War Through Women’s Eyes:
Nam Phuong’s Red on Gold
Yung Krall’s A Thousand Tears Falling

Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen

‘You must write your life story!’
The man drew a last whiff of smoke from his burning
cigarette-end, threw it on the dusty floor, then angrily crushed
it under the toe of his sandal and disappeared.
And I recalled my life.

– Nam Phuong

  1. With these words, Nam Phuong undertakes to reconstruct and retell her life story – and the succession of events that led to her first failed attempt to escape from the newly created Socialist Republic of Vietnam as a ‘boat-person’ in 1977, an attempt that resulted in imprisonment and interrogation by the Vietnamese authorities. The fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 formed the prelude to one of the largest and most visible diasporas in the late twentieth century. Approximately two million Vietnamese left their homeland as refugees and migrants and made new lives for themselves overseas, principally in the four major countries of resettlement in the West: the United States, Australia, Canada and France. The extent of the post-1975 Vietnamese diaspora is a new phenomenon in Vietnamese history. Until then, Vietnamese communities overseas, such as the one in France, had represented a very small, if influential, minority. Although war and political unrest had resulted in widespread internal displacements within Vietnam, most notably following partition in 1954, the country had not previously seen anything resembling the mass exodus of the late 1970s and the 1980s. This exodus has in turn led to a body of literature by Vietnamese in the West.[1] Vietnamese women, in particular, have produced a growing number of diasporic narratives in English and in French,[2] in which they have articulated their experience of war and loss, trauma and survival, as well as the process of deculturation and acculturation in a new land.
  2. The women’s narratives portray former lives in Vietnam during the French colonial period and later post-colonial years, as well as the devastating consequences of war. Trauma for these women encompasses not only the suffering experienced during wartime, it is also overwhelmingly linked with loss—loss of family and loved ones, home, country, and what James Freeman terms ‘meaningful sources of identity.’[3] Women experience not only displacement within their homeland because of war and political instability, but much more dramatically and traumatically, displacement to a foreign country. In a collection of essays entitled Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David Eng and David Kazanjian note that ‘if loss is known only by what remains of it, then the politics and ethics of mourning lie in the interpretation of what remains – how remains are produced and animated, how they are read and sustained.’[4] Vietnamese women of the diaspora translate this process of loss and grieving, of remembering and commemorating a world that ‘exists now only in memory’[5] by recreating it in their accounts. Writing their narratives provides them with a means of coming to terms with the tragedies and losses of their earlier lives, and of dealing with their present condition as refugees and migrants. ‘In the telling,’ as Judith Lewis Herman suggests, ‘the trauma story becomes a testimony.’[6] The women’s life stories not only elucidate the circumstances that led to their eventual exile from Vietnam but also bring to life again an entire social and familial framework that fell apart with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. They bear witness to the past, and become in this way not only testimonies to individual experience, but collectively testimonies to a lost way of life and a lost country.
  3. This article will examine two such narratives by Vietnamese women of the diaspora. The first is Nam Phuong’s Red on Gold: The True Story of One Woman’s Courage and Will to Survive in War-torn Vietnam, published in Australia in 1991,[7] and the second Yung Krall’s A Thousand Tears Falling: The True Story of a Vietnamese Family Torn Apart by War, Communism and the CIA, published in the United States in 1995.[8] Both subtitles identify the narratives as ‘true stories’ and underline the women’s experiences in the damaging and divisive context of wartime Vietnam. The title of Nam Phuong’s book also clearly refers to the striped red and yellow flag of the former South Vietnam or Republic of Vietnam, which ceased to exist in 1975. Both works provide a new and valuable perspective of the Vietnam War, since their authors’ viewpoint as women, as civilians, and as Southerners, is one that is seldom heard.[9] Their stories and words counter ‘the silencing of the South Vietnamese experience from most histories and narratives of the Vietnam War.’[10] The war’s representation has been largely dominated by the experiences of male combatants, while the ‘mourning of Vietnamese refugees and exiles is dealt with’, in Suzette Min’s words, ‘infrequently or surreptitiously.’[11] War as seen through these women’s eyes provides a fresh dimension to what the Asian American critic Lisa Lowe has termed a wider project of ‘“re-membering” the Vietnam War – who its heroes were, who must be forgotten, who may mourn.’[12]
  4. Nam Phuong’s Red on Gold covers a time span of over forty years, encompassing the French colonial period, partition, the Vietnam War and post-war Vietnam. Nam Phuong’s family belonged to a small Protestant minority in Vietnam. Her narrative relates her memory of childhood in the South in the 1940s, during which time her father, an evangelical pastor, was repeatedly arrested by the French security police on suspicion of being a member of the Viet Minh.[13] As an adult in the 1960s, Nam Phuong spent the war years working with Australian doctors and nurses in the Mekong delta and she was also a member of the Women’s Army Reserve. She describes in detail the harsh and difficult years following the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, her repeated escape attempts followed by imprisonment, including solitary confinement, before she finally made a successful escape on her seventh attempt in 1981. She and seventy other refugees were rescued after a storm at sea by the Pakistani ship the Al Hasan on 9 September 1981. Despite the trauma of this experience, and finding refuge in Australia, where she was able to renew her friendship with several Australians who had worked in Vietnam during the war, Nam Phuong remained, as she writes, ‘a woman with a divided heart’[14] and her account ends with a return visit to Vietnam in 1987.
  5. Yung Krall’s A Thousand Tears Falling is roughly contemporaneous with Nam Phuong’s account, although it covers a shorter time span of thirty years and ends in 1978. Like Nam Phuong, Krall grew up in the South. Her work was nominated for the Georgia Writers’ Non-Fiction Author of the Year award in 1996.[15] Krall was the daughter of a Viet Minh senator and her narrative illustrates an extraordinary journey that encompassed her childhood in the Mekong delta in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the break-up of her family in 1954 (at which point the men moved to the communist North while the women and younger children remained in the South), the war years during which she worked as a civilian for the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN),[16] and her work as a spy for the CIA in the immediate post-war period. The story of Krall’s family illustrates the fratricidal nature of the war, which pitted Vietnamese against Vietnamese and split families across the North/South, communist/nationalist divide following partition in 1954. Krall’s father was a highly placed official in the communist hierarchy and her older brother an officer in the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN),[17] while her younger brother was in the South Vietnamese air force.[18] Several of her relatives were members of the communist insurgency (or Viet Cong,[19] as the South Vietnamese regime referred to them). Krall’s account makes it clear, however, that it was the terror directed against civilians in the South, and the wartime casualties that she witnessed, that cemented her opposition to the North and to the insurgents and led her to support the South Vietnamese cause. This decision, like her brother’s to join the South Vietnamese Air Force, meant standing in opposition to all that their father believed in, and the choice was not an easy one. Krall’s brother died during the war, while Krall herself became a highly successful CIA and FBI operative in North America and Europe from 1975 to 1977.

