Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

IX. Accounts of Imprisonment and Reeducation

Includes examples of an important literature from Vietnam: narratives of prison life. Most of the accounts in this section are autobiographical and many are written by Vietnamese exiles, and so they could be listed in Section V, "Autobiographical Accounts", or Section X, "Accounts of Imprisonment". They are collected here to highlight this important category of literature from the war. Most accounts recommended are by Vietnamese now in the West who spent time in communist-run " reeducation" camps after 1975. The introduction explains the significance of these prison narratives and presents some background information on reeducation.

Discussion: Vietnam's Legacy of Prison Literature

Most of the accounts in this section are autobiographical and some are written by Vietnamese exiles, and so they could be listed in Sections V or X, but there are good reasons for highlighting them in a special section. Roughly half of the Vietnamese writers listed on this bibliography have been imprisoned at some time in their life. Some were in colonial prisons run by the French, or, as in Ho^' Chi' Minh's case, in Chinese prisons, or they have suffered in "reeducation camps," which were also prisons, run by the communists after 1975. Other Vietnamese have been imprisoned by anti-communist Vietnamese regimes and their American allies. Sadly, the experience of prison is widely shared by Vietnamese: literature about prison life forms an important part of Vietnam's literary heritage.

In a speech on May 1, 1960, Ho^' Chi' Minh announced that the thirty-one current members of the Vietnamese Communist Party's Central Committee had spent a cumulative total of 222 years in French colonial prisons. He called for revolutionary memoirs (ho^'i ky' ca'ch documenting this experience and other aspects of the anti-colonial struggle.1 Unfortunately only a few of these memoirs have been translated--accounts by Nguye^~n Duy Trinh et al., Nguye^~n Thi. DDi.nh, Tra^`n Tu+? Bi`nh, and Vo~ Nguye^n Gia'p (See Section V). Although all these authors spent time in prisons, their narratives are not focused on their prison experiences.

Most of the accounts below are by anti-communist Vietnamese who spent time in reeducation camps after the war ended in 1975. We have quite a few accounts of this experience because many former inmates have later come to the U.S. either as "boat people" or by plane under the Orderly Departure Program, a program negotiated with Vietnam that provides for safe emigration out of the country. In 1989 the U.S. negotiated a bilateral agreement with Vietnam that gives priority in the ODP to those who have spent at least three years in reeducation. As of August, 1995, 405, 000 Vietnamese have been admitted to the U.S. under ODP, including 123,000 persons (includes former prisoners and their families) under the Former Re-Education Camp Detainee subprogram.2

In the frantic days and hours leading up to the final collapse of the Saigon regime, many Vietnamese had to make quick decisions as to whether to stay or to try to make it out to one of the American ships waiting to take them to the U.S. Those who stayed did so for a variety of reasons-- because they did not want to leave their homeland, because they couldn't find a way to escape, or because they felt they had nothing to fear from the communists and wanted, now that the war was finally over, to contribute their energy and talents to the rebuilding of their country. Some, like Nguye^~n Long and DDoa`n Va(n Toa.i, had opposed the war and been imprisoned by South Vietnamese authorities, and so believed the communists would not bother them. Soon after the communists took over, former officers in the armed forces, religious leaders, intellectuals, employees of the Americans, officials in the former government, and some men, who, like Jade Ngo.c Quang Huy`nh, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, were asked to report for reeducation. Usually they were told to pack enough clothes and personal effects to last ten days or two weeks. Many did not return for several years. Some remained until 1988, a period of fourteen years.3

In introducing To Be Made Over, Huy`nh Sanh Tho^ng explains that

[t]he term 'reeducation,' with its pedagogical overtones, does not quite convey the quasi-mystical resonance of ca?i-ta.o in Vietnamese. Ca?i ('to transform') and ta.o ('to create') combine to literally mean an attempt at 'recreation,'at 'making over' sinful or incomplete individuals. Born again as 'Socialist men and women' (con ngu+o+`i xa~-ho^.i chu?-nghi~a), they will supposedly pave the way to the Communist millennium. (x)

