Thứ Tư, 24 tháng 6, 2020

Đỗ Quý Toàn: Một nhà báo tại Sài Gòn trước năm 1975


Dưới đây là bài thuyết trình bằng tiếng Anh của nhà báo Ngô Nhân Dụng, tức Đỗ Quý Toàn, trong cuộc hội thảo “Voices From The Everyday South: Civilian Lives during the Viet Nam War” tổ thức tại Haverford College, thị xã Haverford, PA ngày 1 tháng 11 năm 2019. Trong cuộc hội thảo này các thuyết trình viên, thuộc nhiều nghề nghiệp khác nhau, được yêu cầu kể chuyện thật đời mình trong cuộc sống tại miền Nam Việt Nam trước năm 1975.

Ban tổ chức cho biết cuộc hội thảo “Voices from the Everyday South: Civilian Lives during the Viet Nam War” (Tiếng nói từ đời sống hàng ngày: Đời sống thường dân trong thời chiến tranh Việt Nam) nhắm mời những người dân Việt ở miền Nam trong thời gian từ 1954 đến 1975 để nói chuyện về nhiều khía cạnh của cuộc sống giữa thời chiến. Cuộc sống của thành phần dân sự trong miền Nam thường lu mờ sau các biến cố chính trị và quân sự. Cuộc hội thảo nhấn mạnh đến cuộc sống của những người dân bình thường để hy vọng mở lại bầu không khí lịch sử trong giai đoạn này, ngõ hầu cho người Việt cũng như người Mỹ hiểu rõ về cuộc chiến tranh hơn.


A Journalist in Saigon before 1975

I never thought I would end up working in journalism. There was no journalism school in Viet Nam until 1968, when a one year certificate in journalism was finally offered at the University of Dalat. I attended the Faculty of Education at the University of Saigon and started my teaching career in 1962 at Chu Văn An, a high school.

Like many journalists of my generation, I became a writer, a reporter and finally a columnist “for fun,” not to make serious money. 

I started writing poems and short stories while in high school. I sent my works to weekly magazines or daily newspapers. There were some magazines specially for young students, they published unsolicited works; occasionally, we got paid.

Many journalists were moonlighting. Some were in the armed forces, some were civil servants, in my case I taught at a public high school. With inflation higher and higher every year we all had to take a second job. Since 1964, while writing or editing for magazines or newspapers, I kept my job as at public school, teaching about 30 hours a week. By 1970, the newspaper paid me much more than the Ministry of Education, but I had to keep my teaching job because teachers of my age were exempt from military service.

A career in journalism usually started from the bottom.Young journalists were willing to do all kinds of odd jobs at a newspaper, as proof readers, or leg-men for senior reporters before being promoted to write and to sign their byline.

The journalists

I first worked as a reporter on a part-time basis for Sống, a newspaper, covering education, student protests, and youth organizations.

I was interested in the youth movement in Việt Nam because I was a boy scout, and later became a Scout Leader. I also engaged in activities of the Student Association of the University of Saigon starting in 1964, co-founded the “Summer Youth Program 1965” which organised tens thousands students in all the provinces. From 1968 to 1975, I was one of the leaders at The School of Social Services founded by Thích Nhất Hạnh in 1964.

From 1964, I analyzed political and social issues in my writing and became a columnist.

A newspaper company in Saigon printed most of the “world news” translated from AP, Reuters, AFP, etc. They had very few reporters, for both national and local news. A newspaper made money mainly by copies sold to readers who back then, bought their news at news stands; Advertisements were not the main source of incomes. 

Good reporters might have attracted readers to buy a newspaper if they had first hand news items that people wanted to hear about. Nam Đình, a famous journalist who became owner and publisher of a newspaper, Thần Chung, always gave a bonus to his reporters whenever their news articles increased the circulation in a day. Văn Bia recalled he was rewarded 300 or 500 đồng many times. (2) 

During the war, many reporters went to the battle fields, for exclusive reports. Most of them also worked for the information services of the armed forces. These special reports were rare, however. Some times, a newspaper attracted a lot of readers with investigative news about corrupted officials, especially when it involved powerful generals.

