Saturday, November 9, 2013

Useful Village Idiots of Việt Nam

Within thirty minutes of my arrival two men in olive-green uniforms had taken a seat at our coffee table, helping themselves to cigarettes and iced tea.

Man #1: He’s your son?

My father: Yes. He just came home from America.

Man #2 chimes in: I thought you had only one son (pointing to the picture on the wall).

This photo was taken in 1981, after I had left.
L to R, top row: My mother, younger brother and my father
Bottom row: My youngest sister, my third-generation Chinese-Vietnamese maternal
grandmother who was born on Phú Quốc, which is now a resort island, and my younger sister.

My father: Well, he had run away from home. We didn't know where he was until recently.

And so my first conversation with my father in almost twelve years kept being interrupted by two complete strangers who had invited themselves into our living room. Somehow I managed to ignore their presence. Perhaps it was because I was more overwhelmed by seeing my family again after so many years.

Once the men in olive-green uniforms had left, after about two hours, I asked my dad, “Who the heck were those guys?”

“Local security busy-bodies, useful village idiots,” my father replied, without missing a beat.

Prior to the official lift of US travel restriction, Vietnamese with US citizenship, on a limited basis, were able to apply for a ‘family visit’ visa. Through luck and timing, I got myself a visa and some money earned from casting work for the film “The Joy Luck Club”.

After almost twelve years of occasional letters and telegrams, I was about to see my family in person. Giving the lack of private telephones in Việt Nam at the time, I had no way to inform them of my arrival. I was paid by director Wayne Wang’s film company on Thursday, purchased the plane ticket on Saturday and off I went back to Việt Nam the following Tuesday.

Việt Nam today is a far cry from the Việt Nam I visited in 1991, after ten years in the U.S., and almost two years in refugee camps. I was part of the third wave of boat people, leaving Việt Nam in 1979 with 303 others on a river boat, aiming for the South China Sea.

Hồ Chí Minh City sidewalk barber, 1991

I found Sài Gòn, now Hồ Chí Minh City, wasn't much different than the last time I saw it in 1979. Though “đổi mới” reforms were in full swing, almost everything else looked like leftovers from before 1975. Streets were clogged with older motorbikes, Lambretta vans and bicycles, with occasional older model American cars, used Toyota vans and Korean buses.

The most visible change, however, was store-front shops and sidewalk cafés. Almost every house along the main thoroughfare from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport leading into the city center was selling something. This was đổi mới in full bloom, the 1986 historic policy shift that helped usher in economic development, taking war-ravaged Việt Nam to where it is today.

Due to limited lodging available in HCM City and transportation to where my parents were, I needed to stay overnight or until I could arrange for transportation ‘home.’ On top of it, I only had a vague idea where my parents had moved since I left, so I needed a private car, and assistance, as I went searching for my parents.

Hồ Chí Minh City, 1991
Giáo dục Magazine

During this period, unless at international hotels, in order to sleep overnight non-residents were required to report to the local police and be registered with either a Vietnamese national ID card or passport if overseas Vietnamese. And since I did not know anyone in HCM City, I was introduced to the cousins of a colleague in the U.S. who took me in as their ‘cousin’.

I, and the husband of the family Vinh, my new cousin, spent literally the next whole day looking for a private car with a driver, who could take us to the Mekong Delta, six hours away. Through Vinh’s contact, the coffee shop owner on his street found us the car and driver.

A young man about 15 came to our house very early the next morning, informing us that we had to walk to the car because the street, more like an alley, where we were was too narrow. I asked the teenager what kind of car it was. He kept saying something like ‘Fan Cong,’ but I couldn't figure out what ‘Fan Cong’ was.

It turned out to be a 1967 Ford Falcon which had rusted beyond recognition, looking as if it had been demolished on the set of “Mad Max” and put back together by a back-alley Dr. Frankenstein. Yes, I was going to ride for six hours in a rusty 1967 Ford Falcon from HCM City to the Mekong Delta.

1967 Ford Falcon
Photo: how stuff works

In addition to the non-functioning speedometer, it had no working head or tail lights, and the windows on both sides were also broken. Before jumping in I asked the driver, who turned out to be a former soldier in the South Việt Nam Army with one eye missing, how he would be able tell how fast he drives. He simply said, “Oh, you kinda know how fast it goes.”.

Off to the Mekong Delta we went. The one-eyed former South Việt Nam’s soldier was in the driver’s seat with his teenage sidekick in the front passenger seat. Vinh and I took the back seats.

