A Homecoming for the City’s Son

Frances Nguyen


“We don’t have to go in there,” I said, realizing far too late my mistake. My father shook his head dismissively. There was nothing left for him to feel, he insisted.

I had never before been to Saigon, my father’s birthplace. The city, apart from its dizzying traffic, was a beautiful amalgam of noise, fading French architecture, aggressive modernization, color, and overt monuments to the War. The War Remnants Museum—which we were visiting at my terrible suggestion—was its trophy case.

We walked slowly across the gravel blanketing its courtyard, a snowfall of white pebbles cooking in the afternoon heat. As the February sun seared into the backs of our necks, he gestured to me. “Come here,” he said. “I’ll show you.” 

Rough stone slabs hugged the slender entrance to the exhibit, crowned with barbed wire to mimic the façade of its original. A heavy iron door hinged open toward us, like the dark entrance to a wormhole slipping into an even darker past. ‘Tiger Cages’: Special Cells in Côn Đảo Jail. 

He pointed to the sign. “This is what they did to me.”

* * *

Earlier that day, we visited the Independence Palace, now known as the Reunification Palace. One by one, our large family group peered through its vacant rooms, each one a different expression of tacky opulence: a staccato mishmash of eternal Eastern design tenets and Western mod style, with more carpet, drapery, and upholstered furniture than could ever be appropriate for a tropical country hovering above the equator. 

In 2003, journalist Mitchell Owens described the palace in The New York Times as “the sexiest building in Southeast Asia”—for no other reason, I guessed, than the vanity of superior Western styles injected into an exotic, foreign locale. Its architect, Ngô Viết Thụ, won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1955, to hone his craft in the Eternal City, after which point he returned home with a vision that would allow a modernized South Vietnam to compete on the world stage alongside the European masters who’d nurtured his talent. That is, if it could survive the War. It was built with such grand ambition—and, symbolically, over the bones of the former seat of power for the French province of Cochinchina, where both French and Japanese colonial forces once controlled the country before it split in two. But for all the “James Bond cool” lauded by Western admirers, the palace, to me, didn’t look Vietnamese. In erasing the features inherited from Vietnam’s former rulers, Ngô scrubbed our face altogether, reshaping our likeness in the direction he believed Vietnam’s future was headed: West. It was a tragic failure of imagination, I thought; or, worse yet, a tragic premonition of what was to become of the country that Ngô wanted to reintroduce to the world. The honor was ultimately a cruel one: given a blank canvas, Ngô was tasked to create the first and last image of his country, on the eve of its own death.  

I wondered if it was from this gaudy building that my father had conceived his own interior design aesthetic—the thick, faux-silk jacquard curtains that adorned every window and glass door in my childhood home could’ve been plucked from these very rooms. I laughed to myself. 

My father was eleven years old when the palace was completed, and twenty when the Saigon government announced its unconditional surrender to the North, transferring power to the People’s Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese Army) from the palace’s cabinet room. It was here where my father’s country was dissolved and its people rendered stateless. 

We were South Vietnamese, exiles, now wandering the halls of our former seat of government. In our homes in California, we flew the flag of a felled nation: a yellow rectangle with three thin red stripes stretched across its torso like guitar strings—three stripes for the three regions of Vietnam, running smooth and eternal, like veins. As far as we’ve drifted, we are still faithful.

It is why our people are “undesirable” to Hanoi as repatriation cases and why the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is one of nine countries that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) classifies as “recalcitrant” for its refusal to accept would-be deportees—Hanoi recognizes us as a wandering people, too. Our seeds have traveled far, and they will never come home.

In the blinding light of Saigon’s morning sun, the palace was oddly eerie. The rooms, cordoned off by dusty, red velvet stanchions, were not only empty but pristinely so, frozen in curatorial amber to a single moment in time: the moment before surrender. Embalmed. Uncountable violence had been directed from within its walls and had undoubtedly taken place on the very ground beneath my feet. We were standing in a field of ghosts. 

The others didn’t seem to notice. Our family group were visiting Việt Kiều returning home to our fatherland for the Lunar New Year. Some had never been to Vietnam before; even fewer had any interest in revisiting the past. But I wanted to know. I wanted my family’s accounts of the War, both the indefensible and inevitable thing that decimated my countrymen and shipwrecked my community between the twin tempests of “demonstrably American” and “forever refugees.” More than anything, I wanted a better story than Apocalypse Now, than the Ken Burns PBS docuseries, than the jokes about my people being “in the trees,” and the dog-whistling “Vietnam” as warmongering metaphor. I wanted my family to tell me the story I was meant to believe. 