News reporting was not the main tool to increase readership; good political columnists and novelists were the reason people bought newspapers! I chose to become a columnist under the pen name Ông Đạo Cấy, at the weekly Diễn Đàn, in 1964. It was a sarcastic column, criticizing the government and the Americans in Việt Nam, it made Ông Đạo Cấy better known. In 1966 I started to write five days a week for daily newspapers, like Độc Lập and Sóng Thần and the weekly Đời of Chu Tử where I also was managing editor. In the 1970’s I wrote under of another pen name, Vương Hữu Bột, instead of Ông Đạo Cấy when writing for Đại Dân Tộc, a newspaper. In March 1975, Phổ Thông, the most long-lasting monthly magazine in South Việt Nam, named Vương Hữu Bột as one among the Men Of The Year, one of the others was Nguyễn Khoa Nam, a general who was famous for being incorruptible. General Nam killed himself on April 30th, 1975 when South Việt Nam collapsed.

Vietnamese people during that war-time bought newspapers because they wanted to read support for their political opinions, even under censorship. Under the French rule, newspapers with strong nationalist tendency would have sold very well. In South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975, many readers bought newspapers which criticized the government. 

Some journalists were under threat and some were assassinated because of their political opinion. In 1950 two famous journalists, Đinh Xuân Tiếu and Nam Quốc Cang, were shot in daylight at a coffee stand, because they wrote against the return of the French to Vietnam. In 1965, journalist Từ Chung was killed by communist secret agents. One year later, Chu Tử, publisher and editor-in-chief of a very popular anti-communist newspaper was shot but he survived the attack.

These unfortunate deaths made many journalists nervous but they did not deter the engaged ones because we were living in a state of war almost all our lives and many of our friends and relatives already died while doing their duty.

Columnists and commentators, some of them were also publishers or editors of their journals like Chu Tử (Sống, Sóng Thần), Nam Đình (Thần Chung), Trần Tấn Quốc (Đuốc Nhà Nam); others like Từ Chung and Sức Mấy (Chính Luận), Tư Tời Biển (Điện Tín) etc., were widely read and well paid. Trần Tấn Quốc wrote a famous editorial on Sept 3rd, 1972 to criticize the new press law of NguyễnVănThiệu with many new restrictions on the freedom of the press, and even announced that his newspaper, Đuốc Nhà Nam, will stop their publishing in order to protest.

Writers with humorous and satirical styles a la Art Buchwald, like Chu Tử with his column AoThảVịt (Duck Pond), Sức Mấy, Ông Đạo Cấy, Vương Hữu Bột, Tú Kếu (a poet with sarcastic pen), etc., were sought after by managing editors.

All of these columnists criticized the government officials, from the president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, VP Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, ministers and provincial chiefs, down to simple heads of district. The readers liked it! I remember once I wrote about a new tax increase on sugar and gasoline by the minister of economy. There was a very popular Chinese Kungfu Movie at that time titled “Đường Sơn Đại Huynh” (Big Bother from Đường Sơn) featuring Bruce Lee. I gave the minister a funny nickname “Đường Xăng Đại Huynh” (Big Bother Đường Xăng) with the two words “sugar (đường) and gas (xăng)” that mimic the sound of Đường Sơn. Few days later, a friend of mine who was in the government told me that at one meeting of the cabinet every body called the minister of economy by his new nickname.

Once I was waiting to pick up my six-year old daughter at her school, I was walking around and saw a cyclo driver, also in waiting, sitting in his tricycle and reading a newspaper. I was curious to know what kind of news the laborer was reading. When I approached to take a look, I found that he was reading my column.

People were also loyal readers of papers with famous novelists who wrote “feuilletons”. These readers followed the story every single day, much like tele-novels or soaps later on TV. Novelist An Khê (Nguyễn Bính Thinh) “best sellers,” like “The wife twice married” (Người vợ hai lần cưới) at Tiếng Chuông, was converted into a musical which was performed 19 nights; later ran for three more weeks. Many papers competed to have An Khê’s feuilletons. He wrote more than 200 feuilletons for 13 newspapers in SàiGòn under different pen names between 1958 and 1972.

Journalists’ salary, which was about the same as high school teachers, gave them a “middle class” status. In 1961, Trần Tấn Quốc recalled, “An editor-in-chief may be paid 20,000 “đồng” (Vietnam currency) and a reporter was paid less than a third, đ6,000; but at a small newspaper the editor-in-chief got only đ8,000 while a reporter was paid đ3,000. In 1961, one “lượng” of gold (about 37 grams) was worth d95,200. (1) 

Writer Hoàng Hải Thủy remembers when he first worked for Saigon Mới, one of the best selling newspapers, that in 1954, he was paid đ3,000 while the rent of his house was only đ1,000. He asked Mrs Bút Trà the owner of Saigon Mới for a raise and she agreed to it.

