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Chapter Nineteen

I remember that I had an open letter posted on the websites of Nguyễn Huệ Chi, Nguyễn Trọng Tạo, and Trần Nhương discussing the denunciations of the book If You Go To the End of All the Seas made by a number of Vietnamese living in the United States.

As a prelude to this topic, nothing is more suitable than to go over this open letter:

Dear anh Huệ Chi, anh Nguyễn Trọng Tạo, and anh Trần Nhương:

First of all I want to thank you and also apologize to you. I want to apologize because I was the key cause of the noisy and tense exchange of messages that has gone on throughout the past month concerning my book If You Go To the End of All the Seas and another book written to protest my book. This matter has cost you a lot of time, and has troubled your peace of mind. I wish also to take this occasion to thank and make apologies to Mr. Nguyễn Hữu Đính, Mr. Trần Huy Thuận, and the websites Facebook, and Đàn Chim Việt Info, and a number of readers who have been interested in this topic. I sincerely hope that you all will forgive me.

1. The Communist Party and State

As you all know, there is an opinion abroad that “the communist party and government issued me travel documents and assigned me a mission.” Good God! The matter was not really so solemn and important! As for “travel documents”,” I must elaborate as follows: From the time that I went to Europe in 1997 (I had business in Brussels, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris…), I have not had to go through any procedures, however trifling, with any Vietnamese government agency. At first I was very astonished at this, but later I learned that this was due to the enactment of various international agreements signed by Vietnam. From that time until the present, all my trips to foreign countries (including Japan, France, and many times to the US, nearly all in response to invitations from organizations in these countries) have had nothing to do whatsoever with any Vietnamese government agency. All I have had to do is bring my passport (which every ordinary Vietnamese citizen can obtain from the city police for a fee of 200,000 đồng) together with a letter of invitation to the embassy of the country I wish to go to. The embassy issues me a visa and I am on my way. This change of procedure was a major turning point in our international relations, which for many decades previously had been very troublesome and hard to understand. So, with matters being handled in such a straightforward and transparent manner, known to millions of people, any psychologically normal person would find it impossible to believe that I had come the US because “the communist party and government had “issued me travel documents.”

As for the allegation that the communist party and government sent me to the US to carry out a mission, the facts are as follows:

In the middle of 2002, the William Joiner Center (WJC) of the University of Massachusetts expressed a desire to invite me to come the US to participate in a program called “Conducting Research on the Vietnamese Community,” supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. I thanked the Center but declined, for the simple reason that I don’t know how to “conduct research,” and moreover don’t like engaging in research. To do a very time consuming task requiring great expenditures of effort, the result of which is merely a pile of paper that ends up in a drawer and at best gets read by two or three people a year is in my view a pointless exercise.

In August, 2002, the WJC contacted me again and made a renewed invitation. I again said “thank you very much” and declined. Finally, with great sincerity, the Center told me that many people in the US wanted to meet me. This time I very happily said “thank you very much” and flew over. I received six months salary, airplane tickets for all domestic travel, and a stay permit. Having written this, I fondly remember, and am deeply grateful to, all the people in the WJC for the solicitude and attention they bestowed on me.

If there was ever any intervention of “the communist party and government” in my overseas travels, it was a thing that occurred in an earlier period in the late 1980s, when I was endlessly wretched due to the non-acceptance of my films by the leadership.

2. You’re Old! You’ve Done Enough Already! Have Fun! If You Don’t, You’ll Die Anyway!

On the 1st of October I arrived in Boston. A few days later, I went to the WJC office in the University of Massachusetts campus to greet everybody and “take up my assignment” from Mr. Kevin Bowan, the director of the Center.

In response to my anxieties concerning my invitation and the work I was to do for the center, my friends there reassured me in a joking manner: “This is America—which means you can do whatever you want. Whether you do some writing or make a film is up to you. If you have no interest in doing something, then just spend all your money and return to Vietnam.”

