This chapter has a brief introduction followed by five sections:
1. Some Words of Caution
2. If You Go to the Ends of All the Seas
3. A Letter
4. Blind Wise Men Examining an Elephant
5. A Chat With Cao Xuân Hu
In the English Book everything except for section 2 (moved to Chapter 1, “The Swimmer”) and section 3 (corresponds to Chapter 17, “A Letter”) is omitted.
Life is a source of inspiration for artists as they create their works, and also an endless source of dramatic situations that appear in documentary films. Every author makes use of what most concerns him or her in that endless source of inspiration. In this life of endless hues and aspects, it is human destiny that I am most sensitive to and which always becomes the material for my documentary films. I am deeply stirred as I stand before the different spectacles of life and see in them opportunities to recreate them and bring them to viewers in the hope that they will all share in them, and so draw closer together and love each other more. My first work was a film about war, but in this film one absolutely does not see fierce fighting, heroic actions and attitudes, sublime self sacrifices, and glorious victories; instead one sees the destinies of human beings in circumstances of hardship and danger.
When I had to work in other countries, and had the means and opportunity to travel to many places, I met with all kinds of people, especially artists, intellectuals, and social activists, in order to enrich my own understanding, and learn how to access and accept different modes of thought on a wide array of issues. A silkworm can’t perpetually continue emitting its thread without eating mulberry leaves; and an artist can’t engage in creation without continually absorbing materials from life to enrich his understanding, especially with regard to facts of life that are relatively new to him.
I have recounted my own experiences during these trips in my book If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas, which has appeared in two editions, all done abroad. It is a book full of humanistic content, which, for some inexplicable reason has not appeared in Vietnam. Now, let me quote some of the content of this book.
1. Some Words of Caution
Dear friends and readers:
Allow me to use the term “friend,” as I feel that those who read each other’s writings are already friends. I regard people older or younger than me as friends to whom a difference in age means nothing. To me, the word “friend” expresses something intimate and kind, though a bit old-fashioned. It would be most unfortunate we had no friends in this life.
But then I wake up with a start, when it occurs to me that, who knows, in the situation that now prevails in the Vietnamese community, there may well be someone who will take offense and say, “You VC scoundrel! Who could be friends with you?!” This thought brings me to a halt and compels me to ponder further.
This makes me think of the expression “Ladies and Gentlemen,” that I have used in many encounters with foreigners in the countries where I have gone to show my films and give lectures. This mode of address seems very dignified, and preserves a certain distance between the speaker and his listeners; it has been widely used in the higher reaches of society ever since the beginning of the twentieth century when the modes of address and civilized manners of the west poured into the small and weak country of An Nam (former name of Vietnam). So, I’ll have to be a little longwinded:
“Ladies and gentlemen, and friends!”
Having gotten this far, I find myself in great sympathy with the attractive young announcers on the TV broadcasting stations in our country. Years ago, they would all say “Dear friends,” but I heard that some old gentleman in his 70s or 80s found this insulting. Gazing at his unoffending television set, he began scolding it: “You little twerps! Who could be friends with the likes of you!” I must acknowledge that Vietnamese people are extremely hard to please. But I may be an exception, a more easygoing type. Whenever I’m addressed as “anh” (brother) by a girl twenty or thirty years younger than I am, I am overwhelmed with pleasure.
During the years since the opening up of Vietnam, many people have returned to their homeland, many foreigners have learned to speak Vietnamese, and modes of address on television have evolved accordingly: “Ladies and gentlemen, and friends!” I am entirely in sympathy with this form of address on VTV, and give it my entire approval during this transitional period. The only thing that makes me a bit thoughtful is that a people often proud of their civilized traditions and their several thousand years of history has to stumble along with the times in such a simple matter as modes of address.
“Ladies and gentlemen, friends and readers!”
What is in your hands is not a book! That’s a fact, not false modesty. When referring to books, people generally expect to find in them intellect, literature, ideas, and scholarship.
In the beginning of 2001, a number of Vietnamese and American scholars wrote letters recommending me to the William Joiner Center and encouraging me to join them in writing something. At first, I was very hesitant, for many reasons. But later, after thinking it over, I decided that I would regret it if I didn’t go, so in the end I wound up on American soil for a fairly long period. I went to many places and met many people, and gave presentations or took part in conferences in more than twenty universities and cities, in which I showed the documentary films I had made. And later, pushed on by professional needs, I paid many further visits to the United States and took more than thirty domestic flights within the US. I saw still more and gained a deeper understanding of many things. If I were a disciple or descendent of Nguyễn Tuân (a writer known for his classic adventure books), I might have the audacity to write a book with the title “Roaming Around America.” It would be wonderful if I could do that. But my lot has been to follow the disciplines and techniques of cinema, so my procedure will be the narrow and humble one of a documentary filmmaker.
Sometimes, carried away on a wave of enthusiasm, I think of writing something more complete, with a beginning and an end, like a novel. But when I look at the preface to the first volume of A Person of Hundred Years Ago by Hoàng Khởi Phong, I become less eager, as I read the following: “I am fully aware that I am a stranger here, even though I came here very early. Eighteen years have passed [and now twenty-eight years ~ Trần Văn Thủy], and even if I should spend another eighteen years here, I know I would still be a bystander. You shouldn’t try to write about your life when you know you’re just a bystander.”
And so what I am offering here is no more than some unpolished notes on my daily life and work, together with some inputs and exchanges I have had with those who have regarded me as a friend. Thus, if you are looking for surpassing philosophical or literary profundity, or passages that reveal the weaknesses of others’ political stances, then please forget about this book and read no further.
I have no special skill at introducing myself, have no ambition to mount a podium and make a presentation, and above all no ability to argue with anyone. Here I have only recorded a few things that I’ve thought, seen, and experienced, together with some conversations I’ve had with other intellectuals and writers living abroad. When someone only wants to present what he thinks, and has to explain at length that he is not capable of arguing with anyone, he will himself be conscious of the extreme weakness of his position.
Actually, the idea of writing these humble notes has obsessed me since the 80s, when we made a number of documentary films under murky circumstances. Among them two films attracted much attention both inside and outside the country: Hanoi in Whose Eyes (1982) and The Story of Kindness (1985). However, it was not until late 1987 that these films were allowed to be shown officially. Those were fateful years in my life as a film-maker.
It appears, on reflection, that people often feel isolated even from themselves. I thought to myself. “Why are you so infatuated, so crazy? These matters are none of your own business. Don’t waste your time! Just live in peace!”
Yes, mankind in general, and human beings in particular, for the most part habitually desire to live in peace, to be left alone. And that’s absolutely right! I’m the same. And that is not to mention all the desires, all the yearnings that arise in circumstances in which human nature plays but a small role, and in which animal nature is heavily predominant. But in moments of stillness, and during sleepless nights, something nudges me awake, and then goads me, advises me, to think of something, to be concerned with something, or to act on something. And this is just to find solutions to my own concerns, to reason with myself, and to satisfy myself with old memories.
2. If You Go To the Ends of All the Seas [moved to Chapter 1 in the English book]
I remember that in my childhood years, I was deeply impressed by a lullaby:
Oh stork proceeding stepwise on the riverbank,
Oh stork, how can you cast aside your mother’s care?
I ask you who the one who bore you was,
And why you cast her off and fail to nourish her,
Remember former days when, going everywhere,
She hunted shrimp to keep you fed.
You’re ungrateful as a stone, oh stork,
Your father’s care, your mother’s love, do you remember it?
Oh ah, ah oh…
In my child’s mind at that time, the words of this lullaby were closely tied to the months and years we spent in countryside evacuation sites with bamboo palisades surrounding all the villages, the sound of swaying hammocks, and afternoons when sunlight turned the rice fields to gold. They were closely tied also to the cherished images of my mother and father as invoked in the line “I miss the mother of my childhood…”
Then nearly half a century later, pushed along by the currents of life, when making a documentary film with the financial support of a wealthy country—Japan—I was still unable to forget those distant childhood memories. This film, though “made in Japan,” was created by me with the title Once There Was a Village, and concluded as follows:
When I was little, my family was evacuated to the countryside. There, the person who cared for, fed, and taught me and my brothers and sisters was a wet nurse, a country woman, whom we called “auntie,” “auntie Nhuận,” out of love and respect.
Every evening when the gardening, rice husking, and rice pounding was over, and when the chickens had gone to their coops, she would set up a hammock on the porch, and would lie on it, telling us stories. Back then I was quite unaware that she was illiterate; I saw only that she had an endless fund of stories and poems in her memory that went on night after night.
And so one night, beneath the mysterious night sky full of twinkling stars, a big question mark concerning the nature of the finite and the infinite suddenly arose in my childish imagination, and I began to question my auntie as follows:
- “If I go to the end of our village, what village will I come to, auntie?”
- “Our village is called An Phú. If you go to the end of An Phú, you’ll reach An Lễ.
- “And if I go to the end of An Lễ, what village will I come to?”
- “If you go to the end of An Lễ, then you’ll come to An Phong.”
- “And then what places will I come to?”
- “After An Phong, you’ll come to An Nhân, and then An Đạo.”
- “And if I go the end of An Đạo, what will I come to?”
- “If you go to the end of An Đạo, you will come to the sea.”
