Read an Excerpt
The Twenty-Five Year Century
A South Vietnamese General Remembers the Indochina War to the Fall of Saigon
By Lam Quang Thi
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2001 Lam Quang Thi
All rights reserved.
South Viet Nam had always been the richest region of the country. Its delta, traversed by the Mekong River, which forks into the Mekong in the North and the Bassac in the South as it enters South Viet Nam from Cambodia, had always served as the nation's rice basket. South Viet Nam originally was part of the Khmer empire. The Vietnamese conquered it during their long and sometimes bloody southern expansion in which they annexed the Cham kingdom in Central Viet Nam and the lowlands of the Khmer empire in the South.
Bac Lieu, my natal province, was the richest province of South Viet Nam. Located at the southern tip of the Indochinese Peninsula, it consisted of vast stretches of fertile rice fields, which could be covered only, as the local saying goes, by "herons flying with extended wings" (co bay thang canh). These rich lands were owned by just a few people who made up the Southern elite. These wealthy landowners were often called the "playboys of Bac Lieu" (cong-tu Bac Lieu) because they indiscriminately spent their money to maintain a lavish lifestyle. As legend tells it, one day a Bac Lieu playboy burned a one hundred piasters (dong) bill to look for a one-dong theater ticket lost by his ladyfriend. (Recently, one female Vietnamese journalist, learning that I had come from Bac Lieu, wondered out loud how on earth a native of that notorious province could have risen to the rank of general in the army.)
Despite its wealth and the extravagant lifestyle of its playboys, Bac Lieu remained a backward place. Hence, this couplet of folk verse:
Bac Lieu is a backward country. Its rivers swarm with chot fishes1 and its banks with Chinese.
Bac Lieu, in fact, boasted one of the biggest Chinese conglomerations in Viet Nam. My maternal grandfather was of Chinese descent. In the early 1900s, he was the richest landowner in Bac Lieu. According to my mother, my grandfather escaped to Bac Lieu from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he had beaten up a royal prince during a brawl at a fashionable French lycée, which was attended by the princes and princesses of the royal family and by the children of wealthy residents. In Bac Lieu, he amassed a huge fortune in land deals and, along with a few influential members of the Southern elite, he was awarded French citizenship by the French colonial administration. As a result, my mother was a French citizen in her own right. I remember that every time there was a French presidential election, she would consult with us regarding the merits of each candidate and then she would make her own decision. General De Gaulle appeared to be her favorite politician at the time. However, I was not automatically awarded French citizenship since my father was not a French citizen. French laws did allow me to opt for French status when I reached the age of twenty-one, on condition that I would have to serve for two years in the French Army under the French mandatory military service system.
Just before World War I, my grandfather went to France to undergo treatment for diabetes, taking with him his two oldest sons. He later died during the war in Montpellier where he was later buried. My oldest uncle, true to the tradition of a cong-tu Bac Lieu, preferred the playboy's dolce vita to the strenuous life of a foreign student in Paris. He loved to frequent the dancing halls of Montparnasse rather than the classrooms of the Sorbonne and proved a disappointment to the family for having failed to pursue the academic goals set forth for him by my grandfather. When the war broke out, he was drafted into the French Army and took part in the battle for the defense of Verdun.
While my grandfather and his two oldest sons were in France, the family fortune was entrusted into the hands of his oldest daughter, whom we called Di Hai (or Maternal Aunt Number Two). In South Vietnam, for some superstitious reason or possibly out of modesty, the oldest child is automatically assigned the number two rank. Di Hai had a free rein in managing the family affairs since my grandmother was in poor health and my mother and her younger sister had both been sent off to study at a Catholic convent in Soc Trang, about thirty kilometers north of Bac Lieu. There was one problem: Di Hai loved to gamble, and in the course of her addictive gambling, she sold off most of the family's land holdings. By the time my uncles returned from France, the family retained ownership of only two strips of farm lands located along the muddy and tortuous Co Co (or Heron's Neck) River, near the My Thanh estuary which empties into the South China Sea.
After my grandmother's death, my mother was sent to Saigon to attend another Catholic school and it was during that time that she converted to Catholicism. She spent most of her weekends at the residence of her marraine (or godmother), Mrs. Nguyen Huu Hao, who was to become Emperor Bao Dai's mother-in-law.
At twenty, my mother married my father, who was the oldest son of a wealthy family in Vinh Trach Hamlet, located about five kilometers southeast of Bac Lieu. Although my father was not a Catholic, the church allowed the marriage because shortly before that the Vatican had approved the wedding of Princess Nam Phuong, the Catholic daughter of my mother's marraine, to Emperor Bao Dai, a Buddhist.
