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Vietnam Part I: From a Free Country to a Huge Prison (My Family’s Story)

posted by Mimi 9. July 2013 19 Comments
Vietnam History

Little remark: Everything that is depicted here is based on experience reports of my parents. In a war, there are no winners, only losers.

The Saddest Day in Vietnam’s History: “Black April”, 1975

I can see the bitterness in the eyes of my parents, whenever they are talking about the darkest day in the history of Vietnam. It was April, 30th, 1975, also known as “Black April” (for Vietnamese “Ngày Ba Muoi Thàng Tu”), the
day on which South Vietnam capitulated against the North Vietnamese Communist Regime after 30 years of war.

Since that day, Vietnamese people have been deprived of freedom, human rights and liberty. They have been forced to live under suppression on a daily basis. Saigon, the old capital of South Vietnam, was renamed symbolically for the takeover of the northern regime into “Ho Chi Minh City”. A city that had lost its beauty of the old Saigon, a city being hardly recognizable for many Southern Vietnamese who were born and raised in the once free and beautiful Saigon.

Now the situation is different. The communist regime has built up an economy based on their hypocritical “equality” which cannot nearly meet the needs of the nation. The only people who profit from the new system are themselves, communist cadres. Organized surveillance, bureaucracy, corruption and govermental propaganda dominate the lives of the population. For them, it is the “Relief of South Vietnam”, while the southern Vietnamese remain of the day as the “Fall of South Vietnam”. Down to the present day, mistrust and fear govern the lives of many Vietnamese. It seems as if the tyranny will never find an end, until human rights are reconstituted and Vietnam will break its isolation from the outside world.

Vietnam’s History Still Remains a Secret For Many People

For many people who are not familiar with the history of Vietnam, it is quite hard to understand, why there exists such a deep hostility towards the North Communist Regime. There occurred many events, which have never been mentioned in history books or international media because the Vietnamese communist government has tried to hide their inhuman actions in order to prevent interventions from other countries to secure their authority.

My parents who have been in the middle of the war, witnessed at first hand the inhumanity of the northern communist dominion. Luckily, they have managed to escape to Germany after the Fall of South Vietnam. Their stories are sometimes hard for me to imagine because I have had the luck to grow up in a far more peaceful Germany.

My Father’s Story: Captivity of South Vietnamese Officers in So-called “Re-education Camps”

Two months after the Fall of Saigon, my father in his young years of 24, received a letter from local authorities. In this letter stood that he was required to sign in for a so called “political re-education” which would last, according to the communist regime, no longer than ten days. This re-education was set up for Southern ex-officers and army personnell who have worked for the old army of South Vietnam. Through the time of the re-education, they should get used to the new system and their values.

They told my dad that he only had to stay for 10 days. These 10 days became 3 years.

So my unsuspecting father packed suitcase for ten days, not anticipating that this “little journey” would cost him three precious years of his life. The meeting point was a catholic school of old officers, where the young men were already expected by the communists with a festive buffet. This was very spectacular for most of the young men who normally had to work hard for their food. If only they had known that the insincere generosity was only set up in order to distract from further plans the regime had provided for their young southern officers.

My father met some of his old friends from school who have also served as officers for the Southern army. During the feast, the camp leaders explained to their mentors further procedures, emphasizing that they had no reason to worry because they would return back home soon after having successfully absolved the re-education.

At night, it must have been 2 a.m., the young ex-officers heard some noises from outside and were woken up by their commandants. Outside the building, there were standing several trucks, being completely covered so that neither the young men nor anyone else could take a look inside or outside the cabins. On each truck, two soldats were sitting threateningly on the roof, armed with long rifles. My father and the other officers were carried along into the trucks, not knowing whereto the trucks would drive.

The re-education camps turned out to be inhuman labor camps.

After a sleepless night, they arrived in the morning at Trang Lon, a suburb of Tây Ninh, lying about 37 miles from Saigon. The place was in former times an old military basis of the U.S. and were used as concentration camps. With the arrival at the new location, the kindness of the communist commandants suddenly disappeared. The ex-officers were forced to hard physical labor, at least 12 hours a day from 6 a.m. The work they had to fulfill was often gratuitous. Those, who resisted the commands from above got punished.

