Nguyen Chi Thien, Dissident Poet, Dies

The passing of a major Vietnamese dissident writer–silenced in Vietnam, acclaimed in the free world–is mourned by a friend and champion.  Nguyen Chi Thien’s story of serial imprisonment and resistance is a parable of artistic choice for a not too distant generation.

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“Though death is inevitable, I could not help feeling an excruciating sense of loss as I wept! That night, I lay down with my face to the wall. I remembered the months and years together. I recalled the day we met at Phong Quang. On that dark, winter day, he stood before a red pepper plant staring at the leaden grey sky with an equally leaden gaze. On the day I said good-bye to him, as I left for Saigon on my way to the United States, he held my hands not wanting to let go, his eyes brimming with tears. Very early that morning, as I drifted back to sleep, I dreamed of the stars, azure blue sails flying in the wind across the Milky Way, leading his soul to the Merciful Almighty! One day, when I return to Vietnam, there will be nothing I can do but stand in silence before a cattle-trodden mound at the far end of a hamlet, where his body has been laid to rest.” (Nguyễn Chí Thiện recalls his jail-mate, poet Phùng Cung of the 1956 Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm movement – a political controversy over literary censorship, in his short autobiography published in 2005 by the Vietnam Literature Project)

Early on Tuesday, October 2, 2012, Nguyễn Chí Thiện, Vietnamese dissident-poet, passed away quietly at 73 in a Santa Ana hospital after refusing life support.

Of all of Vietnam’s prisoners of conscience, he had one of the longest overall sentences, spending a total of 27 years in various prison camps in North Vietnam.

Born in Hanoi in 1939 to a family of 6, his elder brother, Nguyen Cong Gian, enlisted in Vietnam’s National Army and was the only family member to move South, later rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the ARVN. After 1975, Cong Gian would also be imprisoned, spending 13 years in Hanoi’s reeducation camps. In 1954, Thien initially welcomed uncle Ho’s Viet Minh soldiers as liberators, but he and his family later regretted their earlier and short-lived exuberance.

In 1960, while substituting for a friend, he explained to a classroom that the Soviets did not end WWII by defeating the Japanese army, as stated in their textbook; but rather the United States and the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This landed him in prison for three and a half years.

In prison he began composing his poems in his head, committing them to memory by reciting them to his jailmates. In 1966, he was incarcerated again, this time for more than 11 years because his ‘reactionary’ poems circulated in Hanoi and Hai Phong. Released in 1977, 2 years after the fall of Saigon, he lived under constant police surveillance.

In 1979, fearing that he might not survive a third prison term, he was determined to smuggle his poetry out of Vietnam. Thien boldly entered the British Embassy in Hanoi, requesting asylum. Though his request was denied, British diplomats agreed to deliver his collection of 400 poems out of Vietnam. Thiện walked out of the embassy and spent the next 12 years in prison, mostly at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.

His poetry first appeared in the U.S. in the early 1980’s under the title “A cry from the Abyss”, before being published as “Flowers from Hell”. The collection was translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese, Czech and Korean. Thanks to his international following, Thien won the Rotterdam’s International Poetry Prize in 1985. In 1988, he also won the “Freedom to Write” award from Pen International.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was finally released in 1991 and resettled in the U.S. in 1995, the same year he was honored by the Human Rights Watch.

Like many Vietnamese, I took up his cause as a student at Cal in the early 1980’s. We organized poetry recitals on university campuses throughout the Bay area to raise awareness about the prisoner-poet and Vietnam’s repressive state of morose socialism. This was the beginning of our friendship.

I am deeply sorrowed, not only by his passing, but also by the loneliness and despair that he and many exiled Vietnamese dissidents must have felt. They were denied the possibility of visiting Vietnam and stood watching Vietnam make its great leap backward as the Party continues to persecute and silence the voice of conscience, delivering heavy jail sentences to today’s dissident bloggers (a total of 26 years for bloggers Điếu Cày, Tạ Phong Tần, and Anh Ba Sàigòn). Did he resign, letting go of his world where hope is dying and tomorrow is slow in coming? This past June he discussed the French poem Élegie Septième with me, ignoring its prophetic message expressed by his dying wish:

Élégie septième


–        Dis-moi, dis-moi, guérirai-je

de ce qui est dans mon cœur?


