Oral History

Interview with Vũ Văn Lộc (English Transcription)

1. How and when did you start collecting artifacts related to the Vietnam War and its aftermath? Did you always have the idea of opening up a museum in mind or did it develop over time as your collected more and more items?

There are about 2 million Vietnamese who live in America who wanted to come here to start a new life, but no one intended to come to America to set up a museum. It was the same for me, but I had many occasions to study and visit museums in the United States like the War Museum in Virginia, history and science museums in DC, and others in Chicago. I learned a lot and felt that museums about the humanities and history are the soul of America and the soul of the American people. Since 1980, as the director of an immigrant resettlement agency in San Jose, I began to receive gifts from Vietnamese refugees and boat people, and I displayed them in a glass cabinet in my office. More and more items came to me, day by day.

One day, when I was visiting a flea market in San Jose, I saw a Filipino woman selling items in a cardboard box for $0.50 each. I found a Republic of Vietnam National Order medal—the highest, most noble military medal. The woman said she had married a Vietnamese man. Her father-in-law passed away, and she was selling his old things. I think that the father-in-law was a successful and accomplished officer in the South Vietnamese army, so he received a medal. It was because of this story that I decided to start the museum.

The Museum of Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam will be limited to the period from 1950 to the present day, and will include cultural heritage, collectibles, and works of art from within this time.

2. How have your own experiences as an officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam and as a refugee after the war affected your approach to the museum?

I was a colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. I graduated in 1954 from Da Lat military academy and commanded infantry units for 10 years. From 1964, I worked in the Joint Logistics Command general staff. There were many opportunities to learn about history and travel to many places. Western countries have many museums and students often visit them on field trips. I believe that Vietnam should have museums for the following areas: the founding of the nation, starting with the migration of people living south of the Yangtze River in China into the Red River Delta; the thousand years of Chinese control; the hundred years of resistance against French domination; the period of division and civil war; the 1974 Geneva division of the country; and a museum for the Vietnamese who left the country since 1975. That's why I needed to establish the Viet Museum, The Museum of the Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam. It was with a great deal of luck and good fortune that we were able to create something with this museum that we are very proud of.

3. The museum has been very closely connected with the diasporic Vietnamese community in and beyond San Jose. How has this community-oriented approach shaped the museum and, vice versa, how has the museum impacted the community?

The relationship between the Vietnamese community and the museum is not as significant or as tight as we hoped. At this early stage, the community thinks of the museum as an abstract thing. The life of resettlement is hard: they are busy with jobs, raising their families or supporting family members in Vietnam—various social issues. Most of our compatriots in Vietnam have never visited museums when they were in school. That is why we are concerned about the relationship between the museum and the community. However, we rely on the media so that people can learn about us from a distance. Also, the Vietnamese in San Jose often take friends and family who are visiting the area to visit the museum.

4. What was the first artifact you received from the community? How did that experience shape the museum going forward?

One of the first artifacts that the museum received from the community was this nautical compass. At the beginning of 1980, there were many people who tried to escape Vietnam by boat. At sea, they went through many tragic experiences, from death to piracy. In San Jose, there were some Vietnamese doctors who closed their practices and volunteered to work aboard rescue ships to save the refugees. One of them was Dr. Nguyễn Thượng Vũ. He used the Republic of Vietnamese flag as a sign on the ship for the refugee boats to approach. On one of the boats, he saw this nautical compass and took it with him as a souvenir. When he returned, he gifted it to the Museum. This is a very valuable item, and I would like to share with you my gratitude for the doctors with big hearts who went on these journeys to rescue the refugees. All those who died and all those who survived would look toward this nautical compass as the guide leading them on their journey to the land of freedom.

5. How do you envision the museum sourcing artifacts going forward, specifically maintaining the community focus?

Concerning the sourcing of artifacts, for the past ten years, we’ve been collecting quite a few artifacts, and this was enough for us to establish the museum, but as time passes and circumstances change, the availability of artifacts has declined, so we are trying to develop in several different areas. We hope to collect more items with special stories that we can share, both in the US and in Viet Nam. Viet Nam still has a lot of artifacts from the war. eBay is also a good source to get some valuable items. For example, most of the medals we collected were from eBay.

