Minh Nguyen

America Is My Country Now

Profilers: Eric Norwine and Avram Munoz


GROWING UP IN SOUTH VIETNAM

In this highlight video, Mr. Nguyen discusses life growing up in Vietnam and his views of the French and Americans when they were occupying his native country. He comments on the Communists’ claims that they were doing good for the country, and accuses the Communist leaders of being “liars.”

Minh Nguyen Interview Highlights

Highlights Transcription

Eric: If you could just start by telling us your name, and by telling us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Minh: My name is Minh Nguyen, I was born in Saigon, South Vietnam.

Eric: What was it like growing up when both the US and the French were present in Vietnam?

Minh: When I was born, that was when the French were beginning to withdraw and the US starting to come in, so I didn’t really live with both of them.

Eric: What was it like after Dien Bien Phu and when the US started taking a more active role in the South?

Minh: I was only a little kid when they were coming in. As a kid, we loved them – they were foreigners. They both gave kids candy and were always nice. As an adult, Vietnamese saw the Americans and the French the same – they were both white, both foreigners, they both came into the country. There wasn’t much of a difference – there was a problem with language, but there wasn’t much difference.

Eric: What was life like in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon with the Communists in power, compared to growing up around Americans?

Minh: 100% different, it was like night and day. Before the fall of Saigon, if you wanted to eat then you could eat, if you had the money; if you didn’t have the money, then you could find a job to get the money to eat.

After the fall of Saigon, there was no money at all – no money for food, for clothes, for medicine. If you were sick…if you survived you were lucky and if not you just died. If you wanted to get money, you had to work with the Communists in the jungles and help clean up the after-effects of the war.

It’s different now because the overseas Vietnamese send back money for their relatives still in Vietnam, so people nowadays aren’t as bad off as they were in ‘75. But from 1975-1985 they took all the rich people and took away all their money and possessions. Say one person has 10 dollars and one person has one dollar. They will bring the person with 10 dollars down to one dollar, and if you starve you starve, there’re no more social classes. The rich people that they took money from, they didn’t give it back to the poor. They just brought it back to Hanoi to give it to their soldiers, their officials and their government. They didn’t give it to the people at all.

Eric: So they didn’t balance the classes by taking 10 dollars and the person who had one now had 5 and the person who had 10 now had 5, instead they lowered the standard of living to the lowest common denominator and the rest of the money went to the soldiers, officials, and government?

Minh: It was a form of control. If you took the money from the rich and gave it to the poor and balanced it out, the Communists think they can’t control them; they won’t listen to the government or anything. But if you make everyone poor, then you can have some control over them, like: “If you don’t listen to me then I won’t give you food.”

Eric: So if everyone’s poor then you have to rely on the government.

Minh: Yes, that’s how Communists are.

Avi: What did you think of the fact they acted that way when during the war they claimed they were trying to unify Vietnam and make life better for everyone?

Minh: They were liars – that’s how I feel about what they said and what they did after. Gorbachev said, “If you’re young and you don’t go to the Communists you’re dumb. But if you’re 40 and you’re still with the Communists you have no brain at all”. Because he’s a liar. That’s how the Communists are. They’re just liars. I’m speaking from personal experience…they manipulated me and my family. They said if we worked for them they would give us food and that we didn’t need money, just food. But we still had to find ways to find food – if we got food, it wasn’t enough.

UNEDITED INTERVIEW

PART 1

In this unedited portion of our interview with Mr. Nguyen, he talks about what life was like growing up in Vietnam with the French and United States occupying the South. He discusses the difference between the two occupying countries, what he thought of them as a child, and how the Vietnamese adults perceived the French and Americans. Mr. Nguyen also shares with us some stories of his time in the navy, where he served as a medic. He answers some questions regarding the United States’ use of the chemical, “agent orange,” and disputes some of the claims made by the Vietnamese government, regarding the physical damage done by the chemicals.

Minh Nguyen Interview Part 1

PART 2

The second part of our interview with Mr. Nguyen, in which he expresses his opposition to communism, and makes frequent claims that the Communists were “liars.”

MInh Nguyen Interview Part 2

PART 3 and 4

In this portion of our interview with Mr. Nguyen, he introduces his wife and tells the story of how they met. The two also share with us some information about their family, and what life was like apart, while Mr. Nguyen was off at war and in a reeducation camp.

