Autumn Cloud’s Summary
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Autumn Cloud, the English translation of my Vietnamese name, is the story of myself and my family from the French colonial period through what we now call the Vietnam war and beyond. Born at the beginning of World War II, I stand in the center of the Indochinese drama which started in the last century and which has yet to be played out fully. History recounts the roles of the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and the Americans in successive Vietnamese wars. I want to tell the stories of the human beings who lived through these events – how they survived foreign occupations and how they fought back to save their self-esteem, their identities, and their lives.
In 1995, when my husband Lacy Wright and I were serving at the American Embassy in Brasilia, I helped Lacy host a luncheon for Henry Kissinger. I had met him in Saigon for the first time in July 1971 when he was in the White House under President Nixon. Kissinger was the prime architect of the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the person who negotiated the Paris Peace Accords of 1972 and forced President Thieu to sign them.
Twenty five years later, Kissinger said to me at the luncheon, “I am sorry the U.S. let Vietnam down.” Those words motivated me, for the first time, to want to write about Vietnam. Before, I had wanted only to suppress the war’s painful memories. Two months later, I saw Robert McNamara, the premier strategist of the Vietnam War in the 1980s, on CNN, apologizing in Hanoi to another strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, for America’s mistake of the war. Giap had defeated both the French, in 1954, and the Americans, in 1975. That night, I could not sleep. I went to my computer, wrote until 3:00 in the morning, and have not stopped since.
From hundreds of discussions, I know Americans are eager to know more about the Vietnamese as a society of real people. So far, they know mainly Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong, corrupt generals, and Saigon bar girls. They know little of the lives of the flesh-and-blood people who were their allies in the war. South Vietnam has never been described as a real country, with a university system, a corps of civil servants, and normal middle-class people struggling to make successes of their lives in the midst of chaos and upheaval. I want to redress that.
I describe how my maternal grandfather, a well-off landowner, intellectual and follower of Confucius, opposed the marriage of my mother to a man who was lower in social status. My father chose to leave Vietnam and seek his fortune in Cambodia, arriving in 1925. He joined Les Terres Rouges, a French company of rubber plantations, where he worked most of his life. He rose to the highest position then open to a native of Indochina, second-in-command of a plantation. In 1935, he was awarded the honorary title of mandarin by the French Governor of Saigon. With his success came vices: his opium-smoking and womanizing put great pain on our family.
My mother, a strong and emancipated woman who kept her family together despite my father’s excesses, was known as “Miss Tango” for her dancing prowess and drove her own car, unheard of for a woman at that time and place. She also managed her own farm, exporting some of her produce to Vietnam.
My parents became wealthy, investing their money first in real estate in Saigon and later in an island south of Saigon where they leased plots to tenant-farmers.
During the Japanese occupation of Indochina in the early 1940s, my father was put in charge of one of the Terres Rouges plantations by Japanese overseers and forced to agree to the marriage of my fifth sister, then 16, to a Japanese. With the Japanese defeat in 1945, the French returned to power in Indochina. They considered my father a traitor for having collaborated with the Japanese, and deported him, and us, back to Vietnam. I was five years old.
Having returned to Saigon, my parents, now in more difficult circumstances and traversing a period of widespread food shortages, had to struggle to make a living. The stresses in my father’s life caused him, in 1951, to suffer a stroke, and from then on the right side of his body was paralyzed. He had to watch in virtual silence as competing revolutionary ideologies claimed five of his children as adherents and divided his family. He died in 1959.
My number-four sister was the first to join the resistance in 1946; she opposed both the French colonizers and the Viet Minh, the local Communists. The year after, my number five sister became a member of the Viet Minh and married a Viet Minh officer. In 1951, my number eight sister became a National Liberation Front member; she went to live in the countryside and married an ardent supporter of Ho Chi Minh.
My number six brother and my youngest brother, on the other hand, fought valiantly on the government side against the Communists. My younger brother was killed by the Viet Cong on the battlefield in 1966, and my number six brother was put in prison by the Communists after 1975. He died in 1979 after years of maltreatment, with no one in the family present for his burial. It was alleged that my Communist sister, having returned south with her family after the fall of Saigon to be reunited with my mother, had denounced my brother as a CIA agent.
Heartbroken to see her family divided after the unification of the two Vietnams, my mother left Saigon in 1980 and came to the U.S. to live with me and my family. She died in May of 1996 in Houston, at the age of 92. She had produced 90 descendants.
As for myself, the youngest girl in a family of ten, I attended French schools in Vietnam and the University of Bordeaux in France. I met my first husband, Bong, in Paris in 1962 and went home to get married. Back in Saigon, I witnessesed the beginning of the American involvement in Vietnam’s politics. It was a period of great turmoil: President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother, Nhu, were assassinated in a coup d’etat in 1963. Near-anarchy ensued, with one government succeeding another until the American-backed Thieu government brought relative stability for ten years.
Bong and I married in early 1964 and had three children. While I taught French at the Alliance Francaise, Bong taught Law and Political Science at the University of Saigon, and, in 1964, became the head of South Vietnam’s National Institute of Administration (NIA). The NIA trained the country’s top civil servants.
In early 1969, Bong started his own opposition party, the Progressive Nationalist Movement (PNM). And headed the PNM’s newspaper, the Cap Tien (Progress). The following year, the PNM won 21 seats in the National Assembly.
The Communists did not want to see a clean, competent, independent, anti-Communist leader gaining stature and influence. In 1970, Bong suffered the first attempt on his life when he was injured in a bomb blast in his office. In late 1971, President Thieu asked Bong to be his Prime Minister, and Bong accepted. The following day, he was assassinated, his car blown up by two Viet Cong terrorists on a motorcycle. It was months before I could function normally.