Like my two uncles and sons of well-to-do families in the South, my father was sent to study in France at an early age. He attended a lycée in Paris where he obtained a baccalaureate degree in philosophy. He then enrolled at the Faculty of Law in Bordeaux, but before completing requirements for his law degree, he decided to go back to Viet Nam to manage the family affairs. His father owned not only large acreages of farmland in Bac Lieu but also an important rubber plantation in Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border.
My paternal grandfather was one of the founders of the Cao Dai religious sect, which worshipped, not only Jesus Christ and the Buddha, but also Confucius and, strangely enough, Victor Hugo. At that time, my grandfather, involved in an underground movement against colonial rule, was being pursued by the French authorities. To avoid arrest, he had fled to Thailand (known then as Siam). Later he died in exile and his body was secretly brought back to Viet Nam for burial. One day, Tho, my older brother, and I were escorted to Tay Ninh by our aunt (my father's younger sister) to attend his funeral.
From Saigon we took a bus to Tay Ninh where we arrived at nightfall. My aunt rented a small horse-drawn carriage which brought us from Tay Ninh to the rubber plantation where my grandfather was to be buried. We traveled at night to avoid the notice of French authorities. It was, for me, a very frightening experience since the carriage owner told us that we would have to follow a small village road infested with tigers. As I clung to the corner of the seat, listening to the singsong of the small bells that danced under the horse's neck and watching the dim light of the small petroleum lamp that swung under the roof eve of the carriage, I panicked at the thought of some tiger suddenly surging from a roadside bush. (Thirty years later, when Tho's infantry division operated in the Tay Ninh area, he and I, then both generals, revisited our grandfather's grave.) Right after his marriage, my father was appointed to the coveted position of Chief of the Agriculture Department of Bac Lieu. After Tho and I were born, the family moved to Saigon where my father worked for a French brewing company. According to my mother, Tho was a beautiful baby while I was rather dark-skinned and dull. That prompted my father to predict a good future for Tho and a more modest one for me. Tho would likely become a doctor or an engineer while I would make a good auto mechanic.
However, my parents' marriage, which had been arranged through a matchmaker, did not last: in 1937, after the birth of her fourth son, my mother, who was only twenty-seven, decided to leave my father. She brought the four of us back to the family's farmland in Tam Vu. The property was located on the right bank of the Co Co River within the limits of Soc Trang Province and was managed at the time by Uncle Number Nine.
Uncle Nine was unmarried. He had a giant shepherd dog named Caesar that followed him everywhere he went. An educated man (too young to accompany my grandfather to France, he instead attended Lycée Chasseloup Laubat in Saigon), Uncle Nine spent his spare time teaching us the rudiments of the complex structure of French grammar. He also introduced us to the joys of French history and civilization.
Every day, after breakfast, I would accompany him on his routine trips to the field, during which he discussed and solved all the problems related to rice-growing. He often carried a double-barrel shotgun which he used for hunting the colliers bleus or blue-collared wild ducks during the rainy season and sparrows or other small birds which fed on paddy at harvest time. Caesar would dash forward right after he heard the detonations and would bring back the dead birds, which I carried home. With the colliers bleus my mother would prepare a succulent vit tiem dish (steamed duck with spices and mushrooms). Sparrows and becassins (small marsh birds with long beaks) roasted with salted butter, were delicious and prized by my brothers and me.
My mother adapted remarkably well to her new life. Iron-willed, she would now devote the remainder of her days to raising her four sons. This was the reason she never remarried. According to a folk belief in Viet Nam, a family of four sons was blessed with Tu Quy or the Four Worthies, while a family of five sons was cursed with Ngu Quy or the Five Devils. I don't think that my mother subscribed to such theories: every time she was angry at us and punished us collectively for bad conduct, she used to call us the Four Devils. In retrospect, however, the concept of Tu Quy may have some merit after all: Tho and I turned out to be the only two brothers who rose to the rank of general in the modern history of South Vietnam.
In any event, my mother firmly believed that education was the key to success, and she worked hard to ensure that we all received an adequate education. This was relatively easy before World War II, when my mother was able to collect rent from our tenant-farmers in the form of rice that she and Uncle Nine would sell to the Chinese merchants who came to our property at harvest time to buy at cheap prices. They would store their rice at their huge warehouses in Cho Lon where they would resell later at much higher prices. Life proved rather easy for the four of us who spent our days racing on water buffaloes like the cowboys of Texas. We also enjoyed cockfighting, mostly during the Tet festivities which followed a good harvest. On these occasions, all our uncles and cousins would gather at our farm to pay respects to the ancestors. My mother would see to it that enough pigs were butchered and roasted, rice cakes in prodigious amounts were prepared, and that we were properly dressed for the festivities. The children received li-xi (or New Year's "lucky bills" inside small red envelopes) that we spent on firecrackers and fresh watermelons.
