Now that your mom and I are 80 years old, we feel ourselves blessed because, in terms of longevity, we’ve outlived our previous generations by a fairly wide margin. We often tried in the past to hold intimate talks on a number of life issues with all of you, but apparently, the timing of these occasions was not always convenient for all to be present at the same time. Besides, we’re not so sure that even those present could at all remember well our words.
Writing this open letter, therefore, we intend it to reach all of you at the same time. In it we will recapitulate all our main ideas on related life topics of interest we wish to convey to you all. Since most of our grandkids can hardly speak Vietnamese adequately let alone read it properly, you should try to find ways to transmit and explain our viewpoint to them, helping them not only become aware of our messages but also grasp the significance of what we are trying to present on paper today.
On showing our gratitude. Dear sons and daughters, on the way to flee from the communists and to seek freedom, we abandoned everything, material and otherwise: our possessions and belongings; our altars and ancestors’ land. When we first came and settled down in this second homeland called Canada, we were warmly welcomed and greatly helped by her government and people. Our lives here have since become quite pleasant and comfortable.
For such enjoyable new lives we owe a lot to this country. To pay back just part of the debt and show our gratitude, we should try our best to contribute our share to Canada’s general welfare, making her become an increasingly prettier, wealthier and mightier host by the day.
On our refugee status. Dear children, you should make an effort to explain clearly to your children, our grandkids they are, making sure they understand fully (the reasons) why our large family, along with thousands of others, came and settled down here. That is, we started out as political refugees in Canada, after escaping from the Vietnamese Communists (VC) to look for Freedom outside our homeland. As your kids have been used to living in a free and democratic society since birth, they won’t be able to visualize the ruling policies full of deceit and trickery adopted by the VC as they started running Vietnam, especially ever since they took over South Vietnam by force in April 1975.
Your children’s clean and innocent heads can hardly make out why and how the VC could maltreat their fellow countrymen in such a cruel way. (You can have them watch the film Journey from the Fall, directed by Mr. Tran Ham, in theatre, on April 30, 2005.)
The VC have been running the country with a ruthless hand; yet they are very artful in covering or masking it with sweet talk and demagogic propaganda. That’s why it’s necessary for you as your kids’ parents, uncles and aunts, to make these youngsters understand the true meaning behind that VC euphemistic terminology. But, remember, doing so does not mean we intend to grow in the kids’ pure minds some sort of perpetual hatred for the VC, but to help them grasp the whole truth about the Red rulers. (In other words, we wish to help them differentiate between what to go along with and what to get away from.) There is nowadays a sort of saying one often hears or repeats, “Don’t ever listen to what the VC say; just closely watch what and how they have been doing.”
On Our Original Fatherland. However busy you are with making a living, you all should devote some free time to the study of, and reflection on, Vietnam’s history and geography. Because thanks to this effort you would know where our people came from; how the land took the shape it has today; how our ancestors fared through thick and thin, through glories and shames, through victories and failures as they coped with adverse elements to defend and build their territory… All this knowledge would help you extract and learn lessons from our past.
Throughout our history there were times when our ancestors fended off invaders bravely; there were others when they failed miserably. Then there was a time when Vietnam had been shamefully dominated for a thousand years; yet, there were several other epochs when they valiantly stood up and soundly defeated their foreign aggressors to take back national independence. And of course, there were times when it was us Vietnamese who invaded, occupied neighboring countries, causing a lot of damage to them. A recent instance of this was the 10-year war of destruction waged against Kampuchea, fostering in our next-door neighbor a lot of bitter rancor toward us. The war has left behind the onus of debt that our posterity has to bear and deal with for a long time to come.
On Our Recent Past. Our country had been ruled by the French since late 19th century. World War II broke out around 1940 while within our land, on March 9, 1945, the Japanese staged a coup, ousting the French in the process. Taking this opportunity, Emperor Bao Dai declared null and void the Protectorate Pact previously signed with the French, and then bade Mr Tran Trong Kim, a well-known luminary in his court of the time, to form the first government for an Independent Vietnam. Meantime, the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) was routed by the Allies (Great Britain, France, USA, USSR, and China) in major battlefronts. It was during this momentous period, the Viet Minh Front emerged and overthrew the Tran Trong Kim government of Vietnam, declaring the formation of another country called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on the same land.
Not long afterwards, however, the French managed to return to her former colony, reclaiming their rule over areas not yet under the Front’s control, which was confined mainly in the countryside and remote regions. The Front then called on the entire country for a war of resistance against the French, beginning on December 19, 1946. When the Front gradually revealed their true nature as communists, the nationalistic factions within it called it quits and returned to the regions outside the Reds’ jurisdiction where a different form of government had been set up, because they feared of being gradually rid of by their communist counterparts. The struggle between the Front and the French waged on and culminated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, where the French succumbed in disgrace to the victorious Front, in May 1954.
After the Battle of DBP, both sides signed in 1954 the Geneva Agreement on Vietnam, whereby Vietnam was cut in half at the 17th parallel, forming two separate entities—the North as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRVN), and the South as the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).
The North, having now openly adopted communism, proceeded with their invasion of the South with full support from the Communist Bloc. To avoid world opinions denouncing their illegal aggression, they created the so-called the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF), implying that the uprising was by local Southerners. The RVN meanwhile got help from the USA and her allies in the free world in the fight to stop communism from spreading southward. When the Northern invaders presented so strong a threat, the USA committed military advisors and combat troops to help the South out, around 1960. The North-South fighting became ferocious, as a result.
When the USSR and China became enemies within the Communist Bloc, President Nixon made an official visit to China and signed the Shanghai Pact in 1972. Since then the United States appeared to feel it no longer needed South Vietnam as its “anti-communist outpost” in South-East Asia—it abandoned the RVN cold turkey! (The book ‘When Allies Call It Quits’ by Dr. Nguyen Tien Hung, reveals quite a few naked truths about breaches of promise and speedy withdrawals committed by the USA at RVN’s expense.)
According to the Paris Agreement on Vietnam, signed in early 1973 by the 4 parties involved in the conflict (USA, RVN, DRN, and NLF), the USA would have to withdraw all its combat troops, leaving behind just a number of advisors, while North Vietnam’s soldiers could stay put. How absurd!
The communist North continued their armed southward advance with abundant military aids from several countries of the Communist Bloc. Facing such an onslaught, the South without adequate weapons, ammunition, equipment, fuel,…, could hardly ever keep up with her self-defense counter offensive, however courageous her forces might be.
And thus came April 30, 1975, the day when South Vietnam’s Capital of Saigon fell to the VC. A migration of South Vietnamese as political refugees began as they scrambled for means, any means, to leave the country, to get away from the wretched VC, looking for Freedom elsewhere. What has happened from this point onward, you all may already know, we hope.
Today there is a glut of information about anything; too much of it, indeed. There are writings on Vietnam, on the Vietnam War, by all sorts of authors; there are even films about the conflict by well-known directors. Yet there is not much truth in them. Some write truthfully, but they see just one facet of the problem. Just like the parable Blind Men and the Elephant. Others bend realities on purpose to suit their own interest. There are others, even monks, who make up things to slander their opponents. The worst case is when people in power and their followers try to rewrite history. It’s not accidental that the last sentence in the well-known book Roots by Alex Haley (1921-1992) is, “…the fact that preponderantly the histories have been written by the winners.” (Full title: Roots: The Saga of an American Family, published in 1976, Pulitzer Prize Winner 1977.)
So, we would like fondly to remind you, especially our grandkids that, when reading, watching, listening to materials dealing with Vietnam’s welfare in the 20th and the early 21th century, authored by no matter who, or even by Westerners, you all should do so with extra care, and then judge them with intelligence.
As we see it, the war of 1954-1975 in Vietnam was some sort of North-South conflict, a kind of civil war. A war by proxy, it represented an armed confrontation between the Communist Bloc and the Free World, in which foreign weapons were used, local Vietnamese lives lost. To us Southern Vietnamese it was simply a self-defense fight while the Northern Communists, using their brainwashing propaganda machines, kept on instilling into their subjects the notion that it was a war against the imperialist Americans and their puppets in order to restore national reunification.
The end result, as you see nowadays, is that the winners behave with arrogance and cruelty—with impunity, while the losers suffer in despair and humiliation—without compensation. It is in this wide disparity between the two that lies the current grave division among our people. (Actually there are other divisive factors hiding deep in the Vietnamese psyche.) If people are unwilling to change that sort of negative mindset, we think, they won’t ever be able to attain the so-called national accord and reconciliation that many are talking of. Millions of people have died for the country in the name of national unity, and yet now that the North and the South have been united to become one whole Vietnam, the hearts and minds of her people are still irreconcilably far apart.
On Trips Back to Vietnam. We were often asked whether we have been back to Vietnam for a visit. Not yet is the answer—on account of our health. Of course, there have been quite a lot of others returning to Vietnam recently, each of whom with his own purpose, his own mentality. To take care of old parents; to help needy relatives; to maintain ancestors’ tombs or shrines; to teach university students; or to revisit one’s former birthplace—all seem to be justifiable. Or to bring material aids to flood victims or to poor countrymen, for example—without intending to seek fame or prestige—might be acceptable. However, returning to enjoy sensual pleasures, to join cheap tours, to seek fame and wealth, or to get commendations (from VC authorities)—these should not be encouraged…
Later on, should there be real changes for the better there, you can take your kids back, giving them a chance to get to know their original homeland. But we can be sure at once that they wouldn’t be much impressed or moved, because usually only after one has experienced some fond memories for, or strong spiritual attachment to, a place does he feel awed or touched when he revisits it. You should try, however, to cultivate in them a compassionate love for Vietnam and her people because they themselves share the same origins as Vietnamese locals, that is, you should try not to turn them into just regular tourists who look around with apathetic eyes, without any feeling for their miserable fellow humans. As for plans of yourselves or your kids going back there to live and do business, we think, they would be neither practical nor viable nor tenable.
On Current Situations in Vietnam. Some say Vietnam today has shown a lot of progress—the majority of her people now can enjoy rice instead of sorghum; they have motorbikes and cars instead of bicycles… How can she not make any progress during three decades without noises of guns? So those are merely signs of improvement within Vietnam herself. In a lot of ways, it’s really a shame if one compares her to her neighboring countries—even Kampuchea, for instance, has an opposition party!
In order to find out what Vietnam really represents behind those tall buildings, those sleek automobiles, those 5-star hotels, and those modern golf courses, etc, one should perhaps take a closer look at local newspapers. He can see there ample news of serious deterioration in every field, especially in education. The emergence of a new class of Red capitalists; the scourge of rampant bribery and corruption; the wasteful use of natural resources,…, all can be seen on state-controlled mass media.
So in order to discover what horrible situations over there look like, he should himself pay a visit to the farmers or peasants living in the countryside and in remote areas. It’s necessary for us to know the truth, nothing but the truth, without its being painted red or smeared black.
For just a preliminary understanding of Vietnam’s current factual circumstances, we suggest, you should look for an article by Dr. Le Dang Doanh, former Director of the Central Institute for Managerial Studies in Hanoi. The article was purportedly what Dr. Doanh, himself a person of some rank, briefed highest ranking VC members on the dire realities facing Vietnam at present. The introduction to it by a political commentator when it was leaked to the outside world reads, “One should pay close attention to the numbers because they reveal some cruel realities about VN’s economy. Apart from weaknesses of the economy, Mr. Doanh points out, also in this piece, undemocratic characteristics of this communist regime. He then ventures in blunt words that VN’s political structures are out of whack; they must be fixed.” (Ngo Nhan Dung, Nguoi Viet Daily, March 30, 2005)
Mr. Doanh even quoted an expert on intentional finance as asking him these questions, “You’ve always boasted of your salient abilities. How come your country stays needy for so long? You’ve always bragged about having such and such intellects, following such and such traditions. How come you keep on begging for foreign aids? Why don’t you just set goals as to when Vietnam can stop being beggars? Can you? Answer me.” Of course, it’s a national disgrace having to hear those queries. Mind you, our country is not so poor; nor are her people that lazy. So why do we have to bear such ignominy? Just because VN is run by a one-party dictatorship!