Everyday, they only got two boils of rice with salt, which was not nearly enough to collect new strength for the hard work. Therefore they were forced to eat everything they could find in nature. Insects, leaves or even snakes. Many men died because they starved or ate plants which were poisonous.

The ex-officers had to work on old mine fields. One of my father’s companions lost his leg during the work. After that he was transported away. Nobody knew whether he was still alive.

My father remembered one day working on an old minefield. The officers did not know that there have still been old mines stuck in the ground because nobody warned them. While my father was cutting barbwires, he suddenly heard a loud noise and noticed dark smoke. He saw something falling down from the air. At the first moment, he assumed that it must have been a test shot of the commanders. But when he came closer, he recognized to his dismay tha his companion was screaming with pain because he stepped unwittingly into one of the old mines. His leg had been bombed away so that it had to be amputated without any anesthesia by the camp ambulance. Not only one time, but several times.

After some days of this traumatic incident, the man was transported away with a truck. No one has ever known to which place he was carried next, or if he was still alive at all […]

The family members of the ex-officers have never been informed about the labor camps.

Anyhow, the young ex-officers’ family members have never been informed about the truth because there has been a strict prohibition of contact to the outside world during the first year in the camps. Only once, they received letters by the regime, saying that their husbands or sons were in good hands, would lead a healthy life and that the family had absolutely no reason to worry.

Of course the families had become suspicious, but whenever they turned to local authorities, they were told nothing but lies. The fact of not knowing what was really going on, was an extremity of misery for the families. Many have also expected their husbands and sons already dead, while this believe proved to be true in many cases. The only thing they could do was to hope that the leaders would show mercy and would release their dearest soon.

Not until there have been started many riots by family members and friends in the South, the communist regime gave the permission for families to visit their husbands and sons once half a year.

The ex-officers were transported from one labor camp to the other without knowing whether they would ever be free again.

Day after day passed where the men have never heard a word about their release. Certainly, they were curious about the further duration of their stay in the camps; they were missing their families, their normal lives. Nevertheless, the only thing they were told was that their release depended solely on their personal behaviour and development, the willingness to adapt to the communist system. Those, who obeyed the orders and worked hard would come out faster.

My father was finally captured for over three years: six months in Trang Long, the other two years he had to stay in Phuoc Lonn, a deep jungle even more isolated from other cities than before. Every relocation meant that my father was taken away from his comrades he slowly became friends with. Frequently, ex-officers were transported away to an unknown place. The commandants justified the situation by claiming that this was due to new work instructions of the government.

Later on, the ex-officers understood, why there were permanent group divisions. The only reasonable explanation for this phenomena was that the communist regime must have been afraid of the group getting to know each other better, developing kind of community spirit and would use their cohesion to offer resistance against the orders or would start a revolt.

Those ex-officers who tried to escape where shot dead.

Sometimes, when the situation was unbearable, some captives tried to escape secretly from the camp. Nevertheless, in most cases, they had less chances to survive because either they were eaten by wild animals in the jungle, or got lost in the wilderness. Even if they reached an exit point, they could not stay in a city because their passports were directly taken away.

Local authorities could not let them entering a town without the ability to identify themselves. Everytime they were captured at a borderline, the camp officers were informed so they were brought back to the camp and were punished or directly shot to dead. As a deterrent, their dead bodies were often piled up in front of the cottages of the other prisoners. In many cases, even if the prisoners dared to go at night on toilett without a lamp, they got shot because they were suspected of trying to escape from the camp.

My father can account himself “lucky” that he came out of the jungle alive. After three years of confinement he was released from the camp. The reason for his releasment was that he had only worked three years for the Southern military and was therefore only an officer of first grade. Colonels of higher military grades were in the eyes of the communists more “dangereous” and had to be particularly treatened with caution, meaning lifelong imprisonment or assassination. Lately, my father heard that one of his old classmates was being killed during his time of captivity in the camps.

