The Love of Saigon           

                                                                                    A Fiction Written by Vinh Ly                                                   

                                                                                                                     Copyright © 2012 

 

When the plane was descending from above Ho Chi Minh City, I looked at my better half and held her hand tightly as though she would vanish like the clouds outside the window.  She glanced back at me, smiled and put her head on my shoulder, seemingly reassured that our hearts would be forever linked. After we went through the Customs Service at the Tan Son Nhat Airport, we took a taxi to the hotel.  On the way to the hotel, I gazed at the sky.  The sky looked just as blue as the days when I was still a student in Saigon thirty-five years ago.  However, I could no longer recognize the streets, buildings and structures.  Things seemed familiar, yet, somehow strange.  The Church Nhà thờ Thánh Jeanne d'arc on Hung Vuong Street was still there, yet different from the image in my mind.

 

As the taxi drove by the site of the school I attended thirty-five years ago, I recalled the lovely face of Võ Ngọc Nhung, the daughter of our school principal.  That afternoon thirty-five years ago, she was sitting quietly at the corner of the principal’s office, doing her homework.  I was called to the principal’s office because I was seen hanging out during school hours a few days ago.  The principal who had recently been appointed by Hanoi to lead our school, was thin, reserved, and wore a pair of glasses.  The principal asked me why I roamed the streets with my friends when I was supposed to be at school.  I looked at the principal.  His face was stern like metal iron.  I knew it was not going to be an easy and smooth exit out of this situation.  However, I told him frankly that since the government changed two years ago, under the so-called socialist structure, our morale was very low.  We were not motivated to study hard since our future looked bleak.  The principal then replied, “Trần Duy Trường, we need to have a straight talk.”  As he led me to a loft, I was able to get a closer look at Võ Ngọc Nhung.  I was stunned instantly by her beauty as I set my eyes on her.  She had an oval face and hair dark, straight and down to her shoulders.  Her skin was light tan, and her nose was straight. She wore a white blouse and a black skirt.  She had lips as attractive as a pair of cherries and eyes as beautiful as a deep blue lake.  She was just like an angel from heaven.

The principal told me to sit down.  He told me that he had heard that I was smart and good at playing basketball and swimming.  Knowing that I was a good swimmer, he asked me if I could catch some fish for him.  I burst into a laugh, thinking even though the principal had a stern face, he did have a great sense of humor.  He then asked me why I felt the future was gloomy.  I responded that every day we were saturated by propaganda.  We were told that owning a business was a bad thing.  People were told to go to the New Economic Zones to clear the land where there was no leadership and no reward for hard work.  We didn’t see a higher education as a way to brighten our future.  Listening, the principal nodded.  He said he agreed that socialism was not perfect, but we ought to give it a chance.  He emphasized that each individual should think of the whole society first.  If everyone contributed accordingly, the society would become a better place.  I said to myself, “yes, that is true, but, what if everyone takes instead of contributing.  Socialism is ideal, and a communist country is just a utopia.”  I mumbled, “Who would like to live in an oppressive society.”  The principal realized that he had not convinced me to change my view.  He told me to learn more about socialism and study harder at school.  He told me performing well at school was important and beneficial no matter where I went.  I nodded.  Our conversation ended with the principal giving me a warning that a suspension would be given if I continued being absent from school for no reason.  I thanked the principal and took his advice on studying harder at school.  As I stepped out of the office, the principal patted gently on my back.

