The Painful History of the South: The Story of Triệu Thiện Huỳnh
Profilers: Phượng Kim Huỳnh & Natalie Rodriguez
Q: Please introduce yourself and what your occupation was before the war. [0:10]
My name is Huỳnh Thiện Triệu. I was born on the 13th of November in 1941. Before joining the South Vietnamese Army, I graduated from pharmacy school. After mobilization, I was assigned as a junior-rank pharmacist. My first assignment was in Cà Mau. Then I moved home to Sóc Trăng and finally, Cần Thơ in the IV Corps’ medical warehouse.
Q: Describe Southwestern Vietnam before and during the war. [1:06]
From Cần Thơ province all the way to the city of Mỹ Tho. There were many farms, rice fields and prosperous businesses. Unlike Sài Gòn, we didn’t have large factories. For example, we didn’t have massive garment factories.
Cần Thơ was known as the ‘Capital of the West.’ The people of southwestern Vietnam were very peaceful. There was a large school by the name of Phan Thanh Giản for male students and a school named Đoàn Thị Điểm for female students. Along with that, there were one to two private schools.
As the communists spread war and destruction across the country, there was not a day where we lived without bombs detonating on the streets. Every day, bombs destroyed homes and buildings. Despite the communists’ destruction, the South preserved and continued to build.
Regarding the war, our war lasted far too long. The war had already started before 1954. It actually began during the period of French colonization. Then, from 1954 to 1975, that was another twenty years. The war was endless.
There was not a day without peace. If it was peaceful in one place, the communists would have wreaked havoc in another place. From blocking military rods with mountains of dirt to attacking military bases… they were always there. But eventually, the civilians grew accustomed to this.
Wherever there was fighting, the army would be there to eliminate them. Over time, you lose the fear of hearing gunshots and become used to it. Eventually, though, it wears down your soul.
Q: How did President Ngô Ðình Diệm change South Vietnamese society? [3:10]
I still see it very clearly: Our people’s lives were greatly improved thanks to President Ngô Ðình Diệm! When I was taking entrance exams for high school, there weren’t many people with a 10th grade education. There weren’t many at all.
Within nine years of President Ngô Ðình Diệm’s ascension, people were graduating from high school all the way to university. Our president expanded the minds of his people. If President Ngô Ðình Diệm had been able to continue on, our country would have changed for the better. Unfortunately, the difference of ideas within President Diệm’s regime led to his demise. His death in the coup was a pity for our country.
Q: What were your opinions and feelings on American involvement? [4:18]
I was only thirteen or fourteen, but I still remember my father’s words to this day: One American dollar was equivalent to 35 Vietnamese đồng. There were so many American products in our markets! Not only that, they gave us food as well. Even the immigrants from North of Vietnam were given food. Sometimes, they were not accustomed to the taste of cheese or canned meats, so they sold them.
That was when we said to ourselves, “Goodness! What a generous and wealthy ally we have in America!”
Everyone was pleased by the free gifts. We didn’t want to question the Americans’ generosity. Whatever they gave, we never questioned.
As the war stretched on into the 60s and 70s, the Americans continued to spend more and more. Not only did it cost them money, it was also costing them lives. Close to 1975, the total number of American deaths was almost 50,000. They were spending billions with each year that passed but there were no clear results.
The South was difficult to support because the communists would destroy 70% of whatever we built. Therefore, by 1975 everyone was exhausted. From the Americans to their allies to us, we were all exhausted of the war. And then, to our disbelief, the Americans left us. That’s why a million of us were imprisoned. We never thought that we would have been abandoned by the Americans. They put in their money, their efforts and their people into this war. Countless amounts of money was spent over the span of 1954 to 1975. That’s 20 years of spending!
America left the South in an extremely sudden manner. They didn’t let us know in advance. They never told us clearly. That’s why in April of 1975, when they were leaving step by step, I was in the army. I saw their people and goods sent home bit by bit. I had a feeling that they were going to abandon us. However, I didn’t think that they would have left that suddenly!
This is the painful history – the painful experience – of our country. But we can’t blame anyone for this. We have to accept the fact that we were abandoned because of ourselves. When somebody helps you, they must also see a benefit as well. Don’t let them suffer too many losses. But since we allowed the Americans to lose so much, it was no wonder that they left us. We must accept the facts. What else can we do?