The Truth Has Always Tried to Be Be Withheld in Public by the Communist Regime.

You may wonder why there are very few people who know about those labor camps in Vietnam. The communst regime in Vietnam has a lot of power. They mostly act behind closed doors, carrying along with them their most important weapons: oppression, surveillance and violence.

Whenever someone was talking negatively about what happened, they were threatened, killed secretly or got directly into prison. Today, the regime still impugns that they have been holding – and are still holding – prisoners in the worsest conditions. There has never been a word of mention about the mass extermination of more than thousand of ex-officers. That they hold half a generation of innocent men in labor camps – for the public, it has always been just reeducation camps. Camps, where humans have been exploited to the worsest. Camps, where human rights are a foreign word. Camps, in which the prisoners were allegedly no real prisoners; just young men who had to be re-educated, but starved and worked themselves to death. And these camps still exist in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s Culture is Nowadays Hardly Recognizable Anymore. The Society is Full of Mistrust.

The dispossession of human rights and the misuse of power has always seemed to be the easiest way for the communist regime. They have destroyed traditions, solidarity and a loving culture and have replaced them instead with mistrust, ignorance and despair. Whenever my parents are talking about their homeland, they are calling the current society a “dog-eat-dog society”.

The “old people” who lived in the country before the Fall of Saigon, those who have fled from the brutality of the regime and those who could not escape, know the true face of the corrupt government. Sometimes, there is still a bitter and quite hope that maybe someday freedom and humanity will return to Vietnam again.

How Has Vietnam Been Restructured Socially After the Vietnam War?

My father, right after his release from the camp, got hired for a job in a film production company by means of my
grandfather’s old friend who lived in the North. For at least one year, he was allowed to work there – even though unpaid because Vietnam has been highly in debt since the American soldiers had left the country and the war had destroyed everything. Not until the country would have recovered from the charges, my father would get paid his wages – at least allegdly.

People Who Have Worked in Former Times for the Southern Government Had Bad Future Perspectives And Were Sometimes Excluded From The Educational System.

However, it was a great relief for him being able to work anywhere because those who did not have a job were condemned to demanding field work. But why could my father be so happy about the job, although he got no salary?
The explanation sounds as easy as it’s absurd: People who have worked in former times for the Southern Government, seldom got hired because they were renowned as traitors to their own country and became social outcasts. Those families, who have not fled from Saigon yet (like the Boatpeople), were classified according to their former activities: e.g. in “capitalists”, “revolutionists”, “exploiters” or paradoxical or “puppets of the system”.

This kind of separation has been decisive for the further fortune of a family, like whether they were allowed to visit schools or universities or if they found a (good) job. Many adolescents were therefore excluded from the education system. Although my father had largely outstanding academic achievements, he was not allowed to study at all because he had been officer for the Southern army.

The Whole Educational System Has Been Reformed According to the Personal Advantages and Values of the New Regime

Moreover, there were imposed some restrictions in the choice of field of study. My mother, for example, had just finished school and dreamed of studying law at an university. Her dream, however, seemed to become unfulfillable after the takeover of the north regime since law was a subject contradicting the principles of their communist ideology and therefore was forbidden.

She was also not allowed to study any other subject. Her father once was a mayor, when he was still living in Bac Ning, a small village in North Vietnam before Communism spread in the country. But as the situation in the North heated up, he fled in 1954 to the South, two years before my mother was born. On that account, he was considered as traitor to the Fatherland. In order to earn some money, my mother was forced to work on the black market, sewing clothes that later on would be sold in clothing stores. Her other familiy members did not carry on a job. Her parents were already too old and exhausted. So my mother was single earner and had to feed the whole family.

However, the money she made was by no means enough so the whole family lived under bad conditions. One of the older sisters of my mother had to stay back in North Vietnam because she has already got married by 1954 and therefore was not allowed to leave the North until 1975. If she had tried to leave the North after 1956, she would
have got shot by militants who kept a strict watch at the border which was built by the Ben-Hai-River. Hence, my mother was not allowed to see her sister until the Fall of Saigon. The situation regarding the frontier crossing was quite similar to that of the BRD.