At the end of World War II, the French came back to Indochina to reestablish their control over their old colonies. After the war broke out between the Communist Viet Minh and the French Expeditionary Corps, most of the countryside became unsafe. My mother and the four of us left our Tam Vu farmhouse and moved to Bac Lieu with Uncle Four. Uncle Four had no children. According to my mother, right after he came back from World War I, Uncle Four was recommended for the position of treasurer in Bac Lieu; but he had no money to bribe the French province chief, so the job went to a Frenchman. Now, after World War II, he managed a rice alcohol distilling plant for an absentee owner who lived in Paris. As security deteriorated in the rural areas, my mother could no longer collect the rent from the farmers. She and one of her nieces decided to rent a kiosk in the Bac Lieu market to sell fabrics and other wares. In that period, she endured many hardships in order to achieve her goal of providing an adequate education for her children. In retrospect, my mother was, without question, the woman I admired most in my life. Recently, one of my cousins and a daughter of Aunt Di Hai, who lived in France and whom I had not seen for years, told me that she had always revered my mother almost as a saint. Compared to her mother who loved to gamble and who, in the process, sold off most of the family's land holdings, my mother, with her unswerving devotion to her religion and to her children, was obviously almost a saint. This was why, objectively, what my cousin said may have been an overstatement. But, somehow, at the bottom of my heart, I tended to agree.
After we completed our elementary education, Tho and I were sent to Can Tho, an important provincial capital about one hundred kilometers north of Bac Lieu, to pursue our secondary education. The education system imposed by France upon her colonies was very stringent and selective. Small provincial towns, such as Bac Lieu, had only five-year elementary schools. In order to go on to the secondary level, young Vietnamese who lived in the Mekong Delta had to compete in tough entrance examinations for admission to four-year secondary schools in either Can Tho or My Tho, the latter being located about thirty kilometers south of Saigon. I was admitted to Can Tho's College Phan Thanh Gian (named after a hero who committed suicide after he failed to defend the Citadel of Vinh Long against the French in the nineteenth century). Tho failed the entrance examination and had to attend a private secondary school, also in Can Tho.
Our Aunt Di Hai, who married a wealthy landowner in Can Tho and who lived in a comfortable villa on a large acreage planted with all kinds of fruit trees on the outskirts of the city, was kind enough to take us in during our first school year. For us, the nha que (peasants) from a small city with only two small elementary schools (one for boys and one for girls), College Phan Thanh Gian with its complex of well designed two-story brick buildings, including a dormitory for the élèves internes, and surrounded by a two-meter high brick wall, looked like a military fort or a citadel and was both impressive and intimidating. The headmaster of the school was Truong Vinh Khanh, a son of the illustrious scholar Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, a linguist credited with introducing the quoc ngu or romanized script into Vietnamese literature and journalism. Mr. Khanh had studied in France and earned both a French license es lettres (theoretically the equivalent of an American Bachelor of Arts degree in literature) and a law degree. All the professors were Vietnamese and quite a few had graduated from French universities. One of them, Nguyen Van Kiet, also a licensie es lettres from the Sorbonne, taught French literature for the senior class. He would later join the Viet Cong and become a minister of education in their Provisional Revolutionary Government. Most of the professors, however, had graduated from the École Pedagogique in Hanoi where they trained for two years after they had won their Diplome d'Études Primaires Superieures for the four-year secondary curriculum and passed the stringent entrance examination.
All the classes were taught in French, although every week we did have one hour of Vietnamese (called Annamite at that time). I had been an above average student in Bac Lieu but at College Phan Thanh Gian, I was unable to hold my own and during my freshman year, I ranked among the bottom third of my class.
Toward the end of our academic year, one extraordinary event was about to disrupt our lives and start a chain of events which would profoundly affect not only our future but the future of the nation. On the morning of March 9, 1945, when I arrived at school, I saw Japanese soldiers mounting guard at the gates. Afterwards, the headmaster told the students that, as a result of a coup d'état staged by the Japanese forces, the pro-Vichy regime of the French Administration in Indochina had been overthrown, that our campus had been seized by a Japanese unit, and that the school would be closed for the rest of the academic year. I later learned that French citizens had been arrested all over the country and sent to concentration camps. I also learned that the Japanese were in the process of forming a new government in Hue under Tran Trong Kim as prime minister. These events confused me greatly and gave me mixed feelings. Although I did not particularly like the Japanese and viewed their theme of "The Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere" with skepticism, I did admire their military skills and discipline. I was also proud that an Asian country, which had soundly defeated the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet in 1905 at the historic Battle of Tsushima, had again succeeded in overthrowing an important colonialist power like France. At any rate, Tho and I wasted no time packing and bidding farewell to our aunt and cousins. We took the first bus back to Bac Lieu.
Excerpted from The Twenty-Five Year Century by Lam Quang Thi. Copyright © 2001 Lam Quang Thi. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.