    Childhood in wartime
  6. Nam Phuong and Krall therefore witnessed war and its consequences, firstly as children during the Indochina War (1946-1954) and later as adults during the Vietnam War (1959-1975).[20] Both narratives articulate the representation of traumatic memory for these women. War and political unrest formed a constant backdrop to their lives. The childhood of each was marked by insecurity and constant displacements and their works reveal the lasting visual and psychological impact of violent or disturbing incidents. ‘Traumatic memories,’ as Herman writes, ‘are encoded in the form of vivid sensations and images,’[21] and both accounts reflect this in the shape of detailed descriptions of events the women witnessed. One of Nam Phuong’s earliest memories was of the sudden night-time arrest of her father by the French security police in 1945 and her resulting fear and panic. Her father was held at the local sûreté and released three days later, after a local American missionary interceded on his behalf. Although it was a short incarceration, this arrest had a marked effect on the child. She writes:

      It was wonderful to have my father back home; but, despite the happy outcome, the frightening incident had a strong impact on my early childhood. From that time, the fear of losing my father, leaving my mother to struggle alone, dominated my thinking day and night, though I was too young to understand why life had to be like this.[22]

  7. Unfortunately, this episode only signalled the first of many such arrests by the French, with Nam Phuong’s father being taken away for varying lengths of time ranging from a few hours to a few months. Random violence also impacted on the child, such as the sight of a woman’s body floating in a nearby rice field: ‘[She] had been shot dead by the [French] soldier from the night watchtower … The picture of the dead woman and the damp earth soaked with her blood haunted me day and night.’[23] The increasing violence and tension in the late 1940s led to Nam Phuong’s mother moving the children to Cambodia in 1948, while the father remained in Vietnam to continue the work of his ministry. War and the violence of war not only had a traumatic impact on the child that Nam Phuong was, but led in turn to her family uprooting itself and splitting up, with the mother and children in one country and the father in another. Displacement and family separation were also to affect Krall’s early life, and the experience was to prove particularly damaging.
  8. Krall, born a few years later then Nam Phuong, reveals a peripatetic childhood, in which the family had to move constantly from hamlet to hamlet because of her father’s political activities and the war. She notes: ‘One of my earliest memories is of the family fleeing a burning village, being rushed into boats by my father’s people, and moving to a new village where we made one of our many new starts in a new home.’[24] Despite this, her memories of her early childhood are positive ones, since the family stayed together through these continued displacements. The turning point in her life came in 1954, with the end of the Indochina War. The division of Vietnam into two halves following the Geneva Agreement of 1954 led to a massive shift in population. Close to a million refugees fled from the communist North to South Vietnam, while 30,000 to 100,000 communist cadres moved from South to North Vietnam.[25] These included Krall’s father, uncles and brother, all of whom went north for ‘regrouping.’ Krall’s father, Dang Van Quang, changed his name to Dang Quang Minh, and continued a prominent career in the communist party. He became the National Liberation Front (NLF) ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1965, and ‘arriv[ed] in Moscow in April of that year to head the largest NLF mission overseas.’[26] In leaving behind his wife and six remaining children in South Vietnam, he had little idea that his children would grow up with different political ideals and later oppose all that he represented. Krall was traumatized by this early separation from her father and the break-up of their family unit.[27] Her family tragedy reflected the wider trauma of a divided country.
  9. Krall records the schizophrenic double existence that she, her mother and her remaining siblings were forced to lead from that point on. War and politics not only cut Krall’s family into two, it split her life into two distinct stages: pre-partition and post-partition. Krall was eight years old when her father left. For security reasons, her name was changed and she and her siblings became to all official purposes ‘illegitimate’ children with father ‘unknown,’[28] but their home continued to be used as a base for underground activities. This dual existence led to the family being harassed by both the insurgents on the one hand and the South Vietnamese secret police on the other, and Krall records this schizoid effect by describing how, as a school girl, she saluted both the South Vietnamese flag at school and the communist flag whenever she passed in front of the North Vietnamese delegation to the International Control Commission. Her wartime childhood and adolescence were characterised by the pain and guilt brought on by this double life and the deceit that was an intrinsic part of it. She draws parallels between the lies that she and her family lived and the lies that existed in a society at war—a war that divided family members and compromised core Vietnamese values and mores:

      These were complex times, forcing people to say and do things that did damage to all of us, to our principles and our moral codes ... we lived according to the rules of war and the terrible demands of a divided nation.[29]

  10. The war was instrumental in determining Krall’s response to the choices that confronted her regarding her personal and political allegiances. Sheila Meintjes, Anu Pillay and Meredith Turshen have suggested that, ‘it is a paradox that war offers opportunities for women to transform their lives in terms of their image of themselves, their behaviour towards men, and towards their elders, and their ability to live independently.’[30] In Krall’s case, it led to her distancing herself from the path that her father chose—a decision that was emotionally costly but ultimately rewarding in that it enabled her to formulate and affirm her own personal and political beliefs.

