As the world marks the anniversary of the end of World War II after the drop of two atomic bombs on the Japanese soil sixty years ago it is noteworthy to jot down some reminiscences of my memory during that crucial period which marked the start of big changes in the history of Vietnam, my motherland.
I was then a student at the University of Hanoi doing my study of Differential and Integral Calculus as well as General Physics. We boarded in the brand new Cite Universitaire campus about ten miles from the Hanoi University, biking day in day out to the prestigious house of learning off Bobillot Avenue.
During the period February-March of 1945, the Japanese gradually turned up their screws on the French administration of Admiral Decoux and finally demanded that all French forces be under a mixed Nippo-French command citing the stipulations of the accord franco-nippon of 8 December 1941 as signed by the government of Marshall Petain. Difficult negotiations have started but finally a certain compromise reached and the atmosphere became somewhat relaxed again.
On the evening of 9 March 1945 the Japanese counterparts invited their peer French to a friendship dinner and all of a sudden at 9 o’clock the hosts raised their glasses for a toast and said “Gentlemen, you are now our prisoners”. The sounds of small arms fires were heard everywhere, Saigon, Hue, Hanoi, the French posts besieged and taken. In the morning after, a white flag raised atop the tower of the Artillery Fort of Hanoi, the omnipresent symbol of French power of occupation.
We were very tense, removed the curtain rods to use as weapons and assembled in the mess hall. Passed midnight my classmate Bui Diem came with Miss Anita Kim, the daughter of Tran Trong Kim, and Yamaguchi, a Japanese agriculture student. They informed us of the successful operation and gave the advice to surround and incarcerate all French students.
We were all overexcited and, armed with sticks, stones, table knives, forks and whatever things we could get as weapons we went out in force to arrest the French boys and secure them in the villa of Dr. Rivoalen, the Director of the Cite Universitaire, pending their herding away by the Japanese authority
The next morning Colonel Kudo met with us in the hall of building B and suggested to select a new board of directors. I did not know why the other students elected me to replace Dr. Rivoalen, Le Van Thuan to replace Lafont as secretary general and Pham Phu Khai as purser in place of Nguyen Phu Doc (Dr. Le Van Thuan became resident medical doctor of Can Tho and Doctor Pham Phu Khai later on was the mayor of Saigon). I went on to occupy the desk of Rivoalen but did not have a single notion of budget and management. I rode the shiny chauffered black limo of Rivoalen displaying a fluttering flag of national gold color. With only 22 years of age and having absolutely no knowledge of administration, I had the feeling of a blind man led by a seeing eyes dog. I wondered what kind of star was in the prediction of my horoscope.
Then came the Two Trung Sisters Day designated as Vietnamese Women Day. On the Bach Mai street there was a long procession of women going through from downtown Hanoi led by the vocal Miss Pham Le Trinh, the daughter of the famous wealthy publicist Pham Le Bong, shouting patriotic slogans. They organized meetings and entertainments at the Hanoi Opera House and invited me as guest of honor. The very young director was dressed in the only and one suit of white stripes light blue wool custom made at the Ciseaux d’Argent in Hue as a gift from mom after his graduation of Baccalaureat one.
The limo with the fluttering national flag stopped at the entrance stairways of the Opera House. A strong female voice announced ceremoniously “the director’s arrival”. All the beauties of Hanoi got busy leading me to the VIP booth. Among them I still remember Miss Nhu of the To Chau store and Miss Pham Le Trinh, and so many other misses surrounding me, pinning insignias to my lapel and talking like birdies with musical and lovely voices. There were skits, choirs, dances, patriotic theatrical productions and oratorical speeches to the standing ovations of a frenetic audience.
