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Chapter 4

The Tân Lập re-education camp.

 

1. The trip to the hell.

 

Saturday April 16th 1977, we didn’t have “labor” as usual.  A cadre came into the cell in the early morning called all campers bringing everything to the yard for a routine check.  In the Thủ Đức camp, there should be a move when there was a check for campers’ stuff, so we had to be ready for any change after the check.   We brought our stuffs to the yard, set out separately everything on the ground and waited for a cadre or a camper in the so-called “Rival Committee” coming.  By the regulation of the camp, we could not keep any sharp or pointed thing for safety, could not have dried food and salt and pepper for prevent of escape.  Yet “they” should confiscate anything that they wanted to.  We used to hide something not “legal” somewhere or left in the room for later use if we didn’t go elsewhere, and if we were moved, those things should be left for others anyway.  Cadres and campers in the Rival Committee have known that, so they searched thoroughly everywhere in the yard and in the cell.  But how could they find everything that we have hidden? 

I was just over a cold (a kind of typhoid fever) some days ago; my hair was lost a lot!  The camper physician named Tôn Thất Hưng has treated me by acupuncture, by steam bath of eucalyptus leaves collecting in the camp, and by some Tylenol medicines only.  Someone said that Tôn Thất Hưng was a fake physician because he could not speak Huế accent though his last name was Tôn Thất, the name of a royal family in Central Vietnam, and he looked too young at the age of fifty due to his paper.  He had given me to see his diplomat named Tôn Thất Hưng, a physician graduated from the University of Lyon, French, and an Acupuncture Diplomat from Tokyo, Japan.  I didn’t know for sure if he was fake or not, but in that situation, I could not have any choice except to give my life for him.  I saw Tôn Thất Hưng when coming back to Thủ Đức camp five years later; he was then not a doctor any longer but a camper as others.  He was released in 1985 after ten year re-educated only by using fake document due to the release list.  That morning, I had a feeling of my moving because I have heard that there were campers moving to the Thủ Đức camp since yesterday.  I didn’t know why I had that feeling, but since I was staying in Thủ Đức camp for interrogation after my friends have been moved in 1976, I was always ready.  Three years of re-education was meaningless for me; I became suspicious when I have heard the notice of “the Party and the State” about the policy for the personnel of  “pseudo-government” and pseudo-armed-forces”.  They said that we had to get progress in a three-year period for re-education in order of having clemency of the Party and the State!  I thought that they were playing words one more time.  I could not imagine how long I should be in the camp, and how long could I endure?  Yet deep down in my heart, I just wanted my family forget me as if I had been died since the day of “revolution”.  A month, a year, then three years, and how many more years should I have to spend in the camp?  I didn’t like to stay at theThủ Đức camp because it was too close to my home.  I didn’t want to create a hope in my family and then they got disappointed when realized the truth.  A moving far away should be a solution perhaps.  With that thinking, I brought my stuff to the yard without any worry.

Đàn, the camper in the Rival Committee, was standing when four cadres searched carefully everything of campers after have searched every camper from head to toe!  That was the first time we were searched too thoroughly.  I guessed what I have felt should be happened.  After the check has done, another cadre came with a paper and read names of campers.  Who had named had to stay outside and who didn’t should come back to the cell.  In the list, there was a camper who has been too sick could not come outside before, so the cadre called another camper to replace.  I saw some of my friends in those: Tuân, Hạnh, Lộc, Trung, Vinh, Tâm, but some others having high positions in the Organization such as Cang (the former commissioner), Lương (chief of A10), and Trang (chief of A8) were coming back to the cell. 

We were sent to the A zone of the Thủ Đức camp, locked into the cell closed to the gate.  From there, I could see new campers in other cells who had brown skin and long hair like people from jungle.  Almost they were younger than us.  I heard a melancholy voice from somewhere singing repeatedly a theme:  “In the winter morning, the young soldier holds the bars of the cell looking forward and whispering that I am kept in prison because I didn’t want to kill, we are far away each other because I didn’t dare to kill.”  (Buổi sáng mùa Đông, người lính trẽ trong tù, hai tay ôm song sắt trông ngóng về phương xa.  Người lính khe khẻ nói, ḿnh ơi hởi ḿnh ơi, v́ anh không muốn giết nên anh làm tù nhân!  V́ anh không dám giết, nên anh đành xa em.) 

