Fleeing the Viet Cong
Profilers: Brandon Beard-Reed, Eugenio Ferrigno & Janet Nhan
Her Father’s Story
Biens Cao talks about her childhood in the 1930s. She didn’t get to meet her father, Cao Văn Luyện (1903 – 1971), until she was 8 because he was imprisoned on Con Son Island for being part of the Vietnam Nationalist Party and rebelling against the French. She talks about how he narrowly escaped being executed along with the other leading members of the Nationalist Party, and a story he used to tell her about how he managed to improve the conditions of Con Son Island not only for himself but also his fellow prisoners. After his release in 1945, he moved the family from the countryside into the city, where Biens witnessed the horrors of the Japanese military and the officials’ suicide when the Americans won World War II.
Meeting Ho Chi Minh
Biens talks about her two encounters with Ho Chi Minh, and how close she got to him. However, she thought was scary and refused to shake hands with him. In addition, she also talks about his trip to France to ask for Vietnam’s independence, and asking the citizens to donate all their gold and jewels during a “Gold Week” in order to buy weapons in France.
A few months after she met Ho Chi Minh, he called for the two main parties of Vietnam (one being the Nationalist [I mistranslated this part] in which her father was a part of). The guise was to reunite the country under a new government but once the meeting was over, Ho Chi Minh had everyone in attendance assassinated.
Out of the 76 in attendance, only Biens’s father survived.
After her father’s attempted assassination, her sister’s murder and the splitting of the country in 1954, the first thing Biens did was pack up and leave for the South with her new husband, who later served as an officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force. She was pregnant at the time, and would continue to have 9 more children. Here, she talks about the struggles of post-1975, the lost of her 3 children and the suffering she went through as she tried to find ways for her children to escape. Finally, in 1993, after her husband was released from re-education camp, she was able to leave Vietnam and the Viet Cong for good.
Full Profile Transcription
This is my grandma Biens Cao and she’ll be talking about her life in Vietnam from 1930 until she came here in 1993. She’ll mostly be talking about her father who was a member of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party in the 1940’s and they fought against the French and she can get into more detail about that.
Would you please tell us about your father?
I grew up in the countryside and my whole life I had to work starting at 8. I had to go to school and work at the fields to take care of the family. My mom raised 3 kids without my dad because he was in prison.
My father was in prison at Côn Sơn for 8 years so I did not meet him until I was 8 years old. Before he went to prison, he went to Hànội University and he studied with Nguyễn Thái Học, who was the leader of Vietnamese Nationalist Party. They sat at the same table at the same class. They were friends before the Vietnamese Nationalist Party came into existence.
Nguyễn Thái Học asked my dad to join him to fight against the French who were collecting heavy taxes and the civilians didn’t have money to pay so they starved to death. In 1930, in one of the battles in Yên Bái, next to Hànội, they were fighting against the French but they lost. The French arrested the leaders of the Nationalist party and were going to execute 60 of the members and officials.
My dad was one of them.
[But] my dad managed to escape with the help of his dad, who served with the French army in WWI against the Germans, so he filed paperwork to excuse my dad from being executed so instead he was sentenced to 8 years in prison. The French ended up executing 12 of the leaders of the Nationalist Party and my dad’s friend, Nguyễn Thái Học, was one of them.
There’s a story of my dad when he was in prison that they would only let him eat mâm, which was rotten fish, for his meal and he couldn’t stand it so he managed to somehow to meet with the official of the whole Indochina area and he said, “I’m in prison because I love my country not because I’m a thief, a murderer, or anything else. You look at me like I’m nothing, but I only love my country like you love yours. Can you get me something better to eat?” He was able to convince the official to give him better food for him and his fellow prisoners, so after that they were given meat, fish, and better food to eat.
One year after he was released, he was re-arrested by the French and he wasn’t released until 1945 when the French lost to the Japanese in WWII. He moved the family from the countryside to Hànội, to live in the city, after he was released. There I saw the Japanese military in Hànội, but when the Japanese lost to the Americans in August 18, 1945, I saw them commit suicide by driving a knife down their whole torso and their organs spilled out and I saw all of that in the streets.
The Japanese weren’t any better than the French. They forced the civilians to grow a certain kind of tree that was used as a bag to defend against American bombs. Because of that, civilians couldn’t grow rice and 2 million people starved to death under the Japanese.
Did you ever meet Ho Chi Minh?
On August 19, after the Japanese lost, Hồ Chí Minh told all the civilians to go protest at Ba Đình Square. I went as well and I was 15 at the time. There was another protest on September 2. He called the whole city to go to Ba Đình Square again. They closed all the schools and businesses just for the protest. He called for independence for Vietnam.