She explained these things to me with confidence. I was filled with endless admiration at the breadth of her knowledge. And then suddenly I got up and asked her,
- “And if I go to the end of all the seas, where will I come to, auntie?”
In the depths of that dark night, my auntie was silent. From the time that I first started to understand things, I had never seen my auntie so downcast. In a voice full of sadness she answered,
- “Even I have no idea where you will arrive if you go to the end of all the seas.”
I gradually grew up and gained a wider understanding of the world, while my auntie quietly passed away during my years abroad. She had no children, so her grave was desolate and lonely. Once, while lighting incense by her grave, I sorrowfully whispered the following words to her:
- “Oh auntie, I love you, for until you died, you never knew where a person would arrive after going to the end of all the seas. Now I know the answer, auntie. If you go to the end of all the seas, passing all the oceans and all the continents, going on and on without stopping, you will at last return to your own homeland, to your native village, auntie! I’ll save some money to make a better grave for you. And please allow me to put on your headstone these words:
Here my auntie rests in peace,
An old illiterate country woman,
Who was the first teacher I ever had.”
The Japanese not only supplied me with money to make films, but also allowed me to do it the way I wished, so I referred to and discussed about the “self.” In films “made in Vietnam,” it is very difficult to discuss about the “self.”
In this connection, I should add that when I returned to my home village after many years in faraway places, I no longer saw the names of all the villages as they had been in former days. I was very sad. History records that during the 10th year of emperor Tự Đức reign (1829), when Nguyễn Công Trứ, the Dinh Điền Sứ (magistrate in charge of the lands), together with our founding ancestor Trần Trung Khánh, built the dykes, reclaimed the sea and expanded the land, to establish the district of Ninh Nhất, they named the new villages of “cửu an” (nine villages at peace) including “An Lạc” (at peace with happiness), “An Phú” (at peace with wealth), “An Lễ” (at peace with ceremony), “An Phong” (at peace with tradition), “An Nhân” (at peace with humanity), “An Nghĩa” (at peace with rectitude), and “An Đạo” (at peace with morality), etc… The people of those days thus established a moral foundation and expected future descendents to follow the core values in the names of these villages. But now their “civilized and reformist” descendents have simplified these names to “Village 1,” “Village 2,” “Village 3,” and so on, as if they were military barracks. The former names are gradually fading in the recollection of the elders. It is a great pity.
In my homeland, Catholics and non-Catholics are about equal in number. Many people moved to the South in 1954, and after 1975 many went on to the United States. This is entirely understandable. My homeland lies in the coastal area of Nam Định Province belonging to the Bùi Chu diocese; and just on the other side of the Ninh Cơ River is the diocese of Phát Diệm.
Now that I am here on American soil, in touch with the overseas Vietnamese community, I can’t avoid being bothered by the words I uttered so earnestly at my auntie’s graveside in earlier days: “If You Go To the End Of All the Seas, going on and on without stopping, you will at last return to your own homeland, to your native village.” I don’t know if there was ever a period or a circumstance in the turbulent history of our nation that led to such a deep polarization of human souls that millions of people abandoned their own homelands and risked their own lives in the open seas. But I know with utter clarity that a good many Vietnamese being away from their homeland, have “continued past all the oceans and all the continents, going on and on without stopping”, but in the end have been unable to “return to their homelands, to their native villages.”
I was mistaken when I imagined that the things I was most passionately concerned with in my films would find a response in every viewer. Here, when people go to the end of all the seas, they only reach the US; and in the US, the Vietnamese community is a world with a thousand hues and aspects, with who knows how many problems requiring thought and discussion. No amount of paper and ink would suffice to explore them.
3. A Letter [appears as Chapter 17 in the English book]
It is here in the United States that I want to relate a personal story that perhaps has nothing special in it, but is much related to the way I look at the past, present, and future.
I have in my possession a letter, which, when I read it to my wife and children, would elicit this response: “Father, this could be the script for a wonderful feature film.” I’ve never paid much attention to films that tell fictional stories with actors playing roles, focusing instead only on real events in people’s lives—but the letter in my hands was a real life story, a real story of a friend who had once been my childhood classmate.
Let me be a bit discursive, and say that in the 1953–1954 school year, we joined the 7-Grade B3 class in the Nguyễn Khuyến school, which in former times had been the Nam Định Thành Chung School. It seems that in every person’s life, one’s school days leave the deepest and liveliest imprints. I remember that in our class, there were many people who sang beautifully, such as Lưu Linh, Đào Thúy Lan, and Nguyễn Thị Phương Khanh. I miss so much those lovely songs, such as “Chiều” (“Dusk”), “Thiên Thai” (“The Other World”), “Sơn Nữ Ca” (“Song of the Mountain Girl”), “Thu” (“Autumn”), and “Đêm Đông” (“Winter Night”).
In class I sat next to a close friend, a good student, quiet and reserved by nature, named Nguyễn Hữu Đính. His family traded rice. His home was large and roomy, built in traditional style, but with a balcony where the shopsign “Linh Lợi” (written with curvilinear strokes) was displayed. The address was 41 Bến Thóc (“Rice Pier”) street, and in front of the house stood a large phoenix-flower tree. 1
Đính’s story is related to that of another friend of ours in the same class, whose family name I can’t recall, but whose given name was Viễn. Viễn’s home was in the country, where he and his family lived in poverty. Viễn was only an average student, but at the age of thirteen he had read and virtually memorized all the Chinese novels that were available at the time, such as Tales of the Táng Dynasty (Shuō Táng Yǎnyì), The Eastern Campaign of Jié Rénguì (Jié Rénguì Dōng Zhēng), The Western Campaign of Jié Rénguì (Jié Rénguì Xī Zhēng), Journey To the West (Xī Yóu Jì), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó Zhì Yǎnyì), Outlaws of the Water Margin (Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn), and Dream of the Red Chamber (Hóng Lóu Mèng).
My own home wasn’t especially roomy, but my parents always sought to please the friends of their children, so Viễn lived in my home. In those years, not so much because “the price of rice was high,” but because he cared for his friend, Đính often took rice on the sly from from home to give me as a contribution to support Viễn. When he gave me a packet of rice at home or when school let out, he wouldn’t say much, aside from a brief admonition: “Mind you —don’t let Viễn know and feel sad.”
And then after 1954, my circle of friends broke up—some went to the south and some returned to the countryside or moved to a different province. One night, when he ought to have been in bed already, Đính knocked on the door of my house. As always, he was quiet, and finally after some hesitancy said, “Hey Thủy, my family is leaving. Let’s not forget each other, Okay? I’ll write you.”
After that night, we didn’t meet again. Đính went to the South with his family, and left me a six-by-nine-inch sepia photograph which showed him in profile, with light falling on his slightly upturned face. Back then communication between North and South was limited to postcards printed for the purpose on which people could write a couple of lines concerning their health. And after a couple of exchanges of that nature, Đính and I lost touch with each other entirely, so that our friendship existed only in our memories.
Then came the terrible years of warfare. I took a training course for cameramen and then was transferred to the South to film the war. So for three years I dragged myself here and there amid bombs and bullets, a movie camera in my hands. I had many close brushes with death in which I would vaguely imagine my friend of former times, now on the other side, pointing a gun at me. Thank God, that never occurred.
When I visited Saigon in 1978, and again in 1981, I made efforts to find my friend, but could learn nothing about him anywhere. And in later years, during the many occasions when I went to other countries to attend film festivals or professional conferences, no matter where or what the occasion was, I would make further efforts to learn about him. Every time I was interviewed by the press or on TV, I would always remember to run through a set of phrases, such as: “In the 1953-54 school year, my friends and I joined the 7-Grade B3 class in the Nguyễn Khuyến School in Nam Định…” to see if I could get any word concerning my friend. But I never heard a thing.
I returned to Nam Định many times, and went back to Đính’s old house, putting out feelers in the neighborhood, but no one knew a thing. The house had changed owners three or four times. The situation was like that in the story of Từ Thức returning to his home village. And so I thought that was the end of the matter—my friend was no doubt dead; I could not expect too much from Heaven.
But then due not to skill, but to sheer luck, a person was able to help me discover a relative of Đính’s still living in Saigon. I hurriedly wrote a letter to that person, and received an answer only a few days later:
Hồ Chí Minh City, November 11th 2000.
Dear Mr. Trần Văn Thủy:
I have had the honor, sir to receive your letter, and would like to introduce myself to you: I am Nguyễn Hữu Thái, the younger brother of Nguyễn Hữu Đính. My brother and I lived in the rice shop “Linh Lợi” at 49 Bến Thóc Street in Nam Định during the years 1950–1954.
Back in those days, my brother Đính was close friends with you and Mr Sơn (DURAS). The three of you would often go to watch movies at the Văn Hóa Theater (on Paul Bert Street), and at the Majestic (on Hàng Thao Street).
I was truly moved by your letter. It was profound in content, and you were very passionate and sincere in the way you described your feelings concerning the turbulence and pain endured by the Vietnamese throughout their lives, together with your fond recollections of the loveable streets of Nam Định in days gone by: the flowers and vegetation, the river banks, the old streets and sidewalks, and all the friends of those beautiful days that are now so distant.
