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Where the Sea takes us

Statelessness and our search for a home

 Recently, I told my parents that I was moving out of home. I had discussed it with them many times since I was a teenager, but something always got in the way: a scholarship in a distant city had fallen through; the rental market was overheated; I had to finish my PhD first; and then it was my book. Moving out always seemed a little too inconvenient. This time I was going for sure.

Mum and Dad were not disappointed, but needed to consider what this meant for our family.
Van: Son, your father and I agree that it’s time for you to move out. We’ve been discussing it for the last few nights — we haven’t been able to sleep — and we decided that we can’t expect you to stay here any more. You deserve something for yourself. Your father and I know how difficult it’s been for you and your girlfriend, with you living here. We know that we’ve asked too much.
Thiet: You're a university lecturer now, with a good salary. You’ve worked so hard and we’re very proud of you. You should be looking for opportunities to work in other cities and countries. Don't worry about us. If you decide to settle somewhere else in Australia or even on the other side of the world then we can visit. And when you and your brother have children, we’ll find a place to live nearby to look after them. But until then, your mother and I will be fine on our own.
Kim: Don’t lose sleep over this, Mum and Dad. It’s been my choice to stay with you and I’ve always been very happy. But I’m 28 years old and it’s time for me to leave. It was probably time years ago. I won’t move too far away. I’ll rent an apartment closer to the city. You can come over any time. I hate the thought of you having dinner by yourselves every night and watching TV. It’ll be good for us, force us to get out a bit more. And, of course, I’ll come home for dinner once a week.
Van: Twice, at least.
Kim: Okay, I’ll try.
Van: My son, I want to make it clear that we support you and always want you to be happy, but we don’t want you to go. A Vietnamese family stays together even after the children are married and have kids of their own. Look at Mr and Mrs Phuoc. They live in the same house with their adult children, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. Three generations in one happy home. That’s the way it should be. We’re Vietnamese, that’s never going to change. But Australia is our home now, and things are different here.
Thiet and Van had heard about Pulau Bidong from foreign radio station reports in Vietnam, but this in no way prepared them for what they saw that afternoon or would endure over the coming months. As they made their way around to the south of the island, the couple saw a cemetery of boats which had been abandoned and only half sunk. Hulls were upturned, or only part of the decks could be seen, as they bobbed up and down with the eerie buoyancy of body parts. Nearer to the island, boat carcasses were bogged in the sand, like massive prehistoric skeletons revealed by the retreating waves. The camp itself occupied a small part of the island, from the southern beaches to halfway up the slope of the 300- metre mountain which dominated the landscape. Coconut palms lined the main beach, behind which stretched thousands of ramshackle huts held together by garbage and filth. From a distance, the settlement appeared to be a festering eyesore, with a putrid odour to match.
The UNHCR and Malaysian government established the camp on Bidong Island in July 1978 with an initial intake of 121 refugees. In the first year of its operation over 52,000 refugees were received from 453 boatloads. Up until the time of Thiet and Van’s arrival, only 10,500 people had been resettled to other countries, so there were over 40,000 refugees living in less than 1 square kilometre on the tip of the island in May 1979. Many people had been on Pulau Bidong for up to ten months, and among these long-term residents uncertainty bred anguish and discontent. For this reason, it was sometimes referred to as the Island of Death. But in the popular refugee vernacular, Pulau Bidong had become Buon Lo Bi Dat, or the island of ‘sadness, worries and lament’.
With news of another boatload of refugees arriving, crowds surged to the jetty looking for friends and relatives. The islanders wore tattered shorts, their ragged hair ran down past their shoulders, and many of the men’s bare chests were as tanned as pearl divers. The newcomers were met by a welcoming committee throughout the afternoon and allocated with a new number, KG—392, indicating that they were the 392nd boatload of people to arrive on the island. While the UNHCR and international donors funded the camp, it was administered by the residents, and there were committees for everything from security and architecture, to health and sanitation, and orphan care and entertainment. After filling in some forms, Thiet and Van were told that they could sleep in an empty administration building for one night, but would have to find their own accommodation the next day, as the 393rd boatload would soon be arriving.
Worried that a bout of malaria would kill his already weak sons, Thiet was desperate to obtain a mosquito net before nightfall. The family had only $200 left, half of which had been hidden in the handle of Van’s bag and the other in the seam of her shirt. After asking around, Thiet found someone who was willing to sell a net for $100. when he tried to negotiate a lower price, the vendor tersely replied that only a few months earlier, nets had been far more expensive. ‘A tael of gold for a saucepan, another for a mosquito net was the going rate. If you don’t want to buy my net for less than half of that, then don’t bother me with your haggling. I’ll find someone else who knows a good deal when he sees one.’ Thiet handed over half of ail the money that they had in the world and took the net back to his family, feeling as if he had not so much saved them but failed them.
Officially, shelter on Pulau Bidong was not bought or sold but allocated by the accommodation committee. However, high demand for real estate and the fact that the anti-communist islanders had little faith in centralisation meant that almost every dwelling had to be paid for in one way or another. The shanties were made from anything that could be collected and erected, including cardboard, blue plastic sheeting, hand-cut timber, bark and hessian bags. The shacks bordering the main beach in Area A were up to three storeys high and highly sought after. Dwellings in Area A were close to the administrative buildings, from where rations were distributed, and not far from the schools, the church and temple. The markets were supplied by bold individuals who paddled offshore on makeshift rafts to meet Malaysian suppliers, and there were a few fishermen who had crafted boats from discarded refuse. Those who had managed to make it to the island with their wealth intact could visit the hair salon and eat Vietnamese crepes, and at night their huts were illuminated using power from car batteries.

We were exiles on a little boat 12

 Unfortunately, the radical self-interest that was necessary for survival among the refugees could not simply be switched off when it came time for them to band together. The richer passengers were unwilling to contribute to the $2,000 because they had lost the most during the robberies, while the poorer passengers refused to subsidise the rich. With the white beaches of liberty in sight, a general meeting of the KG-1170 was held on deck. Thiet was one of the first to speak. ‘Whoever has taken my $200, I urge you to hand it over so that we can land. I’ll give up all that I have for the sake of my wife and children. Who will do the same?’ On Son Rai Island, Thiet had taken off his pants to wash them and, fearing that his money would be soaked, took the two $100 bills from the front of his zipper. He placed the money in the lid of a drink container that he carried with him, but lost the container a day later. Thiet suspected that someone sitting nearby was the culprit, but could not be sure pirates hadn’t relieved his neighbour of the money. There was some disgruntled mumbling after Thiet’s statement, as it was clear that his pledge was insubstantial. For an infernally frustrating moment, it seemed that their pettiness would damn them.

The boat boss must have recognised this and decided to pay the entire sum from his secret reserve, hidden so carefully that even four gangs of pirates could not find it. In the face of all the setbacks, the boat boss always came through for them. So despite the overcrowding and the double-crossing at Thot Not, he was greatly respected by the passengers. Thiet had seen the boat boss only once, but knew a little about him. He had excelled as a merchant in Vietnam, organised their cavale, tamed the Vietnamese security police so that they too called him ‘boss’, fooled the pirates, and now he had pacified the Malaysians with his apparently boundless wealth. While they do not know where the boat boss resides today, Thiet and Van are certain that he prospers.
After the money had been paid, the KG-1170 was towed to a beach where its anchor was dropped for the final time. The passengers jumped down from the boat into the warm knee- high water and waded to the shore, where Malaysian soldiers were waiting. The soldiers offered to take any gold that the refugees had brought with them for ‘safe-keeping’. When very little was handed over, the boatpeople were searched, but what remained of their riches had been concealed well enough to fool such amateur crooks.
It was close to midnight when Thiet and Van carried their children to the broad white beach of that unnamed island. Tam was not far behind them, emerging famished and weak from the hold. They found a discarded pallet and collapsed upon it. It was only half the size of a bed but was their space alone; the Taj Mahal itself could not offer them any more. Thiet and Van embraced one another with their children in between them. ‘Do you know what today is?’ Van whispered to her husband. ‘It’s a very important day for the communists. It’s May Day, and yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the day that we lost the country.’
Some hours later, Van awoke to hear the waves lapping on the shore and see the moonlight bouncing off the white water. Something had set off her radar, or more precisely had gone missing from the screen. Kim had disappeared; he was separated from her for the first time since they had left Saigon. She looked down to the waves where the tide had risen, and her first frantic guess was that he had crawled away in the night and had been swallowed by the ocean. She scraped at the sand around the pallet and was about to scream when she saw him, curled up in a woollen jumper that they had pulled from the boat and left on the pallet’s edge. Kim was as safe and warm as a kitten in a blanket.
In the morning the family woke to find others leaving the beach for a derelict army barracks a few hundred metres away. Gathering their children, Thiet and Van scurried after them. A tittle later, they had claimed a thatch roof held up by four bamboo poles as their first house outside Vietnam. Once they had settled in, the refugees returned to the beach to collect their possessions from the boat. Young men waded out to the vessel and returned with bags and bundles, which were then piled on the sand. The passengers congregated at the end of this crude luggage carousel, where a crew member held up one item at a time and screamed, ‘Who owns this?’ Van saw her tote bag and pushed forward to grab what she had been certain would have been stolen. To her surprise, it still held their clothes and everything that she had brought from Saigon. Most importantly, the $100 was still woven into the handle. The remaining supplies from the KG-1170 were also retrieved and that morning they enjoyed a beachside breakfast of rice soup spiced with the prospect of liberty. As the refugees sat eating and admiring the vista, the KG-1170 was scuttled to safeguard against a Malaysian change of heart. The vessel that had delivered them from tyranny had to be destroyed, but in the minds of its final passengers it would never be forgotten.
While the family was pleased to have survived their ordeal, not everyone had made it. Besides the man who had died on board, an elderly Chinese woman, who had been robbed several times and who suffered from trauma, had passed away just before they had arrived on the island. Van was amazed that there had not been more losses. She wondered what wells of fortitude the other boatpeople had drawn upon to make it through their ordeals. When Thiet and Van had paid their money at the start of the year, they were informed that around 100 people would be going with them. At Rach Gia they were told that there would be 170, but that the boat could easily accommodate them. In the end, 507 boatpeople landed on that Malaysian island, with one body left behind in the ocean and another buried just beyond the sand.
On 3 May, a UNHCR boat came to distribute rations and tell the refugees that they would be transferred to a nearby camp. Four days later, an armada of long bark boats landed on the beach. As Van sat holding Kim, she admired for the first time the finely polished sea. With the purring of the outboard motor in the background and the midday sun warming her face, the young mother let her hand drift out of the boat and run through the water, and a wistful smile broke over her face.

We were exiles on a little boat 11

 Later that day another fishing boat intercepted the KG-1170. This time the search was more thorough, since much of the wealth on deck had already been taken. The pirates entered the hull with guns and emerged horrified by the conditions, but content with what they had stolen. For Tam, who was entombed below, the robbery was a welcome interruption to his stifling nightmare. For a short while the clanking sound of the engine ceased. Throughout the journey, Tam did not know whether his thirst for water or air was greater. Like many others, he suffered from prickly heat. His sweat glands were overworked and his skin was flushed and pimply. Below in the darkness, he had no comprehension of time or distance. He was dizzy even when the boat was still, and drifted in an opaque state of subconsciousness, which could only be breached by a pirate attack or stinging cramps in his legs.

By the end of that day, Van, too, had become desperately thirsty. Her thirst overpowered all the poisonous smells around her: of people, alive but festering, their sweat, excrement and the lingering stink of vomit. Stronger than all of those odours for Van was the subtle but omnipresent smell of salt water. The ocean had become everything to them. It was their saviour and their captor, tempting and yet hazardous.
There were times when Van was astonished by the vision of flying fish. One time she panicked, thinking that she had lost consciousness, that the ship of their dreams had sunk and that she and her baby were underwater, watching the silver schools of fish swim by. It was only after touching the smeary floor beneath her and feeling Kim’s chest beat like a moth’s wings against the cusp of her hand that Van could regain her composure.
When she had moisture in her throat and air in her lungs, Van recited poems and lullabies from many generations ago:
I am like a piece of silk
Floating in the midst of the market, knowing not into
whose hands it will fall
Sitting on a reed, leaning against an apricot branch
Between the peach tree to the East and the willow to
the West
Who shall I befriend for a lifetime?
Van’s singing was just as much for herself as for Kim. But by that stage, her altruism had become so complete that there was little difference between what she sacrificed for her child and what she did for herself, while Kim was completely reliant upon his mother, in truth their relationship was not simple or one-way. Van also needed Kim. Her focus on his wellbeing distracted her from the despondency that otherwise might have been fatal. From his frailty she gained strength; his powerlessness compelled her to carry on.
On 1 May, a rumour spread among the boatpeople that they had spent their last night at sea, filling the passengers with hope and helping them get through an uneventful but torturously hot day. In the late afternoon, they faced the arrival of more pirates, this time in two vessels. Since the KG-1170 had been twice looted, the thieves resorted to ransacking the boat in the hope of retrieving every last speck of gold. The refugees were ordered to file across to one of the pirate ships to be frisked, while the crew from the other ship checked the hold for hidden riches. Thiet was one of the first to cross over to the fishing boat, where he discovered jewels of much greater value than anything that had been left behind. To his eyes, the piles of ice used to store the fishing catch were like edible diamonds. He and Thach grasped great handfuls and felt the ice melt through their grubby fingers. They stuffed the fish-flavoured shards into their mouths, slurping and munching even as the cold scorched the back of their throats and threatened to crack their teeth. When he was ordered to return to their vessel, Thiet’s gut was full but still he wanted to stuff his pockets.
Later that afternoon yet another pirate ship hijacked them, but did not find much worth taking. The bandits took the starter engine and compass, but as a parting act of humanity pointed their victims towards Malaysia, which they assured them was only just over the horizon.
Those on deck stared anxiously ahead, watching the land rise in the distance. All were aware of the precariousness of these last few kilometres. If the engine stopped, they would not be able to get it going again and the KG-1170 would drift back out to sea. As they drew close to land, a Malaysian naval boat emerged and motored towards them. The passengers were uneasy, suspecting that they were just as likely to be driven back out to international waters as to be guided to shore. The armed vessel stopped in front of the KG-1170 and commanded them to shut down the engine and identify themselves. One of the crew explained in English that they were Vietnamese seeking asylum in Malaysia, but a soldier replied that the island was a military base and that they could not land under any circumstances. The crew member went on to explain that their starter engine and compass had been stolen, and that they were unable to continue anywhere on their own accord.
During the standoff that followed, as the Malaysians consulted with one another, the refugees waited in nervous silence. The naval officers eventually decided that the refugees could disembark temporarily, until the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came for them. The only condition was that US$2,000 had to be paid up front to compensate the military for their efforts and resources.
The prospect of being expelled from Malaysia to their death was very real. Indeed, it was official policy. In 1978, Task Force VII had been established by the Malaysian National Security Council with the primary task of stopping boats from landing. One recorded account of the Force’s callousness related to late March 1979, only a month before the arrival of the KG-1170/ In this case, the MH-3012, carrying 237 mostly Chinese- Vietnamese passengers, was towed back out to sea twice by different Malaysian naval ships. After the first time, ten people died of dehydration. On the second occasion, an asylum-seeker was shot after the MH-3012 refused to be towed. The hapless boat was then dragged in a violent zigzag motion that caused it to capsize. As desperate boatpeople swam to the naval ship for help, Malaysian seamen laughed and took photographs. In May 1979 alone, nearly 13,500 people were ‘assisted’ or ‘shooed’ from Malaysian waters by Task Force VII boats. A month later, Prime Minister Hussein Onn announced that no more refugee boats would be allowed to land. At the same time, Deputy Prime Minister Mahathir declared a ‘shoot on sight’ policy and promised to ship out those already in camps.

We were exiles on a little boat 10

 The next morning she found more reason to despise him. ‘Look at him dozing without a care in the world, taking up more space than anyone!’ said one of the cranky old women. ‘He’s probably having blissful dreams of fine food, rice wine and beautiful girls, while the rest of us are too afraid to close our eyes!’ They were only silenced when the man did not stir all morning. Someone gave him a gentle shove and all in the cabin gasped when he rolled out of his blanket dead. After deducing that the man had suffered a heart attack and passed away in the night, the crew wrapped, him in his blanket again and threw him overboard. Van was left to contemplate how she had sat cursing a dead man. she had been his final contact with humanity.

On the morning of 30 April, Van received her first meal at sea: a bowl of rice soup. After trying unsuccessfully to feed Kim, she resolved to find Thiet and Thach and give them the soup. Van was very hungry herself, but could not eat anything until she knew that her husband and oldest boy were okay. Getting out of the cabin meant climbing over bodies, and sliding between them and suffering the abuse of those cantankerous old women. When she eventually got to the door and stuck her head outside, Van was shocked to see how many people were on board. On either side of the cabin there was a 30-centimetre gap that usually served as a narrow walkway; now it was crammed with people who had had their knees tucked into their chins for hours on end.
The only way that she was going to get to the deck without dancing on heads was to copy the crew and skirt along the railings. Van held Kim and the rice soup in one hand as she stepped up onto the very edge of the boat. She balanced herself by grasping the rail on the cabin roof and shuffled towards the bow. As the young mother wobbled and swayed more like a clown than an acrobat, it occurred to her how foolish she had been to put herself in a position where the slightest tip could throw her and Kim into the ocean. But at the same time, she knew that this was not just about a bowl of soup. Simply seeing her husband and son would be more nourishing than the heartiest bowl of food. All she needed to do was slide one foot away from the other and then bring them together again.
Van made it to the deck and then forced her way to the bow, calling out for Thiet. As she stood as tall and valiant as an action hero holding the still-warm bowl of rice soup, Thiet and Thach looked up, and Van saw not one but two desperate children. ‘I am soooo hungry,’ they cried out in unison. Van passed her husband the soup, while on the inside she softly wept. After their breakfast Thiet and Van took their sons to the edge of the boat where they peeled off their dirty clothes and reached over the edge to bathe them in the streaming water. Someone warned to watch out for sharks, but the ocean was so clear that they were sure they would see a shark coming from a great distance away. Feeling the sea spray over their tiny naked bodies, Thach and Kim giggled with delight.
Thiet was not afraid when he saw the pirate ship approaching, in part because he had concluded from listening to foreign radio reports that they would inevitably confront these scoundrels of the South China Sea. There was also an unassuming appearance about the approaching vessel, a mere Ashing boat complete with nets and catch, that perhaps made it less frightening. Years later, Thiet would explain that he was not so much brave in the face of danger but passive. ‘By that stage there was very little distance between life and death for us. I did not know what harm pirates could inflict that was much worse than what we had already suffered.’
The pirates pulled up alongside the junk boat and demanded in flawless Vietnamese to be allowed on board. Thiet did not see the man who called out, but hoped that he was a Thai who had learnt some Vietnamese. The thought of someone robbing his own countrymen in such a manner was sickening to him. The pirates announced that they were not interested in hurting anyone. No more than eight of them scurried around the deck insisting that passengers turn out their pockets and hand over money and jewellery. Some of the bandits may have had guns, but those who came into contact with Thiet and Van wielded only knives.
Many people have wondered why hundreds of daring refugees could not overwhelm a handful of pirates. As Thiet later explained, ‘We needed someone to organise and lead us. But no one was capable of doing this, and because I didn’t put myself and my family at risk, I can’t judge others for doing the same.’ The very fact that there were so many boatpeople crammed into the KG-1170 made it unsteady compared to the powerful steel-made pirate vessels. The pirates made it clear that if one person resisted or made trouble then the boat would be rammed, and that courageous soul would have the deaths of everyone on his hands. Many of the boatpeople saw resistance as romantic and foolhardy. Even if they somehow managed to overpower the pirate fishermen and take hold of their vessel, who knew whether other pirates would come after them in retaliation — inspired not by a code among thieves, but by a prudent business strategy ensuring that one heroic stand did not encourage others to resist.
Many passengers on the KG—1170 were wealthy and it was not long before the pirates had hauled in riches far greater than what they could earn in a year catching fish. Because pickings were so plentiful, Thiet and Van did not lose very much. One of the pirates had seen a gold necklace with a jade Buddha around Kim’s neck, which Thua had given him the day before they left Saigon. The bandit pointed his knife at the infant’s neck and grunted. A minute later, it was in his bag and he had moved on to his next victim.

We were exiles on a little boat 9

 That afternoon, a second junk boat — similar in size and also overcrowded — joined the KG-1170 awaiting escort. Finally, the PSB ship arrived at dusk but by that time the temperature had dropped and an offshore breeze had eased Van to sleep.

At around eleven in the evening, just as it was about to leave Vietnamese waters, the KG—1170 crashed. The other junk boat had swerved and struck them, with the tip of its bow opening a hole in the KG—1170’s hull, not far from where Thiet and Thach were crouched.
The hole was just above sea level and was not taking in much water, but the KG-1170 could not continue. If the waves picked up even slightly then the hold would be flooded. They had to return to Vietnam for repairs. Fortunately, the PSB escort had not departed and the boat boss managed to convince the captain of the PSB ship to receive the KG-1170’s passengers and take them to a nearby Vietnamese island. It was an irony not lost on Thiet that a vehicle of communist oppression had saved them from certain death.
Daylight had broken before the bulk of the passengers had been transferred from the boat and the hole in the bow rose safely above water. After resting a little on the deck of the PSB ship, Thiet picked up Thach and went in search of Van and Kim. He was stunned to see Van emerge bleary-eyed from the steering room of the KG-1170. She was one of the last remaining passengers on the KG-1170 and had slept through the night as everyone else was scrambling for their lives. Thiet helped his wife over to the PSB ship and not long afterwards both vessels turned around and headed back the way they had come. It was 27 April 1979, eight days since they had left their home and they were still not out of Vietnam.
The passengers of the KG-1170 disembarked upon the tiny island of Son Rai, off the south-west coast of Vietnam. Many of the island’s inhabitants had already left on their own cavales and so the influx of several hundred asylum-seekers was a major local event. The boat boss had radioed in from the PSB ship and somehow arranged for all of them to stay in vacant houses and spare rooms.
By the time the family arrived at their accommodation, Kim’s fever had started to rise once again. Any food or liquids that Van gave him seemed to rush through his innards so fast that they extracted energy from him rather than provided it. The infant was too weak to cry; he had hardly opened his eyes for two days, and his arms and legs were as thin as adult fingers. That night, Thiet told Van that Kim had no chance of completing the journey and that in the morning he would find someone to take the infant back to his grandmother. While Van knew that there was only a skerrick of life left in her baby, she did not want to return him to Saigon. But she was in no position to question her husband.
The next morning Thiet set off with Thach to check on the progress of the boat repairs and to find a way to send Kim home, while Van went in search of help. The island nurse shook his head when he first saw the infant, but was more upbeat after speaking to Van about Kim’s symptoms. ‘If the boy contracted dysentery a week ago, then he’s probably past the worst of it,’ he remarked. ‘But it’s very important that you give him plenty of water in the next few days. God willing, he’ll make a full recovery.’ As the nurse examined the infant, he spoke of his own two sons who had sailed to Malaysia more than a year ago and had found refuge in Australia. ‘I can join them at any time, but I’m not quite ready to abandon my life here. So if fate leads you to Australia, please find my sons and tell them that an hour does not pass when I do not think of them.’
The nurse produced some saline solution to rehydrate Kim. With no drip, he injected it directly into one of Kim’s buttocks. Van was pleased to see her baby who had for so long been inanimate, react to the pain by squirming and weeping. It was as if the injection had given him energy to fight on. She thanked the nurse and promised to contact his sons if by some chance they were delivered to Australia. This must have been reward enough because the nurse insisted that there was no charge for his kindness. In light of the nurse’s diagnosis, Thiet agreed that Kim would remain with them, and on the evening of 29 April, the KG-1170 set off once again with Thiet, Van, Tam, Thach and baby Kim on board.
That night the KG-1170 was flung about like a kite without strings. From Van’s position in the steering cabin, the ocean seemed all-powerful. As the wind and the waves roared around her, Van could distinguish a dim light bulb over the skipper and steering wheel. She held on to Kim and thought about Thiet and Thach outside. She had little idea of how long the journey would take — she had never been out to sea — but she was certain that the boat would not hold together. Around her, as people vomited, a slimy pool of liquid began to run through the passengers’ toes. The acrid smell and diesel fumes made even those with strong constitutions and sturdy sea legs throw up, adding to the rolling mess. Van tried not to focus on what was going on around her. She let her mind wander back to her childhood and the shack that her family lived in after they first moved to Saigon, which was so often flooded during the wet season. But back then, the waters eventually receded, the sun always returned and after the rain stopped, the air was fresh and scented with jasmine from the nearby florists.
‘Can you spare some water? Please, just a drop or two.’ The pathetic plea came from a Vietnamese man beside Van who had slithered into the cabin with a blanket on his head. Since leaving Son Rai, the old women had turned their attention on him. ‘What sort of man is this who cowers in a cabin with feeble women when others like him are suffocating below deck? This is not a man at all!’ Van could feel the figure trembling under the blanket and could hear his incessant panting and wheezing. The young mother instinctively handed over the bottle of water that she had been given earlier that night. After taking a mighty gulp, he returned it without a word of thanks and leaving a fetid stench on the mouth of the bottle. Van was suddenly incensed with herself. Knowing that Kim needed to stay hydrated to survive, she had given his water away to a stranger who should not have been there in the first place. With vicious intent, Van glared at the shivering lump beside her.

We were exiles on a little boat 8

 The doctor diagnosed dysentery (Thiet and Van had guessed as much), but was perplexed because the infant had not discharged any blood and mucus. He informed them that they could do little more than rest and hydrate him until the infection had gone away. Dysentery was not usually fatal, he remarked, but it could quite easily kill someone so small. Van thanked the doctor and asked him once again for some medicine, but he maintained that he had none.

On the morning of 25 April, Dan notified them that they would leave with the outgoing tide. Kim had not recovered but his condition had improved enough for Thiet and Van to decide that they could take him on the journey. As Van queued on the bank of the canal and saw the moored vessel that would deliver her family to freedom, she wondered how they could possibly get everyone on board. The KG-1170 (KG standing for Kien Giang province in which it was registered) was an unremarkable wooden boat, around 20 metres in length and 4 metres wide. Van thought the line of people waiting to get on could easily sink the ferry. Many of the other passengers had pots, pans and tins hanging from their bodies, which clattered and clanged when they stirred, as if they were in a bizarre marching band.
At the front of the line a uniformed policeman with a large registration book stood on a small jetty. Van was checked off and told to walk over a plank onto the boat. Van held Kim in one arm and her tote bag in the other as she took a tentative first step onto the plank, which creaked, wobbled and sagged with the weight of several people crossing at once. She felt furious with the boat boss for not providing a wider plank, but also with herself because if she could not walk a few metres onto the boat without falling in the water, then how was she going to make it to another country? Without looking down, but taking so long that she could hear the people behind her grumbling in annoyance, Van managed to shuffle on board. It was then that she realised why others had tied their belongings to their bodies. As she looked back to see Thiet, one of the ship-hands grabbed her bag and threw it into the hold. ‘No room for that up here, you can get it when we arrive.’ Van did not have time to protest before she was hustled to the back of the boat and told to sit down.
‘You are not Tran Thai! See here, look at this picture. Tran Thai is a two-year-old boy!’ The Public Security Bureau officer glared at Thiet, waiting for a response that the young father could not give without revealing that he was Vietnamese. ‘Speak up! How do you account for this?’ the officer said in Vietnamese, but expecting the answer to be in a Chinese- Vietnamese accent. Even if he could put on such an accent, Thiet did not know what to say. The family stood to be divided while Thiet was paralysed on the jetty, only one leap away.
‘Quit your nitpicking!’ interjected a woman, whom Thiet recognised as the boat boss’s wife. ‘This is clearly an administrative error. I can vouch for this man. He is Tran Thai and only a fool would think otherwise. Stop holding up the queue and let him go.’ She ripped the boy’s picture out from the record that was in the officer’s arms and threw it into the canal. In the same sweeping motion, the boat boss’s wife pushed Thiet and Thach along the queue towards the boat.
Near the bow of the boat Thiet hunkered down and held on to his son. A part of him wished he could explain to Thach what had just transpired — why they were abandoning his grandmothers, why he would never see his birthplace again and why, despite all that they had already endured and the uncertainty ahead, they were fortunate to be sitting in that wooden boat full of strangers. Another part of him was glad that his son was impervious to everything. Thach looked up at his father and in that instant Thiet gained an impression from the four-year-old’s stern gaze that he somehow understood much more than his father presumed. ‘Why are you shaking Dad? What are you afraid of?’
Van guessed that there were 300 or even 400 passengers on the KG-1170. Many of them, like Thiet and Thach, were exposed to the elements on the deck; while the majority, including Tam, had been packed and sealed in the hold. Three dozen or so people were crammed with Van and Kim into the cabin which was no larger than the kitchenette in their abandoned apartment. Van knew that despite her discomfort, she and Kim had first-class accommodation, with shelter from the sun and slat windows to let in the air. There were scores of children on board but none were as young and feeble as Kim, which was why they had been allowed into the cabin. Apart from the skipper, the steering cabin was occupied by elderly women and a few of the boat boss’s relatives. Even before their voyage began, Van felt squeamish from the mass of limbs pressing against her and her child. Through the floor boards beneath her she sensed the heaving bulk of bodies, where, it seemed, a cough or sneeze might be enough to blow the boat apart and send them to the muddy depths.
After waiting six or seven hours for the final preparations to be completed, the KG-1170 left its home port of Rach Gia in the late afternoon on 25 April, making its way west along a series of canals and rivers. Just as they reached the Gulf of Thailand the next morning, the KG-1170 dropped anchor to wait for a PSB escort into international waters. By midday, with the sun beaming down upon them and no breeze for relief, the government vessel was still nowhere to be seen.
Kim’s bowels pulsed and pulped continuously, expelling a foul mess. Without water or cloth, Van could not clean her baby up, and she did not need a translator to know that the old ladies in the cabin were casting Cantonese curses at her. Van wondered why no one seemed to have the slightest compassion, if not for her, then for the child in her arms.
Blocking herself off from the tide of grumbling, she focused on caring for her child. The only figures who occasionally drew Van’s attention away from Kim were the skipper and his girlfriend. They were the only other people in the cabin who spoke Vietnamese, so Van was naturally drawn to their conversations. She later learnt that the skipper had sold his services to the boat boss in return for passage for him and his mistress. The couple seemed almost grateful for their cramped surroundings, as this allowed them to caress one another and exchange the giggling nonsense of lovers. Despite the fact that the skipper was merely holding the steering wheel in position, Van observed that his girlfriend massaged his shoulders and admired his dexterity as if he were guiding them through hazardous straits. Van would later learn that while the girlfriend needed the skipper to get her out of Vietnam, she was also of use to him. She had once worked in a bar that was frequented by American soldiers, and the gossip was that she had many close connections in the US. If the skipper had hoped she would be his ticket to the West, he was to be disappointed. She abandoned him as soon as the boat journey ended and migrated to the US by herself.

We were exiles on a little boat 7

 On the way to Rach Gia, there was much speculation as to what had happened to them the night before. The other passengers mostly spoke in Chinese, so Thiet and Van were not privy to all the details. But from what they could gather, the most credible explanation for their imprisonment was that in lieu of paying a tariff to the regional authorities, the boat boss had arranged for them to be ransacked. Some of the escapees felt as if they had been double-crossed, but Thiet suspected that the boat boss might not have had any choice. If he had warned them of the interception and the authorities were unsatisfied with their takings, then they might not have been allowed to continue. Van reasoned that the injustice was not worth dwelling over because even if they had been cheated, it would certainly not be for the last time. And in any case, she thought, what recourse did they have? What court could they turn to?

The business of exile had brought a festive atmosphere to the grubby bar-filled port of Rach Gia. Every afternoon, five or six overcrowded boats left with the outgoing tide along one of the canals that opened into the Gulf of Thailand. On many vessels, passengers cheered and waved as if they were leaving on a cruise ship to a tropical island. In their minds, the storms would be cooling showers, the meals would be generous and the pirates were onboard entertainment. Thiet was astounded by their naivety, but also envied their high spirits. He thought back to when he had been similarly idealistic, in the summer of 1954, when he had waved off young Viet Minh soldiers heading north on Polish ships. They too were convinced that they were heading towards a land of fraternity and riches. Many would never return or only after decades of suffering.
At Rach Gia they were sent to a dilapidated thatch house on stilts, which was owned by a couple who had converted their home into a hostel for exiles. There were around ten wooden beds in the largest room of the house, each bed reserved for one family. As they settled in, Dan came to explain that there were some administrative procedures that would take a few days. He also allocated their Chinese aliases and pointed out the adopted families that they had to join when it was time to board the vessel. Until that time, Thiet had been unable to determine whether Dan would be coming with them. But now the gravity of his words and urgency of his ways suggested to Thiet that he had a personal investment in the cavale. This sense of solidarity, of being in the same boat, tempered Thiet’s anger towards Dan, who was at least sensitive enough not to wear the Rado watch.
Despite their hostel owners’ best efforts, conditions in the house were horrific. There was a small supply of rainwater for cooking and drinking; however, water for cleaning clothes and food was taken straight from the canal into which their waste was emptied. On their second day in Rach Gia, Van bought some sugarcane juice for Kim, as there was not enough rainwater to go around and he was growing weak after refusing to eat. He started to suffer from diarrhoea and became feverish that same evening.
On many occasions in the months ahead, Van would regret buying Kim that sugarcane juice. Or perhaps it was the rice that had been rinsed in the filthy canal water? Kim might have even fallen ill from Van’s own germ-infested hands. Whatever the cause, it was surely her doing. ‘As you sit there now, I can’t explain to you how scared I was,’ she would recount to me a quarter of a century later. ‘Every little choice — should I feed you this or that? Should I cradle you or set you down? Should I let you crawl on the floor or force you to stay on the mat? —might have made the difference between you living and dying. You know that we made it, and today we are safe in our house with a fridge full of food. But back then I didn’t know anything and we had absolutely nothing. I was always so frightened, so terribly frightened.’
After three days, Kim’s condition deteriorated and Van could not bear sitting in that dank and overcrowded house watching him suffer, she bundled him up and paid for a ride into downtown Rach Gia, where there was a small hospital. But because the medical and pharmaceutical system had been nationalised, Van had to present their family register before anyone would examine or prescribe medicine for Kim. The young mother resorted to buying some carrots and areca nuts from the market, which she had heard would help cure his diarrhoea. Kim coughed up the boiled carrots and acrid red areca as Van forced them into his mouth. The paste left grimy red stains on his shirt that for the remainder of the journey gave him the appearance of having been wounded in battle.
That evening, one of the other boarders approached the family’s bed and quietly identified himself as a physician. He was also Vietnamese, as opposed to the other occupants who were ethnic Chinese. Thiet and Van suspected that he had not come forward earlier for fear of revealing not only his ethnicity, but also his profession. Doctors were in very high demand in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. If his qualifications became known to the authorities, then he would be prevented from leaving the country. It was also conceivable that the doctor might treat his fellow passengers only to be blackmailed by them for medicine. He had heard Kim crying and observed his distraught parents for two days before deciding that he had to step forward. Nonetheless, he was aloof and made it clear while examining the infant and speaking to his mother that he was acting more out of duty than compassion.

We were exiles on a little boat 6

 Not long afterwards, the family arrived at the bus stop on Tran Quoc Toan Street in Cholon. Tam was there waiting, which was a great relief to Huong who had come to see her son for perhaps the last time. As the six of them waited in the mid-morning heat, several buses arrived but none was the one destined for Rach Gia which Dan had told them to board. With each passing vehicle, doubt mounted in Thief’s mind. What if they had been hoodwinked? What if this was all an elaborate con by Dan who was probably halfway to Malaysia with their gold? What if Thiet had invested all their money and hopes in return for passage to a bus stop?

Van held Kim and a canvas tote bag, which contained every possession that they would take from their homeland. She had begun packing for the trip many weeks ago, but in the end had taken more things out of that bag than were left inside. Along with the US army spoon, there were some identification documents and warm clothes for Thach and Kim. Van had scoured the black markets for paracetamol and tablets to stop diarrhoea. There was also a packet of beef jerky, some rice in a Guigoz can and a tiny bag of sugar flavoured with lemon juice, which Van had heard was a good source of energy. The couple had US$400 which they had saved from before 1975. With the precision of an origami expert, Van had folded $200 and sewn it into the material over the zipper of Thief’s pants. Another $100 had been woven into the handle of her tote bag, and the final $100 was nigh undetectable in the underarm seam of her blouse.
Thiet and Van were relieved to discover that the bus had government number plates and markings, which meant that they would not have to stop at any checkpoints. As they scurried on board, Tam turned back and saw his mother. Before leaving the house that morning, Huong had not had time to apply her make-up or style her silky black hair. Tam could not remember seeing his mother’s face so unadorned. Nor could he recall them ever being close. Preoccupied with her business pursuits and gallivanting with the rich and infamous, Huong had long since delegated care of Tam to Thua and Truong. Tam had grown accustomed to her remoteness, but had never stopped yearning for her affection and approval. Perhaps his love of music and movies reflected a subconscious devotion to his mother, who had raised him from infancy in her bars and nightclubs. Throughout his journey across continents, Tam would remember this image of a sunshine-glazed Huong at that bus stop, a more beautiful and tender mother than he had ever known.
Thiet and Van slumped into their seats with Thach and Kim asleep in their arms and the engine droning in the background. Thiet could not rest. It was about 250 kilometres from Saigon to Rach Gia, but the poor road conditions and the many villages through which they meandered made the journey long and arduous. Thiet calculated that they would not reach their destination until after nightfall. He conjured up the image of the map that he kept in his mind’s eye and could see the bus as it left Saigon tracing a dotted line south-west through Vinh Long, past My Tho and towards Rach Gia, chasing the sun as it escaped into the peach sky.
‘This is where it ends.’ The bus driver demanded that they disembark and wait by the roadside. Thiet was the first to protest, ‘But we’ve only just passed Thot Not Crossroad! Rach Gia is still 50 kilometres away. How do you expect us to get there?’ The bus driver was adamant that he had been ordered not to proceed even 10 centimetres further, and that the boat boss had arranged alternative transportation for them. It was around nine in the evening as the 30 or so passengers filed out of the bus not knowing why their cavale had come to such a frightening halt. They were left wondering for only a few minutes. Suddenly a military truck with blinding headlights pulled up beside them. A security police unit stormed out of the vehicle with rifles in hand and, before anyone had a chance to resist, the escapees were forced into the truck and taken back the way they had come.
Another load of escapees had already been picked up so there were around 50 distraught travellers in the truck. When they reached Thot Not, they were shoved into a small house which was totally unfurnished. Van scanned the walls and floor for bloodstains, which she feared would confirm the slaughtering of previous groups. But it soon became apparent that the communists were more interested in bounty than murder. When the frisking began, Van begged one of the young guards to search her right away so that she could tend to Kim, who was crying. As the security policeman drew near, the infant screamed and squirmed with such vigour that he could only conduct a cursory search of Van and her bag. Their money remained safe, at least for the moment.
After the hold-up, the unit dispersed leaving only one guard at the front door. The young man must have drawn the shortest straw, because he was clearly annoyed at having to keep watch over the prisoners and demonstrated uncommon stamina in cursing them for his misfortune. ‘What makes you think that another country would want you? You’ve got no patriotism, loyalty or honour. You’re traitors and parasites. All you know how to do is make money from exploiting workers. No wonder so many of your kind are being shot at or dragged back out to sea. If people like you tried to come to Vietnam, I would be the first to shoot them.’
Thiet guessed that the other security policemen would return the next morning and take them to the regional office for interrogation. Jail or a re-education camp would be their next, perhaps final, destination. He took from Van’s bag the passport that he had used to go to Taiwan in 1973 and some identification papers which he hoped to use once they were out of Vietnam to find a new country and a job. Thiet tore the photos and documents into small pieces. He whispered to Van that she and the children would be safe. The communists were animals, but they were not so bad that they would imprison and torture women and young children. Thiet and Tam were another matter and would have to escape. But the house did not have a back door and the windows were barred. The prisoners might have been able to overpower their rifle- wielding guard, but some of them would pay the ultimate price for rebellion. As it was, they all chose to slump against the walls or lean against each other, as docile as cows on the way to the abattoir.
The guard’s insults had stopped, replaced by the chattering of passers-by, as sunlight beamed through the barred windows. Thiet and Van were astonished to find that the guard had abandoned his post. Moreover, the front door was ajar and some of the captives had already gone out to the Thot Not market, which was only metres away from the house. The couple bought some breakfast for the boys and were in the process of finding someone to take them to Rach Gia, when they heard one of the boat boss’s employees calling out in Chinese and Vietnamese. Another bus had been arranged for them and was leaving in ten minutes. Someone asked why they had been handed over to the security police and whether this bus was really going to Rach Gia or were they just going to be robbed again. ‘Do you want to get out of here or not?’ was the response. ‘Just get on that bus and don’t ask any more questions.’

We were exiles on a little boat 5

 The electricity authority directors were impressed by Thiet’s endeavour and thought that he was trying to make up for his mistake. He took a leading role in reconstructing the Da Nhim power line, which ran from Da Lat’s mountains to Ho Chi Minh City and which the communists had destroyed during the war. In March 1979, they awarded him with the industrious employee prize, which included an all-expenses-paid family trip to Hanoi to see Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body.

T am unworthy of such an honour,’ Thiet tried to explain. ‘I’m only doing my fair share, nothing more than what is expected of the average citizen.’ But his supervisor was insistent and only further impressed by Thief’s humility. Knowing that the boat might depart at any time, Thiet could not believe his misfortune. He imagined himself trapped in that eerie mausoleum as his family drifted away, leaving him entombed with the jelly-filled corpse of the man whom he had once revered as a god.
Van and Thiet considered saying that one of the boys had fallen severely ill, or perhaps that Van’s mother was on her deathbed, so that he could avoid receiving his prize. But even these reasons seemed unbelievable, as true patriots would endure any ailment and even give up their children to bask in the eternal splendour of Uncle Ho. They decided to say nothing and hope that the call to board the boat came before the Hanoi trip was arranged. At the end of that most anxious month of March, Thiet was notified that funding for the industrious employee prize had fallen through. He feigned disappointment, while on the inside he was flooded with relief, and grateful to the corrupt apparatchik who had probably used the funds to pay for a holiday.
In early April, Dan informed Thiet that they had to be at Tran Quoc Toan Street in Cholon at ten in the morning on Thursday the nineteenth. A bus would pick them up and take them to the western Mekong port of Rach Gia. Their accommodation in Rach Gia had been arranged, and supplies would be provided on the boat. This was all the information that Dan could pass on to them before he rushed off to speak to other passengers, what lay ahead, the type of boat, the exact number of passengers, how long they would be at sea, their final destination, and what Thiet and Van could do or bring to improve their chances of survival were all left to speculation.
At work, Thiet had been preparing his and Van’s alibi for weeks. Over casual conversations he had raised the topic of his sister-in-law Hoa, who worked for the electricity authority in the Long An office. By Thiet’s account, Hoa had recently met a young man and their relationship was developing so rapidly that at some stage he and Van would have to meet the fellow to ensure that he was respectable. The engagement was ‘announced’ in April, at which time Thiet approached his supervisor to request leave for him and Van (who was still the office pay mistress). They would work overtime to minimise the inconvenience of their absence and make up for any neglected duties upon returning. Being model employees, Thiet and Van’s leave was approved without question or delay.
Wednesday 18 April 1979 was Van’s last day at the electricity authority. She had prepared a note detailing the exact salary and benefits for every person under her charge. Van opened the safe in her office using the combination which only she knew and placed the note inside as if it were a map to buried treasure. After she had gone, her workmates could hire a locksmith to crack open the safe, get their hands on the details and carry on as per usual. Van did not want anyone to be inconvenienced by her absence. Oddly enough, the government continued to pay her and Thiet’s salaries even after it was clear that they would not return. Instead of taking it for herself, the new pay mistress used the money to buy a flock of sparrows, which she released as a blessing to Van and many others in their flight to freedom.
At lunchtime on the same day, Thiet was dropped off at home by a rowdy group of maintenance men. As he walked towards his apartment building, the workers yelled from their reconditioned American jeep, ‘Hey Thiet! Don’t forget to write when you get to the US!’ Thiet was paralysed with indecision, as he calculated how best to respond to their ill-timed prank. He looked around, hoping that nobody had taken notice of the scoundrels who enjoyed goading their highly strung supervisor. ‘What the hell are you talking about? I’m going to visit my sister-in-law and her fiancé,’ Thiet hollered. ‘I’ll see you on Monday.’ Thiet had never been very good at acting.
The apartment was perhaps a little tidier than usual, but nothing had been sold or given away. If the cavale failed and they were able to return before the next week, the plan was to say that Hoa’s engagement had ended in tears and then to carry on with their lives as usual. As it turned out, two weeks later the government took possession of the apartment and everything in it. A new family moved in not long afterwards.
Sat saw off her daughter and family as they left to spend their final night in Saigon at Huong’s house. As mother and daughter embraced, Van told Sat to stay healthy and to look after Phuong, who was in the apartment weeping. She promised that they would see each other again. No one knows whether Sat believed her; Van was far from certain herself. In that final moment, as she comforted her ageing mother; the young woman could not help reflecting on how their roles had so completely reversed. Since she was a teenager; hawking lottery tickets or mending shirts with their Italian sewing machine, Van had been both carer and provider for the family. Now, as she was about to leave them, she did not yearn for her mother’s protective wing, but rather feared what predators might descend upon Sat and her family without Van to shield them.
At Huong’s house, Thua had prepared Hue-Style beef soup for dinner. In each bowl she had lavishly arranged strips of beef and pork over thick rice noodles and gleaming stock. A golden wedge of lemon, chopped mint and crunchy sprouts were laid out as garnishes. Despite the fact that they had hardly eaten all day, nobody managed to finish their meal. Their stomachs were already churning with anxiety. ‘There were many nights when I did not sleep a wink,’ Thiet would recall. ‘I remember that one very well.’
In the morning of 19 April, the family prepared to leave for their rendezvous point. Thua had boiled some eggs which she gave to Van before realising that they did not have anything to feed the children with. The departure was held up while Thiet’s sister Truong ran into the house to fetch a spoon. Perhaps Truong was so overwhelmed by emotion that she did not think and grabbed the first thing that came to hand. Whatever the reason, a minute later she returned and gave Van a stainless steel US army spoon that was far too big to feed the infants with. Van was in no mood for delay. She politely thanked Thua and Truong before throwing the spoon into her bag, thinking that she would discard it at the first opportunity and obtain a more functional one. Little did she know that that relic from the war would remain in the family for decades and be favoured by her sons for eating ice cream, even after they had become men.
Thua mournfully said goodbye to Van and Kim. She placed Thach on Thiet’s scooter and kissed him on the head. She did not cry, knowing that people in the street might become suspicious. ‘You go back home now to your maternal grandmother,’ she remarked in order to deceive nosy onlookers. Thua brushed her hand over Thach’s and then Thiet’s cheek. After watching her family disappear into the traffic, she resolved to abstain from eating fish lest it cause them misfortune on the high seas.

We were exiles on a little boat 4

 It might only take a year or two, at most five, before they were all together again. Surely, temporary separation, the family reasoned, was better than losing Kim forever?

But there was no clear logic when it came to making such decisions. Post-war Vietnam was littered with stories of separation and woe. Thiet’s Uncle Chin, who had looked after him in the central Vietnamese jungle when Thiet was thirteen, had trekked to Hanoi after the French were defeated in 1954. It was more than twenty years before he again saw his wife, who had remained in Da Nang. Theirs was among the minority of joyous reunions. One of Van’s uncles joined the Viet Minh during the First Indochina War, leaving behind his wife in Binh Duong. He did not return until after the Second Indochina War, only to find that his wife, who thought he had been killed, had married a Republican soldier. In Thiet and Van’s minds, that single prospect of reunion in a free and foreign land had to be weighed against an infinite number of dreadful other possibilities. To everyone’s surprise, it was Thua who cut through the morass of concerns with a succinct and compelling maxim. ‘Wherever the husband goes, the wife must go. And wherever the parents go, the children must go.’ Accepting that she could not keep her own family together, Thua did not want her son to suffer the same unhappiness.
Van had not forgotten about her other family. She very much wanted her younger brother and sisters to come with them, but there was not enough gold for one, let alone all of them. And then there was her niece, Phuong, who had lived with them ever since they moved to Thanh Da three years ago. In that time, Van had become more of a mother to the young girl than Van’s oldest sister, Chau, had ever been. And in every meaningful way Van regarded Phuong as her daughter and as a caring sister to Thach and Kim.
Phuong had heard enough of their whispers to know that they were abandoning her. The teenager sobbed in the night after she thought everyone had gone to sleep, but was too timid to ask Thiet and Van if she could go with them. One afternoon when Phuong revealed her fervent wish to her grandmother, Sat scolded her mercilessly. ‘Don’t you ever talk like that again! Your aunt has enough worries about without you adding to them. Do you want the communists to hear you?’
The night after the family meeting in which they decided who would leave Vietnam, Van turned to Thiet before going to bed and suggested that they find some more gold so that Phuong could come with them. She appealed to both her husband’s kindness and his reason. ‘We might be able to negotiate a lower price because she’s so young. And Phuong can help look after Thach and Kim in the event that something happens to one of us.’ Van beseeched. ‘We owe it to our niece. She’s been so devoted to our family and loves us as if we were her parents. No one has ever done anything for Phuong. She’s never been given a chance in life. We can give her a chance.’
‘We don’t have enough money as it is,’ Thiet responded. ‘How are we going to find even one more tael? If we could, we would. But there’s no way. There’s just no way.’ He was asleep a few minutes later, while Van sat dejected in the darkness. She told herself that she should not be annoyed with her husband. Thiet had shown uncommon generosity and concern for her family. He had helped them gain a favourable share of her great-uncle Tu’s estate, had found her sister Hoa a job at the electricity authority, and had tutored her brother Tho through high school. Thiet could not be faulted. Yet surely a few bars of gold was a small price to pay for Phuong’s happiness?
Many years later, after several failed attempts to sponsor Phuong out of Vietnam, Van would try to understand her silent acceptance of Thief’s decision that night. ‘Things were not like they are now. I could not simply speak my mind. Your father was the head of the family, and could not be challenged. He was also always worrying and working so hard for US, for our future. I couldn’t add to those concerns.’
In March 1979 Thiet returned to Vui’s house to pay Dan for the passage of three adults and two infants. After taking the money, Dan informed Thiet that the organisers had underestimated demand and that the boat was full, but that places had been reserved for them on a second boat. Thiet was deeply concerned by this change and insisted that they remain on the first boat which Vui’s three children were going to be on. While there were no guarantees, he gained some assurance from knowing that Dan was less likely to double-cross members of his own family. Just as importantly, Thiet did not know how long the government was going to allow Chinese- Vietnamese to leave the country. The policy might change the next day, leaving them stranded and bankrupt. Dan relented and Thiet discovered not long afterwards that his instincts were sound. The second boat never left Vietnam.
But Dan did not concede without exacting a levy. He knew that Thiet did not have any more gold, but was quick to identify an alternative source of revenue. ‘I am sorry to burden you with this, Thiet, but an unforeseeable issue has arisen.’ Thiet saw the insidious smirk behind Dan’s apology. ‘We have enough money to pay the national police, but the regional authorities are another matter. They could just as easily detain us, and our friends in the national forces could not do anything about it.’
He put his hand on Thiet’s shoulder and patted it as if they were long-time companions. ‘You know how things are in Vietnam, anarchical and unjust. But there’s nothing to worry about, we don’t need any more gold. We only need something small of value to bribe some provincial officials. Anything will do: some jewellery, or a watch perhaps?’ Dan had seen the Rado on Thiet’s wrist, a wedding present from his friends at the electricity authority and the only luxury item he had ever owned. Thiet did not hesitate to hand it over. Til give you my watch, my wedding present. It is no good to me now.’
Thiet’s life at the electricity authority swung in a nauseating way between peril and farce. ‘Work harder for the fatherland; work smarter for the fatherland!’ was one of his boss’s favourite proclamations. Early in 1978 the incessant barking of orders and constant pressure became too much for him. Thiet made a mistake. While overseeing the roll-out of a new electricity line, he failed to double-check a critical chain of mathematical calculations so that two power poles were incorrectly spaced. Thiet’s boss, who could not comprehend the calculations, let alone do them himself, reprimanded the experienced technician as if he were a wayward teenager. For weeks afterwards, Thiet was reminded of his mishap at every possible opportunity.
Behind closed doors, employees of the electricity authority grumbled about their work conditions and discussed fleeing Vietnam. No one ever talked about their own aspirations and activities, focusing instead on the other people’s cavales. This meant that without the slightest warning, a workmate of ten years could be absent from her or his desk one morning and never return. The head of substation maintenance had recently attempted to flee Vietnam, but had been caught and sent to prison. Even if he was released, he was a recognised traitor and could not resume his old job. It was via this sorrowful event that Thiet was promoted to substation maintenance chief in early 1979. Thiet worked harder and smarter than ever before. He told himself that he was striving for a greater end, that even if he despised the government, he could still improve the lives of his compatriots by giving them access to electrical power. But the most important reason for his efforts was to deceive both his supervisors and workmates. Thiet was labouring like a dedicated proletarian in order to escape communism.

