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Tales from a North Vietnamese childhood

Preface. These tales by Le Ho Lan are about a girl growing up in North Vietnam, her family, neighbors, and friends. The context of the early years is the all-too-brief respite between victory over the French colonialists and the start of the American war -- a period that many Vietnamese people look back on with nostalgia. Gradually but inexorably the cruel realities of war impinge on the world of childhood innocence.

Some of the tales are set in Hanoi, others in the village to which the narrator is evacuated to live with her grandmother after the bombing of Hanoi starts.  

Though the tales draw upon real personal experience, they are not strictly autobiographical in nature. The text was first published on in July 2009.

Chapter 1.  Life in the city

Chapter 2. Our neighbours

Chapter 3. In Grandma's village

Chapter 4. New year

Chapter 5. Evacuation

Chapter 6. Back in the city

Chapter 1.  Life in the city

Home, family, games

Between the busy thoroughfares of Ba Trieu Street and Truong Han Sieu Street, not very far from the French consulate, hidden behind elegant iron-grille gates, you will find a quiet passage paved with red bricks. About half way down, there stands a large three-story brick building, painted pale yellow. Ten families used to live here, each in one big room. The two families on the top floor enjoyed toilets, bathrooms, and kitchens of their own; the other residents had to share outdoor facilities. One of the families on the ground floor was mine—my parents, an elder sister Mai and elder brother Dai Lam, a younger brother Trung Lam, and myself.

My father was young, slim, and handsome, and unusually tall for an Asian man. Several young girls in the building liked to flirt with him, but my mother knew him inside out and was never jealous.

He would never go out wearing wrinkled clothes. Every three days, my sister Mai had to take some of his clothes to be ironed at a tiny laundry on the corner. Sometimes she would take me along. The laundryman kept several spare irons of different sizes on a big metal tray. I loved to watch as he chose an iron, opened the top, filled it with hot charcoal, and then pressed my father’s clothes.

Each morning my father set off on his bicycle for the Institute of Vietnamese Literature, where he translated poetry from the classical Han-Nom language into modern Vietnamese. He always carried a packet of cigarettes and a lighter in his shirt pocket, but he smoked only while socializing with his friends and colleagues. At the end of the month, he brought his salary home and handed it to my mother, who then gave him pocket money.

My mother was a devoted housewife. She cooked, cleaned, and took care of us children. We always looked nice and clean, pink-faced and chubby. As a baby Trung Lam was fat and lumpy: the other children liked to touch and hold him and fondle his cheeks. When Mother had some time to spare, she would sew clothes for us on a pedal-operated sewing machine.

Whenever Mother took rice out of the big storage drum to cook dinner, she would take an extra bowlful and pour it into an urn that stood beside the drum. The rice in the urn was for flood victims in the Midlands, as the areas near the boundary between South and North Vietnam were called. Someone from the Neighborhood Women’s Committee would come round once a month to collect the rice.

I loved to watch Mother cook. Attracted by the melody of pork fat sizzling in the pan, I would quietly creep up to the stove. Sometimes she let me throw in the mashed garlic, which turned the mixture yellow, and I happily sniffed the delectable scent.

Mother used to cook at least four different dishes for dinner, not counting soup and rice. While she cooked, I helped unroll the painted woven mat, lay it out on the floor, and on it place the low rectangular table. Then I ran out into the street to call my brothers and sister home to wash their hands and get ready for dinner.

When the food was prepared, Mother would gently serve it on china plates, decorate it with spring onion, coriander, and mint, put everything on a broad flowery enamel tray, and place the tray on the table. Then she made a bowl of fish sauce mixed with lime juice, mashed garlic, slices of hot chilli, and a pinch of sugar, and put it in the middle of the tray. My brother Dai Lam loved to shake his hand and count each person present so that he could fetch the right number of bowls and chopsticks from the cupboard. Mother washed her hands and face, then brought a basin of water and placed it on a stool with a hand towel for my father. We all sat down on the mat around the table, our legs crossed under us, and finally enjoyed our dinner.

After dinner Mother would wash up while Mai put the table away, rolled up the mat, and shook out the crumbs. I brushed the floor with a sweet-smelling straw broom. Dai Lam carried in a pail of water, threw a towel into it, wrung out the excess water, knelt down, and thoroughly washed the floor of the room by hand until it looked fresh and clean. Then the three of us ran out into the street to play with the other children. My youngest brother had his bath and went to sleep.

The street at night was very quiet. There was no traffic apart from the occasional passing bicycle. Children and adults gathered in little clusters under the street lights to chat or play.

My friends and I did not have many toys, but that did not stop us thinking up games to play: hop-cross, skipping games, origami, and make believe based on old stories about kings and princesses and mountain gods and river gods.

Sometimes we stood and watched the older children playing cards. The noise coming from the older boys especially attracted us. They played beside a bowl containing a mixture of pork fat and black soot from a kitchen chimney. The winner used this mixture to finger-paint any shape he liked on the loser’s face while the spectators clapped and cheered. One boy kept on losing and ended up looking like a clown, or like a eunuch in the court of a Chinese emperor. That made everyone laugh. Sometimes the loser could not bear the humiliation, and then the card game ended in tears and blows.

Starting school  

Mai was in the first grade at a formerly private French school in the city center. When the French teachers left, it had become an ordinary state school. Every day she took the rickshaw to school.

Dai Lam, on the other hand, attended a school just a block away. It took him only five minutes to walk there. Sometimes he waited until he heard the first sound of the school drum and then ran.

I insisted that I wanted to go to my sister’s school, because I already knew many of her friends. My parents said no. In protest, I refused to go to school at all. My parents had to teach me at home. Eventually, half a year later, I agreed to give Dai Lam’s school a try.

And so, early one drizzly February morning, Mother took me to school. I was met by an elderly lady teacher called Chinh. She was kind and gentle and talked to me in a soft low voice. I immediately fell in love with her. She tousled my hair and led me into the classroom. I saw several faces that I recognized from my street. Right away I forgot all about my mother. At recess we played “Cat and Mouse” and made friends with one another.

The school day ended at noon. Teacher Chinh asked me to help her carry the class’s spelling books to her home a few blocks away. I agreed and slowly followed after her, carrying about twenty books. By this time the sun was very strong and hot. We walked in the shadow of the tall trees that lined the street. Sometimes the breeze shook the leaves overhead and a stream of air blew down and cooled my face.

I left the books on the table in Teacher Chinh’s house. She rewarded me with a cookie. I felt very special. I gave no more thought to the idea of going to my sister’s school.

On the first Monday of each month, before lessons began, each class would line up in two rows. While we all stood to attention, the honor student for that month hoisted the national flag, red with a big yellow star in the middle. We solemnly saluted it and then sang the Internationale, followed by the Vietnamese national anthem.

In third grade, when we were nine years old, provided that our work and conduct had been satisfactory, we automatically became Young Pioneers. As a sign of our new status, the teacher tied red scarves around our collars. From then on, we had to wear a red scarf to school each day.

Our food  

Our family’s monthly subsidized rations provided us with more rice than we needed. By the time we ate the rice, it was always old and tasteless. As the farmers used to dry the rice on the road, it reached us mixed with grains of dirt and sand and even with pebbles. To clean the rice, we poured two cups of it at a time into a tightly knit bamboo basket, dipped the basket in a big bowl of water, and shook it until the pebbles, dirt, and sand had sunk to the bottom. Then we carefully scooped out the sifted rice by hand and dropped it in the pan to cook. All the same, there were usually still a few grains of sand left in the rice, and now and then one of them got painfully stuck in our teeth.

Sometimes Mother exchanged two kilograms of old rice for one kilogram of the new sticky milk rice that country people brought to our street.

“Let’s eat less,” she used to say, “but let’s eat better!”

Like most families, we had no refrigerator, so every other day Mother went to the open-air market to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Sometimes Grandma gave us fruit from her orchard or, as a special treat, a live chicken. Occasionally Mother bought us some river fish or shrimps, crabs, or snails for dinner. Once a year, if we were lucky, we might get a few slices of tough beef.

A river crab is tiny, no more than three centimeters wide. It contains very little flesh. For a family of six like ours, at least forty live crabs (fifty was better) were needed to make soup. It was better if you had fifty.

Preparing crab soup was a favorite pastime of mine. The crabs had to be washed in a deep pan so that they could not crawl out. First, I rinsed them several times in cold water. When they were clean, I picked them out of the pan one by one, held them with one hand by the four legs on their left side, and with my other hand prised off the shell and removed the abdomen. I piled up the gutted crab bodies in our stone mortar and, sitting on a little stool, ground them up with the pestle and then mixed in water to make a dark-pink solution that I transferred to a second pan. This was our soup.

I always spared the two strongest crabs, putting them aside in a jar of water. After dinner, my friends and I would play with them. We got each crab to fasten one of its claws to a stick, and then made them race and fight one another. When we had had our fill of crab games, we let them escape down the drain.

Once a month we were allowed to purchase 1.5 kilograms of pork. We ate it at a Sunday barbecue with friends or relatives. I had to get up at 4 a.m. to stand in line outside the meat store, even though it did not open until 5.30. To keep me awake I took along a book of stories. That way I got a fresh piece of pork loin with the fat and skin still on it.

When you shopped at an ordinary state store, you had to stand in line for a long time. If you arrived late, you went away empty-handed. The families of important officials had their own store on Nha Tho Street (Church Street), where they could get as much fresh food as they liked, of the best quality, at any time and without having to wait. But for everyone else shopping was usually a time-consuming and nerve-wracking chore.


Some evenings we walked the two miles to the children’s club, where we could play table tennis and other games or learn how to juggle, sing, or play the piano. Sometimes we watched a show with painted wooden puppets.

Sometimes on a Sunday Father hosted a social gathering for his friends at our home. On those occasions Mother gave each of us five dong to go out and enjoy ourselves, so that we would not stay at home and disturb them. Mother herself stayed to mix with the guests and serve them green tea.

Usually we took the tram to the children’s cinema. There they usually showed cartoons and educational films, made in Vietnam or imported from China or Eastern Europe. After watching the films, we bought and relished eating a packet of tiny Vietnamese apples, sprinkled with salt and hot chilli powder. Then we went to the general store to buy color pencils, books, and candies and had a look round the city center.

I often looked up at the banners hanging over the busy street. Most of them displayed poems encouraging people to work hard:

Each person work as three, 
Just work as hard as me.  
Then nothing can go wrong,
Make people rich and country strong.

When our legs were tired, we sat on a bench by Hoan Kiem Lake and enjoyed the scenery. Beside the red-blossomed peacock trees, the weeping willows dipped their long, fine green hair in the water. Pilgrims crossed over the Huc Bridge to the Ngoc Son Pagoda, and pigeons fluttered down to search for worms. Drowsy and contented, we boarded the tram home.

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Chapter 2. Our neighbours


On the top floor of our building, there lived a bachelor in his forties named Bau. His movements were very irregular. Eventually we discovered why: he was an officer of the secret police. He was always very warm and friendly to my family. He especially loved my brothers and would often spend his spare time with them. Sometimes he took them out for a special treat or to visit his friends. They enjoyed going up to his room because it was so quiet and full of books. It was like a trip to the library for them.

One day I was surprised to hear my brothers call him “Daddy.” I told my parents about it, but they just smiled and said: “Your brothers must love him very much.”

On a Monday afternoon, my brother Trung Lam, who was then seven years old, climbed the stairs to Bau’s room to look for a book to read. Bau was just on his way out, so he gave Trung Lam a bundle of keys and reminded him to lock up when he was finished.