I still clearly remember the night when you and Đính bade farewell to each other—you gave my brother a book of wonderful written reminiscences that he still carefully preserves. And on that night my brother wept when he returned to our house.
My brother Đính is still living in Montreal. I know for a fact that he will be overjoyed to meet the dear friend of his childhood once again.
I wish to share the joy of this amazingly lucky reunion and to respectfully convey to you my brother’s address.
Nguyễn Hữu Thái
I sent a letter from Hanoi to my friend in Canada and shortly afterward received an answer from him. The full transcript of his letter, written by hand, sixteen pages long, is as follows:
Montreal, December 7th 2000
I just received a letter from my younger brother in Vietnam, in which was enclosed your letter and address. I was truly overjoyed and astonished!
And so, I have found again the close friend of my early days after forty-five years of lost contact!
After going to the South, I would sometimes look in the album you gave me. Looking at your picture I would remember the days when our houses were near each other, and we would go to one or the other to talk. And I also would remember your elder sister Muội—we would often use her name to write letters teasing the musician Hoàng Giác.
After going to the South, I made many other friends, especially when I grew older and began my adult life, but these friendships weren’t the same as the one I had with you, a friendship both naïve and pure.
Once in France I sat and watched The Story of Kindness, and, seeing that the filmmaker was Trần Văn Thủy, I said to my wife, “Perhaps this film-maker is my old friend.”
I watched the film many times; I liked it very much, because it was very deep, and spoke of things that everyone seeks and hopes for. And I thought to myself, “In times like these, to speak in this way for everyone to hear takes guts; in fact one can only say that it is courageous.”
One day, when I went to the Asian market in the thirteenth district (arrondissement) in Paris, I met a student who had just come there from Vietnam, and I asked him about the film director Trần Văn Thủy. He told me that Trần Văn Thủy was still very young. When I heard this, I thought that the filmmaker could not be the Thủy that I knew, because by then you and I were both already over fifty—hardly young! And then I kept thinking about the phrase “Born in the North to die in the South”—with bombs raining down so fiercely how could you have remained alive?”
Yet, you are still alive; you have sent me good news. Forty-five years have passed—nearly half a century—fearsome indeed. And I feel a bit sad when I reflect that I’m already sixty-three this year—I can live, at best, for another 10 years. I have no idea if I will get to see you once more before closing my eyes forever. So I have this suggestion: if you have occasion to visit the US or Canada on business, then stop by Montreal to see me; and if I have occasion to return to Vietnam, I’ll go up to Hanoi to visit you.
From the time that I first came here until now, I have been back to Vietnam three times, but each time it was because my mother was seriously ill, and the last time for her funeral—so I didn’t go anywhere for fun at all, but remained the whole time in the environs of Saigon. My mother died in January 2000 at the age of ninety-one.
Now let me relate to you what happened in my life after we parted.
We left Nam Định early in a morning with a fine mist while it was still dark. My family of six people left in three groups of two. We brought along no baggage, just as if we were going to Hanoi to visit relatives. We left the lights on in our house, with all the mosquito nets still in place.
After staying in Hanoi for one day, we left the next day for Hải Phòng by train, still in three groups, as if we didn’t know each other. On reaching Hải Phòng, we remained there for a week, and boarded a ship bound for the South.
In the South I studied in the Sixth, Fifth, and Fourth levels (Đệ lục, Đệ ngũ, Đệ tứ) in the Nguyễn Trãi school in Saigon. Then I studied in the Third, Second, and First levels (Đệ tam, Đệ nhị, Đệ nhất) in the Chu Văn An School, also in Saigon. Among our old classmates studying with me in Saigon were Lê Triều Vinh, Lâm Hữu Trãi, Trần Đình Chi, Nguyễn Thị Phương Khanh, and Nguyễn Thị Vinh.
Later on Lê Triều Vinh graduated from college as a mathematics major, and became a professor of mathematics. Lâm Hữu Trãi graduated from the National Administration Institute and became a provincial department chief. Trần Đình Chi became a teacher. Nguyễn Thị Phương Khanh became a nurse, and Nguyễn Thị Vinh became a public servant.
As for Ms. Băng Tâm, our old English teacher, she continued as a teacher after coming to Saigon—but she killed herself in 1959 due to unhappy family circumstances.
After graduating high school, at second level, I enrolled in a medical school. But in my second year there I developed inflammation of the lungs. My teacher at the medical school advised me to choose another branch of study, because medicine is a very arduous profession that requires you to remain awake throughout the night working in hospitals—he feared my health couldn’t stand up to this. Back in 1961–1962 there were no effective medicines as there are today, so many people with inflamed lungs succumbed to tuberculosis and died. I therefore listened to my teacher’s advice and abandoned medicine—that was my first failure; I shall in due course recount the ones that followed.
My withdrawal from medical school made me wretched and downcast for a year. On one sad and listless day in the following year, I paid a visit to the Law School to see a few friends. They encouraged me to study law, so I enrolled in the law school. In my third year there I read in the newspaper that an examination to select law clerks would soon be held, so I submitted my name and had the good luck to get a passing grade, after which I was selected for a position in Bến Tre Province.
After working in Bến Tre for two years I had to enter military service. The war was escalating at that time, so young men all had to join the army. I studied in the Thủ Đức Officer Candidate School for nine months. Because I had certificates in administration and finance earned while studying at the law school, I was reassigned to the National Training Academy for Cadres in Vũng Tàu, and was put in charge of administration and finance. I worked there until 1970. In that year I met my future wife, whom I married two years later, in 1972. By then I was thirty-five years old.
The reason I was so late in starting a family was that it had been my intention to remain a bachelor throughout my life. The reason for this was that I had grown up in a family in which my parents were in sharp conflict. This conflict was too severe to be resolved, but my parents didn’t wish to live separately because they feared for the futures of their six children. So the two of them passed their days side by side, hardly conversing, as if they were two dim shades of the departed.
This state of affairs, which went on for decades, made me afraid of conjugal life. And in addition to this, when I worked as a clerk in the Bến Tre provincial court, the chief magistrate there put me in charge of separation and divorce files. Every week married couples would appear in court with children weeping because of their parents’ separations. This made me even more disillusioned with marriage.
And so I made my decision to remain a bachelor. I studied cooking, bread making, and tailoring, with the idea of doing all the tasks that women do, so that I would never need a woman to help me. My mother ran a large store in Saigon’s District 4. She had many friends, and among them were many matchmakers. My three younger sisters were students in the Trưng Vương school, so their friends often came to my house, but I ignored everyone.
On one occasion my mother called me into her room and said, “You’re grown up now—you must get married, so I can be at peace.” My reply was, “I’ve decided to remain a bachelor, mother!” I saw her expression darken at this, as she lowered her head and slowly shed tears. I felt keen regret. To this day I still feel keen regret.
And so a struggle began deep in my heart, and when I reached the age of thirty-five, my friend, I had to accept defeat and submit to the laws of nature! Let me tell you the whole story! When I was working at the National Training Academy for Cadres in Vũng Tàu, I got sick and had to go in the hospital. On weekends the wives, children, and loved ones of the friends on either side of me at the hospital would come swarming in to visit them; but as for me, my father and mother were busy with their store, and my younger sisters were too busy with their studies to come visit, so I just lay in my bed, abandoned and alone. It was too sad!
When I took a ferryboat back to Saigon after getting well, I noticed a husband and wife with a little child sitting on a bench in front. Throughout the trip from Vũng Tàu to Saigon, the couple and their child played and joked together in a very happy manner. This began to shake my resolve to be a bachelor.
One day I was preparing to go on a business trip with the director of my academy. While I was sitting in his living room, waiting for him to appear so we could set off together, the daughter of the director came into the room and asked,
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Saigon on business with your father.”
“You’ll be visiting your wife, right?”
“No, I don’t have a wife.”
“Are you telling the truth?”
“Then I’ll introduce you to a good friend of mine.”
The daughter of the director (her name was Lệ Tâm) fixed a time on the Sunday of the following week for us to meet at the Pink Cloud Café on the Front Beach in Vũng Tàu, so that she could introduce her friend Hồng to me.
But then that week I had to go to Saigon on business, and got so involved in it that I forgot all about the appointment. On Monday, when I returned to work in my office, Tâm phoned and scolded me severely: “You made me and my friend wait for a whole hour on the Front Beach in Vũng Tàu—you never showed up.”
I apologized and asked her to make an appointment for the next week. But when the date came, I was restricted to quarters and couldn’t go out. Some friends invited me to drink with them, and I forgot to phone the director’s daughter, so the two young women again waited for an hour. And I got scolded again. I asked to arrange a third meeting and promised that this time I would appear punctually.
When I arrived at the agreed-on place, and Tâm introduced her friend Hồng to me. She was of partly French parentage, had been born in Nam Định, was quite attractive, and seemed good-natured. I say “good-natured” because I had twice made her “climb a tree” (i.e. stood her up), and expected to be scolded, but that didn’t happen. She was cheerful and pleasant, as if nothing at all had happened. “This girl,” I thought to myself, “is attractive and good-natured. She would make a good wife.” So I decided to marry Hồng. It was an easy, spur-of-the-moment decision, just like my previous decision to enter the Law school.
Two years later, the wedding ceremony took place on December 24, 1972. And on April 11, 1973, Hồng presented me with our first child: Hồng Ngọc. Hồng was a teacher in Vũng Tàu at the time, and my salary was also sufficient to live on, so the two of us lived easily in material as well as spiritual terms.
Then the upheaval of April 30, 1975 occurred. We knew before then that the government of the South would collapse. I had arranged to have my wife and child go to Saigon, and I myself went to Saigon on the first of April. The reason I gave was that I wanted to receive further professional training, but actually I had reserved an airplane ticket to take us all to France. Around April 10, 1975, my wife asked to go back to Vũng Tàu to settle some financial accounts. I told my wife to stay only one or two days there and return immediately to Saigon, but she didn’t listen to my advice, and lingered for several days. When she started back, fighting had erupted everywhere, the roads were blocked, and she could no longer get back to Saigon. When the date of the flight arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to go alone, leaving my wife and child behind. My wife at that time was five months pregnant with our second child.
And so I decided to stay. When the revolutionary tank brigade entered the city, we saw quite a few soldiers of the old regime run into alleys and kill themselves. Sometimes it was just a single soldier, and sometimes a group of two or more—they would bring their heads close together before pulling the pin of a hand grenade.
And I too went out of my senses, fearing imprisonment, so the thought of suicide began to preoccupy me. On the afternoon of April 30, 1975, I went to see some friends who dealt in medicine, and told them (falsely) that I had insomnia and needed sleeping pills. I managed to collect forty pills (twenty pills were sufficient to induce a fatal coma). I decided to commit suicide on the night of May 1, 1975. I wrote a long letter to my wife explaining my reasons for taking this step.
When you’re about to die, my friend, you enter a very strange state. As you look at your surroundings, and at the people walking up and down the street, you have the impression that all this belongs to another world, and is no longer a part of your own world. And another strange thing is that each time you bring the sleeping pills to your mouth, images of your wife and children appear before your eyes. And then you hear, as if in the distance, the sound of your child crying. And then you remember how, each day, when you returned from work, your child would run up and happily embrace your legs. So I asked myself, “Why are you departing this life? Why are you abandoning your responsibilities? Why are you putting all the heavy burdens of life on Hồng’s shoulders?”
When my reflections had reached this point, I sat up, tore the letter to pieces, and threw it into the toilet, together with the forty sleeping pills, then pulled the chain to flush them all away—this was the first of my failed suicide attempts.
On May 12, 1975, I presented myself for re-education. Here, I ask not to recount all my experiences in “reeducation” camps; suffice it to say that I passed through four such camps: Hóc Môn, Long Khánh, Phú Quốc Island, and Hàm Tân. Once on Phú Quốc Island I grew sad to the point of despair; and so, for the second time I tried to commit suicide. I still remember that it was a night dimly lit by the moon. Around midnight I disengaged the drawstring from my hammock and carried it stealthily toward the latrine. Next to the latrine, along a fence, was an unfinished building, the steel frame of which had just been erected. I had walked past this structure many times in the afternoon. My intention that night was to climb a ladder there, tie one end of the drawstring cord around my neck, and attach the other end to the steel framework.
But it seems that matters of life and death are predetermined by fate. On that night, having carried the cord by stealth past the latrine, I came to the foot of the ladder and began climbing it mumbling a few Buddhist prayers. But when I was halfway up the ladder, a security guard standing on a watch-post next to the fence shouted, “Hey you! What are you doing?”
I hastily slid down the ladder, returned to the place where I slept, and then as before thought dreamily of my wife and child. The next morning, I planned to cut the drawstring to pieces, but I didn’t have a knife, so I coiled it up, did the same with the other drawstring, and threw them into the latrine ditch.
After three years in reeducation camps I was allowed to return home, the reason being that, though I belonged to the army, I had been assigned to a civil affairs unit, and had not been involved in any fighting. Furthermore I had risen only to the rank of 1st lieutenant in the civil affairs unit; therefore both my crimes and my rank were regarded as “light.” I left reeducation camp in 1978. My father died in 1979.
After leaving reeducation camp, I couldn’t find work, so I began trying to escape Vietnam by boat. I made five unsuccessful attempts, and lost all my money in the process, but fortunately escaped death on two of those occasions.
The first time I waited with others at the Back Beach in Vung Tau in some shrubbery for a small boat that would take us to a large boat. It was the middle of the night, and it was drizzling steadily. Everyone was kneeling on the sand reciting prayers. The Buddhists were reciting sutras, and the Catholics were reciting supplications to God. My two children started crying loudly. This alarmed everyone present and they told us to give the children some cough medicine to make them sleep. They each had a spoonful, but didn’t sleep. They took second and third spoonfuls, but still didn’t sleep. When they had drunk half the bottle, they didn’t cry any more, but started laughing unrestrainedly. Everyone was afraid the police would discover us, so they shooed us back home, and wouldn’t allow us to go with them anymore. And so the four of us went back by stealth on footpaths so as to avoid police guard posts. The result was that we lost sixteen taels of gold.
The next day we heard that the small boat, which could only take about forty passengers, had been boarded by seventy people. No one yielded to anyone else—they just kept climbing aboard until there were seventy people on the boat. When the boat reached the open ocean, it was overturned by a great wave, and nearly everyone on it was killed—there were only a few survivors. Among those killed was my wife’s younger brother Hùng. Hùng was a handsome young student, tall in stature, and known by everyone around Vũng Tàu to be a good swimmer. When the passengers came aboard, the lady in charge of the boat collected fees in gold from them and put it all into a backpack that she had Hùng wear on his shoulders. When the ship went down, some people greedy for the gold drowned Hùng by forcing him down in the water, so they could get the bag. The boat owner and her three children were killed along with the passengers.
Now, Thuy, let me tell you how I escaped death a second time. This escape attempt was organized by my cousin’s friend. Each persom was to pay four taels of gold; but at the last minute the boat owner increased the fare to five taels. This made me angry, so I withdrew from the enterprise. The boat went out to sea as planned, but during the twenty years that have elapsed since then, no letter has ever been received from any of the passengers on that boat, among whom was the husband of my cousin. She grew so distraught that she went insane. She now lives in the Ottawa insane asylum, about 200 kilometers from my home.
So you see, Thủy, that I’m a lucky person—I encountered death four times, but each time the god of death spared me. After five unsuccessful attempts to escape by sea, in which I lost all my money, I still was unable to find any work, so around the beginning of 1980 I decided to to work as a cyclo driver in Saigon. There’s no need to describe what that sort of life is like. I’ll never forget the meals I ate on sidewalks consisting of a bowl of rice with a dried fish. The rain would run down from my hat into the bowl, turning the contents to soup. And I’ll never forget the ragged clothes I wore, driving the cyclo. My passengers were sometimes old friends of mine, or sometimes former students or girlfriends.
During this cyclo-driving period, my wife applied for permission to go to France as a Eurasian requesting repatriation. And thanks be to God, her application was accepted.
We left Saigon for France on August 19, 1983. I remember that when the plane went up from the runway that day, every one around us burst into tears. My wife sobbed, tightly hugging her children. And I too couldn’t keep back my tears as I gazed through the window at thec city beneath us, the place we had lived for more than twenty years with memories both joyful and sad.
In France, I found work in a chemical manufacturing company. The salary was enough to live on, but consumer prices were high, and there was widespread unemployment, which made it hard for students to find work after graduation, so we decided to emigrate to Canada in July of 1992. I still have a younger sister who works as a sidewalk vender on Bàn Cờ Street in Saigon. My older brother died in a reeducation camp.
Well, enough for now. This has become a long letter. I promise to continue the story in my next letter. I wish happiness and peace to you and all your family.
Your friend from former days,
—Nguyễn Hữu Đính
When I came to Boston at the beginning of October of 2002, I at once called Đính, and my friend zoomed down from Montreal to see me. We embraced and gazed into each other’s eyes. Yes, we were old now, old indeed. But my friend was still gentle and quiet as always. On the night of that rare reunion, awaited for nearly half a century, a VC soldier and an RSVN officer shared the same room and talked to each other into the small hours.
I couldn’t sleep. Not exactly because memories of the school days I had spent with my friend came flooding back. Not exactly because Đính had twice tried to commit suicide in re-education camps. And not exactly because I had had so many brushes with death in the war. But because I kept imagining a swap of destiny that could easily have occurred in our respective lives. I imagined that, back in 1954, if my parents had not been so bound to their ancestors’ land, or had yielded to the persuasions of others and taken their children to live in the South, then it would have been hard indeed for me to avoid becoming a Ngụy (“puppet” or RSVN) officer. And if the family of my friend had for some reason remained in the North, then my friend would certainly have become a VC soldier.
Neither of us felt the slightest need to avoid talking about politics, or felt the slightest hesitancy in resuming the innocent friendship of our school days. We were both, deep in our hearts, completely at peace, and I also recognized that this was a moment to be savored, an unlooked-for blessing in our fleeting lives.
In the small hours, Đính suddenly asked, “Hey, do you think that fellow Viễn is still alive?”
I remained silent, pretending I was asleep.