We were exiles on a little boat 3

 Preoccupied with their own perils, Thiet and Van took little notice of international affairs. They were petrified that at any moment, alerted to their plans, the security police might smash down their door and take them away. Then there were the hazards of the journey itself. From his research, Thiet knew that the South China and Java seas were perilously shallow and susceptible to shifting winds and currents which perplexed even the most experienced navigators. During the monsoon period, in October and November, fierce winds stirred up clouds which were kilometres thick. There were also pirates to consider, along with dehydration, starvation and disease. In spite of these hazards, Thiet was convinced they had to leave. In fact, he presumed that almost everyone in Saigon wanted to escape, as per the surreptitious but well- known saying at the time, ‘If lampposts could walk, then they would go too.’

Late in 1978, there was a surge in the flow of exiles fleeing Vietnam despite the monsoon season. At the electricity authority, employees were constantly passing on news of who had departed and speculating about who was going to go next. How did they organise their cavales? Which route to freedom had they taken? Where had they settled? There was also chilling talk of workmates who had been captured by the authorities or killed at sea.
It was, no doubt, a perilous journey that Thiet was contemplating. One international official modestly estimated the casualty rate among refugees during the late 1970s at between 15 and 20 per cent, some 30,000 to 40,000 Vietnamese. In Thiet’s carefully calculated estimation, his family had a 50:50 chance of success. While he would do everything possible to ensure their survival, the young father also accepted these odds as largely fixed. Everything that was dear to him turned on a throw of a die, or toss of a coin.
A year later, in 1980, Thiet would compile a brief account of this period in which he explained his gamble. ‘The risk of dying during the journey did not compare to living in fear of the communists for the rest of our lives. Of this, I was absolutely certain. So when I was preparing to leave, I never looked back and did not once doubt that we were doing the right thing. It was the only thing we could do.’ He went on in his diary to quote a couplet from the classic poem ‘The Tale of Kieu’:
Just run the risk, close your eyes and take a step,
See how the earth wickedly spins and where it takes you.
At a Sunday lunch not long after the Tet of 1979, Thiet informed his mother and sisters that he would soon be leaving on Dan’s cavale. Thua could see no sense in it. ‘Our life is not as good as before, but it has been worse,’ she pointed out. ‘Things aren’t that bad. We have a house to live in and enough rice to eat, and if the situation takes a turn for the worse then we can survive on rice soup. But if certain members of our family were to leave and never come back, I would suffer no end.’
Thiet was Thua’s only remaining son, and Thach and Kim were the sole bearers of the Huynh family line which she believed could only pass through males. Their health and happiness were not only essential for future generations, but also to those who had gone before. Without descendants to look over, her husband, Viet, would suffer eternal agony and solitude. Thiet understood his mother’s position. She was still living in the jungle, running away from the French and Viet Minh, and preoccupied with the ghosts of the past. Perseverance was the only option for her, but Thiet could not lie down and accept the fate that socialism or his ancestors had prescribed.
He pointed out that if his mother and sisters wanted to come, too, then that could be arranged. But Thiet knew that there was little chance of them leaving their homeland. Thua had often voiced her opposition to exile and Thiet’s sister Truong suffered from severe epilepsy. Huong resolved to remain behind, in part to look after her mother and sister, but also because she had recently come across some promising business opportunities. Despite their insistence on staying in Vietnam, Thiet turned to the three women to help decide who else should join the cavale. With the meal only half eaten and the rice cold, they made some of the most difficult choices of their lives.
Huong’s nineteen-year-old son, Tam, was not present at the meeting, but it was immediately decided that he should go. They had only just been informed that Tam had ‘passed the entrance requirements’ to serve in the Vietnamese military. This was a dark and ironic privilege, given that in 1978 he had applied for the national acting and directing school in Hanoi. Tam’s entrance examination results were exceptional, but with an ‘unclean’ background he could not compete against the children of the Party faithful. In stark contrast the young man had not even enlisted for national service, yet he had passed the entrance exam with flying colours. Some of Tam’s friends who had been bestowed the same honour were sent to Cambodia where they died in battle. Their bodies were never recovered, such was the disdain that the communists had for human and especially nguy life. In the spring of 1979, Tam had fled to the highland city of Da Lat, where he was working in a timber mill run by one of Huong’s business contacts. But his cover would not fool an insistent cadre or anyone who wanted to get onside with the local administration by dobbing in a draft dodger. No matter where he was in Vietnam, Tam could not conceal the fact that he was young, male and able to hold a gun.
Thach was also certain to go on the cavale. He was a sturdy little four-year-old who had never been ill and had a good chance of surviving the journey. His younger brother, Kim, on the other hand, was always sick and underweight. Kim had contracted measles not long after he was born and was more familiar with the pasty walls of the Gia Dinh hospital than he was with trees and blue sky. Thiet could see the logic of leaving Kim behind, and recognised that if Van stayed with him then their costs would be halved. Their separation would be agonising but impermanent. After Thiet, Tam and Thach had found refuge in another country, they would sponsor Van and Kim to join them.

We were exiles on a little boat 2

 The official Lunar New Year holiday (Tet) had been reduced from one week to three days and there was talk of it being restricted to two days in the following year. The curtailing of their sacred holiday and the fact that there was little cheer to share around made visiting friends tiresome, especially for Thiet, who had to pedal from one house to the next with his wife and sons balanced on his old bicycle.

At around lunchtime on the second day of the year of the sheep, the family arrived at Van’s cousin Vui’s house. They exchanged well wishes and sat making small talk and cracking watermelon seeds with Vui for a few minutes before the discussion turned to more sombre matters. Vui’s husband had been an adviser to the last president of the Republic of Vietnam, General Duong Van Minh, and had been sent away for re-education in 1975. The only news that they had had of him in almost four years was that he had been transferred to a camp in the north where the conditions were harsh and prospects of escape bleak. Vui had to stay and wait for her husband’s return, but she could not allow her three teenage children, with their tainted personal histories, to do the same. Even if it meant never seeing them again, Vui was determined for her children to escape.
Van and Thiet listened to Vui’s account with mixed emotions. They were saddened by her suffering and overawed by her devotion, but were also eager to find out more in the hope that they could join Vui’s children. That afternoon Vui introduced the couple to her younger cousin Dan, who had arranged her children’s cavale. From what Van had heard, Dan was an unscrupulous but harmless man who had forged a career out of barefaced deception. During the war, Dan figured that the best way to avoid the battlefield was to stay as close to the military bigwigs as possible. In the mid-1960s, he appealed to his cousin Vui for work and a place to live. Dan ran errands and did odd jobs for Vui’s husband, living in the barracks yet avoiding the army in the same way that a parasitic fish clings on to the belly of a shark. After Vietnam’s reunification, Dan worked for a prosperous Chinese-Vietnamese businessman, who in 1978 decided to retire. Before doing so the businessman would undertake one final enterprise and deliver two boatloads of his Chinese compatriots living in Vietnam to freedom, all for a very reasonable price.
As an agent for this expedition, Dan sold the cavale to Thiet and Van as if it were a family vacation to the seaside town of Nha Trang. ‘Passage will cost you as little as eleven taels of gold per adult [around AUSS300 at the time]. As an added bonus, your two small children can travel for free! That’s 22 taels for your entire family.’ He explained that most of the gold would go to the government for ‘registration’ and ‘departure taxes’. The Chinese merchant who had organised the journey, the boat boss, also charged a fee, and it was assumed that Dan would take a modest cut. ‘You may find boats that are a little cheaper, but they won’t be as reliable. We’ll give you fake identities and even split you up between two Chinese families in order to avoid suspicion. The government wants to get rid of the Chinese, so you don’t have to worry about being caught. Hell, the security police will even help you leave! So you have to ask yourself, “Can I afford to pay less? Can I afford to turn elsewhere?”’
They knew that if they did not take up the offer, Dan would have little trouble finding others who would. In such a furtive market, Van and Thiet could not negotiate or shop around. Doubts and questions were swirling in their heads when the couple committed themselves to the journey and promised to pay a deposit the next day.
Dan’s verbal flow chart and explanation of how the Vietnamese exile industry worked was remarkably accurate. While precise figures are difficult to come by, a typical adult fare in 1979 was about ten taels of gold (although fares of up to 30 taels were not unheard of) depending on the size and quality of the boat, the number of passengers, the standard of provisions, and, above all, the greed of the organisers and middlemen. Around six taels from each adult fare went to the government via the Public Security Bureau (PSB), which was created in early 1978 to register and approve departures. PSB officials usually wore plain clothes and the only way to find out about their programs was by word of mouth. This pseudo¬secrecy served to restrict the number of escapees, while allowing the government to evade international condemnation, particularly from China, for expelling undesirable citizens from its shores.
Vietnamese and Chinese relations had begun to cool in the late 1960s as North Vietnam turned towards the Soviet Union for political, economic and military support. The relationship deteriorated further after 1975, in the absence of a common American enemy. It became openly antagonistic when Hanoi started questioning the loyalty and citizenship of the 1.7 million ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, many of whom had been living in the country for generations. By late 1977 Chinese- Vietnamese in northern Vietnam were losing their jobs and having their property confiscated. Many were forced from their homes by vigilantes supported by government authorities. A year later, on Christmas Day 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia (which was allied with China) and installed a friendly government. Amidst a storm of international condemnation, Hanoi cited as justification for the invasion, Pol Pot's genocide, his persecution of Vietnamese in Cambodia, and continual border attacks. Rejecting these justifications, China launched a thunderous barrage across the northern border of Vietnam. Almost 100,000 Chinese troops marched south, taking five provincial capitals. They withdrew months later, claiming victory in their ‘pedagogical war’ despite by their own accounts suffering 20,000 casualties. After several generations of supposed communist camaraderie, the Third Indochina War very much echoed the imperialism and barbarism of ancient eras. In Vietnamese popular memory, two eternal sources of belligerence had gained renewed prominence in the short and bloody period since communist victory: resistance against China to the north, and the domination of the Cambodians to the west.

We were exiles on a little boat

 Mum folded back her red swimming cap which had slid over her goggles as she emerged from the water. ‘Hey, son, see that lady over there? The one in the black swimsuit?’

I looked up, squinting through misty lenses. At the other end of the pool, in an adjacent lane, an elderly woman pushed off the wall and started the sort of gentle freestyle that makes swimming seem like flying.
‘What about her, Mum?’
‘Her name’s Bev, she swims here every morning except on Sundays. When you were getting into the pool she said to me, “What’s that bloke doing in your lane, Van?” I told her, “That’s not some bloke, Bev. That’s my son!” “Your son?!” she said. “I don’t believe you. He’s so big and you and your husband are so tiny!”’
Mum and Dad used to tell people that my brother and I had been raised on elephant’s milk, that’s why we were so strong. Like all of our achievements, our good health verified their triumph over tyranny and hardship, justifying everything that they had risked and sacrificed.
‘When I told Bev that you're doing a PhD and that you’re also my swimming coach, she said that I was lucky to have such a good boy.’
‘To tell you the truth, Mum, the PhD’s not going all that well and your swimming isn’t looking too promising either. Here, put on your flippers and grab a kickboard. We’ve got a lot more work to do on straightening those knees and loosening those ankles.’ Mum kept chatting as she stood on one foot and tried to get into what she called her ‘duck’s feet’.
‘You know, son, once Bev asked why I didn’t learn how to swim earlier in life. I told her that when I was young and when we first came to Australia, I was too busy taking care of my family. Actually, before we left Vietnam your father suggested that I learn to swim, or at least know how to float in case something went wrong on the boat.’
‘Why didn’t youỉ’ I replied. ‘It might have saved our lives. At the very least it would have saved us a lot of time and effort now.’
‘We never got around to it. It would have raised suspicion and there were so many other things to worry about. Oh well, I’m learning now. Only 25 years too late. ’
Van had never been a deep sleeper. Even when she was a young girl the slightest disturbance would wake her, a whimper from one of her younger sisters, or her father shuffling home in the night. She did not view this as a shortcoming, but rather an advantage that allowed her to keep constant watch over her loved ones.
In the late months of 1978, Van often detected danger, but could do little to address the threat to her family. Thiet could find no peace in bed. His troubled mumblings started not long after the lights were switched off and, following a period of tossing and turning, he would scream with such anguish that Van had to wake and comfort him. She became familiar with the stories of his nightmares. He was falling ever faster into an abyss. His limbs were flailing, frantic for something to grasp onto, and his eyes searched hysterically for a speck of light. In other dreams her husband saw his lost brother Nho. Clad in Republic of Vietnam army fatigues or the tattered shorts that they had worn as children, his brother cried out for Thiet to save him. The circumstances changed slightly, but what remained constant was Thiet’s inability to reach his older brother. From his nightmares, Thiet brought back to the real world a sense that he was responsible for everything but capable of nothing.
One night, after recovering from a fit of bad dreams, Thiet urged his wife to go back to sleep. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly and steadily, hoping that the appearance of her drifting back into forgetful slumber would help her husband rest. But Van knew that once Thiet started worrying he could not stop. She sensed her husband sliding out from the covers and tiptoeing across the room, she did not have to sit up to know what he was doing.
Thiet switched on the lamp that had been bent downwards and turned to the wall so that it did not cast light directly out the window or towards the bed. From the wardrobe he retrieved a compass and an old but detailed map of the seas surrounding Vietnam, which he had obtained on the black market. The young father gingerly unfolded the map and laid it out on the floor. He knelt down with his glasses propped on the tip of his nose and placed the compass upon the map. With a slight rotation, Thiet could make the top edge of the map face north so that it was as if he was looking down from a satellite upon the earth. He gauged the small portions of land against the expansive oceans. He could see his little boat heading west across the Gulf of Thailand or south to Malaysia. Perhaps it would follow the chain of Southeast Asian islands down to Indonesia or even pass right through the Java Straits to Australia? Using the scale on the map and a ruler, Thiet calculated the distances between incarceration and liberty. From Saigon to Singapore was 1,087 kilometres, from My Tho to Kuala Terengganu was 855, then on to Jakarta was another 1,173. There was little reason behind these calculations. Thiet was aware that sea travel did not occur in straight lines, but was dictated by the winds and currents. At that stage he had not even settled upon a destination. Yet knowledge of those abstract distances and the cartographic image that he sketched and locked away in his memory eased Thiet’s troubled mind.
Thiet and Van had invested in a boat. In fact, it was much more than a boat. It was an escapade, a hope and a future. It was a cavale, as it had become known to Van and many other South Vietnamese through the autobiography of the French petty criminal Papillon.
Papillon had been wrongly convicted of murder in 1931 and sentenced to life imprisonment in the South American colony of French Guiana. Kept in solitary confinement without light or sound for years on end, he escaped several times but was always recaptured. He made one final and impossible cavale, clinging to a sack of coconuts as he floated across the ocean without preference for freedom or death.
The Vietnamese government prohibited Papillon, sensing that many Southerners like Van sought inspiration in the French convict’s story. Van had read Papillon in early 1978, at the same time that Thiet and his workmate Quan were planning their own cavale. They had heard stories of industrious people who had built motorised rafts from petrol drums, chains, plastic sheeting and plywood. As experienced technicians, Thiet and Quan were certain that they could put together a robust vessel and plan of escape. They organised for Quan’s brother-in-law who lived in the Mekong Delta town of My Tho to oversee the construction of a boat, while Thiet and Quan secretly gathered funds, supplies and diesel fuel. But after six months they had not acquired enough fuel to reach international waters, let alone foreign shores. Quan’s brother- in-law had not fared any better, unable to hire boat builders or acquire any timber. As 1979 approached, Thiet wondered whether he was ever going to sleep soundly again.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 11

 Even before that pathological procedure, Huong’s pride and vanity had contaminated her in many different ways. Since she was a teenager, Huong had evaded the authorities, brazenly twisted the truth, and sacrificed all principle in order to stay alive and at times flourish. Somewhere along the line, despite her adaptation skills, she had become incapable of being honest, open and earnest, even to herself. Decades of existing in the shadows had prevented Huong from recognising that there was more to life than accumulating reputation and wealth; that there were also options of virtue, dignity and compassion. Perhaps her deep cynicism resulted from the violent wrongs that had been committed against her in her youth by figures — Republican soldiers, Confucian fathers and communist revolutionaries — who had promoted themselves as upholders of righteousness: No doubt she was wholly contemptuous of civic virtue. As Huong saw it, the world was bad and could never be made good. She was unable to turn her external hardship into inner triumph and somehow prove that she was greater than her sufferings.

As overpowering as the communist regime seemed at times, Thiet and Van were able to maintain a sense of integrity. They could put on a face, convince their captors that they accepted and even embraced their Captivity, but in their hearts they knew they loathed every second of it. Van and Thiet’s greatest concern was for Thach and Kim. The Party propagandists knew how important it was to concentrate their propaganda on young people who were unsullied by the past, pliable to their ideas, and loyal for a lifetime. Soon enough, thought Van and Thiet, their sons would be immersed in a distorted and dangerous ideology. After Saigon’s fall, schools were closed for two months to allow for politically sound teachers to be trained in the South or rushed down from the North, along with new textbooks. From kindergarten, children had to join the Red Scarf Youth Brigade, in which they were instructed on how to be vigilant communists through songs, not unlike those Thiet had once enjoyed in the central Vietnamese jungle. Everyone who was born after 30 April 1975 was referred to as a nephew or niece of Uncle Ho.
In the spring of 1978, the young mother and father’s concern for their children turned to terror at one of the parades that the family attended in order to ‘exhibit’ their commitment to the new regime. The couple could not recall what the parade was for, as there were so many of them. The Reunification celebrations began on 30 April, and coincided with the May Day festival; Ho Chi Minh’s birthday was celebrated on 19 May; and the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Revolutionary Party fell on 6 June. At this particular parade, no different from any other, an endless procession of sanctioned heroes marched in time to the same monotonous music, as the maestros of the new society looked down from above. The leaders sat in strict order so that from the right perspective, it was as if their rank actually determined their physical stature, as if the largest and most pompous communist could swallow up all the others, like Russian dolls. Among the masses below, Thiet and his wife waved their blood-red flags with the heaviest of hearts. They had at times wondered who exactly these events were performed for. There were no foreign media or dignitaries to impress and they, like everyone else in the crowd, had seen the same parade many times over. Surely, even the communists on their elevated viewing platform had had enough of the strained pageantry? Surely, they had calculated the financial costs of running these events and weighed them against the benefits? And then the young parents saw the reason behind all the madness and ceremony. In that instant, Van and Thiet were transfixed by an image both compelling and chilling: that of three-year-old Thach, who was thoroughly enjoying the spectacle and cheering the communists to march on.
It was early in the evening on that Sunday in 1979 when the family of four arrived home. Van and Thiet dragged themselves up the two flights of stairs to their apartment, carrying their weary children. After the boys had been tucked into bed, Van brought her husband a glass of water. Thiet was lying exhausted in the middle of the living room floor. He gulped down half of the cleansing liquid and poured the rest over his face. The young father was gasping, but not from the water. Once he had been mortified by the prospect of the endless blue sea; now he was enticed by it. The great Eastern Ocean could do his family no more harm than their current situation in which his sons would grow up without ever knowing freedom or security, in which they would be stifled by poverty and oppression and deceived into becoming Party members. And there was the possibility — perhaps even a probability — that on the other side of that water lay salvation, a place where he could finally quench his thirst. All Thiet needed to do was to find a boat to save them from drowning in a sea of despair.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 10

 Huong was not overly concerned on 30 April 1975 when the communists arrived. She had feared a massacre and had even tried to escape on a plane to the US with her boyfriend, but she was not running away from communism. Communism, republicanism and all the other ‘isms’ were indistinguishable to her. Revolution, independence and even liberty were nothing more than vacuous concepts — words in the wind — and the fact that anyone would bother to fight or die for them was so pathetic to her as to be amusing. From Huong’s perspective, there were only two political camps: her camp (which consisted of her alone); and the enemy camp (into which just about everyone else fell). Naturally and immutably, her camp would seek to accumulate as much financial and social clout as possible, and just as naturally and immutably, the other camp would tty to stop her through various laws, customs and principles. For this she despised them, but to attempt to change the leadership of the day was pure folly. It would make no difference. It was like striving to postpone nightfall. The rational thing to do was to exist within whatever structures prevailed; to break rules and rituals in such a way that those who were ‘in control’ were left unawares. Using these evasive tactics, through the French colonial period, through the Cold War, and now into the new and modern era of Vietnamese socialism, Huong had managed to thrive like a glistening fern under the dense canopy of ideology.

The day after the war ended, when many South Vietnamese were still too afraid to leave their homes, Huong was out scouting the city. For the Vietnamese celebrating reunification, May Day 1975 marked the first time in almost 30 years that the sun had risen over a nation free of foreign occupation. Huong did not care for such dramatics. What concerned her was that there was money to be made. She carefully analysed the market prospects and determined that she could take advantage of the chaos. Not long afterwards, Huong was at black markets with a suitcase full of gold, US dollars, Republican piastres and the new Uncle Ho money. The middle- aged woman was a sagacious speculator, buying currency from one desperate soul and selling it to another, she was not, of course, invincible. A few months after the fall of Saigon, a thief posing as a prospective customer stuck a gun into her chest and took off on a waiting motorcycle with 24 taels of gold (almost 1 kilogram, or around 30 ounces). Huong returned home furious, but was far from disheartened.
In the years after the Revolution, Huong, Thua and Truong moved house and changed trades many times. They sold electrical goods, sticky rice, blocks of ice and Hue-Style beef soup. And they felt a striking sense of deja vu when they turned to making doughnuts out of cassava flour, the very food that had lifted them out of destitution in Bo Ban a quarter of a century earlier. At another time Huong sold coffee, green bean pudding and balloons from her home. The business was so successful that during the New Year’s festive season it opened for six days straight and the local authorities arrived to direct the traffic of customers that flowed out into the street.
In the 1980s, as the economic climate became more amenable to private business, Huong set up factories that manufactured solder and nails for export to Kampuchea and the USSR. Of course, she never engaged in manual labour herself, leaving such menial work to her relatives and hired help. Huong was above dirtying her hands, but she was always there in the background, orchestrating the affair, determining when it was time to pull out and move on. She also devoted herself to the big deals, to trading in the cut-price properties and bullion that came onto the black market whenever families exiled themselves from Vietnam.
But making money was not everything to Huong. There was also the critical matter of accumulating status and fame. From the 1980s onwards, Huong determined that this could be achieved best in the nascent SRV film industry. She paid her way into cameo roles and was soon hobnobbing with famous directors and movie stars. Her glamorous lifestyle and elevation to the world of film demanded a name change, and so those who could be bothered to read the small flying credits at the end of her films did not know her as the mundane Huynh Thi Huong, but rather the more illustrious Trang Thien Huong (derived from trang nha, which means ‘well bred’ and ‘refined’ and thien huong, which connotes ‘a pure and natural fragrance’). Huong’s movies were all made in the socialist realist tradition. They praised the Party and the Revolution, depicted the bravery of the peasants in overcoming the evil of the French and American colonisers, and condemned the dastardly puppets of the old Republic. But this does not mean that Huong had turned red.
Another one of her movies, Old Lady Number Six, tells the story of an elderly woman who risked her life during the War of Resistance against the Americans, to smuggle letters between guerrillas and their loved ones. The villains of the film are the generals and leaders of the South Vietnamese regime, who are depicted as unprincipled, slovenly and rich beyond reasonable means. A particularly memorable scene was filmed on site at the Reunification Palace (previously the Independence Palace and residence of South Vietnam’s president), and shows a small band of treacherous millionaires dancing to lurid Western music. The camera pans across them to portray the corrupt nature of the defeated Republic. And it is in this instant that Huong can be seen: dazzling in a pink taffeta dress; laden with her most garish jewellery; cha-cha-cha-ing with an elderly gentleman in an oversized pin-striped suit. Old Lady Number Six allowed Huong to flaunt before the eyes of the nation everything that the communists had tried to take away from her, and even to be congratulated for it. Prior to the Revolution she had never come close to being invited to the Presidential Palace, let alone been permitted to glide through its lofty halls. It was only after 1975 that Huong was free to realise that dream.
This freedom came at a price: as Huong sought to immortalise herself on screen, she found it more difficult to return to reality and accept that she was getting old. In a later film entitled The Undisguisable Blemish, Huong played a South Vietnamese general’s wife, and in one raunchy scene wore a lacy ivory-coloured negligee. After the shoot, Huong’s director- friend praised both her acting and beauty, but remarked that her breasts were a little saggy and uneven, and could do with some work. Priding herself on being twice the age of her lacquer-faced movie-star friends but no less youthful, Huong sought out a plastic surgeon who introduced to her the revolutionary procedure of silicone injection. Soon afterwards a thick, clear sludge was inserted into Huong’s chest and pumped directly into her drooping arms.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 9

 Thiet and his family secretly scorned many of the junior cadres as ‘April Thirtieth Revolutionaries’. They were cowardly opportunistic individuals who had no intention of waving their communist flags until the day Northern tanks rolled through the streets. Often they were in their early twenties if not younger, and came from the countryside or the urban slums. The cadres were cold and calculating, always referring to their captives and each other as ‘comrade’. They were a far cry from the charismatic revolutionary propaganda scouts who had first taught Thiet about the Revolution and who had spoken so ardently to villagers as if they were long-lost family members.

After a week in Huong’s house, the three senior cadres left. The three who remained behind, one young woman and two young men, brought their own food and slept on bamboo mats at night in front of the exits and the stairwell. Almost everything in the house had been categorised and most of the family’s belongings were piled up in the lounge room and out on the street waiting to be taken away. The light-fittings had been checked for hidden treasure, electrical goods dismantled and the ancestral altar stripped bare. The cadres did not indicate when they would leave or what they had in mind for the family. With little else to do, the communists turned to the task of surveillance. Everyone who came into and left the house was searched. On one occasion, Huong’s boyfriend brought a live chicken for dinner, but she refused to kill it. Before the chicken could be returned to the outside world, the cadres probed its throat and cavity for concealed riches.
Mealtimes were particularly traumatic. The family had to maintain a facade of normalcy and calm while the cadres watched over them with hawkish eyes. At the table they talked with their faces directed into their bowls. An improper expression, such as gloominess when elation was expected, was an indictable offence. To look up, to glance at a gecko skirting across the wall, was to risk having one of their captors rush over to that spot with a hammer.
The cadres were determined to find gold, which was the only reliable currency in the chaotic post-war economy. A master in the art of concealment, Huong was not about to make it easy for them. Before the fall of Saigon she had bought a large amount of the precious metal from jewellery stores, and concealed it all around the house and across the city. There was a bundle hidden in a nearby drainage pipe which was almost stolen by a voracious rat. Thin taels of gold were stuck to the tops of their bedroom doors. There was also some under the seat of Huong’s son’s scooter and even in the handlebars of Thach’s little bicycle. Once when the cadres came close to finding one of Huong’s stashes, she filled her son’s pockets with loot and directed him to sneak past the sleeping cadres. A significant amount had already been transferred to Van and Thiet, who had concealed it in their apartment, placed in a secret safe under Van’s desk at work or given to close friends for safekeeping.
Through Huong’s efforts and good fortune, the cadres never discovered any of her gold. But as her property was hauled away she looked on, fuming with rage. ‘How can they take what’s rightfully mine? Those heathens and crooks don’t deserve a thing! Their wives will probably cut up my best dresses and use them to wrap rice cakes!’ Huong knew that after the Revolution, all the abandoned and repossessed houses were given to high and middle-ranking communists. The greediest figures of the new Vietnam were those who fervently professed their commitment to egalitarianism.
After seventeen days the cadres departed, deciding that Huong was worthy of condemnation for her capitalist practices, but that she did not need to be punished any further. Before doing so, they forced Huong to sign a declaration stating that she would undertake manual work for a living and never again skim profits off the labour of others. The declaration was as worthless as the flimsy brown paper it was written on.
In 1979 when Thiet was transporting his entire family around the city on a rusty bicycle, Huong insisted on driving her car. There was no way that Thiet’s oldest sister was going to ride a bike again. She had not travelled by such undignified means since 1957 when she had sold advertising space for the Transportation Rules and Regulations journal. Riding a bike was tolerable then when she was still in her twenties and a nobody. Now she had a stellar reputation to maintain.
Almost every automobile in the South had been requisitioned by the government for official use, so only the most audacious private citizens dared to drive in the open without Party- allocated number plates or a uniformed cadre travelling with them. Huong considered herself to be above such restrictions. By the end of the 1970s, she had become convinced that the SRV would exonerate her of her crimes, and heaven would absolve her of all her sins; all of them that is, except for poverty and faint-heartedness. Huong stuck on the windscreen of her little white Peugeot a bold sign: ‘I Have the Right to Drive!’ For those lowly cadres who were not satisfied with her registration sticker and who failed to bow to her commanding air, Huong kept in the glove box documentation of her eminence and rectitude. This allowed her to stand over the young communists who stopped her in the street and declare in a manner that exploited their fear of offending power, ‘See here, I have a driver’s licence from the 1950s. This other certificate proves that I am a movie star and member of the People’s Film Council. I am also an important exporter and a prominent figure in society. Consider yourself fortunate because I am in a generous mood and realise that we are all prone to error now and then. So I will not report your insolence, but I must go in haste. I am very busy.’ Huong was so full of pomp and self-belief that she was always allowed to continue on her way. In the brutal world that was post-1975 Vietnam, Huong was in many ways at home.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 8

 The horrors of proletarianisation were evident in the New Economic Zones (NEZs), which were established in the hinterlands to address urban overcrowding. There were also political reasons behind the operation of the NEZs, which were seen as places where the bourgeoisie could be made more rural and productive. Prostitutes, drug addicts, rambunctious youths (‘Saigon Cowboys’ or ‘Soul Youths’ as they were sometimes known) and other misfits were also sent to the NEZs to be remade through manual labour. But the prime targets of the NEZs were designated security threats such as ex-Republican soldiers and Chinese-Vietnamese, who were relocated to where they could be isolated and controlled. Traders, students, officials, artists, religious minorities and the unemployed were also prominent among the forced immigrants. By 1979, 83 NEZs had been constructed in the South, with more than 1.3 million residents and 350,000 hectares of land ‘reclaimed’. An estimated quarter of a million indigenous highland people were moved in the process, the government claiming it was saving them from ‘their unstable nomadic way of life on the mountaintops’ and making them more ‘civilised’, like the Vietnamese.

The Party leadership also tried to entice families to migrate voluntarily to the NEZs by promising a plot of land for each family and enough materials to build a house, but many people, such as Van’s oldest sister Chau, whose husband had been a Republican soldier, were forced to move there because their rations had been cancelled and their property repossessed. Chau’s NEZ tale was not unusual. In 1977 her family was dropped off on a remote road and had to hike to the desolate patch of jungle that was to be their new home. There they found a lack of fertilisers, tools and draught animals, and an abundance of mosquitoes and unexploded ordnance. The poor sanitation and absence of medicine led to rampant malaria, pneumonia, dysentery and scabies. For children and the elderly, being sent to an NEZ was often a death sentence. Chau struggled to grow even cassava and potatoes, and returned to Saigon whenever possible to borrow money from Van and their mother. Other people who returned to the city simply survived on the streets, waiting to be re-deported to the countryside. The houses that they had once owned had been either demolished or given to communists and Northerners.
In typical communist style, late in 1977 Prime Minister Pham Van Dong asserted that the failure of the NEZs to increase productivity and redistribute the population were caused by shortcomings in the new migrants, who were unmotivated and doggedly backward. The Party’s solution was to raise the number of people targeted for relocation in 1978 from 350,000 to almost half a million. In doing so, they appealed to Ho Chi Minh’s vivid justification of socialist excesses during the brutal 1950s land reform programs in the North: ‘To straighten a curved piece of bamboo, one must bend it in the opposite direction, holding it in that position for a while. Then, when the hand is removed it will slowly straighten itself.’ The SRV’s decision tớ bend people in the South even further against their will would have profound consequences for Van and Thiet. During the autumn of 1975, the Hanoi leadership had carried out a campaign to nationalise big business. At the same time, prominent entrepreneurs were jailed after being convicted of colluding with the US imperialists and the old puppet regime to create monopolies. Many small traders in Saigon were cautious, and steeled themselves for a follow-up campaign against the remnants of private enterprise. It came in March 1978, when 30,000 volunteers, accompanied by soldiers, struck like lightning all over the city enacting the Operation to Destroy Compradore Capitalists.
At that time Thiet’s mother and two sisters were selling fans, radios and other electrical goods from the lounge room of their home. There were many rumours that a widespread ‘asset inventory’ was coming. But as Thiet would explain much later, ‘How can you prepare for an event that will turn your life upside down and blow it apart? It was like the floods that hit my village when I was a boy. Everyone knew that they were coming, but when they hit they were always terrifying and destructive.’
‘Under the aegis of the Operation to Destroy Cọmprador Capitalists, we declare that you are guilty of trading, hoarding and living beyond your means, and hereby reclaim your ill- obtained property in the name of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam!’ cried the band of six government functionaries on the morning that they stormed into Huong’s house. Thiet’s two sisters and his mother were held hostage for days, as the communists went through their home making a meticulous inventory of ‘necessities’ which the family could keep, and ‘commercial goods’ or ‘luxuries’ which were ‘redistributed’ for revolutionary purposes.
When Thiet visited his mother and sisters each night, the cadres questioned him. ‘How can your sister have such a nice lounge suite and yet have no money?’ Thiet flatly replied that she had spent all her money on the lounge suite and necessities such as food and water. He was fearful of what might happen if they suspected he was lying, but reasoned that their honesty had no bearing on whether or not they would be sent to an NEZ. Such life-and-death decisions were wholly contingent upon the whims of their captors. With this in mind, Thiet advised his mother and sisters to look as frail as possible. He did not think that the communists would pity the three ladies, but hoped that they might be astute enough to recognise that Thua, Huong and Truong would only be a burden on others if sent to the hinterlands.
On the third day of the occupation a surly cadre confronted Huong with a simple command, ‘Get out!’
No doubt these two stark words had driven many families from their homes, but Huong was not easily bullied.
‘How can you tell me to get out? I have nowhere to go!’
‘I don’t care where you go, just get out of here.’
‘I’m not going anywhere. This house is all I have. I’ve worked hard for it, and deserve to stay.’
‘It was the proletariat and peasantry who worked hard for this house, those who laid the bricks and cut the timber. All you did was exploit them. What’s more, my compatriots and I have lived in the jungle for 30 years. How can you say that you deserve this house more than anyone? More than me?’
‘You and your comrades are men who are strong and brave. We are three sick old women. We will die if you take our house. I’m not moving. You’ll have to come with guns and shoot me before I go anywhere.’
After a tense silence during which Huong did not budge or let a flicker cross her glare, the cadre backed down.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 7

 Van and Thief’s son weighed just over 2 kilograms when he was born, more than 1 kilogram lighter than his older brother had been. It was an entire day before Van regained consciousness and could hold her newborn baby. In the interim, Thiet scrambled between the infirmary and his wife’s room, keeping check on his loved ones. He was astonished by his second son’s small size and stillness. The baby lay in his cot, crumpled and inert like a bird fallen from its nest. Thiet could not help occasionally prodding him with a chopstick to make sure that he was still alive, when he had held Thach for the first time, Thiet had felt like all the hope in the world was in that little bundle. Cradling this newborn son, his feelings were the reverse. He fretted over the hardship, barriers and misery that this boy would have to overcome.

Meanwhile, his wife was having great difficulty recovering. With no antiseptics, Van’s Caesarean incision became infected and did not heal for three months. The ugly scar on her stomach would forever remind her of that time.
Once again, Thua helped choose the name of the new baby. ‘Kim’ was a derivative of the Cantonese word for gold. ‘Kim’ partnered well with ‘Thach’, which was drawn from the word for rock or stone. Since ancient times, gold and stone had been recognised as enduring materials with undying bonds. In an era of poverty and despair, I thereby was a symbol of their most earnest yearnings.
The communist leadership undoubtedly faced immense challenges throughout the late 1970s, which made their goals difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. After the fall of Saigon, there were nearly 2 million unemployed people in the South, in addition to the 1.5 million ex-soldiers and employees of the Republican armed forces. Washington imposed an embargo on trade between the SRV, and American companies and pressured international lenders and other countries to refrain from doing business with the Vietnamese. Hostile encounters with China and Kampuchea funnelled much-needed SRV funds into the military, and a series of severe cold fronts, droughts and floods undermined production, exacerbating the nation’s woes.
Van and Thiet, however, held the communists primarily responsible for the country’s destitution. They blamed them for not taking advantage of the goodwill that existed among many Southerners after 1975 to build a peaceful and reunified Vietnam, choosing instead to force communism upon them in ruthless and unproductive ways. The communists viewed all setbacks as mere transitional pains caused by the depravity of the Southern system and its unruly citizens resisting progress and enlightenment. In Van and Thiet’s minds, the theories and policies should have been customised to the people, and not the other way around. But more than this, communism was simply not working: its underlying idea of collectivism was sapping everyone’s will to work. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the countryside where long-suffering peasants had had their land collectivised and stringent production quotas imposed upon them. There was little in this for the peasants who could only reason: ‘Why grow more rice, build more houses or raise more livestock when I will receive the same measly income regardless?’
The deficiencies of Vietnamese communism were experienced first-hand by Van and Thiet at the electricity authority, where ‘experts’ from the North had been inserted into all the management positions. While there were invariably integration difficulties with their new bosses, these problems were aggravated by the fact that many of the Northern experts were incompetent, insecure and spiteful. The new managers had risen to their positions because of their revolutionary backgrounds and political zeal. They were usually young soldiers or country bumpkins who did not have much education and experience beyond the jungle and fields. Those who did have qualifications had only worked with Soviet and Chinese equipment. ‘To be red exceeds expertise!’ went the popular Party line, emphasising the importance of ideological fidelity over technical know-how.
Thiet’s new boss devised a project that required roving maintenance teams to clear land and plant crops while they were in the jungle repairing electricity lines. He was convinced that this innovation would increase agricultural productivity, at the same time infusing an appreciation of the peasantry in his nguy inferiors. But with no one to tend them when the exhausted maintenance teams returned home, the crops would be overrun by the jungle plants and wild pigs. In the face of many similar failures, the electricity authority managers became preoccupied with keeping up appearances by manipulating reports and statistics. All setbacks and blunders were covered up or erased, in order to portray themselves as industrious and efficient. By underestimating the amount of work that could be accomplished each year, Thiet’s section reported to its minister that they had exceeded their productivity projections by three times. Thiet was sure that they could have easily been 50 times more productive.
While corruption had always been a problem at the electricity authority, after the communists arrived it became endemic. In her position as pay mistress, Van had to employ vixen-like dexterity to evade the schemes of her crooked superiors.
‘Comrade Van,’ said her boss one afternoon, ‘you should be commended for working so late.’
‘It is a small sacrifice for the nation,’ replied Van, hoping that he would go away, but knowing that he would not be speaking to her unless he had some ulterior motive.
‘You know, the petty cash fund has grown into a sizeable amount. Perhaps that sort of money should not be left in the office where people can get their hands on it. Can I suggest that you take half home and I take the remainder?’
Van thought about how the figure standing before her, a lifetime Party member from the North, must have come to the South and been astounded by the conspicuous wealth. No doubt he had been told since he was a child that the South was oppressed under the yoke of imperialism, that the rich were few but the poor were many, that the socialist North was civilised and that the South was decrepit and backward. He must have looked wide-eyed upon prosperous Saigon and cursed a lifetime of austerity. He surely resented the Party’s exhortations to remain uncontaminated by bourgeois culture: the expensive cigarettes, helter-skelter music and vivacious women. So now he had convinced himself that after years of sacrifice he deserved his share of the riches. Van saw him standing before her so pathetic as to be deserving of pity, yet so powerful as to demand great caution.
The young mother knew that if she took up the offer and they were caught, then she would be held responsible and reprimanded severely. She would lose her job and perhaps even be sent to a camp. But she could not afford to upset her boss.
‘This is a well-reasoned proposition, comrade,’ Van responded. ‘It is not proper practice, though. And I don’t know about you, but the money would not necessarily be any safer at my house than it is here. Saigon is not a secure place any more, you know. There are criminal elements everywhere.’
However, there were many communist ploys that Van and Thiet could not avoid. Along with their colleagues at the electricity authority, Van and Thiet were regularly transported to barren fields in the countryside to plant banana palms, sweet potatoes and other crops. The communists asserted that these ‘proletarianisation’ schemes encouraged people to get out in the sun, plough the fields and contribute to national productivity. In the process they would also discover empathy for the peasants, who were Uncle Ho’s chosen people. ‘With people power we can turn rocks to rice!’ went one of the most nauseating slogans from that time.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 6

 ‘If the economy is growing so fast,’ Thiet asked at the time, ‘why is everything so scarce? Why are we subject to rationing?’

Throughout the war Southerners had never experienced rationing, so it was no surprise that measures to control shortages and impose socialist equality generated a great deal of hostility. Thiet and Van were fortunate that Sat and Van’s teenage niece, Phuong, could not only care for Thach but also collect the household rations while the couple was at work. Sat and Phuong resented the lack of choice and quantity that came with rationing, and also the amount of time and effort required to obtain just about any item, let alone those that were in high demand. They had to leave before sunrise with the household registration booklet in order to get a decent position in the queue at the government warehouse. Sat and Phuong stood wearily through the heat and pounding rain in order to receive rotten fish every two weeks, half a kilo of meat a month and 3 metres of the same drab cloth each year.
Sometimes they were stirred by scuffles at the back of the queue, where one place might mean the difference between receiving a ration and going home hungry. No one intervened in these disagreements for fear of losing their own position. And in any case, it had nothing to do with them. What justice could they possibly mete out In such an arbitrary environment? Despite the continuous talk of collectivism, the people had never been more self-centred.
Thiet experienced similar desperation at work, where rations were also distributed. After 1975, electricity authority employees spent much of their time staring out the window. They looked skywards and dreamt of better times, and scanned the street for delivery trucks. When a truck arrived, word flew through the office followed by a flood of people from their desks to the kerbside. Workmates fought over morsels which they would have once happily shared or even given away. ‘What is happening to us?’ Thiet sometimes thought before throwing himself into the fray. ‘What have we been reduced to? We fight like crows over a rotting carcass.’ He was taken back 30 years to Ngoc Kinh Mountain, where his family had been driven to dark savagery. He was convinced that this modern- day savagery had been created to punish and manipulate them. The Northerners wanted to starve the Southerners in order to teach them that their precious notions of liberty and justice amounted to nothing. Only Marxist materialism mattered. One of Thiet’s colleagues murmured to him, ‘This is the way the communists want it. They want to keep us hungry, grip our stomachs, in order to divide and control us. They know that when we’re satisfied, we’re dangerous.’
Thiet did not believe government news reports heralding unprecedented Vietnamese productivity. He wondered how the communists could announce a cut in the tobacco ration one day and then praise themselves for increasing tobacco production the next. How could anyone believe them? It didn’t make sense. And yet at times it seemed so clear. Memory and reality itself were becoming subservient to the Party.
With their relatively secure jobs, savings and guile, Van and Thiet insulated themselves from hunger and deprivation. Like squirrels ahead of winter, they had become good at hoarding. After the communists arrived, Thiet had purchased three sewing machines and bolts of material, which they could use to generate an income in the event that all else was lost (Thiet had not discarded his skills as a tailor and Van had been sewing since she was a teenager). They also purchased appliances such as rice cookers and ovens, often at discounted prices from wives whose husbands had been sent to re-education camps. In 1974 when Van discovered that she was pregnant with Thach, the family had had the foresight to stockpile Guigoz baby formula so that the baby boy was never left wanting. Other less fortunate mothers had to have their breasts measured before they were issued with a ration ticket for dairy products, which would help make up for their production incapacity. ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need,’ was the communist motto which had appealed to Thiet during his adolescence. The realisation of that slogan meant that everyone would be equally destitute.
In many ways Van and Thiet’s next child was a product of these harrowing times. With their new communist bosses from the North in charge at the electricity authority, Van dared not ask for the maternity leave that had been granted to her prior to Thach’s birth. Instead, she worked right up until the baby was due, just as she had done when she lost her first child. Many doctors had fled the country and there were no drugs to help reduce the chance of miscarriage. Given Van’s unfortunate history, her physician decided that it was safer for her to have a Caesarean again. When it was time to go to the hospital for the operation, Van was petrified.
She checked into the Gia Dinh People’s Hospital on 13 September 1977 and was told that there was no reliable schedule for surgery. As she waited, the young mother hoped that her baby did not decide to greet the world there and then, as she was convinced that it would take them so long to find a doctor that she would have to give birth in the waiting room with only the assistance of her husband and other patients. A full day passed and on the fourteenth Van left the maternity ward and went on short walks around the hospital grounds. It became obvious to her why the hospital had the reputation of being one of the dirtiest and most dangerous places in town. In some wards there were four patients to a bed. The sheets were infrequently changed. She had to tiptoe around the puddles and slime in the bathrooms. Broken equipment and instruments cluttered the hallways, and patients’ bandages lay around soaked with pus and blood.
Two years earlier, when Thach had been born, Van did not think about the pain of giving birth or her own chances of survival. She knew of no greater agony than living with her in¬laws and felt so alone that she was sure there was nothing to lose. This time around, Van felt that everything was at risk. The young mother became more anxious with each passing hour, not only for her unborn baby but also for herself and her family. What if she did not make it? who would look after Thiet and Thach? And then there was her mother, sisters and brother. Who would take care of them? On 15 September, overwhelmed by fear and the stench of the hospital, Van packed her things and went home.
That same afternoon a nurse called Thiet at work and told him that his wife had escaped from the hospital and that he had to find her quickly and bring her back. Thiet hurried to their apartment and convinced her to go back to the hospital. They were both relieved and horrified when she was admitted to the operating theatre the next morning. The last thing that Van heard before going under was one of the nurses saying, ‘Make sure you get a sharp scalpel!’

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 5

 Cadres asserted that personal histories were not for the benefit of the Party but rather for those who compiled them. As one cadre at the electricity authority proclaimed to Van, ‘You will know yourself after writing your personal history. All the bourgeois and feudal myths of your past will be swept away, allowing you to see who you really are and know what path you must take to be a progressive citizen in the new Vietnam.’

‘If all of this drudgery is really for our benefit,’ thought Van, ‘why do we have to write our histories every few months? Why are we castigated for the smallest discrepancy?’ Van suspected that the personal histories provided the communists with yet another means to persecute them. They could be deemed criminals not only for their acts, words or even their thoughts, but because of their origins. Van saw this played out in the case of Thiet’s second cousin Luong. Luong had come first in the country in his high school mathematics and physics examinations, but was prohibited from going to university because his father had fought in the South Vietnamese army. Unable to study further or get a job on account of his ‘unclean’ background, Luong spent his days working the till at his family’s cafe.
The vengefulness of the communists was nowhere more evident than when it came to the repression of Southern cultural practices. According to the leading Party ideologue Truong Chinh, one of the major tasks of the Revolution was to level the differences between North and South. The North was the apex of human existence to which the South — if not all societies — should inevitably develop. For this to occur it was necessary to purge the Southern population of its misguided and outdated habits. After 1975, scornful adjectives describing the Saigonese and their way of life fell like torrential rain. In addition to being nguy, they were debauched, enslaved, reactionary and depraved. One communist committee described the recalcitrant Saigonese as ‘addicted to a bourgeois, parasitic way of life, despising labour, egoistic, running after physical pleasures, with a here today, gone tomorrow attitude, heeding neither conscience nor morality’.
Severe measures were extensively implemented to cure this sick society. During the crackdown on Western bourgeois culture, cadres cut the long hair from the heads of stunned youths, and the flares from their ankles. Frightening tales circulated of painted fingernails being ripped from fingers. Women and girls were fearful of wearing their ao dai in public, opting instead for drab peasant clothes. Even Huong temporarily put away her most outlandish outfits and toned down her make-up. One day, from a carelessly left-open window, a passing cadre heard Huong’s son, Tam, playing to the ‘yellow music’ of the old corrupt regime. The cadre stormed into the house, darted up the stairs, rammed open Tam’s bedroom door, kicked in his stereo, smashed his guitar, and confiscated his entire music collection.
Whereas once Van might have found respite from such real- world tyranny in the pages of books, this escape was one of the first to be targeted after the fall of Saigon. On 15 May 1975 an official communique was released from the office of Information and Culture demanding that the circulation, sale and lending of all material published during the American occupation had to cease within a week. Major publishing houses and libraries were ransacked. There were rumours of enormous bonfires incinerating the reactionary past and clearing the ground for the seeds of socialism to be planted. Romance novels were deemed escapist, Kung Fu stories did not ‘make for good citizens’, the work of Camus and Sartre was considered decadent, many of the Self-strength Literary Group novels were labelled reactionary, and almost all religious texts were judged to be spiritually misguiding.
Sat fretted over the small library of books that her late husband, Thai, had collected and treasured as his legacy. Eventually, with a heavy heart, she decided that the risk of having to face the Party’s wrath, were the library to be discovered, was too great. She secretly converted the books into smoke and ash.
It was not enough for the regime simply to eradicate books without going after those who had written them. In April 1976, writers, poets and journalists of the Republic of Vietnam were rounded up and trucked off to forced labour and re¬education camps. Some of them would never return or would do so with their imaginations crushed beyond repair.
In the new system a person could not simply be idle, unthreatening or neutral. Everyone had to earnestly love the Party above all else. Thus, re-education (literally ‘study-practice’) was aimed at ‘making over’ potentially counter¬revolutionary elements into ‘new people’. This process could take a very long time, once again because ‘It takes ten years to cultivate a tree, but one hundred years to cultivate a person.’ Around 1.5 million members of the Republican armed forces and senior public servants of the old regime were called up for transportation to re-education camps in the summer of 1975. The communiques announced that they would undergo ideological training and that they should bring enough food for a week or ten days. While the majority were released in weeks or months, between 100,000 and 300,000 remained in the camps for more than a year. Up to 40,000 did not return for over a decade and many died of disease or malnutrition.
At one meeting that Van attended in early 1976, a woman asked the convening cadre when her husband might return from the camps. The cadre responded, ‘Comrade, you must be grateful to the Party for the leniency and wisdom that it has shown in re-educating your husband. Our leaders have faith that even the most die-hard reactionaries can be made over! When his belief systems are re-educated he will be released.’
As the months and then years passed, Van and Thiet started to hear stories about those who had come back from re-education camps. At first the reports emerged slowly, while the old regime’s political, military and cultural figureheads were kept under house arrest, often these people were threatened into silence or had been so shattered by their experiences that they could not recount them. ‘What does freedom have to do with imprisoning ex-Republicans?’ asked -Thiet decades later. ‘The communists used my friends and relatives as fodder against the Kampucheans. They forced them to clear landmines. They gave them so little to eat that they craved for spiders and frogs. They tortured and brainwashed them as if the war had never ended. How do you expect me to forgive? I cannot. I’ll never shake their hands and pretend like nothing happened.’
The crippling oppression that many Southerners experienced was compounded by economic hardship. SRV leaders believed that economic development could be accomplished with the same lightning speed as the Final Offensive. Feeding this delusion, First Party Secretary Le Duan promised that every family would have a radio, refrigerator and television by 1985 and that the country should expect to have reached the idyllic state of communism within twenty years.
Not long after the fall of Saigon, Thiet sensed that in the war against poverty, Vietnam was losing badly.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 4

 Van and Thiet were confronted by this system when they moved to their apartment in Thanh Da late in 1976. The move was inspired by continued tensions at Huong’s house and by news that Van was pregnant again, which gave them a good reason to find a place of their own. In fact, if anything, they had less room at Thanh Da after Sat and Van’s young niece Phuong (Chau’s daughter) came to live with them to help Van around the house. Thua was not impressed by their departure, and felt as if her daughter-in-law had taken her son and grandson away from her. But once Van and Thiet had a family of their own and a home on the other side of the city, they found it easier to deal with Thua, Huong and Truong. The couple was more concerned at that time by the intrusiveness of the communists.

