This true story, originally in Vietnamese, was given by blogger and democracy activist Phạm Đoan-Trang to a close friend, with instructions to publish it online should something happen to her. On the morning of International Women’s Day, March 8, 2018, Đoan-Trang was taken into custody by Security Police. As instructed, her friend immediately posted the story on Facebook. Upon reading it I decided to translate it into English in order to help her story reach a wider audience. At the time of the original posting, Đoan-Trang’s whereabout was still unknown. She was later released.
Photo: Leaked list of FB accounts deemed “reactionary” by the Ministry of Security (source unknown)
they will be here in five minutes
they will be here in one minute
they are here after this senten…
(from a poem by Thận Nhiên)
Monday morning, 2/26/2018.
Last night I set the alarm for 8am – kinda late since I figured I’d have had a hard time sleeping. But it turned out I’d slept really well. When I awoke it felt too short, like I hadn’t slept enough.
Hanoi was still a bit chilly. Outside it was grayish dark with what looked like a thick fog but was in fact a fine, misty rain. Spring rain. The kind unique to North Vietnam but that many people hate because it turns the streets into a dirty and muddy mess. But myself I like it very much. It reminds me of a line by the poet Nguyễn Bính:
On that day a Spring rain was fluttering
Melia petals layered upon the sidewalk...
I packed fast. Everything fit nicely into my guitar case and music bag; a small cash purse snuggled in the side pocket. I picked the guitar up and walked quickly toward the door, trying to avoid looking into my mother’s eyes.
“Bye, Mom,” I said quietly. “I’m going.”
“No breakfast, dear?” She asked.
“Don’t feel like eating,” I answered.
I hurried outside. I didn’t have to say where I was going; she already knew. I headed straight for the elevator without looking back. I didn’t even tell her when I would return. How could I promise her “I’ll be back” when I myself had no idea what might happen. And because I also knew that if I had stopped to give her a hug, feeling her frail 78-year-old body shivering in my arms, I just might have teared up. Only “might”, because in these moments the journalist instincts in me would roar up and turn me into a cold, calculated machine.
Reaching the ground floor, I was prepped to hit the streets. “A Spring rain was fluttering”, and the world was sheathed in a foggy mist. As usual, the sidewalks were full of people—standing and sitting everywhere. I put one hand on a wall and slowly dragged myself along toward the pavement, wondering which motorbike driver belonged to “our side”. I thought to myself, “Getting on a secret police motorbike now would really be crap.” Nevertheless, I still headed straight for the bike parked nearest to the curb. The driver was wearing a raincoat, a helmet and a mouth cover; only his eyes were visible. He looked at me and nodded. Seeing his eyes I immediately felt safe. Those weren’t the eyes of security police.
I climbed onto the back. As soon as he started the engine, several young men sitting on the sidewalk quickly got up and went to their bikes.
They followed us straight away. I shuddered and started getting goosebumps. In my mind I saw one of them jacknifing us from the side, sandwiching my legs. I could hear the cracking sound of crushed bones… Fortunately, traffic was jam packed. My driver was able to deftly merge into the crowd and not let our pursuers get close to either side.
I looked down at my hands; they were quite pale. Was it because I was cold, or was it the rain? Or because I’d hardly gone outside in the past six months?
After about half an hour, we turned into a small street near Hào Nam Blvd and arrived at the coffee shop where I told them we could meet. I was forty minutes early. I tried to pay my driver as I climbed down, but he just waved me off and quickly drove away.
“Oh dear guitar, do not weep…”
I walked into the café and took the instrument off my back. The owner seemed delighted to see me. “It is you, Ms Trang! Long time no see! How are your legs doing?”
I was taken aback for a moment, shocked that he knew not only who I was but also my name and even my condition. But more than that, it was not the kind of cautious greeting by someone who’d been brainwashed by Big Brother into believing that I was a dangerous “reactionary” of whom they needed to steer clear.
