Q&A with “Mother Mushroom”

In an interview with Human Rights First’s former client, Quynh Nguyen, she tells her story of dissent, motherhood, and human rights advocacy in Vietnam, which eventually led to her imprisonment and to seek asylum in the U.S. Her work as a human rights defender earned her a host of awards, including Human Rights Watch’s 2010 Hellman/Hammett grant, Civil Rights Defenders’ 2015 Defender of the Year, and the U.S. State Department’s 2017 International Women of Courage Award.

What is your name, your age, and where are you from? 

My real name is Quynh Nguyen or Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, and my pen name is ‘Me Nam’ or Mother Mushroom. I am 44 years old and was born in Nha Trang.

What was your life like growing up in Vietnam?

I was born and raised in Nha Trang, a coastal city situated in the south-central region of Vietnam. Growing up, like many others my age, I was educated within a system of propaganda that aimed to instill Communist Party ideology. Consequently, my understanding of history and society was largely shaped by this narrative. I pursued a career as a civil servant, akin to many in my generation, following the conventional path.

Prior to my role as a civil servant, I worked as a tour guide, interacting with numerous foreigners. This experience perhaps influenced my growing awareness of social injustices and led me to speak out against them later on.

What topics did you cover in your blog, “Mother Mushroom”? Where did you publish this blog and for how long?

In my blog, ‘Me Nam’ (Mother Mushroom) I covered a wide range of topics that reflected my concerns about social issues and the relationship between Vietnam and China. Initially, I delved into questions surrounding educational welfare policies before shifting my focus to environmental issues and the alarming situation of individuals being subjected to torture in police stations.

I began blogging in 2006 on Yahoo 360!, and when this platform ceased operations, I transitioned to writing on Multiply and Facebook. My commitment to advocacy led me to establish the Vietnamese Bloggers Network (VBN), where I emphasized the production of videos capturing real-life scenes and people’s opinions akin to a genuine news outlet.

My blogging journey continued until October 10, 2016, the day I was arrested. Despite the adversity I faced, the impact of ‘Mother Mushroom’ and the Vietnamese Bloggers Network resonated within the online community, highlighting critical issues and sparking meaningful conversations that transcended conventional media platforms.

What inspired you to become a writer?

My journey into writing began with the inspiration of becoming a mother. During my pregnancy, I felt a compelling urge to document my experiences to share with my children in the future. However, it was a pivotal moment during a medical examination that ignited my passion for defending human rights.

I witnessed medical staff mistreating an ethnic minority individual, an incident that stirred deep questions within me. I found myself challenging the unfair treatment and questioning the disparity between the money we paid into the health system and the quality of service received. This incident prompted me to delve deeper into my country’s welfare policies and compelled me to seek a deeper understanding of Vietnam’s history and societal issues beyond the confines of traditional media.

As I delved into these issues, I witnessed firsthand the injustices suffered by my own relatives due to flawed land policies and the proliferation of misinformation by the media. The realization of the stifled freedom of speech, particularly concerning Vietnam’s relationship with China, struck me profoundly.

In response, I began writing articles to shed light on the environmental and national security risks posed by certain projects, such as the entry of Chinese companies to exploit bauxite in the Central Highlands. However, my advocacy for transparency and accountability came at a cost—I was arrested by the police and detained for 10 days. Faced with the threat to my freedom of expression, I reluctantly agreed to cease blogging and withdraw.

Yet, the suppression persisted as the authorities denied me a passport, preventing me from resuming my normal work routine. It became evident that despite the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, such rights were routinely violated.

This experience compelled me to transition into a human rights defender. It’s a role I embrace with determination, driven by the belief that every individual deserves the fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution, regardless of the obstacles and risks involved.

What were the circumstances that led to your arrest and conviction by the Vietnamese government?

I was arrested 2 times. The first time I was detained for 10 days was on September 2nd, 2009. After 10 days, I was released and I was so scared, so I closed my blog and quit writing. However, the police didn’t leave me alone. They didn’t provide my passport to go to work. So I came back to answer an interview with CNN and decided to become an activist.

I was arrested the second time on October 10th, 2016, and sentenced to 10 years after spending 7 months in prison without having my lawyer and visiting from my family.

I was arrested on the morning of October 10, 2016, while standing in front of the Khanh Hoa Provincial Police Detention Center alongside Nguyen Huu Quoc Duy’s mother. Duy had been apprehended and subsequently sentenced to three years in prison for his activities on Facebook, without legal representation or family presence during his trial. In an act of solidarity, I accompanied Duy’s mother to question the authorities about the lack of communication regarding his well-being and the absence of visitation rights for his family.

Subsequently, I was apprehended and taken to an undisclosed location far from my home. For seven months, no one knew of my whereabouts. Eventually, I was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison for my activities on Facebook and for providing interviews to foreign media, which the government deemed as ‘propaganda against the state.’

My arrest and conviction were emblematic of the government’s crackdown on dissenting voices and its suppression of freedom of expression and advocacy for human rights in Vietnam.

If you’d like to share, what was your experience in detention?

My time in prison was a relentless series of harsh and isolating days. Upon my arrest, authorities detained me in one location while informing my family to send my belongings to another, severing any immediate connection with my loved ones. For seven agonizing months, I was denied access to legal counsel and barred from seeing my family.

In the lead-up to my trial, I endured the grim confines of a tight, windowless, and dark cell. Each day, the routine was punctuated by brief openings of the cell door, allowing for meager rations of plain rice and boiled vegetables, served in solitude. Determined to glean insight into the inner workings of the prison system, I sought out opportunities to interact with fellow inmates, despite the risks. It was during these interactions that I bore witness to the brutality of police officers, who would beat prisoners mercilessly under the cover of night.