Citizens Who Had Been Wealthier than the Average Population Were Being Exploited Ruthlessly by the Regime.

In Vietnam, many people who have been wealthier than the average population, were labelled by communist authorities paradoxically as “exploiters”. They got executed without any court order or were sent away rather to prison or working camps. The reason for this is that the authorities wanted to take profits from the wealthier population – alleged for the community, but they only used it for their own welfare. Another reason, why they wanted to get rid of them was that the regime was simply afraid of the higher class population, since most of
the people were educated. They feared that they could start a revolt against their new established regime.

Largely, those people who were killed have been innocent citizens. The execution methods were cruel: they were buried alive, were stoned or shot do death. Those, who dared to say anything against these brutalities appeared on the Communist’s records and had to fear for their own lives.

The Political Situation in Vietnam Has Many Parallels to the Corrupt Communistic Politics In China.

A recent example of the communist authorities’ strict and corrupt approach towards people who speak up for human rights appeared on the news all over the world. Two students, Dinh Nguyen Kha (20) and Nguyen Phuong Uyen (25) who have peacefully demonstrated against the intended attempted invasion of the communist China to Vietnam and the Vietnamese Communist Party, were sentenced for more than six years to prison on subversion charges. Vietnam, but also China lack the right to freedom and expression, being scared that the whole population would turn their backs against them.

The case of the two students however, have reached the public on an international basis because China is more integrated into the world’s community than Vietnam. Only a few people know something about Vietnam’s society and history because Vietnam is in economical, social and political terms more isolated from the world. Things that happen in Vietnam, seldom reach the media – and there’s also a lack of interest. Why should any countries be interested in a country that has no interest to integrate itself?

Actually, it is fair to say that communism is in theory a humanist idea. Unfortunately, it has always proved to fail in practice, leading in most countries which are governed by a communist regime to brutal corruptions. As long as egoism lies in the nature of human beings (which might not always be a bad thing as it partly enables progress), I think that communism is doomed to failure because its principles contradict human nature. The specific needs of each individuals are too much ignored in a communistic system.

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Larissa 10. July 2013 at 8:27

Great post dear! There are so many things people in "the West" seem to forget again and again… and very few people know much about all the horros of Vietnam and almost noone knows about the secret war in Laos :(

phi Nga 10. July 2013 at 17:05

Wow! my best regards to you and your family.Many young people who live now in free world they do not pay much attention about what has happened in Vietnam, or why their parents must leave VN.
What you wrote moved me so much!thanks alot!You give me the hope about a free Viet Nam in the future.The young Vietnamese can do much for Vietnam once you still think of it.Your knowledge and your English will help others to know the real face of communistism.Do not be deceived by their propaganda,just see what they did.

Maria Flicka 11. July 2013 at 7:28

What a touching post! I hope Vietnam becomes rich, strong, united, and heal from the decades of war! All the best to you and your family! Thank you so much for stopping by!

Mandy Ooi 12. July 2013 at 6:44

Great post! Sincerely hoping the best for Vietnam :) <3

xx Mandy

India 12. July 2013 at 19:10

Great post!!!!!

TagträumerPat 13. July 2013 at 12:55

Was für ein berührender Post, wow, danke für's Teilen! Und danke für deinen lieben Kommentar auf meinem Blog, hat mich wirklich gefreut! :) Ich wünsche dir ein traumhaftes Wochenende! :)

goodbadandfab 16. July 2013 at 6:27

Love, love, love!!!

personal style and fashion musings of a LA fashion lawyer living life in the fab lane!

Jessica Xu 17. July 2013 at 7:37

this was a wonderful post. I think it's interesting to study these things in history, but unfortunately we forget that the terrors that have occurred in the past are things which still happen in the world today, and that real life people have lived through these things.


