Sunday, December 16, 2012

Vu Cong Duong Remembers the Fall of Saigon


Q. You were ambassador to Turkey when?

I went there in 1970 until the end of '74. My embassy included Lebanon and Iran.

Q. What were you?

I was very young then. I was second secretary of the embassy.

Q. Did you learn to speak Arabic?

No, Turkish a little bit. But just for marketing, but not practically. My daughters spoke it very well, but now she's forgot everything in Turkish. It surprised me when I came home from the office and I heard somebody speaking very good Turkish. It was my daughter and the maid servant. But now she's forgotten everything. She was just about two and a half years old.

Q. Those were difficult times if I remember correctly. The Middle Eastern War takes place in 1973?

Before that time, the second phase, yes. In 1973 Turkey invaded Cypress.

Q. And you were there during those times?

Yes, I remember now. The date was 20 July, called Shame Day now. The date they signed the Geneva Agreement in '54 was called Shame Day. I was listening to the radio before leaving the embassy compound. And I heard they invaded and I hurried back to the embassy and called Saigon. I called Eric Colberg who was second secretary at the American embassy, who was a friend of mine. I don't know where he is now.

Q. What sort of business did you carry on with Iran, Lebanon, etc.?

Not much. Just kind of, our presence was there. We gave a party, that sort of thing.

Q. No trade, no aid, that kind of thing?

No. Except the Red Cross, aiding flood victims.

Q. Were they friendly towards you?

Under the Shah they were very friendly with South Vietnam. Lebanon, I don't think so, because at that time I heard that the Viet Cong, or North Vietnam, tried to get better relationship with that tiny country, and because of that, our embassy in Turkey covered Lebanon, but it seems to me that they did not agree for us to open an embassy in Beirut. So we traveled back and forth and went visiting the officials in the ministry and so on. Our most activities were concentrated--it was a very small staff. Above me was the Dang Ngoc Trang who was the guide to protocol. Later he was appointed as ambassador.

Q. Why did you return in December of '74?

Termination of my duty. But I received a cable from Minister Phon Man Bach. Our minister of foreign affairs. He asked me to stay until my replacement, but I had sold my car, told our landlord that we were leaving.

Q. So your whole family was in Ankara with you?


Q. How many children?

I have only one daughter. She is here.

Q. What was the situation in Saigon when you got back? Optimistic?


Q. Normal?

No. I don't think so.

Q. Phuoc Luong is finally captured in January 5th?

About the time Phuoc Luong fell, I did know the situation was critical.

Q. People in the government were worried?

Yes, surely.

Q. Did that worry filter down? Did the common people know how serious the situation was?

Not very much, I think. There were rumors about it, that there would be a coalition government of South Vietnam and the PRG, and many of them believed they would be in a better situation than they were.

Q. When you heard that Phuoc Luong had fallen, what was the talk in the government?

I worried. I heard that the American government, the United States, did not provide us sufficiently.

Q. The word coming in was that Congress was turning against you? Nixon was gone by this time. Could you see down the road six months or a year? Were you trying to imagine what the situation would be back at that time? What did you foresee happening? Did you expect intervention, or a coalition government?

I didn't believe a coalition government, because before that I was working with the Course of Freedom "COF". When I was in the army as an officer I was research analysis chief of the section, and we dealt with the North Vietnamese. We researched North Vietnam. I don't believe North Vietnam very much about what they talk. They talk too much, even now. This is the character of communism. As the PRG before many people, even foreigners believe it was really a part of South Vietnam, but it was a finger of North Vietnam. If it was North Vietnam--Vietnam as a whole before they left--they had left Vietnam in 1954 under the Geneva agreement, they had left a lot of the agents in South Vietnam, and it was their scheme to take over South Vietnam. If they are weak, they retreat, if stronger, they show up. ;

When I was in Turkey in 1972, we had North Vietnam attack on Easter Sunday, I was so happy when our army counter attacked North Vietnam. BUt when I was back in Saigon, I heard that our military aid was cut and the tendency of the American people was to get rid of the war in Vietnam. It presaged something wrong. Or I thought it did. It was a dangerous period for our fighting against North Vietnam, because behind them in North Vietnam, there were Chinese, Russia, all their stuff, and they were free to bring all kinds of arms through China into North Vietnam.

