Nguyen Van Canh
"If We All Died Together, The Whole Family, It's Okay"
Unfortunately, our political leaders in the last years of our country were also military men. And you should remember that military people in South Vietnam were ranked fifth in the hierarchy of the society, the lowest rank and the lowest prestige.
Yet, when someone like General Ky comes to America he's put on the top side. He was just like vermin in Vietnam. He was not trained to do his job. He had no idea of what was going on. So if you were a bosom friend to him or to Thieu and played Mah Jong, the next day he could appoint you as Prime Minister. There was no planning and no thinking in politics by Vietnamese military men. They were trained to be yes men, but not to make decisions on something like politics. And Ky was a playboy and that's it. He talked too much and then he could never remember what he said.
I remember people talking in early 1975 about the signs that something bad was about to happen. I remember the prophecies about the bees coming to Saigon and then flying away, and about the caterpillars in Phan Rang. But I wasn't moved by them at that time.
There is also another prophecy about what happened to Vietnam and why it happened, too. And that one has to do with President Nguyen Van Thieu.
There were stories that many people believe about the origins of Nguyen Van Thieu. The stories suggested that he was not Vietnamese, but rather that he was a Cham. His mother, they said, was a servant in the household of Thieu's father, who was a district chief for many years. The servant was Thieu's real mother, but he was raised in the Thieu household. But they said you could tell Thieu was a Cham by his appearance.
And the story eventually said that Thieu was --although he did not know it -- the descendant of the kings of Champa. And he had been chosen by destiny some day to become the king of Vietnam, secretly, and then to preside over its destruction, which would be the revenge of the Chams for their own destruction by the Vietnamese in 1471 -- almost exactly 500 years earlier. And perhaps that is what happened.
This is tied to another story concerning the Chams and prophecy and one of the members of the Thieu household. There was a man in Vietnam who had an especially beautiful young daughter. And he wanted to know what her destiny was. So he took her to a fortune teller. And the fortune teller said, "It is your daughter's destiny to some day sleep with the king." This prophecy was based upon astrology. But the father did not understand the meaning of that, and he did not believe it, because there was no king in Vietnam at that time.
And to make it seem even less understandable, later on the girl went to a convent to become a nun.
However, she did not stay there long and then she studied to become a nurse. She worked as a nurse and eventually she was referred to do something for Mrs. Nguyen Van Thieu and Mrs. Thieu found out the girl is very good, very obedient, quiet, and so used her as servant. She lived with the Thieu household. Mr. Thieu, it was said, was very fond of her. And in fact when Thieu left Vietnam on the 24th he brought that girl with him.
And if he was the king of the Chams, then perhaps the prophecy about that young girl was true also. The girl had slept with the king. But not the king of Vietnam, the king of the Chams who destroyed Vietnam.
As for myself leaving Vietnam, I didn't decide to leave until sometime in mid-April 1975. We knew that Americans made preparations for leaving and we learned that the American Embassy in Saigon tried to organize an exodus for American officials in the Embassy and American dependents. So we recognized that the Americans had quit and we no longer would receive support from anywhere in order to defend our country.
So I remember that when I was at Saigon Law School in the office and one of the professors came to see me because I was a deputy dean. The professor said that now the Americans were leaving and now we had better prepare ourselves to leave too or we would be left behind. And we would have a big problem with communism.
We held a special meeting of all the professors of the law school on the 14th of April. There was a discussion and a debate and the final conclusion was that we should contact the American Embassy to see whether or not they would help us. After all, if they helped professors from the medical schools, as we had been told, they then should help us because those of us who taught at the Saigon Law School who were involved in politics and law and economics and many of the things that the communists objected to and would not tolerate if they won.
So they appointed me as the chairperson of the ad hoc committee to contact the Embassy. I wrote a letter to Ambassador Graham Martin. I received no answer. Then we tried a different way to contact the Americans to see whether or not they planned to aid us, because we understood that the Viet Cong were about to besiege the city. They had already won the fight at Xuan Loc.
