Literature collects stories in real life,
Human love and mine,
To speak for human heart
That cannot say out its wonderful traits.
I have three loves.
My first love was for my wife when she was seventeen and I was eighteen; but we never got the opportunity to consummate our marriage.
My second love was for my ex-wife who left me when I was in a Communist Concentration Camp in Vietnam.
And my third love is for my current wife.
These three loves come alive on the birthday of my wife, our daughter, my daughter with my ex-wife, and my wife’s daughter with her ex-husband.
I intended to name this novel Destiny. But that word seemed outdated and did not accurately reflect my story. I remembered a French song entitled J’ai Deux Amours (I Have Two Loves) and I changed Destiny to I Have Three Loves thinking that would be more appropriate.
(Edited by Matthew Smith)
That day, almost two weeks before the Baccalaureate II Oral Exam in Saigon, having nothing to do, I rode my bicycle to the house of my friend Khoa. He told me:
_ Khanh, I’m going to take a trip to My Tho for a week.
_ Wow, where did the money come from for that? I asked.
_Well, I only have to buy a half-price student train ticket to My Tho, the rest will be covered by Mr. Tam, my father’s boss. Mr. Tam did me this favor to give me an opportunity to know about the countryside in South Vietnam.
After chatting for a while, I went home. When I was about to unlock my bike, a man happened to stop his Vespa (1) near me.
Khoa came out and shouted with joy:
I saw a rather tall, well dressed man in his early thirties setting up his shiny Vespa, taking off his sunglasses and putting it into the case.
Mr. Tam said, shaking Khoa’s hand:
_Hello Khoa. See me tomorow at the railroad station by 1PM.
Then he turned towards me. Khoa quickly introduced:
_Mr. Tam, this is Khanh, my class mate.
_Nice to meet you, Mr. Tam. I said bowing a little, and I shook his hand.
He asked smiling:
_How long have you been classmates?
_We were class mates in grades 5, 6, and 7 in Hanoi. Then Khoa and I were accidentally sitting in the same room to take the Baccalaureate II Exam in Saigon because of the alphabetical order of our names, Khanh and Khoa.
Mr. Tam looked at me and smiled again:
_Wow, what a good luck! Would you like to take a trip to My Tho.
He continued while I was hesitating:
_You can go with Khoa to have company and stay in my home as a guest. Take the trip to know about the countryside in South Vietnam.
_Thank you, you are so nice to us. I will take the trip, I said.
(1) Vespa: italian scooter. Vespa means wasp.
(Edited by )
On The Train
I rode my bike to Khoa’s house on Le Thanh Ton Road and then we walked together early to the railroad station on Le Lai Road because these roads were nearby. When waiting for Mr. Tam at the ticket selling office, Khoa told me Mr. Tam was a rather high rank official and a kind, helpful, and generous man; besides, he was interested in knowing locals. I agreed and said a man like him would buy the second-class ticket because most third-class ticket passengers were poor people and female ambulatory merchants who were noisy and undisciplined. I told Khoa I knew this because I was a third-class wagon passenger when I went back home from Saigon to Nhatrang on holidays.
Mr. Tam came to the appointment on time and bought a second-class ticket as I guessed. He joined Khoa and me to get aboard.
A moment later, he came to our third-class wagon and invited us to the train restaurant to treat us. We refused the invitation and thanked him because we were still full. He stood talking with us for a moment. I told him:
_Please go back to your wagon. Sparks would be thrown off by the fire from the engine that is close to this wagon. They would damage your nice suit. I knew this because I was a third-class wagon passenger several times.
_Really. Thank you for your suggestion. Mr. Tam said.
I watched him coming back to his wagon in his new Hong Kong fashion suit and on his nice brown and white shoes.
After the train ran for a while, I felt a little tired and I leaned back in my chair when Khoa already slept deeply next to me.
I thought continuously and felt somewhat embarrassed on this trip because I was just a new acquaintance of Mr. Tam and I got right away his favor. What should I have to do to deserve his nice act? I asked myself for a moment and I found out how I would behave when being in Mr. Tam’s house for a week as a guest …
Khoa told me that Mr. Tam was married and had a child. He family actually lived in their My Tho homeland, but planned to sell their house to move to Saigon. Actually Mr. Tam rode his Vespa every Saturday afternoon to My Tho to be with his family during the weekend and came back to Saigon the following Sunday evening to get back to work on Monday. He spent his vacation twice a year with his family in My Tho. This time to do so, he took the train to My Tho with Khoa and me instead of riding his Vespa as usual. Khoa added Mr. Tam was to introduce Khoa and me to his relatives and friends in My Tho and then to let us free to visit the local countryside. Mr. Tam had the French Master Degree of Law in Hanoi.
I looked around the wagon and my view stopped at the friendly eyes of a female ambulatory merchant. I smiled at her and said:
_Excuse me Mam. Please do me a favor. Would you tell me when it is fifteen minutes before the arrival at My Tho.
_OK, I would. Are you going by train to My Tho for the first time with the gentleman in Hong Kong fashion suit?
_Yes, I am. I answered
I planned to go with Khoa at that time to the second-class wagon to join Mr. Tam to get off the train so it would be convenient for all of us, especially Mr. Tam.
Khoa was still sleeping. He looked funny when his body moved and his mouth opened and closed repeatedly. I shook my head lightly and restrained from laughing because I thought sleeping easily was good for health. We knew each other when I was twelve-year old and Khoa was fifteen-year old. When Khoa was seven-year old and his younger brother was one-year old, his mother died of tuberculosis that actually could not be cured. My mother died also of tuberculosis when I was twenty-seven month old. We did not take advantage of each other. We did our best to help each other when it was necessary. I could not do without him and vice versa. There were arguments between us but we eventually agreed with each other. Arguments became rare after we met an old Chinese fortuneteller.
In a hot and humid summer afternoon in Saigon, after getting our tutorial payment, Khoa and I drank coffee at home and watched the world go by outside. He suddenly went out and waved his hand, shouting:
_Come on in here, mister!
Across the street, a blind old man dressed in Chinese clothes and carrying turtle shells around his neck – I guessed, used a stick to walk and was led by a young teenager girl who was shaking a bell.
_Khoa wanted a divination. I told myself and was surprised because he had never believed it. He used to say “No fortuneteller can know when a person dies”. He got the highest score for his homework essay Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera (Help yourself and God will help you) that was read out in the class for everybody.
I asked Khoa:
_Do you want a divination because you’ve just fallen in love with a nice girl?
_No. He answered right away.
I guessed he was compassionate to the old fortuneteller and girl.
_Sit down, mister; sit down, girl. How much is the cost for a divination?
_Thirty dongs (piastres). The fortuneteller replied.
I made a quick calculation and found out the money could buy six bowls of pho (Vietnamese rice vermicelli beef soup).
_Alright, I agree on your charge. Have some refreshment before starting. Khoa said and then went get two big glasses full of ice, two root beer bottles, a french baguette, and a banana bunch.
I actually understood that he just wanted to give money and something to eat and drink to the blind old fortuneteller and girl.
I said when I saw the old man hesitated to accept the refreshment:
_Food and drink are a treat. You will be fully paid for your charge and we would reward you for your good job.
I turned to the teenager girl and asked:
_How old are you?
_I’m eleven-year old.
_Is this gentleman your relative?
_He’s my Grandpa.
_What does your Mom do for a living?
_She died already.
Khoa shook his head and interrupted me:
_Stop it, Khanh.
I shut up and the fortuneteller started doing his job.
He asked for Khoa’s birthdate and birth time, and then put four Chinese copper coins onto a dish. He covered the coins with a turtle shell. Holding the shell against the dish, he shook them. He opened the shell and tried to recognize the upper surface of each coin with his fingers. He used the tip of his thumb to touch consecutively the spaces between his knuckles to find out something, and then said Khoa was born in the Year of The Ox (of Dinh Suu Year variety) (2), under the Life Symbol of the Creek Water Below the Road.
The careful way of doing the job of the old fortuneteller was quite different from that of other well dressed fortunetellers who kept talking and talking fluently to pretend to be competent while dishonestly looking at customers’ eyes to read their mind in order to please them with lies.
Like this blind old Chinese fortuneteller, many artists and authors would live in poverty because they kept being professional without paying attention to the audience and readers to know what they liked.
I suddenly found out that the fortuneteller still looked good and had a nice smile although he was old and poor. His grand daughter had also a beautiful smile on her dusty face. She tried to slant the glass of ice with little remaining root beer to drink. I went get another root beer bottle, a dish, and a knife. I cut off a piece of bread, put it onto the dish and said to her:
_Eating bread with banana is good too. Try it.
She looked at me and then started eating. I thought she maybe ate for the first time electric oven made bread that was more expensive.
The fortuneteller said because Khoa was born in the morning of the Year of The Ox (of Dinh Suu Year variety), he had to work hard and would have hardship in his life.
_But it is excellent for men to be born in the Year of The Ox (of Dinh Suu Year variety) that has the Dinh Word. The old man continued.
Khoa asked what he meant by excellent, and was answered:
_It meant having high degree and social position, and a lot of money.
Khoa laughed briefly; I guessed he was glad, but still doubtful about the divination. He seemed to get more pleased when the old man said being born under the Life Symbol of the Creek Water Below the Road, men have gratitude to as well as compassion for others, so they are lovely.
I sipped at my coffee, watching people in the street. It was hot and sunny. I leaned back in my chair, listening to the fortuneteller’s voice that sounded like the monotonous preaching in the church and pagoda. I had no religion and just followed friends to their church and pagoda.
_Your turn, Khanh. You want it or not. Khoa said.
_OK, no problem. I answered after taking a look at the teenager girl.
After the fortuneteller did the similar preparation to that for Khoa, he told me I was born in The Year of The Dragon (of Canh Thin Year variety) (3), under the Life Symbol of Gold of The White Candle Lamp. I was born near the end of Canh Thin Year so I had the whole Life Symbol of Gold of The White Candle Lamp and I preferred thoughts to emotions. In other word, I loved what was real and fair, and was not interested in criticizing. Being Gold of The White Candle Lamp, so I tended to be with rich and high social position people. In conclusion, good and smart people liked me.
_Having the whole Life Symbol of Gold of The White Candle Lamp, men tend to have lighter skin and be attractive. The fortuneteller said, laughing gladly.
Khoa interrupted him:
_Would you like to eat French baguette with banana. The bread is electric oven made.
Then he turned right away towards the girl:
__Please cut off bread and break bananas for your Grandpa to eat.
Khoa smiled at me, saying:
_What a pleasure you’ve got! So you’re going to pay for his reward.
I smiled, shaking my head lightly.
The fortuneteller slowly ate bread with banana, continuing his job:
_But there is something no good. Being born in the year that has the Canh Word (Canh Thin Year), men can be orphan and/or not completely happy no matter how good their life is.
After finished eating, the old man rolled up the banana skin, put it carefully on the table, and said after a brief silence:
_Do you both have any question?
_Can men born in Dinh Suu Year and Canh Thin Year be good friends to each other?
_Of course they can. Metal (Gold) produces Water (metal becomes liquid when melting), so Dinh Suu Year gets help from Canh Thin Year. But Canh Thin Year and Dinh Suu Year are in conflict (Thin Tuat Suu Mui are in conflict) that is moderate because Suu is not directly after Thin but separated from it by Tuat. In conclusion, you both are moderately in conflict, that is to say your arguments with each other are moderate.
I asked the fortuneteller how to avoid conflict between our birth years. He answered:
_Impossible. Just yielding to each other.
Khoa collected bread and bananas and asked the girl to put them into her bag. He picked out thirty dongs (piastres) and put them onto the old man’s dish. I did the same thing. When the man finished counting our payment, I put twenty more dongs (piastres) into his hand as a reward for him.
He got up, his loose right fist on his chest and his left palm on the fist, saying:
_Cam on (thank you in Vietnamese), cam on, to che (thank you in Chinese), to che.
His grand daughter bowed a little, saying:
_Thank you both.
We said goodbye to them.
Khoa seemed to be moved, telling me:
_If neighbors ask you how the fortuneteller did his job, just tell them he did it excellently.
The divination that we had was our unique and historic one. And the word Canh (Canh Thin) has obsessed me for life.
(2) Suu means Ox.
(3) Thin means Dragon.
(Edited by )
The train suddenly howled, panted heavily, and then slowly stopped at My Tho Railroad Station.
_Let’s get off the train, here we are. Mr. Tam told Khoa and me.
We all did, went to a large clean area, and put our luggage down on the ground to rest.
I asked Mr. Tam:
_How far is your house from here?
_About one kilometer. He answered.
Mr. Tam looked at his watch, took out a cigarette, and lit it. He then looked around as if he was seeking a transportation vehicle.
_So we could get home by walking just for fifteen minutes. Khoa and I wear plain clothes and have only a backpack as baggage. We can thus share carrying your luggage.
_That’s right. Let’s do it. He then took Mr. Tam’s suitcase from the ground.
I smiled and said to Mr. Tam as if everything has been set without his idea:
_So this time your comeback home looks special, you wear a new Hong Kong fashion suit and have two attendants.
Mr. Tam choked on cigarette smoke because of laughing:
_Thank you both. Khanh’s talk was so funny.
Sunrays were fading away on the road and at sunset, we arrived at the gate of Mr. Tam’s house that was a two-floor residence with large flower yards. The house was surrounded by a tall brick wall with steel pickets on top.
Mr. Tam rang the bell. A big black dog with four white paws rushed out, barking.
_Quiet, Lou, it’s me. Mr. Tam said.
The animal became quiet and wagged its tail. Mr. Tam petted its front legs that hooked on the gate through its gaps.
A woman in her fifties opened the gate, greeting:
_Welcome home, Sir.
_Ms. Tu, everything is fine at home, isn’t it?
__Yes, it is.
When we arrived at the corridor, the light was on and the door opened slowly. A beautiful woman in lavender home clothes came out with a little boy. I guessed she was Mr. Tam’s wife.
_Welcome home, darling. How was your trip?
_It was nice, dear.
Mr. Tam bent down to pick up his little son, and petted him. He introduced:
_Hoa (4), this is Khoa, my workmate Hoang’s son.
_And this is Khanh, Khoa’s classmate. They are our guests for a week then will come back to Saigon to take the Baccalaureate II Oral Exam.
_Nice to meet you, Mrs. Tam. Khoa said, bowing a little.
I did the same thing after him.
Mrs. Tam looked at us and said:
_Nice to meet you both. How was your trip?
_It was nice, thank you. Khoa answered.
She continued deliberately:
_Please follow Ms. Tu to your room and come to the dining room in
about half an hour.
_Thank you, we will be there in time. I said.
(4) Hoa: maiden name of Mrs. Tam, to be pronounced hwa in Vietnamese.
Khoa and I then followed Ms. Tu after she put away the suitcase of her boss.
Ms. Tu opened the door of our room and asked if we needed anything else.
_No, thanks very much, Ms. Tu.
Khoa and I came in time to the dining room that was large and well lit up. Mr. Tam and Mrs. Tam sat at either end of the table that had the 4×6 format, was made for up to twelve people and actually adjusted to half. She asked Khoa and me to sit oppositely at either side of the table that was long enough in width so feet of opposite guests could not touch each other. Mr. Tam relaxed in light gray home clothes and his wife in lavender as before. Noticing Khoa and I still had a white shirt and kaki pants on, Mrs. Tam said:
_You both can wear home clothes indoors to relax. And you can also call me Sister Tam instead of Mrs. Tam, and my husband Brother Tam instead of Mr. Tam.
_Thank you Sister Tam, we will do as told.
I told myself to save clean and neat home clothes for use. I was to let Khoa know this.
Brother Tam asked Khoa and me after Ms. Tu set the table:
_Would you both drink beer?
We replied him we did not drink beer, and we thanked him.
_Get beer for me only, Ms. Tu. Brother Tam said.
He told everybody, raising up his glass of beer:
There were two porcelain rice bowls at either end of the table within everyone’s reach and without disturbing anyone’s activity because the table was long in width. Other items of the menu consisted of dried shrimps with sour sweet pickled leeks for beer, sour sweet fish soup, coconut juice roasted chicken, French salad, and two other meals that surprised me because they were popular only in North Vietnam especially Hanoi: quick fried beef and water spinach, and fried tofu dipped in green onion diluted sweet fish sauce. Probably after finding I looked a little long at these two plates, Sister Tam smiled and explained:
_Tam ate these two meals in Hanoi when he studied Law there. Back to Saigon, he told me to cook them.
Khoa and I smiled. She continued:
_Make yourselves at home and eat as much as you like. Foods for Ms. Tu was already saved and there are still more in the pot. We don’t want to eat left over foods so we don’t display big quantity of them on the table.
About ten minutes later, she asked Khoa and me:
_Are the food OK?
_Delicious! Khoa replied right away while swallowing.
Sister Tam probably was glad with Khoa’s comment. She smiled and turned towards me, waiting for my answer.
_They’re really delicious. The coconut juice roasted chicken I’m eating for the fist time is very special. I love it. Quick fried beef and water spinach, and fried tofu dipped in green onion diluted sweet fish sauce have exactly Hanoi’s taste.
Sister Tam said
_Enjoy and eat a lot.
_I’m eating a lot because there are so much good foods. Khoa said.
_So you would eat a little if there is not enough food. Sister Tam joked.
_That doesn’t happen here. I participated in her saying.
Brother Tam shook his head lightly, laughing.