Minh Nguyen Interview Part 3

Minh Nguyen Interview Part 4

Full Interview Transcription

Eric: If you could just start by telling us your name, and by telling us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Minh: My name is Minh Nguyen, I was born in Saigon, South Vietnam.

Eric: What year were you born?

Minh: 1947

Eric: Did you serve in the army?

Minh: no, navy

Eric: For how many years?

Minh: About 8 years

Eric: When did you move to the US?

Minh: 1984

Eric: What was it like growing up with the US and the French in Vietnam?

Minh: When I was born, that was when the French were beginning to withdraw and the US starting to come in, so I didn’t really live with both of them.

Eric: What was it like after Dien Bien Phu and when the US started taking a more active role in the South?

Minh: I was only a little kid when they were coming in. As a kid, we loved them – they were foreigners. They both gave kids candy and were always nice. As an adult, Vietnamese saw the Americans and the French the same – they were both white, both foreigners, they both came into the country. There wasn’t much of a difference – there was a problem with language, but there wasn’t much difference.

Eric: We learned that you served as a medic?

Minh: I served as a medic for the navy, not for the civilians or the army.

Eric: Did you ever have to deal with injuries from things like Agent Orange?

Minh: When I was serving in the navy I never heard of it. Agent Orange was inland, because the purpose was to…I can talk more about it if you want, about the experience after the war.

After the fall of Saigon, I was forced into hard labor, to go to the jungles and look for dead bodies, clean up the bombs and stuff. I saw a huge box with blocks of Agent Orange, I just saw it. That place was only 20 miles from Saigon. After I broke it, I tried sniffing it because I didn’t know what it was. It fell on my fingers and I started sweating, because of the effects of it. I wiped my face and it stayed really itchy, so I just washed it off. Nowadays I don’t really feel different, I don’t feel effects from it. I wasn’t the only one – this whole village had the blocks, and there were no effects from it.

Avi: Was there any point after the war where you found out some of the effects of it, maybe on other people? If so, what did you think about the fact that the US and South Vietnamese armies used Agent Orange?

Minh: I don’t think it was right that they used it. They only used it on trees. I’ve seen children with heads that are abnormal or too big and a bunch of other birth defects, but I think the Communists exaggerated the effects of Agent Orange because from 1975 to now I haven’t seen any other side effects. From personal experience, after Americans poured it on one of the villages as the navy we had to sail in to fight after they dropped it, and I have no side effects so I don’t think it’s as bad as the Communists say.

Eric: What was life like in Vietnam after the fall of Saigon with the Communists in power, compared to growing up around Americans?

Minh: 100% different, it was like night and day. Before the fall of Saigon, if you wanted to eat then you could eat, if you had the money; if you didn’t have the money, then you could find a job to get the money to eat.

After the fall of Saigon, there was no money at all – no money for food, for clothes, for medicine. If you were sick…if you survived you were lucky and if not you just died. If you wanted to get money, you had to work with the Communists in the jungles and help clean up the after-effects of the war.

It’s different now because the overseas Vietnamese send back money for their relatives still in Vietnam, so people nowadays aren’t as bad off as they were in ‘75. But from 1975-1985 they took all the rich people and took away all their money and possessions. Say one person has 10 dollars and one person has one dollar. They will bring the person with 10 dollars down to one dollar, and if you starve you starve, there’re no more social classes. The rich people that they took money from, they didn’t give it back to the poor. They just brought it back to Hanoi to give it to their soldiers, their officials and their government. They didn’t give it to the people at all.

Eric: So they didn’t balance the classes by taking 10 dollars and the person who had one now had 5 and the person who had 10 now had 5, instead they lowered the standard of living to the lowest common denominator and the rest of the money went to the soldiers, officials, and government?

Minh: It was a form of control. If you took the money from the rich and gave it to the poor and balanced it out, the Communists think they can’t control them; they won’t listen to the government or anything. But if you make everyone poor, then you can have some control over them, like: “If you don’t listen to me then I won’t give you food.”

Eric: So if everyone’s poor then you have to rely on the government.

Minh: Yes, that’s how Communists are.

Avi: What did you think of the fact they acted that way when during the war they claimed they were trying to unify Vietnam and make life better for everyone?

