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  • Grand Old Narrative

    Talking is one of the joys of my life, particularly when it becomes a heated (respectful) discussion. However, my limited Vietnamese means that I spend more time listening than I do speaking. More often than not I find that I end up listening to the retelling of old memories and sometimes new ones.

    So here are a few for you…

    The Hunted Man

    So, by now everyone knows ‘My dad the people smuggler’ the project that materialised last year and has grown a life of it’s own since then. For those who are yet to have an idea then you can see the work here.

    Back in 1981 when my brother was just born and my father was in the process of organising a boat for a large group of people. The authorities were tipped off about his operation. It wasn’t known then, and well I didn’t know it until recently, but this boat was not to be his last.

    The story goes that he missed his son (my brother) and despite knowing that he was being hunted came back in the middle of the night to visit my mother and my brother as they slept. Little did he know that the authorities were floating around and came to raid the house to look for the traitor, my father.

    In order to paint a picture for you, there was no electricity at night; it was rural Vietnam in a run down old French Colonial house that had all but caved in on itself. There was no ceiling, rather beams and the exposed underside of roof tiles. Surrounding the house was little more than rice paddies, where my father was suppose to be hiding.

    On that very night two men carrying flashlights came, ‘Surely your father would have been beaten to death there and then’ one of my cousins believes. My father quickly climbed onto the roof beams of the house where there was a small sheet of wood. There he lay quietly in the pitch dark, my mother and brother sleeping in the corner unaware of what was happening around them. The two men came through the front of the house heading towards the back where they lay. Lights were shone around the house and into the roof spaces. Eventually falling upon the sleeping mother and child in the corner. Seeing this they decided to leave.

    I hear this story every time I am in Vietnam, told to me by several different people. Each time it is slightly different sometimes there is a level of fear, sometimes it is comical, other times indifferent; whatever the case the core of the story rarely change.

    Aunt and Niece

    One of my favourite stories to hear when I am in Vietnam is that of my grandaunt and my oldest aunt. These women are now in their 90’s and 70’s, and though they live in different areas of South Vietnam they still care deeply for each other and remember their shared hardships.

    One particular story that I have heard a few times is of a single day in which these two, one in her 20s and the other still a child, going to the market. A simple story about a young lady and a child going to buy food and getting caught in the rain, sharing an umbrella and holding each other to stay warm.

    Though not much of a story, it is the tone in which this memory is expressed that moves me. Having grown up far from extended family I have never really understood or experienced these relationships, but in listening to a 93 year old tell a story that is dripping in love and sadness for a niece who is now close to 80 gets me in the gut every time.

    The Red Khmer

    Red, red, red, red…

    Little pockets of money, culture, communism, blood and good fortune…

    On one of my last days in Vietnam I sat and listened to the coherent ramblings of an old man. At 80 my uncle’s memory is crystal clear.

    One of the events that I had to attend while in Vietnam was the wedding of my cousin. For their honeymoon they decided to go to Cambodia for a few days, which triggered a lot of reminiscing about the ‘good’ old days in Phnom Penh.

    As mentioned in an earlier post my mum’s family fled to Cambodia with the rise of the Viet Minh in the 1940/50’s, where my mum was born. The rise of the Khmer Rouge forced them to slowly migrate back to Vietnam during and following the War. My Uncle 7 who is married to my mother’s sister was also part of the group of Vietnamese who were forced to leave Cambodia during this period.

    Though most of his family fled Cambodia during this period his father had remained to protect their house and belongings, because there was no way of selling; the policy at the time being that if you ‘abandoned’ property, it was taken by the state. Figuring he was already an old man, there was little to lose. Once everyone had fled the country, someone vandalized the house throwing rocks though the windows. It was only after a neighbor intervened stating that it was the house of a well-connected Khmer that the vandalism stopped.

    It was interesting that my uncle was quite vocal in telling everyone there were also good Khmer that protected the family. As if the general consensus was that the whole populous of Cambodia at that time was pro Khmer Rouge.

    At this point the story drifted into general comments; different methods of murder and torture. The bamboo spearing of people as they fled, the running down of people with vehicles, trucks full of people being driven off cliffs.

    Eventually the discussion turned into talk about headless corpses and mountains of bodies. Countless skulls… then the talk abruptly ended.