How old was I then? I don’t know. People guessed I was five or six when I told them my story. It was March 1975 in Chu Lai city, where I lived in an orphanage. I heard gunfire and mortar blasts in the middle of the night. I didn’t understand then, but Central Vietnam was almost in the hands of the communists.
A woman woke me up and placed around my neck a chain with a Formica pendent like a soldier’s dog tag. On one side there was a picture of a young woman and on the other side a picture of a man in military uniform. “Those are your mom’s and dad’s pictures,” the woman told me. “Keep them so you might someday find your parents.” Then she stood up, opened the door, and walked out into the night.
I knew that we were going to have to leave the orphanage. All of us. We had two kinds of blood in our veins: Vietnamese and American.
The adults had abandoned the orphanage. We children couldn’t sleep. We were too scared. So we gathered in a corner, hugged one another, and cried and cried.
Peeking through windows at dawn, I saw groups of people and vehicles hurrying down the road, all in the same direction. I could hear the sound of gunfire and mortars. Slowly they came nearer and nearer. I had a premonition that something monstrous was coming. So did the others. We exchanged dazed looks. We didn’t know what to do. We just cried and cried.
I looked out the window after the sun had risen just a little bit. In the street I saw bicycles, scooters, military trucks, and people, so many people. They were walking and jostling one another. They were trying to find enough space in the narrow roadway to keep going. Every now and again soldiers fired their gun into the air to stop trucks and buses. All the vehicles were already jammed with people, but the soldiers put more children and women on them anyway. We were terrified, and so we stayed in the house and cried some more.
At noon we were scared, but we were curious, too. We looked through the windows to see what was happening. We saw soldiers taking off their uniform. Then they threw them onto the streets and put on civilian clothes from their backpack. They threw their guns onto the ground, too. Then they joined the streams of people flowing in the same direction down the road. We didn’t know where they were going. Back then I didn’t even know that they were following Highway 1, the main (but narrow) north-south road along the coast.
That evening two other orphans, Vu and Duc, asked me to sneak out with them and follow the people. I didn’t know why they wanted to do that, but I went along. We didn’t know where to go, so we joined the crowd. We kept walking with the crowd until we reached the ocean.
Vu was a head taller than I was. Duc was only half a head taller. I didn’t know how old they were. I guessed Vu was two or three years older than I was. I called them my brothers because the adults in the orphanage had taught me to. Since I was the youngest I didn’t make any decisions. Instead I just kept running after Vu and Duc.
We heard people saying that the road to the south was blocked. The ocean was the only escape route.
Hoa started packing for his departure. He put all the necessities into a cardboard box and tied it up with nylon straps. He didn’t have much to take to the new land except a dream of building a new life and living in peace. I sadly watched him pack, trying to engrave his image forever on my heart.
Outside it started drizzling, and the winds kicked up. The atmosphere made the sadness even sadder. It drizzled the next whole day and didn’t stop until the seventh of January, the day that we had to separate from each other. Maybe the heavens and Earth cried for our separation and for the harsh lives waiting for us.
On the morning of the seventh of January, when everything was ready, we ate our last meal together, then visited Danh’s tomb one more time. We didn’t know when we would have an opportunity to return there. On our way to the tomb, the rain fell harder and harder. Everyone was soaked. Fortunately, it had completely rained itself out when we arrived there. We lit incense sticks and prayed that his return to the hands of Buddha would be soon. Hoa advised us to pray for that before we left Danh alone with the rain and wind on that deserted hill in central Vietnam.
After the rites, we followed the wet trail home. Hoa left us at home while he rode his bicycle to Vuon Lai to get his tricycle, to carry us and his belongings to UncleBay’s house in TamKy. When he returned he was soaked, and his lips had turned blue from the cold.