We tried to get in touch with another American official at the Embassy, but no one replied with an answer.
Every day as chairperson of the ad hoc special committee, I was at my office the whole day even until midnight to see whether or not the American Embassy would tell us information. But no.
I stayed home until the 29th. A friend came by. He said that he had just come back from Pier number 3 at the Saigon port. An American ship is still there. He told me I should go to it right away. So at that time I told my mom and my wife and my seven children and my father and my older brother and his wife and three children and my younger brother and my sister -- because we lived together -- I told them we had to go right away. So we used our own means. I drove a car. And my brother, who was an attorney, drove a scooter, and my elder brother, used his motor bike. We arrived at the Saigon pier about four p.m. There was no American ship, no American ferry, nothing at all. They had already gone. So I talked to some people still wandering over there and they said that the American ship left at two or two-thirty or three p.m. So I didn't know what to do. I told my folks that we should stay there because we had a chance to go out, and if we went home -- and we didn't expect any phone call or help from the American Embassy at all -- we'd have no way to go.
A week before this one of my students at the Saigon Law School who was a member of the Hoa Hao religious sect came to my home and said that he knew that if South Vietnam collapsed we would have a big problem because I was a high ranking member of the Dai Viet Party and taught politics, taught communism and constitutional law, so it was very dangerous for me to stay. He said they had already made up their minds to organize a resistance based in the Hoa Hao area in the western region of South Vietnam, close to the Cambodian border.
He said that they already had a ship in case something bad happened. And he said he would come to take me and my wife and children to the Hoa Hao area. So when I was at the Saigon pier I thought of him. And looked for him to see if we were not successful to go out, I should join the Hoa Hao religious sect in order to fight. Because I knew that I was a politician they would kill.
Saigon was under curfew. But people tried to rush out to look for ways to go and the situation was chaotic. So I told my family to just stay there and wait and maybe we would have a chance for another ship from the American naval force to come back because from the Saigon port to the mouth of the Saigon River at Vung Tau is just like 80 kilometers. It took maybe three hours or four hours. Hopefully by six, seven or eight p.m. another ship would come back. In that case we'd have a chance to go out. Or the Hoa Hao boat would come back there.
We stayed there until midnight and nothing happened at all. And overhead American helicopters came in to pick up refugees somewhere, we don't know where. At eleven p.m. at least thirty-one big ships from the naval port started to move out.
We did not know what to do and just stayed there, sitting there at the pier until the next day. And one of my students at the Saigon Faculty of Law, now he is living in Orange County -- he escaped later on -- he met me there and said, "Oh, professor, I don't know what to do, so I just followed you and your mob and I hope you will accept me as a member of your group here." He said he had been working for the CIA at the Embassy. It appeared that they left him behind. So he didn't know what to do so he'd just follow me.
After 7 a.m. there were no more helicopters coming to pick people up any more. My student suggested that he would go back to the American Embassy at that time to see what was going on. I said, "Okay." And he took his motorbike and maybe fifteen or twenty minutes later, because Saigon Pier Number Three is close to the American embassy, not far away, he came back and said the Americans were all gone. Before they left they had exploded tear gas in order to prevent people from looting inside the Embassy he said. However, a lot of Vietnamese rushed in and looted and they came out carrying things like a chairs or desks, or something. But the Americans had already left completely.
He told me he was going to go home and I said okay. I stayed there until 8 a.m. Then I used my motor scooter, a Vespa, to look for the student of the Hoa Hao sect. I came to their headquarters and I declared myself and someone who lived there said, "Oh, Professor, I'm going to look for that student for you." He gave me the phone number and he gave me the telephone, and he said, "Oh, the situation is still optimistic, professor. Don't you worry. We are ready in case something happens. Surely we have the duty to take you to the western part of South Vietnam to protect you and we need leaders."
