knew all the procedures in the whole process of leaving Vietnam officially: applying for an exit visa, obtaining the exit visa, meeting Immigration Canada for interview, taking the medical exam, obtaining Canada’s entry visa, and finally a series of required pre-exit steps, such as, obtaining the debt-free certificate from the National Bank, obtaining the certificate of obligation-free from the Housing Authority, obtaining the vaccination certificate from the Public Health Office, registering for the next flight, and passing the inspection of luggage. For me, the most important discovery was information about Đ.: he was a staff officer of the OSF, highly trusted, almost the right-hand man of Colonel Thạch, and was given the very important responsibility of issuing the exit visas after they have already signed by Colonel Thạch. I immediately began to approach Đ. I came to see Aunt Three and Sister H. and asked them to convey to Đ. my family’s intention to seek his help in our effort to get exit visas, and our readiness and willingness to pay for the costs. A few days later, I came back and learned from Sister H. that Đ. had accepted to help my family and the cost would be just one tael of gold per person. My wife and I were very glad and we accepted that condition right away because, in fact, the cost was unbelievably low, beyond our imagination. I informed my friends in our group, those who did not have exit visas yet, and everyone agreed to follow the link that I had found. I came back to Đ., telling him about my friends’ request for help. He agreed to help, but, for security purposes, he would meet only me, not the other people. All my friends in the group gave their consensus in that arrangement. Except for my own case, which faced some difficulties at the beginning, and could only finally be settled when the OSF switched my file to the category of Vietnamese of Chinese origin, the other three families’ files went through the system quite smoothly. In about two months, we all received exit visas from the OSF. We were now facing with the new challenge: meeting the Canadian Immigration officer for the required interview.

Working with Immigration Canada

At this point in time, mid-1981, Vietnam and Canada still did not have official diplomatic relations. That was why Canada did not have its embassy in Hanoi and a general consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. Once in a while, Immigration Canada would send one of its officers to Ho Chi Minh City to interview Vietnamese people who had already been sponsored by their relatives and had been issued exit visas by Vietnamese authorities. In their daily conversation, these people always refer to them as the “Canadian Delegation.” In reality, during the period of 1979-1981, Immigration Canada had never sent any delegation to Ho Chi Minh City. Immigration Canada sent only one officer named Bersma. I met Mr. Bersma three times altogether by chance.

My first meeting with Mr. Bersma was a pleasant surprise. That particular day was probably around early October-1979. My family’s application for exit visas was just accepted for more than a week when I learned that the “Canadian Delegation” arrived and was working at Caravelle Hotel downtown. Although my family had not obtained exit visas yet, and thus, was not invited by the Service of Foreign Affairs of Ho Chi Minh City to meet the “Canadian Delegation” for the interview, my wife and I also joined the crowd in front of Caravelle Hotel in order to get any information about the Delegation. At that time, there was only one security guard in front of the hotel and only those people having invitation letter from the Service of Foreign Affairs would be allowed to enter the hotel. My wife and decided to approach the security guard to ask him for the favor of allowing me to get inside. I took out a 50-VN Dong bill and put it in an envelope. Just a few minutes after 12 PM, when almost all people in the crowd have already left, I went to talk to the security guard, asking for that favor, and at the same time putting the envelope into his shirt pocket, telling him that that was just a token to show my appreciation to him. His reaction was a total surprise to me. He took out the envelope, returned it to me, and told me not to do it again, and let me know that he would let me in. It was the first time, since 1975, I met a nice and honest person like him, especially in a society where most people were poor and needed some extra money to get by. I could not help getting back the envelope and thanked him very much. In fact, a few minutes later, he let me in. I gave him a small piece of paper, on which I wrote: “Dear Mr. Bersma: My name is Vinh-The Lam. I would like to talk to you for a few minutes, if possible. Thanks” and asked him to give it to Mr. Bersma. In less than a minute, Mr. Bersma was out of the room and waved me in. As soon as I entered the room, the first question he asked me was: “Has your sister left Hong Kong for Canada yet?” I was more than impressed — I was in awe. I could not believe that he was so knowledgeable about my family like that. Following is an update of my sister family escape from Vietnam in the above-mentioned so called “semi-official cross-border exodus for Chinese people.” The reason for My Mother and me not hearing from her family was the fact that the boat they were on, Skyluck,[14] arriving in Hong Kong, with 2,600 passengers on board, was not allowed to dock, and all passengers were not permitted to land. The Hong Kong authorities knew that the boat was not like other boats which had unintentionally picked up the refugees at seas, but, on the contrary, this was an undeniably well-organized venture, highly possibly for profit. They arrested the captain and the whole crew for investigations. All passengers were kept on the boat for almost 5 months, from February 7, 1979 to June 29, 1979 when the boat (the passengers had heard from their radios that a storm approached, and the young men on the boat had severed the Skyluck’s two anchor chains) was buffeted by strong winds, became loose, out of control, and finally smashed into rocks, its portside flank was broken, and the boat began to take water in and was about to sink. The Hong Kong authorities had no options than to let the passengers land and kept them in an old prison called Chi Ma Wan. Immediately, Immigration Canada officers came to interview my sister’s family, and only after two weeks, they were brought to Canada. Upon her arrival in Canada, around mid-july 1979, My Mother had already passed away for about ten days, but because she was in really bad shape, physically and mentally, my brother did not tell her about the bad news. Only in late July, when my sister had relatively recovered from the bad trip, did he dare tell her of My Mother’s death. Now let’s go back to my meeting with Mr. Bersma. I told him the good news that my sister’s family was now safely in Canada. He congratulated me on that. Anh then he asked me about My Mother. I told him that she had passed away. He offered his condolences and told me that My Mother had been on his top priority list. He showed me the list, probably of a few dozens of pages, and I could see that My Mother’s name was no. 4 on the first page of the list. He then asked me if I already had exit visa. I told him that I did not have it yet. He told me he could not do anything for me and asked me to leave. I thanked him and left. My first meeting with Mr. Bersma lasted probably not more than ten minutes.