_Your talks were so funny, guys. Would you try to drink some beer?
_No, thank you. We did try beer without enjoying. And it affected our appetite.
Brother Tam shook his head, smiling. He changed the topic:
_Honey, Khoa and Khanh did very well at school. They passed exams with Honor Mention. They could get scholarship.
_Only Khanh may get it because he’s eighteen-year old. I’m twenty-one year old, not eligible.
Sister Tam asked:
_After you’ve passed your Baccalaureate II Oral Exam, what would you choose to study?
Khoa replied he would study Law and I said I would take the competitive examination held by Military Medical Corp to get a scholarship for my study to become a medical doctor.
Sister Tam continued:
_Khanh, where do you live in Saigon? How are your parents?
I answered that I lived on Nguyen Trai Road in Cholon, my Dad was fine, my Mom passed away when I was twenty-seven month old.
The dinner last more than half an hour. Sister Tam told everyone to go to the sitting room to relax and eat dessert that consisted of coffee, cakes, lemonade and oranges. The dessert last about ten minutes. Khoa and I said good night to Brother Tam and Sister Tam, and left for our room that had two parallel twin beds of which the head was about one foot away from the wall. A bed was installed near and parallel to the corridor window.
Khoa pointed to the other bed near the wall, telling me:
_You are not good in cold air so sleep in that bed that is away from the window.
I did as told. Khoa usually had a commanding tone to me but he cared for me.
The light was off, the room became dark. I looked out the window and I could only see shapes of trees and hear sounds of insects. I realized I was in the countryside.
I couldn’t sleep yet. I usually slept by 10PM or 11PM until 6AM. I remembered the details of my room.
There were two rather large wooden platforms for luggage in the corners of the room near the beds’ legs. Between the platforms was installed a solid stainless steel clothes rack on wheels with different types of clothes hangers on. A ceiling fan in the middle of the room had a light bulb attached. Switches on the wall were between the beds with nightstands. A table for two people that had a lamp with lampshade was installed between the beds. The room door was located between my bed’s leg and the platform.
Lying on the white bed sheet, I felt comfortable and thought about nice things I experienced: the new white bed sheet, upholstered chairs, dining table long in width, etc. I actually learnt about what the French called elegant simplicity. I had no idea for criticism of rich people’s life, I just loved their cleanliness and neatness. I kept thinking and then fell asleep.
When I was back to my room from the toilet, Khoa told me Ms. Tu let him know breakfast was to be served by 8:30AM.
_OK, it’s seven o’clock now, we still have a lot of time until then. I said.
Then I found Pho Thong Magazine and Se’lection du Reader’s Digest in the nightstand. I skimmed their tables of contents to select an article. Sunrays came to my table obliquely from left to right through the window before my eyes. I told myself this house had East Southern orientation.
In World War II, I lived with my uncle in our homeland at eighteen kilometers from Hanoi. I heard adult people praising East South oriented houses. I asked him when I found his house was South oriented:
_Uncle Huong, East South oriented houses are good. Why is your house South oriented?
He explained after several seconds:
_Morning sunrays come to the front door of East South oriented houses from left to right, obliquely on the roofs and front and left walls. Afternoon and evening sunrays come obliquely in reverse direction on the roofs, and back and right walls. So the sun shines obliquely all day long everywhere on the house. This keeps the house cool in Summer and warm in Winter. Besides, people are not dazzled by the sun like those who live in East or West oriented houses.
I kept asking:
_Why is your house South oriented.
_First, get me something to make a match.
I went to the rice mill room and got a dry thin piece of bamboo. My uncle lit it up with a lighter and smoked tobacco on a water pipe. And then he explained again:
_South oriented houses have sunrays all day long in the front and back yards. This is best to dry things especially rice. Besides, South oriented houses are warmer in Winter than North oriented houses .
_I’ve got it. I said and left.
My uncle waved to me, saying:
_You’ll be going to Hanoi to go to school. Study hard, OK.
_Yes, I will.
_Everything is in the book. Automobiles, nice houses, and a beautiful wife with nice children are also in the book. Remember it.
_Yes, I will. I answered softly because the words “a beautiful wife and nice children” made me shy.
Later, a French teacher of mine spoke about East South oriented houses exactly like my uncle. The teacher said sunshine on the roofs and walls would kill germs and yeasts. The French education was International Baccalaureate. Besides forming good citizens, it aimed to get good and capable human beings. So it always explained things, avoiding just memorizing them. It called what was not true garbage.
The breakfast consisted of French baguettes, sunshine eggs, bananas and coffee.
_How many sunshine eggs would you both like. Ms. Tu asked Khoa and me.
_Give me three, please. Khoa answered.
I said the same thing.
Brother Tam ate three eggs, Sister Tam two.
I intended to drink sugar coffee to know how good the coffee was because sugar coffee gave the exact coffee taste. But when I found the coffee was the same as that my family drank, I changed my mind to drink sugar and coffee mate coffee that tasted better.
After breakfast, we left for our room to dress up to accompany Brother Tam to visit his relatives and friends.
The visit took about two hours.
I found out Brother Tam wanted Khoa and me to meet nice people before we went by ourselves to see the local countryside. So he took us to visit his relatives and friends on his vacation. That was all. Khoa and I were not supposed to be introduced to anyone.
Brother Tam and local people liked each other obviously. They talked, smiled and laughed with joy. Many people addressed him as Mr. Tam respectfully. Many other ones considered him as a guest of honor.
I felt glad when people paid attention to Khoa and me because we were two Baccalaureate II guys from Saigon and had a special speaking accent. People first addressed us as Mr. Khoa and Mr. Khanh. Then they called us Khoa and Khanh after we showed respect to them by adding the titles Uncle, Auntie, Brother, and Sister to their name. They asked me about my family, weather in Hanoi, resorts such as Do Son, Halong Bay, Sam Son, etc. they had visited. At last, they asked me what I thought about Saigon, if I would like to watch Cai Luong (South Vietnamese Opera), and if I would completely understand the South Vietnamese speaking accent.
I slowly answered my Dad, my stepmother and my siblings lived in Nhatrang; I was a Grade 12 student in Saigon, my mother died when I was twenty-seven month old. I only knew Hanoi and my homeland that was eighteen kilometers away from the capital. I never went to Do Son, Halong Bay, Sam Son. Hanoi was more crowded than Saigon. I did not like Winter in Hanoi because I was not good in cold air. Saigon was less hot than Hanoi in Summer. At night in Saigon I needed only a thin blanket to sleep comfortably. Living cost was cheaper in Saigon than Hanoi. I did not watch Cai Luong yet. I already understood completely what South Vietnamese said. They kept asking me if I had Saigon friends, what would I think about Lyce’e Petrus Ky. I told people I had Saigon friends. I usually came to one of them who lived near my house to do homework together. I thought Lyce’e Petrus Ky was large, quiet, and beautiful. Its discipline was strict. I got once a warning document when I came to school late. One more time, I got hit on my right arm when I was lining up to go into the class. I was startled and turned aside. I saw the superintendent holding a wooden ruler next to me. He told me:
_You were out of line. Get back in it.
The person who asked me so far was an old relative of Brother Tam. He smiled and continued the “interview”:
_Did you hate that superintendent?
_No. I answered.
I told him all public school staffs were selected on a competitive examination to get a scholarship for their study in Hanoi to become teachers, superintendents, etc. They had to care for their teaching and discipline reinforcement. Sometimes they got upset in just a moment against students who were lazy or violated the school discipline. But they never hated students. So I never hated them. The old man laughed and said he had been a student at Lyce’e Petrus Ky. He raised his hand for me to shake. We shook hands. I exclaimed:
_Wow, you were also a Lyce’e Petrus Ky student!
He got up and went get more refreshment for Khoa and me. I knew why he asked interesting questions.
I enjoyed the respect of my peers who were shy in conversation. I wondered why then I got moved when realizing how big my Baccalaureate II was. The government claimed Republic of Vietnam had a population of seventeen millions, but my geography teacher said it was of ten millions, and the candidates for Baccalaureate II Oral Exam were of five thousands. My female peers seemed to be curious about Khoa and me. We came to greet and talk to them. They were glad to get into conversation with us but were shy and likely doubtful about us because they thought Saigon and rich guys were usually not faithful in marriage; and most doctors, pharmacists, engineers, lawyers wanted a beautiful and rich wife.
After the visit Brother Tam wished Khoa and me a nice trip to the local countryside.
(Edited by )
_What should we wear to be suitable for the trip?
_Dark pants and dark tennis shoes, I think.
_What for head and upper body? He continued.
_White short-sleeved shirt and white cap. I added.
_So we would look like Gentlemen of Six Provinces. (5) He joked.
_White short-sleeved shirt and white cap may make a man look like a Gentleman of Six Provinces. But the guy also looks poor and a little thuggish.
(5) Six Provinces:
Gia Dinh, Bien Hoa, Dinh Tuong (My Tho), Vinh Long, An Giang (Chau Doc), Ha Tien.
We were almost in uniform. The difference was I wore dark gray pants and dark blue shoes and Khoa wore dark coffee pants and brown shoes. When getting outside, Khoa said:
_I’m still full.
_Me too because of eating delicious foods of rich people. I added.
All three dishes were delicious and plentiful. Boiled Siamese short necked goose meat to dip in fish sauce with added ginger and sugar was similar to the like in Hanoi. But the other two were special.
_That’s right. I love sour sweet shrimp soup and fried snakehead fish to dip in hot sour sweet fish sauce. They were excellent. In the future, I would hire a South Vietnamese cook so I could eat both North and South Vietnamese foods.
_So if your wife is South Vietnamese, you would have a North Vietnamese cook. Is that right?
I shrugged, lowering my voice:
_Well, that’s possible because eating is a pleasure. Que sera, sera … (6).
(6) Que sera, sera … : whatever will be, will be …
He suddenly cleared his throat and slowly stopped walking:
_I have a question for you. Think about it carefully before answering.
_What’s that? I also stopped, looked at his eyes, waiting.
_What kind of wife would you want?
I was startled a little because the question was what I never thought of:
_Let me think about it. Well … you and I have beautiful female acquaintances at school and in our neighborhood, right?
Khoa nodded and smiled:
That’s correct. And then?
_Well, my wife shouldn’t be too small, too short, too fat, or too thin.
_And then? He kept asking.
_Her body should be proportionate without significant defect. Her face shouldn’t have significant defect either. She doesn’t have to be rich or beautiful. I concluded.
Khoa shook his head and smiled:
_You said your wife doesn’t have to be beautiful. Remember this.
I reacted right away:
_My wife doesn’t have to be beautiful means she can be beautiful.
Khoa kept smiling and said:
_Your answer was tricky!
I did not feel happy and changed the topic:
_When do you want to come back to Saigon?
_We don’t often have this opportunity. So why don’t we stay until next Sunday afternoon? Brother Tam is fond of my Dad and he likes me. I know him well. Everything would be alright.
_It can’t be like that. Brother Tam said our trip was one week so it must be one week. Let him and his wife have Saturday and Sunday for their privacy.
Khoa agreed after seconds:
_OK, let’s do like that. I’m now talking about our schedule in My Tho.
Khoa had the habit of speaking in a commanding tone to me. But he cared for me. So I usually agreed with him. Only when his desire, not his mind, talked, I needed to say something, for example when he wanted to prolong our trip in My Tho.
He said our trip in the countryside was not important. The thing was Brother Tam wanted us to have a really good time at his home and meet nice people in his homeland. I agreed with him.
_I’ve been so far off topic for a while. We have exactly five days left until next Friday afternoon we come back to Saigon, right?
_Well, half of this Sunday and half of next Friday make one day. This Monday plus Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday is four days. You were fast and correct.
_Five days are for living at home and going out. We spent twenty four hours doing that and we were good at Brother Tam’s home.
_You’re right. We made clean and neat back everywhere after use and when possible we helped Ms. Tu do her job. You remember after lunch, before we went out, she asked if we wanted coffee. I think she had sympathy for us. We had good manners in eating. And we always traditionally did not get the best food piece into our rice bowl, we left it for others.
Khoa showed off:
_I think you haven’t known about South Vietnamese countryside because you just lived for one year in Saigon and had to study for the exam. I moved to Saigon four years ago and have settled there since then. My South Vietnamese classmates wanted me to go with them to their homeland on vacation and I did. I think My Tho wouldn’t be much different from there. So I could be your tourist guide.
_In the past, French people invaded three Eastern provinces of South Vietnam. They took My Tho first. Their ships entered Cua Dai River or Cua Tieu River, reached My Tho River, landed, and took My Tho province. So we are now at the historic site of one hundred fifty two-year French ruling (1802-1954).
_What do you think about crimes committed by countries that invaded and ruled Vietnam one way or another?
I answered at length after thinking of a quote of Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, a French woman of letters, who died about four years ago.
“Liberte’, comme des crimes on commet en ton nom!”
(“Freedom, so many crimes they commit in your name!”)
_French soldiers and officials committed terrible crimes in Vietnam, but French government did good things for Vietnam in their Enlightenment Policy, for example you and I could study the French International Baccalaureate. Well, we did nothing for Champra people after we took their country (7) and committed crimes similar to the French ones. We did nothing either for Cambodian people after we took their land (8) and committed war crimes like any other invaders. I think we should forgive, not forget, invaders in the past for their crimes to our people because politics always consisted of dividing, lying, cheating, betraying, and cruelty including assassination, terrorism, and war with rapes and massacres. My Dad told me not to talk about politics, religion, and culture because I would lose friends and have enemies. So I’m sorry, let’s stop here.
We became quiet for a short moment and then Khoa said:
(7) Champra: Central Vietnam today.
(8) South Vietnam was Cambodian land in the old days.
__Let’s go eat rice vermicelli meat soup, I’m hungry.
_So am I. But where is the good restaurant for it.
_Let’s go ask people where the good restaurant is and before we enter, make sure there are a lot of customers in.
We had an unwritten law on our business and eating together: Khoa paid half and I paid half.
_Delicious. Khoa exclaimed when eating.
_Really delicious. I said.
Khoa continued, looking at his bowl with his eyes half closed:
_The broth, vermicelli, shrimp, and pork all tasted better than the ones in Thank Xuan restaurant next to the Hindu temple in Saigon.
After eating, we continued our journey into the vast green field. White clouds floated in the clear sky. There were villages and hamlets with coconut trees in the sun, canals between trees or bushes. In the sky, birds flew away languidly. There was a sad cuckoo “cuckoo” calling that fades into solitude
In the immense field, I suddenly missed my homeland where lived my relatives and friends. I did not know how they were for nearly two years. North and South Vietnamese postcards that contained only the information on health, survival and death were banned.
Oh, the scene around me became so sad. I closed my mouth slightly, letting out a sigh.
_Are you tired? Khoa asked.
_No. I replied.
I still remembered two sentences my uncle said ten years ago “Everything is in the book. Automobiles, nice houses, a beautiful wife with nice children are also in the book”. I was just eight-year old and got shy when hearing “a beautiful wife and nice children” in the second sentence. Now I found this sentence true. It was also love if read between the lines as French people said. When people could do nothing good for their beloved ones, they wished them good things, having a car, a nice house, a beautiful wife with nice children for example. And that was what my uncle did. The first sentence was simplest and meant most although it was uttered by my uncle, a countryman who could not read and write. Yes, the book was everything about human life. In addition to science and technology, it had history and literature. Wonderful human traits were in literature. When I was fifteen-year old, I was able to understand interesting poems, I loved them so much. I automatically remembered old and new poems I liked. Then I started writing poems. But I felt this hobby was dangerous because it took so much time and affected my study. After Junior High School, a number of students composed poems and wrote novels because they had enough abilities. Most of them failed International Baccalaureate Exam or dropped out Medicine, Pharmacy and Dentistry.
Walking beside Khoa, I read silently poems and their extraction.
Tam Lich Doi (The Life Calendar) by poet To Tan.
Tôi muốn đem ngày tươi
In thành một bản lịch
Để tôi gỡ tờ đời
Tùy theo hồi sở thích …
Tôi sẽ để thật lâu
Những tờ ghi hạnh phúc
Và vội bỏ tờ sầu
Không theo giờ đợi lúc.
Khi vắng mặt người yêu,
Thì giờ không muốn biết,
Tôi sẽ gỡ thật nhiều
Để chỉ ngày cách biệt.
Extraction of a poem by Thanh Tinh who was born in Hue.
Em ơi , nhẹ cuốn bức rèm tơ.
Nhìn thử chân mây khói tỏa mờ
Có bóng tình quân muôn dặm ruổi
Ngựa hồng tuôn bụi cõi xa mơ …
_Rồi một hôm nếu về cha hỏi
Mẹ đâu rồi con biết nói sao?
_Con hãy bảo trông cha mòn mỏi,
Mẹ từ trần sau mấy tháng đau.
_Nếu cha hỏi cặp đào trước ngõ
Sao chỉ còn một gốc ngả nghiêng,
_Con hãy chỉ một cây đào nhỏ
Bên cây tùng rồi đứng lặng yên.
Extraction of a poem by Dong Ho who was born in Hatien.
Yêu đương đâu phải thề non biển.
Khăng khít cần chi đến tất giao.
Một sợi tóc tơ huyền rủ buộc
Ngàn năm người thật với chiêm bao.
_Are you sleepy, Khanh. Khoa asked probably after looking at my face.
_If you’re sleepy, just go to a coffee shop. Khoa suggested.