While searching for a book that interested him, Trung Lam was startled to hear the clinking sound of a heavy metal object falling off the bookcase onto the marble floor. He picked up the unfamiliar object and examined it, wondering what it was for. In fact, it was a pair of open handcuffs, but Trung Lam had never seen or heard of such things before.

After playing with the handcuffs for a while, he decided to attach them to his ankles. He clipped them shut. Very excited, he stood up and tried to walk, but found he could not move an inch. So he sat down and shuffled round the room on his bottom.

In a few minutes he was tired of this new game and wanted to take the handcuffs off. The trouble was that he did not know how. He began to cry. All the adult residents of the building were out, but I was at home and heard him. I ran up to find out what the matter was. When I saw my brother sitting on the doorstep of Bau’s room with his legs clamped together and tears running down his face, I could not help but laugh.

I tried to pull the handcuffs off, but only succeeded in hurting his ankles. My next idea was to rub his ankles with soap, but that did not work either. Then I noticed a hole in the handcuffs, and realised that a key was needed to open them. So I tried all the keys that Bau had handed him, but none of them worked. I started to cry too.

Fortunately, it was not long before I heard Bau calling from the front yard: “Trung Lam, Daddy’s home!” I ran out onto the balcony, leaned over the edge, and shouted out: “Uncle Bau! Come up quick!” He asked me what was wrong, but I just kept shouting: “Come up quick!”

He ran upstairs and saw my brother with the handcuffs on his legs. He burst out laughing and asked: “Ready for jail, Trung Lam?” But as he joked he reached inside his blue jacket and took out a little key. He bent down and unlocked the handcuffs. As soon as my brother was free, the two of us ran downstairs without even saying thank you or goodbye. Behind us we could still hear Bau laughing.

A police raid

About five o’clock one May afternoon in 1962, as my friends and I were playing outside our building, a truck drove up and halted at the gate. Four men got off and walked in past the gate. We all stared at them suspiciously.

One man looked especially serious. In his hand he held a paper attached to a clipboard. He checked a name on his paper and asked us:

“Would you please show me where Mr. Phan Van Ky lives?”

At that very instant I caught a glimpse of Phuong, the Phans’ daughter, darting inside. We stood still and said nothing. The men went past us and entered the building. Curious, I left my friends and followed behind them. Hearing women’s voices and the sounds of cooking, they soon found their way to the kitchen. Mrs. Phan peeped out of her room, saw the men, and quietly closed her door again.

A neighbor pointed out the Phans’ room and the men walked over and knocked at their door. Mr. Phan appeared. The serious man with the clipboard read out a warrant to search the room. Then the men entered and closed the door behind them.

It was then that I noticed, to my surprise, that Mrs. Phan was standing in the side corridor, holding in her hand a small bundle wrapped in a green scarf. She must have come out through her back door. She looked very nervous, constantly turning her head from left to right.

I was even more surprised when I saw my mother emerge from the kitchen, holding the bamboo basket that she used to carry vegetables, and run up to Mrs. Phan. After a brief whispered conversation, Mrs. Phan handed her bundle to my mother, who put it in the basket and promptly disappeared into our room.

Tears were running down Mrs. Phan’s face as she walked back to her room. Curious neighbors, drawn by the sound of the Phans’ daughters crying, gathered in the courtyard around their door. One by one, the members of the Phan family came out weeping.

Phuong approached me and I asked her what had happened.

“Someone must have reported us. We had fabrics hidden in the room and now they have confiscated them.” And she started to cry again. I tried to comfort her.

Two of the men appeared. One was carrying an open box full of costume jewellery, the other several rolls of silk, velvet, and flowery brocade. They deposited their booty into the truck and returned for more.

“Aren’t you even going to leave me a needle and thread?” yelled Mrs. Phan. The men ignored her. They finished their job and drove off.

I took a peek inside the Phans’ room. It looked as though it had been ransacked by burglars. The crowd started to disperse. My mother came and handed the green bundle back to Mrs. Phan.

“Oh, thank you, Mrs. Ai! How would I ever do without you? I’ll remember this to my dying day!”

Mother grasped Mrs. Phan’s hands in her own.

“That’s what neighbors are for, Mrs. Phan!”

Now this was the first time anyone had called my mother “Mrs. Ai,” which means “Mrs. Love.” It became her nickname.

Mother went into the kitchen to fetch our dinner. Kim, the Phans’ elder daughter, followed after her. She worked as a nurse at Bach Mai Hospital.

“In a few minutes I have to go in for the night shift, and we haven’t had a chance to cook dinner yet. Could you spare me a bowl of rice?”

“Of course, my dear.”

Mother gave Kim a big bowl of rice mixed with pieces of pork and vegetable. She sat down right on our doorstep and wolfed it down. When she was finished, I asked her:

“Sister Kim, tell me what was in the green bundle?”

“Gold and jewellery,” she whispered conspiratorially in my ear. She thanked my mother and hurried off to work.

How do you make a boy?

To the left of my family’s room there lived Mr. and Mrs. Bui, a young couple with two beautiful daughters. They were wholesale distributors of roast coffee beans. Whenever they roasted coffee, the smell filled the whole neighborhood. Each time they gave my parents a cup of coffee beans.

A happy smile always lit Mrs. Bui’s olive-shaped face. Her skin was smooth like a baby’s. Her ebony hair reached all the way to the ground when she let it hang loose for washing.

She was pregnant with their third child. Everyone told her that she could be sure of having a boy this time. We all knew how much she wanted one.

The new baby, however, was again a girl. Her husband became depressed and started to grumble at her about everything. At dinner time we could hear him smash the bowls on the floor. Then he went out drinking, gambling, and carousing with his friends until late at night.

One night when he came home and heard the baby crying, he beat his wife. Through the wall I could hear her crying and begging him to stop. In the morning I could hardly recognize her face. It was swollen and bruised all over. She hid away in their room and kept her sadness to herself. Everyone knew but no one wanted to interfere in their personal affairs.

When the baby was one month old, Mrs. Bui’s mother came to visit for the traditional celebration. She went from family to family carrying a round red wooden box filled with pink-painted boiled eggs. Each person picked up an egg and dropped some money in the box as a token of good luck for the baby. After that the baby disappeared. Mrs. Bui never mentioned the baby again, and no one raised the subject with her. My mother told me that she had given up the baby to her mother.

Now Mrs. Bui often spent time talking with my mother. Once I heard her ask: “How do you make a boy?”

Mother told her to soak her private parts in salt water every night until she got pregnant. I laughed quietly to myself, thinking that my mother was joking. But she really did get pregnant and she had a boy! Her husband was happy and treated her well.

Whenever she changed the baby’s diaper, she held him up and joyfully kissed the little bird between his legs that guaranteed her husband’s everlasting love.

Following this success, my mother’s fame as an expert in conceiving boys spread far and wide, and women often came in secret to consult her.

Mr. Gan

One of my father’s friends was Mr. Gan. They had known each other since their youth. In early 1954, Mr. Gan’s parents, brothers, and sister had gone to France, leaving him alone to take care of his elderly grandmother. Shortly afterward, however, she died. The government sent him to teach at Lang Son Middle School near the border with China, and forced him to rent out the four rooms of his house to families of state employees at the low rent set by the Housing Office—three dong per month.

As he missed Hanoi and his old friends, he would take the train and spend a week back in the capital twice a year. He had nowhere else to stay, so he stayed with us. My father had to report his arrival at the Community Police Station, taking along with him Mr. Gan’s identity card and the book in which we were required to keep a record of the visits of all our guests. The police officers asked a few questions, examined the identity card, entered the necessary details in the book, and added their stamp and signature.

Whenever Mr. Gan turned up, he brought us two baskets full of peaches and pears as well as some beautiful printed handkerchiefs and silk scarves for my mother. These he had purchased at the Friendship Market that was held one Sunday a month just across the bridge that marked the China-Vietnam border. One summer he brought us a fine bamboo table with four chairs. We used them for three years, until they fell apart. Then Mother chopped them up as firewood for the stove.

Mr. Gan was short-sighted and wore very thick spectacles. One night he put them on the corner of the table and went to bed. My sister Mai and I got up early and hid the spectacles. When he woke up, he touched the corner of the table, but his spectacles were not there. As he bent down to search the floor, Mai signaled to me and I put the spectacles back on the corner of the table. When he stood up again, he was surprised to see that his spectacles were there after all. We all had a good laugh.

Mr. Gan stayed out all day and only returned in the evening to have dinner with us. He told us that he had been shopping and visiting friends. Occasionally he returned to his old house to see who was living there. After dinner, he and Father chatted and joked in the courtyard. He used to laugh so loud that the neighbors turned their heads to look.

He was unable to maintain contact with his family in France. He seemed lonesome and was getting on in years, so my parents decided that it was high time for him to marry and start a family of his own. They introduced him to a young woman they knew, a primary school teacher, but he was not interested in her. He remained a bachelor.

The girl from the South

In a house beside the passage that led to our building, their side window facing our front door, lived Mr. Tran and his daughter Tam. The year before, my mother had planted some morning glory seeds along their wall and already it was covered with purple flowers. Every morning, when the flowers had opened their petals to the newly risen sun, Tam pulled up her window and gazed at them, pausing only to follow a passing butterfly with her eye.

Sometimes she stooped and picked a few of the flowers. If I happened to see her do it, she exclaimed: “Aren’t they beautiful?” and quickly pulled down the window. But as I didn’t want her to feel ashamed, I hastened to call out: “Help yourself if you like!”

Tam and I became very close friends. One day I asked Mother whether she and her father could come round for tea. Instead she invited them to one of our Sunday barbecues.

Mr. Tran was addicted to tobacco. His teeth were discolored from smoking, his lips were gray, and his thumb and the tips of his index and middle fingers were yellow from holding cogarettes. He worked at the Broadcasting House.

Tam was beautiful, with dark tanned skin and thick long black hair. She was the same age as me, but seemed more independent. She cooked and washed clothes for her father as well as herself. Both father and daughter spoke slowly, with an accent that was strange to us.

Mr. Tran told us that they had come from the South in 1954 together with 10,000 others, mostly soldiers and students who sympathized with the communists. They were waiting for the nationwide free elections that were scheduled to take place in 1956, but the elections were never held and they had to stay in the North. The government rehoused them temporarily in various cities and towns. A few of them lived on our street.

“My wife stayed behind with our two younger children because I thought I would return after the elections. I didn’t even bring any photos of them with me,” he explained in a sad voice.

In 1963 Tam left to attend the Number One Boarding School, which was reserved for southern students, in Vinh Phu Province about thirty miles from Hanoi. She rarely came home except for the short summer recess. When she returned to the school in the summer of 1964, her father also disappeared. Their house was locked up and the neighbors assumed that they had moved away for good.

But then, at the New Year holiday, Tam turned up again, together with several of her friends from the school. They all spoke with the same strange accent and the boys smoked heavily. They always went around as a group and seemed very happy.

Two of the boys started up a conversation with a few girls from our building. Some of the girls’ parents noticed and did not approve.

“Those rude southerners,” they complained to one another, pointing surreptitiously at the boys.

“I don’t want any of my daughters marrying one of them, that’s for sure,” added Mrs. Phan.

When I had the chance to talk with Tam alone, I gently asked her where her father was.

“He went back to the South a few months ago,” she whispered in my ear. “To see my mother and my younger brother and sister. He missed them very badly.”

I told my parents, but they told me not to tell anyone else. They suspected that Mr. Tran had returned to the South as an infiltrator.

In 1969 Tam went to Russia to study television programming. Again the house was left empty. Soon after that, the daughter of the family living next door married and the newlyweds broke into the abandoned house. They have lived there ever since.

