HO CHI MINH CITY – A Vietnamese TV crew is shooting a soap opera in a park behind the late 19th-century Notre Dame cathedral. The leading lady, clad in a beautiful crimson ao dai, sobs uncontrollably despite the efforts of her partner, against the background of the city’s usual nonstop parade of motorbikes. Nguyen Phuoc Hoang Nobel is not very impressed. He’s been coming to the park “for the last 50 years.” He’s experienced it all, the riches and the squalor, the sound and the fury in the modern history of a city that for him will always be called Saigon.
Nobel’s first language was French: he only started learning Vietnamese when he was 10. His father lived in France and came back to Vietnam in the 1920s, as one of the colonial power’s top officials in Indochina. Nobel was born in 1937 in Sadec. After Vietnamese independence in 1945, his father decided to drop his French citizenship. Little did Nobel know this would spell enormous trouble for him decades later.
In 1964, Nobel was the personal bodyguard of US ambassador General Maxwell Taylor – the man who famously said at the time that “if we leave Vietnam with our tail between our legs, the consequences of this defeat in the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America will be disastrous”. Nobel and two others were the only Vietnamese authorized to pack a .357 Magnum at all times: “The Americans didn’t trust anybody else.”
In the morning of March 30, 1965, Nobel was seriously injured in what he describes as “the first car bombing in modern times”, which occurred in front of the US embassy in Saigon and injured deputy ambassador U Alexis Johnson. Nobel, Johnson’s bodyguard, was standing very close to the explosion: the ambassador was on the fifth floor of the building. Nobel was unconscious, presumed dead, and taken to a morgue. As he recalls it, he woke up in the middle of the night, naked, among all the corpses, and had to smash a window with his fist to get out. He had become a survivor.
A top sharpshooter, Nobel continued working until 1967 as a bodyguard to Johnson and then William Porter. He escorted secretary of defense Robert McNamara and vice president Hubert Humphrey on their visits to Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Nobel received the inevitable “knock on the door at midnight.” “I had lived in the residences of the ambassador and two deputy ambassadors, and had driven with them to work every day. For that reason I was detained for two years, and was tortured constantly. I was assumed to have been a CIA [US Central Intelligence Agency] agent. I tried to explain that my position simply involved providing security, and that I had neither political interest or expertise. They tried to force me to write detailed accounts of the activities of the men I served during my employment by the US government.”
Nobel recalls that the communists hated Maxwell Taylor: “They accused him of authorizing a strategy of mass extermination. They seized the evangelical church where I had escorted him every Sunday morning to worship, and turned it into a dance hall. They promised me full rehabilitation, including all the documents of a normal citizen, if I would sign a statement concerning ambassador Taylor’s supposed order to Colonel Smith: ‘Don’t kill anyone if you don’t have to, but if you have to, do it quickly, calmly and entirely’. They said this resulted directly in the massacre at My Lai carried out by Lieutenant William Calley.” In March 16, 1968, under Calley’s orders, 347 people, all unarmed, and mostly women and children, were killed by American soldiers in the village of My Lai. Seymour Hersh broke the story – eight months later. Calley was sentenced to life imprisonment, but served only three years before he was pardoned by president Richard Nixon.
History is now running the risk of repeating itself. For American GIs during the Vietnam War, every Vietnamese – no distinction – was a potential communist: sooner or later every Vietnamese became a legitimate target. For American GIs in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, every Iraqi – no distinction – is a potential “remnant of the Ba’ath Party.” So every Iraqi is becoming a legitimate target. Vietnamese today say that they understand this mechanism very well.
Nobel didn’t crack under torture. He was released in 1977, “My health and my mind had been broken. But since I did not cooperate, I was not given any identification papers or residence permits.” And this is how Nobel has been living for the past 30 years in a state where everything is rigidly controlled: as a wanderer, an urban ghost always coming back to the same park. But his self-discipline shows: his clothes are impeccable. His left arm, severely injured in the 1965 bombing and then subjected to torture, is a source of excruciating pain. He usually has no money to buy medicine, “very expensive.”
