Translated from the original work by Trần Doãn Nho
In March 1975 my family were among the tens of thousands of people fleeing Huế for Đà Nẵng, one step ahead of the advancing communist forces, just to find Đà Nẵng itself was about to fall too. Then a mad scramble brought us to Cam Ranh, where we tried to get on board one of the many small boats heading out to the open sea in the hope of being picked up by American warships patrolling the area. Jostling with hundreds of other equally desperate refugees, my mother and I got on board a small river craft, but in the chaos my heavily pregnant wife was stranded on the shore. I wanted to jump out to be with my wife, but didn’t have the heart to leave my elderly mother by herself on board a rickety boat. As the boat began to move, I desperately looked at my wife and I was sure I would never see her again. Our boat drifted to Phú Quốc island and eventually had to turn back to land, and we all headed to Saigon, just before it fell on 30 April. It was a terrifying journey, difficult, exciting and hopeless.
In May I returned to Huế, to find that my wife had miraculously made her way back also. Huế felt familiar but full of dangerous undercurrents. Friends had disappeared. Relatives kept a reserved distance, and neighbours were suspicious. The entire city was enveloped in a quiet foreboding stillness, sad and anxious, waiting for something terrible to happen.
Then my first child was born but my mood was anything but exuberant. It was as if all my senses had been overloaded to the point of numbness. Exactly one week after the birth of my child, in the afternoon, somebody called from outside my house. I looked out and caught a glimpse of two men, one of them wearing a pith helmet. My heart skipped a beat.
I went to open the gate. As I fumbled with the latch, the younger man with a black beret greeted me softly, using the honorific reserved for one’s own teachers. Surprised, I looked up and saw a familiar, but not an instantly recognisable face. I opened the gate. The pith helmet man offered his hand and I shook it. He looked straight at me and said, ‘So you are Thuc.’ His voice was accompanied by a smile that was difficult to fathom, seemingly pleased, somewhat surprised, a bit threatening. A smile that wasn’t a smile. I nodded and said, yes. The younger man removed his black beret and I recognised him as one of the students in my class that year, Hưng.
The older man said, ‘Let’s go inside first. I’ve been looking for you for nearly a month.’ I invited them to the main part of the house but he said, ‘That’s not necessary. I only need to see you for a moment to sort out a few things, then I’ll be on my way.’ He sat down on the only chair on the front verandah and said in a commanding manner, ‘Get a chair and sit down, we can talk here. Nice and airy here.’
I got a chair for Hưng and one for me, and sat down. The man looked around, glanced at the altar, ‘Oh, you’re a Buddhist? I thought you were a Catholic’, before turning to me and saying, ‘Actually, before we continue, let me say a quick hello to your wife first. I hear she has just given birth to a baby girl.’ He set off towards our sleeping quarters, stopping at the door, and asked, ‘Where is your wife’s room?’ I hesitated, ‘Let me ask her to come out.’ But he waved his hand, ‘Come on, just take me to see her.’
With no choice, I led him into our room. My wife tried to sit up but he gestured for her to lie back down, and said, ‘Your husband has to go for re-education for a while. Not for too long, a few days to a couple of weeks. You shouldn’t worry too much. Just look after the baby and wait for his return.’
Without waiting for my wife to reply, he turned and quickly left. I stayed in the room for a short while and tried to reassure her. ‘What has to happen will happen. Please don’t worry yourself sick. I’ll be back.’ She sighed, holding our baby close to her chest, tears welling up in her eyes. When I went back outside, the man was nowhere to be seen. A moment later he reappeared from the other side of the garden, near the hedge. So he had taken a walk right round the house. I looked at him, expecting an explanation. Perhaps he could read my unspoken query, as he said straightaway, ‘I just wanted to have a look at your garden. It’s large but seems a bit neglected.’
He sat down on his chair and said: ‘Let’s talk. My name is Lam. I work at the Bureau of Public Security. We’ve known about you for a long time, and according to our policy, you are in the category of those who must report for re-education. We’ve waited for you to report yourself, but you haven’t. Don’t you intend to?’
