Why I write – Preface to “Bên thắng cuộc” (The Winning Side)

Huy Đức

translated from the Vietnamese by Phạm Vũ Lửa Hạ

The war that ended on April 30, 1975 brought one side to power. I began my research for this book in the late 1980s and spent three years and four months – between August 2009 and December 2012 – completing the draft. During that time a great many ideas for the title of the book came to mind. Only one, though, kept haunting me since the beginning. It is what the Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Duy beautifully summarizes in his two lines: “In every war, whichever side wins, after all / It’s the people who take the fall.” And that’s how the two-volume book was titled.

Photo: Courtesy of
Photo: Courtesy of “Sách Bên Thắng Cuộc” Facebook page

Nobody can secure a path to the future without a truthful understanding of the past, especially a past which we played a part in and were collectively responsible for.

This book opens with the events of April 30, 1975. That day, I, a thirteen-year-old boy, was wrestling with my classmates on a hillside before the start of afternoon classes when the community loudspeakers broke the news of “the liberation of Sài Gòn.” Instead of fighting our way to victory, we let go of each other.

South Vietnam, as we would be instructed in our lessons, would end “its twenty years of wailing misery.” At that historic moment, in my socialism-imbued mind sprang the thought that I would soon have to go south in order to educate its misled teenagers.

But the images of the South found their way to me even before I had a chance to leave my poverty-stricken village. Phi Long (Flying Dragon) interprovincial coach buses were seen along National Highway No. 1, occasionally pulling over at ragged villages. A young guy with shoulder-length hair and in bell-bottoms would hop off to help his passenger(s) disembark before flinging back and clinging to the door side of the coach; all in one split second before the coach vroomed away. Decades later, I still remember the ornate and colorful “Non-stop” signs painted on either side of a coach. Until then, the only big-print Vietnamese language we had seen was rigid capital letters on banners touting socialism-building and anti-American slogans.

In the beginning, things transported to the North by those Phi Long coaches were as simple as shiny bicycles stacked on top of a coach, a pair of bright yellow rings donned on the fingers of a regrouped villager returning from a visit to his southern hometown, a plastic doll – which could open her eyes when lying on her back, and could cry like an infant – tied to the backpack of a lucky discharged soldier.

Books by authors like Mai Thảo and Duyên Anh, stashed by soldiers at the bottom of their backpacks, helped us kids open our eyes to a literary world closer to home than revolutionary works like Tracks in the Snowy Forest (1), and How the Steel Was Tempered (2)… The Akai stereos and radio cassette players brought to the North by our regrouped neighbors revealed to us that soldiers spending their nights at outposts far away from home missed their mothers and younger siblings as well, rather than only “[We] miss Uncle Hồ during nights on the Trường Sơn range [Annamite Mountains].”(3) There existed a South unlike the South depicted in our textbooks.

I remained in the North, and witnessed youths in my village build dams and dig canals during those years when “the entire nation moved forward, at a rapid, strong and steady pace, to socialism.” I witnessed the aspirations, shared among those who had just won the war in South Vietnam, “to make sea changes and rebuild the country.” I witnessed not only how futile to socialism those canals proved to be, but also how they flooded my village during monsoons.

In 1983, I spent a year training in Sài Gòn before I was dispatched to Cambodia as a military specialist. Every week during that one year, the two younger sisters of Mr. Trần Ngọc Phong (4), a schoolmate of mine at the army officer training academy, would bring me four or five books. I began to frequent cinemas, the Conservatory of Music, and arts-performing centers. Though reduced to penury after eight years of “liberation,” Sài Gòn was, in my eyes, still “a civilization.” During those years, at every street corner you could find cyclo drivers who inconspicuously read books while desperately waiting for prospective customers. Among them were many who had recently been released from re-education camps. I began my quest to understand Sài Gòn from stories by the cyclo drivers I came to know …

In the summer of 1997, for various reasons, a group of journalists, including Đoàn Khắc Xuyên, Đặng Tâm Chánh, Đỗ Trung Quân, Huỳnh Thanh Diệu, Nguyễn Tuấn Khanh, and myself, had to leave Tuổi Trẻ (Youth) newspaper. We regularly gathered, shared ideas and talked to such colleagues as Thúy Nga, Minh Hiền, Thế Thanh, Cam Ly, Phan Xuân Loan… At that time, Thế Thanh had just been laid off as Editor-in-Chief of Phụ Nữ Thành Phố (Ho Chi Minh City Women) newspaper, and like Kim Hạnh, Editor-in-Chief of Tuổi Trẻ [who had been dismissed] earlier, she was not allowed to continue to practice what she loved – journalism.

