looking at the route to highway 1 I was concerned with a medium sized river and I wondered if whether there was a bridge. For me a plan would have to cover so many aspects. Sometimes, it was prepared in detail for the big things but it could fail in the minor ones. For example, in this case if there were no bridge and I had to look around for the right way, they might catch me and all the elaborate preparations for the work in Hanoi would mean nothing. Brown nodded looking at me saying that it was a worthy question. They will give me the answer later.
Just three days later Brown and Dale presented 16 enlarged aerial photos of the area. They showed a bridge and various boats on the river and Highway 1 with the rail track to Hanoi. I felt at ease, having confidence in the technical ability of aerial photos unavailable to Hanoi and the minute attention of the directorate and the Americans. The closer to the risky day the more anxious I became, especially when I looked at the busy streets of Saigon. I watched the colorful stream of people and the rooftops and familiar street corners as a promise of return or just saying farewell. I had the mind of a person ready to leave everything behind and go into the enemy territory where things were strange and danger at very step. It was without the knowledge of all my friends. I kept thinking of my parents and siblings. If in the future I would not be back, please take care of my parents on my behalf. If somebody asked about me, tell him or her that I had gone very far to repay my debt to the motherland. That afternoon, though I was busy getting ready for the trip, I had to set aside 2 hours to visit my parents and siblings. At home, there was only my father, my mother being in prayer at the church. My brothers and sister had permission to go either to their friend’s house or to the movies. My father was still strong and agile even though he was 50. Thinking of my usual visit, he gave me his normal reminder like when I was a young boy: “Review your books, practice your martial arts, you must at all time do it to keep your muscles strong and your head clear.”
Now I had to say a few things to my father. When we were still in North Viet Nam, my father was a reputable martial arts master. During his career a few times he had to bow his head in front of his adversaries. He put all his hope in his oldest son, wishing that he would do things that he could not achieve. According to what he told me, when I was born he bathed me in special Chinese medicinal concoctions of his choice. At 3-4 years, he had me standing and bending in various martial arts postures and trained me strenuously from winter to summer. At 10 he referred me to famous masters, the last one being La Giang Son who was nicknamed “White Elephant,” the top master in the Chinese arts. That was my luck and it gave me strength to deal with the atrocities during the next phase of my life.
Looking at the clock, more than two hours had passed and my mother was not there yet. Not knowing how to tell to my father, when the old man went upstairs, I rushed to ask his permission to go to the church to see my mother. On my way, I thought profoundly of mother, wondering why her image was so deep in my heart. In the church, I saw her prostrated in front of the altar, silently reciting prayers while her fingers kept counting the beads of her rosary. A transcendental emotion arose in me; I went up and kneeled down next to her. She raised her eyes at me, a pair of motherly eyes, which are as immense as the vast ocean. I felt like shrinking back to my babyhood. In this world there was nothing as sacred as the mother-child relationship! Feeling that I had something for her, she made the sign of the cross and went out of the church with me, asking the reason for my coming. Watching her hand still holding the rosary, my heart squeezed. How could I tell her that her son is venturing into very dangerous places and maybe he would not have any chance to see her again. Maybe she sensed something out of the ordinary; she put her hand over my shoulder and said affectionately: “Please tell me the truth.” In a short minute of weakness, I gave her something to worry about. I changed attitude and smiled happily. “There is nothing important mother. I did not see you at home and came here to see you.” The anxiety disappeared from her face as she kidded, “My golly you made me so fussy!” Then she continued, “This Sunday, come and take me out to Ban Co to visit my friend.” I understood immediately that it was about Miss Nga. My parents had always pressed me to be married to that girl. Each time I answered, it was not appropriate yet for a young man without a stable situation. My reasoning was that at present the situation had the country split in two and half of the people still lived under a ruthless society. It would not make any sense for me to think of my own comfort with a family. Besides, being inclined to an adventurous and dangerous life I would not want to trouble another person’s existence. I had always liked the following poem of Luu Trong Lu:
I am the girl behind the window screen,
You are the wandering cloud in the sky,
You ride the wings of fluttering breeze,
Here I am still amid velvet and silk.
I did not have a valid reason to refuse my mother’s request that Sunday. Moreover, before leaving I did not like to do anything to annoy her. I gave her a faint yes sound but it was buried in my throat. My mother did not notice the hesitant tone in my voice. Maybe she was thinking that by just mentioning Miss Nga made me shy. She couldn’t understand that I could not fulfill her wish when her son might never return. Many years later, if he was lucky enough to be back, everything would change completely, from the country to the people, even the swamp would become hills. The sunset light from the West was fading, the scenery turning gradually to dark purple. Finally, I bid her farewell. All of a sudden, my voice choked. I turned my head back several times to see the shadow of my dear mom receding gradually behind the shadowy corner of the church.
Preparations to go
I was required to complete a few procedural papers and sign a power of attorney for my next of kin. My pay was $5,000., excluding rental and transportation expenses. In any case, if I was lost, arrested or killed the government would pay 12 months salary equal to $60,000. So, if you go for money, then $60,000 is the value of your life. In reality, everyone in the organization would have understood that, if not for any inspiring reason, that money would not suffice to buy you. They also promised so many things like when you were successful and went back, they would give you several months R and R in Japan. Then if you did not come back, would you just disappear?
I knew it was only administrative procedure. However, to hear about it and to do those things made my face blush. Frankly speaking, I would have felt better and happier if there were no such things. Many times wanted to say bluntly to An, “No need to sign anything. If I am lost or killed in enemy territory, the organization could just consider me as non-existent.” Certainly An was aware of my thoughts and he carefully put his hand on my shoulder saying, “I hear your heart and the directorate also sees clearly your personality. Everyone respects you. Please just write a few words of delegation to any one, your parents, friends, relatives, etc. This is just a preventative procedure. People were going back and forth like going to the market. There’s nothing to be fussy about, Binh.” Not saying a word, I just jotted down a few sentences delegating the right to my father, thinking to myself that if something happened to me, it would be a bit of my repayment to them.
They delivered a big Japanese (handmade) bag holding one pair of boots for wading in muddy and forest terrain and some clothing plus miscellaneous items also Japanese made. The only thing made in North Vietnam was a small blue side bag (maybe from some northern border jumper). They would be useful when I come from the sea and live in the jungle. As for the clothing for various covers and the pair of sandals, I provided them myself. The Binh Tri Thien sandals gave me problems. I went to all places, at Tan Dinh, Ong Ta and Cau Ong Lanh to no avail. Even when I described them to the shoemakers, they could not make them and did not have the proper material. Finally, I came across a newly emigrated shoemaker who had been in the Viet Minh area for many years and he made them for me which raised whimsical eyes. I explained that it was a new fashionable thing for showy students. Riding your scooter or Solex with that kind of sandals would be gaudy. He believed me but how could he understand it? Then I had to get my haircut north peasant style and go to Vung Tau a few days to get my tan. My thoughts were piecemeal. As a spy up North, I expected to live a miserable life. However, the communist spies in the South would have a much better life with suit and ties, and wearing clear glasses to appear intellectuals. It showed the difference of living conditions and the contrasted the situations between the two regimes.
When I was in Vung Tau with Hoang Cong An we sat on the sandy beach looking at the immense ocean and the faraway horizon. I was listening to the Hanoi broadcast when I heard the strident voice of a female announcing the tribunal session judging the case of a C-47 spy plane. They shot it down on July 1961 at Con Thoi, Ninh Binh. Among the survivors, spy Dinh Nhu Khoa was condemned to 15 years in prison and co-pilot Phan Thanh Van got 7 years. The name Phan Thanh Van sounded very familiar but I was so preoccupied listening to the judgment that I did not remember him.
Being by myself in the enemy territory, I had to make my own decisions on the spot according to the requirements of the time. Then I visualized a number of circumstances and problematic situations and I sought input and solutions from the directorate. I gave my ideas to Hoang Cong An who enthusiastically endorsed them and requested me to brainstorm for the directorate to study and answer. At the end, I wrote down 30 questions for that purpose. If on 16 and 18, I could not meet my counterpart to remit document M did I have to destroy it immediately and should I destroy document to Z-5 Hoang Dinh Tho if the similar situation happens? On my return if I fell sick or should I be stuck while the enemy hunts me, what would be the recourse? Alternatively, if for any reason I was not at the rendezvous at the set time, what could happen? If I was taken prisoner and in 2 or 3 years I jumped jail to return South, what would be the action? After my questions were forwarded to the directorate, a few days later Hoang Cong An came with Dr. Harry and brought the answers. However, they only replied to a few questions and left the rest for me to decide on the spot according to the situation and my own judgment.
Then they gave me all the necessary papers I had to bring with me. I looked at the new pass with the signature of Vinh Linh security. It was valid for one month (the duration of my mission was 25 days). The paper looked authentic, the seal as well as the signature were sharp. The counterfeiting of the CIA was outstanding! I also had a few packs of Dai Tien Mon cigarettes with Chinese book matches (here is the shortcoming of CIA and our intelligence). An gave me $400 in denominations of $5, $2, $1 and 50 cents of northern currency. I looked at the pithy sum and An explained that over there it will be more than enough to cover everything for a month’s time. The largest denomination was only $5. Dr. Harry gave me a number of medicines, inclusive of water treatment and anti mosquito tablets. Before leaving An made sure that I fully remembered the code words, conventions, signals, etc.
On 20 April 1962, I left the sweet and loving capital city for a new place. At 2 pm, I boarded the airplane to Hue where I would stay two days to study and ascertain a number of main points on the DMZ. Then back to Da Nang, the starting point for Nga Son of Thanh Hoa. The same morning, at 62 Tran Hung Dao Street, Dale and Brown announced the visit of a high-ranking American intelligence man from Saigon who came to send me off. At noon a big American was escorted in by Dr. Harry. He never stopped staring at me while Dale and Brown we were busy putting us through our last preparations. Through his huge pair of clear glasses, his eyes showed curiosity and an expression of pleasing gratitude. I did not know what he thought of me. It was certain that if he were aware that this young man was ready to confront the enemy of the free world and ready to sacrifice his life and had even been owner of a jewelry business awash with cash, he might fully appreciate the meaning of my trip. He pressed my hand and said, “Have a successful jaunt and see you later!” Dale, Brown and Harry took turn shaking my hand, saying that they were unable to send me off at the airport. Since my English was poor, I could not express what I wanted to say and used mostly sign language to express myself.
All my things were carried to the airport ahead of time and at 1:30 pm An and I went together. On the way I watched the street scene (maybe for the last time), in a pensive mood and a laden heart. On Cong Ly Street, I happened to see my friend and his girl on their Solex bikes turning to Yen Do Street. The sound of a well-known song seemed echoing and enveloping me with its lyrics:
Then, if tomorrow somebody inquire his name,
My friend, please tell them that he has gone faraway.
Was this a sign of a no return venture? I knew so many songs but I was not so sure why that one came to haunt me. On the way to the airport, I did not say a word, my heart laden by the oppressive heat of Saigon. Behind his pairs of glasses An was also deeply contemplative. At the airport, I saw Ly and the director. This is the third time I saw him. People always say “no more than three times,” would it be then the last time for me to see him? Looking at his thick mustache and his very dark and shiny sunglass, his sharp eyesight still showed through, making anyone insecure. He walked fast while shaking my hand warmly and said, “Do you have any request?” What would I need? If I were successful, there would be nothing to say. If they caught or killed me, then I also need nothing. The whole government would not be able to do anything for me, to free me if they arrested me. When I was ready to board the airplane, he put his hand on my shoulder and very softly said; “Binh, you are going to confront reality. Maybe, no one knows, when you come back in successfully you will bring along your experiences to help complete our training background.” I looked up at him, fixing his eyes with my softened stare and smiled lightly. I was only worthy if I succeeded. “C’est la vie!” The send-off was then routine. I laughed and pressed the director’s hand to bid him farewell.
When I landed at Phu Bai with Hoang Cong An, Mr. Huong met us with his civilian Jeep to take us to a Hue Hotel. The next day we went to Ben Hai but this time we went close to the Hien Luong Bridge. I looked at the two flags, the bloody one smelling death, and on this side, was the more humane yellow one with three red stripes. The two flags were flying in the wind under the same sky, unable to live together. One of them always wanted to be the sole color in this world. There was no misunderstanding what that flag that was. On April 22nd, Mr. Huong took An and I to Da Nang.
Da Nang has the same four season’s atmosphere as the Hanoi I knew. The light chill of a late spring increased its displayed of its colors. When the jeep stopped on Doc Lap Avenue on the other side of the street I saw a bar with the nice name of Hanoi, Mr. Huong and Hoang Cong An both shook my hand good bye with promised to see me again when I came back from the 17th parallel. Mr. Huong pointed to the bar telling me to take my luggage over there and expect somebody to pick me up. Soon I would be under another person’s care. With the big Japanese bag hooked to my shoulder and carrying my heavy suitcase, I walked to the Hanoi Bar. In there, behind the many green potted plants I saw at several Marines officers and at another one some Army men with Air Force officers and a few civilians. At the bar several airborne men displayed sparkling golden cherry blossoms on their collars, and at another three civilian dressed men wearing glasses looked pensive in front of their shiny coffee cups. The best sight was the delicate shapes of the three beauties under their tightly fitting tunics. Feeling a bit uneasy, I sat at a table in the corner. My strange appearance attracted the attention of everyone. So I put down my stuff and realized that this was the joint for all the talented youth of the Da City. They were moved by the romantic sound of music and the colorful surroundings. One elegant miss wearing a star fruit flower colored dress approached and with her soft voice asked what she could serve me. Hearing the voice of a beautiful girl in her twenties within the environment of the little inn, I suddenly got the urge to order a dry Martell and a pack of Capstan. When she brought the drink to my table, I watched her delicate fingers and raised my eyes. Her eyes were an abyss. She was inquisitive, “did you just come to Da Nang?” Smiling faintly as a sign of agreement, I replied, “Can you guess what kind of person I am?” Smiling and glancing at my big bag and suitcase she said, “You must be a mining expert going to the coal mine of Nong Son.” I nodded in appreciation, remembering that my friend Le Duc Binh was a supervisor of the mine and thought of a future occasion to visit him. I distractively exhaled the smoke and thanked her. I learned that her name was Hieu and she had been the reason a Marine Lieutenant slapped the face of a known songstress of Saigon right at this bar.
When I stepped into this bar, I wondered why somebody in the directorate would have arranged for some one to meet me here. I got the answer one hour later when I saw Phan stopping on the other side of the street. He stepped down and I was surprised because Phan told me four or five months ago that he had a special faraway mission. Da Nang might be that mission now. I leisurely paid my check, got my luggage and walked out. As soon as I was far from the place, the jeep close, my hands were shaking, and my eyes stared with joy. After a few minutes of conversation, Phan said. “I am taking you to a hotel owned by my friend. I will introduce you as the son of a jeweler in Saigon and you are looking for a location to open a branch here. As you are aware, they guess that the Americans will soon be here in force and the merchants, especially the Chinese are flocking in for business.” Knowing Phan for a long time, I understood his character. It was sometimes expedient, but lacked completely research and study. Perhaps he thought that he had to play that kind of special role to be fit in. Anyhow, he was now my immediate superior.
The jeep stopped in front of Hong Phat Hotel, a brand new six-story construction. Phan rushed in and came out with a well-dressed man about 40, wearing glasses and introduced him to me as Yen, the owner who also owns a bigger hotel in Saigon. He smiled, raising his face to me as a friend from Saigon who needed a well-furbished room. Mr. Hong Phat warmly welcomed me. He gave instructions to his manager and he said he felt honored to know me, stating that room 5 was the most comfortable but was now occupied by an American colonel who would leave in a couple of days. So he gave me room 8 on floor 3 and would later transfer me to 5. While the two hotel valets took my suitcases up, Mr. Yen got the key from the manager and took me up. I wondered why Mr. Yen wanted to befriend me. He even offered to steer me around sight seeing.
After the American Colonel checked out, I moved to Room 5. During my relationship with Phan and Yen, I fully understood them. Phan was now in charge of sending men up North, Special Forces men, frogmen and some singletons like me. Da Nang was the starting point. Phan drove a brand new Cadillac and he was the most powerful man in this little city. Everyone, from the province chief down respected him. That was the feeling of Mr. Yen or Luong Hong Yen, a wealthy Chinese, married to Thai Le Chi, the beauty of the Capital. Through his beautiful wife, he got access to many doors and steadily advanced up the ladder of fortune. Seeing that I was Phan’s friend, he thought that I was not only rich but I was also powerful and so he gave me the best of his hospitality. He often confided in me that “the communists always look at us as their enemy to be liquidated.” Chuckling, I thought to myself that belonging to the poorest stratum of the society, how could I expect to be on a par with you, rich man?
After 3 days, Phan drove me to a house near the Han Bridge. I once again I met and Dale there. They came up to give me information on new developments. I sat down listening and discussed a number of things about intelligence and the situation. They informed me that a Seventh Fleet ship on the high seas would protect my boat. In addition, they were looking at the future possibility of a submarine unloading a rubber raft silently and going ashore. I did not believe in those things. Which I could told be to raise the morale and the spirit us going in. Two days later Phan took me to the Navy restricted area to use a speedboat to practice landing at Son Tra. As at night and under high wind and choppy water and besides due to an irresponsible way of doing things the all wet and frigid Phan rushed me back even when I did not complete my work. I had practiced the use of infrared equipments before, but I was just halfway through superficial exercises.
During my week stay in Da Nang I wanted to visit my friend Le Duc Binh at Nong Son Mine. However, I was so busy until the end that I could not do it. Phan always stressed that I should avoid the end of Bach Dang Street near the Grand Hotel because of possible dangers. He said there were many Americans in that area that attracted hand grenades and booby traps. Nevertheless, I knew that it was the working location of our intelligence setup even though Phan did not want me to venture out there. During that time, the newly erected buildings and even the Hong Phat and Grand Hotels were already full of Americans in civilian clothing that came from the Seventh Fleet.
Out in a stormy sea
According to the plan, the next day on 28 April, at 7 pm, I would board a boat anchored at a special berth of the restricted Navy area. It was raining and stormy. The sea surrounding Da Nang and the city was always windy. The air was humid and all was grey. Whips of wind through the window brought droplets of rain to my bed. I wondered why I did not close the window. I was just lying there with the wet rush of air, my heart was burdened and my life was bobbing. It was past 10 pm, I could not sleep or worry about all the things I must carry with me. I had to leave behind the big suitcase with all the memories of this single young man: The watch (they gave another Russian made waterproof watch), and the gold chain that I have never worn, the cash, my wallet and all the photos of my family and friends. I had the feeling I had stripped off my skin into Le Viet Hung and I was amid a world of misery devoid of all the amenities and colors of my former life. As I was deep in my thoughts about the expected life in the North a soft voice sang a familiar tune, “you will be gone tomorrow, how could I oppose you. Let us enjoy it fully tonight…” I was astounded that the song was so appropriate and wondered whom the person was singing it at this late time. I approached the window and listened, and it was coming from upstairs. I walked out and silently went up, leaning my back to the wall and listened. The singing sounded like lamenting and it rose up, in a clear expression of dream and hope.
It was already 11 pm. I walked downstairs to see the manager and the room servant talking together. Hesitantly I asked about the person singing. The room boy turned his sparkling eyes at me and said in his Quang Nam accent; “My golly she is my adoptive sister named Da Ly Huong, an amateur songstress. If you want to meet her, I can arrange that. Though she has the reputation of a difficult person, my feeling is that both of you can get together.” Thinking that my situation and condition would not be fitting and as I was ready to venture into the tempest, I could not bother with romance. Then I replied in a strong voice to say, I appreciate your offer but she troubles my sleep in the middle of the night.” So I went back to my room much to their surprise. The song died down but it still haunted me for the months and years I was up North, especially during rainy and stormy times.
The next day at 5 pm, Phan took me to the restricted Navy area. I saw a boat at a desolate spot and understood it was my boat. From the outside, it was equipped like an angler boat working along the seashore. Phan told me that it had very good motor pushing it up to 10-12 nautical miles per hour. In the boat, I saw 5 or 6 mostly young persons dressed in brown uniforms. I paid special attention to two of them, an old man about 50-55, with a tanned face who looked very healthy. The second man, about 40 was wearing a T-shirt and held a wrench in his hand. He was a strong muscled athlete. When everyone was on board, Phan introduced the old man as the captain and the muscled man as the mechanic and the others as sailors. Phan instructed one of them to race to his jeep and bring down all my stuff. I looked at those healthy and tanned men, wearing the cross. They were all Christians. To starboard, hung the trembling rosaries. They were from Central Vietnam. When everyone went under the canopy, Phan about-faced and asked whether all preparations were ready. The boat captain raised his voice, “ready!” Phan nodded at the mechanic and inquired about the condition of the machinery and he got a firm Quang Binh answer, “Normal!” Then he turned to me and introduced me to the whole crew, “Here is the cadre on a special mission. You have the responsibility to take him to the selected landing spot. He has the right to decide to return if he wants to. You must always follow his order.”
Hearing Phan’s words, I understood that once I faced the cruel reality if I started to be afraid, then going back would be the best recourse. Otherwise, the result would be much more devastating. If you are fearful and return you would not complete your work and you will be penalized while the enemy would not know anything about it. On the contrary, if you continue, it would be certain that you will not finish the mission and be easily uncovered and the enemy might find out all your secrets. The result would be far weightier. I followed Phan on shore. Putting his hand on my shoulder, he asked, “How is your morale my friend?” Smiling I gave him a five, kidding, “That was my morale.” Phan pressed my hand and suddenly embraced me without any word of safe return or success. That was Phan’s character when leaving.
The boat left when it was lost dark. Farther in, at Da Nang, lights flickered. I had not known much of Da Nang. Anyhow, I had an uneasy feeling. I felt I was leaving a bright place and moving deeper into darkness. In truth, the boat left the shore at 7 pm while it was still clear to go out into the veil of the night. From a tranquil area of the Han River, it ventured out into the choppy and windy waters of the sea. Leaning on the canopy, I watched the horizon filled with scintillating stars. I had the feeling I was under a huge lid pressing on the tiny boat amid a grayish expanse of water among white crested waves, making solid lapping sounds as it was bobbing up and down. I took two seasick pills that Phan gave me. Nevertheless, I still had the squirm feeling of uneasiness. I went into the cabin and laid down to rest while I suddenly heard the loud voice of the captain, “hoist up the yellow black flag!” Though I felt very tired, having thrown up twice I still crawled out to see. It was daylight and every one was looking at the rising sun. A white Navy ship 5 km farther out was heading toward our boat. The mechanic was peering through the binoculars. I put my hand on his shoulder. When he saw me, he was smiling and said it was our Navy and he gave me the binoculars. I could clearly see the yellow flag with three red stripes. I remembered before leaving Phan gave the captain all the required papers of my special mission ordered by the government to be checked by our Navy. Then why did he have to hoist the yellow black flag? As he explained, the flag was a special code word that changes every week or day as needed.
The sun was high up in a clear blue sky and the sea was calm. Since I vomited a few times and I had eaten or drunk nothing, I felt so tired. I crawled into the cabin and rested. Even though I was half-awake, I still monitored the progress of the trip. Around noon, they seemed more cautious. Every 5 or 10 minutes they took turns watching everywhere with the binoculars. From the captain down to the sailors, everyone stayed quiet and tense. I knew we were now within the Northern area. The sunlight was gradually fading and another day was gone. The whole crew, from the captain down to the youngest sailor, was ordinary anglers making their living in the Nghe An area. They refused to live under the inhumane totalitarian communist regime and had emigrated south. They felt compelled to do this work for the sake of their relatives who were still under the bloody hands of the ruthless people. Seeing that I suffered from seasickness they all took turns helping me with sincere gestures of brotherly goodwill. They cooked and served rice porridge and gave me a hot rub massage. It was so moving! Another uneventful night was gone.
The next morning the eastern sky flared up for about one hour when clumps of dark clouds appeared in the north-west sky and it became suffocating hot. The sea turned into a faint gold sheen. Suddenly one sailor showed signs of fear on his face, his binoculars in his hands, his voice masked by the engine noise, then pointed his fingers to the faraway horizon. We all had the feeling of something unusual. Though I was dead tired, I made the extra effort to go out on the deck and watch. Far from the coast, two black dots were moving towards our boat. No doubt, they were communist coast guards. We all worried, feeling like fish on a cutting board. I glanced quickly at my things, fingering my small bag of documents in case I had to dispose of them in the sea. I would not let them in the hands of the enemy. Then there was running on the boat deck, sounds of loud voices could be heard, “maximum speed, rudder to the right, display the fishnet on top of canopy…!” The two black dots became bigger and bigger. My heartbeat increased with the racing engine. The mechanic hung the Virgin Mary painting higher on the wall. As if in mutual consent, notwithstanding the captain, everyone sat cross-legged and recited prayers. I also joined them to pray, turning at time to look at the black dots that became as big as two water buffaloes.
Clouds were building up and the sky turned darker. The staccato sounds of gunfire covered our pressing prayers. The enemy coast guard was closing in as we gave the impression of a chicken as if pursued by two hungry wolves. All at a sudden lightning illuminated the sky and thunder bolts struck like cannons. Raindrops fell on the boat canopy, winds blew and the sea became so rough that it sent our boat up and down in a completely dark scenario. The two enemy coastguard boats were completely out of sight. Liberated from the enemy, we were now under the hands of nature. The big storm and high winds were trying to crush our boat as we mumbled prayers for salvation. Everything was wet; I was thrown from one corner to the other. The grim captain, with his misshapen mouth and trying to control the rudder, was swept off the steering, Two young sailors jumped up to help and the old man swung up at once to grasp the steering wheel. I was cold and miserable thinking that I would go down to the bottom of the ocean, ending once and for all my now bobbing life.
After a half hour nature’s anger passed. The wind died down and the sea stopped its fury. The veil of night started to fall. Everywhere around me was just gloomy grey. Those two maddened buffaloes were not there anymore. Maybe they had thought that we had become the prey of the sea. In between life and death, I saw the old captain raising his hand to call me. Feeling that it must be an important matter, I gathered all my strength to move forward. But being so weak and not eating anything, I slipped and almost fell in the water had I not grabbed a post while two sailors speedily caught my legs and pulled me in. He told two sailors to help at the rudder and crawled under the canopy with me. With a shaky voice under stress and coldness, he said, “we are now at the landing spot. With my experience, I know that during stormy weather if we approach the shore the boat might sink. And at 5-10 km off shore the stormy sea will be much more violent. No one knew when it would stop. The decision is yours, proceed on or go back?”
It was a hard decision. After so much effort for me to be there, would it make sense to go back now? To come up with an appropriate decision, I asked, “could we drop anchor here pending the end of the storm?” He displayed a strange scorn while the two sailors looked at me like a strange monster. Finally, he said in his harsh voice, “You cannot drop anchors at the middle of the sea. Moreover if you stopped here, when the storm was over and in plain daylight you would be ready bait for the security boats to come and tow you back!” He had given me all the possible solutions and I said with confidence, “let’s return!” My mind raced fast; if it was up to me alone, I would go on, whatever the outcome! However, we had six more persons involved, each one of them had a string of related family members, and I do not have the right to be so daring. The three sailors inside the cabin felt like the pressure on their chest released while the old man shouted, “rudder left to the South, be careful with the wind and waves direction!”
The boat slowly veered to head south. The wind and waves were favorable. I was so tired and anxious that I lay down in the cabin, unconcerned about what happened around me. I gradually sank into a deep nightmarish rest. The sea became calm and I dreamed to falling asleep until the mechanic shook me up with his very difficult Nghe accent, offering a steamy bowl of hot rice soup. His kind manner had somewhat alleviated my sorrow. I leaned up, acknowledging his affectionate gesture through the faint light and drank the hot soup. I felt I had more energy and crawled out and to lean on the side of the boat where I witnessed oblique sunrays of the sun setting and farther south,on my beloved country. I had left my unfulfilled mission, not feeling right, although it was not due to me. Still, a cloud of sadness hung over of me. Anyhow, it was still in enemy territory and I went back into the cabin. One more day and night went by and we crossed the 17th parallel to the free world. With a gloomy mind and very tired I laid there all the time until in the morning one of our Navy vessels closed in to control. I did not want them to see me and covered my face under a thin blanket. Very early in the morning the boat moored back at the Navy restricted area.
Preparations for the next trip
Two hours later, at 8 am, the red sun looked like a big plate of coagulated beef blood. It slowly rose from the water giving the whole scene a sparkling reddish color. Phan was already there talking with the boat captain. I got out of the cabin. He looked at me and did not realize how I had become so frail. I had of course, during the last four days and five nights drunk only a few bowls of rice soup, in a very tense and strenuous situation. Phan came to me. He held my hand lightly and only said, “Are you too tired?” When I boarded his vehicle, I was so quiet. Someone would have thought that my morale had dropped to the pits. Nevertheless, Phan probably understood my thoughtful mood and he tapped my shoulder lightly saying, “Don’t worry my friend, men proposed and God disposed!” I went to the back seat, opened the suitcase that Phan brought from the office and changed from the funny northern garb. Phan said he checked us in at a quiet place. I could take a shower, a shave and gobbled up something to recover. Next afternoon he would take me back to Hong Phat.
I landed at a newly built complex. There were only a few Americans around and no one would pay attention to me. In the room, I glanced in the mirror kidding myself about the appearance of a stupid China man. Yet, in no time, I completely changed into an intellectual with glasses and looked at easeand wealthy. Phan picked me up for Hong Phat in the evening. Room 5 had already an American staying in it for five days and I took room 14 floor four. There were also a few Americans around and we saw each other from time to time, and just exchanged a few smiles. Phan informed me that the next try would be on 28 May. Then I had nearly one month to relax and gather my strength and morale. The departure day should be around the end of the month, I wondered with An why our weather service did not foresee that kind of sudden storm. According to him, we only had ability to forecast 30 hours advance and that was within a radius of 300 km. Our landing spot had been too far away and the time involved 50-60 hours so it would be too difficult to predict.
After submitting my report with the basic details of my failed trip, it seemed that the Saigon office thought that I needed to be consoled. Phan told me that some high-ranking man from Saigon would like to see me. Phan took me to bar Diep Hai Dung but dropped me off at a distance and told me to go in and sit down and order whatever I want and expect that person. A moment later I saw on a distant street corner a man in a white shirt, about forty, driving his new civilian jeep and at his side was Mr. Ly, a northern man I had met before in Saigon. He parked and walked to the bar, followed by Ly with a black briefcase in hand. The bar already had a good crowd, mostly young men. Ly steered the other man to my table. To not draw attention from the others, they just smiled a bit. After getting the drinks, they sat down and Ly bent forward to the middle of the table and muttered solemnly, “Here is the Deputy Chief coming to meet you. If you have any ideas or suggestions please speak up.”
It reminded me that while in Saigon I had known through Phan that he was Nguyen Khac Binh. I nodded to show my respect to meet him. Displaying a well-trimmed mustache, his deep sparkling sharp eyes were a set of tight lips and he gave an air of real decisiveness. Smiling amiably, he inquired about my health to which I replied that I was feeling very good. Then his face hardened, his eyes sparkled, and he clearly stated, “I have read your report. Your decision to go back was a good one and show you are a cautious and cogent man. Would you have any different feeling and impression now?” Looking at him, I said “Sir, I had plenty of impressions. But so far the only one that burdened me was that I still feel it was an oppressive, and not a fun situation.” He nodded somewhat, tapping his fingers lightly on the table and turned his face towards Ly. “It is exactly how we perceived you straightforward! We were not wrong in our opinion of you. Now, if you need anything we are ready to provide.” After hearing this, Ly rushed to remind me in front of the deputy-chief that I had better profit from the opportunity and say whatever my desires were they would be satisfied on the spot.
I was not shy; I was somewhat hesitant to give an answer right away. But I replied, “I appreciate your concern but personally I do not see any need. Anyhow on the mission I did have one suggestion.” His eyes became brighter, the muscles on both sides of his jaw suddenly stiffened as he said, “tell me about it, Binh.” I remained silent a short while and looked straight in his face, “Through my direct experience with the trip I realized that with our limited weather prediction and the landing spot was beyond our capability both space and time wise, the mission failed due not only to the enemy’s action but also to nature. I am suggesting that I land further South, at Nghe An or Ha Tinh. I would have more problems at those uncharted locations, but I can face them much better. I would find my way to Highway 1 and proceed to Hanoi.” While listening to me his fingers kept tapping the table in a light staccato. He nodded, and swiped them on it as a sign of decisiveness, “It is a very concrete and practical idea. Please write a concise and clear report for Phan or Ly to transmit to us for study and an appropriate solution to your reasonable suggestion.” Fixing his eyes on me for a while, he then stated, “Any proposal for you?” I shook my head, “Until I am back, Sir.” To show the concern and good feeling he and the directorate had for me he added, “I have directed Mr. Ly to resolve any problems you might encounter, whatever they would be.” While Mr. Ly went to pay the bill he held my hand tight and whispered in a very friendly voice, “I will be up here to greet you!” Smiling softly, I thought about the similarity of the situations when 20 days ago at Tan Son Nhut airport the Director sent me off and promised to greet me at the boat launch. A feeling of gloominess suddenly overwhelmed me.
Back at the Hong Phat Hotel, my whole night was filled with a pensive mood about men and my country. As relief, my mind turned to my friend Nguyen Duc Binh. In the morning, I went to the Nong Son Mine office to give a note to Binh. He would come to Da Nang that weekend with his friend Xuan and Sy. As Binh also has the same name, at Camp Pavie la Mothe they called me Binh Follis (I had the Follis motor bike), the other Binh as Frizzy Binh due to his wavy hair. Binh wanted to take me home to see his wife and family since he had only one-day leave. How could I tell him of my stormy days ahead? I just gave him my promise for a “Congo Tet!” With Xuan and Sy having a Vespa scooter and a Peugeot 203, we went together visiting the many scenic spots around there. Both of them belonged to the cream of the Da City young crop and they loved nature. We went out to see the Marble Mountains, the beaches of My Khe, Lang Co, Cua Dai and Thang Binh to watch the immense ocean, the splendid sunset, the awe-inspiring mountains, and all the spectacular views of the Pearl of Central Vietnam! Hah! My native poor land imprinted forever in my mind an image of eternal beauties!
I had submitted my report. Phan came to tell me that they had agreed with it. It really reduced the problems. I would have to spend only one and half day and one and half night for a total of 36 hours at sea. Seeing that I was somewhat apprehensive, he touched my shoulder and said clearly that it will be in between Nghe An and Ha Tinh, the native places of our sailors who are very familiar with it. “They will take you to a safe spot for you to rest fully before finding your way to Highway 1.” Due to Phan’s sketchy way of doing things and with my becoming subjective, I did not investigate in detail the district and village with information about the surrounding terrain. So I steered instead to another point, saying that the sailors are plain folks, serving the ideals as simple as their own life, without any noisy shouting. Phan burst into laughter and stood up solemnly going to my cabinet to pick up a bottle of tonic and pills inquiring about my feelings aboutthem. When I nodded, he said he would buy one hundred tablets for a try. Afterwards the conversation was about insignificant things unrelated to the mission. The sailors were still on my mind and I pulled Phan back to them. “That mechanic looks like an athlete with his muscled arms and legs?” Phan laughed and gave a thumbs-up sign, “He is number one. I always nicknamed him Tarzan. Whether it was day or night in any dangerous situation, he will rush head-on into it.”
The fatal jaunt
After a rainy night, the sky was all clear with not a single hint of a cloud. The whole city was washed clean and the start of summer was as pleasant as in autumn. At 11 AM Phan came. Again, from Dang Chi Binh of a richly colorful South I had metamorphosed into Le Viet Hung, a 10-grade student of a scorched Vinh Linh, the vanguard frontier of the socialist country. It was my departure day, and I bide farewell to Da Nang, leaving behind the gentle South for a future full of risky dangers. It was my second venture but without the same feeling of apprehension. The night before, listening to the raindrops, I reflected on my life in Saigon, the images of my next of kin, my dearest friends and all my colleagues at the directorate. Everything was crystal-clear just like a fast movie unwinding in front of my eyes. Impetuously, I made my decision to do something to deserve their good wishes instead of feeling sorry for our divided country. At any price, I had to succeed.
When we came to the restricted Navy area, the sun was already high in the sky. The boat was there at the lone berth. The sailors were all fresh-looking in their brown uniforms. As usual, they rushed up to take my bag and equipment down. We had shared dangers once and the esprit-de-corps had now become real. The tight handshakes, the bright eyes were a clear mark of brotherly closeness. In the morning, I made my decision on the dates of 22, 23 and 24 of June (I wrote the decision as requested by the organization so that it was anchored in my mind), two hours each night from 1 to 3 AM. The disembarking point would also be the pickup spot. We had to plan three nights in cases of mishap on my part (missing transportation or if they followed me, `which could mean hundreds of unforeseeable situations). Each night, I would use a small infrared instrument, battery operated to focus it out to the sea. At each 30-second interval, the tool would emit a very thin pinky-green light ray that was invisible at night to other people even from 10 kilometers away. Out there on the boat at 10 km from shore, the use of that equipment would permit them to spot my light flaring up like lightning and they could just followed the bright dot and come for me. I had the impression we were like a couple of fireflies in their love rendezvous.
I nonchalantly watched the sailors busy at their specified jobs making things ready for our departure. Phan was talking with the boat captain when he turned back to tap me lightly on my shoulder asking, “How come you look so distracted.” I replied smiling that I had a vision that it would be a clear-cut success and I would land on shore. They all smiled and looked at the sky, and then they nodded acknowledgment of the validity of my statement. I did not know whether it was forgetfulness or his positive attitude, but Phan did not shake my hand but waved while the boat slowly sailed away. Human psychology is strange! I felt so absolved and lighthearted. Then as the boat was moving out I saw Phan next to his jeep dressed in white amid the green lawn and trees. I had the feeling I was gradually losing my southern country, especially when a romantic song from a girl had come from a radio somewhere, wailing above the water in the summer. I did not know the song; I did not listen with my ears but my subconscious dragged me back to and their old tune.
“That berth of the bygone days…you left…nostalgia…farewell
“Going away…old berth…that day
“You are alike…clouds shadow…pinky floats
“To the faraway horizon…my heart laden…longing
The boat was far out. The song from that radio was just a faraway echo mixed with the engine noise. I closed my eyes, gripping the canopy. Suddenly I heard a song coming from the depth of my heart.
“Let us forget… sadness of separation…I have to go with the wind
“Why singing… in sorrow… remembering…your sweetheart.
The sun was setting. A few white seagulls floated on a blue sky. One of them dived down, shaking its beak as if to land or to say good-bye to our departing boat. Looking to the south, just a few gilded clouds hung over the ocean. The summer air was thick and wet, salty and spongy. The elongated shadow of the boat was like a knife blade cutting through the foamy white head of the waves. The late afternoon breeze pushed the boat as it bobbed up and down. The twilight scenery on the high sea was a wonderful sight. I started feeling uneasy and had to abandon that once in a lifetime scene to move under the canopy and lay down. While I was trying to adjust my body to a more comfortable position, the mechanic with hands blackened with grease climbed up. Looking at his strong back and big hands, I was ready to offer him a big smile and salute my nice “Tarzan.” To my surprise, he looked so young over a muscular body full of energy. He was hesitant and lost his composure. Another sailor seeing my surprised expression nodded towards the mechanic saying in a singing Nghe accent, “The last one was tied up with some family affairs and here is his son.” They looked alike as if stamped from the same mold. Their bodies were the same, strongly built and with plain, honest features on their faces. I had wanted to talk with him more but a wave knocked me down. Another day and a night passed. I still lay there but I was seasick, with my stomach empty because I had only two glasses of milk. I remembered that at noon it was very hot and humid. I perspired a lot and was very uncomfortable.
The shouting and screaming woke me up and I tried to crawl out but I felt dizzy. One sailor rushed to help me and I asked him. “What happened?” He said there was a strange boat going in the same direction. It was close to shore but it had followed us for more than two hours.” Then I asked, “Could we see it with naked eyes?” His reply was, “If you strained your eyes you could see only a whitish dot among the waves but through the binoculars it was clearly a bigger vessel.” “What was the captain shouting about?” He replied, “The mechanic wanted to veer off to the high sea but the captain decided to stay on course!” If I had not been dead tired, I would have sat up to assess the situation giving my suggestion. However, during the night I kept vomiting bitter liquid and I passed out. My only desire was to arrive at the destination soon, regardless of the dangers. I laid down there listening to what happened and watched the attitude of the captain and the sailors.
It was close to 1 am and there was nothing abnormal. The sound of the engine regularly mixed with the rush of seawater against the boat. To assuage my nervousness I tried to sit up and make a sign to some sailors close by. Thinking that I needed some food one of them approached and asked, “Would you like some milk?” Shaking my head, I asked about that strange boat. With his bright eyes, he said. “It disappeared into the land!” Relieved, I threw myself flat down again. It was 9 pm and pitch dark. My mind kept churning about the strange boat we saw at noon, while my whole body swung like I was on a hammock. It was funny that though I liked horse riding I did not appreciate the hammock. Maybe during my childhood my parents did not expose me to that? The humming of the engine gradually put me into a deep sleep induced by weariness. Then someone shook my leg. It was the boat captain with a serious look saying, “We arrived, Mr. Cadre, let’s get up and be prepared for landing!” I awakened fast, the sky was grey and all around it was a blur. The boat bobbed, waves lapped on its sides in a rhythmic solid sound. At the stern, 4-5 sailors were busy inflating the rubber raft and installing its motor. The critical time was here. I wanted to stand up and leave but my whole body vacillated. The old captain braced me up while the mechanic and the other sailors lowered the rubber raft down to the water. On the boundless sea, the light was dreary. Everyone was rushing with signs of tension and worry on their faces.
The three sailors were already in the rubber raft with the mechanic. They all helped me down with my equipment. I still felt very exhausted and when the old man and the remaining sailor assisted me by holding my hand he said “May God protect you” I did not respond to their compassionate gesture. The rubber raft gradually neared the shore. Its motor hummed but was buried in the sound of waves that pushed the raft swiftly in. As the decisive moment arrived and as the drops of salty water splashed on my face, I finally felt awake and ready. I asked the sailor next to me “how far from the shore?” They all made frenetic signs for me to keep quiet and the next man whispered in my ear that it was around 5 km away. Looking at all of them I could not see their faces clearly. I recognized the mechanic with his well built body. The water sparkled like thousands of fireflies dancing on top of the white waves. It gave me a feeling I was looking at enormous diamond gems.
Farther inland there was only pitch darkness. I wondered what would be there expecting me, hundreds of thousands, maybe? There was no possible answer? I looked at my watch; it was 1:15 AM. The sailors were experienced with their night work. They turned the engine off and then two on each side with oars paddled silently. Ten minutes later I saw a vague white beach. The boat was on the sandy shore. Two sailors waded down. I disembarked with a heavy bag on one hand and my sandals in the other. Very swiftly the man behind me grabbed the bag and the other two carried me to the dry sand so that I did not have to walk but a few meters in the water. After giving me the bag, one boy grabbed my hand and whispered, “You are on your way and now we must go back!” They hurriedly boarded the raft and paddled out to sea disappearing in the mighty ocean.
In enemy territory
Stepping on to the shore, I felt confused and run down. I lay down on the white sand for a few minutes to recover. I was all by myself. Looking inland I saw only blackness and no sign of houses or trees. Moved by my instinct to survive I grabbed my bag and sandals and rushed forward toward the darkness to find a spot to lie down and rest. After running for a short distance, I saw a few black spots on the sand. It was grass, some kind with thorns were pricking me painfully. I hurriedly slipped on my sandals and ran through a pebbly spot that sloped up. I tumbled into a hole filled with leaves and dry branches, my side hitting a hard rock. Though I was stunned, I quickly climbed up feeling like I was in a mined pit about to explode.
Clutching my bag, I kept going until I felt so tired that I squatted down and stared into the darkness. Looking up at a grey sky I saw the vague shadow of a big tree ahead and slowly proceeded toward it. I gradually awakened; my watch showed it was past 2 AM. It was still very dark. Raising my hand ahead of me, I could see it faintly. I strained my ears, listening to the rustling leaves mixed with the faraway sound of waves from the sea. Leaning on the tree for a few minutes, I started probing the soil around me, looked for a spot to bury my unnecessary things. The sandy soil was soft. I got out my small shovel and dug, putting the newly dug dirt in a small cloth sack. While toiling, my mind turned to the covers I would use if the enemy caught me. I realized that the south’s intelligence have valuated the enemy poorly. How could the communists believe covers 2 and 3? I buried the bottles of medicine with the dry ration, the water canister, the infrared tool, the 200 northern cash, the cigarettes and the book matches. Those things were not practical and the enemy would easily discover them. I carried only 200 cash and underwear in a small sack. As for the secret documents, the key to the mission, I had sewn them inside my briefs. I always had them with me since Da Nang and kept feeling them with my fingers. Having had previous experience in this, I finished the work in a little more than one hour. I probed the thickness of the layer of dry leaves next to the dig and leveled the spot back to its usual appearance.
My watch said 3:30 AM. Too anxious and tense I did not notice that my side was hurting a lot. Touching it, I did not feel a bump and said to myself that it will go away. I felt hungry and exhausted. My head was on my bag as my pillow for a quick rest, I fell into a deep slumber. I suddenly heard people calling each other and jumped up. I strained my ears and looked in the direction of the voices. My watch said it was only 4:30 am but it was still very dark. Maybe I was dreaming. Mr. Phan told me that it was a good place for rest for one whole week, which means that it is uninhabited. With my keen hearing, I thought I heard voices and kept on listening. But there was nothing except the wind humming and the soft sound of leaves dropping from the branches. Everything was as silent as the night. From somewhere an owl sounded like the sigh of a human in an unforgiving life. I lay down again. Nearly ten minutes later clear female laughter in the wind made my heart pump. I sat up instantly and heard the voice of a man, “Leave me that sickle.” I grabbed my bag and moved farther from where the voice was.
Daylight came slowly. I had already seen the surroundings. Where I sat was a cemetery with a few tombs among stunted bushes that lacked water. The only tree was right where I was last night. Farther inland there were bamboo hedges meaning that some villages were in the vicinity. At 6 AM, from afar a group of men and females, with scythes and sickles in hands, were approaching me. Next to my location, there was only one bush about 2 m high and 2 m in diameter. Quickly, I crawled under it. The small pathway was only 6 m from the bush. In the bush, there was a fire ants nest, and they crawled up my leg and bit me. I used my hands to wipe them off carefully so that I would not shake the branches. When the group went by, I held my breath, fearful in case somebody went to the bush to pee and my life would be doomed. The thing that made me so disoriented was that they talked like bird and I did not understand some of their words. I was fully aware that it was not an Nghe An accent. Therefore, it should be Ha Tinh. I was just guessing because according to Phan the landing point was in between Nghe An and Ha Tinh and since our sailors were native here they would have known the area.
Another thing that bothered me was the lack of responsibility of Phan and my own subjective way of thinking that my ability would help me get by the enemy. I did inquire about the details of the localities, which district, which village when we decided the change to another landing spot. That was my major mistake. Anyhow, I would fall into the same dismal thinking that the boat did not take me to the right location as I had been promised. Sitting in the bush I felt confused. I was a young man in a strange place and it did not have the knowledge of its province, not its district or village. The group of farmers went down to a rice field 200 m away. They laughed and talked noisily. It was now 8 AM. The sun was high in the sky and it was so hot I missed my hat, leaving it in the boat during the hectic moments of the landmark. I could not stay long in the bush. When they finished their work, the farmers would look for a shady spot to rest. There would be no place to hide and with the attacking fire ants, if I could have buried myself into the ground I would have done it. I was scared and numb. Looking at the base of the big tree where I buried my things the night before, I realized that I did not do a perfect job, the surface was not as smooth and there were a few lumps of soil scattered around which could be visible to keen eyes. I had to fix it. Leaving my sack in the bush, I crawled back to the tree to rearrange the spot and I put a the few lumps of soil in my pocket. Then I crawled back to dispose of it under the bush.
It was 9 AM. It was very hot and the westerly wind was like a furnace. I had to get out from under the bush even if they caught me. Besides the terrible fire ants I looked up and saw the hairy worms which I always abhorred. I straightened my clothing; put a towel on my shoulder and the small sack hooked over the other. I walked out with composure. I was determined to go to the village, not sure of where Highway 1 was. It was 9:30 AM. Seeing the farmers, I raised my hand up smiling and went over to them. Some girls burst into giggles and challenged me, “Brother, get down here to cut rice with us!” The young men also laughed. I kept moving steadily towards the group, waving my hand and said, “Good morning comrades, how is the crop this year?” Then looking at my watch I said, “My golly it is 9:30 I must go see the village chief first.” I turned around and waved as I walked off, “I promise to be back this afternoon.” The way to the village was a reddish soil trail of about 700 m long.