An offer refused

My sister Mai finished high school soon after the war began. She was very happy—singing, dancing, and playing the harmonica almost all the time. Mother just smiled.

“Lan, just look at your sister! She’s over the moon! What do you want to study next, Mai?”

“Oh, Mother! What I want right now is to go out and have fun with my friends. Some of them may not be around for very long.”

One evening, just as Mai was getting ready to go out, our family friend Dr. Long, who worked at the Bach Mai Hospital, dropped by to do some business with Father. Perhaps he had come to sell him some medicine or to borrow a bag of “yellow books”—erotic novels published under the French and no longer available to the general public.

Dr. Long was short and chubby. Though a very busy man, he always took the time to listen to us children and answer our questions. Once I asked him why I had to be the shortest in my class. In reply, he pointed at my long shadow on the floor and exclaimed: “Look there! You’re taller than you think!”

“How are you today, Dr. Long?” my sister greeted him.

“Oh, same as usual.”

“I’m just on my way out,” she added, hurrying to the door.

“Mai, come back here!” Father ordered. “Why don’t you tell Dr. Long that you have graduated from high school?”

Mai stared at him.

“I forgot, that’s all,” she muttered.

“Really, is that so?” Dr. Long seemed genuinely surprised. “Well, nursing would be a smart choice for a girl like you. Take the training course, and when you finish I’ll ask them to assign you to my hospital. Does that sound good to you?”

Mai nodded.

“I’ll think about it, Dr. Long,” she promised as she waved goodbye.

Two weeks later, Dr. Long visited us again, bringing with him some gifts for Mai—a nurse’s uniform, a stethoscope, and a box of needles and syringes.

“Thank you, Dr. Long, but I still haven’t decided.”

“Well, not to worry. That’s why I’m giving you this nursing kit. Why don’t you try it out, and tell me when you’re ready?”

Afterward I overheard Mai talking to our parents.

“I don’t really want to be a nurse. I’m frightened of blood. And just look at sister Kim next door. She has to work night shift at the hospital. I don’t want that.”

“Then how about becoming a schoolteacher?” Mother suggested. “It’s a nice clean job, and it will give you some experience with children before you marry.”

Mai, however, had already made up her mind. She wanted to be an accountant.

“But that’s a man’s job!” Mother objected.

“Never mind!” said Father in sad resignation. “That’s what she wants. There’s no point in giving them advice nowadays. They are told that they are free to do whatever they want. They don’t have to listen to their parents any more.”

Mai felt awkward.

“I need some fresh air,” she said, and walked out.

Stay away from my daughter!

In the evening, Mai went to see Hien, a young woman who lived opposite our building. They had been close friends since they were both little, although they had never been in the same class at school. My friends and I gathered by the front gate to look at crochet patterns. After a while Mai passed us on her way back to our room.

I heard a clanking sound and turned my head to see a young man leaning his bicycle against the electricity pylon next to Hien’s house. It was Vi, Hien’s school sweetheart—a tall, handsome, and intelligent lad from a working class family. Hien ran out.

“How are you, Vi?” There was a note of alarm in her voice.

“Very well, thank you.”

“You’d better go, Vi—quickly!”

She ran back into the house. Vi mounted his bicycle and tried to escape, but Hien’s father, Mr. Toan, who had just returned from the railway station where he worked as a manager, was already in hot pursuit. We all followed to watch. At the end of the street Vi halted. Mr. Toan leaned his bicycle against the wall and advanced on Vi. It appeared that Vi was trying to explain something to him, but Mr. Toan immediately grabbed him by the hair, struck several hard blows on his face, and threw him with his bicycle to the ground. Then he pointed his finger at Vi and warned him in a loud and angry voice:

“You dirty rag! You stay away from my daughter from this moment on, do you hear?”

Taking his bicycle, Mr. Hoan headed home with rapid strides. Like the rippling surface of a river before the steady advance of a boat, the crowd of curious onlookers parted ranks to let him pass. Meanwhile Vi staggered to his feet, rubbed his bruised face, and ran his fingers through his disheveled hair. His face was full of sorrow and bitterness. Soon he was out of our sight. Mr. Toan slammed his door shut behind him.

I walked back to my building. Mai was standing at the gate, holding the nurse’s kit that she had intended to give Hien.

“Did you see all that?” I asked.

She gave a slight nod.

“Yes, I’ll have to give it to her another day.”

We walked home hand in hand.

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Chapter 3. In Grandma's village

In 1964 Grandma left Hanoi for her country home in a village called Ve on the banks of the Red River, about eight miles west of the city. There she found the peace and quiet she needed to practise Buddhism and worship her deceased husband.

Father often went to visit her on his bicycle. My mother, sister, brothers, and I sometimes took a taxibus to visit her. We often used to run and climb up onto the dike to gaze at the broad expanse of the river and watch the boats sailing. They were so far away that we couldn’t tell whether they were bound toward us or toward the other shore. We danced in time to the gentle waves. All of a sudden, the angry river monster hurled a great mass of water against the dike and drenched us from head to toe, causing us to yell and run laughing back down to the road where Mother was waiting to hurry us along to Grandma’s house.

City girl!

I remember our first visit as though it were yesterday. I remember standing near Grandma’s house and watching one of the village girls as she carried two large metal pails full of water on a bamboo pole balanced over her shoulder. I was highly impressed at how quickly and deftly she walked along, almost as though she were dancing, while the pole moved up and down like a see-saw. What amazed me most of all was the way in which she used her hands to swing the pole over from one shoulder to the other. She was sturdier but no bigger than me, and I thought I would like to try.

“Let me carry the water for you for a few yards!” I called out.

She halted and gently set down the pails.

“Of course,” she replied.

I placed the pole over my shoulder and lifted the pails. I was surprised to discover how heavy they were. I managed a few steps, but my legs were slow and shaky and my shoulder hurt. I gritted my teeth and imagined that I was the other girl. Unfortunately, I was not. Suddenly the pole slipped off my shoulder, and the pails fell to the ground with a crash, flinging out a good half of the water.

I stood there stunned, now even more impressed at the girl’s performance. She was bending over, slapping her thighs, and emitting long peals of raucous laughter.

“City girl!” she exclaimed, and without so much as another glance in my direction picked up the pole and continued on her way.

Still deeply embarrassed, I ran back to Grandma’s house.

“Grandma has been waiting for you!” yelled my sister Mai as she saw me approach. “She’s in her room with Mother.”

I ran right in.

“Have you eaten, my precious?” asked Grandma, leading me by the hand to the storage room. I shook my head. I still felt angry at myself.

Grandma broke off a nice yellow banana for me from a bunch that was standing in the corner. I gulped it down fast and, feeling better by now, ran back outside to find some children to play with. Soon a dozen children had gathered around me. Among them I noticed the girl who had been carrying the pails. I talked to them, but they just repeated whatever I said and giggled.

A tiny black insect landed on my hand. Before I had a chance to hit it, it had already stung me. It felt really itchy—even worse than a mosquito bite. I had never seen that kind of insect before. As I scratched myself, I asked them what it was called.

“It’s a zi-i-in.”

“Zi-in,” I repeated, and they laughed. Finally, it dawned on me that my city accent must sound very strange to them.

Soon their mothers started to call them home, and one by one they departed. I too was about to return to Grandma’s when I heard what I guessed might be the sound of water splashing. I followed the sound and came upon some brick steps, leading down to a clear pond. The edges of the pond were crowded with the pink flowers and buds of floating lotus plants, and in the middle about twenty children were playing and swimming. I sat down on the lower steps to watch.

Over on the other side of the pond, a little girl was holding onto the floating trunk of a banana bush. The children around her were encouraging her to swim. I took off my sandals and swung my feet back and forth in the water.

After a while, I decided to let myself down the steps deeper into the water. But when I tried to stand up, I felt my feet slipping down a smooth velvet slide, for the lowest steps were covered with moss. Straining to regain my grip with my toes, I slowly and carefully turned round, bent over, and held onto one of the higher steps. As I struggled to crawl back up, I heard a girl’s voice shouting:

“Come on! Jump in! Have some fun!”

I turned my head to see who was calling to me. It was a big girl, swimming with all her clothes on.

“But I can’t swim,” I protested.

“Then I’ll teach you. It’s very easy.”

“Next time,” I promised.

The next time I wore a swimming costume that Mother had bought for me. After many attempts, and after gulping down a large volume of pond water, I learned how to swim.

That summer, my sister Mai, brother Dai Lam, and I stayed a whole month with Grandma. As soon as we arrived, I wandered off by myself.

The cow’s horns

Hearing children’s voices coming from inside a house, I opened the gate and entered the yard. A number of dogs started barking at me. The children appeared and commanded the dogs to sit.

I ran inside the house. In the middle of the room, I saw two large baskets full of manioc and a big metal basin of water, in which floated several loofahs. Little stools were everywhere. Each child took a stool and sat around the basin.

A big girl looked at me and explained: “We have to clean manioc, ready for our mother to make tapioca tomorrow.”

“I’d love to help. May I?”

“Sure,” they replied in unison.

And so I sat and washed manioc for a while. Then I ran to the pig sty in the corner of their garden. With amazement I watched the pig family. The sow was lying on her side, apparently very relaxed, while the piglets noisily climbed over her and fought one another for access to her nipples.

Suddenly I was startled to feel a rough and heavy hand on my shoulder. I turned round and saw a big old farmer. With his other hand he was holding a spade and pick-axe over his shoulder. His brown shirt was soaked in sweat and his baggy brown pants were rolled up to the knees, displaying tanned legs and broad bare feet with wet soil between the toes. I realised that he must be the children’s grandfather.

He smiled at me. A single gold tooth sparkled among two rows of teeth dyed black.

“Have you seen a cow yet?” he asked.

“Yes, I saw some before.”

“Really? So tell me, are a cow’s horns behind her ears or in front?”

I thought and thought and ended up more confused than ever.

“I’m not sure,” I admitted.

“Oh! That means you have not really seen a cow!” he concluded in triumph. He pointed his finger toward the front gate. “I’ve just brought a cow home from the rice field. Go and take a good look at her. Check whether her horns are behind her ears or in front.”

Baby spiders

I was so tired out by wandering around the village all day that I went to bed early. As I lay resting, I noticed a big golden spider crawling slowly across the ceiling. Through her legs, I was fascinated to see a shining white sac, shaped like a flat round pillow, stuck to her thorax.

The spider reappeared the next night—and the night after that. On the third night I could no longer restrain my curiosity. Careful not to make a noise and frighten the spider away, I moved the table so that it was directly underneath her. I clambered onto the table and stretched out my arm, but she was still beyond my reach. So I lifted a chair up onto the table.

Now I could reach high enough. Stealthily I lifted my right hand and caught hold of her just below the thorax. Without thinking about what I was doing, I pulled off the sac.

The spider, free again, scurried off in an instant to the corner of the ceiling, where she stood still. I held the sac in the palm of my hand and stroked it. It felt like a silky-smooth balloon.

I wondered what was inside. I pulled on the two sides of the sac and ripped it open along the edge. Inside a layer of white  fluff, I caught a glimpse of a myriad of tiny golden baby spiders. Before I knew it, more and more of them were crawling across my left hand. A tickling sensation sent a tremor of cold electricity up my arm to the chest, and I suddenly shuddered with fright.

Immediately I pressed my hand, still holding the sac, up against the ceiling, and the babies rushed straight to their mother, waiting in the corner. Gathering them between her legs, she moved off very slowly with them to the back door and out of my sight. I felt no urge to follow them.

I buried my head in the pillow and tried to forget what had happened. But I was never able to forget, and the baby spiders often return in my dreams.