Yulia Sidorenko 21. July 2013 at 12:27

such an interesting post, dear!

fhenny 27. July 2013 at 8:09

this post moved me so much. i have never known that it was this bad in Vietnam.
I learned about the communism in south east asia during my recent trip to Cambodia.
I had a glimpse of what the communist did during the time when they sent innocent people to jail and no education is allowed.
Knowing all these really open my mind and to notice that there are still many history in Asia that is kept from foreigners
i really hope that Vietnam will grow better as time goes by and have more equal treatment to all citizen


Bad Taste Toast 19. August 2013 at 11:24

Wow, there are so many things I didn't know about. It#s a bummer, but Vietnamese history is rarely known in Europe. This post really impressed me, thanks for sharing these words!

call me dreamy 29. August 2013 at 17:10

Such an inspiring post
I'v been to Vietnam and its gorgeous:)


Alicia Hadjialexandrou 1. September 2013 at 20:43

Hey! Thank you for your comment!I love your blog!

I'm following you now on GFC, G+ , hope you follow back! ;) xxxx

Who is Mocca? 10. October 2013 at 9:28

Danke für deinen Kommentar :)
Hab mir gerade den Bericht durchgelesen, echt toll!
Darf ich fragen wie du diese Bildleiste einfügst? Bei der du von links nach rechts scrollen kannst?

Liebe Grüße,

Hana 15. September 2014 at 19:59

Liebe Mimi, erst einmal vielen Dank, dass du mit uns die Geschichte deines Vaters teilst. Es ist wirklich schrecklich was er und viele andere an Unmenschlichkeit und Unterdrückung erlitten haben. Ansich ist der Blogeintrag recht gut geschrieben, was mir auffällt ist leider eine sehr einseitige Darstellung der Geschehnisse und die etwas sehr krasse Darstellung von “Gut und Böse”. Was wahrscheinlich mit der Tatsache zu tun hat, dass deine Eltern dich doch ein wenig beeinflusst haben. Was total legitim und verständlich ist, wenn man bedenkt, welche Erfahrungen sie diesbezüglich unfreiwillig gesammelt haben. Ich finde nur, dass der Blogeintrag, eigentlich nur der zweite Absatz und ein paar Stellen weiter hinten, eine vielleicht sehr einseitige Darstellung der damaligen Situation wiedergeben kann, vor allem für Personen, die nicht sich mit der Thematik beschäftigt haben. Die “bösen” kommunistischen Nordvietnamesen gegen die “guten” Südvietnamesen, die im schönen “once free and beautiful Saigon” gelebt haben, die jetzt im Amut leben, weil die gierigen Nordvietnamesen durch ihre Planwirtschaft alles runtergewirtschaftet haben was einmal vorhanden war. Ja, so kann die Geschichte natürlich sehr leicht erzählt werden und für einige Personen auch total nachvollziehbar, weil das war ja auch unter Stalin so. Aber Vietnam ist nicht die stalinistische Sowjetunion, die DDR, Kambodscha unter Pol Pot oder Nordkorea. Es war ein bitterer Stellvertreterkrieg, der ohne die Einmischung von Außenstehenden vielleicht nicht so verlaufen wäre. Die Geschehnisse sind so komplex gewesen und wer jetzt gut oder böse ist, dass kann ich nicht beurteilen und ich glaube, dass du auch nicht in der Lage dazu bist, da die südvietnamesischen Truppen, genau wie die nordvietnamesische Truppen ihre Hände nicht gerade in Unschuld waschen können. Beide Regime (ja die Herrschaft Diems war auch ein Regime) haben politische Gegner ausgeschaltet. Fragt sich nur was besser ist, gleich abgeknallt zu werden oder drei Jahre Arbeitslager und Exil. Auf was ich hinaus will ist nicht, dass dein Papa glücklich sein sollte, das Arbeitslager erwischt zu haben, sondern eher dass dort Krieg herrschte, auch wenn die Amis schon abgezogen waren. Man kann sich das gar nicht vorstellen, was ein Krieg, der auch noch so lange gedauert hat, aus einer Bevölkerung macht, nachdem 2-4 Millionen Menschen gestorben sind. Dein Papa hat 3 Jahre Arbeitslager überlebt und andere Menschen den ganzen Krieg. Es ist natürlich scheiße, dass die vietnamesische Regierung mit ihrer Geschichte nicht reinen Tisch machen kann und genauso wie Japan seine Kriegsverbrechen totschweigt, aber das Thema wird schon behandelt, zumindesten lese und höre ich davon nicht zum ersten Mal (obwohl meine Eltern ja Nordvietnamesen sind ;)). Um das hier mal zusammenzufassen, Kommunismus ist scheiße, Regime sind scheiße, aber ich bin froh, dass es jetzt ein Vietnam gibt, welches sich allerdings noch in vielerlei Hinsicht verbessern muss.

