I CAME TO Australia in December 1961 as a young student from Saigon, eager to start a university course in this strange and immense new country in the Southern Hemisphere. I only returned home for my first visit in 1976.
During more than a decade of an atrocious war which devastated the land of my birth, I lived far from Vietnam physically, but remained closely attached in my emotions to her sufferings.
In the quiet halls of learning of the University of Adelaide, echoes of the conflict in Vietnam reached me – faintly at first, becoming more intense as the war escalated.
Growing up in Saigon, I had been fed an authorised version of Vietnam's recent history which glorified Ngo Dinh Diem and the "nationalists" as the goodies and cast Ho Chi Minh and the "evil communists" as the baddies. I wanted to understand more about the events which led to the division of Vietnam, pitting brother against brother, in which foreign forces were increasingly involved.
I devoured all the relevant books I could find in the university library. Ellen Hammer's The Struggle for Indochina and Donald Lancaster's The Emancipation of French Indochina made a particular impression on me. A different picture of events in Vietnam in the 1940s and 1950s emerged. I had a clearer idea of the role of the Viet Minh in the struggle for independence and in the resistance against the French attempt at colonial reconquest.
I came to understand that the war raging in Vietnam in the mid-1960s was a continuation of the long fight for national independence and unification which commenced in 1945 – and which only came to a pause with the temporary division of Vietnam in 1954.
As the conflict intensified, US forces took a dominant role in South Vietnam and the bombing of the North became relentless: "We'll bomb them back into the Stone Age", vowed an American general. Military coups deposed and imposed a succession of weak and acquiescent governments in Saigon.
TO ME, THE war in Vietnam began to take on more and more the appearance of a struggle against foreign intervention and less of a civil war. Reading Wilfred Burchett's book Inside Story of a Guerrilla War, and seeing almost daily news pictures of American planes dropping enormous loads of bombs on carefully tended green rice fields, and of American soldiers pointing their weapons at prostrate Vietnamese villagers, reinforced my view.
Meanwhile in Australia, the government gave increasing military support to the Americans and introduced conscription. In Adelaide in 1965, the beginning of the anti-war movement took the form of teach-ins at the university, which eventually coalesced into the Campaign for Peace in Vietnam.
I was an extremely interested participant at the teach-ins and CPV meetings, but had to remain discreet as I was a student from South Vietnam on a Colombo Plan scholarship. Among Vietnamese students in Adelaide, we had long and passionate discussions and arguments about the rights and wrongs of the war. I came to a position akin to that of the "Third Force" in South Vietnam, which held that a solution to the Vietnam War could be arrived at through the withdrawal of US forces and a process of national reconciliation among the different Vietnamese parties.
In 1968, I came to Canberra to commence a course in Asian Studies at the ANU. That was a dramatic year: the Tet Offensive in South Vietnam, the student revolution in Paris, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the "Prague Spring". The repercussions of these events were strongly felt by the progressive student movement in Australia.
The Tet Offensive made a strong impact on my thinking about the war. I reasoned that if guerrilla forces could enter the cities of South Vietnam, even its most heavily protected capital, Saigon, and remained there undetected, hidden by the population in order to spring a surprise attack on the Saigon regime, then it meant that popular support for the National Liberation Front was solid even in urban areas. This reinforced my opposition to the US presence in Vietnam and my view that the NLF represented the genuine aspiration of the majority of the people in South Vietnam for independence, peace and reconciliation.
IN THE CITIES of South Vietnam, in particular in Saigon, a student movement came into being. Demonstrations and vigils were held to demand an end to the foreign-backed corrupt Saigon regime, peace for the country, and reconciliation among all Vietnamese. Poems and songs expressing the sorrow and suffering of the people in the war – and their hope for peace, reconciliation and national reunification – all played a very important role in this movement, inspiring and sustaining the students' spirit in their struggle against the Saigon regime.
Of particular significance were the poetical songs of Trinh Cong Son which embodied the dreams and hopes of a whole generation of students for a peaceful tomorrow, when all Vietnamese would work together to rebuild their shattered lives and their shattered land. In Canberra, far from Vietnam, my eyes would well with tears when I heard the lyrics of Trinh Cong Son's songs. In my heart, I felt as one with the Vietnamese students demonstrating in the centre of Saigon.