          A few days later, after playing basketball during the lunch break, I ran into Võ Ngọc Nhung in the hallway and said to her that I must have looked like a fool in the principal’s office the other day.  She shook her head and spoke with a beautiful northern accent, “No, you did the right thing, speaking your mind.  It is not always easy.”   She then said, “By the way, my name is Võ Ngọc Nhung.”  I then shook her soft hand and told her that my name was Trần Duy Trường.  I asked her how she liked Saigon.  She said Saigon was completely different from Hanoi.  To her Saigon was more vibrant and modern than Hanoi.  She said she liked Saigon, but she missed the tranquility and poetic setting of Hanoi.  I responded to her that I would love to visit Hanoi one day.  She countered that Saigon in reality was better than what she thought.  Her openness took me by surprise.  I asked what she enjoyed doing in her spare time.  She said that she liked to sing ca trù, which is an ancient genre of chamber music featuring female vocalists with origins in northern Vietnam.  I was surprised that she liked ca trù.  Under communist rule, it was banned.  Võ Ngọc Nhung told me she learned ca trù secretly by listening to other folks singing.  By then the bell rang.  It was time to go back to classes.  I said goodbye to Võ Ngọc Nhung, but her image remained in my mind throughout that evening and the rest of my life.

          For the remainder of the school year of 1977, I excelled and studied hard, doing well in mathematics, physics and English.  I knew one of these days I might have a need for knowledge.  Occasionally, Nhung would come to me, seeking assistance in school work.  We enjoyed each other’s company.  On some weekends, we would go to the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden or to a concert or a magic show in the city.  Sometimes we would go to Le Loi Street to browse some medical textbooks.  Nhung dreamed to be a surgeon, so one day she could help save some lives in the country. Sometimes we would watch a basketball game in a stadium on Nguyen Trai Street. Some afternoons we would stroll along Saigon River by Bach Dang Pier.  Some evenings we would go to a night market on Dong Khanh Street to have a papaya sweet soup or a red bean drink.  Other times we would go out to watch a Soviet or East German film.  The movie that we enjoyed watching the most was Hugo's "Les Miserables."  After the movie, we would go to a café on Tu Do Boulevard and spend some time talking.  Nhung told me that she was the only child in her family and her mother died during the bombing of Hanoi by the Americans.  I asked her if she hated the Americans.  She answered, “No, I don’t hate Americans.  I only hate war.  We Vietnamese were just trying to be independent and unified.  We should all talk and work out the situation peacefully.”  I told her that I agreed, but I felt suffocated under the new system.  We had different ideologies, but I was madly in love with Nhung.  I started seeing things from a different perspective.  I did not see things in purely black and white any more.  I saw North Vietnamese as human beings just like us from the South.  They also had feelings and suffered a great deal during the war.

          At the end of the school year, I invited Võ Ngọc Nhung to go to Vung Tau, a popular seaside resort south of Saigon to visit our parents.  She was hesitant at first.  But I told her we would be back in Saigon around six o’clock in the afternoon.  She then agreed to go.  When we arrived in Vung Tau around eleven o’clock in the morning, we went straight to my parents’ home.  My mother was cooking in the kitchen at that time.  She invited Võ Ngọc Nhung to sit down to have a cup of tea.  My mother said lunch would be ready soon and told me to set the table and to ask my father to come down to join us for lunch.  My mother seemed very happy to meet Võ Ngọc Nhung.  However, my father, after learning Võ Ngọc Nhung’s family was from Hanoi, did not seem very happy.  He finished his meal quickly and went back upstairs to continue his chores.  Lunch wasn't much a meal since life after 1975 was tough.  Rice was mixed with cassava roots, and we barely had any meat to consume.  As Nhung helped wash the dishes, my mother said to me, “Son, don’t blame your father.  You know, your older brother was in the army fighting for the former government.  He is now in re-education camp.  Our main residence and hardware store were confiscated, and each household was entitled to the new currency $200 only for living. Your father would not be happy if you are dating a Vietnamese girl from the North.”  I said, “Mom, I totally understand how Dad feels.  I would be upset too if my brother is dating the daughter of our so-called enemy.  But love is innocent and has no boundary.”  My mother did not say much after that.  She just wished us a good day.