_I said no. I repeated.
Then I felt glad and said:
_Do you remember Loi Cuoi Cung (The Last Word) poem by Thanh Tinh. It’s about a recommendation that an agonizing woman made to her son when she was waiting for the comeback of her husband from his journey.
_I do. It’s interesting. I think the author drew his inspiration from Et S’il Revenait Un Jour (I He Came Back) poem by Maurice Maeterlinck. Khoa answered.
_Very probably. I agreed.
_This area is monotonous. Let’s go to the village down there.
I agreed immediately to get rid of my remaining melancholy.
We soon arrived in a large area that had houses and winding trails with bamboo trees and bushes on either side.
Thinking of Dong Ho’s four verses, I said:
_Interestingly, there were always desperate and painful love stories in literature.
_Painful stories usually had either a forever goodbye or death of one of the lovers.
_OK, what about desperate love stories? I continued.
_Well, it was like an offside event in a soccer match.
_What do you mean by like a soccer offside event?
Khoa smiled and said:
_The desperate lover and the offside soccer player had one thing in common. They all forgot their position. The desperate lover would not look good or even would be handsome. He forgot his situation and fell in love with a wrong woman who was only interested in male graduates, rich men, or men of high social position. The guy would be a writer, a poet, a singer, a musician, or a song writer. He suffered from his desperate love and then would be famous for his wonderful literature or art works.
_Why did the guy fall in love with the woman although he knew she was not interested in his situation?
_It was easy to understand, because the heart was blind and couldn’t think, and people hoped.
_That was right. But why female authors rarely wrote desperate and painful love novels and poems?
Khoa still smiled:
_Let me think about it. Well, men needed to speak out their desperate and painful love to relieve. Women couldn’t do it because the more they did it, the more they suffered.
_Why? I kept asking.
Khoa smiled again:
_Men grew jealous when knowing about a woman’s past love stories and would not be interested in her. So women had to keep their love past secret.
I restrained from laughing because Khoa’s talk was so funny:
_People suffered and you made fun of them.
Khoa stop smiling, cleared his throat:
_I just joked a little bit.
I thought maybe women were wiser than men in love because they were aware of their situation. They did not fall in love with a wrong man. They preferred to suffer silently than to find relief in expressing their pain. They were more preventive than men. And they knew how to weigh up the pros and cons.
When something too bad or worse happened to a person, there was no room for comment because the person just needed help.
_You’re great and can be my tourist guide, this place looks fun. I said and after looking around, I continued:
_It’s crowded here and there are many nice girls and good looking young men.
_We were recently in My Tho’s physical geography, now we are in its human geography. You seemed to like My Tho already.
I had fun and smiled when I thought he was “high”.
“You seemed to like My Tho already” reminded me I was actually a traveler. I remembered the Sombreros et Mantilles (Sombreros and Mantillas) song, music by Vaissade, lyrics by Chanty. The whole song was what a French man told about the places he visited in Spain. I wondered what would make me remember My Tho. Que sera, sera … (Whatever will be, will be …)
The sun descended below our head long ago. Its warm golden rays still shined on the coconut branches that were gently swaying in the wind. I was startled when looking at my watch because it was time to go home for dinner. Khoa and I could not be home late. Brother and Sister Tam wouldn’t feel glad if they had to wait for us. I was very concerned about this because I’ve just been an acquaintance of Brother Tam for three days. I couldn’t let this happen.
_Let’s go home. I told Khoa.
_Wait. Let’s stay here a little more, there is no rush. Khoa said while watching the coconut trees.
_We have to be home before dinner, we must not be late. Brother Tam likes you, I know. Suppose he is a king. Subsequently his wife is a queen. How do you know either the king or the queen is bigger?
_OK. Let’s go home now. Khoa agreed, got up, and looked around.
I also looked around and then shook my head:
_We’ve entered unawares the center of the area. The paths here are winding, branching, and hidden by bamboo trees and bushes on either side. I can’t find the way out.
Khoa said calmly:
_Let me do it.
I followed him although I thought he was also puzzled like me.
After about fifteen minutes of unsuccessful searching, he stopped and sighed. I decided to go the nearest house over there to ask for help.
_Let me go ask for directions, the way is in the mouth. I told Khoa and then automatically walked to the house, followed by him.
I arrived at a house that had a sign, Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop (9), an open large window, and an open door. I took two steps up onto the corridor. I saw three beautiful females, two well dressed girls and a better dressed woman probably in her early forties. I knocked at the door. The woman said:
_Come on in, please.
_Excuse me, Mam. Please do me a favor. Would you give me directions to the traffic road. We’re visitors, we’ve got lost on our way back to our friend’s house.
_I would. But I think you wouldn’t get there because the paths have plenty of bamboo trees and bushes on either side. They are winding, branching, and have no names. Well, let me figure out …
_Auntie Ba, could I guide them to get there. A girl told the woman.
_Oh yes, you could. Go ahead, Lan. The woman accepted immediately.
Lan got up from her chair, put away the cup of che (10) she finished eating, and told us:
_Please follow me.
(9) Nhu Y: as you like, satisfaction.
(10) Che: dessert made of beans boiled in sweetened water.
I turned toward the woman:
_Thank you, Mam. We’re lucky today.
And toward the girl next to her:
After walking for a couple of minutes, I said:
_Thank you, Miss Lan. I don’t know where we would be today without you.
_Never mind about my guide through the paths. It’s trivial. Please call me Lan.
_He was right. Excuse me, what is your full first name? Thanh Lan, Hoang Lan, or Huong Lan?
_My full name is Nguyen Thi Lan. That’s all. Where are you from?
_We came from Saigon. I am Khoa, and my friend’s name is Khanh.
Watching Khoa and Lan talking, I suddenly thought about the risk Lan would take when going back home alone through the deserted paths in the evening. If a thug or a gang of criminals came out from a hiding place and sexually assaulted her… My imagination stopped and I thought I couldn’t let it happen because if it did, Khoa and I would be obsessed for life. A kind and poor girl helped us for nothing and then …
After a moment, I felt glad when I happened to see a broken stretcher handle that was a little more than one meter and a half long. I picked it up.
_What are you going to do with that broken stretcher handle. Lan asked.
_To deal with a possible big animal jumping out from a bush. I replied, looking at her eyes.
Lan smiled, believing my words:
_You’re too cautious.
We soon arrived at the traffic road. I told Khoa:
_Go home first. If I’m late, ask Brother and Sister Tam to eat dinner without waiting for me. I have to accompany Lan on her way back home. She would face danger if going home alone.
_Would you need me? Khoa asked.
_No. I answered.
After walking home for a distance, Lan said:
_Thank you and Khoa, too for your concern and big help.
_It’s no big deal. I am helping you just as you and Auntie Ba helped Khoa and me when each side needed help.
__You know, criminals usually hided behind a tree, a bush, a wall, or in the dark to suddenly come out and attack pedestrians, especially girls and women. They could be armed. So when you have to go somewhere, keep away from those places.
_You made me feel scared. This neighborhood was safe and nothing like that happened.
_Anyway, prevention is better than doing nothing. Walk ahead of me by a couple of steps so I can take care of your front, back, and sides.
_You know martial arts and stick fighting, don’t you?
_If I happen to lose to the armed thugs, run away as quickly as possible and shout out for help.
_You imagined things. I’ve told you it was safe here.
_I hope everything would go like you said.
At this point, I thought I should change the topic:
_Are you a niece of Auntie Ba?
_No, I am just working for her. I addressed her as that because she was kind to me and Huong.
I found out the name of the girl next to Auntie Ba was Huong.
_What do you do in Saigon?
_We’re still students. We took a trip to My Tho and we’ve been boarded by Mr. Tam, the boss of Khoa’s Dad.
_I see. That’s fun. Lan said.
I agreed it’s fun and asked:
_Are you from My Tho?
_No, I’m from Ben Tre like Huong.
_So your parents live there.
_Only my Mom lives there. My Dad passed away when I was ten-year old. I lived with my Mom until Huong and I passed the Elementary School Exam at our twelve years of age. Because our families were not well-off, we went to Auntie Ba’s shop to learn dress making, and then lived with her in the shop. Every month we went home for a visit.
I quietly watched the fading sunrays on her hair when listening to her.
After walking for one more distance, Lan asked:
_We are going to reach home after one more turn. Have you already remembered the way?
_Yes, I have. After making that turn, keep walking for about fifty meters more to be home.
_You’ve got it exactly.
_You passed the Elementary School Exam so you can speak and write French correctly. Why didn’t you have an office job?
_I speak French correctly but I don’t understand it so much. Office jobs have lower incomes that may be fixed. Incomes of dress making jobs are higher and dress makers may own a shop in the future.
_You’re right. Good luck to you.
We reached home after a short turn.
_How long are you still in My Tho?
_I will come back to Saigon in five days. I replied and while she was hesitating, I continued:
_Get in the house. Thank you and Auntie Ba again. Goodbye, hope to see you later.
When Lan was definitely indoors, I turned back and rushed to the traffic road.
It was 6:20PM, ten minutes before dinner time, when I was back to Brother Tam’s house.
Khoa and I were glad. He asked:
_Was everything OK?
_It was. Only a prevention. I replied.
Little Tan, Brother Tam’s son was not at dinner. He took Aspirin for toothache and will go to see the dentist on Monday.
Brother Tam looked at me gladly and said:
_Khoa told me you both got lost on the way but enjoyed the trip. Didn’t you?
_Yes we did. I answered.
_I also heard you accompanied the guide girl on her way back home?
_I did. Khoa wanted also to participate in my help but I said he didn’t have to.
_Everything was OK, isn’t it?
_Yes, it was. The girl went home safely.
Brother Tam smiled, pouring beer into his glass:
_You guys did the right thing and it was well done. Let’s eat!
_We couldn’t help doing it because Khoa and I would be obsessed for life if the girl happened to be attacked by thugs. A kind and poor girl helped us for nothing and then …
Sister Tam said:
_Have some roasted pork, Khanh. It’s new and quite good.
I got a piece into my rice bowl and said:
_It looks obviously good. The crunchy skin, fat and lean meat are stuck together and smell good.
After I finished eating the pork piece, she asked me, smiling:
_Is the girl pretty?
_I think she is. I answered.
Brother Tam took a sip of beer and smiled at me:
_If she didn’t look good, would you help her?
I was startled a little, thought quickly and replied:
_I would help her anyway because thugs would still want her money and jewelry, and hit her before or after their robbery.
Sister Tam kept asking:
_You knew that, but you were not afraid?
_When it was necessary to do something, people forgot to be afraid. Besides, I happened to pick up a broken stretcher handle that was smooth, still long enough, and fit for use as a stick.
Brother Tam agreed with me on my idea:
_Khanh was like the girl who forgot to be afraid when guiding him and Khoa through the paths.
Then he got up from his chair and went get an extra 33 beer. He said:
_After dinner, let’s go play chamber music.
Hearing clearly the three words “play chamber music” made me excited and curious, I expected it with pleasure. People laughed more and probably ate more. Khoa talked less and opened his eyes bigger, looking at people to share laughing.
In addition to the roasted pork, the soup made of tomato, laksa leaves, beef, and coagulated pork blood sounded attractive when eaten with slightly warm rice. Brother and Sister Tam ate the soup only without adding it to rice. Stir-fried fresh squid with green onions was also delicious. Squid was just cooked, so it was soft, not tough. I thought Ms. Tu was really clever when displaying the braised fish on the table only in small quantity but there was still a fishtail portion left over.
After the dessert consisting of coffee, soft drinks, and cakes, people went to the music chamber that was a large 4×6 room. On a wooden platform at the end of the room there was an electric guitar on a stand, and two microphones on stands connected to a HiFi sound system. A u-shaped row of leather sofas was installed at the other end of the room, along the wall, and one foot away from it. There were folding coffee tables along the sofas.
_Wow, what a music chamber! Khoa exclaimed.
After taking a look at the room, I asked Brother Tam:
_So you were to hire music bands, weren’t you.
He said there were only relatives and friends coming with their own musical instruments.
Khoa asked Brother Tam:
_Did they sing and play Cai Luong (South Vietnamese Opera) music.
_Yes they did. Countryside people prefer Cai Luung music to modern music.
I asked Brother Tam if he played Cai Luong guitar. He replied he played only Spanish guitar.
After people listened to interesting songs on disks, Brother Tam said:
_Let’s sing and play music now.
Khoa knew music and sang very well.
While Brother Tam was adjusting his guitar, Sister Tam tested the microphones “Hello, hello”. Her voice was transparent and resounding. The good quality of the sound system made me feel excited.
_What songs you guys want to sing? Brother Tam asked.
_Sister Tam sings and you play the guitar along first, we sing later.
Sister Tam sang Ben Cu by Anh Viet.
Bên ấy ngày xưa người đi vấn vương biệt ly …
I was surprised the couple played so well and especially Sister Tam pronounced the words correctly as if she was born in Hanoi.
After clapping with Khoa, I asked Brother Tam:
_I didn’t understand why singers sang the wrong words and the audience still liked their presentations and nobody noticed that at all.
_For example in what song? Brother Tam asked.
_Du Am by Nguyen Van Ty. The author wrote “Yeu ai em nan cung dan day voi doi mat xa voi” but singers sang “Yeu ai em nan cung dan day voi doi mat xa xoi”.
_The singer would sing the wrong word. However It could be either the author wrote that when the music of the song had the “A, A’, B (refrain), A’ or A” form or the band intentionally raised the note for “voi“ to the next higher note and changed “voi“ to “xoi“ that was suitable for the higher note.
Brother Tam continued:
_Singers dropped out school or their educational learning was poor if they sang the wrong words without justification.
I still wondered:
_Why the band didn’t notice when the singer sang the wrong word obviously?
Brother Tam smiled:
_The band kept quiet when they knew the problem because they didn’t want to vex the famous singer who could be a female favorite of the producer.
_How about the author who didn’t say anything?
Brother Tam still smiled:
_The author also had to keep his mouth shut because he had to please the producer. In addition, if he spoke up, the show would lose its credibility and it would be difficult to sell the discs already on the market. Then the boss would go crazy.
He kept smiling and continued:
_The audience would have either poor or no educational learning if they still liked the presentation of a singer who shockingly sang the wrong word.
My last question:
_How about the silence of the producer?
Brother Tam shook his head:
_The producer would have either poor or no educational learning as the singer. He also would be negligent in checking the song’s rehearsal and the disc recording. So he kept quiet when it was too late.
I understood further and said:
_European and American singers sang correctly the lyrics because the educational level of American and European people was high and they didn’t listen to singers who sang the wrong lyrics.
Brother Tam said “You’ve got it” and turned toward Khoa:
_What song you want to sing?
__Truong Chi by Van Cao.
I remember Khoa was well known in my school for this song.
When he was singing, the whole amphitheater was quiet, maybe a fly sound could be heard.
When his voice just finished the verse
Đâu bóng thuyền Trương Chi?
The whole audience clapped like a shower and shouted “Bis, bis” after whistling.
When the entertainment was over, teachers at my school tapped him on the should, smiled, and congratulated him. Schoolgirls rushed to him to congratulate and talked to him. I felt glad, walking next to him.
Today, having the talented guitar accompaniment of Brother Tam and the nice sound system, Khoa was like a lottery hitter. He smiled confidentially and I expected with pleasure Brother and Sister Tam’s surprise .
Brother Tam said:
_This song is very nice but long, and hard to play and sing.
When Brother Tam finished his guitar prelude, Khoa sang impressively, his voice was transparent and vibrating:
Một chiều xưa trăng nước chưa thành thơ,
Trầm trầm không gian mới rung đường tơ,
Vương vất heo may hoa yến mong chờ,
Ôi tiếng cầm ca thu tới bao giờ.
The guitar sound and the singing attracted Sister Tam. She was quiet, attentive and stuck to her chair for listening. I did enjoy Khoa sang this song, so this time I only looked for what else he would have.
Brother Tam’s fingers ran on his guitar keyboard and his mind wandered with the meaning of each verse. He sent out wonderful sounds.
At the following passage, the sounds of the guitar came out like a shower, entwining with, accompanying, and chasing after the sobbing singing:
Ngoài sông mưa rơi trên bao cung đàn.
Còn nghe như ai nức nở và than.
Trầm vút tiếng gió mưa cùng với tiếng nước róc rách, ai có buồn chăng?
Lòng bâng khuâng theo mưa đưa canh tàn
Về phương xa ai nức nở và than.
Cùng với tiếng gió vương, nhìn xuống ngấn nước lấp lánh in bóng đò xưa.
Đò ơi, đêm nay dòng sông Thương dâng cao mà ai hát dưới trăng ngà.
The song ended with a flow of guitar sounds following the melodious singing to the endless space.
Đâu bóng thuyền Trương Chi?
Brother Tam let the guitar go, clapped hands with Sister Tam and I, and repeatedly congratulating:
_Parfait, parfait … (perfect, perfect …).
_Tuyet voi! (Wonderful in Vietnamese)! Sister Tam also congratulated.
I said while Khoa was smiling at me:
_What a matching of guitarist and singer!
Sister Tam went out and came back a moment later with Ms. Tu carrying a tray of four iced glasses of sweetened pickled lime drink.
After sipping at his drink twice, Brother Tam told me:
_It’s your turn, Khanh.
I slightly shook my head:
_I should have sung first. Singing after good singers would make me embarrassed.