The cadre who sold the new system to Van and Thiet depicted it as the ultimate form of representative government. ‘Finally, power is in your hands. In the corrupt puppet regimes of the past you had no power. You could not choose your leaders or how you would be led. Now, Vietnam is supported by thousands of solidarity cells, which represent the first critical step to formulating policies for and by the masses!’
Van and Thiet viewed the cells as a means of stringent top- down control. They were continually reminded that their first responsibility as citizens was to maintain a constant vigil for anyone displaying counter-revolutionary behaviour. Because spying was rewarded, it was not long before people lost trust in one another. The community was ruled by sideways glances and acidic whispers. ‘I didn’t see comrade Mai at the meeting last night. She was absent from last week’s parade and I don’t think she participated in street sweeping for the fatherland on the weekend. Do you know where she is? I asked her son and first he said that she was sick and then he said that she was visiting a sick relative.’
‘What about comrade Dung? I’ve seen his light on late at night and I can hear the voices of at least two men. I’m not sure who’s visiting him at such an hour; someone should probably go over and check.’
Van and Thiet learnt to be suspicious of friends and even family. They were in constant fear of being denounced by someone who had a vendetta against them or who just wanted to get onside with the new administration. The entire society had been incorporated into the secret police network.
Van and Thiet’s own cell leader, Tai, was an ardent communist supporter, whose husband had preceded her as cell leader for a few weeks after the communist victory. On the day Saigon fell, her husband, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Republican army, donned a communist infantry helmet and rode around on his scooter in peasant garb proclaiming that everyone must celebrate and be grateful because the Revolution had come. Thiet had heard that Tai’s husband was jubilant on the day in 1975 when he presented himself to the authorities as a one-time South Vietnamese officer. He was promptly sent to a re-education camp, leaving Tai to assume his position with equal if not greater fervour in the hope that she might expedite her husband’s return.
Tai was not from the countryside, but in order to promote the virtues of rural living she raised chickens and ducks on the small balcony of her third-storey apartment. It was not such an illogical thing to do, given the scarcity of food, but peasant- worship had become so exaggerated that one devout comrade living a floor below Tai was commended for raising a cow in his apartment.
Tai fulfilled her duties with infuriating enthusiasm: shooing away street vendors, trying to persuade recent immigrants to move back to the countryside, and forever organising meetings during which she harped on about their benevolent leaders and the need to embrace the glorious Socialist Republic of Vietnam. There were so many meetings to attend that Van and Thiet no longer had time to themselves. They were convinced that this was exactly what the communist power-brokers wanted: to erode every meaningful relationship in people’s lives and insert the Party in their place. At first Van and Thiet sympathised with Tai, who was doing her best to take care of her two sons and bring back her husband. But it wasn’t long before they started to despise her as a sniffer dog, hunting out prey for her masters.
As a Viet Minh devotee in his youth, Thiet had learnt the Party line that behaviour and belief are determined by class. The invading communists were not interested in a person’s character, but rather her or his relationship to the means of production. To this end, every two or three months, Van and Thiet had to submit their personal histories to officials at the electricity authority. Each time, the histories came to almost ten pages long and intricately set out the education, work and residential details of every family member reaching back four generations. In the belief that, ‘It takes ten years to cultivate a tree, but one hundred years to cultivate a person,’ the Party insisted that an individual’s tendencies could only be identified by examining his or her family. Thiet admitted that his brother Biet had died fighting for the South Vietnamese army, but decided not to mention how his father had been accused of spying against the Viet Minh and executed. He reasoned that he would only be caught if someone turned him in or if there was an inconsistency in his histories. Like many others, Van and Thiet avoided this latter prospect by writing several personal histories at one time and then producing a copy upon demand.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 3

 The style of their speeches had also changed. The cadre spoke steadily and scientifically, with no desire to inspire rousing responses from the crowd. There were no upbeat songs, witty plays or appeals to the audience. It was as if the speaker was using an autocue, reading instructions on how to fix a flat tyre; without even a stutter or lull to suggest his humanity. Thiet could have sworn that the words and pace were robotically controlled. The diatribe continued.

‘Let me speak frankly to those of you who say that Vietnamese are not free. First we must ask, “What is freedom?” Everything in the universe, every object, animal and individual can behave freely. However, nothing exists in a vacuum, and so for freedom to have any meaning it must be defined within certain limits and regulations. Freedom is not anarchy. Look in the night sky, even the planets travel within defined orbits and exert gravitational forces on each other. They do not circulate freely. If this were the case, the universe would collapse. Similarly, in human society freedom is not the right to always act as one pleases. What we must do is construct a correct freedom, a freedom that everyone can enjoy.
‘Do you want the freedom that the American invaders brought with them? Do you want the freedom to be homeless, the freedom to be unemployed, the freedom to be terrorised by gangsters, and the freedom for your children to become prostitutes and drug addicts? Or do you want freedom from degradation, freedom to work and share in the profits of your labour, and the freedom of an ordered society?
‘It is only logical that we all want the latter freedoms. But nothing worthwhile is easy. To achieve these freedoms we must not deviate from the direction that we have chosen. We must explain to those who are ignorant and misguided why our path is straight, bright and righteous. If anyone speaks untruths or acts in counter-revolutionary ways, then we must re-educate them at once. We have to unite and always be on the offensive. In the words of our great founder, Ho Chi Minh, the namesake and saviour of this city: Solidarity, solidarity, great solidarity; success, success, great success.’
The sun was well into the sky and Thiet could feel his eyelids growing heavy. He tried to stifle a yawn. He was fed up. He knew that there was a coherence about communism that made it attractive to children and unworldly peasants. But in the real world, with all its contradictions and imperfections, communism was absurd. Thiet suspected that many others in the crowd shared his scepticism. Rumours abounded among discontented Saigonese that the communists were not enlightened at all, but rather ignorant and oafish. According to hearsay, many of the revolutionaries had come to the city from the countryside and, unused to city trappings, kept fish in toilets and burnt fires indoors.
Thiet had witnessed their naivety first-hand. At an electricity authority meeting some time earlier, a cadre from the North had proclaimed that her comrades had killed countless Americans with sticks and their bare hands. One of Thiet’s more quick-witted colleagues asked the cadre if she could confirm a rumour that he had ‘heard’. ‘Apparently the Northerners shot down American helicopters with slingshots!’ Much to everyone’s amusement, the cadre earnestly confirmed the story without realising the speaker’s mocking intent.
‘I admired Ho Chi Minh once,’ the same colleague later confided in Thiet. ‘But the man that I admired does not exist any more. Even when he was still alive, before 1969, he did not exist, not as a human being, not as an individual. He was an emblem, fashioned and put on display by the communists. Now he’s even less real and human, he is a god, a god of shrimp!’ Thiet’s friend explained that in colonial times, scholars and officials who collaborated with the French were likened to shrimp. They sported long thin beards, had bulging eyes and splashed about making a big scene of their virtue, while in truth their heads were full of shit.
Remembering his friend, Thiet giggled to himself before realising the perils of such a lapse. He straightened his back and stared ahead. It was almost lunchtime, half a day down, two and a half days more to go ... and a lifetime after that.
‘Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.’ The most venerated of Uncle Ho’s utterances began to irritate Thiet like a lice-infested blanket. Such doublespeak filled the pages of the government-controlled newspapers, blurted out from speakers and bullhorns that spewed propaganda from early in the morning until past sunset, and was repeated ad nauseam on the radio and television. ‘The more the communists proselytised a message,’ Thiet commented years later, ‘the more I could be sure that it was bogus.’
One of the first projects that the regime embarked upon was a social restructuring program. Fundamental to this was the formation of solidarity cells. Each cell consisted of around fifteen neighbouring families and was led by the most devoted supporter of socialist revolution. The cells provided the base for a social pyramid that included clusters, precincts, communes, districts and provinces. Rudimentary elections were held at the bottom levels, while the highest political positions were reserved for senior Party members, who came to power by means obscure to ordinary people. Alongside this rigid structure was a fatherland front which brought youth, women’s, senior citizens’ and other community groups under the auspices of the Party.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism 2

 Some Party leaders had learnt from examples all over the world that seizing power is not the final or most difficult stage of revolution. They knew that carrying out their programs for social change would be an even greater challenge, given the entrenched views and habits of the population. They could not afford to be complacent.

But many other communists, who had been fighting for much of their lives, were impatient and wanted their victory to be complete. These often fanatical figures stressed the exceptional nature of the Vietnamese revolutionary experience. Under the leadership of the Party, they argued, the Vietnamese masses had defeated the French Empire and also an American superpower. Who in the world would dare challenge them now? From this perspective, the strategies and ideas that had won the war would have little problem winning over even the most headstrong South Vietnamese. Those few who did not see the light were dangerously misguided and in drastic need of thought reform. The Glorious Spring Offensive of 1975 had thus not long passed before Vietnam’s communist leaders began to transform from self-effacing revolutionaries into triumphant ideologues. This transformation was made apparent to Thiet during his re-education.
‘Comrades and compatriots of Ho Chi Minh City, the new society calls upon you to fulfil your duty. It calls on you to reform, to seek enlightenment, to undertake your re¬education!’
Loudspeakers around the city advertised the three-day program which was targeted at everyone who had worked for the old regime. Local cadres barged into homes. to remind people of the life-changing workshops. It was June 1975 and because Van was heavily pregnant with Thach, she was excused from attending the meeting. Everyone else at the electricity authority, including Thiet, had to go.
On the designated day, Thiet and his colleagues at the Thu Duc electricity authority gathered at the clearing in front of their office block. Thiet was annoyed at the inconvenience rather than afraid for his safety. He knew that no one was going to take him away. In marketplaces, community houses and schools all over the South, many such meetings for lower level civil servants had already taken place without major incident. Thiet steeled himself for what he knew was coming: long sermons on the wondrous Party and the magnificent Ho Chi Minh; celebrations of Marxism and Leninism; condemnations of capitalism, imperialism and their traitorous nguy backgrounds; and exhortations for personal and national reform. Thiet had heard from friends that at such events ‘The most important thing is to sit motionless; the second most important thing is to agree.’ The communists promoted an old axiom that study (hoc) goes hand in hand with practice (hanh). Many Southerners had noticed that hanh also meant torture and torment.
At the front of the meeting, three cadres sat at a table in their green uniforms, wearing hats with a red star in the middle. A few other uniformed cadres stood around them, and Thiet suspected that plain-clothed agents were scattered throughout the crowd. One of the cadres at the table stood up and, in his northern accent, welcomed them as compatriots. After minimal formalities and a reminder that ‘studying is a privilege, not a punishment,’ their re-education began.
‘There are certain historical truths that you as nguy and that I as a member of the glorious Vietnam Workers’ Party agree upon. We agree that we speak the same language, that we look alike, share one culture and one ancient history, and that we are all descendants of the mighty Dragon Lord Lac Long.
‘No doubt every one of US is proud of our history and the fact that no country in the world can claim more heroes than Vietnam. All of them were devoted to building a strong and prosperous Vietnam. All of them drove away our foes and united us as a nation. It is in their tradition that I stand before you today and appeal to you to devote yourself to Vietnam.
‘In our hearts we have all opposed imperialism. We have wondered how many innocent lives were claimed by the French invaders. How many Vietnamese remained illiterate and without education as the rest of the world industrialised and modernised? None of us ever wants to be enslaved again.’
Thiet agreed with much of the cadre’s speech, but he suspected that the introductory niceties and reconciling tones would not last for long.
‘From 1945, and particularly since 1954, many of you have adopted a false understanding. You have been lied to and misled. You have insufficient knowledge of our history under Uncle Ho’s leadership and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism. Your history from this point is upside down and completely wrong.
‘Let us look at history the right way up. Let us look at it objectively ...’ The cadre outlined his approved version of Vietnam’s history before again addressing the audience directly. ‘I ask you now to see clearly and to think carefully. On what side did the champions of Vietnamese independence fight? What side was for justice and socialism for all? Was it the side of the invaders, the foreigners or the imperialists? No! There is only one answer. And that is Ho Chi Minh’s side. There are just wars and unjust wars. The Party has fought a just war in the name of self-determination and development; the French and American imperialists have fought an unjust war in the name of tyranny and exploitation. This is a self-evident fact.
‘Nothing has been more real to our people than the exploitation of the masses by the feudal and capitalist classes. Nothing has been more real than the cruelty of colonialism. It was Marx and Lenin who best understood this. They illustrated to us the common predicament of workers all over the globe. Marxism and Leninism are the weapons with which we have slain our oppressors. Marxism emerged from reality and Marxism is reality. Leninism emerged from reality and Leninism is reality. On these facts we must all agree. They are the truth.’
Thiet was reminded of the secret night-time Viet Minh rallies that he had attended in the community house of his home village of Bo Ban. He could not help marvelling at the communists’ oratorical stamina, but something was different about them too. Or perhaps Thiet was being obstinate? He could never again forget that the communists had killed his father and brother. But as each hour passed under the blazing sun, Thiet suspected that there was something indeed more to their tone. Unlike the Viet Minh speeches that he remembered from the 1950s, the re-education sermon was not designed to resonate in the hearts of the people but rather to bludgeon their minds into capitulation.

My family failed to ride out totalitarianism

 Thiet: The worst thing about the communists was their lying. Your mother and I had been poor before. We could put up with not having money. But what we couldn’t bear, what drove us from our homeland and our loved ones, were the lies. We were always celebrating our freedom and democracy, even though freedom and democracy were never so far away. Do you know what the communists called people like us? They called us nguy, which means we were false, deceitful, traitorous and didn’t know what was true or good. But the communists were the worst liars. You and your brother will never know what it’s like to live in a place like that — where there’s nothing to believe in and no hope for the future. That’s why we risked everything to escape; so that you would not remember, so that you would never know.

On the weekends it had become customary for Thiet and his young family to visit his mother and two sisters. The petrol ration at that time was only 2 litres a month, so they could not afford to take their scooter and had to make the 10- kilometre trip to and from their apartment in Thanh Da by bicycle.
One Sunday in the spring of 1979, Thiet and his family set off for home in the searing afternoon heat after visiting Thua, Huong and Truong. The still air and rising humidity made Thiet’s shirt cling to his back, a fact that Van noted with concern, as she sat on the rear wheel rack holding their one- year-old baby boy, Kim. Oblivious to the weariness that had sapped his father and the nation, the couple’s three-year-old son, Thach, sat on the handlebars and hollered with glee as Thiet pedalled through the streets of what he still liked to think of as Saigon.
After some minutes, the muscles in Thiet’s thighs and calves turned into hot coals, his throat was lined with dust, and the cityscape blurred behind beads of sweat which fell from his brow. The young father pushed onwards — one agonising revolution after another — and thought back to when he was a boy; when he had chased a bamboo hoop through the dusty streets of Bo Ban and dreamt of someday owning a bicycle. But Thiet was not an ignorant child any more. He had seen the riches, ingenuity and freedom that the modern world had to offer. As a young man in the 1960s he had envisaged his country taking off like a jet plane into the boundless sapphire sky. If someone had asked him to predict what Vietnam would be like in twenty years’ time he would have told them that there would be a forest of skyscrapers, an abundance of food (perhaps even ultra-nutritious supplements, which would make hunger a thing of the past), and a super-sleek automobile for every person. The young man’s vision had been obliterated by the war and its aftermath. It was 1979 and Thiet was astride a contraption from the last century. With increasing vehemence, he stewed over his family’s descent to destitution. Gritting his teeth, Thiet pushed ahead and thought about all the reasons why he had come to hate the new Vietnam.
Not long after Saigon fell, Van and Thiet’s fear was replaced with relief, as the widely predicted bloodbath failed to eventuate. Furthermore, it seemed like the war was finally over. Neither of them had known a time when war was not present in their lives. Mothers would no longer have to say goodbye to their battle-bound sons; the seeds of progress that had lain dormant for generations could now sprout through the wartime rubble; and the country could divert all its energy into constructing an era of peace.
In May 1975 the Central Post Office reopened and a stamp was issued depicting the late Ho Chi Minh dressed in his distinctive peasant clothes, as he watered a sapling of Vietnamese unity and independence. For the first time in over two decades, people were allowed to send letters between the South and the North. Transportation links were restored between the two regions. Work started on rebuilding the 1000- mile rail line from Saigon to Vinh, and the regime promoted stories of people renewing long-lost ties after being separated for half a lifetime by demilitarised zones.
Throughout the summer of 1975, the communist leaders demonstrated an encouraging degree of moderation, proposing that the social and economic differences between the two sides meant that reunification would be implemented over at least five years, in order to avoid arousing hostility and unease. That summer, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North and the Provisional Revolutionary Government in the South applied for separate UN membership, and it was accepted that for some time to come Vietnam should have two economic systems, with private enterprise continuing in the South.
But there were also signs that the communists would not be gracious in victory. In times gone by, both Diem and the French colonists had altered street names to exalt their own glorious histories and suppress conflicting visions of the past. So it was not surprising on the evening of 30 April 1975 when it was announced that Saigon had been renamed in honour of the late Ho Chi Minh. Shortly afterwards, Van’s high school ceased to be named after the nineteenth-century French-friendly emperor Gia Long, but rather the revolutionary heroine Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Justice Avenue became August Revolution Avenue, and Freedom Avenue was renamed General Uprising Avenue. ‘What’s wrong with Justice and Freedom?’ Van and Thiet asked themselves. In the streets and in their lives, the general uprising had swept away freedom.
After the official reunification of the country as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) in July 1976, Hanoi became the capital, the North Vietnamese flag was chosen as the national emblem, and the North Vietnamese song ‘March to the Front’ became the national anthem. While Van and Thiet did not expect everything to stay the same, they were disheartened by the erasing of their cultural identity. Whenever the couple was forced to use the new names, they felt the shame of a defeated nation and the anger of a conquered people.
In August 1975, the Party Central Committee decided to bypass the period of separate existence in favour of a rapid shift towards national socialist revolution. The prominent Party ideologue Truong Chinh asserted that the North and South were fundamentally alike, and that there were no significant barriers to immediate unification. Others were concerned that Northern revolutionaries in the South were being corrupted by the ‘parasitic’ lifestyle, as stories circulated of soldiers being seduced by rock’n’roll and of huge quantities of consumer goods being taken back to the North.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 11

 While your mother was in the operating theatre, your father and I waited outside with our hearts thumping. Half an hour or so passed before the doctor came out. Your father sprang to his feet and asked the doctor how she was. He laughed and congratulated him, saying that your mother was fine and that he had a baby boy. Afterwards your father could not sit still, pacing up and down as he waited for your older brother and your mother to come out of the operating theatre.

A little later, a nurse emerged cradling your brother. She said that he was strong and healthy and looked like his father. I had never seen your father so happy, and he gave the nurse a small amount of money so that she would take extra special care of his boy. Thừ was the first time I had ever seen a newborn baby. Your brother was so red and small, lying naked in a blanket with a piece of umbilical cord rolled into a knot which would later fall off to form his belly button. The nurse took him to the room for infants, leaving your father and me to wait anxiously for your mother.
Some time later we saw another nurse push her out of the theatre, still unconscious from the anaesthetic. Your father and I ran after them to the recovery room and as she was transferred from the table to her bed, your mother woke up. Your father hollered, ‘A boy, a boy, you gave birth to a boy! We have a son!’ Your mother burst into tears of joy, but also because the Caesarean wound hurt so much. What a tender sight it was, to see your mother crying from the ecstasy and agony of child birth.
After losing their own fathers prematurely and having their childhoods cut short, Van and Thiet were desperate to have children and to provide those children with what they had never received. Together they vowed that there would be no limits to the love and care that this baby boy would be given. If need be, they would deprive themselves of everything, so that he would be deprived of nothing.
After consulting with Thua, Van named the baby ‘Thach’, which means ‘rock’ or ‘stone’ and symbolises simplicity and resilience. Combined with ‘Thiet’, which the baby was given as a middle name, ‘Thiet Thach’ connoted a sense of the everlasting.
For many years to come, Van would shake her head and wonder what would have become of her had it not been for Thach. Would she and Thiet have been able to withstand the weight of the old world bearing down upon them? There was little doubt that Thua, Huong and Truong were not about to call off their quest for a suitable heir.
For Thiet, Thach’s birth put the destruction of his country and his dreams of modernity into perspective. Suddenly he realised that politics, economics and the nation were but means to an end; that world affairs were important only to the extent that they could influence the wellbeing of this one baby boy. In years to come, both Thiet and Van would refer to Thach as their saviour. He was their chinh nghia, their just cause. He gave them something to live and fight for.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 10

 Thiet knew that once the Americans had their prisoners of war back, the Vietnam conflict offered them only diminishing political returns, and he suspected that throughout the Vietnamisation of the war and the Paris peace process, the US was looking for a quiet way out. If the Vietnamese of the RVN were massacred in the process, then this was a regrettable but tolerable outcome as far as the American leadership were concerned; it might even demonstrate the inhumanity of the communists and justify why the US had become involved in the, first place. This was no ‘peace with honour’, as Nixon had proclaimed. On the contrary, the US had, so went the old saying, ‘squeezed all the juice out [of Vietnam] and was now discarding the peel’.

Of course Van and Thiet also viewed their own deficient military and political leaders as responsible for the defeat. Since Diem’s assassination in 1963, the parade of RVN presidents who had come to power had been incapable of articulating a chinh nghia (just cause) which was worth fighting and dying for. often they had been more concerned with accumulating personal wealth and power than serving the people.
Never had the decrepit nature of the South Vietnamese leadership been more apparent to Van and Thiet than during those final days. On 21 April, President Thieu fled Vietnam with what was rumoured to be a booty of gold, after publicly accusing the US of breaking its promise to ‘react vigorously’ against North Vietnamese aggression and blaming the RVN’s downfall on cuts in military aid. His former vice-president Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky swore not to abandon the nation and urged his fellow citizens to resist the communist onslaught, before also taking flight.
There were stories of ordinary soldiers who fought to the death, who would rather give up everything than live under communism. But these cases were isolated, and few would become martyrs. The structure, discipline and, most of all, the spirit that characterise an effective fighting force were lacking in the South Vietnamese army. Without a compelling reason to fight or an overarching just cause that was linked to the victories over French and Chinese colonialism, the Republicans was soundly defeated. In those final days, pictures were widely distributed of streets clogged with boots and clothing left by Southern soldiers as a final protest against a war that had never been fought on their behalf.
On the last day before the communist takeover, Van was out of bed before the sun rose. The sleepless night and the bleak battle had put her in the most sombre of moods. After breakfast, the family sat in the living room listening to the radio. Like many Vietnamese residences, Huong’s home had two altars prominently positioned in the living room, one dedicated to Buddha and other to their ancestors. All morning Thua, Huong and Truong lit incense and prayed for protection. The incense mixed with smoke wafting in from a distant battle or bonfires of documents, pictures and memorabilia nearby. People had started erasing their links to the Southern government. Some Saigonese flew Viet Cong flags in front of their homes, hoping to appease the new rulers. The streets which were usually crowded with vendors and commuters were desolate. Everyone wanted to be with the people who were important to them.
At quarter past ten, the last President of South Vietnam (who had been inaugurated two days earlier) made an announcement over the radio. T, General Duong Van Minh, President of the Saigon government, appeal to the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam to lay down their arms and surrender unconditionally to the forces of the National Liberation Front. Furthermore, I declare that the Saigon government is completely dissolved at all levels.’ His broadcast was followed by a speech by the outgoing prime minister. ‘In the spirit of harmony and national reconciliation, I, Professor Vu Van Mau, Prime Minister, appeal to all levels of the population to greet this day of peace for the Vietnamese people with joy. I appeal to all employees of the administration to return to their posts and continue their work.”
After hearing these statements, Thiet broke down. For some time Van and Thiet held each other, unable to come to grips with the fact that the communists had finally arrived. For those few moments they were certain that millions of other people across the nation and around the world were mourning for the Republic of Vietnam.
By 13 June 1975, Thiet and Van’s baby was more than a week overdue and everyone, except perhaps the baby itself, was extremely anxious. There was no ultrasound to determine the sex of the foetus, but an X-ray had revealed that it was a healthy size and also that it was lying comfortably on its side and would not come into the world willingly. A Caesarean birth would probably be necessary, but Van’s obstetrician advised her to wait until the last minute.
On that morning of the thirteenth, Van turned to mystical methods to induce the birth. Following advice from her mother, she went to the houses of seven neighbours and asked for a small quantity of rice, which she cooked and consumed. Sure enough, after dinner that night, Van’s waters broke. Thiet gathered Van, her youngest sister, Lien (who had come to help her during the school holidays) and an overnight bag, and sped to Hung Vuong hospital in Huong’s car.
My Aunt Lien later wrote to me describing the excitement:
We met your mother’s doctor at the hospital, who diagnosed that she would have to have a Caesarean and somehow got her into an operating room straight away. I was there and saw your mother lying on the table as it was being pushed into the theatre. Later she told me that the last thing she saw before going under was a big silver peace pendant hanging from her surgeon’s neck. Pretty ironic don’t you think, given that hospitals are meant to be hygienic places and that the communists had just taken over? Anyway, I felt so sorry for your parents because I knew that they were very scared. In that instant, I loved my sister with all my heart, and gave her all my strength to help her get through this ordeal.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 9

 By this time, Van was into the third trimester of her third pregnancy. As shells exploded around Huong’s house near Tan Son Nhat airport, Thua again ordered Thiet to move his and Van’s bed. This time he positioned it under the stairs to protect Van and, more importantly, the baby from anything that might crash through the walls or fall through the ceiling.

During the communist Spring Offensive to take the South, Saigon was abuzz with speculation. People were streaming in from the central highlands, Buon Ma Thuot, Hue and Nha Trang. Anxious newcomers arrived with accounts of being shot at as they fled. In cafes, at work and on the pavement outside, Thiet gathered information about the revolutionary advance and the Republic’s downfall. There was a report that twelve South Vietnamese police officers in Da Nang were forced to march down the main street naked before being beheaded, and that the Catholic bishop of Buon Ma Thuot had been cut into three. While the rumoured atrocities did not actually take place, Thiet and many other Saigonese sensed a tidal wave of blood rushing towards them.
Some of Thiet’s acquaintances predicted that a new border with North Vietnam would be drawn, as the communists could not possibly take over the entire South. But as the offensive drove closer to Saigon, discussion turned to what life, and death, would be like under communist rule. Only weeks earlier they had heard about Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge driving more than two million residents of all ages out of Phnom Penh at gunpoint. Thiet feared that the Vietnamese communists would be no different. There was little doubt in his mind that the communist victory would be lethal for Chinese business owners, prostitutes, Amerasians and anyone of significance in the armed forces or public service. Weddings were taking place every hour, as a rumour spread that young single women would be compelled to marry crippled veterans from the North. Many suspected that if Saigon was captured, a bloodbath would follow that would make the Hue massacre of the 1968 Tet Offensive seem trifling. The US and Republic of Vietnam administrations promoted this prospect in the belief that it would harden the resolve of the soldiers and the general population against the North.
As the turmoil reached Saigon, visa and plane ticket prices soared. Over 100,000 people tried to escape to nearby countries by boat. Most of them were rescued in the South China Sea by the US Seventh Fleet. At that time Van and Thiet did not attempt to escape because of Van’s pregnancy. Stuck in Saigon, they consoled themselves by reasoning that it was not worth leaving their family, friends and homeland, and that they would probably not be persecuted because they did not hold positions of real authority. If they could just survive the fighting, life under communism might even be easier. At least there would be peace, and perhaps their child would never experience the hardship and sorrow of war. This was the message conveyed to Van and Thiet by their more sanguine friends and by the communists through radio broadcasts. They wanted desperately to believe it.
There was no doubt in the minds of the communist forces as they pushed towards the Southern capital. Vietnamese leaders in Ha Noi and the Party Central Committee Office of South Vietnam (COSVN) had sensed the rising dissatisfaction of urban Vietnamese like Van and Thiet with their leaders, and viewed President Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 as a mighty blow to US confidence. In late 1974 and January 1975, Party leaders met to figure out how they were going to conclude the war. After more than 100 years of division and foreign occupation, the strategists of the Spring Offensive predicted that it would take at least two years to reunify and reclaim Vietnam. Much to everyone’s surprise, the offensive would begin in March and be completed in only a matter of weeks with the aptly named Ho Chi Minh campaign to take Saigon.
On 26 April, 130,000 Northern troops were ordered to march on the beleaguered Southern capital. The next morning rockets were launched into the city and Cholon. By then very few people were going to work. Shops were barricaded as looting seemed likely. According to Voice of America radio reports, it was only a matter of days or even hours before the communists arrived. That evening Thiet’s family shared a simple meal of fried fish, bindweed and rice, which they ate in solemn silence. The pantry was well stocked with enough food and water for a month. Although the citizens of Saigon had been relatively insulated from the war, most knew enough to be prepared for an emergency. The household went to bed early but nobody slept much. Van and Thiet lay awake wondering what it would be like for their unborn baby to grow up under communism. They were ever conscious of the staircase and shadows bearing down upon them.
In the final days there were those who held onto their faith in the US. As the bombs fell around their homes and the enemy marched through the streets they did not despair. This was all a ploy, they insisted, to draw the communists out from their guerrilla positions into the open, where they could be defeated by the forces of liberty and democracy.
Thiet and Van were far more pessimistic. They had been since 25 July 1969 when President Nixon outlined from Guam what would become known as the Nixon Doctrine. The Nixon Doctrine asserted that US-allied nations confronting communist aggression had to take a greater role in their own defence. ‘When you are trying to assist another nation to defend its freedom,’ the President later explained, ‘US policy should be to help them fight the war but not to fight the war for them.’
The pulling out of US troops while maintaining military funding and aerial and naval support was originally referred to as ‘de-Americanisation’ but was soon renamed ‘Vietnamisation’. Van recalled that during the First Indochina War the French had devised a similar plan, which they sometimes bluntly called a ‘yellowing process’. Vietnamisation of the American variety was initially successful because of massive bombing campaigns on supply routes in Laos and Cambodia, and ruthless search-and- destroy programs in the Mekong Delta. Many innocent people were caught up in the sweeps. The communists were able to endure the attacks, and by the middle of 1972 the momentum had shifted in their favour.
In January 1973 the Paris Peace Agreements were signed by all parties, marking an official end to direct US military involvement in the conflict and an agreement to work towards peaceful reunification. Many South Vietnamese, like Thiet, were convinced that the Americans were abandoning them. From news reports Thiet knew that the war had divided US society. The prolonged conflict had also inflicted a heavy toll on the US economy, which by the end of 1973 was suffering unprecedented inflation. There was a palpable sense among Vietnamese that the US wanted to forget about the messy undertakings of their immediate past.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 8

 Life at home became even more challenging and miserable for Van when she failed to fulfil her only redeeming function — of continuing the Huynh family line. ‘Look at that flat arse!’ Truong screamed not long after Van’s first baby, Hoang, had passed away. ‘With an arse like that how will she ever bear children?’ In the months and years to come, Van would recall a Vietnamese lullaby that had been sung on countless occasions over the centuries by lonely wives for their children and themselves:

Every afternoon,
I go and stand at the threshold of the back door.
My eyes are fixed towards my native horizon,
And I feel a heartbreaking nostalgia.6
To make matters worse, in the autumn of 1973 Thiet went away. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him to visit Taiwan, where for three months he would learn how to train people in electricity line maintenance and research hot-line work; that is, how to repair electricity lines without switching off the power. Thiet was reluctant to leave his wife, but there was no way she could go with him. Nor could he reject the offer, which he thought might be comparable in wonder to his first visit to Da Nang almost a quarter of a century ago. At the airport, the couple struggled to hold back the tears as they contemplated the prospect of being apart for the first time since getting married.
Van’s letters, along with his separation from her, helped Thiet realise the extent of his wife’s suffering. Without Thiet as a buffer, Van was exposed to even more verbal battering from her mother- and sisters-in-law. The new bride was, according to an old folksong, ‘a basket for abuses’. Thiet did what he could to alleviate Van’s despair. He sent her pictures of him, plump from eating too much Taiwanese food, and reassured her that it would be better once he came back; that they could discuss moving out on their own. One day, after Huong opened Van’s mail, she scorned her sister-in-law for being ungrateful and unhappy. To rub salt into the festering wound, Huong accused Van (after seeing a picture of the well-fed Thiet) of not knowing how to look after her husband.
When Van could take no more, she retreated to Binh Duong to visit her mother, who did her best to comfort her. ‘Don’t cry, my dear. It’s good for a woman to be tested sometimes. You’ll be stronger and wiser for it. What’s important is that your husband loves you. You could have all the love in the world from your in-laws or anyone else and it would not amount to anything if your husband didn’t love you.’
Sat was right. Thua, Huong and Truong’s tyranny heightened her levels of endurance and honed her ability to resist and draw strength from within. During those most difficult years of her life, Van developed a radar that allowed her to prepare for any situation, particularly the nastiest ones. These qualities would prove critical in the years ahead, as other tyrannies emerged to threaten her family’s security.
Sat was also right about Thiet. While there were times when Van wondered whether she had married into the right family, she never doubted that Thiet was the right man for her. He was a totally devoted husband, and sometimes she felt sorrier for him than she did for herself. It was not uncommon for him to have to suffer acidic complaints from his mother, his sisters and her all at the same time. But without exception, whenever he was tested, Thiet came through for Van.
When she was pregnant for the first time and Thua had insisted that she keep doing her ‘share’ of the housework, Thiet washed the laundry secretly in their bathroom and then proclaimed his wife’s extraordinary work ethic to his mother. And when Van had cravings late at night but knew that her in¬laws did not want her to ‘overfeed’ the baby, Thiet would say that he felt like a late-night snack and smuggle noodles back into their bedroom. Despite and indeed because of their domestic ordeals, the couple became closer. They knew that they could rely upon one another and gradually mutual respect and trust strengthened their love. This too would prove critical to their survival in the near future.
Thiet’s devotion was confirmed one weekend in 1974, when, at a family lunch, his sister made one of her pernicious suggestions. ‘If that Van is going to insist on being barren,’ announced Huong, ‘then we’ll have to consider getting Thiet a concubine.’ Thua nodded in stern approval. Van had suffered oblique threats of this kind from her sister-in-law many times before. But Thua’s endorsement of the plan was too much for her to bear. Disregarding all decorum, Van stood up from the table and stormed up the stairs towards her bedroom. Thiet sprang up and ran after her. He grabbed his wife by the wrist and took her back to confront his mother and sisters. Van’s world seemed to collapse. Never had she felt more threatened and alone. The ferocity with which her husband had grasped her arm and taken her back to the table made her suspect that he had turned against her. Perhaps he had spoken to them and planned this in advance? In that heated moment, she thought that Thiet would make her apologise to his mother and sisters for her outburst or would do so on their behalf.
His valiant announcement came as a surprise to all. ‘I don’t care if we never have children. Van is my wife and she is the only wife I will ever have!’
‘That’s fine with me, son,’ replied Thua, using the formal designator cau to refer to Thiet. Usually adopted by central Vietnamese to convey respect to a young man, neither Van nor Thiet knew whether Thua used cau that day out of awe for Thiet’s explosive courage or as a sarcastic jibe at his insolence. What is clear is that had it not been for- Thiet’s devotion and strength, Van might have ended up like the fictional Loan.
On that autumn afternoon in 1975, as Van lay on her bed in the living room with a copy of Breaking the Ties propped up against her bulging stomach, she once again lost herself in the story. Like many Vietnamese, Van admired Loan’s courage and Nhat Linh’s creative genius. But she did not try to recreate the heroics of such books in her own reality. Van’s life was far too complex for her to think and act as if she was a character in a book. There were few opportunities for Vietnamese women of her time to simply choose justice over injustice or the new over the old. Van often had to juggle various conflicting social and personal desires. She had to remain loyal to her birth family even after she was financially independent. She exercised free will in marrying Thiet but obediently moved in with his family. Eventually Van would gain the respect of her in-laws and, decades later, maintained, ‘It was my role to serve your grandmother and aunts, and while I don’t think they were ever really happy with me, it was still my role to fulfil.’
In March and April of 1975, South Vietnam once again became the focal point in international politics, pushing aside Van and Thiet’s pressing domestic concerns.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 7

 After the reception Van and Thiet had to ensure that all their guests had rides home, clean the function room and pay the band. When they arrived home in the late afternoon, the couple was overcome with emotion and fatigue, and took a much-needed nuptial nap. It was cut short by Thua’s shrill cry, ‘You two not up yet? How much rest can you possibly want?’

Like many other southern Vietnamese newlyweds, Van and Thiet spent their honeymoon taking in the brisk mountain air and rushing waterfalls around the highland city of Da Lat before cruising around the small islands off the balmy seaside town of Nha Trang. It was all very pleasant, as they strolled side by side with nothing much to do but be together. Sadly, these few days would mark the high point of their early relationship.
Along with her pacifying cube of sugar, Van offered a few modest words to Thua on her first day on the job. ‘My duty is to love and care for you. But I went to school and worked all my life, so I do not know how to cook and look after people as well as other young women. But if you can teach me, I will learn quickly and do my best.’ Thua coolly replied that she need not worry because they had maids to take care of the daily chores. This much was true, but the maids did not work on weekends and could not save her from the trials to come.
Much later Thua would maintain that she had the most profound affection for her daughter-in-law and that neither of them did anything to displease the other. ‘I loved your mother even more than I loved your father,’ she proclaimed once to me. Nevertheless, as the family matriarch, Thua was convinced that her actions and words were beyond question. She could even contradict those actions and words and proceed as if the uncomfortable past had never taken place. For her, truth was determined by interests; and it was in everyone’s interest for an old woman to remain unchallenged, for her truth to be the only truth. Given Thua’s radical reconstruction of this period, one has to rely on the observations of others to understand her persecution of Van.
Thua’s coldness towards Van is in part explained by her perception that her only remaining son was being taken away from her by an alien element. Despite the fact that he was almost 30 years old, Thua believed that Thiet was incapable of deciding whom he should share his life with and who should bear his children. In Thua’s mind he was inexperienced in matters of the heart and unable to appreciate the bigger picture and longer term. A successful marriage, she knew, was based upon a scrupulous matching of families, not the haphazard affections of two individuals. In times not long past, it was common for Vietnamese parents of the upper classes to insist that the fathers of the bride and groom be of similar age and status, as this was a good indication of the compatibility of the families. And it was not only the living members of a family who were scrutinised, but up to three generations of ancestors. In marrying Van, Thiet had eschewed these age-old considerations. And while Thua did not consciously set out to break up the newlyweds, which would bring even greater shame to the family, she considered it her duty to show them the error of their ways.
If Thua was cold towards Van, Huong derided her sister-in- law with red-hot zeal. Huong was the Rasputin of the household. She was forever conniving, and through her menacing whispers would suggest to Thua (who had more leverage over Thiet) that Van was no good. Huong had already gone to considerable effort to find a ‘suitable’ wife for Thiet. Her business enterprises had lifted the Huynhs into Saigon’s nouveaux riches, and Huong was determined to preserve this status as if it were an age-old legacy. The three candidates for marriage whom Huong and Thua had presented to Thiet during the late 1960s were all beautiful, youthful daughters of doctors and wealthy entrepreneurs. But Thiet would not even look at them, telling his sister and mother that he would make his own choice. All that time, Huong realised, her brother had been captivated by Van.
It was inevitable that Thua and Huong would be disappointed when Thiet finally made his choice. Van was from a poor family that had no distinguished history. The Trans would do nothing to elevate the status of the Huynhs, when Thiet told them that Van was a hard-working and responsible young woman who supported her brother and sisters, Thua and Huong sensed great danger. An independent woman with family commitments placed a question mark over both her obedience and loyalty. And underlying all of these reservations was Huong’s suspicion that Van was in it for the money.
It was not uncommon for a groom’s family to test the honesty of the new bride during her first days. A mother-in-law might drop some money and then ask her daughter-in-law to sweep the floor and see if she would return it, all along hoping that she would not. Van was not subjected to such tests, but it was clear that she would have to be on her guard. Only a few days after returning from her honeymoon, Van went downstairs to the kitchen to get some food. She had barely opened the refrigerator when she was startled by the sound of the kitchen door slamming behind her. There stood Thua, half naked and dripping wet. While bathing, she had somehow sensed Van’s movement and overcome the frailty of her years to pursue her daughter-in-law. It was not Van’s eating that triggered Thua’s reaction, but rather the mere fact that it was unsanctioned and unmonitored. In the silent standoff that followed, nothing was (or needed to be) said between the two. There were no accusations. The situation was clear: Van was in enemy territory.
One weekend, when Van was preparing the family’s evening meal, her other sister-in-law Truong (who was a devout Buddhist and Taoist and strict vegetarian) inquired, ‘What’s taking you so long? Honestly, I’ve never met anyone who finds simple tasks like cooking a meal so difficult.’
T am sorry, older sister,’ Van explained. T accidentally dipped the chopsticks from one of the non-vegetarian dishes into one of your vegetarian dishes and had to start over. It will be ready soon.’ Truong’s tirade lasted for days. ‘Do you have any idea of what you could have done? Who knows how many times you’ve poisoned me? I’ve been piously suppressing earthly desires and following the Way since I was eighteen years old. And now, now you come along and jeopardise everything! But what would someone like you know about the holy Buddha and the wise Lao-Tzu?’
Van was at the very bottom of the household pecking order. One day, Huong accused Van of lacking in filial piety after she left for work without bowing in deference to her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Thereafter, Van would have to carry out a contrived and humiliating ritual, bowing to the three older women like a child every time she entered and left the house.
Van wanted nothing more than to be a devoted wife and daughter-in-law and was willing to bow her head to honour Thiet’s family even as she bent her back to serve them. What the young woman could not tolerate, what irritated every sinew in her body, was the hypocrisy and arbitrariness that came with this power. What sort of Buddhist could treat another human being with such disdain? Was Lao-Tzu so unforgiving in his Way? If Confucius was alive would he put up with such injustice? Van knew that her predicament had little to do with spirituality: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism were excuses for the nastiness of her wardens.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 6

 On the day of the wedding, Thiet was so excited that he woke up at four in the morning. Since leaving his home town of Bo Ban at the age of twelve, Thiet had been a loner. By and large, this did not bother him as he was totally absorbed in his studies and work. But in recent years he had started to fear the dim prospect of spending the rest of his life alone. Van had brought sunshine to that darkness. From Saturday onwards, he would have a permanent companion, a person with whom he could share his burdens and successes. The young man’s happiness in the weeks leading up to his marriage was evident to all observers. One colleague was surprised to see him wearing a pair of cut-off jeans (which had just come into fashion) and commented, ‘Thiet is so happy about marrying Van that he has grown half a metre!’ Thiet was also looking forward to the wedding itself. He and Van had organised the guest list, cars, clothes and reception. Everything would surely go to plan.

After Thiet’s mother and sisters consulted with an astrologer, it was decided that Saturday, 2 January 1971 (the sixth day of the twelfth month in the year of the dog) was the most auspicious day for Van and Thiet to get married. At around eight in the morning the groom arrived at Binh Duong with his entourage, bearing the traditional betrothal gifts of jewellery, tea and cakes, areca nuts and betel leaves. Van wore a pale blue organza ao dai with a veil that she and Thiet had bought at the famous Thiet Lap designer store in Saigon. When Thiet first saw her that day, he beamed a brilliant smile and wondered whether a greater power had blessed him.
A crowd gathered to peer inside the front door of Van’s great-uncle Tu’s house, which was the setting for all her family’s major events. They saw one of Van’s uncles, who had a model family — prosperous and unmarred by death — welcome Thiet in and then light a candle in honour of the newlyweds, who followed his example. Afterwards the couple paid their respects to Van’s ancestors, informing them of their sacred union, before Thiet’s gifts were officially presented to Van and her family. As photos were taken of the groom and bride, the guests sipped tea and chatted. A sign was displayed in front of Tu’s house heralding Vu Quy, ‘that the bride is going to the groom’s house’. Despite the fact that Van had not lived with her family for several years, her mother, sisters and aunts wept when it was time for her to go. It seemed Van was the only one who managed to remain composed, so much so that a cousin implored her to fake a few tears if only to make everyone else feel better.
In accordance with another Vietnamese custom, Van had never seen Thiet’s house. As the red bridal Cadillac weaved its way to Saigon, she was terrified by the added uncertainty. ‘Be calm, breathe slowly, this is the day that you’ve been waiting for,’ she told herself. ‘You’ve been on your feet for weeks. There’s nothing more to do except enjoy it.’ Van felt the accumulated pressure of organising everything, from the gladiolis to the seating arrangements to cutting her sisters’ hair. She had had a bridesmaid and all her family to help, but early that morning, before anyone had woken, Van got up to curl her own hair and get into her dress without assistance.
The sense of safety and delight that Van had experienced during her courtship with Thiet suddenly seemed very distant. She knew that Thiet was the man for her and had no intention of letting him or anyone down, yet she could not help worrying about what she had let herself in for. From that day on she would be wedded to Thiet and his family. She hardly knew the latter. Van reasoned to herself that many brides were forced into arranged marriages without even meeting their husbands. She was lucky. And yet the young wife was troubled at the thought of losing her independence and leaving her loved ones in Binh Duong. ‘Expel the family when you join with the husband,’ went the saying.
Foreseeing such anxiety, Van’s mother and aunts told her to put her wedding dress over Thiet’s tuxedo on the wedding night as a furtive symbol of her superiority. They also advised her to take a cube of sugar to put in her new family’s tea as a harbinger of the sweet goodness that she would bring (and to sweeten the disposition of her in-laws). These superstitious acts no doubt had the effect of reminding many wives of their ability to subvert the oppressive forces in their domestic lives. However, as Van sat solemnly in the bridal car in her pale blue wedding dress with a cube of sugar in her purse, she could not help thinking that these traditions were absurd. The very fact that they had been maintained over generations only indicated that her apprehension was well founded.
When Van arrived at Huong’s two-storey house on Truong Minh Ky Street in Saigon, she faced the first fiery confrontation of married life. Approaching the front door of her new home, she found that Thiet’s mother and his sister Huong had placed a coal brazier on the threshold, just like the one in Nhat Linh’s story, which they ordered Van to jump over. Thiet, who was perplexed by this outdated practice, suspected that his mother had got the idea from a mischievous friend or a shady shaman. He also knew that Thua’s superstition was so entrenched that it was not worth rebelling against. Placing his arm over Van’s shoulder, Thiet tried to both reassure and guide his wife, ‘Just do it. Just do it for them, Van. Get it over with.’
Van was not so sure. She clearly remembered how Loan’s mother-in-law in Breaking the Ties had set up a brazier to burn away the vestiges of Loan’s individuality. Everyone was watching and waiting; her husband and his family (now her family) pushed her forward into the flames which had been over-stoked and were licking at her knees. They would surely burn her dress, if not her flesh. And yet despite its scorching menace, the fire was also warm and inviting. What was one small leap? A contraction of the quadriceps was perhaps all that was necessary to avoid decades of disagreement.
Witnesses to the scene who also knew the plot of Breaking the Ties must have savoured the sense of anticipation: Which way will she go? Will she kick the coals over like Loan, or comply with her mother-in-law and the dictates of tradition? For Van, who was the tragic star in this vignette, there was little time to think about what was the right or most practical thing to do. She could only allow the habits and values of a lifetime to merge into instinct.
Van took a step forward ... and then verged to the side and with the grace of a ballet dancer strode through the slender gap between the brazier and the archway, for now escaping the flames that rose up from the coals and the eyes of her in-laws.
The rest of the day progressed without further ambushes. During the lunchtime reception at the upmarket Dong Khanh restaurant in Cholon, the bride wore a stunning red velvet ao dai with white silk gloves and a sparkling tiara. A few guests commented on how well she had elegantly integrated East and West, old and new. Her radiance inspired almost all of them to forget about the doorstep incident. Even Van enjoyed the party, visiting each table and watching her family and friends celebrate her union with Thiet. Her only disappointment was that her mother was not there. Sat had acquiesced to Thua, who insisted that she stay in Binh Duong because an astrologer had pointed out that Sat’s age did not complement the bride and groom’s, and that if she was car sick all the way to Saigon (as was often the case), then that would be a terrible omen for the wedding.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 5

 After a few weeks they ventured into the night on Thiet’s motorbike, talking until their throats were dry (which is not very long when rushing through the city) and then stopping for some sugarcane juice or sweet soup. Van held onto Thiet and allowed herself to be hypnotised by the lights of the Paris of the Far East. During these flights, her fear of the war, her responsibility to her family and the drudgery of everyday life seemed to shrink in significance. When she was with Thiet, Van realised that love was not only about obligation and ritual, that it could also be pleasurable and rewarding.

‘His name is Thiet, and he works at the office,’ Van explained to her mother one weekend. ‘He’s an upstanding young man from a good family and would like to meet you. I’m pretty sure that he wants to marry me.’ Four months had passed since Thiet had inquired as to Van’s availability and the two of them had been on just a few outings, yet they felt that they knew each other very well. It was not an explosive romance, but neither Van nor Thiet expected it to be. What was important to both of them was that they had a solid foundation of respect on which love could develop over time. With this established, they decided to take the all-important step of meeting each other’s families, a move that could only be interpreted as a precursor to marriage.
‘Invite him over next weekend,’ Sat replied to her daughter. ‘It’s not right for a woman to play with a man’s heart. If he’s a reasonable sort of fellow, then you should marry him and be done with it.’
Thiet would later admit that he had never been more nervous than on that Sunday morning in 1970 before visiting Van’s family. Thiet had planned everything in advance. He had memorised the names and vital statistics of her siblings and rehearsed exactly what he was going to say to Van’s mother. He would break the ice with some easygoing conversation about his drive to Binh Duong, ask Van’s mother about her health, comment that she was looking well for her age, outline his family situation, and say something about his job using terms that she would probably not understand but admire nonetheless.
Thiet left on the 30-kilometre trip from Saigon to Binh Duong with plenty of time to spare, convinced that the worst thing he could do was to be late. He had reviewed a road map many times over and had committed the route to memory, but brought the map along just in case. While speeding along in Huong’s car, the anxious suitor checked his wristwatch and discovered that he was early. At the same time his growling stomach reminded him that he had forgotten to eat breakfast. Thiet pulled over into an area famous for its vermicelli noodles and shredded barbeque pork with fish sauce, scallions and coriander. After devouring the bowl, the suitor was sure that with his stomach full nothing could stand in his way.
Arriving at the house, Thiet offered a glittering smile and respectful bow to Van’s mother, who greeted him at the door. Over the next hour or so he presented himself to his prospective in-laws as fun-loving and dashing, while also making sure that Van’s mother knew that he would take good care of her daughter. On the way home Thiet glowed in the knowledge of a job well done. It was not until some time later that Van told him he had indeed successfully established himself as a charming and upright individual, whose teeth just happened to attract vegetable matter. Earlier that morning at his barbeque pork stop, Thiet had collected a piece of coriander that for the rest of his visit had clung stubbornly to his front incisors. Thiet never asked Van to marry him, nor did Van expect him to. The relationship was progressing in such a definite manner that such overt acts seemed loaded with the dramatics of a dancing peacock. Instead, the couple agreed that it was time to take the next logical step towards a lifetime commitment and introduce their mothers to one another. It was at this point that the relationship ran into some hurdles.
After speaking to Thiet’s mother, Sat realised that his family was from the central Vietnamese countryside, which caused her much consternation. Her late husband had often advised his daughters, ‘Never marry a northerner. They’re awfully haughty because they think that they are the centre of Vietnamese culture and therefore everyone else should be grateful to them. The only thing worse than marrying a northerner is marrying someone from central Vietnam. Central Vietnamese people are just like their land: harsh, narrow and inhospitable.’ Sat already knew that Thiet came from central Vietnam, but the Da Nang accent that he had acquired in his youth was easily comprehensible and had a reassuring tone of civility. He was also coming around to the southern way of speaking which suggested that he had a pliant and open mind. Thua, on the other hand, still had a strong rural central Vietnamese accent which would clearly never soften. Often they could only guess what she was saying even though she was speaking the same language.
Van’s mother did not believe that she was better, or more Vietnamese, than those from the centre. But she worried that linguistic divides would give rise to real-life tensions. What if her daughter was unable to comprehend her mother-in-law’s commands? How could Van cook anything that would please Thiet’s family? Van had no idea how to prepare Quang Nam noodles and her fish sauce would be too sweet for them.
As Sat sipped tea and made polite conversation with Thua and Thiet’s sister Huong, something told her that these women would make life difficult for her daughter. They were far wealthier than Sat’s family, and made it known to her that Van had scuttled their plans to marry Thiet off to more well-to-do women. Despite her anxieties, Sat said nothing to Van. She reasoned that probably she was overreacting, that marrying richer was better than marrying poorer, and that there was little point in alarming her daughter now that there was a wedding to arrange.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 4

 As pay mistress, Van was in an advantageous position when it came to meeting young men, who needed only to manufacture a salary inquiry in order to see her. She was not the most beautiful or most popular person at the electricity authority, but men saw something in Van that they liked very much. She represented a charming combination of attributes. She was innocent, but not so innocent as to be ignorant; meek, but not so meek as to be incapable; and educated, but not in a way that made her haughty. Van had a firm body that had never known idleness, but was not wiry like the peasants who worked in the rice paddies.

