Making a Documentary: South Vietnamese Veterans Tell Their Forgotten Story

By Hugh Pham

22 May 2019

Hugh-Doan Pham in conversation with Lieutant Colonel Vu Xuan Thong, a veteran of the Vietnam War (Hugh-Doan Pham)

On 24 April 2018, in Westminster, California, also known as Little Saigon in Orange County, Hugh-Doan Pham interviewed four veterans of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) at the Museum of the Republic of Vietnam. This small building, privately-operated by a handful of volunteers holds events and engagements throughout the year where Vietnamese-American people can learn more about their heritage. This is a behind-the-scenes report on the making of a documentary on these South Vietnamese veterans, before their story is lost to the ages.

Background

The republic of Viet Nam, known as South Vietnam, was allied with the United States of America throughout the conflict with the communist forces of North Vietnam throughout the 1960s. In early 1973, the US urged the South Vietnamese government to sign the Paris Peace Accords. A large majority of US military presence then withdrew from Vietnam but vowed to continue sending aid to the South. However, just one year later, the US Congress voted to stop supplying military material, thereby emboldening North Vietnam, backed by China and Russia to break the agreement and proceed with the invasion. On 30 April 1975, North Vietnam captured Saigon, the capital city of the Republic of Viet Nam. The two countries were the united under the communist government. Millions of South Vietnamese fled as refugees in the decades that followed.

Their Story

After inquiring with Vietnamese-American community leaders, I was granted permission to interview four ARVN veterans that were willing to share their stories for my documentary film, titled Voices of the ARVN: Saigon’s Armed Forces. These interviews almost did not happen: the veterans and the museum’s secretive board of directors initially vetted me but decided after a discussion to entrust me with the personal accounts of these men. Interestingly, their decision was based primarily on my background as a former US Army Military Intelligence Officer of Vietnamese descent.

The aging South Vietnamese veterans hoped to change what they believe are common misconceptions about the conflict, often characterised as a civil war. The first of the interviewees, Nguyen Ngoc Bach was a Lieutenant in South Vietnam’s Navy. He described in the war as a fight against an invasion, “The North Vietnamese, they came to Vietnam – South Vietnam. We had to fight back to protect the border and all the people… When we fought the Communists, we were proud because we protected the people… I served in the (South) Vietnamese Navy for seven years; I am proud of it.”

Decades after the war’s end, these men were attempting to exonerate themselves from mainstream narratives such as John Kerry’s comments which depicted them as cowardly or incompetent. The second of the interviewees, Vu Xuan Thong was a Lieutenant Colonel in South Vietnamese Special Forces and Airborne Ranger Divisions. He often conducted reconnaissance missions alongside US Special Forces and led patrols with only South Vietnamese troops after the American retreat. He told me: “The time I was in Vietnam, most of the media focused on the anti-American people. They never talked about how we go into the battle… It looked like the war in Vietnam… That it’s not our war, it was an American war. They never showed us in the media. And if they had some [stories], it was all bad things: How our generals were corrupt, our fighting… You know… chicken and dying and all that… No. We fight really good.” He attributes South Vietnam’s losses to the restricted resources available to the ARVN after the Paris Peace Accords. He explains how this drawback affected his ability to conduct operations: “We went into war with very limited supplies of ammunition, gas, food, everything. Before, especially in my unit, most the areas [in which] we ran operations [in] were out of artillery range. The only support [came] from [the] air. And then the air [support] was limited by bombs, by munitions, by gas, and by Time of Operations… It was very limited.”

ARVN uniforms on display at the museum (Hugh-Doan Pham)

These South Vietnamese veterans also wanted to raise awareness to the Communist Re-Education camps where thousands of people were sent to in the years after the war.  The third interviewee, Nguyen Ngoc Bach was imprisoned for five years at a re-education camp in the Vietnamese jungle. He recounts the hard labour he endured. “In the re-education camps, I had to work hard. You go to the forest to cut wood and bring back to the camp, about a sixteen-kilometer walk carrying heavy wood.” He also spoke candidly about the torture he was subjected to during interrogation. “The first time they hit me because they thought I was a spy of the United States. But I said, ‘No, I’m not a spy.’ They said, ‘You tell lies, I’ll kill you.’ They put me in a jail for about one month. In handcuffs.” He put his wrists together and held them over his head. “One month. At night, I slept like this, standing up, not lying down. For one month.”

The last interviewee, Lieutenant Colonel Vu was also imprisoned. “Those North Vietnamese people were very smart. They said, “Okay, you’ll go ten days into some kind of class and after that, you know, you can come back… But that wasn’t real, that was a trap. Ten days… afterwards thirty days… I was there for thirteen years.” He is hesitant to elaborate on his specific experience in the camps. He only says, “I don’t need to tell you how [it] feel[s]. Because everybody’s the same. But I am lucky because I’m still alive now with a very good mind… I’m still strong.”

Conclusion

Inhabitants of Little Saigon are the largest Vietnamese diaspora outside of Vietnam. When asked about how he felt about life in the United States, Lieutenant Colonel Vu expressed a sense of dignified gratitude, “That’s a good country. It gives you an opportunity to build up yourself. They help you, if you want to. And they have freedom.” He also told me about feeling estranged when he returned to Vietnam for a visit. “It didn’t feel familiar. But when [I] came back to the United States, I feel pretty good. I don’t know. Maybe we stayed away from the country (Vietnam) too long. Everything’s changed now. No friends, nobody there except the family. When you go out to Saigon, go around the city, hang around the city, you don’t see anything familiar from before ’75.” Vu still referred to the former-capital as “Saigon”, although it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the North Vietnamese Communist leader.

The veterans of the ARVN are secretive, they mostly desire to share their experiences with only the younger Vietnamese generations. However, I believe history can benefit from their unique perspective on war, service, sacrifice, and loss. I hope that my documentary, still in production, will succeed in bringing their stories to an audience beyond the Vietnamese-American community.

For the trailer, follow this link.


In 2018, Hugh Pham wanted to transition away from his career as a counter-terrorism analyst towards a more creative vocation, building upon his degrees in English and creative writing. When his initial film school rejection letter arrived, he became even more determined to tell stories. He decided to take matters into his own hands by making a historical documentary that would give representation to the veterans of South Vietnam, a perspective often neglected in narratives about the Vietnam War.

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