On Political Attitude. Overseas Vietnamese have always asked for abolition of the one-party system currently applied by the VC in VN, replacing it with a multi-party democratic government. And so have disillusioned communist party members and progressive people at home. It must be clarified here that what we always fight against are dictatorship, one-party rule, ubiquitous corruption and all defective policies adopted by the communist authorities, not against Vietnam herself. On the contrary, by denouncing the present regime, we always want her to become better and better in every way.
Those thinking that the VC have somewhat self-improved should try to figure out why. Because of the collapse of their Red cohorts in Eastern Europe; of strong opposition at home and abroad; of risks of their own self-destruction, they have had no choice but to make amends—only economically; not politically, though! We may not be politicians ourselves; nor may we be affiliated ourselves with certain political parties; but we should, or ought to, embrace right political attitudes, i. e., just keep on supporting whichever or whoever that fights for bona fide democracy and freedom for Vietnam.
A VC general secretary once admitted they had committed “several grave mistakes.” If so, might we ask, why didn’t they try to correct them? For example, why didn’t they apologize to VN’s population in public; why they didn’t return things they had confiscated to their rightful owners, such as private citizens and the churches; why didn’t they make up to victims of their nasty Land Reforms, of their notorious Nhan Van Giai Pham Affair, of their destructive campaigns against trade and commerce businesses? Or why didn’t they compensate and make apologies to those incarcerated in their so-called “re-education camps”? There are a lot more other whys!
Of course, all of us wish to forget rancorous grudges against each other; but the VC must first offer positive reconciliatory gestures to all involved. It’s no use, or mere lip service, just saying “let’s get rid of hatred; close up the past; look at the future.” They insist on having “solidarity, greater solidarity,” while they always hold their Communist Party supreme—Article 4 in their constitution confirms this. Who can trust them?
On Our Family Affairs. Now let’s turn to our own family life. Your mom and I belong to a generation that raised you according to the norms of our times; similarly, your grandparents brought us up following the standards of their periods. As a result, you could at times think that we were a bit too hard on you. Things ran their course that way at the time, you know. We hope that you would forget all what we had unconsciously made you upset.
Remember, however, your mom and I didn’t ever try to keep up with the Joneses; nor did we live in extravagance as we made an effort to maintain a decent and appropriate standard of living for the entire household. To do so we managed to work hard and save well as life went on, thanks to which we were able to give you an adequate livelihood and a well-rounded education—all under the warmth of our family roof.
The material wealth we had accumulated throughout our lifetime in Vietnam, as you know, was robbed of us outright by the VC as they took over Saigon in 1975. Once in Canada our life was hard enough to come by as we tried our best to make ends meet. Your mom and I had to join the work force by doing menial jobs while you all managed to adapt to a new life, juggling between regular classes and summer jobs. And thanks to your strenuous efforts in schoolwork, you can now be proud of having reached where you feel you aptly belong to.
However, don’t ever feel over proud of yourselves, thinking of yourselves as having outstanding talents and superior abilities. Remember, dear children, these qualities, if you do possess them at all, constitute just a part of each of you as a whole human being. The missing parts would take shape or come into being if and when there were favorable predetermined conditions or effects, such as his or her ancestry’s good deeds plus his or her own worthy merits that he/she has gathered himself/herself during his/her past and present lifetime.
So, dear children, you should always maintain this life with ethical standards in order to consolidate your present good karma, just like a car having to charge its own battery as it runs. Remember that when you sowed good seeds you would no doubt harvest good crops. That’s the universal law of cause and effect; it can’t be wrong!