Vinh, my used to be young agent, shouted asking if where they from and I heard some one answered: Tây Ninh!  I thought they have been kept in the secret zone D of VC before and at that time they were moved to Thủ Đức camp to go to somewhere else with us.  Thủ Đức camp was only a transition location.  Since I have been delayed for the investigation, I was always ready for the moving because I didn’t think VC should keep us in a camp too closed to Saigon like that.  Yet the main question was where and when!  An island, or a jungle in Trường Sơn, or North Vietnam was somewhere I thought of.  Deep down in my heart, I hoped that would be somewhere in South Vietnam, so at least I was still living in my “country”.  I could not think of North Vietnam as my country though it is part of Vietnam.  North Vietnam helmets, yellow uniforms, bicycles, and furious faces of people in that part of Vietnam was something so strange for me!   In the war, we have confronted with VC, but we didn’t hate them; we were not angry with them.  When talking about VC’s leaders, we also used polite words.  In the contrary, they felt vindictive hatred for us as if they should kill us right away if they could.  They have been taught of vindictiveness since schoolboys.   The images of North Vietnam youngsters in uniforms with red pioneer’s scarf shouted angry slogans were always haunted in my mind.  How would be my son in that kind of society?  Even in the war, I just wanted a society of kindness, not the one of grudge.  The theme of the song that someone was repeatedly singing reminded me of my thought about our future (or perhaps present) society.  “Because I didn’t want to kill, I am kept in prison!”  What a tragic situation! 

Cang and Trang, our former commanders, brought lunch and dinner for us.  They didn’t talk to us, yet they gave us a sorrow look instead.  In the camp, staying campers have known about their situations at least, and leaving campers had to accept any worse thing happen for them in their new situations.  I thought I had to accept those happen for me anyway because I did give up my own life in my enemies’ hands.  My better way should be quietly stood any hardship, even my death if necessary.  I was thinking of a theory of Buddha that “our lives in this world were just temporary, our deaths were our return” and calmed myself with that thought. 

Around midnight when I was sleeping, a cadre came to our cell waked us up to prepare for the moving.  I have been ready for that, but I didn’t think it happened too fast.  I put my clothes, mosquitos’ curtain, and blanket in the military kit bag.  There was some food left from my recent meeting with my family in Vietnam New Year such as a can of sugar, a can of husked-rice-flour, some dried meat, and I tried to put all of them in the two small pockets of the bag.  The poncho was tied by the side of the bag, the military can of water by the other side, the folded-sedge-mat was over the top of the bag, and then I tied up the bag’s lid.  I tried making it as neat as possible.  Everything looked like a soldier ready for a campaign.  I carried the bag over my shoulders and put on the floor waiting.  Everyone in the cell was ready.  The light in the yard was brightened.  Cadres were moving and talking noisily out side.  I heard the sounds of some cars out of the wall separated from the cells with the front gate.  About an hour later, a cadre accompanied with two others with rifles in their shoulders was coming to our cell calling every camper.  We came out of the cell on the line and followed the two armed-cadres going over the small door to the front yard.  There were some “Molotova” trucks parking there and we were sent into the closed-bed of the truck after cuffed two campers together by a kind of primitive-handcuff made by local forged-ovens.  Those cuffs didn’t have a chain, so our hands could not be moved easily.  That was also the first time I had a cuff by my hand, but I didn’t think of anything and didn’t even feel ashamed.  I accepted that as a certain matter in the camp, and I should accept anything else even worse than that perhaps.  Two armed-cadres sat by rear sides of the truck’s bed and there were forty campers for every truck.  We had to wait until 410 campers were set in the trucks and moved out of the Thủ Đức camp at about four o’clock in the morning of April 15th 1977, and I had stayed in that camp for seven months and eleven days.