That Ford Falcon was flying, whose horn sounded more like a cat with fur balls stuck in its throat. Have I mentioned the car’s speedometer was broken? Good thing Việt Nam’s roads were deserted then.

About halfway through the six-hour trip, to my horrors, the sidekick took over the driving duties. I asked where he learned to drive a four-wheel automobile. He pointed at the floor and said, “This one.” Whenever the car hit a bump, a metal sheet at my feet would slide, revealing the asphalt through the floor.

We were covered in a layer of dust by the time we reached Tân Châu, where I was born. Tân Châu sits on the banks of the Tiền River, the Mekong’s main tributary in Việt Nam. In the 1960s and 1970s Tân Châu was a major stop for cargo ships going up to and from Cambodia, which is about twenty kilometers away. It was a smuggler’s paradise.

From there on, I had no idea where to go for many of the landmarks – shops and public structures – were no longer there. The Mekong Delta, due the annual flooding, is notorious for erosion and landslides. Both the Tân Châu’s old public market and the Catholic Church where I attended kindergarten had fallen into the river years prior. So did the main road leading up to Cambodia.

Many things had changed by 1991 but not as dramatic yet that the village culture where everyone knew each other was still intact. So we stopped the car every few kilometers to ask people if they knew who my father was and where we could find him. Lo and behold, we were able to locate my family.

When we reached the house, a general merchandise store out front, which we were told belongs to a “Mr. Hng,” my dad’s name. For whatever reason Vinh, my new cousin, decided that it would be better if he came into the house first. (Vietnamese address each other by first name.)

This was my parents' house, which since has been given to
my youngest sister
Walking into the house, meeting my mother, Vinh said “Is this Mr. Hng’s family?” My mother responded yes and asked who Vinh was. “Your son from America is back to see you,” he said. In disbelief my mother told Vinh, “I don’t know who you are, but don’t say such thing, please leave.”

At that point Vinh asked me to come in so my mother would believe him. I walked in to the house and said, “Mother, I am home.”

My mother screamed, running into my aunt’s house next door and said, “Can you come over to see if that’s my son? Is that him for real or I'm seeing a ghost?”

I had to reassure my mother that I wasn't a ghost. At that time she started to cry. I held my mother tightly as we both started to cry. When I left Việt Nam in 1979, it was a clandestine people-smuggling operation. Everything was hush-hush. I had joined my father to work on the boat some six months prior, so when I left, I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to my mother or my three younger siblings.

The Le Clan
Center is the matriarch, my paternal grandmother

Within minutes we had a circus of onlookers outside our door starring at a Việt Kiều, an overseas Vietnamese, the oldest son of Mr. Hong whom nobody knew existed. Soon after the two men in olive-green uniforms showed up and helped themselves to our cigarettes and iced tea.

My parents’ house was located at an intersection leading down to a ferry crossing, so there were a few shops, including coffee shops and drinking places catering to a steady stream of customers throughout the day. Many eateries in Việt Nam’s small towns pull triple duties: Coffee, noodle soup and rice porridge in the morning, simple working men’s lunches in the afternoon and drinking parlors in the evening.

Being a small town, there wasn't much to do. My days consisted of visiting relatives and ancestors’ grave sites during the day and sitting around people-watching in the evening.

One night a fight broke out among a group of drunken young men across the street. Soon everybody was milling around, anticipating a fist fight, which, unfortunately a common occurrence in rural Việt Nam.

Then a tiny man in shorts, barefoot and bare-chested, showed up with what looked like an old World War II Carbine. The gun was as tall as the man himself, who was trying to make his presence known but nobody seemed to care. He was just standing around with the gun slung off his shoulder.

Me to my dad, “Who’s he and why does he have a gun?”

“He’s the local security chief,” my dad deadpanned.

“Is he going stop the fight?”

"Nobody’s afraid of him.”

“But he has a gun!”

My dad laughed so hard, which I thought was odd, but not sure what to make of it.

“Yeah, he has a gun, but no bullets.”

Incredulous, I asked, “What’s the point of having a gun without bullets?”

“Would you trust him with bullets?”

Good point. The man with a WWII rifle without bullets was another useful village idiot.

So who were these men? Often times they were ne'er-do-well sons of those who, overnight after 1975, had become local leaders. The uniforms, the glorified titles were a means of livelihood through payoffs and shakedowns for men who otherwise couldn't hold down a job.

More importantly, they were obedient and loyal cadres who had no qualms carrying out the dirty work, even against their own neighbors and friends, making them useful to the powers that be.