Widowed, I inherited Bong’s debts and his extended family. In 1972, I went to work as the Director of Cultural Activities of the Vietnamese-American
Association, a center sponsored by the U.S. Information Service. During the American build-up, with hundreds of thousands of American troops pouring into the country, bar girls and prostitutes mushroomed. I was criticized by my family and friends for working and socializing with the Americans. They called me “The Merry Widow.”
I was also criticized by the Vietnamese media for pioneering the family planning movement in Vietnam, a controversial activity. But I became well-known in my own right, and was asked to represent Vietnam at national and international conferences on population and family planning.
In 1973, the New York Times chose three Vietnamese women for an article called “Vietnamese Women Grew Strong in the Face of War.” Much of the article described my struggle for social causes. In 1974, the U.N.-proclaimed “Year of the Woman,” a Newsweek article quoted me on the subject. The same year, members of the South Vietnamese Congress in Saigon invited me to help to write a bill to repeal an old French law written into our Constitution that forbade contraceptives.
The second part of my life started after the North took over the South. In April 1975, just days before the fall of Saigon and with the help of friends in the American Embassy, I fled Vietnam for the U.S. After my children and I had spent two months in three refugee camps, we resettled in the Washington area. There, I met Lacy Wright, a Foreign Service officer, fell in love and married him.
As a foreign-born spouse of an American diplomat, I followed my husband and helped represent the United States in different countries. But the trauma of Vietnam was like a ghost that pursued me. Soon it struck me down. I blacked out at a dinner party in Milan, Italy, and was hospitalized. Even after recovery, I remained depressed. My children were also emotionally affected. Fortunately, we had Lacy’s love and support during this difficult period.
We went back to the U.S. in 1978, and remained in the Washington area for seven years. Our three children graduated from high school and went on to top American universities. We were proud of their success.
I worked to help resettle Vietnamese boat people in 1978 and the ensuing years. In 1981, the U.S.-Asia Institute named me one of the year’s ten outstanding Asian-Americans, in the field of social services. In 1982, I entered the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and received a Master of Science in Foreign Service in 1984.
In 1985, I accompanied Lacy to foreign posts overseas. An attempted coup d’etat in Trinidad in July 1990 was like an exorcism for me. The war’s emotions and memories, dormant for the past fifteen years, came to the surface and seemed to dissipate. The healing came together at the funeral of my mother in 1996. I composed a bouquet of thanks to her and my long-dead father for their devotion to us and telling them what had happened to each of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Chapter One: Under the French
The year of my birth, 1940, was a year of war. France surrendered to Germany and the Japanese rolled into Southeast Asia, routing the French from Indochina. But under the Eastern horoscope, 1940 was also the year of the Dragon (Nam Thin). The astrologer my parents consulted said I would have two separate lives: two names, two husbands, two nationalities.
My parents were Vietnamese, but I was born in Cambodia, the second-youngest of ten children. My name was Le Thi Thu Van, “Autumn Cloud.” My parents had moved to Cambodia in 1925 to get away from my maternal grandfather, a well-off land-owner who disapproved of my mother’s marriage to the son of a simple soldier in the French Army, my father.
In Cambodia, my father worked for Terres Rouges, a French company that managed rubber plantations. He rose to deputy director, the highest position he could hold as a Vietnamese in colonial Indochina. My parents socialized with the upper crust of a local society that included Cambodians, Vietnamese and French.
But my father also associated with other elements. Like many successful men of that period, my father was a cong tu, or prince, who loved gambling, opium and women. He had mistresses, including a famous Saigon beauty queen, Co Ba Tra, whom he showered with money and jewelry. My mother, unhappy with my father’s opium use and philandering, could do little. Divorce was out of the question. That would bring shame to her parents, her family and her village.
While constrained by tradition in her marriage, my mother was unconventional — “liberated” — in many ways. She opened a store in 1934 which sold western medicines as well as traditional Vietnamese medicinal herbs. Later, she had her own farm. She drove there every day in her Italian Fiat convertible, the only woman at the time with her own car. The honorable Madame Huyen Thong, as my mother was called, was among the first Vietnamese ladies to wear trousers. She smoked French cigarettes and her prowess on the dance floor earned her the name “Miss Tango.”
My parents prospered under French rule. But, in the summer of 1940, the Japanese defeated the French in Indochina, established military bases and, like feudal lords, plundered the land and the economy.
Life changed for my family as well. The French-owned plantation where my father had worked was now occupied by the Japanese, and the French managers were imprisoned. The Japanese occupation would dramatically change the life of my number five sister, Nam Ly.
Chapter Two: Japanese Occupation and Liberation
With my father’s French boss imprisoned by the Japanese, my father was asked to take his job—managing the Terres Rouges plantations at Peam Cheang. My father had no choice. To resist the Japanese would have meant jail or death. So my father ran the plantation under the watchful eyes of the Japanese guards.
My father wasn’t the only one whom the Japanese had an eye on. Nam Ly, my number five sister, then 16, was, as her name implied, a “plum.” She attracted the attention of a Japanese civilian, Kobayashi Khensaboro, who managed a plantation about fifty miles from ours. One day Kobayashi arrived with a Japanese Commander. As the Commander lay his long, sharp sword across the table, Kobayaski asked for Nam Ly’s hand in marriage. My parents did not miss the message of the sword and accepted Kobayashi’s marriage proposal.
But both my parents and Nam Ly were distraught. I recall my father’s red eyes, and Nam Ly’s cries of horror, when he told her about her marriage. Yet, despite their despair, my sister was married in a traditional Vietnamese ceremony, and a two-day wedding celebration attended by 500 guests, in April 1945. When the celebration and ceremony were over, the groom carried his bride away, as Nam Ly wept.
At the same time, my parents sent my number four sister, Hue, their only other daughter of marriageable age, into hiding to prevent a similar fate.
Nam Ly’s marriage was short-lived. Four months later, the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, ending the war. Nam Ly’s Japanese husband was detained by occupying Allied Forces and later deported to Japan. Nam Ly, now pregnant, did not go with him. Her premature baby died of a high fever.