    Witness to war
  11. The destructiveness of war, in terms of material and human losses, is illustrated in both narratives. Cathy Caruth notes in Trauma: Explorations in Memory that ‘to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event,’[31] and the war’s traumatic impact features prominently in the works of both women. For Nam Phuong, ‘the historic exodus of almost a million north Vietnamese to the south proved what communism was like,’[32] and she presents the years following partition as ‘chaotic,’ including the widespread violence between the various national religious sects and government forces. She writes: ‘Our family was caught up in a fierce fight that raged for four days between the Binh Xuyen religious sect and the government troops. The day after my father took the risk of evacuating our family to another area, our home was hit by shell fire and destroyed, together with many others.’[33] The family moved to the Mekong delta in 1959. As an employee of the provincial public service, Nam Phuong was pressured by her manager to join the Women’s Army Reserve. She was a reluctant reservist and confesses: ‘I remember how nervous I was at the shooting practices. I always got a ‘C’ mark on the list and my office manager teased me.’[34] However, this sensation of being on the fringes of conflict dissipated as tensions worsened in the 1960s.
  12. The escalation of the war led to increased exposure to its bloody consequences for both Nam Phuong and Krall. Nam Phuong spent four years, from 1964 to 1968, working with Australian surgical teams in the province. She had been warned about the ‘terrible’ Australian accent and was much surprised to find out that she not only understood her interviewers but that they recruited her to work for the surgical team.[35] The first of these arrived in late 1964 and consisted of a team of seven from the Royal Melbourne Hospital.[36] The Australians, ‘together with a New Zealand team, joined a widely dispersed “international brigade” of similar teams derived from the United States, Great Britain, Japan, Italy, the Philippines and South Korea. They worked under the generous wing of the United States Operations Mission (U.S.O.M.) which contributed most of the equipment.’[37] For Nam Phuong, the experience of working with war casualties was powerfully affecting. She notes: ‘As the impact of the war increased daily, I became obsessed with the hospital work. In the battlefields, people were fighting to kill; at the hospital the surgeons, doctors and nurses were fighting to save … At the hospital I knew for the first time what suffering and death were like.’[38] Although she was no stranger to death or suffering, her work in the hospital meant that she was forced, for the first time, to deal with the detritus of war on a daily basis.
  13. The narratives of Nam Phuong and Krall record three facets of war: firstly, a heightened awareness of terror in daily life; secondly, the carnage and trauma that they witnessed as civilians; and thirdly, the process of loss and mourning that they were not only subject to but that they saw others undergoing. When Krall’s first ‘crush,’ a police lieutenant, was killed in 1963 by a land mine, his death brought the war home in a particularly personal way. She notes: ‘The war’s casualties had just been statistics to me up until then, but they had begun to touch me more than ever before. I lost much of my feeling of comfort and security when they buried my friend Phong.’[39] She was seventeen at the time. Following his death, she registered an increased sense of paranoia, including an irrational terror at the sight of strangers, even children around her: she ‘saw Viet Cong in every living thing, every shadow.’[40]
  14. One of the worst terrorist incidents that Krall was confronted with was the news regarding the 1962 murder of her friend Nguyen Viet Thanh’s parents: ‘With the bodies the murderers had left a note, pinned to his father’s chest by a knife: “Traitors to the Vietnamese people must die.” Both had been shot and stabbed while Thanh’s ten-year-old sister was forced to watch.’[41] Thanh’s father had been chief of a small district close to Saigon and had fallen victim to the communist ‘reign of terror’ in the countryside, during which 25,000 civilians were murdered or abducted between 1956 and 1961.[42] The Saigon regime had reacted by killing over 2,000 communists and arresting 65,000 sympathisers and suspects in 1958.[43] As a result, ‘Southern party membership plummeted [and] party historians identify the years 1958-59 as “the darkest period.’’’[44] For Krall, this act of atrocity against her friend’s parents was particularly shocking because of her close links with relatives who were insurgents. As Michael Humphrey observes in The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation, ‘the violence is transgressive because it is beyond any expectation of the victims and beyond their comprehension, or the comprehension of witnesses. The very horror of atrocity terrifies those who face it.’[45] Krall felt associated by extension with this act. She recalls: ‘Somehow I felt responsible, partly guilty for the loss of his parents and the breakup of the family that had followed. “What can I say or do to show you how sorry I am?” I pleaded. “Just go away, because I don’t want to be reminded,” he told me.’[46] Krall’s feeling of guilt led to a desire for atonement. She later sought to make amends by doing her friend an anonymous service – she interceded with the authorities on his behalf after he was wrongly accused of draft dodging. Krall identified with her friend’s trauma to the point that she took on the burden of guilt for his family’s tragedy.
  15. In addition to recording acts of terror that those around her or their relatives were subject to, Krall was herself a witness to terrorist acts. In 1964, in her last year at school, she reported the blowing up of the gasoline storage depot near Cai Rang bridge:

      I could feel the heat and hear the crackling noises of the spreading fire ... As I stumbled along in the near-darkness, I bumped the front wheel of my bicycle against an elderly woman who was sitting on the ground ... she didn’t seem hurt and she began talking to me in a calm and strangely uninvolved tone of voice. ‘I saw that rocket with my own eyes, it went over my house, just right on top of my head. Yooooooo, it went, and it missed the tank. The one that hit was the third rocket.’[47]

