Hung van Phan holds up his release form from prison after 5 years, 2 months, and 3 days. He kept the form with him for 30 years. Photo credit: Hien Dang.

Hung van Phan, (a pseudonym), entered the South Vietnamese army in the Year of the Monkey, April 1968. It was the year of the infamous events of Tet Mau Than when Northern forces breached the Tet holiday cease-fire agreement, marking an intense climax in the civil war with thousands of civilian deaths in the city of Hue. All males 18 years or older were conscripted into the Vietnam War that year, but by April 30, 1975 the North had won and Tran was put into a communist re-education camp along with thousands of other soldiers who had fought on the side of the South. It was the end of the war, but only the beginning of Phan and his family’s struggle for freedom.

When Phan received notice in late spring 1975 that he was required to be re-educated and become “new people” with other ex-South army soldiers, he was told that it would only be for ten days. In actuality, Phan says, he was to become a prisoner of war and would not be home for “five years, two months, and three days.”

Trinh, Phan‘s wife, said that she believed and trusted them. With no income and their 5-month old daughter to care for, she sold all their household possessions and gave Phan food and money for only 10 days. She took their daughter to her parents’ home and waited there for her husband’s return, only to lose all contact with Tran for a full year.

When Phan was finally able to send a letter to his wife, Trinh had been surviving without him, crying at nights and finding food for her child and parents during the day. But when the letter finally came with his whereabouts she made the two-hour journey to visit him in the deep jungle where the camp was located. She made the trip by bus, bicycle, and by foot with several other wives; each wife bringing 10-kilograms of food and clothes for their husbands. They had to be careful to abide by the strict weight limit: if any package went over 10 kilos, the prison guard would throw it away. The guards would search everything, says Mrs. Phan, laying out every grain of rice and searching every pocket for secret messages or contraband.

When the wives could finally see their husbands, the guards would monitor them closely. Seated across a wide table from the men, the women were not allowed to cry or touch their husbands. The men were forbidden from saying anything negative about the re-education camp, and told to lie to their wives. Phan recalls having to tell his wife, “Why did you bring food? I don’t need it,” when he was actually starving. He tells how he and the other prisoners had only dirty, ragged clothing, but were told to wear the best clothes they had when seeing visitors. It was all censorship and lies, but it was obvious to Trinh that her husband was extremely skinny and unhealthy. She would, however, not know the full extent to what Phan was suffering.

When asked how he felt when he was in prison, Phan answers the question with a resounding, “HUNGRY.” The emotions from missing his family and not knowing when he’d be released were only second to the starvation he was subjected to. Prisoners were given nothing more than a small bowl of rice a day leaving them to augment their diet with whatever they could find, such as bamboo shoots, crickets, and live snakes. The prisoners were sentenced to farming cassavas, sweet potatoes, and rice that they could not eat as the produce were sold at markets to make money for the camp. For New Year’s, the guards let the prisoners have two ducks and two chickens to celebrate the New Year, except that those two ducks and two chickens had to be divided between 1000 prisoners. Phan explains that they had to boil the poultry until it melted, leaving only soup and no chewable morsels.

Many prisoners became extremely skinny and sick as they were forced to do hard labor. Some prisoners were assigned to make tools and huts out of nothing but grass and their bare hands. Each day Phan had a quota of cutting down and bringing to camp 10 bamboo trees a day – an exhausting task when the tough trees were three to four inches thick, 12-feet long, and you had no tools to cut them down with.

Many of Phan’s fellow prisoners were educated men. Architects, businessmen, doctors – the South’s best minds were imprisoned, starved, and hidden away in the depths of the jungle. Some planned escapes, including Phan’s brother-in-law who was killed trying to escape to Cambodia.

After more than five long years, Phan and a handful of other prisoners were taken out of the deep jungle, processed through a station at a small city and released in 1980. Phan was no longer in prison but he was still required to check in at a police station every week to report what he did everyday, from the time he got up, to the time he went to bed. He was told by officials, “Go out into the country, to wherever you were born.” He wasn’t allowed to stay in the city with his wife and daughter, and he couldn’t find work because employers discriminated against hiring ex-soldiers from the South. Officials would show up randomly at his home and enter unannounced, searching through his things.

It became unbearable, but the main factor that contributed to his decision to escape from Vietnam, Phan says, was his children. Now with two kids, Phan and his wife were concerned about the government’s policy banning children of South army soldiers from attending college. Phan and his family tried to escape by boat three times to Malaysia or Indonesia but were caught by search boats each time. During one attempt, Mrs. Phan’s boat flipped over and her daughter was nearly lost to the sea.

Thanks to the Human Operations (HO) program by the United States and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Phan and his family were granted refugee status in 1993. Today, living in the Seattle area, watching his grandchildren grow up with his wife, Phan says, “I am very happy now. America is the best country for living people.” To Phan, living in a free country means that you don’t know the value of freedom. You only know that you lack it when it’s taken away from you. America offers opportunity for his children – both of whom are now college graduates. Here, Phan says people think about the future and consider how to make their lives better, as with the environmental movement going on now. In Vietnam, they don’t. That is what Phan considers being American is – being free to plan for his children’s future.

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