Ten Molotova trucks with a small car leading left the gate in early morning, but there were some bikes in the street already.  I saw someone in my truck throwing something to the street, and I found out later that they sent home letter by that way to warning their family about their moving.  I didn’t know for sure whether or not those letters should come to their home, but I thought that was a brave deed because they could be punished if cadres found out. 

That time, the convoy was not hiding its route and straightened to New Port by the Saigon-Biên Ḥa High Way about 15 miles North from the Thủ Đức camp. 

We were released from the handcuffs and came aboard the ship named “Sông Hương” (Perfume River).  Someone said that used to be the ship of South Vietnam named “Vietnam Thương Tín” that has moved back a number of escapees from the island of Guam.  Four hundred and ten of us were kept in a hold full of coal-dust.  The hold was about 1,500 square foot and 12 foot high with an only hole about twenty by twenty foot above.  By the wall in the middle of the hold, there was a latrine made by a frame of wood cover by sedge-mats.  The toilet was a table with a hole on the surface and a bucket underneath.  We had to set mat on the steel floor of the hold for our places, but in the small room like that, everyone had only a small space for sitting.  I was coming aboard early, so I got a place on the top of a bundle of coal-bags in the corner.  That should be lucky for me because after a day floating on the ocean, excrete was spread all over the floor from the latrine.  Over four hundred people with a small bucket could not hold enough their discards! 

Food and drinking water were giving by a rope from above over the hole.  They gave us instant noodle for food.  I suddenly remembered the cave of bear in the zoo in Saigon where I used to see sometimes.  We looked like animals that were kept in a cave and were giving food from above by people who raised animals.  The worse was that there were plenty of us in a dirty small space; meanwhile, there were only some animals in a cleaner cave.  I could not eat anything in those days for it was too tired and too smell!  Whenever I was too hungry, I tried to gnaw some dried instant noodle and sip a little water for avoiding going to the latrine as possible.  I didn’t want to step on the floor full of dirty thing! 

The ship left the port when it was bright.  I thought it was about 8am.  Tuân, my friend and I were guessing about the place where we were coming.  I said somewhere in North Vietnam, but Tuân said Côn Nôn Island where used to be the prison for serious crimes and political prisoners of South Vietnam government.  I didn’t know why I thought of North Vietnam.  I have heard about some moving to North Vietnam before perhaps.  I didn’t know exactly where my friends were sent to, but I knew they were in somewhere in North Vietnam.  Since Tuân and I have been held for investigation, there were three more moves of campers to North Vietnam, so that time was not differently, I thought.  We were waiting for the ship coming to the sea and look at the shadow from the sun.  Some others joined us in the prediction. We could not figure out the ship was in the sea yet, but after our first lunch time when the sun was over the west, we guessed that the ship was coming into the ocean and decided to watch the way of clouds and the shadow of the sun to find out the way of the ship and knew that we were heading North.  Everyone was desperate.  We all have hoped that we were at least in South Vietnam although in any camp! 

Four hundred and ten campers included about fifty of us from D zone of Thủ Đức camp, the ones who used to work for South Vietnam government, for South Vietnam Police Forces, for Intelligence Services, and about fifty from C zone, the ones who participated in organizations to go against the Communists’ regime after April 30th 1975 such as “Recovering the Country Forces” of Catholic (Lực lượng Phục Quốc), Cao Đài and Ḥa Hảo Religious Sects.  The rest were from Tây Ninh including Police officers of South Vietnam from sergeant to lieutenant.  They were almost younger than us with their ages between eighteen and thirty.  We were heading to North Vietnam, the total strange region for us although that was a part of Vietnam.  We have heard many things about North Vietnam, about the poverty of that part of Vietnam, about the so-called “iron and blood” of the Communists of North Vietnam.  That time we had a chance to see the truth, perhaps. 

That early evening, the ship was swinging as if there was a strong storm.  Some one got seasick and vomited all over the floor that mixed with dung and urine overflowing from the bucket under the latrine became a nausea smell.  Someone tried to use some water to clean up, but that made the floor nastier.  Some places in the hold closed to the latrine have spilled all over and some one had to move to the higher places that made the hold became more and more cramped.  No one could sleep in that situation. 