* * * 

There was seldom a moment when my father didn’t have his grandchild scooped up in his arms. The irrefutable love of his life, my niece was, in a way, his talisman, the youngest in a family line borne from his sacrifices in those war days and thereafter. I think she comforted him. 

I watched him as his eyes scanned the rooms: at the photographs, their object labels—in Vietnamese, English, and French—the tiled floors, the feet walking past. I studied his face, searching for any movement behind his eyes. He looked older, each of his sixty-three years etching a thin line across his face. I felt sorry for him, not for what he’d survived, but for the purgatorial afterlife that left him bereft, haunting the very ground where his former country once stood. Another ghost among too many.

“How do you feel, Dad?” I asked as we walked from one room to the next.

“Why are you asking me that? I don’t feel anything.”

* * *  

Côn Đảo prison, a former French penal colony on Côn Sơn island, at Vietnam’s southernmost tip, was built in 1861 to house political dissidents from Cambodia and Vietnam—then a part of Cochinchina—and was later used by Saigon’s government during the War to detain and torture political prisoners. It is known most infamously for its “tiger cages,” a 1940s French invention of concrete cells, roughly five feet by nine feet, and striped with iron bars above where guards would prod trapped prisoners with long bamboo poles and pour “quick lime,” a caustic chemical that burned and blinded, over the heads of the captive bodies below. Chuồng cọp Pháp. Inside, prisoners were cramped, dehydrated, starved, and tortured.

* * * 

Through the entrance to the open-air replica, we were met in its first room by a guillotine, brought to Vietnam in the dying years of French occupation. This particular machine was in use until 1960, five years after my father was born. According to its object label, it was used “to decapitate the Vietnam patriots.”

Opposite the guillotine was a cell, accessible only through the viewing latch on the iron door. My father picked up my niece and peered through the latch. In the dark, illuminated only by the dusty bars of daylight streaming from above, was a life-sized human figure with wild, grown-out hair and a listless gaze staring back, its face gaunt and its body menacingly emaciated. It sat up straight, back erect, as it held the backs of its thighs, pulling in its knees as far as the iron shackle would allow. The whites of its eyes glowed in the shadows as if it were some prop in a haunted house on Halloween. But what visitors were meant to see wasn’t a phantom or a monster, but neither was it fully human: it was what the French saw when they saw us and what we were taught to see in each other. Visitors were meant to marvel at a subdued beast. A tiger languishing in a cage.

Between the Fall of Saigon in April, 1975, and May, 1980, when my parents fled on a forty-foot riverboat not fit for seafaring, my father was sent to the re-education camps five times, each in a different city, after just as many failed attempts to escape the country. Hộ Phòng, Rach Giá, Cà Mau, Vũng Tàu, and Nha Trang—some are holiday destinations now.  

In the camps, he said, he was held in one of those cells.

“Those things,” he said, pointing to the shackles fastened around the figure’s ankles, which connected to a bar secured to the concrete wall, “They were so heavy around my legs. I had marks for months.” As a civilian attempting to escape the new project of a unified socialist Vietnam, they called him “traitor.” They treated him like an animal, he said. Day in and day out, they berated him in his cage. They forced him into hard labor—doing what, I never dared ask—until my grandfather gave them what little he had left for his son’s release. 

Did he see himself in that spectral creature in the cell, or did he really, as he said, feel nothing?

Next to the cell, mounted to the stone wall, was the infamous black-and-white photo of Nguyễn Văn Trỗi—“the martyr”—moments before his execution. Today, he is venerated in Vietnam as a national hero for his failed assassination attempt on then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara during his visit to South Vietnam in 1964. Nguyễn was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1964. Footage of his execution is easily accessible via YouTube. His last words were reportedly, “Long live Vietnam! Long live Ho Chi Minh!” The New York Times described him as the seventeen-year-old leader of a Viet Cong terrorist cell.

“No,” my father said. “That’s what they said. He was just a boy who was hungry, like everyone else. They told him, ‘Take this box to the Americans,’ and they would give him food, and he did, and it was a bomb.” In his voice was a quiet anger, one I knew well from my childhood: a seething, rumbling prelude quickly giving way to an explosive rage. But this time, only disgust and pity flickered across his face as the embers faded. This, too, was familiar: my family often spoke about death this way—with exhaustion, an heirloom from a time when death was so frequent and normal and inevitable that the only thing left to negotiate were the events that led to it. 

I watched him slowly walk out of the prison, brushing past a group of young Australian tourists cracking jokes and posing by coffin-like, barbed-wire cages. Inside them were more human figures, with jet black hair and clay-colored bodies, poised to look anguished and tortured as the barbs dug into their skin. The group didn’t register my father as he walked by, oblivious to the fact that those figures were modeled to his likeness. I watched him walk across the grounds, weaving through the collection of captured American war planes that decorated the front of the museum building, the sound of falling bombs playing over the loudspeakers. 