He gave me a big smile, his face beaming like a flower. He had no idea what his simple greetings meant to me. I was instantly calmed. He helped me realize that there was still normalcy in this world, with very normal people living in it.
I smiled back at him. “Pretty much the same. But that’s alright.” I pulled up a chair and asked for a hot cup of Lipton and milk.
As I waited for my tea, I took out the guitar and started strumming. I had nothing better to while away the time anyhow.
“If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?
The words will never show the you I’ve come to know…” [Bread, “If”]
The sweet chord progression of “If” cascaded through the air like musical droplets. I’ve known this song since I was twelve or thirteen. I used to listen to it in the dark, when the only light came from the house next door, casting my shadow onto the wall. I’d never imagined back then that one day I’d lead a life like this.
One by one, the ‘strangers’ started to come in. Each one took a place at a different table. Within minutes, I was surrounded by security police. They positioned themselves in such a way that all could watch me. But I didn’t pay them much attention; I was busy playing.
I’d picked a seat where I could look outside. From here I could occasionally see people from “our side” ride by, glancing at me as they passed to see how I was doing. The scene must have been quite melodramatic. Here I was, playing guitar while waiting for some secret government agents to arrive. Outside it continued to rain. A Spring rain.
It was almost 10am when they showed up—a pair of agents with whom I’d agreed to meet. They came on foot, probably by using Uber or Grab. My guitar playing startled them a little bit.
S. smiled, “How nice! Could you play a song to welcome us?”
I didn’t need to respond since I already was in the middle of playing something.
‘Romance’, then ‘Serenade’… I kept on plucking as if in a trance. The strange thing was, I felt like my playing wasn’t all that terrible. It wasn’t dry or emotionless. People say that an artist opens her soul to the world when she performs, letting the instrument speak for her. I didn’t know what exactly I was trying to say, but I could tell that my playing sounded sweet.
I stopped after two pieces, feeling that any more would be impolite. I set my guitar down against a wall. Our conversation began.
It was detached, unfocused. I only wanted to talk about music but neither one of them had any interest. Truth be told, by the end of our conversation I still had no idea what type of music they liked to listen to even though they said that they sometimes “listen to music to relax and be entertained.”
Politics? What could we possibly discuss about politics? During an interrogation session two nights ago, at 10pm, S. appeared happy after he thought he’d ‘tricked’ me into writing down on a piece of paper: “I only fight against dictatorship. Since the current regime in Vietnam is a dictatorship, I fight to abolish it. [Signed: Phạm Đoan Trang]” S. was elated. With that, my required meeting with them the following week was de-escalated from “forced working session” to “coffee shop rendezvous”. Perhaps S. felt that his work was done and that he had succeeded—the reactionary’s file was complete. The ball was now in somebody else’s court, not his.
I could always spot the excitement in the eyes of agents like S., or Yến, Minh, Long… Regrettably, such excitement only appeared as a result of the kind of work normal people like us would call immoral: Finalize a dossier that will send a reactionary to prison. In other words, S., Yến, Minh, Long… were happy because in just a few weeks the person sitting in front of them just now—even playing guitar for them and talking to them passionately about music, would be torn away from her family and her loved ones, sent into a totally new environment where there were no guitars, no parents, no brothers or sisters, no friends, nobody, and nothing. Her life of freedom would be left behind.
When they sentenced Mother Mushroom to ten years in prison, she was not the only one to, as they loved to say, “suffer the punishment of the law”. Suffering alongside her are also two young children who desperately need their mother, her own aging mother, and her 90-year-old grandmother.
And these people claimed that their job was “to protect national security”.
Once in awhile I’d get bored and reach for the guitar to play a song or two. “It’s Only Love”, “Lên Ngàn” (To the Highlands)… All around me secret security occupied every table. Outside, it was still raining. I could tell people on “our side” and “their side” were interleaving their positions on the sidewalk in order to keep an eye on the situation inside—and on each other. Every now and then, my “driver” whizzed by to take a quick look.
