Ha C. Tam
"Strangers in a Strange Land"
Let me tell you about my younger life. In 1945 I joined in with groups to fight against the French because I was patriotic and I wanted to do something for my country. So I joined with them to fight against the French colonists, and that was the most beautiful period of my life. I was very happy then. I didn't get to know the true nature of the communists until much later in the Viet Minh. Then I left them.
In 1975 I was a fine arts professor at the University in Saigon. And every year I displayed my paintings at the Vietnamese-French Association and at the Vietnamese-American Association.
With the arrival of the American military I had the impression that life in Vietnam would change drastically in terms of social and psychological changes, and everything would be altered dramatically. And then during the time they were there, you would see within your own neighborhood how things would change. Families came apart and good people turned out to be not so good any more. Good in terms of respectable. And then our main night street of Tu Do turned into a street lined with bars with a questionable nature.
When the American army left Vietnam I was afraid of the oncoming force of the communists, because the Vietnamese government was so corrupted and badly managed and the Army was not well equipped, and then you see the people who belonged to the Vietnamese military system were people who had been soldiers and officers in the French Army and the same people now turned out to be leaders in the Vietnamese military system, and that didn't carry with it any credibility or real leadership to the country.
So I had the feeling that Vietnam would not be able to last when the Americans were gone and it would not remain good if the Americans stayed. I had thoughts that all would be lost in 1975.
During the war I had the opportunity to go to France and Australia and display my paintings, but when I left the country in those times for my exhibitions, I left with the status of a person still having a country to return to. I never wanted t o leave my country and never talked about it and never thought about it. Who would ever want to do so? During the war years, in a crucial time, when the war was really intense and a lot of bad things happened, still nobody wanted to leave the country. I didn't want to either. But finally I had to leave the country after the communists came in.
I never dreamed that Saigon would be lost to the Communists. I always heard of these comments on how we would have a three party government and there would be a conciliatory solution to the war between the sides, and so I thought that if we once lost Ban Me Thuot it would stop there and from Ban Me Thuot to the South it would remain South and there would be a two party government.
And also I had friends at the French Embassy who told me almost to the very end that they thought that there would be a means to resolve the differences between the two sides in the war and there would be a coalition type of government for the south. Even with the fall of Danang and then Cam Ranh, I never thought that Saigon would fall. I still thought there would be a solution to the problem. And as to whether or not I was afraid for my own safety, with the advance of the communists, as an artist I always hate politics or anything that has to do with politics. And I never joined any organization or association or any group or thing like that. My life revolved around teaching people how to paint and also doing exhibitions of my work. And that was basically how I led my life.
With the arrival of refugees from the Central and Highland regions in Saigon, of course, I was touched and shaken. But I didn't experience fear yet at that time. I just didn't feel fear then. I never thought, still, that Saigon would be lost to the communists, because of all those rumors flying about having to do with a coalition government and information that there would be solutions and ways and means to stop the advance of the communist forces.
I worried since there was a war. But when Thieu resigned I felt better because he and his cronies, the big guys in his regime, were bad people and so with him resigning his post I had hope that the next administration would be a better one, and especially with Mr. Huong, would be a better one. He came from a scholarly background so I thought it would be better and I felt it was a good step.
I continued teaching until the very end. Some of my students had left and some of my colleagues left, so the situation was not normal.
I didn't trust General Duong Van Minh as a leader. He had been in the French Army before, and anybody who was in the French Army or who had anything to do with the Army and who tried to become a leader of the country, I just didn't trust that person.
I saw the evacuation of the Americans and some of the Vietnamese. But at that time everything was so chaotic. It was like you were in a flea market. Everybody was just running around and trying to find a means of getting out of the country, be it from the roof of a bank or a high-rise building or the American Embassy or at the airport. Everybody was just disorganized, and they were running all around the city. At that time I had the opportunity to leave the country because my brother wanted me to go, but I never thought we would lose Saigon so I saw no reason to leave the country. You see I lived a very calm normal life. And with the frenzied activities going on around me, at that time, it amused me. It was a change of pace for me. And I felt neither contempt nor anger toward those who decided to leave the country, I had no negative feelings.
I saw the Communists come in to Saigon. I lived on Phan Thanh Gian Street, and so I could see them come in. They came from the Phu Lam Thi Nghe area into the city, and I could see them coming in to the Presidential palace, and I was one of the people who came out of their houses to watch the entrance of the North Vietnamese. And I could see everything. The feeling that I registered at that time was one of great strangeness and newness. But not any fear. I wasn't afraid of anything at all. I talked with some of the North Vietnamese soldiers and my impression at that time was that they were foreigners to Vietnam, they didn't know anything about anything at all in the city. It is like if you go abroad and get in contact with foreigners, I didn't think they knew anything about the South or about Saigon, they were just like strangers in a strange land. And also, I thought they were strange, because of their females. It was strange to see females wearing hard hats and carrying guns and wearing the kinds of clothes and footwear that the North Vietnamese Army wore. All in all they did not project anything pleasing or artistic or heroic. It was not a good looking sight.
The communists, when they got into Saigon, they thought that Saigon was a really beautiful place. A strange place but a beautiful one.
After the 30th of April, I didn't feel anything in particular, but I did see some of my old friends in the time that we fought the French and they had gone on to the North and stayed with the Viet Minh. But they didn't say anything to me and they didn't dare to say anything. But they had a sort of sadness about them as they went around Saigon. It was like they had flipped over a chapter in history and things became very different.
Eventually I talked with them and we were of course happy to be able to renew our friendships. We still had our friendship, and we talked about that, but when I asked them about the status of the country, and what would happen now to the country, they didn't say anything.
I had a long-time friend who had gone North. His name is Phuong, and his rank was colonel in the NVA, and he was involved in the battle at Phuoc Long. And the first day he came to visit me and he had in his hand a bag, and I asked him how things were going and he answered me by saying, "For over thirty years I have been fighting, and now this is all I have, what is in this bag."