Jul 1, 2014

Vietnamese Authors : Anh Tho Andres, Back to Square One: Growing up in Post-war Vietnam

Growing up in Post-war Vietnam by Author Anh Tho Andres


To many of my former schoolmates, this period was a very painful passage to adulthood. Just like me, they too had been ejected into the adult world without any preparation. Many of my encounters some over thirty years later proved me that I was not the only one who suffered from this abrupt scission from our protected world. I recall my bitterness of feeling rejected during the time as I was still searching my own identity, my nostalgia of a world that was no more, and my sudden enthousiasm in giving a meaning to my new life.



I came back to another Dalat than the one I left. I could not find any of the life when I left it some months before. I went back to both my schools. I went back to the central market and the Hoa Binh Place, the center of the city where my parent still held the shop. I went back to the Baptist Church I used to attend on Sundays. I went back to the small school we used to have our VAA English evening classes. I found no-one, none of the signs of life that animated my young days. Where are you all? My classmates, my teachers, my neighbours? I went to the shops around the Hoa Binh Place, the bookstore that belonged to Lina’s parents, the printing shop that belonged to Thuy’s parents, the Pho Tung restaurant, the Jaspa Shoe shop … I found nobody. I went along the Duy Tan street where most of my friends used to live. Ngoc Dung, My Dung, Anh Thi, Anh Tu, Thai Ha, My Hanh, My Phuong, Tang Hieu, Tang Trung, where are all of you? I went back to the Minh Mang street where some other friends of my parents used to live.

Everywhere I went, no one seemed to recognize me, nor I them. In a small town like Dalat, we used to know each other very well although we did not go out with each other except for joining some common private tuition classes outside school. Finally I found Hoai Chan, one of my best friend and her sister, Hoai Thanh. They have changed so much in such a short time. There were some bitterness in their voices which I could not understand at that very moment. Later, I found the same bitterness in Phat’s, who lived in the same street as me.

Then slowly some of my friends emerged out of the dark: I do not quite remember exactly whom I met any more. But over all, the same impression was of a ghost looking at another ghost. We had nothing more to say to each other. The settings that formed our relationship had changed and unconsciously we did not make any attempt to maintain the link that bound us together. I felt that each of us was trying to measure what the other was having in mind, as if there was an invisible veil that had fallen in between us. Slowly, I resisted to my attempt in re-establishing the contact.

Later, some of my friends went to the same university in Saigon – rebaptized Hochiminh City. As with Hoai Chan and her sister, there was some bitterness and even some kind of suspicion towards my enthusiasm. My friends seemed to blame me for not sharing their sad reality. I was in no better position myself, having a scholarship of ONE DOLLAR a month, a sum that allowed me between having a meal a day, or the bus ticket and skip the meal, as I was living in campus, far from my parents who could no more afford to send me any money after having lost their whole fortune by various means. They did not know that my first meal started at 7h30 p.m after I come home walking 7 km each way, that I took my shower at 3.00 a.m the only time that some water came out of the tap, that I had only 2 sqm as effective space to sleep and pile up my books, in an over-crammed dormitory sharing with 26 students, and that I had huge problems with my new overzealous ‘camarades’ and that by the end of the four-years studies, on the the last days of the final exams, I collapsed out of exhaustion.

The difference with my former French classmates of Dalat was that I was enthousiastic and full of life. They would prefer that I shared the same Vercors’ passive resistance attitude described in his ‘Silence de la Mer’ . I could not as I was genuinely happy with my new life and ideal, inspite of my catastrophic material situation.

I know that my world of before 1975 had definitely disappeared.

The Cream of SRVN

I still have very sweet memories about my U. days. The profiles of my new classmates of the French Faculty was similar to that of my former classmates at the French Lycée: French education from the best schools in town, the lycée Marie-curie and Regina Mundi for the girls, or Taberd or Marie-Curie for the boys. Out of 43’000 candidates on the whole country, we were only 200 regular students (non-communist or party members) out of which only 40, to be selected to take up French Studies.

The SRVN, as any planned economy, fixed the quota of students in each subject according to the five-year plans. The entry level were set very high, and strict criteria for selection were set to the branches that were considered sensitive. Foreign languages were one of them. Initially I did not want to take up French, being destined by my parents to become a medical doctor. In the early days of the brand new SRVN, we had two choices: either get accepted to the U. or go to the field to become a labourer. I naturally opted for the first choice, but could not take the risk of failing my entry exam to the Medical School (as it requires Vietnamese medical terms which I lacked). Furthermore, I found out I could not bear the sight of corpses, blood and all things that reminded me of sickness. So Med School was out. I am glad for that decision in any case.

Unlike the U. in other countries where students would follow the classes they choose and study by themselves some of the subjects, the socialist U. of early SRVN’s days – and most probably also now – expected full presence hours from students who were officially enrolled after the initial selection. Classes covered about 40 hours a week, and participation to extra curricular activities were compulsory These included also military initiation, socialist chores, participation to government’s planned activities (chien dich), apart from the usual community activities as sports competition, gym, music and singing activities, collective teamwork, political seminars, and youth (KONSOMOL) political training.

Some sweet memories bring me back to this period which I considered as the best part of my youth.

My days were full of the plannings set in advance by the class youth leader or youth administration (ban chap hanh thanh nien). In the third year, I was elected as class leader (Lop Truong), so in turn felt the burden of leadership, and other unpleasant surprises of political competition. But that is another long story for another chapter of this book, as it was an interesting period that helped me grow mature in my interpersonal skills.

It was during this period that I improved my public speaking and leadership skills tremendously. In fact, as a team leader and gradually group and class leaders, we had to make sure that the group we were in charge get the best results. For the socialist university of my time, academic results were also the work of the collectivity. Stronger students had to accompany weaker students, political conscious students were responsible for less political conscious students. Through our self-criticism sessions, we helped each other improve views on the Party Leadership and our level of political consciousness. I guess the whole country was going through the same process, and that was how the Party identified the active elements for the recruitment of their members. Unfortunately, these processes were sometimes not conducted in the genuine interest of preserving the supremacy of the Party leadership and could conduct to abuse and misinterpretation of certain policies.

Our political activities were of a rather non-aggressive nature. The ultimate objective was to get elected into the Youth Organisation or Konsomol (doan Thanh Nien) or for those who were already, to the next step – the Communist Party. That was obviously the ultimate honour that most ambitious young leaders of our time were aiming at. I am not sure whether I wanted to be member of the Party or not. My main objectives was more geared to get a scholarship for overseas studies. I guess that was also my other fellow Konsomol comrades. The only difference between some of them and me was that they did not have political back-up whereas I had mine. Competition was tough and Jealousy also. I paid the price for that after I got elected as Class Leader and found myself isolated between on the one hand, my former comrades of the Konsomol youth, who were jealous of my personal success, and on the other hand, the solitude of a leader faced to a new responsibility which also means distancing myself from my former teammates with whom I shared the same companionship of a normal student.

By that time, none of my friends, nor me understood the harsh realities of life. We found out much later than the settings for social advance in the new SRVN were decided otherwise than just on merit and that our youth activities were also preparing us to something more serious than just extra-curricular activities. With the mobilization for the war against Cambodia - which is baptized by some western historians as ‘Third Indochina War’ - , we were facing an even more challenging mission than just playing leaders in our U. campus.

January 2012


Original Title in English : Back to Square One
By Author: Anh Tho Andres
View other chapters under following link

To all Friends of Vietnam
To Diep Huong, John Trinh, My Lien, Mong Trai, My Hue, and others who shared with me this period

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