I replied: ‘Of course I do. But as you can see, we’ve just had a baby.’
‘I know that. But we shouldn’t have had to come here. Pack up your things, tomorrow we’ll come and pick you up. You stay here. We’ll come.’ Then he stood up and patted me on my shoulder. ‘Remember, stay at home. Don’t go anywhere.’
I saw both of them off at the gate. Hưng dropped back a few paces and spoke to me in a soft voice. ‘I’m sorry about this, teacher. I really didn’t want to do this at all. But the people at the bureau kept looking for you. Couldn’t find you at your old home, neither at the place you rented. Please understand. Whatever the circumstances, I’m still your student. Remember to bring some blankets and a sleeping mat, and try to … take care.’ I patted Hưng on the shoulder. ‘It’s not your fault. Sooner or later they’d find me. In any case, I never meant to go into hiding. If I wanted to hide, I wouldn’t have come back to Huế, don’t you agree?’
I didn’t have to wait till the following day. Barely fifteen minutes after they left, a Russian Jeep stopped right in front of the gate. Four Public Security men quickly jumped down and entered my house. They gave me just enough time to pack a change of clothes, grab a pen, an exercise book and a tattered straw sleeping mat, before frogmarching me to the car. My wife heard the car and ran out to give me two bread rolls and two packets of cigarettes before it took off.
Evening descended as the car left the city and headed upriver towards the Kim Long area. The road was deserted. A sombre darkness swallowed up the Hương River as the sun retreated behind the distant hills. The car climbed up a gentle incline at the legendary Linh Mụ pagoda, went straight ahead for a while and then turned right into a pathway through a crumbling fence. It stopped next to a high wall, near a flight of ascending steps made of brick. I got out of the car, looked around me, and cold shivers shot up my spine. The darkening twilight heightened the sense of desolation of the place, giving it a ghostly feel. Although I had travelled on this road before, I couldn’t work out where I was or why I’d been brought here.
They escorted me away, two leading the way, the other two right behind, close to me, handguns drawn. I walked up the steps one at a time, my mind confused, my heart heavy. Nobody uttered a word. After climbing a couple dozen steps I looked back towards the river, noticed the traditional gate with three entrances, and realised that this was the Văn Thánh temple. The main gate remained relatively intact, but everything else was in ruins. In the dark I could just make out the shape of a long row of buildings next to a low wall. An oil lamp from somewhere inside cast a weak flickering light. They led me to a building at one end of the compound. It was in fact a corner of the temple. The place was strewn with rubble and overgrown with weeds. The building was severely damaged, its columns, rafters and walls in a sorry state of disrepair. Only one of its rooms remained standing. We walked towards it with hesitant, careful steps. My heart was filled with anxious uncertainty. I tried not to think about anything in particular, but dark and terrifying images kept flooding into my mind.
One of the men lifted the door, already detached from its hinges, placed it to one side, and said, ‘Get inside.’ I stepped inside. He produced a torch, swept its cone of light around the room, then onto one corner where a plank of wood rested across a couple of bricks. He said, ‘Put your belongings there’, and walked out without saying another word. A muffled conversation ensued, then he came back in and said, ‘We’ve been ordered to bring you here. This is where you sleep. You can move around in this room. That door there can’t be shut, but you’re not to cross this doorway. If you need to do anything, say going to the toilet, just call out and someone will take you outside. Remember, it’s an order that you must obey.’
I nodded and said nothing. He swept his torchlight around the room once more and left, but came back and said, ‘Someone will bring you something to eat.’ He carefully picked up the detached door and barred the doorway with it. Then came the unmistakable clacking sound of someone cocking a gun just outside. I stood in the middle of the room, rooted to the spot, my whole body paralysed. An unanswerable question swirled around in my mind. Why have they brought me to a place like this?