A few days later came the commemoration of King Hung our national founding father. The open space in front of the campus filled with thousands of people displaying banners and gold color flags, assembled orderly in front of a newly erected altar to King Hung with candles burning and incenses sticks exhaling rising clouds of aromatic smokes. A team of six elderly dressed in blue brocade tunics with the traditional ceremonial pointed headdresses presented offerings and reciting litanies of prayers to the rhythmic sounds of gongs in front of the big crowd with somber mood. Then everyone joined in, teary eyes, to chant the famous song of Luu Huu Phuoc “Hung Vuong” the lyrics of which can be translated into
“Four thousand years of national culture,
“Our country strong and healthy,
“Owing to the works and ethics of our ancestral past,
“Now descendants of the Dragon and the Fairy,
“We are all united in one spirit
“To take the solemn oath amidst
“The enlightening convolutions of incenses smoke.
Then the student exhibit show, an annual event, was set up in the courtyard of the mayoral edifice. It always was a famous event attracting the whole Hanoi where the mothers or big brothers of “full moon” daughters or sisters took them to, leisurely going back and forth looking for the potential young men within the frame of mind “not university student no mate”. The booths were set up and manned by students wearing now the “a la mode” hat of vanguard youth.
The official paper of the student, Le Monome, in French language changed name to Tu Tri or Autonomy as a tool of dissemination of revolutionary ideals of the General Federation of the Vietnamese students. Once I went with Nguyen Ken (he later became General The Lam of the Viet Minh) and Le Van Giang (he had worked for some time as private secretary to Ho Chi Minh) to central Vietnam to distribute the papers. The publishing and editorial office was in the campus. I belonged to the highly motivated team with Nguyen Sy Quoc, Pham Van Hai. Le Khanh Can, Nguyen Xuan Sanh… The articles gradually changed scopes, indirectly criticizing the Nippon Army with humoristic drawings making the Japanese very upset. After about three months, Colonel Kudo returned, took the administration of the campus in his hands and expelled all of us out.
One Samaritan lent us his villa facing the Thien Cuong Lake and we moved in. The campus kitchen still provided us food in secret. We went on writing articles changing from the theme “autonomy” to “independence” showing a more virulent and combative wording. The name of the publication changed again to Gio Moi or New Wind and we were under extreme tension with the scrutiny and surveillance of the Japanese Kempetai. About mid August a friendly informer let us know that the Japanese was mounting a midnight operation against us. Then we disbanded in secret. Along with Le Khanh Can and Nguyen Xuan Sanh we biked to the village of Quynh Loi seeking asylum in the villa of Professor Hoang Xuan Han. Dr Han was not home but Mrs Han agreed to shelter us in the pig stall away from the house. We stayed in there for a few days during which we were provided simple meals carried out by a little girl crawling through thick elephant grasses.
In the mean time there was the big and disastrous famine killing millions of people. Several villages in the delta of North Vietnam wiped off the map. People of all ages carrying their belongings and even the altars for the worship of ancestors flocked out in search of food and survival. They all were bony, looked harrowed, eyes poking out of their sockets and they devoured whatever they could get. Even the trees lining the streets of Hanoi had their bark gnawed off and black skinny cadavers were scattered everywhere, on sidewalks, at gutters and in front of houses doors. Rumors spread that the Japanese forced the farmers to plant jute instead of rice for their war need and that the French blocked the supply of rice from the rich south as a political tool of coercion. We all hated both French and Japanese colonialists and the atmosphere was ripe for an uprising under the banner of the Viet Minh, short for Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi (Alliance of all parties for a free Viet Nam).
In Hue, on 11 March 1945 His Majesty Bao Dai issued a proclamation. “Along with the world situation in general and the condition in Asia in particular, the government of Vietnam solemly and publicly declare that starting from this date the treaty of protectorate signed with France is nullified and abolished. Therefore Vietnam regains all rights as a fully independent nation”. We were all overjoyed and we expected a political leadership which never materialized. The various nationalistic parties seemed inept. The VNQDD (Vietnam Kuomingtang) with the prestigious history of the 30’s when Nguyen Thai Hoc, Pho Duc Chinh and a few other patriots faced the French firing squad in Yen Bay shouting “long lived Viet Nam” still highly motivated us, filling us with pride and an ardent desire to be in the game. The University de facto closed, all French professors arrested. We felt lonesome, disoriented, bored and aimless. Then in April Emperor Bao Dai formed a government under Tran Trong Kim. Mr. Kim was a known and respected historian and elitist. He was assisted by his director of cabinet, the young Doctor Phan Huy Quat, a former president of the General Association of Students. He selected Dr. Phan Anh to be the Secretary of Youth. Dr. Anh then set up in Hue the School of Military Vanguard Youth with the help of Professor Ta Quang Buu, the famous math teacher of Providence school and boys scout leader of Central Viet Nam. The minister of health, Dr Vu Ngoc Anh died when American planes strafed his motorcade while on the way to Hai Phong.