At the village, a bare chested man about 50, was in black shorts sitting on the grassy edge. He whipped the taro plant in the field, just having fun. From 200 m away, I was sure that he saw me. But he pretended to look the other way. I worried about his attitude. Usually when you see a stranger in your village, you would have stared at him. When I was about 2 or 3 meters from him, I raised my voice to see his reaction. “Good morning uncle! I was with the group out there and it was fun. I had a drink with them and now I am thirsty again. May I get another one, uncle?” I saw a tiny thatched hut with a water jar next to a bamboo step on a small pond. He did not even mutter. He stood up staring at me and went to the village saying briefly, “Follow me for a drink.” I had thought he was dumb and should be someone to be feared. Tight-lipped he moved forward, whipping the air with the bamboo reed in his hand. Trying to break the uneasy silence, I said, “Is this year’s crop any better than last year’s, uncle? I came here last year; and can see that it is kind of relative!” After a while, he replied, “It’s all right!” It was hard to maintain the talk. The best way was to keep following him. I would manage the situation as it came up. It was a long walk! When we were almost at the center of the village, I saw a large brickyard where a few persons were pulling a stone rice roller. Huge piles of sweet potatoes were next to the yard and several young men and women were shuffling the tubers from one stack to the other.
I thought he is leading me to my death. So I hastily rushed to the potatoes admiring the big tubers and engaged in conversation with the group while I kept my eyes on the pernicious old man. He entered the small hut across from the yard where I noticed a few young men dressed in brown next to the CKC guns leaned to the wall. I guessed they were local militia. He whispered into the ear of one man and the man looked at me. I had to get on top of the situation. So I saluted the potatoes group and proceeded to the guerilla post. When I crossed the rice yard, I bent down to pick up a rice stem and chewed the grain in my teeth. I knew they were all monitoring me closely, not missing any movement. I kept acting leisurely in the yard and joked with the group. We all burst into laughter. I entered the hut nodding to the guerilla men. Seeing my easy attitude one of them, maybe the chief picked up a ceramic teapot with a nicked spout and poured tea into three crassly cups saying, “Comrade, have a drink.” I raised the cup and grabbed the teapot to pour another one after gulping the first cup, and mumbled to myself, “It was Dat’s fault. I said that I could not take it anymore but he went on pressing me. And I am so thirsty and I even missed my appointment.”
The militia chief (my guess, he was the one who spoke in the group), about 25, looked at me hesitantly and said, “I do not feel right, but please comrade let us verify your papers.” Displaying a jovial face I got the wallet from my back pocket and said, “I admire your alertness comrades.” I pulled the pass out, leisurely, just to let them see the cover of my military service certificate and other papers. He took my pass and checked it while I pointed my finger out and said to the other two, “This year it looks like our area is much better off than last year.” The other man seemed indecisive. To tell the truth my guts were knotty, not feeling sure of whether the fabricated papers looked authentic. Not to miss any sign of their attitude, I looked out to the yard. I saw him talking in a mute voice to another militiaman about something like whether the hamlet chief was home. Then I heard words coming from his office like Sunday and vaguely the name Phong. When I about faced he smiled looking uneasy and saying, “Now comrade, I suggest you to follow this man to see the Commissioner.” With bright eyes, I stared and ask him whether I should to go see Mr. Phong? He also opened his eyes widely and nodded. I turned to the militiaman and grabbed his hand and pulled him out with me, “Let us go now, I had planned to see him.” My attitude eased the tension. The man with my paper in his hand walked in front of me with no weapon. The situation became less critical. I managed to keep talking with him to inquire about the exact localities, village, district and province names. At times the real question was buried in my throat because I was so afraid. The paths in the village were deserted and forlorn with shaky and grim thatched huts among the bamboo hedges. My heart was beating like a drumbeat in a village festival.
The man entered a wooden gate. I saw a brickyard and an old woman in a brown skirt sweeping with a rice broom. Two nice-looking thatched houses were joined in an L shape and there was a neat, brick edged verandah, completely different from the other huts. A tiny black dog, wagging its tail to raced out bark at me. The elderly woman raised her face looking at us with her blinking eyes while she silenced the dog. I rushed to her putting my hand on her shoulder and talked to her in a very warm tone, “Ma’am do you remember me, are you fine this time?” I talked loud to let the militiaman hear. The old woman directed her bleary-eyes towards me unsteadily and said, “Hi, I am asking you to come and visit me!” During that time, all my attention focused on the attitude and gesture of the guerilla man, saying to myself that he had my life in his hands. He walked up and entered the room. Then I asked her whether Mr. Phong was still asleep? Slowly and stressfully she said, “He had a long meeting last night and came home very late.”
I went in immediately to stay on top of the situation. Seeing a tobacco pipe I rushed over to it and pull out the pipe’s reed tube, I rolled a pinch of tobacco in my fingers when I saw a man coming out. He was about 35 with a pale complexion and he work off gray military shorts under an off-white shirt. Half awake he was holding my pass. I turned to him, and stated, “So, you are still asleep comrade? Yesterday I was with Dat and drank too much, that is why I am here now!” Phong woke fully, opened his eyes, his lips suddenly opened in a big smile and he shook my hand. His eyes showed faint hesitation. Maybe he was wondering where I met this guy, and realized that his memory was failing but he displayed his natural composure saying, “I had such a long meeting last night!” He put my pass on his desk and went up to squat on the chair. The militiaman hearing our friendly chatter saluted him and went back to his post. Still holding the pinch of tobacco in my fingers, I pulled the pipe to me and tried to lightly suck the reed tube, and inhaled the smoke. I refrained from coughing and started to feel dizzy. Phong also started smoking. Feeling better, I complained about my deteriorating health and that I became dizzy quite often now. Looking at Phong’s pensive expression, I went on with my tale about my heart making me so forgetful that in spite of studying hard I did not remember zilch. I do not want to live any more! Hearing my complaint, Phong’s face turned compassionate and consoled me saying that the advance of medicine would certainly take care of my malady and that I did not have to be so pessimistic. I smiled with some constraint, “To tell the truth, at the bus stop this morning I almost passed out and fell had someone not helped me out. I even forgot and left my hat onboard. Chi, the vice secretary of my group rushed up to me and had taken the initiative to get a reference for treatment in Hanoi during my summer break.” After smoking Phong forgot about my pass that was still on top of the desk. He put his feet down and he said, “I have to give you some money to buy 3 batteries for me!” Patting his hand gently I said, “No sweat comrade! I have cash and I shall buy them for you. You repay me on my return. If you can think of any other things I can do them at the same time for you.” Phong pondered it and shook his head. Then I leisurely said with the sincerity of old chums, “On my return I cannot miss coming here.” At the same time, I grabbed my pass and stuffed it tightly in my wallet. In truth, I did not even know where this damned place was. Phong sent me off to his verandah. I rushed to the old woman and held her hand, “I am leaving grandma!” “Bye, son!” In the future I would recall this hilarious comedy. I chuckled, that guy Phong would be waiting for a thousands years to see that “dead-dog” bringing him his batteries.
It is almost noon now. The sun was blinding brightly like an incinerator. It was so hot with not a single whip of breeze but I still got the feeling of freshness. Just in time, I might have left my skin back there. Even now when I am writing this memoir I do not know clearly which locality it was. On the pathway that had no rain for a long time, I looked at all the surrounding scorched rice fields that were all cracked in a web like pattern. From afar, an old woman with a bundle of dry wood on her head was moving towards me. Seeing that there was no else around, I saluted her warmly, “My God it is so hot! Where are all the kids for not helping you out in such a strenuous work?” The old woman was even older than the one at the village chief’s place. Breathless, she complained that all the kids were gone and that every day she had to go up the hill to gather wood for cooking. I took a chance by asking whether going this way would take me to the highway. She nodded and I stopped short being afraid that if Phong or the guerilla man inquired about what I asked and if she told him, I would be dead. I helped steady the bundle of branches on her head and walked off very quickly.
Soon I saw vehicles going along the road. In the boundless field ahead, a few people were crossing it to the highway; some carried reddish trunks on their head. They were taking the shortcut to the road. I did the same, thinking at randomly about the village commissar Phong. Certainly, he was still trying to dig out of his brain where he met me before. It was not possible because there had been no such thing. Maybe he blamed his failing memory, perhaps in meetings, festivals, etc. there were so many occasions he could not remember them all.
On my way to Hanoi
The sky was clear and blue. Some hints of clouds were floating slowly to the south, seeming to talk that we are going south and we will tell everybody that you had escaped a very special occurrence. Two white storks dived down landing on the field ahead. At some places, there was puddle of vapid water. I put my hands onto it and found a few small fishes and minuscule jumpy shrimps. If I lived around, I could have got plenty for a tasty shrimp stew. Under my agile feet was the empty field exhaling an acrid odor mixed in the aroma of the remaining rice stalks. My heart fully open like the immense field, I walked rhythmically and my head turning back to the water treatment tablets and the canister that Harry provided me. I did not really need them being too clumsy. I started feeling thirsty but I could do away with it!
I came closer to the highway and started seeing some rooftops scattered along it. From time to time, a cloud of dust was like pushing a truck ahead. The road surface was full of potholes. I had to take a detour around on a narrow path in the back of those houses, which were as shabby as the one in the village. Several huts were vacant having a bamboo screen covering the entrance. The few stunted eggplants and water spinach in the mini gardens in the backyard shouted on the pity life of the locals. Right nearby, I saw the red and white concrete marking showing on one side Ky Anh 18 km and on the other side Quang Binh 32 km. Oh! Highway 1 now! It had been a near disaster. May be during nighttime they fouled up and threw me in the wrong place? Alternatively, perhaps they were so scared and just dumped me off quick? I had to go off on my own, facing all kinds of risks. Was that my own business facing all that danger?
Seeing a tiny stall with a 11-12 year old girl selling tea and a few bananas with some peasants putting their baskets at the front, I naturally walked in. I bought one sugar cane portion and two bananas. I leisurely peeled the fruits and quickly disposed of them. Having not eaten for many days I wanted to eat all of them. Anyhow, I did not want to arouse the curiosity of everybody. Besides I looked up and saw the all cracked wood sign on the wall displaying the red slogan,” Beware of dishonest people, spies and protect the national integrity.” While chewing my sugar cane I contemplated the sign. For the first time I had shopped in the communist land! At time, one car passed by and went through. I remembered that during an interview with a new border crosser in the Gia Dinh refugee’s camp he told me that trucks would not take customers on the way. Then if you waved for a stop, it would show you were not from the North. Out of a few rickety busses, all others were Army, either GMC, Molotova or command cars.
It was 02:00 pm, I moved on and it was so hot. There was not a single shade tree along. Both sides were a few bushes covered with grey dust. Heat went up from the road surface. I just walked with no hat to the direction of Ky Anh. The little bleary-eyes girl told me that I would have to stay in Ky Anh for the bus to Vinh the next morning. Still I had 18 km ahead under a terrible heat drying me out. I covered my head with my towel striving ahead in that flesh and skin-burning furnace. I recollected now that in my geography class I had learned that in the region of Ha Tinh, Quang Binh and Quang Tri, from May to August each year the Laotian wind from the Annamitic Mountain Range would be so hot to dry out all leaves. After 2 km, I saw a lone big tree shading a large area on the roadside. Its shade swung back and forth like welcoming weary travelers. There was already one woman, 25-30 years old, resting next to her two empty baskets and the carrying pole. Her square black shawl holding her long hair made her complexion still darker. Taking out my towel to wipe off my sweat, I sat down on my sandals about 2 m from her. I was quiet waving my towel staring at the vine hedge at the front of the house cross street. There were quasi no leaves left leaving the thin reddish twirling vine in an agonizing posture.
The woman seemed looking at me saying,” It is too hot!” Then I turned to her and watched her tanned hand caressing her hair lock. Her lips seemed hesitantly smiling like saying welcome to a stranger. Looking ahead, I impersonally said,” that heat is desiccating your body!” Just the two of us, the road all desolate and may be she felt that I was some what open minded, she shyly looked at me and went on,” Life is so hard and strenuous!” A little surprised I stared at her. She bent down lightly to grab her small dirt brown towel from her bamboo pole to wipe off her perspiration and faced me, as for probing,” When will the people be off hardship? All the crops must be given to the co-op while we eat dirt!”
The conversation put me in the cadre role to explain,” Our living is hard now because we are going through a period of belt tightening to build up socialism. So everyone must bear the hardship.” However, she still displayed anxiety in her eyes and added,” Then where does all the rice go?” There was no way to back out and I followed the same path,” Ha! We do not have capability to make machines and must exchange rice for them. Besides, we must fulfill our international duty helping the people of our brotherly nations, do we?”
Then a man riding his beaten up bicycle from the direction of Quang Binh came by, miscellaneous rusty parts hung in the back of the cycle. His attitude and appearance did not indicate him as a communist member. I still sat motionless distractively gazing to the faraway horizon. He stopped and took a while to park his old bike. He took off his jockey hat all blackened with grease and dirt and perhaps as old as his bicycle, to use as a fan while exclaiming “too hot!” His accent was heavy and unintelligible. The woman raised her voice asking whether he is from Quang Binh. Nodding in agreement he said,” I am going to Vinh.” Hearing that I quickly asked,” So will you bike all the way?” Not even looking at me, he just inspected his nicked paint and rusty means all dusty and having only one brake pad left he shook his head and slowly said,” No, I will stay overnight in Ky Anh and shall board the morning bus to Vinh.” Feeling glad to have a company, I hurriedly told him that I am on my way for treatment in Hanoi and shall transit in Vinh too. The woman stood up saluted the cycle man and me and gingerly walked away. After a long distance she turned into a small path balancing the baskets up and down, the man also was up on his feet. He said briefly to me,” I am going ahead, may be we shall see in Ky Anh” If it was in Saigon I would have asked him to give me a ride or I could bike for him. Nevertheless, looking at his antiquated machine, which would be barely enough to take him, I smiled and said,” Of course, it would be fun to see again in Ky Anh.” Curbing his back, he peddled away on the extra hot and bumpy highway, just the image of the “socialist country in the plenipotentiary life of all mankind!”
Now by myself, there was not a single soul on the roadway. I did not want to go on since constant rubbing of my sandals gave blisters to my feet. I kept looking at the two sides of the road. Ha Tinh is really poor and hard. The rice plants were only 30 cm high due to scarcity of water and the sandy soil. Each plant had only about four to five grain stalks. The farmers here shed one bowl of sweat for each bowl of rice. Anyhow, they could only get one tenth of that bowl under the devilish supervision of the communists. There was not a single tree along, solely here and there a few dwarf bushes. I kept crawling in them to shelter from the harsh sun. It is such a terrifying land where even grass and wild vegetation would not grow! While I was resting under a bush, I heard a rubbing noise like someone was throwing a small pebble into the next bush. I stared out watching around. In this scorching heat, there was no one but I had to find the source of the noise. I crawled to the next bush and probed in with my hand. Suddenly a brown bird the size of small squab sprung out shakily flipping its wings. I jumped on it and caught the bird breathing quaintly and its beak bleeding. Seeing that it was not injured and perhaps under the dreadful heat it was unable to fly on to a water spot, I wrapped it in my towel and took it along.
Two more kilometers, I came to a bridge and looked down to see what looked like a small stream. Both the bird and I needed water; I carefully waded down looking up to the bridge. Perhaps during the rainy season this would be a full size river. I washed my face, took a gulp and gave the bird a drink. The more it drank the livelier it became. Anyhow, I did not know why it did not fly away and I had to take it along until almost close to Ky Anh. The sun was setting behind the mountain range. At random, I saw a few people out. I came across with a young child 9-10 years old, his feet all caked with mud and holding in his hand the rope to a skinny buffalo. I hollered and showed him the bird. He looked for a little while and shook his head. It was strange to witness the attitude of such a young poor kid. I had to take it along for a short while when I came across with a farmer carrying his two empty and covered baskets walking gently from the opposite direction. I showed him the bird asking whether he would want it. Looking at me to make sure of my sincere gesture, he nodded and accepted the gift.
I did not have any thought of the bird. I was always a nature buff and having an innate tendency for fun and kidding I ran after the bird and caught it even though I was still on enemy territory. Later on while in prison, my friends said it was a good omen that you gave it away. If you ate it, you would have been killed. People always said stay away from “fallen birds and jumping off fishes!” Personally, I never believed in that superstition. With my practical way, I always looked at things from a scientific standpoint. Nevertheless, human psychology is very complex. Having sustained a lengthy time in jail through months and years of atrocious misery and pains I never stopped thinking of that poor bird. Farther I started seeing a few very poor looking thatched huts and a big wooden board nailed to two posts. On the board painted in white over a red chipped and faded background DISTRICT KY ANH. Here and there, a few persons went back and forth on the district street.
6 pm now, there was no more sunlight and the street became busier. I looked around for a boarding house and luckily, I came across with the cyclist I met at the tree close to hamlet Ky Phuong. I felt relaxed walking to him jovially laughing,” Where do you come from?” His eyes looked lost and surprised. Then he suddenly remembered and with both hands on my shoulders, he asked,” So you are here now?” I replied that, as it was too hot: I had to wait until it cooled down a bit so I can slowly walk up here. His attitude showed that he is plain honest and a forgetful man. I repeated my question about where he came out from, where his bike is and where he will board tonight. He opened big his sparkling eyes and opened his mouth in a succession of words,” I left my bike at the boarding house. Please wait here a little bit, I am going to the latrine now. I will buy some tobacco for us two. We go to the same boarding place and tonight we shall have fun talking.” As a new man in this stranger locality, I felt dumb struck. Being completely ignorant of where to board and the required formality, it was a God given luck to have met this man. After five minutes, he was out and pulled my hand into a small store with the sign “general merchandises store.” He paid ten cents for six Truong Son cigarettes. The cost of a full pack was 20 cents. He offered me one, tapping lightly my shoulder granting me a special friendship. I had not eaten in the last few days and after a long strenuous walk, I felt very hungry and tired. I asked whether he had any dinner to that he shook his head pointing his finger at a place inward and said,” I haven’t eaten. Later on we shall go there for some meal together.” I dragged him back to the store saying,” Can I profit to buy also ten cents of cigarettes.”
The boarder-house was two thatched huts having in each one two rows of beds made by assembled pieces of split bamboo. The beds had old torn reed mats and lying on it gave you the feeling of sleeping on a stack of crackling firewood. We tendered our papers to the owner, 4 dimes with mosquito net and two dimes without. Tri said (now I know his name),” let’s have one net for both, and save some cash.” We went to the state restaurant, the only eating joint for the whole district; I wanted to pay for his meal too. I was still indecisive when Tri asked whether I wanted four or two dimes meals and told me to be in line behind him. Having no knowledge of anything here, I just said to Tri that whatever he eats I would do the same for fun. Seeing that he took four dimes out, I also got my dimes out. Being hungry, I thought that two rations would fill me up. This was my first taste of the food in the socialist world, the uppermost intelligentsia of the human race. While holding the plate following Tri to a vacant table I looked at it and saw three parts of rice and the other part of dried blackened slices of cassava tubers. They cooked them together for a grayish kind of rice with a piece of dry fish about two fingers wide and on top one lettuce leaf. One aluminum spoon was anchored on it and I followed Tri to a corner where on the wall was a big bamboo holder with chopsticks. On the bare tables, there were neither fish nor hot sauce. Very carefully, I spooned rice in my mouth. It was bitter and sharp. Looking around everybody chewed to their content even though most of them had only the two-dime plate. I was on a higher level having fish. Though I was hungry, I still stuffed it in to be in tune with the crowd. My thoughts went back to the other side of the divide where people were awash in excellent and exotic food. Do they realize how the true worth of life is? We have two atmospheres, two life aspects and one common matrimonial heritage! I tried my best to finish the food but I quit half way. I did not want to arouse curiosity, I grimaced holding my belly and told Tri that I do not know why I had such a bellyache. Massaging my stomach, I saw Tri anxious telling me to make an effort. Pushing my half-eaten plate to Tri while shaking my head I said,” I am so sick. If I continue eating, it will become more severe. Please help me out with the rest.” After a minute Tri did it. I kept on frowning with my bellyache.
It was dark when we went back to the boarding place and the heat was overwhelming. Tri took me to the general store to buy two paper fans at a dime each. I paid mine to be square with Tri. We started to become very friendly and when we were in the mosquito net, Tri complained of the jarring life. He took out from his wallet the photo of his wife carrying two babies. Lying side by side Tri opened up. I knew then they came from Thailand with his parents in 1956. The government relocated them in Ben Thuy, his parents are now anglers and he repairs bicycles for a living. While in Thailand, they had a very good life never concerned with food and had friends visiting and chatting joyfully. On weekends, they often went out taking pictures and had fun. Now, they are dirt poor in a stressful life, having sold gradually whatever they possessed for eating. Additionally they bought a small thatched hut over their head. Tri stated that he likes me very much and stressed that when I will be back from Hanoi he would like to see me so that he can introduce his parents and wife. Then he will kill a chicken to entertain me (in seven years he had incurred the custom of the communist society, to kill a chicken for guest is a very special and terrific thing).
In the morning, we got back our papers and went to the bus stop. Tri wanted to board the bus with me but the ones having bicycles decided to go ahead together after waiting for the bus, which did not show up even at 8 am. The distance from Ky Anh to Ha Tinh is 52 km. Tri followed the cycling group and said good bye making sure to describe his house so that I would stop over next time. At 10 am the bus came. It was a very old “Dodge 4,” shaky, obsolete, may be of the 1954 vintage. It had a beaten up chassis, variegated-mended, no seat and no canopy. We stood next to each other while females squatted down. The ride was so bumpy and people thrown at each other, I was standing next to a Navy man of 23-24 and at times, I had to grab him to avoid falling.
Ha Tinh was such a tiny city alike a district center heretofore, with all thatched huts and here and there a few rat-gnawed brick constructions all blackened for years wanting repair. The Navy man became friendly with me. As I was steady in my role of a sick student of Vinh Linh he would make a perfect companion. In his company Hao (that is his name), wearing a Navy uniform helped me in a strange place and environment and was an outstanding cover. He gave his address in Vinh saying that it is the address of a relative since the military address is a strict confidential thing. I want to be your friend. I would like receiving your letter when you will be back from the treatment. From Ha Tinh to Vinh we became a team and felt relaxed. One time he confided with me that his unit is at Ben Thuy and got instructions to increase awareness on spy activities; the South is spreading spy activities in our country. I asked whether we had arrested some?, He then said, did you hear on the shoot down of the C-47 at Con Co? Nodding, I added,” I am asking about the arrest inside our territory.” He shook his head,” how can we know of those things?”
We were at Ben Thuy, I vaguely saw Tri in the small house he described to me. Tri was looking out for me but I sheltered myself in a corner. Hao shook my hand off when we arrived at the Ben Thuy ferryboat. I went on to Vinh at about 7:30 pm when it was half- dark along with a group going to a public boarding house waiting to buy ticket for Hanoi in the morning. Vinh looked so rural. Save a few factories in the surrounding, the city had all thatched houses, all passer bys if not with rubber sandals were barefooted. I queued up behind an Army Sergeant carrying a duffel bag. Behind a small table with a bottle lamp sat a young boy in the 15’s checking papers to each and everyone before issuing tickets. He kept squeezing,” You go to Vinh for what purpose; how many times have you been in Vinh; where is your native place; any more papers, etc.” People became impatient. It was almost the sergeant turn. Seeing that the boy kept pressing the person ahead with all kinds of questions, the sergeant shouted,” Kid, why you keep squeezing people like that? Are you pretending that it’s all spies around here!” I chuckled to myself,” I am just behind you guys.”
Then the questioning was less intense. The Vinh station boarding house was also a thatched house with two longer constructions and charging the same prices, 2 dimes no mosquito net and 4 dimes with net. We had the same kind of beds with uneven and shaky bamboo mat. The dirty and full of holes mosquito nets gave out a strange odor from many uses without washing. I was bitten whole night by a swarm of bed bugs and sleep did not come as easy. Suddenly around midnight I heard shouting of thief stealing things. I probed the small sack under my head as pillow and chuckled,” As a spy surviving in enemy land it would be funny if the sack containing all my needed things would be stolen!” In the morning, they called for passengers to go get papers and board the bus. I was so used to it now and boarded the bus having rag torn upholstery seating. From Vinh to Hanoi we had to get down and walk on foot through the old bridges unable to withstand the loaded busses like the Len Bridge at Thanh Hoa and the Quat Bridge at Ninh Binh. The roadway was beyond comment. It was so bumpy throwing passengers’ heads to the ceiling. I praised the mechanic tightening all the nuts and screws of the vehicle.
`` Seeing Z-5
At 6 pm of 31 May 1962, I arrived in Hanoi. The summer sun just set when our bus was 10 km from the capital. The scene of familiar persons in the “intellectual thousand years” city was there when the bus entered the Kim Lien stop. All the images and souvenirs of my youth rushed out to envelop my soul during the first minutes of interaction. I stepped down and mixed in with the crowd streaming into Hanoi. The sights, the people, the vehicles and banners were very alien. They fretted my curiosity and at the same time pulled me to awareness of my mission. It was true that here in the land of the enemy I must be careful for my own security. Going toward the central train station to exert a few professional observations I turned in the direction of Halais Lake while night was coming down slowly. I tried to go to deserted places to ascertain security conditions. Now I must talk of an innate physical ability that God gave me. The normal span of view of a person is 160 degrees, meaning that on both sides there are 10 degrees blind zones. Therefore, if you look ahead you will see whatever moves in an angle of 80 degrees both sides. Only those having a pair of protruding eyes could do better. My eyes are not protruding and even somewhat deep in as people used to say. Regardless, I have a vision span of 170 degrees, which translates into 5 degrees blind zones. That is why on the streets I always perceived my friends first. During the exercises in Saigon on following and avoiding followers, Brown, Dale and Phan often praised me on that ability.
After ascertaining that there were no suspicious signs I started to be subjective, thinking that from the landing point at Ky Phuong to Ha Tinh I had foiled so many dangers and went through all the risky situations. Phan had suggested avoiding the former streets because I could come across with some former acquaintances or relatives, etc. They would wonder why Binh had gone south in 1954 and now why he is here. Nevertheless, I was too subjective and underestimated the enemy thinking that our staff was too rigidly principled. I had left town when I was a young boy sixteen and now I am an adult 23-24. My face and traits had changed, how could anyone recall me? Besides Hanoi has now all the new comers from the rural areas. The sight of old places moved me so deeply that I felt like being sucked and cuddled. From the Halais Lake, I just went on, looking at each house, each tree and each narrow side street. The old sceneries were still here. Where were those familiar faces? Light-hearted, I pushed on to Trang Thi and Trang Tien streets. Then, the Lake of the Returned Sword with the eternal Turtle Tower reflected on the water amid the scintillating images of streetlights around. I turned to Godard, on to Chi Linh Garden and the Temples of Ngoc Son and Ba Kieu. When I passed Philarmonique Theater, I saw farther ahead the sign,” Boarding House 5 Hang Dau.”
Being tired after a long walk, I went in for a night’s rest. It was 07:30 pm. The place was a one-story masonry construction with tile roof, walls all cracked and blackened with time. The weak light bulb all covered with dust and cobweb gave a yellowish light. In a corner was a small desk. Behind it was an old man, his reading glass hanging on the tip of his nose, scribbling on a notebook. I talked using the non-polished tone of the communist,” I want one night here.” He answered in a choppy way,” One dong, give me your paper.” I gave it to him at once. He recorded and gave a square 5X5 piece of yellow paper bearing number 4. He kept my pass for the street security office as required. I went in with the card. Under the yellowish weak light due to cobwebs, there were two rows of eight single beds. Only three persons were there, two soldiers and a rustic looking man. I found my bed and lie down, belly up stretching my legs to assuage my tiredness. I had not taken a bath in the last few days. I took a bath and brushed my teeth to freshen me up. After going to the latrine, I found the bathroom. I took the sack along going down street to buy a toothbrush one dental cream tube and something for my craving stomach. Walking toward the lake, I turned to Hang Dao Street. They sold things on the sidewalk. I bought one loaf of stale bread from the basket of a little girl for five dimes, one T-shirt and a hat. I also got half a pack of Truong Son cigarettes, all the authentic goods of the country of socialism.
Back at the boarding house, some people were already sleeping. I rushed to brush my teeth and I chewed my five-day-old bread. After eating, I gargled, rinsing my mouth and gulped from the faucet. Then I lay down face up puffing a Truong Son cigarette, relaxed and enjoying an exalted moment in life. Under the mosquito net, while everyone was asleep I kept thinking and making plans. The time in Hanoi was so limited with so many things to do. In the morning, I shall go straight to the Viet-German Hospital to see and to act my role of a patient going for treatment. The other thing was that when I was a young kid living on Silver Street in Hanoi we always went to the Savior Lady Church. I do not have a single knowledge of where is Church X at Phuc Xa Thuong. I had a vague recollection of the Phuc Xa riverbank under the Long Bien Bridge where I used to play soccer with my friends. Therefore, I needed to investigate.
The morning after, on 1 June I went to the tramway lake station and bought a copy of the Capital News. I sat down reading my paper and people watching. Almost everyone, from the school kids to the rickshaw drivers displayed color paper armbands with the slogan “down with Ngo Dinh Diem the traitor.” It showed they were stepping up propaganda against South Vietnam aiming directly at Mr. Ngo Dinh Diem. The morning clear blue sky with the bright sun lighting the whole scenery did not erase in me my first impression of Hanoi as an all grey city. From the big crowd streaming in and out with hats and shirts, which were blue, black or brown and their awkward rubber sandals to the dirty mossy houses in need of a new coat of paint, it was just a uniform grey. As for its sounds, it was a deadly silent city. I saw bicycles everywhere and just a few military vehicles here and there, the Dodge-4 trucks or the Molotovas. It was quite different from Saigon where private automobiles and the humming from factories give it a lively atmosphere.
I followed on to Silk Street and witnessed a security man dragging one 12-year-old kid on Cotton Street. People were looking and telling that the kid was a thief. I saw an official convoy of Simca, Citroen and Peugeot cars, the car ahead having Vietnam and had a Laos flagstaffs. They moved slowly through the narrow streets and I clearly saw Kongle sitting next to Vo Nguyen Giap. The Defense Minister of Vietnam was escorting his counterpart of Laos. The following cars had several bombastic generals and high-ranking officers. I thought,” The naïve Kongle was being wooed and caressed by the old fox.” Sooner or later, they would shove down his throat all the salted frog preserves!”
Right the night when I was in Oil Street I had set the principle to assess and review every day my security situation. I pretended buying a lock set so that I could watch left and right and bringing it up to my eyes to look through I was able to observe the 30 to 50 m around. Then I turned in a back alley going to Fan Street. On that deserted street there was a stall selling tea drinks on the sidewalk. I passed it then about faced sitting down on the bench and turned up a cup for a tea. I did not see any face I encountered on Silk Street. I felt easy paying 5 cents for the drink and proceeded on to the Viet-German Hospital. When I came close to the Hospital, I saw from afar patients presenting papers to the hospital guard. I came up giving my pass and the reference paper then said with my long and saddened face of a sick man,” I am a student in Vinh Linh coming for treatment.” He checked my papers and looking up at me with compassion he showed me the way to the internal medicine ward at 50 m on my left.
Very calm, I entered but was still defensively alert. When I turned left, I quickly glanced to the gate for any abnormal things. Then when I saw the board “INTERNAL MEDICINE” at the front of a big building I walked in to the waiting area with 40-50 persons there. Inquiring with the waiting persons, I gave to the nurse on duty my reference paper. She asked for my student card, which I took out from my wallet and handed to her. She looked at the card and then scrutinized me and I stared back with composure. A moment later, she said that for heart treatment I must go to area B across. She made me nervous, why did not she tell me right away instead of checking my student card? Holding my paper, I went sitting down in the back rows. I did not plan to remit the document today. My main purpose was to observe the situation and the activities in a consultation clinic. Besides, all I knew was Z-5 is an internal medicine physician here but I was not aware of his specialist status, intestinal, liver, heart or lungs. While I was thinking disorderly, I suddenly heard faintly,” Is Doctor Tho in here?” It was a physician asking the nurse who nodded yes. Quick reflexes, I mixed in with the crowd in the corner and followed the doctor through a long corridor with so many doors. When he opened door 8 I quickly glanced in and like having an electrical shock, I saw the face of a man under a white gown, wearing prescription glasses, sitting behind a big desk. Though his hair is white now he was just the person in that 4X6 photo they gave me for one-week observation in Saigon.
The opportunity came and I had to act fast. With the sack still on my shoulder, I walked to the end of the corridor. Sometime one white blouse man passed by, no one paid any attention to me. I tried to find a rest room to no avail. I kept walking and carefully slipped my hand into my underwear to touch document X. I finally found it and pulled it out. When I walked back, the other physician exited the door of room 8. I took a bold decision and opened that door entering. The spectacled man looked up surprised. In the room there were three more desks, two of them occupied while the third one was not. The two persons looked up and I said clearly so that they could hear,” Doctor, my mom is till feverish and that is why….”And as the two returned to their papers I lowered my voice,” Doctor, please treat my heart at a beat of one hundred twenty.” I was so emotional that I did not remember how many words were in there. He opened wide his eyes and looked at me, his hand holding a pen shaking. He did not say the code words. I right away knew that it was a shock to him. He waited for so long and now after a peaceful life the thing could have been too sudden for him to hear. I thanked him, got out and faced back to close the door watching him quickly. While he still displayed surprise looking out distractively, I made a discreet sign with my hand and eyes for him to go out with me.
I walked along the corridor to the end because if I went to the waiting area they might not let me in again. There were two alternatives. The first one was that he was not Z-5 or if for any reason the man would not be involved any more with a compromising situation and therefore he would not go out for me. The second one was in case he did not give the right code word; then I would manage the situation and quickly disappear. When I was at the end of the corridor door 8 opened and he came out walking towards me. I about faced, he looked relaxed now his eyes glued to mine. I just walked to him with a more contented face. I put my hand on one of his arms and I lightly repeated the code words,” Doctor please treating my heart at a beat of one hundred twenty.” He smiled saying,” I only treat your heart beat at one hundred thirty.” Very relieved, I quickly glanced at the two ends of the corridor, got the document from my pocket and slipped into his hand fast. Looking like he would want to ask something, I left right away without saying anything. When I was close to the waiting room, I grimaced putting my hand to my heart and went straight to the gate. The guard smiled and I responded the same before going to the lakeshore.
I felt mirthful at the surprising success. If when the nurse verified my paper and I did not have to wait, how could I hear the other physician asking about Doctor Tho. Instant luck helps you out in life. A light breeze caressed my cheeks like the hands of a fairy congratulating me. Here on the lakeshore I watched the small waves regularly racing on the emerald water to the shore under the bright red flowers of the flame trees with the singing of cicadas, flowers and leaves swinging to the summer breeze from the Red River. It was 11 pm. I returned to the Wood Bridge looking for a restaurant for my first Hanoi dinner. Next to the Water Palace, I saw one small kiosk selling beer and sodas with a few empty tables near the water. I felt high-spirited seeing the bottles of Hanoi beer and swooped down on a table. One girl from inside the kiosk smiled and approached my table asking,” What would you like to have?” I answered steeply,” One Hanoi beer.” A few minutes later, she was back with an uncapped bottle and a glass having two tiny ice cubes. I murmured to myself,” Today I am rewarding you with this special fare!” Why is the Hanoi beer so flat! I sipped a little more and there was no hint of gas with an off taste. I had the impression that if you mix with water to double it, the Saigon 33 Beer would fare much better. In addition, the cost was 6 dimes with ice (5 dimes without). Anyhow, I just got a little alcohol in my body to ferment it.
I leisurely went to the Wood Bridge and then Ta Hien Street. There were a number of women at a corner. They displayed a smiling face asking whether I had anything for sale. One girl grabbed my sack trying to pull it away. There are no such scenes in Saigon. Perhaps paucity forced people to sell gradually their possessions and created this kind of mini exchange joint at street corners. I said,” Nothing” and then walked straight to the Hang Be Market. It looked just like a rural market, a few wooden flats with scarcely a few bunches of water spinach, celery and potato vines. There was no meat, no fish except dry fishes. Crossing the market, I reached Market Street and saw a small food joint with three or four rickshaws parked in front. While in Saigon, I had the naïve thought about communism. Hanoi used to have so many rich and poor people, the rich being too rich. The poor toiled their whole life for not enough in their mouths. With the communist, they eliminated the rich, and the poor class of servants, rickshaw drivers, laborers trading their bowl of sweat for food would have their fate reversed. The working class and the farmers now must have a better life, emerging from the dark days to the dawn of a socialist era. I had to go in this restaurant to witness the life change of the rickshaw drivers. From outside I saw behind a glass display case five or six tiny plates with either a few pieces of fried tofu or sautéed pineapple slices. I walked in. Along the walls were two rows of empty tables with benches along them. Here is one driver holding his chopsticks, there another one squatting on the bench showing a protruding thing on his short. At the other side tables were three other drivers crowding together with chopsticks on the table asking each other,” How much did you make this morning?” The answer,” Shit! 7 dimes, not enough to pay tax, let’s fill the stomach first and manage later.” Another man said,” I got a shot to Pha Den for 1.20. It is too hot; I had to buy a drink for .20. I ate two potatoes and now they are gone. Fuck it! Must find something for my stomach and we shall see later.” The third man was all upbeat,” For God sake! I hit the jackpot today with two rounds for 1.80. I set aside 1.50 to pay tax. I still have .30 so eating first. Until this evening, I try making 2.50. I will set aside 1.00 to buy rice and sacrifice 1.50 to buy a Hong Ha fountain pen as my wife had wished.” One person gave him a bang on his shoulder shouting,” Aha! He has a new wife! That is the push!”
I went to the bamboo holder, got my chopsticks and sat down in the corner. A woman with a turban went up holding a big basket having a huge steaming rice pot surrounded by old rice sacks to keep hot. All five men stood up at the same time to take one plate each from the stack and moved to where the woman loosened the rice with a pair of big flat sticks. One kid brought out a bottle of fish sauce and a few aluminum spoons next to her. She served each plate about two small bowls of rice with a few slices of dried cassava looking much better than in Ha Tinh. She lifted the bottle of fish sauce, shook the sauce on top of the rice and speared the spoon on it. She served three men while the last two still waited holding the empty plates in their hands. Two other drivers came in and there were noisy squabbling. The woman raised her voice,” What are you doing there men? It is not a treasure pit here! Pay and get out of the way!” I was looking and saw the two men holding their plates full of pieces of bottom-crusted rice, eyes rolling and stuffing those pieces in their mouth chewing the noisy cracklings. Therefore, they waited to buy the crusty rice, which was more substantial.
Two men went to where I was sitting hands picking rice to their mouth as if they were starving, their eyes darting to every corner. I kept looking at the glass case displaying some food dishes. I had wanted them. Anyhow, I was hesitant because everyone had only rice with fish sauce. The woman scooped rice into my plate. Then I inquired,” How about those food dishes in there?” She looked at me like assessing what kind of man I was to dare looking for that food. She said five dimes each. “Then give me one.” She opened the case and I pointed at the chicken viscera sautéed with pineapple. She saved one portion of fish sauce. The two drivers holding the plates of crusted cracklings stared intensively at my food dish. Perhaps I had a beer before or because of the bitter cassava rice, it was difficult to swallow. I kept scooping it to my mouth because I was hungry and I did not want to be out of tune. I chewed feeling strange watching the others eating with appetite. It was true that I just left a place with all the goodies. If I lived here for a long time, gradually I would be like them! After finishing two third of my plate I was about to vomit. The chicken plate was cold and there were a few chick feathers in the intestinal pieces. I pretended squeezing my tummy; the two crackling eaters watched my rice plate and my chicken dish. When I drop down the chopsticks and the spoon their sparkled eyes looked at me smiling. I also smiled and said loudly,” I do not know why I get stomach ache while eating.” The two rush swiftly to my table, one got my half-eaten rice plate and the other grabbed my chicken dish.
Priest A and Church X
Getting out of the food joint I felt uneasy thinking of the fate of human life in the uppermost socialist country. I remembered the image of my neighbor cycle man in Saigon. Looking through my window I saw in an early evening the man going home with a piece of pork meat and one fresh fish hanging on the frame of his cycle. He hollered to his wife and his kids who came out joyful and instructed her to prepare right now appetizers while his kid had to go to Mr.s. Bay to buy one bottle of rice wine. It was life scenes in two separate environments.
I turned on Oil Street and went along Rattan Street to Reed Mat Street. I avoided Silver Street although my earnest desire was to see the dear old street. Then I continued up to Beans Street and I reached Long Bien Bridge. My goal was to investigate on Phuc Xa Thuong and Phuc Xa Ha. Before going up Long Bien Bridge, I again reassessed my security situation. After being sure that I had no “tails,” I gingerly proceeded on. The historical bridge went through so many upheavals in time. It had become so old and crippled through use without upkeep. It used to have two-way traffic. Now only one way went through while the other side waited its turn creating monumental jams both ends. Watching the various type vehicles filing huffing puffing through a bridge as antiquated as them, my mind went to the reddish water of the Red River down under in testimony of our past victory over the powerful Manchurian Army. Passed the Bridge I was in Gia Lam, an active and prosperous city and now as desolate as a district center during winter.
I came to the Gia Lam Church at the center of the city. In the churchyard was corn on one side and rice at the other side with two persons raking back and forth. The all mossy Church had the three doors closed with a diagonally nailed down board on it. I felt sorry and flabbergasted for the Northern Christians. I entered stooping down to scoop a handful of corn under the stare of a 50 years old man. I asked him whether it was this year or last year crop to it, he answered, two year old. After this dries out, we will spread out the new crop for drying. The old man was so open and likeable. He continued,” After finishing raking I’ll invite you in for a drink.” Five minutes later, he took out a towel, wiped off the perspiration on his face then walked to an open-door house, saying courteously,” Please come in!” Inside there were many religious paintings of the Virgin Mary and the Saints. Looking at him, I inquired,” So you are Christian?” He answered’ “Yes I am the congregation Chief here.” I hurriedly told him I am also Christian and coined my opportune question on the Father here. He shook his head,” For long we have no Father. The Church now becomes a co-op storage and I am the warehouse ward.” All smiling, I said,” Then it is for the best, as people said warehouse rich, stomach full kitchen!” He laughed with me. Seeing that he was affable and plain honest I talked with him on many things and finally I carefully inquired about Father A. He told me that the Father is now with Church X and once every week he will come here in the morning for the mass service. Having the needed information I left at once, to stay longer would not be advisable.
It was 03:00 pm now. On my way back, after the Bamboo Quay I saw one 12-year-old girl clean looking in her white shirt. I asked her on the location of Church X. Pointing her finger out she said,” If you turn to the direction of Quan Thanh you shall see it.” As it was Wednesday the Church deserted, I just passed by to see. I saw flowers planted in the courtyard and they closed all three doors in the back. There were a few young students around reading their class books. I went in to see in one corner of the flowerbed an old man dressed brown. He meticulously picked weeds under the laurels and roses. I approached one boy stooping down looking at his math book and said,” You work hard, don’t you?” They all smiled responding,” Because it is close to examination!” They were ten grade students. Looking at their geometry and algebra books, I realized that they were one year behind our southern schools. I said good-bye and went out. Seeing the gardener, I raised my voice asking,” Are you weeding?” He smiled at me; I squatted down holding up one rose saying,” This flower is so beautiful!” He responded that next spring, under the spring mist they would be truly astounding. Right on, I asked,” Is Father X in?” Shaking his head, he told me that the Father went out since this morning and might be back any time now.
Glancing to the deep alleyway, I reversed distractively to other matters. About five minutes later, I heard the sound of a motorbike roaring through the gate. I asked the gardener whether he was Father A and got his nod. The Father in his black robe, with a crew cut, displaying his rosy healthy complexion was slowly riding in. There were few motorbikes on the streets save the military or security ones. Therefore, the Father must have some connection to secure gas for his 2-cylinder motorcycle. I asked the gardener a few more questions on flowers and plants and then filed out until next time. I turned to Dong Xuan Market when it was six. Along Sugar and Paper Streets, there was a crowd of busy pedestrians. I stopped at the People Bookstore. Since my school days, I always admired the poets and the writers with the conception that they are vanguard thinkers shaping to perfection the mind of the people. The foremost symbols of an era prior to my time were the writers of the Tu Luc Literary Group, the names like Le Van Truong, Nguyen Tuan, Nguyen Cong Hoan, Xuan Dieu, Nguyen Binh, Che Lan Vien, Huy Can, Luu Trong Lu, Tu Mo. The Lu, Tchya, etc. Some of them stayed behind with the communists. What had their writing become now? To find it out I went into the store. It is my alternate mission to find out the trend of northern culture. Through that big bookstore, I found only little new works of the pre-war writers whom I have read before like “Doi Co Luu” and “Bao Bien.” All the remaining mountain of books was about cooperatives, youth organizations, agro-communes…or Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse Tong, Luu The Ky, etc. I just fingered through a few pages and quit. The culture was so poor in thinking, flat and dull. I bought only “Bao Bien” and “Doi Co Luu” plus the one written by Vo Nguyen Giap “Truong Ky Khang Chien Nhat Dinh Thang Loi.” They served my cover and fed my curiosity. With my secret pencil, I will write down the necessary details. Then I went to Fan Street for dinner. I stayed overnight at Fan Street Boarding House.
The next morning it was June 3. I had spent three and half days in Hanoi and had completed one quarter of the mission. As usual, I went to the lakeshore, bought a small bread and the Capital News to read sitting on a cement bench. I learned from the old gardener in Church X that at 5 PM the Father would be at the Church to conduct his weekly confessional. There was plenty of time left. Thinking of the Opera House and the elegant Trang Tien Street where stores have European style, I stood up watching all faces in a 100m radius around for security purpose. Going to the direction of the former Information Office I turned in a narrow alley then to the Toad Garden where I sat down on a stone bench. With my professional ability, I again watched out for any unusual elements. Relaxed, I returned to the lakeshore, passed the Post Office and back to the elegant Trang Tien. Suddenly I witnessed some unusual events. On the street a few young girls riding their bikes and wearing long color dresses, kidding and chuckling. A few old sedan cars just kept churning around and around.. On the sidewalk, several girls walking back and forth dressed in their traditional red or blue “ao-dai” still showing the fold creases as if taken out of a long storage for a Sunday stroll. What were they doing here? Then I saw from afar, on the steps of the Opera House several persons shooting with a camera. Aha! Another communist deception was in the making! If that reel will be shown on the screens in Saigon, Bangkok, their “liberated Zone,” or New Zealand, people would believe that Hanoi, the capital of socialism was joyful and prosperous.
It would not be convenient for me to venture out there. Therefore, I leisurely walked to Hue Street, changed to Trang Thi back to the lakeshore to move up to District Street, Drum Street and Jute Street. Hanoi did not have a single privately owned photo shop. Out of the pre 1954 big shops, they had now just a few with the sign “WE DEVELOP FILMS AND COLOR YOUR PHOTOS.” They converted the others into craft shops. The whole Hanoi had only two photo shops, one in Trang Tien and the second one in a corner of the lake next to where was the Fat Lady Food Joint. There was scarcely any tailor shop left. The few existing ones displayed signs “COUTURIER WITH MANY YEARS OF EXPERIENCE IN MARSEILLE,” or “TAILOR WITH PARIS DIPLOME.” Usually they showed on their glass case “WE DO MENDING AND TURNING COLLARS.” They do not have any more material for suit making, all indications of the dire standard of living of the people of North Vietnam.
As planned, at 04:30 pm I had to go see Father A. I would have to stay there for ten days for recruiting and training until the 16th or 18th when I will remit document M according to the conventions. I walked to Church X and saw an open side door at the end of the church with a few elderly persons going in. I walked in to see 15 or 17 elderly persons kneeling down among several benches in a large church. I also went up and kneeled next to a white haired old man, murmuring to his ear,” Will the Father give confessions today?” He breathlessly whispered back,” Yes the Father will be out soon.” Ten minutes later the Father went to the altar and kneeled down reciting prayers. Then he stepped down while the elderly moved to the confessional and stood in line. I also joined in line. When I came up, I kneeled down and made the few traditional rites prior to the confession. Then I said at once,” Father, your son just came from Saigon and has a letter from Father Hoang Quynh to you. How could I conveniently deliver it?” After a minute of silence he replied,” After the confession I will be out kneeling in front of the altar then you may remit it to me.” Feeling concerned I wondered with him whether it would be convenient. He replied,” It would not matter, from time to time my flock gives me written requests for special mass.” I saw that the Father was a calm and composed person. I continued,” Father, I would like to talk of many things with you. I would like you to read Father Hoang Quyng’s letter first. Then do you conduct mass early mornings?” He said that tomorrow morning he will give a 5am mass and I might see him after that. I then said,” Father I am afraid that after giving you the letter I could not say anything to you. Therefore, would it be more convenient in Phuc Xa Thuong or Ha?” His reply was,” It is more convenient here.” I recited the absolve prayer and went kneeling at the back row. After the confessions, Father got to the altar front and kneeled down five or six rows ahead. When he finished the rite and made the cross sign, I went up giving him the letter and whispered,” I shall see you in the morning.”