          Soon after, Võ Ngọc Nhung and I took a car to tour around Vung Tau.  We traveled along the seacoast.  Nhung asked me how my childhood was like.  I told her my childhood was full of fun even though we lived under the shadow of the war.  We used to go hiking in the mountains and swimming in the ocean.  I told her one time the kids in our town had a swimming competition.  One of the kids named Thắng liked to challenge other people.  He was a fast swimmer, but seemed to lack stamina.  In this match, Thắng was leading in the beginning while I was pursuing right behind him.  After about three hundred meters, Thắng seemed to have trouble keeping up.  I stopped swimming and gave Thắng a hand while the other kids swam by from behind.  Thắng showed great appreciation when we reached our destination.  He asked why I did not continue when I passed him.  I replied to him, “Winning is definitely important, however, saving someone’s life is even more critical.”  Thắng and I became good friends afterward.  I then asked Võ Ngọc Nhung how her childhood was.  She said that they lived in constant fear because of the bombings from the American.  However, she enjoyed poetry a lot.  That was why she liked to sing ca trù.  She said that she also liked the music written before 1975 in South Vietnam.  I was surprised at her reply and asked her why.  She said those songs were full of melody and feelings.

         We came to stop at the Au Vent Beach.  Au Vent was a French word for wind.  It was a windy place at the foot of the Little Mountain, yet it was the most romantic place on earth.  It was dotted with coconut trees and was paved naturally with white sands.  The coconut trees were like Hawaiian girls dancing to the wind.  As far as our sights could reach, waves after waves would rush to the shore. You might even be able to spot dolphins playing in the distance and tropical fish swimming over the reef coral.  Nhung and I got off the passenger car and went to the restaurant by the cliff below the statue of Jesus on the hill.  We ordered some crabs and soda.  We ate our snack and enjoyed the beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean.  Later we started walking down the stairs that led to the beach.  Not too many people were on the beach.  From time to time, seagulls flew by.  We got to a coconut tree and leaned on it.  At this time, the wind calmed down.  I held Nhung, who was in a traditional Vietnamese white gown áo dài, in my arms. The view was so beautiful.  The next thing I knew was my lips on Nhung's.  My hands were around her slim waist.  Our souls fused into one.  It seemed as though we were the only people on earth.   Holding Ngọc Nhung was like embracing the soul of Vietnam.  It felt like an eternity.

       We were totally immerged in this serene and graceful setting that we completely forgot about the time.  We did not leave Vung Tau until four o’clock.  By the time we arrived in Saigon, it was already half past six o’clock in the evening.  We stopped by a restaurant and had a quick dinner.  I then accompanied Nhung to her house.  I apologized to her that we came back late.  She said that was fine.  That night I could not fall to sleep, thinking of Nhung.  This coming fall I would have to apply for college, but for Nhung it would be her senior year in high school.  That meant we would have less time to see each other.

     The next few days, I tried to locate Nhung, but I could not find her.  One night I waited outside the alley near her house the whole night.  It was raining hard.  I was soaking wet, but I continued waiting until eleven o’clock the next morning.  It was fruitless.  Even when the next school year started, I still would not see Nhung around the school.  Meanwhile, despite my good grades in high school, I could not get into college because of my family background.  Prior to 1975, my father was a merchant and my older brother was an army officer fighting for the former government.  Now my father could no longer run a business, my family would need me to support them.  My father sent me to work as an apprentice to my uncle in a fishing village.  My uncle and I would fix the fish net and the engine when it broke down.  For days, we would sail in the sea to catch some fish and crabs.  I learned how to sail a boat during this period.

         Months passed, but Nhung’s image would continue to linger in my mind.  One weekend I took a break to visit my parents.  As I stepped into the house, my mother handed me a letter.  I was so excited when I looked at the letter.  It was written by Nhung.  She said she was now in Hanoi.  Her father would not allow her to see me.  She told me to forget her.  She also mentioned since we came from different backgrounds, we should not stay together.  Her father would not forgive her if she stayed with me.  Her father wanted her to have a brighter future.  That was why her father sent her back to Hanoi to complete her studies.  After reading the letter, my head felt like it was struck by lightning.