Now, I would like to talk about the two members of the museum that have the cultural ability, knowledge, and enthusiasm to continue the work of preserving and collecting new items for the museum: Mr. Nguyễn Đức Cường, Chairman of the Board of Directors, who was a former Minister of the Republic of Vietnam, and Mr. Cao Hong, the Chief Executive Officer, who recently retired from the city of Santa Clara. Their time, effort and sacrifice are deeply appreciated. We hope that the museum can be sustained in the future and expand physically and digitally, contributing to the preservation of the Vietnamese community.

6. How can the museum remain involved in the community going forward?

One of our concerns is how to improve the relationship between the museum and the Vietnamese community locally and abroad. In the past, we organized many events and activities in order to involve more public figures from the Vietnamese community and local elected officials with our museum. With their connection and encouragement, we will be able to use their influence to expand our presence in the world.

7. What can you say about some of the artifacts that we have been using?

Regarding all the artifacts made by inmates in re-education camps, these items carry a very special meaning for people who want to learn about the lives of those inmates. As you know, they were given metal scraps to work with, such as tin from fallen airplanes. They were skilled craftsmen and by hand, they made all these metal combs, spoons, knives, and containers; they used sandbags to make shirts or bags. All the items made by political prisoners during confinement by the communists were for decorative purposes only. In fact, no one really used them. For example, after a husband had spent many months during imprisonment making a comb for his wife or children, the wife or children did not use it, but instead kept it as a priceless souvenir. Furthermore, the process of making these items functioned as a mental remedy for thousands of political prisoners to keep their hands active with useful skills and preserve in memory the affection of their loved ones, to give them hope of a better life in the future.

8. Is there an artifact in the museum that resonates with you on a personal level? If so, why?

The first story: I had the opportunity to talk with General Cao Van Vien, the ARVN chief of staff in Virginia before his death. I asked him what he brought with him when he left Vietnam in 1975. He brought a book about Buddhism. When he died, his daughter Lan Cao, lawyer and author, gifted this book to the Museum. In military museums, you will often see portraits and biographies of generals with swords, guns, or uniforms, but instead, at our museum, next to an image of General Cao, we have his book about Zen Buddhism. That is what I want everyone to reflect on.

The second story: is that in the Museum there are four guns manufactured by four different countries: America, China, Russia, and France. Four types of infantry rifles were placed by two opposing factions into the hands of South and North Vietnamese youths in a brutal war that left more than 2 million people dead. Among those four guns was the Mas 36, a French gun that I used for the first time when I entered Da Lat Academy in 1954. I found and bought a rare Mas 36 at a gun fair in San Jose.

9. What is your concept of the future plans for the museum when the Vietnamese community continues to change over time? What advice do you have for future generations seeking to come to terms with the legacy of the conflict and the refugee crisis that ensued?

America will change, and the Vietnamese community will also gradually change. Hopefully, the Viet Museum will expand, becoming better organized and more well preserved. But the basic concept of the Museum remains unchanged. The motto of Viet Museum is the following:

From the ashes of history, we preserve memories.

Embracing our glorious past, we dedicate it into eternity.

I would like to tell future generations to appreciate the past. You can't live in the past forever, but you can't forget the past. The museum is the past and soul of a nation, the soul of the community, a place to store all the facts and events of history. The museum is the sacred soul of the Vietnamese refugees who have died and the martyrs of the Republic of Vietnam. Everyone is responsible for protecting their own soul.

Biography of the Painter and Minister Hà Cẩm Đường

Artwork of Minister Hà Cẩm Đường

Interview with Hà Cẩm Đường (English Transcription)

1. When did you start painting? What made painting art appealing for you?

My name is Hà Cẩm Đường. I am the creator of these artworks. I have loved art from a young age, and I realized that I had a talent for it. In 1958, after finishing high school, I applied to the Fine Arts College of Gia Định.

2. How have your experiences relating to Vietnam before, during, and after the conflict shaped your art?

After the frightening journey of escaping from the communist regime by boat, I thought of it as a page of my life history. I wanted to express all the fear and pain from that experience in art. I created all these artworks with all my heart and soul. These are the things that guided me to my emotions, so that I could create these paintings and sculptures that represent the painful and heart-wrenching feeling of leaving your homeland. Since then, I have created tirelessly to record the agonizing feelings of the refugees.