He entered the house and lit a fire to warm himself and warm leftovers to eat before leaving. He washed all the bowls, dishes, chopsticks, knives, and miscellaneous items, put them into a cardboard box, tied it up, covered it with a sheet of plastic, and then loaded it on the tricycle. When all the preparations were completed, Vu, Duc, and I helped Hoa push the tricycle to the main road. After covering a short distance, he asked us to stop and wait for him there. He returned to his house. I thought he had forgotten something. Suddenly, I saw smoke, and then his house burst into flames. Moments later, he came back and told us, “I want to eliminate all the sad memories from that house.”
We climbed onto his tricycle, and he pedaled us to Uncle Bay’s. He dropped us off, along with his box of belongings, then cycled back to Vuon Lai to leave his tricycle there. Nhan’s father would sell it for him. Then Hoa rode his bicycle back to UncleBay’s to wait for Nhan. They would ride a bus to Kontum together. Uncle Bay’s house sat alongside Highway 1, so catching the bus was convenient.
A while later, Nhan arrived. He wished Mr. and Mrs. Bay a happy New Year, and then he and Hoa went out to the street to catch a bus to Kontum.
When the bus came, Hoa embraced each of us. I was last. He kissed the top of my head and said, “Stay here with Vu and Duc to help Uncle Bay. I hope God will reunite us.”
I didn’t know what to say except, “Yes.”
He stepped onto the bus at the driver’s urging. I waved goodbye as the wheels of the bus started rolling. I couldn’t hold back my tears. I knew I wouldn’t meet him again in this life, after over a year of living with him.
We were always permitted to sit at the table with Uncle Bay’s family and relatives. Mr. and Mrs. Bay’s kind treatment of us made us respect them and love them. I thought, with such nice treatment, I would be happy to work for him for my whole life. Having suffered the lack of love and respect from others, I considered the treatment I received from the Bays and their relatives to be noble and sacred.
I saw that his wife was still busy in the kitchen. Running into the living room, she asked us go wash our face and hands, then come back to the living room right away to help ourselves to the food.
“I’m sure you all are really hungry after a day of hard work,” she said.
While washing my face, I believed that would be my last time in their house. The surroundings were very familiar to me, from the pictures on the walls to the chairs to the tables and to the couch. All was so welcoming and seemed part of my life.
When I had washed my hands and face, I slowly stepped back to the living room to engrave in my mind what I could about this house before I wandered on to another strange place.
At the table, Uncle Bay urged us to help ourselves to the supper.
“Don’t hesitate, make yourselves at home.” His words were sincere, but I felt pity for myself because, in fact, I didn’t have a home in which to make myself. I couldn’t conceive of how that would feel. Furthermore, on that day I was on edge about the announcement that surely would come after supper. I couldn’t enjoy the delicious food, although the rice noodles with chicken broth was a special dish that deserved appreciation, especially by me, an orphan, who some days got food and some days not.
After finishing his meal, Uncle Bay gradually worked his way around to his decision about our jobs. In his slow monotone he said, “As all of you know, my business doesn’t need many helpers. One adult can handle it. I should have laid you off when my nephew came back.” He took out a cigarette, lit it, and had a long inhale before he continued. “However, because of your circumstances, orphans with no place to take refuge, I have delayed taking this step until now. It’s been approximately two weeks since my nephew came back to work, isn’t it?”
He halted again to pour more tea into his cup, take a sip, inhale some smoke. “You three don’t have to work for me from tomorrow.”
We all said yes in unison.
Glancing at Vu, I saw him deflate. I didn’t know what he was thinking. As for me, tears ran down my cheeks. I dried them with my sleeve and turned my face away to hide my emotions. Vu, Duc, and I sat silently. The atmosphere was very heavy. I didn’t know what we would do to survive or where we would go in the next days. Thinking of this, I stood up and went out to the veranda and pulled up my front shirttail to dry my free-flowing tears.
Outside, dusk was falling. The sky grew darker and darker. The gloominess of the heavens and Earth wasn’t different from the somberness of my life in the future. I gathered myself and returned to the living room to listen to the rest of what Uncle Bay had to say.