An Interview With Author Khanh Ha On His Heritage In War-Torn Vietnam

Modern Vietnam

Modern Vietnam

The era that surrounds the Vietnam War changed America dramatically. The deception that was exposed to the American people made us distrustful of our own government, including President Nixon and leading Generals. We learned that the reality of the war was far from what the Nixon Administration was saying, and events like the Kent State Shootings and the humiliation of the Tet Offensive put a rift between leaders & the American people.

40 years ago this week the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to the North Vietnamese. The American troops had withdrawn after the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, leaving the South Vietnamese to defend themselves. South Vietnam, after nearly a decade of conflict, had fallen to the Communists in a matter of weeks.

My friend Khanh Ha, author of 2 beautiful novels I have reviewed, found his heritage in Vietnam during the war. He gives us a rare insight into the war from the Vietnamese perspective, and he discusses the scars the war left upon his birthplace. His compassion for his people is evident and abundant, and he reminds us that atrocities like what the Communists did to Vietnam still happen today. He is a voice for empathy, and I am truly honored to now give you my interview with Khanh Ha.

Nassem: Hello Khanh, and welcome back to Seize The Moment. How are you?

Khanh: I’m fine, and thank you, Nassem, for having me back on your blog.

Nassem: Today I would love to discuss your heritage in a nation that greatly changed ours, but many of us do not know much about. Could you give us a broad introduction into the expansive history of Vietnam?

Khanh: The birth of our nation began 4000 years ago under the name Văn Lang, which was geographically North Vietnam today. The nation then became Âu Việt as a result of the annexation following a war among tribes. The nation was then subjugated by the Chinese for several centuries until it regained its freedom and autonomy under a new name: Vạn Xuân. It fell to Chinese dominion again for three centuries before it finally gained its permanent independence under the name Đại Cồ Việt. During this new era, the nation defeated the Mongols three times, first in 1258, then in 1285, and finally in 1287. It fought off the Ming invasion two centuries later and the nation’s name was changed to Đại Việt. Civil wars raged for over two hundred years until the nation was unified under emperor Quang Trung’s reign. His chief enemy, Lord Nguyễn Ánh, sought military aid from the French, which eventually led to his victory and established the Nguyễn dynasty that lasted from 1802 to 1945. However, the French began encroaching on the nation’s autonomy in 1858 and conquered it in 1884. The Vietnamese resistance, still infantile at the turn of the 20th century, gradually became a force to be reckoned with in the 1930s under the name Viet Minh, led by Hồ Chí Minh. The Viet Minh defeated the French at Đien Bien Phu in 1954, forcing the negotiation in Geneva which led to the division of Vietnam at the 17th Parallel: north of the parallel was North Vietnam and south of the parallel South Vietnam. Backed by the communist Chinese and Russians, the North Vietnamese communists began infiltrating South Vietnam in 1958. The American-backed South Vietnam fought North Vietnam for over a decade in what was known as the Vietnam War. In 1975, North Vietnamese communists won and the nation is called Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Nassem: With this background established, I would like to discuss more recent Vietnamese history. The French were in control in Vietnam from 1945 to 1954, and I have heard that cities in Vietnam look somewhat like “smaller versions of Paris.” In Hue, where you grew up, is this statement true? 

Khanh: No. French influence was most evident in Tonkin (North Vietnam) and Cochinchina (South Vietnam). Annam (Hue), Laos and Cambodia did not fall directly under French influence. Cochinchina, or La colonie de Cochinchine, was southern Vietnam whose capital was Saigon. Here the vestige of French culture still stands over the years: the colonial architectural buildings and residential quarters, the tree-lined streets and avenues of old Saigon built by the French over a century ago.

Tu Duc Mausoleum

Tu Duc Mausoleum

Nassem: Staying on the topic of Hue before the Vietnam War, what was city life like before the war? I understand that many other conflicts had caused much destruction, but could Hue have been considered metropolitan prior to the Vietnam War? 

Khanh: Hue was the ancient capital of Vietnam before the Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam into North and South Vietnam in 1954.

