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Interview with Tran Van Lai, 1981

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Summary
Tran Van Lai was an interior decorator during the Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu regimes. He worked in Independence Palace where he doubled as an informant for the National Liberation Front. Here he recounts his wife’s torture and ultimate death, his work for the NLF, and the chaotic last days of the war.
Topics
Torture, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, Vietnamese, War and family, Oppression, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Peace, Evacuation of civilians, Palaces
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Transcript

Oppressiveness of the Diem Regime

SR 2093
TRAN VAN LAI
673 Take 1
Clapstick
Interview with Tran Van Lai, Interior Decorator, Agent.
Interviewer:
Please tell us what the Diem regime was like.
Tran Van Lai:
The Diem regime, like the Thieu regime, was only a puppet regime. As a decorator I could perceive that the decorations of the two regimes was for the purpose of serving a few individuals and not for the people.
673, Take 2
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Please tell us what the Diem regime was like.
Tran Van Lai:
I was a decorator during the Ngo Dinh Diem reign and I came to realize that the decors of the regime was for serving the few individuals in the ruling circle and not for my people. It caused me to hate it more than any regime before that...My material life was not very difficult. But I realized that the Diem regime and other American puppet regimes only caused my people to suffer as a result of their treatment, their repression, their tortures and other outrageous acts. My people had to complain days and nights.
And the worst things they did was to create a war which my people who were innocent but who had to bear the brunt of all the suffering and death. Therefore, I came to oppose the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and other American supported regimes here. As a decorator, I had to listen a lot of complaints from my people and see all the atrocious behaviors of the regimes installed by the foreigners. And members of my family were also arrested and tortured.
For example, my wife, who was only a regular merchant but who, when, she became suspected, was regarded as a follower of the NLF and was arrested and tortured. The torturers inserted snakes and eels into her vagina to get her to come out with the confession that she was working for the NLF. And when my wife refused to do so, they tortured her until she died.

Tran Van Lai as official decorator

Interviewer:
Please be brief. Please tell us how, as a decorator, you got to work in the Presidential Palace, how you got to meet with Diem once and how you managed to get information for the National Liberation Front.
Tran Van Lai:
I was the person who got to work in from the beginning until it was completed under the Thieu regime. I was available at all phases of the construction...
674 Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Please tell us how you got to meet with Ngo Dinh Diem and Nguyen Van Thieu when you worked on the Independence Palace and how you gathered information.
Tran Van Lai:
I was an outstanding decorator and so they got me into the Palace to decorate the rooms. Because of this and because of the confidence I developed, I was allowed by the Security Bureau in the Palace to go in and out of the Palace to decorate all the things that Thieu wanted or the Bureau wanted.
Therefore, I was able to gather information in the Palace all the way from the amount and nature of the weapons, to the number of persons therein, to the number of guards and the schedules of all the persons involved. For this reason, I was able to provide the NLF with very valuable information.

Turn of fate for the American political puppets

Interviewer:
Please tell us about the situation during the last days of the war. What about those people whom the United States promised to airlift out of the country but once they got to the airport they did not find any airplanes? And the disappointment of those who could not make it to the airport. Please tell us all these.
Tran Van Lai:
During the last days of the American presence here it felt like a huge fire in which the victims could not find any place to run. There were those who wanted to go away and yet they could not do so. Then there were those who did not want to leave the country, but they were forced to. The whole city was under utter confusion. There were scenes which were similar to those of a funeral where people moaned and groaned.
The majority of the population was happy. But there were the American puppets who wanted to flee and yet there were those who were able to do so and those who could not. Finally, the Liberation Forces came into the city unexpectedly. So the puppet troops all stripped off their uniforms and ran. And the city inhabitants were happy and went out into the streets to welcome the arrival of the Liberation Forces.
675 Take 1
Clapstick
Interviewer:
Please repeat what you have just stated again.
Tran Van Lai:
Frankly speaking, the Ngo Dinh Diem regime was splendidly and attractively decorated on the outside but on the inside it was completely rotten and debauched. Its only goal was to oppress the population and lead the country into war. There was nothing else.
676 Take 1
Clapstick
Tran Van Lai:
After the Paris Agreements were signed, the majority of the poor people were overjoyed. Among them were also the puppet soldiers and the employees of the puppet regime. This was because they could see that peace was coming back, that death would be minimized and that there would be a resurrection of the human feelings in them.
Interviewer:
During the period from 1973 to 1975 did the poor people fear anything? And were they afraid of something as the war was coming to an end?
Tran Van Lai:
As the war was coming to an end, an interior decorator like I was very happy because there would be the opportunity for me to help rebuild the country and heal the wounds of war. The same thing was true with the people in the puppet army and administration.
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