We had a myriad of discussions on current affairs, on what happened around the globe and at home. In one gathering at Đỗ Trung Quân’s house, Tuấn Khanh, a journalist who had recently got himself into trouble after penning a piece acclaiming Khánh Ly, an overseas Vietnamese singer branded as anti-communist, suddenly suggested to me: “You must record what has happened in this country; it is history.” That utterance by Tuấn Khanh seemed to escape everyone else present, but it kept coming back to me. I continued my research with a more focused determination: re-enacting the tragic post-1975 history of Vietnam in a book.

Many generations, including those whose parents served the Republic of Vietnam regime, have been churned out as products of the socialist indoctrination, and many people have been unsure about what did happen to their very own parents.

By the early 1980s, not only ordinary folks but even many in the top-echelon Politburo were kept in the dark about policies that altered the fates of millions of living souls such as “Plan II” (5) and “Z30” (6), which were decided by a few individuals. Among the Vietnamese has erupted many unnecessary clashes and contentions as the only access to history they have is by way of information disseminated by schools and the propaganda apparatus. Not only ordinary folks, I believe, but also conscientious communists will accept truth responsibly.

My book begins its chronicles with April 30, 1975, the day when many believed North Vietnam liberated South Vietnam. Taking a cautious look back at the last three decades, many are stupefied by the impression that “the liberated” turned out to be the North. Let us leave a thorough inquiry of this phenomenon to political economists and sociologists. My book begins simply with an account of what happened in Sài Gòn, and in Vietnam after April 30, 1975: re-education, the anti-capitalist campaign, currency redenominations, etc. My book also recounts two wars Vietnam fought in the late 1970s, one with the Khmer Rouge, the other with the Chinese. My book narrates stories of the post-1975 waves of Vietnamese fleeing the country, and of “uprisings” by farmers and by small business owners and traders to gain freedom to earn their living.

Materials and data for the book were collected over twenty years, and for three years – between August 2009 and December 2012 – I devoted my entire time to writing the book. The draft was sent to some friends and some historians, including five renowned American historians specializing in Vietnam. After various revisions and additions were made, in November 2012, the complete draft was forwarded to a number of Vietnam-based publishers, but it was turned down. Although several reputable Vietnamese-language publishers in the United States and France offered to print it, in order to take personal responsibility and ensure the book’s objectivity, I decided to self-publish it.

This is a book project by a journalist who wishes to seek truth. For all my valuable access to key witnesses and crucial information, the book is by no means foolproof, and will certainly be updated once Hà Nội has released some of its records. My hopes are that readers will help me improve the book in its future editions.

History should be known of as it actually took place, and truth is a path that requires us never to give up.

Sài Gòn – Boston (2009-2012)

NOTES: Notes by the author and the translator are [HĐ] and [PVLH], respectively.

(1) [HĐ] A Chinese revolutionary novel. [PVLH] This novel (in Chinese: 林海雪原) was written by Qu Bo (曲波), a PRC novelist.

(2) [HĐ] A Soviet revolutionary novel by Nikolai Ostrovsky (1904–1936).

(3) [PVLH] A feel-good song popular among Northern Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War (Music by Trần Chung, and lyrics by Nguyễn Trung Thu).

(4) [HĐ] A film director.

(5) [HĐ] A quasi-official departure program in which Chinese-Vietnamese made payments in gold (to local police) to buy seats and be allowed to flee Vietnam by boat (1978-1979).

(6) [HĐ] Re-education of those who became extraordinarily wealthy (1983).

Source: Vì sao tôi viết? 

This translation was originally posted at diaCRITICS.

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