Layout of the village

It was a big village, and it took me a week to explore it all. It consisted of seven hamlets, all of which lay between the main road along the Red River dike on one side and a vast rice field on the other. From the main road you entered each hamlet through a concrete gate, shaped like a dragon or in some other artistic design, and walked along a brick road. After a certain distance, the brick road petered out into a dirt track, which led on to the edge of the rice field. The field was divided up by ridges into sections that were assigned to the various hamlets. In the field you could see villagers plowing with their oxen.

I wondered why the brick section of the road was longer in some hamlets and shorter in others. I asked my grandmother, and she explained that it was the result of a custom that the village had back in the old days. Whenever a girl from a well-to-do family married, the bridegroom’s family was expected to pay for the laying of a five-yard length of brick road. The longer the brick road in a hamlet, the more well-to-do families used to live there.


Every morning, when Grandma got up, I lay awake watching her. First she chewed betel until her mouth turned red and spat it out into a little copper spittoon. Then she combed out her long graying hair, wrapped it inside a black velvet headscarf, and rolled it up on top of her head like the rim of a hat. Next she got the kettle out of the cupboard and fetched water to make tea.

One day, on an impulse, I decided that I would fetch the water for her. When I heard the click of the cupboard door, I lifted my mosquito net and jumped out of bed, turned quickly toward Grandma, tapped her hand, and in a quiet voice—so as not to disturb my sleeping brother and sister—said:

“Grandma, please let me go and fill the kettle for you today.”

She looked at me with a smile and handed me the kettle. I walked to the tank of rainwater that stood on the left side of the garden. The early morning air held my face in a pleasant icy caress.

I opened the bamboo screen cover and, without looking down, started to scoop water into the kettle using a large white enamel cup. Suddenly I noticed six little black creatures, with round heads and wiggling tails, moving around in the half-filled kettle. I looked in the tank and saw many more of the same creatures swimming happily in the fresh dawn sunlight.

Gingerly I carried the kettle inside to show my grandmother what I had found:

“Grandma, take a look in here! There are lots of baby fish like these in the tank.”

“Those aren't fish,” she explained. “They’re tadpoles.”  

She took me back to the tank and emptied the kettle. Gently she struck the surface of the water a few times with the cup, and the tadpoles swiftly swam over to the other side of the tank. Then she refilled the kettle.

“We don’t want to boil any tadpoles alive, do we, my dear? They too have a right to live.”

I was still worried.

“But what if one gets into the kettle by accident? And I don’t notice until it’s too late?”

Grandma paused a moment.

“Don’t worry, my dear. If it happens by accident, that means you’re not to blame. And even if you swallow it—well, the protein will be good for you.”

I felt relieved.

Grandma took the kettle inside to make tea. I stayed to look around.

Above the water tank stretched a big branch of a guava tree, tawny and smooth, with many twigs bearing the green and yellow guava fruit. Peering up, I spotted a row of dark brown toads sitting silently on the branch. Next to one of them hung a ball of white foam. I returned to the house and described what I had seen to Grandma.

“Inside that ball are toad eggs, soft like jelly. They will turn into tadpoles and the rain will wash them down into the tank. And the tadpoles will turn into toads and eat the insects in our garden.”

The altar

There was another delight in the garden—a little altar with a wooden statue of the Buddha. In the corner of the altar, protecting the Buddha, stood a wooden sword and a wooden knife, painted red and gold. On the altar table, beneath the Buddha, stood a beautiful wooden bowl that Grandma kept filled with an offering of fresh fruit.

Here, right after her morning tea, Grandma would light one of her incense sticks and then shake it until the flame was extinguished, bowing in prayer as she did so. She placed the used stick in a bowl of ash. 

I often hid inside the altar when my friends and I played hide-and-seek. As I waited for them to find me, I would examine the fruit in the bowl. Sometimes I laughed to see that mice had gnawed holes in the fruit, leaving precious little behind for the Buddha.

Having paid her respects to the Buddha, Grandma would proceed to the cemetery to chat with her deceased husband.

Grandma loved to read books. Her favorites were Aesop’s fables and classical Vietnamese poetry.

“I prefer classical to modern poetry,” she told us. “The verses are short but full of meaning.”

Grandma had a rather unusual way of reading. In the evening, she would light the 40-watt bulb on her bedroom ceiling and a kerosene lamp on the floor. Then, just like a dog relaxing, she crouched down on all fours on a flower-painted woven mat in the middle of the floor, her elbows resting on a big cushion and holding a book in her hands. In this position she would read for at least an hour.

Harvesting longans

The end of our month with Grandma was drawing near. The longans on the two trees in front of her house were ripening, turning a fawn color. It was time to harvest them. She set a day for the harvesting and arranged for the buyer to come.

Early that day Father arrived. Carrying a hooked bamboo pole and a big sack to which a long rope had been attached, he climbed the tree trunk on a ladder and sat astride one of the branches. Using the pole to pull the bunches of longans toward him, he quickly broke each bunch off its twig and carefully placed it in the sack. When the sack was almost full, he lowered it on the rope, and we children jostled to catch it and unpack the fruit into a large bamboo basket.

As Father moved his feet from one branch to another, the branch from which he stepped sprang back to its original position, showering longans down to the ground below. We hurried to pick them up and pop them one by one into our mouths, breaking open with our teeth the thin crisp rind, sucking in the delectable juice, and spitting out the smooth black stones to be strung together later into necklaces.

By the time we had finished, we had filled four baskets to the brim. Grandma wanted to sell three basketfuls and keep one for us and to share with relatives and friends.

It was already late in the afternoon when the buyer arrived with his bicycle and a hand scale.

“Well, you seem to have plenty of longans this year.”

“Yes,” remarked Grandma. “Thanks to the rising water level in the Red River this summer. In the old days, mind you, when there wasn’t a good dam, the water would have flooded the village and destroyed all our crops and livestock. And with so much water we’d better stock up on dry corn, peanuts, sesame seeds, and root vegetables, as I bet they’ll soon fetch a very good price.”

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Chapter 4. New year

January 25, 1965. The Vietnamese new year was approaching. The bus and railway stations were packed with people returning to their families for the holiday. We school and college students had two weeks off; workers had one week. Food prices on the open market were skyrocketing.

Since this was the biggest celebration of the year, my mother sold some of her jewellery to buy provisions not covered by our food stamps—pork, chickens, sticky rice and mung beans, candies, cookies, roast pumpkin seeds, preserved fruits and vegetables, flowers, papery leaves of the arrowroot plant for wrapping earthcakes, and two strings of firecrackers to attach to our doorposts. Mai and I decorated our rooms and the passage outside with lanterns and rows of flowers made of colored paper.

Four days before the new year, in accordance with Vietnamese tradition, we embarked on the long and arduous process of making earthcakes, which symbolize our appreciation of the earth that brings us fertility and wealth. We prepared the ingredients out in the courtyard, where the evening before we had left the sticky rice and mung beans out to soak overnight in bowls of water.

My mother cut up the pork loin, skin and fat still attached, into big slices and seasoned them with salt and ground black pepper. We children helped by preparing the arrowroot leaves. We washed them and, in order to make them flatter, stripped off the black half of the main vein. Then we scooped the mung beans out of the water, a handful at a time, put them in a basket, rubbed off the husks to expose the yellow flesh within, and placed them in a second bowl of fresh water. The husks rose to the surface, from which we skimmed them. To the husked beans we added salt, then steamed and mashed them and rolled them into apple-sized balls. Meanwhile Mai drained the sticky rice and mixed in some salt.

At last we brought all the ingredients into the house. My father set a big wooden board down on the floor. He and Dai Lam each sat on a little stool and started to make the earthcakes, while I sat between them watching.

On the board they neatly arranged five arrowroot leaves in an overlapping criss-cross pattern. In the middle of the leaves, they placed a level bowlfull of sticky rice and patted it to make a round pad, on which they laid half a ball of mung bean and another bowlfull of sticky rice. To complete the cake, they carefully folded the leaves into a perfect square and tied it up with bamboo string.

I joined in and made an earthcake of my own. To show it was mine, I attached a red string to it.

Altogether we made about thirty earthcakes. One by one, we set them in place in a special pan, as big as a tall drum, and covered them with water. The pan was now so heavy that Father and Dai Lam had to struggle to lift it up onto the hot coal stove. We had to boil the cakes for at least twelve hours—from late afternoon until early the next morning, at intervals replenishing the coal and the hot water.

Mai tended the stove until midnight, while I slept. Then my friends came round as arranged, and together for the rest of the night we sat around the red-hot stove, laughing and chatting about everything between heaven and the ocean floor. This was a memorable yearly occasion for us. Outside, a cold fine misty rain poured down incessantly, mixing with the dirt to form a black gluey mud that stuck in our sandals.

In the morning, Father removed the earthcakes from the pan and spread them between two big boards. On top he set several bricks to press the water out of the cakes. After a couple of hours, we hung the cakes up to dry on a string inside the house. But to eat them we had to wait for the new year.

The next morning I cycled to Dong Xuan Market. Throngs of people were noisily trading and sightseeing. In fascination I watched a countrywoman as she force-fed her chickens with balls of sand, cooked rice, and unhusked rice, washed down with water, to make them heavier and more expensive.

But I had not come for chickens. Eventually the crowd swept me to the place where branches of Persian peach tree were on sale. I selected a large branch, with buds just ready to blossom into red flowers on new year’s day and bring us good luck in the new year.

When I got back to our street, I saw children beating drums and dancing in dragonheads. The festive new year spirit could already be felt in the air.

On new year’s eve, decked out in our best traditional dress and jewellery, my friends and I gathered to hear the concert in the city center. Then we waited patiently. At the stroke of midnight, the street radio started to broadcast the greetings of Chairman Ho Chi Minh to the citizens of the country. A fabulous display of fireworks followed, lighting up the dark blue sky in a riot of rainbow colors.

Returning home, we made sure that the boys should be the first to step over the threshold. For a girl to be the first to enter a home in the new year would bring bad luck. If any misfortune were to strike the household in the coming year, she would be held to blame.

At last, the dawn of new year’s day! The whole city rose with the sun. A symphony of popping resounded in our ears as families set off the piles of firecrackers they had hung on their front doors. For breakfast, naturally, we ate earthcakes—our first in a year. I unfolded the leaves and cut the smooth soft cake into portions with a bamboo string. Dyed by the leaves, it looked green, and it smelled like a newly harvested rice field. Without waiting for the table to be laid, Father speared the first piece with a chopstick and tasted it right away.

“Delicious!” he proclaimed with satisfaction.

We set off on our bicycles to bring Grandma a couple of earthcakes. We wished her happiness and long life. She gave each of us children a crisp new ten-dong banknote. Then we knelt down to pray before Grandpa’s altar, which was already full of food that Grandma had prepared. But as Grandpa appeared to be content just to admire the food without eating any himself, we brought it down from the altar and enjoyed a grand feast.

In the afternoon, my parents and I returned home to receive guests. My brothers and sister went their own way to pay respects to their teachers and to their friends’ families. Father went the round of our neighbors’ homes. Each of the neighbors held a glass of wine in his hand and offered Father a glass. Smiling broadly, they wished one another happiness, good health, and a new baby in the new year.

I tagged along behind Mother, holding a flowery tray laden with small red packets. Inside the packets were preserved waxgourd and other delicacies for Mother to give to the children in the building, who crowded around us wherever we went.

“Are you going to be good boys and girls in the new year?”

They nodded their heads vigorously, and she handed each one a red packet, wishing them all a happy new year and a happy birthday. Individual birthdays are not celebrated in Vietnam: new year’s day is celebrated as everyone’s birthday.