_What song? Brother Tam looked at me, asking.
It took me a couple of seconds to reply:
_Well, it is …
Brother Tam interrupted:
_OK, what is the song or song paragraph you like most?
_The last paragraph of Bong Chieu Xua by Dương Thieu Tuoc starting on the verse
Lâng lâng chiều mơ, một chiều bâng khuâng đâu nguồn thơ.
_OK, I’ll take care of the accompaniment and singing from the beginning of the song until this verse. Brother Tam said.
_This song is to be sung twice. You will sing the song and play the guitar along for the second time. Please play Slow as the author wants. I am used to sing this song in Slow.
Brother Tam picked up his guitar:
_Let’s start now.
I stopped him:
_Hold on please. I need to drink some water, my throat is dry. If a person sings this song, he is supposed to restart the whole song right away after singing the word “mờ” for three beats.
Tình như mây khói, bóng ai xa mờ.
I proposed after I sing the word “mờ” for three beats, you play your invented harmony for eight beats, then you restart singing the whole song and playing your guitar along.
_OK, OK. I almost forgot about that.
Brother Tam was quiet for a bit, I guessed he thought about inventing the harmony lasting eight beats.
He started singing and playing his guitar along
Một chiều ái ân
Say hồn ta bao lần …
Một trời đắm duyên thơ cho đời bao phút ơ thờ.
Ngạt ngào sắc hương,
Tay cầm tay luyến thương.
Đôi mắt em nhìn càng say đắm mơ màng nào thấy đâu sầu vương.
Một chiều bên nhau, một chiều vui sống quên phút tang bồng.
Em ơi nhớ chăng xa em anh hát khúc ca nhớ mong.
Một chiều gió mưa, anh về thăm chốn xưa,
Non nước u buồn nào đâu bóng cố nhân, lòng xót xa tình xưa.
I continued his singing:
Lâng lâng chiều mơ, một chiều bâng khuâng đâu nguồn thơ.
Mây vương sầu lan. Gió ơi đưa hồn về làng cũ, nhắn thầm lời nguyện ước trong chiều xưa.
Thương nhau làm chi, âm thầm lệ vương khi biệt ly.
Xa xôi còn chi! Vô tình ai nhắc mối duyên hờ, tình như mây khói, bóng ai xa mờ.
After Brother Tam sang the song and play his guitar along for the second time, Sister Tam clapped with Khoa and I, saying:
_Very good. Singing the song in this inter-single style was fun. It also brought something new to the entertainment.
In the early morning when I was lying in bed, I saw Khoa awake, I told him:
_Yesterday when talking to Lan, I knew the name of the other girl in the dress maker shop was Huong.
_She’s beautiful, isn’t she? Khoa asked.
I lengthened my answer:
_All the three females are beautiful. Two of them are young and well dressed, one of them is in her early forties and better dressed.
Then I asked:
_What is the schedule for today?
_Well … could we come back to the dress maker shop?
_You sound like a journalist who wants to write an article about dress makers in My Tho. What is the reason for the comeback? Be careful of people, especially the shop owner. They would think you and l are luring rural girls. I laughed after saying.
When I stopped laughing, Khoa said:
_Coming back to thank them. Is it OK?
_Yesterday when Lan was about to get indoors, I again thanked her and Auntie Ba already.
Khoa didn’t stop:
_So coming back to give a gift. OK?
_That’s not bad. OK, I would pay half but stand behind you. You would present the gift and say thanks.
At this point, I thought Khoa liked Huong. But it could be he just wanted to make acquaintance with her for chatting. What I was a bit surprised was that he had no opportunity to say a sentence to Huong and he was already so interested in her.
_Yesterday when I stood behind you, I saw two cups of coffee on the table for Huong and the shop owner. So we just buy one big bag of good coffee and ten sweetened condensed milk cans for gift.
_You should be cautious. I think the shop owner was kind but didn’t sound easy.
_I would ask Huong to bring the gift to the shop owner who would certainly show up. Then I would thank her.
I shook my head and smiled:
_I have to borrow the words of Brother Tam last night to say you’re parfait (perfect).
_Later at breakfast, I’ll tell Brother and Sister Tam we’ll be out until the evening.
_OK, you plan and do everything, I just follow you.
_What a planning. It’s like that for American landing on Korea.
_We’ll “land on Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop”.
_But if you meet the shop owner instead of Huong, you have to present her the gift and say thanks. That doesn’t sound normal.
_It would be very easy. I heard Lan addressed her as Auntie Ba, so I’ll do the same thing when presenting her the gift and saying thanks to her.
I shook my head:
_What a flattery!
_Nobody would blame you for your reasonable flattery. Khoa smiled.
Contrary to my concerns, when we arrived at the shop by 2PM, only Huong was sewing. Khoa was obviously happy.
He smilingly showed the gift to Huong:
_Hello Miss. Yesterday we got lost on our way and we got help from Auntie Ba and family. We have a small present to thank you.
_Please have a seat. What are your names so I can introduce you to Auntie Ba.
_I am Khoa and my friend’s name is Khanh.
The shop owner gladly showed up with Lan. Khoa and I got up, bowing a little.
She looked at us and the gift. Khoa said while she was hesitating:
_Yesterday we got lost on our way and luckily we got help from Auntie Ba and family. We have a small present to thank you.
She sat down and said:
_Please have a seat. We only offered you a trivial routine help, we feel embarrassed to receive such a big gift.
I said persuasively:
_It’s not really big. Please accept it. Thanks to your help, we were home yesterday in time for dinner and did not bother Mr. and Mrs. Tam who have boarded us for a week.
_Really. Thank you very much for the gift. Where are you from?
_We are from Saigon. I am Khoa, my friend’s name is Khanh.
I said after looking at the rags scattered on the table and marble floor:
_Auntie Ba, you shop is very reputable. You have plenty of customers despite your simple shop sign.
_ We’re lucky. We opened our shop rather long ago. We’ve made a variety of clothes: ladies’ casual and formal dresses, home dresses, pyjamas, etc. That’s why we have many customers among them several ladies are called Mrs. Tam. We don’t know if Mrs. Tam that you mentioned is our customer.
_We’re living in Mr. and Mrs. Tam’s house. They have a five-year old son.
_That’s right, they are customers of our shop. The husband often came here with his wife and their little son on a Vespa.
_You’re right. Mr. Tam has the French Master Degree of Law from Hanoi. He works in Saigon and is my father’s boss. He rides a Vespa to go to work.
She smiled and looked at us in a more friendly way:
_That’s so. Now I know more about Mrs. Tam’s family. She’s kind and discreet.
I thought the shop owner should have said “Now I know more about Mrs. Tam’s family and you”, but she omitted “you”. So her friendliness was due to her skill to know more about us. Women are more discreet and curious than men, and when they want to know something, it’s hard for men to avoid revealing it as Khoa did recently in his talk.
Lan brought up a tray of tea.
The shop owner said:
_Serve yourselves, please.
Everybody picked up a tea cup to drink.
I found the tea tasted good.
_How long are you still in My Tho?
_We’ll come back to Saigon in four days. Khoa replied.
_What will you do when back to Saigon?
_We’ll take the oral exam.
_You meant the Baccalaureate II Oral Exam, didn’t you. She kept asking probably because she saw we were all adult.
Huong asked Khoa, intervening in the conversation :
_I heard all candidates passed the Baccalaureate II Oral Exam. Was that true?
_They usually did. Khoa replied.
The shop owner asked Khoa:
_What would you choose to study after you passed the exam?
_I plan to study Law. Khoa answered.
She turned towards me:
_How about you, Khanh?
_I would take the competitive exam held by Military Medical Corp to get a scholarship for Medicine study.
_That’s great. I hope you both will succeed. She said.
_Hopefully. Khoa and I said at the same time.
We said goodbye to the women after telling them we had to do something and to be home in time for dinner.
The shop owner smiled:
_Thank you. Hope to see you later. I still want to know more about Saigon.
Khoa smilingly said we will see them again before coming back to Saigon.
A moment after leaving the shop, Khoa said:
_It’s almost 4PM. Let’s take a walk in this whole area, so we’ll be home thirty minutes before dinner.
I told him:
_I didn’t expect Auntie Ba invited us to come back.
_Of course she did unless she hated us.
_You’re right. We didn’t seem to be hateful. I agreed.
_Your careful character was very good for helping Lan, but it made you chicken for “landing on Nhu Y Dressmaker Shop”.
I said after a moment of silence, yielding to his criticism:
_You was great. Your success was incredible.
Khoa smiled more often, walked slowly, gazed into space. He seemed to be “high” again, or maybe “higher”.
_So when could we come back to the shop again?
_Well, the day after tomorrow and the last day in My Tho. Two more times.
_I think Huong liked you. I said.
_Are you kidding, that’s not true. Khoa rejected weakly.
I cleared my throat:
_Let me plan now.
_Everything is set. What else do you want? Khoa disagreed.
_Let’s go buy a couple of toy handguns for Little Tan, son of Brother and Sister Tam. A toy handgun that sends out only sparkles and sounds when being fired and another toy gun with very soft rubber bullets that are shot out within a very short distance.
_Let’s go buy them today. Hide the toys until giving them to Little Tan.
White clouds floated in the blue sky, birds chirped on trees and the wind whispered in the immense green rice field. I took a deep breath and breathed out slowly to enjoy the fresh air and the fragrant ripe rice smell. To dispel growing concern about Lan and Huong, I told myself “There were so many people suffering hardship and pain, not only Lan and Huong”.
_It’s so beautiful here! Khoa suddenly exclaimed.
A pair of birds were chirping together and then perched on a green branch.
I asked Khoa:
_If Brother and Sister Tam ask where we went today, do I tell them also we presented a gift to Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop people to thank them?
_I accomplished the “landing on Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop”. It’s your turn to answer Brother and Sister Tam.
_I’ll also tell them about the gift. I said.
_Would you mention the quantity of the gift? Khoa asked?
_No, I’ll only tell the gift was coffee and sweetened condensed milk cans. I answered.
_Without answering completely what Brother and Sister Tam want to know is being insincere to them.
_I agreed. I said.
Khoa excitedly continued:
In dialogue, telling the truth and lying is the first and also one of the most difficult problems. You would tell the truth if it doesn’t harm and offend anyone. You would tell a lie to someone if it benefits him/her and doesn’t harm and offend anyone. So dialogue probably includes the French proverb “Toute ve’rite’ n’est pas bonne a` dire” (Every truth is not good to tell), the Vietnamese proverb “Su that mat long” (The truth vexes people), and the Vietnamese popular song “Xua nay the thai nhan tinh, vo nguoi thi dep, van minh thi hay” (People think the wife of others is more beautiful and their thinking, saying and writing are better).
We were back home thirty minutes before dinner. Looking at his watch, Khoa told me “You see”. He meant he precisely scheduled everything for the day.
At dinner, everybody talked openly and gladly probably due to influence of last night chamber music playing.
Khoa said to Brother Tam:
_I’ll study Law. Would you please tell me how to study effectively and fast as well as implement well what got from study.
_OK. You should go on studying as the French said “Il faut lire entre les lignes” (You must read between the lines). Brother Tam replied.
_We accidentally have now as talk topic “Il faut lire entre les lignes” and “Toute vérité n’est pas bonne à dire” (Every truth is not good to tell).
I asked him:
What do you think about historic informations “Vietnamese people were born to Dragon Father and Fairy Mother” and “Japanese people were born to Sun Mother”.
_Those were Vietnamese and Japanese legends.
I kept asking:
_When reading “between the lines” histories of Vietnam and Japan, did you find out something you didn’t tell because you would harm and offend people?
He still smiled and repeated:
_I’ve told you those were legends of Vietnamese and Japanese histories.
I thought of “saying further was not wise” so Brother Tam only repeated his answer.
_I think you found out many things when reading “between the lines” history of Vietnam.
_Of course I did. Historians didn’t tell why for thousands of years, Chinese people invaded Vietnam when there was an opportunity. Chinese people found Vietnam was the best country to take because Vietnam was small, next to China and had the sea along its Eastern and Southern borders. You can see this on the map.
Khoa jumped in:
_Vietnam, Laos and Burma are all next to China. Why only Vietnam is influenced by Chinese culture and Laos and Burma are influenced by Hindu culture. Thailand and Cambodia are in the same situation.
Brother Tam explained:
_Because China can’t take Vietnam, Burma and Laos are not influenced by Chinese culture but by Hindu culture. Vietnam is influenced by Chinese culture because it was ruled by China for one thousand years.
_Why in the old days French people had to take Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos together and today American people do the same thing.
Brother Tam answered:
_They had to do so because Vietnamese rebellions could use Cambodia and Laos as their strongholds. Cambodian and Laotian rebellions could also do the similar thing. Therefore these three countries had Indochina as their common name. Indo means Cambodia and Laos, and china means Vietnam.
Brother Tam got up, opened the fridge to get a Larue beer. He smiled:
_Each of you drink a little, I’ll take care of the rest.
Khoa and I kept silent because we were afraid to refuse him. We didn’t want him to lose inspiration.
_Give us some ice to dilute beer. Khoa proposed.
_OK and Boire jusqu’a` la lie (Drink to the grounds).
After sipping his beer, he suddenly asked:
_Who has protected Vietnam from China so far?
_King Quang Trung, Lords Trinh and kings before the Trinhs.
_Vietnam under Lords Trinh was small back to Quang Binh so protection of the country became much more difficult than before.
Brother Tam continued:
_What made King Quang Trung, Lords Trinh, and kings before the Trinhs protect the country?
He explained because we couldn’t answer:
_King Quang Trung, Lords Trinh, and kings before the Trinhs got their power by themselves after fighting, so they appreciated their thrones and lordship and made effort to maintain their power and develop the country. But the real thing that made them to do so was their fear of family massacre after losing their throne or lordship. For example, the massacre of the Ly dynasty and Chinese Ming dynasty whose descendants had to take refuge in Hoi An, territory of Lords Nguyen.
_Oh my Gosh, It was so easy but I didn’t know.
Brother Tam raised his glass:
_Let’s drink. C’est facile mais il fallait y songer! (It was easy but you had to think about it!).
I drank beer enjoyably although I was a bit afraid of throwing up that would look bad and waste a delicious meal. I further understood Brother Tam’s explanation. I realized puppet governments created by invaders didn’t have to fear family massacre so they just tried to steal money and take bribes, leading the country to corruption.
I told Khoa:
_According to your schedule, tomorrow we’ll visit Auntie Ba, Huong and Lan. They would have to talk with us and sew at the same time. They would invite us to eat or buy something for us to eat and drink. I’ll refuse their offer because they are not well-off. They would have to do so because of our gift and probably our Baccalaureate II.
_You thought too much. Last time I intentionally arranged to be there by 2:30PM because I wanted to avoid lunch time. This time we’ll be there by the same time.
Then he joked:
_If we arrive in the early morning and they have no customers later in the day, they would burn paper to suppress bad luck caused by us; we would have shame of that.
_I understand now. But if we come with nothing, they would go buy something for us to eat and drink.
_Just bring there fifteen banh bia (11). Can one eat three cakes consecutively?
(11) Banh bia: cake having sweetened green beans wrapped in thin multilayers of sweetened flour.
_I think we should only drink tea or coffee, refusing soft drink that is more expensive.
_Exactly. You seem to care too much for the shop as if you want to marry a niece of Auntie Ba.
_I just thought about what was appropriate to avoid mistakes.
This time Khoa was to present banh bia and say something. I remembered each turn on the way and took the lead.
_You remember so well the way.
_I took the way two times more than you.
_Uh-hu. Khoa exclaimed.
After a short silence, he continued:
_We come to the shop today and again two days later next Friday. We’ll will come there in the morning and eat Friday lunch with Brother and Sister Tam. Shortly afterwards we’ll go the railroad station to go back to Saigon.
_So after lunch we’ll give the gifts to Little Tan. I think we’ll give to Ms. Tu some money discreetly.
_OK. Ne remets pas à demain ce que tu peux faire aujourd’hui (Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today).
_How much you want to give to Ms. Tu? I asked.
_I think each of us would give her seventy dongs (piastres). Khoa replied.
That’d be fine. But Ms. Tu would think the gift was calculated, we lived seven days in Brother Tam’s house and each of us gave her seventy dongs.
After a short moment Khoa increased seventy to one hundred dongs.
_That’s very good. A woman in her fifties had to make a living as a maid, that’s not what people wanted.
_Everything is set. I feel so relaxed. This trip was perfect.
I’ll probably bring five large delicious meatloaves and French baguettes on Friday to the Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop, but I don’t know what time they have breakfast.
_Good idea. I’ll discreetly get that information later at the shop.
_ Would they burn paper as you joked recently? I said.
_No, that won’t happen. Khoa rejected.
It has been only five days since I met Brother Tam last Friday at Khoa’s house. During this time, I experienced nice things at Brother Tam’s house and the dress maker shop. I realized I also liked to know locals like Brother Tam. When talking with Lan on her way home, I knew about her family, a little about Huong, and nothing at all about Auntie Ba.
I told Khoa:
_We’ll arrive at the shop after turning right over there and walking fifty meters.
When we were close to the shop, Khoa shouted:
_Huong is sewing near the window.
_Hello everybody. We said when seeing also Lan sewing in the shop.
Khoa put his bag on the table:
_.We bought new cakes for Auntie Ba and you to eat at tea time.
_Thank you, have a seat. Auntie Ba is not home. She went out for business.
