Signs of war persist for Vietnamese man



Knowing some of Nguyen’s personal history along with Vietnam’s, Keith asked him why he was so cheerful.

The man, a father, husband and former officer in the South Vietnamese Army, gave a long answer.

He was imprisoned after the South’s defeat. One day, guards took him to a giant boulder and gave simple orders: Bring this back to the camp.

They were testing him, Nguyen said. They were testing him to see how badly he wanted to stay alive. He couldn’t pity himself, he couldn’t question the unfairness of his condition – he had to be grateful for being alive.

Nguyen pushed the boulder for two days until it finally rolled into camp.

“I have a lot of painful memories like that,” Nguyen said. People call him “steel-brained,” he told Keith, because he has to lock those memories away and force himself to focus on the present, the basic luxury of being alive, no matter what the conditions.

“And that’s what made me want to move that boulder,” he said.

So the veteran was quick to laugh and smile, wrinkling his eyes – dark brown with a thin halo of blue around the iris. But he also was quick to recede into himself at times when discussing the past.

In many ways, Vietnam is a country pulled taut by the past and the future. Citizens leave the past in the past, particularly when foreign businesses and tourist dollars aid the economy. But the same people also are raised to take pride in their history of defending against foreign invaders.

Large national cemeteries line the highways in Central Vietnam, honoring those who were “born in the North and died in the South,” with shrines in their center and short, simple headstones standing in perfect lines, similar to those at America’s Arlington National Cemetery. And of course, there is the tension created between the government and those who served South Vietnam.

Living in the dark

Shortly after North Vietnam overran the South, reunifying the country and ending the American War, Nguyen received orders to report to training from the new Communist government. The training, some sort of orientation for old enemies about their new government, would only be a few days, the orders said.

Nguyen packed, said goodbye to his wife of just two months and his first son, still growing in her belly, and left home.

He did not see or speak to his family again for more than four years.

Nguyen – along with nearly all officers of the former South Vietnamese Army – was loaded onto a truck, taken to a train and transported to a re-education camp in rural Northern Vietnam.

For four years Nguyen lived in primitive conditions, clearing jungle, building schools, moving rocks – tasks of rebuilding a country – and performing whatever labor his guards demanded during the day while learning about the communist system by night. He had no contact outside his camp. His only hope was that he would work hard enough and retain his studies well enough to please his masters and be released.

There was little method for prisoners’ release inside Nguyen’s re-education camp. Some people remained for a year, some for 10. Some never returned to the south. Others only returned physically. Sitting in a Can Tho hotel room speaking limited English, Nguyen told how many freed officers returned home to discover the life they left had disappeared. They went crazy, Nguyen said, unable to cope.

“We didn’t know any information or news from our families. Nothing,” Nguyen said. “We don’t understand why we go there.”

“You’re living in the dark.”

One day, after four years of moving boulders, chopping through jungles and studying communism, prison staff simply told Nguyen his time was finished and he could leave. He moved back to Saigon – officially Ho Chi Minh City since the end of the war – and found his wife and his son, who, having never seen his father, did not recognize him.

From a world apart

In January, just a few days after New Year’s, Nguyen waited by a white van outside the Saigon Airport for his next group of tourists to guide. It was the UK group, led by Berres, who was on his second trip back to the country since the war and his first with students.

The old soldiers exchanged pleasantries and loaded the group into the van. Nguyen turned around in the front seat, spoke to Berres and discovered their shared history.

In the late 1960s, as Berres worked out of a firebase 45-minutes from Nguyen’s home city of Saigon, Nguyen was joining the South Vietnamese Army. Like America, South Vietnam had a draft, and like so many American GIs, Nguyen’s reasons for joining the army were practical, not ideological.

It was either join the army, go to jail or go underground as part of the Viet Cong, putting family and loved ones at risk. There was no “why” in his decision to join, Nguyen said. And no one joined to fight communism.

“People, they don’t have a job, and they want to volunteer to the army to get the money,” Nguyen said. “They don’t have an idea for to fighting with the communists or fighting with something else. It’s just only they join to the army for to take care of their family.”

The war on the guerrillas’ side had little to do with communism and much more to do with reunifying the country.

“Until they finish the war in 1975, when the north came to the south, most of the South Vietnamese people, they don’t know about communists,” he said.

In high school Nguyen briefly thought about joining the Viet Cong. Many of his classmates did. Instead, he complied with the law and joined the army, working as an officer and translator for much of the war.

Locking it away

While America looked to distance itself from the war after its withdrawal, the Vietnamese could not simply move on. Their economy crumbled like bombed buildings under the weight of war. Nearly a generation was dead. Unexploded ordnance and Agent Orange continues to kill and deform civilians to this day. And even with reunification of the country, a division remained among the people.

Finding a job in the country’s struggling economy was challenging enough, but because of his connections to the South Vietnamese Army, it proved impossible for Nguyen. He was unemployed until the 1990s, begging, performing translation work when possible and selling on the black market to support his family, which grew to two sons and one daughter over that time.

He finally found a job as a tour guide when Vietnam adopted more free-market policies, opening itself up to foreign business and loosening control over its economy.

Life is easier now, but the consequences of the war are still evident. Before interviews for this article, Nguyen was hesitant to speak. Vietnamese who openly criticize their government can sometimes expect retribution. Nguyen only spoke after being assured that this article was historically and not politically motivated.

Forgiveness was something Berres found in overwhelming supply on his first visit to Vietnam the previous winter – forgiveness of Americans for the war and a willingness and need to move forward. Nguyen is no different.

Nguyen said he is not angry at his government for what it did to him. Nor is he angry at Americans for the war. There were times when many soldiers didn’t know when they would return home, Nguyen said, and other times when “it’s a very hard life.” Some dwell on these difficulties, asking questions that can’t be answered: Why did the government take the former officers? Why did America leave South Vietnam, abandoning its southern allies, not taking care of them?

“We don’t say that,” Nguyen said. “We, OK, say that’s finished, it’s the periods and it’s finished and we can try to do something different.”

Moving forward is part of their culture, he said. Vietnam has a long history of warfare, fighting China, France and the United States. The country must progress from war to survive. Some people still harbor hostility, but it’s of no use, Nguyen explained. “Vietnamese has many areas for war, like with the China and the French and the Americans,” he said. “If you’re angry every time, you cannot do anything.”

He keeps the painful memories of the camp, the war and poverty far back in his mind, not allowing himself to dwell.

On a previous trip, Berres experienced what he felt was true forgiveness and, as in America, he thinks younger generations are quicker to move on than older ones. Still, the standard Communist Party line may be progressive, but Berres can’t believe everyone can simply move from the past.

“There’s no way in the world for some of the people we’ve talked about … the older people, who lost children, parents, aunts, uncles and so forth,” Berres said, “there’s no way in the world – no way in the world – they can simply forget it, as if it didn’t happen.”