“Thank you, Mrs. Ai!”

“You are very welcome.”

Mother smiled like a flower opening its petals, and I smiled along with her.

On the second day of the new year, I swept the house and yard. Innumerable candy wrappers, pumpkin seed husks, pieces of fruit peel, and firecracker papers had accumulated, but it is the custom not to clean up on new year’s day itself. That would bring poverty and bad luck.

None of us realized then that this was the last time we would celebrate the new year in the city. We would see no more firework displays for a long time to come. The air raids began. To put us out of harm’s way, our parents sent Trung Lam and me to stay with Grandma in her village. We lived there a long time. Like other children evacuated to the area, we went to the local school. 

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Chapter 5. Evacuation

At the temple

Once every lunar month, early in the morning on the full moon, Grandma used to walk the two miles to the Buddhist temple in a nearby village. She took with her some money and fruit to give the monks and nuns whose wisdom, advice, and blessings she sought. In return, they gave her pressed cakes of sticky rice, which she brought home for us.

One Sunday morning, Grandma took us along to the temple. There we met a young nun, a monk, and a number of other families who were visiting the temple. We children played in the orchard. A two-year-old boy sat next to his mother, holding a piece of honeydew melon in his hand. A woman told me that he was the son of a family who worked at the temple, and that he was being trained to be a monk.

The nun and the monk asked the children, about a dozen of us altogether, to sit down in a circle around a flat rock, in the shade of a clump of bamboo trees. We introduced ourselves. The nun and the monk welcomed us and talked to us about the temple and their work.

Then the young boy’s mother brought out a big teapot and tiny teacups without handles. The monk slowly poured tea into the cups and passed them around. He asked whether any of us would like to tell a story or sing a song. Smiling shyly, we glanced sidelong at one another. The nun broke the ice by singing a folk song. Then she said:

“My family were wealthy landowners and devout Buddhists. I went to France to study medicine, but when I came home for the summer the monk visited us and persuaded me that the country needed me, so I decided to become a nun.”

Silence fell again.

The monk turned to the girl on his left and invited her to share a song with us. She sang half a lullaby and broke out laughing.

“I’m afraid I can’t remember the rest. It’s a new lullaby.”

“Who else knows the song?” asked a chorus of voices.

“I know it!” I answered.

“We want to hear it!” they all shouted.

So I sang:

Rag dolly,
Both cheeks pinky.
You evacuated along with me.
Mother bought a wooden baby carriage for you.
When victory comes,
You’ll return to the crowded city,
Rag dolly.

Everyone cheered. Now they all had plenty of poems to recite and stories to tell. The tea ceremony lasted two hours. After that we had a lesson in meditation.

“You can meditate at any time,” explained the monk. “Even while you are eating.”

“Isn’t that magic?” I thought to myself.

Bitten by a dog

One day, I was playing and skipping all by myself around the hamlet when a big dog suddenly appeared and began to chase me. Hoping to frighten him off, I skipped faster and faster. I had almost reached Grandma’s gate when a woman standing opposite shouted at the dog and yelled to me:

“Sit down, you silly girl, he won’t bite you!”

I promptly sat down and held my arms around my knees. Immediately the dog snapped at the left side of my leg through my red corduroy pants. I cried loudly and the dog ran away. The woman was nowhere to be seen. I ran back to Grandma’s house.

“What happened?” she asked. “Why are you crying?”

“A dog bit me just outside,” I sobbed.

She held me tight in her arms, stroked my hair, and talked gently to me.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry. I’ll see about the dog. Meanwhile, let me see where the bite is.”

I pulled up the leg of my pants.

“Here, Grandma, he bit me right here. A big dog without any hair, like a lion.”

With her fingers she gestured to Trung Lam to bring a chair for me. She examined my leg.

“You’re very lucky, dear. Only a few deep tooth marks and a little bleeding. Stay here and I’ll fetch some salt water to wash the wound.”

While Grandma was in the kitchen, Trung Lam jabbed his finger at me.

“Now they’re going to give you twenty-one injections at least. In your belly button. That’s what they did to a girl in my class who got bitten by a dog.”

Grandma returned with the salt water.

“Isn’t that true, Grandma?” Trung Lam persisted.

“Oh go away, Trung Lam, and leave your sister alone. Why don’t you go down to Mrs. Cam, in the hamlet? It was her dog who bit her. Tell her I said to take her dog to the collective farm office to be tested for rabies.”

He ran off. An hour later he was back with the good news that the dog was free of disease. I didn’t need any injections after all.


A few days later, as I approached Grandma’s front gate on my way back from school one afternoon, I heard the sound of birds chirping. Entering the yard, I was surprised to see two hemispherical bird-baskets lying on the ground in the shade of the longan tree. Through the gaps between the bamboo strips I could see what was inside—ten little chicks in one basket and ten little ducklings in the other, covered all over in fine fuzzy down the color of spring daffodils.

In my excitement I dropped my book bag, opened the lid of one of the baskets, and took out a chick. I held it gently in the palm of my hand and stroked it with my fingers.

“You are so soft and beautiful,” I told the chick. “There, isn’t that nice?”

But the chick thought otherwise and struggled to escape. At that moment I heard a soft bark and turned my head to see Grandma approaching, a big smile on her face and a puppy in her arms. I hastily put the chick back in its basket. Grandma released the puppy, who raced round and round the baskets, barking with curiosity.

“I bought them all for Trung Lam and you,” she said. “You’ll learn to take responsibility. It will help you to grow up.”

“Oh thank you, Grandma! I love them so much!”

Trung Lam named the puppy Titi, which means “tiny.” Every morning we fed him cooked flour mixed with green-leaf vegetables. Titi was to remain a vegetarian “monk dog” his whole life, which did not prevent him from growing into a huge and handsome colly. As for the chicks and ducklings, they ate millet, broken rice, and worms that we dug up for them in the garden before school.

Time flew by. The chicks and ducklings were now fully grown chickens and ducks. Trung Lam and I built two spacious wooden cages to keep them safe at night, while from dawn to dusk they were guarded by a vigilant Titi.

Early one morning we were awoken by the sound of running and barking. We all ran out of the house and saw Titi chasing two big foxes along the top of the broad wall that surrounded Grandma’s house and garden. I grabbed hold of a broom and readied myself to come to Titi’s rescue in case the foxes should attack him. But it was the foxes who were terrified of Titi. Soon they jumped off the wall and disappeared from sight.

“Titi, you are my hero!” exclaimed Grandma, gently stroking his face with both her hands.

Titi vigorously wagged his tail left, right, left, right… He was extremely proud of himself.

Grandma gave Titi his breakfast. I took a pail and went into the banana orchard to look for snails for the chickens and ducks. The snails were big and fat, and striped purple and yellow for camouflage. I broke their shells open with a brick to make it easier for the chickens and ducks to eat them. The ducks especially loved them. Then I let the chickens and ducks out of their cages and fed them some more chopped vegetables and dried yellow corns. While I got ready for school, they busied themselves chasing insects and one another and digging for worms in the garden.

Sometimes we would forget to close the door and the chickens and ducks would get into the house, where they jumped on the bed, the table, and even Grandpa’s altar. To prevent them from flying away and from stirring up a storm of dirt when they flapped their wings, I clipped their wings with scissors.

Grandpa’s memorial day

March 23 was the anniversary of Grandpa’s death, and Grandma observed it as his memorial day. The weather at this time of year was usually warm, but a cold spell might suddenly descend. Then we would wear cardigans or light jackets.

Cold weather in March is called “Mrs. An’s cold.” According to the legend, Mrs. An was a woman who started to knit a sweater in the spring for her husband to wear during the following winter. Slowly and carefully, she knitted an intricate pattern. Spring passed, summer came and went, and so did autumn. At last winter came, but the sweater was still not ready. Winter passed and spring came round again. Finally she was finished. By that time, however, it was no longer cold and her husband did not need the sweater. So she sat down, looked at the beautiful sweater she was holding in her hand, and broke into tears. Her weeping was so loud and terrible that even Heaven heard her. God took pity on her. He sent lightning, thunder, and storm down to the earth, turning spring back into winter for a few days so that Mrs. An’s husband could try on the sweater.

One March, a few days before Grandpa’s memorial day, on a  cloudy and windy morning, Grandma took everything down from Grandpa’s altar for cleaning—the copper dishes, vase, and incense bowl, the fruit and food bowls, and Grandpa’s portrait.

“Trung Lam!” she called out to my brother. “Can you help me wash these things please?”

He stared at them in dismay. “But there are so many of them, Grandma. It’s a girl’s job. Let Lan do it.”

“I asked you, not her,” Grandma insisted. “You must learn how to do it so that a woman will marry you when you grow up.”

“But I’ve never seen Father wash a single bowl, and Mother still married him.”

“Things are different nowadays. You wait and see!”

Trung Lam was not really happy about it, but he knew Grandma never took “no” for an answer. He put on his sweater and carried a basin full of objects to the well. Behind him he could still hear Grandma telling him what to do.

“Get a bundle of straw and dip it in soap and ash to polish the copper. I want to see it shining bright.”

After helping Grandma clean the house, I went to the well to see how Trung Lam was doing. His face had turned blue with cold, his fingers were all wrinkled, and the copper objects still looked dull. So I sat down and gave him a hand.

I remembered a lesson in meditation I had learned at the temple and decided to put it to use.

“Trung Lam! Breathe in and out gently and evenly. Concentrate on the copper bowl and think how beautiful it will be when we have finished.”

Meditating was very helpful. We quite forgot the cold and wind. Grandma was very pleased with us.

“You did a good job, Trung Lam,” she said as she replaced the objects on the altar. “They look brand new.”

In the afternoon a warm sun came out, accompanied by a strong wind that bit by bit chased away most of the dark clouds. After dinner, about seven, I sat outside and relaxed. Before me stretched a beautiful blue sky over which a few streaks of white were lightly brushed. I stood up, leaned my hands on the garden wall, and slowly turned my head from east to west.

“Trung Lam, come out here!”

He thought something was wrong and came at a run. I pointed to the sky in the west.

“Isn’t that marvelous? So unusual!”

Above the black clouds, shaped like a long series of little hills and tall mountains, ran a bright orange line, like the neon strip lighting used in advertising displays. I ran into the house to tell Grandma, and she came out and watched with us.

“The sun is setting behind that cloud, you know,” she remarked.

An hour later, all of a sudden, a heavy shower fell, and with it the chill of night.

Grandpa’s memorial day arrived at last. Our parents, our aunt and her husband, our elder brother Dai Lam, and our sister Mai all came to attend the ceremony. Before Grandpa’s altar stood various dishes of choice food and fruits and two bottles of wine. All morning long, we burned incense as we bowed down and worshipped him. His spirit must have been very pleased.

After lunch we visited Grandpa’s grave. On the tomb we laid a bouquet of flowers, a dish of hard-boiled eggs, and a bowl of boiled rice and slices of pork, with a pair of chopsticks lying on top. Then Grandma sat down on the ground by the tomb to talk to her husband’s spirit, while we all sat silently around her like statues. Even the insects could not disturb us.

On the way home, Grandma asked my father: “Dong, did you see how your father’s grave has changed?”

“Yes,” he replied. “The left side was higher than it used to be.”

“There must be termites under there eating the coffin,” I suggested.

My aunt put her hand over my mouth to stop me developing this irreverent line of thought any further. At the same time, she started humming a tune in an attempt to distract Grandma.

“What was that you said?” complained Grandma. “I didn’t hear you.”

“Oh, nothing. Really,” I answered.

“Lucky Grandma is a bit deaf,” Mai whispered in my ear.

Grandma resumed her conversation with Father.