“This America of yours is terrific! If I can’t manage to do something, then I’ll just go and have fun. Do you know what? Before I got on the plane in Hanoi, a young friend of mine gave me this hearty advice: ‘You’re old! You’ve done enough already! Have fun! If you don’t, you’ll die anyway!’ He spoke very sincerely, as if he truly cared for me.”

Trần Văn Thủy and an American girl who speaks Vietnamese.

A genuine American girl who spoke polished Vietnamese drove me to Hollywood.

O.K.! So I went and had fun. A poet I had just come to know named Hoàng Chính Nghĩa took me to Las Vegas. On another occasion a genuine American girl who spoke polished Vietnamese drove me to Hollywood.

She was very good to me. Sometimes she stopped the car, so we could sit atop a high hill and gaze at the whole Hollywood area spread out beneath us. But now I’ve forgotten her name—what an idiot I am! I met Lưu Hà again—he had been my cameraman for Hanoi in Whose Eyes—after many years of being out of touch. He offered to take me to Disneyland. Then some young students from Vietnam took me to see the autumn colors in the northeastern state of Vermont. The natural scenes in the US—the sky, the forests, the rivers and oceans, the color of sunlight—were indeed attractive in the eyes of a filmmaker like myself.

But, as if pushed along by an invisible force or by fate, I came across many situations and stories among the Vietnamese with whom I came into contact. The happy stories I quickly forgot, but the sad ones preyed on my mind a great deal, especially tales of escape across the borders or by boat through the sea, re-education camps, and imprisonment.

And suddenly I would feel a vague sense of guilt…

Then on one occasion, I was riding on an immensely wide and endlessly long highway with more than ten lanes, gazing up at the sky where a flock of birds was flying south, and on my right where the waves of the Atlantic Ocean were hurling themselves with a deep, surging roar against a stone wall, sending up great sprays of white foam. I suddenly shivered all over, as if I were receiving a revelation from a very high and distant place: “Heaven and the Buddha are conferring upon you an opportunity to perform a useful task!” I was struck dumb.

From that moment on, I stopped having fun. I decided to devote my entire heart and mind to a task that was still vague and without any clear objective, but which I felt would be useful. Naturally, as far as the WJC and Kevin were concerned, I would in any case submit a stack of paper with words on it, whether long or short, shallow or deep. You can call it anything, Kevin, but please don’t call it a “research paper!”

So I couldn’t roam around having fun anymore, even though the words of my young friend still echoed in my ears: “You’re old! You’ve done enough already! Have fun! If you don’t, you’ll die anyway!”

3. The Culprit is Good Old Mr. Nguyên Ngọc!

I put pen to paper and wrote some opening pages, then, with an effort, I managed to produce about sixty or seventy pages that read pretty smoothly. Because I have the habit of wearing an automatic “Kim Cô” hat (an iron hat that contracts painfully whenever one’s superior gives a signal). And in the world of Vietnamese literary community, there are quite a few people who have only to think of their superiors to get a headache.1 I myself always thought of the readers—readers in Vietnam, and especially readers in the US. So I got completely stuck and could no longer write anything! Even if I tried hard, was deeply motivated, sincere and eager to be objective, anything I wrote would be scrutinized, analyzed, and searched for inferences; and all because of one simple fact: I had come from Vietnam! That, alas, is the nature of Vietnamese! There are so many things I wanted to convey, to express, to think over with regard to the scenes around me, especially since I had gone to many states, met many people, visited many families, listened carefully to conversations, and had given talks in close to a hundred different universities in the US.

Driven by circumstances and spurred on by my profession, I thought of a far more workable method that might elicit more compassion from my audience; that was to make a beeline for some intellectual and literary friends and exchange impressions with them in an open manner, discussing the actual lives and thoughts of Vietnamese people in the United States. Yes! That would be more effective! That way I could avoid having to rack my brains and compose an article—I could simply take down some truthful notes and pledge to my friends that if the notes were published, they would be true to the original copy.”