I sat with my arms clasping my knees thinking of my family, my wife and my son.  How would they be when they know of my moving to nowhere?  The last time I did see my son and he didn’t allow me to hold him!  I wanted to see the pictures of them from my kit bag, but I couldn’t because I had to share room for my friends and there was no more room for me to open my bag.  In addition, I didn’t want to do that in front of my friends.  Everyone was thinking of his family in that situation, but had to hide it anyway.  Suddenly, a voice from nearby singing the song “Ngày anh xa vắng” (The day you’re going far away) was heard clearly.  Everyone kept quiet to listen that song:  “Waiting you for some years, or for my whole life, until my hair was gray, I just want to see you once.” (Đợi chàng 1,2 năm, hay là cả đời xuân xanh, ngày nao đầu pha tuyết sương, vẫn mong tái ngộ một lần.)  The song has been written for a wife having a soldier husband in a war, but in that situation, the theme of that song became suitable more than ever.  The camper who was singing that song was Hồ, in the group of campers from Tây Ninh.  Hồ was not a good singer; his voice was also not polished, but melancholy.  He had a woman appearance with his graceful gait.  We used to call him “sister Hồ later, but in our lives together, he had much of will than we have been thinking. 

When Hồ has come to the end of his song, many others joined him and sang in turn the “yellow songs” that were forbidden for a long time in camps.  Someone used his spoon drumming by his mug to keep pace with the songs.  A crown began to gather around Hồ.  Nearly two year from the day of “revolution”, I was listening excitingly the familiar songs of my old time.  Everyone seemed to forget the tragic situation!  No one was a good singer; there was no musical instrument in harmony with, yet the old songs seemed to be absorbed thoroughly into our mind.  Approaching “revolutionary songs” almost everyday since coming into the camps, we craved strongly for hearing softly streams of the so-called “yellow music” to calm our souls and to remind us about the memories of our old days.  No one has dared to sing those songs in any camp for no one wished to get punished. Yet in that concrete situation, I thought no one cared about “policies” any longer. 

The crowd continued until about midnight, but gradually sparse.  There was suddenly a group of campers fighting and screaming from the other side of the hold where settled campers from C zone of the Thủ Đức camp.  Everyone was watching the fight, but no one wanted to interfere.  Those young campers in the group of “Recovering the Country Youth Forces” were beating a camper whom they believed being “antenna” in C zone.  The so-called “antennae” were campers who reported things happening amongst campers.  Sometimes the one who being suspected an “antenna” just because he or she had a role the leader of group of campers and not wise enough to satisfy everyone in his or her group, but other time, he or she thought that was a way to get aggressive in re-education for coming back soon to society.  Living in the camp was not so easy because we had to confront with many kinds of people and we could not avoid of rubbing shoulder with each other.  Otherwise, we had not to be a target for cadres.  I have chosen a behavior of “holding my breath over the river” since first time in the first camp, Long Thành camp, but sometimes I could not believe that I should satisfy everyone anyway.  Vietnamese proverb has said that: “How could you satisfy people?  If you were generous, they would make fun of you.  If you were ungenerous, they would speak scornfully about you.”  Living in the camps, I was always vigilant with rumors and blames for someone being “antenna”.  Someone has hated some other and spoke ill of him, or it was true!  Who knew?  I thought my best way was observing quietly and carefully for defending myself. 

After a while, three campers from C zone named Long, Tri, and Dũng came to the side of D zone looking for Uyển and Đôn planning to “liquidate”.  They blamed Uyển and Đôn have been “antennae” in D zone in the time living in the Thủ Đức camp.  I didn’t know for sure about Uyển and Đôn, but I thought the were at least “intelligentsia”, Uyển was graduated from the College of Letters, and Đôn was an architect, so I didn’t think they easily became a kind of “hunting dog” for the Communists.  Yet, who knew?  Tuân and I had to persuade them not to do that unthinking deed for we didn’t know exactly anything about Uyển and Đôn yet. Otherwise, what would happen for them later because they were still living in the camp? 