One of the boldest of Van’s admirers discovered the address of her boarding house and stopped by to woo her, but she was put off by his forwardness and gave him no encouragement. The closest that she came to dating (which was not very close at all) was to occasionally accept a male colleague’s offer to pick her up on the way to a wedding. There were also a few office-related outings on which Van allowed male workmates to take pictures of her with their newfangled cameras, but she never smiled, choosing to immortalise an air of refinement rather than disclose that she was having a good time. She knew that the greatest sin for a young woman was to be seen as morally loose; that even during the relatively swinging sixties, sexual mores for many young Vietnamese women were strictly interpreted and infringements severely punished.
In any case, no man had come close to catching her eye, let alone winning her heart. Perhaps she was a little aloof? Van was repelled by the brazen nature of men and their desire to control women. There was one suitor, a senior bureaucrat at the electricity authority, who made it known around the office that he viewed her as a potential wife, despite the fact that Van had hardly ever spoken to the fellow. During a conference at the beachside town of Vung Tau, he observed Van going out one evening with a group of girlfriends and took offence. The vision of her laughing and enjoying herself in public roused his envy. The arch-conservative wanted a woman who would never leave his side, who knew no fun and saw no light unless it was with him. He spoke poorly of Van to others but did not succeed in staining her reputation. She, nevertheless, heeded this warning and decided that if she ever went out with a man, he would become her husband.
By early 1970, Van was 26 years old and, despite her own expectations, the pressure was building on her to find a husband. Sat, who married while still in her teens, was not one to lecture her children, but she made it known to Van that a woman was not really a woman until she had found a husband. So went the proverb:
Unstable like a hat without a chin-strap,
Like a boat without a rudder, is she who has no husband.
That same year, Van moved in with her cousin Vui and Vui’s family in Saigon. Vui’s father knew that Van had carried a heavy burden since her father died and was happy to help her out by refusing to accept rent. He also knew that inviting Van into their home would contribute to Van’s marriageability. ‘It’s not right for a young lady to live on her own, moving from one seedy dormitory to another,’ he said. ‘A pretty and talented girl like you should really have a family of your own by now.’
Van was eventually persuaded by the arguments of her relatives. She was now closer to thirty than twenty, and if she wanted to have children then she could not afford to dawdle in finding a spouse. Van was also attending more and more weddings and feeling left behind as friends and acquaintances started having children. Many young parents that she knew seemed able to transcend the troubles of the outside world and find happiness in their own little families. More than ever, Van yearned to live in one place with one person. But he would have to be compassionate and reliable. For in desiring security for herself, Van could not abandon her family in Binh Duong. She always had one eye looking forward and the other looking back.
As Van’s views about marriage began to soften, Thiet came into her line of vision. Van had known Thiet for a couple of years but they had never had an opportunity to speak until the day they were both assigned to go on a business trip to the city. With some time to spare on the way to Saigon, Thiet suggested that he, Van and their driver stop and have a bite to eat. Van refused, thinking it unprofessional of them to be eating during a work trip, and unsuitable for a young woman to have breakfast with strange men at a seedy roadside eatery.
‘As you please,’ said Thiet before leaving Van to wait in the car while he and the driver dined. Van was furious — hotter than the fumes rising up from Thiet’s bowl of beef noodle soup. She glared at him wolfing down his meal, lifting the bowl to his mouth and using his chopsticks to flick the noodles and broth down his throat. She bridled as he grabbed fistfuls of crisp sprouts and munched on them with all the elegance of a tiger trying to eat peanuts. To her he was an arrogant buffoon.
Over the weeks and months, Van secretly watched Thiet watching her. Now and then, he would build up enough courage to talk to her. And from these fleeting but meaningful exchanges, she started to see a different man. Under that exterior of confidence, there was a caring and bashful person. He still lived with his family and understood the importance of filial obligations. Van’s independent inquiries confirmed that Thiet was also clean-living, did not smoke, drank very little and never gambled. Most importantly, he was patient and devoted. Thiet would eventually pursue Van for two years, never overtly expressing his sentiments, but also never giving up. Somehow he recognised that he should not rush, that he had to frame and time his advance in just the right way.
By the middle of 1970, the moment had come. Thiet adopted the appropriate courtship protocol by apparently offhandedly inquiring of one of Van’s friends as to her availability. Feigning ignorance, the friend said that she was quite sure Van did not have anyone in her life but would have to check. ‘Please do not say anything directly to her about me,’ pleaded Thiet, knowing all along that Van would learn of his inquiry within the hour. It was a deft manoeuvre which, while requiring some boldness on Thiet’s part, did not risk losing much face. Van asked her friend to relay back to Thiet that she was single, thereby providing the minimum, but sufficient, information required for him to increase his attentions. For Van it was important that she behave in such a way that Thiet felt, and others believed, that he was in control of the public performance.
In the autumn of that same year, Van started accepting Thiet’s invitations to breakfast, which quickly became a regular and enjoyable appointment. It allowed them to get to know each other over glasses of sweet coffee, as they watched the sun rise and another bustling day begin.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 3

 The mother-in-law then commands Than to murder his wife. ‘Beat her to death for me! Once she’s gone I will bear the responsibility.’

Loan stares her mother-in-law in the face and makes a startling call for universal equality. ‘You are a person and I am a person. Neither of us is any better or any worse than the other.’
It goes unheeded. Than attacks his wife, who grabs a knife in self-defence. In the subsequent tussle Than falls upon the knife and dies.
Despite the fact that she has been arrested, handcuffed and is about to be incarcerated, as Loan steps over the threshold and leaves the house, she feels like she has escaped from jail.
Nhat Linh uses a courtroom as a backdrop to make his case for the justice of the new over the tyranny of the old. The prosecution accuses Loan of being arrogant and rebukes her for confusing ‘the wonders of what she read in books with the commonplace reality before her eyes’:
Who knows how many girls whose heads have been turned by blasts of romanticism have also turned their backs on their heaven-mandated roles of being devoted daughters-in-law and gentle wives ... In their twisted states of mind they want to destroy the family, which they mistakenly view as their place of imprisonment... If the family is destroyed, the society will be destroyed; and it will be our fault?
It seems that all is lost for Loan until her defence lawyer gets under way, arguing that Loan is not a criminal or a threat to society. She is a victim of slavery and tradition.
Find Loan guilty of the crime of murder? Loan did not murder anyone! Find Loan guilty of disrupting the family? Loan was the very person who wanted to live peacefully with the family.
The only thing that Loan is guilty of is going to school, with her books tucked under her arm, to try to develop her intellect and become a new person, and then to return to live with old-fashioned people. That is her only crime. And for that she has already redeemed herself by suffering untold misery.
In the end, Loan is found innocent and modernity is gloriously vindicated. She celebrates by getting drunk and proclaiming, ‘This is the day, the day that I am breaking the ties with my old life.’
When Van first read Breaking the Ties in high school she enjoyed the story line but it had little impact on her. She had read it as if it were pure drama, savouring its riveting plot and lively characters. She was certain that the injustices that Loan suffered at the hands of her mother-in-law were a thing of the past, redundant in an era of feminine equality and empowerment. ‘If I ever get married, there’s no way I’ll end up like that,’ Van had thought to herself. As she read the novel again and reflected over how her marriage had turned out, Van realised how wrong she had been.
Throughout high school and for most of her young adulthood, Van thought that she would never marry. The image that Van saw in the mirror was so plain and homely that she was certain no discerning man would take an interest in her. Van’s unmarriageability (e chong) was not just a physical matter. The more a young man knew about her, the less attractive he would find her. Van’s family was poor and had no prestige or connections to offer. To marry Van would be to become entangled in a web of obligations. After her father was killed in the 1968 Tet Offensive, Van had taken responsibility for her family. Her mother was elderly, her older sister had her own children and financial woes, and her two younger sisters and brother were still in school. With Van’s wages and thoughts largely committed to her family in Binh Duong, she would sometimes ponder, ‘What do I want to get married for anyway? The last thing I need is another person and family to worry about.’
Uncertainties arising from the war made many young urban women think twice about marriage. By the late 1960s another generation of Vietnamese men had been claimed by combat, making it difficult for many women to find a partner. To make matters worse, inflation was so rampant that even those who had found someone to marry were often reluctant to seal the relationship and have children until there was a prospect of financial security. Registered marriages between Vietnamese couples in Saigon fell by 27 per cent from 1965 to 1969.
Van’s careful reasoning over matters of the heart was only applicable in the absence of true love. Whether it was because of old Vietnamese fables, Bollywood and Hollywood films, modern novels, real-life role models or genetic inheritance, Van held on to a hope — not an expectation but a hope — that she would one day meet a man who would sweep her off her feet, lighten her load and befriend her for a lifetime. It was pure fantasy, and Van knew it, but she also knew that there was no harm in dreaming or, indeed, irrefutable proof that dreams did not sometimes come true.
Van’s employment with the electricity authority in 1966 introduced her to a lively social scene. After spending her youth at a girls-only school during the day, selling lottery tickets during the afternoon, and cloistered in her family home at night, the 22-year-old was suddenly surrounded by people from different places and of different ages, many of whom were men. With the new people came exhilarating experiences, particularly after November 1966 when she settled into her position as pay mistress at the Thu Duc office. For the first time in her life, Van was astonished to find that she was popular. Being an unassuming and non-threatening sort of person, she had little difficulty getting on with her female colleagues. She also had her own office, which provided close acquaintances with a secluded place to chat and nap during lunch breaks. What was most astonishing to Van, and what she denied to herself many times until it was patently clear, was that men were showing an interest in her.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way 2

 After Van’s first two children died, her obstetrician found that the babies were not getting enough nutrients and the foetus-starving strategy was abandoned. But Thua did not relinquish control over the third pregnancy, decreeing that her daughter-in-law should not be allowed to lift a finger lest the baby become exhausted by her effort. Thiet was ordered to haul his and Van’s massive wooden bed down the winding stairs of their house to the sitting room, so that his wife would have no reason to go upstairs. For a time Van was allowed to take short walks but even then she had to be accompanied and was prohibited from opening the heavy metal gate at the front of the house. While the baby was no doubt better off than its older siblings, its mother was stripped of all privacy and totally disempowered.

Van lay on her bed in the middle of the day waiting for Thiet to come home. She was seething with rage. Her life had been hijacked. ‘I’m 30 years old. I’ve got both my baccalaureates, I’ve been working for ten years and have supported my family for much longer than that. Now I can’t even get myself a cup of tea. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to drink tea!’
Van never expressed her dissatisfaction to her in-laws. While she did not support the traditional Confucian values that obliged a wife to submit to her husband and his family, she was not opposed to them. With her allegiances mixed and sense of duty muddled, Van chose to stay silent. She remembered the curse that had caused her mother so much grief and feared that it had been passed down to her. There was also the more recent memory of the two children she had lost, the demoralising disregard that Thiet’s mother and sisters showed for her, and the emotional tribulations of pregnancy. All of these factors combined to leave her feeling incompetent and depressed. Everything, it seemed, was her fault.
Reading was the only means of escape for Van. Since she had left school, Van had been so busy with work and family that she had had little time for books. Now, to break the cycle of boredom and harassment, she lost herself in a travel tale from Egypt, Chinese classics such as Journey to the West, a cookbook from southern France and poetry from Vietnam and beyond.
The verse of one Vietnamese poet was particularly evocative for Van. Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry was too raunchy and defiant to be taught to Van at school, even though by that stage the poet’s oeuvre was over 150 years old. Girls at Gia Long disseminated her work via washroom whispers and on scraps of paper passed under the desk. This most likely would have pleased Ho Xuan Huong, who would not have wanted her poems to be sanitised by censors; far better that they survive in the shadows and crevices in all their intended filth, beauty, goriness and wisdom.
The daughter of a concubine and a concubine herself, Ho Xuan Huong’s verses criticised the traditional Confucian womanly virtues. Why should a woman be subservient to a man or anyone else? What purpose did feminine chastity serve other than for men to exploit women? Why shouldn’t a woman have just as much freedom and sexual pleasure as a man? These were but some of the questions that Ho Xuan Huong asked, as she strove to highlight the oppressive double standards on which her society was built. She was particularly skilled at harnessing well-known images of food to reproach injustice and express the inexpressible:
My body is like a jackfruit on the tree,
My skin is rough and my flesh thick,
Honourable sir, if you like me then stake me,
Please don’t finger me, my sap will stain your hands.
Drifting Dumplings
My body is white and my lot in life round,
Seven times floated and three times sunk In the mountains and rivers of my homeland.
Firm or runny, it depends on the hands that knead me,
Yet I preserve that crimson purity within.
Van’s need for reassurance in her hostile surrounds meant that she was especially fond of re-reading books she had enjoyed before. She was reminded of what her life had been like when she had first read the stories, and with her new knowledge and experience discovered fresh meaning in them. One of the books she returned to was Breaking the Ties by Nhat Linh, who also co-authored The Flower Vendor, which Van had studied at length in the eighth grade. First published in 1935, Breaking the Ties had a momentous impact on how Vietnamese viewed themselves and the world. It vividly depicted the inequities of traditional role-based relationships and championed individualism and romantic love.
Breaking the Ties describes the trials of a young woman named Loan who, under the pressure of filial obligation, marries not her beloved but rather her betrothed. Loan and Than’s wedding day forebodes the conflict to come. In one dramatic scene the bride is taken to the groom’s house where her in-laws try to compel her to leap over a charcoal brazier they had placed on the threshold. Her superstitious mother- in-law believes that the charcoal will incinerate any evil spirits that have corrupted Loan, and any individualist tendencies that might conflict with a life of servitude. The burning brazier symbolises the hellish world into which our heroine is entering. With astonishing bravado, Loan knocks it over with her foot and feigns clumsiness as the coals roll out onto the floor.
The villain in the story is Than’s mother, who treats Loan like a chattel that has come into her possession. It is not uncommon to find abusive mothers-in-law in Vietnamese families, but this woman is exceptionally rigid in her adherence to the ways of old. When Loan gives birth to a baby boy who falls ill, she allows her mother-in-law to hire a traditional healer whose barbaric rituals bring the baby to the brink of death. By the time Loan is able to provide her son with Western medical treatment, it is too late. The mother-in-law has only contempt for the grieving Loan. ‘What you have to realise is that he may be your child, but he’s my grandchild. If you want to kill him, then you can’t just go ahead and do so. You don’t have the right.’
Loan’s marriage deteriorates under the pressure of her in¬laws and before long, Than is unfaithful and has a child by another woman. Than’s mother forces the unhappy couple to accept the illegitimate child’s mother as Than’s concubine. Tension in the house escalates until one night the situation erupts when Loan refuses to turn off her lamp until she has finished reading. Than and Loan launch into a bitter argument that wakes up the entire household and draws the mother-in- law into the fray. When the wicked mother-in-law exhorts her son to beat his wife for her impertinence, Loan sticks up for herself.

Mum was no feminist but was radical in her own way

 One evening, as I was trying to catch up on some work, Mum barged into my room. ‘You know, son, the crows and magpies are after our goldfish. I’ve seen them in the morning, eyeing them off.’

‘Yes, Mum.’
‘You know, son, I saw this ballet dancer on TV today, poor girl. You shọuld have seen her feet! They were crumpled like a bird’s claw.’
‘Yes, yes, Mum. That’s very interesting. ’
‘Today I saw this woman on TV. She was 93 years old and still working. Well actually, she retired from nursing 30 years ago, but has been helping out with Meals on wheels ever since.’ ‘Yes, Mum.’
‘This 93-year-old is retiring for good. She’s still very sharp, though. She says that it’s time for her to move to the Gold Coast where the weather’s warmer and the lifestyle more relaxed. She’ll probably find something to do there.’
‘Look, Mum, I’m trying to do some work ...’
‘Don’t you think she’s amazing? I was going to call your office today and tell you about her, but you don’t have a TV.’
‘Probably a good idea not to call, Mum.’
T was going to call you because she looked just like your maternal grandmother when she was still with us. It was amazing! She walked, swung her arms and scrunched her face just like your grandmother used to. She had a sagging chin too. Your gran loved you and your brother very much. She used to cradle your brother and he used to stroke the layers of skin under her chin. Once he said that it felt like a cow’s neck. She was so gentle. She never took things to heart. She just giggled and said that that was a cute compliment from a cute little boy. Did you know that, son? This is the sort of thing that you might want to put in your book.’
‘Yes, Mum.’ I typed furious nothings, hoping she would see that I was too busy for her ramblings.
‘She loved you even more than your brother. She held you in her arms and sang to you all day. You became so used to leaning against her chest that your neck muscles did not develop properly and every time we put you down you fell over, as if your skull was made of lead. You used to like to play with your grandma’s hair and even after we came to Australia, when you were three or four, you used to say, “Let me play with your hair, Mum.” Do you remember?’
‘Yes, Mum, I remember.’ And, finally, she left.
Dad wandered past my still-open door, ‘Hmrphh, that woman watches too much TV, and talks too much.’
Dad said what was on both of our minds, but the bluntness of hit observation made me think again. I thought about how, after a lifetime of sacrifice, Mum had recently stopped working and how hard it was for her to find friends, fill her days and feel productive. And I thought about the stories that all of us hold on to in order to get by.
In February 1975 Van lost sight of her feet. She was pregnant again; that is, for the third time and if the pressure to give birth to a healthy child had been intense before, now it was almost unbearable. Her and Thiet’s first baby, a boy named Hoang, was only 1.3 kilograms when he came into the world in November 1971. He passed away after only a few hours. A year and a half later, she suffered a miscarriage at the end of her first trimester. In years to come Van and Thiet would often think about their lost children. Triggered by the vision of a young man who was about Hoang’s age, or for no apparent reason at all, the couple would remember and grieve for their first-born son. During these periods of mourning they would wonder, ‘If only he were here, then maybe...’
Van’s mother, Sat, viewed her daughter’s inability to bear baby boys as a malevolent case of deja vu. The spirits that had once haunted her had returned to cause the family more pain and hardship. ‘You had the best obstetrician in the country and he wasn’t able to do anything,’ said Sat. ‘There are things that modern medicine just can’t explain or fix.’ Van could not dispute the stark correlation between her current predicament and the one that had confronted her mother 30 years earlier.
Following Sat’s instructions, after the second child was lost, Van enlisted a shaman to repel the other-world evil from their family line. The shaman enchanted a piece of paper inscribed with some archaic symbols before burning it and telling Van to consume the ashes with a glass of water. The old woman stood over the younger one, keeping vigilant watch throughout this all-important third pregnancy.
Thief’s mother, Thua, was also eager for her daughter-in-law to give birth, particularly to a boy, as she was convinced that the Huynh ancestral lineage could only be carried by men. If Thiet could not raise a son, the spirits of their forebears (including her husband, Viet, and her two deceased boys, Khiet and Biet) would be so angered by the dissipation of their legacy that they would not rest in peace. The prospect of not having anyone to burn incense for their ancestors meant that Thua had no sympathy for the daughter-in-law who had come to live with the family in 1971 after Thiet and Van’s wedding.
When Van was pregnant with Hoang, Thua had insisted that she remain as active as possible in order to reduce the size of the foetus and make for an easier birth. While Van was uncomfortable with this idea, she had little choice but to comply with the older woman’s commands. Thua’s daughters, Huong and Truong, who also lived with them, helped keep a sharp eye over Van. They did not directly order their sister-in- law, but instead used whispers, snide comments and less than subtle looks of disapproval to make it clear to Van that pregnancy was no excuse for laziness. Right up until she gave birth, Van worked at the electricity authority and at the electrical goods store that Huong had purchased near her house. On the weekends Van was laden with chores. As the due date approached and more offerings had to be made to the ancestors to look over the baby, she was forced to carry trays of fruit and bowls of rice up and down the spiral staircase to the family altar.
Following Hoang’s passing, Thua told Van that she could not wash for a month. She had heard from an acquaintance that this archaic practice would help ward off illness and infection, and improve Van’s chances of success next time. After two weeks, Van could not bear the itchiness and smell, and pleaded with her mother-in-law to have a bath. Thua relented but insisted on preparing a special sterilising solution for her daughter-in-law, which included basil, lemongrass, lemon rind and kilograms of salt. Van emerged from her bath even more uncomfortable, and with her hair so stiff from the salt that it felt as if it was going to snap off. Thua also placed hot coals under a bed and instructed Van to lie face down on the slats so that the heat could shrink her stomach and help it to recover. It was intensely painful and left black marks on her belly like zebra stripes. Many years later, Van would glumly remember how low her self-esteem was at that time, and how she would have done anything to have a baby. ‘I should have stuck up for myself,’ she would remark. ‘I should not have sacrificed myself for your grandmother, but rather for your lost older brothers.’

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 11

 One day, when public records officials came to Bo Ban in order to collect data for a census, Biet decided to start his life anew and change his name, opting for the more refined Nho (Confucian scholar). His original name was perhaps more fitting, as Nho did not do all that well at school. While his brother studied and worked in the city, Nho was left behind in their village. He lacked that spark of good fortune, that essential factor in Thiet’s Voltairean equation for success. Adding to his frustration was the fact that even in the countryside there was rapid development under President Diem’s early reign. By 1958 twenty-year-old Nho, like his younger brother, Thiet, did not want to become a revolutionary or a peasant. With few choices available to him, Nho took the drastic step of joining the South Vietnamese army. He did not care for Diem’s regime but was driven by a yearning to get out of Bo Ban. Nho wanted to travel, meet different people and have new experiences. He also knew that he would probably be conscripted anyway and was better off signing up voluntarily and having some choice as to where he was posted and what he would do. Avoiding the infantry at all costs, the young man was drawn to the mammoth machinery of war, the artillery guns and mortars which were positioned away from the front lines.

For much of his time in the army, Nho was stationed at the barracks in Da Nang where he met and fell in love with a young woman named Hao, whom he promptly married. With Thiet studying nearby, the two brothers met every weekend for coffee and to discuss how their lives were progressing and diverging. Regimented army life suited Nho and he was an adept artilleryman. He quickly rose to the level of sergeant, which was as high as he could progress given his level of education. Nho fought with ‘great valour and proficiency’, or at least that is what was written on the telegram informing his family that he had been killed in action.
On 17 February 1964, Sergeant Huynh Van Nho was killed during an attack on the Republican base near Viet An. He was due for leave only a few days later to see his newborn baby, who had entered the world just as her father left it.
Soon afterwards, Thiet and his family in Saigon received the telegram informing them that their son and brother had made the supreme sacrifice to the nation and that his body had not been recovered. Thua almost fainted when she heard the news. She had hoped that those terrible times of the late 1940s were over; that even if her family were not free from the war, they had somehow escaped any more death.
Both Thua and Thiet were overcome with grief as they boarded the plane for Da Nang. They discovered that no one had informed Nho’s wife, Hao, of the tragedy because she was still recovering from the birth of their daughter, Nhi. Thiet and his family had not met Biet’s wife before. Thua had boycotted the wedding because she had not been consulted about her son’s decision to wed Hao. When Hao first saw her mother-in- law and brother-in-law, she was anxious that they might not approve of her, but was glad that they had flown in to see her and Nho’s beautiful baby. Hao could not comprehend the gloom written on their faces.
Thiet contacted some soldiers who had fought with his brother, and they all confirmed his virtue and courage. One of them had been with Nho during his last moments and provided valuable details but little consolation. Nho had been wounded by gunfire and had died slowly and painfully. His body had been buried without ceremony. To make matters worse they could not recover the body because the area had been designated a free-fire zone by the Americans, which meant that they would be bombing it with abandon. Almost 30 years would pass before Thua found her son’s remains and brought them to the family resting place.
Never before had Thiet experienced such pain; it was as if one of his limbs had been severed. He summoned up images of his brother and all that they had shared: their mystical adventures on banana leaf boats through flooded rice fields; their discovery of Viet Minh communism in the jungles of central Vietnam; the coffee they had consumed in downtown Da Nang over conversations that they believed would continue until they were old. Thiet could not help but feel guilty that they had drifted apart in recent years. He had been so consumed with his studies and work that he had neglected his only brother. Nho’s death was a belated reminder to Thiet of what really mattered in life.
Thua’s grief was made worse by the fact that if her son had indeed died and they were unable to recover the body and perform the appropriate rituals, then his spirit would wander the land in despair until the end of time. The frightful prospect of Nho’s eternal limbo fed Thua’s denial about his death. After all, without a body there was no proof of his passing. Only a spirit diviner could confirm Nho’s whereabouts. Thua hired three, all of whom independently confirmed that her son was alive and held captive by the enemy.
Thiet accompanied his mother on visits to these mystics but stood in the background with his arms crossed and scorn in his eyes. He was tired of his mother’s superstitions. She seemed to believe that she could reverse time or teleport herself to a dimension where Nho had never died. Thiet knew that there was only one unyielding reality and that every person’s life hurtled down a single precarious track towards a common end: death. But like his mother, Thiet was devastated by his brother’s passing. He had been troubled by nightmares in which Nho called out to him, but there was nothing that they could do and there was no use in prolonging the pain by giving money away to conmen. ‘People die,’ thought Thiet. ‘That’s it, there’s nothing more. We just have to make the most of our time here on earth.’
The other grand event that challenged Thiet’s narrowly focused existence concerned a love not lost but found. It would come at a fortuitous moment, distracting him from much of the pain caused by his brother’s passing. In 1968 Thiet was relocated to the new Thu Duc electricity authority office, just outside Saigon. Finally he could settle down into a secure job and a contented life. But it was not long before he began to desire more. Thiet was approaching 27 years of age and suddenly he noticed that friends and acquaintances had found lifetime companionship. Many of them already had children. Thiet had never had time or energy for the opposite sex, and as far as he knew they had no interest in him.
Then one day he noticed the young pay mistress, Van. Van came across to him as a meek, competent and beautiful woman. She wore delicate white shirts at a time when the general rule for clothing, and much else as well, was the more colour the better. Thiet found reasons to loiter around her office, occasionally making clumsy but amusing conversation. He rationalised to himself that this woman was not only beautiful but also exceptionally suited to him. He evaluated her in the same way that a trainer might a racehorse — she was physically sound, astute and had excellent breeding potential. Yet in the silent solitary moments before sleep and in the grey light of morning, Thiet embraced Van heart and soul. On these occasions, the young man found himself engulfed by a fire that could not be extinguished by cool reason. He was overwhelmed by a desire that could not be quelled.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 10

 Like so many other young Vietnamese men from the South and the North, Thiet had modelled his life around avoiding conscription. While taking the promotion put Thiet in some danger, he was in a much better position than those draft dodgers who had no education or finances and therefore no choice but to resort to self-harm. Thiet knew young men who had starved themselves of food and sleep to get their weight below the 35 kilograms deemed necessary for conscripts. Others broke bones prior to medical examinations, but bones had a tendency to heal. Some young men thus began severing their trigger fingers to avoid conscription without hampering their ability to make a living, when this strategy became too effective, those with severed fingers were recruited to carry supplies to the front line where they were left open to attack and without a weapon. As the war dragged on, the opposing forces of national interest and personal preservation demanded ever greater sacrifices from ordinary people. Rumours spread of desperate young men digging out an eye in order to stay at home and work for the upkeep of their families. The survivors of this horrific tactic would live the remainder of their lives in shame, the unrecorded casualties of war and unacknowledged conscientious objectors.

There were fifteen staff members under Thiet’s command at Tam Ky, many of whom were superior in terms of years but not when it came to technical knowledge. The young man had never been in charge of others and it was an arrangement that he found appealing. When he spoke to his employees he always made it clear who was in charge. Thiet took decisions without consultation and expected his word to be treated as gospel. The young manager’s conceit was boosted by the company that he kept. As electricity chief he attended gatherings where he drank cognac and ate steamed duck with the provincial chief, the police chief, the education chief and other key administrative figures. His confidence and authority were also reinforced by success. Prior to Thiet’s arrival, voltage drops had plagued the city in the early evening. Adopting cutting-edge technology and ideas which baffled most of his underlings, Thiet built a substation that increased voltage supply and saved the town from darkness.
Yet, for all its benefits, electricity could not save the good people of Tam Ky from war. Thiet was often awoken at night by the sound of gunfire between Viet Cong guerrillas and Republican soldiers. One evening the battle was at his doorstep and as he peered out of the window he saw a shadowy figure lurking in an alleyway across the street. Their eyes met and for an instant Thiet was paralysed with fear. Were the Viet Cong after him? Even if they were not, the guerrilla might not want to risk Thiet recognising him. After an agonising second of uncertainty, the machine-gun-wielding peasant slipped away into the night. Thiet returned to bed but could not sleep. His prominence and success had made him a target. It would be necessary to take precautions.
As he had done many other times in his life, Thiet lay awake in the night so committed to a problem that he could not sleep until he had devised a solution. He got up and found a scrap of paper on which he designed a hidden exit that would provide a means of escape for him.
Thiet’s plan involved a cupboard with a false bottom and a secret tunnel leading out to a bamboo grove at the back of the office. In the event of a raid, he could scramble down into the tunnel and hide in the grove until the trouble had passed. Alternatively, if the way was clear, he could make a break for it. If the enemy was in pursuit, he could impede their advance by throwing a grenade back into the tunnel. His friend the police chief had given him some grenades and a pistol, which were the first and only firearms Thiet would ever own. For added protection he did not sleep at his official residence, but walked half a kilometre to a friend’s place each night to sleep. During these brisk journeys, the young man often recalled how as a child he had followed his mother from their thatch hut to his grandfather’s brick house whenever the fighting was upon them. War had pursued him for as long as he could remember.
Little else mattered to Thiet during the 1960s other than his studies and his work. Seemingly comprised solely of mind and stomach, Thiet’s life did not extend beyond his physical existence and professional ambitions. By the end of that tumultuous decade, two colossal events challenged his successful but largely unenriched existence. These events reminded him that he had a heart and soul.
The first of these events concerned his older brother, Biet. After the two boys had returned to Bo Ban from the Viet Minh school in 1954, Biet had also been anxious to move on. He wanted to develop himself as a modern individual. Like Thiet, he came to view his past as a burden and his family as backward. Even his name was an intolerable vestige of times past.
Following the example of many Vietnamese peasants, Viet and Thua had not put a lot of effort into naming their children. They believed that their children’s place in society was largely fixed from one generation to the next. It did not occur to them that their offspring could someday belong to a different class of people and should be given names that left some leeway for social elevation. Instead the children were branded according to a propensity for rhyme: Huong and Truong for the girls; Khiet, Biet and Thiet for the boys. Other parents did not even go to the trouble of naming their children other than with the numbers that represented the order in which they had been bom. Forced to bear the indelible mark of the unaspiring classes, they would forever be known as Ms Six, Mr Two or Mr Last Born (which was handed down to younger siblings when family planning efforts failed). Biet had not received his name until his father, Viet, had observed that, because he knew how to crawl and speak early on in life, he thus deserved the name Biet (to know). While this was no doubt an accurate description, like other common names, including Tot (good) and Duoc (can, good, adequate), it was wholly lacking in style and class.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 9

 There were many other men who would come into Huong’s life only to be toyed with and rejected. In 1962 a particularly distraught fellow stormed into the Lido with a knife and a bottle of whisky, threatening to kill himself unless Huong took him back, when she flatly refused, the man skolled the remainder of the whisky and stabbed himself in the gut many times over. A nonchalant Huong called for a doctor before taking a step back to examine the pitiful being on the floor, who had once been her fiance. ‘He looked as stupid as a fish,’ she recollected, ‘as if he was waiting for the liquor to spill out from all those bleeding wounds.’

Huong often looked down on men and found satisfaction in crushing them as if they were insects. No doubt they revolted her, yet for some reason she needed them to desire, praise and adore her and to reaffirm her status as a higher being. Not unlike relations between Vietnam and the West, Huong’s dealings with men were inherently contradictory. Acquiescence and revolt seemed to coexist in one instant, and divisions between the exploited and the exploiter were never quite clear. While Huong could not live without the attention of men, she was repulsed by their touch. Why she felt this way, at once allergic and addicted, is not clear. But while Huong never revealed to anyone the full extent of the crimes committed against her when she first came to Saigon by her Uncle Son and his son, it seems those horrifying acts could not be erased from her memory and would deeply scar her soul.
Such issues of sexuality, exploitation and violence escaped the attention of Thiet, who at that time had a head only for numbers.
0.213 1T/1.222 [5.640 + 7.853 (1.223 X 5.735) - 3.123 (1.114 + 4.97) + 8.008] =
With the age of abacuses all but gone and calculators yet to arrive, Thiet had to solve such questions in quick succession with nothing but his brainpower, a well-chewed pencil and a few sheets of paper. It was common for mathematics students at the Phu Tho Higher Technical Centre to be confronted by problems of pure mathematics, with no practical relevance other than to find the simple numerical beauty of a complex process. During exams, time limits were strictly monitored in order to find the most efficient automaton. This was quick- draw mathematics and Thiet was in his element.
There were also slightly more practical classes at Thiet’s Technical School of Electricity, on energy transformation, substations, electrical machines and mechanics. In these subjects students gained a glimpse of the grand forces that they would some day command in the real world. In one test, Thiet was presented with a hypothetical quantity of water for which he had to calculate the amount of energy that could be harnessed as it fell from a given height and rushed at a given speed. Even when diagrams were provided, Thiet viewed these questions as purely abstract. There was never enough time to consider what the numbers might actually represent or mean. In fact, there was barely enough time to compute them. Throughout his studies and particularly during exams, Thiet always felt as though he was one or two equations behind. And yet these vigorous problem-solving pursuits often left Thiet’s spirits so high that the world seemed small beneath him.
The halls of the Technical School of Electricity were full of forward-looking youths like Thiet. The twelve students in his class, all male, were cowboys advancing the frontiers of Vietnamese knowledge and control. The very language that they used — capacitors, diodeSi electrodes, megavolts — demonstrated their status as pioneers of technological innovation. They not only had their hands on the levers of the universe, they were designing the machinery itself.
In the spring of 1964, at the age of 23, and after three years of intensive training, Thiet graduated from the Technical School of Electricity, coming second in his class. His first job offer came from the Nong Son Coal Mine but he rejected it, not wanting to leave Saigon and knowing that something better would come along. Sure enough he received another offer from the National Electricity Authority as a power line designer, which he happily accepted. He had, it seemed, travelled light years since his first contact with that light bulb in Da Nang. In fact, ten or even five years earlier, no one would have believed that Thiet would have a secure office job, that he would wear well-pressed trousers and a clean collared shirt, and that people would look up to him for his intelligence and skill. No one, that is, except for Thiet.
In early 1966, after two years of diligent work, Thiet was asked to head the electricity office in Quang Tin province, which was just south of his home province of Quang Nam. There were two possible reasons for Thiet’s promotion. The 25-year-old had gained a reputation as a conscientious and talented worker who would no doubt serve the electricity authority well. And there was also the fact, still evident from his accent, that Thiet was from central Vietnam, which would perhaps endear him to colleagues and associates in Quang Tin. On the other hand, the position posed significant disadvantages. Thiet would be away from his family who relied on him for support and whose company he had grown fond of. Just as importantly, he would be away from the relative safety of Saigon. Tam Ky, the Quang Tin provincial capital, where Thiet was to be stationed, was often subject to Viet Cong attack. It was only a day’s walk from where Thiet had trained to become a Viet Minh revolutionary twelve years earlier. On the plus side, his present position at the electricity authority was not senior enough to guarantee protection from the draft, whereas being the electricity chief of an entire province would. On a balance of threats, Thiet decided to return to central Vietnam.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 8

 One afternoon in early 1957, Huong borrowed Sau’s bicycle and resolved to learn how to ride before the day was through. She quickly discovered that riding the contraption was not that difficult but stopping was another matter. Huong suffered numerous bumps and grazes made more painful by the mockery of bystanders. Nonetheless, before the day was over, she was content that she had mastered the bicycle and could set off for home in bloodied satisfaction. With the same unflagging resolve, while working for the Transportation Rules and Regulations journal during the day, at night Huong learnt how to read, keep accounts, speak English and use a typewriter.

But there was one more thing that Huong had to do before she could claim that she had made it in Saigon: fix her speech. Huong was mortified by her central Vietnamese accent. To her, southerners possessed an air of sophistication which emanated from their close ties to the West. With typical determination, Huong commenced an intensive program of cultural and linguistic assimilation, listening to herself as if she were her own elocution instructor and correcting each syllable, vowel and tone that was not pronounced properly. The drawn-out di lawm (to go to work) was replaced by the more refined and phonetically proper di lam. The word for bamboo shoot, meng, was substituted with the less whiny mang. She even adopted some of the linguistic blunders of the southerners, pronouncing her ‘V’s as ‘Y’s so that ‘Vietnam’ became ‘Vietnam’. It was not long before anyone would have thought by listening to the young woman that she had been born in Saigon and had never left. In fact, her integration was so complete that many years later Huong would berate one of her employees without the slightest concern for hypocrisy. ‘You insolent and foul-mouthed wretch!’ she screamed at the young receptionist. ‘I never should have hired someone from the central Vietnamese countryside. I know that I was born there, but I was not meant to be. Listen to my accent compared to yours. Truly, I am from the south.’ Never did Huong credit that the tenacity that allowed her to succeed in Saigon was rooted in that small village of Bo Ban.
After two years of working for Transportation Rules and Regulations, Huong was promoted to head saleswoman but she was still not content. The advertising market was saturated and she yearned for more opportunities and to be her own boss. As a stepping-stone towards these goals, in 1958 Huong took on an additional night job as a manager at a bar named the Simone in Cholon. When the Simone came up for sale, the owner was flabbergasted to discover that Huong wanted to buy it and was taken aback by the ferocity of her negotiating skills. Little did he know that by living like a pauper with Sau, Huong had accumulated a small fortune.
Early in 1962 Huong sold the Simone to buy a restaurant in downtown Saigon named the Lido. By that time Huong’s mother and sister had joined her in Saigon, along with Thiet, who was studying at the Technical School of Electricity in the Phu Tho Higher Technical Centre. Until then Thua and her other daughter, Truong, had remained in Bo Ban largely living off the money that Huong was sending to them. Thua was reluctant to leave the countryside, but with Huong and Thiet in Saigon, she decided that it was better to reside with her family in the city than on the land with the spirits of their ancestors.
They moved into a small apartment joined to the new restaurant, and pitched in to renovate the Lido, revamping the furniture, fitting air-conditioning and installing a sound system. Huong employed two renowned Chinese chefs, along with a French manager whom everyone called Pierre, and half a dozen tuxedoed waiters to serve the 30 tables. Each night after organising the music and setting up the restaurant for business, Thiet left for a nearby temple where some kind-hearted monks let him use a room to study in peace and quiet. Often he would sleep there because the music and racket of Lido customers would continue into the early hours of the morning.
With the family’s concerted efforts and Huong’s astute business sense, it was not long before the Lido had become a popular haunt for Saigon’s nouveaux riches. The hippest Vietnamese contemporary singers in the land — including Thanh Thuy, Minh Hieu, Hoang Oanh and Thanh Tuyen — performed at the Lido. Classical music was usually played during meals and when the band had free rein it would quicken the tempo with a cha-cha-cha or some Elvis rock’n’roll. Marie Linh was well known for her renditions of Western music, particularly Chubby Checker’s ‘Let’s Twist Again’, but there was no dancing because of Madame Nhu’s prohibition of such forms of exhibitionism. Generals Ton That Dinh and Tran Van Don, who in 1963 orchestrated the coup that brought down the Diem dynasty, were regulars, and one of the richest Vietnamese men in Saigon had a table permanently reserved. But the main attraction was undoubtedly Huong, who at precisely midnight every evening made a grand entrance into the Lido in order to collect the takings and capture the adoration of patrons. ‘Who is that?’ newcomers would ask, and upon discovering that she was the boss they would exclaim, ‘Who? That baby-san?!’
In the midst of everything else that was happening in her life, in 1960 Huong had given birth to a son whom she named Tam. Tam’s father, Tang, was the director of the Broadcasting Department and was first smitten by Huong when he met her at a Saigon beauty contest of which he was a judge. Huong had come second. ‘He was the most handsome man in Saigon,’ Huong would later recall. ‘Tang had the rosy cheeks of a Frenchman and owned over two hundred suits.’ Despite these endearing qualities, Huong discarded Tang not long after Tam was born when she learnt that he wanted more children. Huong had resolved to give birth only once. Throughout her pregnancy she had felt as if she had been invaded by a foreign being, and the process of giving birth itself, she found, was excruciating beyond all justification. Perhaps Huong would have felt otherwise if she had conceived a girl, but there was no way she was going to try again.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 7

 Not long after moving in with Son and his family, Huong realised how naive she had been. The law of the city was, if anything, more brutal than that of the jungle. Blinded by the shining Pearl of the Orient, Huong had forgotten the principle that she had learnt long ago at home: ‘Nothing in life is free and anything accepted as such will prove to be very costly indeed.’ Less than a fortnight after Huong started working for Son, the two maids who had served the nine-member household were fired. Huong now had to wake up before sunrise to feed and walk the dogs, fetch water, wash the clothes and make breakfast for the entire household. During the day there was no respite from the scrubbing, dusting, sweeping, boiling, peeling, shopping, massaging and shrill complaints of her captors. Despite toiling over each meal, she was left with only scraps of vegetables and burnt rice to eat each night. To make matters worse these morsels were spiced with admonishment, as the southerners had different palates from Huong’s. They liked their fish sauce sweeter and their soups more sour. When she raised Son’s promises of payment and education, Huong was chastised for being ungrateful.

The situation turned violent some weeks later when both Son and his son revealed their intentions towards Huong. During secluded and shameful moments they advanced upon the young woman and abused her in ways so horrific that Huong still refuses to speak of them. One day after Huong resisted she was beaten and thrown out of the house, whereupon she ran aimlessly through the streets before collapsing on a sidewalk. Through all her ordeals, she had never allowed herself to cry and never let anyone know that she was vulnerable. Now she sobbed as hundreds of unconcerned well-to-do city folk walked by. ‘I never should have left the countryside,’ she told herself. ‘Who was I to think that I could come here without a roof over my head or a piastre in my pocket and make something of myself? I’ve gone nowhere. In fact, I’ve slid backwards. I’ve been used and discarded like a cheap toy.’
This burst of negativity was soon extinguished by Huong’s reservoir of pride. Even as she sat with her head between her knees and her ragged hair dangling in the gutter, the young woman resolved that she was not broken and never would be. She realised that she had gained something of great value during those first few months in Saigon, something that she would hold on to for the rest of her days. She was streetwise, possessing irrefutable knowledge that men could not be trusted. Indeed, to trust anyone was to be susceptible and eventually to surrender. The young woman was on her own in a brutal zero-sum world and she would have it no other way. She lived her life by a stark philosophy, which she never hesitated to express to others: ‘There are only two things that you can count on: money and desire.’
Fortunately, Huong had someone to turn to. Sau ran a cake stall at the local market where Huong often bought food for Son’s family. A few years Huong’s senior, in the short time Huong had been in Saigon, Sau had become her only friend in the world. After seeing Huong in her desperate state and hearing what she had suffered, Sau allowed the young woman to live and work with her. Huong tidied up around Sau’s little house, helped her at the market and ran errands to earn her keep. Long after the two had lost contact, Huong would remember and be grateful to Sau for that precious reprieve. But even then it was clear that their partnership could only be a short-term arrangement. Huong had not come to Saigon to do what she could just as easily do in Bo Ban.
It was only a matter of days before Huong was offered a way out from her demoralised state. One morning fate placed under her gaze a sheet of newspaper fluttering in such a way that it seemed to call out to be picked up. On that discarded scrap there was an advertisement for saleswomen with ‘good looks and poise’. Huong immediately recognised her calling.
Days later, Huong arrived at the job interview wearing borrowed shoes and a loosely fitting brown peasant’s outfit. Never before had she seen so many striking women in one place, most of them arriving on scooters, all of them stunning in their gowns. Huong felt like a drab moth in a kaleidoscope of butterflies. She was tempted to give up but told herself that she had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Huong gawked at all the other interviewees and then searched hard for a way to beat them. Her best hope in terms of building her self- confidence and getting the job was to disparage, at least in her own mind, the competition. Suddenly their stylish dresses suggested to Huong that they were little more than mannequins, their delicate hands and freshly painted nails revealed that they had never known a hard day’s work, and their stately airs and finicky ways were proof that they did not really want the job. By the time Huong’s moment came, the young woman had convinced herself that she alone deserved to fill the vacancy. Once that was established, convincing the interview panel was easy. There were just two positions on offer that day but the odds were irrelevant. By turning her defects into strengths, Huong got the job and less than 24 hours later started her training as an advertising saleswoman for the Transportation Rules and Regulations journal.
On her identification card she can be seen looking over her right shoulder, as was the style at the time. Her dark-as-coal eyes, pale face and finely chiselled lips gleam from under a crown of braided raven-black hair. This was Huong’s first ever photograph. It captures an air of determination and self- assurance for which she would become well known. But there is also a glimmer of girlish purity and a trace of the countryside which is absent in later pictures of her. Decades later, when Huong had a cupboard full of photo albums and garish personalised calendars, she would keep that faded identification card on a shelf, accessible and dear to her heart.
Getting the job at the journal proved to be easier than the work itself. All day Huong and her partner had to walk around the city selling advertising space in the publication. The salary was minuscule, so the job only became worthwhile if they could take advantage of the 30 per cent commission. Initially, Huong was held back by her partner, who was not used to manual labour and the scorching midday sun. The partnership was only a week old before the more entrepreneurial of the two suggested that they split up in order to cover more ground. Freed of her encumbrance, Huong’s commission increased rapidly. But success militated against more success, as collecting money from existing clients and convincing them to renew their contracts left little time for Huong to seek more business. She needed to move faster; she needed to learn to ride a bicycle.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 6

 One of the more obvious causes of his shift in attitude was his removal from Viet Minh propaganda, which created space in his heart and mind for other loyalties. As soon as he had left the Viet Minh fold, Thiet had started to see a disjunction between the theories that he had learnt at school in Cay Sanh and the reality around him. After returning to Bo Ban in 1954, when he was still an aspiring revolutionary, Thiet could not help but notice that across the countryside, harvests were bigger than ever. The young man was inspired by others who were prospering in the new economy. In the late 1950s, construction in Da Nang was ubiquitous, and the economy was booming with the assistance of American aid and in the absence of constant conflict. The progress Thiet saw was not a consequence of stringent state planning and collective ownership. It was the direct result of industrious individuals who had been given the incentive to work for themselves and their families.

During the course of his student years, Thiet started to view communism as not only misguided, but also deceitful and malicious. He had little time or interest in public affairs while in Da Nang or Saigon, but it was clear from the morsels of information that he received from acquaintances, as well as radio reports from the BBC and Voice of America, that much of Eastern Europe was not a nirvana of wealth and happiness.
And then there was the fact of his own father’s murder at the hands of the Viet Minh and the image that slowly reasserted itself in Thiet’s mind of Viet’s skeleton with its wrists still bound. Whether it was a cause or a symptom of his ideological shift, Thiet salvaged from somewhere deep in his soul the family values that had been subverted by the Viet Minh. He would never again forget that his father was more important to him than Uncle Ho.
While many of Thiet’s views changed during these early years in Saigon, his desire for progress — to know and control the world around him — remained intact. When he daydreamed about his perfect society he saw a bustling city that glowed with the promise of tomorrow. He saw everyone in cars, eager to get from one place to another. He saw children with loving parents who could provide them with every opportunity in life. He saw the dissipation of superstitions, tribal bonds and religious responsibilities which had for so long fostered difference and conflict. Everyone would be smiling, wealthy and healthy, their needs unified and fulfilled, not by an overbearing party, but rather an invisible hand. The young man’s political journey — its direction, end point and method of travel — had not really changed at all.
Soon after starting his diploma at the technical centre, Thiet obtained a prestigious scholarship from the Nong Son Coal Mine. It was not a lot of money but paid for his books and helped to elevate the twenty-year-old out of the rice kitchen at lunchtime. This was a happy time for Thiet because by then, except for his brother, Biet, who remained in central Vietnam, his family had also moved to Saigon. They all lived in a house that had been purchased by his sister, Huong, whose journey to the Southern capital was totally different from Thiet’s but no less extraordinary.
Huong arrived in Saigon with all her worldly possessions balanced over her shoulders and areca palm leaves bound to the soles of her feet as shoes. In the autumn of 1956, the 21- year-old had embarked on a Buddhist pilgrimage with family and friends, who planned to walk 350 kilometres to the seaside city of Nha Trang, stopping along the way to visit temples, holy sites and popular tourist destinations. The two-month trip was both gruelling and invigorating for Huong, who had never come so close to being on vacation. By the time she reached Nha Trang the young woman was exhausted, but her spirit of adventure was still not quenched. Huong felt liberated, far away from her family and her responsibilities as the eldest child. Excited by what lay ahead and what she might achieve on her own, Huong eagerly accepted the offer of a ride to Saigon. Before continuing on her sojourn, the young woman thanked her fellow travellers and wished them a safe return to their villages. To one relative she boldly added, ‘Please tell my mother not to worry. I have gone to make a fortune in the city and she should receive a letter and some money from me soon.’ Arriving in the capital of South Vietnam, Huong stared agape from the bus window at what the French had referred to as the ‘Pearl of the Orient’ or the ‘Paris of the Far East’. Saigon’s wide promenades were lined with graceful old tamarind trees and the streets bustled with vehicles. Wave after wave of fashion-savvy people flowed out from stately buildings, and vendors sold everything that a person could possibly wear, eat, use and discard.
Huong stepped off the bus and gulped in the metropolitan air, then set out to find a distant relative who lived in Saigon. She had never met her Uncle Son and was not sure if he would let her stay with him and his family for even one night, let alone until she found a job. As she approached his house Huong reminded herself, ‘Fortune has brought you this far, it will not abandon you now.’ To her great relief, Son not only took her in but also gave her a job as the live-in maid and offered to pay for her education (Huong could hardly read at the time). ‘Who says that city living is unforgiving and immoral?’ thought the wide-eyed young woman from Bo Ban.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 5

 Only six months earlier, a coalition of anti-Diem forces in South Vietnam had formed the National Liberation Front, which had the stated goal of liberating and reunifying the nation. President Diem derided them as ‘Viet Cong’ (Vietnamese communists), and avidly sought US aid and healthy young Vietnamese men to combat them.

Just as significant in Thiet’s considerations was the fact that at twenty years of age he had never had money of his own, let alone been able to support his family. He was tired of being dependent and impoverished. He was sick of others seeing him in tattered clothes and assuming he was dirty and uncivilised. With this upmost in mind, the ambitious youth decided to shelve his dreams of engineering and use his first baccalaureate to find a job.
In the summer of 1961 a fantastic opportunity arose for Thiet to satisfy both his aspirations. The Phu Tho Higher Technical Centre in Saigon had recently been established with multi-million-piastre support from US and French aid agencies and was taking enrolments for a three-year technician’s course. The diploma was less prestigious than the full engineering degree, but there were several distinct advantages: entrants needed only to have attained their first baccalaureate; they were practically guaranteed a secure job upon completion; and after three years were eligible to sit the engineering entrance exams.
Hundreds of candidates came to Hue from all over central Vietnam to sit the test for the half-dozen places on offer. Learning from his mistakes, Thiet prepared for the day in a systematic fashion. He would focus on the question before him and would never again allow overconfidence to betray him. When the exams were over, he felt like he could not have done any better and yet he knew that his chances were slim. Returning to the bookshop, Thiet waited for the results that would prove whether dreams really could come true.
When the results day arrived, Thiet was astonished to see his name with five others in the announcements section of the local newspaper. The young man read those few small letters as if they were a front-page headline.
‘Our ancestors must be smiling down upon you!’ said Tuyet when she discovered that her cousin was moving to Saigon to study. But Thiet knew that his achievements were not a consequence of luck or chance. In his philosophy class at Phan Chau Trinh High School he had developed an appreciation for the thoughts of the French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire. We are all, Voltaire proclaimed, ‘equally the toys of destiny’. But this does not mean that we should descend to fatalism or indifference. Some of us are predisposed to merit and talent, but we will never know unless we live our lives to their full potential.’ Thiet mildly modified Voltaire’s philosophy, constructing an aphorism that he would draw upon in both times of triumph and defeat. ‘Success requires three things: hard work, talent and a little bit of lock.’
Before setting off for Saigon, the young man had one decision left to make. He was eligible to undertake one of two diplomas at the technical centre: civil engineering or electrical engineering. Buoyed by his recent accomplishments, the decision seemed straightforward to Thiet. In fact, it was as if the choice had been made for him years ago when his grandfather took him to the city for the first time and he touched that shimmering block of ice and felt that unforgettable surge.
The community rice kitchen in the centre of Saigon provided the cheapest lunch in town to anyone who turned up on its doorstep. Diners had to eat their meal while also shuffling along the benches which always managed to squeeze in another person. Thiet had been frequenting the rice kitchen ever since the bus had dropped him off in Saigon three months earlier. He was a regular at the food hall, but such was the turnover of those who ate there that he rarely talked to the same person in any one week. Of the community rice kitchen’s patrons, cyclo drivers were most prominent, but labourers and students were also common. The meals were subsidised under a program set up by Madame Nhu, who enlisted an army of volunteer cooks to feed the working poor. All of the kitchen’s visitors were in need but few were without hope.
Thiet sat back and put his hand on his bloated stomach. The food was far from lavish: there was almost never any meat and when vegetables were on the menu, diners could be assured that it would be bindweed either overcooked to the point of mash or undercooked so that the stems were hard and wiry. No one ever complained though, because there was an endless supply of rice and fish sauce. Like many others, Thiet was able to fill his belly to the brink of bursting point so that on most nights he could make do without dinner.
Perhaps Thiet’s post-lunch drowsiness clouded his Marxist- Leninist perspective. Whatever the reason, this one-time Viet Mình devotee was unconcerned by the plight of the suffering proletariat all around him. He was losing his communist edge.
Since he had left the Viet Minh school in 1954, Thiet had undergone a reformation of sorts. He no longer viewed personal salvation as only achievable by following a ministry of cadres or any doctrine handed down to him from on high; rather, success was wholly dependent on his thoughts and efforts. Thiet’s reformation was not inspired by a near-death experience, a revelation, or a violent coup. Instead, his ideological allegiances had steadily shifted by the weight of evidence, as if he was a juror coming to a decision after a prolonged court case. Astonishingly, for much of the time during which the young man’s worldview turned from the extreme left to the mild right, he spent almost no energy deliberating over the reasons or consequences. He was so absorbed in his everyday life that decades would pass before he was motivated to think deeply about what exactly had turned him against communism.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 4

 The venue for Thiet’s exam was a school that had been vacated for the summer. As he waited for his mathematics test in a corridor filled with sleep-deprived students, Thiet heard the faint shuffling of shoes, the dropping of a pencil and an occasional sneeze which broke the heavy air. He went through his mental database of notes and tried not to focus on the line of students ahead of him, which was shortening one by one like a line of skydivers pushed from a plane.

