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Searching for People — and Memories — in Vietnam

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Farmer in a rice paddy

Sustained traditions: Immediately outside Hôi Am, rice paddies abound in various states of growth and harvest.
Photo by Jill K. Robinson

Motorbikes stacked with baskets of produce and crates of chickens cross in front of the car, causing me to hold my breath as we navigate the route.

My driver doesn’t seem concerned.

“Now in Vietnam,” he says, “everything under construction.” His arm sweeps the horizon as we drive through Da Nang, 40 years since the end of the American War, as it’s called here. It seems every other building is a casino-cum-resort in the country’s desire to turn the beachside town into a Las Vegas rival. We weave through slow “sticky rice traffic” and are soon zipping along the road to Hôi An, where he assures me things will be ­different.

Soon, the presence of vehicles on the road is the only clue that we haven’t transported back to another time. On either side, emerald rice paddies stretch into the distance, tended by chunky water buffalo with crescent-shaped horns and people wearing the conical hats called non la.

This day trip is a solo journey for me. All my other excursions in Vietnam have been organized by the small luxury cruise ship on which I’m traveling — along with 115 other passengers. Each morning in another port, we meet in the ship’s lounge, form groups based on pre-determined tour interests, and board buses that take us deeper into the country.

Among the passengers are a handful of men who have visited Vietnam previously, during the war — although “visit” isn’t exactly the description they use. From Marine to Army pilot, all are here to see the country anew, some more enthusiastically than others.

“I think the only reason I’m here,” says Chuck Molenda, a former Army captain pilot stationed in Hue Phu Bai who flew an OV-1 Mohawk over Laos and North Vietnam, “is to see if I can find Tia.”

He shows me a black-and-white photo he’d taken of a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl and explains that she was the “hooch girl,” who cleaned the tent and Marine jungle hut ­— the “hooch” — that he and three other pilots called home for a year.
“Tin roofs, screened sides, and plywood floors,” Chuck says. “Pure luxury.”

In the photo, Tia has a shy smile and isn’t looking directly at the camera. It’s as if she was intrigued and yet cautious all at once.

“I know the odds aren’t good, and I’m almost sure I won’t find her, but if I don’t try, I’ll be thinking about it for the rest of my life.”

It seems a far distance to travel for someone who might not be the closest of friends. But the war, for many, changed the personal borders they had with others — making them thinner, or even far thicker, than one might have at home. Was Chuck motivated to make the trip because he was always worried for Tia, or did his experiences with the war and their aftermath push his thoughts of Tia’s whereabouts to a more uncomfortable place — until it couldn’t stay quiet any longer?

While I’m spending the day in Hôi An, Chuck has hired a driver to take him to a village about a half mile off the end of the runway they used during the war, where he plans to ask residents if they recognize the girl and perhaps know what has become of her. “I’m prepared to be disappointed,” he says. “I know the odds aren’t good, and I’m almost sure I won’t find her, but if I don’t try, I’ll be thinking about it for the rest of my life.”

Leaning on the railing of a bridge that spans Hôi An’s Thu Bôn River, I watch fishermen setting their nets while wooden tour boats sit empty along the banks. The boats’ painted eyes silently gaze at the Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples, and souvenir shops with Viet Cong pith helmets and T-shirts exclaiming “Buddha is my Omboy.” During the American War, Hôi An, with the cooperation of both sides, remained almost completely undamaged.

The Ancient Town is small — one street running along the Thu Bôn with three more streets parallel to the river. They’re intersected by smaller streets and alleys, and in a few hours, visitors can cover it all. Detours into the alleys reward me with glimpses of Buddhist altars, scrolled lampposts, families eating breakfast, and women loading baskets of goods for market.

Japanese covered bridge

Ancient ties: The covered bridge was built to link Japanese and Chinese communities in Hôi An.
Photo by Jill K. Robinson

Near one end of the Ancient Town, a Japanese covered bridge emerges from rose-colored walls, linking previous Japanese and Chinese communities. I walk past stone monkey guardians at one end before entering a tiny temple built into the bridge. The deep red wood glows under silk lanterns, and smoke curling up from a forest of incense sticks never quite reaches the ceiling before an oscillating fan blows it gently away.

Looking out from the covered bridge, I spy Vietnamese teens in suits and ao dai tunics posing for photos near the river. Tourists emerge from shops with new treasures, and backpackers perch on tiny plastic chairs to sample street food prepared in front of their ankles. The fisherman hauls in his net, arranges fish in his boat, and casts the net again.

It’s still morning as I walk along the river toward Hôi An’s Central Market. My eyes are focused on the ground to avoid stepping on the buckets of fish on one side and the baskets of peppers on the other. I don’t see her coming. The light punch on my shoulder, delivered with a closed fist, is her only communication. I turn quickly to see a tiny older woman, with salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a bun underneath a conical hat, scurry away through the market crowd.

Resisting the urge to run after her and ask her motive, I scan the faces of the market vendors around me. They’d been quietly observing, and now with my gaze on them, turn back to their tasks — whether selling cucumbers, lychees, shrimp, dragonfruit, or the hundreds of other types of merchandise at the Central Market.