It must have been pretty cinematic. A subject is playing her guitar inside a café, surrounded by secret police. Outside, two opposing teams array themselves into interleaving positions to watch.
I kept on playing, like an addict. I couldn’t put the guitar away. I suddenly thought of the musicians on the deck of the Titanic, playing their last piece as the ship went down.
All of a sudden my driver walked into the shop, half his face still hidden by the mouth guard. He managed to glance at me as he passed. My heart jumped when I saw the look in his eyes. Why was he taking this huge risk?
He walked directly to the table behind me and sat down, his back nearly touching mine. I’m not sure why the table was available at that moment; perhaps some agents were in the middle of a shift change.
What happened next could have come right out of a movie. Two people sitting back to back in a coffee shop, trying to communicate without letting anybody know. Every so often I’d hear him speak softly but in a deep baritone voice: “Be careful. There’s one in the corner, too.” I would respond loudly, as if talking to S., “Of course, I understand!”
At last, the two hours of “coffee shop” talk mercifully came to an end. S. and his comrade paid the bill for the three of us then called a Grab. They must have been very satisfied thinking that their dossier had been completed with their prey neither suspecting anything nor having any thought of escape. But where could I possibly escape to in this situation and with my sickly legs?
After the two of them had left, the other security police remained. My driver had no choice but to stay as well. We tried to hold a bizarre conversation with our backs to each other.
“Don’t stand up,” he said softly, “until after I’ve gone outside. They’re everywhere out there.”
He stood up and shouted loudly to the owner, “Check, please!!”
He paid the bill and walked outside. I immediately followed without forgetting to say goodbye to the owner who gave me another big smile, “Please come back when you get a chance!”
The sidewalk was full of people loitering near their motorbikes, all staring at me.
“K. will pick you up,” my driver said quickly as he jumped on his bike.
I looked at him and could only move my lips slightly as if wanting to say “Thank you.”
K. came in a flash, dressed in Grab uniform with his face also half hidden by the mouth guard. I lumbered onto his bike like a regular customer who’d just called for a pick up, but my directive was different: “I don’t really know where to go.”
“I know,” he said. “Hang on tight, we’ll have to cut off this tail.”
K. sped away. A whole gang of “bike taxis” began to follow us. Unknown to me at the time, my first driver was also following them to monitor the situation. Neither did I know that many other friends were also hovering within a hundred feet of us the whole time.
“Hang on, sister,” K. said. “We’re taking off!”
K. immediately stepped on the gas. The chase began. I grabbed K’s shirt and looked at my hands. They were ghostly pale.
“Don’t be scared,” he said. “When I was a kid I read lot of Conan.”
That made me chuckle.
But K. was correct. Somehow our unintended Conan was able to cut off the tail and delivered me safely away from the security police. I later learned from my first driver that they were furiously mad for losing our trail. They drove up and down the streets looking for their prey, but alas she was nowhere to be seen.
But even though we managed to escape, we still were shaking an hour later. By the time we arrived at the “revolutionary headquarter”, I must have been as white as a ghost. It wasn’t until the host smiled at me that I knew I was safe again, albeit temporarily. And hundreds of my colleagues in Saigon, Hanoi, inside and outside of Vietnam, were ecstatic to hear that I’d made it out safely.
Indeed. I will never forget that coffee shop meeting for as long as I live. It was a rainy Spring day. Every person, every face I saw left an indelible impression upon my memory, full of emotions and passion. Each one had a role to play. Even the shop owner, or my first driver whose identity I can’t reveal just yet. Even K., and S. And my guitar.
I cannot imagine how much all the people in our democracy movement were worried for me, or how hard they worked to protect me.
At the same time, they cannot know the emotions I felt on that day and what they truly mean to me in this life. They do not know, that because of them and the things they did, how happy and blessed I am feeling today.
— Phạm Đoan-Trang
transl. by @bilinguist