  16. Krall’s reconstruction paints a vivid picture of the scene: its sounds and sensations, the darkness and confusion, and the old woman’s reaction. The latter describes the rocket attack as if she were a spectator at a show, which serves to underline the state of shock that she was in. It effectively conveys the impact of this particular act of sabotage. ‘Witnessing,’ as Humphrey has observed, ‘is an integral part of the dialogical process of establishing social recognition and meaning. The position of witness includes being witness to oneself; witness to the testimonies of others; witness to the process of witnessing itself.’[48] Krall’s account both recognises and reflects this process, and allows her to put forth her own interpretation of events. She relates not only the damaging effect that the war had on her and those closest to her, but also the wider trauma that it inflicted.
  17. Both narratives refer to the terror that was a day-to-day reality for people in the South. Krall’s book refers to grenade attacks in towns and to land mines in the countryside that ‘killed countless travellers on the road from Ca Mau to Can Tho.’[49] Her anger is directed at the insurgents who, she writes, ‘were killing [her] innocent countrymen.’[50] As for Nam Phuong, she had moved to Saigon at the end of 1968 to work for an international aid agency. She describes a lucky escape from death or injury when she was pushed off a three-wheeled Lambretta on her way to work one morning. These vehicles were commonly used for public transport in Saigon. She and other commuters were horrified to hear a few minutes later that it had been blown up. City people were warned about the following: ‘Don’t walk on the thick grass, don’t play with used cans or bottles on the ground, don’t hit a bundle on the road, don’t sit in public places such as restaurants or cinemas.’[51] Like many other city dwellers, Nam Phuong was conscious of the fact that she was sheltered from what she terms the ‘real’ war, however, as she notes,

      acts of terrorism which happened around towns and cities, such as the bombings and plastic explosives hidden underneath the public transport vehicles, in front of embassies, in cinemas, restaurants, nightclubs and at countless other places, made life wretched. In a moment, a lively nightclub could be turned into a seething mass of blood and flesh.[52]

  18. These words bear an uncanny echo of contemporary concerns relating to terrorism. For civilians in South Vietnam, this was an aspect of war that they had to live with for nearly two decades, one of unpredictable and arbitrary terrorist acts in the context of ordinary life.
  19. The war itself is conveyed through different filters in Krall’s account: the camera lenses of army colleagues at the front, reports of combat losses, and through her own eyes as a civilian observer. Krall joined G5, the propaganda and communications section of the army’s Fourth Corps, as an eighteen-year-old in 1964, and became a journalist for ‘The Voice of the ARVN.’ War features in her narrative as nightmarish images brought into relief by fire and flood. Krall’s work allowed her to view photographs of military and civilian casualties taken by colleagues at the frontline, and she bears witness by recollecting and describing what she saw. She had had ambitions herself of being a field photographer.[53]

      One series of pictures was taken in a burning village: The scene was chaos, as soldiers carried children in one arm and secured their weapons with their free hand, and people ran about with their faces smeared by black smoke and tears. I could almost hear the crackling sound of the fire as I pored over the pictures.

      [Sergeant Mai] Hoa preserved images of life in hell, and of the forgotten dead – pictures of decomposed bodies, of faces full of fear, of panicked gestures in desperate moments.[54]

  20. Krall’s writing communicates the visual and auditory impact of the scene, its sense of urgency contrasting with the silence of the war dead. Although she was neither a combatant nor a frontline correspondent, Krall relates these photographs to her own work as an army radio journalist, and notes that they ‘made [her] feel closer every day to the war zones [and] realize how much [they] owed the soldiers who were fighting, keeping places like Can Tho safe and quiet.’[55]
  21. Four years later, Krall was in Saigon at the time of the 1968 Tet Offensive and records in graphic detail the carnage of Saigon streets after the offensive. She was twenty-two at the time and recalls the scenes in detail.

      The streets were indescribable: dead people were everywhere, trees were knocked down, the body of a man hung on a branch of a tamarind tree on Cong Ly Street. Gunfire was so close I could hear the whistle of bullets through the air. My parents used to tell us stories of hell and purgatory, and I imagined that Sai Gon in those days was worse than hell and all twelve kinds of purgatory...

      At the department of vehicles, there used to be a beggar with a horrible-looking cast on his leg and his six-year-old daughter, who sometimes had a bandage around her head; when we drove past the spot where they used to sleep, I saw both of their bodies scattered in pieces along the brick wall.[56]

  22. Once again, Krall’s reconstruction of war and devastation is extraordinarily detailed, with specific references to bodies and the locations in which they appeared. It reflects the ‘intense and absorbing visual imagery’[57] of traumatic memory. Krall also kept a diary from the age of eighteen.[58] The references to ‘hell’ in both passages convey the extent of the carnage that she saw, whether caught in a moment of time through a photographer’s lens or alive with the sound and movement of her personal recollection.

    War and loss
  23. War is, inevitably, accompanied by grief and loss, and Nam Phuong and Krall provide both its personal and social dimensions in their narratives. Nam Phuong records personal tragedies such as the death of her colleague Thu Lan’s husband in the war. Thu Lan was head nurse of the pre-surgical ward in their provincial hospital, and her husband an army captain. They had a daughter. After his death while on a mission, Nam Phuong writes that Thu Lan ‘changed from being happy and chatty to a heartbroken young widow … The silence of the dead soldier was so immense that the weeping of his young wife seemed meaningless.’[59] As Nam Phuong notes, loss did not affect only the young but also the older generation, who saw their children die. She records her aunt Thuyen’s mourning for her son Tuan, a pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force: ‘That was the end of everything. The end of a son she had loved … most of all, it was the end point of her great fear, the fear of losing a son in war! “Why did you go my son?”’[60]
  24. Krall provides her own telling description of wartime grieving in the following scene set in the military hospital of Can Tho in 1964. The scene is both intimate in terms of its details and public in terms of its context. Casualties from the front had been particularly heavy and Krall had donated blood in response to an urgent request from the hospital. She was told that it would go to ‘a soldier who was waiting for just that type [of blood].’[61] Curious about his fate, Krall returned to the hospital in the evening. She writes, ‘I was too late to meet the man who had my blood:’[62]

      The mother got up and walked to the top of the bed; she lifted the sheet and caressed the hair of her dead son. I didn’t have the courage to look at him. I just said, ‘I want to share your sorrow.’