“Dong, see how the earth swells up around the grave. It’s a sign of a great future that awaits us.”

“Did you all hear that?” Father asked, feigning astonished delight.

We joyfully nodded. Not that any of us believed it, but we all wanted to make Grandma happy.

My parents and my aunt and her husband departed that evening, but Dai Lam and Mai stayed another night with us. We were very tired after such a busy day, so we went to bed earlier than usual. In any case, because of the air raids and the shortage of fuel the electricity was cut off early in the evening.

I shared Grandma’s double bed so that Mai, who always used to toss and turn in her sleep, could have my bed to herself.

The ghost

Just before midnight, the solemn quiet of the dark night was shattered by a scream.

The scream came from Mai.

“A ghost! A ghost! There’s a ghost in the room!”

I dashed into her room while Grandma looked for matches. I saw little sparkling green lights slowly moving along the wall. Grandma came in holding the kerosene lamp.

“Wow!” I laughed. “So it was you, tortoise!”

Someone had glued a bottle full of fireflies onto the tortoise’s shell.

Grandma headed straight for Trung Lam’s room.

“Trung Lam! It was you, wasn’t it, you little monster?! You almost scared your poor sister to death! It isn’t worth feeding you! I’d do better giving your food to Titi instead.” 

She went on scolding him until I interrupted:

“Grandma, Dai Lam and Trung Lam aren’t here. They’re camping out in the garden tonight.”

Grandma reached for her cane. Mai was feeling much better by now, so I left her on her own and ran out to warn my brothers. By the time Grandma had found their tent, they were no longer around.

Gradually Grandma calmed down. She remembered the imprisoned fireflies. Taking pity on them, she returned to the tortoise, pulled the bottle off its shell, and carefully released the fireflies into the night air. We all went back to sleep.

In the morning, Dai Lam and Trung Lam apologized to Mai for their practical joke. Then they had to clean the glue off the tortoise’s shell.

Be Kind to Insects Day

Every year, on the fifth of May by the lunar calendar, the country celebrated Destroy Insects Day.

In olden times, before people knew about hygiene, insects multiplied in the month of May and spread infectious diseases that claimed many victims. People blamed ghosts and devils, which they thought had come disguised as insects. They beat as loud as they could on drums to chase the ghost-insects and devil-insects away, and set out bowls of poisoned soup to kill them. The poison that they mixed into the soup was cyanide powder, extracted from seeds and plants. Nowadays DDT is sprayed instead.

Grandma—good Buddhist that she was—did not want to harm any insects, so she invented a new festival called Be Kind to Insects Day. Several of her friends would visit to celebrate the festival with her.

I helped her cook a huge pan of thick rice and vegetable soup, which we would scatter in spoonfuls along the path leading from her house down to the hamlet below. As we returned with the empty pan, we could already see long lines of red and black ants hurrying to suck up the free soup, while hundreds of big and ugly black-, green-, and red-headed flies noisily nosedived past my face on their way to join the feast.

As soon as we got home, Grandma took her drum, beat out a steady rhythm, and led her friends, who were fingering their rosaries, in loud chanting of incomprehensible prayers. I covered my mouth with my hand to muffle my laughter—I was unable to suppress it altogether—so as not to hurt their feelings.

Buying flowers

Among Grandma’s friends in the village were a couple in their late sixties, Mr. and Mrs. Tu. They lived in the next hamlet. Grandma talked a lot about Mr. Tu, but I had yet to meet him.

“He’s an expert gardener. He knows many secrets—how to make plants short, neat, and sturdy, how to tend rare fruit trees, how to grow beautiful multicolored flowers just in time for ceremonial occasions.”

Early one morning, Grandma sent me to Mr. Tu’s house to buy flowers for her to put on Grandpa’s and the Buddha’s altars and as an offering to the temple.

“He lives in the seventh house on the left. Walk round the side wall until you find the gate.”

If I got lost I could ask someone to show me the way, because everyone knew Mr. Tu. But it wasn’t hard to find.

The gate was wide open. Through it I saw the cement courtyard—fresh, clean, and quiet. Straight ahead of me stood two trim round plants full of yellow kumquats, each standing in a square porcelain pot elegantly engraved with dragons and phoenixes. I turned my head to the right and saw a huge brown jar of glazed clay, brimming with clear water. Across the top lay a coconut shell cup on a long wooden handle.

I dared not enter the yard. I was afraid that another ferocious dog might lurk inside. Once bitten, twice shy. So I stood waiting outside the gate until I heard a woman’s voice coming from inside the house.

“Is that someone out there? Won’t you come on in?”

“Could you take care of the dog first, please?”

“We don’t have any dog.”

That made me feel much better. No dog? That was unusual for a country home.

I stepped gingerly into the yard.

“I haven’t seen you around before,” the woman remarked. “You’re not from hereabouts?”

I shook my head.

“Who are you staying with?”

“My Grandma Thu in Ngac Hamlet.”

“I know your Grandma. She’s a lovely lady. How is she?”

“She’s fine. She told me a lot about you and Mr. Tu.”

“Oh, she did, did she?” That was Mr. Tu speaking as he came in from the garden. “All the bad things, right?”

“N-n-n-n-no, no, not at all,” I stammered in confusion.

“I’m only joking, you know,” he laughed.

I stared at him. Despite the gray hair on his head and the eight-inch-long gray beard hanging from his chin, the smooth maroon skin of his face made him look like a young boy. He picked some kumquats and gave them to me. I rubbed them against my blouse, popped them into my mouth, and started to chew. They were sweet with a slight tang, and their aroma enveloped me in a fragrant mist.

“You came to buy some flowers for your Grandma, didn’t you?” asked Mrs. Tu.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“It’s full moon tomorrow, so today your Grandma is going to worship at the temple, and she always takes flowers with her. Follow me, I’ll cut some for you.”

She led me into the garden between rows of trees heavily laden with light yellow apricots. I pulled a branch down to eye level. Though I could see that the fruit were not yet ripe, my mouth was watering. I wished that they were mine, so that I could eat them right away.

I was still contemplating the apricot branch when I heard a squeaking noise. It was Mrs. Tu passing through a bamboo gate set in a fence of tall straight cacti. I ran after her. As I approached the gate, the gentle breeze wafted a strong sweet fragrance in my direction. I entered the garden and to my surprise found myself surrounded by a vast carpet of flowers—marigolds, carnations, gerberas, snapdragons, chrysanthemums, dahlias, and many others that I was unable to identify.

“Aren’t they beautiful!” I enthused.

“Would you like to pick some for yourself?” asked Mrs. Tu, smiling.

“Oh yes! Can I pick some Rangoon creepers in that shrub over there, please?”

“Fine. Help yourself.”

I ran to the end of the garden. Standing by the vine, I picked the flowers one by one, alternating the red with the pink, bent the green tubes in the middle of the petals to make loops, and chained them together in a ring. I hung the necklace of flowers around my neck, and rushed over to show it to Mrs. Tu.

“Isn’t that nice!” she exclaimed in delight. “Stand here and I’ll get you something else.”

She picked two white lilies and clipped them to my hair, one on each side of my head.

“Now you look just like a little princess!”

I felt wonderful. In my basket she placed a bouquet of orange marigolds and, wrapped in a water-lily leaf, a bunch of jasmine for Grandma to mix with green tea.

“That should be enough for your Grandma,” said Mrs. Tu.

I handed her the money and thanked her for the flowers and for showing me the garden. On the way home, I reflected that Grandma was quite right about Mr. Tu.

How not to kill a cock

Occasionally we ate one of our cocks or ducks with eggs for dinner.

One Sunday morning, Grandma said to me:

“Lan, I’m going out to visit a friend today. Would you mind preparing dinner for tonight? Choose a big cock and cook it. I’ll be back in time for dinner.”

Now the fact of the matter was that I had never before killed a chicken in my life. But I didn’t want to disappoint Grandma. I had watched her kill a chicken several times and was more than willing to give it a try.

“Alright, Grandma,” I confidently assured her. “Don’t worry, I’ll see to it.”

Grandma set off and I sat and pondered the best way to kill a cock. I tried to recall exactly each step that Grandma took when she did it, but the more I thought about it the more confused and nervous I became.

I decided that I had better allow myself plenty of time. I also decided that I could not let the chickens and ducks run free that day as they usually did.

So early in the afternoon, I placed a big pan of water on the coke stove to boil, left a bowl and a sharp knife lying ready on the kitchen floor, and then went to the cage and pulled out a large cock. I carried him back to the kitchen and held him down with my bare feet, my left foot over his legs and my right foot over his wings. With my left hand I bent back his neck, and with my right hand I plucked the feathers from his neck. I reached for the bowl and knife, made a small incision in his neck, and let the blood drip into the bowl. I noticed that much less blood was coming out than when Grandma had done it. Some chickens, I supposed, just had less blood in them than others.

I twisted the cock’s head under his wing, dropped him in the pan of boiling water, and replaced the lid.

I stood back and sighed with relief. That had not been so difficult after all!

Suddenly the lid flew off the pan and the cock jumped right out and began to run round and round the kitchen, furiously flapping his wings. I made a lunge for him but missed. He ran out into the yard, where he jumped about erratically.

“Trung Lam!” I yelled in panic. “Help me!”

Trung Lam and his friend Toan emerged from the house, where they had been playing games together. Arms outstretched, they surrounded the cock and managed to seize him.

“What shall we do with him?” asked Toan.

“Put him back in the pan where he belongs!”

“But he isn’t dead yet,” Trung Lam objected.

“Well, I cut his throat, so he should be dead. I don’t know why he isn’t. Anyway, just put him back in.”

Trung Lam did as I said, and held the lid on tight so that the cock would not escape again. We could hear him still struggling inside. Toan placed a couple of bricks on the lid.

A few minutes later the noise stopped. I guessed that the cock was now dead and took him out of the pan. This time I was right. I plucked the rest of the feathers, cut out the innards, and finished boiling him. Then I fried some salt and mixed it with finely chopped lime leaf, ginger, and black pepper, and rubbed the mixture into the chicken’s skin. Finally, I prepared a bowl of fish sauce, lime juice, and garlic for dipping. I was very pleased with myself.

Grandma arrived home and we sat down to dinner.

“This chicken tastes a bit funny,” complained Trung Lam with a grimace.

Grandma took a closer look at the meat.

“It looks more like beef to me,” she remarked. “Are you sure you didn’t kill one of the cows instead, Lan?”

I shook my head. Trung Lam giggled.

“Did you drain all the blood?”

“Yes, Grandma, I drained as much as I could. But he just didn’t have very much blood.”

“Really? How strange! Tell me how you did it.”

I explained how I had cut the skin on his neck.

“You didn’t do it right. You didn’t cut the artery. If you had, there would have been plenty of blood. You left the blood in the meat, and that’s why it isn’t white.”

“And that’s why he jumped out of the pan,” added Trung Lam.

Grandma opened her mouth wide with amazement. We all burst out laughing.

A long walk home

At one period, Hanoi was suffering such frequent and heavy air raids that the government, in order to protect evacuees, suspended all public transportation between the countryside and the city. Nevertheless, Trung Lam, who had not seen his parents for a whole month, was missing them so terribly that I decided to try to take him home. So one Saturday after lunch, I told Grandma that we were going to the taxibus stop but that if the taxibus did not turn up we would come back.

Grandma waved us goodbye and wished us luck. At the taxibus stop we waited and waited, but a whole hour passed and there was still no sign of a taxibus.

“Trung Lam,” I said, “there isn’t going to be any taxibus today, I’m afraid. Let’s go back to Grandma’s.”