Saigon Mới paid journalists at the beginning rather than at the end of the month. This was a practice of newspapers in South Vietnam which has been established since the French rule. Before Tết, the Lunar New Year, the most important Vietnamese holiday, everybody in the Saigon Mới received a month’s additional salary and 15 days to compensate for loss of holidays and weekends because the newspapers printed 7 days a week. (3) 

None of the newspapers I worked for followed this practice. Hoàng Hải Thủy worked for Saigon Mới for nine years until it was shut down by the new military government after the coup in 1963 because the owners were accused of supporting former President Ngô Đình Diệm.

During the time I wrote for newspapers, I also received salary for my work as a teacher which was not enough for a decent living in highly inflationary time. Many of the public high school teachers took second jobs, teaching at private schools which paid more. I did not have to do that because the newspapers paid me well enough. For me, writing columns was “easy work” because I could work at home. Every morning I woke up early, made a coffee, and started to write. At seven or seven-thirty, a boy from the newspaper rode his bicycle to pick up the article of the day from the writer. This boy went to the houses of many columnists and writers of feuilletons in one or two hours each morning, he was able to make a living too.

There were two unions of journalists in the Republic of Việt Nam. They were mostly friendship and mutual-help organizations. One union had built Làng Báo Chí (Journalist Village) a housing project very popular with the members, starting in 1974. The village had not been completed in 1975 and was abandoned under the communist regime. There were few organized strikes, the only wide-spread strike was at the end of the Việt Nam war, to protest the government’s violation of the principle of free press.

The Politics in the World of Journalism

The following story about Saigon Mới will demonstrate the political context in which the newspapers were doing business in the Republic of Việt Nam before 1975.

On November 1st, 1960, a group of generals started a failed coup against President Ngô Đình Diệm. They took over the national radio. They also sent a proclamation of the coup’s purposes to every newspaper. The owner of Saigon Mới decided to publish the text, reasoning that it was just a piece of worthy news; while all other newspapers were cautious enough to wait and see what would happen next. When the usurpers fled to Campuchia, or were killed, Saigon Mới was not “punished.” But the owners “felt guilty” and tried to appease the government with many flattering articles and images of President Diem, calling him The Supreme and Unique Leader of the Vietnames People. On the special issue for the Lunar New Year, Tết, in 1962, Saigon Mới printed a big color picture of the president, his mother, his brothers and their families. When President Diem was overthrown and assassinated in 1963; Saigon Mới was attacked by the mob and forced to close.

But Saigon Mới was originally an “apolitical” newspaper. Its owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bút Trà were business people who became very rich from 1957 to 1963 with the paper full of feuilletons and shocking local news stories, some of them were totally made up by the imagination of the reporters!

Because the government controlled the printing of newspapers, magazines and books, all publishers had to start their business with an authorization from a friendly administration. Every new government, from the French rule to Ngô Đình Diệm and after, directed their own supporters to publish pro-government newspapers, some of the papers were bought with public funds and distributed to local government offices in the whole country.

Some publishers were well known journalists who wanted to have their own papers and they sought the consent or approval of the political leaders. But they mostly maintained their independence towards the government. One interesting story was about the Tự Do Newspaper.

When the country was divided in 1954, among one million Vietnamese from the North moved to the South were many journalists, poets and writers. Some politicians close to President Diem helped the Tự Do, organised by the writers and refugees from the North. This group of writers were given a permit to publish papers, each day the minister of information may have bought some thousands of copies of the paper, with public funds.

But in 1956 this newspaper printed many articles to criticize the Minister of Information who supervised all printed materials. Two journalists, Nguyễn Hoạt and Mặc Thu, and an artist, cartoonist, PhạmTăng, were arrested and put on trial. They were sentenced to jail; but released after 45 days (4)

Despite their political connection at the beginning, many publishers were businessmen or women, whose main purpose was to make money. A small few newspapers published solely for political parties but these endeavors were short-lived.

At the beginning of his 9-year-rule, President Ngô Đình Diệm had outlawed the communist party in South Việt Nam. Many pro-communist journalists were expelled to the North or went into hiding. All the newspapers in SàiGòn from 1954 to 1975 were vetted by the government as “non-communist” or “anti-communist.” But most, if not all, newspapers, were infiltrated by communist secret agents. They were not so well known as Phạm Xuân Ẩn, who worked for Time magazine until April 30th 1975 but they were very effective in keeping all journalists under watch if not under control. The secret agents directed many writers to be friendly to the communist party in the North, and to criticize the South Vietnamese government and the Americans.