I exited through the portal on the sidewalk. There were no doors and it was an open gate for cars in and out in between two walls along the city sidewalk. I perceived quickly on the right something receding behind one wall 10m from where I was. With my natural professional reflex, I did not turn left going to Coal Street. Instead, I crossed the street and turning back, following a car passing by, I saw a man about 30 wearing a grey golfer beret and a pair of sunglasses. He looked to the right to hide his face from me. Tension started! I pretended not being aware of anything, walking leisurely to the direction of Coal Street, my head calculating and guessing. To be to the point in my judgment I walked to Dong Xuan Market. It looked a bit busier in this early hour. I entered the bookstore again selecting a few volumes. When I reached for a book in the upper shelf, I saw in a blink the face of that man across from the Market. From my vantage, I could observe all the faces around. Afterwards I followed Paper Street down to Sugar Street, turned off to Basket Street and then to Rattan Street. I entered again the restaurant at Raft Street. How could I have appetite in the circumstance! All my senses strained for hearing and watching and my brain preoccupied by the dark glass man I tried to shove the food into my mouth without any feeling of taste. Glancing out, I saw him walking into the restaurant and then another man about 25 wearing a blue worker shirt and riding a bike that I have encountered in Dong Xuan. Therefore, I had two tails.
I returned to the Boarding House of Fan Street. My bed was in between two others with the two men I have known. There were nine beds with three vacant, numbers 1, 2 and 5 and my bed is 4. Before I took my shower, I had rearranged all my necessary things. I had on me only three documents left, the two for Fathers B and C and document M. After the shower, I saw that bed 5 had a new guest having a military bag. I returned to my bed smiling slightly to him and he nodded, smiling back. He is around 26, 27, light skinned. While I was busy arranging my sack and my bed he also was lying down to a comfortable position. I raised my voice,” I do not know why it is so difficult to get a bed in the hospital for treatment?” He said,” It depends on your malady. I also came from Bac Ninh for treatment.” I asked,” What is your sickness?” He slowly replied,” Stomach problem.” The whole night I was not able to sleep. I just closed my eyes, trying to rest and my mind all-tense with plenty of questions, thoughts and calculations. The enemy or the counter espionage of Hanoi had uncovered me, was it only their internal criminal security trying to foil black marketers and hoodlums? Where, why and when did they discover me?
I remembered that I did not see any tails when I was at the lake tram station at 9am this morning. Then there was the possibility that they discovered me at Church X. It could be from the old gardener whom they assigned there to check on Father A. Second reason was as Father A is a straightforward and capable man they must have assigned agents to watch him. It would be logical for counter espionage to monitor the churches as the possible liaison points for any spy activities. Especially Hanoi being the central brain of the party the problem should be the utmost priority. I had been at the church twice. The first time might be in a moment of distraction of counter espionage. The second time I could have mixed in well with the students working for the examination and easily avoided their attention. This time, in church there were only a number of elderly people. The young must be busy in factories, construction sites or various youth organizations. There would be no time left for them to attend church, so many problems churning in my brain throughout the night without any clear-cut solutions. I realized that to oppose the enemy I must keep my head square and clear. Therefore, I must be strong to fight back and I had to sleep at least one hour for tomorrow.
I had tails!
I got up at 7am. The sick-stomach man was up at the same time. I grimaced,” I thought I had died last night. Several times my heart was blocked and I passed out. It had happened to me at home. I must go to the hospital today. Very often I did not want anymore to live!” He consoled me saying,” Be courageous, Viet-German Hospital will take care of it. Progress in health care has cured so many diseases now.” When I asked on his hospital he said,” Being busy visiting a relative I will not go yet.” I went doing my morning cleanup chores. I checked the contents of my sack and there was nothing to be worried. Before closing my sack, I used my brief to wrap around the toothbrush and the tooth paste tube with the brush handle surpassing the end of the tube exactly 1/2 cm. Between the books Doi Co Luu and Vo Nguyen Giap I inserted one piece of paper the size of a phalange. I tied up the opening of my sack with a flat knot, the long end being three times the length of the short end. All done I gave the sack to the duty desk and went out. As usual, I went to the tram station to buy a loaf of bread and checked all the possible areas around me. I did not see the two men of yesterday but I suspected a few faces. Then I walked to the Viet-German Hospital. I decided not to return to the church.
I turned on to Truong Thi, through a back alley and a narrow street and sat down on a stone bench in Truong Thi. From time to time I put my hand on my chest grimacing. Right away, I saw the two-suspected young man I encountered at the lake. Aha! There was also a young girl about 18, baby face with two long hair braids at each side sitting at a tea stall about 250m from my location. I had vaguely seen her at the tram station. She kept facing down, knitting. Therefore, they were three in total. I walked into a state store to buy a towel for five dimes and proceeded straight to the Viet German Hospital. I behave like a newcomer, inquiring with the remittance of papers and the way into the place. I understood clearly that there were three pairs of vulture eyes watching any of my moves. I avoided the building of Z-5. I asked the nurses on the location of the heart department. Not having any cardiac problems, I merely sat at the waiting room. I inquired on various things on the heart. I also asked whether it would be possible for me to get a room, etc. When they asked about my reference paper, I shook my head. It took a while and the little girl had found her way in with another man. When I got out of the hospital, as soon as I reached the gate I noticed the man in brown shirt in Truong Tien standing 300m from me behind a hedge. Diagonally across the street there was one rickshaw driver wearing a worker hat and making busy pressing his cycle tires. I had met him in Truong Thi. I have known you man, do not pretend any more! Therefore, they were four now. The situation had become very tense and I could not anymore relax or daydream!
I returned to the lakeshore in the direction of Ngoc Son Temple, sat down on a table of the refreshments joint and bought a bottle of soda watching the lake. It was a deserted place for a relaxed mood to ponder. I did not need anymore to pay attention to my followers. I was fully aware of them and the level of tension was already there. There was only one way, to dig deep, calculate in details and act consequently. The light breeze still caressed the surface of the lake with the red flowers around. Today I had no urge to watch. Without any factual conclusion, I already knew that 90% of chance the Hanoi counter spy had already uncovered me. They just needed to lift their telephone to verify because my name was not in the master registry. As counter spy by principle, they would not arrest me yet. They need tracking me to see where I go, what I do and whom I see, etc. On my side, at all cost I should not let them know that I knew them. I must make them lose alertness and try cutting off my tails. I shall catch the loophole going back to Father
A. Being certain that they would not arrest me now I profited of the opportunity to buy time, create confusion and deliver document M. I shall lure them to another direction. I analyzed and weighed the possible directions and changed them as the real situation came up. One very painful thing for me was I had left behind the box of disguise tools. I had practiced its use for more than one half month. It was not my mistake but my trainer’s. They had sent my things ahead of time. I trusted and did not check. It showed lack of sense of responsibility of our personnel back home.
I fully realized how crucial it was at present time. Go working inside the enemy and be discovered is similar to a fish on the cutting board. Having an innate daredevil character I still felt relatively calm and stable. I went back to the tram station to board the train to Ha Dong. My goal was to test the level of my followers and to see the scenes of change of a socialist country building after 8 years under their hegemony. I had to show myself as a slow mover being sometimes quite shy. At the station, I pretended reading the newspaper until when the train started out then run after it, clumsy, and looking lost. The purpose was to show to my followers that they had a slow and timid man. It was one pm of June 4. I do not know where the girl had lunch when I saw her standing at the end of the car following me to Ha Dong. Two persons boarded the train, where were the other ones? When the tram was out of the city, I watched in the back to see whether there was any car on the pursuit. My eyes seemed focused on a person carrying straw on the road. When the tram passed, I followed that person receding to the back and noticed two men straining on a motorbike to catch the moving train. There was another Command car in the back and through the windshield, I saw vaguely the driver. I shall figure out in Ha Dong.
Oh! Here is zone Cao-Xa-La that, according to radio and newspaper reports is a giant development assisted by China. Looking at the whole area it was about a medium size private owned South Vietnam firm. In addition, they called it the Complex Chinese Associated Enterprise! I had seen the license plate number of the command car HN5037. In the vehicle, I saw three suspicious faces. The car passed the tramway. At Ha Dong, I alighted with the passengers. The place now looked like a rural region. Before 1954 I used to come here with my cousin Pham Gia An to visit Tram Pagoda on a Vespa scooter. Ha Dong was then like a beautiful 18-20 young girl full of romantic expectations. Now it was a toothless elderly woman 60-70. How could the ups-and-downs of history have degraded it to such an extent? Going around I saw the vehicle HN5037 parked motionless. I went back to the station to return to Hanoi. Halfway back, at a small station that vehicle passed. I identified three more faces and was certain 100% that they belonged to Hanoi counter espionage. Anyhow, I did not know yet to what extent they evaluated me. How could they mobilize a whole team of seven people everyday, including one Command car to monitor a shy pupil from Vinh Linh? They had known who I am. The only thing they did not know was what am I doing up here? They would still have to spend much energy and thinking for me. I was back to the lake station in the afternoon. I ate my dinner and went back to the boarding place presenting my receipt for my sack. No need to open it I already knew that somebody had done it. No sweat! Even when I got out of the restaurant, I already noticed that somebody across street was photographing me. There was no need to worry! I had the fun sightseeing while riding a tiger!
I passed my night at the Fan Street Boarding House. The sick-stomach man was still there. I clearly knew about him, having seen him talking with one of my followers. I took my shower and went to bed. He did not ask me and so did I though we just nodded with a faint smile. As I had things completely squared away and settled, I must sleep to recover. It was ten days before the dates of 16 or 18 for remittance of document M. In the mean time, I must roll out my smoke screens. I would lead them to every corners of Hanoi to gather many useful elements on my return home. In addition, I might find the occasions to cut off the tails. Besides, I also showed them that I am a fundamentally romantic bourgeois, nostalgic with the past, profiting to go back to Hanoi for a pilgrimage and not being interested at all with any military activities. With such a diverse plan, I should find an appropriate terrain to cut off the tails. With all the calculations in my mind, sleep was hard to come. When I was in Saigon, I always kept in my mind that to venture out and return with my mission accomplished would be the most beautiful thing. On the contrary, if it failed and I was dead then there would be nothing to say. The worst-case scenario would be if they arrested me and I suffered lengthily loss of freedom and torture and ended up with death. Anyhow, I would get the opportunity to be close to the great men with knowledgeable mind intent to do extraordinary things to no success. The reflections kept churning around leading me to a very late sleep.
The next morning it rained at length in Hanoi. The summer rain poured down. Sitting up and listening to the rain and wind, I suddenly remembered Paul Verlaine’s verses “Il pleut sur la ville, comme il pleut dans mon coeur” (it rains in the city, and it rains in my heart). I caught the sight of a familiar face on bed 9. Oh! Two guys sleeping next to me! I went brushing my teeth thinking,” They cling tight to me, where shall I go in this rain?” Per principle, they would not arrest me yet. Anyhow, there was nothing sure that they did not do it yet. I must prepare for things off the rule. The letters to Fathers B and C could not be delivered and they did not belong to my top priority listing. I had to destroy them. They would follow me if I stayed too long at the washing area. Therefore, I returned my brush and dental cream to their place and looked for toilet paper so that they knew that I am going to the toilet. Inside the toilet, I probed every corner for possible cracks. The only thing was the keyhole, which I masked with my pants hung on the knob. I took out the two letters, reading them one more time, stroke a match to burn them and threw the ashes down the hole. I had only document M on me, which I secured in a way so that I could take it out quickly rolling in a tiny ball and flicking out from my thumb in a surprise move. As for the secret pencil, I was quite certain that they would never find it out.
The rain had almost stopped. I took the paper from the duty desk and went out, the sack on my shoulder. I glanced quickly to the window of a house across street to see two new faces of a man and a woman about 30. I walked up to Lan Ong Street, turned to Sail Street and on to Shoes Alley. It was a nerve raking time lately and I had not eaten much. I looked for a bowl of soup. Here is a reputable soup spot of the elegant Hanoi with famous names like Sinh Ky and Tu Ky. When they had not discovered me yet, I played the role of a peasant boy, tight with money. Now as I did not have any more to watch my spending I could go into Sinh Ky for a bowl of beef soup. Nevertheless, the beef soup now tasted flat and insipid. Maybe they used buffalo meat with a few roguish pieces in a concoction of soup made from days-old cooked rice. The twisted deep fried bread looked like two crossed fingers. It was so hard possibly made with corn meal. I watched everywhere and did not see any familiar faces. On a slanting direction close to the crossroad of Ta Hien-Luong Ngoc Quyen were two faces of a man and a female I had seen in the window across from the Fan Street Boarding House. They were discussing something. They still furtively glanced to my direction from 200m away. Across street, a man about 40 wearing a military grey short sleeves shirt was busily fixing the brake of his bike. He too never forgot darting his eyes towards me. In the soup restaurant there were already about ten customers before I came in. I eliminated them. Three persons came in after me, one young man about 20 looking like a student wearing a casque. I looked at him through my vision span and noticed that he had an unusual stare at me. On the sidewalk, a woman having a reed bag was bargaining for some ears of corn also watched me from the corner of her eye. According to my professional nose, I saw three persons, two of them certain and the third one was just suspicious.
I got out of the Soup Joint and went up to Basket Street. Then I followed Rattan Street, down on Oil Street onto Ba Kieu Temple. Today I walked up the The Huc Bridge paying visit to Ngoc Son Temple. The temple was forlorn having scantily a few persons with a group of six or seven kiddies running after one another. Looking at the all chipped Ba Dinh Fort standing lonely there in testimony of the dark lives of the inhabitants of the North I turned contemplative. Suddenly I heard those kids swearing and hurling dirty words. Why a twelve or thirteen kid could use that kind of garbage language? One woman looking like a teacher or the secretary of an agro co-op about 26-27 years old interfered,” Please kids, boys may not use that kind of language. Children of the Capital are beloved nephews of Uncle Ho. I just came from the country and I read in the newspapers that the children of the Capital are always the symbol of the vanguard flag of the whole country.” I realized that she was sincere and tactful. Nevertheless, at first the kids looked at her and listened when mid course one and then two three of them hurled obscenities,” Fuck it! Shut up” and,” That bleary-eyes whore, what does she know, shit!” Then two of them took handful of mud from the lake and threw at her screaming,” Symbol and vanguard, fuck it, here is my penis suck it!” I too was astounded and walked up scolding,” You boys beware. You have to be polite.” Seeing my attitude, they ran away still throwing back monstrosities.
Out of the Temple, I turned on again to Trang Tien. It was 11 when I sat down at Chi Linh Garden and read the Popular Army News. A while after I stood up twisting my body to loosen my back and also to look around and see everything. The woman having a reed bag sat three benches away turning her back to me. The 40 years old man behind a bush watched 200m farther. The couple sitting on a stone bench on Dinh Tien Hoang Street looked at the Lake 300m from me. Additionally, the student looking young man, wearing a casque read his book sitting at the base of the water-jet statue at a distance of 100m. Therefore, they were five in total and they changed agents every day, they had so many agents! During the last four days, I recognized twenty faces among them the man wearing a golf beret and sunglasses was the easiest one to identify. As for the rest, they did not look like either secret police or information agents. This pack was the most dangerous one, appearing like normal folks on the streets even though they might have only lower standing. To test their ability I walked leisurely around distractively looking at the plants and leaves. When I was at the student’s bench, I suddenly sat down next to him fixing my eyes on the water jet. He seemed uncomfortable and turned around presenting his back to me. Ten minutes later, I went to the former Eden Theater, now changed to Workers Theater. They showed “The Snake of Creba,” a Russian movie. I bought a 4 dimes ticket to enjoy for the first time a film produced by the Russian communists. It was Saturday afternoon with quite a crowd. The woman carrying her reed bag was there fighting her way in to buy ticket. I quickly saw the couple entering without buying tickets. They presented something like a card to the entrance supervisor who let them in. The theater was pitch-dark and they would have a hard time watching me. They could have three more persons on guard outside. With a good movie and the big crowd of moviegoers, it would be a propitious occasion to cut off my tails if I had the travesty box with me. If I had that can of cream I would go to the restroom a few times applying on my face and before the end of the film changed my clothes, doing away with my headdress and my baggy putting on my false whiskers and lo and behold I would metamorphose into an old wrinkled different man. At the end of the movie, I would commingle with crowd going to the other direction of my followers and disappear.
This time as I did not have my travesty box and due to my desire to stretch to the dates of 16 or 18 for remittance of document M, it resulted in a miscalculation, which I will only understand in the future. The movie was about a German spy organization inside Poland. The people helped counter espionage of Poland and Russia to set up traps and ruses and catch the whole network. The screen was a bitty 2x1.2 m and did not show any Vietnamese caption. They had one woman’s interpretation through a loud speaker. It was insipid showing the German spies naively falling into crude traps. The audience was all-ecstatic praising the film story. After the movie, I went to Nga Tu So pulling all my tails along. Seeing a better-looking boarding house, I presented my pass to rent a 1.50 a day room. Perhaps they got the instruction to let me in without any pertinent inquiries even though my paper was false. I slept better and my tails must have spent more energy and resources. I had bought a blue worker cap and a Thai sandal as the signs when I would deliver document M. I had to wear them ahead as usual and besides, I was tired of the white barbed rubber blackened sandal giving me painful blisters.
After taking a bath, I felt gladdened lying alone in the room, reading the book for a while and then reflecting and calculating. In the morning, perhaps I should go to the Big Church to attend mass. Should I pass by Silver Street to see the changes? Otherwise, I might go by Luong Ngoc Quyen Street to see about my aunt (without entering). I knew that all my followers must submit detailed written reports at the end of their duty. They must also include a conclusive remark whether they had suspicions that their bait uncovered them. Their boss in the office then compared all reports to determine the common points and determine the next course of action.
Human fate, Animal fate
The next morning still with my casque, I left my barbed rubber sandal and donned my Thai sandal. Certainly counter espionage would examine that white sandal but there was not a zilch in it. After exiting the place, I started memorizing all faces or attitudes, not missing any tails. To make sure I just turned in a narrow alley. Then I was certain reckoning all of them. When I came to District Alley, I went into a restaurant for a bowl of “pho” soup. Then I pretended forgetting my casque, which would fall in the hand of one of my tails for the Hanoi Office.
When I reached the Cathedral, I touched my head seemingly remembering the casque, I returned to the restaurant. I would pretend regretting my loss and went back to the Church. It would be a small part from my game as an absent-minded man. It was Sunday and the Cathedral had only a few persons. At the end of the church, only one side door was open. Inside there were about sixty, seventy people mostly elderly plus sixteen or seventeen young persons and children. In a desert Church under a dim light with most of the doors close, I recollected my childhood with emotion when I also went here for religious services. The scene was alive with drum beating and bell ringing in the prosperity of the Northern Christians. Looking at the people curbing their head and murmuring their prayers my mind turned suddenly to the poem “Remembering the Old Thang Long” of Ba Huyen Thanh Quan.
The old path with the horse drawn carriage amid the soul of the autumn grass,
The ancient foundation of the Palace under a dying shadow of sunset,
The stone still shows its hardiness with the years and moon,
The face of the water frowns with the painful changes,
Thousands years looking through the antique mirror for past and present,
That scenery and the people of present dragged in a long journey.
Looking at it I also felt my heart broken like you Madam in the old time, the scenery, two periods and one soul. After the mass, I leaned on the iron fence at the statue of the Madonna in the center of the churchyard. Among the elderly, silently filing out I perceived my aunt, Mr.s. Doc Can. She was a widow when I was not born and she adopted a child. She stayed behind with a few houses in Silver Street and Luong Ngoc Quyen by power of attorney from her siblings. Anyhow, at present the communists let her live in a small house on Luong Ngoc Quyen while all other constructions fell under the authority of the Housing Directorate. My aunt still looked fat though her hair had changed color and her skin wrinkled. When she passed me she saw me just like all others passersby. I looked at her in a long stare and suppressed my emotion.
I followed Ly Quoc Su Street to Cotton Street and then to Jute Street. I saw a militia girl wearing a brown shirt and a black pantaloons tied to her ankles. A CKC gun hanging on her shoulder she was dragging a boy 10-12 years old to the police post. When people asked the reason she replied,” This boy and several others ambushed from an alley to squeeze the breast of little girls their age.” I could not comprehend why the morality of a society could have dropped so low. At the beginning of Silk Street, I saw women having baskets with a few bananas or a couple of pineapples running their butts off pursued by a young police agent 22 or 23 years old. That police officer grabbed the carriage of one 40-45 woman who breathlessly begged with her hands twisted together,” Brother please forgive me. I had only a banana hand and two ripe pineapples for sale to buy rice for my kids. I will not dare to commit the same next time.” My entrails felt knotty hearing the supplication and I now understood the sad fate of human beings. I left the scene following Silk Street then to Silver Street. Ah! My Silver Street is here, reminding me of the verses,
“Be the old scenes attracting old friends!”
“Whoever saw it and not feeling emotional.”
I felt disarrayed watching my old street. The same place with the same houses of yesteryear and it looks miniscule with houses like pigeonholes. The streets are so short and narrow! I kept walking, my heart laden. I was close to Tan Hung the sign was removed and the two words Tan Hung painted on the wall had faded. Glancing inside I saw bamboo screens dividing it into separate compartments with strange peasant women. Therein I perceived sister Thuan the former 1952 Beauty Queen of Silver Street attracting so many talented beaux of Hanoi. The girls of Silver Street always had the reputation of beauty, riches, as from “golden branches and emerald leaves” stock. In 1953, they elected Miss Mi of Ngoc Chuong as Beauty Queen. Though I was very young, I admired them as beautiful as the fairies. Now sister Thuan looked like a matron mi-city mi-rural hand feeding her baby. In the meantime, Ky her old and bony husband on a pair of wooden clogs were escorting the two daughters back home. After eight years, here are the rich and famous of the past. I saw clearly that under the socialist regime, the rich became poor and the poor became the destitute.
I came to Bac Qua Market and saw a crowd cluttered in the presence of a police officer. One young woman about 22 to 26, red eyed, was crying and sobbing next to a basket of rice and sand. A peasant farmer hauling a heavy basket of rice furtively sold her the basket of rice covered under a piece of burlap at a very good price and moved away fast, being afraid of the police. The woman having a bargain, getting 15kg while paying only the cost of 10kg plus 2.00 for the basket which the man did not dare to take back under the control of the police. Police was everywhere and it was risky to check the content. She rushed to pay for the basket and put it on her head to go home. When she reached Reed Mat Street, she poked her finger into it and found it funny. The basket had only the top rice layer and the bottom was all sand. In a dirt-poor society swindler of that caliber is common. It can give you a good idea of the level of paucity and the standard of living of its people.
I entered a restaurant on Reed Mat Street. It was a busy place with about twenty customers eating. I was surprised to see two good-looking young men smiling at me. I faced down to my plate with my lunch thinking why because I had not met them before. My curiosity was satisfied right after. When I stood up, they rushed to my plates scraping off the left over rice and food. I pulled my tails into Dong Xuan Market. This is a well-known market of Hanoi just like the Ben Thanh Market in Saigon. At the entrance there was a co-op stall selling flowers. Other vendors carrying their baskets were hawking flowers, fruits and miscellaneous items. They looked back and forth and ran their butts off at the sight of police. It was illegal to do business. The state had set up in every corner and at busy places official stores selling salt, fish sauce, onion, etc., for ration cards holders at a certain time and day. When I glanced at my watch it was 2 PM. Thinking of the Nga Tu So boarding house having a balcony I suddenly thought that for two days I did not have any bath and that my clothes were all dirty. I bought two bars of soap. When I was back at the place, the manager said that he rented my old room and there was only room 10 left. It was OK for me but I saw it as a pre-arrangement. I entered and closed the door and suddenly when I opened it, I saw along the corridor two shadows quickly receding in room 4. I was already familiar with one face of the two young men. I pretended going to the balcony feeling the drying rope.
In the room, I inspected every corner, rolling off the mat, looking under the bed, checking the chair and the table. In this backward country, they would not have any automatic camera or recording means. The most was a crack through which they could watch or a secret location to take pictures. I had only document M sawn on my underwear and I did not have to look at. I merely, from time to time feel it, pretending to scratch. I searched all the nails marks and keyhole. Aha! Here it is! They were diabolically gluing a 12x8x1.5 recorder under the table without drawer. I felt pacified now. I went to my bath as usual. While bathing and washing my stuff I slowly thought that they valued me too high. I had no equipment and no one visited me. Well if I was for sex, I would have got one of those girls I met at Trang Tien or Paper Bridge for a sexy recording. After the bath, I washed all my clothes and stood up on the balcony under my brief for a few exercise movements. Watching closely I saw the familiar face of the sunglass man wearing a golfer beret. I had uncovered him at Church X. I was indecisive seeing him without his paraphernalia. I wondered why they could go into any house they want to? Therefore, I felt an atmosphere of ambush and scrutiny all around. I distractively watched those sparrows chirping and even the rows of immobile trees seemed having communist substances, the substance of dishonesty, falsehood and deceit. We had the same atmosphere of a nation with a different kind of people and all the things not suitable to me.
I saw somewhat one person behind the window taking my photo. They had taken my photo five times. When I was at the Viet-German Hospital for the second time, they also did it. Why so many photos, perhaps they wanted to compile a file as proofs for future use? Let us go to bed now. If not for my plan, I would have recorded for them my fart or my insults. I was thinking of so many things that I fell sleeping in no time. The next day I boarded the tram to the lake. When at Leather Street I saw “Pharmacy Tham Hoang Tin” in big type already faded with time and it reminded me of Nun Dam Huong. The pharmacy had ceased operation, the window upstairs boarded. At the lake, I bought a copy of the Capital News, which, as a local paper reported on several small events that the People News or the Popular Army News did not publish. On the streets, I witnessed so many cases of thievery or swindles that you never saw published. The radio broadcast never talked of crimes or the bad sides of the society.
Another typical thing of Hanoi was the presence of loudspeakers at street corners or crowded places such as bus stations or in front of general stores. Those worked only at a specific time when they switched them to the radio station. Radio sets as well as cameras were quasi inexistent. In addition, they must register them every month. If you wanted a roll of film, you must submit an application indicating the purpose or the endorsement of an official bureau. One thing worth mentioning was the presence throughout Hanoi of bamboo rods pointing up like spines of a porcupine. Those are the antennas linked to the tiny galena receivers, giving access to the Hanoi station. At the lake, though it was not a necessity, I still had the professional habit of checking all faces around. I saw again obliquely at the ice cream joint in front of the Water Palace the 18-year-old girl with two hair braids. I looked at her round rosy face. I did not understand why she ventured into counter spy work; I will lead her to the zoo now. Through her, I knew how the Hanoi counter spy conducted their operation. They scheduled their agents so that the one following me now will not be back until at least one week later. That was to avoid the bait suspicion. Up to present time, I encountered in total forty persons.
I boarded the tram to the Zoo. I slowly walked around like an easy man sightseeing. I intended to visit Nung Hill, supposedly the burying site of the Manchurian barbarian pirates like the Dong Da Hill in Thai Ha Ap. Scattered around were a few merchants selling goodies. The whole Zoo had only five or six cages. I went to the tiger cage, the busiest place where about ten persons with children were watching the King of the Jungle sleeping. It drew me back to the famous poem of The Lu titled “The nostalgic Tiger.” Suddenly a big roar shook leaves and branches, the tiger sprung up, mouth panting. The kids cried and the 18 years-old braided girl, became all white with fear. The tiger smelled a horse fighting with the man holding the harness. I looked at the braided girl and she blushed turning her face away. When I directed my eyes at the horse, I saw two lovers in a romantic embrace but still glancing at me susceptibly. In a small house next to a refreshment joint, at a table in the corner, I saw the man with sunglasses and golfer beret sitting smoking his cigarettes in front of a full glass; in addition, there was a man under the grey Army uniform, leaning his leg on his bike, looking at the lake 100m from me. I climbed the Nung Hill facing the Buoi Lycee thinking of all my friends, my relatives and the other members of the Directorate. Did not they know that I was on the enemy cutting board, being tense to the minute confronting them? Did they forget about me advancing lonely on the road to darkness? My subconscious laden, I sat down on the lawn edge, listening to the murmuring breeze through branches.
I went back at 3 PM and did not bother to take the tram. I slowly ambled along Quan Thanh Boulevard, hearing the staccato of the braided girl’s clog. It came to me kidding, trying the ability of the girl. I walked slowly on a deserted street while her staccato walk still followed. At a location with a wall built along the sidewalk and about 30m there was a cross street. I walked close to the wall and suddenly sped up hearing the more pressing sounds of the clog. At the street corner, I turned and hid myself behind the wall column, leaning to it, one hand on my chest and the other covering my eyes as if I were dizzy. Too surprised the girl ran up to the corner believing that I turned that way. Now as I disappeared completely she was flabbergasted stepping out to the road, her eyes wide opened and she spanned up and down street. It was enough for me to judge her ability; I emerged a little bit to be natural, my face still grimacing and my hand still massaging my chest. When she saw me, her eyes turned sparkling like rejoicing. I slackened dragging my feet along that street and sat down on the bench of a tea-vending joint, turning up a cup for the vendor to pour me some tea. I drank slowly, my head down like a sick man. I pulled one of my legs out of the bench and about faced in a sudden, leaning my back against the table. In the door of the opposite house, the braided girl was watching me. On a hurry, she raised the newspaper to read, hiding her face. The sorry thing was that no one knew how she read, the paper being upside down. I regretted my action, being so fast while acting sick man. I wondered why they could go into any house, did everyone know that they were secret agents; did they have a special sign so that they could enter any place?
I turned to the direction of Dong Xuan Market. As I was close to the day for document M, I must visit Ngoc Son Temple and The Huc Bridge as a habitual visitor. Moreover, I had to check the location to see the convenient place to remit the document. It was 4:30 when I was at Dong Xuan Market. I did not see any police officer; I saw a group of people pointing fingers at six brand new cans of Nestle Condensed milk each can slightly split open containing muddy liquid. One man all ruddy directed his voice at the crowd shouting,” If I caught you I will break your neck!” I heard vaguely that the thief wetted the can, peeled off the label, punctured two small holes and got milk out to refill it with mud. He afterwards plugged the holes with wax and reapplied the labels. It was common a thing in Hanoi.
When I reached lakeshore, the sun setting already spread its elongated rays on the crest of the trees in the West. The slanting golden darts went deep into the dark holes at the base of the banyan tree at Ba Kieu Temple. A strong breeze blew after a long day of heat. There was a big crowd on the shore. The workers after long hours toiling also stopped by for ten minutes, taking advantage of the evening breeze assuaging their tired bodies. I entered the Lake General Store. This was a big three-story building formerly belonging to a family going south. They remodeled it into the largest department store of Hanoi. I wondered why so much good merchandise displayed in the showcase had price stickers but included a small sign saying not for sale. I went up the staircases to Floor 2 and 3 and came across with a few foreigners, may be from the USSR or the European Socialist States. Perhaps the communists had shared the good things between themselves and the display was just a propaganda ploy, miscellaneous merchandises were plentiful. A loudspeaker always reminded customers of thievery. In one half hour, I saw a person screaming for a stolen wallet. On the second floor, there was a run for a pickpocket. I also touched at my wallet; a spy having his wallet stolen, would that be funny! I was quite tired and stopped by Wood Bridge for dinner before going back to the boarding house. Before going to bed, I probed under the table. The recorder was still there. Had they changed the tape yet? I shall know.
Document M. Who was my counterpart?
The next morning was 14 June. I had one day left before the rendezvous. I shall go to the lakeshore again and before going out I checked that recorder. They were so subjective thinking that I was not aware of it. They repositioned it with new tape and glued it 3 cm off the last mark. Out on the streets, Hanoi had a very nice day, no rain, not too sunny. The air was so mild whetting you up. It was so nice having such a day in the very torrid summer. I again walked to the lakeshore to feel near with nature. The light breeze of the early summer morning caressed my skin. I knew that Hanoi counter espionage was pondering all kinds of questions about me. All they were aware of was that spy was ambling all days, not seeing anyone, not entering any office, just like a sightseeing tourist. To further my well-planned future, I rhythmically walked from the Water Palace, along Le Thai To Street to Truong Thi, my eyes spanning the scenery dreaming like. When I came to a flame tree on the shore, I saw two big rounded stones on which I used to sit fishing shrimps. Standing in front of them I meditated for a while as if I was longing for a cherished past and then stooped down touching the stones. I directed my eyes from the base of the tree to the clutters of red flowers, the flowers of my school days reminding me of two verses of an unknown poet:
“Here comes the far-fetched season of flame trees flowers,”
“Here is the young love, my love tender for you.”
I picked up one petal flying down with the wind and opened my book to press it between pages. I knew that there were 10 eyes watching the minutest of my gestures and submitting their report. On his desk, the boss would feel crazy on a spy risking his life to penetrate Hanoi for preserving a flower petal in his book! After Truong Thi I walked slowly to the Post Office. Two girls sitting on a stone bench smiled and made sign with me. I knew they were prostitutes seeking patrons. Anyhow, they did not know that I harbored pestilential germs putting them into jail farms if they ever connected with me! To save them from that risky venture, I took on a rigidly serious face and went straight on. I went up the The Huc Bridge, entered the Pagoda onto the base of an old ficus tree and climbed out to a big branch over the water surface.
I remembered that on 14 July 1953 the French and the National Army (under French Union) celebrated the French Bastille Day in Hanoi with an exhibit of several weapons and ten brand new Molotova trucks. On the water there were ten landing craft noisily slicing the water while airborne parachutists dropped from the sky. The scared off old turtles rushed to the old trees behind the Pagoda. Old and young alike emerged their rounded head, bare black with yellow lips. All the kids of Hanoi ran to the lake to touch the head of the turtles. On my way out I stood on the bridge for a while looking at the waves on the surface of an emerald water as if they were angry to see the country in the hands of a bunch of hoodlums. I had wondered why the lake water was that green? The answer was that under the lake was a big copper ore mine and if you mined it half of Hanoi would be no more. Out to the start of the bridge I looked at the T shape space between the bridge and the Ba Kieu Pagoda where old erudite men used to write calligraphic characters banners and chess masters set up their chess tricks challenging passersby. The old scenes were here but there were no more old faces. The only familiar image was the sight of the lover’s couple I have seen before in Leather Alley, still interlaced in an intimate posture on a cement bench.
Not caring about them, I turned to the Toad Garden looking for a convenient location for the remittance of document M on the agreed upon days. After a while, staring around, I found the handy place. Then I walked to Dinh Tien Hoang Street and rode the tram to Bach Mai. I passed the former Majestic Theater now renamed August Movie House showing “The Dirty Face Girl” of Romania. I had seen the French produced version in Saigon. I thought about viewing it to compare. Anyhow, I stayed in the tram straight to the Evening Market. The streets here were dusty and full of potholes and garbage. The sad sight, the Hanoi Movie House was even more desolate with a few old torn posters on the wall and a few kids playing at the front. I turned into the Flea Market to witness complete chaos with all kinds of people commingled disorderly while a number of yellow uniformed police agents and several wearing red armband persons busying in the mix. Regardless, thievery and swindles still abounded. Here a police officer was writing a report on a stolen bicycle that a co-op Chief had bought by mistake. There a militiaman was dragging through the crowd one handcuffed 20 years old thief. During my struggle through the crowd, I suddenly clasped the shoulders of one of my tails who took off much discomforted. I was certain that when he submitted the report to his superior he would give him a real headache.
Back to Sail Street for dinner, I saw a boarding house close by and rented a room for 1.20. The next day, on 15 June I did not feel good and decided to take one-day break. Anyhow thinking of the next day as the conventional day for document M, I must go out as usual so not arousing my tails attention. I then boarded the tram to Paper Bridge and ambled in Lang Pagoda. It had become a desolate place while in the past it pulled in all the cream of the Capital City during festivities amid convoluted smoke of incenses burning. Anyhow, at the base of an old mango tree or behind the hibiscus hedges were the despised faces of the communist enemy. It suddenly reminded me of a poem titled “wise and stupid” of Nguyen Binh Khiem. I must ask the permission of the author to change some of the wording to suit my present consciousness:
“In life who knows who is stupid, who is wise?”
“The wise now will be stupid at the end of his time,”
“The stupid on his time will turn wise,”
“I bet you know who are stupid who is wise,”
“Then you can be called stupid or wise.”
Close to noon, I went to the Temple of the Stooped Elephants, listening to the echo from my childhood. At the entrance, there were the two stone elephants, one having a broken trunk, still lying there, moss covered with the passing moons and centuries. Looking in, the Temple’s blackened rooftop was next to the old banyan trees. Their twisted branches bent under the strenuous exposure to the months and the years. On the left side here and there was new red clay soil amid the vast green of the vegetation. It was the future Thu Le Public Park. Thousands of young boys and girls from Hanoi were pitching their hands building it. In the Temple, there were only a few visitors. Some of them were nature lovers, others sightseeing the beauties of the nation. In addition, we had the seekers of freshness on a torrid summer.
Normally when visiting an ancient Temple I would pay respect to the Venerable or the Temple supervisor after having toured and admired its beauties. Nevertheless, I refrained from doing it due to my sense of responsibility and my concern of harming them. I simply went to the fork of an old banyan tree leaning to the ground like inviting a traveler weary in spirit as well as body due to the difficulties of life. I sat there thinking about tomorrow, my mission penetrating Hanoi achieved almost half way. I wished that I could deliver document M as planned. I prayed all the guardians of the nation, the sanctified spirits of our rivers and mountains to grant me their protection so that I could finish my work. When done if my body would reduce into dust spread to all corners of the horizon I would feel happy to sacrifice for the nation and our people under the barbarous hands of the communists.
The day was ending. I went back to the boarding house on Sail Street to take a bath and rest until the next day. I would dress like today, blue pants, white shirt and head dressed with a blue worker hat and wearing a red traps Thai sandal, a sack on my shoulder as per the conventions. I must apply all my professional ability to ascertain all my tails. In the crowded Sail Street, I checked all faces and attitudes of persons around me. I only recognized two familiar faces among the several suspicious persons. I led them to Shoes Alley, out to Ta Hien, down to Silver Street, crossing Basket Street, turning on Fan Street arriving at Jute Street and ending at the Water Palace on lakeshore. It was a zigzagging route with the purpose to uncover all of them. I bought a copy of the Popular Army News and a loaf of bread, finally sitting down on a cement bench facing the Philarmonique Movie Theater. From this bench I could span the whole area of The Huc Bridge at 300m away.
It was fifteen minutes before eight. Chewing my bread I stretched, turned my head left and right and twisted my torso relieving tiredness, I saw two old faces and the two others I have seen on Sail Street when I just walked out of the Boarding House. A clever one stood behind the movie advertisement board behind the entry gate. He could not avoid my scrutiny. I worried somewhat, they used to be at least five, why they were only four today? I rechecked in the crowded street but to no avail, they were only four. Perhaps their office had seen me roaming at random without connecting with some one or without any purpose and reduced the personnel. If during my irregular roaming, I met one, two or three individuals they must have enough agents going after each of the persons. It was only my supposition and not any factual conclusion. Therefore, I still had to be at a maximum state of alertness.
It was eight o’clock; I strained my eyes towards The Huc Bridge. I was anxious and my heartbeat speeded up. Who was my counterpart? Was he an old or young person, male or female? 8:15 I still did not see anything. Now it was 8:30 and I started to be nervous. As per conventions, the period were fixed from eight to ten. I wanted to be quite far and come up only when I saw the counterpart. Therefore, I would be on top of the game and observe his/her security condition to act; I also thought if the opponent had the same thinking, then how would it be? In case, the counterpart sat somewhere watching for me on the bridge, then what will happen? With that in mind, I decided to stand up walking to the bridge then along the lakeshore for about 300m. No one was dressed accordingly. Then I sat down on a cement bench. This bench was somewhat inconvenient as a tree trunk masked me from the bridge. Nevertheless, by bending a little I still had the whole picture. I felt so anxious as if waiting for my sweetheart. I read before a poem of which I did not remember who the author was, either Ho Dzenh or was it Luu Trong Lu?
“Set me a date but do not come”
“I will blame you but just lightly”
“Looking at my finger the cigarette is burning away”
“I shall say, how much I long for you”
I was in the same frame of mind anxiously looking at the Bridge, a half burned out cigarette in my fingers. It was nine precise. A sudden sadness invaded me. Had the counterpart met some problem, some mishap? If for any reason, I could not deliver the document I would feel sorry for all my life. Through so many risky situations flirting with death and I was sitting here waiting for somebody who never came. I could not move back to my past location being afraid to arouse my tails attention. May be I should wait until the coming 18.
Suddenly here it is. The counterpart was a girl exactly dressed in the agreed upon way, brown shirt, grey kaki pants and holding the copybooks. I did not see clearly the sandals because I was at almost 300m away. I sat still. She crossed the bridge stopped at close to Ngoc Son Pagoda, leaned to the bridge rails looking down to something. It came to my mind if she had tails then what would the situation be. Our intelligence and the Americans had not thought about the problem. I supposed that she had tails and that if we saw each other then we would untie a knot for Hanoi. The only right solution was to be highly meticulous, not showing anything, be them the blinking of an eye or a certain gesture to let the tails determine that we were having some connection. I pretended not looking at the Bridge, turning my back to it, watching distractively the flow of bicycles on the street. When I passed by the bridge, as if I did not have a pre set decision I just went on looking at the kids fishing shrimps below. I walked down talking with kids and picking up one shrimp, I quickly glanced to the direction of my counterpart. She did not see me yet as she was 50m from me, being at the entrance of the Temple while I was down on the shore. Now I saw clearly her barbed sandals and the three copybooks on her hands. She was about twenty-two; her nice complexion oval face contrasting her black jet eyes, such a nice girl in connection with Saigon was somewhat unreal. May be she was only one mesh of the net secretly sent out to connect with me. Once at a sudden, a man appearing like a city dweller approached flirting. She was upset and turned into the Temple. Watching all my four tails, I calmly walked on the bridge among a few young school kids carrying backpacks. At the middle of the bridge, I stood looking down to the lake. Then I rolled up my sleeves due to the heat holding the half-folded Popular Army News. I was somewhat apprehensive since the counterpart had a grey sack, which had not been according to the conventions. Anyhow, I realized that my sack was also not as convened and there were still the secret signs to answer. Then, I felt easy. As convened, the meeting should be on the bridge. The presence of that flirting man changed the situation. I must be flexible. I also walked to the Temple when at the exact moment she left the corner of the Ba Dinh Fort to go towards the Bridge.
Glancing quickly at me, she opened her wide eyes with surprise and a hint of joy. I only remarked that she became somewhat nervous, her face blushed. Pretending not seeing anything, I focused on the wooden green sign with white characters,” Here is a classified historical vestige.” Knowing that she was looking, I folded my newspaper in four and then in eight. One and two minutes later, I saw through the corner of my eyes her slowly switching the copybooks from one hand to the other. I was uplifted seeing that she acted very cool. Here I had a capable coMr.ade and fighter perfectly facing the enemy.
I leisurely ambled out. Two tails were still at the same place. The two others were now moving to the bridge. In addition, there was person that I did not see since this morning, he was the student looking man I had seen at the Sinh Ky soup restaurant. Thinking that I would be in the Temple for a while as usual, they moved in and ended up leaning to the bridge rails when I walked out. In reality, in just two minutes, I could discretely show the document. Then I could drop it inadvertently for her to pick up and it would make it easier. Anyhow, I was afraid of her timely reflex leading to more troubled situations and I did away with the idea. I slowly walked to the Toad Garden about 700m away, swooped down to the cement platform where one toad was jetting water. I examined that spot yesterday. It had pebbles with dry leaves of the same color than my document. Moreover, it had a bush with very handy surface roots and the bush hid a dead corner. I leisurely sat down and opened fully the paper on my lap reading and hiding where I dropped my document. I saw her on a stone bench 150m from me with a woman having a long broom. I kept reading, from one page to another. When she looked to my direction, I scratched my elbow where I put the document and with a crooked finger, I indicated the spot. She was very calm. She waited for two or three minutes before she slowly scratched her scalp. How could the tails guess those two random gestures?
At the time, I had an indescribable feeling. I had repaid my debt to my country and I was regretting for something very close and faraway. I also felt sorry with a life on the cutting board of the enemy, dead or alive, I did not know. I am walking out without saying farewell. I wondered whether my counterpart could comprehend my inner thoughts. I was like in boiling water or on a burning fire. A sudden idea came to my mind, what would happen if I did not have tails? I always hated that word “if.” I went along to Trang Tien and sitting on a stone bench facing the lake I could obliquely see my counterpart at about half kilometer away. I saw only her shape sitting still at the same place. Had she seen the document? According to my judgment, she had not. Through my observation of her attitude, I knew that she was very cool. Besides, she would never naively go get it and go back to her old place. Therefore, I was certain that she did not yet retrieve the document. I felt pacified and directed my eyes to clumps of white clouds sailing southward on a dark blue firmament. Fifteen minutes later she slowly walked to where I was before, watching the jet from the mouth of a toad and sat down. I was still facing in a 40-degree angle with the purpose to see whether she had any tail. Why it took her so long sitting there? I was upset, wanting her to move on and regretting if she did. Perhaps she nurtured the same feeling.
In the stringent situation when I was in the enemy trap, an idea surfaced in my mind that I wished to say a few words to her. During the passed 20 days, I was so lonely on this cherished land. Only you as my coMr.ade, a co-fighter, though breathing the same air and enjoying the same sight and you were so far away! I wanted to wish that you encountered handy conditions, good luck to glean all the best results in the service of the nation. That would suffice for this unfortunate man to remember during his long atrocious days ahead. It was almost noon; the very bright sun was drying everything. Then she got up looking once more at the lake and walked away scratching her head. She had no tails, I was happy for her.
The summer sky was very blue with a few specks of cloud, the air was clear and the whole scenery was under a vibrant light. I looked straight to the Turtle Tower standing alone like a miniature Bonsai hill projecting its trembling image on the water. I saw two turtles enjoying sunlight at the base of the tower. The clumps of red flame tree flowers reflected on the water creating a beautiful lacquer painting with the green of leaves and the blue sky. Standing up, I felt ecstatic, my heart relieved. I shall award me $3.00 for fried crab rolls in Leather Alley.
While waiting for the woman to cut the crab rolls, my mind went back to Father A. I was sure that he waited for me since that day and I did not show up. If he understood that my quick thinking had saved him from quandary. I thought and weighed all possibilities to go back seeing him. Nevertheless, it was impossible under the tight surveillance of the enemy.
That night I went back to the Sail Street boarding house. I thought randomly on the remitting of document M that Saigon had exactly figured out all eventualities. Otherwise, I would not be able to do it with five or six clinging tails. Now how could I cut off those tails? When in Saigon I successfully demonstrated my ability witnessed by Dale, Brown and Phan. Nevertheless, with all transportation means available while the people just minded their own business it was an easy game. Here in Hanoi the conditions were just opposite. On the streets there were only bicycles, where could you hide, how could you jump up and down? As for the people, the majority of them were still very vague on the painted luscious cake promised by the communist. Besides, everyone should belong to groups or organizations. They were fully brainwashed. In addition, with their launched campaign of spy prevention they all submitted to a volunteer network of watching and reporting on strangers. I thought of taking a trip out to test the reaction of Hanoi counter espionage and perhaps getting rid of my tails. With those ideas in mind, I quickly went into a deep slumber.
In the morning, I got up early and went to the Kim Lien station at 5 o’clock. I found four tails, two on the tram and two others, one riding a Mobilette and the other pulling his rickshaw. Nevertheless, fifteen minutes later I found two other tails very familiar to me. At the window for tickets to Vinh, there was a line of about thirty persons. I estimated that my turn will come at around 10 or 11am because each person had to record their name and age, present their pass and answer questions. I went in line to know it was for tomorrow trip because if you want to go to Vinh you must register one day ahead. I was dismayed! While in line, one single leg Army veteran with crutches shouted his ticket for sale. “I have one excess ticket that I cannot use due to my gravely sick brother and would resell it.” Thinking that it was a preset thing of counter espionage giving me the appropriate conditions to go as planned and know fully my rendezvous it would not matter. I went to the amputee while in the same time another person also left the line coming up. The amputee pointed his finger at me saying,” He is the first one, I sell to him.” I knew that in any case I could buy that ticket. The bus came and the helper opened the door shouting,” Everyone on board the bus to Vinh.”
More than thirty persons with all kinds of baggage were filing on. The amputee also went and made sign for me to climb up. Among passengers, I caught two familiar faces, one sitting up front and the other behind me. The bus rolled out on the street, which was also National Highway One. A police officer stopped the bus for inspection. He checked all papers, verified the number of travelers according to the number of tickets sold. He also squeezed the driver on so many things. I was fully aware that my travel was too unexpected that Hanoi counter spy had the bus stopped for as long as they could get things caught up. The bus started moving again after twenty minutes. When at the Unification Garden it stopped again and the helper ran with a can to the garden perhaps for water. Five minutes later, he ran out and the driver lifted the bus canopy to fill the water tank. Again, the helper ran back to the Garden. I quickly glanced through a low bush the face of the “Mobilette man” taking notes on a small pocketbook and looking at the back of the bus with the license plate. The amputee man next to me also did not miss any of my gestures. As for the man sitting behind me, I pretended following a bus going from the other direction to look back. I also saw far behind Command car HN5037 that had followed me to Ha Dong, parked behind two rickshaws. I did not know why the bus still did not go. Perhaps they did not have the time to catch up, was the driver also from the organization? Glancing in the Garden I saw the bus helper and the Mobilette man talking. That helper might also be a secret agent, political, economical and criminal. Why they took so long to refill the water tank? Passengers protested without any result. Finally, the helper was out and the bus rolled again.
