THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 1
One Spring morning
(Memory of March 1975)
The communist victory was completed when their tanks crashed through the gate of the presidential palace in Sai Gon on April 30, 1975, after decades of fighting and millions of deaths. That much is recorded in the history book. But for the people of Da Nang, my hometown, the war had end a month earlier, on March 29.
I was 15 years old, a schoolboy. Even at that age, I was still too naïve to fully comprehend the significance and magnitude of what was going on. The day before, on the afternoon of March 28, my sister and her high school sweetheart got married in a hurry in a brief ceremony. They were in love and didn’t want to separate, therefore she had to marry him so she could stay with him since his family didn’t want to evacuate. The Rumors were that the Communists had taken up positions on the outskirt of the city and it was only a matter of days before they began the attack. I heard that Hue had fallen a week earlier; and the Southern troops were continuing their retreat, abandoning town after town, province after province. That afternoon, paying no attention to the marriage ceremony of my sister downstairs, I stood on the roof of my house and saw columns of black smoke rising on the other side of the Han River from the direction where there was a large fuel dump. That fuel dump was not far from the beach and it was next to an army camp; people said fighting had been taking place there.
After my sister got married and went with her new husband to his house, my father prepared their remaining five children, the oldest was twenty, for the evacuation. Many people were doing the same thing: getting away from the city, going south, because they feared of a hostile communist takeover. Nobody knew what would happen when the Communists came to the city. There might be revenge killings, Bloodbath, things of that sort, the way the victors might do the vanquished. So perhaps leaving the city and going south ahead of the communist advances was the sensible thing to do – in the face of the unknown.
Earlier in the day my father had gone to the riverport to look at the situation there and when he came back he said it was really bad. The one or two ships that were still there were completely filled over the edge with people dangling on the sides and some were pushed into the water to drown. It was total chaos. A few ships had sailed to the ocean heading south but their fates were unknown. So retreat by the sea was out of the question. And getting out by land was also impossible because the highway south of the city had been cut off. The only way left was to go to the airport and see if we could fly out. The airport was in the northern edge of the city, not far from our house. Once my father had decided that we would evacuate, my mother made each one of us a money belt to wear around our waist. And she stuffed us with so much cash that we all looked bulky because of the big shirts we had to wear over the fat money belts. It was possible that we could get separated in the pandemonium, so the cash was there for each of us, just in case. Then when it was almost dark, we all made a run to the airport on our family’s Vespa and Honda motorcycle. There I saw a sea of people massed along the fence. Men, Women, and children, all carrying what meager belongings they could. There was no way to get into the airport except to scale the fence and many are trying to climb over the razor-sharp barrier. It got darker and darker as the evening approached and with all the screaming and crying it felt like apocalypse. But for almost an hour that we were there, being pushed back and forth among the crowd, I did not see any plane taking off or landing. After a while, knowing that the effort was futile, my father took us all back home. And as soon as we returned and took off the money belts and gave it to our mother, the evening routine resumed: my mother prepared dinner, my father settled in his favorite chair and listened to the radio. And I went to see my friends in the neighborhood.
I had not gone to school for two weeks because all schools in town were occupied by the refugees who had been pouring into the city from the northern provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien. The people who arrived early set up their living quarters in the classrooms and the hallways. Those who came late had to camp in the school’s playground. The city was paralyzed by the precarious situation that seemed to get worse by the days. The news was that the communists had begun their final offensive and there was nothing to stop their advance. Southern troops kept retreating; cities and provinces were left undefended and fell like dominoes.
In the days immediately before the Communist takeover, there was no government left in the city, no one to keep order. We heard rumors that the American consulate building had been abandoned and was stripped bare by looters. The same fate happened to city hall not far away from the consulate, both on the riverbank. Shopkeepers shut their doors and stayed inside, afraid of looting by the strayed and leaderless troops. Sometimes I saw groups of young men in civilian clothes riding wildly on army jeeps, brandishing their rifles and shot their weapons into the air. They looked excited and seemed to enjoy the lawlessness. People said that the large rice warehouse that belonged to a rich merchant had been broken into and became a free-for-all: people stampeded to carry off bags of rice on their back and on their bikes. Everyone feared there might be a shortage of food in the days ahead. I could see the nervousness and anxiety in people’s faces. And tension permeated the air.
Our house provided shelters for some relatives from Hue. We had more than enough space for them since the house was a three-story building including the long and flat concrete rooftop on which two families had been camping for weeks.