      ‘If my husband were here they would have tried harder to save my son,’ she wailed. ‘He had just turned twenty. Oh, God, why my son, my only son?’ I didn’t have an answer for her.

      The mother told me that her husband was still at the front near Chuong Thien. He was heading the operation in which their son had been killed.[63]

  25. Krall presents in this passage an iconic image of war: a mother mourning the death of an only son in combat. This scene not only conveys the extent of mobilisation and of war casualties in South Vietnam, but also the fact that the war swallowed several generations in a family. As Neil Jamieson writes, ‘By the end of 1968, combat losses of the government’s forces exceeded 63,000 dead and 144,000 wounded. In nine years, about one in every five soldiers, perhaps one in every twenty adult males was killed or seriously wounded while fighting for the government.’[64] South Vietnamese society was a society scarred by personal loss.[65] One aspect of Krall’s related experience is the youth of many combatants and civilians involved in the war. Krall was a teenager when she worked for the army. She states that many of her classmates who went to the front ‘and never returned’ were eighteen to twenty years old.[66]
  26. The single most devastating loss of the war for Krall was the death of her brother Hai Van. An officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force, he was killed in a training accident in Georgia in January 1971. Krall records her shock at hearing the news: ‘It can’t be, I screamed in my head. Not him, not a twenty-one-year-old young man who hadn’t even had a chance to fight for his country yet!’[67] Her anguish is still evident over twenty years later: ‘How can one be “strong” and “take it well” when a little brother dies? I am still bitter about his death, still angry, and I miss him immensely.’[68] His loss remains one of the most traumatic and haunting memories of the Vietnam War for Krall. As Elizabeth Kurylo writes: ‘His death still haunts Krall, whose stoicism crumbles as she talks about him. … "When people say 'I know your pain,' they really don’t. But the pain I carry from losing my brother taught me about other people’s grief and the loss of their sons and their husbands and their fathers. That was the hardest thing in my life."’[69] The death of this much-loved younger brother highlighted the cruel and divisive nature of the war: Krall’s two brothers served on opposing sides – the younger in the South Vietnamese Air Force, the older in the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN). Hai Van’s death crystallised the division of their family and by extension that of their country and made his loss all the harder to bear.[70]
  27. For both Nam Phuong and Krall, wartime was also the time for romance, although Nam Phuong’s was an aborted relationship with an Australian doctor, Bruce Kelly, whom she met in 1965. Despite the young couple’s best efforts, including recruiting the help of an older Vietnamese couple as ‘go-betweens,’ Nam Phuong’s father objected to the match because Kelly was Catholic. The two corresponded for several years and Kelly returned to Vietnam for another tour of duty in 1969, but there were too many obstacles to the relationship, including the opposition of his own mother to the match. One of the saddest parts of Nam Phuong’s narrative is her recounting that she had to burn all his letters after the communist takeover in 1975.

      The cong an, district security police came to warn us to get rid of everything foreign in our house before the ‘Down with the depraved culture’ campaign took place in our district. Everybody in my family was sure there was nothing left to be worried about. But it was not so. There was one ‘depraved cultural thing’ which I had treasured and intended to keep for myself as long as I could. It was all the letters which Bruce had written to me over the years.[71]

  28. Krall’s wartime romance on the other hand, had a happier outcome. She met and fell in love with John Krall, a US Navy pilot, while working in a US BOQ (Bachelor Officers Quarters) in Saigon in 1968. She left Vietnam and moved to the United States, where she and Krall were married, and where she later had a son. However, leaving her country was a traumatic experience and resulted in marked feelings of displacement and disorientation.[72] She said at interview that she could hardly remember either her marriage or her first months in the States.[73] In her book, she reveals: ‘I wasn’t doing very well at all. I had dreams and nightmares of home almost every night: I dreamed of Viet Nam, of Sai Gon, I heard Vietnamese music, I dreamed of Viet Cong trying to break up my marriage.’[74] Her revisiting of familiar people and places in dreams is common to displaced people and parallels that of many Vietnamese refugees and migrants.[75] It is a means of reconnecting with a lost homeland.[76]

    Post-war lives/ Post-war writing
  29. War was instrumental in shaping the life experiences of both Nam Phuong and Krall. It impacted on their early lives, their families, their homes, their work, and left a lasting legacy in the form of the suffering and trauma that they both witnessed. As Krall writes, ‘my problem had never been a lack of memories, but too many memories; my mind was like an endless movie, now a documentary, now a tragic drama in which my family’s scattered members were the unwilling and unfortunate actors.’[77] But the end of war did not bring a reprieve for either. For Nam Phuong, the post-war years in Vietnam signified the infringement of personal freedoms, the detention without trial of relatives who had been in the army, the deportation of many people to the so-called New Economic Zones, the burning of books, family documents, cards and letters in response to the ‘Down with the depraved culture’ campaign, forced political ‘re-education’ sessions in the local community hall, and the incarceration of family members in forced labour camps. She writes, ‘And so, with countless others we went through those early days of ‘liberation’ in fear, uncertainty and unemployment.’[78] Between 1977 and 1981, Nam Phuong made six escape attempts, each of which ended in failure. She was subjected to eight days of solitary confinement after her first attempt. She recalls, ‘In this “no-speaking-allowed cell,” I was told to reflect on my crimes towards the Party and the State.’[79] In 1979, she met up briefly with an old Australian friend who had returned to Vietnam for a visit. This one meeting led to her interrogation by the district security police and the order to write her life story, which carried a strong sensation of déjà vu for her.

      ‘You must write your life story.’