I felt much relieved; the good heartedness of my friends and the craftiness of a documentary filmmaker had opened a path for me to proceed on. But this too would require a lot of effort, as the notes I made of these discussions were very great in quantity. In the end, after creating the whole manuscript, typing it up, and putting it between covers, it would amount to more than two hundred pages, which I would submit to the WJC two weeks prior to my departure from the US.

And then, like a blessing from Heaven, good old Mr. Nguyên Ngọc, the writer, suddenly appeared on the scene in Boston, sharing the same house, going out with me, and chatting about miscellaneous matters, such as “Thủy, what are you doing here?… “Oh, I see!… Have you finished writing it?… Could you let me take a look?”

Mr. Nguyên Ngọc read it for three nights, then rose early one morning. Before sitting down at the breakfast table, and with eyes red from putting in late hours, he placed his hands on the stacked manuscript and, looking into my eyes said, “Thủy! This is badly needed and useful! I couldn’t believe my ears, so I asked, “What did you say?” And he again said “This is badly needed and useful!” I felt hot all over. Since the old man had said this, I believed him, but how could one say that this “research project” that was neither fish nor fowl was badly needed and useful? A friend of mine standing nearby who had overheard us offered nothing in the way of praise or commentary, but simply said in a deliberate manner, “If this manuscript is published, you won’t be able to go home! If you go home, you can never get it published. There’s never been any fellow who published anything like that over here who dared show his face in Vietnam again.” After only a few seconds of silence, I said very clearly to Mr Nguyên Ngọc, “If you feel that this manuscript is badly needed and useful, I’ll publish it immediately—and then I’ll return to Vietnam!”

The next day I flew from Boston through Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The people who met me at the airport were the writers Hoàng Khởi Phong and Cao Xuân Huy. Right away, while riding in the car, those two got on the phone and arranged for If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas to be printed before I went back to Vietnam. I said to them that to print the book we’d have to obtain permission and also submit the text to the censors—there surely wouldn’t be enough time. Hoàng Khởi Phong and Cao Xuân Huy burst into laughter and started teasing: “What a bore! The US has no Department of Ideology and Culture and… Oh Yes! It has no Ministry of Culture, either—so why do Americans scoop up so many cultural and artistic prizes, including Oscars and Nobels—it’s so strange!”

And that was how the book If you Go To the Ends of All the Seas came into the world—swiftly and effortlessly. There were no suspicious plots to fear, no special talent to admire. In short, whether good or bad, correct or mistaken, good old Mr Nguyên Ngọc was the culprit.

4. Such are the Vietnamese!

When the book If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas appeared in Orange County in 2003, it immediately made waves. To be perfectly fair, many readers in the US accepted the book; the difficulty, however, was that it had been written by someone from Vietnam. In that period, the popular news media among the Vietnamese community in the US were such that it wasn’t easy for them to show sympathy for the work of a person who lived in Vietnam under the “communist totalitarian” regime. So the people who favored the book kept silent; while those eager to denounce and level charges against the book had a ready-made forum from which to speak.

The situation of the book If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas in the United States at that time was the same as that of the film Hanoi in Whose Eyes in Vietnam during the early 80s. Back then, the people who appreciated and supported the film were numerous, but they had no power and no forum; while the people who denounced it and leveled charges against it were few, but they had the power, the forum and even the machinery. Our elders in the past often said, “Within disasters, blessings lie concealed”; and they weren’t wrong. People were curious to buy and read the book, to give it friends as a gift, and send it to Vietnam. Very soon, the book was sold out. In 2004 Hoàng Khởi Phong had to get the book reprinted. The reprinting of a Vietnamese-language book in the US is a rare event, for in the US, the number of people who can read Vietnamese is slowly but steadily diminishing. If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas was similar to Hanoi in Whose Eyes in that people were anxious to seek it out and read it because it had had the good fortune to be attacked and discussed, and hence was blown up into a great affair, and not precisely because it was a good piece of work. Thus one can see the truth of the saying that “disasters conceal blessings.”

