A Sydney pharmacist has written a novel about Vietnamese people after the fall of Saigon
During her lifetime, Cie Cie Tuyet Nguyen has seen a lot: she watched as Saigon fell and her parents lost everything in the new Communist regime, fled the country by boat, was settled in a refugee camp, came to Australia and became a pharmacist – and now she’s written a novel around her experiences, literally in between dispensing scripts and counselling.
But it was a diagnosis of macular degeneration that saw her first attempt to chronicle her experiences, she told the AJP this week.
“I was diagnosed in 2011 and that was a shock to me, because when I am old I might not be able to see clearly – so I thought I might as well write about my life,” she says.
“And of course that inspiration evaporated early! I wrote about 20 pages, that’s all. I thought, ‘why am I trying to write a book in English when it’s my second language?’ So I gave up.
“For two years I didn’t write anything. Then at the end of 2013 I came back to it and thought, ‘I might not write about myself any more, I’ll write about the Vietnamese people and what we went through’ and incorporated those characters into my story, with their suffering everything that happened in Vietnam after the war, so the world will know about it.
“Then my determination became much stronger, because it was not about me.”
Nguyen’s novel, Shock Peace: the search for freedom, has just been published and follows the story of Trinh, through whom she relives her memories of life under the Communist regime before the family took to the sea.
“I wanted to launch my book to coincide with the 40 year anniversary [of the fall of Saigon],” Nguyen says. “I thought it would be a piece of cake. It wasn’t a piece of cake, of course.
“I think it’s my blessed gene that I can multitask. To tell the truth, I was writing at work! I can just stop, serve my customer, check their medicine, and then keep writing and filling the page.”
Nguyen, who owns a pharmacy in Canley Vale and previously another in Bonnyrigg, set herself a goal of five 500-word pages per week; some of these pages were slow going, but others came very quickly.
“There was a time when I was writing so quickly that my assistant came behind my back to see if I was cutting and pasting from somewhere! I was writing dialogue. I’m happy doing dialogue as you can fill up that page quickly! So I made people talk to each other a lot.
“I made a vow in 2014 to the spirit of all the soldiers, the heroes in the war, the boat people who drowned in the sea, everyone who was involved in the Vietnam War and the re-education camps, and vowed I’d write 500 words a day, five days a week. I allowed myself weekends to empty my brain.
“So I disciplined myself hard, and there were days I went home exhausted with feeling emotions: days I went home crying because of those images that came back to my mind, and the suffering that we had to go through.”
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Reliving the past
Three of Nguyen’s brothers went to war at the time: one was killed, one returned home and one was forced to fight for the enemy.
Then she watched as North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon.
“They treated us like enemies,” she says. “We were their citizens, but they treated us very badly. My father lost all interest and became a recluse after the war because he lost everything: he lost his pension, his money, his government bonds, the land where he was dreaming of having a plantation in retirement.
“So we lost everything and had no money to live on.”
Citizens were forced into Communist re-education; a VietCong soldier was billeted to her family’s home. Meanwhile, others in Saigon were being forced into re-education camps, tortured, forced into prostitution and starvation.
Nguyen interviewed survivors of these experiences as well as those similar to her own, and their life stories are also reflected in Shock Peace’s fictional characters.
Nguyen and her family eventually escaped by boat, sneaking out to sea under the gaze of the military.
“We were so naïve, in many ways, thinking we could just get out of there and be safe – not knowing that the sea is such a big, big danger,” Nguyen told the AJP.
“Over 1.2 million people got out of Vietnam. There were 500,000 who died at sea.
“The figures are very daunting, but at that time we didn’t see it – we were just escaping. I was a child, but I think my parents knew a little about it – they didn’t show it, but when I talked to my Mum later she told me that it was just desperation.
“They had to choose freedom because living under the Communists was unbearable.”
The family found temporary safety in a refugee camp in Malaysia, eventually coming to Australia, where a new set of challenges awaited them.
“My hardest experience was to integrate into Australian life,” Nguyen says. “Language was the most difficult to get through, and I felt frustrated with my ability to speak and write – there was so much inside that I wanted to say.”
She said that among Vietnamese migrants to Australia in the 70s and 80s there was a lot of prestige involved with going into medicine, but she didn’t have that dream.
“I thought pharmacy would be good,” she says. “And I enjoy being a pharmacist – I enjoy counselling people, talking to people and I believe it’s a wonderful profession.
“You can become very friendly with people and as a member of the public they come to us and ask us about anything, and I think that’s great.
“But we have to promote it more, I think.”
Now, Nguyen is promoting the novel, which she says has been embraced “with both hands” by the Vietnamese community.
“It’s not about financial gain, I’m a professional already and have my living,” she says. “It’s a true telling of the feelings of refugees, especially a young girl who was exposed to all that brutality, destruction and hatred.”