In reality, however, the camps were terrible places in which men were forced to work at hard labor with not enough food and no medical attention. They were also placed in terrible moral dilemmas. In a moving section in his Lost Years, Tra^`n Tri Vu~ explains that just before he was released after four and a half years in reeducation he was told by a cadre that as a condition of his release he had to denounce any fellow prisoners who opposed the revolution or had not yet "achieved a good education" (376). The cadre handed him a pen and a piece of paper. His face flushed and his heart pounding at the prospect of freedom, of seeing his wife and children again, he sat dumbfounded. Freedom was almost in his grasp but it could only be achieved by betraying the trust of his fellow prisoners. Finally, he hit upon a solution: he would denounce himself, admit what he knew his wardens already knew, that he had made some tables and chairs for another prison guard who had sold them. The tactic worked for Tra^`n Tri Vu~ but this episode and others in these accounts hint at the compromising decisions that prisoners had to make.

These accounts reveal much more, however, than the physical and mental agony of incarceration. They contain moving sections that describe the mutual sympathy that sometimes developed between prisoners and their guards, some of whom suffered in the camps along with the inmates. Jade Ngo.c Quang Huy`nh, for example, explains how he was befriended by a guard, a fellow southerner, who resented his comrades from the north. In this case, regional loyalty overcomes political ideology. Nguye^~n Ngo.c Nga.n describes how he was intrigued by a guard's dream to learn English and to attend a university in Hanoi when he was demobilized. He agreed to teach him English secretly, a dangerous activity for both of them, using a dog-eared copy of English for Today that the guard had brought back from Saigon.

In these accounts we see the clash in cultures between the sophisticated, typically highly-educated prisoners from the South and their uneducated guards and carefully-indoctrinated teachers. We see this clash in almost every account of reeducation but perhaps nowhere more vividly than in Vo~ Ky` DDie^n's portrait of Brother Ten, his teacher in a political training class for teachers of the former regime. Lips dark from smoking too much tobacco, hair as yellowish as cornsilk, weakened by malaria, Brother Ten passionately presents his view of Vietnamese and world history. The author knows Brother Ten is absurdly misinformed but still marvels at his theatrical performance.

In summary, we should emphasize these accounts because they depict an important aspect of the war, one that affected many Vietnamese, including many Vietnamese who now live in the U.S., and because they are moving narratives of people adjusting to stress. These accounts can also be used to restore a more balanced view of the Vietnamese conflict. Some accounts by Western academics romanticize Vietnamese revolutionaries. The narratives in this section present a less rosy view of what it is like to live under communism. Nguye^~n Long, for example, describes in detail how the communists set up ward and neighborhood information networks so that everyone becomes involved in watching everyone else, a system that destroys personal and family privacy.

In the U.S., so much attention has been focused on American prisoners of war that it becomes easy to forget the large number of Vietnamese on both sides that spent long periods of time in prison. Readings in this section make it clear that captivity was an experience shared by both Americans and Vietnamese.4

In one sense, however, this section of readings may encourage a distorted view. It contains no accounts by Vietnamese communist soldiers who spent time in prisons run by the South Vietnamese government (often with American assistance). Though I know such accounts must exist, I have not been able to locate any.5



1. Peter Zinoman, Abstract of his talk "Reading Revolutionary Prison Memoirs," Abstracts of the 1996 Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies (Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 1996). 243.

2. These figures come from a report on behalf of the President submitted to Committees of the Judiciary of both the House and Senate on August 1, 1995.

3. According to testimony to a House subcommittee by Dinah Pokempner of Human Rights Watch/Asia, thousands of reeducation camp inmates were released in 1987 and 1988. "At present," she testified, "all such 'reeducation' detainees who were held continuously since the 1975-76 period without trial have been freed." The date of her testimony, which was before the House Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, was July 26, 1995.

4. Teachers could compare Vietnamese and American accounts of imprisonment. In The Vietnam War: Teaching Approaches and Resources, ed. by Marc Jason Gilbert (Greenwood Press: New York, 1991), several bibliographies of works by Americans about their POW experience are listed. See pages 147 and 221.

5. A Vietnamese acquaintance in the U.S. told me such accounts may be rare because communist soldiers were expected to resist until death. Those who didn't aren't eager to publicize the fact.

Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies
Dan Duffy, Editor Viet Nam Publications
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Revised: June 18, 1996
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