The very urgent need was to train enough military cadres to fill the vacuum left by the French. Many students from Hue and all neighboring provinces returned from Ha Noi and enrolled along with seniors of Khai Dinh Lycee. There was a total enrollment of 47 trainees who later during the French war
become valuable military leaders whose ingenuity and inspiration were legendary facing a modern well-armed invading troop with practically nothing but crude weapons in their hands and their inventive brains? Several of them promoted generals; others were dead for the country during operations from North to South and in Laos. Names like Dang Van Viet fighting more than one hundred battles against the French in the mountains of North Viet Nam. The frightened French commanders nicknamed him the Grey Tiger of Highway 4. Le Thieu Huy who died by a French bullet trying to shelter Prince Souphanovong with his body while crossing the Mekong river, Le Dinh Luan, the son of Dr. Le Dinh Tham, killed in the first engagement in Phan Rang, Nguyen Ken as the famous General The Lam, Nguyen The Luong alias general Cao Pha, head of Military Intelligence. Some have changed side to become commanding officers in the Armed Forces of free Viet Nam like Navy Commander Vo Sum who was head of the explosives research and development, Tu Bo Cam, VNAF Colonel, Dang Van Chau, engineer for the oxygen-acetylene company in Saigon. All those young men were pure patriots, heeding the “call of mountains and rivers”, ready to sacrifice their lives in a long and arduous fight against the French invaders to regain full independence to the country.
In the mean time in Hanoi the agitprops of the Viet Minh redoubled their campaign of propaganda disseminating rumors of the return of Nguyen Ai Quoc as the savior of the nation with the assistance of the American mission headed by Captain Patti of the OSS. Duong Duc Hien, president of the Student Association left town to rejoin the guerilla zone. The Dai Viet party enrolled in its military training school in Yen Bay several other students. The mood was somber with very intense conflicting reflections on your own future and the demand of sacrifices for an independent motherland. Premier Tran Trong Kim as our national anthem adopted the Vietnamese version of la Marche des Etudiants. The national flag of gold color displayed one red stripe sandwiched between two broken ones as the “Li” sign according to the ancient Chinese geomancy. At schools during morning flag hoisting ceremonials school kids chanted with fervor the new patriotic anthem. On 17 August appeared leaflets calling for all civil servants to stop working on the 19th for a massive show of unity to support the independence of the nation. The response was unprecedented and starting from the wee hour big crowds converged to the front of the mayoral building displaying banners “VIETNAM TO THE VIETNAMESE”, “INDEPENDENCE OR DEATH’. It was awe inspiring seeing those humble office workers, males and females, shouting patriotic slogans and singing the national anthem. Suddenly on the elevated platform a few agitprops waved the gold star red flag of the Viet Minh announcing the return of Nguyen Ai Quoc as the savior of the nation and the non-partisan patriotic demonstration changed into a Viet Minh led insurgency to seize power and declare independence under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. In the crowd Viet Minh agents or sympathizers distributed small gold star red flags and the frenzied innocent hands raised them up shouting with fervor patriotic slogans, tears swelling their eyes. The big assembly became a delirious mob invading public offices, taking over police stations and the Gendarmerie under the inactive eyes of the Japanese guards. Suddenly appeared a dozen horse mounted young men wearing long boots and kaki uniforms, with pistols on their belts, led by Le Van Lang and Dao Khanh Thanh under a thunderous uproar from the whole city enlivened at the sight of those very handsome demi-god heroes.
