Erased from history: Vietnam’s shunned WW1 veterans

NBN Asia News

NBN Asia News

HANOI: Just one photo is all that remains of Dang Van Con, a young Vietnamese repairman shipped to France at the outset of the First World War along with tens of thousands of colonial conscripts from Indochina.

The postage stamp-sized picture of Con is the only link his seven grandchildren have to the man whose military service in France would turn the family into pariahs after north Vietnam communists expelled the French in 1954.

In post-colonial Vietnam, then headed by revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, ties to the defeated French empire could spell death.

The family destroyed all of Con’s books, letters, uniforms and photos – save for one, a black-and-white image of Con at his cousin’s wedding in 1953.

“It was like the Cultural Revolution … we had to burn all evidence of involvement with the French,” Con’s eldest grandson Cao Van Dzan, 75, told AFP at the family home in Hanoi.

Con was among 10,000 Vietnamese and about 2,000 Cambodians recruited to serve France during the First World War.

About half of the Vietnamese fought on the frontlines, while the rest worked in factories or built railways and roads for their colonial masters.

Most Vietnamese conscripts were poor and uneducated.

But Con, a skilled repairman from a middle-class family near Hanoi, was an exception.

He was bestowed with an honourable ranking by the titular Nguyen Dynasty when he returned home, boosting the family’s social status.

The title drew scorn from his fellow villagers who Con ordered to lay bamboo matting on the roads when he returned home, refusing to walk on dirt.

The family’s dangerous alliances would later extend beyond the French: one of Con’s nephew’s fought for the American-backed southern regime, a black mark on the family in the eyes of the communists who won the Vietnam War in 1975.

Though Dzan laments the destruction of the family memorabilia, he said the path his grandfather forged allowed his descendents to study and work abroad.

“I’m proud of my grandfather,” he said. “His journey to France allowed for a civilised lifestyle for his children and grandchildren.”