Eventually there was no one ahead of Thiet and he was shoved into the room where his fate lay waiting. Before him a dour-looking teacher held a great book of questions from which half a dozen would be chosen for Thiet to answer out loud or with the use of a blackboard.
The exam began. Questions were graded from least to most challenging, but none of them were designed to build confidence. Thiet breathed deeply. He was nervous but stayed in control by mentally stepping outside his overheated body and coolly calculating the right response. Thiet answered question after question without incident before reaching the final one, which was shocking in its simplicity.
The young man applied the well-known theorem of Pythagoras and the universal laws of trigonometry to arrive at a value for a, which he checked and rechecked. He put down the chalk and took a step away from the blackboard.
‘Thank you, teacher,’ he said to the examiner.
‘No need for thanks,’ the teacher replied. ‘At least not until you complete the second part of the question.’
Thiet apologised for his presumptuousness and returned to the blackboard. He followed the teacher’s instructions, redrawing the original diagram and then making some modifications before staring blankly at the board. Neither the solution nor how to calculate it was apparent to him.
He gaped at the diagram for a little longer before resorting to careless calculation on the board. As if in a mathematical fit, Thiet computed and generated number after number which, at most, had only a vague relationship to the one that he sought. If only he had not been so gung-ho with the first half of the question, perhaps he would have had the presence of mind to answer the second half. The tension in the classroom was greater than that in the self-criticism sessions that he had sat through as a Viet Minh trainee, and the pressure to get it right reminded him of the survival training and enemy engagement classes that he had undertaken all those years ago. This, it seemed to Thiet, was a matter of life and death. If only he could solve this one problem then everything — his studies, his future, the war and the world — would surely turn out for the best. But it was too late. The lens through which everything seemed so clear was now clouded. The only thing that was certain was that he did not know the answer.
Thiet did not need to get 100 per cent to pass, but he was bitterly disappointed, as he dusted his diagrams and calculations from the blackboard. As he left the room, it seemed as if everything he had worked for had come to just that: specks of chalk dust in the wind.
But Thiet could not allow himself to be pestered by those pyramids for long. He still had to complete his two other oral examinations, in physics and chemistry, and he put his mind to focusing on them rather than dwelling on his failure. As it turned out, they were not difficult, and after they were over he headed to the school quadrangle to await his results and berate himself for being so confounded earlier that morning. It was dusk before the names of the successful examinees were posted. Thiet burrowed into the crowd and searched desperately for his number and name. He scanned and rescanned the list. And there it was: ‘Huynh Van Thiet’. He checked again, and then a third time to make sure. There was no mistake. Thiet was to receive his first baccalaureate.
It was time for a rare celebration. Using all the money that he had in the world, Thiet joined some acquaintances from school and hired a bicycle which he rode to Thuan An beach, where he sang and celebrated into the early hours of the morning. Only during instances such as this, when the future was buzzing with untold promise, could Thiet live for the moment and appreciate the wonders of life in its immediacy. The youth had scaled a mountain, yet it was not the path below that filled him with satisfaction but rather the awe- inspiring vision of a taller peak to climb.
On his return to Da Nang, Thiet was faced with a number of choices. His greatest desire was to be an engineer. Thiet admired engineers for their knowledge of systems and materials that were alien to the ordinary mind. They knew how to make immense buildings and bridges; how to harness the power of the earth, wind and sea; and even how to defy the forces that pin our feet to the ground. In his mind, the great individuals of tomorrow would not be known for their virtue, loyalty or literary prowess. They would be men and women of action, specialists in an age of technocrats.
However, there were practical factors that made engineering less attractive a career. Thiet would have to complete another year of secondary-school study and then pass the exams for his second baccalaureate before he was even eligible to move on to university. He would then have to sit the entrance exams for the four-year engineering degree. If he stumbled along the way he would be in a precarious situation, as without work or study he would be forced to join the army.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 3

 The next day Thiet’s cousin Tuyet could not help teasing the bleary-eyed little country bumpkin who had stormed into Da Nang muddy and confused like a lost water buffalo. ‘What are you studying so hard for? Do you want to be a scholar or something?’

Thiet chuckled timidly but did not reply. He would show her. He would show everyone.
In the summer of 1958 Thiet completed year nine with creditable results but was still unsatisfied. He had come to view the community school as small, sluggish and ill equipped. Striving ever onwards, the young man approached the nearby private Tay Ho High School, which had a good reputation and where, he had heard, there was a senior teacher who came from his village, Bo Ban. After finding him, Thiet put forward an argument as to why he deserved a scholarship to complete his final year of junior high school. He cited their common geographical and spiritual roots, his patent economic hardship, his recent academic achievements and his iron-clad guarantee that he would not let the school or himself down. The teacher was persuaded and pulled some strings to get Thiet in.
And so, for the first time in his life, Thiet attended a regular daytime school. In contrast to the strict ideological training that he had received with the Viet Minh, and the limited instruction he had gained at the community school, Tay Ho High School provided Thiet with a broad and open education. It was also a vast improvement in terms of infrastructure. The classrooms were filled with freshly polished desks and chairs, and the school boasted a well-equipped laboratory, library and canteen. To the uninformed eye Thiet was no different from other students, dashing through the hallways with his books underarm. But in truth this was no regular Tay Ho student. Almost all of his classmates came from wealthy families: the sons and daughters of bureaucrats, shop owners or employees of French companies. Few of them had to work long hours before and after school as Thiet did. Their Da Nang city accents were softer and more intelligible than the rustic noises that came from Thiet’s village-bred mouth. These differences did not trouble the young man. He soon saw Tay Ho as just another stepping stone to arguably the most prestigious school in the province, Phan Chau Trinh Public School.
Thiet graduated from Tay Ho High School in the summer of 1959, the first person in his family to complete junior high school, and immediately turned his attention to passing the Phan Chau Trinh High School entrance exams. Weighing heavily on his mind was the fact that his results at Tay Ho were only slightly above average. Fortunately, recognising his determination if not his ability, Thiet’s cousin Tuyet reduced his workload at the tailoring shop so that he could concentrate on his entrance exams. With a little extra time and a great deal of effort, Thiet passed the exams with ease and was promoted to the lofty halls of Phan Chau Trinh High School later that year. He did not need to plea or make a special case to be admitted. This, he felt, was an important victory over his humble background.
Established in 1952, Phan Chau Trinh High School had quickly gained a reputation as a modern education institution which encouraged its students to challenge themselves and dare to know. For many students, Phan Chau Trinh High School would linger in their memories as the place where they discovered who they were and who they wanted to be, where lifetime friendships were forged, love was found and lost, and the universe in all its wonder opened up before them.
Thiet was not inclined towards sentimentality. The young man was attending the school of his dreams, but he had not forgotten the harsh and solitary nature of his reality. While Phan Chau Trinh was a free public school, the taxing entrance requirements meant that most students were as wealthy and high-born as his classmates at Tay Ho. By and large they had grown up in households conducive to academic learning and had been given private tutoring. Again, while he was not overtly disadvantaged, Thiet did not fit in, and again he did not mind this. He did not seek belonging or succour through his awkward adolescent years. He had no money for, nor interest in, trends and fashion. He made acquaintances but no real friends, and girls simply did not register on his radar. Thiet was there to study, nothing more and nothing less. Even this was undertaken in a narrow and purposive manner, while he had moved away from the Viet Minh idea that all valuable knowledge is directed towards socialist revolution, Thiet still saw learning in terms that emphasised the end point over the journey: ‘Where can this course take me and what can I get out of it?’ Metaphysical questions such as ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What is the meaning of life?’ were luxuries that he could not afford.
Thiet had felt like a burden on Tuyet ever since he had started going to school during the day. His cousin was also a constraint, a filial tie that kept him from true independence. Using the prestige that came with being a Phan Chau Trinh student, Thiet found employment in a bookstore. His remuneration consisted of a room, board and books. As well as working as the shop assistant in the mornings and afternoons, Thiet tutored his employer’s two children in the evenings. The eighteen-year-old was frightfully busy but there was solace in the fact that he was no longer judged by the agility of his hands or the strength of his back, but rather the sharpness of his mind.
After completing twelfth grade in the spring of 1961, Thiet faced the next great challenge of his academic career: attaining his first baccalaureate. He had passed the initial written examination without any trouble and was invited to the imperial capital of Hue (about 100 kilometres north of Da Nang) for the concluding oral examination. For centuries mandarins had been tested and selected for imperial civil service in Hue and, like the thousands of other candidates from several provinces, Thiet was daunted by the thought of who had gone before him and what lay ahead.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them 2

 After a few months, however, his restlessness resurfaced. Thiet’s sewing skills were improving, but selling material, fixing hems and making simple peasant garb seemed mundane compared with the momentous developments that were taking place in the North. By the autumn of 1955, with Diem installed as president in the South, and his rejection of the Geneva Accords, it was clear that the national elections were not going to take place. Vietnam was to remain divided and its people not yet free.

‘What good would reunification and liberation do me anyway when I’m trapped in Bo Ban?’ Thiet mused. ‘Nothing is going right for me. Nothing at all.’ Only months earlier he would have derided this complaining as bourgeois-individualist' or just plain childish. But there were other times when he was more optimistic and able to situate his predicament within a broader socialist blueprint. ‘How can I possibly help the revolution in Bo Ban? what if I get conscripted into the South Vietnamese puppet regime’s army? What good would I be then? First things first, I have to leave Bo Ban and advance myself before I can advance the nation and the Party.’
In the spring of 1956 Thiet’s cousin Tuyet offered the young man an escape. Tuyet had recently opened a small tailoring shop in downtown Da Nang and agreed to lodge and feed the teenager in return for his labour. Convinced that he had a one¬way ticket to success, Thiet left his home village without the slightest hesitation. The young man thought little of his family who had become anachronisms and obstacles in his life. And in any case, Thiet was sure that they would always be there, which was exactly why he had to go.
Thiet slept on the cutting table in Tuyet’s shop in order to open the store in the morning. In return for a full day’s work he was given one meal in the evening at Tuyet’s father’s house. Tuyet’s father was a well-educated man who demanded the utmost respect from his children. At this time he had about ten children but he would eventually father seventeen by three wives. With the household already overcrowded and under¬resourced, Thiet was always aware of his lowly status. He was grateful for whatever he received and always waited to take the last morsels of food, which he ate outside on his own. Sometimes he ate nothing at all. ‘Life was so chaotic. Terrible, very tough,’ he recalled years later, what consoled the young man was the knowledge that he was gaining a good education and that his days as a charity case were limited.
Not long after arriving in Da Nang, Thiet had heard that a free community high school had opened. The enrolment deadline had passed, but Thiet was undaunted by such a minor administrative detail. Taking leave from the tailoring shop, he scurried to the school and was directed to the headmaster’s office, where he made a bold and passionate case for late enrolment that left no room for rejection. He returned to Tuyet’s with an air of satisfaction and visions of grander things to come.
President Diem established many free schools like the one Thiet attended. Along with basic secondary-school subjects, Thiet’s community school offered instruction in various trades and also ran special classes on basic numeracy and literacy for those who missed out on an education due to the war. Many of the courses were held at night, and the majority of Thiet’s classmates were soldiers or office workers who were much older than him. While all of them were making up for lost time, none pursued their studies more doggedly than Thiet, who overloaded on core subjects in mathematics, physics, chemistry and literature in order to complete seventh, eighth and ninth grades in only two years.
Thiet achieved this astonishing result by returning from his night classes each evening, then, without any rest, studying for a few more hours. He had lengthened his days and increased his capacity for work by disregarding sleep and curtailing everything that was not essential to achieving his goals.
One night Thiet looked up from his books and stretched his neck, bending it sideways and then back before closing his eyes and basking in the electrical radiance that shone through his eyelids. It had been a long day like any other, working at Tuyet’s shop from five in the morning, going to school in the afternoon and now, as p.m. turned to a.m., studying under the streetlamps where there was space to lay out his textbooks and the light was free and plentiful.
‘Enough rest, get back to work,’ the young man told himself. ‘You have to work harder to be the top of your class. You have to be the best, number one.’ Results were of paramount importance to the sixteen-year-old, who dreamt of becoming an engineer, or perhaps a mechanic, an accountant, or maybe even a doctor. In 1958 the exact direction of Thiet’s life was still unclear, but his will to achieve was evident to all who knew him.
By the time Thiet returned from his study to his cousin’s tailoring shop there were only a handful of hours left for sleep. He cleared the half-used bolts and scraps of material from the cutting table and lay down, using a pile of cloth as a pillow. Usually Thiet fell asleep as soon as the light was out, but that night for some reason his busy mind would not rest. In the pitch-black calm — against common practice and proclivity — Thiet reflected. It was a rare opportunity for the young man to look back and wonder how his mother and family were in Bo Ban. He missed them terribly and wanted to see and touch their faces again. Thiet knew that they were all very proud of him, and at times he was proud of himself. For, while the teenager was closer to the start of his journey than its end, he had come a long way since leaving the countryside.

Modernity made my father and aunt affluent without enriching them

 Kim: Okay, let’s go through this again, Dad. There are two steps. First we have to dial up the internet service provider, the ISP. When we’ve done that, you’ll see those two little flashing boxes in the corner. That means we’re connected. Then we use what’s called a browser, a program on our computer that allows US to surf the net. Sometimes things go wrong. It’s not perfect. For one reason or another, the internet site that we want to visit might be down or our ISP might not be responding. Nothing’s exact or assured. Do you understand? Do you want me to go over it again? Obviously I went through it too quickly last time.

Thiet: I understand. Don’t raise your voice and treat me like I’m a child. I taught you to ride a bike, do algebra and drive a car, remember? ‘Parents care for their children with patience as boundless as the sky and sea. Children care for their parents while counting the months and days.’ Do you remember that saying? Probably not. Doesn’t matter.
Where’s the internet right now? where’s my email? The two little boxes are there in the corner but I don’t see anything on the screen.
Kim: That’s because you just minimised the window! Do we have to go over this again? Here, give me the mouse. The internet window is currently minimised. You’ll remember that this does not mean that the program is closed. You don’t have to open it again. It’s just down here out of the way. If we click on it then it maximises. That means that it fills the whole screen. There’s another choice: this button here called 'restore’ allows us to adjust the size of the window. See, I can make it as wide or as long as I like by clicking and dragging the edges.
Thiet: Okay. All I want to do is restore the window or whatever you call it and check my email.
Kim: What do you mean? Do you want to maximise it?
Thiet: No, I want to restore it. where’s that button that you just showed me?
Kim: Shit, Dad! It’s already restored. When it’s restored then the restore button becomes the maximise button and when it’s maximised the maximise button becomes a restore button! How many times do we have to go over this?
Thiet: Don’t yell at me! You don’t like to help out your father — that’s fine. But you will not yell at me. My friend’s son taught him how to use the internet, send emails, type in Vietnamese and even organise his holidays over the internet. Do you think he ever yelled at his father? You can leave now. I’ll figure it out myself. I’ve done far more difficult things in my time. I just have to work at it for a bit longer and strike a little bit of luck.
In the late summer of 1954, as Thiet walked back to his village of Bo Ban after his brief but radical education in the ways of Marx, Lenin, Mao and Ho, he was overwhelmed by conflicting emotions. They had defeated the French but he did not feel victorious. Victory was to be found elsewhere, in a place roaring with socialist revolution. He wanted to be on the other side of the line that divided his country, designated by the Ben Hai River and the 17th parallel.
His mother, Thua, was elated when her boys returned safe from the jungle. And while Thiet was glad to be reunited with her, he was disappointed to see that nothing in Bo Ban had changed. Thiet assigned himself to ploughing his family’s little plot of earth with a heavy heart. The earth was dark but no longer rich and rewarding to him. His work was arduous in terms of input but meagre in terms of output. The chitchat of peasants did not interest him. How could it resonate against the call of the glorious world out there? His mother’s everyday ways, her chewing of areca nuts, her deference to ethereal gods, and the respect that she paid to their ancestors — even to his late father, Viet — insulted Thiet’s practical sensibilities.
The lives of some people in the village were so confined that they did not use objective measures of location. For them there was no left or right, or even east, west, north and south. Everything was related back to the mountains and the river: ‘Leave that bushel of rice on the mountain side of the hut.’ ‘Get some eggs from the lady on the river side of the market.’ ‘Just follow that path until you reach the temple and then take the next turn away from the hills.’ The villagers were trapped without even knowing it. Thiet, on the other hand, knew it all too well. Bo Ban was creeping in on him. He could feel the mountains bearing down and the river eroding the ground beneath his feet.
The teenager was also convinced that time was running out. He did not belong in the countryside, where distance was imprecisely measured in walking days, and time was clumsily fragmented into seasons, sunrises and sunsets. Thiet did not have much experience with clocks but he knew enough to imagine their hands spinning faster and faster, marking time as he stood still.
Sensing her youngest son’s manic restlessness, Thua offered sincere but ineffective consolation: ‘The heavens willing, something will cross your path.’ To ease his discontent Thua released her youngest boy from some of his chores and found him an apprenticeship with a tailor at the market in the adjacent town of Tuy Loan. Thiet’s employer was impressed by the young man’s industriousness. Thiet also helped to cut costs because material was sold by the forearm length and he had stocky arms. While Thiet did not envisage himself working at the market for long, it was better than being chained to his family hut and patch of land. At the market he could talk to different people, and although he did not make any money (his employer gave him lunch every day), there was potential for this in future.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 10

 Van and Sat ran out into the street and carried Thai inside. Van was surprised by the lack of blood as she bandaged her father’s wounded leg. Nonetheless, he was in great pain and his injury was beyond the first-aid skills that she had been taught at school. Running through the streets and putting herself in great danger, Sat found a family friend who was willing to take Thai to the hospital by horse and cart. Amidst all the commotion, the hospital staff managed to rebandage Thai’s leg and give him some medicine before sending him home.

In years to come the family would recall all the signs that foreshadowed the coming of Thai’s death and regret that they did not have the wherewithal to avoid fate; to stop him from stepping outside the door that morning; or even just to convey to him all that they felt in their hearts before it was too late. A fortune-teller had informed Van’s mother that the year of the monkey did not augur well for her husband. He was 60 and coming to the end of his fifth twelve-year lunar cycle, which suggested that the Great Wheel was about to revolve in full for him. In an attempt to halt this turn, earlier that week Sat had broken tradition by not making the pickled bean sprouts for their New Year’s celebrations because ‘bean sprouts’ (gia) was a homonym for ‘widow’ (ba gia). But clearly this was not enough. When he returned home from the hospital Thai coughed the terrible stench of death and his grandson (one of Chau’s infant boys) broke into tears, sensing the presence of his ghost. That afternoon Van’s father had a heart attack. Once again the family called upon their friend and his horse to take Thai to the hospital where the staff tried unsuccessfully to save him. Once again they sent the cart home, this time with Thai’s corpse in it.
Van stayed by her father into the evening, looking over him as if she was expecting his eyelids to flicker, his nose to twitch and his chest to heave. Her frightened younger siblings peered into the bedroom where Thai was placed on the bed that had served as their bomb shelter. Van was also afraid but would let neither the supernatural spirits nor the warmongers outside take hold of her. Having little experience with the dead, she laid the plastic bag that the hospital had provided over her father instead of putting him inside it. The body began to smell terribly, but Van stayed with her father throughout the night and proceeded the next day to arrange his funeral.
Thai was an exceptionally popular man, and it was only with the assistance of his friends that his family was able to honour him properly. During the mourning period, everyone who stepped outside to visit Thai or help organise his funeral was risking their life. And yet people came to chia buon, ‘share the sadness’. There was a distant relative who donated material for the family’s mourning gowns, a Chinese associate who procured a coffin, and a team of friends who carried it home and placed his corpse inside. A sombre but resolute crowd came to pay their respects and see Thai for one last time in his best clothes, surrounded by his belongings and votive money to ensure that he would not be as indigent in the afterlife as he was in his last days on earth.
Planes roared overhead as the funeral procession left for the burial site. The mourners could only hope that the pilots far up in the sky took them at face value and did not mistake them for a unit of undercover revolutionaries on the move. If they all died right then and there, no one would be left to burn incense and pay their respects. The great songwriter Trinh Cong Son had lamented funerals such as Thai’s in one of his most well- known songs:
On a winter’s day,
On a well-worn path,
An exploding mine destroyed A funeral cart.
Two times the person died,
His flesh and skin blown to pieces.
A Buddhist monk led the funeral procession, chanting all the way. At the burial site a crowing rooster was procured to awaken Thai’s spirit. To help him up from the grave they constructed a ladder of banana leaves. And as the family led the spirit back to their home, Van’s young brother, Tho, walked at the head of the procession clinging onto a framed picture of his father. The family paid tribute to Thai, remembering all his good deeds and their debt to him, in order to lighten his wrongdoings and improve his lot in the next world.
The rituals and sentiments were intricate and diverse, spiced with superstition and in accordance with the proud Vietnamese Triple Religion, Tam Giao. Tam Giao represents a practical conglomeration of the three great bodies of spiritual thought. From Confucianism it teaches how to order society; from Taoism it teaches how to come to grips with life’s uncertainties; and from Buddhism it provides an understanding of suffering. The Western mind has, at times, found it difficult to comprehend Tam Giao and in particular how it reconciles the Confucian notion of ancestor worship with Buddhist reincarnation. It is sometimes said that Vietnamese believe that their ancestors’ spirits ascend to heaven, where they watch over them for a time before descending to earth as another being. But, in fact, it is both more simple and complex.
For many Vietnamese there is no temporal disjunction. Like the electrons that fly in clouds around the nuclei of atoms, the human spirit cannot be pinned down and measured in one space and time without sacrificing an understanding of its multidimensional essence. It is enough to say that Thai was at once in heaven and on earth. For the rest of their lives his family would remember and pay their respects to him on the third day of Tet, an occasion which thereafter gained added significance but also lost much of its joy.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 9

 In late 1967 Van was transferred to an office just north of Saigon in Thu Due, which had recently opened with around 400 employees. It was here that she attended her first ever Lunar New Year’s (Tet) work party. The lavish lunch consisted of the finest pâté, spicy chicken dishes, dumplings and sweet cakes. As the pay mistress, Van had the joyous responsibility of overseeing the distribution of an extra month’s pay to every employee, the fabulous thirteenth month of the year. The atmosphere at the Thu Duc office leading up to the Tet of 1968 was full of hope and cheer. Then a cold front swept through the area and, as had occurred in the tumultuous year of 1954, the temperature dropped to a shivering 17oC.

Only weeks before Tet a set-piece battle raged near the central Vietnamese village of Khe Sanh. Some American military leaders believed that the confrontation would be decisive and likened it to the battle at Dien Bien Phu, which brought about an end to French colonialism. On paper, the US and its allies were convincing victors, killing more than 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers, while sustaining 500 American casualties. But as the year of the monkey dawned, it became more apparent that the battle at Khe Sanh was a diversion.
In recognition of the sacredness of Tet, both sides had agreed upon a truce during the holiday season. The soldiers from the South Vietnamese army were allowed out of barracks, and along with civilians who were travelling to be with their loved ones, they provided a human veil under which Southern revolutionaries and North Vietnamese troops infiltrated populous centres. On 31 January, the first day of the new lunar year, the communists attacked every city and 60 district towns. With the element of surprise on their side and a conviction among many that this was the ‘opportune moment’, the communists made territorial gains all over the country.
Perhaps the most notable communist victory took place in the imperial capital of Hue, which the communists viewed as a vestige of feudalism and a breeding ground for Diem loyalists. The communist forces held the city for 25 days, during which time over 10,000 hostages were captured. It took a massive bombing campaign and prolonged door-to-door raids by US marines to drive them out. In their desperate retreat the revolutionaries slaughtered their hostages, leaving behind thousands of bodies, including those of the elderly and children, in mass graves. The offensive cost the revolutionaries around 50,000 combatants and had a devastating impact on morale. The Republican Vietnamese army suffered nearly 3,000 deaths during the month of Tet. Almost 2,000 US soldiers were killed, and American public opinion turned irrevocably against the war in Vietnam. The number of South Vietnamese civilians who lost their lives during that New Year is rarely discussed and analysed. Undoubtedly they numbered more than 10,000, and one of them was Thai.
The crackling of gunfire and pounding of heavy artillery grew louder as Van’s family cowered inside their house in Binh Duong. Van had returned from Saigon a few days earlier. On the first day of Tet, their home had been filled with the customary festive foods and joy. The ancestral spirits had been invited home to enjoy the occasion and were showered with votive offerings. At the same time, children received new clothes and presents, thereby enclosing in a loop of merriment those who had come before and those who would go ahead. On the second day of Tet, everyone was strangled by fear.
Years had passed since Van had been so close to battle. She recalled the havoc caused by the Viet Minh bombs in the marketplace when she was a little girl, and with a fearful sense of deja vu saw lines of people scurrying like ants past her house. This time they were running into town, away from the burning countryside. Van was a mature woman of duty and means, but on that day she felt like a child and yearned for the security and ignorance of youth.
‘The fighting is everywhere!’ screamed passers-by. But did this mean all over town, the whole province or the entire country? Were her relatives in Chanh Luu safe? What about her workmates? Would she have a job to return to? Is this what it is like in the countryside every day? Van posed such questions to herself. And the young woman despaired at the sorrow that had befallen Vietnam.
The children in Van’s house moaned with disappointment because they could not visit friends and family to receive the traditional crimson envelopes filled with lucky money. But as twilight fell and fighting overwhelmed the town, they joined the adults in silent dismay. Then the radio went out and the electricity lines were severed, leaving them deaf and blind to everything but the war. When the US helicopters and planes started flying overhead dropping bombs and firing rockets which were supposed to save freedom-loving people like themselves, Van’s father directed his wife, four children and two grandchildren under the enormous bed made of dark lacquered wood as thick as a man’s forearm. Here they lay quivering through the night.
The next morning the fighting had lulled and Thai opened the front door to find the air filled with smoke. Refugees from the countryside were still filing past their house towards the Phu Van camp, which was a few kilometres away. As Thai watched the rake-thin spectres sagging under the burden of their belongings and the thought of everything they had left behind, a bullet passed through his leg. It was most likely not directed at him. It could have just as easily come from the gun of a Republican soldier as from an NLF revolutionary from the South or the North. Perhaps that single bullet had travelled over oceans from the US, China, Korea or Australia before being put into service in Vietnam. It might have even come from a civilian weapon, a wayward shot from someone warning off looters. It was a bullet without an ideology or purpose that had somehow navigated through the wind, smoke and debris to find Van’s father. And in a fraction of a second it bore through his skin and flesh before continuing its aimless journey. For whatever and no reason, on the third day of Tet 1968 Thai was shot and he cried out to his wife as he fell to the ground.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 8

 Van watched on as two proud parents photographed their daughter leaning against an old tamarind tree at the front of the school. The mother was holding a black-and-white picture that had been taken years ago on her daughter’s first day at Gia Long. She was leaning against the same grand tree which had not changed in all those years, but the skinny awkward girl had transformed into a vivacious young woman. Van was not well acquainted with that enviable classmate, but knew that she was the sort of student who would cherish her high-school days for the rest of her life. Many years later, a Gia Long High School alumni network was formed with an accompanying website full of pensive poems contributed by ex-students worldwide. One of them was particularly appealing to Van, who sensed that it was composed by that idealised Gia Long student she had seen photographed on her final day of high school: well adjusted, competent and beautiful.

On the roads that students pass 
Coming home from school 
They release their souls adrift 
With golden tamarind leaves.
On the roads littered with memories 
Small footprints of birds remain 
Alongside joyous recollections 
Of soft roses brushing by our hearts.
On the paths so petite 
Covered with rusted leaves, 
I once strolled along...
Van was nothing like that girl. Each year of high school had been a dreadful strain. In the pressure-cooker examination period before summer, Van might lose up to 10 kilograms. After the final test her mind and body would snap like a violin string and Van would spend three days in bed recovering. Somehow she would bumble through with a pass. The only obstacle that she did not manage to crawl over was the final one. After performing poorly in another oral examination, Van failed her second baccalaureate and had to repeat the year. Her father had been right all along. Van had to work ten times harder than others, but her perseverance would eventually be rewarded. She was the first person in her family to complete her secondary studies and attend college.
Van’s first choice when it came to tertiary education — and the most popular among young women at that time — was teaching, as it provided a stable career in the outside world without compromising that desirable image of women as child- rearers. Van wanted to teach home science, a new subject which was admired for its adoption of modern ideas and machines in affirming feminine domesticity. The competition for entrance into the course was intense and Van was not surprised when she failed and had to settle for law and the humanities.
After a few months of unenthusiastic study, Van got a job as a receptionist at a building supplies company in downtown Saigon and gave up her studies to support her family. The company was owned by a Chinese couple who had made a handsome profit from the construction boom that had followed the influx of US military advisers, soldiers and support staff. Van’s pay was low and her bosses were abusive, but she could not afford to quit. Thai had reached the age of compulsory retirement and the family had been forced to move back to their home town of Binh Duong to live with relatives. Every day Van left for work at six in the morning to make the 30-kilometre journey and did not come home until eight in the evening. Her entire monthly wage went to the upkeep of the household in Binh Duong, but it was not enough to save them from deprivation.
In the spring of 1966 Thai spoke to an acquaintance who worked at the National Electricity Authority on the east side of the city. He agreed to give Van a job. ‘Everything I have today, I owe to that man and that moment,’ she reminisced much later. Van started work at the electricity authority as a lowly clerk, but not long afterwards the position of pay mistress and head book-keeper was offered to her and Van enthusiastically accepted. In a matter of months she had a private office and a wage that was almost twice what she had been receiving as a receptionist.
With the extra money Van and her father decided that they could afford for her to relocate to the city. Initially she lived with a relative, before moving out on her own in early 1967, renting half a room in the then disreputable riverside area of Khanh Hoi. Rental space was so scarce at the time that another young woman and her US soldier boyfriend lived in the other half of the room, which was partitioned off by a curtain. They often made a terrible racket and so after a few months Thai sent his daughter to a boarding house for young women in the centre of the city. Twenty-one young ladies were crammed into that single room where the bunks were stacked so high and close together that they felt like books on an overcrowded library shelf.
Despite having a lucrative job, Van never felt like a modern career woman who was redefining what it meant to be successful. She lived with the austerity of a monk and saved everything that she could to send back to her family, whose security and happiness were prerequisites for her own. She made 5,600 Vietnamese dong a month (around $US35 at the time), almost all of which she sent to Binh Duong, keeping only enough for food, rent and transportation back to her home town on weekends. At the electricity authority, employees had the option of having a cooked lunch every day or receiving five dong in lieu. Van took the five dong, using one to buy a loaf of bread. She fenced off her heart, mind and finances from the distractions of fashion, entertainment and young men. ‘Who would want me anyway?’ she occasionally consoled herself. Sometimes, moments before sleep in that overcrowded room where there was always at least one young woman sobbing, Van felt infinitely lonely.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 7

 Thích Quang Duc turned to an ancient form of Buddhist protest, self-immolation, to highlight how far the Republic had fallen and to make a plea for religious equality and political freedom. In early June the venerable monk was driven in an Austin motor car 1,000 kilometres from his home in Hue to the Southern capital. At midday on 11 June he sat at the corner of Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet sưeets in downtown Saigon, and with the assistance of other monks proceeded to douse himself with petrol. Suspended between this world and the next, the monk chanted mantras as he set himself alight. For minutes his body remained rigid in the lotus position, his hands resting in his lap as the flames rose metres into the sky.

In response to Thich Quang Due’s self-immolation, Diem ordered police to raid pagodas all over the country and imprison dissident monks. A handful of monks reacted by following Thích Quang Due’s fiery example, further feeding the popular uprising against Diem and the injustices that he had inflicted upon the nation. That summer, martial law was imposed, as tertiary and secondary students flocked xuong duong (down the streets).
Van’s school was not immune to the epidemic of dissent. For the first time since the great anti-colonialist Phan Chau Trinh’s funeral in 1926, Gia Long High School boiled over with unrest. In the autumn of 1963, thunder sounded through the halls as students clapped down the tops of their desks, refusing to study until Diem and his cronies stood down or were removed. As chance would have it, Van was in her civics lesson at the time, where Mr Hung rose to meet the electrifying situation head on. ‘You are all adults. You know what is right and what is wrong. If you want to protest then leave. If you want to study then stay, but don’t stop others from doing so.’ Without exception, everyone in Van’s class released the tops of their desks and sat in silence.
President Diem had far less success in generating compliance. The country sniggered at him with contempt. Word on the street was that the President’s time had come. Whereas once he was praised for sacrificing himself, just like Elizabeth I, by wedding himself to the nation, now he was mocked as homosexual. From the peasantry to the middle class, everyone knew that Ngo Dinh Diem had lost the Mandate of Heaven. The cross-world connection between their earthly ruler and the governing forces of the cosmos had been revoked and now the Great wheel was turning to restore order. The signs were everywhere. Thich Quang Duc’s heart had remained intact and was taken to a pagoda where it was worshipped by thousands; statues of the Virgin Mary wept blood; and one day the sun seemed to spin and jitter in the sky, as if the heavens were anxious about what was going on below. Diem’s father’s ornate tombstone was struck by lightning and a plague of caterpillars emerged from the ruins. While Van did not understand the full cosmological import of these phenomena, she was sure of their outcome. With the approval of the US Ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, and President Kennedy, Diem’s regime was overthrown by a junta of South Vietnamese generals. On 2 November 1963 Diem and Nhu were found hiding in a church and were killed.
Not surprisingly, the individuals who led the turbulence during those autumn months did not have Loan in mind when they ordered planes to fly screaming over the city and armoured vehicles to drive maniacally through the streets. The commotion was very unsettling for Loan, who contracted tuberculosis and then fell victim to a severe case of pneumonia. At first, when Van was not at school, she would sit by Loan’s side and try to ease her pain. As it became clear that Loan would not recover, Van accompanied her to their home town of Binh Duong. In those last days the two sisters recalled all the fun they had had as children, remembering the nights they had waited for a fairy godmother or dashing prince to come and cure Loan so that she could skip and dance once again.
During hushed moments, Van thought back to when her older sister was sixteen and decided to start school in order to learn how to read. Loan had had to ride an infant’s bike with training wheels to get there, as her limbs were so bowed that she could not manage a full-sized bicycle. Van had walked alongside, providing physical and moral support. The other students teased Loan, tacitly suggesting that she must have had a wicked past life. Van bit back at them, defending her sister with a ferocity that she would never have used on her own behalf, when Loan died Van felt guilty. She wished that she had possessed the strength to shield her older sister from the schoolyard taunts and somehow allow Loan to live a normal life, if only for a few days.
In March of 1965, President Johnson deployed American armed forces to save the flagging South Vietnamese government from communist takeover. More than 100 fighter-bombers began attacking targets in North Vietnam as a part of Operation Rolling Thunder. On 8 March, 3,500 US marines landed on China Beach in Da Nang to defend an American airbase. They were the first American combat troops to arrive in the country, and this is often regarded as marking the start of the Second Indochina War — more commonly known as the Vietnam War. At that stage, no one in Washington imagined that the conflict would last a decade, which is partly why they never got around to formally declaring war.
In an atmosphere of escalating violence, Van graduated from Gia Long High School for Girls. On that spring day in the school courtyard, exuberant groups of young women were hugging, posing for photographs and promising to stay friends forever. Van had not forged any enduring relationships at Gia Long, but neither was she despised or made fun of. She was the girl that everyone would soon forget, a fact that bothered her only slightly.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 6

 Van’s civics lessons were based on a colossal textbook laden with theories and examples from faraway places and periods. Yet the political system of her own state remained unexamined, in part because it was viewed as a far superior alternative to the communist system which threatened to the north; but also because government censors had become very sensitive to criticism. Beyond the walls of Van’s classroom, however, the South Vietnamese Republic was consumed with questions of freedom and revolution.

After an initial surge of popularity following his rise to power in 1955, President Diem had steadily fallen out of favour with many South Vietnamese. Contrary to his claims, his personalist government did not offer an appealing mix of East and West, but rather borrowed the worst features from both worlds. With so many of Diem’s family members and acolytes in powerful positions, it was clear to the population that their elected government was a corrupt dynasty with only one modern twist. Diem was able to use all the money and technology that the US had to offer to maintain his rule and fuel his self-obsession.
The President fancied all the trappings of royalty, including the adulation of his people. Along with students from all over Saigon, Van would have to travel to the airport or the presidential palace to greet Ngo Dinh Diem whenever he returned from an overseas trip. If the rally was at the palace, which was close to Van’s school, Gia Long girls would be seen arm-in-arm strolling through downtown Saigon in their pale blue ao dai, which was reserved for ceremonial occasions. When they arrived at the palace, the students were each given Republican flags, yellow with three red stripes running across them, and encouraged to sing a tune that had come to fill the airwaves and cinemas:
Praise President Ngo
Who knows how many years his heels traversed foreign lands?
To save our nation,
He swore an oath to struggle And deliver liberty.
He fought feudal exploitation And wiped out the colonists.
All the Vietnamese people Are grateful to President Ngo.
President Ngo, praise President Ngo forever!
With this jingle ringing in their ears, the students were cued to wave and cheer when the presidential car approached. Those at the front might even catch a glimpse of their elusive leader if the tinted windscreen of his limousine was wound down a fraction so as to allow in a little fresh air. Van was always at the back but waved and sang regardless because it was the path of least resistance and also out of relief after a long day in the sun.
As Van grew older, her support for the RVN leadership faded. ‘If education is so important to President Diem, why does he make so many students miss school?’ she would ask herself. Van was also critical of Diem’s growing aloofness. One day her father, Thai, came home cursing because he had seen footage of the President visiting a flood-stricken village in the Mekong Delta. Despite the fact that the floodwaters had receded to below knee-height, a raft was constructed for the President to stand on while his bodyguards pushed him from one hovel to another. In his customary white suit, a self- proclaimed beacon of purity and uprightness, Diem looked down upon the peasants who had lost everything. His glances were fleeting and revealed revulsion rather than compassion, as if he were looking at wriggling maggots caught out in the harsh light of day.
‘When there’s a flood, dogs jump onto the altar,’ said Thai, reciting a proverb. ‘Diem is a man greatly elevated, but of little stature.’
For one-time supporters of Diem’s Republic such as Van’s father, South Vietnamese independence now meant not only freedom from communism but also from Diem’s overbearing paternalism. Dissent was growing, and along with the psychedelic images of flowers which had sprouted all over the city came a Gandhian conviction in the power of the people as agents of change. In this atmosphere filled with idealism and a desire for reform, anti-Diem protests broke out which would be seen and heard around the world.
The more unpopular Diem became, the more convinced he was that there was something wrong with the people. Diem disbanded village councils in an attempt to concentrate political power in his hands. He implemented laws that permitted the arrest, detention and execution of state enemies without trial. People lived in fear of the secret police, who kidnapped suspects at night and took them to dungeons under the zoo where they were tortured and left to rot. Newspapers were heavily censored and suspended when they did not toe the government line. Madame Nhu’s campaign of moral rearmament, initially aimed at vices such as pornography and opium smoking, became a program for cultural oppression. Music that was not to the First Lady’s liking was banned after being linked to prostitution. Books and clothing that did not comply with the government’s arbitrary sensibilities were incinerated in public bonfires. Like a child who claps his hands over his ears to avoid hearing bad news, the President was shutting himself off from everything and everyone that did not please him.
In May 1963 the. turmoil reached a critical point during a clash of festivities in the central Vietnamese city of Hue. That year Buddha’s birthday fell within a week of the anniversary of the consecration of the Archbishop of Hue (Diem’s older brother Ngo Dinh Thuc). The Catholics were allowed to fly the Vatican flag and parade their sacred objects, while the Buddhists (who in Hue lived under the control of Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Can) were forbidden to do likewise. In the ensuing protests soldiers killed nine Buddhists, but even then Diem refused to give the Buddhists the same rights as Catholics. Demonstrations spread and increased in ferocity so that by the summer of 1963 a mountain of political kindling had been laid down awaiting the spark that would come in the form of a 73- year-old Buddhist monk named Thích Quang Duc.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 5

 They all knew to whom she was referring. To the Vietnamese, Joan of Arc did not even come close to possessing the might and courage of Trieu Thi Trinh or of the Trung sisters. In AD 248, at the age of 23, Trieu Thi Trinh led a revolt against occupying Chinese forces. Riding upon a gigantic war elephant, and wearing a golden tunic, she made breathtaking pronouncements which challenged accepted hierarchies and brought men to their knees:

I only want to ride the wind and walk the waves, slay the big whale of the Eastern sea, clean up our frontiers, and save the people from drowning, why should I imitate others, bow my head, stoop over and be a slave? Why resign myself to menial house work ?
Myth has it that Lady Trieu was 3 metres tall, her metre- long breasts were strapped over her shoulders for battle, and her voice rang like a temple bell putting fear into the hearts of men. Lady Trieu’s revolt against Chinese occupation was suppressed because her army was small and unprepared for siege warfare. Lady Trieu also had an Achilles heel. She could bathe in the blood of her enemies but abhorred even a skerrick of dirt. After gaining this intelligence, a Chinese general sent his troops out naked and ordered them to kick up dust as if they were wild goats. The Vietnamese heroine fled in disgust, leaving her army in disarray. After the defeat Lady Trieu committed suicide, but for centuries she was said to have appeared in the dreams of Vietnamese revolutionaries offering support and guidance.
Van had grown up also listening to the legendary story of the Trung sisters. According to popular knowledge, the story began in AD 40 when Chinese soldiers killed Trung Trac’s husband. As an act of revenge, Trac and her sister raised an army and drove the invaders away. During their two-year reign as queens many taxes were abolished and national pride flourished, when the Chinese forces returned with reinforcements and overran the country, the sisters made one last sacrifice by drowning themselves in the Hat Giang River. The story of their sacrifice spread across the nation and down through the millennia, reminding Vietnamese that it is better to die proud and independent than to live as a slave.
It was late in the afternoon and Van was finding it difficult to concentrate on her twelfth-grade civics lesson, despite the fact that they were revising for a coming test. Van’s groaning stomach reminded her of the sweet soups and candies that were sold just beyond the school gates. She ran her fingers over the names that had been scratched into the desk in the way a prisoner might have dug their initials into a cell wall. Van had once gathered up the courage to immortalise her presence at Gia Long in the same way, but had used a blunt hairpin so her initials had soon faded away.
The teenager straightened her back and tried to focus, but her eyes continued to wander around the room. There were six rows of three desks, each accommodating three students in white ao dai and embroidered mat flower badges. To the uninitiated observer the class was uniform and ordered. But Van could see countless examples of individual expression bursting up through the dense bed of conformity. Many ao dai were imprinted with brocaded patterns, hair ties came in all different colours, and fashionable wooden clogs were hidden under long broad-legged pants. With the slightest chill came out bright jackets of every colour, and the weave in conical hats when held up to the light illustrated age-old poems.
Van was slipping away. ‘Concentrate on the lesson!’ she reprimanded herself. ‘What if the teacher calls upon you to answer a question? what are you going to do if you fail the exam? Civics is one of the few subjects that you are doing well at. You can’t afford to blow this one too.’
She turned her attention to Mr Hung who was adored by students, not for his teaching but because he was young and single. Mr Hung, who had only recently come to Gia Long, generated a wave of whispers and giggling whenever he walked through the corridors. The boldest students flirted with him shamelessly, ensuring that his classes were regularly interrupted and disorderly. Van felt sorry for Mr Hung who had been emasculated by the constant adulation. He seemed to grow more timid with each passing week. This of course only made him more appealing to those Gia Long girls who desired a sensitive man in their lives.
‘Reform means cutting a rotten piece out of a cake,’ proclaimed Mr Hung. ‘Revolution is when you throw the whole thing out and bake a new one. The French Revolution, which we studied last week, is a good example of a modern revolution. Miss Thu, you seem to enjoy talking. Please stand up and tell the class when the French Revolution began and what it was all about.’ It was a rare triumph for Mr Hung against one of his most audacious students. He seemed energised by the victory and taught the remainder of the class with uncharacteristic gusto.
‘The communists will tell you that they know everything about revolution. They’re always talking about global revolution, peasant revolution and worker revolution. But communism is credible only on paper. That is to say, it is not a credible theory
Earlier that year Mr Hung had instructed them that communists manipulated unworldly peasants and workers into carrying out misguided and destructive uprisings. The reds, he had argued, wanted to repress that which was irrepressible: the human spirit and personal endeavour. Most deplorably, they had no religion, family or tradition. But this did not mean that the communists were in favour of equality and progress. On the contrary. Mr Hung’s favourite example of tyranny and a world turned upside down was the land- reform program that the North Vietnamese, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, had carried out from 1953 to 1956. During this time, people arbitrarily identified as landlords were denounced, beaten and tortured before being stripped of their property and belongings. Beggars were appointed as community leaders on account of their clean backgrounds, and children were compelled to publicly condemn their feudal parents and grandparents. Mr Hung concluded the class’s lesson on communism with a film named We Want to Live!, which told the story of refugees who had fled from the North Vietnamese land-reform programs. In one terrifying scene, landlords were buried to their necks in the earth and run over with ploughs.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 4

 It was only on very rare occasions that Van’s composure, which grew out of a sense of old-fashioned duty and new age resolve, showed signs of weakness. One such fissure appeared on a Saturday evening in the late 1950s when Thai took the entire family to a night at the movies. It was a Hindi film, which Van and her sisters always enjoyed for their action- packed plots, resplendent dance scenes and stories of eternal love unsullied by fleeting desire. As the lights softened and the movie flickered on, baby Tho began to weep in his mother’s arms. Sat tried to comfort him but, as the crowd became more irritated with the noisy baby, Tho seemed to scream louder. Amid the bawling and condemnation, Van knew that someone had to do something. She did not want her mother, who also adored Hindi films and rarely went out, to miss the movie, and her father was too esteemed to be left with a screaming infant. Feeling as if she had little choice in the matter, Van picked up her brother and left. As she stood outside the cinema watching latecomers rush in, Van despised her baby brother at the same time as she sheltered him from the rain and her own tears of frustration.

Throughout Van’s early high-school years, from 1957 to 1961, she toiled through each semester, studying as hard as she could without a single accolade. When she was not at school, she was selling lottery tickets, making just enough to help the family to get by. At home she was always doing chores and caring for her brother and sisters. Because of this gruelling routine, she did not have any close schoolfriends. This is hinted at in a 1961 class photograph in which she can be seen standing in the back row, glum and inconspicuous, often Van felt her life was plodding aimlessly along, as if she was riding in a mule-driven cart while everyone else rushed by. It was not until her senior years of high school that any excitement came into the teenager’s life, a turn of events that coincided with broader developments in South Vietnam.
In the summer of 1962, along with several thousand other eighteen-year-olds, Van was enlisted into a training camp for the Young Republican Women. Every weekday for three months they converged upon a downtown soccer stadium to fulfil their patriotic duty and to receive credit points towards their first baccalaureate. The majority of their time was spent marching in preparation for Women’s Day parades and learning first aid, as if to reaffirm their primary wartime roles as carers rather than fighters, but the girls were also given some basic instruction on how to use and maintain firearms.
Van took no pleasure in using her Ml Garand rifle to pulverise the cardboard communists that were half hidden amongst the dry grass of the training ground. As she lay on her stomach looking over a mound of dirt, Van wondered whether traditional feminine qualities such as elegance and tenderness were still of any relevance, she was a bad shot and was not sure whether she was in command of the firearm or it was in command of her. Other members of Van’s troop were so traumatised by their encounter with the weapons of men and war that they were brought to tears. A few characters cruelly imitated their soft-hearted sisters-at-arms by wailing melodramatically.
All morning the howling of young women was mixed with that of machine-guns at the firing range on the outskirts of Saigon. Van felt cold and immune to the experience, probably because she had witnessed the destructive force of modern-day weaponry while still a young girl in Binh Duong. Whatever the reason, Van simply took aim and fired before moving aside for the next person.
The founder of the Young Republican Women’s camps and commanding officer of the girls was Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, President Diem’s sister-in-law and irrefutable First Lady of the Republic (given Diem’s bachelorhood and her own ferocious appetite for power). It was often said that Madame Nhu was the ‘man in the family’, and that she ruled the men who ruled the country.
One morning Madame Nhu came to inspect and address her young troops, whom she referred to as her ‘little darlings’. Van stood motionless in a forest of khaki shirts and lemon-scented hair, watching and listening to the larger-than-life figure who, for many young women of the Republic, was an exemplar of modern feminism. Van’s loyalties, however, lay with a distant queen who ruled over a land on the other side of the Eastern Ocean. Van had started collecting pictures of Jacqueline Kennedy from magazines and newspapers and stuck them in an enormous scrapbook. Jackie Kennedy was educated, popular and worldly, but for all her public triumphs she remained demure and, above all, was a devoted wife and mother. This First Lady had such alluring eyes, such full but by no means pouty lips, hair that on occasion flew free with the wind and at other times maintained a stiff grace in stormy political conditions. She was striking in any gown and it was as if tiaras were trialled on the heads of princesses for her alone to wear.
Whatever Madame Nhu lacked in terms of elegance vis-a-vis Jackie Kennedy, she made up for with feistiness. Madame Nhu stood on the dais in the soccer stadium as confident as a world- class composer. She wore a dazzling yellow ao dai with an outrageously low-cut heart-shaped neckline. The dress sparkled in the sun, as she made a speech that was at once inspirational and terrifying.
‘in times of war the baton of power and responsibility is passed on to women and we must show that we can do as well, if not better than our men in advancing national prosperity and security, whenever the enemy comes, we must fight to protect our families, like so many Vietnamese heroines who have gone before us!’

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 3

 A year after Tho was born Sat gave birth to another girl, Lien, just around the time Van’s oldest sister Chau returned home with her unemployed husband and newborn son. Then in 1958, with no less than ten people living in Van’s Phu Tho house, the mortgage repayments became unaffordable. Filled with regret and disappointment, they had to pack up and move to cheaper accommodation in the dilapidated Saigon docklands, leaving behind the home that had symbolised their brief ascent into the middle class.