“No,” he replied, “I’d sooner wait some more. If you don’t want to wait with me, I’ll wait all by myself.”

Tears were streaming down his face.

“Well,” I suggested on a sudden impulse, “let’s walk home then!”  

He brightened up instantly and became quite excited.

“What a good idea!” he exclaimed.

At first we actually ran. Then we slowed to a walk. At intervals we stopped for a rest. We sang to keep our spirits up. Dusk was falling when we reached the village of Nghi Tam. Guava trees full of white flowers lined the road, but we were in no mood to enjoy the scenery. All we could think about was Mother and Father welcoming us home to a delicious dinner. We knew we were not far now from the city tram station.

Altogether it took us five hours to get home. We covered about ten miles, eight on foot and the last two by tram. Our parents were astonished to see us. They had no delicious dinner ready for us, of course, and we had to make do with some bread. We had a bath and fell asleep exhausted.

My brother and I were awakened from our deep slumber in the early hours of the next morning by the harsh wail of the air raid siren. Father urged us to hurry down to the shelter, but our legs ached so badly after the previous day’s marathon that we could hardly walk. So instead of running to the shelter we crawled under the wooden bed.

When Mother came back from the shelter, she berated us angrily.

“Don’t you two have any sense at all? Didn’t it occur to you that if there was no taxibus it might be for a good reason? It’s so dangerous here. The bombers come over several times a day. You shouldn’t be here!”

Trung Lam and I stared at one another in silence. Our parents took us back to Grandma’s after lunch. As were were still unable to walk or cycle ourselves, they carried us on the back of their bicycles.

When Grandma heard the story, she just laughed. But the idea of an unexpected visit home no longer seemed so appealing to us. We never did it again.

The Book of Names

Once, in the middle of the night when I was fast asleep, Grandma gripped my arm with her fingers and shook it. I woke up with a jolt. She wanted me to join her for a late-night supper of duck-embryo eggs, mint leaf, salt, and pepper, served with a pot of jasmine tea. She ate five eggs and made me eat another five.

By then I was fully awake, so I asked her a question that had been in my mind for a long time.

“Grandma, why do all our male relatives on my father’s side have similar names? And why are all our female relatives named after flowers?”

“Well, my dear, you ask me exactly the same questions that I asked your grandpa after I married him. This is the story he told me.

Your great-great-grandparents were called Bach and Truc. After nine long years of marriage they were still childless. They had offered up many prayers to God, to the Buddha, and to the ancestors. They had performed many good deeds. They had looked after the babies of their friends and relatives for free. But nothing had helped. There was only one thing that your great-great-grandfather absolutely refused to do—and that was to take a concubine, as his relatives advised.

Their patience and blessings were finally rewarded and your great-great-grandmother gave birth to a beautiful son. They and their relatives were overjoyed. Gifts and flowers filled the house. They named their son Xuan, meaning Spring, as he was born in the spring month of March 1836.

One night, your great-great-grandpa, still very excited about the baby and unable to sleep, was watching his wife nurse Xuan when an idea suddenly struck him. He conceived the plan of preparing a book in which names would be set out for the next eight generations of the family. However numerous his male descendants might be and wherever they might live, they would unfailingly recognise one another and their place of origin by their personal and family names.

Sons in the first four generations would be named, like his own son, after the four seasons: Xuan, Ha, Thu, Dong. From the fifth to the eighth generation, sons would be named in honor of the natural treasure troves of the earth: Lam (Jungle), Son (Mountain), Phong (Air), Hai (Sea). Daughters would be named after flowers of their parents’ choice, for fresh and fragrant flowers always bring happiness and joy.

He rose, went over to his wife, sat beside her, and explained to her his plan. She was also inspired by it.

‘That is a marvelous idea,’ she responded. ‘You must write it down immediately. But let us not force our descendants to follow our plan. Let them decide as they wish.’

“And so it was,” concluded Grandma. “Until now all our relatives have wished to follow the Book of Names.”

Two surprises

Tuesday, the third week of May 1966. This was the day we were to hear the teacher read out the results of our seventh grade exams. Most of us felt very confident. We were not surprised that only three failed out of a class of 32. To celebrate we decided to arrange a farewell lunch for the following Saturday.

We agreed that we would serve barbecued duck with rice noodles. All the teachers who had taught our class were invited. Each of us contributed two bowlfulls of rice and five dong.

Early on Saturday morning, I set off with three of the other girls for the store, where we exchanged all the rice for fresh hot rice noodles. It didn’t take us long. Meanwhile, several of the boys had gone to the market with a large basket to buy ducks and vegetables. Two hours later they finally returned. Their basket was filled with lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, spring onions, and bamboo shoots. But ducks were nowhere to be seen! Instead, we were astonished to see four big fat ganders being driven along with a stick by two of the boys.

“Where are the ducks?” we asked in dismay.

They laughed.

“There weren’t any ducks in the market today, only these fellows!”

“Then why didn’t you buy pork?” asked Tram.

“Well, aren’t geese fowl too? Do you want them or not?”

There was agitation, perhaps a hint of anger, in Hai’s raised voice.

“We want them, yes, of course.”

We didn’t want to spoil the party, and anyway the ganders had already been bought. So we went along with them, even though none of us had ever eaten gooseflesh before.

One of the boys began to whistle and the atmosphere relaxed. Everyone lent a hand to prepare the feast. We slaughtered and cut up the geese and roasted them over a charcoal fire. To make soup, we threw the bones and the offal into a big pan together with the bamboo shoots. Then we carried all the food into our classroom.

I tasted my first bite of goose. It was tough! You could see that no one was really enjoying it, least of all the teachers. They chewed and they chewed and they chewed, glumly gazing at one another all the while. I mixed my rice noodles into some of the soup and tried that. Much tastier! Now I felt much better.

The boys, however, were not going to give up so easily. Intent on demonstrating to the girls how good goose was to eat, they piled more and more of it into their bowls. Nothing went to waste after all.

The teachers thanked us profusely for a lovely party.

“They’re only pretending!” Chi whispered in my ear.

“But after this we’ll never forget our classmates, will we?” I replied. “Especially the boys!”

Soon the photographer arrived and took a picture of the class together with our teachers. Then the teachers took their leave. We had the rest of the afternoon free for ourselves. Every corner of the room was noisy with nonstop chatter.

We discovered that half of our class, most of them evacuees from the city, were to be transferred to a high school eight miles away. The rest were going straight on to work in nearby factories and collective farms, except for two of the girls who had been assigned to a teacher training college for a year to train as nursery school teachers.

Then came the second surprise of the day. Yen, one of the local girls, announced that she was about to marry Nhan, our physics teacher, and invited us all to their wedding the next month. We stood flabbergasted. None of us had suspected a thing.

So the first Saturday evening in July we all went to Yen’s wedding. The ceremony, arranged jointly by the party committee of the school and the party committee of the local collective farm to which Yen’s family belonged, was held in the school auditorium. Some of the teachers had prepared and decorated the room. On the tables, neatly lined up in two long rows, were dishes of candies and cookies, cups, pots of tea, bottles of rice wine, and vases of flowers.

We sat down. Yen and Nhan entered. Like everyone else present, they were wearing their everyday clothes. Mr. Thang, the school principal, stood up and made a speech. Most of it was in praise of Teacher Nhan. The next speech was made by the chairman of the collective farm. This one was mostly in praise of Yen.

Then the teachers and students took turns singing folk songs, some solo and some in small groups. The happy couple were cajoled to stand up and sing too. At first they were not ready and just giggled. Eventually they were pulled to their feet and pushed in front of the microphone. They sang the famous Vietnamese folk song that compares a beautiful young girl to the fern-leaf bamboo. The fern-leaf bamboo could grow anywhere, but wherever it was it would still be beautiful. Yen was indeed a beautiful girl, and strong as well.

We all lined up to congratulate Yen and Nhan. Everyone was happy. We threw confetti over the couple—and the wedding was over.

It had not been much different from any other school party. The simplicity of the occasion contrasted sharply with the elaborate formality of the traditional wedding that the groom’s family would have arranged. Even the parents of the couple had been absent—Nhan’s because as city intellectuals they disapproved of his marrying an ordinary country girl, Yen’s because her father was old and bedridden.

“I want a wedding just like this,” remarked one of my friends afterward. “Simple and happy.”

I was not so sure.

Arabian tales

Early one Sunday afternoon in May 1967, I was returning to Grandma’s village by taxibus after a visit to my parents. I was bringing with me some new clothes and a fresh supply of cookies. We were still about a mile from the village when we heard the noise of aircraft and machine-gun fire. The driver stopped the taxibus and asked us all to get out—five strange small children and myself. As we hid in a big rice field next to the road, I noticed the taxibus speeding away.

I looked up into the sky and saw several bombs falling from a plane like plump black cucumbers. I told the children to stick their fingers in their ears so that they would not be deafened, but in fact I heard no explosions. I supposed that the bombs had fallen too far away.

I checked to see that the children were alright and asked them where they lived. As they lived only three hamlets away from ours, I told them I would take them there. While we were crossing the rice field toward the village, I heard voices shouting something. Then there appeared in front of us a group of armed soldiers. They yelled at us to stay still, as there were time bombs in the field all around us. So that was why there had been no explosions!

The children and I sat on the wall of an irrigation dike and awaited the arrival of the squad of sappers who were to defuse the bombs. It turned out to be a long wait. Time dragged on. We played games with stones that we picked off the dike, but soon enough the children tired of this pastime and began to fret.

Suddenly I had an idea. Three years previously, not long before our evacuation, I had discovered on my father’s bookshelf a rare old edition of Arabian tales, published under French rule, entitled A Thousand and One Nights. When I sat outside on the sidewalk of a Sunday afternoon and read out the stories to my friends, a crowd of children soon gathered round to listen intently. As the book was no longer available in the bookstores, my friends persuaded me to “lend” it to them so that they could copy out their favorite tales. It passed rapidly from hand to hand and disappeared without a trace. By that time, fortunately, I already knew many of the stories by heart—and it was these ancient tales of a far-off land that I recounted to the children as we sat waiting on the dike wall that afternoon.

A sharp chilly wind had sprung up and dusk was descending. The children were whimpering with cold and hunger. I gave them some cookies to eat and wrapped them up in a couple of blankets that the soldiers had given us. We all fell fast asleep.

It was four in the morning when the soldiers woke us up and told us that it was now safe to go home. As we entered the village, we were greeted by the furious barking of dogs and the crowing of cockerels. The people were still asleep. Leaving the children at their relatives’ houses, I knocked at Grandma’s gate. In a little while, I heard the sound of Titi barking, followed by Grandma’s footsteps.

“How did you get here so early?” she asked in surprise.

I told her the whole story. She was very happy that I had survived.

Back to the Top

Chapter 6. Back in the city

Called up

In March 1969, eight of the 36 students in our tenth grade class received callup papers—my boyfriend Tung, six other boys, and myself. Most of us had just turned sixteen: we were young and innocent like chicks newly hatched from the egg.

We were very excited as we stood holding our papers. No one was more excited than me. My chest heaved inside me as battlefield scenes quickly ran through my mind. Naturally, I played the main heroic role in all of them.

All the other girls in the class gathered around to peer at my callup papers. How lucky I was, they exclaimed—the only girl in the whole school called up to serve in the army! I was also the first member of my family to be called up.

Tung gave me a ride home on the back of his bicycle. It took us at least an hour to get home, so we had plenty of time to talk along the way. We wanted to become radio operators in the same division. We would hang our hammocks next to each other under the dark canopy, and wake up at first light to the myriad sounds of the rivulets, birds, insects, and animals of the jungle. Sometimes we would catch and roast a wild hog and have a barbecue with our comrades.

