The Story of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden, Part 1: “Their whole world collapsed around them”

In January 2019 Vietnamese authorities carried out a massive operation in the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, which saw the forcible eviction of thousands of residents and the destruction of over 500 homes. Today, nearly two years later the residents of Loc Hung continue to await justice.

Over the next few weeks, CSW will be telling the story of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden through a series of interviews with those who lived there. For our first instalment, we spoke to Cao Ha Truc, one of those leading efforts for the residents to receive some form of compensation.

How long have you lived in the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden and how did you come to live there?

My family have lived here for four generations, ever since my grandparents and parents heeded the call from President Ngo Dinh Diem to migrate from the north to the south after the Geneva Accords of 1954. I was born here and so were my children. I farmed on the land here from the day I got married until the day it was taken from my family.

Initially my family made a living from farming vegetables in the garden, but as we grew in size we needed to expand our living space so we built more houses on the land – some to live in and a few more to rent out to subsidise the income from the vegetable garden.

Could you tell us about the history of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden?

The land has been passed down from my grandparents. Originally it belonged to the Paris Catholic Mission, who gave it to the diocese of Saigon. When my family migrated from the Archdiocese of Hung Hoa to the south in 1954, they were welcomed by the Catholic mission in Saigon who gave them the land. At the time, the population was sparse and most of the area was farmland, so the church built houses and gave them to the people so that they could stay and farm.

The whole area was large, around 5km long, and was [inhabited by] Catholic parishioners. It was mostly residential, with the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden as farmland. The church was in the residential area. My whole life was there: I worked there, I went to school there, I farmed there, I went to church there as a boy.

Part of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden before it was expropriated.

During colonial times, the French authorities needed to build telecommunications stations on the land, so they borrowed 12,000m2 from the church to build them. The French officials made an official request asking to be loaned the land, which clearly stated that they were just borrowing it and that the residents of Loc Hung parish were the rightful owners. That document is very important, and we still have it – it says that anyone who wants to do anything in the area needs to ask the residents’ permission.

How have things been recently? Have there been any clashes with the authorities?

The government always viewed Loc Hung as a [thorn in their side]. As Catholics, the residents cannot stand by and not speak up about injustice, they cannot ignore the poor and those in need. They have also long supported former prisoners of conscience and human rights activists who were persecuted and could not find a stable place to stay – providing them with shelter and safety. Many residents of Loc Hung also help the church provide assistance for veterans of the former South of Vietnam armed forces.[1] Because of all this, I think the expropriation of the Loc Hung vegetable garden was politicised and not just for economic gain.

The expropriation was a completely sudden attack. In the early hours of 8 January 2019, a group of over 1,000 officers and military forces attacked Loc Hung without producing any warrants or official orders, which are needed when the government wants to expropriate land.

I was sleeping when I heard a lot of noise from police cars, trucks, bulldozers, ambulances and fire trucks. I went outside to look around and see what was happening, and as soon as I stepped out someone put a plastic bag over my head and abducted me. They punched me in the face and in the abdomen, then they put me in a truck and took me to a place where they held me in a room. I had no idea where I was, and I was left without food or water for a whole day.

While I was there, they forced me to sign a confession saying that I had caused public disorder. I said: “How can that be? It was five o’clock in the morning, I’d just stepped out of my house and looked around to see what was going on and 20 police officers cornered me, pushed and punched me and kidnapped me, that’s not during business hours. I didn’t have a chance to realise what was going on.” They let me go at 2am the next day. I went home and everything was gone – my house, my garden – it looked like a bomb was dropped on the garden.

The site of the demolition of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden.

Just my family alone lost 11 houses in that raid. All of our belongings and furniture were either damaged or confiscated. The most painful thing was that they confiscated the statue of my Patron Saint. I’ve tried to petition to get my belongings back, including the statue, but the local government says they can’t release them because they are part of the investigation, so as well as being homeless we had to buy everything, from little glasses to bowls, again.

What happened to your family while you were taken away?