Minh: They were liars – that’s how I feel about what they said and what they did after. Gorbachev said, “If you’re young and you don’t go to the Communists you’re dumb. But if you’re 40 and you’re still with the Communists you have no brain at all”. Because he’s a liar. That’s how the Communists are. They’re just liars. I’m speaking from personal experience…they manipulated me and my family. They said if we worked for them they would give us food and that we didn’t need money, just food. But we still had to find ways to find food – if we got food, it wasn’t enough.

It’s better now because Communism is slowly falling apart. Cuba, NK, China, and Vietnam are the only Communist countries left so they had to release some control and let their civilians…they still have some control, but just don’t rebel against them and you can do whatever you want. For example, if you want to go sell something for money they wouldn’t let you but now they do – as long as you don’t fight back against them they won’t do anything against you.

Avi: What do you think of the potential for Vietnam to change its government or for people to get more freedom than they have now with Communists in power?

Minh: I don’t see any way that they can better their government or fight the Communists – the only thing they worry about is getting food to feed them and their fa milies. Only 20% of the population can have money and have any knowledge of what they can do to better their government and their country, but mostly the Communists have control over the internet, facebook, all the social networks so the people can’t get support or find a way to fight against the Communists now. All they’re worried about right now is getting food and staying alive.

Rhetorically, what if Obama took all our jobs and gave them to foreigners, like we don’t have any jobs but we want to rebel against him and get a new government and a new president. We wouldn’t be able to do it because we’re starving, we don’t have money, we don’t have resources. That’s what the situation in Vietnam is like – even if they wanted to rebel, they don’t have the money to, they don’t have the full stomach to even worry about it. There might not be any potential for government change.

Eric: So you’re fighting against death, not the government.

Minh: Yes.

Eric: Can you talk a little about your labor sentence? Just the process…we talked about when the war was over, labor sentences came in and people were brought into re-education camps, but we haven’t really talked about how that happened. How did they know who your loyalties were to, and then what was the process?

Minh: They didn’t really have a system. They just said, “oh you work for Americans…you’re a teacher, a soldier…you’re going to re-education camp.” The way they put it, it wasn’t a prison – you’re learning the new government. They didn’t really have a sentence on how long you stay…it just depends on the person. And basically, they let you out when you’re dying.

Eric: It sounds like…you’ve talked about the quality of living as a civilian, and every day you’re just trying to get to the next one. Obviously physically you’re going to be brutalized more in a re-education camp, but were the chances of living just about the same? Were you just as well off in a re-education camp as you were regularly?

Minh: the re-education camp was a prison, living in Vietnam was a prison – the only difference was one was in jail and one was the entire country. If prisoners didn’t have anything to wear, neither do civilians. If they didn’t have anything to eat, neither did the civilians. The only I could say luxury of being in prison was you weren’t forced to figure a way out to get the money – you didn’t have to go the jungle or work with the Viet Cong to get money for food.

Eric: After you were released from the re-education camp, how long were you in Vietnam before you left for the US?

Minh: I was in the re-education camp until 1980.

Eric: So for how many years?

Minh: I was in prison and had to do forced hard labor for 3 ½ years. I moved to the US in 1984 with my family because we had an older brother who was also a naval officer who managed to escape in ’75 with the Americans. He was able to get papers and find a sponsor who could sponsor the entire family to come over.

Eric: Why were you released?

Minh: I don’t really know – there really was no system and according to the Communists it wasn’t a prison, it was school.

Eric: So it wasn’t so much you were released, it was you graduated.

Minh: For example, once one person was in the re-education camp for 7 years, when he was released he couldn’t do anything – he can’t leave the country, he can’t leave the city, he was pretty much under watch for at least four years. Basically, if you step out of the house there would be a Communist following you.

Avi: Did that happen to you even though you were only in the re-education camp for 3 ½ years, or did they sort of leave you alone afterwards?

Minh: I did too, because it happened to everyone, they just wanted to control you. Basically, you didn’t have freedom even though you were free from foreigners.

Eric: how were you received by North Vietnamese civilians, people who weren’t going to have to face the re-education camps because they were on the “right side”? How did they treat you, non-leaders and non-government people from the North?