* * * 

The museum’s ground-level gallery was a glorified image reel of suffering and dark corpses, with trophies of bombs and artillery shells behind glass cases—everything that was left behind. While I saw a few people leave with tears in their eyes, my father floated along from one photograph of carnage to the next, as if he had been liberated from the weight of his steps—or, maybe, he was too hollow to mind them. I kept my distance a few steps behind him. When he stopped, I stopped. Wherever he led, I followed. Whatever he told me, I consumed.

He stopped in front of a photograph and examined the scene: more bodies, barely-discernible faces, and no names. “I feel so sorry for the Americans,” he told me. “So many of them died for us.” 

I nodded. 

Searching the photograph before us, he turned to me. “Ask your mom about Huế.” 

The Battle for Huế was the longest and, arguably, the most merciless urban engagement of the War. Thousands died on each side, and summary executions were carried out indiscriminately against innocent civilians, whose bodies later filled the mass graves pockmarking the city. Men, women, children. I don’t know how many of them belonged to my family tree, or at least touched its roots. 

About two hours southwest of that city is Đà Nẵng, my mother’s hometown, not far enough from the heat of the flame. Like my father, my mother lost countless loved ones in the War and, like him, she did whatever she needed to do to survive. But she is not the forthcoming type. Who knows what she shelters in her silence.

Upstairs was a gallery titled, “Agent Orange Aftermath in the U.S. Aggressive War in Vietnam,” but we didn’t go through it. There was nothing left in the museum for us.

* * * 

Exactly fifty years earlier, my father was a gangly pre-teen celebrating the Lunar New Year in the streets with the rest of Saigon’s children when the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. Explosions were set off along the edges of the city. The North had breached the ceasefire and attacked Saigon during what is remembered by one side as the Tết Offensive and by the other as the Spring Uprising. “I was so scared,” he told me. “I thought that the war was over, that they had won.”

Seven years later, they did. On April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese Army entered the capital, liberating or capturing Saigon—again, depending on whom you ask. By then a young man, my father was still far too young to make the decision he and his generation would have to make: whether to fight and die, flee and die, or live somehow. After the Americans withdrew, he told me, friends were conscripted, trained, sent to the frontlines, and had died within a week. How he managed to escape the same fate, I don’t know. “I didn’t want to die,” he told me, and I believed him. 

What followed after the Fall of Saigon was described to me by many of my relatives as a bloodletting. South Vietnamese generals were dragged from their homes into the street and executed in front of their families. Men, like my father, were sent to the re-education camps; many never came home. Others committed suicide. 

And of course, there was the exodus. An American reporter described it as a “sea of humanity”: hundreds of South Vietnamese racing on foot across an airport runway, clambering onto American planes and helicopters, leaving behind hundreds of thousands more. And the South China Sea, pregnant with rivercrafts and small boats out in open water, waiting for rescue. For my parents, there was the darkness of the cabin, the rancid company of death, the dehydration, the waiting—worst of all was the waiting—and then, ultimately, “the land of freedom, to start a new life in my second homeland.” All immigrant stories, I’m told, find their happy endings in America. 

* * * 

This legacy, this undeniable and suffocating family history, is the rupture that divides the “before” from the “after,” the burning blast that diverts all eyes to it, including my own, and in the process, I lose my parents as people under the label of “survivors.” I lose who they were before the totalizing experience of war made them permanent hostages to their traumas.

* * * 

We walked back to our hotel by the People’s Committee headquarters, within view of the snaking bend of the Saigon River. Our party walked ahead as my father and I lagged behind, reading from the posters erected along the sidewalks commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the “General offensive and uprising in Spring 1968.” As we read, my father idly looked up at the tree shading us overhead. Slowly following its branches down its trunk to its base, he noticed a clay-colored seed pod in the grass by the tree’s roots. He picked it up and held it, turning it in his hand. 

“I used to eat these all the time.” Trái me. Tamarind.

“I know what this is, Bố. You know we have these at home, too.”

“Here, eat it.” He pulled back the pod’s skin and held it up to my face.

Before we arrived in Vietnam, my aunt had emphatically warned us against eating raw fruits or vegetables because we wouldn’t know if—or how—they were washed. Taking the fruit from his hand, I bit into its soft, fibrous body. I looked up and saw a smile stretch across his face. At once, he looked younger. 

I smiled back, comforted by the thought of my father as a child living in a country of imminent ruin, enjoying the same simple gift, just as I was. It was there for him, this tiny, sweet thing that kept a child a child for as long as war would allow, and it had survived, patiently awaiting his return.