I left the Hoa Hao headquarters in Saigon and we back to Pier Number 3. And at 10 a.m. one of my colleagues from Saigon Faculty of Law -- he was a young professor -- said "Oh brother Canh, I came to your home and somebody said that you had already left -- so how come you are still here?" I said, "Nobody took me so I have to stay here. I have no way to get out." I thought that perhaps now the only way to get out was to go to Nha Be, a town thirteen kilometers from Saigon. It is located on the Saigon riverbank. A lot of fishing boats are there. So I told him that we had to risk our lives, either to survive or to die. I asked him if he wished to follow me to Nha Be and look for a fishing boat to go out. He said that whatever decision I made, he would follow because he knew that my decision was right.
So he followed me.
However, when I crossed over the Tan Thuan bridge -- the bridge which connected Nha Be and Saigon -- I was far ahead I had to stop and wait for my colleague and while waiting for him I saw a southern man. He came to me and said, "Oh, your car is full of people, so you are escaping. Where are you going?" I told him I was planning to go to Nha Be to get a fishing boat to go out. He said, "No, don't go to Nha Be because the Viet Cong are already over there. They already took over Nha Be district and post last night. So the way I look at it, you are escaping but if you come there you will be arrested. So please come back to Saigon, because if it's a crowd no people will recognize who you are. But the way I look at you here is that you are escaping. That is clear. And it's very dangerous."
So when my colleague came I told him the story, and he asked what to do. I told him I didn't know, but it was better for us to come back to Pier Number 3 and then make a decision later on but not right now. So I told him now to go ahead in his car. There were eleven people in my small car, just a little bit bigger than a Datsun B210. I stuffed people in, because my children were small and they sat on the knees of my mom and wife in the back.
I told my colleague then to take two of my sons -- I have seven children, five girls and two sons. And he said, "Okay, I have only two children and my wife, so I can take more." But those other members of my family do not want to join him. I told him to go first, so he went first.
On the way back, on the other side of the bridge on the way back to Pier Number Three he stopped at Pier Number 11. He got out of the car with my two children, his wife and his two children. He stood in front of the gate and there was a policeman who held the gate and did not let them go in. I asked him, "What happened? What's going on here?" He said that he gave the policeman thirty thousand piasters to let him in. He took the money but he did not let him in.
So I asked my colleague why he planned to get inside anyway? Do we know there is something over there? How come?
He said that in there we had a chance to have a boat to get out. Just a guess, an estimate. So while he talked to me, the policeman told him, "Now, go in." So he and his wife and two children hurried in. My two children, my two sons asked me whether we should follow him. I said, "No, you follow me."
We then we came back to Pier Number Three. When we got back to Pier Number Three it was about 12 noon. At that time someone's radio said that General Minh surrendered unconditionally and everything was lost. When I came to Pier Number 3 I saw a lot of people climbing up on that fishing boat anchored alongside the pier. My family and I followed them, but they didn't know whether they were going out or what. I was sitting on the top of some wooden boxes they kept fish in, and I heard the engine start working, and wondered why the boat did not move out. I got down and got into the cabin and saw a big Vietnamese man and I asked him how come the boat did not move and the engine is functioning? He said, "Oh, I am a lieutenant in the Vietnamese Navy so I tried to take this boat out to escape. The engine of the boat is working, however it doesn't move." He tried to fix it but was not successful.
Then he got out of the boat. I didn't know what to do, because he was a man who stole the boat and now he'd left. So I got out of the boat too. Before I made the decision to get out, I saw a big ship -- a Vietnam Thuong Tin ship --from a corporation. The government owned one part and private investors owned a portion of the corporation, too, run by Vietnam Thuong Tin, a bank. They had a ship and it was in the middle of the Saigon River, just anchored to wait for orders to go out. It was about 1 p.m. by that time. That ship came to Pier Number 5 to pick up people. So while I was at Pier Number 3 I told my people to go off the boat and try to catch that ship, because four or five thousand people were already there. They stood up on the boat. But how could they get there?
