By David K. Shipler
The name Nguyen Ngoc Luong will not ring a bell for most Americans, but it should. Through his anonymous work with correspondents, readers of a certain vintage who followed the Vietnam War through the pages of The New York Times were broken open to the distress and resilience of the Vietnamese. He understood his country at a depth far beneath the headlines, and so helped us see, learn to listen, and enrich our reporting.
He once leaned over to me and whispered, as we sat in a Danang restaurant near a table of paunchy South Vietnamese Army colonels, “I cannot stand Vietnamese who have no sign of suffering on their faces.”
Luong was not just an interpreter of language, from Vietnamese into his fluent English, but also an interpreter of culture. His streetwise, romantic sense of righteousness and purpose led him to find the small, human narratives that illustrated the whole. And he kept us safe, sniffing out the danger of a too-quiet lane or a village of deceptive calm long before we had an inkling that something was wrong.
Luong died recently at the age of 80, in Ho Chi Minh City, in the country that he loved, but which did not love him enough. Alone among Times employees as Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, Luong chose to stay, to decline the offer to uproot himself and flee with his family to America. “I am a buffalo boy,” he used to say, proudly and wistfully, for it had been decades since he had ridden a buffalo while playing his flute.
There are hundreds of people like Luong all over the world, local citizens of countries in conflict, who interpret, arrange, guide, open doors, and protect the foreigners who arrive as journalists or aid workers to observe and assist. Their help is crucial, and is done mostly behind the scenes, where they become invisible heroes. My son Michael, who does conflict-resolution work in many parts of the world, met Luong in 2001 after hearing from me about him for years. “He has left me with the Luong Principle,” Michael said. “Find a Luong wherever you go.”
Yet Luong was unique even as he played a customary role. He did not fit into any political category. His patriotism could not locate itself comfortably inside the neat boxes imposed by the war and its practitioners on either side. His love of country was transcendent, which was a source of torment for him as he tried to find a place in the matrix of beliefs and ideologies.
The search began as a boy in Hanoi, when he once ran away from home into the countryside to try to join the Viet Minh in its anti-colonial war against the French. He found a guerrilla unit, as he told the story, and went to the commander, who asked, “Do you want to serve your country?” Of course, Luong said eagerly. “Then,” the commander instructed, “go back to school and finish your education.”
After Vietnam was divided into North and South in 1954, Luong moved from Hanoi to Saigon, where he got a government job, becoming director for social welfare in a province in the Mekong Delta. Following an assassination conspiracy against President Ngo Dinh Diem, Luong told me, he was arrested for helping some of the plotters, who were friends, escape into Cambodia. (Whether or not he was guilty he never quite said.)
In the South Vietnamese Army, he worked as an interpreter for General William Westmoreland, commander of American forces in Vietnam, and later for an English-language newspaper in Saigon. In a fortuitous turn, he met Gloria Emerson, the gifted Times correspondent who made her beat the people on the ground—both Vietnamese citizens and American soldiers. She was captivated by Luong’s poetic eloquence in English and his artistic eye through the lens of a camera.
She hired him but had to pay him out of her own pocket at first, for the Times refused to foot the modest bill. By the time I arrived in 1973, though, the New York office had relented, and Luong had become an established, salaried member of the staff. That was long before the paper adopted a practice of crediting interpreters and “fixers” at the bottom of a story, so his name appeared in print only in agate type as a credit beneath his published photographs.
Luong had a gentle way of loosening up people and getting them to talk. Time and again, we’d approach a group of peasants or refugees and, sensing their nervousness about the presence of an American, he’d ask me to remain at a distance. He’d walk up alone, chat them up, and pretty soon have them laughing at something. Then he’d motion me to come over, and we’d have a conversation as candid as any can be in a war zone where vulnerable people tend to say what they think you want to hear.
He taught me how to determine the safety of a road or a village. Never bother asking the local South Vietnamese authorities, he advised, because they’d always say, sure, it’s safe, we’ve got control. Ask the bus driver, the sampan driver, the farmer whose motorbike was stacked high with produce. From them you’d get the honest answer. This way we went confidently in daylight into villages where the Vietcong took over after dark.
Once on the coastal road near Nhatrang, two swaggering South Vietnamese soldiers, their chests draped in bandoliers and their belts laden with grenades, eyed my Pentax camera hungrily. Luong said he thought they were planning to steal it, so he went over to them while I kept my distance. He talked to them for a minute or two, until they practically scurried away. What did you say? I asked Luong.
He recognized their patches from a division that’s stationed in I Corps (up north), Luong explained, so he figured they were AWOL, being way down here. Luong happened to know the name of their division commander, and he asked them to give him his regards.
Despite his high skills as newsman, interpreter, and photographer, Luong had mixed feelings about his profession. He used to say that he dreaded one day meeting a Vietcong guerrilla his age who’d been fighting in the jungle all those years, and having to account to him for the way he, Luong, had spent his life.
After Saigon’s fall in 1975, Luong tried to continue working for foreign journalists, but was told by the authorities that he could not do it. During a visit to Vietnam in 1997, I kicked around an idea with him about coming back for a while, traveling through the grassroots around the country, and perhaps doing a book. He was keen on it. His wanderlust and curiosity hadn’t diminished. But later he sent me word that he had checked it out, and officials had nixed the idea. He would not be allowed to work as or for a journalist.
For a decade after the war, the police questioned him frequently, although he waited for the arrest that never came. A Vietcong contact explained: “Luong, you weren’t nearly important enough,” Luong told Michael when they met in 2001. It “broke his heart,” Michael remembers.
Instead, Luong was restricted, put in a kind of occupational cage. He had to eke out a living by selling religious trinkets outside the cathedral for a time, playing in a small band he organized, and teaching English. The communist government wasted his precious devotion to his country, silenced his poetic eloquence, and blinded his artistic eye.