I once had occasion to speak of this relationship of blessings to disasters with some American film directors at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), where a showing of my films had been arranged, with the presence of the Oscar-winning director Peter Davis. People asked me, “When you make films in Vietnam, do you have to submit them to government censorship?”

My reply was, “Your question seems to come from someone living on another planet—of course we do!


“If you make films in Vietnam for public showings, then you must submit them to the censors! It is thanks to censorship, criticism, and the noise created by government banning, that I get to enjoy public attention, and become… famous! So you see, ladies and gentlemen, that if I could make films the way I wanted to, as you do in the US, I’d have no way of becoming famous! I feel very sorry for American film directors, who often have to spend a third of their budget for advertising so as to attract audiences and become famous. I don’t lose so much as a penny on this; instead I rely totally on censorship, criticism, and banning to become famous.

And so, my dear friends, you may rest assured that I feel entirely at ease with the criticism, attacks, and smear campaigns that have been directed against the book If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas. This is nothing, absolutely nothing, in comparison with other trials that I’ve had to live through in the practice of my profession. These have been far more terrible and bizarre. Those experiences, though true, seem to have been made up, and are as entertaining as the events in Chinese kungfu novels.”

But, if anything, I feel sorry for my own people. Read, for example, the words of Vũ Anh (a veteran reporter under the RSVN regime who once accompanied President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu on a visit to Italy.) In the preface to If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas, he expresses his disappointment with the core nature of the Vietnamese:

Everyone knows that the US has long had a conception referred to as the “melting pot.” This has a great deal of meaning for all groups that have emigrated to the US Concerning the figurative meaning of this expression, the BBC English Dictionary (1993) has the following definition: “a place or an environment where the thought and culture of many peoples are mixed together (see “Dossiers on American Culture,” p. 63, Thế Giới Publishers). In the US, this mixing doesn’t come about through some enforced process of assimilation, but is based on the foundation of the acceptance of differences, so that different peoples can join in building a civilized and prosperous life. This, it appears, is the fundamental character, the essence of a “melting pot.” Does this, then, have any impact on the Vietnamese community with regard to the problems that we have referred to?

According to many researchers, past and present, the core nature of the Vietnamese is rife with problems. It is precisely due to this that Phan Chu Trinh regarded raising the intellectual level of the Vietnamese as the first order of business; and the scholar Nguyễn Văn Vinh wrote a newspaper column entitled “Examining Our Faults” that appeared in his newspaper at the turn of the twentieth century.

So could it be that the origin of the problem is not only the political system of Vietnam (though naturally this is of the utmost importance) but, at its deepest level, the core nature of the Vietnamese?

Perhaps I should relate as well that at that time, among the people who went with me to participate in the WJC program, were anh Huệ Chi, anh Hoàng Ngọc Hiến, and many intellectuals from different countries. Anh Huệ Chi, an intellectual of great integrity, who was never a communist party member and who was always pained at the unreasonable things going on in our society, was also yelled at in the US, and denounced in a very abusive manner as a communist operative and a “cultural guerilla.” Anh Huệ Chi just smiled and concentrated on learning computer techniques, so that he now manages one of the most respected webpages in the country: “Bauxite Vietnam.” As for me, I’m very ignorant with regard to computers—fortunately I was sharing quarters with the director Đỗ Minh Tuấn; he was the first person who showed me how use the internet for email exchange and chatting.

At that time in the US, anh Hoàng Ngọc Hiến was also strongly attacked, but he only laughed and joked about it. We loved him and used to meet him very often at home, at the club, and at the recent seminar on Vietnam-US literature. Witnessing the paradoxical situations and circumstances of the Vietnamese living inside and outside Vietnam, he often shook his head and said something everyone could appreciate, “Well, such are the Vietnamese!”

5. Labyrinth

Dear friends:

This has turned into a rather long letter. Nevertheless, I can be neither objective nor truthful if I avoid or forget an important matter that may be of interest to many of you. That is the attitude of authorities at various levels within Vietnam with regard to the book If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas. It was terribly amusing. Let me elaborate on this.

