In Chapter 7: Hiếu and Hoàng talk about their trip to Vietnam in 2012. Among the sightseeing of Hạ Long Bay, snorkeling, and eating fresh seafood at restaurants with beach views, Hiếu and Hoàng visited their great uncle, Ông Sửa. Ông Sửa was a prisoner of war, having spent his adulthood from 1963 to 1983 in prison after the Việt Cộng took over. While prison is one way to describe it, these were more like re-education camps.
Re-education camps can go by different names - internment camps, work camps, prison camps, camps for internally displaced people. In the podcast Making Contact, Andrea Pitzer defined re-education camps as:
“The mass detention of civilians without a trial, usually on the basis of race or ethnicity, or religion or political affiliation, something someone belongs to rather than anything that they’ve done.”
Based on this information, Ông Sửa's time wasn’t an imprisonment. In theory prisons systems allow trials where individuals present a case or some kind of defense against the alleged crime committed. Ông Sửa did not have any opportunity to defend himself. He was immediately locked up and forced to work.
While we are unsure of where Ông Sửa's camp was located exactly, we’ve recently learned that the re-education camps of Vietnam were separated by the various groups of South Vietnamese that were detained. These individuals were often held a governmental position in South Vietnam and ordered to attend the re-education camps by the new Northern Communist Government. According to an article by Vietnam Collectors they found that these groups could include former military, suspected intelligence personnel, members of non-communist political parties, and members of various religious sects.
Though Ông Sửa was released (for whatever reason) in 1975, several sources have stated the re-education camps remained until at least 1987 and potentially longer. With the new communist regime in place, the camps acted as a device for social control, where members of certain social classes were coerced to accept and conform to the new social norms. These camps campaigned against counterrevolution and resistance by controlling and "re-educating" those considered socially deviant-- educators, legislators, province chiefs, writers, and supreme court judges--until the South was judged stable enough to permit their release.
After losing twenty years of his prime being overworked, undernourished, and tormented, it’s no surprise Ông Sửa came out as a frail skeleton. Through the support of our Bà Ngoại, or maternal grandmother, and many others, he began to build his life. With a little bit of support from various relatives, he eventually married, had kids, was able to purchase property, build a farm, marry off his oldest son -- all in that order. We recognize that his transition is not possible for everyone and did some research to see if others had stories to share about relatives in re-education camps.
We highly recommend reading Quyen Truong’s interview with her father in her article on Brown University’s site titled Vietnamese Re-Education Camps: A Brief History. We found her father’s story to be very eye-opening. Foremost, to hear her father be able to speak about it speaks volumes as it’s very rare to hear these stories directly from a camp survivor.
In our lives, Hieu only first heard Ông Sửa's story in 2012. We hadn’t ever heard his story growing up. The experiences of Quyen Truong’s father and that of our great uncle were completely different. Death at a re-education camp was commonly not from violence or bullets, but more often disease, malnutrition, and substandard living conditions.
Someone once said that war begins when the first bomb drops. Perhaps surviving amongst such immense loss is the second warfield. And yet a third: articulating your traumas in order to begin the healing process.
Growing Up Nguyễn is a story of four siblings holding onto our identity while fulfilling our parents’ dreams: the blessings and challenges of being Nguyễn in America.