General Hieu's Parents
All the likable traits in the person of General Hieu, such as handsome, majestic, virtuous, intelligent, skillful, unpretentious, humble, upright, unyielding, just and clairvoyant, etc. were all transmitted to him by his parents. I can attribute the following traits to my mother: handsome, virtuous, unpretentious, humble; and the following traits to my father: majestic, intelligent, skillful, upright, unyielding, fair and clairvoyant.
If one put side by side my mother's picture and my brother's, one cannot not notice the similarity: gentleness, elegance, courteousness and modesty. My mother passed away when I was 4 years old; thus, I was not fortunate in knowing her well. However I still remember fuzzily that one day my Chinese nanny took me to a school in Shanghai to see my mother. At that time my mother was a teacher's aide in a Franco-Vietnamese school reserved for children of Vietnamese policemen working for the French Police in the French Concession. The teacher's aide should have been well liked by the students, because they fought each other to gain the right to hold me in their arms, including male students! I don't remember ever being scolded and beaten by my mother. She treated servants fairly and was well loved by them. She was very religious, and attended a school run by French nuns in Tientsin. She liked to read religious books provided by the nuns. It was one of these religious books which my mother lend to my father that caused my father to convert to Catholicism (my father told us that he became catholic solely for that reason alone, and not because that was the requirement for getting my mother's hand!)
Not as in my mother's case, I know my father well enough to pinpoint exactly which of my brother's traits can be attributed to him. However I prefer to let my father, who is presently 95 years old, speak for himself, because I was able to nudge him into writing his autobiography for his posterity, and let the readers judge for themselves.
Nguyen Van Tin (July 1998)
I was born on 26 September 1903 in Bac Ninh, a small town 30 km north of Hanoi. My father is Mr Nguyen Dza Tinh, an eastern medicine practitioner, well known by the name of Ong Lang Tinh who had the magic touch. He had two wives: the first wife, whom I called "Mother", had one son named Dan, 7 years older than I, and 3 daughters; the second wife, whom I called "Nanny", had 3 sons: Thuong (same age as Dan), me (Huong) and Tue, 3 years younger than I, and 3 daughters. After my Nanny passed away, my father unofficially married a third wife, a concubine I might say, known as Chi Ba (3rd Sister). She gave birth to a boy named Sac, whose name changed to Nguyen Ngoc Dzanh when he became a young man.
Our home, at No. 109 Ninh Xa Street, opposite the post-office, was, in the daytime, a shop selling mainly medicines and some groceries. The shop was managed by my stepmother - wife number 1 my father, a medical practitioner. She had two assistants, my elder sisters To and Niem who, like my brother Thuong and myself, had for mother the 2nd wife of father. A third son, my half-brother Dan, a few months older than my brother Thuong, was then living with us. On the eve of the anniversary of the death of our grandfather, my married sisters (with their husbands and children), living all in Hanoi, used to come to help cooking the ritual offerings: Tran Van Hanh, secretary at the Governor General's office, Hanoi, and wife; Luong Van Ngu, merchant, and wife Ich; Nguyen Trong Giao, hotel clerk, and wife The; And Luc, a Chinese merchant, and wife Lam; Do Duc Du, commercial traveler, and wife Tu, the only of the five who was my sister, the other four being my half-sisters.
The head of the family was my paternal grand mother; she became a widow at the age of 35, very resourceful, raised her only son, sent him to eastern medicine training center. She also learned by listening and by observing and was able to cure simple illness cases. Father had an advanced knowledge of Chinese classics. He had flunked the examinations for access to a mandarin career, and had mastered empirical medicine. When a patient came for a consultation, he checked his pulse, then wrote out a prescription in Chinese, which was filed by ma step-mother, one of my sisters or myself. When Father was not home, grandmother was able to prescribe treatment for benign cases.
When I was five-year old, father taught me to read and copy the "Tam Thiên Tự" (book of 3.000 characters). Mr. Cửu Nam, a wealthy embroideries merchant, paid him an annual fee of 30 piastres to teach his children, and I went to his home for my lessons.