Lan looked at me and said:
_So only in a couple of days, you will return to Saigon and be very busy.
_That’s right. I said and remembered on her way home, I answered her I was to come back to Saigon in five days.
_Busy, but we’ll be back to My Tho when available.
Turning toward Huong he asked:
_Are you from My Tho?
_No, I’m from Ben Tre.
_Did you sometimes go home to see your parents?
_I did, but only to see my Mom. She divorced my Dad because he had a concubine.
I asked Huong:
_We came to the shop only at working time and did not see Auntie Ba’s husband probably because he was working downtown.
_Antie Ba also divorced her husband because he had a concubine.
I found myself clumsy because my question brought out an unhappy thing after Khoa already did. I turned toward Lan:
_Lan, what time the shop opens?
_Six thirty, half an hour before breakfast. We looked out when eating. When you came in the evening to ask for way directions, we were eating che (dessert made of beans boiled in sweetened water) and drinking coffee and looking out.
_Eating together like that was fun.
I said and felt happy because the talk was back to normal again.
Huong got up and put away the cakes. She then brought out a tray of tea and said:
_Serve yourselves, please.
I noticed there was an unwritten rule in the shop, the girls never ate or drank any gift before Auntie Ba.
A short moment after drinking tea, Huong said:
_I don’t know what Lan would think, I seemed to be tired of men not including you both of course.
I asked why, she answered:
_Because of stories like that of my Dad, Auntie Ba’s husband, and many more bad men who hurt their wives and children.
_You’re right. So yous’ll be careful to marry a man. Best wishes to you. I said.
Lan suddenly ask:
_Khanh, what do you think about divorce?
_Well … let me think about it.
I cleared my throat and continued:
_We are now in 1958. Around 1928 years ago people asked Jesus Christ: “What do you think about divorce?”.
_Those who divorce their wives not for adulterous reason commit adultery.
_What do you think about this answer.
Huong replied first after a short moment:
_The word “commit” meant adultery was a sin. This was applied to both men and women.
_You’re right. The Bible says that adultery is a sin. But a Vietnamese proverb says “Men can have five wives and seven concubines, but women must have only one husband and be faithful to him”. And a popular song says “If you plant betel, you have to open a ditch. If you have two wives, you have to love them equally”. I think men wrote these sentences to justify their bad behaviors to their wives and children. Vietnamese women hated these sentences and had to endure this situation because the reason of the stronger is always the best.
_Vietnamese women were oppressed by their husbands because they were only housewives.
_In his answer Jesus had no idea for women’s adultery, so men would either divorce or forgive their adulterous wives. He didn’t have idea for adulterous men either, so women would either divorce or forgive their adulterous husbands.
_The answer of Jesus implied if the wife was not adulterous, her husband would have to stay faithfully with her for life and vice versa; and finally if a spouse died, the survival one could either stay single faithfully or get married again.
_When a spouse died, the survival one stayed faithfully single because he/she either still loved the dead so much or did not find his/her right person yet. In conclusion, the divorce discussion is considered over.
_Khanh, you’re catholic, aren’t you?
_No, I’m not. I knew the answer of Jesus to the adultery question because I read the New Testament of Catholicism.
_So, what religion you belong to.
_I actually have no religion.
_Khoa, what religion you belong to?
_I actually have no religion either.
So, you both and people in this shop all don’t have any religion. In addition Autie Ba, Huong and I seemed to have half soul traumatized due to divorce and being orphaned. We’ve lived together because “Ceux qui se ressemblent s’assemble” (Those who look alike flock together).
_You can add us to your group because we are orphaned.
_That’s why our talks fit. Auntie Ba had the French Brevet d’ Etudes du Premier Cycle (French Junior High School Diploma). Her talk was interesting and fun.
Khoa had opions:
_We should tell the truth if it doesn’t harm and hurt anyone when talking with strangers or people who have different viewpoints.
Huong asked Khoa:
_You raised the issue of telling and not telling the truth, so there may be cases of lying and not lying.
_Lying of course is not good, but we should tell a lie to someone if it benefits the person and doesn’t harm and hurt anyone.
_So we should be careful because you may lie to us.
_We have never lied to you so far. We sounded unwise to tell you about lying and not lying.
Lan said she was kidding and proposed drinking coffee. She went to the kitchen and came back with a tray of four cups of coffee.
_Coffee smells so good and comes at the right time and in the right place.
_It’s the coffee and milk that you gave us.
_We just tried to understand Jesus’ saying about divorce, but nobody had an opinion on it. If you disagree with Jesus, make comments.
Everybody kept silent.
Khoa clapped, I clapped. Lan and Huong clapped.
_If your wife commits adultery, would you divorce her?
Khoa and I both answered we would.
_Why would you divorce her and what would you feel about her?
_Because of several reasons. First, I wouldn’t want her to contaminate me with venereal diseases. Second, I wouldn’t want to have a child who is not mine. Third, I couldn’t tolerate unfairness of loving her, spending money for her, sharing housework with her, etc. while her boyfriend would have to do nothing other than making a call. Besides he would exploit her for money. Four, to mean to people that my wife was like an used stuff that became bad so I got rid of it. Five, to have a new wife. I would feel my wife was like my food that somebody sneakily ate.
Khoa sipped at his coffee and continued:
_If I know my wife commits adultery, I would only be angry and sad a little because I’ve already prepared to deal with the situation.
I was glad to hear Khoa’s opinion and noticed the girls followed an unwritten rule of the shop, they kept working when talking.
I said I agreed with Khoa completely and I continued:
_Husbands of adulterous women often had children that were not their biologic ones. Therefore society condemned adulterous women more seriously than adulterous men. Blood tests today (1958) can determine only that the suspected child is not the child of the adulterous women’ husband if he and his wife’s boy friend have different blood groups (group A, B, AB, O). If they have the same blood group, blood tests can do nothing. Any questions about adultery?
Lan and Huong shook their heads and laughed.
When the talk was considered to be over, Lan suddenly asked:
_Although Huong and I only passed Elementary School Exam, we knew that people should not talk about politics, religion and culture because they would lose friends and have enemies. Khanh read a lot about religion, can you talk a little about it when we all do not have religion?
_I can because Lan and Huong had good education after passing Elementary School Exam of the French International Baccalaureate Program. My Dad told me not to talk about politics, religion and culture because of the risks mentioned by Lan. I talked once with Khoa about politics. So I’m going only to summarize religions.
_Don’t worry, go ahead.
I cleared my throat:
_Moses was a Jew, born in Egypt, around 1250 BC. He liberated the Israelites (Jews) from slavery to Egyptians, led his people to a place where the Kingdom of Israel was to be founded. Moses made laws for the Jews and was met by Yahve’ misspelled as Je’hovah, God of the Jews. Moses did not see Yahve’ but heard his voice. When the speech of Yahve’ ended, thunderstorms stroke larges rocks leaving Hebrew script. Moses recorded what he heard and the script on stone. This record was the basic elements of the Torah of Judaism that was also known as the Old Testament of Christianity. In the 3rd century AC, the Torah was translated into Greek (Version des Septante) and was used in early Christianity. In the fourth century, Saint Jerome translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin called La Vulgate, which became the official canon of Christianity.
_So Old Testament was called Torah in the old days.
_In other word, Judaism and Christianity have the same Bible, the Jews call it Torah, and the Christians call it Old Testament.
_Exactly. You both understood my presentation quickly, that’s great.
And I continued:
_Torah of Judaism, that is, Old Testament of Christianity says that mankind committed crimes and deserved to be destroyed, but Yahve’ (Je’hovah), God of Judaism and Christianity had mercy on mankind and would made his son born on the earth to die for the sins of the world. Judaism says that this birth has not happened yet, but Christianity says that Jesus was the son of Yahve’, born and crucified to die for mankind.
New Testament consists of four books about the history of Jesus and his preaching. It was written by Matthew, John, Luke, and Paul who had previously exhorted stoning of Christians and guarded the stoners’ dresses during their stoning. Later Holy Spirit came down on Paul and he became a Christian. Matthew and John were apostles, that is, disciples of Jesus.
Christianity has many different divisions
Protestantism and Christianity have the same Old Testament and New Testament, but practice of Protestantism is different. The preacher (pastor) of Protestantism has a wife. Protestantism uses only one symbol, the Cross, and does not worship Mary, considering her only as the Virgin Mother of Jesus.
Protestantism also has many different divisions.
Islam was founded by Mahomet in the 7th century in Arabia. Mohamet wrote the Koran as a messenger of Allah, God of Islam, who revealed Koran to Mohamet. According to the Koran, Bible of Islam, there is only one God, Allah.
_I heard Buddhism preceded Christianity, why did you mention Christianity before Buddhism?
_You’re right. Buddhism preceded Christianity, but I talked about Christianity first because Christianity was linked to Judaism that was the first religion of mankind. In addition, I continued to talk about Protestantism and Islam because Judaism, Christianity, Protestantism and Islam were related.
Please note that my presentation came from religious documents Khoa and I read.
_So please summarize Buddhism and Confucianism.
I kept telling:
_Around the 6th century BC, Siddhartha, son of the Shakyan Emir of India, gave up everything to become a monk with the philosophy that mankind was suffering because of their desires – samsara.
Shakyan Emir of India: Emir means a ruler, Shakya is a kind of people.
Self-denial: don’t think about yourself and forget about yourself, so yourself is no longer in your mind and you don’t desire.
Therefore, Siddhartha was called Shakyamuni. Shakya means Siddhartha’s people and muni means sage. Shakyamuni means the sage of Shakya. Siddhartha said that only self-denial could avoid desire. Siddhartha was a monk who emitted light (illumination) and became a Buddha, that is, when he died, his was no longer reincarnated but went to a place called Nirvana. Humans, because of their desires, were never satisfied, so they committed crimes that they had to pay for immediately in their lifes (retribution) and their souls had to be reincarnated into another life to pay off. When the paid off was done, people could be enlightened and become Buddhas. What I am talking comes the French Encyclopedia. French reseachers studied the Indian language and then went to India to read the records of Siddhartha’s apostles and wrote them in the Encyclopedia.
People asked Confucius (551-479 BC):
“What do you think about God?”
_Respect God as you are doing and respect him from far away.
Confucius meant “Respect God as you are doing and don’t try to know what God is”.
Khoa said looking at his watch:
_Khanh summarized exactly the religious documents we read. We are sorry we have to go home for dinner.
Lan and Huong said they wanted to know more about religions.
I replied I would continue my presentation next time and I concluded:
_What I was telling was only from the school and books. My personal experiences are still not much. Next time we may have Auntie Ba, everyone can learn more because she had the old French Junior High School Diploma and great personal experiences. She’s like our parent.
_But you’re going to return to Saigon.
_That’s right. After Friday lunch at Brother Tam’s house, we will walk to the railroad station to come back to Saigon. Please do us a favor. Friday early morning as soon as your shop opens, we’ll bring meal for breakfast. Please don’t let Auntie Ba know this and don’t prepare breakfast for that day.
Lan and Huong thanked us and promised to do exactly as Khoa proposed.
On the way to Brother and Sister Tam’s house, I told Khoa:
_You’re great. I’m surprised you all set the Friday breakfast at the dress maker shop.
_ It was fun. But I think we sounded silly when talking with the girls. I told about lying and not lying and you talked about religions. In the future Lan and Huong would ask more questions about the topics so let’s be careful.
Then he laughed and continued:
_But it was worthwhile to be silly that way!
I laughed also, shaking my head.
_I don’t know. Whatever will be, will be …
When we got home, Ms. Tu told us Brother Tam’ s family went out without having dinner and woudn’t be back until late evening.
Khoa took out a hundred-dong (piastres) bill and gave it to Ms. Tu:
_We’ll return to Saigon this Friday, I have something for your betel. You were nice to us and cooked very well. Thank you.
I also gave Ms. Tu a hundred-dong bill and said “Thank you very much”
Ms. Tu held two hundred dongs and looked moved
_Thank you. You’re only students, I feel embarrassed to receive your big gifts.
_Don’t worry. We tutored children of rich family in the evening, so we had enough money.
I picked up a plate of sour sweet fried pork spare ribs on the table and handed it Ms. Tu:
_The sour sweet soup of snakehead fish and stir-fried beef with cauliflower are enough for us to eat.
Picking up his chopsticks, Khoa watched Ms. Tu leaving the dining room.
Seeing his moved eyes, I suddenly felt an attachment to the poor and nice woman in her fifties and then to Lan although she was not here. I sighed, ate slowly, and leaned back in my chair.
_Are you choking, Khanh?
_ Oh yes. I was hungry, I quickly swallowed a big piece of food.
He suggested, believing me:
_Have some soup and you’ll be OK.
_ I’m better now, I don’t need to do so. I lied again.
Oh, a lie leads to another as a crime causes another, and so on forever.
I thought of Lan when she got up and said “Auntie Ba, could I guide them to get there”, when she told me about her family while afternoon sunrays fell on her hair. My life did change in a week because I felt my will was weakening. I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. I told myself I had to become a MD despite anything that would happen.
Khoa asked again:
_ Have you stopped choking?
_I’m OK now. I replied.
The sun was setting and the room gradually darkened. To banish the darkness that might break me down, I told Khoa:
_Turn on the light.
Khoa did and said:
_Oh, this guy is lazy today, just staying in his chair and not even turning on the light.
I suddenly felt fun:
_ Because my neck still hurt after choking.
I gladly continued, still thinking of Lan:
_We’ll have to return to Saigon in two days for the exam. The trip was fun. I think Huong liked you.
Khoa shook his head slightly, grinning.
Khoa and I arrived at Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop exactly at 6:20AM on Friday.
He smiled holding French baguettes and a bag of five large delicious meatloaves.
I said, wondering:
_Who will open the shop in ten minutes?
_ Probably Huong. Khoa guessed.
Ten minutes later, we met Huong smiling and saying hello. Khoa handed her the meal and said:
_Thank you for taking care of the plan.
Huong looked at the meal and said:
_Thank you, please have a seat. I’m going to tell Auntie Ba.
I looked around the shop. When I saw a lot of colorful rags on the clean marble floor, I discreetly told Khoa:
_ Yesterday the shop had many customers, everyone here was happy so we’re lucky today.
He nodded smiling.
After a moment, Lan came out:
_ Sorry about your long waiting, Khanh and Khoa. Auntie Ba is waiting you for breakfast.
When Khoa and I entered the dinning room, Aunt Ba smiled:
_Thank you for the meal.
_You’re welcome. We came to see you again and say goodbye because we’ll take the train by 2PM today to come back to Saigon.
Auntie Ba showed us our seats and everybody sat down. She sat at the head of the table and could see all over the room. Huong sat on her right side and Lan on her the left side. Khoa sat next to Huong and I next to Lan.
On a table for six people, covered with thick nylon cloth that had a design of square making lines in dark coffee and milk color on light coffee and milk color background, there were five white plates containing meatloaves. A big glass of iced lemonade on the right side of each plate, a white folded napkin on its left side, and two dishes of French baguette slices between rows of meatloaves.
Auntie Ba said:
_Serve yourselves please.
Everybody enjoyed eating.
Auntie Ba continued:
_I heard you all had a fun and interesting talk. I have a question for Khanh. What did you mean by self-denial.
_It meant don’t think about yourself, forget about yourself, so yourself no longer exists. For example a beautiful girl and I happen to be in a room. If I don’t think about myself and forget about myself, myself doesn’t exist. Finally I know there is the girl in the room without me and I don’t have any desire.
_Lan and Huong told me everything about your talk on last Wednesday. Khoa and Khanh can be friends of ours now. Let me have other questions. If you ask a girl to marry you and she says she is not virgin, what would you do?
_I would get married with her although I would be sad and regretful.
Auntie Ba turned towards me, waiting. I said:
_I would do like Khoa.
She asked me “Why?”. I replied:
_The girl is sincere and frank and if she marries me, she would be faithful to me and terminate her relationship with her ex-boyfriend. So I would not be jealous when hearing her story. However, I would be sad and regretful because a virgin bride is always psychologically worthier than a non virgin one.
_You’re great, Khoa and Khanh. You’re understanding and generous men.
_Thank you Auntie Ba for your comment. However I think girls are better than us with respect to the issue because they would not be sad and regretful if they marry non chaste males.
The women laughed and I laughed, too.
Auntie Ba asked again:
_What would you do if in the wedding night you find out your bride is not virgin?
_I would tell my bride she is not virgin, but if she is faithful to me and terminate her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, I wouldn’t count her loss of virginity.
Auntie Ba wondered:
_You wouldn’t blame her for hiding her non virgin status until marriage, wouid you?
_No because she would be afraid I would terminate my relationship with her after her confession.
Khoa said when seeing Aumtie Ba turned towards him:
_I completely agree with Khanh.
Lan and Huong looked at us with satisfied curious eyes.
Auntie Ba said smiling:
_Get the dessert please.
Lan got up, went to the kitchen. A moment later, she brought out a tray of five dishes of papaya cuts. Each dish had a spoon on.
After Khoa and I finished eating, we helped clear the table. The two girls washed dishes, made coffee; and then everybody brought a cup of coffee to the sewing room. Lan, Huong and Auntie Ba talked while sewing because of big work load.
While cleaning, Khoa tried to be with Huong as long as possible.
