Poets Phan Nhien Hao and To Thuy Yen (far left) in New Haven
(Image by Linh Dinh) Permission Details DMCA
I've only been to New Haven four times, and last week, it was only to participate in the commemoration of the Fall of Saigon, as organized by the Vietnamese Studies Program at Yale. I was one of three poets invited. The other two were Phan Nhien Hao (b. 1967) and To Thuy Yen (b. 1938).
To Thuy Yen, I only got to know last week at Professor Quang Phu Van's house, where we all stayed. It's very Vietnamese to prefer the friendlier, shared space of a home, instead of separate hotel rooms. We ate wonderful dishes cooked by Van's wife and downed vast quantity of his beer, wine and whiskey. Our conversations lasted for hours.
Visiting Iceland in 2007, I learned that a Vietnamese water puppet troupe had performed there. At their hotel, the Vietnamese had converged into just two rooms to socialize, with many sleeping on the floor instead of returning to their own beds. The man who related this was quite bemused. With so few people, Iceland has more than enough space for everyone.
I asked Yen how much influence did the Americans have on South Vietnamese propaganda, and he said very little, surprisingly. It was the Taiwanese who worked closely with Yen, "Since they had lost to the Communists, they had plenty of experience in dealing with them. The Taiwanese sent four advisors and maintained an office in South Vietnam for about a decade. Our people also went to Taiwan to learn."
Wartime South Vietnam had many private newspapers, unlike the North, with its government monopoly on all publishing. "Whenever an article appeared that was somewhat favorable to the Communists, they would buy as many copies as possible, since this encouraged the editor to publish similar stories in the future. The article could also be distributed in areas under their control, for their propaganda."
South Vietnam was also crawling with North Vietnamese agents. "One man was caught on the beach in Phan Thiet. He was originally a Southerner, so spoke like a local, but he had forgotten to adjust his watch! Back then, Hanoi was an hour ahead of Saigon. One of our policemen noticed this discrepancy."
"Unfortunately, he was killed in jail by other Communists. They knew he had too much information."
Before 1975, Yen sometimes interrogated Communists at a jail by the Saigon River. Now, he was kept in the same prison. "History is just people changing costumes," Yen chuckled.
Like all South Vietnamese soldiers, Yen was never convicted or sentenced, but simply kept until his captors decided he was properly reeducated. After a decade, Yen was finally released. At least, he didn't die in custody. His wife, whom I also met in New Haven, had brought food and medicines to Yen while he was imprisoned. The strength of the Vietnamese family is testified by the fact that so many women never abandoned their jailed and highly stigmatized husbands.
Life inside Vietnam was extremely difficult during those postwar years. In a 2000 interview, Phan Nhien Hao told me he had been hungry all the time, "One could hardly think of anything but food." Luckily, Yen received cash assistance from overseas friends and admirers. Some visited him in Saigon.