When I got home my wife and family told me that it was very brutal. The police surrounded and cornered everyone, pushing them away so that they could destroy certain areas. My wife tried to get close to take a look and grab what she could from our house, but they pushed her away and threatened to arrest her.

They cornered everyone near the statue of Mother Mary, anyone who dared to step foot outside that area would get arrested. For a full day and a half, everyone was held in the scorching sun watching their homes be destroyed. Nobody had any idea that it was coming so they didn’t get a chance to react and they lost everything.

A total of 503 houses and thousands of residents were affected. Now I am one of the representatives of the residents that are fighting to get our land back or to receive some form of compensation.

What inspired you to get into human rights work? Can you tell us about your experiences?

In 2007 the Redemptorist Church started a programme to assist the poor. That was very enlightening for me because it was something I had always wanted to do, so I eagerly joined the effort. I have also supported priests, helping them to deal with government officials, handling media and PR, and doing research and advising them on legal issues.

When they opened the Bureau for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Redemptorist Church I was one of the first people who worked there. We would provide assistance to victims of land grabs and other victims of persecution in Vietnam. That’s how I got involved in the human rights movement.

I think there are three reasons the government targeted me specifically. Firstly because of my work at the Bureau for Justice and Peace – by the time the office closed we had filed 2,000 cases of victims of land grabs whom we had helped. Second, I have become a familiar face on social media, for example when there are issues with the church or its parishioners in Loc Hung and elsewhere.

Finally, I think they targeted me because of my support for human rights activists like Nguyen Bac Truyen and Pham Doan Trang, the representative of the independent Liberal Publishing House. When Trang was attacked, I came to her rescue and brought her back to stay at my house. When they arrested Truong Minh Duc from the Brotherhood of Democracy, I went to his house and helped his wife. I found his laptop and took it away so that it couldn’t be confiscated by the authorities.

As a Catholic I cannot stand by and not speak up about social injustice anywhere, so that is why the government didn’t like me at all.

I am also heavily involved in the case of Thien An monastery in Hue. I stayed there for a while taking notes and documenting everything to write a report. I was also one of the first to arrive to assist at the Convent at the church of Thu Thiem in Saigon, and I have represented merchants at three of the markets in Vietnam whose property was seized by the government – I was able to help at least one of the merchants get some compensation for their loss.

What kind of things have the authorities done as a result of your work?

I worked as the manager of a restaurant, but since I got involved in human rights work, I would often be followed, with secret agents stationed in front of the restaurant creating an atmosphere of fear. The owner of the restaurant was under pressure and had to let me go. I have also been physically attacked a few times and was injured in a number of staged traffic incidents which were not coincidences.

When they expropriated the land at Loc Hung, I am sure that I was targeted. More than a dozen residents were arrested that day, but my situation was different. It seemed like they had been waiting for me to appear because they came at me as soon as I stepped outside. There were people hiding in a car parked nearby. This is not a coincidence. In my experiences of helping victims of land grabs, typically when there is a raid, the first to get arrested are the ones who are considered the leaders. In this situation I was considered a leader. I was also the only person who was abducted as well as arrested.

Has there been any response from the government to your petitions?

Myself and a number of pro bono lawyers have led the residents in filing [petitions] according to all the legal procedures regarding the loss [of our homes]. We took it all the way to the central government, who issued three directions and ordered the authorities of Ho Chi Minh City to resolve the dispute, but they are just pointing fingers and sending them round in circles. Until now none of the [government] leaders have agreed to meet us to discuss a solution, and most of us still haven’t received any compensation.

State media says the demolition was to remove the structures that were illegally built on the land without permits, and not expropriation. In reality, we are not allowed on our own land: there are four checkpoints in the area so we can’t even come close to the land without risking arrest.

What has been the impact on the religious groups involved?

A couple of examples. Since we lost our houses we had to move, and some had to move very far away because it’s cheaper to live farther from the city. This makes it extremely difficult for them to gather for Sunday Mass. Before they would just walk to church but now, they have to travel. It’s especially hard for the kids who attend Bible studies at the church, so now parents have to struggle not only with making a living but have to find time and make arrangements to take them to their Bible studies too.