I saw him at the protest and we were about 20 meters apart, pretty close. I met him again in the Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hànội. This time, he was from here to the table apart from me [a few feet]. I thought he was scary. He offered to shake hands with all the people in that room but I was too scared to actually shake hands with him, so he moved on to someone else.
In October, the month after I met him, he went to France, to the Fountainebleau Palace, to ask for independence but before he left he had a Gold Week, in which he asked all the civilians to give up all their zanaflex money, diamonds, gold, jewels to have money to buy weapons to fight against the French, if needed. There was a lot of gold, a lot of money, a lot jewels. He bought the weapons in France when he went to ask for independence.
What was Ho Chi Minh’s connection to your father?
In October, Hồ Chí Minh came back to Vietnam and he asked the 2 main political parties of Vietnam, the Nationalist party and another party to go meet up so they can set up a new government for the country of Vietnam and my father was one of the officials who went to that meeting. The meeting was a cover for…there were 76 people who went. The meeting went from 8 in the morning to 9 at night. When Hồ Chí Minh let the members go into the cars he had all of them assassinated after the meeting under the cover of, “We can unite for a new government.” He had them in the cars and he killed every single one of them.
My dad was the only one who survived.
They had the bodies taken to a morgue in a hospital and the only reason why he was able to live was because the person in charge of the hospital felt that his body was still warm so they changed his clothes, because he was wearing an official’s suit, to peasant clothing just black pajama pants, black shirt. They bandaged his wounds and they called a xìch lô for him to go home. When he went to the door, I opened the door but I didn’t recognize who he was, not until he started speaking that I realize it was my dad.
Two bullets got into his eye but I guess they didn’t explode. He also had 2 bullets into his cheek and destroyed his teeth. I didn’t know before that that Hồ Chí Minh was the one that had tried to get him assassinated, so after they learned that, my mom cleaned him up, changed his clothes, cleaned his wounds and sent him to the hospital. He stayed at the hospital for a couple of months before he went into exile in China.
But that wasn’t the last time my family was affected by the Communists. I have two older sisters, one who was a few years older and the second who was only one year older than me. By the time my dad was in the hospital, my oldest sister had already gotten married, to another member of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. I didn’t get to see her often, but they had a son. I remember, while my dad was in the hospital, I went to go visit my sister so I could play with my nephew, who was about 11 months old. But when I got to their home, no one was there. I asked their neighbors, and they were all scared but eventually I found out that my sister, her husband and my nephew had been killed not too long ago by the Communists.
The Communists are evil. They tried to killed my dad, and killed my sister and her family in a matter of months. They’re absolutely evil.
Why did you move to South Vietnam?
In 1954, when the country was split, my family was afraid of the Communists so after what they did to my dad, the first thing we did was pack up and leave.
Me and my husband got married in 1954. [shows a picture of both of them when they first came in to South Vietnam and she was pregnant with her first child] He worked as an Air Force Official in Đà Lạt, [and] we had 10 kids. The first one was born in 1955. After 1975, when the Communists came they didn’t give sufficient food, I think it was the same food they gave to the horses.
All 10 of my kids contracted malaria. I was the only one who didn’t catch it. However I saw my neighbor’s children die, so I was afraid for my own 10. I managed to take care of them by giving them lemon and water, which is one of the key cures.
In 1979, I let 4 of my kids go [on a boat] but before they got too far, there was a storm and the boat sank. I lost 3 of them. The 4th child managed to grab on to a piece of wood and floated to shore. Out of the 4, only one survived. I tried to go look for my other 3 children’s bodies but I could never find them.
Living under Communism was very bad. I was very scared of them. My oldest child was forced into labor camps and when he came back he had a fever and he was so sick that he went insane and hasn’t recovered since then. Even though I wanted [my children] to escape, I didn’t let large number go together, so I let them go one by one. I wouldn’t lose so many if something happened again.
There was also no future for my kids because they didn’t allow them to go to any universities. After 12th grade, you were done. You had to find your own living, especially if your parents were involved with the South Vietnamese government or with the Americans. My husband was part of the South Vietnamese Air Force so he couldn’t find a job. It was me trying to feed 12 mouths, including myself, before I could let my kids leave Vietnam.
When my husband, like I said was part of the South Vietnamese air force, was forced into a re-education camp for 7 years, that’s why I was the only one able to bring money in to feed 10 kids, my mother-in-law, and herself. But after he served 7 years in the reeducation camp, somehow the Americans sponsored any South Vietnamese army officials over to America. We were both able to come to America with 2 of our kids; the rest had escaped by boat before then.
Would you thank her for all of us?
It was really nice here in America compared to back there. And you’re welcome.