–        Ami, ami, la neige

ne guérit pas de sa blancheur


–        Ami qui, dans les larmes, souris

comme un arc-en-ciel dans la pluie,


dis-moi, dis-moi, ô Mamore,

s’il me faudra mourir encore ?


–        Es-tu fou mon petit ami?

Tu le sais… Nous irons en Paradis…


–        O Mamore, dans le ciel bleu,

Dis? Que diras-tu au Bon-Dieu?


–        Je lui dirai que, sur la terre,

il y a de grandes misères.


–        O Mamore tant aimée… Dis?…

Comment sera le Paradis?


–        Il y aura des harpes

d’azur et des écharpes.


–        Qu’y aura-t-il encore, Mamore,

au Paradis? Encore… Encore…


–        O ami, je suis ta Mamore.

Au Paradis il y a notre amour


Francis Jammes


Dis-moi, dis-moi, guérirai-je

De ce qui est dans mon coeur?

Ami, ami, la neige

Ne guérit pas de sa blancheur.

Francis Jammes


Làm sao chu*a duoc bênh trong tim?

Ban lòng oi, ban lòng oi,

Tuyet trang có khi nào tâ?y duoc màu tinh khôi cu?a nó?

Tô’-Tâm NKTA


Tell me, tell me, will I ever be cured

Of this thing in my heart


Friend, dear friend, the snow

Can never be cured of its purity


Friend, who amidst the tears, smiles

like a rainbow in the rain,

Tell me, do tell me, my Love,

Must I die once again?


Are you crazy dear friend?

You do know… We are going to Heaven…


O Love, in the blue sky,

Do tell? What will you say to the Good-Lord?


I will say, that on earth

Great misery abounds.


O sweetest Love… do tell?…

What will Heaven be like?


There will be azure harps

And scarves.


What else my Love,

will there be in Heaven? More… More…


My friend, I am your Love.

In Heaven, there will be our love.


Tell me, tell me, will I ever be cured

Of this thing in my heart?

Friend, dear friend, snow

Can never be cured of its purity.




Khi Mỹ chạy

Khi Mỹ chạy bỏ miền Nam cho Cộng sản

Sức mạnh toàn cầu nhục nhã kêu than

Giữa tù lao, bệnh hoạn, cơ hàn

Thơ vẫn bắn, và thừa dư sức đạn!

Vì thơ biết một ngày mai xa xôi nhưng sáng lạn

Không giành cho thế lực yêu gian

Tuyệt vọng dẫu lan tràn


Hy vọng dẫu tiêu tan

Dân nước dẫu đêm dài ai oán

Thơ vẫn đó, vẫn gông cùm trên ván

Âm thầm, thâm tím, kiên gan

Biến trái tim thành “chiếu yêu kính” giúp nhân gian

false country

Nhận rõ nguyên hình Cộng sản

Tất cả suy tàn, sức thơ vô hạn

Thắng không gian mà thắng cả thời gian

Sắt thép quân thù năm tháng rỉ han!



(Nguyen Chi Thien, 1975)


When America ran

When America abandoned the South to the Communists

Humiliated global power, cried out

In the midst of prison labor, disease, hardship

Poetry still shoots, with plenty of power and bullets!

Because it knows tomorrow is far yet bright

That it is not reserved for their evil forces

Although despair may spread


And Hope dissipates

Nations and people ruminate in the dark plaintive night

Poetry is still here, still shackled to wooden planks

Silent, bruised, persistent

Tricking a heart that “radiates love and respect” into helping a

False country

By clearly seeing the true forms of Communism

All will disintegrate, but the infinite power of poetry

Will conquer both time and space

And break down the rusty steel and metal of the enemy!


Thơ của tôi

Thơ của tôi không phải là thơ

Mà là tiếng cuộc đời nức nở!

Tiếng của nhà giam ngòm đen khép mở

Tiếng khò khè hai lá phổi hoang sơ!