In 1983, Nobel’s son, pregnant daughter-in-law and four-year-old granddaughter became one more family added to the legions of Vietnamese boat people desperate to escape the communist regime. Tragedy struck: the boat sank on May 5 in the Ham Tri River. Nobel says the government “refused to allow any rescue operations.” Fifty-six people died, including Nobel’s family.
During most of the 1980s and the whole of the 1990s, Nobel tried to become eligible for the US political-refugee program. As he puts it, “I had new hope that I would be able to live in a place where genuine democracy, justice, human rights and freedom exist. I devoted and even risked my life with vigor for these ideals, hoping to enjoy the fruits of these freedoms. How woeful and shameful it is to those of us left behind, that many thousands of people who made less of a contribution to the American cause have been admitted to the US because they were able to afford to obtain the documents required.”
Nobel wrote letters to then secretary of state Warren Christopher, attorney general Janet Reno and the director of the Orderly Departure Program at the US embassy in Bangkok. He doesn’t know whether the letters ever reached their destination. He was caught in an infernal machine: the Vietnamese government’s bureaucracy prevented him from obtaining legal papers, so he could not apply to become a political refugee. Without an ID he could not have a residence permit for Saigon: he was offered to move elsewhere, but he refused to leave his city. If he had the funds he might have been able to bribe an official to find him legal papers – but his family was gone.
He is thankful to someone he calls his adoptive daughter, “She helped me to heal my injuries, which affected me physically and mentally, even though it was a burden for her.” But she couldn’t be of legal help. Because he had no papers he couldn’t get a residence permit, so he couldn’t get a job. Only recently he was issued a temporary ID card because he translated a document for an official as a favor.
Nobel couldn’t be a more incongruous figure set against this modern Saigon of Singapore-style office towers, five-star US hotels, Shiseido spas offering facials for US$50 and Vietnamese playboys in fake Versace gear taking pictures with their cell phones. He doesn’t even have a fixed address. He remains an acid critic of the communist obsession with control, the “privileges of the party cadres,” and what he sees as pervasive corruption. An educated, dignified man who manages to smile about his personal tragedy, Nobel never blames the United States for what it tried to accomplish in Vietnam. But he recalls “the advice of archbishop Spellman, I accompanied him to a funeral service for a dozen GIs who were killed by a Viet Cong missile at Tan Son Nhat airport. He said, ‘Don’t worry, keep doing your duty. If anything bad happens to you here the US government will take watch over you until they can secure your exit from the country’.” That promise, says Nobel, is still in the air.
At 66, Nobel is tired of living as a ghost. He says a woman he knows might help him get his ID, so maybe he can get his Saigon residence permit, which will allow him the Holy Grail: a Vietnamese passport. He says that he would like to live and work in the US, and then finish his days in France – his spiritual motherland. At the end of a long conversation, he’s happy with how the words of his mother language come back to him: he says that he doesn’t have many opportunities of practicing his French. He dreams of buying a dictionary. And he adds that he doesn’t want to go to the West just to enjoy a better life, but “to testify to the terrible reality that has occurred in my country. I have suffered in silence these past decades, unable to add my voice to the cause of human justice.”
On the 20th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, in April 1995, Gabriel Kolko, arguably the author of the best analysis published so far (Anatomy of a War, paperback edition by Phoenix Press, 2001) wrote that “the irony of Vietnam today is that those who gave and suffered the most, and were promised the greatest benefits, have gained the least. The communists are abandoning them to the inherently precarious future of a market economy which increasingly resembles the system the US supported during the war. For the majority of Vietnam’s peasants, veterans and genuine idealists, the war was a monumental tragedy – and a vain sacrifice.”
Although he fought against the communists, for Nguyen Phuoc Hoang Nobel the war has also been the source of a still-running tragedy. But he has not been broken. Armed with his passport, his dictionary and his memories, he may finally be able to make the transition from “suffering in silence” to acting with words.