Khoa and I enjoyed coffee quietly, listening to the monotonous sound of the sewing machines because we didn’t want to disturb the women’s working. I felt impressed with Lan’s look at me when she turned sewing direction. When Auntie Ba stopped sewing to drink coffee. Lan said:
_During our previous talk without you, we were accidentally on marriage and religion topics. We are still on them now.
Auntie Ba asked:
_Marriage and religion, which one is more important?
Everybody answered “Marriage”.
The girls argued:
_Marriage is something concrete while religion is an abstract matter that people can do without it.
_Man was forced to be born. Auntie Ba said then kept quiet, looking around at everybody.
I spoked out:
_What Auntie Ba said is so true and so easy to understand. But I never knew it until now. It means that parents have responsibility to take care of their children in terms of feeding, clothing, health, safety and education until they become adult. Parents who knew this reality often loved their children very much.
Huong suddenly continued negatively:
_And there were a lot of parents who were not like that. Mothers had abortions. Abusive parents lived in leisure telling their children to do their whole housework. Husbands left their wives for girls and wives left their husbands for other men, abandoning their children. Step fathers raped step daughters. Step mothers abused and killed step daughters and step sons. And parents treated their children unfairly.
_But there were a lot of women who were left by their husbands raised their children alone until they became adult. These adult children in return helped back and loved their mothers for life. Probably it’s better to consider more what’s positive than what’s negative.
Aunt Ba shook her head and smiled:
_Let’s have tea.
_Let me make it for you. Lan said then got up and went to the kitchen.
She brought out tea and smiled:
_This tea is great. Huong’s mother gave it to Auntie Ba.
_I know. Aunt Ba said and drank the tea.
_The tea is so good.
Huong smiled asking .
_ Is that true, Khoa?
_I’ve never lied to you. Khoa replied.
She looked at Khoa and shook her head slightly.
I drank and found the tea really good.
Morning warm gold sunlight shined diagonally into the house from left. I told myself “East South oriented house again”. I looked around and was impressed again with Lan’s looking at me.
Auntie Ba turned towards me:
_ How is the tea, Khanh?
_ It’s really good. It has the stickky rice and sweet back tastes without being bitter like Chinese tea. Maybe because of that, it’s more popular than Chinese tea. Besides this tea, people in Ben Tre may have delicious foods.
_What tea do they drink in North Vietnam? Auntie Ba asked smiling:
_The cheapest tea out there is fresh tea which is made by boiling fresh young green tea leaves. This tea is popular in the countryside and among labor people. A little more expensive is bud tea which is also popular in the countryside and among labor people. Rich people in the city sometimes drink bud tea because they were addicted to it when they lived in the countryside. More expensive is dried young tea leaves which is popular in the middle class. The most expensive teas are Chinese tea and lotus-flavored tea including fake lotus-flavored tea which only has lotus smell but when you drink it, it tastes like dried young tea leaves.
_ Northerners call “tra” (tea) as “che” (dessert made of beans boiled in sweetened water), is that right?
_Countryside and labor people out there call “tra” (tea) as “che” (dessert made of beans boiled in sweetened water). City, rich and educated people, call “tra” as “tra”; sometimes some of these people call “tra” (tea) as “che” (dessert made of beans boiled in sweetened water) because they are new city and rich people. In literature and arts, Northerners are required to write “tra” as “tra”.
For example, describing a girl offering tea, they must write:
The velvet-eyed girl gave me “tra”.
and can’t write:
The velvet-eyed girl gave me “che” (dessert made of beans boiled in sweetened water).
Because it could be understood that the velvet-eyed girl game me dessert made of beans boiled in sweetened water.
The women burst out laughing, Khoa and me did, too.
Auntie Ba asked:
_”L’enfer, c’est les autres”, who said this and is it true?
Jean-Paul Sartre said: “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is others”.
This sentence is difficult to understand and admit because it sounds extremist. I discussed it with Khoa and we had to accept it when we suddenly remembered the last days in Hanoi in 1954.
At that time, the French Army and Police as well as the Army of former King Bao Dai already withdrew, and Vietnamese Communists did not arrive yet. At night, robbers tried to intrude people’s houses everywhere. Each house had a tank of sand and gasoline ready to open, light, and then throw into the gang robbers through a window or from a balcony. In addition, young people were ready to use long knives and sticks to fight against robbers. When a family and the gang robbers happened to fight, neighbors rushed into help. Many robbers were Vietnamese deserters who did not emigrate. They were doing what a proverb said “Ungrateful like citizens and inhuman like soldiers”. This event could be an example of “L’enfer, c’est les autres”.
The examples that were just mentioned by Huong are also evidence of “L’enfer, c’est les autres”. They could be called “L’enfer est dans la famille” (Hell is in the family).
Auntie Ba said:
_We accidentally got out of the topics marriage and religion to talk about people. We would never finish these three subjects.
_According to Auntie Ba’s “Man was forced to be born”, Jean-Paul Sartre’s “L’enfer, c’est les autres”, and evidence facts Huong and Khanh cited, most people including those in the family are bad. So how do you know a good person?
Auntie Ba replied:
Whoever it is, people are good or bad because of what they do and don’t do. Other than that nothing can prove them good or bad. The person who helps me with work and money without expecting anything is a good person to me. The following people are also good to me. People who find me sad try to share my sadness, people who find me glad try to share my joy, and people who want me to be happy and succeed, without expecting anything.
_How to know a bad person? Huong asked.
Auntie Ba replied:
_Anyone who uses power, force, conspiracy, tricks, and cheating to get others’ work, money, or body is a bad person.
_It’s so hard to deal with people.
Auntie Ba said:
_Right. Dealing with people is one of the hardest things. In general, dealing with people depends on the case you encounter. The truth is that if you love someone, the person would not love you in return, if you hate someone, the person would hate you more, and if you are bad to someone, the person would be worse to you.
_ What a wisdom!
I couldn’t help uttering:
_ Excellent! Auntie Ba can teach Dissertation Morale (Essay).
_Dealing with people according to the situation sounds so difficult.
Auntie Ba explained:
_I meant you should deal with people to have the maximally good result or the minimally bad result.
_So Auntie Ba’s goals of dealing with people would be exactly what Confucius wanted in his The’orie du Vrai Milieu (Theory of The Right Middle).
Auntie Ba told him
_Please summarize it for everyone to know.
Confucius, born in 551 BC, was a Chinese scholar who compiled the Four Books and Five Classics of China and invented The’orie du Vrai Milieu (Theory of The Right Middle) as well as discovered the Clear and Detailed Intuition of Man.
The Theory of The Right Middle is to behave and solve problems. Using Algebra to explain the Theory of The Right Middle is probably easiest and clearest.
A problem has countless solutions, from minus infinity (-∞), zero, to plus infinity (+∞). You must find the most appropriate solution to the problem for the maximally good result or the minimally bad result.
Not solving the problem at all is the zero solution, that is, waiting for the problem to resolve by itself or change and then finding the most appropriate solution.
Solving the problem in the most powerful way is the plus infinity solution, for example, the US dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945.
Solving the problem in the weakest way is the minus infinity solution, for example Germany, Italy and Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allies led by the U.S.
Solutions from +1, +2, +3, … to plus infinity are powerful solutions.
Solutions from -1, -2, -3, … to minus infinity are weak solutions.
After reading the book, Khanh and I understood the Theory of The Right Middle like that.
There are also many sentences:
“Strong and weak at the right time” means “Flexible”.
“The gentleman is flexible but not weak, strong but not rigid” because if he is weak he would lose; and if he is rigid, he would be broken, that is, he would lose, too.
Aunt Ba said: “Very good!” then turned towards me:
_And what is the Clear and Detailed Intuition of Man?
_According to Confucius, people are constantly disturbed by the external environment which strikes the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste) and mental status. In addition, people are disturbed by emotions, fatigue and illness. These disturbances cloud understanding. In the absence of these disturbances, Man can know things in the past, present and future clearly and in details without thinking. This kind of knowledge is called the Clear and Detailed Intuition of Man.
Auntie Ba said:
_So the Clear and Detailed Intuition of Man is like intuition and Zen of Buddhism.
_ You’re right. But intuition wass defined while the Clear and Detailed Intuition of Man was both defined and explainetd how it occured. Zen refers to the method of relaxing the body and mind to have good health and intuition. Zen is a Japanese word. It came to Japan from China at the end of the 12th century. Confucius was born in 551 BC, around fifteen years after Shakyamuni, so Clear and Detailed Intuition was discovered before Zen and intuition. In addition, Confucianism and Buddhism were known at the same time.
_Khanh, have you ever had Clear and Detailed Intuition?
“Yes,” I replied, “it happened as soon as I woke up in the night from my best sleep”. But I have never had Clear and Detailed Intuition of things in the future.
Auntie Ba guessed:
_So perhaps many people had the Clear and Detailed Intuition like Khanh without noticing.
She turned towards Khoa:
_ Khoa, did you have it?
_Yes, I did. Khoa replied seriously.
The two girls said “I did, too”, “I did, too”, causing everyone to laugh. Lan went to the kitchen, brought out a two-liter thermos containing hot tea to fill up everybody’s cup.
Auntie Ba told Huong to get French Champagne cakes for everyone to eat.
Picking up a cake, she said:
_Sorry about no Champagne bottle left.
I remembered within a week I met two intellectual families in My Tho, Brother Tam’s family, an upper class intellectual family and Auntie Ba’s family, a middle class intellectual one. I got back to reality when Lan said “Get one more cake, Khanh”, I saw how happy everyone was, especially Auntie Ba. She smiled:
_Maybe we talked enough about religion and people. A little bit more about marriage. How would you understand the proverb “Teeth and hair are corners of a person”?
_Teeth are a corner of a person and hair is another one, that is, teeth and hair are important. You should take good care of your teeth and hair to keep them always clean and nice.
Khoa smiled at Huong.
When I took the trip to My Tho, my heart was filled with joy without trouble.
On my return to Saigon, it became heavy with memories.
Brother and Sister Tam were a beautiful picture.
Huong, Auntie Ba and Ms. Tu were moving images.
And Lan was like a beautiful poem.
A good poem, in addition to beautiful words and rhymes, had touching details. Was Lan’s beauty those words and rhymes? Were her life and the meeting between her and me those touching details?
I realized instead of I felt I became embarrassed about so many things to do. I sat quietly, listening to the rumbling and howling of the train which was getting further and further away from My Tho. I suddenly wanted to return to Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop as soon as possible to see Lan and talk with her, Huong and Autie Ba.
_I think we’ll return to My Tho after passing the exam, applying for university study and getting a better job.
_OK, but it wouln’t be good if we don’t visit Brother and Sister Tam and visiting would be an embarrassing thing.
_Why an embarrassing thing? Khoa wondered.
I shook my head:
_Because we’d have to render thanks to them for our last trip with something expensive.
_Khanh, you were just too formal in thinking. We’ll visit Brother and Sister Tam. I’ll give Little Tan a corkscrew-bullet toy gun and you’ll give him a battery-powered toy car. It’d be just like last time we did.
_That’s OK. But we need Vespa or Lambretta scooters (Italian scooters) and can only go to Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop on Sunday because we have to tutor students on weekdays and Saturday in Saigon. If we happen to meet Brother and Sister Tam at the shop, what would they think about us?
Khoa said softly:
_I’ll think about this.
I guessed he didn’t figure out what to do as he didn’t when we got lost on the way to the traffic road.
Suddenly a voice asked:
_ Hey you! Do you remember me?
I looked up to the left, it turned out to be the ambulatory merchant woman on the train to My Tho last week.
I smiled and said:
_Hello Mam. I do, last week you helped me by telling when it was fifteen minutes before the train arrived at My Tho Railroad Station.
_You had a nice trip, didn’t you?
_ Yes, I did.
Hesitantly, she continued:
_Excuse me, are you two university students?
_ We’ll have to pass an oral exam next week to become university students.
_You two will, and your passing scores would be high. My children said no one failed the Baccalaureate II Oral Exam.
_Thank you. How many children do you have?
_A fourteen-year old boy and a thirteen-year old girl. My son will take an exam next year. May I move over to sit next to you so we can talk conveniently?
_Sure. My bench has many vacant seats.
The ambulatory merchant woman told me her name was Chin (Nine) that was her husband’s name because he was the ninth child of his parents. She took out a photo from her purse to show me.
Looking at her family photo, I said:
_Nice photo, people look good and happy, and smile beautifully.
_Thank you for your compliment. The picture looks like that because it was taken by a shop.
_What are your children’s names?
_My son’s name is Nhon and my daughter’s name is Hien.
_I’m Khanh and my friend’s name is Khoa.
She turned towards Khoa and smiled:
_Nice to meet you, Mr. Khoa.
_Nice to meet you, Mam. Khoa said.
_Mrs. Chin, where does you husband work?
_He owns a motor bike shop that sells parts and repairs motor bikes.
_That’s great. You shouldn’t have been an ambulatory merchant.
_We’ve been well-off recently. My husband was a motor bike repairer. He benefited a house and money from his father. He opened the shop with that plus our savings .
_Where is his shop?
_On De Tham Road.
_So it’s near my house on Bui Vien Road.
Mrs. Chin looked at me, her eyes largely opened:
_Your house and my house are in the same neighborhood.
She hesitantly continued:
_Mr. Khanh, if you can help my children, my family will be grateful to you.
_I’m busy, but what do you want me to help them? I asked, looking at her nice face.
_Nhon and Hien are eager to study. They only passed Elementary School Exam. They will have to pass three more exams to be university students. The exams are very difficult. If you tutor them, they would succeed.
_Succeeding or not depends on your children. There must be strong will and hard work. I’m busy, I would help them in my spare time.
Mrs. Chin lightly held my wrist:
_May I have your address?
I wrote my address on a sheet of paper torn off from my note book, and gave it to her.
She seemed moved:
_I’m fortunate to meet you today. My family will be grateful to you.
I said, looking at the hard-working as well as good family woman:
_No problem, I will help your children as you helped me.
The train kept running closer and closer to Saigon and further and further away from My Tho.
I thought of Lan again. I wondered what she was doing at this time. She would sit with Huong and Auntie Ba to have refreshment while looking outside as the day I got lost on the way to the traffic road and asked for directions.
The train suddenly howled, panted heavily, and then slowly stopped at Saigon Railroad Station instead of My Tho Railroad Station.
We said goodbye to Mrs. Chin and everybody walked home.
Back in my small room, I put away my luggage, took a shower when it was already dark. Tired, I went to bed and kept thinking until I fell asleep.
I passed the Baccalaureate II Exam with high score, Mention Assez Bien (Fair Mention). My passing score was between 12/20 to 13.75/20 while the passing score was only 9.75/ 20.
_”Tien ha thu vi cuong” (Strike first to get advantage). You go right now to put ahead of people a tutoring advertisement on the local news. We would have much better jobs this time.
_ What newspaper?
_ Bao Le Song (Life’s Reaseon Newspaper).
_That’s right. It’s the most read by Southerners. Do you want me to put another tutoring ad on Bao Ngon Luan (Discussion Newpaper), the most read by Northern Refugees.
_Do it, too. Remember to have Mention Assez Bien (Fair Mention) and our 21 and 18 years of age on the ad.
_Why our ages on the ad?
Khoa explained lenthily:
_Oh my Gosh. “C’est facile mais il fallait y songer” (It’s easy but you had to think about it ). There were two reasons for putting ages on the ad. First, people believed that old Baccalaureate II graduates would forget what they learned. Second, rich people wanted their daughters to marry university graduates so they preferred to hire youngest Baccalaureate II graduates as tutors.
_Wow, I’ve got it. I am going to do as told now.
I thought Khoa was more eager to return to My Tho than me, so he was aggressive and “high” like that. I realized he was smart.
After putting the ad, I rode my bike back to Khoa’s house to tell him everything I did. He complimented me and said as if he ordered me after seeing the ad and paying me for half of the receipt:
_Good. Go get a haircut right now.
_Why do I have to get a haircut right now?
Khoa replied lenthily:
_People who hired tutors also wanted “Tien ha thu vi cuong” (Strike first to get advantage). They would come to the tutor as soon as they liked his ad. So, after your haircut, you need to make your room neat. Tomorrow, you have to start sitting at home waiting for customers. You should be as neat as at school. You can wear sandals instead of shoes.
I shook my head, laughing.
_I’ve got it. I’m going to do as told and nothing won’t be late.
The next day, someone rang the bell around one hour after my breakfast. I guessed it was Khoa. He came in and said after looking at my room and me:
_You did everything very well. Hope we’ll succeed.
I asked Khoa if he had coffee. He said he didn’t.
While making coffee, I thought about Khoa’s plan and I hoped each of us could buy a Lambretta (Italian scooter) to go to My Tho on Sunday. In case of lack of money after three Summer vacation months, we could borrow our parents’ money to buy the scooters. This would be easy for Khoa, but could be a problem for me after Summer. Three years of studying Law took little time, so after this Summer, Khoa could study and tutor students as before. As for me, I’d have less time to do tutoring because studying PCB (Physics, Chemistry, Biology) and Medicine took a lot of time. So my earning would be less.
Khoa was very confident about the advertisement but I worried somewhat because to me “One bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. Anyway, I hoped very much we could buy one Lambretta to go to My Tho.
I suddenly felt happy and said:
_I’m sure we’ll have Lambretta to go to My Tho. I think Lambretta is more convenient than Vespa because the person who sits behind can put each of his/her legs on each side.
_That’s very likely. Khoa laughed without understanding I meant he and I could buy only one Lambretta.
