Editor’s Note: On the 50th anniversaries of the Fall of Saigon, and the 40th anniversary of the war’s end, we revisit this powerful memoir. Maybe by telling the truth, we will learn the lessons.
The following is an excerpt from an interview between Teresa Mei Chuc and her father Jack Chuc about his experience surviving nine years in a Vietcong Reeducation Camp. The interview was conducted on February 1, 2015.
Translated from the original Cantonese into English by Teresa Mei Chuc.
In Vietnam, I studied law. During the war, I was in my second year of high school, and I had to be in the army, where they trained officers because I had a degree. I studied for a year and then I became a first lieutenant. In the army, I worked in the Ministry of Justice for ten years. I went from first lieutenant to captain. Then the communists took over on April 30, 1975. I wanted to take my gun and shoot myself. I always had a gun by my side. Your mother told me not to kill myself and said they would make me go to prison camp for seven days, and I said, “No, it would be for at least seven years.”
So I went to reeducation camp. When I went to report, the communists came that night to your mother’s house to see if I had reported. If I hadn’t reported to reeducation camp, they would have taken me outside and shot me. So I told your mother that I would be gone for maybe seven or eight years, but I really didn’t know if I would come back. At the time, your mother was pregnant with you.
I thought that I was going to die for sure. We were brought deep into the Northern forest with nothing. Luckily, the prisoners had a lot of knowledge. They were engineers; they were some very brilliant people. The prisoners used bamboo trees to build their own houses, to make beds to sleep in. The Vietcong military surrounded the camp, so there was no escape. Every morning, we had to plant trees, farm, and bring bamboo back to the camp to build things for the Vietcong. Bamboo can be used to make a lot of things. I was in the forest for eight years. In the prison camp, there was a person who was in something like the Navy Seals in the U.S. He taught me how to go into the forest and find food, to find food that was not poisonous because there are a lot of poisonous plants in the forest. He taught me that I should always have some chili peppers on me. If I wanted to drink some water, I put a pepper in the water. The water in the jungle was very clear. If you put a pepper inside the water and the pepper spun, then the water was poisonous. If the pepper was still, then the water had no poison in it. In the forest, we could not drink the water. If we wanted to drink water, then we had to use a knife to cut open a bamboo tree. There was water inside a bamboo tree. When it rained, the rainwater was contained in the bamboo; that water was the best for you. The second best way to get water was from banana trees. If you cut open a banana tree, the heart of the tree was filled with water — that water was pure.
We lived and survived like this and worked like this until . . . I had many friends who were farming and would collapse and die; they had no more energy.
When we ate, we ate yucca root. We would never be full. We ate corn. For each meal, we had fifty corn kernels. After hard labor, we had fifty corn kernels to eat. Do you know how we ate the corn? We chewed each corn kernel until it was completely broken down. We chewed slowly until it melted so that when we ate it, it could infiltrate into our system so that our bodies would have some nutrients. Otherwise, we would surely die. This was the only way.
When I was in prison, they made us do hard labor. We had to defecate in a hole and then they would use the waste for fertilizer. They made us collect the defecation by going into the hole with our entire bodies so that our bodies were covered to the shoulders in defecation, and worms were wriggling around us. How did we do it? That’s life. And in the midst of such hard work, I had to think, “I must, for my children and wife to survive.”
In the jungle, if I knew that I would be released one day, I would have studied and learned a lot while in reeducation camp. There was a great acupuncturist who was a prisoner, but I didn’t have any will to learn. I thought that I would die, so I didn’t have any will to learn. He was an amazing acupuncturist. If you were sick, he would perform his acupuncture, and you would get well right away. In the forest, there wasn’t any medicine. He had his acupuncture needles and helped the other prisoners. He also taught us which leaves cured what illnesses, so we brought the leaves back to cure the prisoners who were sick.
One day, I was in the mountains and fell down and broke my leg and couldn’t walk. The acupuncturist used lemon leaves to help me. He grounded the leaves and mixed the powder with salt to wrap around my leg. After a week, I was able to walk again. To this day, my leg is fine. Can you believe it?
Suddenly, that night a meeting was announced for the next morning. It was on a Sunday. During the meeting, the Vietcong said, “Now, we are going to release seven prisoners.” There was no criminal sentence for the prisoners. They could stay their whole lives in prison, and the Vietcong would release them when they wanted to. That morning, they said that they would release seven people. When they read my name aloud, I felt that I was rising from the dead underneath the earth, back to life. I was so happy.
Teresa Mei Chuc was born in Saigon, Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. shortly after the Viet Nam War. She is the author of two poetry books, Red Thread and Keeper of the Winds.
We hope you appreciated this article. Before you move on, please consider supporting the Colorado Boulevard’s journalism.
Billionaires, hedge fund owners and local imposters have a powerful hold on the information that reaches the public. Colorado Boulevard stands to serve the public interest – not profit motives.
While fairness guides everything we do, we know there is a right and a wrong position in the fight against racism and climate crisis while supporting reproductive rights and social justice. We provide a fresh perspective on local politics – one so often missing from so-called ‘local’ journalism.
You can access Colorado Boulevard’s paywall-free journalism because of our unique reader-supported model. People like you, informed readers, keep us independent, beholden to no outside influence, and accessible to everyone.
Please consider supporting Colorado Boulevard today. Thank you. (Click to Support)