The end of the war—and Japanese occupation—brought euphoria and turmoil to Indochina. A wave of nationalism swept over Vietnam. Emperor Bao Dai abdicated and conferred his “mandate of heaven” on Ho Chi Minh, the country’s “liberator.” Ho became Vietnam’s President. Ho used tin—loyalty to one’s country—to rally the support of the people, proclaiming “Fatherland above all.” Both my father and Nam Ly responded to Ho’s patriotic message and his appeal to rebuild our ravaged homeland. My father became chairman of the Viet Minh on the plantations and helped raise funds for Ho. Nam Ly became a member of the Viet Minh youth movement. This was a pivotal event in her life, growing into a life-long commitment to Ho and the Viet Minh.
But Ho’s rule was challenged when the Allied Forces allowed French troops to return and reestablish their presence in the South. In the spring of 1946, Ho signed an agreement with France allowing five thousand French troops to remain in the country for five years. General de Gaulle sent a French High Commissioner to oversee Vietnam. Fighting broke out between the French and the Viet Minh. This was the start of the first Indochina War.
The return of the French had dire consequence for my father. They deported him from Cambodia, sending him back to Vietnam for having “collaborated” with the Japanese and the Viet Minh. We had to leave our comfortable home. My father had no job and no prospects. As a child of five, I was returning to a country I did not know, under desperate circumstances.
Chapter Three: Brothers and Sisters on Opposite Sides
My parents faced difficult times upon their return to Saigon. My father, now distrusted by both French and Vietnamese, had trouble finding work. He was reduced to taking part-time accounting jobs. To support the family, my mother sold her diamonds and other family jewelry. She then became a diamond broker, buying and selling diamonds for others, taking a commission from the sales.
The Viet Minh were continuing their resistance against the French, who refused to grant Vietnam full independence. My number eight sister, Thu Cuc, was attending school in Saigon and took part in a demonstration which the police put down with severe brutality, injuring her.
The police began searching out and imprisoning students involved in the rebellion. Fearing imprisonment, Thu Cuc hid in the jungle on an island that my father owned, later disappearing deep into the backwoods of the South. I did not understand where she had gone or why. My mother told me only that she had gone to a boarding school in the South, gotten married and had a daughter.
Several years later, Nam Ly also came under suspicion by the French for her political activities. She was called to the police station for questioning. Released for lack of proof, but worried that she would soon be jailed, she looked for ways to leave Vietnam. Her chance came when she joined a tour to Cambodia. She did not return. I was cautioned by my mother not to say anything about Nam Ly’s whereabouts. The police were ready to jail anyone with any connection to the Viet Minh. Nam Ly virtually disappeared from our lives. For us, she lived on another planet. She would not return to Saigon until the city fell to the Communists in 1975.
While my sisters gave their loyalty to the Viet Minh, my number six brother, Trung, and my youngest brother, Khanh, fought on the opposite side as soldiers in the South Vietnamese Army.
I was particularly close to Khanh. He and I were the youngest children, still living with my parents when our older brothers and sisters had left home. Khanh volunteered for the South Vietnamese Army after graduating from high school in 1962. As a young officer, he fought valiantly, often in the combat zones in the Mekong Delta, and was wounded several times. One time, recuperating from an injury at my mother’s house, he swore that he would go back to the same place in the jungle to avenge the death of two soldiers who had been killed fighting next to him.
One day, my mother phoned and told me she’d had a nightmare about Khanh, that he’d come home wearing a white hat—signifying death—instead of his khaki lieutenant’s hat. I reassured her it was only a bad dream. But that evening, a friend of Khanh’s phoned and told me something terrible had happened to Khanh. I drove through the night, trembling and crying, to the military morgue in Phu Lam. There I found his body. It was one of the saddest days of my young life. Khanh, only 23, left behind a young widow and a daugther, 16 months old.
At his funeral, his commanding officer told how Khanh, returning from a victorious battle, learned that his Battalion Commander was still in the field, encircled by Viet Cong. Khanh volunteered to go back in and rescue him. He got his commander out, but was caught by Viet Cong troops. Refusing to surrender, he was shot in the head point-blank.
After finishing school, my brother, Trung, had been drafted into the Vietnamese Army, where he served for twelve years. As a paratrooper he’d survived being dropped near a Viet Cong “nest” and injured when his foot was caught in a trap. Finishing his military career, he spent six years in the U.S., first as a teacher, then working in an import-export business.
But he missed Vietnam, and my mother urged him to go home. He returned to Saigon in mid-1974, starting a business exporting fish, crocodile skins and sugar cane. In 1975, after the North Vietnamese had won the war, they began a purge of the South Vietnamese “lackeys” who had collaborated with the former government and the Americans. A gentle man with no interest in politics, Trung became one of thousands of “traitors” who were “re-educated” in Communist camps. Trung was sent to Vinh, a prison near Hanoi where he was subjected to hard labor, physical abuse and starvation. After four years, Trung died of a stroke, far from his home with no one from his family to bury him. My mother heard rumors that my sister, Nam Ly, had denounced Trung as a CIA agent after his return to Saigon. My mother was heartbroken that Nam Ly had given her tin — her loyalty — to the Communists instead of the family. My mother renounced Nam Ly and never talked about her or wrote her again.
Chapter Four: Education in Vietnam and Europe
I was removed from much of the political turmoil that divided my country and my family in the 40s and 50s. Although my parents were no longer affluent, my father was still collecting meager rents from farmers on the island he’d acquired. My family lived on this income, supplemented by my mother’s earnings from her jewelry brokering. My number three brother, Anh Ba, went to work for Esso to help shoulder the costs of educating the seven of us who were still in school.
