Nguyen Chi Thien

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Nguyễn Chí Thiện (1939) is a poet, also the author of short stories and memoirs concerning his life as a political prisoner.
Nguyen Chi Thien at Gate of Hell.jpg

He was born in Hanoi, the youngest of four children, then moved to Hải Phòng with his family in 1956. His father was a minor official at the court, his mother a small merchant. He contracted tuberculosis in his youth, and never studied beyond high school, although he read and educated himself, and became somewhat proficient in French. His troubles began in December of 1960. Substituting for a sick friend, he taught a high school class and noticed that the history textbook stated that the Soviet Union had defeated the Japanese Army in Manchuria, bringing an end to World War II. Oh no, he told his students, the United States defeated Japan when they dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He paid for this remark with three years and six months in labor camps. There, he met other literary men, composed poems in his head and learned them by heart. In 1966 he was returned to prison after a short release.

This time the police charged him with composing politically irreverent poems that circulated in Hanoi and Hải Phòng. He denied it, and spent another eleven years and five months in labor camps. Authorities never brought him to trial, for lack of evidence, but they had the right man. The tubercular youth had become an outlaw whose every step and breath counted the beat of verses, poetry against oppression.

In 1977, two years after Saigon fell, Thien and other political prisoners were released to make room for officers of the Republic of Vietnam. He had been composing poems all the while, and now seized the opportunity of freedom to write them down and bring his art to the world. Two days after Bastille Day, on July 16, 1979, he dashed into the British Embassy at Hanoi with his manuscript of four hundred poems. He had prepared a cover letter in French, but the embassy of France was too closely guarded.

British diplomats welcomed him and promised to send his manuscript out of the country. When he got out of the Embassy, security agents waited for him at the gate. Dragged to Hỏa Lò prison, the famous Hanoi Hilton now empty of US flyers, he spent another twelve years in jail and prison camps, often in stocks in solitary darkness. It came to a total of twenty-seven years’ imprisonment. But meanwhile, the British diplomats kept their word. His manuscript collection, Hoa địa ngục [Flowers of Hell], appeared in two separate editions overseas.

Nguyễn Chí Thiện had the great satisfaction of seeing a copy of his book waved in his face by his angry captors. He didn’t know that his poems also were translated into English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Spanish, and Korean. They were set to music by the great Phạm Duy and sung around the world. While their author lay in irons, Thiện’s poems won the International Poetry Award in Rotterdam in 1985. Six years later the poet was released from jail, as the socialist world collapsed in 1991. He lived in Hanoi under close watch by the authorities, but his international following also kept an eye on Thiện.

Human Rights Watch honored him in 1995. That year he emigrated to the United States, due to the intervention of Noburo Masuoka, retired Air Force colonel, a career military officer who was drafted into the U.S. Army from an internment camp for Japanese Americans in 1945. After the normalization of relations with Vietnam, Masuoka was able to arrange special asylum for the poet in the United States. Thiện went to Virginia, the home of his brother, Nguyễn Công Giân, whom he had not seen for forty-one years. Giân himself had lived America only since 1993. A lieutenant colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, he had been taken to a re-education camp in the North right after the fall of Saigon in 1975, to remain for thirteen years.

As if released from prison once more, Thiện wrote another book’s worth of poems from memory. The three hundred Vietnamese poems and some select English translations were published in 1996. In 1998, The International Parliament of Writers awarded Nguyễn Chí Thiện a three-year fellowship in France. He lectured around Europe while he wrote and published a collection of short stories, rooted in the reality of his years in Hỏa Lò prison.

He returned from France to Orange County, California, where he took the oath of American citizenship in 2004. He continues to improve his health and speaks regularly on humanitarian issues of interest to the Vietnamese community. For Nguyễn Chí Thiện’s life in his own words, click here.

Linh Dinh started this entry.


