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Vietnam: My First Return

by: Frank Trinh



After the Geneva Agreement in 1954 which had divided the country into North and South, my elder sister and I sailed south to Saigon with my parents. I was not yet 14 years old. I still remember that morning; my eldest sister and two family friends came to the wharf to say good-bye. When the ship's siren sounded, signalling our departure, my eldest sister began to cry. My father, who deplored such weakness, ordered her to stop. He may have been trying to make the leave-taking less emotional than it already was. I tried to console my sister, telling her that in two years' time we'd be back. At the time there was a belief that in about two years there would be a general election that would re-unite the North and South into one country again. As the steamship Ville de Haiphong edged slowly from the wharf to make its journey South to Saigon, little did we know that we were to be exiled from our Northern home for over thirty years.

The year of 1974 brought another major departure in my life. It was about a year before Saigon fell into Communist hands and the twenty-year civil war was finally over. This departure was from Saigon airport and my parents, my sister, her husband and children as well as my friends had come to see me off. I was headed for Australia and further study. I was absolutely elated to be heading for what was thought to be a bright future. As the time came to board I hugged and kissed each one in turn, thinking once again that only two years down the track we'd all be together again. As a people we Vietnamese are not usually given to such displays of emotion. As I turned to walk towards the plane, my mother suddenly grabbed my arm and placed a kiss in the palm of my hand, very quickly, in case she was seen doing so. I experienced a sudden sinking feeling and a vague thought that perhaps it was to be her last kiss. It was to be a permanent departure from my parents. 


A chance to return to Vietnam came sooner than I expected. I had intended to spend part of a planned study leave in Saigon and Hanoi in October-November 1991. As things turned out there was to be an international language conference in the city now called Ho Chi Minh with an optional tour to Hanoi. So it was that one afternoon in late March 1991, my wife and daughter accompanied me to Sydney airport. They were happy that I was soon to be reunited with family and friends again after such a very long separation. My intended two years away had turned into a seventeen-year separation from the South and a thirty-six year absence from Hanoi and Haiphong. On learning there was to be a nine-hour flight and an overnight stopover in Bangkok, I experienced a sudden sense of loneliness and a longing for my wife's company. However, eventually I fell into a sound sleep...

After an overnight stay in a 43-storey hotel, I left Bangkok on a Thai International jet for Tan Son Nhut airport now re-named Tan Son Nhat, a change into the Northern dialect. As the aircraft taxied closer to the terminal, I strained my eyes through the small window trying to see everything at once. I was overcome with emotion at the sight which met my eyes. The last time I'd been here, although, I have to say, at the height of the war, it was one of the busiest airports in the world. The scene which now met my eyes was one of desolation and emptiness. Patches of greyish brown earth appeared here and there between burnt grass and dried out trees. Planes were flying in and out but not with the same sense of urgency as before. I could just make out the control tower in the distance and closer to hand a low shabby flight deck with small, dark people waiting for incoming passengers. I had the impression I was arriving at an airport in the central highlands of Vietnam. A feeling of bitterness slowly began to engulf me.

A bus took us across to the terminal and more forms to complete. I presented my luggage to a female customs officer who asked me if I was feeling the heat because I was perspiring heavily. She was curious to know whether this was my first time back to Vietnam. I told her this was my first visit after seventeen years. She then looked at my customs forms in which I had declared $US1500, one camera, two gold rings, one small cassette recorder/player and some mini cassette tapes. The sweat was pouring from me by this time, which might well have made her think that I had something to hide. After allowing me through, she advised me to cross out 'cassette tapes' on the form in case they were looked on as products of a decadent culture. Staff from the Saigon Floating Hotel were at the terminal and arranged my seat on the bus to the city.

As I left the airport behind, I tried to absorb everything at once. It was a good feeling being back but I couldn't believe the traffic; at any moment I expected a head-on collision. The streets appeared to me like very congested country lanes, something I'd never noticed before. I had to keep reminding myself that I was finally back in Saigon once more. We drove past the former Independence Palace, with both French and Communist flags raised and a sign announcing a French exhibition.

The Saigon Floating Hotel was a five-star hotel, naturally luxurious by Vietnamese standards.The hotel had originally been towed to Vietnam from the coast of Queensland, Australia. I didn't want to know the cost of anything. I felt a bit relieved that almost everything had been paid months in advance. There was a tennis court, swimming pool, outdoor furniture, a glamorous foyer, and a disco etc. At reception, the girl asked us each to fill out a form and leave our passports with her so she could report details of our visit to the local authorities. We were also required to pay $US11 each for the necessary registration to reside in the area. Australian dollars had to be taken to a money changer as only US dollars were accepted and in good condition at that. One of my US notes was slightly torn in one corner so it was automatically refused. I shared a room with an academic from Tasmania, who was still at the airport with other members of the group getting cleared through customs. I arrived earlier than expected and had to ring room service to have the beds changed. As I sat waiting for the staff to clean up, I took a coke and some beer nuts out of the fridge, enjoying myself and looking out from the balcony of our room.