Q: What was life like after April 1975? [7:43]
After the communists took over the South, I was arrested and imprisoned. I was jailed due to my history with the Southern government. By that time, I had become a Captain of Pharmacy in the ARVN. I was jailed for eighteenth months. After that, they released me. When I came home, I couldn’t find any employment because the communists had taken everything. No one who had been a part of the South Vietnamese Army, or the former government could find any employment.
Eventually, the communists made me report to them. This was because although they had taken over the South, they lacked the discipline and capabilities of the ARVN. They didn’t have the capacity to manage the hospitals or medical warehouses either. I worked with them for a little less than a year. My pay was 54 đồng a month.
Additionally, my superior was a prescription clerk who came from the North. How in the world could a prescription clerk direct a pharmacist? He doesn’t know anything that I don’t. So, I spent my days wandering around the hospital and then went home at the end of the day. I helped my wife take care of our children. At that time, I had three sons.
After living like that for almost two years, I knew that we had to go. We had to leave the fatherland. The first reason was to find freedom for me and my family. The second reason was for my sons’ futures. If they remained in Vietnam, they could only grow to be laborers or rickshaw drivers. Yet how could we escape Vietnam if we had no means nor money?
Luckily, I had a former classmate who invited me to come with him to Vũng Tàu, where a ship would take us. I realized that this was a bad idea the moment we arrived. After looking at the rickety ship, I said to my friend, “We should go home. There will be future opportunities to escape.”
If today was a failure, then we would find success at another time. However, when we arrived at a three-way checkpoint, we were stopped by Vũng Tàu security agents. They drove me in a vehicle similar to a school bus. Perhaps they held a personal vendetta against our Việt Cộng driver and stopped us for that reason. In the vehicle, there was the VC driver, then our intermediary – that made two. And then my friend and me. They examined our papers. I’m not sure what happened to the others. Perhaps they were arrested or punished in some way or another. When it was my turn, I handed them documentation from the re-education camp I attended alongside the papers of release I received. It had been 2-3 years since my release.
In response, they said, “Oh! A captain from the former army. If you’re from Cần Thơ, what business do you have in Vũng Tàu? You’re trying to escape, aren’t you? There’s no other excuse for your presence here.”
I dug my heels in and argued back, “No, of course I’m not trying to leave the country. How could I abandon my wife and children? If I was going to leave, it would be with my entire family. But look, it’s only me!”
They didn’t believe me and insisted that because of my history as a captain of the ARVN, I was trying to escape. Along with that, my presence in Vũng Tàu, a faraway coastal area, was incredibly suspicious.
So, they took me away to a prison and housed me alongside petty criminals. Pickpockets, thieves, black marketeers…they all lived together. Every cell was 5×5 (16ftx16ft) and housed up to 60-70 people. Three people were assigned to a single cot. We had to lie in opposite directions or else we would have been breathing in each other’s faces. I was imprisoned there for a little over a year. The doors and windows were always closed in the cramp quarters. They left only one 40x40cm (1.3×1.3ft) window open for ventilation. The smell of sweat and bodily fluids was always present.
One day – which one, I can’t remember – I was transferred to Chí Hòa prison. I spent another year housed with petty criminals – this time in a big city prison. Then, there was a day where I was called up to testify. On the day of my testimony, I spotted a cadre sitting beneath a stairwell. His desk was lit by a dim, unsteady light. Upon coming closer to the light, I recognized him. He had been a court registrar back in Cần Thơ! That friend – that classmate of mine—was now an attorney at this prison. I used to visit him and we would exchange pleasantries.
It turns out that he had been an undercover VC! He wanted to test my patriotism. So he said, “Triệu, I’m here to bring you home so you can work again!” I thanked Ba Tú—that was his name. Then he said, “After I take you home, make sure to report to the authorities so you can start working tomorrow, okay?” I agreed to report to the authorities after I straightened out my household’s affairs.
Upon returning home to Cần Thơ, I found that my wife had already left the country with our sons. That news brought me much joy and relief because now I only had to worry about myself. Afterwards, I stayed at my sister-in-law’s home. She was married to a man who had also been an ARVN officer. Since his chauffeur had been a VC, he was able to avoid reeducation and continue his businesses.