Q. When an American congressional delegation, in February 1975 -- did you meet them?


Q. They were on a fact finding mission, so to speak.

I don't have a clear memory of them. There were so many things that happened which make me confused, unclear about things.

Q. In Vietnam were you assigned a new task in the State Department in 1975?

As soon as I returned to our ministry, I was in the Pacific and Asia department for a very short time, a low key official. But later deputy minister Le Quong Xiao??? -- I heard he is in Los Angeles now -- I was in his office. I was not chief of his office, but it was a very short time, two or three months. It was so topsy turvy, that situation. We worried, because at that time Minister Bach was in the states, and he did not come back to South Vietnam until the communists took over. And Minister -- the cousin of Thieu -- the minister of education, a pharmacist, was in charge of our ministry. And about early April '75, we were running around all the time, most of us, trying to save ourselves, because it seemed to us that the government did not have any plan to protect the various subordinates, civil servants, especially the ones in the ministry of foreign affairs, ministry of defense . . .

Q. Did you expect a bloodbath if the North won?

Yes, surely. But that was the cause which made us so afraid, so worried, because I remember what happened in Hue in 1968. I was in the army then. Thousand victims just before they left, one day before, they killed four thousand. But we did not have the very effective propaaganda, so the foreigners, especially Americans and other people, did not understand the real situation, the atrocities of the communists when they came and left.

It seemed to me the government did not have any plan to protect us. And we had to have our own plans. Some of our friends, early April, we intended to buy a boat. Most Vietnamese, were so afraid of going by boat, because we remember the time of Da Nang, Nha Trang, when evacuation came. It was terrible and we dare not think about using boat to escape. Mines, Viet Cong, everything. And only the plane, the airlift were we thinking about.

It was so limited, the plane, if we did that and they would not have been thinking of taking a plane out, going to the airport to escape the communists. That's the reason why most of the civil servants and the ministry of foreign affairs too were caught by communists.

Q. There was no chance to get out through the airport?

No, eventhe ones who were working at the ministry, we had passports--very difficult to get passports.-- and these were diplomatic ones, could go everywhere. But the question was how to -- you can buy a ticket. We had to be on a waiting list about five or six days. I had tickets to board the plane exactly from the 25th. On the 20th of April was the last flight from Vietnam to abroad. But I changed my mind -- this is my private thinking-- the cost, and we had to pay a great deal because of the sentimental action -- as soon as I bought the tickets for us, my wife, my daughter --

Q. What airline?

Air Vietnam.

And there was a lady there who saw me so thoughtful and uneasy and nervous, and she asked me why. Because if I wanted I had to go to the airport immediately, right now. Because it is two days now, 3:30 in the afternoon. And she suggested that, "Okay, you can go tomorrow." She would put my name on the manifest tomorrow.

I was thinking of my mother and some small unimportant things. I went back to the ministry of foreign affairs. I myself talked about the procedure, and asked the secretary general at the ministry to make it possible for my mother. And I went back home to tell, to write on a piece of paper that I transferred the ownership of my house to my brother and to give a small amount of money, U.S. currency to members of the family.

I said, "Okay, I'll just wait about just till tomorrow to leave Vietnam. But at least I helped my family."

I know just five or six minutes talking with that lady in the office of Air Vietnam, and we were caught nine years.

Q. Why did you wait until the 29th to buy the ticket?

I went at random on the 28th. I went and asked and explained -- this is where there is the trick of minds, because it is not fair to do so. I showed her my passport, that I was a foreign service officer, that I had a mission, had to go out of Vietnam to go back to the embassy. And she believed me.

Q. Your passport was good for your whole family?

We had separate passports. We had three.

Q. So you got the three tickets?


Q. And that night the airport was bombed, or rocketed. Within two hours of you getting the tickets is was. When did you discover that the airport had been bombed? Did you hear it?