My second meeting with Mr. Bersma occurred sometime early 1980 when my aunt received her exit visa from the OSF. This event helped my wife and I really understood the new government’s policy. The two applications, for my aunt and for my family, were accepted on the same day but after 3-4 months, only my aunt was issued an exit visa. They clearly did not want to keep old people. And that also meant that my family’s application would never be considered without some “extra efforts.” About a week after that, my aunt received an invitation letter from the Service of Foreign Affairs to meet with the Canadian delegation for an interview somewhere in the University Village in Thủ Đức, about 10 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. My aunt was already 76 years old and she walked with some difficulty. I had to hire a taxi to bring her to the interview, which lasted about 15-20 minutes. When it was done, Mr. Bersma told me that she failed the point system and was not accepted, and Immigration Canada would send her the official rejection letter later from Bangkok. He said that she had to go through the required point system because she belonged to the R (Relatives) Category, not the F (Family) Category, which included only people like parents-children, husbands-wives. This was a 100-point system and the passing grade should be 60 points. My aunt’s grade was not zero but a minus one. This was the first time I heard about that point system. I was very sad but there was nothing I could do. I immediately sent a telegram to my brother, letting him know of the bad news and asking him to send me some information about that point system. After two weeks, I received a small booklet from my brother with information about the point system. According to the Canada Immigration Law of 1976, Canada accepted immigrants belonging to the 4 following categories:

  • F Category: husband-wife, parents-children
  • R Category: brothers-sisters, assisted relatives like aunts, uncles
  • Independent Immigrants, including entrepreneurs
  • Refugees: defined by United Nations Convention for Refugees

The R Category had to pass the point system, which included a number of sections on age, education, language skills (for English and/or French), profession, sponsors, etc. The total point was 100 and the passing grade was 60. In the Age section, the 10-point maximum would be awarded to people between 18-35 years old. Beyond age of 35, one point would be taken away for one year older, and at age of 45 the point would be zero; beyond age 45, you got minus point. For my aunt, being 74 years old, her point was -28 (minus 28).