471010 16. September 2014 at 10:06

Hey Hanna,

ich freue mich, dass du dich so ausgiebig mit meinem Blogeintrag beschäftigt hast und dass du dir so viel Zeit genommen hast, darüber nachzudenken. Du hast vollkommen Recht, wenn du sagst, dass meine Meinung über die Geschehnisse in Vietnam sehr stark von meiner Familie geprägt ist. Ich habe diesen Blogpost vor über einem Jahr verfasst. Das war zu der Zeit, wo mein Vater sich mit mir ziemlich ausgiebig mit diesem Thema beschäftigt und er mir ziemlich viele Sachen erzählt hat, die er vorher nie erwähnt hatte. Kurz darauf habe ich diesen Blogpost verfasst und war stark emotional miteinbegriffen. Zumal hatte ich sehr viel Kontakt zu einem südvietnamesischen Menschenrechtler in Vietnam, welcher (natürlich kein Einzelfall) sehr grausame Sachen während und auch nach dem Krieg erlebt hat, wie in dem Post ja auch zu lesen ist.

Wenn ich mir allerdings durchlese, was ich vor einem Jahr über den Krieg geschrieben habe und darüber reflektiere, erkenne ich auch, dass meine Sicht damals wirklich sehr einseitig gefärbt war. Ich bin mir sehr bewusst darüber, dass man den Krieg nicht einfach nach dem Motto "gute Südvietnamesen" und "böse Nordkommunisten" pauschalisieren kann. Ganz gewiss nicht. Es steckt wie du schon sagtest, sehr viel mehr Geschichte dahinter, die wahrscheinlich keiner ganz genau wissen und ergreifen kann. Ein Blogeintrag darüber reicht keineswegs, um die ganzen Geschehnisse zu beschreiben, die damals stattgefunden haben, denn diese sind sehr komplex – und auch ich weiß wahrscheinlich verhältnismäßig nur sehr, sehr wenig darüber. Ich kenne das, was meine Eltern mir erzählt haben und das, was man auf der anderen Seite in Geschichtsbüchern vorfindet.
Aus diesem Grunde wollte ich, wenn ich bald wieder etwas mehr Zeit habe, einen neuen Blogpost über Vietnam verfassen, da ich es interessant finde, wie sich meine Sichtweise darüber verändert hat – und auch dies kritisieren und reflektieren, was ich vor einem Jahr beschrieben habe.

Ich freue mich wirklich sehr und weiß es zu schätzen, dass du dir so viel Zeit genommen hast, diesen langen Kommentar zu verfassen. Lieben Dank und liebe Grüße!


Hana 27. September 2014 at 9:57

Liebe Mimi!

Danke für die Antwort, bin auf weitere Artikel gespannt.

LG Hana

Uschi Erlewein - Die Geschichtenspielerin 3. February 2016 at 17:25

I am so moved by your story, speechless about the cruelty of humans. My heart is crying…I think it is so good, that you tell this story. Your family has experienced such a trauma, telling family-stories helps healing these wounds. Thank you for sharing!

Mimi 5. February 2016 at 14:56

Hey Uschi,

you’re right. Whenever I think about the past of my parents, I start to realize that I have such a good life here in Germany and how important it is to appreciate also the small things in life.

Best regards,


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