A few days after I had returned to Hanoi after leaving the US, a friend of mine who had formerly gone with me to the war zone (he was a writer, and I was a filmmaker) came to visit me. He had no problem with If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas and was particularly interested in getting a copy for a friend, also from the war period, who was now the head of the Party’s Department of Ideology and Culture. I was extremely hesitant, saying that it wasn’t really a literary work, and that I wasn’t actually a writer at all; it was just a sociological research paper with nothing interesting in it—it wouldn’t be suitable to give him a copy. But my friend persisted in this request, and said that the person he referred to would meet me after he read it. He went away with the book, full of sincere intentions. Of course I had no interest in waiting to see anybody. But later on, in early 2005, an unwelcome development occurred. A person who cared for me gave me a document with the title “Report on the Review of Ideological and Cultural Conditions in 2004.” It bore a TOP SECRET chop and was signed by a person named Đào Duy Quát. Of course, in this “top secret” document that I had no choice but to read, there were many trivial stories that I had no interest in. But when I came to a section consisting of a scathing criticism of If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas, I of course had to take note. I was already accustomed to reading articles, summaries, and reports criticizing my work; not only that, I kept copies of quite a few things written about me inside and outside the country. So why make a photocopy of that “top secret” document to include with this letter? Wouldn’t that be uselessly perfectionist?

But perhaps due to all this criticism and all the speculations of the “sidewalk news agency” blowing up the importance of this book, quite a few copies of If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas secretly found their way into Vietnam. Many people passed photocopies of photocopies to each other, and even rented copies from book vendors along the streets. Mr. Nguyễn Đức Bình, the director of the Văn Nghệ publishing house, came up from Saigon to see me in Hanoi and discuss printing If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas. I happily thanked him for his interest and said that I wouldn’t take a penny of copyright money. I had one condition, however. The publisher must print the entire text, 100%, down to the last period and comma. Anh Bình said that if a word was too sensitive, he could replace it by a series of dots. I said that this should not be done, because it would put my friends in the US at risk of being accused of “falling into a communist trap.” They were all people who had conversed with me, and helped me write the book. It was indeed not a simple matter.

My dear friends,

In summary, I wish to share a private thought with you here. Vietnamese people, starting from what period and for what reason I don’t know, have expended immeasurable quantities of effort, time, money, and human life to… attack each other!

It’s truly a shame! A people afflicted with every sort of privation and difficulty will find it hard to get along even if they are united in love and loyalty to each other—so how can they improve their lot if they are only interested in attacking each other? Where can they find any left over energy or calories to build up their society? Could it be that the business of “advertising your political stance” and getting lost in the “political labyrinth” (I meditate a good deal on the term “labyrinth” used by Nguyễn Mộng Giác) remains the permanent predicament and karma of the Vietnamese? No political regime or group of intellectuals, it seems, has devoted adequate attention to this predicament. It is obvious that along with all our fine traits, many outworn and injurious habits and faults of conduct still lurk within us.

Finally, let me sincerely express my affection and true gratitude to all of you who have given me this opportunity to share with you these matters that I feel we should be concerned about.

—Trần Văn Thủy


BTW, it just now occurs to me that you have urged me to agree to have If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas posted on the web, or to put it up there myself. I have no personal objection to this, but as someone who has been most carefully educated in the cinema industry of Vietnam with regard to the concept of “organization and discipline,” I’d suggest that you first ask the permission of the Department of Ideology and Culture, and secondly that if on reading the book you find it too poorly written, you do your best to put up with it.

I think that Tết is coming soon; so I hope soon to meet and share some wine and laughter with you all, so our lives may be a bit more enjoyable. In this life, things that are important are indeed important, but in the final analysis, nothing at all is important. C’est la vie!

1. This expression derives from the Chinese Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West (Xīyóu Jì 西遊記) in which the monkey Sūn Wúkōng has to wear a metal hat that contracts painfully whenever he doesn’t listen to his master, a Buddhist abbot.

Order In Whose Eyes from the University of Massachusetts Press, or from Amazon.