Their disinterest makes it seem as if a tiny elderly woman is regularly scheduled to punch someone every day at around this time, like the clock parade at It’s a Small World in Disneyland, the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, or even the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas. I must have missed important advice if the Hôi An Central Market’s punching lady is merely part of the entertainment.

Street Vendors

Basket goods: Bananas, lychees, and other fesh produce are available from mobile street merchants in the old town.
Photo by Jill K. Robinson

My growling stomach lures me to a stall with a sign that advertises “Pho’, Cao Lâu, Hu Tiêu, Kinh Mo’i,” and I grab a seat as I wait for the rich pork broth with light yellow noodles, slabs of tender pork, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs to be ladled into a bowl.

“She’s still mad about the war,” the vendor says, handing me the bowl of cao lâu, a local specialty. “She lost many people in her family.”

“She knows I wasn’t here in the war, right?” I ask, wondering just how old I look.

The woman smiles and nods, and as I pull some money out of my pocket to pay, she waves her hand to communicate that this bowl of cao lâu is her treat. A minor bruise for a bowl of porky goodness is a fair trade.

“She’s still mad about the war,” the vendor says, handing me the bowl of cao lâu. “She lost many people in her family.”

I wonder how Chuck is doing with his search, and recall a conversation I had the day before with Geoff, the ship’s travel anthropologist, about the likelihood of finding Tia.

“If she made it through the war and is still in the area, which for a number of reasons is unlikely,” Geoff said, “the North Vietnamese would have identified her as a sympathizer or even considered her a combatant, and life for her would have been very difficult, to say the least.”

He added that for many men who supported the South Vietnamese campaigns (or worked with the U.S. directly), “re-­education camps” were the norm. Higher-­ranking people may have faced forced ­labor or even execution.

“For women, it’s highly possible they may have been abused at the discretion of the men who found them, in ways unthinkable,” Geoff said.

I find myself slowing down as I walk through Hôi An, watching women tend to their daily lives. How many of them had been lucky enough to escape torture and death? How many others had been from the other side? How large would today’s population of Hôi An be if there had been no war?

Hôi An extends far beyond the old architecture and shops of the Ancient Town. Eager to get a longer look at life outside old Hôi An, I walk past the boundaries to see what most of the tourists are missing.

Vendor

Hôi An Central Market: Vendors sell seafood, silk, produce, and prepared meals.
Photo by Jill K. Robinson

I find a vendor who sells me a glass of bia ho’i (fresh beer brewed only in northern Vietnam) and sip it while watching residents and visitors pass by. The rain falls lightly at first and then begins to pour. I stand under the vendor’s umbrella, and the woman lifts a stack of T-shirts from a chair, motions for me to sit, and then plunks a non la on my head.

“Wait for rain,” she insists, sitting in a chair under the umbrella and miming drinking a beer, so I’ll understand. Traffic stops, and for a moment, it seems that we’re in our own timeless cocoon. We take turns offering simply worded observations about passers-by as we wait out the rain.

She shows me a stack of old photos — dog-eared, sepia-toned remnants of the American War. I flip through the stack to see images of soldiers, villages, beach activities during down time, even simple portraits of Vietnamese people. Every once in a while, I linger on a photo, and she leans over and touches it. Both our hands hold it together as we gaze into the past.
The vendor appears to be in her mid-50s, around the same age Tia would be today. I wonder how long she’s had the photos, and if now they were such a part of her memories that, despite the prices she’d penciled on the back, she might have a hard time letting go of them.

We finish looking through the images, and I hand them back to her. She tucks them inside a silk scarf, and then behind the last pile of T‑shirts. The pictures are decidedly not on display, or for sale, like many things that challenge us, causing both pleasure and pain, placed just out of reach.

When the rain stops, I finish my glass of beer and hand it to her, along with the loaner hat. In return, she tucks a small pink flower behind my ear. Our goodbyes are nearly drowned out by the sound of motorbike traffic, but our smiles are enough to convey the sentiment. I skirt the puddles as I head deeper into modern Vietnam, and eventually to the car that will take me past casinos and resorts. Back to where everything is under construction.

On the ship, I find Chuck sitting in our regular spot — on the deck near the bar. I ask the question that’s been on my mind all day.

“No, I didn’t find her,” he answers. “I didn’t think I would, but I’m glad I came.”

He looks disappointed, but claims not to be. Once they return to the ship, the other vets check in with Chuck — all with the same question. Some of them ask silently, with raised brows. Others out loud.

They linger over memories with their drinks, and I give them some time alone together. I wasn’t part of their experiences, and to listen in would be trespassing on their memories. The ship’s engines growl, and we slowly pull away from the dock in Da Nang. I pick the pink flower from behind my ear and turn it over in my fingers for a few minutes before letting it flutter down into the East Vietnam Sea. For Tia, wherever she may be.

Jill K. Robinson writes about travel, adventure, food, and drink for the San Francisco Chronicle, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, Outside, and more. Her essays have been published in Travelers’ Tales: The Best Travel Writing and The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her last feature for the Post was “Little Free Libraries” in the May/June 2014 issue.

This article is featured in the July/August 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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  • Kathleen Prince

    Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing this experience with readers.