A squadron of hungry mosquitoes started to buzz around, attacking my body with gusto. I squashed a few but soon lost interest, allowing them to do whatever they wanted. I recovered my presence of mind enough to look around the room. My eyes adjusted to the dark and I could now see things a bit more clearly. It was a proper room, although its walls had a few cracks, with large patches of peeling stucco. The floor was uneven. I felt it with my feet: it was free of rubble, cleaner than the ground outside. Perhaps they had cleaned it up a little before bringing me here. Even so, it still reeked with the dank odour of musk.
The room had two windows. One was tightly shut, boarded up with a plank of wood. The other was open but had an iron horizontal crossbar and several vertical bars embedded in its frame. I held onto its crossbar and looked out. A short distance from the window was a barbed-wire fence, higher than a man and overgrown with climbing weeds. Further out was open space, empty and unbuilt, except for low uneven mounds barely visible in the dark. As I looked harder, I realised those mounds were burial plots: it was a cemetery. Cold shivers shot up my spine as a terrifying thought began to grow in my mind.
In a strange state of extreme agitation, I stepped back and lay down on the plank, holding my head in my hands. I reached for the carry bag, fetched the packet of Bastos Blue cigarettes, took one out and lit it. I drew hard on the cigarette. In darkness, the glow at the cigarette’s tip was as ephemeral as my forlorn hope in this bleak situation. I listened for sounds or movements outside. Complete silence. I looked towards the door. Even in darkness, I still could see past the door into an open space overgrown with wild weeds, derelict and completely devoid of signs of life. Clearly, nobody had set foot in this place for a very long time.
Then I heard footsteps approaching. I listened, tense with anxiety. A moment later a glimmer of light illuminated the space outside the door. Two young women came into view. One held a small oil lamp, raised high in one hand, and lifted the door with her other hand to let her companion in. She placed a tray of food on the plank where I had lain down. The other one put the lamp down next to the tray of food and said curtly, ‘When you finish, leave the lamp and the tray outside, just there.’ Then they walked out together.
I looked at the tray of food. A steaming bowl of soup, a plate of caramelised pork, fish, chopsticks and a spoon, common things in a course of a normal meal. But the food was far too sumptuous for a situation like this, and it therefore signified something definitely unusual. These victors were known for their stoic nature, forged in poverty. They valued frugality and despised luxury. So why did they give me a sumptuous meal like this, when other people undergoing ‘re-education’ had only rice and salt to eat, and had to do hard labour to be ‘reformed’?
A sudden shock hit me and I could not suppress the thought that had begun to grow in my mind. It started as a vague sense of unease, followed by unanswerable questions and crystallised into a definite answer: this must be my last supper, the final act of grace for those condemned to death. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be killed later that night. All my energy drained out of me and I collapsed onto the ground. I grabbed at the edge of the plank and hauled myself up, flopped down on it and fainted.
A woman’s voice from outside brought me back to reality. ‘Hey you, eat your meal so I can clear the tray away.’ Startled, I looked outside, but saw nobody. I tried to sit up. I did feel hungry, but I was frightened just looking at the food. The thought that this was my last supper made me nauseous. I couldn’t bear to look at the food, let alone eat it. Instead, I stared at things around me, the plank, the walls, the window’s bars, the door, the ceiling. I looked at my body. It seemed superfluous—as if it didn’t belong to me any more, and insignificant—as if nothing mattered when death loomed so close.
Then the vast open space outside became alive with sounds that poured into the silence of the night from loudspeakers rigged up everywhere in the city and its surrounds. Sharp voices reading news, mixed with harsh martial music: Today Colonel Đính, an officer of the puppet army who surrendered to the liberation forces, spoke to those undergoing re-education at the Ái Tử camp in Quảng Trị … the three revolutionary currents storming the strongholds of capitalists. Coming from all directions, the sounds filled the night, moulding it, ploughing through it with high-pitched but muscular voices that grated on the ear. From across the river, from this side of the river, from the direction of the city and from the foot-hills came the incessant sounds in a strange language that threatened to swallow up the whole universe.