One evening a neighborhood boy showed me an M16 rifle that he said he had found on the street. I held the rifle and caressed it from end to end, feeling the cold of its steel and plastic. The gun had a magazine attached. I was excited because I had never touched a real weapon before. But my father discovered us playing with the thing and he took it away. I didn’t know what he did with it.
In the days after school was closed, having nothing to do, I accompanied and helped out my aunt who was a doctor at the city’s hospital. What she assigned me to do was to help carry wounded people – on stretchers – from one room to another. There wasn’t an empty bed in the whole hospital, the sick and wounded spilled out into the hallways, and the stench filled the air. Most patients were left to fend for themselves or by their relatives, or they died unattended because there weren’t many doctors or nurses around. But my aunt was there to the end because whenever I came to the hospital, she was there treating the patients. Sometimes I saw her talking to her colleague, a white doctor, and the guy spoke perfect Vietnamese.
Once in a while I wandered into the stadium to look at the APCs and the guns that belonged to the troops who had taken up position there. Perhaps they were assigned to this location in the defense of the city. And it seemed they were bored waiting for the fight: once I saw a group of soldiers caught the rats, big rats, soaked them in gasoline, then set them on fire and laughed heartily as the small animals ran frantically around in the forms of little fireballs.
When work in the hospital slowed down, I took my father’s motorbike out to the high way near the foot of the Hai Van Pass to pick up the straggling refugees, one or two at a time, and carry them into the city. I took them to my high school, dropped them at the gate, then went back to the highway for more.
At that time I was half way through the tenth grade. I had been living a peaceful and protected life as a child and a student. My world revolved around home, the neighborhood, schools, friends, brothers and sisters. I knew nothing beyond that closed world. I dressed smartly in white shirts and blue trousers to school everyday; and in the evenings after homework I listened to the music of Trinh Cong Son and the Beatles on my own little tape recorder. One line of TCS’s lyrics that ignited my imagination was “Dai bac dem dem vong ve thanh pho, nguoi phu quet duong dung choi dung nghe…,” whenever I heard that line, I saw in my mind an empty street corner at midnight lighted by a single yellowish lamp, and there the lone street sweeper stopped his slow movements when he heard the thumping of cannons firing in the distance, just faint and fading echoes, too weak to puncture the silence of the night.
I swam in the ocean and climbed the mountains when school was out. I remembered at the beginning of the ninth grade, our all-boy school suddenly changed its policy and brought in a bunch of girls. We all became mesmerized by a cute girl in the next class who had haircut like a boy. I still remember her name.
I was vaguely aware that a war was going on even though I was reminded of it daily by the constant roaring of jet fighters overhead since we lived not far from the Da Nang airbase. To me, the war was mostly black and white images on television and printed words in the newspapers; it was an abstraction, a concept that I could not concretely comprehend – and didn’t care to. Fighting had been raging for years when I was born and I grew up in the mist of it but it hardly registered on my consciousness. I had been a child in a cocoon, safe under the protective wings of my parents.
My earliest memory of the war was when I was five years old, and that was the only time I saw real fighting in Da Nang but I didn’t know who was fighting whom and for what. The year was probably 1965. The city was in complete lockdown; everyone stayed inside; there was no schools, no work, no businesses. Sporadic gunfire was heard days and nights. Every now and then, a tank noisily rolled by in front of my house. My father was the head nurse in the city’s army hospital and sometimes he worked the nightshift and we were home without him. “We” meant my mother, my grandmother and the six of us children. My father had told us that if someone came into the house and asked about him, we must never tell them that he was working in an army hospital because that would put him in danger. The person who might be asking the question could be a Viet Cong guerilla out to assassinate their enemies. We were to tell them that our father was a tailor away on business in another town. Sometimes, when my father was not home, I saw terror on my mother’s face when she heard footsteps in the stillness of the night. It was a time of death.
One evening an officer and a few of his men, taking a break from their duty on the street, came into our house and demanded food. The officer sat down at the dinner table and placed his revolver in front of him while his men were sitting in various corners of the house. My mother served him a meal but he was unhappy with the fish sauce. He loudly voiced his displeasure and asked my mother to put some black pepper in it. All of us were fearful.
