April 30, 1975. Early that morning, all departments of the Southern Central Bureau including my unit were ordered to set off for Saigon to take over the city. Countless military vehicles full of officials and their personnel left for Saigon. There were lines of trucks, very long, I don’t know how many. Someone said there were hundreds. I, my colleagues, and the head of our unit were among them. Earlier, our unit leader had chosen people to be with him on the trucks. I was one of those chosen.
On our way to Saigon, at around 11.30 in the morning, we received news that the government had unconditionally surrendered. All the convoys stopped and I heard cheers ringing across the sky—everyone jumped for joy. I was very happy. I felt honoured and proud to be able to witness this historic day—the liberation of Saigon and finally, the end of the war.
After that, we continued on towards Saigon. On the way, I saw many vehicles and tanks lying on either side of the road, burning or turned upside down due to the bombing. I also remember seeing many South Vietnamese Army clothes being thrown away by the soldiers so they could pass for civilians. A lot of people stood on both sides of the road and waved at us. From the truck, my comrades and I waved back at them.
I’m helping my Dad write his memories of being a soldier in the Vietnam War. The project started years ago when I first interviewed him about his time with the Vietnamese Communists. Then he told me that he wanted to write down his memories himself, so he wrote in Mandarin and then got it translated into English with the help of my sister, Google and for a brief time, a Chinese translator; a process that took many back and forths. He then handed me the manuscript to revise and edit.
We actually started this shortly after my brother died seven years ago, left it aside for a while, and then resumed it after my mother died last year. Grief seems to shake something loose each time.
Both my parents were Chinese-Cambodians who joined the Viet Cong—in fact, it was in the army that they first met. My dad first found out about communism in his Chinese school in Cambodia. It was there where he learnt about revolutionary and communist theory, as well as through the local pro-Chinese communist government newspapers and Beijing Central radio.
To understand why so many Chinese-Cambodian young people like my parents joined the Vietnamese Communists, you have to know a little about Cambodian history.
In 1970, King Sihanouk was ousted from power in a coup d’état by his Prime Minister, the General Lon Nol, largely understood to have been backed by the US. The coup d’état led to Cambodia no longer officially being a neutral party in the Vietnam War, with the new government openly supporting the South Vietnamese and the U.S.
Before and after this coup, between 1965 to 1973, the U.S was secretly carpet-bombing Cambodia to flush out the Vietnamese Communists within Cambodia’s borders. The number of bombs used exceeded the total amount the U.S dropped during all of WWII—more than 2.7 million tons landed on Cambodia.
After the coup, King Sihanouk made an alliance with the ultra-nationalist communist Khmer Rouge guerrilla group led by Pol Pot, as well as with the communist North Vietnamese. He hailed the Khmer Rouge as patriots fighting against Lon Nol, whom he deemed an American puppet government. The Khmer Rouge had little support prior to the war, but as a result of the devastating U.S bombing campaign followed by the coup against the King, the Khmer Rouge grew in popular support. Many in the countryside rallied around the King’s call to arms against Lon Nol and in support of the Khmer Rouge.
It essentially ignited a civil war in the country and signalled an end to my father’s post high-school studies in translation (Chinese-Khmer). A big part of my father’s story was the unfortunate geographical position of his hometown in Cambodia and the part it played in shaping his destiny. His town of Tonle Bet, in Kampong Cham province, was not far from the Vietnamese border in North-Eastern Cambodia. Therefore it was not far from the bombings by the U.S during their ‘Operation Menu’ and ‘Operation Freedom Deal’ campaigns which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
It was not far from the Southern Central Bureau, headquarters for the South Vietnamese Communists. It was also the place where Lon Nol’s forces stationed themselves after the coup to cut off any attempts by the alliance of King Sihanouk’s supporters to expand their territory.
My father’s hometown therefore saw a convergence of the King’s supporters, Vietnamese Communists, the Khmer Rouge and Lon Nol’s forces, backed variously by Chinese, Soviet, and U.S. support. In April 1970, actual U.S. forces entered Cambodia for the first time.
And so it was that he was part of the Vietnamese Communist Army, on a truck heading into Saigon, as they declared victory in 1975.