When the bus neared Phu Ly the Command car HN5037 passed it. I quickly saw in it four men, all motionless and stranger faces with one man about forty. I pretended watching the rice field along the road and when the bus passed, I followed the sight to the back to see about 300m behind a black suspicious Citroen 15. The bus had a stopover in Phu Ly to take a few more passengers. The vehicle HN5037 parked head out. The black sedan passed. I saw in it four men including the driver and the man wearing sunglasses with a golfer beret. He was exactly like when I encountered him for the first time at Church X. Oh! What a strong display it was? They were eleven agents in total, three on the bus and eight in the two small vehicles. Certainly, they were thinking of the pick up rendezvous to go back South. Therefore, they must mobilize enough hands to catch the whole group. When we came to Quat, Ninh Binh every one had to get down and cross the bridge. A long convoy of twenty vehicles waited to cross. I suspected another Command car, seeing one man of the Citroen talking with its man.
We passed the Skate Mountain, through Ninh Binh and arrived at Thanh Hoa where the bus stopped. While in the bus, I kept pretending dormant with my half closed eyelids, listening to conversations between travelers and knowing that the amputee was also on his way to Vinh. Passengers went up and down for about half an hour. Then the bus rolled again out of Thanh Hoa when the black sedan passed it. I guessed that after about ten kilometers Command car HN5037 would catch up. Then, the third Command car I saw in Quat passing, with three persons including the driver and one man I could not forget. He was around 50 with sparsely white hair, wearing glasses and giving the impression of somebody in a commanding position. Suddenly one plan came to my mind. There were rice fields all along the roadway and there were small paths leading to hamlets farther in. If at a sudden I called for a stop to get down there would be no logical reason for the three tails to alight in the same time. They must keep going another ten kilometers to report to the three small cars ahead. I therefore would have at least twenty minutes to evade. If I wanted going to the sea on my left I would pretend going right and await a few minutes until the bus would be farther out of sight to use all my strength crawling and running my butt off to the East. Alternatively, if I desired going to the mountain to reach Laos I would do the same thing reversely. I did not follow my plan, because I did not fully understand the demoniac communist. I naively thought that they had to believe that I was a person who solely went about aimlessly to sightsee revisiting Hanoi without doing anything as reported by all their informants. Therefore, when caught I would only get a maximum of two to three years incarceration. Moreover, I was still afraid of the hardship of a life hiding in bushes or through jungles, hungry and miserable as a hunted animal. I did not do as I planned and I still regret it to this day.
The bus arrived at Vinh when it was almost three in the afternoon. I descended and went into a state restaurant for food. The city had only little traffic and the troop following me was two Command cars and the old black Citroen 15 with fourteen agents. While on my way to the boarding house, I perceived Tri along with perhaps his wife holding a young child. I pretended to be a stranger turning into another street. It was too late, Tri caught on with me. He tapped my shoulder shouting,” Hi Hung, so you are back from Hanoi, where are you going now.” I was very uneasy, knowing that I would put him in a very dangerous situation. I laughed heartily to let the Hanoi spies hear while Tri’s wife approached with the kid and Tri introduced her saying,” That day when I returned home I talked about Hung with my parents and wife. Now go to my place to spend the night. I shall introduce my parents who would be very pleased meeting you.” I loudly laughed,” Where did you two intend to go now?” Tri raised his bag having two pumpkins and one bicycle tire on his shoulder,” I had bought those things and in the same time brought my wife to the market. Have you eaten anything yet?” Showing him the restaurant I said,” I just filled up my belly!” On my way to his home, I bought some peanuts and a pack of candies for his kid.
After crossing the Ben Thuy barge, we came to a small house next to Highway 1, which I had seen, on my bus from Ha tinh. Tri opened a small lockset, pulled aside a bamboo screen and rushed me in. Tri looked for the lamp to light it up, a dusty lamp giving a very low light. It was dirt poor with an all nicked wooden platform bed. There were two to three old rusty bicycle chains hung from the ceiling, one broken cycle frame and several pedals scattered. In a corner was a small rat gnawed cabinet holding his tools. Tri took out a broom sweeping the place and got out a torn reed mat for the bed saying,” Tonight we shall sleep here smoking cigarettes and we shall talk.” I pulled his arm saying that as it is not yet dark we shall go out for a conversation before going to bed. His wife saluted to go to the parents’ house. Tri told his wife,” You go in and I shall stay out here.” Turning to me he added,” In there is my parents’ place. I must be here every night. One month ago, they pried open my door and stole all my bicycle repair accessories, worth about $100.” I glanced at Tri, very concerned; he was so poor and they robbed him. I handed out to Tri my pass for Security. He said it was not necessary since the assistant chief of the hamlet was a good friend and there was nothing to bother. I insisted for him to go giving it to the office.
When Tri went, I entered the house. It was dark and there were no city lights. I understood that tonight there will be many scrutinizing eyes around and they would mount a round the clock guard. Anyhow, since I did not have any decided plan I did not pay any attention to it. My only concern was about Tri. With the present situation, if they caught me I would have to say all details of the truth, where and how I met Tri from Ky Anh. Besides, in the morning I should visit Tri’s parents as normally. One spy would not let the family of his counterpart know him. Perhaps Hanoi counter spy would not suspect him. A while after Tri came back and took out a blackened mosquito net for us to crawl in smoking our cigarettes and talking. I was asleep fast. Through the night, sometimes I awakened to hear vehicles running around projecting their headlights beams. Tri also wondered and I asked whether it would be common here.
I guessed that Hanoi believed that tonight boats would come to take me back to Saigon. They alerted the Navy and the local guerilla forces of Ben Thuy. Regardless, I had not intended to do anything here and I shall go back to Hanoi tomorrow. Tri led me to his parents’ house, a three pieces dwelling after a walk on zigzagging dirt paths. Each part was bare and only one had a bamboo screen under a variegated thatched roof. His parents were old, the father squatting mending the fishnet and his mother looking nice and honest. Through the conversation, I knew that they had a very comfortable life in Thailand fishing, but having a motorized boat. Believing the communist propaganda that the country was independent and the people was having a happy life they repatriated. They also had viewed the movie reels showing a prosperous living with people displaying smiles. Besides, during their clandestine activities in Thailand the high-ranking communist men received warm support from them. All the displaced Vietnamese nurtured the same longing for the native country and those who had sold their properties to go home always wrote back praising the good omen in the nation. Therefore, they liquidated everything plus their saving of more than ten ounces of gold they arrived in Hai Phong to a welcome mat of flags and cymbals sounds. They directed more than 400 expatriate Vietnamese to a reception house awash with banners “Welcome home, dearest sons of the country back to the motherland.” In the ensuing training for integration into the new socialist society, they had to register all their gold saving against receipts issued. It will be under the custody of the government and the owners could withdraw as needs arrived. In Vinh, they provided gifts to relatives, all happy. Then when they were half way on their saving they required them to give justifications of request for withdrawals for a worthy purpose. Finally, they withdrew the last ounce to buy the house and a small fishing boat.
They now lived a hard life struggling day in day out for their living with a meager soup or rice mixed with cassava, complaining of their stupid decision. They invited me to lunch with them. I refused saying that being far from home for long I needed going back to Vinh Linh. They pressed me so much that I finally accepted. Tri had to race through the whole hamlet to come up with an omelet with one duck egg, a dish with a few tiny fishes and one plate of boiled spinach dipped in preserved crawfish sauce. The big heart of his parents moved me so much. Tri accompanied me to the bus station. I slipped in his hand $20., saying that while in Hanoi my aunt gave me $50 and would like him to buy a few candies for his kid. Tri refused to take it. I told him to save it for me until I will be back being afraid that I would squander all. Back to the boarding house on Sail Street, I was tired, my mind tense and confused. I thought of the risk I gave Tri and of my fate flirting with death, rolling down a deep hole without return. I could not close my eyes.
Que sera sera
Worries and sadness enveloped me. I went into a troubled sleep for the whole night. In the morning when I opened my eyes, the sun already rose sending the dawn bright rays through the windows like a transfusion of energy to my body. It was true that a young body could not lie saddened and worrisome. I got up quickly, took my bath and went to the lakeshore on the side of Ly Thai To Boulevard across from the Water Palace. I walked along to the row of refreshment kiosks and bought a bottle of Truc Bach Beer which should be of better taste than Hanoi Beer though still flat compared to 33 Beer of Saigon. At a table next to the lake, I sat down with cigarette and beer looking pensive at the water surface. At times, a light breeze from the lake increased the sweetness of an early summer morning. I felt exalted and clear minded to think, weigh and calculate. Eventually, they would arrest me. After what should I say? Reviewing the whole picture, I decided on what to say and what to hide. What Hanoi had known and what it will know of me? Gradually I built up my case as follows. I did away completely with the childish covers 2 and 3. If I told them, I came by sea they would get me to the rendezvous point and make secret signals for the boat to meet me. I decided not to divulge it for it would throw some of my coMr.ades-of-arms in the hands of those barbarous hands creating pains to so many families losing their father, brothers and husbands. Therefore, I will say that I came by land. Very luckily, I studied in details Highway 1 from Vinh Linh to Hanoi through my Ben Hai observation trip. To prevent any future mishap, when I was back to the boarding house, I got out the small pocket of documents I had sewn on my brief.
The use of cover 4 should be the best, to monitor Division 308 under General Vuong Thua Vu. Being tired with my school education, having missed several examinations and feeling fed up with southern society, I volunteered when referred by a person. Though I was scared, I still accepted the offer to help my old and weak parents with some cash. That was why I did not do a thing while in Hanoi and just going around looking at the old sceneries of my childhood. I would tell them all truth, why I met Phung Van Tri in Ky Anh, etc., what I did in Hanoi, where I went, that is to say the whole thing save the details regarding documents M. X and the letter of Father Hoang Quynh. In any case, I must say that I never knew there were tails following me. I naively thought that at the maximum, I would get three or four years in jail and when free I would find my way home.
With such a crude conception of the communist of a young 24-year-old man, I became pacified and began going out sightseeing. I took the tram to visit West Lake, Truc Bach Lake and the lovely Co Ngu Road. I got off the tram at the start of Quan Thanh and visited Quan Thanh Temple. The antique bricks paving the Temple yard were mostly cracked or broken with spaces in between covered with moss and weed. The big desolate yard had the footprints of Bonze Tue Chieu, the patriot whose body now reversed to dust and ashes. Leaving the Temple I turned on to Co Ngu Road, now renamed Youth Road. In the old time, here was the choice rendezvous for young lovers or the relaxing pathway for the easy strollers. It was very crowded in weekends with vendors of the famous shrimp pancakes and beef jerky with julienne green papaya. Nowadays it had become forlorn with a couple of bicycles and from time to time a laden oxen cart pulled by an old peasant.
I slowly walked listening to the sounds of water rushing to the Truc Bach Lakeshore on my right and West Lake on my left. There was still the row of red flame trees amid the song of cicadas. Beyond was Tran Vo Pagoda, reminding me of Madame Huyen Thanh Quan and Cao Ba Quat.
“The Palace of Tran Quoc amid the tired green grass”
“Reminiscing the old country with pains laden heart”
A few steps up were Little Do Son with all the souvenirs from the innocent days. Farther, was Nghi Tam, Quang Ba with the familiar guava trees, the native place of the beautiful Thi Lo. The scenery of West Lake attracted the soul of the travelers. I did not know whether my tails admired the natural beauties of the brocade weaved scenery of the national patrimony, the vast expanse of the shiny West Lake surface creating in me a deep sense of solitude and loss.
“Randomly a barge crossing the river”
“Sparsely the evening clouds atop the silvery summit”
Dusk was setting gradually, the sun disappeared and a few white storks took off to the faraway horizon. I returned with my heart burdened.
I kept going through Hanoi from one corner to the other and witnessed so many sad social problems, which I did not anymore bother to enumerate. Anyhow, a small thing still engraved in my mind. I was on my way to Van Dien on the tram. At a stop while passengers were climbing up and down, a barefoot peasant with patches on his clothing was hauling his two bunches of dry branches up and set them neatly in one corner. When the tram moved on the 20-year-old ticket controller came making sign for him to pay the ticket, only five cents since it was almost at the end of the line. The bleary-eyed peasant looked at him scary, his hand touching his pocket and supplicated,” Please help me for a short trip; it is too heavy and it is almost dark; I do not have a penny now.” The young ticket man opened wide his threatening eyes shouting,” down now.” At the next small stop he kicked the dry wood bunches out while the poor peasant still supplicated,” I begged you brother, please comprehend me!” Everyone in the tram looked on motionless, The 5 cents was bitty; I was almost ready to pay for him against my purpose. When the tram stopped at another auxiliary station, he descended and I was about to follow him when remembering that I still had tails, I just quickly slipped in his pocket a $5 bill I had neatly folded up.
In the enemy’s hands
Three days later, it was Sunday. As usual, I went to the Lake Tram Station to buy a loaf of bread and a newspaper. After eating my bread, I walked to Drum Street. I went to the Cathedral to attend Sunday Mass. When I was close to the beef soup joint on Ly Quoc Su I watched two rickshaw drivers squabbling on a disputed customer. I quickly glanced at two yellow uniformed police agents walking towards me. My heart squeezed. They were the tails following me when I visited Lang Temple. If they displayed uniforms today, I would have problems. I still pretended watching the two quarrelling drivers. As I had guessed, one man went to me saying,” Please let me see your papers.” I acted surprised and asked back,” What kind of paper do you want officer?” Very polite he answered,” Whatever kind you have.” I got out of my wallet my pass and gave to him. He then said,” It would not be too opportune, but please follow me to the post.”
It was really polite and civilized. I witnessed several cases of police control in Hanoi shouting dryly and abruptly their orders. Perhaps they were not professional police officers and I belonged to another system during the initial approach. I walked ahead, they escorted close behind. Passersby on the streets watched. The other tails looked on with the pleasure of having completed their job of tailing that stupid man and perhaps, the curiosity to see the bait trapped. They escorted me to District Alley where was parked the black Citroen 15 sedan seen on the road to Vinh. I saw next to the driver a man about 40 wearing a grey jacket and dark sunglasses. One police agent opened the door to step in, the other one made sign for me to follow before he went in. Therefore, I was sandwiched between two police agents. I understood that as they saw me rambling here and there without doing anything they decided to jump on me. Anyhow, to act as planned I showed astonishment and asked,” Where are you taking me, I had all necessary papers?” The jacketed man on the front seat turned back and dryly said,” Keep going and you will know!” There was no more courtesy! The car zigzagged through many streets and turned onto a small alley with the sign Hoa Lo Street. Across obliquely was a stonewall seven to eight meters high topped with encrusted broken glass pieces and bare-stripped electric wires. The car stopped at an enormous gate with two massive doors looking like an ancient fortress. From the two small side doors, a soldier-holding gun ran out, checking the paper from the jacketed man and slowly opened the big door after giving a stiff military salute. The Citroen rolled in; the two police agents escorted me through a big yard having flowers and under a canopy of green grape vines.
They led me into a bare room with only a desk and one chair in presence of four brutish men. Two minutes later the jacketed man came in, putting his briefcase on the desk and made sign for me to sit down. He read,” Order of incarceration from the Ministry of Security regarding Le Viet Hung, age…, origin …, according to the false pass….” One of the four brutish men shouted,” Get all your clothes off.” I protested,” What are you arresting me for?” The jacketed man frowned shrieking,” Do not pretend and do according to orders!” The four brutish men rushed on, searching my sack and stripped me down. The jacketed man pointed his finger to my face shouting,” Be reasonable to survive, in the contrary you will die!” Having things pre-planned, I kept quiet. In the small room, they used four very bright lights. They valued me too high, treating me like a top spy. They scrutinized all my things, the seam, the thread, all the buttons of my shirt and my pants with magnifying lens. One of the guys shouted,” Where is the camera?” I asked naively,” Which camera?” They thought that I had minuscule cameras hidden in shirt or pants buttons and they checked them all. The jacketed man recorded each item. I had only a brief on and they told me to get it off; I felt uncomfortable and hesitated. The man pointed his finger to my face shouting,” Take it off before I beat you up!” They all surrounded me looking in my ears, my nostril and my mouth and checked every one of my teeth. It was good that I had thought about my secret pencil. When in Vinh I bought tooth picks and inserted the secret pencil in the middle tiding the whole pack with a nylon thread and the thing just looked like a small nylon thread forgotten in there. The pack of toothpicks was about the size of a thumb and they did not bother. They all looked angry, checking closely everything, watch, fountain pen and my Thai sandal. Finally, one man forced me to curb down, stretching legs while one of them pressed my anus open for the other guy to introduce a steel rod into it. Being so tense lately, I became constipated to go potty only once every few days and my feces became hard like goats droppings. Therefore, when they probe with that steel rod and heard a pebbly sound their faces brightened up, perhaps thinking that they discovered a hidden secret. Anyhow, they withdrew their rod. All the marble like balls of feces dropped to the floor. Being in my curbed posture, I could not see their disenchanted faces when the man threw the steel rod to the corner of the room and gave my butt a violent flog shouting “stand up.”
After two hours checking, they found nothing. They threw back to my face a towel, the small comb and my brief. Pointing to my watch on the desk, I requested having it back. The jacketed man stood up and banging on the desk he said with anger,” It is not your watch; it is the proof of spy activity.” Pretending to be astonished, I asked,” So am I a spy?” He shouted back,” Shut up!” They threw to me one striped uniform and told me to put it on. I must manage to get back my pack of toothpicks. I acted begging,” I have very painful tooth cavity, please give me the tooth brush and the dental cream tube.” They opened the cream tube to inspect and trashed it, just returning to me my brush. Pointing to my inside molars, I went on,” with my tooth cavity, I must use my brush and cream after meals. Without the cream, please give me that pack of toothpicks.” One man threw the pack of toothpicks to my face. Therefore, things were squared away! At about 11am one operative wearing a police uniform with Sergeant Rank, no headdress, about 35 made sign for me to follow him. He walked ahead of me through five or six steel doors. When crossing a small yard I saw under a tree a bare torso man facing down as if he curbed under the burden of sadness. He turned his face up and I saw that he lost one eye. It just came to my mind that I had seen in a Hanoi bookstore a book about the downing of a C-47 spy aircraft showing the photo of the one eyed pilot Phan Thanh Van. He looked at me and thought that I was just one among the hundreds of admitted prisoners of Hanoi.
He led me to a narrow corridor through another steel door with a row of numbered rooms and delivered me to another uniformed Sergeant. This man looked wicked with a tomato like nose on the middle of his face, the two men talked with each other in a very low voice. The tomato-nose man with a stony face made sign for me to follow him. He got his set of big rattling keys from his belt and opened cell number 6, a dark room about 2m square, with two cement platforms 60x75 cm and 60 cm high above an empty and blackened floor. In between the two platforms was a 60-70 cm space and there was a massive steel leg-cuff embedded onto the platform. I was staring in that sinister place when he stroke hard on my neck pushing and shouting,” In!” I backed out saying that as per the Constitution of the Socialist Republic, you cannot strike me and therefore if you beat me I will strike back. Seeing my determination he softened his voice and said,” I only told you to enter!” He went out pulling the leg-cuff strut and back in he raised the upper jaw ordering me to put my legs in it. I sat on the platform, slipping one of my ankles in and he slowly said,” The second leg too!” I turned my body aside and slipped my second ankle into it; he slammed the jaw down with a big bang, got out to slide the strut back and banged the door close.
Ten minutes later, they opened the door and he entered with a wooden staff the size of the handle of a shovel. As soon as he saw me he raised the big stick and, opening his big eyes with an even redder tomato-nose, he beat me shouting,” Fuck you, stubborn head; fuck you spy; fuck your mother sending the miserable up North to sabotage.” He hit me with the truncheon and I had to shield with my arms, which became all bloody and bruised. I boiled with anger and shouted back,” Fuck you animals to slam me after tying me up!” He still banged me ten more times before going out, pointing the staff at my face threatening me with death. Then he closed the door and latched it. My arms and hand all contused with painful bruises and bumps everywhere, my body hurt, my ankles cut bleeding when I twisted avoiding the atrocious beating, I was so angry not wanting to live anymore. Through the communist publications, I knew that they considered Ho Chi Minh as their untouchable saint and they would kill whoever daring to blaspheme their leader. So thinking and with such an anger seeing my blood and bruise everywhere I bellowed,” Fuck you son-of-a-bitch Ho Chi Minh! Down with Ho Chi Minh bringing misery to the whole people and nation!” I had the intention to see them giving me a few bullets ending such a painful and degrading life. I kept roaring obscenities. One of them guys opened the tiny window on the main door and got his mouth through it shouting,” Shut up son of the bitch otherwise you will die soon!” I Just screamed,” Down with the miserable Ho Chi Minh!”
A short while after, the door opened and three men including the tomato-nose man who had beaten me entered. They brought in a sturdy steel frame made with one-and-half-centimeter diameter rod. Without saying a word, one of them twisted my arms to my back and tied them with a number 8 lock. The two other men slipped the steel frame over my head and jaw and turned the bolts and screws pressing my teeth together so that I could only give out hissing sounds. After they got out they threatened me,” You will die, soon!” My legs were still bleeding. I was not able to lie down and to move my body, my two arms being locked in the back, my two legs locked to the cement platform, the contused spots on the body starting to be itchy without any possibility to scratch and they became itchier. I felt my temples twinging endlessly, a heat wave swarming through my body and I passed out. When I wakened, it was daylight. I passed out all night. I felt my body like lead, hurting everywhere and my two shoulders shaking due to itches. After a long while, the small window opened and a sarcastic voice sounded,” Are you still badmouthing, son-of-the-bitch?”
I opened my eyes and sat leaned to the wall motionless. I was not able any more to hurl my insults. The small window closed. My body was terrible. My arms and legs twitched in spasms. If somebody killed me now he would give me deliverance. While writing my story I am still horrified and my hatred is still mounting sky high. I passed out again to be happy during that moment. Anyhow, when I came back it was again horror. I cannot comprehend how they could be that cruel. I had insulted them with the hope that they would give me a few bullets and I would not know anything more. Oh! How could humankind be so barbarous! Now if I wanted to commit suicide by biting off my tongue it was impossible. A long while after, they opened the small window and the same voice intoned,” Are you still insulting?” Thinking that I better submitted instead of having such an unbearable treatment, I shook my head a little bit. Two men entered in late afternoon. I did not see the tomato-nose man. One of the two tapped my shoulder and mockingly said,” Are you still pugnacious or are you scared now?” I shook my head. They unlocked my mouth and arms saying,” In here if you are not reasonable there will be one way, to die with misery. So many monsters with three heads and six arms, the more horns they grow we twist them off all. From now on be reasonable son!”
I did not say a word. I could not lift up my paralyzed arms. I was dead tired feeling like a boneless body. I felt feverish and lay down motionless. I vaguely saw them bringing in something, perhaps rice put at the head of my bed. One voice said,” Here is rice, eat it and I will take the bowl away.” That night I had a high fever, screaming the whole time, my body all hurting, passing out often and while coming back I kept crying “Mommy.” I prayed God to deliver me from the suffering. I was feverish and painful, my legs and arms numb and distressed. The bowl of rice at the head of my bed was still there untouched though since two days I had not a thing in my stomach save that small loaf of bread at the lakeshore before they arrested me. My mouth was bitter and dry.
It was Tuesday. I heard vaguely female voices and the sound of water running, Perhaps people bathing and washing behind the wall. According to their voices, I knew that they were also prisoners and right behind my room was a water tank for bathing and washing. The small window opened lightly and I heard the rattling of keys opening the door. One man about sixty, white hair in civilian dress, wearing clear glasses walked in followed by several others. He asked with a southern accent,” You did not eat.” Shaking my head I replied,” I had fever.” Turning back to a man behind him, he said something. I heard the sound of the strut pulled out and one man told me to pull my leg out; I sat up painfully lifted up the upper jaw and pulled my two legs out. Dry blood under it and on my pants sleeves had blackened. The old spectacled man advised,” As you are in here do not be stubborn. Being reasonable and well behaving would be to your benefit. Otherwise it would only harm you.” A moment later one man threw to me another old striped uniform saying,” We give you another one. Change it and take the old one for washing.” They all saw my clothes with black caked blood. I did not know what his position was but he seemed sympathetic. Then the door opened again and another yellow dressed man with Corporal rank came in asking,” What is your name?” “Le Viet Hung” was my reply. He said’ “I only asked your real name.” I said,” Dang Chi Binh.” He firmed his voice,” I am in charge of this prison. From now on, you must abide to all regulations here. You cannot shout or sing. You must not communicate with the neighboring rooms. There is no permission to bring any metallic things into the room. Every morning there is a five minutes allowance to take the potty to the outhouse emptying in the hole and rinse it. If we locked you in for disciplinary measures, you can only do it once a week on Friday. We authorize bathing and washing only on Monday and Friday for fifteen minutes each time. Any infraction depending on its severity, you will have one leg or two legs locked up or we will send to the confinement cell.
I was so tired that I almost passed out, leaning to the wall not hearing whatever he said. Then he walked out saying loudly,” I will get the nurse in to give you medicine.” Then he closed the door. I heard him opening the next door, one person going out perhaps to empty his potty and went back after five minutes. They opened another room. I heard the sounds of heavy steps out, water running and the steps in. After six or seven times they opened my room,” Go empty your pot.” I got down checking under my cement bed and saw the sheet-metal pot with a wooden lid. I had excreted nothing since yesterday and stood there perplexed. He poked his head in,” Why don’t you go empty your pot?” I answered; “I haven’t yet….”He slammed the door shut and latched with a steel bar. A moment later, the door opened again. A female nurse of about 28, 30, under white robe, carrying a tray of medicines came in. Her name was Mr.s. Dau. She looked at my wounds, gave me half can of Gold Star Balm to put on the wounds and smeared the bloody spot with a red liquid. I told her that I had fever and she gave me two white tablets to swallow.
When the nurse went out the jail warden came in and told me to take the bowl with the coconut scoop out for rice and water. I walked out with the bowl and limped, my legs were still hurting so much. He told me to put the old bowl on the floor, picking the rice bowl and getting a scoop of water and regain my cell. On the platform, there were still eight or nine bowls of rice. He shut the door and shouted,” Eat fast and return your bowl in fifteen minutes.” I was hungry having eaten nothing since yesterday. Anyhow, when I put rice in my mouth I was not able to chew and get it down, either my mouth or the rice was bitter. Thinking if I did not eat, I would only die, I made an extra effort to eat while looking at the stale rice. However, it looked better without cassava like at state restaurant in Hanoi. The rice was in a big bowl made of hard antimony-aluminum, and soup of boiled old water spinach with salt in a smaller bowl atop the rice bowl. When they opened the door, the prisoner walked out scooping some black liquid (boiled black roasted rice) and picked up the rice bowl to regain his cell. After having shut the cell door and latched it with a steel bar, the warden will go on open another door and so on. After about fifteen minutes, he opened the doors in succession for prisoners to go one by one put the utensils at the former location and get another scoop of water. I put my chopsticks on top of the leg-lock strut.
Back in I was somewhat better though I still felt pains and lame. Now I could examine the legs lock. They made it in two parts; both of them were of 2.5 cm thick and 8 cm wide steel bars. They embedded the lower part in a concrete block built onto the end of the platform bed. They formed the lower bar into two faced up half cylinders next to each other on the central part. The upper part also had two similar half cylinders faced down to make two tubes the size of a small wine bottle. They joined the two parts on one end with a built-in hinge. The upper part prolonged into a duckbill shape piece with a rectangular cutout engaging a cuff welded to the lower part. From outside the warden could slide in the strut through the cuff and lock shut. The end of the strut also had another lockset. The cubicle had a four-meter high ceiling with a cutout 60x25 cm having five 2.5 cm steel bars behind steel wire net giving in only a very dim light. They made the cell door of 4 cm thick massive hardwood reinforced with steel bars. It had a small window 20x15 cm with six 1.5 cm steel bars just letting only one finger through. The outside of the window was closed with a steel latched plate. The wall of the jail was 50 cm thick. The French colonialist built the whole construction and now the communists used it to incarcerate those who did not agree with them.
Legislative showing at Hoa Lo
About 8am of the next day, the small window opened and the jail warden showed up with his rattling set of keys bellowing,” Get dressed for deposition.” Last night I could not have a good sleep because there were mosquitoes and it was so hot. I was getting dressed when the door opened. Another yellow dressed man waited at the door making sign with his fingers for me to walk in front of him. He followed me and asked,” Are you Dang Chi Binh alias Le Viet Hung?” I nodded “Yes.” This man, a Sergeant had two protruding eyes and a set of muzzled lips. They arrested me on Sunday. That was why I did not see any prisoners when they led me through the prison yard. Today while crossing a small yard next to a water tank six or seven female prisoners cleaned pots and pans. In a close by house, a few other females were sawing the striped uniforms. They looked at me passing by. Going on I came to the yard with a grape vine canopy and when arriving at a room he opened the door to rush me in. I saw two persons sitting behind a desk with a stack of thick dossiers, one man about 30 wearing a four pockets military shirt and the other having a short sleeves white shirt.
Seeing me limping with bandages all over arms and legs the white shirt man wondered,” What happened with your limbs?” Thinking that he pretended not knowing I stated,” The other day the cadre beat me in my cell.” Both of them acted surprised,” Why, was it very painful?” It showed clearly their acting and I slowly said,” I am better now.” The military man pointed his finger at the stool for me to sit down and introduced,” I am Thanh, my friend here is Duc. We are investigators of the Ministry of Security. We have the responsibility to question and assist you on what you have done. We are aware that you are still very young and naive and the Diem-Americans lackeys wooed you to go north and harm the revolution. With the vast network of the revolutionary people, we crushed any one and any ruse of the Diem-Americans. You have to understand that in the rank of the henchman government of Diem-Americans we have infiltrated revolutionary agents. We precisely knew your work and have a complete file about it.” He moved his chin towards the brief case and continued,” With the generosity and forgiveness of the Party and the People, we want you to use your responsibility uncovering their crimes sending you up here to commit all the wickedness against the people and the country. The Party and the Government will valuate your sincerity and remorse. You are the only one who can save you. This is our initial contact with you. We saw that you are smart and have a good education. You can benefit from our assistance. As for when they maltreated you in jail, we did not have any information yet even though it is something, we do not condone. We shall refer to higher echelon for appropriate measures. Now we want you to answer all our questions regarding your identity.”
I just lowered my head listening. I had things prepared in my mind and when they asked about my identity, I told them the truth. After recording my deposition, Duc very sternly stated,” Now we will let you talk freely on these things in succession; who recruited you; who trained you; what did they train, where, the goal; how did you go North, etc. Just keep talking.” I kept curbing my head down listening to their harangue showing my sincerity. After they insisted two or three times, I turned my face up and talked. “I believed that the revolutionary government had known in details what I did in the South as well as since I came here. Due to the necessity of life and the poor living condition of my family, I failed my examination several times and had to join the Army. Then somebody referred me and I wanted to get cash assisting my elderly parents. I belonged to the children organization in my village and got my Primary Certificate with top honor under the Socialist Democratic Republic of Vietnam. I had always admired the military. That is why with my situation I had accepted to go with them, thinking to myself that if I could not do anything good to the socialist doctrine I will not do anything detrimental to it. That is why when I came to Hanoi I did not do a thing. I long for Hanoi and I only visited all the beautiful sceneries, the historical sites where I was when I was young. At times, I felt scared. I had wanted to see any police officer to tell him the truth that I came from South. Anyhow, the years I was down there they brainwashed me saying that the communists are very cruel and ready killers and that made me cautious and hesitating. My mind became so confused that I did not know how to act. Now in front of you I give you the whole truth and I will do anything that the State wants me to do.” After hearing, they looked happy, nodding their head and said,” Good, now let’s start working!”
I looked disarrayed,” Where should I start, when I started school or when I came here?” They looked at me with their pairs of menacing eyes,” Since the day the Saigon spy organization recruited you, what did they train you, where and by whom? Do it quick and in rough sketches!” Slowly I talked while thinking,” I was with Intelligence Battalion of Army Division 7. I made friends with Lieutenant Xuong of the Directorate of Military Security. He introduced me to a civilian named Hoa who recruited me at the start of 1962. He trained me for three months on secret spy activities, the characteristics of weapons in use in North Vietnam like the land mines and the various guns, artillery. Then they exposed me to map reading and the determination of coordinates, etc. Finally, I was ready to penetrate North Vietnam with the mission to monitor the activities of Division 308 under General Vuong Thua Vu. On 20 May, Hoa took me to Tan Son Nhut for a flight to Hue and then to the DMZ. In a very stormy night I crossed the river and took the bus from Vinh Linh.” I kept talking while they kept writing notes. They often urged me to be brief while my intention was to go into every detail and then I became sketchy. When they saw that I stopped, Thanh rushed me to continue.
I went on. “I came to Ron and as there was no transportation I had to walk to Ky Anh, Ha Tinh. On the road, I met Tri (I had to say it clearly here because they knew that when I was back in Vinh I passed the night at Tri’s home). From Ha Tinh I went to Vinh then to Hanoi. I arrived in Hanoi on 31 May, boarded at 5 Oil Street then Fan Street, etc.” I recounted every detail. Anyhow, I only said that I was at the Viet-German Hospital one time only when they were aware of. Otherwise, I related to them precisely all the times and places of occurrence until the day of my arrest. The deposition lasted until twelve and half when a female police sergeant made sign for me to follow her. Passing by where female prisoners worked some of them rushed out to eagerly say,” we reported to you Mr.s. Hoa that your bag is done.” She nodded,” Good.” Hoa had a Southern accent, perhaps she was from the group sent up North after the Truce Agreement. She led me to the gate with a dangling set of keys and opened the cell door for me. The cadre on duty was gone and there was my rice bowl, which somebody had put in. I was able to finish two third of rice and gulp the old cabbage leaves soup. There was some water left over in my scoop and I drank it. I lay down to rest for a while, my mind churning on why they told me to talk fast, why they did not need any details? My brain was completely confused. There is one thing I had to keep in mind. It was to remember what I said.
After about five minutes, the ball-eyed man opened the door and called me out for deposition. Thanh and Duc were at the desk with the thick dossier. They showed me the stool and I sat down. Duc opened the file and said,” Now you tell all details since your childhood according to what we ask.” Both of them took turn questioning on the things they did not feel clear or those they did not see as logical. This time they really went into details, even those I did not see as important such as when I played with friends, who were your friends, your parents characters, the teachers’, things since I was 6-7 years old. It was different from the previous session. Now they pressed me tightly on the parts I had roughly told them. At 5 PM, Duc read the deposition for me to hear and sign. They let me go to call me back again at six to work until nine. The thing kept going three times a day. I felt dead tired, the wounds on my legs became infected and there was no medication except the red mercuro-chrome.
I did it for sixteen days, three times a day, except Saturdays and Sundays. It was mid July 1962, and from the day they arrested me, it was twenty days in prison. I became skinny though I ate all my daily rice and still felt hungry. The cell was small and hot and filled with mosquitoes. I had to strip bare at night, all sweating, and the wet platform white caked with my dried out perspiration. My sweat wetted my waistband and I must cover my torso with the shirt to avoid mosquitoes. I did not have a good sleep using the shirt to chase away mosquitoes and to cover me while my mind was so tense with the daily questioning.
One day after the deposition session, Corporal Nhiem, the jail warden opened the door and said,” Take all your stuffs out!” I had nothing save the old striped uniform, the small washcloth and my horn comb. I got my things on my arms and he directed me to cell five rushing me in and locked the door. In there was another man, bare-torso, about 45 and wearing a black short. I looked at him, also one-eyed like Phan Thanh Van. With an intimate voice, he said,” How long did they put you in here?” My sympathetic answer was,” More than twenty days, and how about you uncle?” He slowly replied,” Almost two months.” Then I went on,” For what crime?” “I crossed the border going south, how about you?” “I crossed the border going north.” Both of us laughed and I asked flatly,” And we meet at a common point?” I looked at a big bag at the head of his bed and softly pushed on,” Where do you come from?” He carefully said,” MoMarket.” In the mean time, the door opened for meal. My coconut scoop was too small, just 2/3 of the previous one. Having no chopsticks I asked Nhiem to let me get mine on the strut of room 6.
I knew the name of the one-eyed man as Le Van Hoan. After they closed the door, we put the bowl of rice on the leg-lock bar and ate. Hoan took out from his bag a sack of dried bread pieces and ate with his rice. As we were two in the cell, we naturally would communicate. I was always alert owing to my professional background. I set the principle that whether they were true or fake prisoners I would not say anything that I did not tell those legal men. I must assess the real Hoan. Through our exchanges, I knew that he was a retained veterinarian having several acquaintances in the former regime going south. He had secondary education and his French knowledge was fair. He has his wife and kids living in a house near Mo Market. Due to discrimination in his branch, he became negative and they laid him off. He withstood a poor life; anyhow, things went from bad to worsen. Thinking of his friends now living in Saigon the idea of evasion became strong. One day one of his old friends with a subsistence living in Hai Phong dropped by and they made plans to cross the border. He had the last dinner with his family and gave a few advices to his folks. His ten years old son inadvertently talked to his friend and Security knew and followed him. When they were at Thanh Hoa, they caught them.
Upon hearing his story, I did not have any opinion on its veracity. I simply applied my set principle to tell him my story, which I had told in my deposition with interrogators. I was in Hanoi with a military mission, and as I am sympathetic with the socialist regime, I did not do any thing detrimental. I just profited to tour all over Hanoi. In case Hoan was an agent for Hanoi to dig information from me, I seized the opportunity to open to him my sincerity and genuine admiration of the socialist regime. I talked about the equality up here while everyone is alike, no rich and no poor not like in Saigon. Then uncle Ho had a very simple life with an outstanding reputation and they listed his name in English and French dictionaries. Most of the intellectuals, writers and poets had joined the resistance showing that the Northern system is right, etc. To know precisely about Hoan one time on purpose, I inadvertently told him my connection with Lieutenant Nghia of Binh Xuyen in 1954. As for those investigators, I was sure that they did not know a zilch about me. They tried to look into the smallest details, the differences in my words, the holes I left to get my real picture.
The most important thing for me was to remember what I told them in my deposition and what I did not divulge yet. Things have to be logical. Sometimes you must pretend forgetting one thing to mask another point or act naïve or immature. To sum it up, this is a nerves battle. I was alone and their side had the whole bureau 44 of the political legal team of Hanoi. I felt my weakness like birds in cage they fed or starved at their own discretion. Besides, I was still young and immature and my professional experiences were too short. I brainstormed for my plusses, improve them and minimize the weakness. I used my Christian belief and the principle of freedom to sustain me in my struggle with atrocious and cruel treatment during the upcoming long days.
One day at the end of July, they called me in. This time there were only Duc and a police officer. Duc showed me the stool and I sat down. Duc then said,” Now you come here twice a day and write your account in details. How you went to school in your village, in Hanoi what you did with whom, where, why you went south and what you did, etc. Any event until you joined the Army, went with intelligence and came here. While in Hanoi where did you go, connect with whom and what you did until your arrest.” Then he raised his voice,” You live or die, will be joyful or sorry stem from this written document. Therefore, you must strive to benefit from the generous forgiveness of the Party and the State. The Party and the Government are opening the door for you. You have full right to write differently than when you made oral deposition. Perhaps you might add things you forgot or skipped. This coMr.adepolice officer will stay here with you all the time. He will help if you need additional blank papers or ink. You must expedite although there is no time limit.”
I always said yes sir showing my willingness and submission. From that day on, I had to go twice, eight in the morning until 12 noon and in the afternoon from 1 PM to 5 PM, eight hours per day save Saturdays and Sundays. There was always either the ball-eyed man (whom I knew his name is Bang) or the woman Hoa taking me out and back. At times, it was another female Sergeant of the female ward named Tho who took turns. I felt somewhat more relaxed though my brain was tense thinking and weighing on what I have said to be in line with it or to mask the events and times I withheld. Each night I must recollect all my written things during the day.
My legs healed after nearly one month. I took advantage of Hoan to help curing my wounds. After several attempts and trials, I was quite sure that they assigned him to dig my secrets. I used the pains of my infected legs to nightly complain and interact with him. “Uncle, several times I wanted to write all they taught me, their ruses and tricks. Anyhow, the infection kept shooting unbearable pains to my brain and I had to quit.” A few days later, he told me to shout through the window that there was need for a nurse. I did as he told me, and Mr.s. Dau the nurse gave me a shot and some powder for my infected spots. My infection was gone.
Every week or so Hoan got bananas and he confided to me that his teacher daughter befriended with a security man and they permitted her to bring him things twice a month. Even though I did not have any positive conclusion, I guessed that eventually they would move him out. The reason was that he did not know any better than what they already knew and even less. One day around the start of August, he did an illogical thing that uncovered him. That evening after returning from my written deposition, he turned his mouth to the window and shouted,” Are you well cell No 6?” Warden Nhiem opened the window and shouted,” Who hollered, between you two?” Hoan looked scared and he said timidly it was he. The main door opened, Nhiem came in and screamed,” Put your leg in the lock. You dared to communicate with your neighbor!” Hoan asked for forgiveness while Nhiem firmed his expression and ordered,” Put your leg in!” Nhiem snapped the upper jaw down when Hoan thrust his leg deep into it and screamed that his leg would be broken. Nhiem managed back and forth for a while and finally shouted,” Take your stuff out of here.” Hoan awkwardly got his bag out and forgot his scoop.
The door closed, I was by myself again. It was funny I got the big scoop. Almost one month with me, and he was 46 and mature why he behaved so childishly against the very strict discipline of the prison? I did not see him again. Perhaps the communists had calculated that Hoan would fit me, acting as an intellectual wanting to evade south and meeting an operative working for Saigon. They thought a good pairing, using Hoan to understand my thinking and action. No way! If they read Hoan’s report, I would be a fan of socialism, or would I?
Nerves game in the life and death of prison
It changed to autumn and the air became nicer. I felt better with the milder heat and the less smelly odor of my body. However, the mosquitoes still abounded. Every night I still was half sleep to chase them away. The parts of my uncovered body had all the scars of mosquito bites, which never went away, the new ones came, while the old ones faded out. I had no mirror to look at my face. I completed my writing in twenty days covering 90 pages. They called me in again for questioning.
There was Duc and another dark skin man Nhuan, about thirty. They looked at me like their enemy. I sat down on the stool as usual, turned my face down waiting. Duc slammed my papers on the desk shouting,” You wrote like that. Are you considering Security kiddies and making fun of us?” Nhuan banged on the desk and loudly bellowed,” You want to live or die. We gave you a chance and you produce such a childish thing to bypass Security.” They banged on the table, threw the chairs, shouted epithets, jeered and reprimanded loudly. Then they said,” Are you dumb, answer now.” I turned my face up, scared, sorrow and said,” I wrote everything on my life. I reported on what My-Diem trained me and what I did up here.” Duc slammed the papers on the desk to my face and went on,” Stop thinking that we do not know anything on you in Saigon. We were aware of your mission when they prepared you for it. You made a completely false deposition.”
I showed them my sincerity,” I fully understand the revolution. I was aware that you had so many infiltrators in the Southern Government. I believed that even in the intelligence structure of the South you had planted your agents. That is why I had sincerely written all the truth. Besides I was not a fan of the Diem-American regime and that was the reason why I did not do a thing in Hanoi and kept going around and having fun.” Nhuan pointed his finger to my face and said,” Shut up, do not try to bluff. When you just went south, we had full information on you. Do not believe that you could hide it. I ask you about the named Nghia’. I opened my eyes wide,” Was he Nghia at the refugee camp of Phu Tho and attending fourth grade of Chu Van An?” He banged again on the desk and shouted,” Do not pretend. Nghia, the Binh Xuyen Lieutenant do you know him or not?” I acted jumpy and scared,” Yes sir I do!” Thinking to my self this is from that dead-dog man Le Van Hoan and now I can have a positive conclusion on him! Duc looked very mirthful saying,” See how you could lie to us. In addition to many other things too, we give you permission to write again your deposition. You could die of a painful miserable death!” I acted disarrayed and frightful. I frowned as if I remembered something and just realizing it, my face turned blissful and I said,” I never knew that you can be so well informed. Frankly I did not mention that Nghia of Binh Xuyen because truly I was with Binh Xuyen for just ten days. Besides, they did not relate to Ngo Dinh Diem and that was why I did not talk of him. I had sincerely told you everything and worried whether the revolution understands it. Anyhow, now I am certain that the revolution fully comprehends me I am pacified.” They stared at me frowning and their lips opened in a half smile saying,” Do not tattle and listen to our questions.”
They opened my papers and their dossiers. One man squeezed on my stay at the resettlement camp of Ho Nai and my relationship with the camp chief Father Loan. Another man pressed on Hoa, whether he is Northerner or Southerner, how he looked like and his vestments (I took my uncle now in France to describe). Then they question on the Dinh Bo Linh group. They also asked on the teachers at second class of Hung Dao School at Cong Quynh. They asked at random. I went back to my cell at noon to continue at 1 pm until five and on again from six to 9 pm. My mind was completely out of round. Sometimes they were three questioners shouting and threatening, Once they were four taking turn to squeeze me. They treated me badly during the days while at night the swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes sucked my body. In just a short time, my legs and arms became skinny and pale. Moreover, I was feeling hungry all the time; the reserves of my body were gone. I remembered when I first came here I could not finish my ration. Two weeks later, I ate it with appetite. Now I wish I could have double ration. It was the same everyday. With a distended mind back from the questioning when I saw the bowl of rice I jumped on it and devoured in no time. There was not a single grain left and I gulped dry the soup, though I still looked at the empty bowls with contention.
Every time I stood up, I felt dizzy. The unforgiving mosquitoes just swarmed around me sucking my blood. Perhaps they were conniving with the cruel communist torturing my bony and skinny body to my death. My nails became long and there was no way to trim them. On my way to the deposition room, I noticed on the ground one 4 cm long nail and intended to pick it up when possible. One day Hoa the woman in charge escorted me back. At the female prisoner’s area, she stopped to hear some girl reporting. I very quickly stooped down to retrieve the nail in a quick hand swipe. Every night I kept sharpening the nail on the cement floor until it became a tiny sharp knife to take care of my nails. I used it to clean my ears too. All at a sudden, while I was trimming my nails the window opened and Nhiem shouted to give it to him. He confiscated my knife and searched my body even the leg-lock. Twenty minutes later, I heard the sounds of his sandals and the lock strut pulled out. He came back reading the order of the prison disciplinary supervision,” The named Dang Chi Binh having committed the infraction of bringing metallic objects into his room is given seven days punishment of legs locked from … to ….” He ogled and instructed,” Follow the disciplinary order.”
I lifted my two legs into the jaw hating that dead-dog Nhiem. That night was the start of a most bitter life. My knees were completely stiff-tired. If I wanted to change my position I must slowly pull me down to carefully stretch up to avoid cutting by the sharp edges of the jaws. Very luckily, I had become so skinny that the jaws did not compress too tight. Anyhow, while sleeping I jerked my legs and they bled again. In the middle of the night, under the weak light bulb I just kept wiping off the non-stop bleeding and lamenting on the cruelty of men with men. I heard the mournful cry of somebody and the interrupted sound of a gecko crushing the unending night like sharing in the suffering of the miserable lots. I sat all night, one hand kept wiping away my non-stop bleeding while the other hand chasing the mosquitoes and my stomach squeamish. I suddenly realized that perhaps I harbored one or a few intestinal worms and they were clamoring starvation like me. A sense of communion and consolation arising amid a gloomy environment when the small window opened and a voice intoned,” Why you did not sleep, why are you sitting up for?” I did not see the face but the voice seemed more compassionate like masking a certain sadness of a human. Whispering I pointed at my wounds and said that my legs were bleeding and it would not stop. Then a few minutes later the same voice said,” Patch it with this,” while a finger with a tat of tobacco poked in. I made an extra effort to retrieve it and put the tobacco on my bleeding spots. The window closed and the sound of sandals moving out echoing in the long night. Somebody on night duty showed that at the bottom of his heart there was still some reminiscence of a human. I felt confident believing that the communist did not succeed in their attempt of tainting red the whole soul of human kind.