Three huge Chinese characters: "PHÚ ÂN HIỆU" (Fortune & Benevolence Shop), masterfully penned by Father on red cardboard, duly framed, shone in front of our house, close to the roof. Early in the morning, the six planks closing the compartment were taken down and laid on two empty wooden packing boxes and supported the baskets and boxes containing the shop's ware: dried herbal plants, granulated brown sugar, pressed and dried rice meal paste. Inside, the wall on the right side was covered with shelves on which rested bowls and pots of cut and dried medicinal herbs that Father would prescribe to his patients, after diagnosing their ailment by checking their pulse. My stepmother, or one of my sisters or myself sometime, would fill the prescriptions scribbled by Father in Chine characters.
Grandmother, in her farseeing wisdom, had a distant relative of hers, a young man name Lê Văn Chấn, a little older than my brothers, come and live with us. Father taught him his medicinal skill. Chan specialized in operating the pestle and mortar, rolling to and fro the wheel-pestle with both feet in the boat-shaped mortar. Father would adopt him in case he could not sir a son.
Both Đản, my half-brother and Thường, my elder brother, were seniors at the "Collège du Protectorat", Hanoi, a French junior high school. During their summer vacation, they taught me to read and write "quốc ngữ", romanized Vietnamese, initiated early in the 19th century by Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes; they also taught me some French, using Toutey's First Reader (Premier Livre de Lecture).
In September 1912, I was admitted to the "Cours Préparatoire" (grade 1) of the Bac Ninh grade school (Ecole primaire franco-annamite). There were four grades: cours préparatoire, cours eéementaire, cours moyen, and cours supérieur, with a teacher in charge of each). A fifth one, a middle-aged, non-French speaking man, taught Chinese characters. The Headmaster was a stout Frenchman with a goatee, Monsieur Dayde.
Vietnamese was relegated ot second rank, all lessons were taught in French. Most of the textbooks came from France. The history textbook its first lines read: "Nos ancêtres les Gaulois" (Our forefathers, the Gaulois).
One, when I was in grade 2 (cours élementaire), in the late afternoon, a French bearded soldier came in our shop and wanted to embrace my sister Niệm. I stepped forth and told him in French: "Défense toucher mademoiselle annamite, Monsieur!"
That year, when I was 10, my Mother contracted tuberculosis, lied in bed for more than a year then died. Mother was buried in a rice field, at the foot of a small hill called "Núi Nặc", a kilometer north-west of the city. Sometime later, when I was playing with other kids in the vacant lot near our school, father passed by on a a "pousse-pousse" (jinrick-shaw), hailed me bade me come and sit on his lap, and told the puller to take us to "Núi Nặc". On the carriage at our feet nestled a square shaped stone, which was put to use as a tombstone at Mother's grave.
The next year, both Dan and Thuong, graduating from "Collège du Protectorat", was assigned as grade school teachers, Dan at Phu Lang Thuong, 50 kilometers nord-east of Bac Ninh; Thuong taught 4th grade in our home town. Being highly proficient in French, he had been bold enough to sit for the "Brevet Elementaire" examination, a grade bestowed by the French Education Ministry, and got a high monthly pay of 50 piastres, 100% higher than Dan's.
With this affluence of piastres, "Me" paid out some to get a concubine for Father: a rather plain country lass in her late twenties was brought along by her father; "Me" cooked him a dinner with several choice dishes and rice wine. I was told to call her "Chị Ba" (3rd sister). No rite whatever was carried out. "Me" and Grandmother were very pleased with Chị Ba, who took on most of the household chores. In due course she gave birth to a fifth son for Father, who name him Sắc. For a few months, Chị Ba breast-fed her baby, then started to mouth-feed him, chewing a mouthful of rice with a bit of meat, she pressed her lips on the baby's open mouth and let the half digested food glide in.
At that time my elder brothers, I was amused to find out, had their own romances.Đản's friend Phạm Hồng, a student of the Civil Engineering School, had a pretty sister, Nghĩa, whom Đản looked forward to marry. And Thường was enamored of Lou Lou, the 16-year old daughter of a French Customs officer and his Vietnamese wife... After school he used to walk to and fro past the door of their house in order to get a glimpse of his belle, and ... the mother fell for him!
A few years later, in 1916, my father contracted intestinal complication and died at the age of 58. On her knees, "Me" closed his eyes. To spare Đản the agony of waiting three years (the mourning time for a father or mother), Grandmother arranged a "Cưới chạy tang" (ruch wedding), that means hold over the announcement of a death until after celebrating a marriage.
My Mother took care of me as her own son. When I attended 5th grade at a Franco-Vietnamese primary school, the teacher's name was Mr. Truong Quy Binh. Each week we had only a few hours of "Theme" lessons: translation from Vietnamese to French; "Version" lessons: translation from French to Vietnamese.
