The story began when Norland met Oanh, a Vietnamese social worker, in 1988 when Norland was working for a small non-profit organization dedicated to improving relations between the two countries. Norland returned the next year spending six weeks interviewing Oanh and eight other women who had left their lives of privilege to fight the French occupation.
These women had left the prestigious Lycee Marie Curie, donned their black pajamas and headed for the bus stop. Each had a story and in her own way supported the revolution. Norland featured them in a book “The Saigon Sisters: Privileged Women of the Resistance,” published in 2021.
Norland had kept in contact with the women through the years through visits from nearby posts when she was in the foreign service and keeping in touch with their daughters. Norland had her tickets that had been purchased before Covid. Now seemed like the time to return.
“One of the daughters explained the Saigon sisters are now very frail. They had all been born in the 30s and are now in their 90s.” This turned out to be a good decision.
Norland was pretty confident she could find two of the women who were sisters living in a communal home in Ho Chi Minh City on August Revolution Street which their father had built over a century ago. A third sister, now deceased, had lived there as well and been active as a spy.
“My former landlady, Tien, was the key to pulling this off. She has been like a second mom to me since I stayed with her for six weeks in 1988.”
Tien was the linchpin to staying in touch with the daughters and women, so the first two sisters were easy to locate. “Tien’s son picked us up at the airport the first morning and off we went to the communal home to visit the two sisters Minh and Trang.”
“We rang the bell on the expansive white wall.” The house hadn’t changed since 1988 although Ho Chi Minh City’s population has exploded to 11 million. “We had been told to go mid-morning which would be the best time for Trang who was sleeping much of the time.”
Today Minh emerged from the house to greet Norland with enthusiasm. “At 92 she remains smiling and vibrant and speaking good French.” Minh remembered attending the Opera House where patriotic songs and skits were performed “devant le monde” without the French understanding the implications. Norland explains Minh was happy to play the piano as she did 33 years ago. Then Minh pointed to a large mysterious black box in the corner which turned out to be an accordion “with all of those many buttons.” Minh balanced the heavy accordion on her lap and launched into “Len Dang,” the march of the students that she had played so many years ago.
They asked to see Trang and Minh led them to the second floor where Trang lay sleeping.Trang was gifted in languages and after an unfortunate arranged marriage, she later became a diplomat and translator for Nguyen Thi Binh, the foreign minister of the National Liberation Front. Norland explains, “We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Paris Peace Talks yesterday. Trang was there at the table during the talks.”
Now Trang was holding on to life. Norland says, “I leaned over and whispered in her ear how strong her courage was in caring about the fate of her people and how many people had heard her story. … It was difficult to know if she heard me. We can’t talk but I hope she can hear me somehow.”
The third sister, now deceased, who had lived in their house, had taken a different route when she headed to the jungle to fight for the revolution and had a child. But she eventually headed to North Vietnam as a double spy leaving her daughter August for her older sibling Minh to raise. Minh had stayed back in their communal home to care for their parents but played her own pivotal role as a liaison for the resistance, opening secret messages from agents in the jungle and passing needed supplies along.
Norland was afraid the other two Saigon sisters, Tuyen and Xuan, would prove to be a challenge to find.
“Despite contact with their children in Canada and Vietnam I wasn’t sure of finding these two women in the labyrinthine alleys of a megalopolis.” As it turned out her fears were unfounded on finding Xuan due to her landlady’s contacts. And on Tuyen her landlady again turned out to be unstoppable — day after day she checked old address books, chasing down dead ends, calling friends. At last the day before her departure Norland found herself in a tiny alley in front of one more wrong address.
But Tien was not one to give up and asked a local noodle vendor about the family. The lady pointed down the lane and gesticulated around the corner. A phone call later and Tuyen’s son headed around the corner and led Norland and Tien to their house. It was a pleasant surprise that Tuyen’s family was getting ready to celebrate her 91st birthday complete with decorations, a chocolate cake and her daughter who had just arrived from Australia.
They shared memories about Tuyen’s brother’s revolutionary songs that had inspired students to join the resistance. Tuyen had stayed in Saigon to be a pharmacist taking care of her family and providing health care for the poor. Now she was still vigorous and engaged with a passion to go everywhere and help people. She headed to the roof each day on the elevator installed for her for her 45 minutes of exercises.
When Norland found Xuan she found Xuan was even more slight and bedridden. This had been a woman who had studied at London’s Royal College of Music where she met her husband and supported his double life. They moved in elite circles while working for the resistance. When her husband got imprisoned for criticizing Diem in his newspaper, she supported their four children by teaching piano and taught continuously for 50 years. She had directed the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory.
Tuyen’s daughter-in-law was one of Tuyen’s students and she had planned to unite Xuan’s students from around the world in an April concert paying tribute to her teacher. Unfortunately upon her return to Arlington, Norland received word that Xuan died several days before.
Norland says of seeing Xuan: “She doesn’t express herself in words but does react with noises to words or music. Her eyes are open and they would flicker and move when I talked to her. Her toes would move, and my landlady felt this was a real response. I talked about her courage and compassion and told her that her story would not be forgotten. They had so many other choices but they wanted to help their people.”
Norland most recently worked as a public diplomacy officer within the US Department of State.