They had to go back to the bank along the river. In the past they had used a barbed wire to separate Pier Number Three from Number 5. So we had to use our hands in order to pull the barbed wire down.
We reached Pier Number 5. The Vietnam Thuong Tin ship was huge. There a long ladder to climb up, so they docked alongside with another ship, middle-sized one. There was a piece of wood for people to climb from the deck of the ship up to the Vietnam Thuong Tin ship. Maybe that ship from the pier was six or seven meters high. So I pushed my mom up and my two children and told them to just stay there until the whole family got up and then the whole family would move to the other ship. But just my mom and my two children were there and the ship left and they went off. So I had to take my mom and my two children down.
One of my students who was there asked me what to do now. So I said I didn't know. Either I had to go back home or maybe I had go back to Pier Number 3.
So when I went back at Pier Number 3, the fishing boat that was there with the engine working had already left. I didn't know what to do. I saw people rush in another fishing boat. The pier was long and another fishing boat was there. So we did the same thing. We got in, but it did not work. However, there was another fishing boat along the pier by it, so a lot of people got in that one. I told my people that a lot of people had gotten in and maybe that one would move out. In the one I was on I saw nobody who would steer the boat. My whole family, eighteen people -- we little by little walked to the other ship.
I was so tired. We got on. I saw the family of one of my friends -- Dinh Thach Bich --there, his wife, mother and children on the boat. I asked, "Where is Bich?" And they said he was in the cabin. But they said they didn't know whether or not it would go out. After a few minutes I saw an in-law of Bich who was a major in the Vietnamese naval force. He was a commander of a big ship given to us by America in the past under the Diem rule. I saw him turn and get onto the ship. So I thought we would probably go after that. And we did.
The man who steered the boat was a major in the naval force. He knew the area well, so he did not go along the Saigon River to go out, but he turned to the right hand side of the big river. It was not deep but it was big, so the Viet Cong could not shoot us. Finally we were in the open river. I felt a little bit better than before, because for twenty hours I did not eat or drink anything. So I talked to a person who used to live with Bich and asked him how come he got into that boat. He said that the boat was owned by Truong Thai Ton, the minister of economy for South Vietnam under Nguyen Cao Ky. He owned a shrimp catching corporation and this was one of his boats.
Early the next morning we met with an LST in the open sea. Someone had a loudspeaker so we talked to someone and someone said "This is the commander of a ship, we do not take refugees. You go that direction and wait until 8 a.m. There is another ship that will get you." So we followed that direction. It was still dark, and we met with another LST and they said that they were a Taiwan LST come to pick up their military attaches and families. However they would pick us up, just wait until daytime. So we moved around and stayed for a while until 8. Then they came back and they picked up children and women. One hundred and seven men were left on board. They said they'd give us food, water and so on and told us to follow them to the Philippines.
It took us six days to get to the Philippines. We were in the Philippines for about three days. Then they took us to Guam. When we were on the fishing boat someone had a radio. And the next day we heard on the radio about the burning of all of the books of the Saigon Faculty of Law because they said that those books came from a decayed culture, so they had to burn them.
During all of this time trying to take care of my family and finding a way out, I felt great frustration. But not fear because we knew that we would get either life or death. My situation was a little bit different from others because we came from North Vietnam, and my family were landlords and my mom was imprisoned before she escaped and came to South Vietnam in '54. We knew our situation and in South Vietnam I was active in the Dai Viet Party in fighting communism. I was secretary general of Politburo of the party and commissioner for propaganda and training. My thesis for the doctoral degree at the Saigon Faculty of Law was about Vietnamese communism, all the tactics and strategy that the communists use I disclosed in my doctoral thesis. I taught those courses at Saigon Faculty of Law. I taught those things at the National Defense College. I taught those things at the Vietnamese Command and General Staff College for quite a while. So there was no room for me to live under communism. For me and my family it was either life outside Vietnam or death. Staying in Vietnam meant death for sure. If we tried to leave and if we all died together, the whole family, it's okay.