At six, I was enrolled at the Lycee Marie Curie, Saigon’s most prestigious French school for girls, and was given the name of Jacqueline. All of our classes were taught in French and we were punished for speaking Vietnamese. In my history book, I learned about my ancestors, the Gauls. I showed the book to my father and asked whether it was true that my ancestors had yellow, braided hair and blue eyes. What had shrunk us and changed our features? My father laughed and explained that the French had not changed the textbooks that they used in the colonies. He showed me a picture of people with Asian faces, and explained that these were my ancestors.
While I was enjoying my new school and friends, my father was depressed at not finding a job, and at the political currents beyond his control that were claiming his children. In 1951, a stroke paralyzed my father’s right side.
At 14, I was sent to Dalat, the mountain resort north of Saigon, to Les Oiseaux, an exclusive French boarding school. Protected by the convent walls, we were shielded from the terrorist attacks and Communist assassinations that took place in the remote, southern countryside and the fighting to the west.
At Les Oiseaux, one of my closest friends was Jeanne Tho. At night I often heard her crying and went to her room to console her. Jeanne told us that her father had disappeared with her younger brother. In our last year at Les Oiseaux, Jeanne told me who her father really was—the President of the National Liberation Front, at that time a group of radicals composed of well-educated people disenchanted with the dictatorial regime of Diem. It served as the southern “arm” of the Northern Communists and later became the Viet Cong. She asked whether I still wanted to be her friend since her father was an enemy of the government. I told her that I was not involved in politics and would remain her friend.
Jeanne consoled me through my sorrows, too. Just before I graduated from high school in 1959, my father died. After a three-day wake, my family accompanied his body to the family cemetery plot on the outskirts of Go Cong where my grandparents were also buried.
I had long dreamed of going to Paris and studying at the Sorbonne. In 1960, after graduating from Les Oiseaux, I got the chance to go to France. I registered for classes, but my mother soon ordered me to move to the south of France and attend the University of Bordeaux. An aunt in Vietnam had told her that a young girl in Paris would be exposed to too many temptations. At Bordeaux, I focused my studies on French literature, which I loved, and Political Science.
Right after my final exams in Bordeaux in 1962, I went to London for summer vacation. I decided to continue my studies in London, learning English as well as studying French. In London, I became reacquainted with a friend from Les Oiseaux—Chi Tuyet—Snow White. Our reunion would change my life.
Chapter Five: Brief Years with Bong in Saigon
Little did I know when Chi Tuyet asked me to return to Paris with her in late 1962 to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, that I would meet the man who would become the cornerstone of my life. At the wedding dinner, I was seated next to Nguyen Van Bong. After spending many years studying in Paris, and finally receiving his Ph.D., Bong was now returning to Vietnam.
I spent only a little time with Bong before he returned to Vietnam, and at first was not physically attracted to him. He wore white glasses with thick lenses. His small eyes did not look at girls in a romantic way. He was no good at the sophisticated language of courtship. He was shy, not boastful like most Vietnamese men, said little, but spoke directly. I was drawn to his character. Coming from a poor family, he had, by hard work and sheer determination, achieved his goal of earning his doctorate degree in both political science and law. Bong told me he was determined to return to Vietnam and help his country. I thought him unsophisticated and naïve.
Our courtship was conducted via letters, gradually becoming less formal and intimate until, in a letter, he finally proposed. I had fallen in love, but marrying Bong would mean returning to Vietnam and giving up my dream of living and studying in Europe. My love for him won out. I returned home.
I arrived back in Vietnam in the summer of 1963 — a time of excitement and confusion. As I was preparing myself for marriage, I was also witnessing an intense political situation, including growing opposition to the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Bong was now teaching law at the University of Saigon. While I was still in Europe, he gave a commencement speech that electrified the country. He called for a democracy in which the opposition was allowed to operate. It was a dangerous speech since Diem had outlawed opposition parties. But Bong’s speech gave people hope, and people rallied around him. I learned of his speech from friends who took turns letting Bong stay with them, because they were afraid he would disappear during the night.
Bong was not the only one who feared Diem. His regime was becoming increasingly oppressive. Diem, a Catholic, discriminated against Buddhists — 80 percent of the population. At one flash point, a venerable monk set himself on fire. The country erupted. Diem declared martial law and jailed hundreds of Buddhist monks. More violence ensued.
There was speculation that the military — aided by the U.S.– was staging a coup d’etat against Diem. It became a reality. In November 1963, Diem was assassinated. People flooded the streets, rejoicing and destroying any symbol of Diem and his family.
Among those rejoicing was my mother. We had postponed our wedding until the political situation could stabilize and she feared I’d end up an old maid. My mother immediately began planning my wedding. As was the custom in Vietnam, our mothers had consulted astrologers when we became engaged. The astrologers warned that Bong’s and my horoscope did not match. We were doomed to part, or one of us would die. With our western education and attitudes, we tossed aside such superstitions, and were married in January 1964.
After the 1963 coup, Bong became head of the National Institute of Administration (NIA), a government-run academy that trained South Vietnam’s top civil servants. Bong saw the NIA as a vehicle through which he could reform the government. I was teaching both French and literature and completing my college degree. In 1964, our twins were born — a son and daughter — and two years later, another son. I felt that my dreams had come true. At 25, I felt fulfilled.
Our domestic tranquillity was in sharp contrast to the political turmoil that resulted from Diem’s death. Anarchy ensued — six governments in two years. Military and civilian factions were fighting each other instead of the real enemy — the Communists. In addition, American involvement had escalated from a few hundred troops in 1964 to 200,000 the next year.
In the midst of this turmoil, Bong told me that he wanted to form a national political party—a popular movement—as an alternative to both the corrupt government of South Vietnam and the Communists. With a friend from Paris — Nguyen Hgoc Huy — Bong started the Progressive Nationalist Movement (PNM). The party immediately began attracting adherents—former students, professionals, teachers, businessmen, old people, intellectuals, women. Despite harassment, the party grew. Bong and the PNM became an important political force.