3. How and when did you become involved with the Viet Museum? What made you want to be involved?

I learned about the Viet Museum through a friend. When he saw my paintings, he said that these artworks were what Mr. Loc Van Vu’s museum needed. These paintings are very different and special, and they are not fit to be displayed as decoration. This kind of art should be displayed in a museum as a keepsake and for future generations to learn. I then contacted Colonel Loc Vu and handed all my work to the museum.

4. Do you see your art as related to your work as a minister? If so, would you be willing to explain that relationship?

I have faith in God, so all of my art has always been based on the spiritual world of God. So, One of the paintings that I created, called “Tears,” was based on my poem:

“Dear God, how many times did I cry?

Since the afternoon I bowed my head and left my native land.”

That afternoon, when I escaped from the communists, when I looked back at the sight of my homeland, I could not hold back the tears. I just broke down and cried suddenly. I also created an artwork called “Born Again,” but it was misplaced somewhere or someone took it. I have many pieces, but throughout the years and after many moves, it has been hard to keep track of my artworks, until I placed them with Mr. Loc Van Vu’s museum. Since then, I hadi peace of mind, knowing that they are in a safe place. It is very difficult to carry all my artwork with me. I remember I had a sculpture called “Border Crossing,” and it was very bulky. I lost it during one of my moves. It is very fortunate for me that I now have a place to display my works, which represent the feelings of my soul. Thanks to Mr. Loc Van Vu.

5. Describe the process of the “Never Forget My Country” painting.

I’m Ha Cam Duong, and this is my painting “Never Forget My Country.” Many people have asked me about my escape from Vietnam, so I recorded all the details of my journey in this painting.

(Pointing at the green shape of Palawan Island) I painted this image of Palawan Island in the Philippines. It is also the profile of a woman, who represents my wife. I escaped with my two sons and a nephew, but I had to leave my wife behind, in case the escape failed, so that we would still have a home to return to. If we got caught and put in jail, on the outside my wife would be able to collect the money needed to bribe the communists. When I arrived at the camp in Palawan, I missed my wife terribly. She was a beautiful woman. For two years, from 1981 to 1983, while I was living in the camp, her image was always with me.

(Pointing at California) When I arrived in America, this was the imprint of my own foot, to mark my first step on American soil at the Oakland airport on March 15, 1983.

(Pointing at the can of Coke) This is the first soda that I tasted, the first time I could enjoy my air of freedom.

6. Describe your emotions about “Shameful Defeat.”

I carved this statue from granite and used bronze for the hand. I named it “Shameful Defeat.” Why? Because the whole army of South Vietnam had to surrender to an unworthy adversary. This caused so much shame, pain, and suffering to the South Vietnamese soldiers. Nothing compares to this pain. I created this for people to see that this pain is deep down inside. It’s not just the outside, but it hurts in the soul and in the heart. Yes, we had to surrender to an unworthy adversary. This was very painful for all of South Vietnam.

7. Describe your feelings about the “Freedom” painting.

I’m Ha Cam Duong, the creator of this painting. I left my country with my two sons and a nephew. We left because they are boys and we were afraid that they would be drafted into the communist army. We left in search of freedom, even though there was so much pain and hardship. I painted this painting to describe a person with lots of sadness, who could cry at any moment. I remember the famous painting of Da Vinci, with the famous Mona Lisa smile. The smile that comes from within is just like this man’s sadness: it is deep within his soul. It’s a face that wants to cry. I actually had to cry to get the emotions out of me in order to create this painting.

(Pointing at the word “Freedom” written in reverse) What this means is that the road in search of freedom is not a joyful road, but on the contrary, it is a very painful and heart-wrenching experience. But, in the end, we did find freedom in this country.

Interview with Hồng Cao (Q&A Interview)

1. How and when did you become involved with the Viet Museum? What made you want to get involved?

I became involved with Viet Museum when I was in-charge to build the Quang Tri Monument which was erected at the front of Viet Museum last November. Viet Museum, The Museum of Boat People and Republic of Vietnam, is the only place that I can reminisce my time when living under Communism after 1975, and that was the reason for my involvement to this museum.

2. How have your experiences both during and after the war affected your approach to the museum?

I was living in South Vietnam, working as a Government Official when the country was taken over by the Communist North Vietnam. After the war, I was forced by the new regime to be a farm laborer in the so called New Economic Zone for 3 years before planning to escape Vietnam by boat.

Every displaying artifact at Viet Museum was a piece of my memory toward Vietnam War and that brought me to the museum.