About more than one week after we obtained our exit visas from the OSF, my family received the invitation letter from the Service of Foreign Affairs to meet the Canadian delegation for the interview. This time, Mr. Bersma was working in a villa located on the Hoàng Văn Thụ Street near Tân Sơn Nhứt International Airport. That was my third meeting with him. Although my aunt was not in the invitation letter, my wife and I decided to bring her along, trying to implore Mr. Bersma to give a favor for her. Mr. Bersma still worked by the books and rejected my aunt. For myself, I passed the point system without any difficulty and my family was accepted. On the next day, we were sent to Chợ Rẩy Hospital for our medical examinations, which we all successfully passed. The good results of our medical exams were sent to Immigration Canada in Bangkok, the capital City of Thailand, where Mr. Bersma had a permanent office. Three weeks later, I received from Bangkok a big envelope containing entry visas for all members of my family. In the meantime, I had done all other requirements with Vietnamese authorities: certificates for bank / housing matters and vaccinations. I went back to the OSF to register for the flight to Canada, and then took care of the required inspection and weighing of our luggage. In the morning of September 22, 1981, around 11 AM, exactly two years after I submitted my family’s application for exit visas, my family boarded a DC-3 Dakota of Air Vietnam to leave Vietnam for Bangkok, Thailand. From Bangkok, we switched to Thai International Airways. We arrived in Amsterdam International Airport in the Netherlands after three short stop-overs in Karachi, Pakistan, Beirut in Lebanon, and Rome in Italy. After two hours in Amsterdam, we boarded a DC-8 Air Canada fight to Mirabel International Airport in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. We arrived there in the afternoon of September 23, 1981. My brother with his Canadian-born wife, and my sister’s family with a close old friend of mine at the SUFP were there to welcome my family to Canada, and to Freedom, marking the end of my 6 years of misery in Vietnam after the fateful day of April 30, 1975.

NOTES:

  1. Huy Đức. Bên thắng cuộc. Quyền 1: Giải phóng (The Winning side. Volume 1: Liberation). E-book, accessible online and full-text at this URL: https://www.vinadia.org/ben-thang-cuoc-huy-duc-quyen-i-giai-phong/ Chương 7: Giải phóng; Mục: Đốt sách (Chapter 7: Liberation; Section: Book burning).
  2. Trần Hoài Thư, “Đốt sách hay không đốt sách,” (Book burning: Yes or No), online document, accessible full-text on the Webpage Nam Kỳ Lục Tỉnh, at this URL: https://sites.google.com/site/namkyluctinhorg/tac-gia-tac-pham/s-t-u-v/tran-hoai-thu/dhot-sach-hay-khong-dot-sach
  3. Huy Đức, op.cit., same Chapter 7 and same Section.
  4. Huy Đức, op.cit., Chapter 3: Đánh Tư sản (Beating capitalists); Section: Đổi tiền (Introducing a new currency).
  5. Huy Đức, op.cit., Chương 3: Đánh tư sản, Mục: “Chiến dịch X-2” (Chapter 3: Beating capitalists, Section: “Operation X-2”
  6. Huy Đức, op.cit., Chương 3: Đánh tư sản, Mục: “Cải tao công thương nghiệp tư doanh” (Chapter 3: Beating capitalists, Section: “Reforming private industrialists and merchants.”
  7. “R” was the codename of the secret headquarters of COSVN (Central Office for South Vietnam).
  8. Dương Đình Giao, “Vỉa hè là của nhân dân anh hùng,” (Sidewalk is the place for the heroic people) on the Website “Ông Giáo Làng,” (The Village Teacher), section “Chuyện đời,” (Life stories), online article, accessible in full-text at this URL: https://onggiaolang.com/via-he-la-cua-nhan-dan-anh-hung/ This folk poem talks about the standards employed in goods distribution in North Vietnam during the period of “state-owned system.” Tôn Đản Street had the store reserved for high-ranking government officials; Nhà Thờ Street had a store reserved for intermediate-level officials; Đồng Xuân Market was for the merchants; and finally, sidewalks are reserved for the heroic people.
  9. Huy Đức, op. cit., Volume 1, Mấy lời của tác giả (A few words from the author).
  10. Huy Đức, op. cit., Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 9, Xé rào (Breaking the barriers).
  11. Huy Đức, op. cit., Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 4, Nạn kiều (The victimized immigrants).
  12. Huy Đức, op. cit., Volume 1, Part 1, Chapter 4: Nạn kiều, Section Vụ Cát Lái.
  13. Lâm Vĩnh Thế. Mẹ tôi: một phụ nữ tiêu biểu của Nam Kỳ Lục Tỉnh (My Mother: a typical woman of Cochinchina), online document accessible in full-text at this URL: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B3Hpasd2o_vcUlYyVGhrZVI2SzA/view
  14. Jones, Gary, “Skyluck, the ship that smuggled 2,600 people to Hong Kong — and freedom,” South China Morning Post, online article, available full-text at this URL: https://multimedia.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/3006757/skyluck/index.html?src=social

.