Another example is when we try to gather to pray like we used to, we gather at the statue of Mary, but when we do that the authorities come and point webcams in our faces. They record each of us in a threatening way and they use loudspeakers to interfere. It was especially bad when Bishop Nguyen Thai Hop  [formerly Bishop of Vinh, now Bishop of Ha Tinh Diocese] arrived with a number of visiting priests to pray with the group, and the authorities used loudspeakers and made a lot of noise and disruption. It was terrible.

What has been the impact on the children in the community?

For the kids it is extremely difficult to see their family scattered around – their cousins, their friends – their house destroyed, their parents struggling to put food on the table. It has affected them immensely and that is shown in their school records: they are not doing well in school at all.

A young victim of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden expropriation

Even for the adults, who are more capable of dealing with trauma, there are people who were affected so severely that they developed serious mental problems, and two required institutionalisation. One man got so bad that in one of his episodes he took out a knife and tried to attack his own family. It was very violent – he was taken to an institution. Thank God he got better with treatment so he was released, but he is in a very fragile state so the family is trying not to remind him or speak about the incident or anything that might trigger another painful episode.

Some victims were so distressed by the raid that they had to be taken to the hospital. [This is especially true for ] older people like my 89-year-old father, who was so traumatised that afterwards he fell into a depression and developed dementia; now he is not the same as he used to be – he changed so much in just a short time.

Even for myself, being of a younger generation with my own life, my social life and my own friends – I was immensely impacted. My wife and I have four children, so the six of us had to move back with parents. Four generations, 20 people sharing a living space of 60m2, in the same house. We had no other option, we cannot afford to rent and have our personal space. But for the older generations, that’s their whole life, their whole experience – the whole world collapsed around them. The impact on older people is just beyond words.

Is the church trying to help?

Only the priests at the Redemptorist Church are outspoken and strong in support for the community, but some were pressured into early retirement or transferred to other provinces, so they can only communicate using phones or social media. Local churches are under pressure from the government, so even if they empathise with us, if they speak out they may face consequences.

We have also received support from two high ranking members of the church which has meant a lot to us. Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, who is the head of the Episcopal Committee for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Vietnam, and Father Le Quoc Thang, who was the secretary of the Committee at the time, both came to visit us and prayed with us. They often reach out to us. Father Thang also presented our case when Vietnam’s commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) was reviewed by the UN Human Rights Committee. He also raised our case at last year’s US Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington DC.

What can the international community do?

I wish that the international community would help through diplomatic channels or trade agreements to pressure the Vietnamese government to respect their own laws and the conventions that they signed, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Hopefully that awareness will pressure the Ho Chi Minh City authorities to sit down and agree to have a discussion with us residents and the lawyers to come up with a resolution.

On a wider scale, the issue of land ownership is a calamity in Vietnam, and I hope that the world will have more knowledge of what is happening in the country. Even international businesses can take advantage of the corruption of government officials, they can do whatever they want to take away people’s property without, or with very limited, compensation, and they get the benefit.

Anything that can help to bring awareness, shine a spotlight on the situation of Loc Hung, [is good, and] hopefully [it will be] enough that the authorities will want to sit down and come up with some sort of compromise because [right now] it’s just so painful and dreadful for everyone involved. We are lucky that we are out here and getting the attention of the international community. We’re not going anywhere, the government just ignores us. Loc Hung has been a big case that’s in the spotlight, getting attention but still not going anywhere, so imagine the cases of countless victims everywhere who have no voice! So the more that we can bring attention to the dispute in Loc Hung, the better, and hopefully that will start the momentum that can affect more people.

Click here to read the next instalment in our series on the story of the Loc Hung Vegetable Garden.

Click here to read the third instalment.

[1] Editor’s note: The South of Vietnam armed forces refers to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). The ARVN fought, and ultimately lost to the North Vietnam’s People’s Army of Vietnam, also known as the Vietnamese People’s Army, who represent the military force of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. After the dissolution of the ARVN, thousands of former ARVN officers were sent to re-education camps by the Vietnamese government.