I was very studious in learning French: I read the weekly magazine for educators "Le Journal des Instituteurs"; numerous books for children "Livres Roses"; a long story book "Le Morne du Diable" by Eugene Sue; "L'Expédition au Pole Sud de l'Amiral Peary". Then when I attended Buoi High School in Hanoi, I read a lot of French novels authored by: Rousseau, Diderot, Andre Theuriet, Anatole France, Paul Bourget, etc... My essays in French got high marks from my French teachers: 7, 8, 9 on a scale of 10. My essay "Le foyer paternel" (My father's household), received a 9 from Ms Alice Godbille who sent it back to France to show how well her students wrote French...
During the 4 years in Buoi High School (1917-1921) I was ranked number 1, and at the graduation examination, in June 1921, I was the valedictorian, but got only a mention "Assez Bien" (Fairly Good). The diploma issued was "Diplôme d'Etudes complémentaires franco-annamites", equivalent of 9th grade level. Besides that, I underwent and got 2 other diplomas sent directly from Paris , issued by the France Education Department:"Brevet Elementaire" and "Certificat d'Etudes Primaires Supérieurs".
If one possessed one of these diplomas, one could apply to the following high education establishments: Teachers' Institute, Civil Engineering, Medicine, Pharmacy, Business, Agriculture, Veterinary, or work as a secretary at the French Governor Bureau, or as elementary teachers.
But after the graduation, I listened to my brother-in-law, Do Duc Du, who every year went to sell embroidered products in Tientsin, North China. He told me:"I know a Vietnamese named Nguyen Van Khai. He only possesses a primary diploma and works at "Banque Franco-Chinoise" in Tientsin, and enjoys a salary equal to a General Manager in Vietnam. There is a French Concession and a lot of French merchants, perhaps you can find a good paid job."
I went to the "Commissariat de Police" to apply for an I.D. card, took it to the "Resident of France" to apply for an exit permit. The Resident asked me a few questions, took out a form, filled it out and then signed it:"Le nomme Nguyen Van Huong, ne le 26.9.1903 est autorise a se rendre a Tientsin, Chine. Bac Ninh, le 2 juillet 1921. (Signed) Le Resident de France, Bouteiller."
My brother Thuong bought me a credit certificate worth 150 dong, I went to Mr Ca Hoan's shop, had a khaki suite and a shirt made, bought a tie, a pair of shoes, a hat. Together with my brother-in-law, we went to Hai Phong, boarded the "Canton" ship sailing for Hong Kong, stayed in Hong Kong for a few days, then boarded the "Shangtung" to go to Tientsin.
I advertised in the wanted section. A few days later, I was hired by a French construction company "Brossard Mopin & Cie" as a secretary. My job was to enter outgoing construction materials used for X, Y, Z construction projects into a registry book... The accountant manager, a Chinese, found fault with my penmanship, introduced a relative to replace me. I lost my first job. Fortunately, Mr Khai, besides his position at the bank, also moonlighted as an accountant manager at "Lemoine & Cie", took me in as his assistant accountant. Beside that, Mrs Khai asked me to tutor her two daughters named Nghiem and Lien, who were attending a school run by French nuns "Soeurs St Joseph". Remuneration: free room and board. Temporarily settled!
For listening and speaking days in and days out, I ended up speaking Chinese, and also English. All correspondence in English sent to England and the United States were written and typed by me.
There were two Chinese colleagues, Pierre Che and Joseph Pang, good catholics. They often enticed me to receive baptism. I joked around: "Even if you gave me a million dollars, I still would not convert to catholicism." Not long after that, I read a book given to Nghiem by the nuns, and was touched by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. When I received baptism, Joseph Pang jokingly asked me:"How many million dollars did they offer you!"
In 1925, a French lieutenant was transferred from Hanoi. One day he came to our office for a business. My boss introduced me:"Ce jeune homme vient de Hanoi; il parle francais comme un Marseillais." The lieutenant asked me with a big brother tone of voice: "Depuis combien de temps travailles-tu ici?" (You, kid, how long have you been working here?). I calmly responded: "Depuis bientot deux ans, mon lieutenant."(Sir, almost two years), then retorted: "Et toi, combien de temps as-tu vecu dans mon pays?" (And you, kid, how long did you reside in my country?) The lieutenant blushed, raised his eyebrows, but then smiled: "Je vous demande pardon, Monsieur, une mauvaise habitude.(I beg your pardon, Sir, it was a bad habit).