When we reached my street, I jumped off Tung’s bicycle, waved him goodbye, and ran straight home to break the news to my parents. I was disappointed to discover that they did not share my excitement in the least. In fact, they could scarcely believe their ears.

“Aren’t there enough boys?” Mother mumbled under her breath. “Why do they have to take my little girl?”

The next morning, several of my girlfriends came to visit me at home. They had brought me a surprise present—a diary for me to take with me to the front, filled with parting messages from all my classmates. Some pledged eternal friendship. Others just wished me good luck and reminded me to stay in touch. There were also a few messages of a more political kind, urging me to kill the American invaders and the puppet troops, liberate the South, and unite the country.

The following day, I had to go to the military clinic for a health check. I arrived promptly at the appointed time and sat down in the waiting room. The door to the doctor’s office soon opened, and an officer emerged. He was holding a paper up in front of his face—evidently, a list of names.

“Mr. Le Ho Lan!” he called out without so much as a glance in our direction.

I stood and stepped before him.

“Mr. Le Ho Lan!” he called out again, as though there was no one there.

I laughed.

“That is me,” I explained. “I am Le Ho Lan.”

At last he seemed to notice my presence. He blinked in astonishment.

“But you’re a girl,” he observed.

I nodded.

“Go home. There must be a mistake.”

When I returned to school the next day, my friends thought that I had failed the health check.

“No,” I had to admit, “I didn’t even get that far. They don’t need city girls.”

Country girls too were not drafted into the army, but they at least were mobilized for road building and other public works. City girls were considered not tough enough even for that.

However, six of the seven boys in our class were called up. They were all assigned to different divisions, and after no more than three or four months’ training were sent to the front.

A refuge

At Number 5 on our street lived the Bach family—a couple in their forties with three little girls aged five, three, and one. Devout Catholics, they set off for church at an early hour every Sunday morning. As their children were still very young and prone to childhood illnesses, they were reluctant to evacuate to the countryside, where healthcare provision was so poor. All the same, the frequent air raids kept them in a state of constant fear and anxiety.

In February 1969, the Bach’s moved to stay with a friend of theirs who lived on Nha Tho Street, just opposite from Hanoi Cathedral. By taking refuge in such a holy place, they earnestly explained to us, they were sure to obtain the protection of God. Besides, wasn’t America a Christian country? Their pilots would take care not to bomb a church or the area around it.

Not long after they moved, we heard the news on the radio that Nha Tho Street had suffered heavy bombing. The cathedral itself had escaped unscathed, but several houses, including the nunnery next to the cathedral, had been destroyed. One of them was the house where the Bach’s had been staying. They were all killed except for the oldest of the three girls, Ha, who lost both her legs.

When Ha’s wounds had healed, the government sent her to Geneva to be exhibited at a conference on American war crimes. Still only six years old, she was the first as well as the youngest bombing victim to be presented to world public opinion.

The prisoners

Late one summer evening in 1970, as I was cycling home from a friend’s house several blocks away, all the electric lights, inside buildings as well as on the street lamps, suddenly went out. It was a blackout to protect us against American air raids. I continued riding in the dark and finally stopped in front of our gate. I walked in slowly with my bicycle. From the open doors and windows of our neighbors’ rooms I clearly heard the sounds of people snoring. It seemed as though the whole building was sunk in a deep black hole.

I leaned my bicycle up against the wall, removed my sandals, and tiptoed into the house. I changed into my pajamas, but I felt so hot and sticky that I decided to have a bath. I lit the kerosene lamp. I saw that there was not enough water in the tank, so I had to go out to the faucet behind the building. Holding a couple of pails in one hand and the lamp in the other, I walked along the corridor, whistling to myself to scare the ghosts away.

As I approached the faucet, I noticed two strange men squatting side by side in silence. They appeared to be in their thirties—strong and healthy country people, but with lost and nervous expressions on their faces. One was chubby and had crew-cut hair; the other was tall with longer hair. They were waiting patiently as the water slowly dripped into their pail.

I set my pail down on the doorstep and sat beside it. Feeling that it was rude just to stare at them, I asked them their names. Their faces lit up in animation. Smiling slightly, the chubby one told me that his name was Cuong and the name of his companion Dung.

“Who have you come to visit?” I inquired.

Cuong looked up and pointed his thumb upward.

I persisted.

“What are you doing up there?”

“Oh, I’m drawing a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.”

This struck me as a very curious reply. Why on earth should this man be here to draw a portrait of Ho Chi Minh?

Dung nudged Cuong on the arm.

“Yes,” Cuong added, as though he had forgotten to mention something extremely important, “Ho Chi Minh is a very good man, a very great man.”

Curiouser and curiouser… This was no normal conversation. Then I heard the sharp tap of footsteps approaching along a side corridor and became aware of the smell of cigarette smoke. I stood and turned to see who it might be. It was Sang, a secret police colleague of our neighbor Bau, wearing a white uniform!

Without another word, Cuong picked up their pail and the two of them returned upstairs with Sang.

Later I realized that, despite their northern accents, they must have been prisoners of war, infiltrators from the South who had been captured and were now being interrogated. Presumably they had been among those northerners who went south in 1954.

I never told a living soul about the encounter.

Escaping to the moon

In April 1972, worried that the Americans would bomb the dikes that protected Hanoi from the Red River, the government ordered all the students in the city to work for one month to build a reserve dike. We had to work from early morning until late at night, bringing with us our own food and water jugs.

One by one, using shovels, we filled the sandbags with sand, tied them up, and threw them into position. We worked so hard that we lost all idea of how many bags we had filled. During the short breaks for meals, as we rested our aching bodies, we discussed the possibility of escaping to the moon. That, we agreed, would be the ideal solution.

The last air raid

It was close to midnight on December 26, 1972. Hanoi was sunk deep in sleep.

Suddenly the loud wail of the city air-raid siren shattered our dreams and jolted us awake in a spasm of terror. In our building I heard the sounds of hurried footsteps, slamming doors, and crying children. Our parents jumped out of bed. Father shouted to my sister and me to get out of the building fast and run to the shelter nearby. When we hesitated, he asked sarcastically whether we preferred to be buried alive. We replied that we were coming, but instead we just rolled off and under the bed. We really could not believe that the Americans would drop any more bombs after they had already agreed at the Paris Peace Conference to withdraw their troops from the South.

The footsteps died away and we found ourselves alone in the silence. A few minutes later, there was a light whooshing sound. At the same moment, a heavy wave of air pressed down on our bodies. We heard the tinkle of breaking glass from the shelf in the corner, the crack of roof tiles striking the brick sidewalk outside, and then the engine roar and pop-pop-pop gunfire of a warplane flying directly overhead.

Quiet descended again, only to be broken shortly by the shouts of militiamen looking for survivors hidden under the debris and calling for volunteers to assist in rescue work.

Afterward we were to discover with astonishment that all our seven bottles of fish sauce and soya sauce were still standing on the shelf, their necks cleanly sliced off but otherwise intact. A laser beam must have passed through them. Our mother, afraid of poisoning, emptied the contents down the drain.

My sister and I had had a narrow escape. The bombs had fallen only two blocks away. Coming out from under the bed, we carried our two folding beds outside to give the militia for use as stretchers. Then I grabbed a first aid kit and we ran alongside a group of militiamen to Kham Thien Street. A large area on both sides of the street lay in ruins. We women volunteers helped to bandage the victims’ wounds and comfort the children, while the men volunteers removed debris to search for survivors.

I noticed some men pulling apart two cement walls or ceilings that had fallen on top of one another. As the two inner surfaces separated, there came to light the remains of a man who had been crushed between them. His body was pressed out flat and paper-thin, like a butterfly or flower on a blood-drenched greetings card.

I wanted to run, but my legs were rooted to the spot. I wanted to scream, but my cry was stifled in my throat. My sister saw the fear in my face and asked me what was wrong, but I was struck dumb. She took me by the hand and led me home.

Two days later my mother took me to see the doctor, who diagnosed post-traumatic stress and prescribed me some tranquilisers to help me sleep. It was a whole week before I got my voice back.

This, as it turned out, was the last air raid on Hanoi. Nearly 2,000 people were killed. Many of them could have been saved, because the government had advance warning and sent buses at midday to evacuate the inhabitants of the endangered neighborhood to a safe place on the city outskirts. By the evening, unfortunately, seeing that no planes had yet come and supposing that it was just another false alarm, most of the evacuees returned home—just in time for the air raid.

The street was soon rebuilt. The street market revived, as busy and crowded as ever. Only a small memorial to the victims of the raid reminded the passerby of what had happened there.

The boys come home

One evening in June 1973, my girlfriend Bich came to visit me. She told me that her old boyfriend Sinh, who had gone to the front at the same time as my own boyfriend Tung, was back. She had been with him at his home the previous night.

“How is he?” I hastened to ask.

In reply she shrugged and burst out:

“He looks just like a monkey!”

Immediately she changed the subject and began to talk about the students at the middle school where she was teaching. Then she complained that the mother of her new boyfriend did not seem to like her very much.

The next Sunday afternoon, it was Sinh himself who showed up at my door. He didn’t look like a monkey to me, although he did hold a crutch under his arm. His left leg had been amputated above the knee. We hugged and cried.

I brought him a chair and we drank some tea together. I asked him whether his leg hurt a lot. He told me that it did bother him, because the cut bone had grown and pressed on the skin of the stump, eventually breaking right through. Whenever this happened, he had to return to the hospital to have the bone filed down and the stump repaired.

He said he was lonesome. After his first encounter with Bich, she and her family had avoided him and would not let him into their house. He had thought of Bich as someone very close, he mused, but now he realized that a wide river separated them and there was no bridge or ferry to cross over. I felt so sorry for him.

Later I heard that he had married a girl from the village where we had lived before he was called up.

Toward the end of 1973, a rice shortage developed. In addition to the disruption of farming caused by the war, we were by then no longer receiving food aid from abroad. We had to rely mainly on dried corn, wheat flour, potato, and sweet potato. By the spring of 1974, rice had disappeared completely and even other crops were in short supply. At the university, we students had to get by on two meals a day. For lunch we were served four small boiled potatoes, for dinner just a piece of bread and some vegetable soup.

But we kept our spirits up. One morning I walked into the class with my face beaming.

“What’s up with you?” one of my classmates inquired.

“I ate such a big breakfast that I’m full to bursting,” I boasted.

“Why, what on earth did you find to eat?”

“Air! Plenty of fresh air!”

Everyone burst out laughing.

In the eyes of ordinary people in the North, the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a crushing defeat. So many sons lost at a single blow! After this devastating shock public morale plummeted to an all-time low. People fatalistically expected the war to drag on indefinitely. The food shortages of the early 1970s, no longer compensated by a flow of foreign food aid from sympathetic countries, only deepened the general pessimistic mood.

So in April 1975 we were all astonished to learn that following a lightning offensive with relatively few losses Saigon and the whole of the South was liberated.

At last the war was over and the country reunited.

By train and by truck, our soldiers returned from the South—first to their base camps, where they received their demobilization papers, and then back home. Among them were some of our friends and classmates, neighbors and relatives, including my elder brother Dai Lam.

We greeted them with tears and embraces, in joy and sadness.

We were sad for all those who did not come back.

We were sad for all those who came back, but too late to see the aged parents who had so patiently awaited their return.

We were sad to see the sorry physical and mental state of the returning veterans. In hardly any of them were we able to recognise their old lively and cheerful selves. Some, despite the heat, were shivering with cold because they had malaria. Others had lost a limb or an eye or were suffering from malnutrition. Yet others acted strangely, clearly deranged by combat trauma.

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