In Hue when news reached on the successful uprising to seize power in Hanoi, on 21 August two trainees of the Military Youth Vanguard School. Nguyen the Luong and Dang Van Viet got instructions to take down the yellow flag and hoist the huge Gold Star Flag up the monumental flagpole
at Ngo Mon gate. The two students displaying the school military youth vanguard hats, wearing knee length leather boots with a small pistol and six tiny bullets on their belt, loaded the huge heavy rolled flag on the frame of their bikes pushing them huffing and puffing to the location. The five-militia guards were ordered to slowly take the old flag down, tie the new flag and hoist it up while Viet and Luong stood at attention giving a simple military salute marking the end of the Nguyen dynasty. A few days after on the Ngo Mon gate Emperor Bao Dai in a moving ceremony presented the gold seal and dagger of the Nguyen dynasty to Tran Huy Lieu representative of the Hanoi central Government, while a huge assembly of the Hue population gathered to bid farewell to the last King of the Nguyen. Seigneur Nguyen Hoang was the first to heed the advice of Nguyen Binh Khiem “the range of Hoanh Son is the land for many thousand generations of prosperity”. And Emperor Bao Dai was the last progeny to end the Nguyen dynasty lasting nearly three centuries with his historical declaration “I feel better to be the citizen of a free country than the King of a subjugated one”.
Back in Hanoi Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam in Ba Dinh Square. Ho Chi Minh as the new name for Nguyen Ai Quoc sounding rather Third International Communist and as such would lack the support of the grassroots. Then according to the accord of Postdam, the Chinese units of Chiang Kai Sheik will come in the North to accept the surrender of the Japanese while in the South the British Gracy delegation will do the same. The ragtag armies of General Lu Han and Tieu Van crossed the borders with near starvation men stricken with malaria and beri-beri. There were lootings, black marketing and all sorts of strange uncivilized behaviors to the dismay of the general populace. In their coattails came back the members of the VNQDD Nguyen Hai Than, Vu Hong Khanh. Although we respected their names as reputable revolutionary nationalists, they were somewhat late comers and being under the patronage of such a disgraceful Chinese Army did not fare well to their standing. The Viet Minh was fast trying to get the students under their umbrella. They sent to the Cite Universitaire their best eloquent speakers like Tran Van Giau, Phan My to win over the hearts of the undecided students. There were vehement discussions, at times virulent and violent on name change from General Association of Vietnamese Students to Association of Students for the Salvation of the Country, a terminology that prevailed on all Viet Minh organizations. An atmosphere of mistrust was present, completely different from the unanimity inherent to us from the beginning.
During that period there were several instances of assassination and bloody killings of which the most prominent case was the On Nhu Hau villa where it was discovered dozens of mutilated bodies scattered in that nice villa on the elegant Bonifaci street. Out on the streets of Hanoi women carrying bags and baskets busily ran back and forth buying and selling the Chinese bank notes while there were rumors of the presence of Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu off the Hai Phong harbor. In South Vietnam, the arrival of the British delegation brought with them the French. The news created a real shock and the Southern students got ready to go home fighting the French, repelling the colonialists. Several groups rode their bikes together among them famous names like Huynh Van Tieng, Dang Ngoc Tot, Mai Van Bo, Luu Huu Phuoc, founders of Tan Dan Chu or New Democracy party.