Despite their best efforts, Van’s parents could not find a way to earn any more money. At one stage Thai bought an Italian- made sewing machine with the assistance of a government loan. He was convinced that this would allow his wife and daughters to make clothes in less time and with stronger seams than by hand-sewing, and hoped that Sat could open a tailoring business once she had mastered the machine. But Van’s mother was intimidated by the bizarre gyrations and clanging. Unable to depress the foot-pedal with confidence or finesse, Sat broke one sewing machine needle after another, and Van was left responsible for the family’s tailoring needs.
With so many new mouths to feed, hands and feet to clean up after, clothes to sew and crying babies to console, big sister Van was both more deprived and more relied upon than ever. She was not inclined to resent others for her lot in life. And in any case, there was no one to blame. She could not reproach Tho for being a boy and drawing so much attention, or her younger sisters who were only infants. Her crippled sister Loan was beyond fault, as was her eldest sister, Chau, who was busy working as a switchboard operator. Van’s mother Sat could not do anything about her stifling domesticity, her inability to step beyond husband and home to find a way for them to make ends meet. And there was no way that Van could hold her father responsible. Yet on occasion she wondered whether their lives would have been easier had he not been a compulsive gambler.
Thai had played cards for as long as Van could remember, gambling more frequently and with greater stakes when the family was most destitute. In Binh Duong after the taxis had been blown up, Thai would leave the home late at night in search of solace and a dazzling bonanza. His fever infected those closest to him. When Thai won he brought home an aura of joy and packages of lavish food, which were sometimes hidden under his shirt and a melodramatic frown, when he really did lose, it was difficult to avoid his wrath.
In Saigon the gambling scene was much bigger and brighter than it had been in Binh Duong a decade ago. Thai was particularly fond of the Grand World, an enormous casino run by the Binh Xuyen gangsters who were also known for their pirating, opium dens, brothels, and for their control of the police. The Grand World was situated on an immense block in Cholon, the Chinese district 10 kilometres west of downtown Saigon, and was surrounded by a high concrete wall. Inside there were dozens of tents and huts with corrugated iron roofs, which housed hundreds of gaming tables. Thai would stoop over these for hours on end with the grave concentration of a general plotting in his war cabinet.
When Thai first took Van and her older sisters to the Grand World as a treat, she thought it was very glamorous and enjoyed watching the circus acts, musicians and Charlie Chaplin mimics who performed around the tents. These acts rarely changed and so Van soon grew tired of them, but she pretended that she was eager to see them because Loan relished the opportunity to get out of the house and needed someone to carry her. What made those trips depressing was returning home without their father who remained lost to the Grand World all night, until the unforgiving sunlight and the painful emptiness in his pockets compelled him to go home.
While this seedy image of Thai was not one that Van would voluntarily summon years later, it had an enduring influence on her. The thought of her once-imposing father debased and broken made Van determined to be otherwise. In all situations she would be prudent and proactive, calculating the worst-case scenario and preparing herself and loved ones for that eventuality. She developed an ability to detect the slightest danger, and from a very young age abhorred anything approaching an ‘easy come, easy go’ attitude to life. Van could not accept fate or the charity of the heavens if it meant that her family would endure hardship or humiliation. The teenager had become all too familiar with that proverb her father and many other Vietnamese of his generation and outlook lived by: ‘The heavens conceive elephants and bestow the grass for them to eat.’ She rejected it outright.
Drawing upon her spirit of must-do-ism, Van was often the only person in her family who was bringing home an income. Ironically, from the age of thirteen to sixteen, Van accomplished this by selling tickets with her sister Loan in the state sweepstakes, which were promoted as ‘the lottery to build the nation’. After school and on the weekends, the teenager hired a cyclo (bicycle taxi) on which she had to prop Loan up to stop her from falling into the traffic. They travelled to Cholon where a family friend allowed the girls to take up the sidewalk in front of his busy snack bar. Here Van unpacked her small table and made it known in a rambunctious voice to passers-by that she had their lucky number. Loan sat quietly by Van’s side with her twisted limbs tucked under the, table; the two girls valued Loan’s dignity over the extra money that might be gained by using her affliction to appeal to the sympathy of customers. At first, Van found spruiking very difficult, but gradually she accepted that she would have to put aside her meekness and fear of the world if she was going to take care of her loved ones. To be true to her principles, she would have to be someone else.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely 2

 The prospect of giving a speech, of expressing her opinions as if they mattered, of an audience’s complete attention, seemed radical and frightening to Van. She was accustomed to education being a top-down affair, in which teachers projected their knowledge and virtue into docile students, as was customary in the classical Chinese system. But by the 1950s there had been a significant shift in South Vietnamese education, not only with respect to what students were learning but also to how they were learning it.

In May 1958, the year after Van started at Gia Long, a commission of 50 scholars and officials convened to update the Republic of Vietnam’s (RVN) education system. They were inspired by an obscure body of thought known as personalism, which was developed and vigorously promoted by President Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Nhu. Nhu was influenced by French humanist philosophers of the 1930s for whom the most important distinction in the modern world was between the ‘individual’ who is atomised, selfish and helpless before the tyrannical state, and the ‘person’ who possesses inalienable rights derived from her or his integration into a healthy society.
In his efforts to ‘personalise’ the RVN, Ngo Dinh Nhu revived what he saw as the best classical Eastern values and tried to blend them with contemporary Western notions of development. In such a society, innovation and progress could blossom without detaching people from their families and communities. Nhu was scornful of communism which erased people’s connection to the past. Personalism would only eliminate those aspects of yesteryear that hampered progress while preserving the traditions and values that gave meaning to life.
By the late 1950s there was a push in both public and private high schools to make learning more personalistic. Links to the nation’s greater Asian heritage were nurtured by teaching the philosophy of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tzu. These classes were seen to go hand in hand with a student’s scientific advancement, which was fostered by exploring the natural sciences and doing laboratory work.
The introduction of personalism to the education system offered Van and her peers a range of ways to view the world and themselves from which they could often mix and match according to circumstances: Western now and Eastern later, a little bit of trạdition and a dash of modernity. But the experiences and opportunities offered to them at school in the late 1950s were not always easy. In Van’s case, for instance, there was the daunting prospect of that speech.
Before her entire class Van had to present her review of the novel The Flower Vendor. When the moment arrived and Van stood before her first-ever audience, time seemed to stop. Van desperately wanted the ordeal to be over; she wanted to skip forward a year, a day or even fifteen minutes, knowing that she could deal with the consequences, but not with the event itself. There was a long silence during which her knees and then her entire body shook violently. Smirks broke out over the faces of a few, but most of her classmates took pity on her, knowing it just as easily could have been one of them standing at the front.
It is unlikely that anyone in Van’s class recognised the elegance and incisiveness of her book review, delivered as it was with much stuttering, inaudible gaps and occasional squeaks. Yet it is a story that resonated strongly with the journeys that many of these young women would take, and the forces that would direct them. Burying her head in her chest and hardly opening her eyes, Van began:
Nhat Linh and Khai Hung wrote The Flower Vendor after establishing the Self-Strength Literary Group in the 1930s. The group sought to modernise Vietnamese society through their novels, journalism and political activity. Its members were stridently urban and Western- oriented.
In 1936, one of its leaders, Hoang Dao, issued ten theses for a new life, the first of which was ‘Following the new, completely and decisively following the new’.
In order to look after her blind scholar husband and save enough money for an operation that would restore his sight, a flower vendor named Lien works day and night shouldering her wares to the market. The flower vendor’s husband does not appreciate her sacrifices and yearns for fine wine, august company and carefree passion. As soon as he regains his vision the scholar leaves his old-fashioned wife for two upmarket call girls.
In fact, goes the moral of the story, it was Lien who could not see. Blinded by piety she could not prevent the neglect or resist the abuse that she suffered at her husband’s hands.
Nhat Linh and Khai Hung admire the traditional Vietnamese woman for her capacity to endure oppression, but argue that her meekness and adherence to outdated obligations threaten both her own and her society’s chances of coming into full bloom.
Sweating profusely, Van sat down without a consolatory word or reassuring pat on the back. As with many of her efforts during this period of her life, she received neither satisfaction nor reward.
Van’s struggle at high school coincided with the introduction of new duties and difficulties at home. In October 1955, at the age of 40, Van’s mother Sat had given birth to a boy. By this time Thai and Sat had given up on having a son, accepting that the family line was destined to end. They also recalled the astrological prediction from a decade ago that a son would only be conceived at the cost of one of his parents. But to everyone’s relief Tho grew up relatively healthy and both of his parents remained of this earth. Van’s parents were certain that this was due to the precautions that they had taken. They had baby Tho’s ears pierced to give him a girlish appearance, and consulted numerous people with ‘other world’ knowledge for advice on how to save the boy and themselves. When as a toddler Tho began walking with a limp, the imperfection was seen as a concession to the evil spirits, saving him from the fate that had befallen his older brothers and former incarnations. No one was more pleased to hear this than the young boy, who was finding it difficult to make friends on account of his earrings.

Individualism left my mother feeling very lonely

 ‘What are you waiting for, son? Not hungry?’

‘No, it’s not that, Dad. But since Mum went to so much trouble to make dinner for us we should at least wait for her. Can’t you see how disrespectful it is to begin eating before her every night? It’s sexist, uncivilised.’
‘That’s just the way your mother is. She cooks the meal and we eat it. Why do you think she always sets the food on the table and then walks off to wash her hands or change her shirt? She wants us to eat before her. Your mother’s old- fashioned. You know that.’
‘It’s not right and I’m not eating until Mum does,’ I proclaimed as I lay down my chopsticks and crossed my arms.
When Mum returned to the dining room I made some deferential gestures while trying to quell my growling stomach. ‘Smells good, Mum, can I offer you some chicken? Why don’t you have some soup?’
‘Thank you, son.’ Mum ate a little rice and took a small pickled leek from a side dish while from the corner of her eye she waited foY me to start on the mains. Her feigned compliance frustrated my good intentions. On that and many other occasions, I ate my dinner in silent frustration.
For a long time I wondered why Mum insisted on eating last. Why did we always have to go before her? How could she be so obstinately attached to her backwardness? It was as if she was embracing her own oppression. There were times at the dinner table when I could empathise with the French and American colonialists; they too had tried to force their civilising missions onto the Vietnamese only to be rejected and driven away.
The first school for girls in Saigon was opened in 1915, admitting 42 primary-school students. It went by the name of the School of Purple Dresses, after the colour of the girls’ uniforms, which symbolised the primness and integrity expected of the students. When it was extended into a high school in 1922, the French Minister of Colonies, Albert Sarraut, marked the occasion by unveiling a marble plaque displaying the school’s new name: College des Jeunes Filles Indigenes, the College for Indigenous Girls. Sarraut was an avid proponent of the mission civilisatrice, having referred to the Indochinese as clay or human dust which France was moulding with its godly hands. In his view the French were not plundering Vietnam but developing it for the good of humanity. They were introducing modern technology and notions of liberty, equality and fraternity to the natives, who would eventually assimilate by force of reason or force alone. After Sarraut opened the new school, classes had to be conducted in French and students were supposed to pay a small fine into a tin whenever they accidentally spoke Vietnamese.
During the early 1950s, as French power in Indochina diminished, a series of nationalist reforms was implemented at the school, including the appointment of the first Vietnamese headmistress, the adoption of Vietnamese as the official teaching language, the introduction of an English language program and the replacement of the purple uniform with a white ao dai (long tunic) adorned with the image of the delicate yellow mai flower, which announced the coming of spring. As a final touch the school was renamed Gia Long High School for Girls, after the first emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, who reunited the nation in 1802 and christened it Vietnam.
On her first day at Gia Long High School in 1957, Van paused at the gate and peered inside. Four large rectangular buildings enclosed the main courtyard, from which it appeared that thousands of cotton buds sprouted: girl-women in their white ao dai, with holiday tales of excitement, adventure and woe. A few students stepped out of chauffeur-driven cars and strode past Van like movie stars. Van envied most those girls whose parents dropped them off with reassuring words and a pat on the shoulder. More than anything she wanted her parents to be with her, but Van was alone. The teenager slid her fingers into the suffocating collar of her ao dai and pulled up her pants, which always seemed close to falling down over her unformed hips.
‘This is not the way of Gia Long girls!’ Van castigated herself. ‘Gia Long girls are level-headed, forward-looking and refined.’ She remembered what her father had told her: ‘Going to such a fancy school is an opportunity that you must grasp with all your might. Your fate, my daughter, is in your own hands.’ She steeled herself for what was to come and strode inside.
After a few months at Gia Long, Van feared that she had contracted an incurable brain disorder. Whereas before she had performed sums, scientific analyses and literary critiques with ease, now her mind seemed to overheat and seize up, particularly during exams. Or maybe, as Van sometimes thought, she had never been all that smart to begin with. Her astonishing primary-school results and the Gia Long School entrance test were flukes, administrative errors or perhaps cruel pranks of the gods who were no doubt laughing at her with wicked glee. Van had not found a single friend, let alone a peer group. She felt dumb, poor and ugly. And so it was not long before the teenager resigned herself to being below the mean, to floating with the currents like a minnow swept into an oversized pond.
With this sense of resignation Van reached for a straw in her eighth-grade literature class. Of the six remaining straws that had been placed before her, Van knew that she was going to get the short one. Statistically she was in a strong position, but numbers meant nothing in the face of destiny: it would be her star-crossed fate to make the speech.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 11

 Thiet’s eyes were ablaze with joy when he heard of the triumph at Dien Bien Phu. A week earlier, the historic coastal town of Hoi An, not far to the east of where Thiet was situated in Tien Phuoc, had also been liberated. Colonial forces were pulling out of less defensible areas, including the fort near his home village of Bo Ban. Viet Minh spirits had never been higher, but there was little room for complacency, as the people’s forces of Quang Nam were commanded to fight on in order to strengthen the negotiating position of their leaders.

On 20 July a general armistice was reached at the Geneva Conference. A declaration ‘on the problem of restoring peace in Indochina’ was tacitly adopted (but not signed) by eight of the attending nations. With the subtlety of a hatchet blow, Vietnam was demarcated at the 17th parallel, about 150 kilometres north of Da Nang. The northern half was placed under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, while the southern half was assigned to the ex-emperor Bao Dai. Under Article 7 of the Geneva Agreement, general elections were to be held in July 1956 with the aim of reunification.
Thiet was disappointed to hear that Vietnamese independence and unity were not yet complete, but was heartened by assurances from other students and teachers that in two years the matter would be settled for good. Of more immediate importance to him, the Viet Minh military hospital was closed down, along with his school. His Uncle Chin was called to the North for high-level Health Department discussions, and the older students at Thiet’s school were sent to Hanoi for training. Disappointed at the fact that they were not old enough to see magnificent Hanoi and participate in the revolution from its source, Thiet and Biet waved and yelled to their comrades as they marched out of the village to Da Nang. There they would board Polish ships and journey north to fulfil their glorious destinies.
‘Say hello to Uncle Ho for us!’
‘We’ll see you again in Hanoi, when the country is united and free!’
‘Don’t forget that you are from Quang Nam province when you have found enlightenment and glory!’
The young revolutionaries sang tributes to their heroic past and their incandescent future well into the night. The next morning they would bask in their homeland’s freedom and independence. While Thiet and his brother had resigned themselves to returning to Bo Ban, the two boys were buoyed by the jubilation of that historical moment. The nation, the world and their lives could not possibly take a backward step into war and colonialism. Vietnam would never be the same again.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 10

 By that stage, in early 1954, the Viet Minh were only months away from victory. Their extraordinary military success was very much related to political defeat on the French domestic front. During the early 1950s the conflict had become unpopular in France where it was increasingly referred to as ‘the dirty war’. The number of deaths among French and French colonial soldiers was growing rapidly and would reach more than 74,000 before they eventually withdrew. Veterans returned home not to heroic fanfares but to eyes averted, as French citizens called for a withdrawal from Indochina with increasing vehemence.

Under these trying circumstances General Henri Navarre took command of the French forces in May 1953. Navarre had little knowledge of Asia but maintained the belief that his very ignorance and dissociation provided him with ‘a new objectivity’. Many people, particularly in the US, were encouraged by Navarre’s commanding presence. In September 1953 Time magazine devoted a cover story to the general, which concluded, ‘A year ago none of us could see victory. There wasn’t a prayer. Now we can see it clearly, like light at the end of a tunnel.’
The general set out to take advantage of French technology and superior firepower: the advantages that had allowed them to colonise Indochina less than a century ago. He concentrated thousands of small forts into a few large ones known as ‘hedgehogs’ and formed the Groupes Mobile, which undertook massive search-and-destroy programs like the one that drove Thiet from Cay Sanh. Typically, however, the roar of French tanks and jeeps allowed the Viet Minh to escape and regroup. The French mobile forces were also ambushed and harassed by the elusive guerrillas. As Ho Chi Minh had forecast at the outset of the war, the tiger was mauling the flagging elephant.
In November 1953 Navarre ordered expeditionary troops to parachute into the Dien Bien Phu Valley in north-west Vietnam where they began constructing the mother of all hedgehogs. The Dien Bien Phu camp was made up of several fortified positions equipped with artillery, mortars, machine-guns and around 15,000 troops. Each position could provide artillery protection for the others and could also be resupplied by air. Navarre was convinced that the camp would block Viet Minh supply routes from the north running down through Laos to central Vietnam, and force the revolutionaries to stand and fight. Serving as both bait and trap, it would turn the war in France’s favour.
In contrast with Navarre’s plan, the Viet Minh strategy was finely tuned to the social and physical environment in which they were fighting. In September 1953, when the Party’s Central Committee met to devise the campaign to counter Navarre’s advance, they emphasised the importance of bolstering the morale of both their military and the people in the face of such an imposing foe. Their leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, was a one-time history teacher whose knowledge of military science was largely self-taught. He decided to take the bait that the French had set, determining that Dien Bien Phu was in fact vulnerable. It was 300 kilometres from the support of the main French forces in the Red River Delta and open to attack from the mountains on all sides. Victory for the Viet Minh could be achieved, but it would require meticulous preparation and unprecedented levels of organisation and sacrifice.
General Giap ordered the mobilisation of two armies from as far away as Thanh Hoa province, 200 kilometres south-east of the battleground. The regular forces were commanded to march over 30 kilometres a day through the jungle to converge at Dien Bien Phu. Chinese soldiers and workers carved roads across the border between Vietnam and China for trucks to bring supplies. Just as importantly tens of thousands of men, women and youths were enlisted to form a ‘brigade of iron horses’ or a ‘human serpent’ which hacked and slithered its way through the jungle to create an intricate system of supply routes. Their bicycles were loaded with up to 300 kilograms of supplies and heavy-artillery parts from China before they were pushed over mountains and across rivers. For the peasants, high technology took the form of bamboo sticks which were used to extend handlebars and seat posts to enhance steering and balance. Shreds of material were used to reinforce inner tubes against thorns and shrapnel. It would take three months to prepare for the assault and often, despite the frugality of the workers who pushed the iron horses, 4 kilograms of rice were consumed to transport 1. Their engines were fuelled with a potent mixture of determination and hope.
The shelling of Dien Bien Phu began on 13 March 1954. At first General Giap adopted Maoist human-wave tactics, throwing tens of thousands of soldiers against the enemy to drive fear and doubt into their hearts, before settling into trench warfare and a drawn-out battle. His strategy would later be succinctly described as ‘siege, assault, strangulation and asphyxiation’. French air strikes dropping napalm over the jungle were countered by Chinese-Operated anti-aircraft guns, which disappeared into the mountains after each attack. As the battle extended into April, the colonists realised they had dramatically underestimated the size and power of General Giap’s army. They turned to the US for military assistance, and at one stage the US National Security Council considered using nuclear weapons to wipe out the communists. Fearing that this would lead to an escalation of tensions with China (but without considering the impact that nuclear weapons would have on the Vietnamese), the Americans decided not to intervene. On 7 May the Viet Minh’s historic victory at Dien Bien Phu was complete. The following morning, as if according to schedule, the Geneva Conference turned to the issue of Indochina.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 9

 The villagers of Cay Sanh were on a heightened level of alert after scouting planes had been seen in the sky. Viet Minh secret agents embedded in the colonial army sent word confirming what many had feared. The French had discovered that Cay Sanh was a Viet Minh stronghold and were coming to pacify the area. Soon Cay Sanh would be battered by artillery and overrun with troops. The Viet Minh guerrillas and villagers had perhaps a week, maybe a few days, or possibly only a matter of hours to make a dash for the mountains.

In the early months of 1954 Thiet was living with his Uncle Chin, who was the director of the Cay Sanh medical centre and among the first evacuees. Thiet wanted to flee with his uncle, but was ordered to stay behind and wait for his brother, Biet, to return from a training excursion. The twelve-year-old watched on while the villagers of Cay Sanh packed and left. As darkness fell Thiet found himself alone and increasingly uneasy. Without his Viet Minh comrades around him, he was a boy and a country bumpkin again: fearing not only the impending military assault but also attack from the supernatural. Despite the fact that it was too early for sleep, Thiet lay paralysed on his bamboo mat. He reasoned that sleeping was the best way to pass time, but closing his eyes only made him more anxious.
‘There is nothing to be afraid of,’ Thiet told himself with his eyes jammed shut. ‘Just relax and go to sleep. When you wake up it will be morning and Biet will be back. There are no monsters or ghosts. They’re just old stories made up by adults to scare children. Remember your teacher’s instructions and what your comrades told you in the self-criticism sessions: if Vietnamese are to be modern socialists we must reform our primitive ways. Superstition is false, totally uncivilised. It cripples rational thought and clouds truth. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’
While these appeals to reason quelled Thiet’s fear, the concentration they required made it impossible for him to sleep. Soon enough, his logic was overpowered by hysteria, and he found himself surrounded by images of floating ethereal beings. Most ghastly were the spirits that appeared as hovering heads with their intestines trailing behind them. Knowing that these gut-wrenchers liked nothing more than to devour the faeces and innards of children, Thiet tried harder to reason with himself.
‘Mother was superstitious. Do you want to be backward like her? Or maybe you just want your mummy to hold you? Is that it? Are you just a helpless child? Of course not! You’re a revolutionary soldier who thrives in the darkness. You’re not afraid of anything!’
Thiet’s reprimands were eventually drowned out by the moans, shrieks and howls that he could hear from the graves behind his hut. After a few minutes, which seemed like hours, he jumped off his mat and fled from the hut. Unsure as to whether he was now facing his fears or evading them, he paced up and down the streets of the ghost town. He strode, walked and then staggered, but kept moving into the early hours of the morning, fuelled by fright and only barely awake under the twinkling starlight.
When Biet arrived in the morning he was surprised to find Cay Sanh deserted and his younger brother sitting exhausted in the street. Thiet explained the situation (omitting his night-time ordeal) and the two boys hastened from the village which had been their home for the last nine months. Their destination was the secluded mountain town of Tien Phuoc, which was almost 20 kilometres away. At first they thought the distance would be easily managed in a day, but their path seemed to stretch endlessly before them and the small packs on their backs felt heavy enough to weigh down a water buffalo. The dirt roads were steep and slippery and the boys had to detour through thick jungle to avoid skirmishes, as the Viet Minh strategically retreated from advancing French forces. Several times Biet asked for directions from the indigenous highlanders whom they met along the path. During these encounters Thiet stayed well behind his gesticulating brother, peering at the strange creatures whose loincloths provided them with only a skerrick of decency. In every other respect, to Thiet’s eyes, they were little more than beasts.
The midday sun leached Biet and Thiet of energy and moisture. The elder had been on his feet since before dawn; the younger had been pursued by ghosts all night. Engulfed by uncertainty, Thiet continually questioned his older brother. ‘What are we going to do at Tien Phuoc? Will we ever return to Cay Sanh? What about school? Will we ever see Bo Ban and our family again? When is the war going to end? When will we be victorious?’
Biet hit the young boy in the arm and told him to shut up. ‘If the French hear you whining, we’ll never see Tien Phuoc or our family again.’
By the time the exhausted boys arrived at Tien Phuoc in the late afternoon, their Uncle Chin had erected a makeshift medical centre, showing his characteristic Viet Minh hardiness and ingenuity. A French search-and-destroy program was under way all over the province and the wounded were streaming into the mountain village. Scores of injured Viet Minh fighters and villagers lay on mats in the open air, blood seeping through grimy bandages while they waited for operations without anaesthetics to be carried out in nearby tents. So much flesh lay on display, it seemed to Thiet as if he was in the goriest of butcher shops. Clumps of charred meat screamed out to him to end their agony. This was the first time that he had confronted human destruction on such a large scale and it left him both sickened and uncertain about the war.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 8

 Thiet and his fellow students were so fond of other socialist nations that in their spare time they danced in joyous circles with their hands clenched together and voices united in celebration of these mighty lands:

Do you know about the powerful and free nation of China?
Of course, that is not difficult!
Can I tell you right now?
The heroic Chinese flag has five yellow stars on a bright
red background!
Do you know about the powerful and free nation of
‘From the darkness of colonialism and tyranny Vietnam will rise up and thrive under the collective endeavours of the people and the economic leadership of the Party,’ proclaimed Thiet’s teacher. ‘With everyone working towards a common goal instead of against each other, imagine how progressive we can be! The economy is like a stubborn buffalo that you have to get to the rice field. Right now some Vietnamese are pulling it by the neck while others are pulling its tail. We are going nowhere, just getting tired. Communism is a way of harnessing our collective power so that we are no longer fighting against one another. Soon we won’t be just growing rice. With technological assistance from brother China and mother Russia we’ll have factories many times bigger than a whole village, and machines much larger than this school. Everyone will be producing for their families, communities, glorious Vietnam and workers all over the earth.’
This industrial vision appealed to Thiet, who had come to view the world of industrial machines as infinitely more progressive than the dull brown earthy one that had dominated his childhood. He had not forgotten the severity of the seasons, the terror of torrential rain, and heatwaves so intense that they stripped the trees of leaves and forced villagers to wipe themselves with dirt after going to the toilet. Like the French, nature was something to overcome. It was the reason, so went the old saying, that babies were born crying.
Victory and riches did not come without discipline and sacrifice. Thiet participated in a number of self-criticism sessions while at the Cay Sanh school. Separating into groups of ten or so, students had first to report on their own development and how they thought they could be more devoted and effective revolutionaries. If they could not find anything at fault with themselves, then they were not trying hard enough. The floor was then open for criticism from others. Thiet did not mind reprimanding his wayward comrades but detested the examination turning on himself. One time he admitted that he was afraid of ghosts. He was not as frightened of them as when he had first come to Cay Sanh, but was still uneasy sleeping on his own.
‘This is a grave error, comrade,’ said an older boy who had never liked Thiet. ‘How will you ever be a revolutionary soldier if you can’t even spend a night in the jungle by yourself? You must purge yourself of these barbaric superstitions.’ Thiet knew that his accuser, like everyone else in the class, was also still afraid of ghosts. But in spite of the discomfort, Thiet recognised that self-criticism served two important purposes. It distinguished them from the corrupt feudal and colonial regimes in which people with power could do whatever they wanted. Even more importantly, self-criticism clarified the magnitude of the commitment that students were expected to make. The trinity that was the Party, the anti-French movement and the nation was not only the most important thing in their lives, it was the only thing. Everything was framed accordingly, so that if someone was not working enthusiastically, they were not simply tired or grumpy; rather, they displayed low levels of revolutionary fervour.
The students had even to be careful that they did not show undue affection for their families or they might be labelled backward and unpatriotic. The family, it was thought, had to be reformed from a primitive inward-looking institution to a public-spirited communist one. ‘Though I have no family of my own, I have a very big family: the working class throughout the world,’ said Uncle Ho, who upheld his bachelorhood as exemplifying his devotion to Vietnam.
The rationality of the revolution soon began to overshadow Thiet’s memory of his mother and sisters whom he had left behind in Bo Ban. Perhaps most astonishing was that the teenager preferred not to think about his father and the fact that six years earlier Viet Minh members had falsely accused Viet of spying for the French and then assassinated him. The resurfacing of such memories could only add unpleasant complexity to Thiet’s otherwise clear-cut life, and would no doubt generate suspicion amongst his comrades. ‘Who needs parents when Uncle Ho is always there to look over you?’ Thiet reminded himself.
Thiet’s pre-existing sense of virtue, community and of humanity was not so much eradicated, but rather coopted by Viet Minh teachings. He came to equate goodness with all that was communist and evil with all that was not. In the Viet Minh teachings, he saw the perfect integration of ethics and ideology, the continuation of a heroic tradition bolstered by the promise of unprecedented progress. All they had to do was get rid of the French.
The storm passed late in the afternoon, just before Thiet’s politics lesson came to an end. His last class for the day was a practical one, and far more enjoyable. In ‘Introductory Enemy Engagement’ they would be constructing booby traps. Half an hour later, as he sharpened bamboo stakes for his punji pit, and then soaked them in infectious urine and buffalo dung, Thiet envisaged French troops falling into his pit. He calculated that it was better to maim than kill the French, as, in addition to disabling his victim, two other imperialists would have to carry their whimpering companion from the battlefield. He imagined the sharpened bamboo stakes driving through their feet and limbs, the white savages screaming and writhing in pain. In silent and solitary moments this vision brought a grin to his face.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 7

 The sun had risen by the time she had stumbled back to the Bo Ban turnoff with her wrists still tied. Her village was not far away, but Huong stayed concealed in the dense foliage, enduring a day of hunger and thirst. Her wrists were red and grazed from her failed attempts to slip out of the ropes, and the pain in her shoulders was so excruciating that she would have severed a hand to break free. It was dusk before the traffic of soldiers died down and the young woman decided to step out in front of a lorry which was heading west. Taking pity on Huong, the driver freed her hands then gave her some water and took her home. More disgraced and destitute than ever, Huong staggered into the mud-and-grass hut and wept like an infant on her mother’s chest.

During the course of that day when Huong did not return, Thua was sure that she had sacrificed her oldest daughter for a few urns of oil. The war had already taken her husband and her oldest son. To make matters worse, it had also claimed her two remaining boys. In spite of Thua’s rigorous objections, Biet and Thiet had recently left home to pursue three men about whom she knew almost nothing other than that they would corrupt the values that she and her husband had tried to impart to their sons, and compel them to kill. Thua swore that if she somehow managed to survive this war, she would never forgive Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh for stealing her children from her.
Thiet did not want to be distracted by memories of his home and his mother, or by the wind and rain that rushed into his open-air classroom. He was focused on the lesson, which continued even as drops of water fell through the roof and bugs crawled onto the dirt floor where the children sat. The teacher and 30 or so students of Cay Sanh Primary School in the central Vietnamese jungle did not have any desks or notepads to protect from the weather. In the midst of an afternoon storm, they needed only to ensure that the images of Prime Minister Malenkov, Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh remained fastened to a beam overlooking them and to concentrate on memorising the communist truisms dictated to them by their teacher.
‘Communism is a system in which everything is owned by the people.’ Thiet’s teacher was repeating the basics for the class of eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds. ‘And the Party represents and serves the people in a benevolent, constant and absolute manner, taking from each person according to ability and giving to each person according to need.’
Eventually, the boy’s concentration waned. He had not been at the school long but had heard all this before. His mind drifted back to his home village, which was 50 kilometres away, and the comforting memory of his mother and sisters. He could smell the potato-flour doughnuts that they sold at the market, and the wind tickled his cheek like his mother’s silky long hair. The junior revolutionary scolded himself for being sentimental. Bo Ban and his family were in the past and were not worth pining over, especially now that he was surrounded by the spirit of communism and so many likeminded comrades. He was far away from his mother, and in the company of true revolutionaries who were dedicated to fighting against the French and preparing for the socialist revolution. When they spoke to students about the resistance they were even more passionate, informed and scientific than the young propagandists whom he had listened to in the village communal house. Thiet straightened his back and paid attention.
‘Under the control of the Party, workers will be given jobs that they enjoy and are good at. The land will belong to the peasants who will cultivate it for themselves and the nation. They will no longer have to endure oppressive and demeaning work just to survive.’
The wonders of communism were always linked to the horrors of capitalism. The world was divided into two uncompromising camps. ‘Under capitalism everything is owned by landlords who must exploit the workers to generate profit and remain in business. Capitalism is a system that encourages the rich to exploit the poor, and in which freedom is equated with anarchic competition.’
They did not have to look far to find evidence of such a depraved system. According to Thief’s teacher, ‘The feudalistic Bao Dai in the south and his underlings have accumulated immense wealth through the toil of the masses. Propped up by their colonial masters and corrupt to the bone, this false regime oozes a contaminated culture that must be opposed with all our might.’
The will of the students and their faith in the Viet Minh was bolstered by appeals to Vietnam’s heroes. Thief’s teacher reminded the children that they were inheritors of a glorious past and the key to a proud future. ‘You are all the representatives of the many-thousand-year-old spirit of independence in our people, the indomitable essence that has passed down through national heroes like the Trung sisters, Tran Hung Dao, Le Loi and Phan Dinh Phung, who fought against imperial forces from China and France. Now that spirit is yours to nurture and harness in the name of Vietnamese freedom.’
From the songs, poems and speeches that he heard and repeated over and again, Thiet became convinced that there was only one path to independence and progress. After the yoke of imperialism had been cast off, Vietnam would rise up to match the socio-economic achievements of China. As their collective potential was further realised, Vietnamese society would look and feel increasingly Czechoslovakian or Polish. Finally, at the end of this crimson runway, lay the nirvana that was Russia, a paragon of justice and progress and the cornerstone of the eternal USSR.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 6

 ‘What would you say then, Mother, if I told you that I know someone in Da Nang who has a large supply of this oil and is anxious to get rid of it? All we have to do is ’

‘Don’t even think about it!’ Thua cut in. ‘It’s far too dangerous. How do you expect to get past the road blockades without being arrested or shot?’
‘Ah, good question, Mother. I have already spoken to a reliable man who will make us large urns with false bottoms. On top of each urn we can pour fish sauce to hide the oil beneath. We can even sell the fish sauce for a healthy profit!’ ‘My daughter, I know how much you care for our family, but already my heart fills with dread every time you leave the house. We’re getting by — why put yourself in more danger for a few piastres? Remember the old saying, “A greedy pocket has no bottom”.’
‘Those old sayings are for old times,’ Huong tried to reassure her mother. ‘They no longer offer any wisdom, now that there are no limits to how much we can have and who we can be. Just lend me our savings and I will multiply them at least ten times, probably twenty. Trust me. I have worked as hard as you since Khiet and father were taken away from us — maybe even harder. After this deal, I won’t have to travel to the liberated zones any more. We can build a bigger and better house than the one we lost. Isn’t that what father always wanted?’
The night before she left to collect the secret shipment, Huong lay wide awake on the floor of their thatch hut calculating the myriad outcomes that might result from her plan. She knew that it was better for her to get some rest, but she could not turn off the thoughts that buzzed like beetle wings in her head. She imagined what it would be like to come home with such a tremendous bounty. Undoubtedly, no one in the village or even the district had pulled off such a lucrative deal.
Huong told herself that she could not afford to be distracted by the reward. She could not afford to fail. It was only a little more than a year ago that Huong had been captured by colonial troops at the market with a batch of anaesthetics, prime supplies for the guerrillas. Huong had been held for a week at the police station in a cell with six Viet Minh women. When the cell door opened each morning, an interrogator looked down at their cringing forms with a menacing smirk on his face and asked, ‘Who wants to take a boat trip?’ Huong could hear the Viet Minh women screaming in the adjacent cell as their stomachs were filled to bursting point with soapy water and then beaten or trodden on. Because she was so young, Huong was spared the torture and released after surrendering the name and address of her supplier. The security police threw the starving, dehydrated seventeen-year-old into the street with a chilling warning, ‘If we ever see you again, baby-san, you will not be so lucky.’
The next night at around two in the morning, the pickup truck that Huong had hired to take her and her contraband back to Bo Ban approached the highway turnoff to the village and was stopped at gunpoint by two government soldiers. One of them asked what they were carrying and proceeded to examine the urns. The sickening smile that broke out from under the brim of his pith helmet and the fact that she had never before seen a blockade on that stretch of highway made her suspect that she had been set up. Huong held her breath as the soldier raised his rifle and, after holding his weapon in the air and sniggering at her, drove the bayonet into the urn. The false bottom and Huong’s hopes were smashed to pieces; her dream of becoming an oil baroness spoilt by stinking fish sauce. The soldiers snorted and laughed at the teenager’s despair. They directed her at gunpoint into a jeep which took her to a nearby truck depot where her hands were bound behind her back and she was ordered to squat on the ground with some other prisoners and wait.
An hour and then two hours passed. Huong cursed her imprudence. She had used all the family savings to buy as much oil as possible without leaving any cash to bribe a soldier in case something went wrong. In all likelihood the urns did not even contain gun oil. It was a trap, set by the colonial security forces to catch black marketeers. The security police officers who had organised the trap would never believe that a young girl had the resources and bravado to bring off the deal on her own. No doubt they would presume that someone else was using Huong to deliver the contraband: her mother, an uncle or perhaps a family friend. The police would demand a long list of her collaborators and their details. She could taste the soapy water and feel the rib-shattering blows before they had even begun. And in the eyes of every leering soldier who passed, the eighteen-year-old saw another agonising and defiling end.
After a further hour or so, the other prisoners slumped to the ground in a corner of the open-air depot and drifted in and out of restless sleep. When a truck full of government soldiers screeched to a stop a few metres away, Huong’s survival antennae pricked up and suddenly she was awake and full of adrenalin. The young guard who had been charged with keeping watch must have been a little less alert or simply careless. Assuming that the prisoners were all asleep, he went off to greet a friend who had just arrived on the truck. Huong leapt up and fled into the grey night-time jungle. She sprinted as fast as she could without the use of her arms, bumping into trees and falling heavily many times before she finally collapsed on top of a bed of grimy leaves.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 5

 3. The Righteousness of Action over Inaction

Thiet watched and felt each drop of blood falling from his finger. The rusty knife with which he had cut himself had fallen to the ground. His brother Biet picked it up and at the same time gave Thiet a shove.
‘Hurry up or we’ll get caught.’ Biet cut another finger and cursed the first one for drying up. Their friend had already set about smearing onto the wall of their ancestral shrine the slogan that the boys had stewed over all morning. Thiet followed, running his sliced and stinging index finger over the rough concrete.
The three boys knew that if they were caught, the consequences would be severe. There was no place more sacred than the ancestral shrine. But for too long they had tolerated the offensive cleanliness of that wall. Such a prominent space could not be left bare while a revolution was under way. Thiet thought of his mother and how furious she would be if she knew that they had defaced the building where his father’s spirit resided. She had never fully supported the revolution and had tried to keep him away from the Viet Minh night-time meetings. She was misguided and backward, she did not see clearly, she was clouded by the past, she did not understand.
Before the blood had dried, the three young revolutionaries decided that they could not stay in Bo Ban where they would be recruited or killed by colonial forces. They were anxious to leave the village of their forebears and were pleased with the mark they had left behind:
We Will Fight to the Last Drop of Blood! Thiet’s sister Huong also attended the rallies, where she appeared as captivated by the Viet Minh message and as dedicated to the national independence movement as her younger brothers. But in truth Huong was unconvinced by the revolutionary sermons. It was not that she supported French colonialism, she simply did not care. Her chanting and singing were part of a subterfuge aimed at avoiding retribution from Viet Minh supporters in the village. In a world rent by political fundamentalism, Huong was at most agnostic. From her perspective neither the Viet Minh nor the French had her best interests in mind. She could not rely on anyone except herself.
Huong worked longer and haggled with more tenacity than her competitors at the market. She made frequent trips to Da Nang, where she bought entire bolts of material, which were difficult and dangerous to conceal but fetched high profits. She gave all the money that she earned to her mother, in part because it was only proper for her to do so. However, the fact that she never took a single piastre to buy herself a treat — a delectable French pastry, or perhaps an embroidered blouse — suggests that she was driven by something more than filial obligation. Her extraordinary selflessness had a cut-throat edge. Huong did not care for material wealth as an end in itself; money was a means to a more magnificent end. With money, she gained power. Every time she pulled off a deal, Huong’s heart soared with victory. She had bettered another, and for the first time in her life she felt like she was worth something. Huong could not get her fill of this sensation, and in order to maintain the high she could not afford to become complacent.
The eighteen-year-old Huong travelled to isolated Viet Minh controlled areas, known as liberated zones, where vendors were scarce and prices inflated because of the constant bombardment from French planes and artillery. For days at a time she scurried along with two large baskets hanging from a pole over her shoulders, between her suppliers in Da Nang and the liberated zones around Tam Ky, Viet An, Yen Ne and Phuoc Tuong Mountain. The liberated markets were held under the cover of night, so as to avoid French pacification campaigns. But Huong quickly discovered that the darkness did not protect her from French planes. The fighter pilots who made little effort to distinguish between civilians and combatants during the day were utterly reckless at night. The sound of approaching aircraft sent Huong headlong into ditches and gullies on the side of the road, where she trembled and waited for the explosions to ease. Afterwards she checked her baskets, re-lit the kerosene lamp which hung from her shoulder pole and kept moving. On the occasions when she sat down to rest, she leant against her baskets with the moon a golden amulet in the sky above her tattered conical hat, and areca palm leaves tied to her feet as shoes.
While her takings steadily accumulated, Huong remained unsatisfied. She yearned for a grand event, a life-altering deal that would once and for all confirm her ascendance from a humble peasant beginning. From this bed of frustration grew a get-rich- quick plan which she sold to her mother, using all the skill that she had gained at the markets. Huong’s authoritative air, beguiling tongue and the fact that she was the family’s primary income- earner had inverted their relationship. The child had become the provider, innovator and, all too often, the decision-maker in the household. In order to get what she wanted, Huong had no qualms about emotionally ambushing her good-natured mother.
‘You know, Mother,’ Huong said one day early in 1954, ‘what the Viet Minh need most right now is oil to clean and lubricate their guns.’
‘Yes, my dear,’ replied the ever cautious Thua, ‘that’s why the colonial authorities guard machine-oil supplies so closely. No one could possibly buy or sell it without their permission.’

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 4

 ‘Every one of us knows people who are not as strong and wise as Mr Tam. These people think to themselves, “I’ve struggled for so long, I’ve sacrificed so much, I’ve lost so much more, when will this all end?” These people are not unpatriotic. They are misinformed and lack spirit. Tell them not to despair. Lead them to the light. Reason with them that the war is almost over and that now more than ever they must choose between the side of righteousness and victory and the side of tyranny and defeat. You must remind them that every person is a soldier. Will you remind them?’

‘Yes, yes! We will remind them!’ screamed the audience.
‘Tell them of the Great Autumn Victory of 1952, when together we defeated the enemy outpost not far from here and sent those Moroccan and Algerian troops running. Thanks to intelligence collected by the people, the organisational skills of the Party and the courage of the soldiers, the people’s army struck like lightning and the battle was won in half an hour.
‘Sons and daughters of the mighty Dragon Lord Lac Long, what do you say?!’
‘Long live Vietnam! Long live the people of Quang Nam province! Long live the Party!’
‘Once the resistance is victorious all doubts will be washed away by a mighty wave of peace and prosperity. We will be the instigators of universal harmony. We deserve nothing less after living under the yoke of feudalism and imperialism for so many centuries. Imagine what our rich nation and industrious people can achieve once freed from their shackles. Everyone will have enough land, our children’s stomachs will be full three times a day with meat and fish, and just like Western children they will go to school and grow up smart and strong. Vietnam will be a country to be reckoned with; the country that turned the colonial tide. Can you imagine it, my compatriots? Can you see it now?’
‘We can, we can!’ yelled everyone in the communal house, including Thiet. Indeed, Thiet screamed as loud as anyone, even though he was not tall enough to see the revolutionary soldier making the speech. The boy’s mind was soaring, transcending his tiny body. He was surrounded by people, his brother, Biet, was somewhere to his side, he did not know exactly where, it did not matter. The crowd had become one mass of energy, their chanting and singing seemed internally conducted but perfectly synchronised, their fists like so many pistons thrusting up and down, driving forward the unstoppable machine of Vietnamese independence. Thiet felt as if he had been cleansed in a font. With the holy water still dripping from his brow, the world had never seemed so clear. He had seen the light, and suddenly it was as if he could leap over the moon, and the stars were calling out to him.
The meeting concluded with a song:
Brothers and sisters!
Together we rush into danger,
To find the source of light.
We vow our hearts as one,
Amid the mountains and rivers of our homeland.
From here and now we exert all our power.
We the Vietnamese ...
At the night-time Viet Minh rallies, Thiet gained a fresh view of the world and his role within it. It was a perspective based on three precepts which, in one form or another, he would hold on to for the rest of his life.
1. Don’t Let the spittle Dry on Your Face
The young Thiet took an interest in martial arts. He practised his kicks and punches against a wall, a helpless tree and the shadows. He had no interest in the archaic codes of honour that were once thought to go hand in hand with the fighting arts. This was power for the sake of justice and progress, and suddenly Thiet did not need any guidance or lecturing to feel that burning electrical charge.
One day on a dusty football field, Thiet saw an older, larger opponent push Biet over. The vision of Biet — his brother and comrade — fallen in the dirt sent a surge of moral indignation through Thiet’s veins. In an instant he gained an insight into his opponent’s true nature. His enemy was hideous and malevolent, while he, Thiet, was bathed in a virtuous light. As if he were looking down from above, Thiet could see the brutish boy standing over his shell-shocked brother, and he could see himself, fists clenched and about to explode. Thiet hurled his compact frame at the Goliath, bringing him down and poking him in the eye. While the final score that day has long been forgotten, what is remembered is that Thiet came home a champion.
2. The Enemy is Nothing More than That Thiet knew that village boys were not the real enemy. Like countless other young men in occupied lands who throw rocks and scream obscenities at heavily armed troops, Thiet was anxious to strain the chains of his nation’s oppression, to voice that secret script that his people had for so long rehearsed in their collective imagination.
One day, with his friends not far behind him, Thiet approached one of the loathed Moroccan expeditionary troops who roamed the district harassing the peasants. Brushing aside the fear of yesteryear, Thiet put out his gnarled little hand, stunning the soldier by saying, ‘Bonjour!’
With that one gesture, dripping with sarcasm and the obnoxiousness of youth, Thiet poached the language and customs of his oppressors and twisted them around as one would a knife in a tussle to the death. Thiet was saying in the fewest possible words, ‘French language, culture and technology are no longer intimidating or unknowable to us. We will master your ways even as we mock them, and harness what you have imposed upon US to send you packing!’ The boy fell to the ground, managing to giggle with defiance even while wheezing and coughing from a rifle butt rammed into his gut.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 3

 In 1953, Thiet and Vietnam teetered on the brink of radical change and autonomy. During the first decade of their existence, both the boy and his nation had suffered a great deal of adversity and injustice. Now they had come to believe that justice was on their side, and that tomorrow would be better than yesterday. Thiet often thought about the tantalising shock he had received upon making contact with the shimmering block of ice in Da Nang. The candles, fires and stars that had once captivated him seemed dim when compared with the magnificent lights of the city. He wanted to see and experience these things again, perhaps even possess them for himself. The thought of them niggled him like a pebble stuck between his toes.

It was the Viet Minh who finally relieved the young man from his discomfort and cast a shining light upon his darkness. The Viet Minh offered a coherent ideology, appealing to Thiet’s growing sense of justice and his conviction that ordinary Vietnamese people deserved more. They promoted their revolutionary ideas at clandestine night-time rallies. It was at these uplifting and unforgettable events that Thiet came as close as he ever would in his life to finding God.
‘Honoured grandfathers and grandmothers, uncles and aunties, brothers and sisters, precious young ones, welcome!’
The crowd burst into applause, coordinated by the leader of the mobile propaganda unit, who threw lightning bolts of excitement and optimism into the night air.
‘With the determination that you’re showing here tonight we will surely be victorious!’
Roars from the tightly packed mob seemed to stir the concrete reliefs of flying dragons on the roof of the Tuy Loan dinh (communal house).
‘We could not have chosen a better place to hold this meeting,’ said the soldier standing on a small wooden box at the front of the hall. ‘In the dinh where the neighbouring villagers of Tuy Loan and Bo Ban have gathered on momentous occasions for almost two hundred years. From here our village guardian spirit draws its strength to protect us from foreigners who want our fertile land to feed their insatiable appetites, who shoot our buffalo for the pleasure of watching us suffer, who enslave our women and children, and who want to take our country and make it their own. The guardian spirit will not let them succeed! Will you let them succeed?’
‘No! Never!’ bellowed the congregation.
‘It is here that we met before the August Revolution of 1945 when, under President Ho’s leadership, we overthrew the Japanese and French imperialists, who were allied in their oppression of the Vietnamese. We have done it before and shall do it again!’
‘Yes, yes! With all our spirit!’ the villagers shouted, despite the fact that most of them had known very little about the Viet Minh until after the August Revolution, when blood-red flags and triumphant jingles had flooded the countryside. Since the late 1940s the guerrillas had recruited troops and won hearts and minds in and around Thiet’s French-controlled village and throughout much of the nation. Viet Minh propaganda officers were well known for their politeness, oratory and knowledge of local history. They went to great efforts to empathise with peasants and listen to their concerns. The Viet Minh were clean-cut, civic-minded and totally unlike the crooked ruling classes that ordinary Vietnamese had suffered under for so long.
With such charismatic and persuasive comrades around him, it was easy for Thiet to overlook the fact that his father had been killed by Viet Minh decree. He was entranced at these secret night-time meetings, and by interactive plays that the revolutionaries enacted to tell the people about dastardly landlords and valiant peasants and to persuade them to join their cause. They did not dwell on obscure and foreign concepts, but portrayed the War of Resistance as a bridge between a proud Vietnamese past and a prosperous and free future.
‘The people of Quang Nam are no strangers to struggle. Five hundred years ago our ancestors came down in the Great March South. Conscripted because they were poor and landless, our forefathers were forsaken from the beginning. But they fought valiantly against the Cham and ferocious hill tribes to build their homes on the frontier of a new land. It is from them that we inherit our indomitable spirit, and it is in their honour that we will fight until the French colonists are driven from our birthright. The people of this region are well versed in overcoming hardship and woe; they know how to make something out of nothing. No doubt you know the proverb, “It has not rained and yet Quang Nam’s soil is soaked. We have not sipped the Hong Dao wine and yet we are drunk.”’
The revolutionary addressed a frail-looking man at the front. ‘Mr Tam, how old are you? Sixty you say? You don’t look a day over 40. You must remember well, then, the revolutionary hero from this very village, Mr Ich Duong, who was executed by the French colonists at the market? Correct me if Pm wrong, Mr Tam, but Mr Ich Duong came from a distinguished revolutionary family and was also an accomplished student in France?’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Mr Tam, relishing the unexpected attention. ‘He was a man of great talent and virtue who opposed the body tax, the tax the Westerners forced upon us.’
T had to pay the tax for my father even after he died,’ interjected a woman from the crowd.
‘Right you are, madame,’ continued the Viet Minh revolutionary. ‘And for resisting this exploitation Mr Ich Duong earned a death sentence. Many of you know that his final wish was to ride a horse around the village to see for one last time the people and place that he loved. When the foolhardy French granted his request, the great man broke free from his captors. But instead of escaping into the jungle he rode his steed through the streets screaming for truth, liberty and a popular uprising. Even after they captured him and placed his head on the block Mr Ich Duong yelled defiantly, “The People of Vietnam are like grass; if you pluck one blade a thousand more will sprout!” Are we going to let Mr Ich Duong die in vain? What do you say, Mr Tam?’
‘No! We will fight in his honour!’
The crowd again cheered and applauded, before the revolutionary soldier was allowed to continue.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill 2

 Most frightening were the Moroccan and Algerian expeditionary troops who had been enlisted to colonise others. The North Africans raided towns looking for black-market goods to commandeer, women to molest, and men to force into work and war. With their scarred cheeks — reminders of tribal rituals — the French expeditionary troops attracted the sobriquet ‘scar-faced ghouls’. On the occasions when they charged into Bo Ban, many of the women would flee in terror. Thua and Huong would hasten to conceal their goods and rub dirt into their faces in the hope of appearing so filthy that even the most licentious soldier would be put off.