      Life story? Life story? The echo of those words filled my ears. ‘Ah, that rings a bell,’ I thought. ‘You must be joking! I wrote it three years ago in eight pages with your cracked smudged ballpoint. You know damn well about it. I could add to it the history of the last four years of being "liberated" – if you’d like me to.’ However, I was not the kind of a dare-devil, brave woman to actually speak my thoughts.[80]

  30. It is a great irony to read of her forced ‘confessions’ and of her writing and rewriting her life story to satisfy the communist authorities in this, her actual published narrative. An activity that was forced on her at a time of adversity and in the confines of prison, was later to bear fruit in the formulation and articulation of her past experiences in book form.
  31. As for Krall, her post-war work as a spy was a compendium of all the strands that had made up her life in wartime Vietnam: double identity, double awareness, double life. All these were crystallized in her recreation as a spy and double agent. The paranoia and terror of the war years, the anger and sorrow that she experienced, were transformed into her determination to successfully undertake her new role as an operative for her new country. Her narrative reveals that women are active agents in their own lives.[81] Grief for her lost country and compatriots was the motivating factor in her resolution to succeed in her mission and to ‘become like a chameleon.’[82] She was a successful agent because she was sharp, dexterous, and had an observant and retentive mind. ‘Intelligence, fundamentally, is all about perception,’[83] and Krall’s acute observation of people and events made her well qualified for her unexpected and unusual role as a spy. She was also motivated by a powerful wish to continue her services to her country: her narrative records that she could neither forget the devastation of South Vietnam nor the loss of her homeland, a loss that she felt obsessively and that kept her awake at night.[84] But ironically, her success in espionage was provided by her link to her father. Father and daughter had been briefly reunited in Tokyo in 1975, after a twenty-one-year separation. Through him (although unbeknownst to him) Krall had an entrée to communist circles. She carried out undercover work for the CIA at Provisional Revolutionary Government missions in Paris and at the United Nations in New York, and at the Socialist Republic of Vietnam Embassy in France. Krall also worked as a double agent for the FBI. Using her cover story as a ‘sleeper in the late sixties and early seventies,’[85] she infiltrated Vietnamese communist networks in the United States and France and acted as a courier between the two countries. The cost of this work is evident when she admits that it made her feel ‘dirty.’[86] She writes: ‘The strain of having to work in this reversed political environment was beginning to tell on me … I was exhausted, body and soul.’[87] At times, this feeling led to a need to cleanse herself, a physical act that reflected a metaphorical cleansing from the work that she was carrying out. She nevertheless persisted in her role as a courier. Krall felt strongly that the actions of Vietnamese spies were harmful to the United States and she was determined to clear their networks: ‘I could feel it in my bones that something wrong was being done to my adopted country, and I was in a position to do something to help.’[88] Krall’s work uncovered the transfer of classified US material to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam via its overseas missions, through the work of a US based Vietnamese agent with an American contact in the US Information Agency. Krall’s testimony at trial was vital for the conviction of two men, David Truong and Ronald Humphrey, of espionage on July 8, 1978. They were each sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment.[89] Their conviction was the culmination not only of Krall’s work as an agent, but also of her belief in both her old and new countries.
  32. The war left a legacy of loss and trauma, a legacy that Nam Phuong and Krall articulate in these compelling narratives of their life story and their family’s story. Both works are, in essence, narratives of mourning: mourning for a lost country. As Humphrey writes: ‘War involves the destruction of people and their worlds. It involves laying waste life and property. And when the war is over its legacies live on in personal memories, bodily scars and destroyed cultural landscapes. People and landscapes remain contaminated by war for the long term.’[90] For both Nam Phuong and Krall, rewriting and reinterpreting their lives are not only a means of dealing with the trauma of the past, but also a means of communicating that past to others. In her study on Trauma and Recovery, Herman points to the ‘universality of testimony as a ritual of healing.’[91] She acknowledges its public as well as its personal dimension: ‘Testimony has both a private dimension, which is confessional and spiritual, and a public aspect, which is political and judicial.’[92] It is this public aspect that is of particular importance to refugees, since it provides them with the means of explaining their own lives and motivations as well as those of many others who were similarly subject to political persecution. Krall’s stated purpose in writing her book was to provide a South Vietnamese perspective of the war and to produce ‘a testament to the suffering of the South Vietnamese.’[93] Nam Phuong dedicated her book to her family, ‘with [her] regrets for not being able to share with [them] the freedom [she had] found.’[94] ‘Traumatic historical events,’ as Nicola King has noted, ‘seem to demand re-representation and re-reading, to resist the memorialisation which is also a kind of forgetting, the forgetting that assumes that remembering is finished.’[95] Through this process of reconstructing their past, Nam Phuong and Krall contribute in turn to the disparate elements—histories, memoirs, recollections, and representations—that constitute the recorded memory of the Vietnam War. Both works provide a timely re-examination of the experiences of the South Vietnamese during the war.


    [1] This is a body of literature that is distinct from the well-established Vietnamese Francophone literary tradition, which came into being as a result of French colonization and spanned a period of over eighty years, with a diverse corpus incorporating novels, novellas, and plays, as well as collections of poetry, short stories and Vietnamese tales. See Jack A. Yeager, The Vietnamese Novel in French: A Literary Response to Colonialism, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1987; Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Vietnamese Voices: Gender and Cultural Identity in the Vietnamese Francophone Novel, DeKalb: Southeast Asia Publications, Northern Illinois University, 2003; and Karl Ashoka Britto, Disorientation: France, Vietnam, and the Ambivalence of Interculturality, Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 2004.

    [2] Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War: a daughter’s choice in Yung Krall’s A Thousand Tears Falling', in Asia Pacific: Perspectives, vol. 4, no. 1 (May 2004), URL: http://www.pacificrim.usfca.edu/research/perspectives/app_v4n1_nguyen.pdf, pp. 31-36, p. 31. Over fifteen book-length narratives by Vietnamese women have been published in the United States, France, Australia and Canada. Since the largest overseas Vietnamese communities are in English-speaking countries, the majority of narratives are in English and form part of a new corpus of Vietnamese Anglophone writing.