At this stage I was anxious to get to my sister's home, but suddenly realised I couldn't ring them as people don't normally have telephones, my sister included, so I couldn't ring for one of my nephews to collect me on his motor-bicycle. I walked outside to hire a pedicab to my sister's place. The journey was about half an hour by pedicab so I picked a young man instead of an older one as the roads were rough and although the heat wasn't too bad, it was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Out of curiosity I asked my pedicab driver how much he earned a day and he told me he earned about 8,000 dong (A$1.40), adding that he seldom had a trip as long as this. A room service girl at the hotel earns 300,000 dong a month. One of my nephews, Tuyen, who is a fully qualified mechanical engineer, only earns enough to buy his breakfast each day.

As we set out I was reminded of a time in early 1955 when my family first arrived in Saigon from Haiphong. At that time we were picked up by my father's friend in a taxicab-like car, a 2-horse-power Renault. The same feeling of excitement I felt then was with me now as I travelled back to my family amidst a sea of bicycles. I tried to tell the driver to take roads I used to take because I thought it would be shorter. Again I tried to absorb everything at once. As we negotiated a large roundabout to get into a one-way street, I noticed on my right a number of bicycle repair stops placed about 20 metres apart. We passed a three-wheel cart selling watermelon, the slices uncovered and exposed to heat, dust and fumes. 

Saigon Home

We eventually passed my parents' old home before turning into a small alleyway nearby to come to a stop outside my sister's place. I looked around excitedly, expecting to see familiar faces but found none until I spied my brother-in-law, Boi, sitting half in and half out of the garage doorway. He was busy at a task and not looking my way. I placed my hands on him from behind, not realising he had a small dog beside him who bit me on the arm. My brother-in-law was very apologetic that I'd received such a savage welcome. He said they'd only just arrived home from the airport and must have just missed me. As we walked inside the house, it seemed much older and sombre and more disorganised than what I remembered. There wasn't the same brightness of my memories. As we walked upstairs one of the children came down to meet us. After a while my sister returned on a motor-bike with one of my nephews. We all sat and talked for quite some time.

Sometime later I walked to my parents' house which is now deserted. Usually, one of my nephews comes to tend my parents' altar, feed the cats or check things in the house. As I went upstairs to my old bedroom, a host of memories once again assailed me. My father was already an old man when he supervised the re-construction of the house. He had wanted to leave part of himself as something for his children to remember him by. I remembered the figure of my mother as she constantly bent to the task of cleaning the floor, detailing each mosaic tile and granite stairs with a cloth. She could never get used to using a mop. The place was always wet which annoyed my father and myself, often mumbling under our breath as to why she had to do it so often. We were supposed to remove our shoes each time, which irritated us no end and we could hardly be bothered doing so.

Getting used to the toilet system again was another hurdle to overcome. Sitting back to solve a problem or two had become a way of life. I had to manoeuvre into a low squat position and try to keep my balance while doing so. When paper was used it was disposed of in a covered can beside the toilet, I had the urge to set the contents alight but couldn't find a match. It was a bit of a nuisance. After being so used to the whiteness of western toilets, it repulsed me a little to sit over a darkened concrete hole. 

The Conference

The three-day conference held in the Saigon Floating Hotel was well attended with about 200 delegates from Vietnam and overseas. I was among the participants whose papers were presented at the conference. The conference was inaugurated on 30th March, 1991 by the Deputy Minister for Education and Training in Hanoi, Dr. Pham Minh Hac, with participating delegates from the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Singapore, France, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, Canada, the Philippines and Indonesia. There was also one hundred delegates from various academic institutions in Vietnam: Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, Qui Nhon and Ho Chi Minh City. This was the second language conference held in Vietnam, which was aimed at promoting mutual understanding among educators, exchanging scientific findings and achievements as well as highlighting practical applications in the field of language education. The conference was convened by the Linguistic Society of Vietnam and the Hue College of Teacher Education in conjunction with the Flinders University and the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology (TSIT) in Australia. Conference coordinators were Dr. Nguyen Huu The, Professor Jonathan Anderson and Mike McCausland. Plenary speakers included Professor Hoang Phe, Emeritus Professor Michael Halliday and Professor Christopher Candlin.

My paper, “Translation Practice in Australia: A Vietnamese Perspective”, was presented in the afternoon of the second day concurrently with two other sessions. The room allocated to me was a disco by night so by day it had a sombre appearance. My audience mainly consisted of Vietnamese nationals with a few non-Vietnamese. My 20-minute talk was well-received although I ran out of time and there was not enough time for questions. However, I was rushed during the break with people wanting to exchange business cards and exchange information. One of them told me that for him so far it had been the most relevant talk. The conference ended with a dinner at Ky Hoa Vietnamese restaurant in Cholon. 

