Hanoi, Vietnam, 1954

Young Diem never questioned why her life was the way it was.

She felt her childhood was just like everyone else’s. She woke up in the morning and put on her school uniform, staring in dismay at the small bruise on her left knee. She must have been playing a little too roughly with her older brothers and cousins. As the youngest and the only girl, her father was quite protective of her, he had not even taught her how to ride a bicycle. It was her cousins who took on that responsibility, resulting in the bruise below her left knee her uniform wasn’t quite long enough to cover. Her father would not be pleased. He was highly respected as a judge in Hanoi, the current capital of Vietnam and probably the safest place to be, so he did not express his feelings of dedication to the nation of Vietnam despite his true love for his country. Young Diem did not fully understand the influence the French control had on her childhood, and she did not understand how drastically it could change. At this time, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were all colonies under the rule of France, forming French Indochina.

Diem walked to her school and pushed the Vietnamese language out of her mind and switching into the French mindset. At her school, everything was in French. They learned to read, write and speak in French and her teachers had no tolerance for Vietnamese. She saw a young boy standing behind the “red door”. He must have been foolish and decided to speak in Vietnamese with his friends. The punishment for this act was a hurtful tug on the ear and directions to stand in the enclosed area behind the red door until the teachers decided to let you out. Diem would have never risked it; her father had instilled in her the importance of following the rules. Her large family never complained too loudly or discussed with her any feelings of resentment about the French influence in their country. Because of her father’s prestige, they avoided some of the negative aspects of not being an independent nation. They were very comfortable. Diem had all the toys and trinkets she could dream of and her father was constantly bringing more. As the youngest girl of four boys, she was often spoiled and coddled. Her father integrated their family into the French regime seamlessly. Her family would even often gather all together to attend the cinema whose movies were broadcasted entirely in French. Diem’s favorite was Gone with the Wind. Diem never had a proper Vietnamese education. Although, at night, her Grandfather as would call for her saying “Come here, baby” and plop her in his lap. Each time, he would read her a different poem in Vietnamese so she could see her native language written, just a small act of resistance.

Hanoï 1952 – Photo de la Gare avec Train et Vue Générale

Signs of Vietnam’s ongoing fight for independence were a subtle but sure part of Diem’s childhood. Living in the capital city, Hanoi, the actual rebellion was not in clear sight, so Diem found it hard to grasp the reality of the situation. But her model citizen parents still whispered words of caution to her wherever she went. “Be careful, on your way to school, child” they said before she left the house, “Make sure you stay away from the crowded streets”, they would warn softly most days before she left the house. That ever-present caution of safety was always present in the back of Diem’s mind. Especially at night, her father always gave her a strict warning, “You must return before curfew, Diem” he said sternly, “No exceptions.” The citizens of Hanoi were strictly instructed to be back in their houses and off the streets by eleven pm by the French Officials. It was in those dark hours of the night that the possibility of danger became real to Diem. She would curl up in her bed at night, tucked in sweetly by her Grandfather after their poetry session, but sleep never came easily. She would lie away, eyes open, waiting for the sounds of the bombings in the distance. When she was a bit younger, she heard the faint rumblings and imagined they were thunder storms from a faraway rainy town. That was until one day, at the young age of five, the rumblings grew a little too loud and a little too close. Her mother, who at the time was ailing from an undiagnosed, life-threatening illness, used her little remaining strength to grab Diem and hold her tight as she ran as fast as she could underneath a large, brick archway outside of their house. It was the sturdiest structure in the building. Diem’s mother’s sickness eventually won the battle and she passed away later that year, never living to see the result of Vietnam’s fight for independence. Her father would later remarry to another woman who would raise Diem like her own.

Because of their mother’s passing, Diem and her brothers were extremely close. Their favorite holiday to spend together was the Lunar celebration in Autumn. The Lunar celebration was a weeklong celebration of family and the New Year. Usually, the streets were flooded with people parading in bright red colors all week long. Diem’s favorite part of the celebration was lighting a big red lantern with her brothers and watching them float up into the sky amongst the stars. However, in the last couple of years, the Lunar celebration had been a more somber event. The French officials did not want masses of people crowding in the streets, especially during the night. They were worried about rebellions or uprisings. But that did not deter Diem’s family from celebrating and partaking in the most important part of the holiday, spending time together. Instead of taking to the streets, they all gathered in their big family home. Although one year, there was a presence missing. “Dad, where’s Uncle Tran?” Diem asked. Although her biological mother had passed, her brother often joined in during their family celebrations. “Your Uncle passed away, my darling,” her father said softly, “He chose to battle for his country’s freedom and paid for it with his life.” Diem was shocked. No one had told her about her uncle’s passion for nationalism and pride for his country. She didn’t even know he had decided to fight in the war.

In 1954, France and North Vietnam signed the Geneva Agreements, relinquishing France’s control of Indochina and establishing North Vietnam as a communist state. Diem heard people celebrating Vietnam’s independence, but her family did not seem quite as happy. While the French control was not ideal, the officials treated her father with respect and regard. The Communist leaders would not show them that same courtesy. As an educated and powerful man, her father would be seen as a threat to the communist regime. So Diem’s family packed up their bags without turning back to head to Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Diem looked back at her childhood home, unsure if she would ever return. She would always cherish her memories of Hanoi in her heart. Her family made the long journey to a new life in the South, leaving one warzone behind while a new one bristled on the horizon.