         For days, I would not feel like eating or drinking.  I could not do anything other than think of Võ Ngọc Nhung.  Finally, I decided to head to Hanoi.  I requested a leave from my uncle and parents.  I took a train to Hanoi.  I remembered Nhung told me before that she had an aunt living in Hoàn Kiếm District in Hanoi.  I went there and walked every single street in that neighborhood.  I would not give up until I found her.  I walked and walked until I was tired.  I stopped at an alley and all of a sudden I heard the sound of ca trù.  I walked toward the source of the sound.  There I could not believe my eyes -- Ngọc Nhung was singing by the window.  She was surprised to see me and asked me how I got here.  I told her how much I missed her and how I had searched for her.  She said I was crazy, but her face would not hide her happiness.  We hugged each other for as long as we could, until a woman tapped on Nhung.  It was her aunt. Nhung told her aunt how we met and how I came to Hanoi.  Her aunt was a pleasant lady.  She seemed to sympathize with our situation, but thought that Nhung should continue with her school in Hanoi.

          That night I told Nhung about our plan. I asked her if she would go back to Saigon with me. From there we would escape from the country. She said she would love to, but she could not leave her father behind. Her father would be by himself, with no one to take care of him. I was sympathetic with her, but felt that if we stayed behind, we would not be able to see each other.  Besides, I could not attend college and find a better job. I told her since a lot of people were escaping from the country now, why didn't we give it a chance?  Even though agreed, she was very hesitant.  She said she needed a few days to think about it. I told her that once her father found out that I had contacted her, he would ban me from seeing her forever.  She was about to say no to our plan, but thinking about what I had gone through to find her, she finally agreed to join me.

          The next day we boarded a train to head back to Saigon. As the train moved out slowly from the depot, I saw a police officer walking toward our car, searching for someone from row to row.  The police officer must have been sent by Nhung's aunt to search for us.  I immediately grasped Nhung's hand and ran toward the back of the train. I climbed over a small gate at the end of the train and told Nhung to hold onto me.  As the train picked up its speed, I let go of the handles and rolled on the ground with Nhung on top of me.  Nhung asked me if I was okay. I told her yes, but we needed to take the train in the nearby town to avoid being held back by the police. We did and arrived in Saigon a few days later.  In Saigon, I phoned my mother.  I told her about our situation. She told me not to worry and she would have things taken care of when we arrived in Vung Tau. We did not discuss details on the phone, but I knew my mother would always have a good plan for us.

        When we arrived in Vung Tau a few days later, my mother told me that she had bought a small boat.  She had equipped the boat with fuel, water and food.  I said, "Mom, it must have cost your life savings.  Why don't you and Dad come with us?"  She answered, "No, we are old now.  But you have a bright future waiting for you ahead.  Besides, your older brother is still in the re-education camp.  We have to wait for him to come out."   Tears just flowed out from my eyes.  I then said to my mother that I wanted to say goodbye to my father.  My mother pushed me and said, "Hurry, if your father learns that you are running away with Nhung, he will be very upset."  I said, "Mom, please say goodbye to Dad for me.  Please take good care of yourself and Dad."  She answered, "Go on.  Don't worry about us."  She then seemed to recall something.  She went up to the attic and brought down a pistol and a necklace.  She handed the pistol to me and said, "I hid your brother's pistol since the war ended.  You will need the pistol now to protect you and Nhung in case you run into danger."  My mother then turned to Nhung and handed her the necklace.  My mother said to Nhung, "Sorry, we don't have much, but a necklace to give you.  This necklace has been passed down from generation to generation to me.  Now it belongs to you."  Nhung tried to return the necklace to my mother, but my mother insisted Nhung take the necklace.  My mother said, "Take it.  You might need it one day."  She then kissed Nhung affectionately on the cheek.  I hugged my mother and said goodbye.  I promised my mother that I would send her money once I settled down.

      In the afternoon before leaving VietnamNhung and I went to a church to pray.  After praying, we walked out of the church and passed by a park.  There was a Tran Hung Dao statue in the park, his left hand holding a sword, right hand pointing to the south, which seemed to indicate to us a sea route to Malaysia.  The statue of Jesus on the hillside was facing the sea, with two open arms, as if He was blessing and saying goodbye to us.    