    [3] James M. Freeman, Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989, p. 11.

    [4] David L Eng and David Kazanjian, ‘Preface,’ in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, ed. David L Eng and David Kazanjian, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, pp. ix-x, p. ix.

    [5] Freeman, Hearts of Sorrow, p. 3.

    [6] Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, New York: BasicBooks, 1992, p. 181.

    [7] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold: The True Story of One Woman’s Courage and Will to Survive in War-Torn Vietnam, Sutherland, NSW: Albatross Books, 1991.

    [8] Yung Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling: The True Story of a Vietnamese Family Torn Apart by War, Communism, and the CIA, Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1995.

    [9] Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 31.

    [10] Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 35. ‘According to historian George C. Herring, the South Vietnamese have been conspicuously absent from most histories of the war. Indeed, in our collective rush to find explanations for the US failure in Vietnam, we may have accepted negative stereotypes of the ARVN that do no fully explain the conduct and outcome of the war.’ Robert K. Brigham, ‘Dreaming different dreams: the United States and the army of the Republic of Vietnam,’ in A Companion to the Vietnam War, ed. Marilyn B Young and Robert Buzzanco, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002, pp. 146-61, p. 146. Anthony James Joes writes of ‘the much-neglected South Vietnamese military and militia’ in The War for South Vietnam 1954-1975: Revised Edition, Westport: Praeger, 2001, p. xiv.

    [11] Suzette Min, ‘Remains to be seen: reading the works of Dean Sameshima and Khanh Vo,’ in Loss: The Politics of Mourning, ed. David L Eng and David Kazanjian, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, pp. 229-50, p. 242.

    [12] See Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 35. Suzette Min refers to the Vietnamese American artist Khanh Vo’s work April 25, 1975 (resonance) as ‘part of a national project that Lisa Lowe describes as the “re-membering” of the Vietnam War – who its heroes were, who must be forgotten, and who may mourn.’ Min, ‘Remains to be seen,’ p. 242.

    [13] ‘Viet Minh’ is a condensation of ‘Viet Nam Cach Mang Dong Minh’ (Alliance of Vietnamese Revolutionaries).

    [14] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 247.

    [15] Letter to Yung Krall from Betty Anderson and Virginia Davis, Co-Chairmen [sic], 1995 Georgia Author of the Year Awards Committee, dated February 14, 1996.

    [16] ARVN: Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

    [17] PAVN: The People’s Army of Vietnam.

    [18] Krall’s narrative includes photographs of both brothers in uniform during their respective training assignments overseas (her older brother in the USSR in 1966 and her younger brother in the USA in 1971). This juxtaposition underlines both their close family relationship and the political gulf separating them. See Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 32.

    [19] ‘Viet Cong’ is a condensation of ‘Viet Nam Cong Sang’ (Vietnamese Communists).

    [20] These wars are also referred to as the First and Second Indochina Wars or the French War and the American War. Since Vietnam was in a nearly continuous state of war for thirty years, the Vietnam War is also referred to as taking the entire 1946-1975 period.

    [21] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 38.

    [22] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 29.

    [23] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, pp. 33-34.

    [24] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 16.

    [25] The number of refugees from North Vietnam to South Vietnam is well established, with a consensus among historians that it was close to a million. Bernard Fall refers to 860,000, Joseph Buttinger to 900,000, Stanley Karnow to ‘nearly a million,’ and Dennis Duncanson to over a million. See Bernard B Fall, Viet-Nam Witness 1953-66, London: Pall Mall Press, 1966, p. 76; Joseph Buttinger, Vietnam: A Political History, London: Andre Deutsch, 1969, p. 420; Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, New York: Viking, 1983, p. 238; Dennis J. Duncanson, Government and Revolution in Vietnam, London: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 207.

    There is, however, considerable uncertainty regarding the numbers going from the South to the North, with Duncanson referring to 30,000, Fall to 80,000, and Pike to ‘30,000 to 100,000.’ See Duncanson, Government and Revolution in Vietnam, p. 207, Fall, Viet-Nam Witness 1953-66, p. 76, Douglas Pike, Viet Cong: The Organization and Techniques of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1966, p. 83. Neil Jamieson writes that ‘from 850,000 to 900,000 people poured from the north to the south ... Perhaps only one-tenth of that number moved from south to north, in large part because the Vietminh had never been as strong in the southern third of the country as in the northern and central regions.’ Neil L Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 232-33.

    [26] Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 31. Dang Quang Minh is referred to as the ‘NLF chief of mission in Moscow’ in Pike’s Viet Cong. Pike writes: ‘In January 1965 the Soviet Union announced that a permanent NLF delegate had been accredited to Moscow, following discussions with Nguyen Van Tien of the NLF. Three months later Dang Quang Minh arrived to take up duties as NLF chief of mission in Moscow, accompanied by at least four other Vietnamese, to make the mission in the Soviet Union the largest that the NLF maintained. The NLF delegation presented its ‘credentials’ to the chairman of the Soviet Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Committee on April 30, 1965. An interview with Dang Quang Minh appeared in the Soviet publication New Times, in the edition dated May 26, 1965.’ Pike, Viet Cong, pp. 342-43.

    Dang Quang Minh features as the ‘NLF diplomatic representative to [the] Soviet Union’ in Robert K Brigham’s Guerrilla Diplomacy: The NLF’s Foreign Relations and the Viet Nam War, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. p. xv. Brigham writes that in 1972, 'In Moscow, Dang Quang Minh, the Front's diplomat, met with several high-ranking Soviet officials to clarify the NLF's objections to the October 11 [Henry] Kissinger – [Le Duc] Tho peace proposal.' Brigham, Guerrilla Diplomacy, p. 106.

    [27] See Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 33.