Tiếng đất vùi (mộ) đổ xuống lấp niềm mơ!

Tiếng khai quật cuốc đào lên nỗi nhớ!

Tiếng răng lạnh đập vào nhau khổ sở!

Tiếng dạ dày đói lả bóp bâng quơ!

Tiếng tim buồn thoi thóp đập bơ vơ!

Tiếng bất lực trước muôn ngàn sụp đổ!

Toàn tiếng của cuộc đời sống dở,

Và chết thời cũng dở, phải đâu thơ



My Poetry

My verses are in fact no verses

They are simply Life’s sobbings

Dark prison cells opening and shutting

The dry cough of two hollow lungs

The sound of dirt burying dreams

The sound of hoes exhumating memories

The chattering of teeth in cold and misery

The pointless contractions of an empty stomach

The hopeless beat of a dying heart

The voice of impotence within a collapsing earth

All the sounds of a life not worth living

Even death is so bad, it can’t be poetry


Thơ của tôi     

Thơ của tôi không có gì là đẹp

Như cướp vồ, cùm kẹp, máu ho laọ

Thơ của tôi không có gì cao

Như chết chóc mồ hôi báng sung

Thơ của tôi là những gì kinh khủng

Như Đảng, Đoàn, như lãnh tụ,như trung ương

Thơ của tôi kém phần tưởng tượng

Nó thật như tù, như đói, như đau thương

Thơ của tôi chỉ để đám dân thường

Nhìn thấu suốt tim đen phường quỷ đỏ.”



My Poetry

There is nothing beautiful about my poetry

Like highway robbery, shackles clamping, and tubercular blood

There is nothing noble about my poetry

Like death, sweat, and rifle butts

My poetry is made up of terrible things

Like the Party, the Youth Union, the leaders, the Central Committee

My Poetry lacks imagination

It is as real as prison, as hunger and suffering

My poetry is for simple folks

To see through the black heart of the Red devils.”


Có phải em là

Có phải em là em bé?

Bố tập trung xa cách đã mười năm?

Bố dượng em là bác da ngăm ngăm,

Là đồng chí bí thư nơi mẹ em công tác?

–        Anh là bạn tù của bố em, từ tỉnh khác

–        Về tìm em để nhắn hộ tin…

–        Bố em giờ đau ốm cần xin

–        Ít ký ninh, ít đường đen bồi dưỡng!

Bố dặn mẹ hãy an lòng, đừng ngượng

Bố hiểu cảnh tình rất thương mẹ và em

Hãy nín đi em đừng khóc!

Bố sắp về rồi, bố sẽ cho em đi học,

Mua cho em đôi dép em đi…

Em sẽ được là thiếu nhi quàng khăn đỏ

Là cháu ngoan bác Hồ em có thích không?

–Có thích



Are you not the child?

Are you not the child?
Whose father regrouped 10 years ago?

Your stepfather is the man with the dark olive skin,

He is the comrade secretary where your mother works?

I’m your father’s prison friend, from another province

I have been looking for you to give you a message…
Your Father is sick and needs

A bit of quinine, a little black sugar to eat!


Your Father wants to reassure your mother, she mustn’t be embarrassed

He understands the situation, he loves her and you both
Please stop crying!
Your father will come back and send you to school,
He will buy you sandals to walk in…
You will be the Red-Scarfed child
Uncle Ho’s well-mannered child, would you like that?

– Yes, I would!


Một tay em trổ

Một tay em trổ: Đời xua đuổi!

Một tay em trổ: Hận vô bờ!

Thế giới ơi! người có thể ngờ?

Đó là một tù nhân tám tuổi!

Trên bước đường tù, tôi rong ruổi

Tôi gặp hàng ngàn em bé như em!


A tattoed arm

A tattoed arm: Life Gone!

A tattoed arm: Infinite Hatred!

Oh world! Who would have imagined?

That’s an eight-year-old prisoner!

Throughout my prison journey
I have met thousands of children like him!


Thai-Anh Nguyen-Khoa


If Nguyen Chi Thien’s story is both extraordinary but also typical, how many among us has been touched by Vietnamese poets, writers, artists who have labored in obscurity?


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