Minh: The only Communists that actually looked at me differently and looked down on me were the officials, the government and leaders. The leaders were the ones who looked down on South Vietnamese veterans, but among civilians it was normal – they didn’t feel differently about it.

3 – Navy

Eric: What years were you in the navy? What was your experience like – where were you, what were your tasks?

Minh: I joined the navy in 1966. There were different jobs to do like cook, engineers, mechanics, communications, sonar…I chose the profession of a medic. Learning how to be a medic was different than here – here you learn continuously for 3-4 years. In Vietnam, you learn for 4 months, then go work and experience. Then you go back for a few more months – you build your experience and you learn at the same time…I did that 4 times. I didn’t really fight the Viet Cong in the beginning but in 1968-69 I went to the province of Ca Mau in the southern tip of Vietnam. There were 25 ships and we were sent in to fight the Viet Cong.

[shows certificate and photo] This is my diploma and my graduating class from one of the few times that I was in school.

Eric: Can you talk about some of the other stuff you have here with you?

Minh: [holds up passport] This is my passport I sued when I went to the Philippines in 1972. [holds up ID card] This is my identification to get into the base, and this is what I used to purchase food and other items [shows food card]. When I went over to the Philippines, the navy gave the South Vietnamese navy these two ships [holds up picture of ship]. This is when I was in the Philippines with my friends [holds up pictures]. These are from when I returned to Vietnam and his family visited me – they took pictures on the ships we got from the Americans [holds up pictures of family]. This is me on the island Hoang Sa…the island belonged to the Vietnamese until 1974 when the Chinese invaded and took control [shows pictures of himself on the island].

4 & 5 – with wife

Eric: If you could just introduce each other.

Minh: This is my wife, Hiep. We got married in 1972, and I have 3 children – 1 girl and 2 boys. I had 2 children in Vietnam and one boy born here.

Eric: When and how did you meet?

Minh: My friend in the navy who served with me, we went together to his house and he introduced his younger sister to me.

Eric: Alright, so friend’s sister. [laugther] How did your friend feel about that?

Minh: He was fine with it because we were best friends, he trusted me. Back then I was very handsome [laughs].

Eric: How long did you date before you were married?

Minh: We dated for 6 years from 1966 to 1972.

Eric: So you started dating when you were 18.

Minh: Yeah. We were friends first before we actually fell in love – whenever her brother came home I came with him, so we were friends first.

Eric: What was your wedding like?

Hiep: We married in 1972, it was a very happy occasion

Eric: That’s got to be tough on a marriage.

Minh: No, not very good.

Eric: Did you get to see each other when he was in the re-education camp?

Both: No.

Minh: That’s too sad, let’s not talk about it – I want to talk about happier times like coming to the US.

Eric: Can you talk about what it was like coming to America, the difficulties that came with it? Was it much better?

Minh: This picture is from Vietnam before we left – my big family, my brother, my mom, everything.

Of course it was difficult when we arrived in America – we lived on welfare. [shows pictures of family and himself 1 year after he came to America]

Eric: What profession did you have when you came to America?

Minh: I was a mechanic for 2 years, and then I switched over to construction.

Eric: and is that the career you had the rest of the time?

Minh: I’ve been working in construction since then, I work for the company – they’re responsible for building the schools in California – high schools.

Eric: Do you still have family in Vietnam?

Minh: Yeah, my mom and my brother.

Hiep: I worked in sewing (like girl from the movie Journey From the Fall) and have been doing it since then, and I still have 2 younger siblings in Vietnam.

Eric: When was the last time…have you returned to Vietnam?

Minh: No, I’ve never.

Eric: Have they come here?

Minh: I ran out of my country, I don’t like it (Vietnam). My mom did visit once.

Eric: They don’t have any plans to come live here though?

Minh: I don’t know, because they’ve living there their whole lives and wouldn’t know what to do over here.

[picks up the dog]

Eric: Who’s this?

Minh: Molly, she’s a beautiful girl [laughs]

Eric: Anything else you’d like to share about your family?

Both: There’s nothing else, just that America is our second country – this is our country now.

Minh: I like being American. I love it here because I have the freedom to do whatever I want – in Vietnam whatever you want you can’t get. The future of my kids here is much better than if they stayed in Vietnam.

Eric: And that’s what’s most important.

Minh: Buy zoloft Yes.

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