The flow chart of threats and enemies was complex enough to baffle an intelligence analyst. Yet this was the everyday environment in which Thua raised her children. The young single mother had to scan for potential foes, choose her words with the skill and sensitivity of a diplomat, and never come to rest on a particular strategy with any confidence — she was like an insect in a field of Venus flytraps. In her dealings with all sides she often resorted to feigning complete ignorance. ‘Knowing nothing, hearing nothing and seeing nothing’, was the only way to survive, Thua would recall much later.
Along with their black-market trade, it was not long before the family managed to grow a few crops on the plot of land that Thiet’s grandfather had allocated to them. This was due to a series of good rains and the fact that Thiet and his brother, Biet, were now old enough to tend the plot while their mother and sisters worked at the market. Depending on the seasons, they grew cassava, sesame and rice, and were even able to raise a pig or a few chickens. When Thua and her other daughter, Truong, started selling potato-flour doughnuts at the market with some success, Thiet and Biet were allowed time away from their chores to go to school. They haphazardly attended reading and mathematics lessons at a neighbour’s house, and even had some spare time to play and explore the surrounding area with friends. The outside world suddenly became less frightening and even alluring to them.
Eventually Thua saved enough money for the family to build a new hut, not far from Thiet’s grandfather’s house. The hut, made of thatch, mud and buffalo dung, did not compare to the brick house that had been seized by the Viet Minh at the outset of the war and bombed by the French, but was more spacious than the corridor in which they had been living. Labouring with the dirt between their toes, sleeping under that grass roof and inhaling the smells of the earth, Thiet’s family were not unlike many other Vietnamese peasants in terms of what they had lost and regained. Their resolve was expressed in a folksong of the time:
The enemy razes our tile roof house,
And we erect a thatch hut.
The enemy sets our boats ablaze,
And yet we still go fishing.
The First Indochina War had not abated and life for Thiet and his family had by no means become comfortable and secure but by 1952, almost four years after Viet’s murder, they were finding and finetuning ways to make do. During the day, when the village was officially ‘pacified’, they could expect Moroccan and Algerian expeditionary troops to arrive and assault or arrest villagers who, to them, were indistinguishable from Viet Minh guerrillas. During the night, the real revolutionaries arrived to attack French outposts or those who had been identified as collaborateurs. At dusk, depending on how she assessed the conflict and warring camps, Thua would make a life-and-death decision about where her family would spend the night. If there was a whiff of security in the air then they slept in their thatched hut. But when someone in the village or her sharpened instincts alerted her to an imminent battle, then they would march back to Thiet’s grandfather’s house, where the family either bedded down in that small corridor between the main house and the ancestral shrine or piled into the adjacent underground shelter as flames lit up the night sky.
When bombs fell incessantly and the fields lay untended, it was not uncommon for villagers like Thua to place their faith in the virtue and alms of the heavens above. ‘If we are going to survive,’ she often intoned, ‘it is only because the heavens conceive elephants and bestow the grass for them to eat.’ By these words, known throughout Vietnam, Thua conceded that ordinary people, like grass in the wind or reeds in a stream, have no choice but to bend to the flow of events.
Eleven-year-old Thiet was no longer able to accept such woolly explanations for the origins or the sustenance of elephants. Thiet had formulated his own radical understanding of this ancient proverb. ‘I did not care where elephants and grass came from,’ he commented many years later. ‘It was enough for me to know that elephants could be tamed and that grass could be cultivated.’
Thiet had watched his mother and sisters struggle through war, floods and the passing of loved ones. He knew that when there was not enough rice for the daily meal, they would mix in beans. When the rice ran out and the bean supply was low, they added bitter cassava. After they were out of beans they survived on cassava alone. And when there was no more cassava, somehow they always found something else. Young Thiet was convinced that this food had not been provided by the will of heaven but by the efforts of those around him; by the determination of his family in the face of surmountable obstacles. Over time Thiet’s view would develop into a conviction that one should never be resigned to fate, tolerate suffering or enjoy quietude. It was not enough for him simply to make do; he had to make better.

Dad’s enlightenment inspired him to kill

 Kim: Tell me about when you went to the Viet Minh school.

Thiet: I learnt about communism.
Kim: What exactly did you learn?
Thiet: You know — capitalism is bad. Marx is good. Lenin is great. Ho Chi Minh is the best. That sort of thing.
Kim: Can you give me a few more details?
Thiet: No, not really. It was almost 50 years ago, you know. I can’t remember everything.
Kim: Well, what did you do there? Did you study communism all day?
Thiet: No. There were maths and history classes. Sometimes we sang songs and danced. At other times we split up into small groups and did military training. We made punji sticks.
Kim: What’s a punji stick?
Thiet: It’s a sharpened piece of bamboo that you put in the ground to kill French soldiers.
Thua had resolved to never remarry, convinced as she was that a wife’s fidelity extends beyond the grave. But she was also aware of how difficult it would be to protect her four children from disease, starvation and war. Nevertheless, the trying nature of peasant life had made this wiry woman in her mid-thirties hardy, resourceful and well equipped for single parenthood.
In the weeks after Viet’s murder, Thua and her family lived off savings from the sale of the land on which their house once stood. When this source of income ran out, Thua borrowed some money from relatives and used it to buy a little more time to determine how they could make a living. Her first thought was to turn to farming, but the plot of land that her father-in- law gave them to plough was small and not very fertile. Moreover, they would have to enlist hired help, and Thua did not want to rely on others for her family’s survival.
Another option was to buy and sell goods. But Thua had no idea what to sell or how to find the money to get started. Faced with desperate circumstances, her daughter Huong once again came to the family’s rescue, suggesting that they trade in the large banana palm leaves which littered many rural properties after storms, and which were used to wrap rice cakes. Huong astutely recognised that most banana palm owners would be happy to have the leaves removed at no cost. The mother and daughter team could then wash the leaves, cut off the stems, roll up the leaves to soften the fibres, and take them to the market to sell. It was an extremely labour-intensive pursuit, but through sheer grit they were able to make a pitiable profit.
After a few months and storms had passed, Thua and Huong had saved enough money to branch out into items that brought higher returns, such as salted fish, areca nuts, rice, peanuts and textiles. To acquire the goods, Huong had to go to the city of Da Nang every week. She travelled in a xe do, a rickety little truck powered by a spluttering motor that could transport about a dozen passengers. On a good day, the 15- kilometre journey took an hour and a half each way.
On the not-so-good days, she had to run the gauntlet of both the French colonists and Viet Minh revolutionaries. During the course of the early 1950s, everyday life became more difficult and dangerous, as the French extended their campaign to reclaim Indochina using American money. The colonists tightly controlled the commerce between villages, suspecting that people like Huong were selling goods to the Viet Minh, and ignoring the fact thát most of her wares were bought by non-combatants. As the crackdown intensified and French soldiers started blockading roads, Huong had to get off the xe do early, tie up her goods and balance them on her head as she crossed a river before walking the rest of the way home. Even then she was not safe. Several times Huong was stopped by Viet Minh guerrillas and asked what a young girl was doing with so much merchandise. If she responded truthfully, that she was going to sell it at the market, then she was guilty of supporting the colonial economy. The alternative was to say that the merchandise was intended for the Viet Minh. Either way, it was confiscated.
Theft, deception arid double-crossing became common in the family’s daily interactions. When buying wares from Da Nang, Thua and Huong had to somehow ensure that their wholesaler was not an undercover agent working for the French on a mission to trap Viet Minh suppliers. Customers also demanded great caution. Many women purchased food and goods for their revolutionary husbands and sons. If caught by the French, they would implicate Thua and Huong as their suppliers and they, too, would suffer retribution. When Viet Minh soldiers came soliciting ‘donations’ for the national revolution, Thua knew that if she did not pay enough, or even if she did not pay with enọugh enthusiasm, then they would pass her name on to one of their undercover agents in the colonial forces who would identify them as Viet Minh operatives and send colonial troops out to get them. So ironically, unless they actively supported the Viet Minh, they would be denounced and punished as Viet Minh by the French. Both sides seemed to be working in unison to trap them. And there was always the prospect, made all the more real by the example of Viet’s assassination, of a petty village disagreement leading to condemnation, imprisonment or murder.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 11

 When it came to parenting, Thai set a deferential distance between himself and his daughters. He always came before Chau, Loan, Van and Hoa, and never exhibited his affection through hugs or offered his cheek for a butterfly kiss. In his view there was a harmonious order of things in which a father rules over his family as a king rules over his subjects. Overt affection could be misconstrued as weakness or inconsistency, and thereby encourage unruliness. Like all parents, Thai insisted that his children fold their arms and bow their heads whenever they greeted an elder. He also impressed upon them popular proverbs that made filial piety seem like common sense and absolute law: ‘When drinking the water, remember the source.’

But Van’s father was no tyrant. Thai’s Confucian philosophy of respect and emphasis on propriety was intertwined with benevolence and virtue. He believed that those who were above were not in a position to exploit and suppress those who were below; rather they had a duty to nurture them in a manner that benefited both parties and society at large. From the time they were infants, Thai taught his children that the higher a person’s status, the greater the burden to act responsibly. ‘If you want to properly judge a man,’ he reminded them, ‘look at how he treats those who have nothing to offer him.’ For a tree to survive through a storm, ‘the intact leaves must protect the tattered ones’. Van fondly remembers that as a child she often sat beside her father in coffee shops as he poured sweet hot coffee into a dish so that it would be cool enough for her to drink.
Thai’s Confucian beliefs were also evident in the emphasis that he placed on education as the primary means for preserving cultural heritage and social harmony. And while it was uncommon for Confucians to promote education for women, Thai’s lack of sons opened his mind to some notions of gender equality. In the spirit of harnessing age-old values to keep up with contemporary times, Thai collected syndicated novels from newspapers and magazines and carefully pasted them into scrapbooks which he stored on a bookshelf, along with an extensive collection of well-known Vietnamese works and, most precious of all, cloth-bound copies of Chinese classics, including The Three Kingdoms, journey to the West, The Warring States and The Outlaws of the Marshes. Thai was determined to create his own temple of literature, a legacy of wisdom to his daughters and generations to come. While they would face many hardships and sell many belongings over the years, Van’s family preserved Thai’s collection in the belief that it contained a wealth too precious to surrender.
President Diem was often described in the West as ‘The Last Confucian’. While the extent of his Confucianism is uncertain, there is little doubt that Diem envisaged himself as a grandiose lord whose words and laws needed no justification beyond the fact that they were his. The Last Confucian was convinced that Vietnam needed him alone to rule, asserting grandly, ‘I know what is best for my people.’ ‘The fundamental fact about Vietnam,’ said Diem in his official biography, ‘is that historically our political system has been based not on the concept of the management of the public affairs by the people or their representatives, but rather by an enlightened sovereign and an enlightened government.’ From this exalted position, compromise with his opponents was not an option. Like a stern father, Diem had little desire for popularity or affection. He required only respect and obedience.
During the initial years of his reign, Van’s family did not admire the President out of piety, but rather because of his nation-building and mass education programs. President Diem funded the expansion of Saigon University and the construction of the University of Hue. He also made education available to people of all social backgrounds and ages. During the mid- 1950s an extensive teacher training program was initiated, and night schools were established all over the country where anyone could learn a trade or acquire the basic education that had been denied them during the war.
Van had been irregularly attending school since the age of six, but in Binh Duong and Cay Mai her classes were held in the teacher’s living room with scant resources. Diem made primary-school education compulsory and Van enrolled in the local government school at Phu Tho, along with more than a thousand other children who were eager to make the most of this new opportunity.
No one was more surprised than Van when she excelled at Phu Tho primary school. Her immediate family had no history of academic achievement and there was little indication that their ungainly third daughter would be any different. Indeed, one time when Thai was helping Van with her homework, he remarked with both encouragement and ridicule, ‘Some people study one time to learn ten things. You, my dear, study ten times to learn one thing. The point is that if you try hard enough, you’ll get there in the end.’
True to her father’s word, if not his sentiment, Van worked hard and graduated at the top of her primary-school class. In the summer of 1957 she applied for a place at one of the most well-regarded secondary education institutions in Saigon. The gruelling entrance exams for Gia Long High School for Girls stretched over two days, during which time candidates had to recount long screeds of poetry, unravel mathematic equations, and analyse a multitude of historical events in Vietnam and beyond. Afterwards Van returned home sombre. Almost 10,000 girls had sat the entrance exams. Only 450 would be successful.
Two weeks later Van’s father rode his scooter to work and stopped by the school to check the results on a large blackboard. Van had got in, number 402. In a rare show of affection and pride Thai took the day off work and rode home to pick up his victorious daughter. Together they returned to Gia Long, where the young girl stared in disbelief at her name on the blackboard, as if it were written in the stars.
In times past when a scholar was successful in the public service examinations and became a mandarin, he would return to his home village leading a procession of soldiers and bearing gifts from the emperor. Villagers shared in his success and lined the torch-lit streets, cheering and beating drums as he rode by on a gallant horse. In the crowd no one was prouder and more excited than the mandarin’s fiancee, who admired her future husband in his brocaded gown. Van was a modern-day mandarin, sitting on her father’s Lambretta as she was paraded through the streets of Saigon. The radiant young girl was sure that the whole city was singing and dancing for her. With an education at a top school Van would find a prestigious well- paid job. She would be in control of her life and be able to avoid or overcome the cruel vagaries that had dogged her family for almost a decade. When it was time to marry she would be financially independent and not have to always answer and bow to her husband. Van would direct her own destiny, no longer fated to be, as the saying put it, a piece of silk floating in the midst of the market, knowing not into whose hands it will fall.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 10

 When that day finally arrived, Diem supporters reminded citizens that they were making a choice between the old and the new, the stagnant and the lively, the monarchy and the republic. Voters arrived at polling booths to find that Diem’s cards were an auspicious red, while the emperor’s were a dull green. Like many others, Van’s parents knew that the result was predetermined, but suspected that fair elections would have brought Diem to power anyway. They, too, resented Bao Dai for submitting to French demands, and thought that he was more concerned with satisfying his own lavish desires than serving the nation. It did not matter to Thai and Sat that the end of monarchical rule and the creation of a modern Republic of Vietnam (RVN) was no victory for democracy, official figures (manipulated by Nhu) indicated that Diem won the presidency by an overwhelming margin of 5,721,735 votes to 63,017. In some electorates he polled more votes than the number of people registered.

Knowing that Ho Chi Minh would not be so easy to defeat in a general election, Diem refused to conduct the consultations leading up to the 1956 nationwide ballot that had been outlined in the Geneva Accords. With US support he argued that Ho Chi Minh’s DRV had violated the Geneva Accords by allowing Chinese troops into the country, that his own government had not signed the agreements, and that the Northerners were so indoctrinated with communist propaganda that they could not cast a free vote.
At the same time, despite concerns about invasion from the North, Diem compelled France to withdraw from South Vietnam. By mid-1956 there were no French colonial troops left in Indochina and the French High Command had been abandoned. Many South Vietnamese were amazed at how the once all-commanding colonists had been so swiftly removed from their land, and felt as if a long drought had suddenly broken. But as the French prepared to leave Indochina, a new Western power was poised to take their place.
For Van and her family, the most noticeable aspect of this shift in power was the influx of American financial aid. In 1954 President Eisenhower initiated a commodities import program in which US money was provided to the Diem administration to nurture an anti-communist Vietnamese middle class. Development assistance to the farming majority was neglected in the belief that modernisation and liberty could only be achieved from the top down and in the image of the West.
In Saigon, the commodities import program presented long- deprived consumers, such as Van’s family, with an abundance of exotic goods. There were army rations, giant tins of orange- coloured cheese, jam, peanut butter, toothpaste and tank-tops. Catholic Americans donated mountains of new and second¬hand clothes, so that young men and women could be seen wearing provocatively tight pants known as ‘jeans’, which in Van’s eyes just might as easily have come from another planet. The proliferation of radios allowed Van and her sisters to listen to southern ‘light operas’ and Vietnamese folktales in the comfort of their own home for the first time.
In later years Van would clearly remember the time Pepsi first came into her life promoting the ideal image of the twentieth-century consumer: satiated and pacified. Coca-Cola had been sold in Vietnam for some time and had established a reputation as a very refreshing beverage. But the Coca-Cola marketers had not come close to matching the benevolent image of Pepsi, which for more than a month provided huge barrels filled with free ice-cold bottles of cola in front of Van’s school canteen. The Pepsi bottles could not be finished in one sitting or resealed, and students were not allowed to bring them into class. Because the great quantities available made those who shared a bottle seem awfully thrifty, many students returned to the frosty cold barrels every hour to get a new Pepsi from which they drank only a mouthful before discarding the rest. ‘Attention all students!’ boomed the announcement over the loudspeakers. ‘Only take a bottle of Pepsi if you can finish it. Drink it with friends if you have to, but don’t throw it away.’ Surrounding the school courtyard was a small drain gushing with effervescent black crud. America’s presence and wealth were beginning to envelop South Vietnam, and while Van would always be grateful for US protection and support, even in high school she sensed that it was a mixed blessing.
If there was occasional unease in Van’s family about overconsumption this was far outweighed by the relief of overcoming poverty. At around the time of Diem’s return, Thai was promoted at the Planning Department and placed in charge of organising accommodation for visiting politicians, military officers and bureaucrats. The family’s ascendency into Diem’s new middle class was marked in 1954 by their moving out of Cay Mai to the district of Phu Tho. At Phu Tho, vast complexes were being constructed to house the burgeoning masses coming from the countryside. The thousands of identical white townhouses and apartments were, in Van’s eyes, an astounding engineering feat. The inhabitants were similarly indistinguishable in their peacetime efforts to earn a little more money to line their pockets and pull themselves up a rung on the social ladder. Van’s Phu Tho home was not as luxurious as the villa in Binh Duong, but it was brand new, larger than their Cay Mai hut and carried with it the hope of better things to come. And so, if only for the material comfort and palpable excitement that he brought to their lives, Van and her family saw Diem as a modern-day hero and visionary, the man who had liberated them from need. The desire for progress that both Thai and President Diem shared was blended with an element of old-time Confucianism. Thai considered it his solemn duty to care for and raise his children, but insisted that in doing so they had to look up to him and know their place. This is exactly how Diem governed South Vietnam.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 9

 ‘Time was up. In the seconds of silence that followed, no one could make sense of what had transpired — no one, that is, except for Trang Quynh.

‘“Fool!” cried the head of the Chinese party. “We give you this marvellous work of art and all you can offer is a few scraggly lines. Every man, woman, child and animal in this pathetic land will pay for your impertinence.”
‘“With the greatest respect, Your Excellency,” said Trang Quynh, “have you not seen ten glorious earth dragons or wiggling worms before?”’
The children burst into fits of laughter. One or two of them boasted that they had guessed it was coming all along.
Thai went on, ‘The Vietnamese members of the court and even some of the Chinese laughed so hard that the story of how Trang Quynh had outsmarted the Chinese echoed through the land, fortifying the people’s spirit and keeping them safe from invasion.’ Then he concluded, ‘Trang Quynh’s stories tell us of the precious and enduring nature of Vietnamese independence. They remind us that the weak can always defeat the strong provided that they are brave and cunning enough to know how to avoid confronting the enemy head-on. We have to attack from an angle, in secret and in ways that turn the might of our enemy in our favour.’
In June 1954, when Van was almost ten years old, Ngo Dinh Diem returned from the US to take up the prime ministership of South Vietnam. Van’s family did not know Diem at that time, but the new prime minister quickly established himself as a prominent figure in their lives and in the nation’s future.
Like Trang Quynh, Ngo Dinh Diem was also a Vietnamese nationalist, but that is where the similarities ended. Born in 1901 into a Catholic mandarin family, Diem was a humourless, highly driven and austere young man who became the governor of Phan Thiet province in south-eastern Vietnam when he was only 28 years old. This brought him to the attention of the emperor Bao Dai who, in 1933, invited Diem to serve as minister for the interior. The youthful administrator accepted but resigned that same year, claiming that the French had stifled his plans for democratic reforms.
After Ho Chi Minh declared independence in September 1945, the Viet Minh assassinated Diem’s older brother, Ngo Dinh Khoi, whom they saw as a political rival. By his own account Diem was then kidnapped and taken to a mountain hideout where he met Ho Chi Minh. Ho supposedly offered him a position in the fledgling Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), which Diem flatly refused. He was held until March 1946 when he was freed under an agreement for exchange of political prisoners between the French and the Viet Minh. From these experiences, Diem developed a fierce hatred of communism for which he would soon gain an international reputation.
Diem exiled himself from Vietnam in 1950 and spent much of the next four years on the east coast of the United States. He argued ferociously in the media and halls of power that the Vietnamese would never be free and prosperous under the French, the lapsed emperor Bao Dai or the Viet Minh. During this time he also garnered support from the Vietnam lobby, which consisted of influential journalists, members of the Catholic hierarchy, and prominent politicians such as senators John F. Kennedy and Michael Mansfield, all of whom saw Diem as offering a ‘Third Way’ between colonialism and communism. Before long he would be lauded by US leaders as Ho Chi Minh’s great rival, the ‘Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia’, a ‘Miracle Man’, or, at the very least, ‘the only boy we’ve got out there’.
By the early 1950s the war in Indochina was not solely about French colonialism and Vietnamese independence; it had been subsumed into the Cold War with all the accompanying ideological baggage and social discord. The French effort to maintain the empire was now supported by the United States, which had been confronted by the rise to power of Chairman Mao in 1949. Suspecting that the Chinese Red Army would turn its attention to Indochina, in the spring of 1950 President Truman approved a grant of US$15 million for economic and military assistance to France. Only months later, the Korean War broke out and the communist threat in Asia was now seen by many US leaders to be critical to their national interests. By the end of the year, US$150 million had been funnelled into Indochina. The flow of American dollars would continue to grow throughout the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.
Diem returned to Vietnam with strong American support and at the request of the ex-emperor-turned-head-of-state Bao Dai. A month after his homecoming, the Geneva Accords were adopted which ended the First Indochina War by splitting the nation in half at the 17th parallel. General elections aimed at establishing a unified national government were scheduled for 1956. Throughout this tumultuous period, the neglectful Bao Dai spent most of his time in France, allowing Diem to take control of the entire South Vietnamese regime. But de facto power was not enough for the image-conscious prime minister. By the end of 1955, Diem had started a republican movement that would enable him to usurp Bao Dai and become the pre¬eminent political figure in South Vietnam.
With the help of his younger brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem organised a referendum in which the people had to choose between Bao Dai and Diem as the head of state. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Diem and Nhu took command of the public service, enlisting workers, including Thai and his colleagues in the Planning Department, to deliver pamphlets and how-to-vote cards for the prime minister. Public funds were used for pro-Diem posters, streamers and balloons, and throughout the city loudspeakers fixed to lorries blasted out propaganda songs so relentlessly that Van could still recite them several decades later:
The 23rd of October is the day of the popular referendum,
The 23rd of October is the day to smash the throne.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 8

 ‘Following the thousand years of direct Chinese rule, for almost another thousand years the Vietnamese were never really free. We were always afraid that China would invade us again and knew that because their country was many times bigger than ours, we could not hold them out forever. We knew that if we wanted to maintain our independence and dignity we could not rely on strength alone. We would have to use our wits. In this regard the Vietnamese were as mighty as anyone because no one, even in all of China, was more canny than Trang Quynh.

‘Before a Chinese emperor decided to conquer a country he would first determine whether the inhabitants were talented and intelligent. The emperor would send envoys who would set tests to the chosen champions of the land. If they failed then invasion would surely follow. You can imagine the pressure on these Vietnamese heroes, the fate of the whole country lying in their hands. But Trang Quynh always met the challenge with cool humour and an indomitable will. Now, which Trang Quynh story shall I tell you? How about the story of Trang Quynh the patriotic painter?’
‘Yes, yes, yes, tell US that story.’
‘All right then, are you ready?
‘There was once a Chinese emperor who was convinced that his chief artist’s paintings were more beautiful than anything that he had ever seen. One day, the emperor had an idea. He would send the artist to Vietnam to challenge the best Vietnamese artist in a competition. When the Vietnamese artist was defeated, word would spread through the southern land of the superiority of Chinese civilisation. The Vietnamese would be demoralised and prime targets for military assault.
‘The Chinese envoy was sent in haste along with advance word of the test that had been set. The Vietnamese emperor and his lords were terrified and panicked like fish stranded on the shore. In desperation they turned to Trang Quynh and asked him whether he knew of a painter who might be up to the task. Unruffled, Trang Quynh replied, “I do not know any painters but am happy to take up the challenge myself.” The Vietnamese lords were confounded, but knowing Trang Quynh’s reputation and with no other alternative, accepted his offer.
‘When the Chinese delegation arrived in all its pomp and finery, the Vietnamese emperor was forced to treat them as honoured guests, despite the fact that they wanted to conquer our land. When the time came for the competition, the leader of the envoy outlined the impossible conditions under which he expected Trang Quynh to compete. “As a representative of the Middle Kingdom, I present to you the royal painter who will draw in three beats of a drum a magnificent beast. If the unknown artist from this lowly land can better or even match his feat, the emperor will consider your people worthy and leave you in peace.”
‘“Hah!” cried Trang Quynh, “I can draw ten animals in that time!” The assembly was shocked and knew of no magic that could accomplish such a deed. They watched and waited, frozen with fear as the drummer began his count.
‘Does anyone know how long a drum beat is?’ asked Thai. ‘It’s about five seconds. Count with me. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Not very long is it? So the task before Trang Quynh was formidable.
‘Boohhmm!!! Went the drum for the first time.
‘And the Chinese painter picked up his brush, dipping it in ink as a bird draws nectar from a flower, and deftly illustrating the outline of a mighty beast. In the painting’s background, elegantly but with frightening speed he dabbed his brush to create plump clouds that would frame the fierce dragon. As for our hero Trang Quynh, both his form and brush remained unmoved.
‘Boohhmm! Went the second drum beat.
‘And the Chinese painter revealed his secret ability. He picked up a second brush in his other hand which he used with equal skill and speed. The master painter added the dragon wings, one hand sketching the bony outline while the other filled in the delicate membrane. Clearly, he had practised this drawing a thousand times and could reproduce it as naturally as he signed his name. Then the painter started on the fearsome, razor-sharp claws, simultaneously drawing the left daws with his right hand and the right daws with his left, so that even the keenest eye could not identify the slightest variation. After that, but still in that instant, he used the fine points of his brushes to depict every scale on the beast’s body and every strand of hair on its flowing mane. Can you imagine how many scales there are on a dragon’s body? Can you guess how many hairs are on its neck?
‘And still our champion Trang Quynh was motionless, so relaxed that he yawned as if he were about to go to bed. Ahhwwh!
‘The leader of the Chinese delegation was sure that a madman stood before him and was ready to slaughter every Vietnamese person in retribution for Trang Quynh’s insolence. The Vietnamese dignitaries had already packed their trunks with treasure, and fresh horses were standing by ready for flight. They all awaited the final drum beat.
‘The Chinese painter drove his brushes into the paper as if he were drilling deep, spinning the tips around to make two shining vicious eyes. His arms then swirled as he added great swathes of fire emanating from the dragon’s snarling mouth. But by that stage, would you believe, no one was watching him. Instead their attention was fixed upon Trang Quynh who had dipped his hands in a pot of ink and run his fingers down the page.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 7

 Little by little, Loan’s aspirations for an education, marriage and longevity slipped away. The polio had weakened her immune system and she had difficulties with her stomach, lungs and heart. Too weak to study, Loan gave up school before she had learnt how to read and write proficiently. Without books and magazines to pass the time, she kept herself occupied by doing small jobs around the house and by watching people go by in the street, hoping that someone would stop to talk about the universe beyond her gate. Thai always reserved the best clothes and food for Loan, and whenever possible took Loan and her sisters to see German ice skaters, foreign films and exotic exhibitions of flowers, inventions and automobiles. Despite the family’s efforts and prayers, Loan faded into a silhouette of a person: photographs from that time show an emaciated young woman with deep-set eyes sitting awkwardly in the shadows. Her legs are tangled like the roots of mangrove trees, and her sinewy body is adorned with shiny bracelets and necklaces to remind her of her past beauty.

Loan’s illness demanded from Van a sense of resilience and self- assurance that was beyond her years. Together they dreamt that divine forces would restore Loan’s legs so that she could go to the movies and the zoo without her younger sister having to carry her from place to place. Van spent many days reading to her older sister Vietnamese fairytales such as Tam Cam in which a virtuous and beautiful heroine, mistreated by her stepmother and stepsister, manages to discover happiness with the assistance of her fairy godmother. The girls also enjoyed Western equivalents like Cinderella, which they found to be a little too wholesome and simplistic. One of their favourite stories was Alt Baba and the Forty Thieves; the sisters admired not only All Baba’s courage, but also that of the mythical author of One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade, who crafted 1001 tales so captivating that they saved her from a murderous king.
In Van and Loan’s eyes, their father was the only living person who could come close to matching Scheherazade’s story-telling ability. Thai was so well known for his skills that at family gatherings children would loll around his feet, too respectful to ask him outright to begin, but also anxious to be in a prime position when he hollered, ‘Who wants to hear a story?’
‘Yes, yes, father!’
‘Me, me! Wait for me before you start, Uncle Thai!’
The children would come streaming in from their games of bones in the backyard or skipping in the street and sit cross-legged and attentive at Thai’s feet. On perfect occasions Van’s mother would pass out cups of sugar-cane juice or sant bo luong sweet soup. The smaller members of the audience would sip their drinks from teaspoons so as to savour the experience, rather than take great gulps induced by the excitement in the air. During these performances, Van would look up to her father as the very embodiment of wisdom and charm.
‘Now, what story would you like to hear?’ he would ask.
‘Please, tell us the story of Princess My Chau and the Golden Tortoise.’
‘No, we heard that one last time. I want to hear about the brave warrior Thach Sanh!’
‘How about a story of the stupid husband and the clever wife? Last time I heard one of those I couldn’t stop giggling for a week.’
‘No, not a funny story, I want to hear an action story.’
‘Quiet, everyone!’ Thai would command. ‘Perhaps I can tell you a story that is both funny and exciting. How would you like to hear about the adventures of Trang Quynh?’
‘Who’s Trang Quynh?’ one of the younger children would ask. An older cousin would be quick to rebuke him. ‘Don’t you know anything, stupid? Everyone knows who Trang Quynh is.’
‘Actually, that was an excellent question,’ Thai would remark, coming to the rescue of the small child who was on the verge of tears. ‘For a long time no one knew who Trang Quynh was and whether he was real or made up. We now think that he lived during the Le and Trinh dynasties, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
‘Trang Quynh’s real name was Nguyen Quynh and he was born in the northern province of Thanh Hoa. We’ll never know exactly which Trang Quynh stories actually took place, which ones he wrote himself, and which ones changed as they were told and retold over the years. But it seems that Trang Quynh’s genius was recognised from a young age. He received the highest marks in his examinations for his first degree, but failed to attain his second degree because his free thinking offended the imperial examiners. Despite the fact that he didn’t get to the highest examinations, we honour him as Trang. This is the title that we give to whoever receives the highest score in the highest degree, the smartest person in the land.
‘There are stories about how Trang Quynh tricked and teased everyone: the common people; the mean and greedy Trinh lords; and even the gods. But he is best known for outsmarting the Chinese. You’ll remember that the Chinese ruled Vietnam for a thousand years. They called it Annam, which means “the pacified land to the south”. Even now we still call China “Trung Quoc”, which means “middle kingdom”.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 6

 In the summer of 1952 Thai got a job at the Planning Department and found a place for the family to live in Saigon. Their home was on an anonymous and dusty alleyway of Cay Mai district, which was named after the trees that herald the New Year with cheerful yellow flowers. Much to the children’s delight, their house was close to a biscuit factory, where the owners fed coconut shells and wood chips into an oven which gave off an enticing aroma throughout the day and for much of the night. Often Van stopped by on the way home from school to ask for broken biscuits, which were sometimes sold to polite young children at a discount. Another advantage of living in Cay Mai was the many small florists where blossoms of every possible shape and colour were nurtured. Van discovered hiding spots amongst the jasmine, orchids, gladiolas, lotuses, marigolds and lilies. Enclosed within these pockets of paradise, she took deep breaths and lost herself in the pages of a finely illustrated fairytale.

Despite the enchanting scents of biscuits and flowers, Cay Mai was no dreamland. This was evident from July to September each year when torrential rain caused the sewers to overflow into Van’s home, forcing her family to climb onto an elevated bed where they waited like Noah in his ark for the waters to subside so that the cleanup could begin.
Like every other dwelling in the area, Van’s house was made of thatch. A parapet separated the front living area from the kitchen, while the bathroom was situated inside a dilapidated backyard shed. In a mutual exchange of filth, the family’s bath water ran off onto other properties at the same time as suds and grime ran onto theirs. Bowel movements, which also took place in the shed, were directed into a bowl that was lined with paper, which was subsequently wrapped up and deposited in an adjacent bin. Much to their disgust, Van and her older sisters had to carry this bin to the communal cesspit each night. As they conducted their night soil sorties the girls were often told to hurry on by neighbours whose waste, Van concluded, must have smelt that much sweeter than theirs.
Illness weighed upon the family much more than floods and the lack of sanitation. In July 1951, when the family was still in Binh Duong, Van’s younger sister Hoa had been born. Hoa was a premature baby and was held hostage at the maternity clinic because Van’s father , could not pay the bill. ‘If it wasn’t for that lucky lottery ticket that I bought with the last of our savings,’ he would recount, ‘I would have had to break into the ward and rescue her!’ Not long after the family moved to Saigon, Hoa fell ill and was near death for over a month, unconscious with fever and covered with festering sores. Sat did not have the faith or money to call a Western-trained doctor, and so she placed a catfish in a basin under her daughter’s bed in the belief that it would draw out Hoa’s deadly ailments. To the family’s relief, both the fish and the infant survived, and after making an incision on its tail so that anglers would know of the infection and good deed that it bore, they released the fish into a river.
But ill health still stalked the family, most tragically, for Van’s older sister Loan. Loan was a pretty and sweet-mannered girl whom Van admired and envied. During their early years the differences between them had seemed so stark that Van often wondered whether they were indeed related. Loan was slender, sharp-witted, graceful and good at games; Van, on the other hand, was so slow and clumsy that they called her con dung ram because she was always bumping into things. Despite their differences, and the fact that Loan tended to attract all the attention and compliments, Van was grateful to have Loan by her side. She would never find a companion who was as close to her as Loan.
While they were still in Binh Duong, Loan was diagnosed with polio, which developed rapidly after they moved to Saigon. Loan’s limbs became fragile and bowed, and the muscles around her feet took on a shrivelled, mummified appearance, robbing her of the ability to walk. Once again, Van’s parents could not afford to take Loan to a hospital. And in any case they were convinced that such heinous afflictions were caused by supernatural forces and had to be settled accordingly. One day Thai came home with a monkey which Van and her sisters soon came to adore. A name had already been chosen for the little beast when they discovered that he was to be slaughtered and his kidneys removed for Loan to eat.
After that measure proved unsuccessful Thai, Sat and Loan travelled to the other side of Saigon to see a man who sold holy water which they had heard could cure any disease. By the time they arrived the man’s well had dried up. So, along with other hopefuls, Thai returned with a container of water which he held over his head as the miracle worker blessed it from his veranda with a leafy branch. Particularly traumatic for Loan were the visits to a Buddhist temple in Cho Lon where a powder was sprinkled on her aching knees and then set alight. With each treatment the family became more miserable and indebted.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 5

 Because these affairs were prime targets for the Viet Minh, French-sanctioned fun was always tainted by fear and overseen by grim-faced colonial soldiers on the lookout for saboteurs. This was the image of France — ominous and overbearing, the destructive protector of the Vietnamese — that Van also had to come to grips with before she was even ten years old. The French lived in luxurious houses protected by soldiers and German shepherd guard dogs. In the street, French people were not to be gawked at; rather one should stare at the ground as they walked by or take a detour so as to avoid them altogether. Even as the colonists imposed their culture on her, Van felt distant from them. She was convinced that the white person’s culture was alien and evil, that white people were bent on conquest, that they were disdainful of proud natives, and that they could not be trusted. She found it easier to relate to the Viet Minh, whom she likened to the heroes who had driven away the Chinese invaders in classical times. Vietnam, the young girl believed, was surely for the Vietnamese. Then, in 1950, a momentous event turned Van against the Viet Minh forever, leaving her with no side to support, or even a house to live in.

The origins of this event lay in Thai’s decision, after returning to Binh Duong from the Phu Hung plantation in the early 1940s, to purchase a small fleet of cars which he hired out for trips to Saigon. The fleet consisted of two sleek black Vedettes, sedans fitted with an extra bench seat in the middle, and a mini-bus that was made for twenty but often held twice that. Ạt first Thai drove the vehicles himself, but as business improved he employed drivers to make the trips to the capital once or twice a day.
During its first years of operation, Thai’s hire cars made a handsome profit. But the business was not without its hazards. The drivers always returned before nightfall in order to avoid the revolutionaries, who were most active after dark. By 1950, as the First Indochina War intensified, car bombings started to take place during the day. At first only lorries and luxury cars were targeted, but it was not long before the Viet Minh became less particular about their victims. As fewer people dared travel to Saigon, Thai’s trade dwindled, along with the family’s savings. One day the Viet Minh put him out of business for good when they ambushed the two Vedettes at gunpoint and directed the drivers and passengers to the side of the road. Cloth fuses were fed into the petrol tanks and a fateful match was lit. In an instant, the stylish sedans were transformed into smouldering advertisements of national liberation, promoting to all passers-by the dangers of dissent.
It was only a matter of months before Thai was forced to sell the remaining mini-bus and then their much-loved villa, the only home that Van had ever known. In the unstable economic environment, automobile prices had fallen so low that the money Thai received did little to cushion their fall. For the next year, Van and her family moved from one friend or relative’s house to another. With almost everyone struggling, any hospitality they were offered did not last very long. Van’s meals were made bitter by the taste of charity. She slept uncomfortably, niggled by the fact that she was not in her own home, when it came time to leave she sensed the hostile tones and half-masked lies in their hosts’ excuses: ‘The house has to be renovated. There are other people coming who are more in need than you. It’s just better for everyone if you find another place to live.’
Drivers who had once worked for Thai were soon bringing him food and presents out of kindness and respect. One driver who dropped off some fish went to particular trouble to suggest he was so sick of the smell at the dried fish factory where he worked that Thai was doing him a favour by taking it off his hands. Sensitive to the fact that he was now better off than his old boss, the driver did not want Thai to lose face. Thai graciously accepted the fish and gave it to Sat who left it on a windowsill to air out the pungent smell. Sat had hardly turned her back before a cat pounced on in it and darted off. Reacting to Sat’s scream, the entire family gave chase to the scraggly feline, even though they knew the fish was no long edible. They were not so much driven by hunger and vengeance, but by a sense that they could not bear another defeat. After the best part of an hour the family congregated back at the house and accepted that all was lost. Famished and weary, Van and her loved ones slumped in silence before erupting with laughter.
That wily alley cat had reminded them that even after losing their house and their last morsel of food they still had each other. In better times Thai commissioned an oil painting of the brown and ginger coloured cat holding the fish in its mouth to remind them of how they had been dragged through the gutters and come out clean.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 4

 When Tu passed away at the age of 78, his funeral procession filled Binh Duong’s main street, as relatives and friends lined up to pay tribute to his generosity and virtue. He had chauffeured gleeful nieces and great-nieces through the dusty tracks of Phu Hung plantation in his Roland automobile, scattering peacocks and rubber tappers alike in the process. He had provided scholarships to many of his nephews and offered them work regardless of whether they succeeded or failed. Tu’s home was always open to needy friends and relatives from the countryside, as they commuted to and from Saigon. Many proclaimed that such was Tu’s saintliness that his coffin could be lifted with only one finger. Others sniggered that old man Tu had had so many wives and mistresses that together they each needed only one finger to lower him into the grave.

On the day of Tu’s funeral, Van’s father, Thai, spoke of the admiration and gratitude that he had for his Uncle Tu, who had paid for his education and employed him as a plantation overseer until the day that Phu Hung burnt down. Everything that he had achieved had been thanks to Tu. The villa in which his family slept so comfortably had been built with proceeds from the French colonial rubber industry. Yet the extent to which Thai’s hands were stained with the red earth and white blood is unclear. He was no doubt responsible for disciplining workers, but Thai did not recount how he performed this task, not even to his wife. His family was thus left with little choice but to have faith in Thai’s reputation as a gentle and humane person. With unshakeable conviction, Van maintains that her father preserved his virtue, even while working in a slaughterhouse. The material comfort and the golden gates at the front of Van’s home could not shelter her from the war that was escalating outside. Whenever the floor and walls shuddered from bombing nearby, she and her sisters would dart outside fearing that their villa would collapse. Several times during her early childhood in the late 1940s, she saw people running past with the aimless desperation of ants after the first drops of rain. Being the provincial capital, Binh Duong was home to French barracks and government buildings. There was rarely open fighting in the streets, but the townspeople were constantly terrorised by the Viet Minh, who planted bombs at bicycle races, the town hall, even at circuses. Usually the explosions came from the market' close to Van’s home, where the revolutionaries were also notorious for poisoning food.
While the central objective of this terror was to destabilise and overthrow the French administration, Viet Minh guerrillas accepted that ordinary people had to make sacrifices, even be sacrificed, in order to achieve these goals. In their view Vietnamese society was on a revolutionary footing, which necessitated the mobilisation of the entire population.
Before the dust from the explosions had settled, colonial troops would be raiding houses. Several times Van saw young men being led to the French barracks, with their hands tied behind their backs, a look of resignation on their faces. Days, weeks, perhaps months passed before there was another explosion, then screams, sirens and arrests. Like many other children living in war-stricken countries, Van was warned to stay away from crowds. And while she always tried to obey her parents, the young girl was puzzled as to how people could possibly avoid the throng.
There were other times when planes flew overhead and thousands of pieces of paper fluttered to the ground like giant coloured snowflakes. The pamphlets praised the French for building roads, hospitals and schools, and condemned the Viet Minh as godless terrorists. With neither planes nor coloured paper available to them, the Viet Minh revolutionaries countered by hand-dropping leaflets stating that the French had pillaged the country’s natural resources, accusing them of building more jails than schools, and proclaiming that a glorious people’s revolution was imminent.
One day, when Van was six years old, she picked up a Viet Minh pamphlet and brought it home hoping that her father would help her decipher it. As she walked through the door her mother, who was illiterate, immediately identified the pamphlet by its size and colour. Sat tore the paper from her daughter’s hand before promptly disposing of it as if it were toxic. ‘Do you know what would happen if the French caught you with that? We would all be in trouble!’ Van could not conceive of what might possibly be written on such a small piece of paper to enrage her usually placid mother. The young girl was left with the impression that reading could be very dangerous.
Since naive children were threats not only to themselves but also to everyone around them, Thai and Sat did not talk in front of their girls about the conflict and terror that had engulfed the nation. Their daughters might tell a friend that Thai and Sat were appalled by the latest Viet Minh poisoning at the market, or horrified by the indiscriminate rounding up and beating of suspected insurgents by French patrols. The friend might pass on the story to another child who, in all innocence, might tell a parent. In a matter of days Thai and Sat might be targeted by the Viet Minh, the French or both.
Despite her parents’ reticence, a perceptive child like Van could learn much by scrounging around for morsels of information, discussing with older children, and observing the inconsistent moods and behaviour of adults. The attitude of the grown-ups towards the French was particularly perplexing. At times they seemed to believe that everything Western was bigger, stronger and more beautiful than what they had in Vietnam, when first introduced, the turkey was known as a ‘French chicken’, an upgraded version of the measly Vietnamese bird. The slender and feeble Vietnamese onion was no match for the bigger, rounder, juicier Western variety. Vietnamese with white skin and high noses were praised for their ‘French-like beauty’, and merchandise imported from the West was automatically embossed with a mark of quality. At times, French culture appeared to be generous and fun-loving, especially on Bastille Day when a parade of natives draped in the French tricolour surged down the main street to the town hall where there were market stalls and sideshow alleys. On a stage nearby, children sang ‘La Marseillaise’ and a band played throughout the day.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 3

 Spurred on by the automotive boom of the 1920s, around 500 rubber plantations were established in Indochina by French companies, of these Phu Hung was a relatively small one, covering only a few hundred hectares and employing less than 500 workers. Official company records show that 22,000 of the almost 200,000 contracted workers for La Terre Rouge died between 1917 and 1945. This horrendous casualty rate is in all likelihood understated and merely hints at the deprivations experienced by those workers trapped inside the plantation system.

While the French viewed the latex oozing from the trees as ‘white gold’, Vietnamese labourers described it as ‘white blood’ seeping out from ‘slaughterhouses’. The records and memories of what life was like at Tu’s plantation are scarce and faded, but the memoirs of Tran Tu Binh provide a detailed depiction of suffering and resistance in a larger La Terre Rouge rubber plantation in the same province. Tran Tu Binh was a young Leninist revolutionary who came to Thu Dau Mot (now Binh Duong) province in the 1920s to work at the Phu Rieng rubber plantation. The majority of his co-workers were peasants from the famine-struck regions of northern Vietnam and had no means of returning home. They had often been conned into exploitative work contracts by recruitment agents, who showed them idyllic pictures of plantation life and promised three meals a day, generous holidays, free housing, education for children and medical benefits.
Once contracted, the peasants were shoved like livestock into awaiting railway carriages and cargo ships. Upon arriving in the south, they discovered that the accommodation was squalid, wages were paltry and the employment conditions were insufferable. The first wave of workers was forced to clear the land, labouring from sunrise to sunset without any nourishment. Fatigue often prevented them from getting out of the way of falling trunks and branches. Piercing screams were followed by deathly silence and the bodies left, wrote Tran Tu Binh, to ‘fertilize the capitalists’ rubber trees’.
To enhance order and productivity a strict division was constructed between overseers and workers. In accordance with traditional social markers, overseers had to be referred to as ‘master’, while the workers were scorned from above as if they were children or animals. Perhaps more brutally efficient were the modern methods of completely depersonalising the workforce. Rubber tappers at Phu Rieng were stripped of their names and given a number on a piece of wood to hang around their necks. As mere numbers, the tappers had no inherent worth outside the system that had created them. And if they did not serve the system’s needs, then they were promptly discarded. This erasing of human identity was sometimes so complete that children only knew their parents as numbers. Overseers were deaf to the cries of these ciphers whom they compelled to work harder by kicking and trampling them with nail-studded boots. They tortured whoever tried to escape and raped women and girls simply because they could.
Even in this horrific environment Tran Tu Binh witnessed the capacity of workers to silently maintain their dignity and secretly lay the foundations for liberation. Often the workers devised ways of reclaiming their humanity without drawing extra attention and beatings. Many added simple adjectives to their number-names, so that ‘11’ became ‘11-plump’ (a particularly uncommon characteristic) and ‘31’ might be known as ‘31-thin’.
Responding to growing unrest at the Phu Rieng rubber plantation in 1928, the French director organised sporting teams and arts groups in the hope of placating the natives. The workers took advantage of this opportunity and set about rehearsing a Lunar New Year’s (Tet) dragon dance, which allowed them to secretly hone their martial arts and sword skills under the noses of the white tyrants. On the eve of Tet, the workers paraded to the director’s villa in a cloud of festive joy. They performed dances that ridiculed the director, who was left red-faced and bewildered. It was a largely symbolic yet significant victory for the workers, which affirmed their humanity and bolstered their will to resist. If they could outsmart their oppressors, then they could also be free.
Phu Rieng plantation and Tu’s Phu Hung plantation differed only by a matter of degrees. Most of the workers at Phu Hung were recruited from the north with promises of employment and security. They arrived hungry and desperate, wearing only tattered rags, which soon disintegrated into loincloths, as they worked long days tapping the rows and rows of rubber trees. There were also frightening but typical forms of dehumanisation at Phu Hung: At roll call and on paydays it was not unusual to see Tu inspecting the pitiful procession of workers as if they were cattle. Just as terrible for weary rubber tappers was the sight of Director Tu on his menacing horse, as he rode through the plantation with a long whip in hand. Van’s great-uncle was also infamous for his sordid relationships with young women workers, which became well known and contributed to his French wife leaving him and returning to Europe.
During the late 1930s the workers at Phu Hung went on strike and started sabotaging saplings. There were also attempts made on Tu’s life, which were foiled by his overseers. As French troops returned to Europe to fight in World War II, the Viet Minh and plantation workers took control of Phu Hung and set it alight. Tu and his overseers fled to the township of Binh Duong. He would return in the mid-1940s and attempt to revive the plantation on a smaller scale, but without a ready supply of slave labour, the once fertile red earth at Phu Hung could no longer produce enough white gold.
In Binh Duong, Tu acquired several well-situated properties and was soon one of the most influential people in town. In his fifties, Tu recognised that he would some day have to answer for his earthly deeds. This motivated him to take on the custodianship of a local temple which was dedicated to the valiant Chinese General Quan Cong (whose valour and virtue are immortalised in the classic Chinese novel The Three Kingdoms).

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut 2

 For Van’s parents it was almost unthinkable that a woman could dictate her own life and bring prosperity or kudos to her family. It was a world in which men acted and women endured. So went the woman’s lament:

My body is like a drop from a downpour.
It may fall into a well or into a flower garden.
My body is like a drop of falling rain.
It may land inside a mansion or end out in a slushy field.
At the end of 1946, two and a half years after Van’s birth, her parents’ fears that something was wrong intensified when another boy was born only to die shortly afterwards. The couple approached a local astrologer for help, who informed them that the alignment of their stars did not bode well for their giving birth to boys. Shaking his head, he solemnly foretold that a healthy son would only come at the cost of one of his parents. Unable to accept such a prospect, Van’s parents sought the assistance of a nearby witch doctor who provided a more helpful diagnosis. He found that spirits had infiltrated the male line of Van’s family and were causing the same bedevilled boy to be born over and over. From that night on, Thai and Sat hung a charm that had been blessed by the witch doctor on their front door to dispel the wicked spirits.
A year or so later when Sat gave birth to another boy, her joy was laced with trepidation. Sat watched over the infant with the sombre vigilance of a lighthouse keeper on a stormy night. The baby appeared healthy, but so had his older brothers. For Sat, no measure was unwarranted if it might help her son in his struggle against those insidious supernatural forces. The infant was given a girl’s name, Hong, so as to mask his identity from the pursuing evil. A few days after his birth, Sat approached a travelling Kampuchean medic who had recently arrived in town with his elephant on standby. After a brief examination, the bush medic outlined his course of action, using furious hand gestures and a mix of Kampuchean and Vietnamese. His elephant could draw the evil spirits out from the baby, he promised, and at the same time pass on its totem strength to aid Hong in fighting the spirits off if they returned. As with any major medical procedure, there was some risk. But Sat and Thai accepted this lesser danger in order to avoid the greater one, and watched on anxiously as the medic lifted the baby’s soft head past the elephant’s gigantic lips and into its mouth. Hong came out a little damp and smelly, but was otherwise unharmed by the experience.
The elephant therapy turned out to be little more than a delaying tactic. When the infant contracted fever some months later Thai purchased dozens of liquids and lotions, which Sat poured down Hong’s throat and rubbed onto his tiny chest and stomach. Despite all their hopes and efforts, one night the spirits snatched his soul and carried it away. Thai and Sat returned to the witch doctor who was confounded and could only advise that they wrap the tiny corpse in a fishing net so as to ttap the evil in the grave.
Van’s mother was beyond consolation. ‘What evil have I done in the past to deserve such a dreadful affliction?’ she cried. More and more, Sat resigned herself to the astrologer’s prediction that for a healthy boy to be born, one of his parents must die. She had decided that this was a small sacrifice to make: her life to save her family and generations to come.
It is not a specific image or event that Van recalls as her first memory, but rather the gloomy mood that had taken hold of her family after Hong’s death. Even as a young child she felt responsible for her parents’ hurt, and guilty that she was a girl and therefore part of the problem. Much of her life would be dedicated to soothing the family’s pain and lessening their suffering. Often she would think that her defeats far outweighed her successes, and she would once again feel like a helpless little girl.
The sorrow and anxiety that settled over Van’s boy-barren family stood in contrast to their financial comfort and security, which was apparent in the splendid villa that Van called home for most of her early childhood. Visitors to the villa were greeted by two ornate golden gates. The front path was lined with water- apple trees bearing tantalising ruby-and-jade-coloured fruits. Elegant French shutters adorned the main windows, which were set into walls rendered a gentle yellow, the same shade and colour as the four immense pillars on the front veranda. Rounded crimson roof tiles glittered in the morning sun and glowed with gentle warmth in the afternoons. Inside, the floor was lined with large terracotta tiles, which had a knack for staying cool, so that children and animals alike would often be found sprawled across them on long summer afternoons. This villa in Binh Duong, 30 kilometres north of Saigon, was Van’s home until she was seven. She would later recall, ‘The only time that I was ever really happy and safe in Vietnam was during those first few years of my life in that house. You might even say that we were well off.’
Much of the family’s prosperity was attributable to the achievements of Van’s Great-uncle Tu. The brother of her paternal grandfather, Dat, Tu was born in 1884. He was a talented student and became the first member of the family to receive his secondary school certificate or diplôme. Tu’s mother was a powerful rice merchant; his father ran a successful herbal medicines business; and Tu had a well-placed uncle at the Indochinese Bank. While still in his twenties, Tu possessed first- class social and commercial connections, was fluent in French and exhibited the commanding air of a person who knows no barriers. Not long after graduating with his diplôme, Tu had an exotic French wife by his side and a well-paid position in La Terre Rouge rubber company. With his hardnosed business attitude, Tu rose steadily up the ranks of the rubber company and was rewarded in 1931 with a licence to set up a plantation in the district of Phu Hung.

Colonialism and why my mother had a boy’s haircut

 For more than a year Mum and I walked every weekday morning, even when it was so cold that we had to wear gloves and woolly hats. To prevent boredom, we alternated our program: one morning she taught me Vietnamese; the next morning I asked her questions about her life in Vietnam. Sometimes we jogged and simply enjoyed being together.

