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The StoriesTao

Tao enjoyed the benefits of a middle-class upbringing in South Vietnam's capital city. But the pretty schoolgirl who grew up speaking the language of colonialism at school was also learning about social justice at home.

tao's mother raised a family of revolutionaries
Tao's mother raised a family of revolutionaries.

A family of revolutionaries:

My mother was wonderful. Not only did she give us the opportunity to attend a French school, she also taught us to resist against the dictatorship, against repression and injustice. When the dictator [South Vietnamese president] Diem repressed the Buddhists [in 1964], we took part in demonstrations.

buddhist monks protest against diem regime
Buddhist monks protest against Diem regime.



Tao was horrified by the brutal measures taken by Diem, the corrupt Catholic president installed by the Americans, to silence the Buddhist monks who spoke out against the war. Her family attended massive street rallies in support of the monks. At one rally, Tao and her sister Tan were spotted by a Viet Cong recruiter. He later visited their home. The girls joined the guerilla movement in support of Communist North Vietnam, and went to work.

tao portrait

On working with the Viet Cong:

When I was 18, I was part of a plan to bomb the Saigon central police station. I am the leader of the commando unit, and I carry the explosives inside the police headquarters…To succeed in the plan, I had to convert one of the police staff to our cause. But I was arrested because this person betrayed me.

Tao and her sister were thrown into jail. Even in jail, they would not stop protesting against their arrest and the South Vietnamese regime, and as a result were moved to the infamous Tiger Cages in the island prison on Con Son. It was the beginning of seven years of torture, beatings and starvation.

On her imprisonment and torture:

In prison, sometimes they made my sister or me witness the torture of the other. When I saw them beat my sister, it was very painful…They put us in the Tiger Cages, and when I came to my senses I thought I fell into Hell because the cage was the shape of a coffin. The jailors walked above us, and we were inside the cages below. There was so much suffering—they mistreated us, poured down quick lime [a caustic chemical which burns the skin on contact] when they wanted to repress us.

But despite the beatings and torture, the girls continued their resistance. Tao and her sister painstakingly wrote the names of all of the political prisoners held in the island prison in microscopic script on the inside of a prison uniform and gave it to their mother to smuggle out of the country. The list of political prinsoners would make its way to the Paris Peace Talks, where it was entered into evidence, documenting that South Vietnam was holding political prisoners, a fact they had vehemently denied. These talks would curtail U.S. involvement in the war.

tao in tiger cage

On life in the Tiger Cages

In 1970, U.S. Senator, then a legislative aide, Tom Harkin captured the horror of the tiger cages in a series of photos that appeared in LIFE magazine.

"One day we heard strange voices. My cellmates said, You can speak English, ask them who they are. I asked Where are you from? They answered, ‘We are US congressmen and we come to investigate the military regime.’ I denounced the conditions, the bedbugs, the torture. One person on this team, he came back to Vietnam 25 years later. He is now a senator from Iowa, Tom Harkin."

when tao was released she could barely walk
When Tao was released she could barely walk.

Tao's release; the end of the War:

When I was released… I couldn’t believe it…the happiness makes tears pour down. I couldn’t walk. I was paralysed [from years of torture]. I was cured in those months, but at the time of the liberation, my legs are still very weak. But I participate in the liberation. I planted the revolutionary flag.

The war was over, but Tao's revolutionary ardor was undimmed. After several jobs in the post-war government, she went back to school and studied marine biology because she believed the field could help feed the new nation. In 1988, twenty years after they first met, she married Sau Cong - the V.C. recruiter who had spotted her in the crowd of demonstrators and changed her life.

tao married the viet cong who recruited her
Tao married the Viet Cong who recruited her.

Tao marries her Viet Cong recruiter:

When we got married, I asked him “When did you fall in love with me?” He said “Since the beginning, since our first meeting.” I asked him “Why, if you loved me, didn’t you prevent me from taking those risks and placing the explosives at the police headquarters?” He said “Because it was your duty. Only when we have freedom, we can have love. If our people, our country, is dominated, we can’t have happiness.”

Tao and Sau Cong now operate a shrimp co-operative in the Mekong Delta, and are helping nearly two dozen small farmers climb out of poverty. For Tao, as long as Vietnam's poorest still lag behind, the war is not over.

tao's struggle is not over
Tao's struggle is not over.

Tao's ongoing fight for justice for all:

My husband said to me that during the war time, we dared to sacrifice our lives for the liberation of our people. So now that the peace is restored, when we see our people so poor and starving, we must do something to help them…In the war time, solidarity is easy—maybe because during the war, the people were needed for the resistance. Now no one needs the poor people. So the revolution is not over, and it’s a struggle all around the world. Anyone who believes must join together to carry out this new war—the war against poverty, injustice and repression.

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