A woman called from outside, ‘Hey, have you finished your meal?’ ‘No, not yet.’ ‘Hurry up, we haven’t time to wait on you.’ I thought, okay, if I had to, I’d eat it. I picked up the bowl and scooped some rice into it, picked up a piece of meat and ushered it into my mouth. I tried to swallow it but couldn’t. My throat was too dry and constricted, and the food came back up. I simply could not swallow it. I gave up and called out, ‘All done.’
The woman came in, looked at the tray of untouched food and said, ‘Don’t want to eat, huh? You don’t like the food of the Revolution, I see.’ I replied, deliberately curt, ‘I’m full.’ She picked up the tray and the lamp and walked out. The room darkened. All of a sudden I felt a tinge of regret. Why become a hungry ghost? With that thought in mind, I searched my pack, fetched the two bread rolls, chewed off a piece and tried to swallow it. And I could. I swallowed the pieces of bread as if I was swallowing the thought of death. Okay, if death came, it came, so what!
Outside, the singing and news-reading flowed on and on, the socialist revolution in the north of our country … the people’s democratic revolution of the south … Uncle Hồ has taught us … in the Trường Sơn range we’ll all hang our hammocks, but in me the thought of death latched on tight. I walked to the window and looked out to the cemetery. I could just make out the faint contours of the tombstones. Occasionally, small red glowing specks of fire shot upwards to the sky. I imagined that at some point in the night I would be taken outside, tied up, shot, and my body would be pushed into a grave already dug. I would end up just like that, like those massacred during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Death and its absolute silencing powers. That’d be all. I would be taken out there, I would remain there forever. Victory or defeat would cease to mean anything.
Across the river the voices rose again, perhaps the beginning of some musical performances. Shouting, screaming, angry voices. From this side of the river, from the direction of the city, came the same harsh, sharp, and muscular voices, the revolution … the puppet army and the puppet regime in their death throes … Attack! Attack! … the heroics of the revolutionaries …
The singing rose a notch as the music reached its crescendo, as if wanting to crush all those whose lives were sucked into this vortex of violent changes. The whole world was drowned in the one kind of sound. High pitched, proud, and arrogant. Apart from that omnipresent soundscape, there was nothing but a shocked muteness. Mute like the rows of graves outside, like me, in the middle of this dark and desolate room.
I paced back and forth, chewing on my own powerlessness … from this city Uncle left on a mission … the revolutionary thoughts … opening the roads so our vehicles can get through … Then, in the middle of this maddening melange of noise, a different kind of sound rang out: boong … boong … The bell! Yes, it’s the tolling of the Linh Mụ pagoda’s bell. I listened intently. The bell rang out again, its sounds soaring high before finally melting into the air. Again and again, the bell rang out at regular intervals. At first, among the grating harsh voices, the bell sounded quite out of place. There was a note of hesitancy, of humility, of forbearance about it. In my imagination I sensed a defensive hesitation in the bell’s striker. As if he struck the bell while his heart was not at peace. As if he struck the bell without wanting to. Striking but watching out, punctuating it in a probing way: boong … the five soldiers sat in the tank … boong … from this city … boong …
I immersed myself in the sound of the bell. As time went on it became fuller, more rounded, and deeper. It rang out unhurriedly, taking its time to merge into space, through the trees and their foliage, fading, fading before dissolving. Without fuss and without the need to know if anyone was listening to it … boong … boong …
The sound of the bell, peaceful and gentle, could not dislodge the grating and aggressive voices, but luckily it continued. At least it remained while the country was forced to change, forced to follow an uncertain direction. The sound of the bell seemed ordinary, but I could sense in it an extraordinary struggle to survive, to be a part of the new normal. Everything else had become unpredictable, unknowable. Everything else had become abnormal. Like the tray of food they brought me. Like my being here tonight, in this dank and dark dilapidated room, a prison without locks. They imprisoned me, or did I imprison myself? The collapse of my country happened so suddenly that it paralysed all possible reactions … boong … boong.