    [28] Krall writes: ‘My mother stood before a judge and swore to the “truth” regarding her “missing husband,” and the children of Dang Van Quang became children without a father,’ Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 81.

    [29] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, pp. 89-90.

    [30] Sheila Meintjes, Anu Pillay and Meredith Turshen, ‘There is No Aftermath for Women,’ in The Aftermath: Women in Post-Conflict Transformation, ed. Sheila Meintjes, Anu Pillay and Meredith Turshen, London: Zed Books, 2001, pp. 3-18, p. 7.

    [31] Cathy Caruth, ‘Introduction,’ in Trauma: Explorations in Memory,, ed. Cathy Caruth, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995, pp. 3-12, pp. 4-5.

    [32] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 84.

    [33] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 85.

    [34] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 88.

    [35] Nam Phuong neither names the province where she lived nor the hospital that she worked in, but she notes that the head surgeon was Mr D G MacLeish, and refers briefly to a member of the team named Susan Terry. Interestingly, Terry, a Ward Sister at the Royal Melbourne Hospital published, in 1966, an account of her year of service in Vietnam entitled House of Love: Life in a Vietnamese Hospital, in which she writes of her work at Long Xuyen Hospital in An Long province, and the Vietnamese doctors, nurses and patients that she met there. Her book includes photographs as well as accounts of a number of characters that feature in Nam Phuong’s narrative. See Susan Terry, House of Love: Life in a Vietnamese Hospital, London: World Books, 1966.

    [36] In his Foreword to Susan Terry’s House of Love, E.E. Dunlop writes that the Australian team numbered eight: ‘In 1964, an elite, small Australian medical team was sent to aid the war ravaged civilians of South Vietnam. The first eight membered Australian team of four doctors, three nursing sisters and an X-ray technician,’ E.E. Dunlop, ‘Foreword’ to Terry, House of Love, n.p.

    [37] Dunlop, ‘Foreword,’ n.p.

    [38] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 100.

    [39] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 122.

    [40] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 122.

    [41] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 152.

    [42] Anthony James Joes, The War for South Vietnam 1954-1975: Revised Edition, Westport: Praeger, 2001, p. 59.

    [43] Joes, The War for South Vietnam, p. 50.

    [44] Joes, The War for South Vietnam, p. 50.

    [45] Michael Humphrey, The Politics of Atrocity and Reconciliation: From Terror to Trauma, London: Routledge, 2000, p. x.

    [46] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 152.

    [47] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 127.

    [48] Humphrey, Politics of Atrocity, pp. 114-115.

    [49] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 110.

    [50] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 111.

    [51] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 135.

    [52] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 146.

    [53] Interview with Yung Krall in Atlanta, 27 November 2000.

    [54] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 170.

    [55] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 170.

    [56] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 193.

    [57] Quoted in Suzette A. Henke, Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1998, p. xvii.

    [58] Interview with Yung Krall in Atlanta, 27 November 2000.

    [59] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 138. There is a photograph of Thu Lan in Susan Terry’s House of Love. Terry describes her first meeting with her: ‘As we sat in the reception area I was introduced to Miss Thu Lan, one of the chief nurses at the hospital. She was tiny and very beautiful in her lovely Ao Dai, and her English was good. She was not shy.’ Terry, House of Love, p. 20.

    [60] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 139.

    [61] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 138.

    [62] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 138.

    [63] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 138.

    [64] Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, pp. 295-96. Jamieson adds that ‘losses on the insurgent side, while known with even less precision, were certainly much higher.’ Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, p. 296.

    [65] ‘Since virtually every soldier who was killed or wounded had a wife, parents, children, brothers, sisters, and friends who were affected, there were few people in the society whose lives were not blighted by deep personal loss.’ Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, p. 296.

    [66] Interview with Yung Krall in Atlanta, 27 November 2000.

    [67] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 203.

    [68] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 204.

    [69] Elizabeth Kurylo, ‘Honored patriot learned of liberty the hard way,’ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 4, 1998, p. D10.

    [70] Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 33.

    [71] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 180.

    [72] Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 33.

    [73] Interview with Yung Krall in Atlanta, 27 November 2000. ‘I was in shock for a long time, probably for six months. I was in California, but my heart, my mind, my dreams were always in Vietnam.’

    [74] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 202.

    [75] See Mandy Thomas, Dreams in the Shadows: Vietnamese Australian Lives in Transition, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1999, p. 177.

    [76] 'The desire to be linked in dreams to a former homeland is common in displaced people,' see Thomas, Dreams in the Shadows, p. 177.

    [77] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 229.

    [78] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 173.

    [79] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 221.

    [80] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 220.

    [81] Nguyen, ‘Memory and the Vietnam War,’ p. 34.

    [82] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 268.

    [83] Ernest Volkman, Espionage: The Greatest Spy Operations of the Twentieth Century, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995, p. xii.

    [84] Krall writes, ‘I wasn’t doing very well at all. I had dreams and nightmares of home almost every night: I dreamed of Viet Nam, of Sai Gon, I heard Vietnamese music, I dreamed of Viet Cong trying to break up my marriage.’ Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 202.

    [85] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 297. A ‘sleeper’ is defined as the following: ‘Agent planted in a foreign country with orders to carry out a normal life and conduct no espionage operations until ordered to do so, usually in the event of hostilities.’ Volkman, Espionage, , p. xxi.

    [86] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 277.

    [87] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 298.

    [88] Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 301.

    [89] Quinlan Shea, ‘Afterword,’ in Krall, A Thousand Tears Falling, p. 410.

    [90] Humphrey, Politics of Atrocity, p. 52.

    [91] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 181.

    [92] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, p. 181.

    [93] Interview with Yung Krall in Atlanta, 27 November 2000.

    [94] Nam Phuong, Red on Gold, p. 6.

    [95] Nicola King, Memory, Narrative, Identity: Remembering the Self, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000, p. 180.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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