4. Blind Wise Men Examining an Elephant
I recall that from the end of 1988 to June 1990, my friends in Western Europe asked me to film the Vietnamese communities living in France, Germany, England, Italy, and Belgium. I found this project interesting, but also difficult. In that period, socio-political conditions in Vietnam were very backward, so getting to know the overseas Vietnamese, interviewing them, sharing experiences with them, and filming them, would be a highly sensitive matter.
Back then, many people were worried about my trip and my work there. I myself was fully aware of the risks associated with what I was doing. But after great efforts made by friends, who acted as intermediaries, and also due perhaps to the wide circulation of Hanoi in Whose Eyes, and The Story of Kindness in other countries, some doors began to open. Those two films suddenly became a sort of “international passport,” making it easy for me to draw near to many Vietnamese of different political orientations living abroad. We shot more than a hundred hours of film on that occasion in almost all the big and small towns where Vietnamese people lived in those countries. We made contact with many intellectuals, artists, performers, scientists, teachers, priests, civil servants, merchants, and boat people, including elders, officials and officers of the former South Vietnamese government…
Normally to start with, we would engage in small talk. Our aim in doing this was to awaken confidence, tolerance and a certain high-minded objectivity in each other. After more than a year of hard work, we recorded great quantities of useful information, even beyond our expectation.
I myself discovered many things that were new to me, which made me feel closer than ever to my profession as a documentary filmmaker. Documentary films don’t require invention and imagination like feature films or novels. Documentary films rely on life to come alive and “life is the ultimate mother of truth,” as someone has observed.2
In Western Europe, I was indelibly impressed and haunted by the stories that people confided to me right from the first interviews; I found that in the minds of every Vietnamese who left the country, no matter in what circumstances, or with what political orientation, they all shared something huge in common. That was their place of origin, their homeland, their roots, their nationhood. In all such people in that period, one could see a deep, overriding anxiety whenever they thought or spoke of their country.
An old line of verse suddenly came to my mind: “Yearning for the homeland pains the black rail’s soul.”3 When I first formulated the idea for the film, I intended to use that line as the title; but then the more I thought about it, the more I felt that I didn’t have the necessary strength to make a film with such a title, as this would first of all require a thorough understanding, a power of thought, and especially a wider network of contacts. One should be able to get access to people from all sides and talk openly with anyone willing to open their hearts to you.
Then I thought of the title Wise Blind Men Examining an Elephant. On seeing this title, anyone with sufficient maturity would understand that it meant that this film would have nothing objective or precise about it; it would be like a series of idle, bantering observations or half-truths. And the content would depend on each person, on their knowledge and experience with life, on the concerns they could share with others, and nothing else. I thought that this title would be suitable to what I would be able to bring to the film.
Wise Blind Men Examining an Elephant has two parts. Part One bears the title “Miscellaneous Stories of Life Abroad.” At first I just called it “Stories of Life Abroad,” but later I saw that they were merely miscellaneous stories. But if we look harder at the five chapters in the film and the afterword, which makes six, I don’t think they are miscellaneous at all. I called the stories “miscellaneous” because I thought there were many more important stories in life, and that in every situation people would see what was more important to them and make their own choices.
And Part Two was called “Popular Stories”; it included portrayals of the lives, livelihoods, feelings, and tall tales of many people. Almost all of these stories were sincere.
The interview with old Mr. Nguyễn Văn Quý, for example, went very well. I was able to meet Mr. Quý through introductions provided me by friends and children of his. He made a very strong impression on me because he was so open. I asked him only four questions. The four questions followed each other in sequence and were very dramatic in character.
The first question I asked concerned the reason and the circumstances that had induced Mr. Quý and his family to emigrate to West Germany. With perfect clarity he told me that he had been a high-ranking official under the old regime, and so had endured extreme misery in reeducation camps. When he returned to Saigon as a second class citizen, he had to make a weekly report of his activities. This made him still more wretched, so he could not stay. Through this question, a portrait of a person emerged.
Then came the second question: “I have heard that in August and September of 1945, you were present in Hanoi. Do you have any noteworthy memories from that time?” It would perhaps be hard for me to find anyone who could speak of the August revolution, and the events of September 2, 1945 with more excitement, emotion, vigor, and intensity than he:
“I was present at the Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945. Ba Đình Square was submerged in a perpetually surging ocean of people. Uncle Hồ arrived in a Peugeot or a Citroën, with two detachments of cyclists escorting him. The applause and cries of acclamation that arose everywhere were deafening…”
When it came time for the third question, I asked, “Can you tell me about the dreams you’ve had more recently?” I think that in terms of a documentary film, this part is the most interesting. The horror of his situation lay in the fact that, though he was now living in a foreign country, his dreams every night were always the same: he dreamed only of returning to the reeducation camps again and again, dozens of times. Terrified, he would cry out in his dream, “No… no… I have completed my term, don’t you see! Look—these are my release papers! Why are you forcing me to return to the camp?!” Only on awakening and seeing the ceiling lights of his room, could he breathe a sigh of relief as he became aware that he was living in West Germany. But as for dreams consisting of beautiful recollections of life in his homeland, such as Hồ Gươm (Lake of the Sword’s Return), Hồ Tây (West Lake), or pretty lissome figures wearing áo dàis with their long flaps—he never had such dreams at all.
And then I came to the fourth question: “As for the people who are anti-communist extremists, what do you think of them?” I have observed that many people are very reluctant when they have to answer these direct questions on camera, but on that occasion he spoke in a frank manner very worthy of respect. “I don’t like violence or fancy political illusions. Some people are anti-communist only in salons and cafés. Worse still, others campaign for contributions so they can pocket money to “fight communism.”
The Vietnamese living in the northern part of Germany were made up of people who had left the country in the period 1970-72, as victims of war. Perhaps for that reason their love for their country was especially intense.
Among the boat people whom I interviewed was Mrs. Phùng Hồng Thúy, who had embarked from Hanoi. It was difficult for me to meet Mrs. Thúy, because of the prejudice that prevailed in the community against people coming from Vietnam. But after she met me, she became more open to me. Everyone took note to what she said, which were very truthful. I remember that Mrs. Thúy was very sensitive, and cared deeply for her parents, friends, and homeland. She spoke in a very moving manner and would cry if questions were not carefully put. An idea emerged in the interview that obsessed me, and I put it in the film because I respected her, even though some of my associates didn’t approve,. When I said, “Please help us by speaking truthfully of everything that you have undergone,” she thought for a moment and said, “Even that is extremely difficult, because I have never since childhood learned how to speak truthfully.” Naturally we cannot give one hundred per cent credence to what she said, but it was an observation full of pain, even if only the pain of one individual.
We visited and held interviews with Lương Hàm Châu, a descendent of the patriots Lương Văn Can and Lương Ngọc Quyến (early anticolonial revolutionaries), with his wife Phạm Thị Hoàn, the daughter of Phạm Quỳnh (1892-1945, a scholar and official of the Nguyen Dynasty), and made a record of their experiences, which were most searing and passionate.
We also interviewed Mr. Nguyễn Dương Đôn, the Vietnamese ambassador to Italy during the Ngô Đình Diệm regime. He had been one of the classmates of Đặng Thai Mai (1902–1984, scholar and father-in-law of general Võ Nguyên Giáp) and Prince Souvanna Phuma (1901–1984, former Prime Minister of Laos).
And we interviewed Mr. Phạm Trọng Nhân, the Vietnamese ambassador to Cambodia during the Ngô Đình Diệm regime. As we chatted, Mr. Nhân recounted painful and harrowing experiences in reeducation camps that he had passed through. He was a learned person from a traditional family background (he was the nephew of the scholar Pham Quỳnh), so when talking on camera he never complained, and even tried to avoid referring to his years in reeducation camps. I put a direct question to him: “What experiences in the reeducation camps do you remember most and make you the saddest?” He was silent for a moment, and then calmly gave the following reply: “I’m saddened only at the destiny of our people in their quest for solidarity and unity, and at the unnecessary polarization and losses of our people.”
This was the human dimension. But having traveled everywhere witnessing the lives of Vietnamese in Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and England, what disturbed me the most? I must say that at that time, I was a discouraged and passive person. I was inwardly oppressed by the feeling, the conviction, that there was no hope for the Vietnamese people. It is perhaps not right for me to speak out about this, as it might sound impolite, and will doubtless injure the feelings of many, but I think it is the truth. Let me be honest with you: When I was still in Vietnam, I had always thought that all the faults of our society—bureaucratic behavior, abuse of power, compelling others to think as you do, imposing opinions on others—were due the structure of our political regime, in a word, to “socialism.”
But now, having gone abroad to many places, made contact with many people, and read many things, especially in the virulently anti-Communist press, I saw many causes for concern. Anyone who didn’t follow the opinions of the writers was to be suppressed, hated, boycotted. So I began to suspect that the habit of using force to oppress each other, to trample on each other, to force others to conform to one’s own views, might be an inherent trait of the Vietnamese people. If this were merely the fault of a political system, then it could be fixed—if dealt with in a positive fashion, these ugly blots on our behavior would disappear. But if these faults were national traits basic to our make-up as a people, things would be far more painful. What kept oppressing my spirit was the feeling that it would be difficult for our nation to improve, to catch up to other countries, even if only moderately advanced ones. That is the truth. The more patriotic you are, the more you have to grieve!