The injustice I witnessed only strengthened my resolve to continue advocating for human rights and shedding light on the plight of those who suffer within the confines of the prison system. Despite my efforts to maintain connections with others and share knowledge about human rights, I was segregated from other prisoners, a constant reminder of the authorities’ attempts to silence dissent.

One of the most tormenting aspects of my imprisonment was not only the personal suffering I endured but also the anguish inflicted upon my friends, family, and relatives. The authorities’ decision to transfer me from Nha Trang in the South to Thanh Hoa in the North compounded my hardships. Thanh Hoa Prison No. 5 subjected me to harsh climatic conditions, leaving me vulnerable to the unforgiving cold without adequate provisions for warmth.

Throughout this ordeal, the unwavering support of my loved ones and the solidarity of fellow activists sustained me, reminding me of the enduring power of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

How long were you sentenced for and when were you released?

I was sentenced to a 10-year prison term, and after spending more than two years behind bars, I was finally released on October 18th, 2018.

How did you make it to the U.S.?

Following my detention, the Vietnamese Bloggers Network, along with numerous international human rights organizations and members of the Vietnamese community, launched a concerted campaign advocating for my release. Their unwavering support not only championed my personal freedom but also shed light on the deteriorating human rights situation in Vietnam.

I am profoundly grateful for their tireless efforts, which ultimately facilitated my release from Vietnamese prison and enabled me to seek refuge in the United States. My journey from incarceration to freedom in America stands as a testament to the collective determination of all those who tirelessly fight for human rights in Vietnam.

Moreover, I acknowledge the role of the U.S. government in upholding universal human rights values by providing sanctuary to individuals like myself who face persecution for their beliefs and activism. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all those who contributed to my journey to freedom.

Did you experience any challenges navigating the asylum system in the U.S.? If so, what were they?

Thanks to the invaluable support of Human Rights First, particularly the assistance provided by K&L Gates LLP, my transition through the asylum system in the U.S. was relatively smooth, aside from the unavoidable waiting period. I am immensely grateful to Human Rights First and the dedicated team at K&L Gates, including Li Shen, Grace Haidar, Mai Truong, Hannah Warren, and Anil Patel, for their unwavering commitment and expertise in handling our asylum cases. Their assistance was instrumental in navigating the complexities of the asylum process and securing a path to safety and protection in the United States.

How has your life changed now that you are in the U.S.? with your mother and children?

Our lives have undergone significant changes since arriving in the U.S. My mother has faced the greatest challenges in adapting to our new environment, as she was accustomed to life in Vietnam. However, my children quickly assimilated and have successfully adjusted to their new life after two years in America.

For me, living in the United States has presented a newfound opportunity to continue my advocacy for human rights in Vietnam without the constant fear of detention or harassment against my family. It’s like a new chapter has opened up, allowing me to pursue my activism with greater freedom and security.

What is daily life like for you now in the U.S.? What is your community like?

My daily life in the U.S. revolves around the routines of being a mother to my two children. Unlike my life in Vietnam, I now have the privilege of spending quality time with them, something I cherish deeply. Additionally, I remain actively engaged with the Vietnamese community, disseminating information that may not be readily available through traditional media channels.

Through blogging and producing video content, I strive to hold the Vietnamese government accountable and provide a platform for voices that are often silenced. Many young people in Vietnam see me as a symbol of freedom and inspiration, and I am committed to continuing this important work, advocating for human rights and fostering dialogue within the community.

What does asylum mean to you and your children?

As an activist, I never imagined that seeking asylum in another country would become a necessity. However, asylum in the United States represents a new beginning for my children and me. It offers them the chance to grow up in an environment where human rights are upheld and protected, providing them with greater opportunities for a brighter future. For me, asylum means the opportunity to study and continue pursuing my dream in a safer and more supportive environment.

What do you love the most about being a mother?

As a mother, the most extraordinary joy is witnessing the daily growth and safety of my children. Being both a nurturing presence and a friend to them as they journey toward becoming kind, compassionate individuals is what I cherish most. The boundless love that comes with motherhood fuels an unwavering determination to protect my children, fostering hope for a bright and promising future for them.

What life do you dream of for your children?

I’ve often expressed in interviews during my time in Vietnam: ‘I fight for my children. I don’t want them to do what I’m doing.’ My dream has always been for my children to grow up in a world where they can freely express their thoughts without fear of persecution or harassment. Now, I am grateful to see that dream becoming a reality.

Like countless other mothers, my ultimate wish is for my children to grow up safely, to embody goodness, and to make positive contributions to the lives of those around them. Their happiness and well-being are my greatest priorities, and I will continue to support them in pursuing their dreams and aspirations.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I am profoundly grateful to everyone, especially the friends and acquaintances I’ve had the privilege to meet and learn from here in America. Whether through personal interactions or remote support via email or phone, the kindness and willingness to listen to my story and offer assistance have been truly uplifting. America, and the individuals I’ve encountered along the way, have provided me with invaluable opportunities for growth and learning.

I extend my heartfelt thanks to America and to all those who have played a part in securing my freedom today. Your unwavering support has reaffirmed my belief that every individual in this world has the right to freely express their opinions, regardless of their background, skin color, or language.

Read the blog on Quyhn’s experience here.

Refugee Voices


  • Camila Rice-Aguilar

Published on May 12, 2024


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