Thai Pham

From ARVN to Reeducation to America

Profilers: Rui Huang, Steven Pham, Owen Slyman

Note: Thai is accompanied by his brother-in-law, Bao Tran, in this interview, who translates and reads Thai’s responses as well as adding in his own perspective. Bao also served with the ARVN and was later prisoner in a reeducation camp.

On Hearing War was Breaking Out

The war messed up everything. It made it broken, they killed people, I thought it was bad news. We didn’t like the war.
I think first when I heard war was breaking out in 1972, we had been in university, but in the summer of 1972, the war of Vietnam was very harming. Everybody in the school, and the big university — they closed. Everybody, they had to go to the army.
How about him? [motions to Thai] 1966 — he had to go to the army.
After that — we go to the war.
I saw lots of my friends die, because we fought together, the republic in the South fighting the North.
But in the North, they had the support from Russia and China, but the army in South Vietnam — only American support.
They had 50,000 people — American — die from Vietnam, and in 1973 the Americans left my country.
From 1975 the war was over — the end of the war after the Americans left.
Everybody worked together with the Americans before.
They [North Vietnamese] cast us to work in the prison in the mountain.
How about him? [referring to Thai] Seven years.
How about me? [referring to Bao] Five years.
Every — as much as seventeen years, fifteen years — different.
But after that, they had the contract from Vietnam and America, from President Reagan — they sponsored those who had been living in a cell for over 3 years.

On Those Fighting for North Vietnam

I felt towards those fighting for North Vietnam — North Vietnam was communist, and living in South Vietnam — the Republic — they were different.

Oh. What did I think about those fighting for North Vietnam?
North Vietnam and South Vietnam — different, everything.
Different because North Vietnam, they followed China, they followed Russia, but South Vietnam, they followed America.
North Vietnam was Communist, South Vietnam was a republic — different.
We fight together, not myself because the South had support from America, and the North — support from Russia and China,
But when the war ended, from North Vietnam and South Vietnam — so many didn’t like each other. They still don’t like them.

But now the war’s over, over 40 years ago.
We forgot everything, we want to get back together.
Not because the war is over, we want Vietnam to become the good Vietnam.
We don’t like that we haven’t gotten back together.

On The Americans in Vietnam

I feel toward the Americans in Vietnam — they looked very friendly, they helped Vietnam fight the Communists in North Vietnam.

On Fighting for the South instead of the North

I fought for the South because I lived in South Vietnam. But in North Vietnam were the Communists — they were different. We wanted freedom.

On Fighting Other Vietnamese

How did we feel about the North… no good with me because the North was Communist. We fought all the Vietnamese together. Because from China, from the Russia, from the Americans, Vietnam follow that. We didn’t want to fight together.

On Experiences in the Army

Not just me [referring to Bao], but everybody didn’t like the war. Because in the war, they killed people, destroyed everything, they messed up. They broke families, they broke everything.
You know, Thai has a lot of experiences, because he served in the army about a 8 or 9 years. He fought every day, sometimes every week, he fought too much. He had surgery in his body, he had a lot of experience. Sometimes, he slept out in the fields, in the mountains, he had a lot of experience when he fought because he served for 8 years.

Were you scared at first when you entered the war?
No, he [Thai] was not scared. He doesn’t care.

On Regret

Oh yeah, we regret something in the war. They made broken families, they broke all of them.

On Living in the Reeducation Camp

Oh, you know, me and him, we were living in the reeducation camp. We worked very hard, labored very hard. And we worked very hard but the food — it was just a little bit. Every day we were hungry, and the clothes and the medicine — not enough.
How was the food like in the camp?
The food? You know the rice? Not the rice, they gave you something like corn, powder and bread. That’s it.
How was it enduring the cold in the winter?
You know because we lived in, not in the village, we lived in the mountains, in the valley in the mountains; around here, there were a lot of trees, it was very cold in the winter. We drank the water, not clear water.

On Coming to America

I very much liked when we came here to America because my children grew up here very good and we have freedom.

On How America has Helped or Not Helped Since Coming Here

When we came here, the Americans helped — the first time we came here, we had welfare, they gave me food and they gave me money, paid the rent, and everything. We like it here.
You know, the first time we came here, we didn’t have anything.
We [referring to Bao] came here, we brought my children, very small.
We want to thank you, America, for helping me a lot.
Now, we have a house, we have good jobs.
My children, they grew up, they have lives, and they are looking forward to have good jobs.
We want to thank you, America.

On Keeping in Touch With People who Served With Them

Yeah, we are still in touch with people in the war who served in the war with us because after we left from Vietnam, we came here, had a reunion, and sometimes we call, we talk together.

Did you like coming to America?
I liked when we came here to America because my children grew up here very good, and we have freedom.

On Returning to Vietnam

I [referring to Bao] wish, when Vietnam has freedom, but now I don’t go back because now Vietnam is still Communist. You know about the Communists? Not freedom — when you say something, they can catch you and send you to prison.
Everybody came here, they wish to go back to Vietnam, when Vietnam has freedom, but now the Communists don’t have freedom. Because we live here all the time, we miss my country because over there we have family — parents, brothers and sisters– and somebody passes away but they have [the funeral] over there. We miss my country, I miss my country but when they [Vietnam] have freedom.

On Media Portrayals of the Vietnam War

I think the books talk about history, different from the truth. Because the North talks about the winning but the South, they lost. That’s different from the history.

Do you see that with the films as well?
No, not true. When they fought together, I [referring to Bao] talked about South Vietnamese who died — 5 [million] people — but the Communists, they say 100 [thousand] people died. I think that’s not true.

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Amazing story.