Our destination was a pond where my mother had adopted a flock of ducks. As she fed them one morning with scraps of bread which she had stuffed into her pockets, she spoke of her affection for those humble feathered creatures.
‘On the surface ducks appear blissful and calm, but below the water they’re paddling frantically,’ she informed me from under a hat with its brim folded back, and with an instructive index finger raised.
‘I’ve always liked ducks,’ Mum continued. ‘They are not graceful like swans, which I also adore, or as dashing as eagles, and they have failed to evolve spoon-shaped bills or extra-long legs that might give them an edge over other birds. But their coats are resistant to the heaviest downpour.
Ducks can float on the water, swim in rivers, walk on the land, and fly in the sky. They're not exceptional at any one thing, but can manage just about everything. That's why they flourish.’
Later that morning after we returned home, Mum's own duckish attributes became clear to me. ‘Now, son,' she confided, ‘when you’re writing thừ for other people to read, I want you to make it clear that I’m just an ordinary Vietnamese woman. I never had it very hard and never did anything courageous. There are many Vietnamese women — your paternal grandmother or your Aunty Bay, for instance — whose lives were far more challenging and interesting than mine. I’m just normal and simple, nothing special.’
'Don’t worry, Mum,’ I said, trying to reassure her. ‘I’ll be as accurate and honest about you as possible. You have to remember, though, that it’s my work and sometimes I have to write things as I see them and not how you want me to see them.’
‘No, no, no. You don’t understand! This is very important.
I don’t know how to explain it to you. You don’t have enough Vietnamese. And I don’t have enough English. It’s not right for a woman like me to be placed above others, to be made the centre of attention and looked at as if she’s different and special. I don’t want that at all.’
For a long time I did not know how to write my mother’s story without placing her in the spotlight. I wanted to highlight her heroic life and somehow pay tribute to all the Vietnamese women like her who had been forced into the background and fooled into preferring fortitude over revolt. But I was also reluctant to go against my mother’s wishes. Then, one day, Mum gave me a clue as to how I might resolve this quandary when I asked her, ‘Who were your childhood role models?’
‘My mother was a wonderful woman,’ she responded. ‘She loved you very much. But she was old-fashioned and couldn’t do anything for our family outside the home. As for your grandfather, I’ve always respected him, but I didn’t really see him as a role model. I suppose there were a couple of aunts who I looked up to. But, you know, characters in stories probably influenced me more than real people. ’
I had known for some time that books and stories were important to my mother’s childhood and adolescence, but did not apprecừite how important until that moment. I also remembered in that instant an esteemed expert who once pointed out that, ‘Vietnam is and always has been one of the most intensely literary civilisations on the face of the planet.’' So I turned to the pages of books, the stanzas of poems and the verses of songs in an attempt to find out about my birthplace and at the same time subtly illuminate my extraordinary mother.
Van’s father was sick on the day she was born. In fact, he was so weak from flu that he could not walk without the assistance of a cane, which he waved in the air as a horse- drawn cart carried his wife to hospital. Between contractions Van’s mother could hear her husband’s last encouraging words, ‘Bring home a boy, won’t you!’
So from the beginning it was clear that Van was not the ‘Chosen One’ whose story is so often celebrated and immortalised in the West, she was not even the preferred one. This is not to say that Van’s parents were uncaring or indifferent; only that they maintained well-established views about the value of men over women. There was at that time a string of adages reminding parents that ‘One hundred women are not worth one testicle’, and that ‘One boy is everything, while ten girls are nothing’.
In recognition of these sayings, and in the hope of having better luck next time, Van’s father, Thai, and her mother, Sat, dressed her up as a boy and cut her hair short until she was six years old. This was a common practice for parents who had not been blessed with male children. And while Van testifies that she never felt resentful or inadequate, for much of her life she also wondered, ‘If only I was a he, maybe my family would have been better off?’
Sat’s first child was born in 1934, a baby boy who passed away before he was one week old. After three more healthy baby girls were born (the third being Van), Sat and Thai became very apprehensive. There was no greater tragedy for a couple than to fail to produce a male heir to carry on the family line. It was something akin to generational suicide, an offence for which one could not make amends. Then there was the added burden of having to find suitable husbands for all of their daughters. If these husbands wanted to live somewhere else, then Van and her older sisters, Chau and Loan, would have little choice but to follow, and then no one would be left to look after Thai and Sat when they were old.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 12

 In his autobiography, as the character Quoc, Ho Chi Minh described his own collision with modernity from the perspective of a fictitious character, Le.

I [Le] met a young man from central Vietnam. I had met him at a friend’s house. Being of the same age, we soon became buddies. I took him in front of the cafes frequented by the French, where we watched the electric lights. We went to the movies. I showed him the public fountains. So many things that young Quoc had never seen. One day, I bought him some ice cream. He was astonished because it was the first time he had ever eaten it.
A few days later, he suddenly asked me a question:
‘Hey, Le, do you love your country?’
Astonished, I replied, 'Well, of course!’
‘Can you keep a secretĩ’
‘I want to go abroad, to visit France and other countries. When I have seen what they have done, I will return to help my compatriots ...’
Like Thiet, the father of modern Vietnam had ‘touched ice’. He, too, had not turned away in fear and suspicion, but was inspired by the possibilities that might follow from his electrifying contact with a new world.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 11

 Later that afternoon Mum spoke to me in private. ‘We should feel very sorry for your father; he had such a terrible childhood. He was always struggling to make it from one day to the next. Your father never had any fun. He never knew what it was like to be a carefree child. He never even learnt how to skip.’ While this is no doubt a significant deficiency, in fact Thiet’s childhood instinct for play triumphed in even the most oppressive circumstances.

During the wet season, for instance, it was common for winds to blow huts away while families huddled inside them. Raindrops fell like nails, stinging the skin of anyone, caught outside. The river broke its banks, inundating homes, and for weeks and even months on end, villagers forgot what it was to be dry. But even during the worst floods, Thiet discovered joyous inlets of reprieve from the hardships of the countryside. He and his older brother, Biet, saw opportunities for excitement and adventure where adults saw catastrophe and woe. Disobeying their mother’s orders, the two boys strung together large pieces of bark which had fallen from banana palms to make small semi-waterproof canoes. For days they explored vast oceans, discovered mysterious lands and slayed fierce dragons in the submerged rice paddies around their village.
Thiet grouped hunger, war and school (which he attended intermittently) into the common category of ‘interruptions to the critical task of playing of games’. One of his favourite pastimes was the simple but skilful game of tip-cat, which involved flipping a small stick into the air and then whacking it with a larger stick, the winner being the player who could project it the furthest. The ends of the small stick were sometimes tapered so as to take the appearance of a cat’s tail, hence its English name. There is evidence of tip-cat being played a thousand years ago in Central Asia under the Kazakhstani name of chelik-chomak (rod-bat), and it has been identified as a common ancestor of both baseball and cricket. In Vietnam the game often included a points system, bases and fielders; but in Thiet’s eyes, it was best played with minimal complications.
Thiet also found great pleasure in playing bones, hopscotch, hide-and-seek and the absorbing practice of pushing a bamboo hoop through the dusty streets of Bo Ban with a branch. Forty years later, a Korean boy opened the games of the 24th Olympiad in Seoul with this very activity. From his lounge room in Canberra, Thiet felt a warm wave of nostalgia as the boy cheerfully pushed his hoop across the Olympic stadium and into the hearts of billions of people around the world.
Thiet’s imagination, then, sprouted even in the barren soil of the First Indochina War. It would take a far mightier force than war to supplant his childhood innocence and knock him from the well-trodden path that started in and never left the rice fields of Bo Ban. Thiet’s journey began on an otherwise nondescript day in 1952 when his paternal grandfather, perhaps noticing a wistful gaze on the young boy’s face, asked him to accompany him on a trip to Da Nang. Never before had Thiet been the envy of others — this was nothing short of winning the lottery.
The old man and the small boy set out early in the morning on their 18-kilometre journey to a relative’s house in downtown Da Nang, the chief business district of central Vietnam. During their trip, Thiet’s grandfather recited stories of valiant sword- wielding heroes and magical monsters. With both parties lost in fantasy, time and weariness evaporated with the morning dew.
As they approached the city towards evening, Thiet’s attention was torn away from his grandfather’s folktales and he gawked at the alien world before him.
It was a scene more dazzling and bizarre than any that his grandfather could ever conjure. Instead of vast fields punctuated by the occasional straw hut, Thiet could see multicoloured concrete houses standing side by side, flowing over the landscape into the horizon. The diversity of faces, fashion and demeanours was astounding. Hordes of peculiarly dressed people scurried out of gigantic buildings, streaming down the sidewalks into the brilliant glow of miraculous street lights. T must tell my brother about this incredible place,’ said Thiet to himself. T must tell everyone.’ He wanted to know each person who passed by. ‘Have you heard of my village, Bo Ban? Where are you going in such a hurry so late in the day? Where did you get that hat? What about those shiny shoes? How do you manage to move so quickly without bumping into people?’ Several times Thiet opened his mouth intending to ask such a question, but before he could say a word, he received a hip-and-shoulder and a gruff voice warned him to watch where he was going. Thiet’s grandfather took him by the hand and advised him to stay close and keep his mouth shut.
When they arrived at his relatives’ house early that evening, the young boy was at once drawn to the incandescent light bulb, which shone brighter and cleaner than any fire he had ever seen. Thiet was astounded by the instant and effortless illumination. Over and over again he switched the light on and off until he was sure that he could perceive the delay as the electric current raced from the switch to the bulb. He met cousins, even younger than him, who seemed wholly comfortable with, if not blasé about, the wondrous inventions around them. This was off-putting at first. He felt as if he was somehow disadvantaged and misguided, as if he had grown up looking in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the other children played the same games as Thiet, which made it easier for him to get on with them. That night, as he went to sleep, Thiet was restless with excitement, consumed by the belief that he could get used to city living.
The next morning one of Thiet’s cousins, Khoi, introduced him to a long, cold slab of ice on the back of a cart. Khoi nonchalantly touched the shimmering block and encouraged Thiet, who had no conception of ice whatsoever, to do likewise. Thiet was not one to back away from a challenge.
Trying not to look afraid, he moved his hand towards the colossal gem. His fingers made contact, melting a minuscule amount of the crystal block, as the heat rushed from his tingling skin. With a violent jolt he drew back from the
stinging cold. Yet despite this immediate repulsion, there remained a stubborn curiosity: a desire to touch, experience and find out more.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 10

 The murmurs from the mob suggested that the village militia was reluctant to condemn Viet. Many of them knew and respected him. Sensing their indecision, comrade Kien’s son stepped forward to reinforce his father’s accusations with a petition showing that a majority of villagers had testified to the fact that Viet was serving the French. Kien’s son had cajoled villagers into signing the petition and resorted to forging additional signatures to bolster his case.

‘Democracy has spoken!’ cried Kien’s son. ‘Are we going to betray the will of the people? Before you answer, you should know that the traitor Viet is not only unrepentant when it comes to his past crimes; he is still committing them today. Only a few days ago the scoundrel told me that he wants to be village chief again. He has squandered the riches that he stole from the village coffers and seeks to hoard more. Truly, there are no limits to his greed. I have heard it with my own ears, and we have witnessed his treachery with our own eyes. How many of you have seen the traitor Viet making trips to Da Nang where he is scheming with the colonists and other lackeys? Are we going to let him carry on committing these crimes? Do we not have a sacred duty to the people and the revolution to put a stop to fiends like Viet once and for all?’ Kien’s son made no mention of the fact that his father had also once wanted to be village chief, or that Viet had many relatives in Da Nang whom he visited on a regular basis. Members of the mob who entertained even slight doubt were reassured not only by the oratory of Kien and his son, but also by a brutal Viet Minh dictum exhorting, ‘Better to kill mistakenly, than let one slip by.’ That evening, a perfunctory vote was held among the few dozen revolutionaries. With a roar of approval, Viet’s fate was decided.
A few days later, on 16 February 1948, in the week after the Lunar New Year, Viet was ambushed and blindfolded on his way to visit his brother-in-law at Huong Lam. The gang of Viet Minh revolutionaries led him at gunpoint through the jungle to Dong Nghe Mountain, less than an hour’s walk away. There they charged and convicted him of betraying the Vietnamese people and attempting to hijack the international movement of peasants and workers. Years later, one of the revolutionaries would disclose to Thua that as the beating began, Viet urged his assailants to confer with Thua’s brother, who was a prominent Viet Minh member and could attest to his innocence. The beating continued until Viet stopped pleading. Then, at around four in the afternoon, the revolutionaries shot Viet dead and buried him in a grave shallow enough to allow the jungle birds and animals to disturb his remains.
The Viet Minh were quick to spread news of the execution, as an example to other counter-revolutionaries, and so Thua learnt of her husband’s death that same afternoon. The young widow took much of the blame on herself. ‘Why did I let him walk out the door this morning, after everything that we suspected? He should have gone into hiding in Da Nang until the situation calmed down.’ Thua was distraught at the prospect of looking after the children on her own, and feared that the family would be labelled as counter-revolutionaries. She felt a searing hatred for Kien, and a burning desire for revenge. But such an act was beyond her. Kien had an army on his side and roamed the mountains as a revolutionary soldier. Revenge would only make matters worse. In the months to come, Thua would remind herself and her children, ‘We must let karma deal out its justice. In this life or the next, evil will be met with evil.’
As it happened, Kien lost a leg in battle during the Second Indochina War fighting against the Americans, and lived in excruciating pain for years before dying in the village. Knowledge of his anguish was only small satisfaction to Thua. While it provided some confirmation of her faith in reincarnation and her ancestors, it did not bring her husband back. In the meantime, some of Thua’s spite would be deflected onto the nest of termites in Huong Lam that had consumed the photograph of Viet, leaving her with only the mental image of her husband. Almost 50 years after his death, when I returned to Vietnam, this image was revived for her .as fresh as it was on the day of my grandfather’s assassination. When my grandmother kissed my forehead on that winter morning, tears ran from her slender eyes as she whispered, ‘I have not seen you since you were an infant. I did not know it then, and did not see it in your photographs. But I realise now that you are your grandfather reborn.’
Unlike his mother, Thiet tried to come to grips with his father’s death by forgetting about it. He was never totally successful, so that even after the memory of his father had faded, the sight of Viet’s skeleton remained deeply etched in his mind. The skeleton was discovered and exhumed three years after Viet’s murder, at which time ten-year-old Thiet saw it lying on a mat after it was returned to Bo Ban. Long wispy strands of hair were still attached to the skull, the wrists were bound by wire, and the hands clenched together so that the bones conveyed to the boy the agony of Viet’s last moments.
It could reasonably be assumed that these awful experiences deprived Thiet of his childhood. Indeed, many years later, Thiet’s wife and confidante of 30 years would hold on to this misconception. One day, after Mum picked up a rope in our yard and began skipping, Dad exclaimed, ‘Your mother’s skipping is astonishing! She can skip forwards, backwards and run and skip at the same time!’

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 9

 But it was not long before Thiet learnt that there was no foolproof protection from the world beyond his bed. In January 1948, Viet Minh leaders announced the official conclusion of the strategic withdrawal to the mountains that had allowed them to survive the initial French onslaught. Throughout Vietnam, units were ordered to shift to the second ‘holding phase’ of their protracted people’s war; it was time for them to start harassing the cumbersome French armed forces. The ever-patient and determined guerrillas were now taking the initiative. They were beginning to claw away at the colonial giant.

One night, not long after his family’s return to Bo Ban, Thiet’s refuge was again shaken by a downpour of bombs, and a family member — he couldn’t tell who it was — picked him up and ran outside. Before he was conscious of what was going on, the bleary-eyed boy was flung into the bomb shelter, which had been recently excavated next to his grandfather’s house for just such an emergency. In a matter of seconds Thiet had been transported from his cosy family bed to a claustrophobic hole in the ground barely high enough to sit in. The extended family huddled together like rabbits in a burrow, as the roars of battle reverberated down through the dirt. The dugout rattled, candles flickered and soil fell from the low ceiling. It was as if they were lying petrified in a grave with each bomb delivering a shovelful of earth to bury them alive.
The next morning, after the gunfire had subsided, they crawled out to see what was left of their village. The air was filled with smoke and the landscape littered with a new array of potholes and gullies. Miraculously, Thiet’s grandfather’s house and ancestral shrine were undamaged. One of his aunts who had been sheltering with them had not been so fortunate. Her thatch hut had gone up in flames during the night and the ashes had been blown away by the wind. Thiet remembers looking on as his mother consoled his aunt over her loss. Then his father came back from the river with a vacant gaze on his face. After a short exchange, Thiet was surprised to see his aunt suddenly comforting his mother who had just found out that the makeshift Viet Minh hospital, which his family had built to last lifetimes and still referred to as their home, lay in smouldering ruins.
The young man pursued Viet in a most obsequious manner. ‘The village was never more prosperous than when you were in charge,’ he said. ‘Someone so talented and popular has a responsibility to the community to be the administrative village chief.’ Viet sensed a sinister intention behind the praise. The young man wavered like a sapling with shallow roots.
Viet had held the position of village chief six years earlier, when he was appointed by the canton chief, who also happened to be a distant relative. There were certain benefits associated with being village chief, most notably reduced taxes. But much had changed since then. The rise of the Viet Minh meant that taking an appointment in the French-backed administration was inviting harassment or even death. ‘Your words are very flattering, but I’m too old to shoulder such hefty responsibilities, why don’t you ask your father to take up the job?’ The young man was disappointed and Viet was left uneasy.
That evening, Viet spoke to his wife about the exchange. Thua agreed that this was no subtle ruse. The youth was not old enough to recall what sort of chief Viet had been and, more significantly, his father, Kien, harboured an intense animosity towards their family.
Kien was the patriarch of one of the most prominent clans in Bo Ban. He had once coveted the position of village chief himself and had taken umbrage at the nepotistic way in which Viet had attained it. There was also a lingering enmity between the families, the origin of which was both fiercely debated and utterly indeterminable. This resentment had erupted in 1944 when Viet approached Kien, who operated a commercial press, with some peanuts from which he wanted the oil extracted. Kien insisted that Viet pay the fees and levies technically required by the colonial administration but which he had never demanded from others. There was a heated discussion that led to an exchange of blows in which Kien came off second best. The embittered Kien cursed Viet, ‘You and I will not live under the same sky!’
Not long afterwards, Kien became an active member of the Viet Minh. Perhaps Kien believed that the French were depriving the Vietnamese of their liberty, land and resources, and saw the Viet Minh as the most righteous and powerful of all the anti-colonial groups, whatever his reasons for joining, Kien did not hesitate to take advantage of his Viet Minh membership to seek revenge on Viet. Drawing upon revolutionary fervour at a Viet Minh gathering in early 1948, Kien made his case against the traitor Viet. Years later, the meeting’s proceedings would be recounted to Thua by one of the guerrillas who was present.
‘Comrades,’ Kien had begun. ‘What more do we need to know than that Viet was village chief, a lackey for the dreaded French imperialists? Of all the puppets, he was the most corrupt, profiting from the sweat and blood of our compatriots. He was then, and is now, an enemy of the revolution! I ask you, are we going to let him continue in his wicked feudal ways?’

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 8

 Huong was not strong enough to move her brother’s body and did not know what rituals needed to be performed to assist him on to the afterworld, so the next morning she left her still-unawares family and set out for Bo Ban. With the roads made inaccessible by prowling soldiers and unexploded mines, she had to wade up to her thighs through flooded rice fields in the height of the wet season. As the wind cut into her wet, cold face, Huong again wondered whether it might be best for everyone if she simply lay down and embraced her wretched fate. She had little chance of survival on her own. Why not be done with it? She could feel the silt closing around her toes and then her ankles, dragging her deeper into the mud. Schools of small freshwater fish brushed past her knees, which threatened to buckle each time she struck a submerged stone or brick. Yet somehow the young girl dragged herself, sodden and exhausted, to her paternal grandfather’s house in Bo Ban.

After comforting his granddaughter and hearing her tragic story, Huong’s grandfather used the last of his savings to employ a neighbour to return with her as soon as Huong had had time to recover. With Huong’s assistance, the neighbour dug a grave and wrapped Khiet’s body in a bamboo mat before perfunctorily performing some funeral rituals and burying him. The joss sticks had long since disintegrated when Thiet’s family, including Viet, started regaining consciousness and inquired as to Khiet’s whereabouts. A desolate Huong could only reply, ‘He is dead and already buried.’
At the end of 1947, almost a year since first fleeing Bo Ban, Thiet’s family left Huong Lam and returned to their home village, distancing themselves from the recent past. But Thiet’s mother was left with a permanent sense of resignation. Through the hunger, sickness and deprivation, Thua and her husband had kept their family intact; that is, until Khiet’s passing. This single fatality of the First Indochina War, a consequence of star-crossed fate and scalding water, totally changed Thua’s view of politics and her outlook on life. Before Khiet’s death, Thua could see some reason behind struggling for justice, dignity, nationalism and freedom. Now those abstract ideas which inspired so much rhetoric from both sides were no consolation, of course, Thua still had her family to fight for, but because Khiet was gone, the war no longer offered the prospect of even partial victory. It was already lost, and what was lost could never be regained.
Without a house for his wife and four surviving children to live in, Viet turned to his father for assistance. But with many other people looking to him for shelter and assistance, all the old man could offer was a tiny corridor that connected his house to the family’s ancestral shrine. Inside this windowless passageway, Thiet’s family stored all of their belongings, including a woven mat which was rolled out in the evenings for the six of them to sleep on. ‘If the children grow any bigger,’ Viet once pointed out to his wife, ‘then their heads will knock down the walls of their grandfather’s house and their feet will spill out into the home of our ancestors.’ The corridor felt even smaller when the family remembered that their home by the river was intermittently occupied by the Viet Minh, and remained cordoned off to them.
The ancestral shrine was the most ornate and spectacular structure that Thiet had ever seen. Children were usually forbidden to enter the room, thus serving to emphasise its sanctity. In accordance with ancestor worship rituals, on the anniversary of deaths and at New Year’s celebrations, relatives and friends would come to the shrine to pay their respects, make small offerings, and ask for good fortune from those in the afterlife. It was also necessary to report to the ancestors important family events such as weddings, births, deaths and success in exams. On such occasions, Thiet would peer inside the entranceway to see an immense hall held up by shiny wooden pillars as thick as a man’s torso. The centrepiece was the altar, laden with offerings of fruit, tea and rice. There were also a few photographs and drawings of their ancestors, ornate candlestick holders and a brass burner, from which joss sticks and sandalwood emitted scented smoke. On either side of the altar hung two imposing wooden tablets inscribed in antiquated Chinese characters with the names of their forebears. It was the responsibility of a senior male, such as Thiet’s grandfather, to maintain the shrine, and every morning and evening replace offerings, lead rituals and pay homage to their forebears. In this and other ways, the elderly in the village remained meaningfully occupied after their bodies had deteriorated. Ancestor worship allowed them to continue looking forward, even as they reflected upon the past.
Thiet never questioned why so much precious space and food were reserved for the deceased. All his life he had accepted that people are products of the sacrifices of those who came before them. He was also certain that his ancestral spirits continued to influence his family’s life so that keeping his forebears content in the afterlife was a prerequisite for prosperity in this one. It was entirely reasonable to offer one’s ancestors utmost respect and a splendid shrine, even if this meant sleeping in a dingy corridor. In any case, thought Thiet during those early years, who would want to sleep with spirits of the dead?
There were other reasons why sleeping with his parents and three older siblings in that corridor did not bother Thiet. The family bed was the young boy’s adventure land, where he could explore a maze of bodies, arms and legs before discovering a spot in the middle which was just right for him. Guarded by five dedicated sentinels, it was á safe haven from the monsters in the world outside. There was, no doubt, occasional snoring, and Thiet was sometimes woken by twitching and kicking. But this was a small price to pay for the trouble-free slumber that grew out of having everyone he loved in one place.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 7

 Thiet’s family were not particularly skilled at surviving in the wilderness. They had heard of mountain people who could harvest food from the jungle, start fires in a cyclone, make hammocks out of bark and vines, and race over mossy rocks carrying babies in knapsacks and logs on their shoulders. In contrast, during the six or seven times that Thiet’s family fled into the jungle around Huong Lam, they were frequently disoriented and were always bogged down in the mud. They slept enveloped in fear and decaying leaves, their hearts heavy with misery. After two or three days they would creep back into the village to see if the fighting had subsided, praying all the while that their house had not been ransacked or destroyed. Throughout this period, which they would recount as the most dismal and anarchic of their lives, Thiet’s family could make no concrete plans for the future, but alluded to some distant and hazy time ‘when the war is over and our lives can start again’.

It was after returning from one of these flights that almost the entire family fell ill from drinking contaminated water. Already famished, now they could not eat or even hold down water. The house looked like a hospice for the terminally ill. Thiet’s father, who was also suffering from malaria, became gripped by fever, as his skin turned a putrid yellow and he drifted between semi-consciousness and oblivion. In that near¬death state, Viet could still recognise that his family’s survival lay in the balance; if he did not make it through, his wife and children would follow him to the grave.
Viet was an uncommonly committed family man. He had learnt the necessity of selflessness from an early age amidst ten brothers and sisters, and was forever promoting the virtue of altruism to his children. He always put the children and his wife first, and himself last, never reserving something for himself if it meant that they would go without. ‘My dear wife,’ he often exclaimed, ‘don’t strain your back. I will fetch the water.’ ‘Khiet, take the last piece of sweet potato,’ he would insist, while he listened with untiring interest to his chattering young ones. Viet would have faced any foe to protect his family, but at some shadowy point in his fever he sensed that his fight was coming to an end. He turned to his wife. ‘Take good care of the children who make it, won’t you?’ he said.
Fortunately, fourteen-year-old Khiet and his twelve-year- old sister Huong, the two oldest children, did not overhear their once indomitable father conceding defeat. Being the only two members of the family who were not struck down by sickness, Khiet and Huong scrounged for scraps of food and nursed their gravely ill parents and three younger siblings throughout the day. In the night, after their loved ones had fallen asleep, the two youths had time to brood over their situation. Khiet maintained his composure for longer than his sister, whom he rebuked for giving way to fatigue and tears. ‘If we are going to save our family, we cannot afford to falter. We must be strong and never give up,’ he reminded her. But it would not be long before both children were sobbing and asking themselves, ‘What did we do to deserve this hardship? Why must we watch as our loved ones suffer?’ There were other questions that they could not voice: ‘Which one of the family will be the first to go?’ and ‘How might tomorrow be more gruelling and bleak than today?’ Then a scream, a murmur of discomfort, and duty would overwhelm the seduction of despair.
One morning, as Khiet was fulfilling one of these sickbed duties, he knelt beside a cauldron of boiling water which he intended to use to bathe his father. As fate would have it, the fibres within the wooden stand supporting the cauldron strained and then, milliseconds later, buckled, so that Khiet was confronted with a wave of scalding water. At first the teenager thought that he had leapt out of the way, but afterwards he noticed a small burn on his knee, no larger than the size of a plum. The injury, believed Khiet, was of no consequence: it was a stinging nuisance, not worth treating and overshadowed by his family’s predicament and even by the inconvenience of boiling another cauldron of water. Without bandages and antiseptic, however, the wound became infected, and a day later Khiet’s knee was festering. Unable to walk, and with a soaring fever, he had no choice but to join his delirious family. With his defences down, diseases invaded the young man’s overworked and undernourished body. A day later, Khiet’s arms and legs began shaking. Two days after that, he died.
‘Wake up! Wake up, older brother!’ pleaded Khiet’s sister Huong. It was no use. His chest was still and he was staring at her with the eyes of the dead. Khiet was the stronger and sharper of the two siblings. Even together they did not know if they could keep their family alive. Now there was surely no hope.
Many years later, Huong would admit that there was an instant when she considered running away. They would all die soon anyway; there seemed no good reason to draw the process out and make them suffer any longer than necessary. Huong weighed up the thought of letting her family pass away against the anguish of watching over them. How long she prevaricated she does not know. But at some stage Khiet’s corpse began to emit a stench, which roused the girl from her grief and made her realise that before she did anything or went anywhere, she had to bury her brother.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 6

 In the summer of 1947 the refugees heard the rumbling of French jeeps at the base of the mountain, and watched on as a unit of soldiers marched up towards them. The soldiers were tall and imposing in their pressed uniforms but were shocked by the sight of the cave-dwellers. Some held one hand over their nose and no doubt kept the other hand on their holster in case the desperate creatures turned on them. Through a Vietnamese translator, the soldiers valiantly proclaimed that French forces had pacified the countryside. Glorious Mother France had liberated them from Viet Minh terrorism and was rescuing them from a barbaric existence on Ngoc Kinh Mountain. Viet could only feign gratitude. While he was relieved that their ordeal in the caves was over, he was filled with anxiety as he and his family packed their baskets and began the trek back to Huong Lam and Bo Ban. They had arrived on the mountain more than a month ago and had left Bo Ban six months before that. They wanted more than anything to go home, but they knew that ‘pacification’ did not mean it was safe, and they were fearful that there was nothing left to return to.

Arriving back in Huong Lam, Viet and Thua were relieved to find the house they had adopted was still standing. The family sheltered there while Viet continued on to Bo Ban to see what remained of their home village. He found that their house was intact, but it had been peppered with bullets and was surrounded by an unsightly trench that the Viet Minh had dug during their struggle against the French onslaught. Relatives in Bo Ban informed him that while the Viet Minh had been driven away the guerrillas still considered the house to be the property of the revolution. This meant that the French would continue to target it. With their home hostage to both camps, Thief’s family resigned themselves to staying in Huong Lam.
The day after coming back from Ngoc Kinh, Viet and Thua returned to the spot where Viet had buried the family mementos earlier that year. The excavation began in high spirits, as the couple chatted about how the gods and their ancestors must have looked upon them approvingly and helped them make it back unharmed. Other families had not been so lucky. However, their mood sank with each shovelful of earth. After making sure that they were digging in the right place, Viet and Thua came to the sorry realisation that almost everything had been devoured by termites. The couple managed to salvage a few rusty saucepans, but the only evidence of the rice, money, documents and photographs was some discolouration in the dirt. Their family had survived, but those fragments of their past lives had been erased. Their present was also uncertain, as Viet and Thua had anticipated using the money and rice to keep the family going until they could make a living. They were no longer homeless, but with no land to till or money to invest, Thiet’s family was far from secure.
In the following months, more scattered villagers trickled back into Huong Lam, and Viet and Thua were able to earn a scant living by selling pickled vegetables and dried areca nuts. These red conical nuts about the size of an acorn and also known as betel nuts had since ancient times been chewed by Vietnamese; the mild narcotic effect was believed to enhance digestion and make one’s breath and character more agreeable. The couple themselves started chewing the nuts as a form of relief from their arduous days. Thua would retain the habit long after it had gone out of vogue, replaced by cigarettes, romance novels and soap operas. Indeed, until her nineties, she would rarely be seen without a small basket of areca nuts by her side. In the early months of 2002, as my grandmother recollected the horrors of the First Indochina War to me, she would continually wrap betel leaves smeared with chalky lime paste around fragments of the nuts. For hours at a time I sipped jasmine tea, ate dragon fruit and cracked open watermelon seeds while she chewed on the pungent little parcels, as if her mastication was somehow linked to the heating of her heart. Every now and then, as part of this intricate and arcane practice, she would raise a petite brass bottle to her mouth and expel some of the dark cerise juice that over the decades had stained her teeth and the edges of her withered lips.
In Huong Lam the family compensated for the lack of rice by mashing beans into a paste, which was often their sole daily meal. Another option was to mix rice with a type of cassava, which was so bitter that it had to be cut, soaked and dried to expel the toxic taste before it could be eaten. Substitutes became the norm, and while the children had never really known comfort or plenty, even little Thiet was aware that this was not how life was meant to be. ‘I can’t tell you how it feels to go to sleep hungry all the time,’ he would exclaim much later. ‘Not just hungry, but starving so that we slept on our bellies to stop them grumbling. And what makes it even worse, so hopeless, is to know that there will not be anything to eat when you wake up in the morning.’
By September 1947, the Viet Minh revolutionaries who also posed as ordinary villagers during the day started to become more active after sunset when the French patrols had returned to camp. Enlisted revolutionaries also returned from the mountains, where they had temporarily retreated to consolidate their forces and hone their guerrilla tactics. Viet Minh propaganda campaigns resumed in and around Huong Lam, then skirmishes broke out, which were followed by the resumption of full-blown war. With the flight to Ngoc Kinh still fresh in his memory, Viet carefully reviewed his options. Convinced that they could not get away from the war, he decided that they would have to incorporate it into their everyday lives, just as one would an ailment such as asthma or diabetes. The family would be ever alert, so that no matter when the fighting came they could escape into the jungle.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 5

 It was only a brief respite. No more than a few days passed before the war reached Ngoc Kinh, and the family once again took up their march. As she lumbered wearily on, Thiet’s mother, Thua, felt as if they were cursed, bringing conflict and destruction upon all the places that they visited. Meanwhile, Viet was considering their predicament. If they retreated to another village, he reasoned, they would soon die of exhaustion or from gunfire. Rather, he decided, he would lead his wife and children into the precarious sanctuary of the jungle. After abandoning some of their belongings to lighten the load, the family stumbled along overgrown tracks into the subtropical rainforest. There in the jungle, they would now face squadrons of mosquitoes, and stinging battalions of ants, scorpions and ticks.

It took a full day of hiking before Thiet’s family reached a rocky outcrop at the base of a mountain where small groups of displaced people had already occupied the crevices and caves. The family set up camp in an empty cavern, then Viet climbed a short distance up the mountain to look over the countryside. The green expanse between him and the Eastern Ocean was pockmarked with smouldering patches that had once been lively villages. Viet wondered whether Bo Ban was one of them. He was only in his mid-thirties and there was not a speck of silver in his hair, but Viet felt old and tired. He pondered over how many hopes had been laid waste since the beginning of the war almost half a year ago. About how many children would never be able to go to school, how many young people would never fall in love, and how much of their heritage and wisdom had vanished with the incineration of their altars and the bones of their elderly. Viet feared what was to come.
While there was clean water in the streams around Ngoc Kinh Mountain and plenty of bamboo to construct shelters and replace warped shoulder poles, the refugees could not grow any food to replenish their supplies. In the evenings, Thua had to decide how much rice they could afford to eat and how much salt she could add for flavour. It was an impossible task as she had no idea how long they would be stuck in the mountains, and everyone seemed equally famished, should she give each member of her family the same measly amount of rice, offer more to the older children, or insist that the smaller, weaker ones receive an extra portion? Often, the only way to resolve the issue was for Thua to go without. With each passing day, their solitary evening meal became more watery and bland. After a week or so, they could only eat rice every second day and had to scrounge around the jungle for any vegetation that was edible. As the war intensified around them, Viet and Thua began to lose faith. ‘We were trapped and thought that we would die right there,’ Thua recalled half a century later.
When their supply of food ran out, the heavens granted them a moment of reprieve. Viet could not believe his good fortune when he spotted the emaciated-looking cow that had strayed into the jungle. He gathered together a small group of men who pounced upon it. As they flailed and bloodied their prey, the men tried to muffle the cow’s death bellows so that the whole mountain did not learn of their find. Using rudimentary tools, they divided up parcels of flesh and bone — more meat than they had consumed in a year, a bovine bonanza! That night, Thiet’s family sat around the fire in their ragged clothing, ripping off chunks of charred beef with their teeth that were never brushed and filling stomachs that had forgotten what it was like to be full.
Apart from this brief exception, the prospect of starvation was ever present on Ngoc Kinh Mountain. During his month there, Thiet often caught glimpses of wraith-like creatures with swollen, translucent legs who shook incessantly. Starved of protein and vitamins, their limbs had filled with fluid and their nerves had wasted away. The first few times Thiet stumbled across people suffering from oedema and beri-beri, the young boy sprinted home screaming that he had seen a ghost. One of his brothers had told him that the caves were inhabited by the walking dead, and he was right to the extent that many of the famished cave inhabitants would no doubt soon pass on to the next life.
While Thiet’s family managed to ward off oedema and beri¬beri, nobody on Ngoc Kinh Mountain could escape scabies. These little mites feasted upon almost every square centimetre of Thiet’s body, inviting bacteria and infection. It was not long before he and his family looked liked lepers, with the skin on their legs, arms and faces broken, and their tattered clothes clinging to their festering wounds. Thiet could not resist peeling off the scabs that covered his arms, to reveal pockets of pale yellow pus mixed with blood, into which flies would swarm to feast. The scars from these sores would remind him of this time for the rest of his life. And in the night, as he tried to sleep, Thiet heard the calls of those who lay shaking in malaria-induced delirium, their groans accompanied by the bloodcurdling buzz of mosquitoes circling around him.
Perhaps if the various groups had cooperated and shared information and resources, those weeks in the jungle would have been less taxing. But for the most part, Thiet’s family stayed away from the other refugees sheltering in the crevices and shadows. When they crossed paths with someone, they would at most exchange a nod or grunt. Never did they stop to inquire about the war, tell their stories of hardship, or share and perhaps relieve feelings of alienation and despair. This cautiousness did not grow out of indifference but, rather, a deep understanding of their common predicament. Viet and Thua knew that when a certain point of desperation is reached, even the most meagre crumbs in the hands of another can seem justifiably yours, and that was when violence and deceit became rational and likely.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 4

 For the rest of that winter of 1946-47, the family stayed in Huong Lam without plans or expectations for the future, growing just enough on the tiny plot of land around the abandoned house to survive. Like many others with friends or relatives in the city who were willing to take them in, Thua’s sister had decided that it was still too dangerous to return to the countryside. Other displaced peasants occasionally came through the village with tales of carnage and destruction. The French spoke of ‘pacifying’ the countryside of terrorists, while the Viet Minh were fighting to ‘liberate’ it. Viet was not sure he could tell the difference. He could not, for one thing, distinguish between foreign occupation of his home and the more local variety, and was filled with anxiety every time he travelled back to check on Bo Ban, which was only ever one battle away from extinction.

Their only certainty during that time was that the conflict was inescapable. This knowledge and some instinct for preservation compelled Viet, while in Huong Lam, to bury some money, rice, saucepans and vital documents, including two or three precious photographs. By this act he was making an unspoken pledge to survive and someday retrieve his life and the valuables he had hidden in the earth. Even if he did not make it back, that bundle might be recovered in the future as proof of his family’s existence. By that time, the currency might be worthless, the grains of rice inedible and the identification papers faded beyond recognition, but there was also a chance of passing on a valuable message to those who survived the carnage and to future generations: ‘We were here. We existed. We loved, fought and sacrificed for one another until the last day, and deserve our place in history.’
‘We were here,’ was the message entombed in the soil on that day, ‘and we will not be forgotten like ripples on a pond or so many leaves after autumn.’
There was no warning when French forces came to pacify Huong Lam. Huts and their occupants suddenly caught alight as if a giant magnifying glass had been turned upon them. As the bombs fell, people scrambled to find refuge or a place to hide. Thiet and his siblings rushed home from their chores and games and congregated around their father who once again directed his family to gather what they could, stay close together and run. A few small groups dashed into the jungle, but Thiet’s family remained with the bulk of the villagers who fled along a dusty road in a south-westerly direction. For much of that day they had no destination or survival plan in mind other than to keep moving.
Late that afternoon, the family arrived at the township of Dai Loc, about 15 kilometres from Huong Lam. They camped in the street under a shelter cobbled together from branches and refuse. With the rice and money that they had taken with them, Thiet’s parents bought supplies from locals who themselves were surviving on little more than corn after consecutive rice harvests had been interrupted by drought and war. Dai Loc was a sizeable town but did not have the infrastructure to accommodate the sudden influx of destitute refugees, and whatever sympathy the locals had was soon exhausted when a few desperate newcomers took to stealing food, clothes and valuables in order to survive. The tension in the air was made worse by the foul smell of excrement that had been dumped in the streets. Rumours spread among Dai Loc’s residents that the filthy newcomers were urinating in the streams where locals bathed and drew water. Skirmishes broke out, which would have become violent riots had it not been for the intervention of war. when shells and bullets started bombarding Dai Loc, visitors and locals alike were made homeless, unified in despair.
Again Thiet’s family took to the road. From Dai Loc, the conflict pursued them throughout the day and into the night. Exploding bombs sent jolts through their bare feet, howling planes rattled their eardrums and acrid smoke filled their nostrils. By that stage, Thiet was not only running on his own accord, but was also carrying a small bag of the family’s possessions. Physically, Thiet was weaker since leaving Bo Ban, but he had gained a mental toughness from his familiarity with crisis and flight. The young boy had aged years in a matter of months. He had come to know something about the precariousness of everyday life, realising that even his mighty father, stoic mother and courageous oldest brother were powerless in the face of what he was starting to comprehend as war. For Thiet, war meant that there was no one to piggyback you. It meant not being able to see your friends and relatives each afternoon. It meant waking up in strange places rather than in the house in which you were born, and not being able to play on the banks of the river that flowed through your village. War meant having to keep moving, even when you were tired, so that someday you could once again do the things and see the people that you loved.
On the road from Dai Loc, the family’s weariness reached a point where they seemed to be moving in slow motion, practically immobilised as the battle raged around them. Time and place blurred until all they could feel was the exhaustion that had seeped into their bones, the aching emptiness in their stomachs and the raw burning pain across their shoulders. But there was no time to stop. When the family arrived in alien and sometimes abandoned villages, the three boys and two girls pleaded with their father to let them rest, but Viet pushed them on. It was not until they reached the village of Ngoc Kinh, some 20 kilometres from Dai Loc, that Viet sensed the battle was now a safe distance behind them and he could allow his family to collapse in the street.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 3

 Before the French had time to re-establish their forces, the enigmatic Ho Chi Minh emerged from his hideout in the limestone caves of Pac Bo on the Chinese border. On 17 August he declared that the decisive hour had come for the Vietnamese people to stand up and liberate themselves from colonialism. Ho travelled 250 kilometres south to Hanoi where, on 2 September 1945, he proclaimed Vietnam a free nation. Amid the crowd that filled Ba Dinh Square, there were a handful of American intelligence officers who had fought with the Viet Minh against the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh’s opening words were drawn from across the Pacific: ‘All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Only four months later, the first elected national parliament of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) convened. It was broadly representative of the population and Ho Chi Minh’s presidency was well received.

America and the rest of the Western world took little notice of Vietnam’s independence, and stood by France as it regained control of the south only a year after Ho’s declaration. As French soldiers arrived in greater numbers, negotiations commenced between the colonists and defiant nationalists in the northern and central regions of Vietnam. The talks faltered, and by the end of 1946, Viet Minh and French forces were clashing all over the country. During the first days of December, 10,000 French soldiers landed at Da Nang, the capital of Thiet’s province of Quang Nam. The invading French forces ransacked the city and tore down the red flags with their single yellow star in the middle which symbolised the fledgling nation.
War was officially declared on 19 December 1946. With their superior arms and equipment, the French drove the Viet Minh in Thiet’s province into the countryside and mountainous jungles. This situation was played out throughout the country, and in a matter of months the colonists seemed close to victory. However, the Viet Minh leadership was prepared for this turn of events. They had analysed many failed Vietnamese uprisings, and knew that their resistance needed to be highly organised and totally committed. Foreshadowing how the war would be fought and won, Ho Chi Minh asserted that ‘The spirit of man is more powerful than machines, which cannot operate effectively in swamps and thick jungles’, before likening the impending conflict to a contest between an elephant and a tiger:
If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war in Indochina.
My father’s family supported Ho Chi Minh and the anti¬colonial movement, if only because they opposed French rule. During the ‘week of gold’ earlier in 1946, they had made substantial contributions to Viet Minh revolutionaries who came to the village asking for donations to buy supplies, guns and ammunition. ‘I didn’t really know who Ho Chi Minh was at the time,’ my paternal grandmother, Thua, would later recall. ‘But we were happy to pay because before, when we paid taxes to the French, they were used to keep us down; this money, we believed, would be used to free us.’ In the final days of 1946, as Thiet’s family fled their house and made their way towards Thua’s home village of Huong Lam, there was no time to reflect over political and ideological allegiances. Trapped in the crossfire, they were not about to encounter any friendly bullets.
By the time Thiet’s family arrived in Huong Lam later that evening, the battle appeared to be safely behind them. Or maybe it was in front of them? There was no way to know. What was clear was that the war had also come through Huong Lam, which was totally deserted. They decided to stay the night in Thua’s old family home, which had only hours earlier been abandoned by her sister. Viet and Thua kept vigil as their children slept uneasily in the eerie village. Thiet had never spent a night so far away from home.
A few days later, when Viet was confident that they were safe in Huong Lam, he went back to Bo Ban. Most of the huts and houses, including theirs, had survived the battle but had been damaged. The few villagers who had remained behind were already starting repairs. But many others had scattered in every direction. From what Viet could determine, some of his neighbours were already in the relative urban safety of Da Nang, and would not be returning to the countryside. Viet realised why after speaking to the Viet Minh guerrillas who still occupied his home. Bo Ban had been designated of strategic importance by both the French and Viet Minh; that is, it was worth fighting over. One of the revolutionaries thanked Viet again for providing his house to them as a medical outpost, and assured him that it would be returned when the nation was free from foreign occupation. Viet trudged back to Huong Lam wondering how he was going to tell his family that they would not be returning to Bo Ban.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight 2

 Not much further on, Khiet had to set his youngest brother down. ‘Run, you’re too heavy! Run, just for a little while!’ he urged. ‘I can’t carry you and all of our things any more.’ Khiet knew that his little brother was frightened, but Khiet too was unsure about where they were going and whether they would ever return. Surely his parents or someone could take Thiet? Surely Thiet could manage on his own for just a few minutes until Khiet's arms stopped aching and the perspiration on his back dissipated?

Khiet lumbered onwards, assuming that Thiet would follow; but instead the five-year-old stood where he was, watching in terrified disbelief as his family scurried into the darkness. It was not until Thiet started screaming that they came to a halt. Viet darted back to his son whose arms were raised in expectation of a reassuring embrace. Instead, the young boy received a slap across the face that dispelled his tears and almost knocked him to the ground. ‘Are you stupid, boy?!’ Viet’s scolding echoed in Thiet’s ear. ‘Stop your crying and hurry up or you’ll get us all killed!’ The young boy regained his senses just in time to see his oldest brother receive a forceful blow for his complicity in the delay. There was no time for a child’s frailty or a father’s compassion as French planes roared through the black sky dropping bombs and spraying the countryside with machine-gun fire.
The planes came in waves to attack enemy soldiers and escaping villagers. When Thiet’s family heard approaching aircraft, they dived into gullies on the side of the jungle road where they lay with their eyes and mouths clenched shut. As the explosions lit up the foliage, they opened their eyes and saw other escapees huddled in the trenches around them. Between blasts they could hear the screams of those who were hurt or terrified. Eventually, the earth stopped shaking and the family hurried onwards, soaked in sweat under the blankets, cushions and pieces of cloth that Viet had strapped to their torsos to provide meagre protection from the barrage of bullets and shells.
While my father has forgotten much about his early years, he will always remember when the Indochina War burst into his life. Being only four years old, he could not at that time comprehend why anyone would want to attack them like this; why they would want to hurt another person whom they did not even know. Thiet did not understand the meaning of war, colonialism or anti-colonial resistance and had no conception whatsoever of the Viet Minh or France. Sadly, it was not long before Thiet gained first-hand experience of these things. The more he learnt about the history and reasons for the conflict, the less he questioned the sense of it all.
The seeds of the battle that drove his family from their home were sown in 1883 when South Vietnam, once called Nam Bo, became the French colony of Cochinchina. Annam in the centre and Tonkin in the north were made protectorates, but in all three regions French control was soon firmly established. That was until 1940, when Japanese forces took over the region while the French were preoccupied with the war in Europe. The new Japanese rulers proclaimed that Asia was for Asians, yet they retained the French administrative system and many French personnel. In Thiet’s village, the substitution of one set of ruling elites for another made little difference to their daily lives. Other Vietnamese were less fortunate. While the Japanese did not commit the sort of atrocities in Vietnam that they inflicted on the Chinese, they forced farmers to sell them rice at deflated prices and exported it by the boatload, even as famine killed a million people in Tonkin and northern Annam.
The conclusion of World War II did not mark the end of colonialism and suffering for the people of Indochina. After the Axis powers, including Japan, were defeated in 1945, the Allied forces led by Churchill, Truman and Stalin met at Potsdam to determine the fate of enemy-occupied territories. Chiang Kai- shek’s Chinese nationalist soldiers were entrusted with disarming the Japanese in northern Vietnam, while the south was placed under British administration and the command of General Douglas Gracey. In the following months, the Vietnamese were betrayed by the great powers. The 100,000 dishevelled Chinese soldiers who were sent to restore order set about pillaging the countryside before returning north; while in the south, General Gracey released French POWs and allowed France’s expeditionary corps to take back Saigon.
The Vietnamese, however, were determined to never again suffer under French rule. By that time several anti-colonial resistance groups were active in Vietnam, the most prominent being the Viet Minh (Vietnam Independence League) which was led by Ho Chi Minh. Ho established the Viet Minh in May 1941 in an attempt to unite communists, peasants, mandarins, clerks and shopkeepers in the common cause of repelling the French and Japanese. In its rise to power, the Viet Minh fought with members from rival nationalist groups, even assassinating some members. Critics would later point to this as evidence that Ho Chi Minh’s primary concern was spreading communism rather than doing what was best for the country. Nevertheless, by the end of World War II it was clear that the Viet Minh represented Vietnam’s best chance for independence.

Nationalism set my father’s village alight

 Thiet: How’s the study going, son? Have you given anything to your professors lately? They’re happy with your progress, yes? Have you explained to them that your thesis is about your mother and me? But it’s not really about us, is it? It’s about Vietnamese history and international politics: things that are much more important than our family.

Kim: Don’t worry, Dad. I haven’t been kicked out of university yet. I know how important it is for me to finish my PhD and find a good job — how important it is to you, anyway.
Thiet: I’m happy to hear that, son. Your mum and I know how hard you’re working. We have total faith in you. If you want my advice, though, the politics is the most important part. That’s what’ll help you become a lecturer or even a professor in future. You won’t make as much money as your brother, but you could make a big name for yourself. What you have to realise is that Vietnam has a long history. You know, for much of the twentieth century it was under French rule. Do you know about Geneva in 1954? Then the Americans came and went. Do you know about Guam in 1969? And of course there was communism.
Kim: Dad! I’ve been doing my PhD and teaching politics for two years. I’ve read all about French colonialism, the Vietnam War, the Nixon Doctrine, Maoism and Marxism. There are thousands of books on those topics. I don’t want to talk to you about all that. I want to talk to you about your childhood, what it was like growing up in your village. I want to know about my grandfather and my uncles. How many times do I have to tell you, my research is just as much about our family as it is about anyone, any war or anything else?
Thiet: All right, all right, you don’t want to listen to your father, that’s your decision, where do you want to start, then? I’ll tell you whatever I can remember. It’s not that important or interesting though. Nobody wants to know about us, there’s nothing to tell.
The French are coming! The French are coming!’ The frantic cry resounded through the central Vietnamese village of Bo Ban, as the sun set over the Truong Son mountain range. Thiet did not know who or what the French were, but he knew the beating of saucepans, lids and tins warned of danger. As he left his friends and games to run home, Thiet feared that an eruption or mudslide had hit, as only natural — or possibly supernatural — forces could trigger such a commotion. It was December 1946 and my father was barely five years old, but today he can still hear the clanging and screams that heralded the advance of war upon his childhood.
Thiet rushed through the doorway and grabbed hold of his mother’s leg. Thua stopped what she was doing, lifted her youngest son up and kissed him on the cheek before telling him as calmly as possible to go help his older brothers and sisters pack. ‘Why?’ asked Thiet. ‘Because we have to leave!’ was all that his mother said. He wanted to know where they were going, whether he would be back for dinner and why they had to flee, but his mother and older siblings were too busy to explain. As soon as his father, Viet, returned from the market, the young boy asked him what was going on. Viet’s stern but apprehensive glance confirmed in Thiet’s mind that this was no time to ask questions — perhaps his parents did not have answers anyway.
Minutes later, Thiet watched as wounded men hobbled into his house, past the family’s untouched bowls of rice which they had not had time to gulp down. ‘The national liberation vanguard thanks you for allowing us to use your house to treat our wounded comrades,’ one of these Viet Minh revolutionaries told Thiet’s parents. ‘You may leave now.’ Viet and Thua knew that tension had been building between the colonial and nationalist forces, but when the conflict broke out all over the nation, they were totally unprepared. The family sidestepped blood-soaked soldiers and hastily gathered their possessions.
‘The French are coming! The French are coming!’ The cry continued as Thiet, his parents, two older brothers and two older sisters left Bo Ban, skirting the fire that was now consuming animals, crops and homes. Viet led his family to the road that ran west towards the village of Huong Lam, about 3 kilometres away. Behind Viet, his wife and children struggled to keep up under the weight of their unwieldy bags and baskets. At the back of the procession Thiet’s oldest brother, Khiet, piggybacked him while also clutching a bundle of their belongings. From far outside the village, artillery guns fired shells that exploded in mid-air, emblazoning the sky and showering the fleeing villagers in metal and flames. Thiet could hear houses and huts crashing down, sending sparks flying. It sounded like firecrackers at New Year, but these explosions caused people to cry out in agony rather than joy. ‘Is our house going to be okay? Where are we going to sleep?’ Thiet asked as he clung to Khiet, who seemed like the one solid thing left in the world.