Visiting Parents' Graves

Two days before the conference started, I took some time off to travel with my family in my brother-in-law's old car to the north-western outskirts of Saigon where we visited my parents' graves. My mother died in 1986 after twelve years suffering from diabetes. My father died from a stroke two years after his wife. We travelled down winding red dirt tracks until we came to a temple set among trees. My parents' graves, stepped in granite, appeared very prominent in this isolated area. The reason my sister and her husband had chosen such an area is because graves in more urbanised areas, are unceremoniously dug up to make way for development. After offering some incense sticks to my parents, I stood silently before the graves thinking about them. I thought I would shed tears because it is the duty of the eldest son to be with his parents at the end of their lives. But as I stood there I became more philosophical, remembering a time my father and myself had discussed such a matter. As the eldest son, he had not been able to get back to the North when his own father died, and he seemed to know from his horoscope when we talked that I wouldn't be there for him. After all, I had lived with my parents until I was in my early thirties, and during the war so many parents buried offspring that I was pleased then that my parents had been able to live out their lives and see their children settled.

While I was in Ho Chi Minh City, I met my wife's parents and relatives for the first time. I also took the time to visit an old friend Tam. We'd both been English teachers and had both seen service in the South Vietnamese Army.

Unfortunately, he had been imprisoned for three years. Although we both looked a bit older, as I sat on the pillion seat of his motor-bike and sped along, the years of absence fell away and we were both the young men of seventeen years ago, the friendship hadn't altered at all. Tam is presently teaching English at a private school. He earns 17,000 dong for every two-and-a-half hours’ teaching. Former South Vietnamese public servants or army officers who have been persecuted or jailed under the present regime can apply to be accepted for resettlement in the United States under the H.O. program. Tam had already applied and was to be interviewed the day after I left Ho Chi Minh City hoping to go to the U.S. with his wife and son.

As a young man in Saigon, I remember the Cercle Sportif Saigonnais which, as the name might suggest, was an exclusive sports club. Nowadays, it’s very run down by comparison. Tam usually plays tennis there. He arrived at my hotel early one morning to take me out for a game. I was a little shocked at the present appearance of the courts. Once upon a time, it was surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges which are now either overgrown or dried out. The eight cement courts are cracked and at court No 8, where we played, the slack in the net was held in place by a small table pushed up against the lever at the side. In today’s Saigon it is common practice for people to urinate or even defecate in the streets partially due to lack of toilet facilities. One of the tennis players, while waiting for his turn, simply walked over to urinate in a corner of the court. If the breeze changed direction you could smell the urine or faeces as you played tennis. On taking a pedicab early any morning the patches of excrement could be seen dotted along the street where people had attended their ablutions while it was still dark. At night, in the centre of the city, people sleep on the streets or roundabouts amid dust, fumes and whatever else.

 Honour Among Thieves

My friend introduced me to his friends and seemed pleased with my ability as a tennis player. One of our opponents in a doubles match was a flashy-looking lady and a man who is a semi professional tennis player. I pulled off the shoes that I'd bought a couple of days previously in Australia. They'd cost me $A140. I swapped them for the tennis shoes. I was fully concentrating on the game so didn't notice the fact that my $A140 shoes had “walked”, or as we say in Vietnamese, “no wings, but they flew”. I’d taken a great deal of care throughout the whole trip but this was one time I’d been careless with my belongings. We played another doubles game but my concentration was now gone. Because of my lack of concentration, Tam felt sorry for me and asked one of the ball boys if he knew who took the shoes and said we would be prepared to pay ransom money to get them back.

As we started leaving, the ball boy told us that the one who stole the shoes would be prepared to return them but wanted 20,000 dong ($A4) as ransom money. Tam agreed to this. The boy left and after a while he came back, saying that he was told to get the money first. My friend had anticipated such a deal so asked the boy to serve as a guarantor and he agreed. Tam then wheeled his motor-bike to a drink stall near the gate where we sat and waited to see if the shoes would appear. The boy didn’t come back so Tam rode his bike around for a while hoping to find him. The ball boy told him that the shoes had been thown onto a roof and they had now disappeared. Tam got his money back. We decided to go to my sister’s place for lunch. When Tam went back in the afternoon, he found that some security guards had put them in their office and they returned the shoes to him.

The six days in Ho Chi Minh City had been six action-packed, emotionally charged days, combined with disappointment at the city's poor, chaotic and unhygienic conditions. The excitement wasn't yet over as I was about to set out on the journey North.

 Frank Trinh

17 June 1991


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