I admire the U.S.’s democracy. But unlike many immigrants who try to forget their past, I carry with me the image of my country. That image is Huế, where my placenta was buried. There is a Vietnamese proverb: Quê mẹ là nơi chôn nhau cắt rốn. The Motherland is where we bury our placenta and sever our umbilical cord. It begins with the cultural intellect of a city known for its moss-stained citadel, the imperial tombs nestled in the pine forest, temples and pagodas tucked away at the foot of gentle hills by a quiet stream. Its damp, foggy climate had left moisture damage on the ancient buildings, on old houses with moss-covered yin-yang roof tiles. Through Huế flows the Perfume River, clear and clean, and in the summer flame trees bloom scarlet along its banks. All the streets were narrow, shaded with ancient trees, sometimes white with frangipani blossoms, sometimes pink with cassia. As a youngster, I lived in the Huế’s mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. The nuts of the Indian almond trees tasted rich and fat like almonds, the nuts of the poon trees were polished and used in the marble games. At the base of these ancient trees I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” she said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.”

It is the old capital of the Nguyễn dynasty. It is my birthplace.

Nassem: Moving into the beginning stages of the war now, the struggle between the Communists and the Diem government was reaching fever pitch. Where did your family pledge its loyalty, and where did many others put theirs? In a similar vein, as a child, did you understand the full ramifications at stake in this face-off?

Khanh: My father was the chairman of a major political party in South Vietnam. He was anti-dictatorial and anti-communist. Because of his political stance, he was imprisoned by the Diem government. After the military coup d’etat in 1963, which saw Diem and his brother killed, my father was set free. He took office with the military junta as the minister of the interior, but he resigned shortly after because of irreconcilable issues with the Nguyễn Khánh junta government. As a child, I understood only one thing: have faith in your parents. My father was anti-Diem, and he was a resistance leader. His party, Đại Việt, was pledged to the restoration of national prestige and the unifications of the two nations. When he became a political prisoner, our family was exiled to Huế, where we lived with our grandmother until the coup d’etat in 1963, when we were reunited with our father again.

Nassem: President Ngo Dinh Diem was proven to be an autocratic and brutal leader, and the Communists were worse. How did many of the common people in Vietnam, those just looking to make a life for themselves, decide what side to support? Did many not support any side at all?

Khanh: Those who were caught between a rock and a hard place had to live through the dilemma. There were no better sides to side with. But the Vietnamese people are known for being markedly resilient, attested by their incredible endurance against adversity. Newspapers in South Vietnam were censored during the Diem regime, and again censored through the first Republic of Vietnam under Nguyễn Văn Thiệu regime. At the same time, people lived in fear against the communist terrorism much like ISIS violence against the innocents in today’s world.

Nassem: In the Vietnam War, Hue was found to be a vulnerable location as it rested on the border between the North and South. During the Tet Offensive in 1968, Hue was practically destroyed. Could you expand on what you remember of the destruction, as you were there as this all happened? Also, if it is not too horrific to talk about, would you talk us through what the Communist massacre of innocents in Hue did to the spirit of the citizens in the city?

Khanh: At Mỹ Lai the American soldiers murdered the Vietnamese civilians; but during Tết in Huế, the VC massacred the Vietnamese—their own people. Here you heard only of Mỹ Lai. The American public was more interested in a war crime committed by one American infantry platoon than in the Huế massacre.

My father wasn’t home with us. The VC executed people like him. My mother kept the joss sticks burning on the altar every day and thanked the Buddha for sparing my father’s life.
The VC came into Huế with the names of those they wanted to kill. Few were spared. They executed government officials, political party officials, block leaders, intellectuals, teachers, even priests and monks. But they killed a lot of people out of personal hate and vendetta.

Every night we heard gunshots. Much later we found out that those were fired by the communists during their execution, and the playground of our high school was used as a mass grave. After the VC withdrew from Huế, graves were identified, and folks came to dig for bodies. The odor from the rotten bodies hung for days over the neighborhood. Smelled like dead rats but with a fish stench. My mother burned incense in the house to kill that odor. Like many people who lived inside the Citadel, we had fled, seeking refuge somewhere else.

When we came back to our house inside the Citadel, one side of the house had caved in. It must have been hit by artillery shells or helicopter gunships. Ammunition shells were all over the yard. Do you know what I saw on one side of our chest of drawers? An inscription: Miami, FLA. Mom, Dad, and apple pie. The American troops had  boarded down in our house during the house-to-house combat against the VC.

They massacred at least a few thousand people. It took people months to search, to dig the mass graves. Mass graves in the schoolyards, in the parks of the inner city. Mass graves in the jungle creek beds, in the coastal salt flats. People shot to death, clubbed to death with pick handles, buried alive with elbows tied behind them. The communists said they executed only the reactionaries, those who worked for the South Vietnam government. But I saw many bodies of women and children. Shot in the head, bashed in the head. Did they deserve to die?