I paced around the room, smoking cigarette after cigarette. The night dragged on heavily. I waited. At some time I must have simply dozed off. When I woke up I realised I had fallen asleep while standing in the middle of the room. Outside, the voices had abated somewhat; only the singing continued, echoing from the other side of the river, from the Long Thọ area. The singing sounded tough and strong, but became weaker and finally ran out of puff, perhaps because it was getting late. I waited for the bell to ring out again, but it didn’t. I walked towards the door and poked my head out to see if anyone was keeping guard. Nobody. By now everything had gone quiet, the air was filled with a heavy and threatening stillness. I lit another cigarette, and another, silently waiting for death that would surely come in the dark of night. Somehow my panic subsided, and my fear receded. I waited for the sounds of footsteps, the clacking noise of a gun being cocked, a bullet being slammed into its firing chamber, or a voice calling me. But nothing came.
Minutes and hours passed in total silence, except for the chirping crickets and buzzing mosquitoes. But to the mind of a person waiting in oppressive anticipation of death, those insignificant sounds simply don’t register. To a prisoner condemned to death, everything becomes unimportant, including hope. The night deepened. I kept pacing the room, at times unsteadily, until I began to feel the strangest sensation—that I was already dead. I felt light, weightless, detached and without sorrow. Looking out, I felt as if I had already left the whole society out there, a society that was being reshaped, shackled and bound, constrained and recalibrated. I’d be free, six feet under somewhere in the desolate graveyard out there. Yes, I’d be free, completely free.
Suddenly I heard some noise. Alarmed, I listened intently and could hear the light footsteps of someone walking somewhere out there. The hairs on the back of my head stood up. The time has come. It has come. My body tensed up into a tight coil. I drew hard on the cigarette, inhaled deeply, stubbed it out on the floor, and waited. But nothing happened. Yet. I lit another cigarette, drew on it unevenly, and felt elated as if I had just cheated death. I was still alive. The smoke that filled my lungs felt strangely refreshing.
The night slowly floated past, bobbing between life and death, between physical senses, imagination, anticipation and expectation. Now and again I could hear some noises outside. A change of guard. I struggled against what my own senses told me and what I made of it. I couldn’t lie down. I kept pacing up and down, and around the room … boong…
The bell! The bell rang out again, permeating the infinite stillness of the night. Yes, the morning bell. Unlike in the early evening, this time the bell sounded much firmer, more self-assured, more confident. The bell tolled on rhythmically in the fresh morning air, restored by the passage of the night. The propaganda machine had gone to sleep, yet to awake, and the bell rang out majestically, all by itself, through the air, the wind, the early morning dew, over the trees and grasslands. It continued to toll until dawn broke over the horizon. By the time it reached its final crescendo, I had rediscovered my own self, a self that was tired and haggard in a neglected and derelict room. The bell alone had kept me company through a night of hallucinating nightmares.
I sat down and thought about the difference in the way the bell sounded. If you think about it rationally, the sound produced by the bell must be the same over the hundreds of years of the history of this ancient Linh Mụ pagoda. The difference, if any, would have to be in the ringer and the hearer of its calls. The sound is a constant; it’s the twisting human fate that brings high hopes or wringing despair to those who hear it.
That was the first of the 176 nights that I spent in solitary confinement at the Văn Thánh temple, to be brain washed before being formally transferred to a hard labour camp for many years. It was the longest night of my life. After that, night after night, in the dark, I would wait for the bell to toll to regain my equilibrium after the daily sessions of brutal interrogation by numerous teams of Public Security men. Now and again the bell ceased to toll for a period of time, always to begin again. But it’s the tolling of that first night that touched me the most. Ever since, each time my life takes a bad turn, the sound of the bell comes back to fill my mind with the calm and soothing magic that saved my sanity in that darkest night.
Note: This extract is translated from Trần Doãn Nho’s Loanh Quanh Những Nẻo Đường,
Thư Quán Bản Thảo, United States, second edition (2011), pp. 9–26.