As my popular column for Đại Dân Tộc frequently criticized the government and the Americans, I once received a letter from an anonymous reader from the “liberated zone” (communist controlled areas) with attempt to recruit me to “serve the revolution.” I gave it to the publisher. 

Some of those secret agents were among my friends. Vũ Hạnh was a well known writer who supported the communists and was arrested. But he was freed after the journalist unions, the Vietnam Pen Club and other writer organizations protested to the government.

After 1975, some of these agents were publicly recognized and rewarded by the communist party. For example, Nguyễn Văn Hiếu, aka Khải Minh, who was in charge of intellectuals in SàiGòn from 1949 to 1957, worked for Tiếng Chuông, one of the best-selling newspapers since 1954 until 1975. Also Thành Hương at Dân Chủ of Vũ Ngọc Các, Châu Dương at Ngôn Luận of Hồ Anh, later were revealed as communist agents although all the owners had been well known as anti-communists. Some newspapers inadvertently hired communist agents as managing editors, like Sàigòn Mai of Ngô Quân with Ty Ca, Thời Luận of Nghiêm Xuân Thiện with Ký Ninh (5)

Number of Newspapers, magazines companies and circulation numbers

Newspapers in South Vietnam were distributed mostly in the cities, where the literacy rate approached 90%. In 1945 the literacy rate in Vietnam was only 5%. In 1954, the RVN with 12 million people, the number improved and was about 50%. 

In 1957, according to Chỉ Đạo magazine, there were about 200 printed magazines, newspapers and newsletters published by the government. These publications were circulated through the official network of the government and could have reached the rural areas. Private and commercial papers could not be distributed to far away villages and hamlets because the costs were too high during a time of war.

In the cities, the number of newspapers in South Vietnam went up and down due to changing political landscape. When President Ngô Đình Diệm took over the power from the French regime in 1954, there were more than a dozen newspapers in SàiGòn and a few more in Huế, the ancient capital. Some of them were then shut down, some publishers and owners were put in jail, if they were considered as either pro-communist or anti Diệm. But most journalists kept working for other news outlets.

In 1961 there were 16 daily newspapers in SàiGòn, and in 1963, the last year of the Diem regime, there were 30. (6)After Diem was assassinated on November 1st, 1963, some newspapers were attacked by the mob as they were viewed as pro-Diem. After the “revolution” the number of daily newspapers increased to 91 in 1964, but declined to 47 in 1965.(7) when the military rule was consolidated. Under President NguyễnVănThiệu (1966-1975), however, the control of the press was more relaxed, the number of newspapers in Sài Gòn was increased again, from 60 in 1968 to 72 in 1972.

Political life was also improved under Thiệu, in 1965, 66 there were 22 political parties registered officially; many of them published their own magazines or bulletins. At least two newspapers, Hành Động (Action) and Thân Dân (Populist) were published by two branches of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party; both didn’t last long in a competitive market for lack of readership.

In 1955, SàiGòn, with a population of about a million, an average newspaper like Lẽ Sống printed from 15,000 to 17,000 copies a day. Saigon Mới had the highest circulation, from 50,000 to 70,000 copies a day. (8). The most popular newspaper at that time was Thần Chung, in the 1950’s each day it printed 100,000 copies, by 10 printing machines during 5 hours in the evening, to be distributed to many cities and provinces in South Vietnam.(9) Thần Chung was shut down by the Diem government.

In 1975, I wrote a popular column for Đại Dân Tộc Daily, the owner was very proud when its circulation reached the number of 100,000 for some days. Most of the time I criticized the government officials, in an obliqued and humorous way that made people laugh. The publisher of Đại Dân Tộc was a member of the Lower House of Congress, in opposition to the government. He encouraged me to write freely, under a pen name, Vương Hữu Bột. He promised that if the government took the writer and the paper to court he would say that he himself was Vương Hữu Bột. As he was a House member, he would be safe!