Now as for the relationship within your own families, we would like suggest that husband and wife treat each other with respect, compassion and compromise. A few conflicts here and there can never be avoided, so make an effort to always exert calmness and patience to solve them. Anger and impatience are always bad options.
And your kids, you should love, not spoil them. Screening their friends and contacting their parents to find out what the reasons of their kids’ abnormal behaviors are, make up some of our preferable recommendations. Becoming naughty and unruly because of peer pressure appears to be wide-spread in this over-permissive society. So, it may be a good idea for you to limit your own kids’ sessions with TV, games, and chat time. Instead, encourage them to take up physical exercises and some sports.
Talking of physical activities, we suggest that you yourselves should rearrange your daily schedules so as to spare some minutes for physical activities to keep fit and lead a balanced life. Just look at myself as an example: perhaps I had abused myself with overwork in my younger years, and now in old age, my body rebelled, making me sick day in day out.
For your daily existence, try to lead an economical life while protecting the environment; think of our posterity because natural resources of the world are not limitless. Don’t waste anything—even a paper towel—you have to use in your daily lives. Show your kids pictures or films of children dying from hunger or poverty, telling them to remember that there are now a lot of people living such misery on earth.
When siblings interacting, please remember these popular sayings, for they all stress empathy and solidarity. They run something like siblings are like your own limbs; when one sister falls, another rushes to her aid; blood is thicker than water; when one horse falls ill other members in the stable refuse to be fed; etc. The secret to having these positive feelings is to let go of negative thoughts and actions, or be completely free of, or detached from, them. So when dealing with your brothers and sisters, forgive and forget all about their wrong doings or weaknesses. If you appeared divisive among yourselves, we would be extremely unhappy.
In this society, because of their heavy schedules, people seem to have just enough time to take care of their immediate household, without much of a thought for their larger ones, although maybe at heart they don’t want to so behave. Anyway, you’d better promote unity and solidarity within our large family. To our own daughters and daughters-in-law, we wish to advise that they should help their spouses maintain a close relationship with their maternal and paternal sides.
On Our Overseas Mother Tongue. There are some noteworthy points regarding our Vietnamese here. Your kids are citizens of Canada, enjoying their full rights and responsibilities. They must have a good command of French and/or English, both spoken and written, to mingle at school; otherwise, it’s rather hard for them to feel belonged, hence, they easily look isolated and inferior. Since they use either French or English, or both at school, they most likely interact in those tongues at home, too.
We know you often insist on their using Vietnamese at home, but we don’t think their competence in it is up to par. Their speaking is poor and their writing even worse, because they rarely get a chance to hone those skills through practice at home. A few hours of learning Vietnamese at those week-end language classes are barely enough to help them improve. Just mastering how to properly address each other in Vietnamese is the hardest thing in the world. Is it not?
Overseas Vietnamese keep on stressing the importance of maintaining our mother tongue abroad. And so do we, of course. With all things considered, a kid can’t be forced to play a dual role at the same time—Vietnamese vs. Canadian, or Vietnamese vs. American. Be careful, however, you can’t put too much pressure on your kids lest they give up for good. Remember the saying “The last straw breaks the camel’s back”? And how about sports, music lessons they are often encouraged or forced to take up?
So make sure to figure out some sort of common ground by cleverly modifying the correct time allotted to each activity; don’t turn your kids into learning robots, though. They have to get ahead with their ambition in this country; you have then to get them prepared, helping them fit in and carry on a responsible life in this new environment.
On Western Societies. This society is one of overconsumption. So don’t let yourselves drawn into a spending spree because of tempting marketing schemes. Attractive advertisements easily influence our tastes while at the same time we are ensnared by banking and insurance institutions. You need to practice what we term “wants less, needs enough,” i. e., spend only on things that you can’t do without; similarly with houses, cars: what has safety and comfort for daily use are fine.