That disorder has interrupted the “yellow music”; everyone came back to his place sitting quietly or leaning against his bundle watching the sky over the hole above. No one could sleep in that situation.  I tried to close my eyes to compose myself.  Some time after coming into the camp, I tried to exercise a little of what I have known about Yoga.  Every night before going to sleep, I usually sat in lotus style for a while, two hands on my knees, my eyes closing, and concentrating my mind trying to think of nothing.  I used to practice that for separating myself out of concrete situations.  Sometimes in those practices, I felt myself feather light as if I could fly away from the earth; other times, I was sinking into a deep sleep with a dream of me in a grassed and flowered field with my every pace of a bird flying from here to there, or a dream of my childhood going to school surfing fast on the street with the wings by my feet.  Waking up, I wanted to analyze my dreams to understand what those meant, but I couldn’t!  I thought that was just a dream of freedom. 

Early morning, a shower made the condition of the hold become even worse.  Campers used everything possible to cover their belongings and themselves.  Water from the rain added with dung and urine to form slimy puddles on the floor very hard to keep away from when moving.  The hold became nastier and nastier!  Campers sat huddled in their places trying not to go anywhere except very necessary.  Food in bamboo basket and drinking water in pails were let down from above through the hole, and a camper was in turn coming to collect and sharing to the others.  Even though we have been so tired and too hungry, no one could eat or sleep in that fetid smelling!  I didn’t know if worse thing would happen in the camp of North Vietnam, but I hoped that we better should come there faster to avoid that tragic plight. 

Around noon after we have got our lunch, the ship was stopping.  Some campers used to be in South Vietnam Naval Forces guessed that it landed some where in Central Vietnam, could be Cam Ranh or Đà Nẳng, because it was too fast to come to North Vietnam.   I could not know if that was true, but in my heart, I have hoped that we were sending in a camp in Central Vietnam for at least we were still living in our “country”.  North Vietnam was too strange for us despite the fact that it was also a part of Vietnam.  In that jocular sanguinity, we put our belongings back into our bags and ready for leaving the ship.  At least we didn’t live any longer in that foul hold! 

We were waiting, waiting, and waiting until it was dark.  It was still rain, but gradually sparse.  For our dinner, we didn’t get instant noodle as usual but some watermelons.  We didn’t have anything to cut them except hit on the floor to break them into pieces.  Melon skins thrown into dirty puddle created even more disgusting sight for the hold.  Yet everyone believed that he should leave there soon, no one paid attention about that any longer. 

When it was totally dark, the cover of the hold was wide opened.  A ladder was hung down and we climbed one by one onto the deck.  Some small islands appeared dimly from distance, some boats with the sails having many rolls, the special sails of North Vietnam let us know that we arrived Hải Pḥng Port.  No more South Vietnam, no more Central Vietnam, we were coming to North Vietnam, to the center of the Communists of Vietnam!  Everyone was desperate. 

On the other side of the ship, there were also campers climbing onto the deck.  We haven’t known that there was another hold in the ship.  We had to stand in two rows line and a cadre gave us a handcuff for two campers standing next each other before we were landing.  My right hand was cuffed to the left hand of Nghiệp, my friend, and we walked on two wooden boards from the ship to the quay.  With a handcuff without chain on hands of two people, when one person was moving his hand, other one had to move his hand in the same movement if he didn’t want to hurt himself, so Nghiệp and I moved hardly on those “bridges”.   I was recalled later that when landing, there was a couple from the other group falling into the sea and disappeared without any attempting to rescue.  Someone said that they have been suicide, but I thought that one camper has slipped and pulled along other camper; they could not pick themselves up with the handcuff and their heavy bundles by their shoulders.

A line of coaches was waiting by the port.  Nghiệp and I took our seats in the middle of the first car for we have landed early.  It was about 6p.m., but the sky was dark because it was shower.  In April, it was still cold with drizzle and North Wind those I used to read in many books about North Vietnam.  Our seats were on the driver side, so I sat by the window and could see the scene outside.  The port where we were landing was totally deserted.  The broken quay seemed to be experienced many times of bombing.  Light of sailing boats in the Hạ Long Bay flickered from distance.  The silhouettes of small islands looked like great monsters rising up from the ocean.  That was a beauty spot of Vietnam, but we could not enjoy it in our situation! 

