Petits Viet Nams: CAFI, A Look at a Little Viet Nam in France

While there are many Vietnamese in France at the present, the past of how some of those Vietnamese – especially those who were Eurasians – arrived and were received in France is something not generally known. In this piece on CAFI, diaCRITICS guest correspondent Ly Lan Dill sheds light on this part of Vietnamese and French history: the camps for Indochinese refugees in France. 

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Bà Crenn passed away last week at 99 years old. She was not an artist, nor a writer, not a leader, nor a philosopher. She was a mother, a grandmother, the personification of đảm đang that kept a family together, and the doyenne of the CAFI.

Bà Merlet, Bà Le Crenn, and Brigitte (left to right).Photo Courtesy of Dominique Rolland.

At the end of the French Indochinese war, the French government took it upon themselves to repatriate all French children for fear that the victorious Việt Minh would exact revenge on them. Their status was defined as having been recognized by a French parent or proving French kinship. Thousands of mixed blood children and their Vietnamese parent, most often their mothers, sailed away from the only home they knew with the promise of a better life in France. For most, the French fathers had either been killed in combat or had returned to France, forgetting their “petite Tonkinoise”. These children are testimonies to the breadth of the former French colonial Empire, their ancestry tracing back to the military troupes of Africa and North Africa, to the Indian merchants of Pondicherry and the Indian Ocean, by way of the “white” Frenchmen from the métropole.

French military troupes installed this population onto steamer boats headed towards Marseille from where they were then sent to various temporary camps, run by former military personnel who had served in Indochina, while the French government tried to find a solution.

One of these temporary barracks was the CAFI, the Centre d’Acceuil des Français d’Indochine (The Welcome Center for the French of Indochina). Brought to the bleak, muddy barracks on a cold winter day in 1956, these women and children, who for the most part did not speak French, refused to believe that this was the promised land of their missing husbands and fathers.

A quiet afternoon in the CAFI. Photo Courtesy of Dominique Rolland.

France, in the aftermath of the Indochinese war and the beginning of the Algerian war, forgot these camps, and what was supposed to be a temporary solution endured for over 50 years. All able-bodied, skilled individuals were encouraged to leave the camp as quickly as possible to integrate into French society, leaving only the very old, the very young, and those entirely inapt to fend for themselves. The inadequate temporary housing and meager Social Security benefits for large families were all the inhabitants of the camp had to survive on during those early years. These Vietnamese mothers and grandmothers, despite their lack of schooling, their lack of French, their lack of skills other than agricultural know-how, struggled to raise their children, send them to school, and ensure that they succeed in the outside world. Their efforts turned a temporary welcome center into home and putting down roots for their children who had nothing more than fleeting images of a lost land, their mother, and the camp to forge their own identity.

Dominique Rolland, ethnologist at the Institut de Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris and of Vietnamese descent herself, wrote a poignant book on those who left the camp and those who have stayed. Petits Viet-Nams – Histoires des camps de raptriés français d’Indochine (Little Viet Nams – Stories From Camps for Repatriated Indochinese French; Paris: Elytis, 2009) is not a scholarly history of the camp. It is a personal, emotionally charged account of the weekend of August 15, 2009 at the camp. This French holiday (the feast day of the Assumption of Mary) is traditionally the moment where former camp inhabitants and current inhabitants reunite, where young and old meet up and life at the camp is once again a joyous crowd of hungry children, teenagers flirting under the lone tree, parents tending to the elderly, and the elderly themselves reminiscing on how difficult it had all once been. These fleeting impressions, anecdotes, and snatches of life stories revealed over a meal are carefully transcribed as Dominique Rolland fulfills her mission to ensure that what these women endured had not been in vain, that their sufferings, ignored and forgotten by all, not be forgotten by future generations.

Portrait of Bà Le Crenn. Photo Courtesy of Dominique Rolland.