Evacuation from Hue

Evacuation from Hue

Nassem: As the war continued, necessities for many Vietnamese were not available. What kind of food, water, and other needed resources were restricted or non-existent in Hue during the war? 

Khanh: It wasn’t so. There were no food ration or food scarcity. The only common restriction of freedom of movement is the night curfew, which was enforced in major cities of South Vietnam.

Nassem: In the late 1960s into the early 1970s, the United States erupted in anti-war sentiment and activism against the Vietnam War, which led in the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. What actions occurred in Hue after these Accords were signed? Did communication systems exist still in Hue at this point to inform citizens of the end of American involvement? 

Khanh: Everything was normal until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. However, the false lull after the peace accords could be felt by those who were politically savvy about the communist cunning. They knew it was only a matter of time before war would erupt again.

Nassem: By 1975 the North Vietnamese had reached Saigon and reunited the nation under Communism. I understand that you left Vietnam at this time, after spending the duration of the war in Vietnam. What were the circumstances around your evacuation and how did it happen?

Khanh: I watched the debacle of South Vietnam on TV in my dormitory room in the United States. My father had predicted such a collapse. I wished he was wrong, but when I saw that exodus in March of seventy-five, I felt sick in my stomach. My Huế people were leaving their beloved city for Ðà Nẵng. It seemed like an atomic bomb had been dropped on Huế. It looked that way to me. I cried as I watched thousands of refugees climbing the Hải Vân mountain pass. Cars, scooters, bicycles, even the xích lô. My parents decided to stay. People panicked after the Airborne pulled out of Huế. Then the real shock came when they saw American advisors start burning papers. The day the Americans closed up their offices in late March, people packed up and fled the city. It was a shame to see the first to flee Huế and Quảng Trị were government and military officers. They boarded commercial air flights, they chartered vehicles to carry their belongings. My father’s love for Huế could have cost him his life; he wanted to be with his family. I respect his decision. Every morning my father stood at the window and watched the flow of refugees. He told my younger sisters to study, though there were no schools. Then for days the city came under mortar attack. The family hid under the beds. My father never left the window. He kept watch. Then he saw more and more soldiers deserting in the exodus. ‘For twenty years we had fought the communists only to give up in a matter of days,’ he said to my mother, and then closed the window.

Nassem: As exciting and informative it has been to talk to you about your heritage in Vietnam, I would like to now give you a platform to talk about your new book The Demon Who Peddled Longing, which I have reviewed on this site. Please talk about the general description of the book and also where interested readers can learn more about the book.

Khanh: Set in post-war Vietnam, The Demon Who Peddled Longing tells the terrible journey of a nineteen-year-old boy in search of the two brothers who are drifters and who raped and killed the boy’s cousin. It begins with the boy badly hurt in a boat wreck. He finds himself on the Plain of Reeds in the Mekong Delta, being saved by a fisherwoman who drinks nothing but rice liquor and nurses him with her own milk and at night would take his sex and caress it like a holy object. When he decides to leave, the woman comes close to taking his life. He runs away. He travels south on the trail taken by the drifters who has raped and murdered his cousin, until he reaches a seaside town. One night he sees a girl coming down the road on a beautiful white horse. He has hardly breath while he stands in front of her. He knows he would never be the same again without knowing her. By chance the boy finds out who the girl is. The twenty-two-year-old girl, the untouched cherry, is married to an overlord triple her age and sexually impotent. Then there is the overlord, the most unforgiving master of his own vast holdings yet a victim of his illnesses, who wants the boy’s life for having laid his eyes on the master’s young wife. From this backdrop comes a story of the damned, the unfit, the brave, who succumb by their own doing to the call of fate.

If you are interested in reading more about the book, please go to my author website, From there you can visit my blog, Goodreads and Facebook pages. To order a copy of the book, go to Amazon or Barnes&Noble.

Nassem: Thank you so much Khanh for being so willing to discuss your upbringing in Vietnam and for sharing all of your knowledge. I look forward to having you back here! 

Khanh: Thank you, Nassem, for the interview, and it’s my pleasure to appear on your blog again.

Author Bio:


Khanh Ha is the author of Flesh (2012, Black Heron Press) and The Demon Who Peddled Longing (2014,  Underground Voices). He is a five-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, and the recipient of Greensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction. His work, The Demon Who Peddled Longing, was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book.

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