I remember a particular day during that time. It was morning, maybe close to noon. My father was home from a night in the hospital. We all lied on the floor; that was how people ducked bullets that sometimes strayed. We were worried because my older brother had been out since early morning watching the fighting somewhere downtown. My father had gone looking for him but later returned without him. And he was angry. I didn’t know if there was any arguing between him and my mother. But what we did was continuing to lie flat on the floor and worry about my brother. By noon, we heard his voice calling for us to open the door so he could get in. It was time for the midday meal and he was probably hungry. We all jumped up. My mother rushed to the door. But my father shouted her to stop. He said something to the effect that let’s just leave my brother out there for a while so he learned his lesson. I don’t remember what happened next but I think after he had got in he must have received a good spanking from my father.
After the fighting stopped, I went back to school and things went pretty much back to normal. My father continued to work in the army hospital; but after breaking his leg in an accident he was discharged and returned to civilian life. The years passed, I went on from elementary school to high school. While I was busy growing up and playing student, “Tet” happened, the communist offensive of summer 1972, the Paris Peace Accord was signed, the US withdrew its troops, death and destruction continued unabated – but I was oblivious to all. I suppose unlike adults, children are always carefree and happy, no matter what the circumstances.
In those years, American soldiers once in a while came to my school to teach English, and they carried their rifles with them into the classrooms. I also knew of one American who lived with a local prostitute and he never went out. People said he was a deserter. He made his living by giving English lessons to some neighborhood students whose parents would then pay him in cash and sometimes in rice. I also saw American soldiers being chased by the military police from the whorehouses in the neighborhood; once I saw one of them climbed over a fence and ran away topless.
There were signs that serious things were going on like citywide curfew after 10 pm; talks between my father and his friends about people dying that I overheard; and my uncles in the army sometimes dropped by for a few days and bragged about their war exploits. The siren also went off now and then at night when rockets were fired into the city and the next morning I saw a few houses destroyed and people crying and wailing. But to me all these happenings were so routine and normal. War mostly happened far away in the countryside was just on the edge of the city.
On the night of March 28, after the failed attempt to evacuate, we spent the evening like we had always done: ate, played and slept. But I felt the tension in the air, and I saw the troubled looks on the faces of my father and mother. I felt that a momentous change was taking shape and would transform everything but I could not imagine how significant that might be. That night before falling asleep I heard sounds of big guns, perhaps from the direction of the army camp on the other side of the river.
The next morning, after days of nervous anticipation, the communist tanks finally rolled into the city, and I was sitting by the window on the second floor of my house. It was a beautiful day: the sky was deep blue and there wasn’t a strand of cloud. But the streets were deserted. And all the doors were closed. People had expected that this was the day the communists would come into the city. There had not been any resistance by the southern troops that I was aware of. Uniforms, boots and sometimes weapons were discarded on the streets, providing toys for the children. At about eleven o’clock I saw the first units of communist soldiers marching down the street in front of my house. Curious people began to come out. Some waved them but most just stared at them. The soldiers was so thin, pale and young, and their bodies bent forward under their heavy backpacks. They marched in formation, orderly and silently. I was at the window looking at them, and suddenly tears rushed to my eyes. I didn’t know why I cried. I didn’t know exactly how I felt at that moment. Perhaps it was sadness, but whatever that strange and unexplainable feeling was, it was profound, powerful, overwhelming – and it took over me completely off-guard. I felt that the life that I had been familiar with was coming to an end and would be lost forever. Our life, my life, would never be the same again. History was unfolding in front of my eyes, carried to us on the bony shoulders of those young soldiers. The moment was big, and I was there as a small witness.
There wasn’t any revenge killing or bloodbath as people had feared; but many were taken away and put in re-education camps where they stayed for years. Everything was turned upside down. And hunger became the order of the day for most people. Lao Tzu said in his book of wisdom, the Tao Te Ching, that there is always famine after a great war.
School reopened a month later. But I dropped out after only a few months at the start of the eleven grade, I was no longer happy being a student, and began living the life of a drifter – to the agony of my parents. Day after day I sat for hours in coffee shops and debated the meaning of life with friend who also drifted like me. I would disappear for weeks at a time, traveling wildly along the length of the country while doing my best to avoid being questioned by the police, sleeping on the white beach of Nha Trang and in the little hotels on the hills of Da Lat. I devoured the existential philosophy and literature, and stayed up late to write about the pains of the rootless and directionless life I was living, and all the notebooks ended up thrown into the river. I was high and drunk almost daily, and also fell madly in love for the first time – all while contemplating the ultimate end of everything. What I was going through was perhaps growing pain, but I could not understand why the pain was so extraordinary and excruciating.
And I understood why I cried that beautiful spring morning: I cried for the end of innocence.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue may be simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge Magazine Issue 6 January 2005 (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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