The Fall of Saigon
Behind the Red Curtain by Hong-My Basrai details the life of a Vietnamese family during and after the 1975 fall of Saigon. As the book opens, Hong-My is a thirteen-year-old girl with typical concerns about puberty. However, her life is soon to become anything but ordinary. Her Northern Vietnamese parents had escaped the Vietminh in 1945, settling in Saigon, ‘the jewel of the orient.’ They never believed it would fall to the North.
“The first waves of evacuees from different parts of the South caused confusion, then for the first time, panic in people like my parents, people who had been too busy raising their families, too naïve in politics, uninformed, trusting their government and the might of America. Still, they continued to be in denial. Saigon would never fail, could not. America was on our side, and America was undefeatable.”
Even as the Vietminh enter the city, the Les believe they have time to escape the country. Tragically, their wait with the crowd outside the American Embassy is futile. It is just the beginning of a seven-year nightmare.
Communist Rule in South Vietnam: The Loss of Privacy and Property
When Communist rule becomes an imminent reality, the Les know how bad things will get and prepare by erasing the evidence of their affluent lives—burning journals, books, and photographs and by giving away possessions. When the country changes currency and sets a maximum on what is allowed, the family loses much of their lifetime savings. Common necessities such as soap and toothpaste become luxuries; living space is condensed. Representatives of the state—real or masquerading—violate privacy, steal property and frighten residents. While the state party line is that, now, all countrymen are equal, “[t]he people of Saigon concurred: ‘We are all equal slaves of the State.’”
In a family with nine children, Hong-My is the eldest of the ‘second set.’ The five older siblings are out of the country receiving western educations and establishing themselves in professions. As the remaining family members struggle with privations under the Communist regime, they learn to rely on gifts and packages from their relatives outside the country—items that they can sell on the black market.
Communist Rule in South Vietnam: Education and Professional Lives Destroyed
When school resumes under Communist rule, a large part of the day is consumed with lessons on ‘Uncle Ho’ and the new regime. The irony of having religious icons replaced by the photo of Ho Chi Minh in every household is not lost on young Hong-My. She sees that this new life is controlled by “a merciless and ignorant government that starved its citizens and deprived them of food, fuel and medicine.”
While the Le parents do as much as they can to continue with their past lives, their professions are destroyed. Mrs. Le is referred to as ‘Madame Pharmacist’ by all her neighbors, but she can no longer secure medicines to sell. Still, Hong-My and her three younger siblings have moments of normalcy between repeated storms. They play imaginative games, beg for ghost stories from her grandmother’s maid, and pray with their pious Catholic grandmother.
The heart of Behind the Red Curtain consists of the nearly unimaginable difficulties of escaping to freedom; the details of repeated failed plans; the brushes with injury and death by land and by sea; the loss of savings; and the work to start over and over again. The tenacity of the family, their collective will power as they help one another through everything, including imprisonment, is inspiring.
The Difficulties of Escape from South Vietnam
Escape plans and the glitches that can’t be anticipated lead family members to prison more than once. There, the simplest tasks such as bathing or using the toilet become all consuming. Hong-My’s last imprisonment in Chí-Hòa, Hồ Chí Minh City’s massive prison—widely known as Hỏa Lò Bát Giác (the Octagonal Oven)—is the nearest to spirit-breaking.
Yet through her many trials, the author becomes convinced that “as long as the mind was not affected, in it was a person’s salvation. In it was the ultimate refuge. In it shone our sanction. If it still aspired for beauty, it could create heaven from thin air, a reasoning creature from dust, like God.”
Refugee Stories Connect Us to Humanity
Reading the stories of refugees is always important, perhaps now more than ever. They remind us that people don’t put themselves in danger, hoping to enter the United States, because they’re bored with their homelands. They escape because life without freedom is not worth living. Learning the nightmare details of escape connects us to humanity—others’ and our own.
“She had to tell the world what had happened after the last helicopter left Saigon, after the curtain had come down. How her family and she—the young girl who no longer dared to dream—had survived the collapse of the only world they had known, to face the Red Regime, the loss of freedom that came with it, the deprivation of basic rights, and how they had clawed their way out.”
High School Housekeeping
Behind the Red Curtain is a good choice for an assignment with the purpose of understanding immigrants and refugees: why they leave home, what they suffer in order to begin a new life. It’s a good choice for a middle school (junior high) or high school library purchase.