He excitedly continued:
_When Auntie Ba said “Man was forced to be born”, she meant parents were responsible for their children. So we are also responsible for our girl friends, that is, we should’nt do anything that harm or hurt Huong and Lan.
_What do you mean?
_Maybe I’ll only have Huong on my Lambretta whenever you ride along with Lan or Auntie Ba on your Lambretta. So if for any reason I can get married with Huong, she would be still a virgin girl even to people’s eyes and no one could backbite her.
_That’s great and no one could say we’re villains.
We drank coffee and chatted until around 11AM when someone rang the bell. Khoa winked at me and I knew he meant there was a customer.
I opened the door and saw a boy and a girl carrying heavy shopping bags.
_Excuse me, is this the house of Mr. Khanh? The boy asked.
I smiled at him:
_I’m Khanh. What can I do for you?
_We’re Nhon and Hien, children of Mrs. Chin. My Mom has some fruits for you and Mr. Khoa.
_Please come in. I said.
Nhon took out from his bag four round stuff wrapped in soft paper, and put them on the table. Hien took out two.
I looked at Nhon after I opened a stuff:
_Thank you and your parents. I’ve never seen any breast fruit (sweet fruit looking like a breast) that is big like this one, so big that I have to use my two hands to hold it.
_These fruits came from my homeland in two dozens. Hien said.
_Where is your homeland? I asked.
_In Vung Liem. Hien replied.
_Vung Liem is in Vinh Long. Nhon explained.
I laughed gladly:
_Really. If you hadn’t said, I would have thought Vung Liem was in Vung Tau.
The children burst laughing; Khoa and I did, too.
_Would you like Phuong Toan root beer?
_No, thank you. We have to go home now. My parents invite you to come over this evening if available.
He took out from his pocket a piece of paper:
_This is our address.
_I’ll come over alone this evening. Khoa will have to stay home, waiting for tutee’s relatives.
Khoa left half an hour after Nhon and Hien.
Five tutee’s relatives, three men and two women, drove to my house and hired us to tutor their sons for French Junior High School Exam. I found on their business cards they were business people in the center of Saigon, so they lived not far from my house.
After dinner, I went to Mr. and Mrs. Chin’s house. Their shop was still open. I talked to them in the presence of Nhon and Hien. I was then led upstairs to the largest room of their house. It was Nhon and Hien’s studying room which had a window overlooking the street. The room had a blackboard as big and good as the school’s one. In front of the blackboard there were a study table and a bench for four people, exactly like those at school.
I said to Mr. Chin:
_Mrs. Chin told me Nhon and Hien were eager to learn. Now I see they are so. We’ll tutor them to pass their exams.
_I have four classmates wanting to join my tuition class.
_I have several ones, too.
I told Mr. and Mrs.
_We have more students. If you rent this room to us, that would be great.
Mr. Tam looked at his wife. She said:
_Yes, we do.
I said happily:
_So please tell me where your set of desk and chair was made. I’ll go there to order two sets.
After negotiating the rental price, Mr. Chin searched for the carpenter shop address and gave it to me.
I thanked them, drank tea, and talked with them for around ten minutes before saying goodbye.
I cycled rapidly to Khoa and told him the good news. He smiled happily and said:
_So we have a classroom for at least twelve students, ten students for the French Junior High School Exam class, and five students for the extra class. Please go on putting the ad until there is no more student. My Dad who has a Law Certicate will compose a rental contract for us.
_We’ve been lucky twice. We met Huong first instead of Auntie Ba when we brought coffee and milk to the dress maker shop. Now your Lambretta plan is on the track to success.
_That’s not enough.
I went on putting the ad Saturday, Sunday and five weekdays and I got five more students for the French Junior High School Exam class. So we had five students for the extra class including Hien and sixteen students for the French Junior High School Exam class including Nhon, divided into two eight-student classes.
Khoa and I were both present on each class opening day.
When we entered the class, all the students got up. Khoa spoke next to me:
_Hello every one, you may sit down.
When all the students sat down, Khoa continued:
_We have some recommendations to make to you before we start the class. If we all cooperate very well, we believe you all will succeed.
You are students of public and private schools coming here to study. This is why we are talking to you now.
Students of public and private schools all studied the same lessons and private school teachers taught very well, why the number of public school students passing the exam outnumbered that of private school students. Private school teachers taught very well to attract students, but they did not check on well the study of students because they wanted to please them by letting them as free as they wanted to have them remain at the school.
Therefore, we’ll teach and check on your study carefully to have you all succeed.
I would like to leave the class to Mr. Khanh.
Khoa smiled and left while students were clapping.
He spoke also to the students of his class. When the students were clapping, he smiled staying, and I left.
I told Khoa when we were back home:
_Your speech was great. It was clear, short, complete and impressive. I think the students liked it and would tell about it to their parents and friends.
He had a big smile, saying:
_So there would be more students for the French Junior High School Exam class. We received an amount of money that was so big I have ever got. Tomorrow you go on putting the ad as before.
I did as told and we was so lucky that the number of students for the French Junior High School Exam class increased to twenty eight and that of Hien’s class to ten.
I had to order two more sets of desk and bench so the class actually had five sets for twenty students. In total we had two classes of tutees for French Junior High School Exam, each class had fourteen students; and the number of students of the extra class increased to ten.
After tutoring for one month, we received money for the second time. Khoa wanted to by scooters, but I told him the result in one month couldn’t mean success, we should wait until next month to be sure. At that time we would have each a Lambretta plus extra money. Khoa agreed.
A week after we collected money for the third time, Khoa’s father told him Brother and Sister Tam had sold their house in My Tho and moved to a new mansion they bought on Chi Lang Road, in Phu Nhuan, Saigon.
_So we have to visit Brother and Sister Tam to congratulate them and by the way to know how big their dining and sitting rooms are.
_That’s very good, but why do you want to know how big their dining and sitting rooms are?
_To buy them two turning standing fans, big enough for those rooms. I think we’ll buy the best white turning standing fans as soon as possible like you said “Strike first to get advantage”. So our gift won’t be identical or similar to a previous one.
Khoa had a big laugh:
_What a good luck! So we can go to My Tho without meeting Brother and Sister Tam at the dress maker shop.
I laughed, too:
_We’re already lucky for the third time.
Khoa suddenly rubbed his hands and got up:
_I’m going out for a while. Wait for me and make French salad.
I did as he said because I didn’t want him to lose interest.
Khoa brought home roasted pork, sour sweet pickled leeks, French baguette, and a Larue beer bottle. As usual, I paid him for half the cost.
I put two big iced glasses on the table and said:
_There are a lot of ice and boiled water in the fridge. These stuff, bread, and salad will dilute beer so they won’t make us drunk. If we are still drunk in the class and the students know it, our classes would collapse and we’d be broke.
Khoa shook his head:
_It won’t happen.
_I hope so. Drunk men forget to think like arrogant guys. Angry people don’t think enough.
We enjoyed eating and were just a tiny bit drunk. Then I had a good sleep. I dreamed about Lan. She sat behind me on my running Lambretta. The dream was really short because I suddenly remembered I didn’t buy a Lambretta yet.
After tutoring for three months, we received money for the fourth time and the Summer holidays ended. Khoa started his first year study at Faculty of Law and I did my PCB (Physics, Chemistry and Biology) study at Faculty of Sciences. Khoa bought a white background Lambretta. The front shield of his scooter had a green column decoration in the middle. and the sides had two green wing paintings. My Lambretta was similar to Khoa’s but my decoration and paintings were gray. We rode our scooters to study and work very conveniently.
After the initial running period, our scooters were ready to run at high speed, Khoa told me:
_Khanh, prepare to go to My Tho on Sunday!
My heart pounded with excitement, I said:
_The coming Sunday. Khoa impatiently replied.
I continued to ask:
_So what is the program?
Khoa said quickly:
_Breakfast and lunch at the dress maker shop and comeback to Saigon by 2PM.
_That’s good, but if you want to have breakfast at Auntie Ba’s house, you have to depart at night in Saigon. We have to ride carefully because it’s the first time we ride inter provinces. We have to buy helmets for ourselves and for Huong, Lan, and Auntie Ba. To match the color of each scooter, your helmet should be green and mine should be gray. We’ll buy helmets for the girls and Auntie Ba in My Tho.
_Right. And we’ll fill up our tanks with gasoline and pump our tires.
I hurriedly made coffee and he sat in his chair waiting. He obviously looked happy.
He and I felt like we were going to Paradise to meet two fairy girls and a fairy woman.
_Parallel driving is useless and may be dangerous. The scooter ahead watches the road with high beam if no vehicles ahead, low beam if there are vehicles ahead. The following scooter follows the track of the scooter ahead. That would be safe.
_That’s right. And we should buy only banh bia (11) and banh ran (12) in Saigon.
(11) Banh bia: cake having sweetened green beans wrapped in thin multilayers of sweetened flour.
(12) Banh ran: deep fried cake made of sweetened green beans wrapped in a layer of sweetened flour and sesame.
If we come to My Tho in time to have breakfast at Auntie Ba’s house, we will go buy meatloaves and French baguettes like last time. After breakfast, we will drive two of three people of the shop to the market and buy coffee and canned milk.
_At least for the next nine months, we will still earn as much money as now, that is, we will then have money triply. So should we then buy two beige Mobylettes (13) for the girls?
(13) Mobylette: French motorbike.
I was startled looking at Khoa:
_Giving the girls each a new Mobylette that costs eight thousand five hundred dongs (piastres)?. I don’t care much, but you’re too excited! Beware of “Tout excess est nuisible!” (Any excess is harmful).
Khoa didn’t answer and kept quiet.
We rode our Lambretta safely to My Tho at 5:45AM on Sunday. The dress maker shop was to open in forty five minutes.
Coffee and sweetened condensed milk can shop was still closed, so we could only buy meatloaves and French baguettes.
Three bags of banh bia (11), banh ran (12), meatloaves and French baguettes were put into the baggage installed on the back of the shield of Khoa’s scooter.
I parked my Lambretta in front of the shop and checked my watch. Who’ll be going to open the door in fifteen minutes? I wondered nervously.
_Hello Khoa and Khanh! Huong shouted when she opened the door.
I looked at Huong and smiled.
_How are you, Huong,?
_I’m fine. How are you, guys? Please come in. Huong replied.
Khoa answered “We’re are fine”, then removed the big food bag from the his scooter. He told Huong:
_We couldn’t buy much on our long trip in the early morning. We have a small gift for Auntie Ba, Lan and you.
He slowly took out three gift bags and placed them on the table.
Lan quickly went out and said:
_Hello Khanh and Khoa, long time no see.
Khoa looked at Lan, smiling happily. I said:
_It’s been quite a while. How are you, Lan?
_I’m fine. Lan replied.
Seeing Auntie Ba slowly come out, Khoa and I quickly greeted:
_Good morning Auntie Ba.
_How are you? Wow, you have nice new scooters. She said.
_We’re fine. How are you?
_I’m fine. How was your trip? Autie Ba asked.
_We rode scooters on Saigon-My Tho route for the first time at night, so sometimes we got stressed when we had to be careful.
Auntie Ba said:
_Thank you for the gift. How long do you stay in My Tho this time?
_ We are only free on Sunday because on weekends and Saturday we have to study and tutor to earn money. We came to see Auntie Ba, Huong and Lan, then we’ll return to Saigon in the afternoon.
_So have lunch with us. Aunt Ba said.
Khoa and I said:
_Yes, thank you, Auntie Ba.
I felt happier than ever since I started the trip.
Khoa grinned, got up and went help the two girls prepare breakfast. I followed him.
I saw a bicycle for women made in France, having luggage rack and stainless steel basket in front of its handle.
The broken stretcher handle that I picked up when I accompanied Lan on her comeback home was placed in the corner of the wall. When I was looking at it, Lan said behind me:
_Khanh, can you put these five plates of meatloaves on the dining table?
I turned back and said:
_Okay, okay, I do it now.
When helping the girls, I wondered about the stretcher handle Lan saved. She kept it for use, because she liked it, because she enjoyed my accompanying her, or because… she liked me? Finally I was just confused about my guess.
When everyone was at the table, Auntie Ba said:
_It’s been more than three months since I had breakfast like this. Time went by so fast!
_ And Summer is already over …
Everyone laughed and talked happily during a breakfast of meatloaves and French baguettes, iced lime juice, oranges, banh ran (12) (deep fried cake made of sweetened green beans wrapped in a layer of sweetened flour), and tea.
After eating, Khoa and I cleaned the table and the floor under and around it. When we brought our tea to the sewing room, Auntie Ba was already working there.
A moment later, Huong and Lan took the bike out with a shopping bag in the stainless steel basket.
_Put your bike away. We’ll drive you to buy groceries.
Huong hesitated, Khoa took the bike from her hands and put it away. Huong and Lan smiled and thanked him. Auntie Ba smiled, too. I felt happy because I knew Huong will be on Khoa’s scooter and Lan on mine.
I told Auntie Ba:
_If we don’t have time today, next time we’ll drive you, Huong and Lan to buy helmets for all of you.
Auntie Ba smiled telling Huong and Lan:
_Sit carefully on the scooters.
When we were out of the shop, I said:
_You show us the way. Tell us to turn ahead of time. Let’s go buy helmets first, then roasted pork, and other stuff in the market.
_I know where they sell helmets.
Khoa told Huong to sit on his scooter and drove ahead.
On the way to the helmet shop Lan told me:
_Your scooter sounded good and your driving was smooth without any jerk even when breaking.
_Thanks for your compliment. I could do so because you are on my Lambretta.
_You’re kidding. It’s really fun today.
_It is. I hope it would be so every Sunday in My Tho. I said.
After the girls chose their helmets, I went to the check out desk to pay. Lan and Huong thanked me. I said:
_Half of your thanks should go to Khoa because he’ll refund me half of my payment.
The two girls looked at Khoa and me, laughing:
_Thank you both very much.
At the meat roasting shop, I bought a kilogram and a half of roasted pork, a roasted chicken, and a roasted duck for Sunday and Monday.
Lan said buying too much meat would have much left over that would taste less good.
Huong said we should eat all roasted meats at the same time, but eat more roasted chicken and duck than roasted pork because its left over can be stewed with tofu.
_We should not chop too much meat. Wait until its plate is almost empty, we chop it again.
_I think it would be OK to put the left over in the fridge. If we still have left over after two days, we will put it in the freezer.
Khoa and Huong stood next to the scooters, Lan and I went into the market to buy tofy, breast fruit (sweet fruit looking like a breast), snakefish, pinapple, okra, etc. Lan didn’t accept my payment for these stuff because Auntie Ba gave her enough money to buy groceries for the day. She didn’t spend all the money because I already bought roasted meats.
On the way home when I was driving behind Khoa, I told Lan Khoa and I will give Huong and her each a beige Mobylette motorbike.
Lan refused immediately:
_No, thank you. I’m sure Huong and I won’t accept such big gifts. Two motorbikes are unnecessary for the shop. They waste your money too much.
_But Khoa and I are earning a lot of money.
Lan got moved but refused again definitely.
When we all came back home, Auntie Ba was still sewing. She said:
_You’re back so quickly and have helmets, too.
_Auntie Ba, Khanh bought roasted meats.
Auntie Ba stopped sewing to go see what was bought. She said every stuff was fresh, she felt fun, and there should be beer today.
_Auntie Ba, let me drive you to get beer and a helmet for you by the way.
She accepted my idea and thanked me.
I let her pay for the beer, but I payed for the helmet.
So shopping was all done on Sunday.
Everybody was happy. Khoa, the girls and I were busy preparing for lunch. When we were done, Huong made coffee and brought it out to the sewing room. The women talked to Khoa and me when working.
Khoa got up after finished his coffee and said he forgot to buy something. He drove away.
Thirty minutes later, he came back with a bag of merchandises.
Auntie Ba asked:
_What did you buy again, Khoa?
He said coffee and sweetened condensed milk cans and put them away.
Auntie Ba thanked him. When people finished coffee, Khoa brought out a tray of tea.
She smiled at him:
_Thanks. That why you stayed long over there.
_Khoa did a good job. He knew almost everything in the kitchen so quickly.
Sipping at her tea, Auntie Ba looked at Khoa and me and asked:
_Did your parents give you money to buy scooters after you passed your exams?
_No. We tutored students and earned money to buy our scooters. I replied.
_That’s great. You passed French Baccalaureate II exam, but you were only around twenty years of age, how did you tutor to earn such a big money in several months?
_We worked hard and were lucky. After passing our exams, we put tuition ad on local news. Rich family spent a lot of money a month for their children tuition to pass their exams. They read our ad and came to talk to us in person and checked on our degrees. They preferred to hire young French Baccalaureate II graduates because they thought old graduates would forget somewhat what they learned and didn’t know about new requirements for tutees. Students liked our teaching and told their classmates to join our classes.
Auntie Ba nodded her head and said:
_I’ve got it. You’re excellent. Did you earn such a big money for the first time?
_Yes we did. I answered.
_What did you feel about your success?
_I felt it’s a kind of unexpected pleasure and happiness.
_What do you think about money?
_It’s better to have more money. Money make people happy unless they become bad when they have a lot of money.
Auntie Ba asked:
_Can everybody tell me what happiness is?
_Happiness is the most precious thing in life.
_Who agree with Lan? Auntie Ba asked.
