The third trip I made back home to visit my mother during this past lunar new year was as chaotic and as poorly planned as usual. But it was probably the most memorable one despite the fact that my wife and my children could not go with me.
Chiếc tàu đánh cá, dài 9 m rộng 2 m, đã mang 16 người khỏi cảng Qui Nhơn. Chiếc tàu được treo vào tàu chở dầu Katori Maru bằng vài sợi dây mỏng manh.
Arriving at my sister’s home in Northern Virginia at 1 AM on the day of my flight, I did not finish packing all the little items that my wife and family accumulated months before my trip until 4 AM - just enough time for me to get to National Airport, Washington, D.C. to check in. The flights were long, exhausting, and boring as all of us who have gone back home know. Nearly missing the last connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur to Saigon due to poor transportation only added more stress to my draining endurance. But the view from above South Viet Nam and particularly Saigon quickly erased all of the irritation and fatigue. I was home again after five long years. A sense of ambivalence surfaced in my mind. Where is home? The peaceful and bountiful place where my wife and kids have been or the crowded place full of noise from the countless motorcycles, smog, and people struggling from dawn to dark to make both ends meet - a place I left hurriedly but reluctantly twenty-three years ago.
As South Viet Nam appeared under the clear sky, emotion surged over me. It was the same view that I had seen at least twice. It looked more familiar now but it is never old. Endless green rice-paddles lying so low and so close to all the small and large rivers that have enriched our land for centuries reminded me how easy and devastating flood can be to the simple lives of our farmers. Yet South Viet Nam has always been the richest and most productive land of our country. Tien Giang and Saigon Rivers are wide bordering the land. I could even see ships and small boats make their ways up and down the rivers. The tranquil view was in sharp contrast with the chaotic and dangerous scene of Saigon Port where people were fleeing for their lives during that last day of April 1975 - the day that witnessed irreversible changes for all of us, those who stayed behind and those who left. The view was magnificent and always memorable.
The woman sitting next to me on the bus taking us from the airplane to the main entrance of Tan Son Nhat Airport convinced me that hard life at home did not diminish the hospitality our people have had. She came back after paying a visit to her daughter in Australia. She was eager to give up her seat for a young Western woman, much younger than she, standing in front of her. Where else have I seen this kind act? This pleasant feeling did not however last long. Long lines at the custom services brought me back to the reality that the country is run by rules and regulations that by themselves seem irrational and only made worse by the people carrying them out. An old Western couple presented their papers at one of the counters. Shortly thereafter, I saw a man in uniform throw their papers back on the floor and yell at them in Vietnamese. The old couple was clearly frightened and shaken. They of course could not understand the language and appeared lost. Imagine how we would feel being treated as such in a foreign land and what impression we would carry with us! Gone was our hospitality! Nowhere else that I have been through have I seen such rudeness. I was helping a young couple with three children, the oldest four-year and the youngest six-month old, whom I met during our stopover in Kuala Lumpur. The trip was undoubtedly much more hectic for them than for me, but everything was fine until they got to the Vietnamese custom service. A young woman dressed in the well known "ba ba" insisted that they have to fill out at least one more form to list of their belongings despite the fact that they already did one as required for each family. Her reason was that five people would need more forms! The unreasonable demand only added more fumes to my temper. I almost got into trouble after expressing my opinion over the matter. There is no explanation, no appeal for the people who come back home. The mentality "do as you are told and do not question our authority" still thrives. We no longer have to report our every move, but there is still a clear line separating the suppressing and the suppressed. Life in the States has granted us so much freedom and many rights that I often do not appreciate until I come back home.
Saigon has become more crowded. Motorcycles with deafening noise and horns have largely replaced bicycles that we used to ride to school. Yet I felt as comfortable as I had decades ago. A ride on a motorcycle on my own to my brother-in-law’s gave me more confidence to go about. The rule, as most of us know, is to go your own way and pretend you see no one come at you, but be prepared to give way. Call it "harmony in chaos" if you will. It seems to be the rule of life there, not just for traffic. It works. There were fewer tricycles and more automobiles with their shrieking horns keeping everybody on constant alert. A driver who took me from Hue to Saigon had to replace the horn that was burnt out only after five days!
A trip back home is never a vacation. There are so much to do and so many people and places to visit. I scrambled to squeeze everything - planned and unexpected - into the two precious weeks I had back home. A trip arranged by my older brother who came home from Paris as a surprise for my mother was one of the reasons my third return was most memorable. With him I went back to Hue where I grew up in the war and where my family lost everything during the Tet Offensive of 1968. I saw the little house my father was born and raised more than eighty-five years ago. His hometown was only 15 Km from Hue but war prevented me from visiting it during my childhood. I learned of his generosity to build a school for the children there. The school still stands, without much renovation, to provide a place for kids of that little village a chance to go out to a much larger world one day. I went back to Qui Nhon where my wife and I left Viet Nam in the dark night of December 1978. I stopped by Quang Ngai where my father was a province chief before he died of cancer and left my mother with 8 children to raise without a financial foundation. She did well for all of us. I reluctantly left Nha Trang where I had finished my high school and where so many memories had engraved in my mind. I met my 98 year-old grand aunt who has no longer recognized anyone around her but was so generous to take our whole family in after we left Hue with our bare hands in 1968. Everything was so big then and so small now. Nostalgia was so overwhelming!
In contrast to the hard land of central Viet Nam, my wife’s hometown, Sa Dec, as most of South Viet Nam, is richly nourished by the Mekong River. There is no doubt in my mind that the land affects people’s outlook. In South Viet Nam, life is vibrant. People speak with a firm voice and laugher is common. My wife’s whole family was there, including possibly 30 kids, to celebrate New Year on the second day of the year of the snake. "Li xi" brought a lot of cheer and an atmosphere of Tet that we do not have in the States. They reminded me of my children. Instead of having fun with "Li Xi," they took their turns with the flu!
I spent most of my time in Saigon. It has changed drastically since the day I left in 1978 - more crowded and filled with noise and air pollution. I was not able to look for any familiar signs when I went out. My concentration was to go with the flow of traffic so that I could get back alive! Only when the usual, noisy activity of this biggest city in the whole country slowed down during the last day of the year did I have the chance to look for the old places. Having no commitment and nothing else in my mind for the moment, I took a long ride on an old Honda to different corners of Saigon and Cho Lon. The street-names have been changed, even when we were still there. I felt the effect of time since I could no longer remember the old names. But old Saigon seemed to reappear in sight as traffic dwindled. Tran Hoang Quan, Nguyen Tri Phuong, Hung Vuong, Duy Tan, etc. all returned with memories of those uncertain but fun days. Those rides on bicycles with my sweetheart came back vividly in my mind. Trung Vuong where I used to take my younger sister to has retained its look of the colonial French with its old pinkish, faded paint possibly because it is stuck in a corner with little traffic. Nha Tho Duc Ba and the wide streets around it have been unchanged.
There have been many new buildings, particularly big hotels that would rival the expense of four and five star hotels in the U.S. This year, the flower market that always brought a unique atmosphere of Tet to Saigon was no longer held on Nguyen Hue Boulevard. One of the big hotels there complained that the market has interfered with its business. The flower market was moved to Tao Dan Park. It was extremely crowded but most people were looking rather than buying. One could not carry a sizable plant out since it was too far from the streets. There were fewer side-walk carts selling "bo bia," "nuoc mia," and "banh mi thit." The government has tried to keep the city free of such sights.
Dai Hoc Khoa Hoc has changed beyond recognition. I could not find the main gate. New buildings were erected around it. It no longer had the look of a place carrying promises and hopes for all of us who just survived high school. I saw my future sweetheart there for the first time and hated her just because she got so much attention from a lot of other guys. The saying "ghet cua nao troi trao cua ay" is proven correct again. I remembered old friends who later got into medical school with me - Nguyen Ngoc Cuong now in San Diego, Vo Van Bui, an urologist at Binh Dan Hospital, and Duong Tong Chinh, a high school classmate from Nha Trang. Chinh left the country in April 1975 but has not been heard from. I have tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to locate him. I just hope he did not perish at sea.
It was hard for me to find an explanation for the unpredictable changes that time and events brought to different parts of the city. While Dai Hoc Khoa Hoc has become unfamiliar, our school has remained essentially the same, only older and poorly maintained. It was vacant and quiet during the holiday. The concrete fence has turned its white color to dirty grayish. The gate was possibly the most well maintained part. It has retained an inviting look as it did the first day we stepped through it with prides and hopes in 1974. A security guard made me reluctant and eventually I decided not to enter. I was sure that my feeling of hopes then would be replaced by a sense of loss. The front yard looked pretty but smaller as it gave way to a few new one-story buildings to the left of the gate. Some small trees were there, as were the parking places for the professors. The buildings were much older. The stains on their walls reminded me of time past and of the ups and downs they, like all of us, have endured. The front building, where we spent hours to dissect the cadavers while trying to memorize every details of a human anatomy, has been partly covered by old construction materials from the ground. Those lectures of pharmacology, pathophysiology, and parasitology we took in the second year in the auditorium under the yellow light returned, only that I could not remember the contents! The pinpong table in front of the auditorium provided some memorable time. Two of my friends had a fight over nothing when their tempers flared up. Perhaps they, one of whom is in California, still remember. They would have a good laugh if they meet again.
The main auditorium looked smaller to me now. It reminded me of those anatomy lectures given by thay Kinh. He always went on non-stop and, in order to catch up with his flight of thoughts, we had to work as a team - one drawing all the pictures he put on the board while the other writing down every word he spoke. We then got together trying to make some sense out of our long-hour work. Not infrequently, we had no idea what we jolted down! The histology lectures of father Lichtenberger were not any better for me. French was my primary foreign language in high school. My interest in it was however much less than that of the soccer matches. As a result, I chose English for the medical entrance exam. Still, I closed my eyes to answer the multiple questions in English and ended up marking more than the number of questions given! My math and sciences must have made up for my ignorance in foreign language. Obviously with such a background, I had no idea what father Lichtenberger was talking about! I tried to hide my illiteracy by pretending to listen to every word he said and to draw all the pictures he did. I spent more time to make my pictures beautiful only to worry later how I would pass the test. The "liberation" of South Viet Nam by the Communists seemed to help in this aspect!
I did not of course see the library or the cafeteria from the gate, but the amusing moments of the old days there were still as lively as they were yesterday. To this date, I still have my library card. I obtained it to reassure myself that I had access to all the knowledge to become a doctor. I did try to borrow some books but did not return the second time for more. I was totally discouraged since it would take me an hour with a dictionary to understand the content in one page. With this pace, it would probably take me 20 years to graduate. I wholeheartedly agreed with whoever said, "Pictures worth a thousand words." It was a sad reality that the foods in the cafeteria were better and more in quantity than what I had at home. They looked more "French" too! For me, a second trip to ask ma soeur for more rice and soup was the rule.
Many unforeseeable changes for me came with the fall of Saigon. One was a complete shift of my interest. Although I spent enough time to maintain decent grades as it was a habit I had built up over my professional-student career, I became more occupied with the volleyball matches. The volleyball court, anh Thanh, Ba Bay, Navi, and those on the opposing teams along with my best teammate, Fantoma Ho Thanh Chuong, became the permanent figures in that period of my life. To this date, the familiar names of Dung Gu, Hoa Gia, Chuyen, Nghia, Anh, Trac, Dung Nui, Hoi, Hai, Cat, Vinh, Cuong, Ky Nhong, etc., still have a special place in my mind. I spent more time on the court barefooted in my short than in the auditorium. The images of anh Thanh with his laugh and frequent foul language when he missed the ball seemed vivid. I am amazed how those shared glasses of iced tea and banh tet chuoi could give us enough energy to go on. There must be something else, some other power, that provided us endurance. Was it the wish to forget reality or to hope that one day things would get better that made us go on? I could only speculate. The volleyball court was abandoned and Ba Bay’s "restaurant" demolished. Gone were the days mixed of anxiety and possibly some despair, but the bittersweet memories have lived on. They have made me realize humor and laughter can be found in any circumstances. They have helped me put life in perspectives and get through what we consider tough time here.
I did not have a chance to see the buildings of our Nha Khoa friends, but I do remember one particular requirement they had to meet to become a dentist. They had to learn to deliver babies! I guess any knowledge would come in handy sometimes. I have total confidence in my friend, who is now a dentist in Northern Virginia, if it ever comes time to deliver a baby unexpectedly, particularly at our upcoming re-union. The requirement was a brilliant idea that only our comrades could see!
I passed by so many other places - Cho Ray, Hong Bang, Binh Dan, etc. Each gave me a snap shot of my time at our medical school. These memories have deeply engraved in my mind. They surface whenever I have a moment unoccupied by the life I lead here. The rare occasions we got together in this country have always been precious to me. Seeing Thang, Nu, Phuong, Vinh, Tuan Cay, Tuan Quap, Tuan Phan Thiet, Trang, Tung, Thu Tam, Phuong Thu, and many others has always brought back the spirits of old days full of uncertainties but also filled with laughter.
This last trip back home has crystallized my beliefs and dreams. Two weeks being away from my wife and kids confirm my priority being with them, but they also gave me a sense of belonging in the homeland I left. It is unsettling for us to have two countries - one with open arms to give us the second chance in life, the other the homeland we left. My first few years in this country were marked by sleepless nights. I was overwhelmed by the thought that I was completely severed from the land that nurtured me. But now homebound is no longer an untouchable dream. The road home seems clearer as I grow older. Seeing places where I had lived through and reliving the memories I have carried with make me realize how strong the invisible tie to the homeland is in me. The tie - woven by the threads of my childhood filled with horrifying sights of war, of the uncertainties growing up while moving from one part of the country to another to survive, of the memories of my old schools, and of the newly re-established contacts with many long lost friends - convinces me that homeland is never too far away in a physical sense and is always here with me in my mind.