BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
TALES FROM A MOUNTAIN CITY: A Vietnam War Memoir, by Quynh Dao
, December 25, 2010
The Vietnamese tragedy
TALES FROM A MOUNTAIN CITY:
A Vietnam War Memoir
by Quynh Dao
(Canberra: Odyssey Books)
Paperback: 276 pages
Rec. price: $32.95
Reviewed by Peter Westmore
Quynh Dao was born into a loving Vietnamese Buddhist family, with close links to the Vietnamese royal family, for whom her grandfather, then father had worked.
After the overthrow of the Vietnamese monarchy by the French in the late 1940s, her mother had collaborated with the Viet Minh, the alliance of anti-French nationalists and communists which fought against the French.
However, after being unjustly imprisoned and nearly killed by the Viet Minh, she decided to leave the Viet Minh, and settled in the French-controlled area of northern Vietnam where she ran a small business.
Later, she went to live in Dalat, a mountain resort in South Vietnam, where she was introduced to her husband, a widower with seven young children.
Quynh's father was a senior civil servant in Dalat, and the family lived comfortably there for years. The family was apolitical, but they heard repeated and harrowing stories of the murder of relatives in communist North Vietnam, after the French defeat in 1954.
Quynh grew up in Dalat through the political upheavals of the 1960s, and the growing American presence, which she saw as a young girl. Her comments on the Americans she saw and met are judicious, as are her comments on the impact of American culture on Vietnamese society.
She writes, "Despite all these influences, Confucian philosophy proved resilient, maintaining its influence in South Vietnamese society. In spite of its Western gloss, be it French culture or American razzmatazz, there was no big change in Vietnamese core values. They remained as they had been for thousands of years." (p.108).
She was present during the Tet offensive in 1968, when the communists organised a military uprising which, she says, was a military failure, but became a propaganda success, triggering a gradual withdrawal of Western support which culminated in the final American withdrawal in 1975, and the triumph of the communist Viet Cong.
At the time of the communist takeover in 1975, her father was a retired civil servant. But he was subjected to interrogation by North Vietnamese cadres, and the family were evicted from their home. Ration-cards and forced labour were compulsory for all, re-education camps were established throughout the country, and children were often separated from their parents as the totalitarian system was imposed on them.
People's savings were confiscated, and worthless "new money" was given to the people instead. All religious institutions were closed.
Quynh describes how the education system was transformed into propaganda sessions, and all students were used for forced labour.
When she graduated from high school, she travelled to Saigon where she had heartbreaking meetings with some of her former teachers, now reduced to utter destitution.
In this Kafkaesque world where everything was reduced to a grim battle for survival, the family was given a chance to escape on a small boat which eventually took them to freedom.
Quynh Dao's book is part history, part autobiography. She has written an extraordinary account of a family utterly destroyed by Marxist-Leninist ideology over a period of 30 years. And yet, her will to survive was indomitable.
This is not just the story of one family; it is the story of a nation.
We are now privileged to have Quynh and her family as fellow Australians.