Later on, my boss recruited a former French officer for the position of business manager named Plessis. He had the ambition to expand the company's trading business, and sold weapons, ammunition, armored vehicles, canons, combat airplanes to the Chinese Warlords like Chang Tso Lin, Wu Pei Fu, etc.
Mr. Plessis set up an office in Moukden, capital of Manchuria, hired a manager named Tesmar, an Eastern European. One day Mr. Plessis on a business trip to Moukden, hurried up back, gave me 5,000 dollars, told me to bribe a Chinese Colonel named Liu, in case he threatened a law-suit. In connivance with colonel Liu, the director of Communications of the Moukden army accepted 100,000 dollars in order to import goods, and gave half of that amount to Liu...That was it, there were no imported goods! But Liu was greedy, after a few weeks, he wanted to collect estate money. A few days after my arrival in Moukden, colonel Liu had a contingent of soldiers occupied the warehouse. Tesmar told me that colonel Liu would not accept the 5,000 dollars. I ran to a nearby French company and telephoned the French Consul requesting him to intervene. In a few minutes, Mr. Crespin arrived, and told colonel Liu:"If there is a complaint against a French company, I am here to resolve the matter with General Chang Tso Lin, you should not behave in such a cavalier manner!" The colonel sheepishly withdrew. After the Consul left, Tesmar whispered into my ear:"All has been resolved now, let us share the 5,000 dollars between the two of us!" I shook my head:"No way! I am returning the money to the boss."
In 1925, I married Nghiem. The marriage banquet was held with solemnity at the "National Grand Hotel", with the presence of the French Consul, my boss and his wife, and a lot of French and hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers (working for the French army).
My first son, Trung was born on 4 September 1927; Hieu, my second son, was born on 23 June 1929; Tiet, my third son, was born on 17 April 1932...In the beginning of 1933, Trung was 6, Hieu was 5, there was no school for them. I resigned my job to return to Nhatrang where a position awaited me at Caltex company. But once in Shanghai, while awaiting to trans board to a Messageries Maritime ship to go to Saigon, a classmate of mine, Nguyen Duc Mao, principal of the Franco-Vietnamese school reserved for Vietnamese children of more than one thousand Vietnamese policemen in the French Concession, advised me to remain and look for a job with the French Concession Police Bureau and place my two sons in his school, and have their mother work there as a teacher's aide.
Fortunately, when I applied for a job at the French Concession Police Bureau, the director inquired if I knew stenography. I answered:"Sir, I have read the book "Stenographie en 20 lecons" by G. Buisson, but only have a superficial knowledge." He took out a report, dictated to me a dozen of lines. I scribbled something that did not look like stenography, but recited back without a mistake!
I only officially worked starting the beginning of the following month at the French Concession Police Bureau. Base salary: 300 dong, knowledge of Japanese: 20 dong; of English: 20 dong, of Chinese: 20 dong; of Chinese characters: 60 dong; overtime: 60 dong; teaching French to Vietnamese policemen: 60 dong; total: 540 dong. Nghiem's salary as a teacher's aide at the Franco-Vietnamese school: 60 dong.
After a few months I gained the reputation of an excellent writer in French. French employees flocked to me to have their reports typed (and corrected). In particular, I regularly corrected the reports of the Chief of Security. I attended classes in "Police Technique". After 3 months of testing, I received a diploma with Honor. In June 1939, I took the French Baccalaureate and passed with Mention "Good".
In June 1940, France was occupied by Germany. Mr. Jobez deputy director and lieutenant P. Blanchet left Shanghai to return to France to join the resistance. The French concession was returned to China. In 1946, during the Japanese occupation, China suffered a terrible famine. Nghiem, my wife contracted tuberculosis and died.
August 15, 1945, following the two atomic bombs dropped n Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Mikado Hiroshito announced the unconditional surrender of Japan, The Vietnamese pro-Japanese took away the Japan flag and hoisted the Chinese nationalist colors... and denounced me to the police of Chiang Kai Check that I had forced them to collaborate with the Japanese. On January 10, 1946, I was arrested and imprisoned. The judge signed an order for detention of two months pending investigation. My detention was extended for another two months; at the end of this period, a dismissal was issued in my favor. I was released on May 10, 1946, subject ot remain available to the court for six months. That’s why I had to stay in Shanghai, while my countrymen were repatriated in Indochina by the French authorities. Nguyen Xuan Quynh, my nephew who was also secretary of the police, had taken care of my children – their mother having died of tuberculosis after a long stay in the hospital – was among the returnees. He became a police official in the Ho Chi Minh government. He married and died a few years later.
