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VIETNAM | Tuesday, 5 October 2004 | Views [1126]


I wasn’t searching for forgiveness, but it happened while wandering solo in the dusty, humid, roaring, poor, beautiful city of Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam – or, as the locals still prefer, Saigon. 

Sidewalks bustled with noodle vendors and children selling postcards and pressing stale Wrigley’s into my hands, hoping the suggestion and a doggie-eyed look would get this American to buy something.  I braved a death-defying walk across the streets whizzing with motorbikes to discover an oasis in the midst of the chaos: a small park with tables and umbrellas hidden behind stumpy palm trees where you could sit for as long as you like…as long as you order a drink, of course.  At last, I took off my sopping hat to cool down, though I could still drink the air like my Coke through its straw.  As I watched Saigon hurry by, I apparently looked like I needed company because an old man sat down at my table, leaned over and asked The Question: “You American?”  I said yes and he started talking.  For three hours.

Ti was 64 years old at the time.  He’d fought for the South in what the Vietnamese call the “American” war, and his entire family was destroyed in the carpet bombing along the Mekong River, where he still lived.  After the cease fire, Ti and many other Southern soldiers were arrested and sent to ‘re-education camps’ run by the Communists.  Even though the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, was dead before the fall of the South, it was his dream to see Viet Nam united.  And so exotic Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and Ti hated the name.  After he was released from the camp, he had no citizenship anywhere – he doesn’t exist in the government’s eyes.  I asked if he likes Communism.

“Shh! Shh!  They hear everywhere.  No I don’t like.”

I took the hint and changed the subject.

He led me all over the city and down streets that weren’t even listed on my map (no surprise there).  With a protective hand gripping my shoulder like a cautious father, even though I was a head taller, he guided me through the traffic shouting over the noise, “No, not yet….wait…Ok, go!” and we walked safely across as the flood of humanity whirled around us. 

Ti suggested we go see the ‘mall,’ and I followed imagining a back-street set aside somewhere for clusters of booths and tables filled with religious trinkets, fruit, traditional clothes, little monkeys led on strings, tigers lounging at their captors’ feet, and teenage ‘coconut boys’ selling whole coconuts with long blue straws sticking out. 

I was thinking ‘market,’ not ‘mall.’ 

Of all the historical and cultural sites in Saigon, he took me, hand still firmly leading me through traffic, to the one place in the whole city that’s American through and through – a huge pink building with revolving doors and pseudo-air-conditioning.  The Mall.  I almost laughed at my stereotyping when I saw Ti’s excitement gliding up the ‘moving stairs,’ standing there proudly, trying to look like he’s wandered shopping malls and ridden escalators his whole life.

We changed my dollars to dong with (to my surprise) an old woman Ti found sitting in a doorway, and I bought bottles of water for us as we waited for the War Remnants Museum to open, where he would leave me.

“You Americans say Vietnam one word.  But really two word.  Việt is our people, our culture.  Nam mean south.”

“South of where?”

“China.  China invade Viet Nam not too long ago, but we are not Chinese, so we send them out of our country.  Back to China.”  He finally opened up and told me stories, not of his past, but of his people’s past.  It never occurred to me that they would define themselves, not by their history as individuals, or even as a country, but by their history as a culture – a  group of people taking up a little space south of a border and south of another, separate, culture.  Time is defined by their expansive history, and as he talked about Chinese and Japanese invasions and the French occupation, it amazed me to think how wars in 1284 and the early 1400s were “not too long ago.”

I sat there in the silence of knowing I’d never see him again, staring at my bottle of questionable water, shifting on my short plastic stool, and trying to build up the courage to ask a question that had been brewing since I arrived in this country.

“Ti, what do you think of Americans?”

“I love Americans!”

“Really?!  Why?  I always thought the Vietnamese would hate us for what we did—” and then suddenly one day leaving them to fend for themselves with no support whatsoever, I finished thinking.  How could someone like Ti – whose entire family died because of us – how could he forgive?  He saw my puzzled look and gently laughed at me with grandfather eyes. 

“It’s different, doing what you want to do and doing what government says.  America is like Viet Nam because we both did not want war.  But it is done.” 

Roaring motorbikes, stinking trash, ever-present dust, haggling vendors…it all faded around us and I was left with the soul of Viet Nam sitting in front of me on a white plastic stool.

“We Vietnamese understand—” he patted my hand “—you did not do bad things.” 


© Wendy Allen 2003

Tags: vietnam, Writings (true or otherwise, poetry or prose)



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