I had to be in deposition as usual. I must say that I was afraid of it now and I would like them to leave me alone. Anyhow, though insulted and assaulted my legs were free and between the two bad things, I had to like the least. In the room, there were always the lead-skin Nhuan and Duc. I did not believe why they squeezed me so much making me lost sometimes. For example, they asked,” you said you went to Church X, who did you see?” I replied that I saw only some old persons. They went on asking what I did. I rambled that I am Christian and the requirements of circumstances got me there. I was all by myself walking around not being certain of tomorrow and looked for a Church to avow my sins so that I would die sinless. Duc banged violently on the desk and menacingly stood up,” Liar, do not try to bluff! You profited to tell what to the priest. We knew it all, everything! Now say it out to let us know your thoughts and sincerity. We shall let you hear the whole conversation that we recorded.” My heart sped up did they know all? Then I thought to myself if they knew why did not they ask about the letter I hand delivered to the Father? To feel the situation, I pretended perplexed asking,” I did not know who he was. I did not pay any attention to him and then what did I say?” They just kept insisting I said something to that priest. Then finally, they told me to write down in details my confession. First, I was afraid that they would use my deposition to bluff Father A. Secondly I was certain of their bluff about the recording. I emphasized that the confession for a Christian is something of a routine affair and I did not bother remembering all my miscellaneous sins.
Now I fully knew that it was their bluster and to save it for future use I did not request to hear their recording. Finally, Duc firmed his voice,” Who did you meet when you got out of the Church?” I gave the laconic answer that I saw only vehicles and persons going by. He recast,” How were they dressed?” When I said that I did not pay attention and did not know, he again banged hard on the desk,” are you blind?” Then he asked where was my intelligence office, where is Hoa’s house, what car did he ride on, whom he normally went with, off class where he usually went, etc. To my answers, that I did not know anything at all and he again shouted at me as liar. They pressed on all details of my life and led me through a smokescreen. Moreover, as I had my two legs locked up sometimes I passed out and they dismissed me. One day I asked the jail warden,” You read the disciplinary order for a seven day penalty. Now fifteen days passed. Please reexamine it.” He laughed advising to think about it. I asked back what I should think about. He went on you should know, do not ask me. Then he slammed shut the door. I was sure that the interrogators ordered them to lock me. I was so angry and decided to make the matter clarified. When I went for deposition I asked,” Did you order to lock my legs because I did not give you the right deposition?” They asked,” What was your question for?” I replied,” To ascertain the problem.” “What kind of problem, we did not know it. It came from the prison.” I looked straight in their eyes and rambled,” I like the socialist regime. All my deposition came from the depth of my heart. It would be worthless if I did it for fear of the lock. In that case, I would rather die instead of suffering as a wretched miserable. They stared their menacing eyes and said that they did not lock me and they will check with the prison.
Days and months passed. My body gradually withered out. I could barely stand up and my feet swelled. The most despicable time was for excretion. I was constipated for not eating enough and lack of activities. Every time I went potty, I had to get down and pull the pot from under the bed, remove the lid and manage it to a suitable position. Then I switched my body side wards and presented my butt out straining. If in the mean time I needed peeing then I let it go wetting my thighs flowing to the floor. My pants were all wet and I would not care. My legs were all painful; I did not have the strength to move my body. It could last a few hours and I managed to do it at night. Life and death were so close and I did not feel distasted any more with the dirty things. I did not care in the presence of other people. Even when one piece of feces did not fall into the pot, I would leave it there until when they called me out for deposition or for emptying the pot then I picked it up with my fingers. When done I manage to pour the water from the scoop to wash. One arm being pressed under the body with the fingers wagging sometimes I poured water to one spot and my fingers tending to another place. If there was no more water and my fingers were still full of feces, I had to stretch to under the bed to scrape it off as best as I could.
One night while I was still sleeping I heard the sound of weeping and wailing coming from cell number 7. In the silence of the night, I strained my ears to a choked sound of somebody perhaps committing suicide by self-strangulation. They punished the person in cell 7 to one leg locked due to infraction of jail regulations. I listened due to my curiosity and my desire to finish with a life not worth living. It made me fully awake, listening to the mosquitoes buzzing and the choking sound becoming weaker and weaker. The geckos from time to time sounded their long staccato din. The choked throat noise stopped quite a long time ago and I did not notice it. Then I heard the sliding sounds of sandals, the opening of windows. When they came to my window, I closed my eyes pretending to sleep. They came to cell seven. I heard the rushing of steps with three or four persons entering, the sliding of strut, the din of the leg-lock and a voice asking,” Is he still alive” followed by the reply “he died a long time ago, the blood had coagulated.” Then I heard them hauling a body past my cell, the opening of faucet into the pot and the sound of a broom cleaning. The next morning when I went to deposition, I saw some reddish liquid at the front of cell seven. Therefore, one person luckily evaded this bottomless hole of misery. I must say farewell to you and praise your courage. In the future, I might follow suit.
Striving to survive
Today they pressed me again. “In 1953 when you went back to your village from Hanoi you spread the news that you were demented, why? Did the colonialist spread it out? And in 1954 in Saigon there was news that you died crushed by a car, was it from the Diem-Americans?” I was flabbergasted. I remembered when I was back to my village I was only fifteen. Loving nature, every day I went out to the rice field, watching the golden rice stalks swaying in the breeze, listening to the humming of the kites amid the sound of the rice thrasher, the barking of the dogs and the noise of bamboo trees rubbing together. I always rambled lonely in a dying day while the sun was setting. The kids of the village could not comprehend my attitude and they thought I was crazy. As for the accident, one newspaper gave account of a car accident, while another Binh was victim. My aunt Bao Thinh, the owner of a very rich gold and jewelry store at Ben Thanh Market wrote to my parents who were still in Hanoi during the 300 days limit. They became crazy and cried all day.
I told them the stories and they did not believe it stating that the colonialist had prepared the public opinion about me. I admired their crooked mind. Anyhow, I knew that they went to my village to investigate on my parents and me. As for the events in Saigon, I did not yet see that they were capable to have any good information. However, I was somewhat scary with their method of digging deep into minute details of everything. They could ask back and forth seven and eight times to do it again eight or nine months later.
I had my legs locked for more than a month. The strange thing was no one took responsibility of it while my legs were still locked. When I asked the legal people, they said it was the prison responsibility. I came across with Tri the jail assistant Director when I went back to my cell. I boldly rushed to him and asked’ “I had to report that they locked my two legs for a long time and I did not know why. I submit it to you for a solution.” After looking at me, he asked my name and then said the prison did not lock your legs. It came from higher authority and he took off.
It was the end of autumn and there were some early North Eastern winter winds. There were fewer mosquitoes. Anyhow, the cold of the lock and the cement platform started to hurt my legs and my back. I slept intermittently at night. One morning Nhiem opened the door and told me to get dressed and go for deposition. When he opened the lock, I was not able to pull out my legs. I used my hands to lift them slowly out. Anyhow, they lost sensation, wobbling and flagging and I had to sit down. The escort woman Hoa rushed me but I could not stand even though I used my arms to brace me up. Nhiem frowned jerking me out and I fell flat my head hitting the door. He helped me to the bed and shut the door. Hoa left, Nhiem came back half an hour later and opened the door saying,” Order from the administration, you will have one day respite. Starting from tomorrow you will have only one leg locked!” I thanked him incessantly and looking at him today, he did not seem as cruel. I really hated him before. Now I knew that it was not from him but from higher authority looking for a reason to lock me and to keep it always.
The door closed. Looking at my legs, I felt an infinite sadness. I remembered the Athletic Events of Nguyen Ba Tong School when I was famous for my Track and Field records, swimming, rope climbing, high jumping, etc. Now look at the distressing sight of my legs! I told myself,” YOU MUST STRIVE! ONLY YOU CAN HELP YOURSELF!” I put the slogan to execution right away. At first, I sat on the platform letting my legs dangling down. I shook them with my hands and then gradually they could do it themselves. After many patient attempts, I was able to stand up. Then I slowly walked back and forth in the confine of the cell taking a break when tired and walking again. The window opened. Nhiem seeing me practicing my steps opened the door and loudly said,” Go out for your rice!”
I grabbed my coconut scoop and walked out, slowly but I did it. I scooped some water and pick up my bowl of rice going back. Glancing at his face I quickly perceived a hint of communion and encouragement for my effort to survive. The practical aspects of life had molded in me a principle,” Be self confident! Do your best with what you have! Be self-reliant! Do not expect! Even if you cannot achieve, at least spiritually you will not be ashamed looking down!” After eating when I walked out to return the utensils, I still felt the numbness in my legs. I returned to my platform and patiently exercised because tomorrow they locked me again. Now I started to realize that my cell was so smelly and it was why when Nhiem entered he always grimaced. After the afternoon meal, Nhiem pulled out the strut and I understood that freedom time was over. As he told me to put my leg in, I very politely told him, as the cell was so smelly, I would like him to grant me two minutes so I could get water to rinse it. Looking at me with his pair of sludgy eyes he shouted,” Quick!” I did my best moving to the water tank, get a pot of water and pour on the floor. I used my hands and the broom to push the water to the drain hole. Then I lifted the lockjaw and put my leg in under his cold stare while he shook his set of clanking keys. He closed and locked the door and another day was gone. With only one leg locked, I felt very easy. I could sit up to fold my leg and I was able to stand up on the free leg to exercise. I was able to pull the potty out and had the pleasure peeing upright with contentment.
The next day the window opened and matron Hoa pointing her finger in, ordered me to get dressed for going. At the deposition room, out of the usual Nhuan and Duc there was a Hue man about 40. I saw right away a black box with all kinds of wiring set on a table at the corner. I understood that today I would taste “submarine” or “airplane” ride. The French colonialist used that kind of torture tool in the past. I pretended not seeing it and sat down on the stool as usual. They went on with their threatening ways, banging the desk and chairs saying the same things like “you are a reactionary in blood, you ate all the leftover butter and drank the milk at the bottom of the glasses of Diem-Americans, you cannot hide the truth with a cheesecloth, etc.” I listened and was certain that they did not have any precise details of me. They were simply trying to pry open the seam or poke for the leaks to enlarge them and destroy the whole dike. At times, I said the truth like my pay was $5,000 per month or the duration of my mission was 25 days. They did not believe it and pressed me back and forth. It gave me the conviction that they really did not know anything at all. Anyhow, I came to realize that they did everything with group research and study and that was their strength. However, I had my own advantage. My only requirement was to have a clear mind, a relative understanding of the situation plus my determination to accept wretchedness and brutality.
Shouting and threatening to no avail seeing that I was still sitting with my head down, the Hue man called me by name,” Binh, do you want to live or die?” I turned my face up and said in a very sincere tone,” Sirs, I do not know what to do to gain your confidence. I had told you everything I knew. I beg the generosity of the revolution to judge me as fitting.” Perhaps it was too long for them and Nhuan pointed his finger at the black box asking,” Do you know what that was?” I pretended seeing it for the first time. Anyhow, thinking that they would not spare me if I begged, the acceptance of all results is the only recourse, I very calmly answered,” Gentlemen I fully know of that tool. I was stupid to engage in this work. Arrested I am ready for tortures and cruel treatments. It is your prerogative. Anyhow, there is one thing I wrongly thought about you!” The Hue man frowned,” What do you think that we were not right?” I acted pensive,” I am a young man living under what you call faked Army, false regime, the lackey of American colonialism. In Saigon, I have heard the use of torture equipments to exploit the victims. I thought it is different here …” Duc menacingly stood up,” What is the difference?” I went on,” I had thought of you as revolutionaries. You represent the regime of the people, a true democracy using its real appeal and not cruelty to attract people to your righteous cause. That is why I did not do a thing as they told me when I came here. Then after my arrest, I had divulged sincerely everything. Moreover, according to my own principle in life whether people like me or hate me, I never let them despise me. If I were afraid of tortures to submit to you, I would be a despicable coward for life. Both Nhuan and the Hue man shouted,” Shut up, we are not children. Now we let you go and until this afternoon we shall have a solution!”
I stood up when it was noon not knowing what their solution would be. Bang took me back to the cell. I did not see warden Nhiem. He forgot to lock my leg. I sat down eating leisurely when mid way Nhiem opened the window, pulled the strut and shouted “your leg in the lock.” That son of the bitch, he did not even give you a few minutes to finish your lunch. Ten minutes after the strut again pulled out, I lifted the jaw and got my leg off. I took my scoop and my bowl out. I saved the scoop of water for washing and that was why I gulped dry the first scoop. They locked my leg and closed the door. I lay down thinking at random of the next occurrence. I was in jail for nearly four months. My hairs grew wild. With my fingers, I kept pulling my chin hairs. It hurt but I kept jerking them out with no reason.
At the deposition room, three men were already there and the black box was still on a corner table. They harassed me on crossing the Ben Hai River, going into details, how did I swim, how did I hide, the sceneries and the routes followed. It was not so difficult because I was at the DMZ twice and had used a high power binocular to watch. I saw their purpose behind their desire to ask me the details from Vinh Linh to Ha Tinh. I smelled problems. In reality, I only went from Ky Anh to Hanoi but not from Vinh Linh to Ky Anh. Therefore, they discovered my crack. The Hue man asked me,” You were on a bus from Vinh Linh to Ha Tinh. Did you ever descend the bus.” Guessing that the bus would stop at Quang Binh, I replied,” Yes, at Quang Binh I had to look for a place to pee.” Then he went on,” Did you descend anytime from Vinh Linh to Quang Binh.” I pretended trying to remember something not worthy but in truth, I was completely in disarray. I had examined the map with Dale and Brown. However, there could be changes in a pre 1954 military map. Besides I did not really pay attention to the details I considered unimportant. Therefore, I was disturbed. After a minute or so thinking, I decided to say,” Sir I just crossed to your territory, I was so scared that I forgot many things and at present I do not remember having descended or not.” He gave a heavy blow to the desk,” You lie. Riding a bus and forgetting to have descended or not, are you playing the game with us?” Thinking that I have to take a chance, I answered,” Yes I remember now that I did not get down.” The Hue man suddenly rose vociferating,” Complete lie! We wanted your frankness and now we realize that you are a stupid stubborn head. I tell you that even if you were sleeping they would jerk you up to get down!”
Oh my God! Gianh River does not have bridge and everybody had to descend to cross by barge. I thought quickly that if I do not show goodwill with this minor thing I would be dead by the more important ones. Therefore, I begged earnestly,” Sirs, I was inconsequent in my thinking. Several times, I wanted to tell you of my rendezvous point but I was afraid that you would force me to signal the people to pick me up. Then you will arrest them all and Saigon would know that I betrayed them. The certain thing is they would be retributive with my parents and siblings. Up to now, I was not able to help in any way my folks. Now if I give them hardship I think the best way for me is to submit myself to pains and destruction. That is why I did not give you my true avowal on my way going north.” His question came fast,” Then you went north by which means?”
Several days ago, I felt that I had holes in my deposition on the leg Vinh Linh-Ky Anh. Therefore, in the worst-case scenario I would tell them I went by boat. I realized that by so saying I would create a series of problems like, my starting point, the kind of boat, number of crew men, who are they, timing of pick-up, etc. Thinking that our men would have to do more mission like that, no one would know if they could not fall into trap in the future. In that case, under investigation perhaps they would avow that sometime ago they had brought such a man up. Therefore, one or two years later the communists could use proof of my lies to squeeze me to death. That led to my decision to tell them that I came by boat from Da Nang in the simplest account. The simpler would be the better. There was only one man involved Hoa. I would recount only one attempt, skipping the first aborted trip. The starting point would be at some desolate fishing area in Son Tra. I also told them of my only one visit to the Ben Hai River to be in line with my knowledge of the details in the area. I would skip my encounter with Phong in Ky Anh to tell only of my debarkation and the burying of my things on the beach before finding the highway to Hanoi. I also would mention meeting Phung Van Tri.
With all my mental calculation, I faced up saying,” I came by boat.” They clearly showed brighter faces. They rushed me to give my deposition quickly for them to record. At present, I understood their method to get roughly all events then afterwards go into minute details. Then they asked you to make written deposition to squeeze you methodically on the suspected points and even on the true things, they would keep on asking until they broke you down. After they find a hole, I must try the best to stem it or to plug it. I must be very logical for everything related to the boat ride until the landing spot. Anyhow, things that occurred from the National Highway1at Ky Phuong Hamlet to the day they arrested me were immovable regardless of the atrocities imposed. During this period, they called me for unending questioning three times a day for the whole week. A very intense moment came when they pressed me on everything in the South and up North. Several instances they roared insults and obscenities to my face and even almost slapped it. I became so weak, my whole body shaking while I went from my cell to the deposition room due to lack of food and water and above all the round the clock tension. I almost passed out. Seeing that my body completely drained and I was about to die with exhaustion from time to time they gave me a loaf of bread or a Chinese bun. Then that night I felt a new surge of energy and I had even a smoother excretion at potty
The new problems
It was a continual harassment; they squeezed me so hard that I lost my essence and felt completely drained. At times, I was just numb not knowing what to say or answer. Then I reran my litany,” I had told you everything from my childhood to nowadays and you did not trust me. At night I kept thinking if I could open up completely my inner self to you my life would not be this miserable.” They struck violently on the desk and shouted,” Do not babble, we clearly see that you are the worst reactionary trying to hide the ruses and deviled perfidy of the Diem-Americans. Your mind keeps calculating traitorous ways to bypass the eyes and ears of our surveillance. Let me tell you that you will die a slow death in pain and humiliation. The only salvation is in your own hand. There is no power or influence on earth to reclaim you from the abyss.”
I acted very sincere and said,” I feel uplifted hearing what you said. I was right in my thinking and action when I did not do anything for the enemy and I had told you all the truth. I have heard that nowadays there are lie detectors or the chemicals forcing you to divulge your secrets. If the government had them, I would volunteer to submit to it. I would be forever grateful to the revolution.” Nhuan broke into laughter’s,” We do not need those artifices to break you down. We know that there is something keeping you from saying the whole truth to us. Sooner or later you will realize that the best thing for you is to avow all stratagems that our enemy wants you to do against us.”
I am fully aware that they did not have that kind of tool and even if they get it, it would not be so easy to solve the problem. Therefore, I boldly stroke another hit,” Sirs, I can guarantee with you that if you can in the future show me the concrete proof of an essential event that I lie, I will bear total responsibility and accept all the punishments that the revolutionary administration reserves me.” I coined the word “essential” because the most for me is they had infiltrators in the directorate, they arrested Z-5 or Priest A or they caught document M. I was certain that if they caught them either Z-5 or Father A would never avow. In case they did, there was no proof against me. As for the infiltration in our service, I knew that if not doing the same thing no one could know the other person. Besides, this was the last resort and I did not care anymore.
Nhuan frowned,” Now look at me and listen clearly; where is the spot you buried your sack.” After I gave them in details the location, Dang added,” Did you forget any other things?” Duc gave me a piece of paper to make a sketch of the place, listing everything I had buried in there. Five months had evolved I must make a great effort to remember all the details, the distance from Highway One, the big tree, the bush, the small pathway, etc. They asked very small details and wondered whether if I gave the information to a person he could easily find it. I very eagerly told them that with all details indicated on my sketch anyone could do it. Suddenly I felt dizzy and weak, a surge of chill going through my spine and I became breathless saying that I got fever. They dismissed me right away.
Back to my cell, Nhiem shouted to put my leg into the lock. With great effort, I engaged my foot into the lock and I trembled terribly, chill swarmed from my spine to my entire body. Normally when back from deposition and seeing the bowl of rice I would swoop down immediately and chew my rice in no time. Anyhow, today I left it there shaking and feeling so cold without any other protection than the old striped uniform I used as my pillow. I got it out and it was only enough for my neck and my belly. My whole body trembled uncontrollably. I had never felt like that since my childhood and the only thing that kept me going was to burst into crying “Mommy” as for calling the perennial maternal love for protection and forgiveness. The window opened and Nhiem showed his face, pulled the strut out. He opened the door asking why I did not take the empty bowl out to get rice and water. With a trembling voice, I said that I had fever and needed a blanket. He vociferated,” There is no blanket. Three more days will be 15 October; the official start of winter and blanket will be issued.” Oh my God! I was so cold, my butt touching the cement platform felt frozen. My shoulders leaning to the wall and my leg touching the steel of the lock, the cold from my inside and from the outside became unbearable. I did not eat my rice while medicine was not available. My legs were all bony and my knees looked like two clumps of bones.
Nhiem looked for a short while and left after closing the door and sliding in the lock strut. Ten minutes later nurse Dau came in with a tray. She asked,” What is your problem?” Trembling with my two arms crossed pressing on my chest I replied in a halting voice,” I have fever.” She gave me a thermometer and read it. She gave me a shot. She looked around to see that I had nothing save the striped jail uniform and the cold bowl of rice still in the corner. Nhiem stood at the door looking in. Perhaps he did not even trust the nurse. I told her that I felt too cold and asked for a blanket. Looking at me and turning to Nhiem she said, ask the Cadre here. The door slammed shut, the sliding sound of the steel bar was like the signal of my hopelessness.
Being so tired I lay down to rest. Anyhow, as soon as my back touched the bare cement I must crawl back up again. I sat up like that all night to lie down when I was too tired and then sat up again. I had to lean on the wall to pass out at times. My fever subsided; my mouth was bitter and dry. I spent the night half awake half dreaming, my thoughts vaguely directed at humaneness, charity and the sense of goodwill. In the silence of night, I heard the interrupted sound of the gecko and I passed out to waken up with the noise of water rushing and quarrelling of the female prisoners in the back. Looking at the cold bowl of rice left there since yesterday I made an extra effort to eat fast being afraid that soon they opened the door for the routine potty job and remittance of the bowl to the designated place. At the turn of my cell, after finishing my duty and putting again my leg into the lock, matron Hoa called me out for deposition.
I saw only two men Thanh and Duc. I remembered Thanh as the only one among six or seven of them who showed in his eyesight and the tone of his voice some sympathy. He seemed sentimental. I had seen him holding the novel Doan Tuyet of the literary group Tu Luc. I understood that he could read such a book because he belonged to the political-legal team. Moreover, he was following a course on economics by correspondence. Thanh showed me the stool to sit down and talked with an amiable voice,” Please sit down. Are you well lately? I have been busy for a while and it has been such a long time since I saw you.” I also gave my favorable reply,” Thank you so much, I have not felt very well lately.” He acted caring,” How is your sickness? Can you eat? Did you finish your ration? How come you look so skinny?” According to them if the prisoner eats his ration, there is no problem at all. Anyhow, they did not know that the continual pang of hunger leading to a daily want of food made the prisoner’s food crave so strong. I then answered slowly,” I had fever yesterday and still ate my rice.” Duc also displayed a more smiling face,” Binh, we ask for you today not for your deposition but to talk leisurely with you. Frankly when you were in Saigon did you often go to the dancing halls, did you enjoy sex?” I was somewhat surprised seeing him chuckling and winking his eyes. I firmed my voice and answered,” I do not know dancing. As for sex, first, I do not like it and secondly I was all in my education. I consider it as the beautiful side of humankind. To spend your money that way is despicable and unreasonable. You would better go to the movies, read your books or enjoy the marvels of nature.” Both of them heartily laughed looking at me. Thanh showed his compassion,” When you went, were your parents and siblings well. Were they aware of it?” That made my emotion mounting. My answer came with a strong emotional surge,” My parents were well and they did not know anything of my venture.” Thanh went on screwing into my emotion,” Do you long for your parents and siblings? Think about their life long work providing you an education. What have you done to repay their immense sacrifice?”
My emotion overflowed. I remembered a long forgotten image. That night my young brother went to the Phu Tho refugee student’s camp. He insisted me to be at Tan Dinh Church to meet my mother at the end of service. I did not go home for two weeks after my father reprimanded me for missing my Baccalaureate I due to study lapse. I went and waited in the rain soaked yard of the Church. My mother with her head covered by a shawl and her hands in the fold of her dress urged me to go home this Sunday because my daddy’s irk is over. She slipped in my hand a 100-piaster bill. Now in the jail environment, the image of my beloved mother rushed my tears out like in a dike break. I sobbed and cried like a child catching the legal people by surprise making them silent as a concern for the solemnity of that minute. It is true that they could torture me and lock me up. They never could force me to shed a tear
From then on, they discovered my weakness. I understood that they would take advantage of that weakness to oppress you. They overpowered you when they found your cracks. Waiting for the end of my emotion, they compelled,” Now you see what leads you to this situation. The Diem-American lackeys took advantage of the ardor of the young people like you to throw you in a death trap while they still enjoy a good life with nice cars, villas and relaxed parties. They would not know or they did not care to know or to remember where you are now, whether you are still alive or dead. Uncover to the revolution their tactics abusing your naivete. That is the only way to your salvation. You are the one who can make the decision to benefit from the generosity and humaneness of the party and the revolution.” I listened to them faced down. They were using my weakness about my family to orient into political things. The best method is to use their purpose to my advantage.
I then displayed a rejoicing face emanating confidence,” Gentlemen, you were right on the nose. The more I think about it the more hateful of them I feel. If I did not go south in 1954 I would have become a valiant soldier of Uncle Ho fighting the despicable Diem-Americans.” They all laughed showing behind deception and maniacal maneuverings. They stood up and Thanh looked at me saying,” We let you go back to relax. Tomorrow we shall escort you to the place where you buried your stuffs.”
Back to the cell I tried to remember all the things I buried after debarkation to see whether I have forgotten anything. I had given them all details with a good sketch of the spot. Perhaps they tried but did not find it and needed to get me along. Nhiem opened the door and told me to go get a haircut. I went to the outhouse where I used to empty my toilet pot. I saw a barefooted staff dressed brown, somewhat chubby but displaying a sick grayish complexion holding a hair clipper in his hand. I sat down on the brick sidewalk still having Nhiem close by. It took him three minutes to cut my hair and my beard and report to Nhiem that the job was completed. Today Nhiem had ordered a haircut and a head rinse for me, under the faucet with a few hand swipes. Perhaps I shall go to Ha Tinh and benefit of that treatment. I had my hairs unkempt for four months and it did not bother me at all. I did not know what kind of cut they gave me. By touching my head, I felt it too short and varied, but who cared?
Back to the debarkation spot
This morning the door opened while it was still dark. When they led me to the deposition room, I saw a Command Car parked heading out to the Hoa Lo main gate. It was 15 October, meaning that they arrested me nearly four month ago. In the room were three men, Thanh. Duc and Nhuan. Duc showed me the stool and then talked with an earnest voice,” We got the order to take you where you buried your things. During the trip, you must strictly abide our orders. Any deviation will bring terrible consequences. If you show total cooperation it will reflect well in your future.” Thanh took from the desk something wrapped under a newspaper, opened it and gave to me. It was a ball of gluey rice and a banana, which he told me to eat and be ready to leave. After eating, I wanted some drink. Looking around and seeing nothing, he went next door to bring back a teapot with leftover stale tea and I drank it all. Nhuan walked out and came back a few minutes later with two uniformed and armed police officers. Looking at me, he stated that according to regulations I must let these coMr.ades do accordingly for my own safety. They had me standing with my arms behind my back. They locked my wrists together with lock number eight linked to a big chain wrapped over my shoulders and connected with another lock. Thanh, Duc and Nhuan wore pistols. I did not know why they were so cautious with me to lock me up twice and give me an escort of five armed persons. Perhaps they knew that I had some martial arts and they had to be extra defensive. Before boarding the driver, also in Army uniform, turned to them and said that they should bind my arms in the front to avoid breaking them in case of accident. Nevertheless, no one paid any attention and the police escorts helped me climbing up.
The car rolled out of Hoa Lo through the city and reached Highway 1. After nearly four month in jail, I felt it so endless with so many pains and misery in locks as well as so much humiliation at the depositions. My own thoughts and reflections had completely changed. Still the same sky and scenes of my beloved Hanoi, I now saw everywhere the faded color of grievance and sorrow. The vehicles and the sceneries looked alien in a world in which I did not belong anymore. I was going lonely on the shaky roadway to hell. The bumpy ride was terrible. I felt like a rolling pumpkin unable to brace myself up through potholes. My body entirely ached and my heart laden, I stayed quiet during the trip, my lips pressed closed under the anguish. At the ferry, everybody descended but my four escorts and me under the curious stares of passersby. A police officer had another chain linked to mine when crossing rivers to prevent me from jumping down for evasion or suicide. Arriving at Thanh Hoa the security men and the driver went out for lunch. They left the two police agents in the car with me. Half an hour later they came back and Thanh gave me two packets of gluey rice. Having my arms locked in my back, I was not able to eat. After discussion Thanh said,” We will lock your arms at the front now. Anyhow, we caution you to behave otherwise we shall act consequently. We should have chained your legs but we gave you some leeway. So be reasonable!”
After eating Thanh asked whether I would like a cigarette. My Golly, since this morning seeing them puffing I had such a rapture but I avoided begging them. Now hearing Thanh, my eyes brightened. I was high and ecstatic. Only in my situation, could you comprehend my feeling. They again locked my arms in the back and the two police officers went to lunch. We arrived at Ha Tinh in the evening. It was around six or seven when they took me to the city prison. The jail yard was deserted, all prisoners being in their cells. The police agents led me to the kitchen and unlocked me while saying something to the cadres in charge. Two female cadres dressed in peasant garb took me to the kitchen. There was no more food. After discussions, they took out a small pot containing some remaining cold rice and a small pot of pork stew with some leftover sauce and a few bits of pork. They put them on the floor, urging me to eat. How in my unfortunate life could I enjoy such a lucky time? I had never tasted such an appetizing meal. I ate the whole pot of left over four or five bowls of rice doused in the pork stew sauce. I was thankful of life and of the humankind. After my fulfilling dinner, a male cadre took me to a rural cell, very dank and dark with a small wooden bed with a steel cuff having two ring-locks made of 2.5 cm rod. He told me to put my legs in the rings and locked it.
It was a very comfortable lock leaving me freedom to standup moving my feet back and forth. I could stand on the floor, twisting my body for exercises breathing air. Sitting all day under locks, now I could lie down to relax and enjoy the aftertaste of a good meal still savoring its sweetness. My belly full, my arms and legs rested I expected to have a good sleep when at a sudden I felt all itchy. I crawled up and scratched. I did not see anything under the very dim light but I smelled the acrid odor of bed bugs. My back swelled with the bugs bites. I removed my shirt and saw twenty of them all bloated with blood. My butts and thighs were itchy. I sat up swiping them off and lay down when too tired and so on during the night. Those miserable bloodthirsty bugs, they must be the coMr.ades of those miserable communists. Suddenly a female with Ha Tinh singing voice echoed in the silence of the night,” Hello brother Thoi!” The answer from a Ha Tinh man sounded from another room,” Hi Nguyet! A new man, how old is he?” Nguyet’s voice sounded back,” Around 23 or 24 maybe he is an arrested cadre!” For sure, she watched me through some crack. A few minute of silence then the male voice was heard,” Hi my friend. They just arrested you, did they? For what crime?” Being too tired, I kept quiet to make them believe that I was sleeping. Whether standing up or sitting down I still had to chase away mosquitoes. Ha Tinh had too many of them. Past midnight, I was so tired and exhausted that I slept just offering my blood to those kinsfolk of the communist.
The next day, they opened the door and the lock to call me out even before jail working time. I noticed that those were local security agents. The Hanoi men gave me to those locals who remitted me to them the next day. At their office, I saw Thanh, Duc, Nhuan and the police officers talking with a First Lieutenant. Thanh told me to let the local men work before going. It was the same kind of work, chaining and locking me like yesterday. They escorted me to the car parked behind the front gate to help me up. The highway became bumpier rocking and rolling me right and left braced by the two police agents. The bed bugs bites of last night became so itchy and there was no way to scratch. I was so desperate with the hardship of life amid the beloved humankind! We arrived at Ky Anh and then Ky Phuong. They escorted me to a house of the hamlet. It had thatched roof and mud wall but looked much better than the surroundings looked. It could be the hamlet security office. They helped me down and guided me to the base of a Japanese lilac tree to squat down, sandwiched between the two police agents. In a little while, a number of children and some local people looked at me with curiosity. Suddenly some kiddies about 13 or 14 picked up gravels to throw at me while the peasant women among them one old female rushed pointing their fingers to my face and vociferated,” You blood-sucking-and-liver-eating spy, the henchman of Diem-Americans, the traitor of the country, the people and the revolution.” Another woman hoisted her bamboo pole and assaulted me screaming,” Killer of my husband making me a widow and my children orphans, I am splitting your head now!”
I had witnessed the life of the southern people in the cities and the villages. I also knew their life in the north. The comparison between the two gave me the conclusion that I am on the right track bringing food and clothing to the people. Therefore, though I was under locks I still raised my face high up, my eyes staring calmly at their hatred and rancor. We should give praise to the leadership of the communist north for using their obscurantist policy bringing paucity to the people and using it as an advantage to foment hate and animosity. My wish was to see all the wealthy countries use their riches and talents so that the people could know the truth and differentiate between black and white. Communism has and is still bringing havoc to the people of several nations with their Machiavellian obscurantism and their lies.
Half an hour later Thanh, Nhuan and Duc told me to go. The rice fields were still dry and they took the short cut going through the field. From afar I already saw the big tree where I sat down to rest and on the right was the hamlet where was the house of hamlet chief Phong. On purpose, I did not lead them through the village and pretended rambling here and there with the goal to see whether somebody had tried to look for the spot. Finally, Nhuan and Thanh made sign to me that according to my sketch it should be in that direction. Several spots showed that for ten or fifteen days there were people digging and probing without results. It showed that I did a perfect job.
All of them waited for my reaction. In reality, I had recognized the location right away. Nevertheless, I did not want them to see my good mind. Besides, I was preoccupied looking at the fire ants and hairy worms bush. I took refuge there and now ended up in the hands of the enemy. I had the feeling of shame looking at that bush which had become greener. I still remembered clearly the group of farmers going out to work. A feeling of bitterness swarmed in me for my stormy life. My memory also went back to the night when I disembarked here and the sailors who hauled me to the sandy beach. Where are you now? Did you ever remember that fateful night which was the start of destruction of my youthful life? A soft sigh instinctively came out to dislodge my inner thoughts of regret.
I was looking back and forth trying to ascertain the burying place. I saw about 200m from where I stood several heads hidden in bushes and a few gun muzzles here and there. They really were on a well-coordinated state of alertness. Perhaps they thought of some possible evasion by which some helicopters might swoop down to snatch me out of their hands. That was why they had the armed local guerillas on the ready. You must recognize that the communists were suspicious and that they always do thing overly with meticulous preparation. After a moment of intense brainstorming scrutiny, I indicated to them the spot to dig out. With an Army shovel, they dug to about 20cm when they found the big yellow Japanese bag and my small shovel. The material had rotten spots and all the small roots crossed and penetrated the darkened bag. The medicine vials and my small pistol under nylon wrapping were there. They collected everything as listed and stuffed them in a bag. Satisfaction was on their faces. When back in the car, I asked them in my soft voice to give me back the $200. They frowned and Duc raised his voice saying,” It was the money the Diem-Americans provided you for spy activities and not yours. It will be the proof of that.”
On the way back, they became somewhat subjective. The three Thanh, Duc and Nhuan went their way and I had only the two police agents as escorts. Right after the successful dig out, they were more relaxed. When I complained of tiredness and itchiness, they were easier and locked my arms to my front using only one lockset No 8. When the two police agents escorted me through the dry field with here and there some places still having swaying rice plants they became more careless and walked 7 or 8 meters ahead. I enjoyed the expanse, the odor and air and felt completely uplifted. I thought it was a good opportunity if I had some soap I could slide out my skinny hands; I could take care of them easily in a few minutes even with their pistols. Besides, I was in a do or die situation quite different from when they had not yet captured me. That was the sad fate that life reserved me.
We arrived at Ha Tinh at 5 PM and they led me again to the kitchen to see the same two women. There was still the left over pot of rice and even two small stewed carp with a bowl of boiled water spinach. The boiled spinach dipped in the sauce of stewed fishes was a paradise rediscovered. I ate with eagerness while the two women sat next to me, one of them sewing and the other reading. No one said anything and the only noise was from my chopsticks hitting the bowl. I stood up looking at the two women with the feeling of gratitude and compassion. The jail warden came, making sign for me to follow him. I remembered the bedbugs and complained to him but he locked me, closed the door and left. I sat up on the bed to avoid those despicable insects thinking of the situation in which powerful men must surrender to those tiny things. My mind went randomly to all kinds of reflections when I heard the voice of a girl sounding like murmuring close by,” Why you did not lie down to rest?” I strained my ears listening, it was clear that she addressed me, perhaps through some crack of the wall. Again, the same voice intoned,” Why you did not answer me?” Then with a very low voice, I asked,” Excuse me, are you Miss Nguyet?” With astonishment she sounded back,” Why did you know my name?” I softly laughed saying that I also know Thoi, and to dissipate the hesitant situation, I added,” Yesterday I heard you talking to each other. How long ago did they arrest you and for what?” The reply came,” More than a month; I was in charge of the Catholic Youth Workers of the congregation. They wanted me to quit and join the Communist Youth Worker Group and I refused. They arrested me as reactionary and incarcerated me.” Seeing that she showed open-mindedness and confidence in others, I went on,” As for Thoi?” She said she did not have a clear knowledge of him. I raised my voice a bit saying,” Hi Thoi, how are you?” Then I heard Nguyet ‘s voice again,” What did they arrest you for, you looked so skinny?” I lowered my voice,” I appreciate your care. Do you see me clearly, I cannot see you.” After a mute chuckle she said,” I ask you and you keep pretending.” This girl seemed very clever and tricky. To prevent any future useless mishaps I slowly replied,” I am the teacher of second grade in Hanoi and I crossed the border.” One-minute of silence and she asked again,” Why they locked both your legs for crossing the border.” Then she sounded like a quizzical person and I answered with a detached manner,” When they arrested me I attacked the cadres.” She chuckled again,” How terrible, you like to strike people!” To skip the subject I asked her how many cells are there in here. Would they catch this communication and lock you up? She replied that they had eight cells and talking in low voice from ten evening on is safe. Besides, from time to time hearing the steps of the cadre you just shut up. I complained of so many bed bugs that I could not lie down. She chuckled and advised me to report for kerosene to pour in the cracks of the bed.
It was past midnight and keeping up and down all the time made me so tired. I finally resigned to offer my body to all the bugs as a good fare for them to enjoy. Miserable creature, you can only suck the thin blood of the poor people like me. You could never suck the good blood of the rich who had clean blankets and nets. Besides, they could kill you with their chemicals just like your coMr.ades sucking blood and pus of the poor and the desperate. Very early, the on duty security man opened the cell and the leg lock to let me out. I knocked lightly twice to say bye to the new warm-hearted friend. In the bumpy ride back, though I had my arms locked at the front I still rocked to all directions like the yellow leaves buffeted by the autumn wind. The farther I went the knottier I felt as I was farther from my beloved south. Through the small opening in the car canopy, I saw a triangular piece of the southern sky. On that hazy blue firmament, I perceived the image of my mother directing her sorrowful teary eyes to me. I heard the echo of the song,
“O mother! One thousand eternity of separation,”
“Facing to my mother direction, my tear drops at times fell.”
I closed my eyes to stem the tear drops, my anger went deep into my mournful heart. On the way to Thanh Hoa both sides were golden rice fields undulating exhaling the fresh aroma of the country. Anyhow, it still was not able to assuage my sadness.
The car slowly stopped at the side of the road and Nhuan and Thanh descended. Farther in for about 200m I saw three or four young men and several children with undershorts and barefooted running to where the car parked. According to their talk, I understood that this was the native place of Thanh. Perhaps Thanh had written ahead to meet his relatives and show off his importance. They related noisily, giving news of brother A, brother B or sister going to this front or that. Suddenly a young man with pride announced that Brother Luong had purchased one bicycle at the official price of $280. The bike had two bright brake handles and he let him try a ride the other day. I thought to myself why such a bagatelle could take so much time in a short fifteen minutes of family reunion. In the south, even the purchase of an automobile would not interfere with so many things that a family would need to exchange. The spectacle permitted to understand the life of the people in the north. The young and the kids kept touching the auto like something out of the magic world. Anyhow, going to the bottom of things if I had to live like them I would not have behaved any differently. In conclusion, it was not their fault!
The one you expect and you do not see,
The one you see and do not expect…
We were back in Hanoi at five or six pm. It was a little cool now at the beginning of winter. When the car entered the gate, it was almost dark. In the room, Thanh opened my locks and took out of his brief case one pack of Truong Son Cigarettes and a book match. He handed them to me saying that my two-day trip allowance had a leftover of five dimes. He put out from his pocket two more dimes to buy those things for me. I opened my bright eyes and thanked him lavishly. I felt rejoiced, visualizing that in the days ahead I would have a good friend to understand my misery and hardship as a prisoner. Bang took me back to my cell. Nhiem the duty warden was off and Bang opened the door. Out of my old striped uniform, there were also reed mat and a blanket. I was happy, it was end of November and the prison cadres already had their winter uniforms. After he locked my leg, Bang walked out and locked the door.
Being high spirited with cigarettes and blankets, I forgot completely that I did not have my meal. Since this morning with two packs of 2-dimes gluey rice in Vinh, my stomach was completely empty. I covered my bed with the mat and felt the freezing cold of the lock. Being hungry and cold, I could not sleep. Standing up on one leg I strained my mouth towards the window and bellowed,” Cell 5 reporting to the cadre.” First time then second time and third time, there was still no answer. The empty belly pushed me to be daring and this time, mid shouting, the window opened, one unfamiliar voice loudly uttered,” What do you report?” My quick answer,” I had to report that I did not get my food this evening.” He retorted,” Why you did not eat.” “I came back from Ha Tinh and had eaten nothing since this morning.” The small window closed. It reopened fifteen minutes later. It was Bang asking again about me missing my meal. He went to the kitchen to bring back one full bowl with a small container of white salt. He said nicely,” there was no more soup so eat rice with salt” That ball-eyed man looking so brutal but was somewhat nice. I ate a plus-ration with my God given fingers thinking that without daring you will not get anything in life. My morale shot high; today I got cigarettes, mat, blankets and a full bowl of rice. It showed that in life there was no yardstick to measure happiness. The communist used this principle to manipulate human heart.
After fifteen minutes, Bang returned to open the door and I took the empty bowl out taking a scoop of water. After he locked me up, I managed to take care of the cold of my leg under the freezing leg-lock. I slipped my two old pant legs together to double it up and slid it through the lock over my leg to insulate it from the steel. I doubled and then quadrupled my reed mat cushioning from my butts to my shoulders. I wore double shirts and rolled up my blanket under my two crossed legs. I felt much comfortable now though I still felt cold from my thighs down. I did not have any pillow and thought of inventing one with the broom used to clean the potty next to the water tank. In the morning, I will skip washing my face, rushing out to empty my potty and scraping it off with the broom. The broom still had some dried excrement on it. Anyhow, I did not care, just rinsing it as I could to put it in my potty and rushed my booty back to my cell. I took the twines off and reassembled it into a round 5 cm diameter headrest. As the thing was still wet, I left it upright against the wall to dry overnight. Necessity created invention!
Matron Hoa called me out for deposition. I saw Nhuan and an unknown face. Nhuan opened his briefcase and started,” Today making sure of your sincerity with the revolution we shall ask you a few matters.” He took out twenty 4x6 black and white photos and showed me one at a time asking whether I recognized any. Both of them followed the expressions on my face and eyes. I did not recognize any of those skinny ones. I smelled the problems. Certainly there would be in there some spies from Saigon mixed with other ordinary criminals. Those spies they caught were in jail somewhere and they would like to investigate and corroborate. It could happen that by thoughtfulness or inadvertence you said that the person looked familiar. They will then conduct additional research and comparisons to discover true or false. They will use one against the other or vice versa. They could not use that method with me and I could take advantage of their ruse to fight back, leading them to a spool of entangled thread for them to unwind.
It was December, very cold and damp. With mat and blanket but lying on stone and steel, I felt so hungry. There were not enough calories against the inclement weather, I spent the nights sitting recoiled always thinking about food and salivating. I thought of a close friend Nguyen Van Nhuong of class 10, Thu Duc ROTC whom I brought in weekends to Ong Ta Market for a fare of barbecued pork with noodles. I also remembered biking to Tram Pagoda in Ha Dong and eating black beans with gluey rice in a roadside stall. The remembrances filled my mouth with saliva. I saluted Marx to have discovered the weakness of the world, the weak spot of men and his disciples needed only to experiment and refine it to perfection so that when they poked into it, men would shrink pathetically. If they had not exposed you to hunger, you would never feel the craving of food. Those who were always hungry and never hoped for a full belly from anywhere really felt the full meaning of starvation.
During winter, it was misty all day. In the cell, I could not clearly see the lock and out there, it should be as grey and gloomy as my spirit. The northerly wind through the cracks in the roof and filtrating down through the small window of the ceiling sounded strident and wailing in the distressing solitude of the jail. The tips of my fingers and toes swelled itching and hurting at night, keeping me awake. I massaged them continually hearing from time to time the opening and closing of the windows for checking by the cadre on duty. About two or three in the morning the window opened again. Looking up, I saw through the hazy dim light of the electric bulb a nose and two bright eyes. This time the window did not close immediately and I heard a female voice,” Why you did not lie down to rest?” In the mid of silence and solitude it came like a warm inquiry imbued with commiserate humaneness. I answered with emotion,” I do not know why my fingers and toes were reddened and swollen. It was so painful that I could not sleep.” I raised my ten fingers near the window. The voice was a soft murmur sounding like whispering,” You have infection.” The window still stayed open with two scintillating eyes and a nose at times clears at times ethereal. The silence was oppressive; there were two opposing poles in two different front lines. Anyhow, there was one common stock, humanity. The soft voice again was heard,” Tomorrow you report to the nurse for some salted water bath.”
The girl should not be a steady person of the jail. Salt was something strictly forbidden and perhaps she just talked without any conviction. Anyhow, that voice and those eyes were the real meaning of humaneness, caressing the solitude and loneliness in my poor ego. The window closed and she was gone. I suddenly remembered this song,
“Winter wind, coldness, cold wind,”
“The birds stop flying, out in the stormy time … threatening,”
“Why the wind howls hurting the soul of soldiers”
“In the lengthy night…”
The winter winds were still howling, the prison cell still dark and solitary. I gradually passed out in a night of horror.
There was no deposition during the ensuing five or six days. Today the ball-eyed Bang called again. When he opened the lock, my feet were all swollen and painful. I stood up and limped out with difficulty. Bang inquired in a flat voice. I had the feeling of walking on a bed of broken glass. Perhaps the circulation improved with movement I felt gradually better. Bang showed me to a building across from the grape canopy. I entered a large room and saw six or seven men there. This was the office of the prison because I saw Captain Tri, the assistant Director, behind a big desk with many dossiers and a golden star flag. Sitting in the middle was a man in a jacket about 45 and next to him was Duc with several other civilians. There was one big photo of Ho Chi Minh on the wall and several banners on Party, Country and Revolution, etc, making the room awash in red. Duc pointed to the lone stool in front of the desk and I sat down. Then with solemnity he turned his eyes to the jacket man and said, ”Here is coMr.adeHong, Chief of Office 44, the Legal Political Executive Office. The coMr.adeis pleased to see you, if you have anything you need you may refer to him for discussion.” Hong displayed a diplomatic smile saying,” Hi! How are you? If you need anything you may speak it out!”
Thinking to me, if I fulfilled my need you will not have anymore a seat in here! I directed my eyes to the photo of Ho Chi Minh displaying two werewolf eyes. The pupils were like changing colors watching me. On at a sudden my eyes heated up like fire making those pupils retrogressive looking down. A quick and simple desire,” I need the head of that man!” I finally said,” Thank you Sir, I do not need anything. I just desire you to resolve soon my case.” He smiled half way,” How can I resolve it if you did not tell all the truth. You did not give a good deposition, how can I give an early conclusion?” I understood that he just wanted to know my face. In the meantime, I perceived the shadow of someone going in behind my back. I turned back and saw a man dressed in brown garb escorted by a security man. Duc directed him to a chair facing the desk and me. The man looked big and healthy, displaying a pale grey complexion, barefooted and wearing pants with the hem all torn like fringe border. When I glanced at him, my heart squeezed a little bit. In an instant reflex, it seemed to me that his face was familiar. Then I recognized Lieutenant Nghia, a once handsome and powerful man of the Binh Xuyen 1954-1966. I could not relate him to this very humble and shy man looking so furtive and scared. The atmosphere was totally at a standstill. I was aware that they were scrutinizing the attitudes of Nghia and I. Duc made sign to the security to escort Nghia out. I lowered my head pensive with so many questions in my head.
Eight years ago, I hated Nghia so much. During those eight years after the defeat of the Binh Xuyen, I kept looking for revenge. By chance, due to a test with Le Van Hoan, I now came across him and I was sure that Nghia had not ever expected this encounter in this torturing minute. I felt knots in my entrails because whatever it was, Nghia is now my coMr.ade-in-arms, a brother befalling in this tragic and humiliating situation. The more I saw the degrading Nghia the more I was troubled with the compassion for a defeated partner erasing all my hatred. Seeing that I kept my head down, Duc raised his voice,” Now, did you remember who is he?” I slowly answered,” Yes, Nghia Binh Xuyen.” With a faint smile Duc continued,” How is your thinking?” I rushed my answer showing my easy contentment,” It is such a surprise!” Duc stated half threatening,” You will see many more surprises! Now I let you go.” Matron Hoa came in and I followed her back to the cell. My heart was laden with so many entangled things in my mind and I forgot my foot pains.
I thought Nghia belonged to a special operation team or was a singleton like I. They arrested him a long time ago and put him to re-education in some camp far from Hanoi. Perhaps he had never talked of his time with the Binh Xuyen. Now by a mishap I mentioned his name leading them to believe that he still hid many things and take him back to Hoa Lo for further investigation. They now threatened both Nghia and I. I thought that Nghia worried and perhaps was putting all the blame on me. For my side I would not have anything to be concerned because Nghia did not know anything about me and I had given them everything on my time with the Binh Xuyen.
Nghia “Binh Xuyen”
To give details on Nghia’s life, I must recount a period of my life in one troubled period of our country. The story started at the just built Binh Dan Hospital in Saigon, which they used as a temporary shelter for the refugees coming from the North. I was then a sixteen- year-old healthy boy having with me one ounce of gold hidden in my brief. I made friends with three other boys of the same age range who made their way to Saigon without any family connections. One day we came across with a healthy looking and handsome Lieutenant under well-pressed and creased uniform. I recognized him as a ticket controller for the Kim Chung Theater Group in Hanoi and he remembered to having let me enter free. We shook hands and he let me know that he had a Colonel Uncle with Binh Xuyen, a big party having total control of Saigon and Cholon. Being Northerner,” I can refer you and talk to my uncle to give you the rank of Second Lieutenant; you will be given the party emblem which is the head of a tiger.” I followed with my new friends to the Binh Xuyen area on a Dodge 4 across from the Y Bridge. I saw the garrison housed in the Japanese military installations with a flagpole hoisting the national flag and the Binh Xuyen flag as a red star Viet Minh flag surrounded by a green border. Two brand new Howitzer cannons and a row of GMC trucks were present among soldiers in uniforms going here and there.
We rambled inside the encampment and they did not authorize us to go out of the guarded gate. Nghia came back late, being busy enrolling new recruits from the refugees. I witnessed the killing of dissenters and the respect given to Bay Vien whom everyone addressed with the title His Excellency Bay Vien. I was determined to get out of this bandit mess, which was the by-product of the French Administration taking advantage of it in the fight against the Viet Minh. With the accession of the Viet Minh, the viper Ho Chi Minh attracted Bay Vien with two regiments of well-armed men to rally to the cause of independence, freedom and happiness to the people. Tricky Ho used that transitional means as if he had taken advantage of the patriotism of the intelligentsia in the war to establish communism and liquidate them afterwards.
Now let me go back to my problem with Nghia. That morning we had to be at the Headquarters for physical check-up. In the big crowd, I met Hieu whom Nghia wooed to evade from Thu Duc ROTC and he now felt discontented. I winked to Hieu to follow me to the gate where there was a sentinel. Across street, there was a vendor with some sugar canes and candies. I gave Hieu a $5 bill and raised my voice telling him to go buy two pieces of sugar cane because I was hungry so that the guard was aware of our intention. Hieu took the bill and ran out saying that there was another man behind waiting to prevent him from checking the paper. When Hieu picked up the second piece, I pretended shouting back and forth for a different piece to run out finally getting my cane. The two of us looked furtively when by chance a motorized cycle unloaded its passenger close by. Glancing at the guard post and seeing that the sentinel was distractedly looking in another direction we jumped, on the cycle for a ride to ChoLon, paying $15 for a quick drive away from the Y Bridge Control. Not knowing where to go, I went back to Binh Dan Hospital and saw Nghia with shiny boots and well-creased pants standing when I was still lying there. He told me to walk out first while he was close behind. Out of the Hospital there was a beautiful sexy girl sitting on a canvas chair combing her long jade black hair. Nghia smiled at her and she responded. Nghia told me to wait for him a bit and I winked at him and ran away quick. The beauty had saved me from a bad turn of my life.
From then on, I did not have any news from Nghia. In 1960 a friend investigator in Binh Duong told me that they promoted him to captain. After they dismantled Binh Xuyen, Nghia disappeared. From the day, I saw Nghia at the deposition room to when they transferred me to the Central Re-education Camp; I did not stop inquiring about him. In 1976 when I was in the Central Camp of Phong Quang, Yen Bai I met two young ordinary criminal men who informed me that they were with Nghia for three years during which Nghia had the reputation of an outstanding worker of the camp. Nghia hauled each time on each side 40 raw bricks weighing about 90 kg each. They rushed him into the maze of competition of the communists. In 1972, Nghia had tuberculosis without any treatment and he vomited blood to die.
Phung Van Tri, the counter espionage trick
It had become colder and colder. With two old striped uniforms, one small reed mat and a thin blanket I could not sleep at night on the freezing cement bed. Only during day when I was dead tired, I passed out for a while. My fingers and toes were swollen and painful. I was unable to walk; each step was like dozens of needles pushing into my heels. I thought being near death. Any time I lay down, I always thought of all the worries and sufferings of this life. I was not afraid of dying because death was the end, the deliverance from all pains of this existence. Day and night, I kept thinking of those who were not anymore, my grandfather my grandmother, my uncle Hanh who passed away in 1948, even my young friend killed by a stray French bullet. My mind went to the cemetery, and to the unmarked tombs I saw at the roadsides. If I died, I would have nothing except a torn reed mat or old burlap and they will bury me in a shallow ditch. Rain and winter would erase it and I would disappear in the dark eternity.
Perhaps jail warden Nhiem foresaw my possible death and reported to higher authority. Seeing that they still needed me for unfinished work they could not let me die Nhiem gave me an additional blanket and a striped blouson. It showed their cruelty using the wickedness of nature to torture men. Besides, they gave me a bucket of hot salted water bath. Nhiem stated that they dispensed me of leg-lock for two days. Twice each day the nurse gave me that bucket of footbath. Having additional warm clothing and more blanket, with salt bath for my feet and hands I felt better and slept well. I was able to go out and empty my potty though I was not as steady on my feet. Anyhow, a few days later I felt cold again, quivering under the thick blankets and feeling like lying next to a big ice block. My feet and hands were less painful with the water-bath but still as swollen and itchy. May be the weather had become more inclement. Without call for deposition, I did not know the current days and months. It seemed like we were close to the end of December. I recollected Christmas of last year when I was on a Vespa Scooter with my friend Nguyen Huu Loi, all dressed up throughout the completely joyful Saigon. At present, I was by myself on this bumpy road of dark penitence.
This morning matron Tho called me early to deposition, and I worried. In the room were Thanh and Nhuan. After a few words of civility, Nhuan opened his briefcase and frowned at me,” Today you tell us on your training in the use of the secret inks, the usual and the special ones.” I talked on the usual method using lemon, onion, alum, salt, urine that you read under heat and the special use of blood, chemical tablets, etc. It took two hours, one of them asked while the other took notes. Suddenly the door to the adjoined room opened and they led Phung Van Tri through. My God, why they arrested Tri? He looked pale, his eyes haggard and lifeless. I was completely in turmoil while Tri looked back at me when they escorted him through the other door. I looked at Nhuan and Thanh screaming,” I vouch that Tri has no connection with me. He and his parents are plain folks. I had met him on my way like I said several times in my deposition.” Nhuan chuckled ironically,” Are you crazy? Tri was arrested for another crime and not because of you.” They went on pressing me and I did not care anymore, telling them to stop asking and go ahead killing me because to live with a tortured conscience is not worthwhile anymore. They kept laughing and finally Nhuan banged on the desk shouting,” You were arrested for your crime and Tri was caught for his crime. We forbid you to mention Tri’s name.” Regardless I kept rambling on Tri and finally they dismissed me until tomorrow.
Back to the cell, eating choked me. During night, I thought of how to save Tri. They did not believe what I told them. Perhaps I would tell them that I was aware having been followed otherwise I would not be foolish to go to Tri’s house. Anyhow, by so doing I would destruct my whole story. All my deposition during the last six months would crumble. At the deposition as soon as I set foot into the room both Duc and Nhuan went into a tantrum,” You are a perfect liar, your mission was to monitor on Division 308. Why did they train you the use of secret inks? We know that you came here with another goal. If you do not tell us the truth, we will produce witnesses and then you will die.” I kept telling them that I gave them all truth. I went on saying that I kept thinking of Tri and his folks, imploring them to clear Tri’s case. They again squeezed on the secret ink during the afternoon session. I told them that I did not know why Hoa gave me that training, perhaps it was the initial training of a spy. They had deduced logically that the use of secret inks would be necessary to set up a spy network. I was stupid to have talked of secret inks.
Late that afternoon Nhuan took out from his briefcase one hand written piece of paper of the same genre I wrote my deposition. It was Tri handwriting avowing that he attempted to cross the border to Laos going to Thailand. I felt better. Anyhow, I thought they suspected connivance between us two and they had let Tri seeing me as a bluff to exert pressure on both sides. Perhaps they thought that I gave Tri the task of going to Saigon through Thailand for reporting. Thinking of the situation, I told them I was glad to see the paper, which pacified my conscience. Nhuan laughed and said. “I have told you but you did not believe me.” Then he displayed a stern face,” What mission did you give to Tri and what did he tell you? Tri had avowed all, and I can let you see his deposition.” Aha! He is bluffing. I shall not be caught. I smiled responding,” There is no such thing, I had told you that the only thing Tri knew of me was I am a 10 grade student of Vinh Linh going for heart treatment in Hanoi.”
They did not believe and thought that the attempted border crossing of Tri related to me. I did not worry because regardless of the situation I will still be in prison. What bothered me was if they incarcerated Tri for a long time, it would bring a complete misery to his folks and I would not feel at peace. Then I boldly said,” Gentlemen, I tell you that when I was on my way to Vinh at the Kim Lien station there was an amputee selling me a ticket and I suspected he was a security agent, Then on the road there was a Command car following. Because of that, I would never go to Tri’s house. Besides, Tri capability seemed limited as he was plain honest and his education was no better than reading and writing. So how could he be a spy?” Due to my stupid emotional character, I completely forgot my principle to hide the fact that I knew they followed me. That is why when hearing me they opened their bright eyes to ask,” What did you see, why did you suspect, give the description of the suspected, the suspected cars, since when did you suspect …?” I told them only of the amputee and the Command car since the Kim Lien Station. They let me go.
They called me back very early. There were Duc, Nhuan and Dang the Hue man. It was thunder and storm. They all displayed frozen steel faces. They offensively pressed me, rolling up their sleeves shouting and I was completely off guard. They accused me to have known they followed me for a long time and trying to create confusion to security. I could not have believed that thing could turn out that way. The deposition sessions went on days and nights. I felt so tired, my mind completely beset. Every day they behaved as if I was their mortal enemy. One time out of anger Dang shouted and gave me a kick and I fell,” Miserable, you will die. Do you know that the fate of a spy is death eventually? The socialist regime had opened a road to salvation and you are stubbornly going your way. So let be it!” Then he exited the room. I felt sorry to have acted against my reason, letting the emotion overpower my thinking. Duc and Nhuan stayed wringing me with all kinds of questions. My ears buzzed, I felt dizzy and almost fell to the floor. They still questioned and I answered with an interrupted voice,” Sirs, I am dizzy, please let me go.” Standing and threatening they said,” OK go! Tomorrow if you are not frank you will sleep with the earthworms soon!” Back in the cell, I was hungry but could not swallow my rice. Their attitude was so terrible, this time I could not survive.
One week later, I was like on a burning fire all day, morning, afternoon and night. I saw in Thanh’s eyes some hint of humaneness. He seemed sad and talked less. From time to time, he took turn questioning me. I caught from his eyesight the deep commiseration when the unforgiving hands of three torturers buffeted me like a rag. One day Duc asked me,” How old are you now?” I looked at him and cautiously answered,” Sir, I am 24.” Coldly he went on. “Did you have a sweetheart? Did you give a promise to anyone?” I wondered why he went into my personal things and looked at him to ponder,” When I was in school I had secret loves but had never promised or rendezvoused with anyone.” More question,” Are you the only boy in the family?” My reply,” I have a younger brother now in third grade” Nodding, he coldly said,” You are determined to keep quiet, aren’t you?” While Duc asked questions, Nhuan took notes. I said,” Sirs, I have said everything. If you find any unclear thing, please ask. I swear that I will try the best I can.” Then he asked at once,” So what is your mission up North?” After I said I had given clearly all facts, he gave a violent blow to the desk and shouted,” I let you go, I do not have anymore business with you.”
On my way back to the cell, I worried. The attitudes of the interrogators seemed out of the ordinary. I did not know what would be the outcome. The next day in the deposition room there was only Nhuan who showed me the stool to sit down and said,” Today is my last day with you and I would like to hear from you some true accounts. From the day you came here, through your own eyes, can you tell me the weak points of socialism and what you do not agree with.” He stopped a few minutes to continue like sharing common concerns,” Certainly we still have imperfections. Anyhow, I would like to hear from you, a person from another society who could give a more objective opinion. You have the right to state the truth whatever it could be. I guarantee you that there will not be any influence on your case.” Looking at him I cautiously replied,” Sir, though I went to Hanoi with an assigned mission. I do not like the regime in the South and I did not do anything, as they desired. My only purpose is to visit all the old sights of my childhood and therefore I did not pay any attention to the social problems and it would be difficult for me to be precise.” He said like encouraging,” Ii does matter, just say it out even not precisely. You may show your sincerity!” I rambled,” Sir to say the truth, I am a just grown up man. Besides, I do not have a good education and do not understand politics to know right or wrong. In the streets, I saw that everywhere people are giving their best. They work with a real sense of responsibility not like in Saigon. One thing I like to mention is that we are still poor up here with men pulling carts. Nevertheless in a few years things will change.”
He asked again,” Any other things?” I answered that was what I saw. He retorted,” Any thing you do not agree with socialism?” My answer,” I saw that everything is good. Perhaps, I have a shallow understanding.” He displayed a flat smile, took note of everything I said and asked,” Then practically you agree with socialism in what points?” I thought that I should give him some concrete facts. Therefore, I turned up my face and said with conviction,” I did not like the rich who became richer while the poor are poorer. That is why when I was at Silver Street I was pleased to see Mr. Ky, the husband of miss Thuan walking down street with his wooden clogs. In the past, they were very rich and condescending. We never saw him at the front of his store with sandals.” He softened his voice,” Frankly, why you are determined to not telling the truth? Do you think that we do not have any means to force you?” My answer,” I never dared thinking that way. I fully trusted that the revolution knows best. I had avowed everything from the start. I feel painful that the revolution does not trust me. I do not know what to do to gain that trust.” He stood up with an ironical smile,” I let you go. You save that determination and stubbornness to the world beyond and Diem-Americans will reward you.”.
Liquidation at night
Matron Hoa took me back to the cell. It was raining and dark grey and I felt even darker. I looked at a small lone sparrow coiled up under the eave of the kitchen and remembered the cold-blooded communist liquidations in the past. The sight of two rotten bodies of one Christian congregation chief and a young Christian on the Day River with arms tied in 1952 was still vivid in my mind. Then there was the case of Colonel Hoang Thuy Nam, the head of the Republic of Vietnam Military Delegation after the Geneva Accord. Colonel Nam also had his arms bound, his tongue cut off and nails driven into his head and knees and dumped into Dong Nai River. I had seen with my own eyes those victims of communism. There were so many other cold-blooded killings. At present time, I had no other alternative than to follow the footsteps of my predecessors. In my nightmare, I saw two black dressed men binding my arms and blindfolding me to stab me ten times and dump me at the Pha Den Barge. It was only a bad dream but I had cold sweat.
Two days of apprehension went by. On the third day, the ball-eyed man Bang called me again for deposition. In the room there was only Thanh looking sad and ruddy as if he just had some alcohol. He talked to me with a gloomy tone,” Please sit down Binh.” Then he stayed quiet looking at the window like weighing,” I had tried to see you this time. I had a special affection for you Binh and considered you like my young brother. Today I am telling you with sincerity that I do not have any judgment on your opinion and I want to give you this advice: The wisest thing is to save your head. If you die, everything will become meaningless. Life has millions of facets and you are young seeing only one of them. I like you, if you help me I will help you and I will vouch for you.”
I felt emotional, what Thanh offered was practical. I said,” I appreciate your feeling and I had sensed your good disposition with me. Now how can I help you?” He waived his hand saying,” No I do not want to hear anything from you now. I urge you to think about it tonight and ponder all aspects. In the morning if you want to see me, just tell the warden. In case I do not hear from you then I know that you are not cooperative and I will drop it. My ability and authority have limits.” On my way back to the cell, I had a laden heart and I understood clearly that it boiled down to live or die. If I die, I will save my honor and in case I live, it will be in humiliation. I kept thinking of the examples of steadfastness of the past generations in history. I thought of Christianity, God and the Fathers like Hoang Quynh. I thought of two alternatives. If they already knew, and you avowed it you would show your despicable weakness. As they knew nothing, and you rushed to tell them you will be so low and you betrayed your teachers and friends notwithstanding your ideals. With commies, after using you up they would savage or kill you. The communist never trust anyone except those they brought up. As for Thanh, it is clear that he is a communist applying the principle “goals justify means.” They will never honor promises or contracts. Then I decided to go my way and I slept well under my thick blanket.
Several calm days passed while my inner self was all stormy. It was the start of spring. In the darkness of jail, I could not see Dame Spring. Three days and then five days passed without any new events and my worries faded away. Tonight I could not close my eyes, getting up to pee so often perhaps foreseeing mishaps ahead. Past midnight, I finally sank into slumber. Suddenly I heard thunderous noise. At the door, there were several persons with unfamiliar faces. They looked especially cold and displayed pistols at their sides. One man jerked my blanket off shouting,” Crawl up!” I was in complete disarray when a heavy centrist voice sounded,” We got order to take you out, execute the order!” One man locked my arms in the back while the other put the chain over my shoulder and locked it. They put a black bandana over my eyes and opened the leg-lock. They lifted me up under my armpits and bellowed,” Stand up!” I was appalled. Some day I would be in this situation but it came so suddenly since I thought they still needed more time investigating me? My body lost its feel, my heart dismal while they dragged me barefooted. I shuffled along up and down to perhaps the prison gate. Then I heard the roaring sound of a starting Command car. They grabbed me up and pushed me into it as I had become so skinny. On the quiet roadway, there was only the noise of the engine. My brain was completely frozen thinking of the upcoming death. My soul seemed floating away out of my body. After more than half an hour the car stopped. Two men jerked me up and I heard an ice-cold shout “Down!” I stood up and they had to hoist me down, my feet touching the wet grass, scraping the uneven surface. I listened to the croaking of frogs and the monotonous humming of insects. It must be in an open field. A northern strident voice sounded at a sudden,” CoMr.ade, I have completed the dig-out.” The centrist voice softly asked whether we had lime.
They dragged me along and tied both arms to a column feeling like a tree bark. After a few minutes the heavy centrist voice intoned,
“Hear you! The named Binh!”
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam
Independence, Freedom, Happiness
By order, the Ministry of Security
Decides that the named Dang Chi Binh, 24 is spy for Diem-Americans. He entered the country to commit sabotage of the revolution. Being stubborn to hide his actions detrimental to the country and the people, we hereby impose death penalty.
Along with the humanitarian principles of the revolution, the Ministry grants him five minutes of reprieve to urgently confess and save his own life.
The Ministry of Security of the People,
Signed on this 27 of the month of January of 1963
In a silent night, the only noises were from the mourning wail of the insects and the dry arming of the CKC guns. The voice of the central man intoned solemnly,” Between life and death you are given five minutes, starting now!” My ears hummed, my brain seemed solidified and my heart like stop beating. An instant image of my mother and the regret for Tri appeared and receded faraway. The feeling of water running down my spine and my hands were all wet with perspiration. I heard the loud shout and my heart squeezed,” Four minutes had elapsed, one minute left!” I strained to hear the detonation, my body was all numb senseless. My legs were flaggy unable to support me without the column. I was breathless when the work “execution” echoed in the air. I thought hearing the gun firing, a burning sensation was on my chest sides. Then, complete silence, some mute voices and some hands untying me followed by the strident northern voice,” Fate gives you a few more days to live, we get the order to stop the execution now!” They again lifted me up by my armpits to the vehicle. I was soulless, my body completely lifeless, unable to react to their pushing and dragging. In the car, I heard a familiar voice,” Due to a special circumstance you are given a few more days.” My soul was like bobbing away and my lips shut tight without a word.
I was back to the cell again. They locked my leg, freed my arms and finally took off my bandana. My eyes did not see clear save the multiple circles flying in front of my face and until I could see clearly, they shut the door. It was not daylight yet. I tried to pick up the blanket and felt cold thighs, my pants were all wet, I urinated in them without knowing it. Tired and tense I lay down under the blanket. My soul was sailing here and there like in a nightmare after returning from the death domain. I inadvertently touched my chest sides under my shirt, a state of sorrow enveloping me. I was only a coward being afraid of dying!.
Changing cell, making new friends
Three days passed and I had just recovered my strength and my composure when at 5 PM the ball-eyed warden opened the small window telling me to take out everything. He slid the strut out, and I freed my leg and I hurried to bundle my blankets and mat not forgetting my broom-pillow and my coconut scoop. Today I turned left, crossed a door through a big yard with rows of houses surrounding. There were five or six “badamier” trees having bare branches with new green buds. He led me around the yard, unlocked several doors and got me to an area of cells, having the red marking “Jail II.” The place was located next to the duty gate of the camp having a very good loudspeaker. Coming to cell four, he opened it and rushed me in. I saw another inmate under a cotton blanket. I got my leg into the lock and I nodded at the new inmate who was about 27, 29, looking healthy though displaying a pale greenish skin. I kept busy arranging my things; in here, I had a more open surrounding with more light. At the top of my bed there was a window 1mX60 cm having 2 cm steel bars under a steel netting, the windowsill was about two and half meters above the floor. The other side next to the main entry was a smaller window 50x30 cm also with steel bars and steel net. It was not as quiet as in jail III. A loudspeaker on the main gate to the common camp facing the grape canopy let me hear clearly the broadcast,
During the following evening, I roughly knew of my cellmate through our conversation. His name is Pham Huy Tan working as a nurse in a hamlet of Ha Nam; He was married and had one child. He secretly partook in a political party named Tan Phong under chair Chuong who was at the same time Hamlet Chief. They founded Tan Phong Party three years ago under a flag of golden background and a red star in the middle. The membership counted about a few dozens and their activities spread to the hilly area of Hoa Binh and Tuyen Quang. The communists infiltrated its rank and trapped the whole bunch during a wedding celebration six months ago. I frankly told Tan that I came from the south, letting him know roughly, what I had confessed in my deposition.
During several days, I knew that his story of the political party was real. Anyhow, he was a small player. To save his skin he showed his desire to be “progressive” and I considered him more dangerous than a cadre trick playing turncoat. Anyhow, he was still immature showing satisfaction each time back from deposition. At times, he could not refrain from saying that the interrogators trusted him or they behaved brotherly with him. The warden named Tu showed his appreciations. He gave him menial work like cleaning the outhouse or sweeping the alley between the two rows of cells. Whoever being in jail for a few months is given work outside of the cell would feel gratified, You will be relaxed in the open environment different from the confined status. Besides, you got the trust of the cadres for not taking advantage to communicate with whatever purpose. However, there was still cadre around to watch you. I tested Tan asking whether they will judge him soon, and what could he expect? With some hesitation he replied,” According to a few facts and interaction with the legal people, it looked like I will be in tribunal in about a month. Leader Chuong will get 12 or 15 years. I will get around two to three years and there is chance that I would not be sentenced.” I felt that they wooed this man and he had certainly betrayed several of his partisans. I told him everything I had said in my deposition and would never confide to such an opportunist. However, I was not pleased to see a political member in charge of liaison and propaganda with such an unstable mind.
Jail II had eight cells in two opposing rows. If they did not lock your leg, by standing on the lock you could see the other inmate from his forehead up. Room 8 had a faucet for use as a bathroom and the place to clean your potty. As I was under lock, gradually my hearing became more precise and accurate. That was why I knew who-is-who around. Room 1 had one person with one leg locked; room 2 had two free-legs persons; room 3 uninhabited; room 4 was ours; room 5 opposite ours had one person; room 6 one person; room 7 next to the bathroom had two leg locked female inmates, crying and sobbing tragically at night. According to Tan, male curiosity pushed him to dare standing on a rolled up blanket to look. He said that one of the girls was about twenty and appeared to be a nun. I pitied the female prisoners for their sanitary needs, which were very inconvenient even for men. Besides, the jail warden watched closely through the window and through cracks all night.
Tan showed his surprising understanding on the prison cadres. When arrested he was put in the common camp with hundreds of all various criminals. Due to his colleagues confessions they incarcerated him in cell. Through our conversation, I knew that the Director of Hoa Lo was a southern man named Vo. He had Major rank but being old and knowing many high-ranking members of the Central Committee, they gave him this position. I guessed that the day when they beat and locked my mouth he was the old spectacled man who came and saved me. His two assistants were Lt. Tri a central man and Lt. Le of Hung Yen. There were two nurses, female nurse Dau giving me shots, re-employed as her husband was a planted city cadre. The male nurse named Hue supervised the dispensary. The tree office cadres who often called you to deposition were Bang, matron Hoa and the old spectacled Adjutant Kim. Old Kim was a retained cadre being a communist planted element as jail guard prior to 1954. As for matron Hoa, here was her story. She was native of Quang Tri. Prior to 1954 on order from the party, she sold gluey rice and sweet soup to the soldiers around the military post at Quang Tri. She fell in love and married a soldier of the post. She became an insider and when attacked, the post surrendered. After the truce agreement, she became security at Hoa Lo. In 1961, the twist of event sent her husband as special operative in North Vietnam. When they arrested him, he surprisingly met her again. She gave him a cake and a loaf of bread and delivered a long tirade of indoctrination making him mad throwing the food out in spite of hunger. I pitied matron Hoa when I walked behind her to deposition looking at her sway walking and her dark grey lips. She was a stupid ignorant peasant whom the commies had used to kill our people.
On that Saturday, they called Tan out to receive supplies from his wife. He brought back a slew of foodstuffs and two packs of Truong Son cigarettes. He was a glutton devouring the leftover rice from the other inmates that the warden gave him. He ate the peel of his bananas first before savoring the inside and enjoyed his cigarettes. He whetted my craving and offered to exchange his cigarettes against my half ration. I agreed only half way making him proposing other solutions to no avail. I did not understand why he ate so much and was somewhat fatter than my skinny body. He could not be as muscled and strong as I could before my arrest. The prisoner in room 6 went on a hunger strike. According to Tan, warden Tu told him that supplied with drink he would last five to seven days and without water he could last more than twenty days. Therefore, the cadre would not give any water if the prisoner refused to eat. They called Tan out to clean cell 6. He told me that the room had feces and urines mixed with food and smeared on walls and smelled so bad. The inmate covered his face under blanket and looked about thirty with a fine complexion. It lasted for six days during which you could hear the knocks on the door for water. Then it became silent and on day nine, they opened door 6, slid out the strut hearing the steps hauling him out, dead or alive. Tan had again the cleaning work. He grimaced complaining of the fetid blankets that the warden forced him to wash. Tan also said that now Hoa Lo had so many prisoners crowding the whole yard. According to what he heard from his relative, the Ministry of Security ordered to anyone of the former regime, from private to Adjutant whom they reeducated for a short time in local areas to be in labor camp building socialism.
Those soldiers and NCO’s being somewhat connected with the old regime had always strived their best in the new system. They gained the trust everywhere, in co-operatives, factories and labor unions. After nine years of unflinching efforts, they became members or even leaders of field workers organizations of the socialist system. Some of them were commissars or secretaries of co-ops or labor federations. Now they called them to re-education, regardless of their present assignment because the socialist country was under threat. The people on the street had the fun expression of “putting your foot in the wrong shoe.” If using the wrong shoe for only one day you should be re-educated. The facts showed that after 1975 if the communist left you untouched because they were still busy with matters that were more important, eventually they will get you with so many plausible reasons like, the Seven Fleet was active on the Eastern Pacific, The Chinese were maneuvering or the Thai were moving.
The female prisoners of prison II
End of spring, nature was ready for summer. The air was nice with some scattered late spring showers foretelling the dry hot days ahead. I was sitting considering the ebbs and flows of life when the loudspeaker was turned off at 9 PM. Suddenly, from a cell at the corner with the grape canopy a southern voice intoned forcefully,
“To all the fighters of the Vietnam Air Force, I am Lieutenant Pilot of Squadron 33 of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam. I have heeded the false promise of the Diem-Americans to pilot my C-47 invading the sky of the northern socialist country to drop spies and special operatives. Antiaircraft fire of the revolutionary government downed my plane at Con Thoi, Ninh Binh. They gravely wounded me and owing to care given by the revolutionary state, I am well now. The reeducation and generous protection given me opened my eyes to my treason and the humanitarian policy of the party and the government. I am calling my friends of the Vietnam Air Force to stand up for the happiness of our people and the independence of our country. I want you to fly your aircraft to the liberated areas where you will be welcome as heroes and join your hands in the fight against our Diem-Americans enemy.”
I did not remember the full text but the above was roughly its content. I wondered with Tan of the text writing and broadcasting. He told me that every time you read it they give you $5. Either they forced you to read or you did it showing your improvement and progress. As for the text, they input for you to write and they edited. I deeply meditated on the broadcast. If they recorded Van’s voice and spread it in the south, it would create havoc in the ranks of our combatants and devastate the morale of those who did not have solid understanding of the communist. They now assigned him in work camp for his progress and the cadres treated him well. I remembered seeing him sitting under a tree when they escorted me for the first time through Hoa Lo. Every day the loudspeaker at the gate gave the news of turmoil in the south, the Buddhist instigated by the bloody hands of the communist agitators and the lack of sense of responsibility of the southern administration. I was in the miserable life in prison and now I worried on the situation at home.
The next day the loudspeaker had stopped, meaning that it was 8am the start of the workday. We did not see the duty man letting us out to empty our potty. Tan kept walking back and forth and stood up glancing at the gate. He looked happy saying that they still had the gate closed. He was smart knowing that it was safe to communicate and called in low voice,” Number 7, number 7!” Again, he repeated “Number 7!” A very clear female voice answered,” Who called?” Tan said,” This is number 4, how are you lately?” The same voice answered,” Thank you, I am OK.” Tan went on,” what were you arrested for?” After one minute of silence, we again heard the clear voice,” Sounding the church bell to let the Christians know that security came to arrest Father.” Tan suddenly jumped down with exorbitant eyes and the small window opened when warden Tu shouted,” Who just stood up to communicate from this cell?” It was just a question because he knew that as I had my legs locked there was no doubt. Tan clasped his hands twisting them together while Tu pulled the strut out followed by a dry order,” Put your legs in.” Sympathy or not, if you committed infraction you still got your locks!
When I first came to prison II, I knew that there were two leg-locked girls in cell 7. It could not be for criminal offense. These two girls must be serious political detainees. Perhaps she was my counterpart with document M. With Tan description as a nun looking person about twenty years old, I felt relaxed. I speculated that if the two belonged to the same organization they would not put them in the same cell. I concluded that one of the two was feigned. I must find a way to inform the other one. Anyhow, it was not possible due to my immobilized leg.
That afternoon while I lay down with random thoughts, warden Bang called me to deposition. Was there any change since I had waited for one week? From the night, they took me out to the firing squad, during those three months they had called me for that duty two or three times per week with same tactics, wooing, threatening and sentimentality. Now I had more experiences to know their ruses and acting, I just stayed put with my confession, at time, pretending to be stupid or acting troubled and lost to deflect their judgment. One day all three of them vehemently banged on the desk, hustling chairs. They had asked clemency avoiding my execution so that I comprehended the generosity of the party and truthfully confess. They spared a man life to make him into a better citizen. If he kept acting vile, it would be better off shooting all of them dead. I must say that I was not afraid anymore since the day they wanted to shoot me. Anyhow, I acted scared and apprehensive begging them to understand my truthful confession. In the room, I saw the three Nhuan, Duc and Dang displaying ice-cold visages with on the desk a very thick briefcase. After looking at me for a while, Nhuan solemnly asked me,” How long have you been in here?” With caution I replied,” Sir, more than ten months.” “Do you know that your people had sent up here how many acolytes looking for you?” I was anxious but acted like hearing a joke,” They were looking for me for what? I was a no-name guy whom they paid a few month salaries and threw up here for propaganda. They would not care if I was arrested, alive or dead.” Dang sitting quiet until he gave a big blow to the desk and pointed his finger at me,” Shut up! We let you know that our people coming back from the south had fully reported on you. You are an inveterate stubborn daring to “fight stone with eggs” and fool the Ministry of Security!” He took out from the briefcase a thick envelope sliding out a 6x9 photo among the stack and threw it on the desk,” Look at it and confess now. We shall not give you any more leeway!” A quick glance squeezed my heart. They took the photo at the corner of Nguyen Hue Boulevard across from Rex Movie showing the tall Phan having sunglasses and wearing a checkered shirt next to me in white shirt and clear glasses. I was stunned and in a quick reflex, thinking of the principle of compartmentalization in the espionage department I put out a feeler stating forcefully that it is Hoa my trainer. I added that I trust more the revolution to clarify my situation. Duc stood up at once, pointed his finger to my face and vociferated,” Do not utter falsehood! Was he Hoa?” I answered right away,” Sir he is Hoa my trainer who went out with me daily. I cannot make mistake about him.”
It was a chanced happening. I had always selected my uncle owner of Import Export Business, a big and light complexioned man to describe my trainer. Phan is also tall with the difference in his tanned skin. Anyhow, in the photo how could you differentiate? That was why I kept ascertaining that it was Hoa. They seemed very mad and angry. Through their attitude, I felt surer and gave back the photo confiding that,” It is undeniable that the party had arrested Hoa and will clarify my situation. I hope that I would confront him to throw to his face my hatred. Dang gave out a flat smile while Nhuan mockingly said that I looked handsome and dignified wearing clear glasses. I laughed saying,” You are fully aware of the society in south Vietnam where everything is artificial. A stupid man would always pretend to be intellectual wearing reading glasses and carrying all kinds of foreign languages books. It contaminated me with that way of life; I wore clear glasses with golden rim. I am shameful of my artificial behavior.” Dang dryly shouted,” Get out of here!”
Back to the cell, I felt relieved still knowing those things would not end there. Many nights I reexamined many points and came up with the facts that I was uncovered probably at Father A under constant surveillance or from Paul Lang in Paris being paid by Hanoi counter espionage. Now the photo of Phan and I makes me more dubious.
They locked Tan for four days when matron Hoa called him out for deposition. He had only one legal man named Chau from the political section of office 44. Why I had so many of them and each time I had two to three interrogators. Perhaps as a spy, they must devote more time and effort. After nearly two hours, Tan was back to gather his things and quickly told me that they transferred him to the common camp waiting for the tribunal. I felt easier by myself not bothering anyone. The next day the left side girl of cell 7 went to the common camp and then came the turn of the other girl who silently left. I could be certain that she was the bait prisoner. I had the feeling to be solitary with only one leg-locked man of cell one, one free-leg of cell 2 and another free-leg of cell five.
Hatred beating by the interrogators
Bitterness in prison life
I remembered clearly the date of 9 April, five days after my deposition. After emptying and cleaning my potty, I filed my nails on the cement floor expecting the lunch when the window opened suddenly. To the sound and way of opening it, I knew that it was an unfamiliar person. I looked up when the door opened and saw the deputy chief Lt. Le in front with warden Tu behind him. Looking at me Le rigidly said,” By order of higher authority we will lock your two legs. Follow the orders!” I felt dizzy and asked the reason to which he answered that it was by order of high authority and I must execute. A veil of darkness seemed dropping over me. They were again torturing my miserable body. I got my legs into the jaws like going gradually into a tomb. After securing the lock Le turned back to say,” You must think well otherwise you will not live!” The door slammed shut. It was clear that they locked me up due to my stubbornness. Up to now, they stayed behind their “democracy mask,” winning the people to their righteous cause and educating the culprit by forgiveness. Now they removed their mask appearing fully as a red devil with fangs and bloody claws.
Having two legs in lock was the worst torture for your excretion needs. For discharge of excrements, I must try to do it every other day. To urinate, even drinking less I must do it every three or four times during day. As for nighttime, if I cannot sleep well two or three times were required. And with all my efforts I could not prevent from spraying all over the floor and my bed since I had only one position, to move side way on the bed and aim hit-and-miss to the pot on the floor. Necessity is the mother of invention. I thought of having my legs cross-locked. Then I had to lie belly down and I could only face to one side. Anyhow, I could kneel, fold fully my legs and sit down on the lock giving relief to my tired legs. There was an inconvenience. I could kneel and aim my jet to the potty on the floor spraying somewhat on the bed. Anyhow, for pooping there was no way bringing my butt out to the edge of the bed; I could use the trick only during day and I must reverse to the classical way at night. One day I sat comfortably on the lock staring at the small piece of sky with a few grape leaves moving slowly in the breeze and giving me some poetic enjoyment. The window opened suddenly and I quickly glanced at the face of warden Tu. He checked and understood why I crossed my leg into the lock but could not do anything, as it was not against regulations.
Again, they took many people into jail and every cell had inmates. About noon, I heard the opening of a cell and the voice of a Chinese speaking Vietnamese with a queer accent,” Fuck you! Why did you arrest me” I heard the opening of cell 6, the clicking of the leg-lock and the loud voice of warden Tu,” Shut up and put your legs in the lock!” Then the shuffling noise, the pushing, struggling and silence came again. I heard a coarse voice,” What I did to lock me? You did not let me doing business. My wife and my kids had to eat cassava and they did not have enough. To buy beans, salt you must be in long line and they were in short supply. Kill me, kill my wife and children! Fuck communism! Fuck revolution!” It became louder and louder, the window opened and Tu shouted steely,” Shut up, don’t you want to die?” Again the Chinese roared,” Kill me, fuck your mother, I do not want to live anymore. You deprived rice to the people. Fuck your mother, coMr.ades, fuck communism!” Several cadres ran to the cell and an unfamiliar voice ordered,” Lock up his mouth and if he does not submit get him to the solitary cubicle.” The Chinese became enraged and kept insulting followed by the door opening, the struggle and finally the mute sound of his locked mouth. If they locked up your mouth, they also must tie your hands in the back to prevent you from unscrewing the mouth-lock. I still had cold sweat when thinking of my days with bloody body and locked mouth.
On 16 April, Tu opened the room to gather blankets, blouson and mat. I supplicated him to let me have a blanket and he sternly said that principle was principle. I took off my jacket, roll up my blankets and he threw them outside the door for a common criminal prisoner to pick up for wash and storage until next winter. They turned on the gate loudspeaker at 5am with the high pitch voice of a girl counting the exercise movements followed by news of youth activities, workers camps, factories and People Army news until 8am. Every week, Monday and Friday are “in-and-out merchandises days” according to their parlance. Starting at three or 4 am, they assembled prisoners in the yard at the grape canopy. The voices of prisoners mixed with the shouting of guards on food supply, locks and chains before going to the Central Camp. I heard clearly, which groups, common penal or political would go to which prison, chained together by pairs. They assembled everyone the night before in a transit house and they divided them to the camps of Vinh Quang, Phu Son, Vinh Tien, Pho Lu, Camp 5, etc. I was able to hear the cadres talking and discussing and get an understanding on the situation of the North Country.
In the afternoon, the warden asked cell 6 whether the Chinese prisoner was still screaming or not. A moment of silence, then the warden opened the cell with stern voice,” From now on if I hear one screaming from you I will lock your mouth and your two legs for a few days and you will die!” After a short moment of shuffling came the sound of unlocking. Then you heard the steps sliding out for rice and water and the shutting of cell door. The Chinese man was fully subdued and in line. You should be scared. I had tasted it for two days and I still had fears. The next day I heard again the opening of cell 6 and the shout of the warden rushing the inmate to take his stuffs out to the common camp. I understood that they did not incriminate the Chinese for any serious offense. He was discontented and badmouthed in the street so security arrested him. In the common camp, he kept insulting and they locked him in cell. Now coming to reason after punishment, they sent him back to the central camp.
On one Friday morning while I was dead tired lacking sleep and food in a restricted position all night the outside female quarrelling noises woke me up. They shipped those female prisoners to the Mo Chen Camp, which I did not know where it was. I heard ration counting, handcuffing and the two girls squabbling, for the 43 position, an odd number when you were by yourself unchained. Then the sobbing of the girl followed by a scream,” Pick your rice, whore and stop crying!” Another voice clearly sounded,” Damn your ancestors whore, you eat so many dry fish heads and now you sit there crying to make our entrails rotten!” I remembered my days in the streets of Hanoi when I was fifteen seeing the gracious and elegant girls of Trung Vuong School. Then after I went to Saigon, I contemplated with rapture the girls of Trung Vuong and Gia Long schools with jade black eyes, eggshell complexions, pinkish heels and the three beautiful measurements wearing long white gloves on their black VeloSolex. They created beautiful paintings.
Now I am back in Hanoi, the thousand-year-elegant capital of nobility and delicateness. For almost a month, I could not see the same comparable image of Saigon. Only one time on the Reed Mat Street, I perceived on the balcony of a house a young girl with an oblong face doing her morning exercise presenting her perfect body. In the months and years after living in the remote wilderness areas, I could see beautiful northern girls, mostly the matron cadres. I realized then human psychology looking to things according to the conditions of the environment. The communist exploited to maximum the principle to dominate the people. They gradually eliminated the difference between happiness and misfortune, beauty and ugliness, patriotism and betrayal. They totally brainwashed the people and removed from them the perception of right and wrong.
It was in full summer. It became hotter and hotter and mosquitoes multiplied. Especially in prison II with lower and bigger windows, they entered in droves. I was exhausted due to the locks and the mosquitoes. I had to stay up all night fanning away mosquitoes with my shirt. Mosquitoes abounded here because the windows are lower and bigger. I was the one not having any mosquito net and offering full fares to all the blơod-sucking insects. Perhaps my body had lost its immunity and due to the constant state of filthiness. Sores and galls covered my body that became itchy and infected. I had reported many times before nurse Dau gave me a vial of gall pomade. Anyhow, after use I had to put it away at the lock of the next bed. Perhaps they were afraid that the prisoner would use it as poison to commit suicide. Everyday when they let me go out to empty and clean my potty I had to report and rush using my pomade before they locked me up again.
After thirty days in lock and not being called to deposition my feet became more and more painful feeling like bitten from the bones out. They swelled puffy to the extent that I could not raise them up. I will die this time but I rather die quickly with a bullet. Instead of, they wanted me to die a slow death in pain and misery, watching death coming slowly. As a Christian, I could not commit suicide. Anyhow, if I wanted I would not be able to do it with my locked position. My spirit was at its lowest point with intense pain in my feet and the constant itch. I could not sit up and lie down constantly to maintain blood circulation. I had to crawl out to get my rice and do it very slowly. One day the impatient warden grabbed the collar of my shirt to jerk me back. He made rice and soup spill all over the floor. I had to crawl picking them up as much as I could with my hands. Perhaps seeing my dire condition he reported and the assistant director Le came, standing at the door because the room was so fetid. He said,” Why you were so obstinate to not confess fully?” With a breathless voice I replied,” I had confessed … everything … but they did not believe me.” .
The door closed and I lay down feeling like bobbing on a boat, my ears humming. Certainly, I would die tonight; my body could not stand it any more after forty-three days under locks. My two legs became completely stiff. I wanted to slide down and bend them a little bit but my arms were so weak and flaggy. God, let me die. Mosquitoes, you may enjoy my blood which would become ash and dust. I passed out. Somebody pulled me up. I opened my eyes to see a man in white robe giving me an injection. I was not anymore in the cell and I was on a wooden bed, my two legs stretched out widely. I guessed the man was nurse Hue and asked,” Sir where is it here?” With a brighten face he smiled,” The infirmary, I have thought that you were gone last night. You have a miraculous living will!” I lay down, trying to recollect all the events; last evening I suddenly felt weightless losing all sense of pains and itchiness and back in Saigon meeting my mother who gave me a thick book with golden characters saying that this is a very precious book. I passed out and some checking guard got permission to take me to the infirmary. It was fateful; God had not wanted me to die. I felt itchy again and while trying to lift my legs they were still weighty but I could manage. I strived and with difficulty, I could sit up. I was in a small room just by myself.
Suddenly the door opened showing a large room next door with single beds having all the skinny bony patients looking like skeletons. Nurse Dau came in, opening her brightened eyes looking at me,” Yesterday I thought you were gone.” I raised my appreciative eyes and asked some pomade for my sore gall. She nodded a little bit and left showing a positive attitude. Having the urge to urinate I saw in a corner a pot and strained to slide down slowly moving to the pot to relieve. The shot had given me some strength back. I lay down on my bed again looking at my puffed up and weighty feet. Nurse Hue came back followed by an ordinary prisoner with a steamy hot bowl of rice soup. He also gave me the vial of gall pomade. I asked,” Sir, how long can I stay?” He cautiously replied,” I am not sure but perhaps a few more days.” I was so scared to be back to the cell. I finished my hot soup and sweated profusely feeling much better. As there was no bath facility and I was all by myself, I removed all my clothes scratching to break the sore crusts and applied the pomade with the hope to be fully cured when I regained my prison cell.
They gave me another hot soup. When I finished eating, assistant Le came with warden Bang, looking at me with a more amiable expression. He started his discourse,” Have you seen that you should have died last night without the humanitarian principle of the Party. The Party and Revolution had returned you to life. You must be grateful forever. I have given instruction to improve your diet with one week of bran rice. To repay you must frankly confess everything. You still have a long life ahead to benefit of the generosity of the party and government and reintegrate into the society.” Hearing his rerun over and over litany I put my hand on my chest and very slowly said without conviction,” At the very bottom of my heart I am very grateful to the party and revolution and especially to you.” With gratified tone, Le went on,” Due to your health condition I have given order to dispense you of leg-lock. Right after going back to the cell you must have deep thoughts on your past mistakes and confess all the ruses and stratagems of Diem-Americans to harm the people, the Party and the country. That is the only way for you to benefit from the generosity and forgiveness of the Party.” Regardless of what they said, the hearing of the words “dispense of leg-lock” made my soul dandling, feeling like having a big stone removed from my chest.
At 5 PM, warden Bang escorted me back to the cell. The dying day of summer with its slanted rays gave the whole scenery a glorious golden illumination. A few sparrows were chirping in the branches displaying new green leaves swaying in the breeze like sharing with me the return to life. Bang led me to prison II into cell 2 closer to the gate and closer to the talkative loudspeaker. Seeing his good disposition, I asked him to let me retrieve my broom pillow left in room 4. He opened cell 4, which now had occupants and told me to go look for it in the washroom. I found it all wet and full of feces, which I washed off quickly and took back to my new cell. Bang was much easier with me today. The cell was dirty. I actively cleaned up the two platforms and the floor under. Then I undressed to start my active gall treatment. That night to defend against mosquitoes, I put one prison uniform on and use the second pant to cover my legs tying the waistband to my knees. The extra shirt covered my head with my hands on it. I perspired a lot but it was still better than being prey to mosquitoes. I had a very good sleep that night.
The next day was washday. I scratched open all gall sores and smeared pomade on them. Gall subsided and I regained my strength in three days to move around leisurely in the cell. I strained to read the small inscription left on the wall by previous prisoners, engraved with a piece of steel wire or a nail. I saw “Tran Minh Chau, alias Cap 1958 spy case,” then ”case of the gold seal of Bao Dai,” etc. I was trying to decipher those inscriptions when matron Hoa called me to deposition. I was angry back from death feeling hatred and decided to behave consequently. I saw Nhuan and Thanh, showed them my cold face and sat right down on the stool. Nhuan looked at me and said with a false moralist voce,” How are you lately, why you look so skinny.” I flatly said,” Thank you, I am OK!” Thanh talked with an insipidly sentimental voice,” We have been quite busy for sometimes and miss you. Today we pay you visit with the believing that time has changed for the better with you. If you have something to express we are ready to examine your new ideas.” I gave a quick response,” Sirs, when you gave order to lock my two legs I almost died. If it was not luck I could not have survived to come here and think about your questions.” Both of them opened their eyes pretending astonished and Thanh asked. “What? So were you locked? Who told you that we gave that order?” That is typical communist. It was hypocritically obdurate. I felt heat swarming through my body and I did not care anymore, looking straight to their face I said,” I had fully given all truth and I regret it now!” Nhuan stood up menacing giving a big blow to the desk. Pointing his finger to my face he said,” Liar, why do you dare addressing the state employees like that?” I kept my face up and with a firm voice stated,” I have thought you were right digging in my mind and I gave you all details. When I came here, I did nothing for the Diem-Americans and you subjected me to the tortures of the colonialist to become a wretched body. Then when you see that I could not survive you gave me a temporary reprieve.”