A cadre gave each of us a loaf of bread for the trip, and we were waiting in cars.  The convoy started moving around midnight.  I thought that VC has been familiar with night activities.  That was the forth move I have been experienced since coming into camp.  The first move from Chu Văn An High School to Long Thành camp, the second move from Long Thành camp to Thủ Đức camp, the third from Thủ Đức camp to New Port, and that was my forth move: every move has been starting from midnight, that was their habit, perhaps! 

The city of Hải Pḥng was near by.  The convoy drove by some where in that famous city, the second biggest city of North Vietnam.  I saw many thatched cottages intermingled with bricked houses.  Some houses had half brick half thatch; the route that the convoy driven on was scattered with potholes: the trace of destroys of the war.  The city was too dark with the lack of light; there were still some old oil lamp poles since the period of French colony.  I saw the only cafe shop in the city having florescent light.  The cadre in our car reminded us to close every window for avoiding people angrily throwing stone to us, their enemies in the war!  Yet, I didn’t see many people in the street except some children indifferently looked at the convoy.  Some bicycles full of bundle by the backside were driving in the street.  The city was quiet in the midnight. 

The convoy drove out of the city in five minutes; I thought that was only the edge of the city.  It was the moonlight.  I tried to watch over the roadside to see anything about activity of people in North Vietnam, but there was nothing.  I felt tired and hungry by two days on the ship and fell asleep after have eaten a bit of bread and sipped water.

I woke up after a while when the car driving by a forest.  There were someone pushed his or her pack-bicycle full of firewood on the roadside.  That was the first time I saw the so-called pack-bicycle (xe đạp thồ) of North Vietnamese.  That kind of bicycle had only a frame and two wheels.  They used a long stick tied up by the handlebar of their bicycle for easy to drive it; and then they put heavy stuff on the frame of their bicycle.  They could not sit on the saddle because there was no saddle at all, so they had to walk by their bicycle and to drive it by their left hand and holding the stuff and balancing the bicycle by their right hand.  That kind of transportation has been well known in the Điện Biên Phủ campaign for transporting weapons and ammunitions to the battle.  There were also some women who carried bundle of alang grass (for the roof of thatch cottage), bundle of firewood, or a basket of something on their heads or by their shoulders.  The poverty in North Vietnam was appearing plainly through those activities. 

It was early morning when the convoy turned right on a rough track through a forest of styrax.  Coming to a stream, the first car stopped waiting for the convoy, and then the convoy was diving in turn through the stream without bridge!  The current was flowing violently; we all were horrible because we were trapped in the car with handcuffs.  Drivers have known about the path, so they drove slowly but easily through the stream.  There were three more streams like that before the convoy reached a wide river.  The cadre in my car said that was a branch of the Red River, the largest river in North Vietnam.  I wondered how could the convoy pass the wide river like that without a bridge.  It was not a stream, and I thought it should not be as shallow as a stream!  I saw a sloping street toward the bank of the river.  The convoy stopped for about an hour, and then I saw a ferryboat coming from other side of the river.  It was an old small motorboat looked like a canoe pulling a small bamboo raft.  It could carry only one car at a time!  My car was the first car in the convoy, so it coming onto the raft first.  The river was flowing fiercely for that was the flood season; the car was swinging on the raft.  The boat drove slowly upstream pulling the car to the opposite bank of the river, and then there were someone tied a cable to the raft pulling it to the bank by a crank.  The boat then moved back to pull another car until the convoy coming to the opposite bank of the river.  Everything was happening as in the old story!  It took more than five hours to do the job. 

