A Harvard law degree is not always advantageous. In fact, for Nguyen Ngoc Bich LL.M. ’73, it was downright dangerous.
Largely because of his HLS education, Bich spent 12 years in prison in his native Vietnam. The experience has not diminished his will, his sense of humor, or his affection for the School. Indeed, he recently reestablished ties to the School and the Harvard Law School Alumni Association, and wants to express his appreciation to people from the institution who helped him through his ordeal.
His incarceration began shortly after the last American helicopter fled Saigon in 1975. Near the end of the U.S. involvement in the war, the law office where Bich worked closed down, and many of his colleagues escaped the country. But, Bich said, “I was patriotic and nationalistic and decided not to leave.” Before the Fall of Saigon, he had taken a job as senior legal counsel in the oil and gas agency of the government then in power, which he thought would offer him job security regardless of the political leadership.
He was wrong. The new regime in Vietnam considered the oil and gas industry “strategic” and Bich “a person trained and educated by the United States, who would be loyal to it.” He was imprisoned in 1976 as an “anti-revolutionary.” Though unjustly incarcerated, Bich said that his days in prison served him well. His captors mandated the study of communism, but the studies, Bich said, helped him understand capitalism. And the very deprivation of the experience helped him gain much, he said. “Surviving in this environment, I think I have discovered the beatitudes that Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.”
He was released in 1988, a rehabilitated man, according to the authorities. But Bich credits his release more to improved relations between Vietnam and the United States. Bich’s connection to the United States and to HLS began in the early ’70s when he worked at the United States Agency for International Development in Saigon, where his boss helped secure him a scholarship to the School.
The authorities who put Bich in prison were right about one thing: HLS was a revolutionary place for someone who had studied law in Vietnam.
“Being trained in the civil law system and knowing nothing about ‘thinking like a lawyer,’ I–a poor swimmer–was thrown into the rough sea of HLS,” Bich said. “For the first semester I was sunk.”
Now a resident of Ho Chi Minh City (the only HLS graduate to reside there), Bich practices corporate law; his clients are mostly foreign companies operating in Vietnam. Though he jokes that HLS should stand for “hard labor school,” Bich said, “My achievements so far would not have been made but for the generosity of my classmates and teachers at HLS.” Several professors sent him books, and Graham Bradley LL.M. ’73 raised money from classmates to assist Bich immediately after his release, during the days, he said, “when I had nothing but a body and a brain.”
“Due to numerous constraints, I failed to express my thanks to them personally,” said Bich. “I wish to seek their generosity again in order to say to them, from my heart, thank you.”