"We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness -- make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it." The Buddha

Sunday, December 15, 2019

My Experiences in Saigon, Vietnam, During the 1970s

As a boy growing up in Saigon, Vietnam, during the 1970s, I had a large degree of freedom. It would seem ironic then that by the time I was able to walk, my beloved city of Saigon fell -- overwhelmed and invaded by communist forces on April 30, 1975. Tragically they would later rename it to "Ho Chi Minh City," after the symbolic leader of those invaders. Ho Chi Minh wasn't even a Southerner. It's analogous to renaming Atlanta to "William Tecumseh Sherman City," after the general who burned down Atlanta. Do you think Atlantans would be happy about it? So it may come as no surprise that to this very day many Saigonese and I still consider the city of my birth Saigon.

Similar to oppressive French rule, practically nobody liked the oppressive communist government in Saigon when I was there. The worst insult you could give someone was calling him a Viet Cong, a southern supporter of communism, whether the claim was true or not. He was accused of being a traitor. My ancestry actually originated from north Vietnam, near Hanoi. As farm owners, my family cultivated the northern lands for countless generations. We also have a long history of fighting communism as early as the 1940s, then came our migration to Saigon after the barbaric land reforms of the 1950s, and finally embarking on our perilous journey to America for freedom. However, unlike several Vietnamese-American authors, I refuse to be portrayed as a victim because we were not. My family actively resisted and fought. Some of my family members died defending our way of life. Those still living made a conscious decision and belatedly left the only Vietnamese city I have ever known.

Nostalgia would be the closest description of Saigon for me. The experience was beyond the sight of darting cars, mopeds, and Hondas (a motorcycle brand so ubiquitous, it was interchangeable with the Vietnamese word xe mô tô). Saigon was filled with the music of Thanh Nga, an actress of immense beauty, and Hung Cuong, a singer with probably the most masculine Vietnamese name ever (literally, Strong Hero). When Thanh Nga was murdered, the naive boy in me who had never felt cold or grief up to that point would feel what virtually everyone in Saigon felt: shock and chilling dismay. It would seem she was the final straw.

Me, a boy from Saigon, Vietnam

Today I really want to talk about happier times in Saigon. Yesterday someone made me cry. He said to me, "Your homeland misses you, Cuong!" He then shared me a song called, Bonjour Vietnam. I don't know for sure whether Vietnam misses me, but I sure do miss Saigon. It is with this in mind I'm sharing with you a few personal memories of my birthplace.

As a boy, I went out into the Saigon streets alone each morning to buy sweetened sticky rice with peanuts and coconut (xôi dừa đậu phộng) wrapped in a banana leaf. I cannot fully describe what a divine experience it was: the amazing smell, taste, and texture, mixed with the sights and sounds of a lively Saigon. When a multimillionaire in India was asked why he still sometimes eats cheap street food, I immediately knew his answer before he gave it. Comfort food. A priceless transport to a more innocent time.

Every few weeks, I went to the barber shop all by myself. I crossed the busy and expansive main Saigon street to get my hair trimmed and then crossed that same Saigon street back. There might have been a time or two I almost got run over, but who's counting. Occasionally I would fall down into one of the storm drains the city left exposed. At least I was well-groomed wading through waste water. Good times.

But the best times were when I was out and about in Saigon with my family. My dad often took me on his motorcycle and we cruised Saigon together. Most significant of all was my father always treated me with patience and kindness. Along with his gentle disposition he had the best smile and was the most handsome man I know. I was told he was very well-liked and popular with many people in Saigon. Sometime later, like numerous South Vietnamese men who fought against the north during the war, my dad was sent to the communist party's inhumane re-education camp. Students of history know that it was neither a camp nor was it an educational one. For me, those few family visitation times to see my father were happy -- his hugs and kisses were nice but his whiskers were rough! -- yet short-lived. Whenever I got mad at my mom, I would threaten I'd run away and see dad (ba). Only I was unaware this wasn't possible, at least not in this world. A Vietnamese man cannot be put in a cage. He rather die than to live in a cage.

I was privileged enough to know my grandmother. She was traditional and dignified. She had blackened teeth and always wore her long hair in a bun wrapped around by a silk Vietnamese turban. She and I regularly went to the Vietnamese opera theater shows (hát bội). Nguyen kings supported the art form. It was the precursor to the more popular Cai Luong. The stage characters and scenery were majestic and extravagant, portraying the days of old when kings were kings and generals were generals. When ordering tickets, my grandmother would request for us to be seated below the ceiling fans. Loud and dramatic, it was a nice breaking from our usual haunts in sleepy, hot, stuffy temples filled with burning incense and somber chanting Buddhists.

When I slept at home, it was on a large varnished wooden bed (no mattress!) covered from the ceiling by a large mosquito net. I don't remember ever using a blanket. In fact, I don't remember ever feeling cold, even when given a bath of only cold water. Because the cold water was naturally warm, which came from an enormous tiled concrete water reservoir located inside our house. My older brothers would put betta fighting fish inside it, which upset my parents, because it was also a source of drinking and cooking water. There were only two seasons in Vietnam: the summer and the rainy. Both were hot. My parents wouldn't allow me to play in the heavy rain like the other kids in our neighborhood. They were afraid I'd get sick. I remember watching my friends playing outside, chasing each other, laughing and having fun.

When it wasn't raining, there was always something to do in Saigon. One time there was an outdoor showing of a movie that featured an Aquaman-type protagonist. The thought that a person with gills being able to breathe underwater was pretty cool for a boy like me. I didn't understand the language it was in but the experience of being with my siblings and other Saigonese was thrilling enough. After the movie ended, there was a huge rush of people trying to get out. I had flip flops (dép) on, so I tried my best to hang on to them with my toes. Alas, I wasn't able to prevent them from being trampled on and thus lost them in the crowd. The scene of the aftermath was a sea of flip flops that other people have lost as well. There were so many that the effort to find mine was futile. One was too small, another too big, the others were of different colors. We gave up. The next day, my mom took me around the shoe shops. But no kid I knew wore shoes (giày), much less wear them with socks. As I mentioned earlier, Saigon was a hot and humid place. My mom bought me a pair of brown leather sandals with straps secured by little golden buckles. They were spiffy. I was ready to take on Aquaman again!

Taking care of the kids was what my parents did well. My siblings and I each had our own nannies. I was told that this practice wasn't all that uncommon in Vietnam. But apparently what was uncommon were a TV and a flushing toilet, both of which we owned, the only family in our entire block to have them. While many of the neighborhood children had little to eat, I shamefully recall a time when I stubbornly refused to eat and only wanted exactly two grains of rice for dinner. My parents were educated people. They didn't earn crazy money, just livable wages. They were frugal, industrious, and worked hard so their kids could be happy. Ensuring our future happiness, too, was why they left Saigon and Vietnam altogether.

And living and being happy were all the people in Saigon wanted to do and be in the 1970s. Whether it's the immoral South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem or the cruel northern communists, Saigonese didn't appreciate corrupt people standing in their way. Life principles are always difficult because we all have different experiences. Truth to me might not be truth to you, and that's ok if we can agree on the goals at hand: independence, liberty, happiness (độc lập, tự do, hạnh phúc). If we truly mean what we say, then it's well worth putting those ideals into practice today. 💛

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"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha