When Tuan was caught by the NVA unit, he was interrogated and beaten.
“But I guess because they didn’t have a holding place, or they didn’t really consider me dangerous (I didn’t have any weapons, didn’t offer any resistance), they delivered me to the local VC in the morning.”
Tuan related how he was held in a cage like an animal and questioned for several days by a lower government official, “Cap Phuong Xa” in Vietnamese.
He was then transferred to the prison of the higher government office, “Cap Quan”. This very old and solid district prison was built during the French era.
“I was sent in a sort of holding structure in concrete. I remember it had a big steel door leading to an alley with a row of ten double cells, one on top of the other on both sides. The cell was very small and had a very low ceiling. It had one small opening for air. It held six prisoners. Once inside, you could not sit up straight. You could only crawl in and lie down next to each other. It was like the six of us were inside a big drawer. It was so claustrophobic that I had to fight my fears to stay sane. The prisoners were from common criminals (theft, burglary, assault) to political ones (anti-revolutionary denounced by someone or defying re-education orders). Each cell had one large ammo box for prisoners to urinate in. It was emptied two times a day at meal time. Prisoners were allowed outside for a half an hour during lunch and had to ask permission from guards to go to the toilet. Every newcomer had to spend up to two weeks in these suffocating, humid, terrifying holding compartments before being released to the general population in bigger cells,” Tuan recalled.
“At lunch time, the cook, also a prisoner, brought in a big pot of rice and put one long handled spoon of rice into each prisoner’s holding container.”
Tuan did not have anything to receive the rice and had to trade one third of his portion for a piece of nylon cloth to hold the rice.
“In the evening, after dinner, the guard locked all the compartments and the principal door. He resumed peeking into the compartments the next morning. I was trying to deny the reality of my present situation, and think of something pleasant and happy, like when I was a student at the University of Dalat before being drafted.”
“Suddenly, I smelled smoke. I started panicking, thinking about being roasted in that hole. One of my cellmates yelled something and pulled out a cigarette made of crude tobacco rolled into a small piece of newspaper. He reached his hand over to the next cell through the steel bar door and retrieved some sort of cotton shoelace with the embers in one end. He then lit his cigarette and passed a lighting device to the next cell.”
“Thus, the ember lighting device was circulated around through each cell. People started enjoying their smoke inside the prison. We risked being sent to the shackles room if we got caught. Still people liked to defy prison rules. Someone succeeded in smuggling in matches. So started that magical event,” Tuan said.
The next day, he joined in the fun by exchanging half his rice portion for one cigarette.
“That was the most enjoyable moment I had during my time in that prison. The effect of that smoke sent me through the clouds. I felt dizzy and out of this world.”
During Tuan’s captivity, he realized that, although they also considered him an enemy, the VC of the south were less aggressive, less cruel than the NVA from the north. They often told him that he deserved to starve to death for being the enemy of the people. They took turns beating him up even when he didn’t resist.
In contrast, the VC tried to be more aggressive in appearance, but they gave him food and water and didn’t show much animosity as their counterparts from the north.
“In the early days, the guards that the officials used were often young guys without education. They just gave them an AK, told them what they wanted, and they [the young NVA] executed [the task] perfectly with enthusiasm,” Tuan believes.
“They considered prisoners sub-human. They treated us very harshly. The rule was when we approached a ‘comrade citizen,’ we must stand still, one meter away from them, ask for permission to speak, and only move when he gave us permission. Imagine how you would feel when a stupid kid with the AK has so much power over you!”
One of the prisons Tuan was subjected to, Chi Hoa City Jail, was a prison for civilians. But during the Vietnam War, the VC turned it onto a holding jail for common criminals, but mostly political dissidents.
“Anyone considered dangerous or simply anti-revolutionary (Phan Cach Mang) was put there. In my cell, most prisoners were young, but there were also older ones. In my group there was one grey-haired gentleman in his sixties who was a long-time retired Airborne captain from the French Legionnaires, one intellectual looking old man with wire rim glasses, who must have been a professor or a high-ranking government employee. There were a few airmen, [including] a helicopter pilot, a group of young Airborne officers, who were very close knit. The majority were denounced by neighbors or local informers. We were often interrogated many times a day and encouraged to spy on each other. That’s probably why most of us kept to ourselves,” Tuan feels.
The daily routine in Chi Hoa was very mundane and forceful.
“There was “diem danh” (roll call) two times a day, in the morning and in the evening. Between hours, patriotic and revolutionary songs. I think [my] survival instinct outweighed any ideological thinking. If you are forced to save your own skin over the others, either to have more chance to be released, or to simply have better treatment, day after day, month after month, year after year, you will succumb to it. Communism is expert in controlling people’s minds and bodies.”
To him that explained why every Special Forces team sent to operate in northern regions controlled by communists was apprehended right away when they ventured into the populace.
“Everybody knew everybody, everybody spied on each other. You could not have chicken while other people around you could only afford rice mixed with ‘khoai mi’.”
In jail, the prisoners were deprived of any notion of time. Their days were spent waiting for hot water and food.
“I remember feeling a sharp pain in my stomach when the leader of the group failed to divide the rice portion equally and had to take back one spoonful from each of the portions he’d already distributed to fill up the three last ones,” Tuan said, stating that there were two categories of prisoners in his cell, the ones who received parcels from their family and the ones who were ‘mo coi’ [orphans].
“Unlike the privileged ones, we orphans were always looking forward to receiving our very small portion of rice every day. Over time, we got so hungry that, at lunch time, all eyes were on the guy who was in charge of distributing the rice. We gathered around in a circle with our containers in front of us and watched closely the hand that delivered the precious substance that sustained our lives. When the pot was empty and there were still two or three portions to be filled, he had to take back a spoonful from each portion already filled to make the last ones. People groaned, and some protested.”
“You are taking too much from mine!” “You are taking too little from that guy!”
“Every grain of rice counted in that fight for survival. You got weaker and weaker, and soon food was the only thing that occupied your mind. No more thoughts of rebellion or anything else. Everyone exposed their true self: the once proud pilot became humble, obedient towards the kid, ‘can bo’, when he gave orders from outside
the cage. The privileged formed their own group and guarded ferociously their treasure (food, medicine, clothes). And they usually had “serviteurs” [servants] to protect and entertain them,” Tuan said.
“There was one guy who could tell stories, the whole set of 12 books of ‘Co Gai Do Long’, a very popular martial art book series. Every night the privileged people gathered around him and listened to him for hours. There was another guy who could perform crackling massage moves on you for a piece of raw sugar. Food equaled power in there,” Tuan said.
In the corner of each cell, there was a squatting toilet where people could wash themselves with a bucket of water if they could bribe the prisoner “room chief” (truong phong), according to Tuan.
The “chief of the room” was designated and trusted by the VC guard and was responsible for almost everything, from distributing meals and water to controlling the mood of prisoners. He was the one who reported directly to the can bo. He didn’t get transferred as often to other rooms or pavilions for no reason like the rest of us.”
“I think we experienced skin disease in this time period because of malnutrition and close contact living.”
Tuan endured that life until he was transferred to the Suoi Mau re-education labor camp in Bien Hoa Province.