By Michael Do
Winter is coming! Greeting season is here!
Tonight, the wind blew strongly through the remnants of the pear and oak trees in my front yard. The clear sounds of the wind chime hanging on the porch woke me up very early in the morning. I could not sleep! Deep in my subconscious, images of friends of the old time were coming back and urged me to write something about one of my fellow prisoners I have not seen after 1985, when I was released from the Communist concentration camp.
I sprang up looking at the desk clock. It was 4:30 a.m. It’s too early for a new cold winter day!
But going back to sleep was not a wise thing to do when the ideas were fully in my head. I needed to write; otherwise, they would disappear if I did not.
It was 5:00 a.m.
And I was telling you about a very special person that I always loved and admired when we were together in the same hard labor camp A-20 at Xuân Phuoc, District of Đồng Xuân, Province of Phú Yên.
After the Communists occupied South Vietnam in April 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese – deemed as the war criminals and very dangerous enemies of the Communist regime – were lured to hundreds of the so-called re-education camps all over the country. Not only former soldiers in the Army of South Vietnam, but priests, civil servants, bourgeois, rich people, eminent journalists and writers… were accused of helping the American aggressors and South Vietnamese government in the fight against Communism. They sent the most stubborn, dangerous people to hard labor camps built in remote areas in North and Central highland close to the border and kept them there from the least 6 years to 10 years, 20 years or longer.
I was among about one hundred prisoners who were moved from Z-30C at Ham Tan to camp A-20 at Xuan Phuoc soon after the end of the border war between two comrades Vietnam and China in January 1979. A-20 camp was considered the most brutal one in the South where prisoners endured long terms of hard labor, cruel treatment… During my detention there, I witnessed more than a hundred fellow prisoners who died of torturing, beating, diseases, and starvation.
To survive in those conditions, prisoners needed not only physical strength, but also strong will, survival skills, and above all optimism and hope.
I learned those characters from Brother Pham Quang Hong, a young priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco.
Hong was captured in 1978 with a group of four hundred catholic priests who joined the resistance movement led by Father Nguyen Van Vang. The priests were from five different dioceses in the Thu Duc region. Hong had been sentenced 13 years but was released in 1988, three years before the term ended.
He was about my age or a bit younger. He was tall, white, rather robust since a Karate master and instructor.
He was a fine man, always with a smile and bright eyes looking straight so that he could gain trust and self-confidence from the person he talked with.
Hong was also my fellow Scout master. I left the Scout in 1966 to join the army. But once a Scout, forever a Scout.
We were very lucky to be in the same house. Hong slept on the upper platform opposite to mine. Each day, after the afternoon labor session, we sat together to sing Scout songs, retell stories of the old time trying to ignore the ordeal that we had been enduring so much in this circumstance.
Hong had a broad knowledge of almost all aspects of life. He taught me to sing many songs in English such as Jingle Bells, Silent Night, songs from the famous movies The Sound of Music and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness which is Children’s Marching Song I still remember till this day:
This old man he played one. He played knick knack on my drum. With a knick knack paddy whack.
Give a dog a bone. This old man came rolling home
This old man he played two. He played knick knack on my shoe. With a knick knack paddy whack
Give a dog a bone. This old man came rolling home
… played three…on my tree
…played four… on my door…
In 1990, I resettled in the United States. Two year later, I began to write my memoir of a prisoner titled The Depths of Hell. In Section 8 of Chapter 4, I told stories of the most memorable persons of my fellow prisoners. Pham Quang Hong was the first that I mentioned in the following paragraph:
I will never forget the people who during my detention left a very good impression in my memories.
Brother Pham Quang Hong of the Salesians of Don Bosco, was serving a twenty years sentence for joining the resistance force. He was young, tall, and handsome. Despite his long term of imprisonment, he always seemed happy. He passed down to me his optimistic attitude. From him, I learned a lot of things. He taught me to sing many songs from the famous movies The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and The Sound of Music, and of course, the Hymns. He was released and fled Vietnam afterward. He is now a priest at a parish in Perth, Western Australia. (Page 143)
In this land of freedom, I have met many old fellows but very regret not having contact with two special persons I love and admire the most. Mr. Nguyen Tu, a famous veteran journalist who was with me at the same sub-camp B of camp A-20 and Brother Pham Quang Hong. Mr. Nguyen Tu came to the US and lived in the DC area until his passing about 10 years ago. I lost contact with Brother Hong since 1985 until news about him recently surfaced on social media.
Hong has been very well known thanks to his sermon that he always began with a humorous short story.
Turned out that after being released from the camp, Hong was employed as Karate instructor for Saigon Gymnastic and Sport Office. He had chances to lead the group to take part in contests abroad. In 1997, the whole group defected and applied for political asylum in Australia. Thanks to great efforts of the Australian Catholic Church, Hong joined the St. Charles Great Seminary of Perth Diocese and moved up to the post as Vicar, Assistant Minister of the Vietnamese Catholic Community of Perth.
Three years ago, I visited Sydney and Melbourne, didn’t know that Brother Hong was in Perth. I missed the rare opportunity to see him!
Watching the video clips, either in his white or ceremonial robe, I seemed to see him not much different; the same bright eyes, friendly smiles, only skinner and older, of course!
The ladies of his audience must love his sermons. Don’t know how many of them feel regret that they did not meet him decades ago when he was a young, handsome man, not yet committed to the religious services!
I care not what his rank in the church hierarchy is, a vicar or a bishop, cardinal… I always want to treat him as Brother Hong like I did 40 years ago.
I don’t have his physical address to send this message, hoping people on social media forward this to him as a special Christmas gift from a political prisoner to his peer.
May God almighty bless my friend as generously as He has ever done to humankind.
Texas, Christmas 2021.