Bà Le Crenn, the doyenne of the group in 2009, feared the demolition of the camp more than she feared death. The French authorities had finally remembered the camp after 50 years and decided to demolish the sub-standard housing and relocate the inhabitants into new public housing. “Fifteen or twenty years ago, this could have been possible. But now at 97 years old, they have to let her finish her days here.” The devout Buddhist had already planned her cremation and funeral urn; all that was missing was her portrait. When Dominique Rolland and her photographer requested a picture of Bà Le Crenn for the book, the latter agreed but only in exchange for a proper picture for her burial stone. An ageless photo of her with her prayer beads can be seen in Dominique Rolland’s Facebook album dedicated to CAFI 2009.

Other events concerning the CAFI:

Final days for Charlotte Nguyen’s photo exhibition at the Fontaine Obscure in Aix-en-Provence.

The last of the three radio shows France Culture dedicated to the CAFI, including Bà Le Crenn and Dominique Rolland.

 Ly Lan Dill was born in Viet Nam, she grew up in the US, and is now a Paris-based translator.

Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Were you aware of Vietnamese Indochinese refugees and their situations? What do you think of the Vietnamese community in France? How is their situation different or similar to that of Vietnamese Americans? What other Vietnamese, refugee histories may be undocumented and not generally known?

This entry was posted in Essays, France, Most Critical May 2011, Refugee experience and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Petits Viet Nams: CAFI, A Look at a Little Viet Nam in France

  1. Dan Duffy says:

    Wow, this was all new to me. My interest in the Vietnamese in France lies in the fact that Vietnamese have been present throughout the development of modern France, as French have been present throughout the development of modern Viet Nam.

    The location of Vietnamese throughout Paris affirms this sense, as does looking at France as the nation of Paris. I suspected Marseilles was another story, as your note confirms.

    One context that Americans might miss from your account is the political one. France is a nation with a legal, active, important Communist Party and Marseilles is a red town.

    French socialists both supported and opposed Indochine, a conflict within and without the left that must have played a role in these camps. Any French citizen would know that, but not many over here do.

    I should speak up for my fellow ethnologist. It sounds to me like her account of a weekend in the camp was indeed scholarly, a essay in ethnography.

    Thanks again for the new views and wonderful links.

    Dan

  2. Lan says:

    Thank you Dan for such a close reading and by the editor of VNLP, no less! As my first contribution to Diacritics, I was not as thorough as I could have been. For example, while the CAFI is situated in the south of France, it is in the commune of St Livrade, nearer to Bordeaux than Marseille.
    You make an important point when you underline how much more of a predominant role politics play in daily life in France as compared to the US. However, in the case of this book and the Center, the Communist party had very little to do with either.
    The creation of the camp itself took place under de Gaulle – the emblem of France’s traditional right wing. The different camps were an extension of the Colonial Party’s policy to ensure that mixed blood children from the various colonies would grow up to be pro-France. Neither the French Communist Party nor the Socialist Party were interested at the time in the native widows and orphans of the colonial troupes.
    As for their involvement in the French Indochina War, it is a complex affair. Both parties were at heads in the post WWII / Cold War context. Later, during the US-Vietnam war, the French Communist Party would chase from their ranks French Communists who were pro North Vietnam because these former comrades were too left-wing. For a detailed account of the complexity of French colonization of Indochina, UCPress is coming out, in June, with the paperback edition of Indochina, an Ambiguous Colonization (http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520269743), by Daniel Hémery and Pierre Brocheux, which I helped translate.
    As for Dominique Rolland, she herself states that her goal here was artistic not academic. She did not want to write an academic paper on the camp but rather to bear witness to human destiny as it plays out in the CAFI.
    Thank you for giving me a chance to clarify some important points.

  3. Sonny Le says:

    Dear Lan:

    I had read this once, but kept looking at it a few times, even followed the links. Very moving and of great historical importance for all-things Vietnamese.

    It reminds me of an encounter a few years back. As I was sitting at the cafe right across from the Hotel de ville d’Aix in Provence, an old Asian couple, around late 60s, sauntered up to me & said, “Anh la nguoi Viet, ma tu dau den?” in crisp Northern accent.

    “You are Vietnamese, but where are you from?” Just loved this form of question.

    In any event, I asked if they lived nearby and, of course, they said they had been in Provence since before 1975.

    Again, thank you for writing this up.

    Sonny Le
    Oakland, CA

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