I showed them my hands and feet,” Look at them still swollen and covered with sores. Give the order to shoot me and I shall be thankful.” Nhuan gave a flat smile while Thanh sat still. A short while later he said loud,” We said we did not lock you up. Let me check with the prison. I tell you we do it squarely, and do not have to lie with you. People like you are not worthy to save. You had eaten all the leftover butter and cheese of Diem-Americans. You are determined to be a traitor to the country and if we let you live it would only be a waste of the people’s rice.” I could not stand it anymore. I talked with resentment,” I am a young man having the Vietnamese blood flowing forcefully in my body. If foreigners invaded my country, I will be at the forefront to defend this beautiful land. I shall die for this country neither for money nor for recognition. I do not like the Americans and I will oppose whoever wanting to control my country and put its independence in jeopardy …” Both of them displayed a somber face and to calm the situation, I continued,” I am a patriot and I love my country. Perhaps I did it the wrong way!” Thanh smiled and used a conciliatory tone,” It is good that you love the country. Why don’t you tell the revolution all the ruses and tricks that Diem-Americans want you to do up here?” I wanted to take advantage of what they said to coin my statement,” That is why I did not wait until now. I had from the beginning the responsibility to tell you everything that the enemy had wanted me to do. You had understood my thoughts and from now on stop using the words traitor to the country and the people with me.” They both laughed and one moment later Nhuan used a half kidding half-quizzical question,” I must frankly ask you what you do not agree with socialism to prevent you from saying all the truth? I have investigated many cases but yours is a tough one for me. Whoever sees the light of righteousness would sincerely give all details. You are the only one who keeps it to yourself.”
Then he showed a bright face to flatter and court,” Do you know that we thought a great deal of you. We wanted to come up with a favorable solution for you. If we could get you into the revolution, it would be very beneficial to the state and the revolution. With the Party, bentwood will serve for bent construction and straight wood used when we need for straight structure. Your ability could bring good results in the service of the people.” I smiled and answered with a neutral voice,” I appreciate your thinking but perhaps it was a joke. I am young and crude and it is too much from you to call me capable. As I am arrested and a criminal all I desire is to repent and submit to punishment.” Before dismissing me Nhuan showed his friendliness to encourage me “to think about the problem thoroughly and they will resolve my case to satisfaction.”
I limped back to the cell with Bang, chuckling on their low class comedy. I was not that naïve to forget about the bottom of their darkest heart. I was like a fish and they were the one fishing. If you took the bait, you ended up in their basket or getting your mouth bloody. It was 5 June today, in mid summer and it was so hot and dry. After one-week diet with rice bran, my feet deflated and the gall sores became scars with treatment. I was in Hanoi one year and eight days and spent my time in Hoa Lo twenty days shy of a year. The only misfortunes were heat and mosquitoes. If I bared my body for air, the mosquitoes would suck my body and I will be sick not having enough to eat. I had to cover the best I can with my two jail uniforms and perspiration made me so smelly. People used to say “the prisoner, the leper, the wood splitter, the charcoal helper,” the four dirty kinds of persons. I had to resign to my situation.
The price the hero of Dien-Bien-Phu had to pay
It was early morning. It suddenly became so dark. I looked out of the window, sitting on the lock. One small piece of beautiful sky suddenly turned dark and laden with water. The spark of lightning illuminated the whole scenery followed by a bolt of thunder vibrating the whole room. Then a successive artillery explosion went from one side to the other. In the dark prison I felt completely excluded from the outside, listening to the thundering sound, insulated from the human world. The wind started blowing hard and rain fell, at first scattered on the rooftop to end up like an avalanche. Rain and wind of nature came and went while rain and storm in your soul kept unabated. The door opened, a big man having a big beard and carrying a kaki color blanket came in followed by warden Tu. We nodded at each other and he arranged his things on the next bed, clothing, tobacco, matches, in a shamble perhaps after inspection by prison guards. He looked at the two big leg-locks and said,” Those terrible looking locks. Perhaps the colonialists built this prison and the regime preserved it to show the atrocious colonial system. I just smiled back unsusceptible.
He asked loudly,” How long did they arrest you?” I gave a straight answer,” One year.” He rounded his eyes,” One year! Aren’t you kidding?” I smiled and asked back,” How about you?” “Just today, I was arrested at Vinh this morning and taken here now.” He looked savage though through conversation he sounded nice and open. I ventured inquiring,” What did they arrest you for?” “Crossing borders.” He turned up his jaw and asked,” How about you?” I was like kidding,” Crossing borders too.” He stared widely and ogled me and for not too shocking, I said,” But from South to North.” He stopped arranging his stuffs to turn about asking,” So you like socialism and the socialist regime here?” My reply made him somewhat pensive,” Not only I do not like it, I also oppose it and that is why I am now in their prison.” He retorted,” Does that mean …?” “It means that I belong to the Saigon administration and I infiltrated here as a spy.”
He looked so gratified. At night, we exchanged thoughts and knew roughly each other. His name is Hoang Hung and he joined the revolution on 19 August 1945 when he was 21 to become Army. In 1958, they transferred him to the Ministry of Finance. He married in 1959 and now has two young children. He said that the motive for crossing the borders was quite complex and he was caught when his friend wanted to part with his lover in Vinh and the thing was uncovered. He also showed his desire to know of the southern regime under President Ngo Dinh Diem. He took out his small pipe and tobacco and wanted me to join in. I jumped to his bed watching him prepare the pipe. He sucked with a humming sound, straining his neck, his eyes half closed and exhaling through his rounded up lips like from the smokestack of a boat. I also tried once to feel high and hazy like floating on the wavy ocean surface. At bedtime, when the loudspeaker stopped he told me to join under his mosquito net, head to toe. As the bed was narrow, I went back to mine and did the usual preparation against the bloodthirsty insects. He threw to me his empty bag to use as pillow. I felt rising in me a sentimental feeling of companionship between persons of the same country. He and I had belonged to two opposing front lines. We were now together in the same reality to fulfill and understand the beauty of humankind belonging to the same patrimony. It made me confident that regardless of their method and system, the communists would be unable to change the fundamental basis of human nature. `
Hung always inquired of the regime in the South. He went into minute details, asking the cost of one kilo of rice and beef. I only told him the concrete facts since President Ngo Dinh Diem came home to take the rein of the country. He went to deposition continually and let me use his pipe. I did it three times a day and became addicted to raw tobacco since then. Lately he seemed very preoccupied, coming back from deposition and he talked less. He went to bed early saying he had headache. He was in here nearly one month and they did not permit his family to visit him yet. As usual, I took in the bowl of rice for him but it sat there untouched and cold. In the afternoon when he was back, with a reddened face and the lips glued shut, Warden Tu followed in displaying a menacing face to slide the strut out. He ordered Hung to move the bowl of rice off the lock and shouted,” Put your legs in!” Hung slowly put one leg in and Tu shouted again,” The other leg too!” Hung’s face was redder while he trusted his other leg in the lock. Warden Tu slammed the jaw down and it cut his leg bloody. Without a word, Hung closed his eyes and lay down, his face turned dark purple.
I was thoughtful about Hung’s life in the sacrifice to the country. Perhaps he had showed them his anger during deposition. The irony of fate had given him the answer when he talked about the locks built by the French colonialist and now preserved by the party as a remembrance of past atrocity. I put my hand on his shoulder and begged him to sit up eating his rice. He only shook his head without a word and I returned to my bed respecting his privacy. The window opened. Tu showed his face and opened the door shouting,” Do you eat your rice or not?” Hung clenched his teeth and lay still. Tu shouted again to me in a rugged voice,” Take that bowl out!” I lay down thinking randomly when at 6 PM Hung raised his sad voice asking me to help hooking up his mosquito net. I turned and returned in my bed with all kinds of thoughts about Hung and his huge legs. How he could cope with position change for his sanitary needs. The loudspeaker stopped quite a while ago. Suddenly I heard the choked sound of suffocation and saw through the dim light the enlarging dark red spot on his shirt. I got up to see blood all over his shirt wetting his blanket while he lay still, his complexion changed to pale grey and his eyes tightly shut. I screamed to the window,” Reporting, a man committing suicide at cell 2.”
The clanking sounds of keys and an unfamiliar face showed up in civilian clothes wearing a pistol at his side. He lifted the mosquito net and the blanket to see the coagulated blood of the locked legs. Then I saw Hung’s throat slashed with bubbling small balloon of blood, his wrist and elbows cut open. Nhiem found the razor blade and they lifted the body onto a wooden litter. I remembered that despicable The beating me when I first was in here. Nhiem ordered me to gather all Hung belongings, including his small pipe, matches and tobacco. With his approval, I ran out taking three pots of water to rinse off the bed and floor. It was past midnight and I stayed awake smelling the trite blood odor wondering whether Hung was dead or alive. I forgot about the sack he gave me to use as pillow. One day when warden Tu was about to close the door I raised the sack. I said that this belonged to Hung and I would want to return to him. Tu looked at the old military sack and slowly said,” I give it to you.” Therefore, Hung was no more. Did his folks know about it? Where are they now? I still had so many things I would like to tell you and I would like to ask you so many things. Why did you leave so quickly? You forgot about your young wife and young kids taking with you hatred and rancor. I suddenly sobbed, sighing in grief for a meaningless life. His story haunted me every night awakening me to see on the next bed the image of Hung stiffened in locks all smeared in blood as if he was still there.
The second winter
This morning warden Bang called me to deposition. I saw only Nhuan who displayed a big smile showing me the stool to sit down and said,” I expect to hear new things from you. I trust that during the last half month you have thoroughly thought of the problems. I leave it to you to say it out freely and boldly. You are holding the key to your future.” Listening, I showed my despair and pains. After he urged me I fully opened up,” Sir, I had thought that the state fully understand my sincerity. Now you tell me to open my door to my future I am unable to react. I see that the party has not given a fair conclusion to my case and I have waited for it more than one year now.” He stopped smiling stiffening his voice,” It is OK. We are still ready to leave the door open welcoming the straggling kids back to our fold. It is better late than ever. Now I would like you to describe the thatched house at Cau Cong where Hoa trained you.”
I worried somewhat. Seeing the photo of Phan and me, I was certain that they had planted their men in there. It meant that they could cross check. I had taken the house of a Chinese friend in Cholon whom I knew well. All I had was to dig in my memory all the details. While I talked he listened and wrote down, quizzing on things he deemed unclear. He dismissed me at almost noontime. He called me again in the afternoon giving me five sheets of paper and showed me to a small table at the corner,” You write down all details about that house, the tools, furnishings, in and out of the house, the way from Khanh Hoi to it. On another sheet, you draw a sketch with annotation going from Saigon to Khanh Hoi onto the alley leading to the address. Holding the paper to the desk, my brain was all-tense. Was this a final knot for them to untie the whole spơol, I had thought carefully. Seeing that the only way was to move forward, I did it without hesitation. My sketch looked clear and precise though I still saved some cracks for future use.
Back in the cell, I found the door opened and warden Tu holding a few pieces of striped cloth from my pants. He offensively asked where I took them. I told him it came from the old uniform I got when I first came here one year ago. It was torn and I saved some for use as washcloth. I used the top part as my underwear, which I showed to him under my pants. Thinking that they were looking for reason to lock me up, as I did not commit any infractions to internal regulations, they use the old pants to accuse me of the crime of destruction of property of socialism. He pulled the strut out and ordered me to put in my legs. Another period of hardship started with lost freedom. The cruel leg-lock kept me isolated in the solitude of prison cell day in and day out and months after months.
At the off time, the cadres got their bicycles to go home. I suddenly heard mixed voices from a group going from the Hoa Lo gate to the common gate of the camp .Nhiem raised his voice,” Why are you so late today?” Then Tan answered sobbing,” I have to report that the tribunal just finished its session.” Nhiem said in a harsh tone,” Are you so innocent to cry? What are you taking in here?” Came a choked voice followed by nose blowing and a wailing tone,” I must report that our families gave us some supplies.” “Are you Chuong? How many years did the court give you?” A craggy voice sounded,” Reporting, life!” “I ask about you?” A bellow voice sounded,” twenty years!” “What is the fate of this man?” Tan voice, weeping convulsively,” Fifteen years!” I thought about Tan naivete. He was subjective until he received a hammer blow serving as a lesson for me to act and think in the future.
It changed to winter and my fingers and toes started to swell up painful again. The voice of assistant Le sounded threatening with anger,” Yesterday who was the coMr.ade using my bike?” A hesitant voice answered,” CoMr.ade I did not go down town; may be coMr.ade The?” Le again rose his voice angrier,” You never asked me before taking my bicycle. Every time I use it, either there was the loss of a brake pad, a mud shield or a broken brake cable. I had it fixed and the same thing happens again. Even locked you pried it open. I must tell you that we are not yet in the period of social communism.” Through the exchanges, I realized that in their mind they still believed in the bright future of socialism. I also deducted that the people of North Vietnam were looking forward to the beautifully painted cake promising them succulent and aromatic savor.
This morning after opening the door for potty work, warden Tu pointed to the hip of blankets and vests in the corner for each one to get a blanket and eventually a vest. When my turn came, as I was the longest tenure inmate, Tu showed his good disposition and said,” You have not enough clothes, I let you get the thickest blanket plus a vest.” I got that thick blanket and a good vest about 80%. Thinking of the next winter cold I humbly showed him my swollen hands and feet asking for an extra blanket if there would still be available. He did not say a word and told me to enter the cell. I put my feet into the lock. Anyhow seeing that he did not lock I got it out glancing from time to time at the lock. Tu finally opened my cell, and showed me three blankets on the ground telling me to fold it and he lent me one extra. I had the feeling of a child getting his gift and hurried in with the blanket for my warmth during the upcoming winter.
The surprise victory for the communists
The coup d’etat in the south
It was 2 November, the cold drizzling winter rains made everything damp, the whole sky laden without a hint of sunshine. From time to time the freezing breeze penetrated through cracks bringing with them solitary coldness to punish the hungry prisoner. As usual, I lay down in my solitude regardless of the strident voice of the female announcer. On at a sudden I heard that voice announcing the toppling of Ngo Dinh Diem by a coup of the Council of Generals of Saigon. My heart oppressed; I crawled up straining my eyes and my ears towards the loudspeaker. Outside the cadres were discussing noisily when a voice shouted lightly,” CoMr.ades keep quiet to hear first!” The loudspeaker still sounded clearly,” The coup troops are in control of the situation. The brothers Ngo Dinh Diem are isolated in the basement of Gia Long Palace. The atmosphere in Saigon is very tense and apprehensive.”
I was astounded and nervous. Would the fate of the country be so tragic? Was this reality or communist propaganda? With my logical thinking, I knew this was reality. Anyhow, sentimentally I persisted to think it as a communist spy-war ploy with the purpose of spreading rumor detrimental to the morale of the people. From the day they arrested me I had not recited prayers. Today, facing the danger to a person, I love and to the entire nation, I implored God to grant protection to President Ngo in whom I reserved veneration. They had carried the pots of rice and soup to the usual location and I did not notice it. Until they opened the door telling me to get my ration, I jolted as if I just woke up from a nightmare of blood and fire. After I got my food I did not as usual swoop down to eat with rapture. I remained cool and detached, waiting the 5 PM broadcast to know of the evolving situation back home.
The situation in Saigon was still tense with round the clock imposed martial law. The coup side seemed to be reaching 90% success requesting President Diem to surrender before they bombed Gia Long Palace. The commentary of Hanoi broadcast showed objectivity even though one could read in between lines their wish to see Ngo Dinh Diem toppled, a person they feared and whom their political apparatus was trying by all means available to destroy. Now some people were doing that work for them and certainly, they were shaking each other’s hands saluting such a sudden victory. I could not sleep through the night with all thoughts churned in my mind, expecting to hear the morning broadcast. The cold winter wind wailed as the advance signal to the descendants of the Fairy and the Dragon of a period of despair and tragedy. There was news that the brothers Ngo had escaped through an underground tunnel out of the Palace to the Church of Father Tam in Cholon. According to that exasperate loudspeaker, they took them back in an Army armored vehicle. They killed both on the way with bayonet and bullets. My ears buzzed, my nose suffocated, the grape leaves out there were like dancing wildly to my eyes. Was it true or just a nightmare? The shouting of two cadres running to the gate,” Ngo Dinh Diem is no more, Ngo Dinh Diem is killed,” gave me a freezing chill along my spine. My painful heart seemed torn to pieces.
In general, the communist cadres were non-communicative, displaying stern faces, unlike the smiling faces in the south. It was more typical with the prison cadres. Today they burst into hurrahs, dancing joyfully in public. In the context of present Vietnam, half of the country was under the communists while the other half had a Front of Liberation planted by them. The Nationalist camp did not have enough time to settle, the people still divided between right and wrong. Therefore, a change of leadership was most beneficial to the enemy. President Diem had imperfections, but as there was no better man, we must opt for the not too perfect one and try to improve him. The Generals conducting their revolution to start mutual destruction for personal interests were lending their hands to the enemy. The communist smelled it quickly and knew that the morale of our people and the military was at its lowest. After the meeting of their political bureau, the legal cadres shouted into my face,” If not due to the international situation and pressure, all we need is five well armed and trained divisions to easily force our way from Ben Hai to Saigon. Your people and Army would disband disorderly.” Our fighters in communist jail or the silent hopeful people for liberation from communism by the south had their dream in smoke.
During the night, I went through terrible nightmares. The northerly wind and the unending winter rain battered leaves like my tattered body. My skinny legs felt frozen in the steel lock, my fingers and toes became puffier and painful. Anyhow, physical pains were not comparable to mental pains due to loss of confidence and belief. Suddenly the window opened showing a nose and a spectacled pair of eyes. I heard a familiar Southern voice,” Are you OK lately?” It was prison Director Vo. One year ago, he saved me from my locks. I rushed my answer,” Thank you I am well as usual.” He was in such a hurry to show his enthusiasm on the new of the success of the coup in Saigon. He wanted to share his thoughts with a man coming from the south to tell him that the south now is not anymore a capable adversary. Therefore, the country reunification is a question of timing. He smiled ear to ear and wished me good health before he closed the window.
Two days later matron Hoa called me to deposition. There were three of them, Thanh, Duc and Nhuan, all displaying a joyful face. After I sat down, Duc asked at once,” Did you follow the broadcast lately?” To my positive response he added,” How do you think about it?” I gave an impassible answer, knowing that their six eyes were focused intensely on my face,” Sirs I have heard about the coup in Saigon and perhaps they killed the two brothers Ngo Dinh Diem.” Nhuan with a testing sentence advanced,” I know that you had been very sad lately with the death of your master. I think that is a good chance because you are not obliged anymore to anyone. Now you must think of saving your own skin by confessing it all to the revolution. As for that Duong Van Minh and the bunch of Generals, they are good for the trashcan. They will do infighting to be lackeys of the Americans!” I acted surprised,” Sir I am always sad in here. To say that Ngo Dinh Diem is my master is wrong. I have never met him before. Besides, he had not given me any favor and neither did I hate him. Therefore, life or death for him does not matter to me. As for confessing, I did it thoroughly from the beginning, not waiting to do it now.” Thanh rushed,” What you say is not true. Diem is Catholic and so you are and you must give him support.” Showing my surprise I retorted,” Sirs I have told you several times before that my parents and relatives are all merchants. I am the only one influenced by movies to naively venture to Hanoi on their urging. Really, for me, I do not care seeing whoever be President or Chief because I do not understand anything of them. Now they are more meaningless to me. I hate them so much!” Thanh acted astonished,” Why you say it is meaningless to you?” I acted annoyed and answered in a sad voice,” Now I understand clearly! When Mr. Diem was still there, I was just like an abandoned child in the market place. No one in Saigon, save my parents and my siblings, remembered me. Death or alive, those people of the coup mafia would not care about me and that is why I said they are all meaningless”
Perhaps seeing that it was only an insignificant exchange of barbs, Duc changed the direction,” According to you what will the situation in the south be?” I said,” Sir, how can I know it to say my opinion. Anyhow, in the present situation, the Generals will start their infightings leading the society to more disorder. I am quite sure that the Front of Liberation will easily take over under the leadership of the Party.” All three displayed brightened eyes and Nhuan added laughing,” Very good, you could be a brainy advisor!” I cautiously answered them,” You were mocking me. I only say what comes to my mind. I would not be able to handle such a big problem.” Then Duc firmed his voice,” I must throw it to your face that if not due to international constraints we simply launch five divisions to easily fight their way from Ben Hai to Saigon.” Showing my confidence I added,” I will be happy because you will catch the whole espionage network of Saigon. Then you will really understand my sincerity!” I rambled to gain their confidence,” About Diem, I remember the aborted coup of 11 November 1960 when the people in the south disliked him. He had taken as national emblem the bamboo tree to show his integrity, ethics and transparency. He was supposed to act as a perfect man. Then when the paratroopers surrounded him in the Independence Palace, he went to the airwave declaring to the people that he agreed to compromise with the Revolutionary Council to retract his promise when the few military units gave him support. I could not see in him the gentleman behind the bamboo symbol.”
They all laughed while Duc said that the promise given under duress would not have validity and Diem acted right under the circumstances. Anyhow, I realized that the communists are opportunist. They would not uphold any promise or contract they signed to abrogate later as the circumstances permit.
The death by guillotine,
Nightmare for the cell inmate
They did not call me often for deposition lately. They questioned me here and there; encouraging, wooing or threatening perhaps thinking that time would wear me out. Anyhow, at present, my spirit seemed dead, the whole surrounding was just very dark and I lost all fighting will. I hated life and men, my mind now focused to death, which would absolve everything. They still locked my legs and my feet were turgid and painful. I hated them all; I did not even anymore talk of my lock.
One day, warden Tu opened the cell and told me to move to another cell. With a bundle of things in my arms, I walked in front of him through the yard of the common camp onto a narrow steel gate. The area surrounded by a semi-circle low wall, topped with bare electrical wires. He opened the gate to a small yard junked with dry leaves from a big overhung branch outside. In the middle of the yard were strung cords for drying clothes. It was dead silent letting the noise of steps over the dry leaves sounding very clear. Coming to a long building, I saw under very dim light a small room with a desk and chair, perhaps the duty room of the jail. He went to room 3, pulled the strut out. I came in taking the broom to clean the floor and the cement bed and took out the pot still with feces and urine. I asked him to let me empty and clean it. He looked into it and showed me to the location next to cell 1 urging me to expedite. That room had a faucet for washing and there was a big latrine hole perhaps the toilet for cadres. When done I glanced quickly and saw that jail I was the size of both II and III together. According to what I heard from Tan, jail I was the death row built by the French Colonialists and they called it “guillotine row.” Tu shouted “hurry up, put your leg in.”
It was quiet again. I was looking around when a low pitch voice sounded,” Hi new friend of cell 3, how are you?” I strained my ears and coughed twice as a reply. It was similar to the cell in Jail II except for the large window fitted with a wooden box without bottom for aeration. The French built this structure and many Viet Minh were through it to know of the cracks that prisoners used as communications channels. Now they blocked them to correct the discrepancies. I was deep in my sorrow and sank into the night until I heard the rattling of keys and the opening and closing of doors. My turn came, after they pulled the strut out, I took the potty limping and saw cadre Chien I met a few times when I went to deposition. He was an Adjutant with a military attitude, cool and to the point with an impassible eye quite different from the other security men. Then during the times to get your meal or to return the bowls, you did not hear any noise except the sound of utensils or the scraping of steps. I had the feeling sitting in a tomb of a deserted cemetery.
It was changing to spring but the late Northeast wind still brought exacting cold to torture the body of the desperate. My fingers and toes were all swollen and itchy. During the previous months, I withstood all the misery and suffering due to my confidence in my free country of South Vietnam, bringing freedom to the North under the inhumane communists. Now thinking of my troubled country I bowed my head, turning down my face in shame and anger. The idea of death insinuated in me, creeping up like a tide of black ink. Tonight alike the previous ones my inner self was all tormented, I woke up having no knowledge of the time being. As usual, I grabbed the potty from under the bed. I managed to position it on the bed. I braced up with my free leg to put my butt on it. Being constipated I strained, my body covered under a blanket, my butt feeling pains pressing on the sharp rusted edges of the pot. After about twenty minutes I tried to change position when I slipped and fell down, hanging on the locked leg and my head dangling over the floor. The lock cut my leg bleeding while the potty toppled emptying its content of urine and feces to the cement bed. My back hit the edge of the bed and I took a while to recover. My blanket and mat were wet with urine and pieces of excrements rolling all over. Using my fingers to press on the wound, I tried to stop the bleeding not having even a piece of paper to bandage it. For Heaven sake, how could I do? I was all shaking with cold. I wrung the urine soaked blanket to cover my body while picking up the feces and putting it back in the pot. Bleeding stopped but my trembling leg opened the wound and it was bleeding again. Suddenly the small window opened. I was not able to see out and rushed to report with my quivered voice,” Please cadre, my leg was cut and there was no way to stop bleeding. Would you give me some tobacco for it?” After asking the cause of the bleeding, he closed the window without any other words. Fifteen minutes later two fingers pressing a cigarette pushed through the bars and I strained my whole body to get it. I did not know who he was though he showed some kind of human compassion
The bleeding stopped, the bed and the blanket had dried somewhat and I quivered less. I enveloped my head and neck with the empty sack I used as pillow and leaned to the wall waiting for morning, thinking of my misfortune. I did not succeed in school. The small work given by the country was unsuccessful and I ended in the hands of the enemy. I missed my filial duty not paying my debt to my parents for their immense sacrifice. While in Saigon, I always showed to my organization and the priests that I was a fearless man looking at death as simply a long sleep. In reality when they took me to the firing squat that night I wet my pants and sweated, proof that I was a poor coward. I would not deserve a life wasting the food of the people and crowding the planet. My religion forbids suicide. Anyhow, I had prayed and begged God and Mother Maria several times for pardon. My faith was shaky and broken like the reliance of the people to the present administration. I did not find any hope to cling to it. God, you gave me life and freedom. The enemy submitted me to all cruel treatment and I foresaw that I would die at the end. It was so unreasonable and illogical. The communists had usurped my minimal freedom, subjected my body to starvation and freezing. What remained is my life, which is between God and me. I decided to take it in my own hands. O God forgive me! I shall decide for my own life!
After many nights struggling spiritually I finally decided to die. Death now meant a victory against my enemy and it is a clean slate. My mind directed at random to my parents, my siblings, my relatives and my friends. I also thought of the famous names, the researchers and inventors of renown, those who contributed greatly to the society and humankind, the names like Quang Trung, Nguyen Thai Hoc, Pascal, Kennedy, Khai Hung, Han Man Tu, etc. They died even though society still needed them. As for a low and despicable creature like me who needed to die and still lived. I took my decision but still had to find the way. I looked at the window behind me and the sturdy pants they issued me last October. I will use my teeth to tear and rip it into long straps 4-5 cm wide braided into a 1.2 to 1.4 m long rope. It took me four days work. I must avoid the constant surveillance of the prison warden, tearing cloth when there were noises of opening and closing doors and braiding under the blanket. I got a finished solid rope, which I wore around my waist.
In the meantime, they called me to deposition twice, in the same scenario of threatening and courting. If they were keen enough, they would notice that I did not anymore show fear and worry and in case they touched my belly, they would find that rope hidden under my pant waist. My mind was towards the things I will part with, the book match Thanh gave me in Ha Tinh, my small horn comb and the pack of toothpicks hiding the secret pen. I looked at everything around me with a hint of farewell, the blanket, the mat and even the broken strap Thai sandals. I suddenly thought of the Buddhist Reincarnation teaching. When I die perhaps, I shall become a glorious General commanding an army to crush the communists bringing freedom and happiness to our compatriots in the north. Alternatively, I might be the descendant of the powerful political bureau chief to bury their inhumane socialism. In case I reincarnated into a girl she would use her beauty to serve the country, bringing up her progeny to fight for freedom and democracy. I thought of the many national heroes who offered their life to the national cause like Nguyen Thai Hoc, Pham Hong Thai, Hoang Thuy Nam. My brain went randomly from the Japanese Bushido to the strength of survival of the Jews. I opened my eyes from dream to reality. I looked at the window behind me, from the windowsill to my cement bed was 1.50 m and in front of the steel bars was a steel netting having 3 cm diameters mesh To get ready for my plan I must have my leg conveniently arranged too. I used my old shorts to roll up as a sheath encasing my ankle in the lock making it easy sliding up and down.
Encounter with Death
The opportunity was offered on Sunday. Warden Chien was off and replaced by another man. It was close to 8am when I heard the opening of the gate followed by a light step and the cranking of keys. The duty room opened, table and chairs shuffled, and keys thrown on the table followed by a light stifled breathing. There was no doubt; it was old Kim, an easy man compared to the others. He was about 60 wearing thick glasses. He was a retained warden serving in this prison since the French. One time seeing that a prisoner standing on the lock to look out he merely scolded him instead of locking him up as the other wardens would do. A special feature was he went along pulling out all the struts before opening the doors for potty work. Perhaps he was old and would want to save some good destiny to his descendants and be ready for a peaceful death. Moreover, being a retained warden from the French system he was wooed by the communist inmates and was somewhat exposed to patriotism. Anyhow, that was simply my personal thinking not based on any concrete proof. When my turn came to empty my potty I glanced at his face with some anxiety, thinking it unfair to take advantage of his poor eyesight and easy character to put my plan to execution. They would severely reprimand or even demote him. I would be unable to do anything with the other vicious wardens like malicious Chien, Dien or ball-eyed Bang. Old Kim was the only opportunity offered and I could not let the bourgeois sentimentality get into my way.
I practiced all moves when Warden Kim started to open doors for prisoners to empty their pots and go get their meals. The time for him to get up from his desk and return sitting down knocking his keys on it then again very slowly go close and lock the door took more than one minute, the duration for me to do all my planned drills and preparations. I rolled up the old bag used as pillow about the size of my leg and tied it neatly. When Warden Kim started his work with one cell, I practiced my move so that I could do it smoothly in a minute: I took my pants off, bent one leg to my butt, put my pants back on and sat on the bed: then I slipped the rolled up and tied bag in the empty pant sleeve. I practiced three times and everything went without a hitch.
About 4 PM Warden Kim started open the doors again for inmates to go return their bowls. I did not know why when my turn came, I limped out and back, I started getting things done as planned, Kim poked his head into my door with a quaint look. I covered my whole body under the blanket and pretended coughing a little bit. After a minute of silence, he closed and locked the door. I sighed relaxed feeling the oppressive burden removed from my chest. At 5 PM, another warden took over from Kim and started his round of checks through each small window. The jail became very quiet and desolate. I came to the reality of a man ready to part with this life, my heart and mind burdened. I sat with my head bent down in an ocean of suffering and anger. I still cherished this life though the special requirement of shameful circumstances obliged me to die. Pain and grief tortured me and I bowed down passing out until the fateful start time. Late into the night from time to time, I heard the wailing from some cell or the hooting of a prisoner in a frightful nightmare.
It was perhaps two in the morning with the sounding steps of a security patrol behind the jail. I crawled up taking out the rope from my waist and hid it under the blanket. I got the secret pencil from my pack of toothpicks and inserted into my anus. I heard the stepping on dry leaves and lay down covering my body under the blanket. The small window opened indicating the change to another warden every two hours. According to the prison routine, right after the changeover was the best time because another checking would occur only after thirty minutes. I crawled back up again to take out my rope and tied a knot at one end. Then I made a sliding sloop looking up to the windowsill, which was 2.10m above the floor. Anyhow, when putting your head into the loop and hanging down feeling the choke a normal person would try to free himself for breathing. I would use my arms to hoist me up or my legs bracing from the two beds in a survival reflex and I would not end up as wished. I used my professional experience to tie one end to the steel bar and tie another slipknot. When I engaged my neck into the loop, I put my hands into the second loop and pushing myself down from the windowsill to strangulate and in the same time tightening my hands. While I worked with my rope on the windowsill, my heart and mind turned to the image of my mother looking at me with a fixed stare, to all my colleagues at the Central Espionage Directorate and to the beloved faraway receding South Country. I cried heartily not because I was afraid of death or my attachment to this life. Those were teardrops shed to a death in anger and darkness. I kneeled down bowing three times to my South Country asking forgiveness from my mother, bidding farewell to this unfortunate life.
Suddenly a loud shouting in the night from behind the prison,” What are you doing on that window?” I bounced throwing myself down with the quick thought that in ten minutes it will be over. I felt my neck jerked out violently and a feeling of invasive heat mounting to my head. I passed out completely.
Not the end of fate
I felt acridity in my nose and opened my eyes to see around me several persons. Then I had hiccups and passed out again. My head was hot feeling like hearing a long whistle blow and I came back. A moment later, I saw a blue dressed person pressing heavily on my chest and I breathed with difficulty. Then a remote murmur sounded,” He is alive!” That blue dressed man with light complexion and about my age held my hand looking at me with compassion. He whispered to my ear,” Do not be stupid to commit suicide. Strive to live.” I wanted to say a few words of appreciation but I was unable to do it. Then a man in white robe bringing a tray of medicine came in. It was Nurse Hue giving me auscultation with his stethoscope. I started seeing clearer and saw Nhiem the warden of jail III and Ke of the common camp holding in his hand my cut off rope. Nurse Hue dissolved a powdery yellow stuff into a glass of water and poured into my mouth urging me to drink it. My throat was so painful that I could swallow very slowly the liquid smelling like raw cabbage. Then he massaged my neck with the hot rub, saying that I should not be stupid to die. I listened and did not say anything; actually, I was not able to talk. They all went out and closed the door. I passed out instantly.
I woke up hearing somebody calling and opened my eyes to see Warden Chien frowning,” Yesterday why you dared fooling Warden Kim to hang yourself?” I looked at him unable to say anything. He was mad and then realizing that my neck was still swollen he exited and closed the door. At about 9 o’clock Assistant Director Tri came in with Warden Chien behind. With a heavy central accent, he said,” Are you committing suicide to follow Ngo Dinh Diem?” I shook my head lightly while he smiled halfway to say mockingly that I wanted to go down the hole and report to Ngo Dinh Diem. His attitude was so contemptible and I turned in without a word. Before going out he threatened me,” Later on when you want to live you will not be given that chance!” I fully understood communism. Even when their tribunal decided on your death penalty, they will not let you kill yourself because they wanted to execute you with their own hands. They usurped your sacred right to life. Moreover, they still kept you alive to dig whatever information from you.
They did not give me any food and I was wretched lying there motionless until Warden Chien shouted to go get my soup. I stood up vacillating, my hands leaned and braced along the wall to get my meal. I found only one bowl of clear salty rice porridge and squatted down to drink it slowly since my throat hurt. Chien rushed me but my hands trembled and my throat felt like encrusted with glass sharks and it took me fifteen minutes to finish with. I drank clear porridge for two days and they gave me regular rice porridge for three more days. My left arm felt paralyzed and the top of my head like pricked with needles. It could be my body reaction from the strangulation. They locked my legs again the first day with regular rice porridge. I was hopeless, unable to die and having now a helpless arm and a cerebral disease. Thinking of the scenario of my suicide attempt, that armed security man in blue uniform saved my life giving me first aid chest pressing. I felt mounting in my heart affection for the man, I never knew. My pain receded and my left arm was able to move with the help of my right arm. Anyhow, my headache increased making me worry very much. On the sixth day, they gave me rice, which I chewed slowly little by little. Warden Chien understood my condition and let me go out last to return the bowl.
That afternoon Chien called me to the duty room. After I sat down he stiffened his face and coldly said,” Last Sunday you fooled the cadre who inadvertently did not lock your legs. Then you tore your uniform braiding into rope to kill yourself that night. You committed serious infractions of internal regulations. Today I let you write down your report; how you got prepared, how you deceived the cadre and why you decided to commit suicide. According to the sincerity of your report, the revolution will take appropriate actions.” I took his three sheets of paper, ink and pen to go out sitting in a corner writing my report. Roughly, I said that,” I was at fault with the socialist country when I infiltrated in Hanoi. Having inclinations with socialism, I did not do anything for the Saigon regime. When arrested I had fully confessed but was still locked up in jail for more than two years. Thinking that eventually I will die and as the state had not understood my sincerity, I felt so desperate and shameful deciding to finish my life” I had not completed my report when somebody knocked at the gate and Chien ordered me to go in the bathroom and close the door. There was a prisoner back from deposition and they did not permit prisoners from different cells to see each other. When done Chien again shouted to get out and continue my report.
My heart burdened with all the bitterness of life, I aspired sending with the clumps of white clouds sailing to the faraway South my love and deep regret. I saw a few sparrows chirping and hopping joyfully. They searched for food in the cracks. I remembered when I was a young boy trotting around with the other boys; now I am here in this environment of solitude and grief though in the mid of Hanoi. The odor of green moss mixed with the acrid dry leaves reminded me of those old temples. I came back to reality and finished quickly my report my headache becoming unsustainable. In the morning, Warden Chien opened my door holding in his hands a piece of paper. Ogling me with a stern cold face he said,” You must hear the disciplinary order of the Direction”:
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ministry of Security,
The named Dang Chi Binh had torn the prison issue pants, fooled the cadre,
He committed serious internal regulations of the prison.
We hereby decided to lock his two legs for seven days
From … to …
The management, Signed by Le Tri, and Assistant Director. He went out pulling the strut, and I put my two legs in like an automaton.
Did they uncover document M?
The second summer started. They took out all blankets. It was not yet too hot, but mosquitoes began multiplying. I lay down closing my eyes letting my thoughts sailing at random like on an immense wavy ocean. I remembered the text of the disciplinary order mentioning my tearing of jail pants and not the purpose of it. They did not say anything of my suicidal attempt. Then I mumbled that it would not matter since my body did not belong to me anymore. My headache became worse, feeling like near exploding when I lay down. I kept sitting up leaned to the wall and my legs were more wearisome. Suddenly I heard loud bangs on the door of a close by cell. Chien rushed in shouting,” What is the matter, who thumped like that?” A shrieking voice intoned,” I had been in here more than three months without any inquiry. I want to see the interrogators to know where I stand. I could not hold it anymore day in day out in this environment!” It was cell ten across from my cell. Chien’s cold voice sounded solidly,” Shut up! If you want to see the interrogators, you must give a respectful request. If you still make noise I’ll lock your mouth.” The voice from cell 10 turned supplicating,” Please, cadre, let me see the legal men. I am scared now and will become crazy sitting in this tiny cubicle for so long.” Chien voice softened a bit,” OK, keep quiet and I shall request it for you.” Silence came back. I was in this prison I for more than three months and with my head focused to my death I did not pay any attention to anything.
In the morning, supply cadre Dien called me to deposition. It had been one month since, and I wondered what it would be like. I saw both Duc and Thanh staring at my neck with a big bruise. Thanh showed me the stool and very amiably said,” Sit down please! We have not seen you for a long time. How are you lately?” I curbed my head down to reply cautiously,” I am just normal as usual.” Duc kept busy shuffling through his dossier until he raised his voice,” Did you hear the broadcasts lately?” I should say that my suicidal plan preoccupied me so much that I did not pay any attention to anything around. Then I answered,” My hearing had become so weak lately and I could not follow it closely.” Duc hesitated somewhat and asked,” Then did you know that in the south they are having coup after coup?” I knew that his purpose was to demoralize me and I gave him a very short and blunt response,” No!”
Duc’s face turned steely. “What was your purpose for going to Ngoc Son so often?” I was somewhat astounded, was it related to document M? Knowing that they were intently watching my face, I stayed calm and advanced my testing answer,” As I had reported and written before, Ngoc Son is a beautiful landmark and a memorable souvenir of my childhood. That is why I am attracted to it.” Duc sprung up waving his hand to stop me. He frowned menacingly,” Stop using that rehearsed narration. You related with a girl there and we got all evidences. So give us all details and do not blame us!” I felt like a big knot strangulating my heart. I brainstormed quickly keeping my composure. Did they just uncover the leads to document M? Why did they keep it until now? Why did they mention only Ngoc Son Temple and not the Toad Garden? There were two possibilities, either from their Saigon source, but Saigon did not know where I remitted document M except the The Huc Bridge as the rendezvous point. Alternatively, they had caught the M setup and got the confession. However, why they only talked of Ngoc Son Temple and not Toad Garden? Finally, to know exactly their purpose I opened my wide eyes,” Sirs you give me such a big surprise. I did not ever talk with any girl in Ngoc Son Temple!” Duc frowned and roared banging violently on the desk,” Why you are sill stubborn at this moment? Did you pretend talking with the kids to meet that girl?” Thanh also interfered,” Binh, be reasonable to fully confess or the worst punishments will befall at once and you will not have time to repent!” While they shouted and threatened, I kept on thinking. It is certain that it did not come from their planted spies in our directorate. If they knew document M, they should have known also document X or the three letters from Father Hoang Quynh. I was pacified and pretending to remember it now, I said turning up a smiling face,” Now I know. You are so suspicious. It was not a girl but a woman. I do not remember which day it was when I went to Ngoc Son sightseeing as usual. There was a group of children running after each other and using very dirty words. The woman admonished them saying that they should not use that kind of language being the beloved nephews of Uncle Ho, the vanguard flag bearers of the Hanoi children. The kids insulted her and even threw pebbles at her and I interfered, not saying a word to that plain folk person.” Both Duc and Thanh seemed calmer but Duc still ascertained that I took advantage of the situation to remit something to her. Their statement made things clearer and I coolly stated,” I do not understand why you get that information. I told you about my daily routine. I came across so many people on the streets and there is no need to tell you about it. I completely forgot that woman at Ngoc Son if you do not say it now. I had not talked or given anything to that person. Please investigate and if I am wrong I shall accept all punishments!”
Duc kept on shouting,” Stop your lies. Didn’t you know that we are aware of what you did and where. We are not scarecrows!” Then I decided to strike a deeper blow,” Yes sir, I know that you know it all because I had fully confessed all details to you.” He shouted louder,” Even without your avowal we know it all!” I smiled looking at him with a hint of suspicion. I guessed why they questioned me now on that event. The clear thing for me was that up to now they still have to investigate on my case. As they were not fully satisfied, they must reexamine the entire dossier. They must study the minute details; crosscheck all reports submitted by my tails. To corroborate, they called me in to use their psychological pressure to see my reaction. Therefore, I would not care because I did not have anything related to that woman. Looking at me for a moment, Thanh asked,” Are you trying to kill yourself to go with Ngo Dinh Diem? Are you trying to bring with you your secret?” I showed a sad face and answered it was like what I wrote in my report. Thanh smiled and incited,” I do not believe what you said. You are smart and determined. I cannot see that your suicide is due to the harshness of prison treatment.” I also laughed saying that I had no determination whatsoever and despised this life now. Duc saw that the exchanges led nowhere and dismissed me for “thinking and confessing about your encounter with that woman in Ngoc Son Temple.”
On my way back to my cell I, had my conscious laden worrying that they had not concluded on my case? Therefore, they would increase their pressure on me and direct their Saigon agents to research all things related to me. I hoped that there was only one thing (the unlucky thing for me) that they uncovered me the day I got to Hanoi. Anyhow it could be an advantage that as they knew all of my activities from the beginning they would believe that I did not do anything as I disclosed in my deposition. The reflection and analytical judgment made my headache more acute.
Right in the afternoon they opened the door and a man about 30 came in and put his stuffs on the next bed as directed by Chien who ordered him to go to deposition immediately. He hurried and went out glancing at my two legs in lock. I saw on his bed a slew of things, blankets, mats, plenty of book matches with tobacco and a few pieces of bread with candies. The sight of raw tobacco and book matches attracted me. Having a companion would make it less solitary. Anyhow, as I had my legs locked they would not authorize me to go empty my pot or get my meal. Therefore, my immobilized legs will paralyze quickly. Chien told me to go for my rice and pick up another ration for the other inmate. After the man came back and started sorting his things, I urged him to eat first because in fifteen minutes the warden will require him to go return the bowl. He looked at me staring at my lock and said in a sad voice,” I am so tired and do not want to eat.” I would want his meal but I refrained from asking him for self-pride. He asked why they locked you and I answered it was due to my infraction to prison regulations. I inquired on his arrest, where they incarcerated him initially and for which crime. To which he said,” I was arrested one week ago and they put me in room 9 of the common camp due to my black-trafficking while I drove a passengers bus on the northwest line. Therefore, this man was an ordinary criminal, but why they put him in my cell. He did not know the reason either and said that he only got five kilos of tea buds. He perhaps will get from three to six months.
He looked intently at my locked legs and wondered what kind of crime did I commit to be treated that bad. I was certain that they were afraid that I would suicide again and paired an ordinary criminal with me who would not stay here very long. I answered him,” I was teacher in Phu Ly Public School and I was a Revisionist.” He laughed innocently,” You politicians are so daring!” Then he stared at my bed asking,” Do you smoke?” I said I did it somewhat but did not have supply from my family lately. He very naturally urged me to do it as much as I could and pulled out a five packs of raw tobacco. Seeing his plain honest attitude, I wondered about the pipe to which he said that in a few minutes he would get it ready. At that moment, the door opened for returning the bowl. I tendered him my under short and urged him to pour his rice onto it so that I will eat and he can use some as glue to make the pipe. Dai, that was his name, put all the rice to where I suggested and said,” I forgot to invite you. I had downed three gluey cakes and one loaf of bread and I am so full.”
After returning the bowl Dai got busy, fabricating the pipe tube from toothpaste aluminum can and three boxes of matches assembled together with the wrapping from the raw tobacco. While doing it he talked with me with a detached soldier like attitude and threw to me two gluey cakes saying,” Eat them. Do not eat that stale rice.” I waived my hands and returned to him the two cakes telling him,” There are still long days ahead, do not waste it.” He finished the pipe in two hours and shot his first smoke presenting a satisfying face. He then handed the pipe to me and I got high. That night I had an additional ration and I lay down enjoying a full belly feeling also that my headache had slackened. I knew better of Dai who was a discharged military four years ago. He managed to get a driver job on the northwest road, which is nowadays a good profitable work especially if you know how to interact with passengers to transport illegal things for them. He was married with two children and he made a good living. He was open-minded and his largesse was better than Tan, Hoan and even Hoang Hung.
Changes in spirit
Exactly seven days after they locked up both legs, I was deep in my despair. Warden Chien came in and solemnly declared that from today Tuesday I will have only one leg locked. My legs were so tired and stiff during the week. Our four eyes opened wide while in the same time Chien pulled the strut out and ordered to go empty the potties. I felt like having a jumpstart and along with Dai, we took the pots to the washroom. Chien looked like he just provided recompense to a destitute person. His face looked so nice today, his twinkling eyes fixed at me. From now on, it will be much easier for me sitting up or lying down. Anyhow, my head was still as painful. My headache was so intense day in day out and there was no medicine. The tablet of aspirin, which did the trick fast before did not work now. My mind entangled with all kinds of concerns, from the happiness of success to the bitterness of failures. I became philosophical, thinking of the famous writing of some French author “When you do not have what you like, you must like what you have!” What do I have now? I had two satisfying meals daily, which I longed for every time. They were much more appetizing than the best banquet of the past. Then I let my soul wander to the caprice of my imagination looking down to the communist herd,” You caught me, incarcerated me and I bet you cannot lock up my mind.” I remembered another writing of Madame de Maintenon,” When you are unfortunate, think of the more unfortunate and it is the best cure for you.”
After one night thinking, my view of life completely changed and I did not anymore see grey around me. My morale was elevated and my view of life altered. Then I directed my thoughts to my body. I passed in review the Western Relaxation Method, the Indian Yoga, the Chi of the Chinese Martial Arts. I remembered the article “Long Life” of an American Magazine interviewing 50 centenarians in the worldwide. I came up with the three easy criteria, (1) short time, (2) simplicity of execution and (3) best result. Every day I lay flat on my back, closed my eyes and counted my breath, relaxed fully until I saw only one color. That helps control your mind voiding it of all random contemplation. As for exercises, I devised a number of movements suitable to my prison confinement with minimal food intake. Then I practiced deep breathing with one free leg on the floor. I kept the schedule of no more than fifteen minutes a day regardless of the circumstances and slept easier with my headache in remission.
Dai stayed with me for about twenty days. Warden Chien opened the door and told him to get his stuff out and I looked at Dai with an affectionate good bye. He gave me a pack of raw tobacco, a book match and the pipe telling me to keep them for my use. I was so touched and urged him to take along as a souvenir, to that he said that in the common camp there was plenty. Rushed by Chien, he took his bundle out and said “good-bye and be healthy.” I was alone again; my hands kept touching the pipe meditating on the gratification of an unfortunate man to another desperate man. Warden Chien observed me every day and perhaps he reported on my positive attitude so that they did not need to keep somebody with me anymore. Chien was a strict and cold person. He despised flattery and submissive characters unlike the other cadres. From his eyes, it seemed that it had for me a hint of sympathy.
Grind your piece of steel into a needle
It was Sunday, there was no soul around and they rarely got you out for deposition. Mid summer, the air was very dry. From the green moss in the courtyard and the moldy dampness of the cell mounted an acrid odor. I was looking at the mosquito bite scars thinking of the ways against it when the window opened and Warden Dien thrust his finger in, calling me out to deposition. I was surprised and on my way, I passed the common camp going through prisons II and III where I had encountered dead-devils. Crossing the yard of the common camp Dien turned right into a big room, which was the prison management office. In there were five or six persons among them a tall and thin graying man, wearing reading glass with jacket and looking very austere. On his right sat Captain Tri and on his left was first Lieutenant Le both of them assistant directors of the prison displaying a very solemn attitude. When I walked in I suddenly heard the thundering voice of the white haired man,” Ho-hum! What an electrical pair of eyes!” I approached the stool in front of the desk and stood there when the heavy centrist voice of Tri sounded. “Take the seat!” I sat down for quite a while wondering who that spiteful old man was. Then suddenly he raised his voice,” Binh, look at me.” I stared directly into his eyes; he must be around sixty displaying a pair of sparkling eyes. He frowned sternly looking into my eyes like hypnotizing me for a few minutes and pointed his long finger to my face, twisting it in circles before stating clearly,” Your brain is churning out deceits and hostile designs. It shows clearly in your eyes. You twisted in many times and you will have to unwind it the same.” He circled his finger in the other direction and shouted his order,” I let you go!”