The Viet Minh administration was through a period of dangerous turmoil. On one side the presence of the Chinese troop brought about a climate of insecurity for the population and they offered a screen for activities of the more and more vocal opposing VNQDD.`On the other side the French in the South and the presence of d’Argenlieu off Hai Phong created heavy diplomatic and military pressures. Then they resorted to their trick of “national alliance”. Before the end of the year, they convened the national alliance and reconciliation conference in the Ba Da pagoda of Hoan Kiem Lake. I had the opportunity to be there as member of the students delegation. We were in about ten minutes before Ho Chi Minh arrived. When the VNQDD delegation came with Nguyen Hai Than, Vu Hong Khanh, Nguyen TuongTam, Ho Chi Minh hurriedly rushed out, stretching his arms widely to embrace Nguyen Hai Than with tearful eyes. Then the national union government was formed, Nguyen Hai Than becoming vice president, Nguyen Tuong Tam foreign minister and Vu Hong Khanh chairman of the armed forces commission. Mr. Tam headed the delegation to the Dalat talk with the French and then Pham Van Dong went with Ho Chi Minh to the conference of Fontainebleau during which they signed the accord of 6 March under the banner of French Union. The French officially returned, the Chinese had to go back to China and the VNQDD lost back up. The Viet Minh was free to liquidate the opposition, surrounding and disbanding the Dai Viet centers and their military school in Yen Bay. At the cite universitaire during a late moonless fall night, a bunch of Viet Minh hoodlums slipped into building A, grabbed tutor Phan Thanh Hoa still in pajamas, blind folded him and led him away to an unknown location. Phan Thanh Hoa, the current president of the Association of Student disappeared; the Viet Minh probably liquidated him. To save their heads the VNQDD government members had to run fast under the protection of their Chinese mentors.
However, the marriage of reason did not last long. During the few short months of honeymoon, each party discretely built up its position of defense. The French recruited their new Hanoi Corps de Security (CSH) employing mostly the metisses (mixed blood French Vietnamese) as agents of intimidation and intelligence collection. The Vietnamese side increased the number of volunteer militia guards and there were frequent skirmishes although of minor nature. The situation deteriorated further and the city ordered the formation of street self-defense units. The Cite Universitaire also activated a company of self defense in which the students took turn as sentries at the various points of access, day and night armed with the old French mousquetons. Cadres moved in as instructors submitting all residents to daily military drills and tactical exercises. Tension increased day in day out and skirmishes became bloody clashes, the animosity against the French unabated, and instructions secretly gave home and storeowners orders to open holes in their common partition walls to make things ready for the city guerilla warfare. Rumors spread that the whole central government headed by Ho Chi Minh had moved out of town to a remote jungle site up North. The people of Hanoi hurriedly left town in troves with all rickety means taking along warm clothes and blankets to be ready for a long stay in the countryside. Suddenly on the night of 20 December, the French opened fire and attacked en masse, taking all key points while the Tu Ve defenders hastily withdrew. That night they killed Dr. Le Tai Chat, the outstanding intern of Bach Mai hospital while assisting the wounded in the streets wearing his long white medical robe. The student company also pulled out under pressure and finally disbanded. With a few close friends, we went south to the village of Cu Da on the bank of the river Nhue Giang. The chaos was complete with no visible leadership, just groups of people here and there talking, discussing, and doing things at the whim of the moments. I saw Dr. Hoang Dinh Cau trying to form the nucleus of a medical First aid team when the pudgy Dr. Pham Huu Chuong went by riding a tanned color horse. Then at a short distance away folk singer Pham Duy strummed his guitar while vocalizing the song Ben Cau Bien Gioi (Next to the border bridge) surrounded by all the young men like in a beach party.
So, war again after just a few months of euphoria. A war fought by young men inspired by a high sense of patriotism to defend the motherland against French colonialism regardless of the Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh whose aim was to steer the country into the fold of another more barbarian and atrocious hegemony, which is the communist camp. During the war, for fully controlling the people they adopted squarely the teachings of Stalin and Mao, destroying all vestiges of cultural traditions, eradicating the bourgeoisie by the method of self and public deprecation, applying the proletarian agricultural reforms of Mao and the scorched earth tactics of Stalin. In addition, that war which brought about misery, family separation, forced migrations lasted eight year short of five month, from 20 December 1946 to the date July 19 1954 at the signing of the treaty between Ta Quang Buu and General Deltheil in Geneva, Switzerland, dividing the country into two parts separated by the 17th parallel.