It was not long after that, in late 1969, that the first attempt on Bong’s life occurred. A bomb had been planted in the NIA. Only his solid wood desk saved his life as walls and windows collapsed around him. Bong was provided with security protection — round-the-clock guards at our house as well as bodyguards.
As Bong’s popularity grew, General Nguyen Van Thieu, President since 1966, was losing strength. The North Vietnamese demanded that Thieu step down as a condition of peace. And on the home front, Thieu was facing a divided South Vietnamese military and a fractious melange of national politicians. Thieu knew that, to survive, he needed to put together a strong coalition government.
On November 9th, 1971, Thieu sent an emissary — his brother — to our house to ask Bong to become Prime Minister. Much to my surprise, Bong accepted. Bong saw Thieu as moving toward democracy, and thought that he could now achieve more by working from within than from without. Even though Bong’s appointment was not officially announced, word immediately leaked out.
The next day, November 10, Bong was assassinated. A bomb was thrown under his car as it stopped at a traffic light. Bong, his bodyguard and the car burned like a huge torch. Several months later, two Viet Cong were caught and charged with his murder.
With Bong’s death, life stood still for me. I was thirty years old. Our twins were seven, our youngest boy five. In an outpouring of grief, thousands of people from all over the country poured into the headquarters of the PNM where Bong’s body lay. But I was oblivious. My soul bled. I stared into a deep, dark abyss. Dawn would not return for years to come.
Chapter Six: Widowhood, Women and War
My children pulled me out of the black cloud that engulfed me after Bong’s death. My love for them gave me a reason to go on with my life and deal with the many changes and new responsibilities brought about by my husband’s death.
My children and I were forced to leave the grand, spacious house that the government had provided for us because of Bong’s position. We moved into the row house where my mother now lived, along with Bong’s mother and daughters, who had lived with us since our marriage. I was now in charge of a large, extended family, and responsible for their financial support. But Bong hadn’t left me any money. He hadn’t worked for the government long enough to qualify for a pension, nor did he have any life insurance, which was not common in Vietnam. In addition, there was sizable debt. He had borrowed from family and friends to publish his book, Political Parties and Public Law.
I had been serving as Chairman of the Board of the Vietnamese-American Association (VAA), a bi-national center whose purpose was to promote understanding between Americans and Vietnamese. Now the Board offered me a salaried position as Director of Cultural Activities. My job was more than full-time—supervising a large staff of teachers who taught classes ranging from photography to flower arranging. I organized cultural activities—1,200 in my first year. While at first I was unsure of my ability to manage such a large-scale effort, my confidence grew. My smile and energy returned. I began attending receptions and dinner parties.
But my renewed vigor brought disapproval. I was violating Confucian tradition by “shining” outside the home. Many thought that my actions were inappropriate as Bong’s widow. They thought I should be like other widows—dress in dark colors, shun parties and wear my misery on my face. They began calling me the “Merry Widow.”
I also garnered disapproval by working for Americans. Many Vietnamese, including some in my family, were against the Americans’ growing military numbers. They saw the vast American presence as an onslaught on Vietnamese culture and values. Having anything to do with Americans brought shame to a family. Two of Bong’s aunts, who had offered us a home in Bong’s home town, withdrew their offers when they learned of my work with the Americans.
The American presence did change Vietnam enormously. Military equipment and supplies jammed ports; military barracks mushroomed overnight. Vietnamese businesses servicing the foreign forces flourished. The PX’s inundated the society with consumer goods. The black market flourished and the dollar was king. In Saigon, bar girls and prostitutes were everywhere. Women of all classes were cashing in on the war. Some of my friends, and my mother’s friends, contracted with Americans to sell goods or services or even opened massage parlors.
But the war’s impact on women was more profound than just creating prostitutes. The war resulted in new roles and responsibilities for women. The war had created a vast number of widows like me, now responsible for supporting their families. Other women had disabled husbands to care for. Women were taking on men’s jobs in factories, businesses, government and in the military. Vietnamese women were running the country, invisible and uncomplaining.
But one thing about women’s lives had not changed. They were denied the means of limiting the size of their families. The use of contraceptives was a crime. I learned about this first hand. After the birth of my twins, I went to my doctor to ask about birth control. To my horror, he told me he could do nothing and counseled me on “the rhythm method.” I carefully applied these methods, but despite my diligence, three months after the twin’s first birthday, I was pregnant again. I feared that I would quickly end up with ten children, like my mother and eldest sister.
In 1972, I received a fellowship to attend a family planning workshop in Chicago. Returning home, I met with the Minister of Health, Dr. Cat, to discuss changing the law. He agreed it should be changed but felt it would be a long and difficult battle.
I debated whether I should take on this battle. I’d finally gotten my life on an even keel, and juggling a job with family responsibilities meant I had more than a full plate. Besides, I knew that taking on this fight would mean exposing myself to personal attack. One evening, I came home and prayed in front of the altar for guidance. After consulting with my spirits, I knew I should take on this challenge for the silent majority of Vietnamese women.
With a handful of doctors, I established a non-profit organization. Using a euphemism, we called ourselves, “The Family Happiness Association.” We hired a part-time doctor, nurses and social workers to go into slum areas to educate women about family planning. But gaining acceptance of contraception required more than convincing wives. We needed to convince husbands and mothers-in-law, who had significant influence. We had to challenge the Confucian tradition that believed more children meant more prosperity, and religious opposition from both Buddhists and Catholics.
Little by little, women began flocking to our Family Happiness center. They wanted the magic pills. The more criticism we absorbed, the more successful we became. Our organization expanded to six centers in the provinces. In the fall of 1974, I finally tasted the fruits of my labor. I was invited to help draft legislation repealing the anti-contraception law. When our law passed that year, I had the satisfaction of knowing that what I believed in and worked hard for had finally come to pass.
