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Haiphong: My cherished birthplace

By Frank Trinh


Haiphong revisited

On my second day in Hanoi, I hired the same Toyota for the day (6.30am-9.30pm) to drive to Haiphong. It cost me $US70 including a driver. It was raining as we left Hanoi about 7.50am. Uncle Chuan's wife, her youngest daughter, and grand daughter accompanied my sister and myself on the trip. Son had gone back to hospital the night before. He shouldn't have been out of hospital in Haiphong, but had sneaked out to see me. He'd had an accident, nearly fracturing his skull after a brick had fallen on him. He still had abrasions on his forehead.

Haiphong is a harbour city about 100 km southeast of Hanoi. The journey on any form of transport can be long and tiring, as several bridges have to be crossed and you have to wait in a queue for other transport crossing from the opposite direction. At night there is no lighting whatsoever except for lights on vehicles. We arrived in Haiphong at about 10am. We seemed to drive down streets of my childhood in the blink of an eye, by the time I recognized a street we'd passed on to the next. What seemed a long way to a small boy on foot was really no distance at all. There were so many people and a sea of bicycles. I felt deeply moved to come back where I was born and lived until I was 13. I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle.

Welcome home

My family welcomed me like a long lost son. No pop star or government official could have been honoured so well. It was like in the olden days when the son of a family passed his exam at the Royal Palace and was welcomed by the entire village on his return. It was a great boost to my ego. I was introduced to my sister's five children and two grandchildren. My brother-in-law, Thoai was there too, all dressed up for the occasion in a smart grey suit and a black French beret, which is a common form of formal dress in the North. I have fond memories of Thoai because while he was courting my sister, he brought me a gift of pigeons when he came to visit us in Haiphong. I was really happy with the birds and kept them in a loft at the back of our house. I had hoped they would attract other birds but they eventually flew away and didn't come back. At that time my sister lived back in our native village because my father wanted her to care for his father as well as tend the family graves. As she is my half-sister, he was worried about possible tensions between my mother and my sister, which was another reason why my father felt she should stay back.

To bring my thoughts back to my present journey, I was also reacquainted with many other people from my early years, including an auntie who is over 80 years old; the parents of my sister's son-in-law; a cousin, Chuy, who gave me his brother Hoanh's address; also another cousin's son, Hoc, a former soldier, who came to look for my parents' house in Cholon ten days after the fall of Saigon. Also former neighbours, including Mai's aunts, Mao and Dau, who asked if I remembered them. I especially remembered Mai as she and I had been attracted to each other when we were in our early teens. Mai wasn't home when we came to visit her but her son-in-law told us she had gone to the pagoda and would call at my sister's place on her way home.

Back in Haiphong after living for many years in Sydney and travelling the world, I found everything so small! In my memory the two-storey house opposite my parents' place was about 100 metres away, but now they appeared very close to each other, perhaps only 20 metres apart. My parents' house had been a two-storeyed house but the top floor was blown off in a US bombing raid in 1972. Luckily no lives had been lost but in the house next door, Mai's father was killed by a falling beam. One of Mai's brothers, a soldier, had been killed during a B52 bombing raid after he'd been posted to the southern highlands.

I'd also thought my closest friend, Su, had been killed in the war, but my sister informed me that he'd been afflicted with a rare disease and was so poor that he couldn't buy any medicine. I was sad to hear of the way he died as he'd always been interested in body building and boxing. He was also a top soccer player, playing for the best local team. He was fairly good-looking and I presumed that he had a crush on one of my sisters. Although only one year older than myself he was a good bit taller. We used to go to the movies in a group paying about 5 dong a ticket but before we walked in, the others would tell me to crouch lower. That was how we were spared one ticket.

Mai's house used to be a single storey but it now has two. One of Mai's brothers lives in the house now with his wife. Their house must have been a hair-dressing salon at one time, for I could still see some of the equipment. People on the street had small businesses in their homes. These have now been moved into the street, where various foodstuffs and drinks are sold. My sister's family has a table in front of the house where they sell homemade pork sausage, steamed rice, vegetables, and drinks. Although there was already Chợ Con, a small market building opposite my family's home, the residents gradually created their own market place and were soon joined by people from other areas. Because of this it was very difficult for the driver of the car to drive through this street and park in front of my sister's place. I had to get out and move things here and there. The driver was worried that if the car paint was scratched he would be in trouble.

At my parents' old place, which was now occupied by my sister's family, I found myself gazing at the concrete water tanks in the courtyard: one underground, one above; the tank above ground now darkened with moss. All of a sudden, I remembered how, on hot summer nights we would lie on the top of it and sometimes peep over the wall into Mai's courtyard to see what was going on there. We would stay there looking up at the sky until the night got cooler and then move inside. The same mosaic tiles still covered the floor of the house but the concrete walls looked really shabby.