During that period, a reporter from the Đức-Việt (German-Vietnamese) newspaper in Frankfurt on Mainz asked me the following: “Let’s think a little further. If this is the current situation, how did it begin?”
Instead of answering him, I recounted a short conversation I had with a French communist reporter. In a journalistic reception in Hanoi at the end of 1987, this reporter raised his glass and congratulated me on the public showings of my films Hanoi in Whose Eyes and The Story of Kindness. But then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “But to speak fairly, you fellows put too much blame on your government and the state.” I said, “You’re a foreigner. Perhaps you have a more sophisticated paradigm?” He again shrugged his shoulders. “There’s nothing sophisticated about this. We French have a saying: ‘Like people, like government.’ You fellows deserve your government!” I must add as well that when we made the film, we met countless numbers of talented and accomplished Vietnamese. If these talented people were respected. utilized, and given their wish to make positive and spirited contributions to national reconstruction, the country would certainly make more rapid progress.
We spent much time filming and interviewing Mrs. Điềm Phùng Thị, a famous sculptor and a member of the European Academy of Arts. She made many penetrating observations on the culture of Huế, about the contemporary art of sculpture, and about her dreams for the homeland.
We filmed and interviewed professor and musician Trần Văn Khê (a Vietnamese émigré in Paris). We particularly loved and venerated this man as a learned musician, anthropologist, culturalist, and an eloquent speaker. He said many things of vital importance about traditional Vietnamese music, culinary art, East Asian culture, and especially about all the problems and misunderstandings he had faced when he returned to Vietnam to collect examples of traditional folk music, for new international exposure. At that time, he played an important role in UNESCO.
We filmed many orchestral rehearsals in France conducted by the gifted musician Nguyễn Thiện Đạo (another Vietnamese émigré). We were informed that some organizations in France had commissioned him to compose four symphonic works for the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the French revolution.
We filmed and interviewed the artist Lê Bá Đảng, a person to whom the western press had given the name “Artist of the Two Worlds: East and West”. The artistic career of Lê Bá Đảng has been a source of pride to the Vietnamese; and during the talk on camera, he expressed an earnest desire to rebuild his home village of Bích La Đông in Triệu Phong, Quảng Trị Province. He also didn’t refrain from expressing his dissatisfaction with what he considered wrong and bad, preventing Vietnamese society from making progress.
A person about whom I wish to speak in more detail is the scholar Hoàng Xuân Hãn. He passed away six years after we filmed and interviewed him. In remembrance of his great integrity, contributions to scholarship, and long career, a group of Hanoi writers including the researcher Hữu Ngọc, and the writer Nguyễn Văn Hiền proposed to create a hefty three-volume commemorative work, entitled “La Sơn Yên Hồ [his literary name] Hoàng Xuân Hãn.”
Nguyễn Văn Hiền commissioned me to write an article to include in the volume. I accepted the commission with deep feelings of respect for the scholar Hoàng Xuân Hãn. My article was sent and set in type. “Will anything be cut from it?” I asked Mr. Hiền. “Your article will appear just as you wrote it—be assured of that!” he said.
When the book came out, Mr. Hiền invited me to the Giáo dục [Education] Publishing house to join a book launch party for “La Sơn Yên Hồ Hoàng Xuân Hãn.” The atmosphere was warm and jovial. A member of the organizing committee emphasized that, “This is the first book by an intellectual who is not a Communist party member that has been printed in a handsome edition with several volumes, with careful attention to all details.” I was presented with a copy of the first volume, which contained my article. Resting easy in the confidence that my article had not been censored, I only read it a few days later, and found many interesting articles written by people who had been close to Hoàng Xuân Hãn. Then when I came to my own article, which began on page 297, I read it with an increasing suspicion that it was missing a fairly long passage in which Mr Hoàng Xuân Hãn refers (in a very modest manner) to the land reform campaign in Vietnam. The full, original, text of my article is as follows:
Tribute to a great old friend
I remember that, if you take the Métro, it was tortuous to get there; You had to change trains a few times to get to Mirabeau Station, then make your way past a number of small streets with rows of broad-leaved trees and cafés very typical of Paris before you came to avenue Théophile Gautier. Number 60 on that street was a house with a fairly upscale look to it. I would take the elevator to the fifth floor and then ring the bell to his apartment, whereupon Mrs. Hoàng Xuân Hãn would appear at the door with a warm smile.
I no longer remember how many times I came to their home. Sometimes it was to visit them, and sometimes it was to have dinner with them. Sometimes I came just to listen to him talk about La Sơn Phu Tử.4 But most often I came to film them.
This was in the midst of a long trip I made to Western Europe that lasted from the end of 1988 to June 1990. After shooting scenes in a few dozen different locations, including most of the major cities of England, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and France, I tarried at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Hoàng Xuân Hãn longer than anywhere else. And perhaps this was not entirely coincidental. My friends suggested, and my instincts told me, to record anything I could. So we decided to place a camera (operated by Đỗ Khánh Toàn) in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Hoàng Xuân Hãn on many occasions. On each occasion we invited a person of similar capacities, such as a researcher, a learned person, or an admirer, to hold him in conversation. His rambling talks on camera have become rare and precious documents. I have never been in a position to turn them into a film. Recently, after Mr. Hoàng Xuân Hãn passed away, my friends in Paris sent letters back to me saying, “As good old Mr. Hãn has passed away, we got together to view the footage you made of him—we found it both moving and valuable.”
On camera, he spoke most of all about the history and culture of Vietnam. He spoke of the nation, and of democracy. He spoke of the restrictions we had suffered under French rule, and of the influence of French culture. He spoke about Hồ Chí Minh and about the Dà Lạt Conference. In short, the topics he touched on were all topics of value for later generations, and the language he used was full of the flavor of olden times.
During the last session in which they sat before the camera, I was the one who asked, “Dear uncle and auntie, when was first time you began to fall in love?”
They burst into laughter like children. Mrs. Hoàng Xuân Hãn recounted, “Back then, we went to France together on a ship together to study. After only a few days on the ship my husband had already begun to pay attention to me. On reaching France, we had become attached to each other. I wrote a letter back to Hanoi to ask my parents’ opinion. My parents wrote back instructing me to ask what year he had been born in. So I asked him, “What year were you born in,” and he said, “I was born in the year of the duck.” So I wrote a letter back to Hanoi saying to my parents, ‘He was born in the year of the duck.’”
By then they were both laughing so hard that they shed tears. I suddenly felt that she had kept all the beautiful features of her youth, even though she was already eighty something.
“Uncle,” I asked Mr. Hãn,“since you have lived in France for so many years, why do you still write books only in Vietnamese?”
“I have no desire to seek fame and profit by writing books in foreign languages. I write books in Vietnamese because I wish them to be read by my fellow countrymen and their children. They will read my books so as to understand history and believe in their ancestors and forebears. And as for foreigners, if they wish to read my books, they will have to learn Vietnamese. If they don’t know the language, they can come to me, and I’ll explain, so they can understand it.
(The following section was cut by the Giáo Dục publishing house:)
He was referring to the great losses suffered by his family in his home town during the land reform period. He was particularly concerned about the well-being of farming villages in Vietnam. He said,
- “The consequences of the mistakes made in the land reform campaign were not limited to the spheres of economics, politics, and culture. In my understanding, the greatest loss was that the farming villages were destroyed, and along with them, the trust of the people.
Then I ventured to ask, “Uncle, if my question is improper please just ignore it. I don’t really understand why many people like you who have suffered grave losses due to mistakes of the regime, still feel bound to the country, attached to their homeland, and in harmony with the system?”
He was silent for a moment, then looked up and began speaking, his pronunciation still bearing some traits of the Central Region: “This is not just me alone, but perhaps something common to all our people. The patriotism of the Vietnamese is very great. Though we may suffer personal sorrow, and private injury, we nevertheless put all this aside when facing matters that affect the destiny and survival of the nation. I wish to repeat that the patriotism of the Vietnamese is very great.”
(This is the end of the cut section.)
In the summer of 1989, the couple, in accordance with their usual practice, left Paris and went to a vacation home in Deauville in northern France. I had an opportunity to go there to visit them with some friends. It was a marvelous retreat area. It had forested hills covered with towering old pines. And gazing down into a deep valley, one saw the sea, the Manche Sea. I imagined that if I closed my eyes and jumped into it, I could swim for a while and reach England. But when Mr. Hoàng Xuân Hãn came to this place, he had no time to take a break. He told us to wander around as we pleased; he would bury himself in a stack of books, some written in Chinese, and some in nôm characters, and some consisting of editions of the Tale of Kiều. “I don’t know if I have enough time left,” he said; “I want to compare editions and seek out the original text of the Tale of Kiều. I believe that the transcribed editions all have errors.”
The quiet old villa had two large structures built in an old-fashioned style. One of these two structures was made entirely of wood and had many beautiful rooms; this they bequeathed to the Vietnamese state.
Perhaps it should also be added that Mr. and Mrs. Hoàng Xuân Hãn always gave an especially cordial reception to intellectuals and artists who came from from Vietnam.. Though he was old and busy with projects, Mr. Hãn reserved a lot of time to listen carefully to stories about his homeland.