In the space of three years, my life had changed dramatically. I’d gone from being the wife of a beloved politician to becoming my own person. Then I’d gone on to change the lives of millions of women in Vietnam.
Chapter Seven: Leaving Vietnam
As I celebrated my victory for women, and looked back on the changes in my own life, I had no idea that I would face still more dramatic twists and turns, that my “first life” would shortly come to an end.
In America, the Watergate scandal culminated in August 1974 in the resignation of President Nixon. In the aftermath of Watergate, the U.S. Congress cut aid to Vietnam drastically. With decreased aid, South Vietnamese President Thieu, in March 1975, made the fatal decision to cede the northern part of the country to the Communists so he could better defend the South. But his effort failed. Panic broke out as troops broke and ran and hordes of people fled in retreat toward Saigon. Communist forces moved closer and closer to the capital. Still, few Vietnamese believed that the Americans would let South Vietnam fall to the Communists. Surely the U.S. would commit air power and save what was left of the country.
But as the Communist forces reached the outskirts of Saigon, it became apparent that there would be no U.S. intervention. Foreign diplomats closed their embassies in quick succession. “Nonessential” personnel from the U.S. embassy were sent home. Only then did I realize that Saigon would fall and that my association with the Americans had put my family in grave danger.
In mid-April, I went to see Nancy Bennett, a dear friend and wife of the Political Counselor at the American Embassy. I asked whether she could get my children out of Vietnam. Nancy said she could arrange to evacuate them with an airlift of orphans. I was relieved to hear of a way out, until Nancy explained that these orphans would be adopted once they arrived in the U.S. I would risk losing my children. I needed to find another way out.
I spent days fighting red tape to get passports for my children, a necessary prerequisite to leaving the country. I finally secured the necessary papers for my children to go to Paris, where they could live with my sister. The flight was scheduled for 11:30 p.m. on April 22. I was having dinner that night with Bill Johnson, a friend from the U.S. Embassy, who had arranged for an Embassy car to take us to the airport afterward. Just before 10 p.m. the phone rang. After talking to the caller, Bill went to his garage and returned with an M-16 rifle. He told me that the Communists were closing in on Saigon, and there was no way we could go to the airport. Bill lived across the street from South Vietnam’s Vice President, and he thought the Communists might attack our area first. We stayed up all night, armed and waiting for the attack that did not come.
The next morning I went home. Friends and relatives poured in, desperate for a way out. I did not know what to tell them. At 9:00 a.m., I got a call telling me that Nancy Bennett had found a way to get the children and me out of the country. Since the U.S. was only evacuating American citizens and their dependents, Nancy had arranged to “marry” me to Pat Barnet, an American pilot who’d come to Vietnam to rescue his in-laws. Our courtship would be quick; Nancy said my children and I had an hour to pack a piece of hand luggage and get ready to leave our homeland. I said hasty, tearful farewells.
When Nancy’s driver arrived to take us to the airport, I asked him to drive us by the cemetery where Bong was buried. As we drove by the gate, I was able to glimpse the monument to Bong. I closed my eyes and whispered my farewells and asked him to bless our journey. On our way, we stopped to pick up Pat Barnet. I shook hands with my instant husband. Once at the airport, we were to wait at a bowling alley at the American section while Pat went back to town to pick up his in-laws. He said he’d return in an hour. There were hundreds of Vietnamese crowded into the building. We found a corner, and I tried to explain to the children what was happening.
Hours passed, and Pat had not returned. I was panicked. Had we been abandoned? I searched the faces of the Americans looking for Pat, but could not even recall what he looked like. Finally, he reappeared. A brother-in-law had been missing and the parents would not leave without him. But he eventually showed up.
That night, along with hundreds of other evacuees, we lined up to board the convoy of C-130s shuttling between Saigon and the Philippines. Finally, our turn came — at 2:00 a.m. on April 24th. Pat boarded first and scrambled to find seats for us in the plane, crowded beyond capacity. We settled into our seats, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Among the last to board was a tall American in his late 30s, hauling a huge bag. He looked around, came over to me, pulled my seat belt and gestured for me and the children to leave our seats. I shook my head and held on to the children. Angry that I was disobeying him, he dropped his huge bag on my feet—it felt like a hundred pounds of iron had crushed my toes.
The plane was about to take off. The American took a seat on the floor and turned to me in disgust. “Hey, girl, do you know what you’re going to be doing in my country. You’ll be washing laundry.” As if I had not heard or understood, he rubbed his hands together as if he were washing clothes. I looked away and closed my eyes, his bag still weighing heavily on my feet.
That’s how I left my country. I felt humiliated and ashamed. I was not a criminal. Why was I forced to flee my ancestor’s homeland like a coward or fugitive? What evil had I done? My mind became bleak and black as the jet roared off the runway, the first step in my journey to a new life.
Chapter Eight: Second Life Begins in America
A few days after arriving in the Philippines, we were sent to a refugee camp in Guam. Overnight, a tent city was erected by Marines to house and feed the growing flood of refugees. In order to leave the camp and go to the U.S., it was necessary to be sponsored out by an American. I had written to a few State Department friends, but it was not easy to get answers. There was no incoming mail yet. I knew people in the U.S., but had no addresses or phone numbers.
After about two weeks in the camp, I ran into Julio Andrews, the former director of the Asia Foundation, which had given me a fellowship to attend the family planning workshop in Chicago. He was at the camp looking for his staff. I asked whether he would sponsor me out, and he agreed without hesitation. But when we went to the processing center, we learned that an American could only sponsor a member of his family or household. I was not a member of Julio’s family, and Pat Barnet, my temporary husband, had left to go back to his family. Joking, I asked Julio whether he would sponsor me as a household member—a servant or chauffeur. Julio was embarrassed, and protested that he could not claim that I was his servant. He agreed, though, when it turned out that I needed to be his servant only for as long as it took to fill out the forms. Two days later, my children and I boarded a plane to California, where we were again detained, this time at Camp Pendelton.