As soon as I returned to my apartment it was four thirty or something and exactly five thirty or five forty-five there was an attack at the airport. I still thought it might be Ky, maybe a coup to overthrow Xiem. But it was Viet Cong, not Ky.

Q. Would that have been good if Ky had done that? Would there have been some hope?

Well, at least we still wonder why Ky and other generals the ones who were responsible for the war in Vietnam, high ranking officers, since they were so inactive -- I didn't understand why. They were all responsible for this war. They did everything. I was just a low official, just a secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs, but the other people, the senior officials, I still wonder why. But now I understand, it was clarified a little bit. It's not only Vietnam, but partly from the states, and North Vietnam.

Q. Did you try to go out to the airport on the morning of the 29th?

No. It was terrible. Bombing and rockets, bullets everywhere. We dared not to go out of the house. WE tried to take shelter because rockets were heard everywhere.

Q. Did the radio broadcast and say there were no more fixed wings flights?

I was concerned. At that time I didn't listen to the radio. Early the 29th there was no American broadcast. I don't remember about South Vietnam radio.

Q. What happens to you on the 30th? Do you remember Minh ordered the surrender?

Yeah. That's what I heard.

Q. Did you hear that on the radio?

No. A few people told that, it was transmitted from man to man. But I heard Prime Minister Mao urge Americans to leave Vietnam within 24 hours.

Q. He thought that would help bring about a negotiated settlement.

It was a real mess at that time. It was terrible. Worry and soldiers disappointed. We could see ourselves die.

We all remembered the Tet offensive.

Q. When did you first see communist soldiers in the city then?

Exactly-- then I heard from man to man in the street that all civil servants of the old regime should be presented at their houses in Saigon. And in the morning of the 29th , May 1st, we went to the office and I saw a lot of people. Many many VC everywhere.

Q. So you never saw them come into the city and go into the presidential palace?

No. I was at the Nin TIn Hoa Street that was the main street for them to come outside of Saigon. And it was passing through in front of our house. I saw a lot of tanks, everywhere tanks.

It seems to me --not any soldiers were barbarous, or showing bloody faces as I imagined. They waved at us and seemed to smile and be calm.

Q. No shooting at random?

When they were passing through by my house, I heard shots somewhere, but not very close.

Q. What did you discover when you reported?

I reported to the Ministry. Everywhere were North Vietnamese, but they were friendly, seemed friendly.

Q. Did they already have your name? Had anybody destroyed files?

Immediately, the chief, somebody I didn't know, came to the personnel department . . .


Q. Nobody had destroyed the files?

No, it was real stupid. Everywhere, even in the JGS too everything is intact. I don't know why. For civilians I know it was in a mess, the President had left before and left all of us behind, and no minister. Generals ran away. At our ministry they had everything.

Q. What did they tell you when they found you?

That now we are in a free country, the American imperialists are no longer in South Vietnam and that we would be treated very friendly and the revolutionary government would not take any kind of drastic measure against these people. All kinds of things to comfort us. They were so kind in words when speaking, softly and very gently, but what they were thinking behind in their minds, we never knew. They use the kind words today, but that night at six o'clock you would be picked up and nobody knew any more.

Q. What happens to you then. Were you reassured that day?

I was so worried, so was everybody. And we were told to come to the Ministry to work as before, but there was nothing to do, just sitting. We didn't say anything. From that day we had to declare our identification, repeatedly. They knew everyone of us, but still we had to declare our identification.

I was not in the reeducation camp.

Q. That must have been a mistake.

Yes, surely.

Q. What did they have you do?

After three or four days there was an announcement on the radio and in newspaper calling all civil servants, armed forces, to present themselves at a central area in Saigon. For civil, only from the directorship up, and you have to be present. Below that no. I was the first secretary then in rank but I had no function. I had no specific function, not formal ones. I was in the Deputy Minister's office -- that was true -- but there was no legal appointment. When I went before three or four of them they asked my rank and everything, I said I was secretary. In French the word "Secretaire" means a typist and a clerk, a very low key official. And they opened the books and they contained all our names, and I was just "secretary". And I was not in camp. But I was in jail three times trying to escape South Vietnam after they took over. I attempted nine times, almost ten, unsuccessfully. Until they let me go legally.

