The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Hoang Nguyen

Interview and story by: Daniel Paster
This story is based on one of a series of interviews conducted by South Kingstown (RI) High School students in the Spring of 1998. All of the interviews were focused on recollections of the year 1968.
(Other interviews in this series include electronic transcripts and quicktime recordings).

Vietnam As Seen From Another Perspective

Hoang Nguyen holds a doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He currently lives in Japan and is working as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Tokyo, where he studies the geochemical history of the solid Earth. He has a wife and a teenage son. He is an intelligent, funny man in his early forties, and plans to return to Vietnam someday. When asked if the high school curriculum was relevant to his life or political interests, his response was, "Actually, I don't believe I have any political interests."

I was born in Vietnam in a city called Hué in central Vietnam, in October, 1957. Hué is not very from the DMZ (the demilitarized zone), where there was not supposed to be any fighting during the war. This is also where I grew up.

I was born into what some would call an intelligent family. My father was a math professor, my mom was a housewife. I have two brothers, one is an engineer, electricity engineer, the second is medical doctor, and myself, am now a doctor in geological science. My neighborhood was quite calm and peaceful by the time I was grown up, without any discrimination of which I was aware.

My father's political inclination is to be more or less a moderate nationalist; he did not believe in a foreign invasion. My family got information about politics and the outside world from reading newspapers. My father normally read French newspapers and some American newspaper, The Times mostly, when we were able to get some newspapers. I didn't really see any TV until I was about the age of twenty-one.

As for outside political-type activity, I once participated in some kind of demonstration against (at that time) a South Vietnamese General, because of the killing of Buddhists in my city; all of us from high schools and colleges joined the demonstration against that. This was the first time I had felt the mass force of a demonstration. I felt like I was [part of a flow], in a huge oriented force which could destroy someone or something.

After graduation from high school, I [was admitted to] the Math Department in Hué University. Later there was a chance for me to go abroad to study. Thus I went to Moscow State University in 1977 and I earned both my Bachelor's and later my Master's degrees in geochemistry.

During the war years, [North] Vietnam had a very typical Communist government. Although it did not follow exactly the paths of China or the Soviet Union at the time, but it did have some brutal features in the way the people would tend to succumb to control. During the war, which peaked around 1968, my family's neighborhood became deserted, and then we didn't have a normal neighborhood anymore because people were suspicious and scared of each other.

Later, say after 1970, we were not able to get any good newspapers in the city. From radio, we got BBC, which at that point had Voice America for international information. Also since we were at war, we worried very much about the threat of nuclear damage; even as children we knew about the possibility of nuclear disaster from movies.

War, especially the Vietnamese war which was very brutal, has changed not only my life but many more in my country. I feel that the U.S. involvement in the War, from the American point of view, it was right because they were defending their ideology, but from the Vietnamese point of view it was bad because some people considered the invasion as really what it was, an invasion.

War is a really bad experience. It's really bad. I wish nothing similar would ever happen to anyone else. Some of my relatives participated and got killed, some joined the North Vietnamese troops, some joined the South Vietnamese troops and some got killed. War is a really bad experience, it's really bad.

When the War finally ended, I felt great. I felt so safe and so happy, and at last we wouldn't see any more killings around. Right after the American troops withdrew, my family (especially my father) felt the relief of being war-independent. Looking back at the conflict from the perspective of the 1990's, I believe that the war could have been resolved in different ways instead of killing. However, the government has started to change the way people are governed, and since then we have felt a lot easier and a lot better economically and politically.

On the other hand, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, which emerged after the war in neighboring Cambodia, caused really bad stuff, really bad. I wish someone could have helped destroy them a lot earlier so that several millions of people could have been saved.

It is interesting to talk about the American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict and the whole decade of the 1960's. I believe that the American troops in Vietnam is the past. It's a piece of history, we cannot do anything to change it now, so just accept it. Together we should look for worlds where you see something better.

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