The camp became a huge circus as more and more refugees poured in. Vast mess tents were erected to feed us a diet heavy on American-style Chow Mein. Refugees roamed around looking for relatives. People had lost their suitcases, their papers, their money. Some, traumatized by their radical uprooting, could only cry.
I had written to friends asking for sponsorship out of the camp, but, after a month at Camp Pendleton, I hadn’t heard from anyone. Then one day I was told to go to the processing center. I learned that I was being sponsored by Sandy McDonnell, Chairman of the McDonnell-Douglas Aircraft Corporation. I had met Sandy when he visited Saigon in 1966, and we’d become friends. We would leave for Sandy’s home in St. Louis in a few days.
Sandy and his wife Pris went out of their way to make us feel at home—taking us to visit friends and squiring us to events. But oddly, after a week in St. Louis, instead of feeling more secure, the children and I became sick. Victor had nightmares, Alex had headaches, Annie could not eat, and I could not sleep. The trauma of the past few months was catching up with us.
After some time, Barbara Clary, a friend who had been an executive secretary in Saigon with the U.S. Agency for International Development, wrote inviting us to move to the Washington, D.C., area, where she and her husband owned a vacant townhouse in nearby Old Town, Alexandria. They would be happy to have us live there.
We were reluctant to leave St. Louis, where the McDonnells and other friends had been so kind. But Sandy and Pris flew to Washington to meet with the Clarys, and, when they returned, they had concluded that we might be better off there. They gave us their blessing to leave.
We soon got settled in our charming townhouse, and began to adjust to life in Washington. Everything seemed enormous in the U.S.—the people, the buildings, the supermarkets, the cars, the highways. I felt not only uprooted but overwhelmed. Having to start from scratch in a new country, I had lost my confidence. Friends had set up a fund to help us with basic expenses, but I needed a job. I took a typing course, but failed the exam. Never having cooked before, I burned nearly everything I touched. After many job interviews, I felt the man in the plane leaving Saigon was right: the only thing I could do was laundry.
My feelings of inadequacy were compounded by depression. I had finally received mail from my family. My brother Trung had been sent to a re-education camp. My mother had had to sell her household belongings to survive. I felt helpless and desperate. But I could not write to my family, who would be in danger if they received letters from America. I began having nightmares: sometimes I saw myself bound and gagged by the Viet Cong. Other times, I was caught in a big bomb explosion, or in the jungle, hunted like a fugitive.
Then Ambassador Sam Berger, the former deputy to Ambassador Bunker in Saigon, suggested that I volunteer at the Indochinese Reception Center in Washington, which provided information and job assistance to refugees. I then got a job at a vocational school, and helped refugees qualify for funds so that they could learn new job skills. Many of my students went on to start successful businesses.
In September 1975, Joe and Nancy Bennett invited me to dinner at their apartment in Michele Towers, across from the State Department. I was to call Joe from the phone booth in front of a nearby drugstore, and he would let me into his building. As I finished the call, I saw a foreign service officer, Lacy Wright, whom I’d met on a few occasions in Vietnam. We exchanged phone numbers and then I hastily left for dinner with the Bennetts.
Lacy called a month later and invited me to dinner. I then invited him to dinner at my house. Still unable to cook, I watched him valiantly try to eat the meat I’d overdone. The following weekend, he took me and the children to the zoo. We began seeing more and more of each other. He quickly became a dear friend to me and the children, and I knew he was the kind of man I’d dreamed of.
Two weeks before Lacy was scheduled to go to his next posting in Milan, Italy, he asked me to dinner and proposed marriage. I was hesitant. I felt that Lacy would be taking on a lot of problems and three children as well. I asked him to think it over for a few days. He called early the next morning and again asked me to marry him.
Before agreeing to marry Lacy, I talked it over with my children. The two boys were enthusiastic, but my daughter did not want to move to yet another country. In the end, she finally gave her consent. But Lacy still had to endure another test: I consulted a Vietnamese astrologer before giving him a final answer. The astrologer compared our horoscopes and concluded: “If you wanted to do business with that man, there would be no problem. But if you wanted to marry him, it would be much better.”
Lacy and I were married in a story-book wedding at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church. Ambassador Bunker, then in his early eighties, erect and distinguished, took the place of my father and walked me down the aisle to my new husband.
Chapter Nine: Aftershock
The children and I joined Lacy in Milan in the summer of 1976. And, I began yet another life as the wife of a Foreign Service Officer. As we prepared to spend the next two years in Italy, the trauma of the past year caught up. Since Bong’s death, I’d been so busy surviving that I’d not had a chance—or a way—to express my grief, anxieties and pain. In addition, I felt guilty that I was living so well while my family in Vietnam was in a desperate situation.
The accumulated trauma literally leveled me. On Valentine’s Day, after dinner at a friend’s house, I blacked out. I’d had an epileptic seizure. At the hospital, I was checked over from head to toe, but the doctors did not find anything abnormal. The problem was inside me: my Yin and Yang were unbalanced. I slipped further and further into a cycle of depression and mood swings.
Lacy did not really understand what had happened—how I could be sweet and loving one minute, and sullen and moody the next. I began to drown in questions I could not answer: Why did Bong have to sacrifice his life? Why did I have to suffer for the loss of my country? Why did Lacy and the children have to bear the brunt of my depression?
I had not yet recovered my equilibrium when, in 1978, we were posted back to Washington. We would remain there for the next seven years, giving us all time to recover from our turbulent Vietnam experience as well as time for the children to take up root in the U.S. The children were feeling disoriented, suffering from culture shock. I had to find my own identity as well. I was neither Vietnamese, nor American, nor French. I had to find a direction.