I became more involved in the anti-war movement at the ANU campus, especially the moratorium to end the war in 1970 and 1971. Among the various moratorium activities was a poetry night, in which I participated. I read a number of Vietnamese poems, which I had translated into English, in order to present to an Australian audience the feelings of Vietnamese about the war which was destroying their own country and their own people.
In 1973 I spent a memorable year in Paris. Fortuitously I arrived there only a few days before the signing of the Paris Agreement on 23 January to "end the war" in Vietnam. I made contact with anti-war Vietnamese groups in Paris and was asked to join a large gathering to welcome the agreement outside the conference hall where the official signing ceremony took place. I felt very emotional to find myself for the first time among so many like-minded Vietnamese, celebrating what we thought was the beginning of the process of peace and reconciliation in Vietnam. However, our joy proved to be short-lived. The war continued for more than two years after the Paris Agreement and it was to end amidst bitterness rather than reconciliation.
Paris was the home for a number of Vietnamese organisations occupying a variety of positions on the political spectrum. I was involved with a Buddhist group, a Catholic group and a pro-NLF group. I took part in their cultural and political activities, all directed towards calling for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.
IN JANUARY 1974 I returned to Canberra, eager to continue the activities in which I was engaged in Paris. With a number of Australian friends, we formed the Australia-Indochina Society. Our activities were inspired by the slogan "For peace in Vietnam, recognise the PRG" (the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam established by the NLF). We organised meetings to call on the Australian government to recognise the PRG and to protest against violations of the Paris Agreement committed by the Saigon regime.
I also made contact with a number of like-minded Vietnamese students in Canberra and Sydney. Together we published a Vietnamese-language newsletter called Dat Nuoc (‘The Homeland’), aimed at informing Vietnamese students in Australia about the situation at home, with particular emphasis on the need for implementation of the Paris Agreement.
I moved to Sydney in February 1975. By then, events in Vietnam were moving at a furious pace. Within a few weeks in March and April, the People's Army of North Vietnam had overrun the Southern Highlands and was advancing rapidly along the coast, taking over successively the cities of Hue, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, Phan Rang and threatening Saigon. A few Vietnamese friends and I listened to shortwave radio news every night and printed the Dat Nuoc News Bulletin in the morning to keep ourselves and friends in the movement informed of the fast moving events. By 30 April 1975 it was all over: with the surrender of the Saigon government, the Vietnam War came to an end.
I happened to be in Paris that historic day. The next day was the traditional May Day march of the French labour movement. The French spontaneously made it a celebration of the final victory of the Vietnamese people, the culmination of a 30-year long struggle for national independence. The Vietnamese in Paris joyfully joined the celebration.
THE END OF the war in April 1975 did not put a finish to the sorrow and suffering of the people in Vietnam. There was peace and national reunification, but not reconciliation. There were victors and vanquished. There were recriminations and bitterness. There were re-education camps and a tragic haemorrhage of Vietnamese leaving the country to seek refuge elsewhere.
After only a few years' respite, Vietnam was forced to be at war again, first against the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, then against a Chinese invasion of the northern border provinces. The occupation of Cambodia led most western countries to cease giving aid to Vietnam. The USA imposed an economic embargo that was only lifted in 1996.
The combination of this international pressure and domestic economic policies – which were both doctrinaire and inappropriate – plunged the country into dire problems, from which it only emerged in the late 1980s under the more liberal market economy policies of doi moi (renovation).
I still live far from Vietnam, but it is never far from my mind. I have gone through feelings of elation in 1975, to increasing dismay and almost despair in the 1980s, to feelings of relief mingled with concern from the early 1990s. Together with many overseas Vietnamese who were former anti-war activists, I have been calling for political change to accompany the economic reform in Vietnam, for freedom and democracy and a civil society. I believe that only when these aims are achieved will there be true reconciliation among Vietnamese, and Vietnam will finally be at peace with herself.
From a paper written for the seminar on "The Vietnam Conflict: Re-assessments and Reconciliation", held at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (Sydney) on 3-4 May 1997, and published in Viet Nam Voices (Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 1997).
The story of the war in Vietnam continues in Ken Burns' landmark documentary series The Vietnam War, now screening on Saturdays from 7:30pm on SBS.
Watch episodes now at SBS On Demand:
EXCLUSIVE: Director Ken Burns talks 'The Vietnam War'