On the three occasions when I came to Paris to give public talks and show my films, I always saw Mr. and Mrs. Hãn sitting in the audience near the front. On the last of these occasions, my films were shown in the Festival du Cinema du Réel in the Pompidou Culture Center on March 9, 1989. The theater, which had more than five hundred seats, was tightly packed, but I still saw them sitting in Row 5. His eyesight had weakened a lot by then. When reading, he had to use a magnifying glass and a jeweler’s loupe. He came to encourage me, and also perhaps to show everyone his concern for the country. But as for seeing the film, I am sure that was not his reason, for his eyes were incapable of seeing it. Allow me here to express my heartfelt thanks to the gracious soul of this gentleman. As I said to the audience on that occasion, at the end of the film show:
- “Ladies and gentlemen: In accordance with the customs of our people, allow me to present this bouquet of flowers to the oldest person among us in this theater today, a person who has lived in Paris for many years, and a person who throughout his life has devoted himself the culture of his nation, a person whom I hold in the highest respect: our revered uncle Hoàng Xuân Hãn.”
The theater erupted with applause that lasted a long time. His grandchild who was with him helped the old man get up. He took the purple bouquet of flowers into his arms, his eyes brimming with tears.
And now, I wish to respectfully light a stick of incense as a tribute to him from afar, to a great old friend.
—Trần Văn Thủy
5. A Chat With Cao Xuân Huy
Once, when I went on a flight from Boston to Las Vegas to Orange County, I had learned that Hoàng Khởi Phong would pick me up at the airport. In the baggage claim area, Hoàng Khởi Phong clapped my hand merrily and said, “Cao Xuân Huy has also come out to meet you, but he’s having to circle around outside because there’s no place to park.” When we went outside, a black Cherokee jeep pulled to the curb, and the driver poked his head out the window. I instantly recognized a set of familiar features but I couldn’t remember to whom they belonged. When we had gone to the house and set our bags down, Cao Xuân Huy said to me, “I look the same as a person whom you knew well back in Hanoi. I’m the son of Cao Nhị, the friend of all you fellows.” Good heavens! How could such a miraculous thing occur?! Cao Nhị had been a kind of elder brother in our group. In the small world of filmmakers, writers, and journalists in Hanoi, who didn’t know of him? He wrote short stories composed essays, made poems, worked as a journalist, lived merrily in life, and was much respected and loved by us younger folk. I knew all of his sons who were currently living in Hanoi. And now, as if he had dropped from the sky, here was this Cao Xuân Huy, another son, whom I had never even once heard of!
Trần Văn Thủy (TVT): So, Cao Xuân Huy, please tell me a bit about your life.
Cao Xuân Huy (CXH): Before, I was a first lieutenant in the marines of the RSVN Armed Forces. I was captured and made prisoner along with my unit when we were withdrawing from Quảng Trị at the end of March, 1975 at the Thuận An ocean shore town, outside of Huế. I’ve written about this in some detail in a memoir entitled “Broken Arms in March.” (Tháng Ba Gãy Súng). I was released from prison at the end of 1979 because I was no longer capable of labor. I escaped by boat to the US at the end of 1983. I’ve moved many times and done many different kinds of work.
TVT: How did you become a writer?
CXH: There was no choice involved. It was just something that “befell” me, that I had to put up with. It’s gone on for more than ten years, so now it seems I’m stuck with it. When I first came to the US, I stayed in the house of Hoàng Khởi Phòng, a person I regard as an elder brother. One day we were drinking with a few friends from my old unit, comparing notes with each other to see who had died and who had survived, and recalling memories of the retreat that took us across the Thuận An ocean beach. Our friend Nguyễn Mộng Giác, the author of The Discouraged Horse Galops On (Ngựa Nản Chân Bon) was then living in the same house, and was listening to us. The next morning Giác asked me why I didn’t write up my memories in detail. So I handed him a pile of memoirs that I had written by hand, and he published them on his own initiative in a newspaper that he was publishing. From that time on people began casually referring to me as a “nhà dzăng” (“witer,” that is “writer,” humorously mispronounced).
TVT: But what impelled you to take up a pen and do journalism? Was it in the genes you inherited from your father?”
CXH: It seems there was truly some “gene” involved, my friend. When I was still a student, my grades in literature courses were always below average—but now I’ve turned out to be a “litterateur.” I wrote Broken Arms in March, just to relieve myself of certain feelings that obsessed me. I took part in the war in the role of a person bearing arms, and after those years of “holding” a weapon, I myself was “held” in prison. My escape to the US was like emerging from a madly spinning whirlwind in a scene of mutual destruction. The last days of the war preyed ceaselessly on my mind. So when I came to myself again, I had to lay aside all those obsessively recurring memories in hopes of resuming a normal spiritual life.
When Broken Arms in March was first published, the layout didn’t please me, and there were many typographical errors, so when the time came to make a second edition, I purchased a computer and retyped it using the hunt-and-peck system, redesigning the text as I did so. From designing a book to designing a newspaper was only a short step. Gradually, I turned into a professional book and journal designer. And then, for a fairly long time, I was the editorial manager of Văn Học (Literature), a journal in the Vietnamese community here, and I would also write stories in my free time. And so, with no forethought at all, I suddenly became a “colleague” of my father—for I know that my father was a poet and a journalist.
TVT: Yes, exactly. Your father was a well-known figure, much respected among writers in the North. What image of your father remains in your memory?
CXH: The only image of my father that I have is a photograph in which he appears with my mother and her father and brother. In this photograph, my father is a very handsome youth, with his hair cut short, and with intelligent and kind features. When I emigrated to the South, I was only seven, and hadn’t met my father even once, but according to my mother, it seems that he held me in his arms once after I was born. In 1954 my maternal grandfather was “denounced”5 because he was a teacher and good at French, so my maternal uncle emigrated to the South, bringing me with him. My mother stayed in Hanoi to wait for my father’s return from the war zone after the Resistance War (the first Indochina war with the French). When my parents met again, my father told my mother that she belonged to the category of people who would “reform their lives through self-reliance” (i.e. go to a “new economic zone,” as the people of Saigon had to do after 1975). Even though she had participated in the Resistance War, my father could not intervene to keep my mother in Hanoi, because he himself came from a bourgeois landlord family. So in 1955, my mother went to the South. My father and I were able to communicate with each other by means of postcards, but after a few exchanges, this also was prohibited. From that time on, I had no further contact with my father. I lost contact with him when I was about ten years old. My father remained in Hanoi, got remarried, and had more children. My mother went to Saigon and also got remarried and had more children.
TVT: And what happened after that? Did you and your father look for each other? Was there any obstacle to your reunion after national unification?
CXH: When I was in prison, I didn’t want to communicate with my father, because I didn’t know if he would recognize an officer of the “puppet” regime as his own son, and at the same time I was afraid he would be implicated because he had a son with a “blood debt to the people.” I also didn’t know if my name, as a son who had gone to the South, had a place in the list of my father’s sons or not. And even I myself, in my “Personal Record,” had had to declare that my father “was dead,” to avoid complicated negotiations with the army security agency. I had had no news of my father, and though I was very eager to learn about him, I never expected that there would be any further communication between us. But then, in a totally unexpected fashion, around 1978, during a period of imprisonment in Thanh Hoá Province (in Central Vietnam), when I was chopping wood in a place called the Lòng Hồ Sông Mực construction site, I received an announcement from my supervising officer (in his own words): “Your father came to visit you, but he’s left already. He left you a backpack of supplies.” Good heavens! How could I ever have imagined this! My father had come for a visit! My father had come looking for me! Even though I didn’t get to meet my father and didn’t get the backpack of supplies, I was stunned, and vague images of my father floated through my mind.
TVT: Did you receive the backpack later on?
CXH: The backpack of supplies was equivalent to a great treasure at that time. I thought that it was big only for a poor prisoner like me, but actually it was big even for a camp cadre. So, even though I was entitled to it in principle, as it was my father’s wish, in the actual circumstances, a person like me couldn’t receive such a thing. I knew my political lessons by heart: “The revolution has spared you the death penalty…” I thought to myself that being spared from death was a cause for celebration already—not being “spared” the backpack was an insignificant matter wouldn’t, you say, my friend? I only felt sorry for my father, who, an old man, had made his way with toil through jungle roads, eager to see his son, and on reaching the destination, failed to meet him, and had to return empty-handed and lonely. This made me sad. But on the other hand, when I reflected that my father hadn’t received special treatment, I was very glad, because this showed that he did not belong to the category designated as “nhân dân” (“the people”; a term used in grandiloquent speeches); that meant that I didn’t “owe a blood debt” to him—how extremely fortunate!
TVT: So after that, when was the first time that the two of you got to meet?
CXH: The first time we met was at the end of 1979, when I was at the Bình Điền reeducation camp near Huế. At that time I had been issued a “release order,” because I was no longer strong enough to engage in labor; but since the holiday season was drawing near, I was being retained in prison, where I was assigned to a unit engaged in “light” work, so that my food rations wouldn’t be cut. Just as I was engaged in this work, a camp cadre ordered me to carry a chair to the visitation house. As I was getting near the house I suddenly heard a voice behind my back: “Is that you, Beng?” I was startled, for only a few people in my family knew this birth name of mine. I turned around, and saw an old man with a cloth sack on his shoulder, clutching a bamboo water-pipe in one hand, coming from a small road winding around the hillside, and walking slowly behind me. When I looked at him, I knew at once that he was my father. Tears welled from my eyes, and my throat was so dry and stiff that I couldn’t get any words out, not even the simple word “yes.” My father said, “Let’s go to the visitation house first.” I went, but my head swam as if I were drunk. To this day I keep asking myself how my father knew I was his “little Beng” when all he saw was my back—a son whom he had held in his arms only once in his life, when he was just a few months old?