However, this atmosphere of elation was marred by an official in the same vehicle who stopped us from waving because he said there were enemies in the crowd. He was a doctor who had previously worked underground in the enemy zone. He had worked in our unit for less than a year when he became the head of the unit’s right-hand man and also the representative for the Youth League in our unit.
So, we were forced to put our hands down and the excitement was also gone shortly after. I didn’t understand why people in other vehicles could wave while we could not, and there was no rule from the superiors saying we could not wave. I was not happy with this official but I had no choice but to obey him because he was the leader.
When our cars arrived in the suburbs of Saigon, it was dusk. The organization arranged for us to spend the night in a vacant high school before entering the city the next day. After the liberation of Saigon, which changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City, the entire city was under the control of the military, so every part of it was guarded by soldiers to maintain order. All of the units, including ours, dispersed to different places. They occupied the official buildings, but also the offices and houses of former officials. Often these places were taken haphazardly on a first come, first served basis. I was with the intelligence unit, and was sent to guard the villa of a top government official and his family.
1975 was also a momentous year for Cambodia. It was when the Khmer Rouge finally came to power in the country. The regime immediately instituted their ‘Year Zero’ policy—an analogy to the Year One of the French Revolutionary calendar—where all culture and traditions within society, particularly bourgeois society, would be completely destroyed and a new peasant revolutionary culture installed. They enforced a 3-day mass evacuation of the people in the capital Phnom Penh to the countryside to work in labour camps. In just 3 years, 1.7 million Cambodians, about 21 percent of the population at the time, died from execution, starvation or forced labour.
Joining the Viet Cong meant that my parents were in Vietnam when the Khmer Rouge came to power, meaning that they avoided the atrocities of that regime. My father’s side of the family were in Cambodia for 8 months after Pol Pot took control of the country before escaping to Vietnam. My mother’s side of the family never left Cambodia and endured (survived) the regime.
Then in 1979, Vietnam backed by Soviet Russia, ‘invaded’ or ‘liberated’ Cambodia—depending on who you asked—and defeated the Khmer Rouge, taking over power in Cambodia and installing their own approved government.
It seems like Cambodia had its own liberation/fall ambivalence.
It seems like all wars are full of these.
2018. I am with my parents in Xa Mát forest in Tây Ninh province, in the Southeast of Vietnam that shares a border with Cambodia. Wikipedia says that Tây Ninh was formerly Cambodian territory until it was occupied early in the 19th century by the Vietnamese, and consequently it is a region with Khmer, Chinese and Cham minorities.
We are with two of my parents’ former comrades from the army, both also Cambodians. One is now the wife of a high-ranking official in the government and because we are travelling with her, we don’t need a visa to cross the border into Vietnam. She is a brash, straight-talking, likeable woman who looks like she is used to being listened to. The other former comrade is a quieter, physically diminutive woman. My mum says that she has fallen on hard times and gives her fifty dollars as a gift.
We are going on a road trip from Cambodia to Vietnam with these former comrades of my parents, all of them in the same unit during the war. Despite not having seen each other in decades, my parents and their friends talk with an ease and a closeness that can only occur in the kind of friendship where you have faced everything together, including the possibility of death.
One of the main reasons for our visit: to go see their old headquarters, the Southern Central Bureau. During the war it was the main command centre for the Communists in South Vietnam, where the top chiefs were stationed as well as holding the central offices for logistics, security and intelligence. Located about one kilometre away from the border with Cambodia, my parent’s unit retreated back to this command centre after the Khmer Rouge alliance fell apart and the Viet Cong were hounded out of Cambodia.
There is a memorial here now by the Vietnamese government for those Communist soldiers who died in the war. A special national monument has been erected, with preservations of the former offices as well as recreation of army life in the nearby forest of Xa Mát. My parent’s friend has her brother’s name engraved in a marble tablet memorial, amongst other names of those who perished there. Her fingers trace his name on the stone.
In the forest there are replicas of huts, kitchens, hammocks, and trenches where the army live. Bamboo and wooden furniture, thatched roofs. What did my father say? That these models were better versions of what they actually had. Life was hard in the jungle, my mother said. Exhausting. Especially during a war.