The number of weekly and monthly magazines increased from 93 to 148 from 1968 to 1971. There were 2,624 books published in three years, 1961 to 1963, 546 titles were literature like novels, poems. In five years, 1967-1971, 919 of the 2,212 titles were literatures; the rest covered diverse subjects, such as Social Sciences (314), Hard Sciences (122), Technology (120), Religion (157), Philosophy (104) Linguistics (91), Arts (56). In 1971, the publishing industry consumed 25,080 tons of printed papers, that volume increased to 48,581 tons in 1972. 

Fighting the Scissors of Censorship

From the French colonial time to the Republic of Việt Nam the media and book publishing were under control. Most printing houses were private but they were restricted to print only what has been permitted by the Ministry of Information (Bộ Thông Tin); or were subjected to severe penalties.

My first book of Love Poems, Nàng, was published in 1965 without problem but my second collection of anti-war poems, Đêm Việt Nam (Vietnam Night) was not allowed. However, group of students published anyway, as “samizdat” in 1966.

All books, newspapers and magazines were censored. All newspapers had to submit their next daily copy to the Bộ Thông Tin before going to the printing press. Every evening we waited for the decision by the bureaucrats of Bộ Thông Tin to know which article, which paragraph or words have been cut out. At the Bộ Thông Tin they were very sensitive to anti-government facts or opinions, especially the bad news from the ongoing war.

With the printing techniques at the time, we could not do the “retyping” to cut the censored words. The only way was to cut a few words or paragraphs and left several blank spaces in the censored articles. Next morning, when readers looked at a newspaper and found those “white spaces,” they knew that some words or paragraphs have been censored! They could guess what has been cut out. If the article was about the war, it may be some heavy losses. If it was about a government policy, it must be something very bad! If there are many blank spaces on the first page, readers considered the newspaper as anti-government, and they liked it!

People in the Bộ Thông Tin knew that the blank spaces would show that the regime heavily controlled the free press and that looks very bad. Impossible to change the printing techniques, they required newspapers to fill the blank spaces with something! The newspapers found a way to respond to that requirement: Every blank space was filled with one or several sentence: “Tự Ý Đục Bỏ - Cut out by ourself.”

In 1975, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu imposed severe conditions on newspapers, requiring the owners to deposit large sums of money at the banks, saying that the money might be used to pay in future libel lawsuits! Many newspapers closed to protest. The Union of Journalist of South Việt Nam (Nghiệp đoàn Ký giả Nam Việt) organized a day of protest in Sài Gòn which was well supported by the public. But the government did not give up.

After the fall of Sài Gòn, April 31st 1975 many of these journalists were arrested and emprisoned by the communists in the “Reeducation camps.” 

Return to Journalism

Early 1975, anti government journalists were arrested at night. For me, I had to hide some

Books, like The Communist Manifesto , some pamphlets on Communism by Stalin and that I had in my book cases. Not only that, I had to spent nights at a friend's house, the cellist Cao Thanh Tùng's. And waited until President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned.

Fortunately, I'd gotten out of my country before Saigon surrenderred to North Vietnamese's forces. I flew to Canada, after a quick stop in Camp Pendleton, California. In Montreal I worked, studied and became a professor of finance, teaching at the University of Concordia, McGill and UQAM.

In 1995, I moved to California to work as a collumnist again, for Nguoi Viet Daily News, under a new pen name, Ngô Nhân Dụng.

Vương Hữu Bột, one of the Men of the Year 1974, by Phổ Thông magazine, Feb. 1975.


1- Thiện Mộc Lan, Trần Tấn Quốc, bốn mươi năm làm báo, NXB Trẻ, Sài Gòn, Việt Nam, 2000, page 273.

2- Văn Bia, Đời Một Phóng Viên, Lê Hồng Xuất Bản, California, USA, 2001, page130.

3- Hoàng Hải Thủy’s Blog, Sept 18th 2012.

4- Mặc Thu, “Vụ Án BáoTự Do năm 1956” (The Tu Do Trial in 1956), Việt Báo, Feb 21th 2017.

5- Trần Văn Giầu, Trần Bạch Đằng eds, Địa chí Văn hóa Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, NXB Tổng Hợp Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, 1987, page 594

6- Đoàn Thêm, Nhà Quê Ra Tỉnh, Cơ Sở Xuất Bản Phạm Quang Khai, Arlington, VA, USA, 1966, page 504].

7- Thiện Mộc Lan, ibid, pages 227-228.

8- Thiện Mộc Lan, ibid, pages 221, 223]

9- Văn Bia, ibid, pages 96 and 157.

10- Đoàn Thêm, ibid, page 504.

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