TVT: Just keep going.
CXH: When we came to the visitation room, a camp cadre was sitting there already. As you know, my father is a man of few words, and I must confess that I am just like my father in that respect. “Are you in good health?” he asked. “Yes, I am.” “Did you recognize me right away?” “Yes, I did.” “Eat this chicken, it was made for you by uncle Phùng Quán.” “Is Phùng Quán a relation of ours, father?” “No, but he regards me as an elder brother.” I was moved to tears, and I felt immensely proud because my father was a close friend of Phùng Quán, a poet in the Nhân Văn—Giai Phẩm (two short-lived journals: Humanities and Belles Lettres) group, who had written lines that I had known by heart since childhood: “If you love someone, say that you love him; if you hate a person, say that you hate him; Even if someone threatens to kill you with a knife, don’t change the word “hate” to “love.” During the whole two hour visit, these few things were all we said to each other. The rest of the time the camp cadre kept talking on and on to my father about Hanoi.
Two days later, when I got to leave the camp, I went to see my father at a hotel outside of Huế. When I saw how alarmed he looked when he saw the prisoner’s clothes I was wearing, and when he hurriedly set a time for us to go to an outdoor café by the Perfume River, I felt very sorry for him. As the afternoon yielded to evening, the two of us sat and talked with each other. I was over thirty, yet this was the first time that I truly had a conversation with my father. Laughing, he asked me, “Was it because you hate the communists so much that you joined this bad army?” I said, “I didn’t hate them—there were no grudges between us—but as a soldier I’d shoot them.” “So you’d even shoot at your father, right?”
TVT: During the war, as a person under arms, what are the things you always believed in?
CXH: I’ll come to that in a moment. But first there’s something else I’d like to talk about. I was over thirty, and had been a soldier for more than seven years and a prisoner for almost five years. I have many memories of the war, and of my imprisonment. Both joyful and sad. But what I find most memorable is neither the war nor the imprisonment; it is rather our failure to protect our territory. Let me tell you what I mean. Around Tết in 1974, when my battalion was stationed defensively at Phủ Bài in the vicinity of Huế, the Chinese Communists attacked and occupied the Paracel (Hoàng Sa) islands. These islands belong to the territory of Military Region 1, and our battalion, as the reserve force for that region, received an order to prepare to attack and retake the Paracel islands. The amphibious units of our Division had gone from Saigon to Đà Nẵng, so our battalion was in a state of readiness to board warships. That the Marines should go and retake the Paracel Islands was completely in accord with their military mission. As for fighting to preserve our territory, all the soldiers in our battalion were eager to do it, even though we knew that going out there might mean we would die. From the officers down to the ordinary soldiers, we were overjoyed at the thought of retaking our territory, but just at that time, fighting broke out inland in the Central Region, where major attacks by North Vietnamese forces tied us down. Because of the necessity of dealing with these NVA forces, we received no orders to move to the Paracel Islands. The news reports and photographs of naval ships going out to rescue Paracel were sunk, and all of our soldiers stationed on the Paracel Islands were captured and then transported to China, which made us all feel humiliated. We were ashamed to lose any piece of territory. Whether in the hands of the North or the South, it was still a possession of the Vietnamese nation. That the Paracel Islands were taken over by China without being retaken by us means, I think, that both the North and the South have been guilty of a sin against our ancestors. Conniving with the protectorate, or acting as Chinese or French slaves, are in my view all equivalent crimes. “Enslaved for a thousand years by the Chinese bandits,” but the Paracels were intact. “A hundred years of subservience to the French,” but the Paracels were intact. Our grandfathers, though they had only rowboats and sailboats, were still able to protect those tiny, mist-enshrouded islands. But now, the armies of the North and South, claiming to be among the best fighting forces in the world, just stood by and allowed parts of our territory fall into the hands of a foreign country. Let me ask you, my friend; don’t you yourself feel ashamed of this? Will it take a hundred years, or another thousand years, before we can retake the Paracels? Having lost them, are we going to lose still more?”
But enough of that. You also wanted to ask me why I joined this bad army of the South while I had a father in the North, right? It’s very simple, my friend. I’ve always hated war. It made me very sad that brothers in two parts of the country had to shoot and kill each other. I nevertheless became a soldier because I loved freedom and hated any form of dictatorship. And of course I had to be a soldier “for real.” I enlisted in a branch of service that only accepted volunteers, specialized in large scale engagements, and fought on every front in ferocious and decisive battles. I must confess to you that I was a good fighter in a combat unit that was considered the best or second best in the South. Ah, you just asked me what preoccupied me as a fighting man. My friend, throughout the time I was in the military, the one thing that I always believed in was a Northern Advance (Bắc Tiến) to take Hanoi; and as the song says, “Among heroic soldiers on the march, I’ll be advancing first ” But then…
TVT: So did you and your father meet again after that?
CXH: My father did come to Saigon to visit me several times, but I was only able to meet and roam around with him for a few days. The last time he came, I was in hiding because the police wanted to arrest me for the crime of organizing an escape by boat. It’s not necessary to say why I wanted to escape. I will only state briefly that I had no money to purchase a place on any of the escape boats, and I wasn’t willing to entrust my life to anyone else, so I had to organize an escape myself, just to make sure it would work. When my father and whole family in the north came down, I didn’t dare meet them, because the police surrounded the hotel where my father was staying. When I left, I thought I would never see my father again.
TVT: Now that everything has become easy, do you correspond regularly with your father?”
CXH: Really? Has everything really become easy? I’m lazy when it comes to writing letters; and besides, these days, a telephone call is easier than anything else, isn’t it? Every now and then, I make a call back to Hanoi to chat with my father, but he says that phone calls are expensive and hangs up after saying only a few sentences. My mother is now in Australia. She always urges me to call my father, saying, “What happened between me and your father was the personal business of the two of us, but your duty is to visit and talk with your father.”
TVT: Your father is very old now. Do you plan on doing anything to make him happy?
CXH: I want to very much, and my father also likes the idea. Inviting him for a visit to the US when circumstances permit would be a joy for him in his old age. And last year, I went to Hanoi to visit him. My father is now quite old, no longer well, and he doesn’t write anymore. I heard that in former times, as a result of the Nhân Văn—Giai Phẩm (Humanities and Belles Lettres) affair, my father was forbidden to write. Think of it, a poet, full of surging creativity, but not allowed to write—how sad he must be! It seems that my father continued to make poems just for himself. My aunt was the only person who knew all my father’s poems by heart. I wanted to publish a volume of my father’s poems, but when I went to Hanoi, I found my aunt had died several years earlier!
TVT: Thank you very much, Cao Xuân Huy! I’ve always heard that the world is round! When I return to Hanoi this time, I’ll have another reason to visit to my “elder brother.” He was very innocent and full of jokes. When the women of Hanoi were all adopting skirts as fashionable attire, he wrote a set of song lyrics entitled “My Darling! The Skirts of Hanoi!”6 We were surprised to discover that he was even “younger” than all of us.
My last question for you is: What dreams do you have for the future?
CXH: Dreams? I spend too much time dreaming, my friend. But now, though the country is unified and at peace, the hatred in the hearts of those belonging to the generation involved in the war still persists, so what I wish the most—that I can live at ease next to my father during his last days—is still just a dream.
Lake Forest, an evening with many friends.
(end of excerpt)
Chapters not excerpted:
- A Conversation with the Writer Nhật Tiến
- Nguyễn Thị Hoàng Bắc
- Advertising One’s Political Stance (with the writer Nguyễn Mộng Giác)
- A Meeting in Green Lantern Village (with Hoàng Khởi Phong)
- A Conversation With Trưong Vũ
- Wayne Karlin
- Tuyết and Chris
Appendix: Vũ Anh on If You Go to the Ends of All the Seas
|1.||A tree with mimosa-like branches and leaves and delicate pink or orange blossoms, often seen in Southeast Asian schoolyards.|
|2.||General Võ Nguyên Giáp said something similar to this.|
|3.||The line is from the poem “Qua Đèo Ngang” (Over the Ngang Pass) by the woman poet Bà Huyện Thanh Quan (1805–1848). The “black rail” is a lonely wading bird used in Vietnamese as a symbol for someone longing for home|
|4.||La Sơn Phu Tử is one of many names used to refer to Nguyễn Thiếp (1723–1804), a scholar sought out for advice by Nguyện Huệ (emperor Quang Trung) before he embarked on his campaign against invading Qing troops.|
|5.||Literally, the expression is “struggled against.” This is communist lingo meaning in essence that he was publically (and “righteously”) humiliated and tortured.|
|6.||This is a parody of the title of another popular song: “My Darling! The Streets of Hanoi.”|
All text and images are © 2021, Trần Văn Thủy, all rights reserved. Written permission is required for any use.