I stayed for 1-2 months before I met spokesman Ba Tú again. After I saw him on the street, he called out, “Have you gone back to work yet?” I said, “No, not yet. I’m still quite tired.” “That’s no good! I brought you home to work! You should report to the authorities immediately!” Thus, the day afterwards, I went to report my presence to the authorities.
I went back to work for about a year. Since I had no money nor family, I had quite a bit of spare time. At dusk, I would take my bike and ride around the city. My friends from the past avoided me, fearful of my undesirable status. It was as if I had a severe and communicable illness.
I spent a year like that until I remembered my father-in-law’s best friend. Back then, I used to visit him often. He was pleased to see me. After 1975, he was one of the few people who didn’t get his assets taken away. Eventually, he sold his chicken farm and bought land to grow mangos. I returned home without much of a fuss. Thus, I left the idea of leaving aside. I’d visit him every 2-3 days. On the third visit, he pulled me aside in his mango grove. He told me that he was going to take his family out of Vietnam. He didn’t plan on taking anyone else. A boat had already been purchased for his escape. However, if I wanted to go with him and his family, he would take me for free. The only caveat was that I couldn’t tell or take anyone else with me. No siblings, no family members. Only myself. This was because the boat wasn’t big enough for anyone else. Looking around, I was the only one left in my family. My brothers, who were officers, my brothers’ in-laws, who were generals…all were still in prison.
We left in the afternoon. After arriving at Cái Răng, we boarded a water taxi. It took us down the Hậu Giang River, where we boarded a boat to sea. The journey was 3 nights and 2 days. Then we arrived at the Song La refugee camp in Thailand. However, right before arriving at Song La, we were accosted by Thai pirates. They rammed into our boat, breaking our rudder and many other things. Luckily, we were near the shore. I could tell because there were water hyacinths floating by. After the pirates threw us aside, our boat washed up on shore. I spent 2-3 months at the refugee camp. Then the Americans inspected my documents. When it was time for my interview, I told them everything. I was a former ARVN Captain pharmacist. I had come here on my own.
After hearing my story, the interviewer gave me two choices: My first choice was to go to the United States to reunite with my family. My second choice was to join an ARVN collective, which would result in a third choice. However, my interviewer favored the first choice. This was because the second and third choice would mean either going to Jakarta or the Philippines. They were in the middle of building camps in those countries that would teach former ARVN members professional skills. Thus, all the ARVN members who were allowed to go to America would have to go through those camps first. They would need to learn English and career skills first before America would let them in. According to my interviewer, the camps would have taken an extremely long time. Thus, he favored the first choice so that I could quickly reunite with my family. But in the end, I was there for 5 months. When I arrived in America, I don’t remember the day. My sons and our sponsors were waiting for me at the airport. Then we went home. At that time, the United States provided financial assistance for refugees. Most of us had no money for assets. We only had the clothes on our backs. The United States gave us about 500-700 dollars a month.
Q: Why did you choose to go to America? [20:47]
Us Vietnamese who fled the country are similar to the Jewish during WWII. We resettled across the world. France was our biggest cultural influence. That was because they colonized us for 80 years. Due to their great influence, many Vietnamese resettled in France. To me, America was a better choice than France because I knew that the French were very difficult people. America was a land of plenty, with its vehicles and abundant resources. In America, it would be easier for my sons to advance in society. These opportunities to advance would keep them out of trouble and allow them to educate themselves. They would be free and healthy in this safe country.
I didn’t plan on staying here for the rest of my life.
There are times where I dream of returning home. But at this point in history, I’m not very hopeful. Once a country is trapped in the throes of communism, it will never be able to escape. A country can only escape if either God or Buddha decide to intervene with a miracle. World history demonstrates that countries trapped by communism cannot escape. From Cuba, to Poland, to Hungary to Czechoslovakia and now with North Korea. Then from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. All have been entrapped by communism and have not escaped. It was only because of changing politics that the Eastern European countries were able to escape from communism. These countries included Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland.
Escaping from communism was a highly fortunate event for these countries. But in other cases, once the communists grab ahold of you, you will never be released from their iron grip.