I stood up to follow Dien back to my cell, very curious to know who that man was who spent only ten minutes with me without any question! The very short encounter left a clear mark in my mind and even now after 21 years, I still remember it. Nowadays he must be no more. Anyhow, in my eighteen years and four months in prison he remains in my mind as one of the two most malicious men I have ever encountered. That afternoon and night, I kept thinking of that no name man and the meeting I had with him.
The next very hot summer day, in the dampness of the prison, I lay with eyes half closed thinking of the outhouse. Next to the toilet hole there was a small wooden box holding all kinds of used toilet papers and pieces of rags or colored sanitary napkins. This place was for cadres. It was quite far off so male cadres very seldom used it while female cadres very often came in for bathing and washing. When I went to empty my pot I made plan to fabricate shield against mosquitoes using the pieces of rags I quickly reprieved from that box. They were poor and used all kinds of stuff even leaves for the purpose. I took all sizes and shapes pieces, I washed them and dried them in my cell until I had enough to make gloves, feet and head covers. Out of the long sturdy pieces I pulled out yarn to make thread. I made a needle out of a bamboo toothpick, which I sanded to shape on the cement bed. The bamboo needle was useful but it did not help making a good-looking seam while it often caught in the cloth. I must look for a way to fabricate a knife and a steel needle. One day I came across a small piece of rusted steel edge on the window of the outhouse and I broke it out little by little each day to get finally that small thumb size piece. I smuggled it out to my cell and ground it on the cement bed into a tiny knife sharp enough to cut my pieces of cloth and my nails too. I carried the precious tool with me all the time by slipping it into the hem of my shirt. The idea of fabricating a steel needle always haunted me and I always looked back and forth for some suitable material.
Usually when I finished my pot work Warden Chien would shout,” Get out” and I took the pot back to my cell. Anyhow, today when I passed his desk he softly told me to get my pot to the cell and be out here for some talk. I worried, hurried up hiding my pieces of cloth under my pillow-sack and slowly went to his desk. He showed me the stool to sit down with a very pleasant voice. He seemed hesitant and cautiously asked,” You came to Hanoi by what means?” I was surprised a little bit and slowly advanced,” Sir, by sea boat.” Then in the conversation, he inquired of my debarkation, the duration before they caught me and where in the south did I live. When I told him that I lived in Saigon, he asked about the famine in Saigon and the extent of death by starvation every year there. I opened my big eyes of astonishment while he seemed surprised,” Sir, I lived in Saigon eight years and I never heard the word starvation.” He showed shock on his face and asked,” Is it true?” I went on,” In reality my family is poor and that is why I must live in the student refugee’s camp to attend school where the government provides free meals. Even when I was home, I would never pay attention to the price of rice because nobody cares about rice. Any body just discussed on the best places to eat out. In the student camp, we rolled rice or broke pieces of bread to throw at each other. There were in street zones social welfare restaurants where you pay $5 for food while rice is free. To let you know better, before 1962 the South Labor Department fixed as minimum wage for men at $45 and women at $42. It was for unskilled workers like janitors. Anyhow, the people would not like to do those menial works because they feel shameful. Besides, they could find food anywhere and they did not need to work for such a dismal pay. As you see with the lowest wage, they could have enough to eat for four days while working only one day. And here you must work hard each day for your mouth.” Warden Chien displayed a pensive face and after some hesitation, he told me to see him sometime telling him of my story, a little bit each time
During our conversation, I perceived his uneasiness, at times anxious or half-believing and other time craving with curiosity. He did not comfortably sit down listening to me and when hearing noise at the gate he rushed me back to my cell. It was only Warden Bang going to the toilet or getting somebody to deposition. In the upcoming days, he looked at me with some compassion but he never called me out again. I was certain that he did not try to dig information from me for report to his superiors because if it was his purpose he should have tried to relate with me more times. Anyhow, he could not take the risk of weakness in his ideological beliefs. It showed me clearly that in their ranks there were already morale cracks or hairline fissures.
When I went to get my evening ration, I saw on a loose edge of the bamboo bench the kitchen used to carry rice and soup out one protruding nail head. I wanted to pry it out and there were always the watching eyes of Warden Chien against the quick fingers of prisoners swindling some rice from the remaining bowls. I must wait for the appropriate occasion, which came inadvertently when Chien had to rush in a cell where two inmates were fighting. I used my fingers yanking that loose small nail out before somebody from the kitchen would hammer it back in. I quickly went back to my cell with the booty and engaged my leg in the lock thinking of fabricating that needle. It would not be a difficult challenge for a jeweler. Anyhow, I was not free to grind and shape it all the times since in the quiet environment of the prison, the sound would reverberate out and there were the constant eyes and ears of the prison guards. I had to work at night and on Sundays paying attention to the sound of gate opening at 40m away. I straightened the nail prying in the cracks of the leg-lock and started grinding it square on the cement bed before shaping it round. The nail became so hot that at first, I used cloth to hold it and then I must grind it with water. At times, I felt so hopeless and tense that I wanted to quit. Then I remembered this song taught in second grade school books when I was a kid,
“As a young boy you must be patiently determined,
“Do not worry to marry late and to have kids later,
“When you succeed Heaven will lend a hand,
“A real man calculating five and managing seven times,
“God created you and would not abandon you,
“Fame and opportunity offered to the heroic hands,
“Your intelligence serving your heart,
“Striving to grind steel will give you needle later.
A hint of sadness came to me because I could only achieve the last verse while the top part of the song had been a failure. I was incapable to fulfill the mission offered. I stopped for a moment and started grinding again to have that needle in half a month. As a jeweler, I transformed that crude nail into a shiny little needle the eye of which I formed by grinding the end flat and curb back over into a hole, which I ground again to the thickness of the needle. I hid the steel needle in the strap of my pillow-sack along with the bamboo needle for showing to the cadres if they asked.
Having a good steel needle now, I sewed fast making knee-length boots for my legs, elbow-length gloves for my hands and hood for my head. I fined, refined and modified my products many times according to the needs. I sewed hems for the boots, gloves and hood with inserted strings to pull them shut. I made fingers for the gloves so that I could use my fingers conveniently for scratching or pulling strings. To draw design on the assembled cloth I burned a reed from the broom and dipped in water to make a piece of charcoal for the purpose. There were two inconveniences though: It was too hot under my protective gear and I sweated abundantly. In addition, the control cadres often knocked at my window to see whether I was dead or alive lying like a mummy. I made a big bag for all my things, the comb, toothbrush, book match, pipe and tobacco and even embroidered my initial B on top of it. My life became organized and I had a nice hobby doing embroideries of flowers and leaves all day, crude but they were my creations which I did not stop admiring. I was fully relaxed, my heart enlightened, I had more energy and my headache went away without notice.
The dream like minutes
I became very relaxed, bursting into singing or reciting poems. Tired of sitting, I lay down letting my soul wander to the beautiful aspects of life. I remembered the days before my venture one friend took me to see the movie “The Thief of Baghdad” roughly the story of a handsome thief ordered by the King to find the Blue Rose for curing the terrible disease of his daughter princess. After several dangerous encounters, he arrived at the last gate and snatched the magic mantle of the guardian genie to become invisible and go to the inner sanctum to get that blue rose. I drifted into a dream wearing that mantle to penetrate the bedroom of Ho Chi Minh catching him scared, killing him and taking his body out to the lakeshore hanging with a big sign showing “Fox Ho penitence! All people, be united in the destruction of communism! Signed, the world front for burial of communism.” Then I took the flight through Hong Kong to the White House to report to President Johnson that I had killed Ho Chi Minh and urged him to help me going to other communist countries like the USSR, China, East Germany, Cuba to take care of all their leadership the same way that I did with Ho Chi Minh. Then the President would create an international front with Japan, France, West Germany, Italy, Britain and Israel to help install democracy everywhere.
I shall complete my work in six months erasing completely from the globe socialist communism, which had become a calamitous plague to the world and its inhabitants. I waked up in the reality of the guillotine rows of Hoa Lo, my leg gently shaking in the lock like enjoying the after taste of a spiritual banquet. At least I had two hours of freedom in the atrocity of this prison.
An espionage setup prior to 1954
My soul was flying between two worlds, one being dream and the other the hard reality of prison when suddenly the small window opened. I sprung up, would they call me for deposition at this late time? Then clicking sounds of keys and the door opened with Assistant Le sounding stern,” Take everything out.” I pulled my leg out, ready to move to another cell. All my possessions were no more than an old jail uniform, the pillow-sack souvenir from Hoang Hung and the small self-made bag containing pieces of rags and miscellaneous things. I got everything on my arms not knowing where I will go. Actually, I would not care because my body does not belong to me anymore. I was standing there anxious and hesitant when Le waved his hand to move further in. He opened cell 6 and in the same time pulled out the lock strut. After he locked my leg and shut the door, I looked around to see a larger cell located at the prison corner in the shape of a V wide. I kept busy dusting the bed and the floor under it with my reed mat when I heard a muttering voice from cell 12,” Hi friend of 3, how are you, did they just transfer you here?” I opened wide my eyes, wondering who was that bold prisoner talking openly and answered,” Thank you friend, I am OK, are you in 12?” Somewhat hesitant, he pursued,” Yes I am in 12. A few months ago what was your problem to commit suicide. I thought you had died, hearing prison guards stampeding.” Then a roguish southern voice from the cell next to my right intoned,” Fuck it! Why die when there were so many girlies as flavorful as a jackfruit section.” I frowned, it was the crude voice of cell 7 whose din I heard very often and I turned back to cell 12,” How are you 12, can you observe closely the cadres to-and-fro to talk so openly?” He chuckled,” I am all right, they will take my case to judgment this 15 but I am not sure of the outcome. I have been in here for five years and am the prison king to know all of their movements. Stop talking if you hear my cough.” I felt disturbed, wondering what kind of crime for such a long incarceration. I could not suppress my curiosity and asked more to know that they arrested him for spy activity since 1959. I was all knotty, was his my coMr.ade, my colleague? Then I rushed probing and knew that he lived at 80 Quan Thanh where the bicycle repair shop was. So, as a northern man, what was his espionage work? His coughs sounded, the prison was silent again and I heard very mute sound in the yard along with the ruffled steps on dry leaves followed by the opening and closing of windows by control guards.
When the guard was gone, he raised his voice asking my name, as he was Nguyen Van Can. I inquired whether he had an accomplice to that the man at cell 7 raised his raw voice,” I am the only accomplice of that animal!” Therefore, number 7 listened to our conversation. He changed to an affected flexile tone,” My sweetheart Huong, tonight in a romantic time please sleep with me and I will bring you the uppermost happiness.” I knew that in cell 9, there were two girls but I could not understand why that cell 7 man could use that kind of crude language. He went on,” My dear beauty queen, throughout the two cities of Chau Doc and Hanoi every kiddy would know who Long Chau Sa is. I have trampled the sky and agitated oceans. I will give you happiness for life. My thing is oversize bringing you scream of contentment.” He punctuated his dirty flirting words by bursting into crazy laughter and tramping his bed. Complete silence was in the prison while I was surprised why such crazy thing could occur here. This man was such a low thug. Perhaps being isolated for a long time he deranged under pressure. He again raised his jarring voice,” Dearest Huong if you do not answer me I will not sleep and I shall disturb everybody sleep. Tomorrow is washday; I will smear excrement on your chopsticks and your clothes drying out there.” Then I heard the female crystal voice,” Please sleep cell seven.” The hog sound of the man ensued,” Thank you princess for answering me. I will heed your order and sleep well tonight.”
I had wanted to ask more on the case of cell 12 and was impatiently waiting in the silence of the jail under the light dry breeze of the upcoming autumn when the clear voice from cell 9 echoed,” Number 6 why were you arrested?” I directed my ears to the direction of cell 9 but there was only silence. I guessed that while I was drying my clothes out there inmates from the outside room 9 to 14 could stand up on their beds to see me when they knew the position of the cadres. Therefore, inmate Can would have done the same. There were those malicious cadres like Chien who followed the one outside glancing at such window to know which inmate looked out and then entrapped them. I heard that they caught a few and locked them up. It was a mini-nerve war for the smartest to win. One-hour later cell 12 called,” Did you sleep yet?” He inquired on my arrest and why. As the other cell could hear, I only answered that as a teacher in Phu Ly, I sought freedom and I fought with the cadre during my arrest. To deflect I asked on his case and his connection with cell 7. He said that Long Chau Sa killed a child on Silver Street to shut his mouth up and they uncovered them. He is now 33 and lives with his in-laws in Quan Thanh with two children. He was a spy planted before 1954 and his case related to Tran Minh Chau alias Cap. I was astounded and said that they executed Cap in 1958.
According to Can, his case was uncovered after they executed Cap and therefore it was very difficult for them to investigate. That was why they locked his legs for nearly two years, half-dead half-alive. His legs paralyzed for months and he would not survive if his wife did not help him. I inquired on cell 7 and knew that the man was a returnee cadre, a half thug flatterer always greasing the cadres. Hearing that, number seven roared,” Fuck your mother galled pig Can, don’t you think that you are that beautiful?” To have some hints on my case I asked Can,” In more than a week they will take you to court, how is your guess?” Weighing for a little, he advanced,” For me I will get 15 to a maximum of 20, as for number 7 it would be from 10-12 to 15 years.”
Next morning was the bathing and laundry day. When my turn was done Warden Chien shouted,” Get out.” They did not want inmates to see others and you must report after you finished washing or hanging your clothes on the lines for permission to move in and not encountering an outgoing inmate. When I hung my clothes on the drying cord, I noticed also some female clothes and quickly glanced to see cells 9 and 12 looking out. Even though from the bright outside you could not see clearly through the steel net of the window, I could discern the round face with a short haircut over a round body of No 12. As for No 9, I saw both girls one short and one tall, waiving frenetically. I did not dare turning my face to them because Chien was at his desk observing. I just smiled a little bit while touching the clothes. Perhaps Huong was the tall girl with long hair and oval face. Back to my cell, I had a vague feeling of joy for the warm human interaction. During the two days and with my two years prison experiences I knew now the entire population here. The total was 17 persons distributed as follows. Cell 1 had one person, cell 2 unoccupied, cell 3 two with one having one leg locked. Cell 4 had two persons, cell 5 had one person and cell 6 with one leg-locked man, cell 7 one leg-locked person. Cell 8 had two one leg-locked persons, cell 9 two females, cell 10 one person, cell 11 one leg-locked person, cell 12 one person, cell 13 unoccupied and cell 14 two persons one of them one leg-locked. I wondered why cells 2 and 13 were always vacant with groups of visitors in and out.
Suddenly cell 12 raised his voice,” Where are you from and how old are you cell 6?” I answered,” I am from Hanoi and 26.” Then cell nine hesitantly said,” No 6 has only prison clothing, don’t you have family supply, how long did they arrest you?” This girl was fussy, I gave her a neutral answer,” Thanks for your concern, due to special reasons I did not have any family assistance.” Like a sow roaring for food, Tan Sa Chau exclaimed,” My princess, you talk too much! Hearing you I want to drop my pants!” Ignoring his raw expressions, I turned to cell 12,” Do you know what they use cells 2 and 13 for?” He answered,” Last year when Warden Van was on duty here as I was in prison for a long time he gave me the favor to do janitor work out. Once I had to wash those two cells. Cell 2 had Hoang Van Thu and cell 13 Tran Dang Ninh. Now they preserved them as memorials showing to visitors’ cruelty and atrocity of French Colonialism.
Very early on day 15, several unfamiliar cadres came to take cells 12 and 7 out. They were only back at noon and I was impatient to know the result. I must wait for the appropriate moment since the cadres were still there and the malicious tomato-nose The was still around trapping you. I coughed and still no answer, perhaps the tense duration in court made 12 so tired that he would not want to communicate with anyone. All of a sudden in the afternoon, Miss Huong of nine raised her voice,” How is the judgment of 12 and 7?” The wailing of 7 sounded,” My beauty, my case was so tense and it is not completed. This time they might send me to the bottom of the sea.” The small widow opened at a sudden. A shrieking loud shout followed,” Whom do you talk with?” He answered,” With my fairy.” “Which fairy?” With a smart answer, avoiding problem to 9 he said,” The fairy of my dream.” Warden Bang perhaps lenient for a long tenure prisoner during a very tense court appearance simply asked him and 12 to get dressed for court.
At 4 pm the gate opened followed by mute sobbing into the yard, Warden Chien clicking his keys on his desk asked,” How many years? You reap what you sowed, why cry?” A heavy centrist voice sounded,” Death sentence for Nguyen Van Can and life for Le Van Luong.” They gave them orders to move out of prison one. I was thinking of the underestimates of theses cases as well as for the case of Pham Huy Tan before. Was it the purpose of the legal system of the communists to suppress opposition to their socialism instead of fostering justice and equity? I did not hear anything from Can and the only wailing sounds came from Luong who, while arranging his stuff lamented,” My princess, from now on how can I live far from you for thousands miles!” Warden Chien shouted,” Shut it” instead of imposing any punishment, perhaps he understood the state of mind of the sentenced man.
Then they pulled out the strut of cell 12 and the centrist voice as heavy as pestle pounded in a mortar sounded,” You have heard the order from the jail administration and now execute it.” Then I heard the trembling voice of Can,” How could my wife and kids live now!” While he secured the lock, Warden Chien asked whether in court Can signed the request for clemency from the Chief of State which would give him six more months to live. Can answer yes but said that for political crimes the President had never pardoned anyone. The same voice sounded vexed,” Do not utter falsehood and be confident.” The door closed, gliding steps moved out, I felt an immense sympathy for Can. After straining my ears to make sure there was no guard around, I wanted to be the first one to say a few words of consolation for a coMr.ade for the same goal,” My friend Can, I want to share in your painful misfortune.” In a trembling and emotional voice he said,” Thank you, I only pity for my wife and children.” Suddenly Huong of cell 9 interfered with a murmur,” Cadres are coming.” I was thankful for her assistance watching the yellow thugs for us.
That night brother Can disturbed me so much. Though not knowing fully each other he and I were so close because he also was a freedom fighter on the front line of the free world against communism. There still were plenty of persons with weapons in hands ready to sacrifice their life in this fight for freedom. I love Can because he was unfortunate to fall in the hands of the enemy and judged by their factional legal system. Now he was lonely, waiting to return to ash and dust in the cold darkness of jail-and-lock without anyone concern except his wife and innocent children. I was the only representative of all who are enjoying freedom with fortune and happiness to express our gratitude to him. I sank into deep slumber when a shrieking scream and laughter woke me up. It came from cell 10 and stopped when the warden opened the window to admonish and then began again as crazy as before. Chien had to lock his legs up and threatened to lock his mouth if he would not shut up. I often saw him scattering rice and soup on the ground and lately he did not anymore go empty his pot or take his bath. The waft of autumn breeze brought the fetid smell of his cell to mine. I was afraid of nerves derangement in the desolate cell environment under pressure of unending depositions and the constant thought of family and friends, of life and the society.
My evasion attempt
It was the start of fall but still very hot. I lay down thoughtful of the case of brother Can when the window opened and the twang Quang Nam accent of matron Hoa called for deposition. It had been a long time since the last deposition and I had not seen her for 4 or 5 months. Perhaps they transferred her to another post. I followed her, watching her funny walking on her concave legs swaying like eggbeaters taking my imagination to her girly days. How could her beauty conquer our sergeant to crush our Army post? I slowly walked behind her. Instead of turning left as usual, she made sign to turn right to the gate. Before reaching the gate, she led me right going up a few steps to a room having a bicycle leaning next to the door. She rushed me in a small room quite bare with an old desk and a stool. A very unfamiliar cadre about thirty sat there with a thick brief case showing the stool for me to sit down. He spoke with the quaint rural accent of the north,” Are you Dang Chi Binh?” According to his accent and attitude, I knew that he came from a remote area and I offered a cautious “yes.” He stood up and talked with an austere and cold voice,” You must sincerely answer my questions. In 1954, your parents emigrated south. During the agrarian reform campaign, your relatives and the farmers working for your parents accused that your father buried in his property a big vessel containing high value antique porcelain and bronze pieces. At present, they had demolished your parent’s property for new constructions and here is the map of the land and house. If you can pinpoint the burial spot of that vase and it could be dug out you will get half of its value.” I was somewhat surprised because in 1953 when I was back to my village for a few days visit, my father and I had buried that big vase at night and there was no witness when my father even gave our house cleaner one day leave. Therefore, they had tried to dig and find the hidden treasure with no success and now knowing that I was in Hoa Lo prison they sent their local cadre hoping to get some good indication. Besides, I thought it was a childish way to lure me and I showed him my astonishment saying,” I was only twelve when we left our village and never heard my parents talking of that vessel, even during our stay in Saigon. Was it misinformation?”
The face of that rural cadre showed stupidity, his right cheek muscle twitching and his hand swiping incessantly the desk surface. It just came to my mind a rapid decision to take advantage of that simple-minded man to evade. The poker game was at its final stage, I must increase my bet to either win big or lose nothing since I had nothing to lose now. Very fast, I formulated a plan. It was 3 PM, just two more hours before the end of shift and I remembered his bicycle leaned out of the door. That stupid cadre was still looking at the map of our property. He was fatter than I was but his arm muscles looked flabby, lacking exercises. During my two years of experience with the routine of deposition, I noticed that after the sessions, the interrogator delivered me to the cadre on duty and the cadre would sign a paper to take the prisoner back to the cell. I was tense with calculation and came up with the decision to take the risk. It was dangerous and time was of the essence.
I displayed a brightened face and approached the cadre tapping on my forehead as if I remembered something, saying,” I suddenly recollected this. In 1952 or 53 when we played in the room I did not see the big vessel where we used to hide in our hide-and-seek game, my sister told me that my father buried it between the peach and the apricot trees.” His eye sparkled and he turned his face down to the map asking frenetically,” Where are the peach and apricot trees.” I caught him in my game as I moved closer for a better position while he was tracing on the map with the pencil the position of the trees. I twisted my body to increase momentum and stroke down with a right hand chop squarely on his neck just to make him dizzy and use a special locking technique so that he passed out. I rushed to lock the door undressed him and changed to his uniform, taking his papers with a card bearing his name Do Dinh Ha. Before getting out of the room, I saw his folded legs slowly stretching out and his complexion reversing to pinkish color. I decided to induce additional sleep and choked his neck for 6-7 minutes making his whole body and members contracted while he excreted fetidly. I was on a tiger back and had to kick the beast on being at a point-of-no-return now. I straightened my uniform but I could not find his hat. When I went out the room, I quickly glanced at the grape yard and the prison gate. Looking on the left was a long corridor perhaps the row of armed security rooms. At all cost I must have a hat to hide my pale face and I found only a black beret with a hole. The bicycle was still there with the chain-lock hanging on the handle bar. Time was too short now; I took the brief case and tied it on the luggage rack of the bike while that tomato-nose guy approached. I pretended securing the briefcase with the intention to revenge for his beating in the cell two years ago. Anyhow, he turned to another direction.
I slowly walked with my bicycle to the gate, observing the other cadres in and out to see how they did. Very calmly I went to the control desk and the cadre raised his quizzical face at me, a face that I had seen somewhere before may be during my going to deposition. I turned up an open face and saluted him,” CoMr.ade, I am Do Dinh Ha.” He looked at me somewhat indecisive. I felt heat on my cheeks and an intense itch on my chest. To break that silence, I smiled while complaining,” I thought it was short and it took nearly three hours.” In the mean time, two cadres coming in with bikes had to wait for my bike to move out. The duty cadre shuffled in the tray and gave me the ID card. He looked at me like asking something and then stopped short. I smiled at him and got my bike through to let the other two coming in. It had changed to autumn but my perspiration exuded on my forehead. If I were able to cross this life-or-death gate, I would escape 80-90% to go north selling the bike and lay down waiting for the occasion to steal some papers and escape south as the conditions permitted.
Out of Hoa Lo, I noticed the narrow and deserted street. I quickly glanced at the armed young security guard with a CKC hanging muzzle down on his shoulder. He seemed distractively directing his eyes at the line of “sau” trees across. When I guided my bike in front of him, he looked at me with non-focused eyesight as just waking up from a long dream. I smiled at him and he responded with a naïve smirk. On a sudden when my bike wheel dropped from the sidewalk the chain got loose while from across, Assistant Le and supply clerk Dien were riding their bikes to the Hoa Lo gate. There was no possibility to avoid them; I kept guiding my unchained bicycle forward. I was tense and the dry and loud voice of Le sounded like an order,” That coMr.ade over there, stop now!”
Men propose Heaven disposes
Oh my God, I am doomed! I reacted like an automaton devoid of any reasoning. I threw the bike to the street and ran as fast as I could along Hoa Lo Street onto Cotton Dye Street hearing the shouting of Le,” Prisoner evasion, sound the alarm!” Three detonations from gunfire echoed along the streets in a forlorn autumn afternoon. The loud sound of stampede added to the clamor behind followed me to the street corner when I collapsed with exhaustion. It was a total failure, heaven did not help me and the only recourse was to accept death repaying my debt to my country. From a guard bastion of Hoa Lo Jail bullets flew to the street surface blocking my escape route throwing zigzagging sparkles. I got up and ran, actually trying to meet the bullets. At that moment, two police agents from the street corner ran blocking my way while I mixed in with the flow of bicycles among a crowd of yellow uniformed armed soldiers. One kick to my leg sent me face down. It was the end of the show, the curtain dropped and my life went with the fate of my country. Two solid face slaps sent sparkles to my eyes and my ears buzzing with shouted obscenities. Two men hoisted me up under my armpits to drag me back to Hoa Lo gate.
I was like dead, around was a crowd of noisy people. Luckily, it was the end of workday and cadres from Hoa Lo rushed out preventing me from the hatred group beating leading to future painful sequels. When they dragged me inside the gate and the whole story known, one armed security man suddenly raised his CKC and trusted the gun muzzle to my face shouting,” I am blinding you despicable animal.” Blood streamed out to my nose and mouth and I saw only a hazy red color. Another brutal blow threw me to the ground; my arms tied to the back were painful. I could not utter any sound, my mouth completely frozen while my ears vaguely hearing the shouting,” Do not kill him and take him into the room.” I passed out, not knowing anything anymore.
I felt my hair pulled and opened my eyes shaking cold, my clothes all soaked wet. Hazily in front of me was the faint image of an old man under light blue pajama wearing clear glasses making sign to a young security man holding a water bucket. I tried to focus my eyes and saw jail director Vo with the two interrogators Thanh and Duc. A full crowd around me talked noisily. Another armed security man displaying a ruddy face wanted to give a blow to my head. The voice of Director Vo, as strident as the high pitch note of a trumpet sounded,” I forbid coMr.ade to beat him. We shall prosecute him appropriately.” At that moment, interrogator Duc pushed out the armed security man who looked quite like Do Dinh Ha. Perhaps he related to Do Dinh Ha to act that revengeful. He wanted to trust his gun muzzle into my eye to blind me. Anyhow, as I jerked my head sideward he hit between my eyes just above my nose and I bled abundantly passing out. With a second trust, he hit my mouth breaking three teeth, which I spit one out while I pushed back with my tongue the two loose ones. It hurt so much, my mouth filled with blood, my lower lip split; my mouth completely swollen and I could not talk. Director Vo’s voice sounded,” CoMr.ade Tri, please take him into the office to write a report. Remember do not let anyone beating him. Call coMr.ade Hue to treat his wound and throw him in solitary confinement pending order.” Vo then left while two security men dragged me into the office. They let me on the floor leaned to the wall and untied my arms, which hung loose. My right arm was not broken but perhaps it was disjointed and tumid. Out of the two gun muzzle hits, I had bruises and my whole body hurt perhaps due to the many kicks and fist-blows making me breathing difficult. Nurse Hue came in with a tray and got me lying on the floor to wash the wound between my eyes. He told me to close my eyes and doused with a greenish liquid, which felt hot flowing into my brain and I passed out. I woke up in the dispensary, my loose teeth removed and my mouth bandaged. My stomach squeamish, I wondered how I could eat with my puffy mouth. My right arm had a prickly feeling with the elbow swollen under thick bandage smelling hot rub. It hurt so much that I was unable to turn over and I passed out again.
I awoke in the small tightly shut room. I gradually thought back to the past events. If I exited the gate five minutes later or if I did not have the problem with that hat to make it out five minutes earlier, I would not have encountered the two Le and Dien. Again, that word “if” had always given me misfortune. The more I thought the darker was my feeling for my life and the fate of my country. Suddenly a faded yellow color appeared in my eyes, the image of a nude Do Dinh Ha lying in a hip with smelly urine and feces. That man must remember me as the ban dog giving him that fatal neck chop.
When I was back from my inanimate state, it was full daylight. I heard the sound of key opening the door and Nurse Hue entered wearing facemask and a white blouse. He curbed down to check the wounds on my forehead, my mouth and finally my arms. He displayed a more sympathetic face and very softly said,” They should have put you into confinement right away. Anyhow, seeing that you had a big hole between your eyebrows, according to my experience you could not have survived more than two days in confinement. If there was no desire to kill you I proposed to send you to the infirmary in case the party commissar approves it.” While talking he kept glancing to the door and I understood that he was cautious. I wanted to say a few words of appreciation and he waived his hand,” Lie down to rest, I will bring you some hot rice porridge.” One moment later, he came back followed by a common prisoner carrying a steamy hot soup. He cut an opening of the mouth bandage and inserted a brown rubber tube telling me to try sucking. As my lip was split and swollen, I clenched my teeth and tears rolled down my cheeks. Mr. Hue saw my extreme effort and showed a hint of compassion in his eyes. I finished the hot salty rice porridge. The next day, I started to say a few abstruse words. The nurse came two or three times a day to give injections. Three days later, he cut and removed bandages and smeared the wound with antibiotic powder and red mercuro-chrome. They had removed Do Dinh Ha’s uniform and I did not know it. Now they gave me another new striped uniform with the letters TGHN printed on it (the initials standing for Hanoi prison)
Confinement dungeon of Hoa-Lo prison
Today the wound on my forehead became so painful that I perspired extensively and I passed out again. Somebody shook me up and I opened my eyes to see interrogator Thanh who smiled asking whether I was feeling better. I was somewhat shameful having always said that I love socialism and ended up beating the cadre to evade. I was surprised to see Thanh still displaying the same attitude. He opened a big notebook asking me the reason of my escape attempt. I answered, as I confessed in full from the beginning and the revolution did not trust me, I sought death without success leading me to the attempt of evasion. Thanh often asked clarifications as it took me long to say in a halted voice. He then asked,” When did you intend to escape, did you try to kill the unfamiliar cadre interrogating you?” I answered that I nurtured the escape plan after my unsuccessful suicide. As for that cadre, I saw that he was dumb and decided to strike him inanimate to flee and that I was capable to finish him but I did not do it. Thanh pressed on with more details, where I want to go, how I could avoid security, which way would I go south, whom I would contact, etc.
When he was gone, my soul was like floating and twirling. I understood that when “you spread wind you will get storm.” I had sowed the seed; I must be ready to reap the crop. I was fully aware that in the upcoming journey I must be ready to clench the teeth confronting all hardship. I understood that after this difficult problem other harsher ones would offer to test my will. That is life! I was deep in my reflection giving me more determination to confront whatever will come up. I stayed in the infirmary for six days now. My mouth felt better except for the missing teeth. Nurse Hue had manipulated my right elbow, which became less tumid and I could move it a little. The bruises given by fist blows were in remission and I did not vomit blood anymore. The wound between my eyebrows still hurt. Nurse Hue said that I was very lucky because if that gun muzzle trust just 1 cm to the left I would have lost that eye. I wondered about the size of the scar and Hue boasted of his clever handiwork to come up with an acceptable scar.
I still had a diet of rice porridge. Nevertheless, Warden Bang came with the order to take me to the dungeon. I remembered that I still had my stuffs in prison and asked him with halted voice to let me retrieve them. He retorted that as I had tried to evade I would not need those things anymore. Looking at his expression, I felt that he was not too revengeful and supplicated him,” Please help me; if I succeeded I would not miss anything. But now I failed ….” Both Bang and Hue laughed and Hue gave me a sachet of antibiotic powder for use on my forehead wound to avoid fatal infection. I limped behind Bang through a deserted yard with a few scattered yellow leaves announcing the start of autumn. I was close to the dungeon, which according to Tan, was reserved for life or capital prisoners, a sinister killer place. If you did not die right away, you would succumb with all kind of diseases. I would know about it now.
I came to an unending corridor leading to a thick steel door leading to several steps down onto another very short and small steel door. Bang took out one key to open that door and led me through a narrow alley enclosed between walls built with massive blocks of stones. A strange fetid and morbid odor rose making you vomit and Bang cleared his throat ejecting his phlegm. I saw three or four stone caves and high above, the presence of yellow uniformed guards. Bang opened the small steel door of one box for me to curb down and crawl in. One leg-cuff similar to the one in cells was present with an additional two big steel chains anchored on the stone stall. Bang pulled the strut out, ordered me to engage my legs and locked the two chain ends to my wrists. Afterwards he intoned,” Discipline of dungeon, unlock chains once a week for 15 minutes each Monday; eating is permitted once a day; excretion is done at the pot under steel lid to be emptied once a week.” I begged Bang to help giving me the mat and my miscellaneous things from my former cell and he banged shut the door saying there is no need now.
I had the feeling to be in a stone casket with the only difference that it was 1.50m square. There was no room to stretch out. The light was very dim. My nose became used to that strange rotten flesh odor and I did not feel throwing up any more. I knew that this was the most difficult time of my existence. If I did not try to survive, my life would not last that long being subjected to all kind of maladies, sores, tuberculosis, paralysis, psychiatric derangement, madness. Lack of air and oxygen was a big problem. The air was so polluted and infected that the more you try to breathe in the quicker you would die. Each day at about 12:30 the warden on duty escorted a common prisoner carrying a square wooden box containing two balls of rice wrapped in leaves with some salt. It also had a kettle having about four scoops of water. There was another man in another cave and I tried last night to call but there was no answer. The two balls of rice were for both dungeons. This noon as I was putting the powder on my forehead wound the rattle of keys and the small steel guillotine door raised, I saw a blackened hand pushing the ball of rice in. I handed out the scoop for him to pour in water. I gulped all the water and tendered the scoop out for another fill up as reserve for washing. The common prisoner pulled the strut for the door to slide down and the cadre locked it up. The good thing was that there were not too many mosquitoes down here perhaps because it was so tightly enclosed and there was not enough air for the insects. Going potty was a torture and the odor was unbearable. The commies were aware of it and used it as means of punishment. They used time and the stomach to press you to the end. In addition, I was subjected to weak and negative attitude within the confine of this close environment leading to death in the most severe and atrocious condition. I must fight against those rejections with my positive and optimistic attitude waging a constant and arduous struggle against me.
Today is Monday and I was in this dungeon six days. The wounds were in remission except for the forehead wound in suppuration. Nights were especially desolate. I tried screaming for the person next in to no avail and from time to time I heard the murmur of confessional prayer. While I was randomly thinking of so many things, I heard the rattling of key and the sliding steel door lifted up. It was Cadre Ke and the common prisoner who used to bring rice. Ke was a southern man, 45-50 years old and used to guard cell 9 at the common jail. Today he had to wear facemask and grimaced when he opened my locks to get out quickly before shouting,” You are permitted to empty your pot, rinse your bed and bathe for fifteen minutes.” When I crawl out of my hole my knees were all shaky and I had to squat down on the floor to crawl up several times under the sympathetic stare of the common prisoner. Then I was able to crawl back in to get the pot out. Warden Ke had to withdraw farther out from that smelly one-week excreted potty. On the contrary, the common prisoner pretended rearranging the box with one ball of rice and a bowl of blackened water spinach soup. When a guard from above talked with Warden Ke, the smart common prisoner whispered to me,” Don’t you know that the prisoners up there praised so much your courageous action. They also know that you came from the south to work in Hanoi. One of ours had cleaned the office and told us that you stroke that cadre, feces out.” Warden Ke stopped his conversation and directed his eyes down. I was not able to say my appreciation to our brothers. Anyhow, I felt rising in me a sense of consolation and encouragement mixed with some vague sadness.
Death of an imprisoned priest
It has become chilly. Some dry cold breeze at time shook the air. I had no uniform to change. I undressed and washed my dirty clothes kneading forcefully feeling some heat. Under the faucet, I massaged and scratched to loosen the crusty scars. My thighs were only three fingers thick, my knees looked bony and the touch of my butt gave the feel of angular clumps. There were so many things to do in just fifteen minutes. Warden Ke seeing my ardent strive of survival granted me an additional five minutes. I finished eating and gulping the spinach soup, taking the ball of rice into the dungeon to munch as time was up. I tried to guess on my next-door person but there was no sound of moving out to empty the pot and washing after the door lifted up. Only silence for a short while before that small door was down. So many times, I tried to call without any echo back.
I suddenly trembled with cold under my wet uniform. In the very dim light of the dungeon, I removed the leaf wrapper of the ball of rice when I smelled a special odor making me salivating. In the center of the ball was a small brownish and whitish piece of pork meat about three centimeters square and half centimeter thick. Ooh! How could I get such a wonderful and magic moment! Meat was a rarity in the central prison of Hanoi, perhaps three times a year with a tiny piece. It should have been the smuggling from a common prisoner cook to show his appreciation for somebody whom he admired, a very risky and dangerous action. It could bring about demotion from the fattening job as a cook or the transfer to the continual hunger of cell life. I will remember it forever. I lay down and smelled with enrapture the flavor. Then I started gnawing bit-by-bit feeling the juice impregnating every cell of my body, flowing along my digestive tract. I thanked the creator to have bestowed on me such a perfect gift. The following days the balls of rice still looked the same but tightly and densely shaped to be more than half size the usual ones. I came to realize the voice of the silent majority off the indoctrination and brainwashing of the communist minority. My body was given more fuel to sustain hardship and my spirit was reinforced in the belief that I was on the right path to free the people from the inhumane socialist communist vise grip.
Gradually I heard less and less the grating sounds of chain and the humming prayers from the next dungeon. On that Saturday, after hearing the lifting of the guillotine door the common prisoner stampeded out to report in a halted voice that the inmate was dead. Guessing that he was waiting on the stair steps I coughed and said vaguely,” My God, I had such a stomach ache!” I heard the light sound of steps down and a soft voice asking,” How about that?” My purpose was to inquire of his name and of the next-door inmate. I said whispering,” I wish to know your name, friend.” He answered,” I am Minh, and you?” “Dang Chi Binh, Do you know of the just dead man in the next dungeon?” Minh told me that he was a priest who had not said a word since his arrest and they put him in confinement. In the meantime, four or five persons ran down, then with the sound of rattling chains followed by the hauling of a corpse passing my cell smelling long dead body. Half an hour later, the door of the dungeon lifted up again. Then there were the sounds of running water and of the broom sweeping followed by vomiting. All at a sudden, I heard the whispers of Minh,” They used to take the body to the morgue but today they had to take it out at once because it smelled so bad.” I asked him how long was he dead to smell that awful and he told me since yesterday but his leg was putrefied eaten by worms half month ago giving rotten flesh odor. He said his name is Le Hoang Minh and he did not know the name of that priest who was about 40-45 years old whom they put in dungeon two months ago. The priest died because his leg was rotten bare to the white bone.
Suddenly a southern voice shouted,” Were you done, why you took so long?” Minh rushed up to report. The door of my dungeon dropped down; I sat pensive wondering why that priest did not talk with me. Perhaps I could know more of him and boost his morale so that he would not die. That night I felt scared being now by myself in this solitary confinement. Spirits and devils haunted me; I listened to the strange sounds, which perhaps came from a rat hustling for food. Nevertheless, with the thoughts that if spirits were real they would have strangulated all those criminals and there would not be any communist left. I became calm and fell asleep.
The golden hearts in the prison
With legs immobilized, I must lay down still. Each time when they let me go empty my pot or have a bath I could not stand up squarely and had to lean on the wall up and down a few times before moving gradually. To avoid being crippled I used my hands to massage my legs though I could only reach my knees due to the chains. I used a reed from the broom to scratch my legs. I thought of Minh as a God given encounter. The additional half size rice ration boosted my health and it was important morale uplift in the communist body incinerator. I was unable to exercise on one leg like when I was in my previous cell. I sat up in meditation posture three times a day, breathing and concentrating on the funny appearance of my legs.
Today was my 34th day in the dungeon. However, I had done my best to survive with additional rice supplied by Minh; still my two feet became more swollen. It was not because of cold. It was the lack of nutrition and the immobilization. Another discouraging element was that Minh was gone replaced by another slow and absent man. As I remained the only dweller in this place, I tried to keep it clean by getting two more buckets of water each time to rinse my cave. The cadre did not have anymore to stand away from my cell and they watched me more closely. In life, there were pros and cons, the two opposing sides of things, which could be complementary or self-destructive. The balls of rice became less substantial without the help of Minh. I looked forward to Monday, the day of washing and cleaning. Today was the duty turn of old Kim. From the day, I fooled him to commit suicide; he always frowned at me with anger. It was five or six months ago and I had not seen him since. He shouted at me when he unlocked my hands. I avoided his eyes directed at me with a hint of surprise. I was unable to stand up. I crawled out strenuously, standing up and sitting down several times, while the common prisoner waited on the stone edge for me to finish bathing and cleaning my pot. Old Kim suddenly asked,” How many days were you in here?” I answered,” Senior, (others called him that way because he was 60) today is my 42nd day in dungeon.” Through his voice and his look, it seemed that he did not hate me too much. Looking at me crawling back and forth with much effort he said,” You are just like an animal, you never stay put!”
I knew that they could not change the foundation of men. Only the outside appearance altered with the environment. When he locked my hands, he again asked whether the cadre said for how long. To that question, I said no. What bothered me was there was not any convenient occasion to inquire of Minh, where he is and what happened to him. On Friday morning, I was worrying about my legs, which could paralyze with lack of food and exercise. Then I heard the rattling of keys. It was too early for mealtime. May be it was another new admitted unfortunate person? I intended to crawl up to see but I was so weak that I was unable to sit up. The dungeon door lifted up and cadre Dai shouted,” Crawl up, give me your hands to have them unlocked.” I tried bracing with my arms but the two chains were not long enough for my hands to reach the bed surface. Dai had to unlock the other ends of the chains before he pulled the strut off the leg-lock. Free from the weight of the chains I leaned on my hands to crawl. Anyhow, I was so weak, my body was like a wet rag and it took a while before I could move. It was hard for me to raise the jaw of the lock to pull my feet out. They were so puffy that they looked like two boiled sweet potatoes pierced by a pair of chopsticks. Dai looked at me shaking his head and told me to try moving to the faucet to wash before sitting down writing the report. I looked at the cadre and saw only a hazy face, my eyes unable to focus perhaps due to malnutrition and isolation for long in a dark place. He pointed his fingers at the sheets of paper and pen on the stone steps. I clenched my teeth dragging my two potatoes along to the faucet to rinse my eyes and still did not see any better.
It was the beginning of autumn and the air was cooling down. I massaged my eyelids but did not see clearer. I crawled to where were the paper and the ink and tried to write first the heading “Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” Anyhow, I saw only the crooked blackish and hazy line on the paper with no precise shape of letters. I told the cadre that I was unable to write correctly and looking at the paper, he turned on all lights, which did not help. I dropped the pen telling him,” When I see better I shall write the report. Moreover, I am so tired and exhausted now to know what to write.” He replied,” It is OK. Anyhow, for principle, do write this – I acknowledge my fault and ascertain that I shall not commit any such mistake in the future –.” I attempted to write and handled the paper to him and he made sign for me to go back to the dungeon, saying,” Temporarily you will be dispensed of locks.”
I crawled back to my cage quicker than when I crawled out. The sliding door dropped down. I managed to lie down leaning my head on the steel lock, raising my legs up and down. At first, I was unable to do it and gradually I succeeded taking a break at times. I reasoned that my feet became puffy with water retention and the up and down movements would help disseminate it to my body. At noon, an unfamiliar cadre escorted the ordinary prisoner bringing rice to feed me. After eating, I resumed my exercise and my feet swelling diminished. Especially at night without locks, I felt the enjoyment of freedom, putting my arms or my legs wherever I wanted. “Aha! Freedom, you are the angel of humankind! But not anyone can expect your visit!” I was still apprehensive and hearing the noise at the entrance, I was fearful to see the cadre giving order to put my members in locks again. Sometimes I thought that men are no better than dogs. Anyhow, how would a dog be conscious when you chained him? God created men as an elevated species of the animal kingdom and men were the most vicious of all kinds.
Rediscover old things, but where were old faces.
That afternoon at the end of the workday, Dai opened my cage and let me out. He stood at attention displaying a very solemn and austere face reciting the order,” By instruction from the jail directorate you are released from the dungeon to reintegrate the cell with one leg locked.” Looking at his stiff attitude showing a dumb fat face, lips closely shut I must refrain from laughing as I seemed hearing the whistling of “the bridge of Kwai River” tune celebrating my return to the society of men. He made sign for me to crawl up the ramp because I was not able to walk. Certainly, the administration of the prison was aware of it and waited until all prisoners were back to their common houses to let me crawling out on my bony knob knees, which started bleeding. I was exhausted and lay flat immobile. Dai looked at me not knowing how to do when Assistant Director Tri came by with another cadre. Tri looked at me belly, up breathing jarringly and directed his eyes to my legs to instruct Dai,” CoMr.ade, go to the shop stall get one man to hoist him back to the cell.” When Dai hurried out Assistant Tri looked at me, his upper lip curbing up showing his protruding dirty front teeth saying,” You have very good resistance, did you!” I did not say a word when Dai was back with a short tanned face man about 30 wearing brown shorts with patches on his butt. The man carefully lifted my arms to help me up and softly told me in a southern mixed with the northern accent to envelop my arms around his neck. He hauled me on his back moving on while Tri followed rattling his keys.
Counting from my first day in dungeon it was forty-seven days and things have changed very much. Here and there were a number of newly dug trenches. The four loudspeakers hung at the corners of the yard kept insulting the American war provocation using the Maddox incident in the gulf of Tonkin. The speeches and communiqués of the leadership encouraged the people to get ready for a big war. “The schools, hospitals and all production installations not needed to war effort evacuated out of Hanoi. All elements of the armed forces increased their training and readiness to confront that war in all eventualities.” The American airplanes started bombing Dong Hoi and Hon Gay. An atmosphere of war dominated the whole Hanoi sky.
When the common prisoner hoisted me to the gate of prison I, Dai pushed open the gate and made sign for him to take me in. The yard was full of leaves and ripe fruits. I turned up my eyes to the branches to see the trembling leaves ready to drop down with fruits falling in a staccato, creating the perfect painting of autumn. I opened fully my nose to enjoy the flavorful aroma of the ripe fruits when the common prisoner whispered to my ears,” At the shop stalls, we highly commended you!” I just turned my face to him as to express my appreciation for the good feeling they give me when Dai made sign to haul me into the cell. Anyhow, it was cell 5 instead of cell 6. Therefore, I reported that I had a few things left in six, the old uniform, the reed mat, my pillow-sack and the self-made bag containing some rags, raw tobacco and the pipe. He made sign to the common prisoner to go to six and bring those things back to me. I looked at those old things with lots of emotion. They were the painstaking products of my works and there was the secret pencil. While I was busy, arranging my stuffs Dai pulled out the lock strut. I cautiously lifted the jaw of the lock to engage my ankle. As my leg was puffy, it was just about fit when the jaw was down. Many inmates had their big leg cut to become infected and rotten.
After Dai locked the door, I tried twisting and moving my ankle and it was too tight. There was only one solution, to exercise somewhat to deflate that puffiness and loosen up. I looked at the next cement bed. The lock-hole looked bigger. Tomorrow I shall ask Warden Chien to move me to that bed. I did not know whether he still hated me or not. I remembered the two girls of cell 9 and Can of cell 12. Certainly, they did not know anything about me except that I had suddenly disappeared. They would not have known that I was through a stormy time and was now back here from death. The jail was quieter than before and I had the feeling that things changed completely during my two months of absence. The sound of the loudspeakers was so clear now. They talked of alertness against the south special Seal operatives debarking on the island of Hon Me. They talked of special operation 34A sending Seal members ashore during dark nights to kidnap cadres or inhabitants taking them out on rubber rafts to the big ships heading south for interrogations. Operation 34A should have been top secret. Why they were now discussing about it? Did the counter intelligence of the communists know of it since its inception? The loudspeakers now switched off. Everything became so silent except for the dropping of the ripe fruits from the “badamier trees.” The old sceneries were still here. Where were all the familiar faces? I gradually sank in a deep slumber.
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