Q. How did you make a living? Did the foreign office remain open?

They dissolved, immediately. The director had to be at the reeducation camp. Were sent to North Vietnam. We who were secretaries remained in Saigon and we just had political courses, about seven or ten, and you received a paper certifying that you attended. And all of us knew or believed our lives were meaningless. We belonged to the old regime. We are not in the new regime, and obviously considered a kind of second class citizen. Most of us tried to go back to the villages to keep farmers' lives, to grow plants and poultry. We were finished. It was over for us now. But later when the North Vietnamese swam to the south, many of them, they were so surprised at seeing the people in South Vietnam so wealthy, at least objects, having tv, radio and everything, wide roads. They, not us, adjusted to the society. They tried to make a Japanese lagoon, that kind of thing. And it seems to me they did not care much about the people in South Vietnam politically. I mean, the middle class of North Vietnamese, not the high echelon, high ranking, because surely they do. But for the normal, the middle class people, they were so surprised, so happy. But many of them, our relatives in North Vietnam they were so disappointed, so sad. Why did the Americans not bomb North Vietnam more. About a month or twenty days more, and why did they leave South Vietnam. They hoped, they expected to be free, those kind of people remaining in North Vietnam in 1954. They knew communism so well. That's what I was told very frankly, because we were in the family.

They were condemned to this life under the communist regime. Before they had expected that South Vietnam and the Americans and all allies cana liberate North Vietnam. But later there was no hope whatsoever.

Q. When did you decide there was a chance to get out, that you had an opportunity to get out by boat. There must come a point when you think you can succeed.

All the time. Almost every day. Right away after the communists took over. Every day we went to some very close friends. How could we? One day the Cong An, the policeman, could come any time knocking on the door. And we talked almost all the time to leave Vietnam by boat and try to get money to buy ships and everything.

I tried nine times. Between Bin Tre and Vung Tau, the central and east Vietnam. Unsuccessful.

Q. Did you get out into the South China Sea?

No. When I was in the boat on the river, on the way to the place where we were to gather. They knew.

Q. Were you betrayed?

Oh, yes. Many many times we were betrayed.

Q. Would the police pay for information?

Yeah. Or the people were talkative, discuss things so openly and were overheard by the agent that dispenses visas.

Q. Then you finally gave up and got out. Your wife and children got out successfully?

My wife and my daughter went by boat in 1980 and were successful. I had no money. She had because of her family. (This is between us only. We were not on very good terms at that time.) So many families were living in such conditions. Quarrel all the time. "Because of you, you tried to stay here longer."
Q. Now you got out through official channels?

Yeah. First I applied for it but they refused.

Q. I'm surprised that during this application process nobody discovered who you were.

I was just a secretary. The communists sometimes were so keen, very intelligent, about that. Sometimes they were so stupid about things.

Just before they gave me the exit permit I was called to the police station. It was terrible. It was the place where the South Vietnamese headquarters. It was the biggest communist political officers. When you are requested to be presented there -- you can go in to that, but the way out you see, you can't hope to be out. I was called in, that was the fourth time in almost a month. They knew everything. They had my file, why I had U.S. currency, I had to explain that I was paid in dollars because Vietnamese currency could not be used abroad. The government gave it to me. And why I left my wife and family leave Vietnam but I remained. What is my real plan? Do I want to organize? I said, "No. You know so well that I tried many times to go by boat and you put me in jail. You do not let me go. I applied and you did not let me go."

They were silent. "Can you show me letters from your family?" But my daughter wrote in English. "Why do you stay there so long? Try to get with me, come to the States? Why the stupid Viet Cong?" If they read it I would be in jail forever. I reread all letters trying to find one she wrote in Vietnamese to show the agent. I applied to go abroad with my sister-in-law. Her husband was here in the states. We both applied at the same time. Then I was so disappointed, I said, "If you want to keep me. If you think I am not safe for you to let me go, kill me. But don't keep my sister-in-law and my niece. They need to unify the family.