I was not the only Vietnamese suffering “aftershock.” In 1978, thousands of “boat people” started to arrive in the U.S. This new wave of immigrants had to bribe their way out of Vietnam and risked their lives crossing seas in fragile boats. Mostly these people came from fishing villages and the countryside, and were completely different from the educated, urban refugees who’d come to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon. Many of the boat people settled in the Washington area, and I became involved in counseling and resettling them. They faced major problems—health, jobs, housing and adjusting to life in America.
It’s hard for Americans to understand how new and different life was for the boat people. At one support group meeting, families told me that they’d written to their families in Vietnam, but hadn’t heard anything for months. I asked them how they had mailed their letters, and they told me they’d dropped them in the mailbox on the corner. I went to look, and saw that they had been dropping their mail in a trash can—so neatly covered and painted that they could not believe it was for garbage.
The boat people needed to learn not to squat on top of the toilet seat with their shoes on. And not to take baths by scooping up the water with a plastic cup and pouring it over themselves while standing outside the bathtub. They had to learn not to roll up their sheets and mattresses every morning.
A major problem was finding cheap housing. In Arlington, I located a complex of nearly 200 low-rent townhouses. We began resettling the boat people there. Usually my husband and I had to guarantee the rent. But almost all of the refugees kept up with their payments. I became a familiar sight at this housing complex. My American friends brought brooms, laundry baskets, chopsticks and other necessities. I was called Ba Lang Ba Xa, “Madame Village Chief.”
The plight of the refugees seemed to reach its most acute point in the early 1980s. That year, a group of Indochinese refugees sponsored by churches in Alexandria, Virginia, asked for help. There were no agencies providing services for them. Some of my American friends were asking what they could do. We formed a committee of Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and Americans, and incorporated as a nonprofit organization — IRSS, or Indochinese Refugees Social Services, Inc. We provided temporary and emergency housing at a home we called the Welcome House. We received grant money and expanded our services to include an employment service that found jobs for refugees and trained them in job skills—professional cleaning, gardening and house painting, etc. These jobs enabled people who did not speak English to quickly become self sufficient. For the children, we organized a tutoring program; for their parents, classes in English and vocational training.
In 1981, the US-ASIA Institute gave me a national award as one of the ten outstanding Asian Americans in the United States for my work in the field of social services. In my acceptance remarks I said that this honor was “…not only for me, but for all of us newly resettled and proud voting citizens who are contributing to the well-being of our new country.”
Chapter Ten: Healing
By 1982, I’d been doing work for the refugees for four years. Our children were now in college. I decided it was time to change direction. Like a global nomad, I’d lived in different parts of the world, but I was still searching for myself. As part of my search, I enrolled in a Master’s degree program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. My purpose was to understand American foreign policy and look at America’s involvement in Vietnam to see why it had lost the war.
In my second year, I took a four-week course on the Vietnam War. For most of the time, I was quiet. Even the words, Vietnam War, made me ache, like an incurable case of arthritis. My mental anguish was even greater. And the more I tried to avoid talking about the war, the more I realized that the wound was still deep inside me.
Despite the anguish, I continued to seek answers. I was selected by a professor to help research a book he was writing on Ho Chi Minh. My job was to devour the hundreds of books and articles written about Ho and provide summaries. As a result of my study and research, I was able to reach an intellectual understanding of the war, but I still had not come to terms with the war emotionally.
Just after graduation, I blacked out again. This time doctors found a benign tumor on the left side of my brain. I needed an operation. The outcome was uncertain. I was told I might lose the use of my right leg or arm, or the sight in my right eye; my mouth might be twisted to one side, and I might lose my speech.
The night before surgery, alone, I prayed for everyone I knew. Then I remembered Colonel Y, one of the best Vietnamese astrologers. I called him and asked whether he saw any danger from my surgery. He consulted my horoscope and called me back. “Don’t be afraid of anything at all,” he said. My ancestors had blessed me with phuc duc — good fortune. My future, he concluded, would be much brighter.
I slept well that night, unafraid. The surgery was an unqualified success—I suffered no disability. The next day, I saw myself reincarnated into a new being. I took stock of my life and my blessings. I had a chance to start anew. From now on, I’d look to the future.
In 1985, I resumed my life as a Foreign Service wife, traveling with Lacy to Thailand, to Mexico and then to Trinidad. In 1990, while in Trinidad, there was an attempted coup d’etat in the midst of it, driving through the capital, Port of Spain, that an incident triggered repressed memories of the Vietnam War. Our car was stopped at a road-block. Looking up, I saw a man on an elevated post pointing a rifle at us. My mind exploded as I recalled a similar scene in Vietnam. I could not sleep. During that five-day siege, I relived the Vietnam war. It was an exorcism and the beginning of my emotional healing.
In Trinidad, I studied transcendental meditation. I learned to center myself in a calm silence and to balance the Yin and Yang inside me. This became a healing tool I still use daily.
We moved from Trinidad to Jamaica, and then to Brazil. While in Brazil, two critical events provided the impetus to write this book, and complete the healing process. The first was a meeting with Henry Kissinger in Brasilia, in September of 1995. In the absence of the Ambassador, Lacy, as Charge d’Affaires, was hosting a luncheon for Kissinger. I had met Kissinger 25 years before, the first time he came to Vietnam as National Security Advisor to President Nixon. Bong and I had attended a reception in his honor. Now, in faraway Brazil, as I greeted Kissinger, I told him I was from Vietnam. He looked at me and said, “I feel sorry the U.S. let Vietnam down.”
A couple of months later, I read former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s book, In Retrospect, his explanation for the U.S. failure in Vietnam. I then saw him on TV during his visit to Hanoi, in November 1995, where he confessed to the Vietnamese and the world that he’d fought the wrong war in Vietnam.
That night, I sat down and started writing. I wrote through the night and haven’t stopped since. I completed my healing by telling my story of Vietnam.
Check out Autumn Cloud by Jackie Bong-Wright