My right hand was numbed after all.  The cuff was so tight though my wrist was small.  I tried to massage it by my left hand.  Sitting silently beside me, Nghiệp was almost sleeping though I knew he was still awake.  I asked the cadre to go to have a pee and we came to a bush by the pavement.  I felt little relax doing that.  People stared curiously at us.  Some children wearing shorts and mended shirts yielded “Ngụy, Ngụy” (that word of North Vietnamese to indicate people who have been working for South Vietnam Government and Armed Forces), but no one threw stone as we have been told before.  I wanted to ask them something, but I dared not.  Some campers threw some pieces of bread to children; they caught and ate pleasantly.  Some children even came by the car and took watermelon given from campers.  Cadres had to drive away children not coming by the convoy.  The convoy restarted when it was dusk. 

Forests after forests, mountains after mountains, the convoy went through many streams.  I have sat nodding tiredly by my seat and woke up when it was dawn.  The convoy was shaking on the potholed-asphalted road.  Hills planting tea-tree appeared by both sides of the street looked like the road to Đà Lạt, the central highland of South Vietnam.  Now and then, there were some groups of people carrying basket by their back picking tea appearing and disappearing between the straight lines of tea-tree.  Some people drove bicycles having a hoe fastening by the frame on the street.  They were going to do the farm for “cooperative” perhaps!  We used to hear about the land reform in North Vietnam since 1955 that there was no more land for individual; everything was for common used.  In the ten lessons that we had to be taught from the first days in re-education camp, VC said that land and tools for labor were belonging to everyone in the society.  They called that the common owner.  People owned everything, but they had nothing!  Their earning depended on how much they have “labored”.  We joked that “who worked less must be get less, who worked much must be get much, and who didn’t work must get everything!” 

We were coming to a small city in early morning.  I saw the words “People-committee of the province of Phú Thọ” on a red banner hanging in front of the brick house having a flagpole with a red flag and a yellow star, the flag of North Vietnam.  Phú Thọ was a part of the province of Vĩnh Phú (including two old provinces: Vĩnh Yên and Phú Thọ) in the midland of North Vietnam.  The township was too small with some brick houses and the rest were almost thatch cottages.  Fields of manioc and tea-tree showed plainly the special character of that region.  China trees lined between fields and along side of the street.  The local people used that tree for building their cottages because it prevented termite by its bitter resin.  That season, China tree was blossoming with its pale violet flowers.  Hills growing fan palm, that leaves for roofing, was another character of countryside in North Vietnam.  South Vietnamese used nipa leaves, a kind of coconut tree that planting in the water, and North Vietnamese used fan palm leaves for roofing their houses.  Almost houses in that region were made by earthen walls with a small pond in the front yard.  I learned later that they have dug the pond getting soil for the house’s floor and walls and the pond became a growing place for fishes too. 

Going over Phú Thọ, the convoy turned right on the rough road into a jungle.  The chain of mountains was appearing in a distant.  Some people of minority groups stared at us when the convoy crossing over.  They were Thai, H’Mong, or Tay, I didn’t know exactly, but they all had a “gùi” (a high basket of minority people in Vietnam, usually was knitted by rattan) by their back and a scimitar in their hands.  Hills and mountains surrounded small valleys.  Terrace rice fields on hillsides looked from distance like snakes crawling out of their holes.  House on stilts with high curved roof was a character of mountain area.  Dirty pot-bellied children intermingled with pigs and chickens allowed ranging freely in the ground.  Dogs ignorantly laid in the doorway.  Everything curiously looked at us when the convoy driven by.  In that distant area, cars were something very unusual. 

Around noon, the convoy passed the wide and violent stream named “A Mai” at a place named “Bến Ngọc”, drove about an hour on the twenty feet wide clay road.  There were more thatch house by both sides of that road than before.  A compound with some brick houses surrounded by a thick fence made by bamboo and barbed wire having a sign: “The general school of agriculture-industrial number 1” (Trường Phổ Thông Công Nông Nghiệp Số 1) was lying in the right side of the road.  Children wearing under pant and dirty pale-blue shirt about ten to fifteen of age were working in the fields around that compound under surveillance of armed men in police uniform.  They were prisoners or students of that “school”, I wondered!  The convoy finally stopped at the front gate of the camp: we were arriving the “Tân Lập” re-education camp at Vĩnh Phú after one and haft days on the cars from Hải Pḥng port.  It was around noon of Thursday April 21st 1977.