In January 1947, I was hired as stenographer by the director of Courrier d'Extrême-Orient. A French from Algeria named Chanderly, who soon make me secretary of the redaction. Due to lack of subscribers, the newspaper ceased publication, and was replace by a Daily Bulletin issued by the Consulate of France, under the directorship of a vice-consul, and me as its editor-in-chief. In 1946, Trung a student at the Faculty of Sciences, Aurore University, was in turned carried away by tuberculosis. Hieu successfully passed his French baccalaureate and continued is studies athe the Jesuit Aurore University in the Science Department. Tiet, Tri and Tin attended Ecole Jeanne d’Arc of the Marist Brothers.
In April 1949, as the Communist forces of Mao Tse Tung rushed to Shanghai, the Consulate of France decided to repatriate the remaining of its Vietnamese personnel to Indochina. My five children – Hieu, Tiet, Tri, Tin and Hoa – amd me and Ma Le whom I had obtained a French passport, are among the returnees. We embarked on board the frigate “Commandant de Pimodan” on 5 April 1949. My plan was to transit at Hong Kong where I would take a merchant ship in destination for Hai Pong. Unfortunately, the frigate had to stop at sea for ten days to repair its machines. Then it skipped Hong Kong and went straight to Saigon where we disembared on 9 May 1949. I returned to my country after living 20 years in China.
A few months later, I went to Hanoi to be the Deputy Director of the Northern Vietnam Police and Security Bureau, under Mr. Nguyen Dinh Tai, the director and a former classmate. Truong Ma Le agreed to come with me to the North and married me. Nha, our first son, was born in 1950; Lich, a girl, was born in 1953; Thiep, a girl, was born in 1955; Liem, our benjamin, was born in 1957. Hieu attended the Dalat Military Academy, became captain, major, attended high command school in the United States, promoted to lieutenant colonel, colonel, major general, married to Pham Thi Huong, gave birth to 3 boys (Dung, Cam, Hoang) and 3 girls (Thu, Ha, Hang), was assassinated on 8 April 1975 for being suspected of fomenting a coup d'etat.
After I lost the Deputy Director of Police and Security job, a colleague told me:"We end up poor for being honest. I won't be that foolish the next time around!" After that, I was assigned to the position of Director of Police and Security. An opium smuggler group sent a representative to offer me a deal:"If you order your policemen to look away and not to take a close look at flights coming back from Laos, we will give you 1 million dong for each flight. There will be a flight for each month." I refused, and so still remained poor after my end of duty as Director of Police and Security.
In July 1955, I was transferred at the Police Headquarters in Saigon. The Director General of Police was then Binh Xuyen Colonel Lai Van Sang hench man of Binh Xuyen Chef Bay Vien. Like the Dai Viet (my party) , the Binh Xuyen supported Bao Dai Chief of the State of Viet Nam. Like the Daiviet, they sided with the French in their fight against the Ho Chi Minh rebels. I was therefore “persona grata” with Colonel Lai Van Sang. He wanted to make me chief of Centre-Vietnam police in Hue. Early one morning, a police limousine was to take me to the airport for the flight to Hue. No car ever came, however: Phan Van Giao, the Governor of Centre-Vietnam, had appointed another man at my place! I was given the next best job: assistant to the South Vietnam Director, for administrative affairs. One of my duties was screening people asking to meet important police officials; another, to issue travel permits to Phnom-Penh, Nhatrang, Dalat, Hue Hanoi, and to process the issuance of passports for traveling abroad.
When Captain Ford, of the U.S. Embassy, called on Colonel Lai Van Sang, I acted as an interpreter. The American asked Sang: ‘Why do you Binh Xuyen oppose Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, who has been appointed Preme Minister by His Majesty Bao Dai, your boss?” He added: “You know what happened to General Nguyen Van Hinh, for his anti-Diem stand…” Colonel Sang was unable to justify his attitude. From then on, he avoided me.
About that time, I was asked to meet secretly Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, at the Clinique Saint Paul (property of Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc). The lad