I remember as a child a huge banyan tree or perhaps a fig tree just outside our courtyard. Underneath the tree was an altar. At night when I had to cross the courtyard to get to the toilet, I would begin by talking loudly to myself and making loud noises as I ran to scare away the ghosts, that I imagined lived in the tree. My mother told me it was because I'd been born in the daytime that I was afraid of the dark. The tree isn't there anymore and buildings have enroached on the open space. The altar still remains.

A market place

After lunch, we drove to another market place because my sister wanted to show me where one of her daughters had a stall with her husband. They sell electrical fittings and are doing very well. The only problem now is that her husband's sister wants to sell the house to pay off her debts and my niece and her husband will have to find somewhere else to have their stall. They don't want to move as they are doing so well where they are. This particular market place Chợ Sắt brought back other memories of a time my own mother would buy dried fish and prawns wholesale at this market and then hire a truck to send it to her friend in Hanoi, who would sell them. In this area there were always trucks arriving and departing from different places. My mother would walk from place to place in the area, arranging transport, or asking the drivers whether they had mail etc. for her. She was only a very tiny woman but she walked at such a pace, that whenever my sister or myself accompanied her we would have to run to keep up with her. As a small boy I didn't know what she was about, but looking back I can piece things together to get the whole picture. My mother had a very limited formal education like most women during her time. She was able to read and write, to add and subtract, but not multiply so she would calculate everything in her head by addition only. She was always very frugal. Instead of hiring a pedicab my mother would often walk long distances, usually from Chợ Con to Chợ Sắt just to save the fare.

My former mentor

Afterwards, we drove Nhan home and with my nephew went looking for Hoanh's place. There was neither house number nor street name on Hoanh's address given to me by his brother. We crossed over the An Duong Bridge towards Kien An and went to a village about 10 km north of the city. I remembered another time, as a small boy about five years old, with my father holding my hand, we were walking through Kien An to get back to our home village at Phu Ly, Ha Nam. Haiphong was being evacuated at the time because of the danger of French bombing. Even now I still remember the planes coming over as we walked and we had to throw ourselves on the ground. Somewhere along the way I must have stepped on some faeces and I remember it sticking to my sandals as we walked.

I was only able to see Hoanh's wife and one of his daughters, because the day I called, he'd gone to Vinh Bao, a small town, south of Haiphong which is famous for the tobacco used in water pipes. He wasn't expected back until late that night. We sat on the beds to talk to one another. His wife told me that Hoanh was now 58 years old and had been forced into early retirement because of the jealousy of work colleagues. I wrote him a short letter which I left with his wife, giving my address in Australia and a small gift of 40,000 dong ($A8). As an agricultural engineer, his monthly salary was just over 40,000 dong. Before we took leave of Hoanh's wife and his daughter, I asked them to pose for a photograph in front of their house.

Hoanh, eight years my senior, was a distant cousin of mine. When I was a child he was asked to come and live with us to be educated at my parents' expense. In return, Hoanh was to help my sister, Huong, and myself with our French and English lessons. Hoanh was very bright and diligent. He was able to pass two exams (primary school and junior high school) in one year but soon afterwards had tuberculosis. The disease sapped all his energies. To help improve his health, he had to eat placentas fried with onion. I have special memories of Hoanh as someone very clever with his hands. He would do my drawings and make various things from thick cardboard such as a truck or a rabbit which could move on wheels, or, with a softer cardboard, model a French-style villa with balconies and windows and everything else. When I copied my favourite songs in my book, Hoanh would decorate the titles with ornate letters and colours. I remember how he would show us how to make his favourite drink. He would beat egg yolks and sugar in a glass with the stick from the rice pot. He would beat it for ages and tell us how nutritious it was.

My former school

On our way back we called in at my former school to have a look around and pose for some photographs. Although it consisted of just one building, the school went under two names in my time. In the morning, it was known as Ngo Quyen High School and in the afternoon, it was called Hung Dao Primary School. People knew whether you attended High School or Primary School by the name you called it. The playground is now paved with concrete but I remember when it was stony red gravel. It was here that we did P.E. and chased each other about or played shuttle-cock, soccer and spinning tops. I remembered lining up to go into class after our half-hour break. My nephew, who accompanied me during this visit, listened as I regaled him with reminiscences of my schooldays. I showed him one of the classrooms I'd sat in 20 years before he was born. While we were walking through the schoolrooms, it seemed the teachers (all women) were returning to class after the break. I saw the children sitting at desks just as they had in my day, except it seemed like there were fewer pupils now. In the olden times, education was revered and was looked on as a means of climbing social ladder. Nowadays, people find no reason for education as there are neither financial rewards nor status attached. I was told that teachers are so poorly paid that they can't concentrate on their work because of the burden of making ends meet. Students themselves are often forced to help the family financially. I felt I wanted to go into the classes and talk to everyone and explain that I'd sat there many years before. However, I resisted the impulse. I told my nephew what a good soccer player I'd been then. How I used to cross the road outside the school gate, with a soccer ball under my arm to play a game after school. Once when I was only nine years old, I'd used my new raincoat as part of the goal marker. Unfortunately, by the time I was ready to go home, it was nowhere to be found?