Avoid getting into too much debt; always feeling at ease is much better. Your mom and I are not mere theorists—this society has gone into decline in moral and spiritual fields, for its people seem to always look outward, paying too much attention to material wealth and becoming too selfish to find happiness anywhere. So, try to be less self-centered; think more of fellow beings and share more with them.
Your mom and I are getting old; old age brings along illnesses, and illnesses lead to…death! That’s a natural law of inevitability. Come that date, you could give us each a proper but simple funeral. If you chose to have us interred in some cemetery here, you would have to be worried about taking care of our tombs when you were not around because of something. Then we would recommend cremation, because this method is less costly. Nor does it require plots of land, which might be of great use for our future generations. As for the ashes, you could dispose of them by spreading them over mountains, rivers and oceans, as “organic matter eventually returns to its original organic form.” It’s as simple as that.
By the way, don’t carry out these ritual events with lavish dinners; spare the expense for some other common good, instead. But don’t feel embarrassed for your frugality, for sooner or later you would be understood and agreed with. Ah, there’s another sticky detail here—should your mom and I fall ill and be subjected to some sort of vegetated life, you should have the courage to ask for the removal of feeding tubes. What’s the use of lengthening such an existence, which no doubt would cause pains to everybody?
On Family Altars. Under current circumstances in this society, it’s hard to set up proper family altars in the house. However, you could spare a most suitable and dignified spot in your place and put up a shelf large enough to display relics of your grandparents and/or parents from both sides—photos, most likely. It’s a place where you express your respect for, and memory of, your ancestors from both sides of the family, making vows not ever to let our good family traditions tainted any way.
When anniversaries arrive, have a small table in front the shelf, on which you could lay a cup of water, a vase of flowers, a dish of fresh fruit and a censor (electric version would do), as simple as that. The main idea here is to rekindle in you and your kids some honest tribute to the dead—our roots, as you stand in front of it, clasping your hands, bowing your heads, and thinking of them in respectful silence for a few moments. We mention your children here on purpose—we mean to ask you to make sure they understand the subtle meaning of these ritualized events in Vietnamese culture.
On these occasions, you should all think of wholesome thoughts, practice more good deeds, share more with the less fortunate, donate your extra clothing to charities, for example. If, taking these opportunities, you could have a family get-together in someone’s place, we think, that would be much more beneficial, for the meeting could further fortify our family ties.
We hope, dear sons, daughters and grand children, that you all would read this letter with attention, giving it your thorough consideration, and try your best to put into practice our sincere suggestions. By the way, we wish to thank all of you for the constant and devoted care that you all have given us, helping us enjoy our old age with real relaxation and peace of mind.
Long and tight bear hugs to all of you. And love to our grandkids, too.
For your Mom, Nguyen Van Phu (signed and dated: Sunday, May 1, 2011, 11:05)
* Translator’s notes. The above letter was written in Vietnamese by Mr. Nguyen Van Phu, late Founder and Headmaster of Hung Dao High School, a private educational enterprise, in Saigon, before 1975. To any citizens of South Vietnam, i.e., the Republic of Vietnam, especially to baby boomers, his name and that of his establishment would surely ring a loud bell, because he was a well-known math teacher—an iconic patriarch among high school teachers of the time, if you will, whose textbooks on geometry and algebra were once a must for any secondary students. In fact, he was so popular a teacher that his math classes were never empty.
Although there were several other famous public high schools in Saigon to compete with, his institution was always enrolled to capacity, because of its being operated by professional educators who demanded high standards from its academic and administrative staff. What a shame the VC confiscated such an institution from him in 1975, and then turned it into something utterly unworthy of its previous high status.
They also robbed his family of all other private properties, forcing his family to flee Vietnam as refugees and put down roots in Canada since the ‘80s. He used to conduct informal talks on Buddhism at a Vietnamese pagoda in Montreal.
He died in 2013 of heart failure and is survived by his spouse of more than 60 years, ten children and tens of grandchildren, most of whom are living in Montreal.◙
Cognac Trinh, March ’16
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