     In that moonless night, Nhung and I left Vietnam in the small boat that my mother prepared for us.  We left at night in order to avoid interception by the patrol boat.  The flashing light from the lighthouse on top of the mountain was our last glimpse of our homeland.  I sailed the boat in the southwest direction.  Nhung was seasick on the first day.  I asked if she regretted running away with me.  She said, "No, I don't regret.  I can overcome hardship when I am with my loved one."  In the journey, we were excited as the flying fish in the sea. On the fourth day, a cargo ship passed by.  I sent out an SOS signal.   The cargo ship ignored us.  The next day, we saw a fishing boat chasing us.  I had a feeling that they were the Thai pirates.  I immediately told Nhung to hold onto the pistol and hide in the cabin.  When the fishing boat was near us, a Thai pirate jumped over to our boat and demanded valuables.  I punched him and threw him into the sea.  At this time, the second man jumped over and tried to stab me from behind.  At this critical moment, I heard a popping sound.  The man fell and his shoulder bled.  I picked him up and threw him toward his boat.  I thanked Nhung and asked if she was okay.  She said yes.  I was amazed at her calmness and courage.  We felt fortunate that this was a small group of pirates.

       On the sixth day, we saw a shoreline in the distance.  We were so excited that freedom was finally within our reach.  It was around seven o’clock in the evening.  We continued sailing, but all of a sudden, our boat bumped into a reef, and a powerful wave slammed our boat.  The next thing I knew I was in the cold water.  My whole body was trembling.  I swam and looked around for Nhung.  But it was getting dark.  I could not locate her.  My heart felt like a rock sinking into the bottom of the ocean.

       I kept searching for hours in the sea until I became so tired and landed on the beach of an island in Malaysia.  When daylight broke from below the horizon, I started walking on the beach looking for Nhung.  I was so desperate that I kept walking until I reached a refugee camp on the island.  This island was called Bidong, which was really a sad place.  Tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people drowned in the sea here.  This was also where I lost my dear Ngọc Nhung.

        I asked people around the camp, but no one saw Nhung.  I wrote letters back home to my mother, my classmates and even to Nhung’s aunt.  I did not get any news on Nhung.  I was a walking corpse in Bidong for a year before migrating to the United States.

      In America, I continued my education by attending college, but I would not forget Võ Ngọc Nhung.  I contacted various agencies, but there was no news of her.  Each year, I would fly back to Bidong and wander on the beach to look for her.  On the tenth year, I had a strong feeling that I would find her.  On the exact date when Nhung and I got separated ten years ago, I went back to the island to the same beach.  I walked from dawn to dusk.  I was about to go back when I saw a figure of a woman in the distance.  I walked toward her.  When I passed her, I thought I saw the spirit of Nhung.  I asked her if she was Võ Ngọc Nhung.  For a moment, her face was expressionless.  Then her eyes started swarming with tears.  She nodded and ran to me.  We embraced each other and did not speak a word for some time.  Finally, she asked how I knew she was here.  I said when I was a kid, my mother told me if we ever got lost, I should go back to the place where we got separated and I would find you there.

      I asked Võ Ngọc Nhung what happened to her the night we got separated.  She said when she was in the water; she found a piece of wood and clung onto it.  The next morning she was rescued by a merchant ship, taking her to Singapore.  She stayed in Singapore for eight months before she moved to Springvale, Australia.  After listening to her story, I took off my jacket and put it on Nhung.  I kissed her forehead lightly and thanked God for allowing us to meet again.

      Next year, I married Võ Ngọc Nhung and brought her to San Jose, California.  We lived happily together.  Nhung was such a gracious and wonderful woman.  She was a symbol of beauty of Vietnam.  Occasionally she played the đàn tranh, a plucked zither of Vietnam and sang some traditional Vietnamese songs.  Her music was like bird songs in the woods and the gurgling sound of a creek.  At home she cooked the best phở in the world.  We never had a single argument.  We cherished the time we were together.  But for years we were ashamed to face her father.  We did not get his approval, and I almost lost his daughter in the sea. 