At last, at the end of March, '83, I was told, "Okay, your application has been sent to the ministry of Interior for consideration." I was very happy then.

Q. Tell me the story about meeting the Prime Minister on the street. Vu Van Lo.

He dared not say too many things. Even I introduced myself-
Q. You saw him just standing at a food stand or at a restaurant?

At a French restaurant in Saigon. I was drinking something with my friend and I saw him over there, alone, very quiet. He was eating a steak or something like that. He looked very old. He told me that the French offered him the professorship at the Paris University and he was waiting for the exit permit to go to France.

Q. He was very sad?

He was so tired. It seems to me that he did wrong during his political life. It seems to me, because I am sure -- he may have been hurt by criticism of him, about his political tendency, which caused disaster to South Vietnam. It seemed he was so uneasy and tired and he told me "You're still young. I am over 70 now and there's nothing left for me."

Q. In the United States-- you had never been here before?


Q. Tell me about your last look at Vietnam? Did you fly out to Bangkok?


Q. Were you aware you were leaving for the last time? Did you look around?

Yes. From the first day they came to South Vietnam, until the day I left Vietnam, I realized that there was big change in the attitude of the North Vietnamese communists towards South Vietnam. They themselves changed a lot. I can tell you that they changed their attire. They tried to be more in the civilized world -- western world. They tried to buy any kind of Honda, refrigerators, record players. They bought a lot of things, jeans, things like that.

And I had the impression that South Vietnamese people understand communists better than before when they came. They are not so afraid. It seemed they knew the communists are human beings too. They want to lead a normal, comfortable life like the others. We usually said to the North Vietnamese, "You changed, not us. Instead of us wearing the black pajama, or ride the bicycle, or wear that hat, they changed. They wear the watches made in Japan and other countries. They don't want to use the communist block products. And South Vietnamese people realized that the North Vietnamese people who had been settled in South Vietnam wanted to have a better life and they opened their eyes now to reality. Because of their propaganda and being so confined and contained in North Vietnam, now they had the chance to understand the reality. All the cadres?? themselves changed too, not only the people. Many of them had to be before court because of corruption, getting more money, bribes. All kind of bribery, everywhere. If the policeman stops you because you violate certain rules or road signs and you give him one or two American cigarettes, Salems or Pall Mall, he smiles at you. And if you go to the People's Committee you have to pay something, if not at that time, maybe at their home. Everywhere. That is reason why we feel so much freer and we not so afraid of them any more.

When they came, every night I had to attend a meeting, about five or six families together, we get together at night. Every night. And we had to sign a piece of paper. The day I left Vietnam -- once a month you are supposed to attend that kind of meeting. But even once a month, nobody attends. They did not care about that. The ones they wanted, they put in jail. You can not put all into jail. In many cases, I was in jail for three times, there were so many cadres??? who tried to leave Vietnam too.

Q. When you left what were your feelings? Did you look down from the airplane and look at Vietnam for the last time?

Yes. I was still not feeling very easy or safe. Any denouncement -- if anyone denounced me, for any kind of reason, "That guy, he worked with the Americans. I knew him before." -- I could be kept behind.

Q. When did you feel safe at last?

About twenty minutes after we took off. When things looked familiar, the curls on the roofs in Thailand -- because I had been there many times. Then I felt safe.

Q. Do you still dream about Vietnam?

No. I only dream about sometime -- this lingers in my mind -- about five or six months after arriving in Canada, I was dreaming that the communist agent knocked on the door calling me, investigating me. Many times I was called to the police subdivision from eight o'clock to four in the afternoon, asking me if I had in my mind a plan to leave Vietnam, and who organized such a plan. I didn't know anything. I was so sad at that time, but I thought that this would be the last time, that I wouldn't be able to return to my house. My daughter is in the states safely, and she's in the sunshine, that's enough. And I kept very calm. I thought it was the price I would pay for her freedom. I have to convince myself. You must live a bit philosophically.

(((((End of interview.))))

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