In seeing their reactions to the memorial, I feel for the first time that my family and my roots were being seen. For the first time we were part of a mainstream narrative which we couldn’t be part of in Australia in remembering the war. Stories from the ‘other side’ of a war are rarely told.
Who gets to have their stories told, I wondered, as I stood by the memorial with my parents. Who is allowed to be rooted in and part of a common history? A vast gap between those who have memorials built for them and those who die unknown and unclaimed. It was a revelation to me that there could be a place where my parents’ experiences could be recognised.
But even then, there are different levels of recognition and layers of silence. As Chinese-Cambodians my parents were discriminated against by the Vietnamese Communists once the fighting was over, and indeed they left the army shortly after the war was won.
My parents’ experiences of war have been rendered doubly invisible: first, as participants on the ‘enemy side’ from the West’s perspective and second, as part of an ethnic minority within the Vietnamese Communists. Nowhere to be found on both sides of the story.
I was just eighteen years old. I kept going and left everything behind me without any nostalgia and without saying goodbye to the hometown where I grew up and spent my whole childhood, or to my parents who painstakingly raised me and to whom I hadn’t had the opportunity to pay back yet. The only thought I had was to devote my precious youth and life to the revolution, to fling myself into the furnace of war in fighting for my communist ideals.
My father is filled with regret now at having joined the Communists. He often talks about how much he let his parents down, as the eldest son who left his family behind. He describes how he had been willing to risk his life for the communist cause, and then once they had won they basically threw him away—demoting everyone who was ethnically Chinese as relations between Vietnam and China froze after the war. He tells me stories about some of the corruption he saw, how the ideals the party talked about never turned into reality.
I participated in the revolution to follow the ideals of the Communist Party, which was to liberate the people and allow them to live a happy life of freedom, democracy, and equality. But the irony was that after the victory of the Communist Party the people in the country did not really enjoy freedom, democracy and equality at all.
He wants to write his memories down now as a warning to others about the evils of communism. As he talks about it—the regret, the disillusionment—is so palpable to me that I can almost touch it; especially his sorrow at a youth wasted in chasing the wrong thing.
I hear his regret and I understand it. But I also understand how he made the choices he did. I think I would have made the same myself. I too believe in people standing up to oppression and imperialism, especially against a history of colonialism. But like most revolutions in history that has arisen in response to terrible conditions, that has its initial impetus in people’s suffering and their intentions to rise above it, it has resulted in appalling acts and a situation far from what was imagined. History seems to remind us constantly of our failures.
But still, when I listen to my father tell his stories, I hear in his voice the almost universal youthful need for purpose and meaning in life, which the Vietnam War and the society he lived in at the time shaped into a particular direction. I hear the unfailing human desire, despite the circumstances and perhaps despite our own weaknesses, to want to create a better life for ourselves and for others. In essence, it’s a desire for life that persists in the belief that something can—must—be done when we feel there is injustice, an undying faith that we can have a better world.
What it says to me is that people on the ground in wars were not only victims or aggressors, but they were also dreamers and idealists, desiring and feeling subjects. This fact is often erased in black and white accounts of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people of a war, of its winners and losers. People who don’t fit into these simplistic narratives are often rendered invisible. And in something as vast and devastating as the Vietnam War, the war was not limited to Vietnamese and Americans but embroiled the entire Southeast Asian region. I think these are all reasons why I wanted to help my father write his memories of the Vietnam War. To show that at that historic moment, there was also a hopeful and idealistic Chinese-Cambodian young person, amongst other Chinese-Cambodians and non-Vietnamese, who were there as Saigon fell.
 Kiernan, Ben, and Taylor Owen. “Bombs over Cambodia: new information reveals that Cambodia was bombed far more heavily than previously believed.” The Walrus, October (2006).
 Kiernan, Ben, and Taylor Owen. “Roots of US troubles in Afghanistan: Civilian bombing casualties and the Cambodian precedent.” The Asia-Pacific Journal 8 (2010).
May Ngo is an anthropologist and Research Fellow at the Oriental Institute, Czech Academy of Sciences. Her work has been previously published in The Lifted Brow, Mascara Literary Review and she tweets at @mayngo2.