      Early this year in 2012, I received a call from my mother, stating that my father was really ill.  He had a stroke.  When I went to visit my father in the hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, I asked if he would forgive me for running away with Nhung, the daughter of our so-called enemy.  He pointed to a piece of paper on the table.  I brought the paper to him, and he started writing on it.  When he finished, I looked at the paper.  My father wrote on it, “Son, don’t keep it in your mind.  The war ended more than thirty-five years ago.  There was no wrong or right.  We should move on and look toward to brighter days.  I am glad that you married such a wonderful woman.”

      Soon after, my father passed away peacefully.  During the memorial service, a gentleman showed up.  It was the principal.  I greeted and apologized to him for what I did to him.  He shook his head and said, “Trần Duy Trường, don’t say that.  This has been so many years now.  I have forgotten about it.  I am glad that you and Võ Ngọc Nhung are together.  You are like my son now.  Thanks for taking care of Võ Ngọc Nhung all these years.”  After I heard this, tears flowed from my eyes.

      We spent a few weeks with my mother and brother.  I asked my brother if he felt bad about what the war did to him.  He said no, “The wound has long healed.  The sad days had gone; we now live in a better time.”  I asked him, "How was life in the re-education camp?  Was it tough?"  My brother answered, "It is hard to describe in a few sentences.  I got to know what hunger and coldness meant.  One time Mom brought some food to me.  I kept the salt and put it my mouth when I was hungry.  To me, salt was nearly as precious as gold at that time.  Many times I felt lonely and desperate in the re-education camp, I prayed to our Lord.  He gave me peace and strength to face the ordeal.  It was difficult, but with God in my heart, I managed to live through it."   I felt sorry that I left him behind to take care of our parents all these years.  He replied, “Don’t mention it.  It was a blessing to be able to be with Mom and Dad all these years.”  I hugged him and said thank you.

      The next day, we said goodbye to my mother and brother.  I hugged my mother tightly.  She said, “Son, thanks for your financial assistance all these years.”  I replied, “No, Mom.  It was nothing compared to what you sacrificed for us.  Without your help, Nhung and I would probably not be together now.”  I kissed my dear mother and told her to take good care of herself.   I promised her that I will come back to visit her more often.  Ngọc Nhung and I then flew to the secluded island Phu Quoc and spent some time there to reflect on our past before joining a cruise ship sailing to Malaysia on our way home to America.  We wanted to retrace the journey that we took thirty-four years ago, only this time we were not going to separate ever again.

 

                                                                               The End  

 

Completed on July 14th, 2012

  

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saulebong-camly-1290392742.mp3

Sầu Lẽ Bóng Lyrics (Enjoy the music while reading the story)

Tác giả: Anh Bằng

Người ơi khi cố quên là khi lòng nhớ thêm
Dòng đời là chuỗi tiếc nhớ
Mơ vui là lúc ngàn đắng cay ... xé tâm hồn
Tàn đêm tôi khóc khi trời mưa buồn hắt hiu
Lòng mình thầm nhớ dĩ vãng
Đau thương từ lúc vừa bước chân
Vào đường yêu

Đêm ấy mưa rơi nhiều
Giọt mưa tan tác mưa mùa ngâu
Tiễn chân người đi
Buồn che đôi mắt thấm ướt khi biệt ly
Nghe tim mình giá buốt
Hồi còi xé nát không gian
Xót thương vô vàn
Nhìn theo bóng tàu dần khuất trong màn êm
Mùa thu thương nhớ bao lần đi về có đôi
Mà người còn vắng bóng mãi
Hay duyên nồng thắm ngày ấy nay ... đã phai rồi
Từ lâu tôi biết câu thời gian là thuốc tiên
Đời việc gì đến sẽ đến
Những ai bạc bẽo mình vẫn không ... đành lòng quên
 

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