Living with Viet Cong

October 15, 2016


One of the many things I wished I'd done before Mum Pham passed away was talk to her in detail about her life. The things I know are pieced together from lots of little stories she shared. I never once sat down and learned her story in full. I know she grew up in Saigon, and that Grandma passed away when Mum was young so she was raised by her 8 older sisters and older brother. And, of course, Grandpa.

Grandpa came from China. When the Vietnam War broke out in 1962 and the Viet Cong began to gain ground heading south, Grandpa told his children that if the communists win, they had to flee. But Grandpa didn't live to see the end of the war and my Aunts and Uncle did not heed his warning when the time to flee came in 1975. As Saigon fell, my mother and her siblings made the mistake of not running like so many thousands did.

While Dad Pham was losing his sanity in a re-education camp, Mum's family stayed and learned first-hand why Grandpa had wanted them to escape. In its own way, things worked out - if Mum had fled when her dad told her to, Dad Pham would still be wasting away in prison and wouldn't have been in Germany to meet her as a translator and The Phamly would not exist. Life's funny like that.

Mum Pham never went into detail with her stories of the Viet Cong, but what she did share is that people lived in fear of the regime and those who spoke out against the communist government were killed, put in prison or disappeared. The Viet Cong could simply take, harass or intimidate people into handing over property - real estate, personal belongings, anything they desired because in communism, things don't belong to you, they belong to the community (so long as you are Viet Cong). That's why Mum Pham's siblings hid their jewellery, and eventually the diamonds in my Phamly ring were smuggled out of Vietnam and remade into a ring Germany.

I still own a few of the sleeveless tops that Viet Cong soldiers harassed mum for wearing. Apparently, they they were too revealing (see photo for said tops). As Mum tells it, Aunty Nine told the soldiers off for picking on a bunch of girls, while Mum held her breath waiting to be punished but instead the soldiers let them go with a warning. That night mum and her sisters sewed cap sleeves onto their sleeveless tops. I remember these tops from when I was a kid - Mum no longer wore them, but she'd kept them through her journey from Vietnam to Germany and then Australia. They must have meant something to her - I wished I'd asked what that something was.

Looking back, it seems silly to think ugly, mismatched sleeve caps was the fashion in Vietnam. I didn't learn til I was a teen that they happened because the Viet Cong officials could tell people what to do, how to live, where to live... the freedom fighters turned out to be dictators. Saigon fell in 1975. Years later Mum Pham would flee Vietnam and meet a handsome fellow I call Dad in 1979, but that's a story I'll piece together another day.

If you want to start from the beginning of Phamly history, read:
Part 1 - O Captain! My Captain! Dad Pham's navy days during the Vietnam War.
Part 2 - P.O.W. Viet Cong Re-education Camp Dad Pham's time as a prisoner of war.
This is Part 3 - Living with Viet Cong.
Part 4 - Boat People Dad Pham seeks refuge after the war.
Part 5 - Finding Faith Dad finds peace.

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