  • Bản Chúc Thư Của Một Người Việt Nam: 192 Bài Thơ Bi Hùng, edited by Khuyết Danh. Wesminster, CA: Tu Quynh, 1975 (error?), 1978 (“first edition”), 1980, 1981.
  • Tiếng Vọng Tứ Đáy Vực, introduced by Nguyen Huu Hieu. Arlington, Virginia: Thoi Tap (Customs), 1980.
  • Tiếng Vọng Từ Đáy Vực. Washington, D.C.: Ủy Ban Tranh Đấu Cho Tù Nhân Chính Trị Tại Việt Nam (Committee of Struggle for Human Rights in Viet Nam), 1980.
  • Bản Chúc Thư Của Một Người Việt Nam. Arlington, Virginia: Văn Nghệ Tiền Phong (Culture Vanguard), 1981.
  • Hoa Địa Ngục. San Jose, California: Đông Tiến, 1995.
  • Thơ Nguyễn Chí Thiện San Jose, California, 1991.
  • Truyện và Thơ chưa hề Xuất Bản, with Phung Cung. Westminster, California: Văn Nghệ, 2003.


  • Hỏa Lò: Tập Truyện. Arlington, Virginia: Tổ hợp xuất bản miền đông Hoa Kỳ (General Publishing Company of the Eastern United States), 2001.

Works in English (and bilingual)

  • Chants de Prison/Prison Songs/Ngục Ca. Poems of Nguyễn Chí Thiện set to music by Phạm Duy, translated into French by Phương Anh and English by Penelope Faulkner. English song versions by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích, with an introduction by Võ Văn Ái and a preface by Pierre Emmanuel. Gennevilliers: Quê Mẹ, 1982.
  • Flowers from Hell [Hoa Địa Ngục], a bilingual edition of poems selected and translated from the Vietnamese by Huỳnh Sanh Thông. New Haven: Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies, 1984.
  • The Will of a Vietnamese: the poetry of Nguyễn Chí Thiện, translated by Hằng T. Nguyễn. New York: Carleton Press, 1984.
  • Ngục Ca: Prison Songs, the poems of Nguyễn Chí Thiện set to music by Phạm Duy, with English song versions by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích. Philadelphia: Hội Văn-Hoá VN tại Bắc-Mỹ (Association for Vietnamese Culture in North America), 1982, reprinted 1995.
  • The Flowers of Hell, English versions by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích. Arlington, VA: Tổ Hợp Xuất Bản Miền Đoâng Hoa Kỳ (East Coast USA Vietnamese Publishers Consortium), 1996.
  • Hạt máu thơ: Hoa Địa Ngục II/Bloods Seeds Become Poetry. A selection from Flowers of Hell II translated into English by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích. Arlington, VA: Tổ Hợp Xuất Bản Miền Đông Hoa Kỳ (East Coast USA Vietnamese Publishers Consortium), 1996.
  • “An Autobiography” in Beyond Words, Asian Writers on Their Work. University of Hawaii Press, Manoa, a Pacific Journal of International Writing Vol. 18(1). Summer 2006:85-92.
  • Life, Poetry, and Prison, Cuộc Sống, Thi Văn, và Tù Đày, translated by Nguyễn Thi. Palo Alto: Allies for Freedom Publishers, 2007.
  • Hỏa Lò/Hanoi Hilton Stories, with a foreword by James Scott, Sterling Professor of Anthropology. New Haven: Council on Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, 2007.

Anthologies in English with poems by Nguyễn Chí Thiện

  • War and Exile: A Vietnamese Anthology, edited by Nguyễn Ngọc Bích. Springfield, VA: Vietnamese PEN Abroad East Coast USA, 1989:167-97.
  • Another Way to Dance: Contemporary Asian Poetry from Canada and the United States, edited by Cyril Dabydeen. Toronto: TSAR Publications, 1996.
  • This Prison Where I Live: the PEN Anthology of Imprisoned Writers, edited by Siobhan Dowd with a Foreword by Joseph Brodsky. London: Cassell, 1996, pg 129.
  • An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems from the eleventh through the twentieth centuries, edited and translated by Huỳnh Sanh Thoâng. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, pg 162, 239, 287.
  • The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, John D. McClatchy, editor. New York: Random House, 1996, p 421-24.

Nguyễn Chí Thiện online

part 1, 2 and 3

Nguyễn Chí Thiện on YouTube