Sights and scenes

After visiting my old school, we drove past some other places in the surrounding areas such as the Chợ Vườn Hoa, a market where Mai used to sell fabrics, and the Bonnal soccer field, which doubled as a market place. I can still taste the bánh tôm we used to buy there. Bánh tôm was a mixture of flour, water, shredded sweet potato with a couple of prawns on top, and fried while still in its dish mould. After it was cooked it was cut in pieces and eaten with rice vermicelli and green vegetables. We ate bánh tôm with fish sauce, accompanied by a mixture of vinegar, crushed garlic, chopped red chilli and a pinch of sugar. When I was a boy, I contracted typhoid fever and wasn't allowed to eat anything for about 20 days except a very mild vegetable soup. As I lay in bed I would think about the food I most craved for. I often thought about bánh tôm The soccer field as such is no more, but has now been planted with trees and fenced off. We also drove past the Vườn Hoa Con Cóc, a big park with its lotus ponds and toadstools on which we sat as kids. I posed for a photograph with my nephew, Son, in front of the Haiphong Theatre. My father and his friend, Man, had once organised a tour for a Saigon-based pop group Gió Nam (South Wind) featuring Thăng Long Singers and comedian Trần Văn Trạch, and it was here at this theatre that they performed. Normally, my father gave me a ticket for each show, but one night I found myself outside with a group of friends, all of us without tickets. As fearless as one could be at thirteen, we all climbed in through a window on the first floor!

Back to the present, Son and I drove home and soon after Mai visited us. As she came in I didn't really recognize her but as she joined in the conversation, my recollection of her became more vivid. My sister asked Mai to stay for dinner that evening but she declined as she had to get home to cook for some of the family. I then sat down to dinner with my family and we left Haiphong at about 6.30pm. We had intended to spend the afternoon at Do Son, a seaside resort 15km out of the city, but as usual we ran out of time.

The Journey home

On my last day in Hanoi, I made a courtesy call on Mr. Nguyễn Văn Cự, Chairperson of the Social Sciences Commission, accompanied by Vien. At 36 Hang Chuoi Street, we met Dr. Le Van Sang, Director of the International Cooperation Agency. Because I hadn't telephoned when I first arrived in Hanoi, I wasn't able to meet either Professor Phong Lê, Director of the Literature Institute or Professor Hoàng Văn Hành, Director of the Linguistics Institute. Although I have arranged to meet them later this year when I take my sabbatical, there wasn't much time to inform them about this present trip. These gentlemen only come to their offices about two days every week. Mr. Cự took us to the bookshop next door to the Institute of Social Sciences on Trần Xuân Soạn Street. While we were in the bookshop, we were inundated by heavy smoke from some burning off nearby. Our eyes were stinging and watering. Mr. Cự then suggested that we walk out onto the footpath and drink some tea from a roadside stand. When we came back to the bookshop, I bought about 30 books, including a number of periodicals, which were wrapped in parched old newspaper and tied with string of bark. It had been many years since I'd seen parcels wrapped in this manner.

After that, the driver took us to Hàng Mành Street to have an early lunch of bún chả (rice vermicelli and barbecued pork) and chả nem (spring rolls), Northern style, which were very tasty. For Vien, myself and the driver the meal cost 17,000 dong ($A3). Vien then travelled with me to the airport and we left the city about 11.30am. After a drive lasting about an hour, we arrived at the airport. As I passed through customs, I had a bit of trouble with a young customs officer who asked me why I hadn't declared one of the things I had with me on arrival in Vietnam. I explained that it was an old mini cassette recorder, which I had left behind with a nephew, Phuoc, in Ho Chi Minh City. It turned out that on my arrival at Tan Son Nhat airport, the female customs officer had written it down as an imported "Walkman". He called an older customs officer who took one look at what was written down in my customs forms and waved me through without a second glance.

My long awaited return to Vietnam had come much earlier than I had planned. Now the visit had come and gone, it seemed to have passed like a dream. I really enjoyed visiting long remembered streets and countryside, and the thrill of seeing family and friends again would warm me for many weeks to come. However, something that would haunt me with sadness was the changes to Vietnam itself. So many political, social and economic changes will have to take place for the country to even begin to stand on its feet again.

Frank Trinh

17 June 1991


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