3. Is there an artifact in the museum that resonates with you on a personal level? If so, why?

Yes, it was the replica of trawlers displaying in front of the museum. This brought back my memory of journey to freedom in 1980 in a very tiny, fragile boat crossing Pacific Ocean.

4. The museum has been very closely connected with the diasporic Vietnamese community both in San Jose and beyond. How do you envision that connection being maintained and developed going forward?

In my vision, Viet Museum is a valuable and sacred place for not only Vietnamese oversea but also for everyone who would know about the history of Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam. By the mean time we will continue to serve the ever since increasing visitors. In a very near future when the museum was digitized, we can connect to the people all around the world. Everyone can visit the museum through a virtual tour. Many related articles will be uploaded to the website. Visitors at the museum can easily read stories of any displaying artifact by scanning provided QR codes.

5. What do you imagine for the Viet Museum in the future as the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States continues to change over time? What advice do you have for future generations seeking to come to terms with the legacy of the conflict and the refugee crisis that ensued?

Even though the exodus from Vietnam had gradually stopped and people who resettled in the U.S. had adjusted well to the new land, Viet Museum is still a place to hold many historical artifacts, stories with painful memories toward the war and the post war under Communists. Young Vietnamese use to come to the museum seeking answer how their families ended up in this country. The future generations need to learn about Vietnam War, which costed more than a million lives, and the dangerous of communism that led to the invasion of the South Vietnam and creating one of the largest refugee crisis in history.

6. Can you share your experience as a refugee with us?

After 1975, as a South Vietnam government official, I was forced to spend 3 years working as a farmer in the New Economic Zone. Because of the oppression of the new regime and seeing no future in my homeland, I decided to leave Vietnam. I had spent 2 years to plan escaping Vietnam by boat in 1980. This was a very secret trip since if got caught we had to be jailed for a long time. Planning with other families, we bought a small fishing boat. On the departure day, a new moon day with the dark night sky, the whole group of 73 people were hiding in some houses in a village near the seashore. At night, we boarded the taxi boats to reach the fishing boat that waited at the estuary. Our fishing boat quietly sailed to the sea heading South toward Malaysia. I brought nothing with me but some motion sickness pills that my mom bought for me from the black market. 73 people were jammed in a 12’ by 30’ wooden tiny boat. Water and foods were rationed. Dry instant noodles was given twice a day. A sip of water was only for needed people by request. After 8 days on the sea, our boat had reached Port of Singapore in a dark night. The next morning, Singaporean police detected our boat. They led our boat out of the port then pulled us to the open sea with ropes from their navy ships. After almost a day pulling us back to the international water, police released our boat with their warning not trying to go back to Singapore again. We had no choice but sailing to Malaysia instead, on the next day.

When landed to a Malaysian beach, we were taken to a refugee camp in Pulau Tengah where I had stayed for 6 months before accepted and resettled in the U.S. The Pulau Tengah Refugee Camp is in a small island, about an hour sailing from City of Mersing. There were about 6,000 Vietnamese living in the camp by the time I arrived. People jammed in the common wooden floor. Water were supplied by wells. Foods had been provided daily by ships from Mersing. The camp was a small and crowded city. Despite of uncomfortable living, people in the camp seemed to be very happy because they were survived the terrifying journeys and expecting happy new life in the freedom countries. There was a refugee committee that took care the daily activities such as: administration, postal, health, security, education… Refugees in this camp had to wait for other countries to accept and granted visa to resettle in the new lands. The average waiting time was from a couple months to a couple years.

I was accepted to the U.S. since I was a South Vietnam government official. After 6 months in Malaysia camp, I came to San Jose to live with my younger brother who had studied and worked there since 1970. Even though I had learnt and studied American life since I was in high school but facing the new life in the U.S. was quite a challenge. Everything had to start from the beginning. The most important thing was to go to school for English. The first week in ESL class, after testing, my teacher referred me to the Principal for hiring me to as a Campus Assistant for Metropolitan Education District. Since then, I went to the vocational training class in the daytime and worked for the school in the night time. Right after graduating from vocational school, I got a job as Mechanical Designer then Engineer for a company in Redwood City. Even having both BA and MA in Economics in Vietnam, I went to colleges then transferred to San Jose State University for both my BS and MS degrees in Civil Engineering. While working toward my graduate degree, I was hired to work for the City as a Civil Engineer. I retired in 2016 after almost 25 years in public service.