Huong, Khoa and I agreed. Auntie Ba smiled and said she agreed, too, but she repeated her question “What is happiness?”
Khoa, the girls and I were quiet. Auntie Ba said:
_First of all, let’s talk about the word happiness of the Han people in China. This letter consists of the letter “clothes” on the left side. On the uppermost right side is the letter “one” symbolized by a horizontal line. under which is the word “mouth” symbolized by a rectangle under which is the word “field” symbolized by a bigger rectangle divided into four small rectangles. So the Han word happiness means eating enough and having enough warm clothes.
Aunt Ba took a sip of tea, smiled and asked:
_I find Chinese characters are easy to understand, write and remember because it has meaning by itself.
_But Chinese characters have been abandoned in our country, what a waste.
Because learning Chinese characters didn’t make money as poet Tu Xuong wrote:
Thôi có ra gì cái chữ Nho,
Ông Nghè ông Cống cũng nằm co.
Sao bằng đi học làm thầy Phán,
Tối rượu sâm banh sáng sữa bò.
(Chinese Characters Education became worthless.
Chinese Character Education graduates stayed home because they were forever unemployed.
Jobs of French interpreters were worthwhile.
They enjoyed drinking milk at breakfast and champagne at dinner.)
_So people go to school to earn money later, not to become good persons.
Auntie Ba burst laughing:
_That’s right. People don’t have to go to school become good persons. They only need “don’t do to others what they don’t want others do to them”. Now just answer me what happiness is.
_Happiness is having a good husband.
_Happiness is having a good husband and good friends.
_Happiness is having a good wife and good friends.
_Happiness is having good health, safety, peace, and much money for a pleasant life.
Auntie Ba commented:
_You all are right and your ideas showed that happiness is hard to get so it’s the most precious thing in life. It’s really not easy to have a good husband, a good wife, good health, safety. Earning much money is relatively easy because “Tieu phu do can, dai phu do Thien” (Being rich comes from hard work, being wealthy comes from the Sky – Destiny).
_Auntie Ba said “Man was forced to be born”. This can’t be denied.
Someone was born as a handsome prince, a beautiful princess. Other ones were born with disabilities, so just to be healthy and safe, people often were powerless
_Parents were painful after giving birth to a child with disability because they knew their child were to be miserable after their death.
Auntie Ba complained:
_Happiness is hard to have and unhappiness happens unpredictably.
_Doctors should find out early the fetus has a serious disability. If the parents agree on abortion, it should be done.
Everyone was silent and surprised, but then Auntie Ba spoke up:
_I agree with Khanh on abortion that prevent parents and their child from suffering.
Seeing Khoa entering the kitchen, Huong asked:
_Can we have lunch half an hour early today, Auntie Ba?
_ Well, that’s OK. Aunt Ba replied.
Huong stopped working and went to cook, followed by Lan and me.
Since everything was prepared earlier, actually it was just a matter of rinsing if necessary, cutting and chopping to be ready to cook.
Khoa helped Huong work on vegetables and snakehead fish to cook sour sweet snakehead fish soup.
Having nothing to do yet, I sat in a chair waiting for anything available to do.
Looking at the three packages of roasted meats in the net cover on the table, I asked:
_Lan, is it okay to leave the roasted meats outside the fridge?
_It’s okay, because the meat is in a cool place on the table and its wrapping papers are opened. After lunch, their leftovers will be put into the refrigerator. Lan replied.
Looking at the corner of the wall, I continued:
‘Do you want me to cut off the broken end of the stretcher handle?
_ Just leave it as it is.
I wanted to ask her why she kept the stretcher handle but I stayed quiet because I was afraid of her answer. Although she kept it because she liked me, she wouldm’t say it out.
She brought snakehead fish out of the refrigerator.
_Your fish cleaning was skillful and good. When slicing the fish, you didn’t cut on its gallbladder although you didn’t open its belly. After taking out the gills and internal organs, you removed blood vessels under the spine before washing the fish.
_But if the fish has eggs, I’ll have to open its belly to remove the eggs intactly.
When Huong and Khoa finished their work, they gave Lan everything to cook.
Watching her removing the broth foam, I asked:
_The restaurant probably wouldn’t have time to pick up the foam like you did?
_They would because foam removing is mandatory, foam is blood that makes the broth stink.
After cooking, she washed her hands again carefully to chop the roasted chicken and duck.
Huong scooped up sour sweet snakehead fish soup into a bowl, Khoa stood by and waited. She told him:
_Just put this bowl on the table, I’ll arrange everything on there later.
I set things up, and then took what needed to be washed to the square cement floor under the faucet. After I came back, swept and cleaned, I stood watching Lan cut roasted meats.
_Please put this dish on the table. Lan told me.
After she finished everything in the kitchen and I put everything on the table, we washed our hands and sat down to eat.
Auntie Ba said:
_As Lan and Huong have seen I used to drink some beer in happy hours like today. So Khoa and Khanh drink beer with me.
_Today is my happiest day so far in My Tho. Khanh and I want to drink beer but we’re not really beer drinkers yet. The first time we tried to share a Larue beer bottle, but we couldn’t finish it. The second time, Brother Tam had to drink our beer left the bottle. Last time we could share a bottle to celebrate our tutoring success. Today we will drink a 33 beer bottle.
He took an extra 33 beer bottle in front of him and put it next to Auntie Ba’s bottle. Auntie Ba said she will drink only one bottle.
Khoa took back a bottle from Auntie Ba and put it away in the fridge.
I told Auntie Ba:
_Let me go get some more ice.
I thought maybe Khoa told Huong he was to give her a Mobylette when they stood next to the two scooters and Lan and I entered the market to buy foods.
At the refrigerator, I asked him softly:
_Did Huong accept your Mobylette gift? Khoa shook his head saying “No”.
I suddenly had an idea that I was to implement without telling him.
I brought to the table a large bowl full of ice and a tongs.
Auntie Ba handed me the beer opener after she opened her bottle.
The two girls drank lemonade.
Everyone laughed and cheered “Good health!”.
After taking a big sip of beer, Auntie Ba said:
_It’s fun today. Luck has made this so-called “family” of three become five.
Her saying made me feel so happy.
Khoa suddenly said:
_I guess Auntie Ba didn’t believe in fate when she only talked about luck.
Auntie Ba replied:
_Fate is very vague although many people believe it. Fate is nothing than a random happening, luck, or bad luck. For example, each of us puts one dong (piastre) on the table. Make five identical pieces of paper. Write each of our names on each paper. Fold each written paper into four identical parts to hide the name. Put the five folded papers into a hat. Shake the hat evenly. One of us takes one paper from the hat. Each of us has twenty-percent luck or random happening of getting his/her name on the picked out paper to win five dongs (piastres) on the table. So whoever gets five dongs is due to luck, or a random happening. On the contrary, if we agree that the person who gets his/her name on the picked out paper has to wash dishes, that is, bad luck or random happening comes to the dish washing person. Good luck and bad luck are mostly caused by people themselves, according to the French saying “On re’colte ce qu’on a seme'” (We reap what we seeded). But luck and bad luck sometimes come not because of people themselves.
There were many cases of unhappiness that happened not due to people themselves.
For example, children were born disabled, killed, abused and abandoned by their parents; early orphaned children were abused by their step parents; children lived apart from their parents because of divorce; victims of natural disasters, war, and politics; and so on.
_Besides, “Phuoc bat trung lai, hoa vo don chí” (Luck doesn’t come doubly and bad luck doesn’t come alone). Is that right, Auntie Ba?
Auntie Ba agreed:
_That’s right because this Han saying resulted from experiences in life.
Unhappiness came unpredictably, last for an unknown time; and time was a marvellous drug. The duration of unhappiness was up to the victim. Recognizing clearly and completely how he/she caused unhappiness would help him/her cope with it. Realizing that unhappiness caused by natural disasters, wars, and politics was not his/her fault would also help him/her cope with it.
I ate and drank while listening to people talking. Looking at the three women, I found them attractive because of what happened between them and me first, and their beauty afterwards. I thought my guessing Auntie Ba was in her forties was unlikely. She would be younger although she behaved like a parent of mine. Taking another sip of beer, I felt lightheaded and said:
_The way to deal with unhappiness raised by Auntie Ba was similar to La Mennais’ concept of life.
_Correct. Was that the author’s sentence “Il faut accepter la vie telle qu’elle est non telle qu’elle devrait e^tre?” (You must accept life as it really is, not as lt unreally is) Aunt Ba agreed and asked.
_Yes, that was. I replied.
Auntie Ba continued:
_You have to accept what life really is. Don’t force life to be unreal to accept it. In other words, you have to accept what is real. Follow the French saying “Dans le doute, abstiens-toi” (When in doubt, forbear) if you have something controversial.
_”Dans le doute, abstiens-toi” (When in doubt, forbear) is like the ze’ro solution of Confucius’ Theory of The Right Middle.
Aunt Ba concluded:
_Accept that people were forced to be born; then got sick, crippled; suffered from unhappiness caused by themselves or not; and finally had to die. Accepting these realities to live is like being vaccinated against diseases. Besides, “Dans le doute, abstiens-toi” (When in doubt, forbear) versus what is controversial.
_Is that the concept of Materialism?
_What Auntie Ba said was only scientific because it accepted only what had evidence. Besides, “Dans le doute, abstiens-toi” (When in doubt, forbear) versus what is controversial.
I explained further:
Materialism says that matter exists first and then gives birth to the soul, intelligence and emotions. The soul, intelligence and emotions live on matter, so when animals including humans die (matter dies), the soul, intelligence and emotions are destroyed.
This theory argues that the fetus in the womb of animals including humans is only matter because only after birth, animals can see, hear, smell, taste, touch; and have soul, intelligence and emotions.
The three women suddenly smiled at each other, their eyes shined and their faces were joyful and pink. They were attracted by the conversation and delicious meal.
_And what does the Spiritualism say?
Spiritualism says that the spirit, that is, soul, intelligence and emotions, exists first and commands creation of matter (body); so when animals including humans die, that is, when matter (body) dies, only matter (body) is destroyed, the spirit is not destroyed and only separated. The Spiritualism also says that the soul exists first and commands fecundation of ovules by spermatozoa in Man and animals.
Aunt Ba laughed:
_How do you know the soul exists first and controls fecundation? No evidence, so the Spiritualism is controversial.
How do you know the fetus is just matter? No evidence, so the Materialism is controversial.
So accept only what has evidence and “Dans le doute, abstiens-toi (When in doubt, forbear) versus what is controversial.
The girls clapped, Khoa and I clapped.
I took a sip of beer and said slowly, looking at the girls and Auntie Ba:
_It’s nice to have lunch like today. But if we want to invite Auntie Ba, Huong and Lan to eat at the restaurant, we can only drive two of you there. So Khoa and I would like to leave a new Mobylette at the shop. In addition, Auntie Ba, Huong and Lan can use it to go shopping and doing business. We hope Auntie Ba will accept it.
Auntie Ba was a little surprised, but smiled and asked the girls:
_ What do Huong and Lan think about Khanh’s idea?
_I accept it and thank Khanh and Khoa, but it’s up to Auntie Ba to decide. Lan replied.
__Me, too. Huong said.
_ There were already two votes for. I hope Auntie Ba will agree.
Auntie Ba was moved, saying:
_ Thank you very much Khoa and Khanh. You’re so kind.
Khoa immediately said:
_Auntie Ba, next Sunday I’ll drive you to buy a new Mobylette. I’ll need your name and address on the invoice.
Auntie Ba smiled looking at Khoa and me:
_I’ll be there. Thank you, Khoa and Khanh.
Huong took away the bowl on the table and went get more ice.
Lan went to the kitchen and brought out from the fridge a big bottle of home made lemonade.
Everyone continued to eat, drink and laugh.
The two girls looked happiest, sometimes smiled at Khoa and me …
Buying a new beige Mobylette in Saigon would save about two to three hundred dongs (piastres), but it would be damaged by transportation. I guessed that was why Khoa wanted to buy it in My Tho. Khoa and I each was to spend five thousand dongs.
After Saturday lunch, I was ready to go to My Tho after double checking everything, Khoa came to me. He didn’t look happy, shaking his head:
_It’s not OK to go tomorrow!
_What isn’t OK? I asked being startled when thinking something bad would happen to the tuition classes.
_My Dad was hospitalized in the emergency room last night. He underwent major surgery for appendicitis in this early morning. So we won’t go to My Tho until next Sunday. Khoa answered, didn’t look happy, then asked:
_Have you read newspaper today?
_No, I was busy. Anything new?
_ The news category From Saigon To Provinces today posted two cases I had never known. They would be rare in the world. A man had sex with his stepmother. His father caught them a couple of times. Last Thursday afternoon, the man publicly had sex again with his stepmother in his father’s bed room. The father caught them again and yelled at them. He was hit by his son and had to be hospitalized.
I interrupted him:
_Oh my Gosh! I had never known it either. It could be unique.
_A national guard entered a woman’s house in the countryside. She was lying with her baby in a hammock over a bed. Her military husband was away on duty. The guard held a grenade in his hand. He unlocked it and threatened to let it explode unless the woman let him have sex with her. While he was raping her on the bed below the hammock, he accidentally opened his hand; the grenade exploded and killed him, the woman and her baby.
_What a tragedy! Poor woman and her baby! If only the guard survived and I could kill him without proof, I would do without hesitation.
Khoa supported me:
_I would, too.
Then he complained:
_Many things happened to me today and made me unhappy and uncomfortable. First, I can’t go to My Tho tomorrow. Second, the annoying news. Third, I made a gaff this morning.
_You wondered why many bad things happened to you meant you didn’t want them happen, that is, you didn’t accept what was real. So according to Auntie Ba, you coped with your situation poorly and then you made a gaff. What was your gaff?
_This morning, I went to the post office to telegraph a message to Huong we can’t go to My Tho tomorrow, Sunday because my Dad had surgery this early morning for appendicitis. I should have sent the message to Auntie Ba to be correct.
_What you did was not perfect, but effective.
When you’re a lawyer, what would you like, winning the case or losing it with compliments?
I proposed seeing Khoa had relief:
_Let me go buy beer and something to eat.
I automatically rode my scooter away.
About half an hour later, I brought home a Larue beer bottle, fried tofu, French canned mushrooms and green onions while Khoa was reading Se’lection du Reader’s Digest magazine.
After stirfrying mushrooms and green onions, I brought beer, ice and tofu to the table and said:
__I’m a bit sad because I can’t go to My Tho tomorrow and I heard of the bad news on the newspaper. So let’s drink beer to cheer up and turn veggie for our own peace of mind.
_Turning veggie for our own peace of mind? .
I said slowly:
_Animals can’t grow anything to eat. So they have to eat each other to survive. Man enjoyed eating meat, but sometimes he felt unquiet because he realized an animal had got killed. So I sometimes turned veggie.
Khoa shook his head and smiled. After eating tofu, he said:
_The soy sauce tastes good, where did you buy it?
_It was an ordinary soy sauce. I made it like that by adding sugar, sesame sauce and hot pepper.
Sunday afternoon, Khoa and I bought fruits and brought them to the hospital to see his Dad.
Sunday afternoon was dull, and duller because we couldn’t go to My Tho; and the week sounded longer.
Before getting onto Khoa’s scooter to buy a new beige Mobylette, Auntie Ba said since her Ve’losolex (French motor bike) broke down, she had not ridden any motorbike, so she didn’t feel sure to ride the Mobylette home.
I asked Khoa to drive Auntie Ba to buy a scooter, and lock it after parking it on the side walk before its shop. Aunt Ba will stand next to it. Khoa will ride his scooter home and drive me to the shop. I will ride the Mobylette home and Khoa will drive Auntie Ba home. I felt happy when the women complimented me on my idea. Khoa grinned.
When I turned off the engine of the brand new beige Mobylette and set it up in front of the shop, Lan and Huong rushed out to take a look at it and said it was beautiful. Auntie Ba said the same thing. I felt this Sunday was fun like Tet (lunar new year) while Khoa smiled repeatedly.
He said to everybody:
_Now you just sit on the Mobylette and pedal it a little to start its engine and make the motor bike run because its engine is still hot. I suggested Auntie Ba to do so. I’ll ride my scooter slowly ahead and Auntie Ba will ride the Mobylette along at a distance of four times the lenght of the motor bike.
After riding three round-the bloc, Auntie Ba said:
_I got used to ride it. I’ll practice a few more times to ride it where I want in the province.
The two girls seemed excited. Lan asked for riding, then Huong also did. Each of them also rode three round-the bloc like Auntie Ba.
_Follow the user’s manual that says how to fill up the Mobylette with gasoline, how much the speed range should be for the initial riding period; and how many kilometers you are supposed to run in the initial riding period . The speed at which the vehicle is running and its mileage are shown on the panel of the motor bike.
_Slow down at road intersections, look around and be ready to break quickly if necessary. Slow down between trees and bushes and be aware of anything coming out from them. When riding, don’t wear long and loose clothes that could be entangled in the wheels.
I found out the women seemed to want more riding, I replaced Khoa to train them as Khoa did. Auntie Ba, Huong and Lan got tired and came back to the shop to drink coffee and rest. Khoa showed me the price on the invoice that was eight thousand five hundred fifty dongs (piastres). Then he gave the invoice to Auntie Ba.
_Today Auntie Ba treats everybody to lunch. The menu consists of thin sliced pieces of beef to dip into sweetened flavored boiling vinegar and wrap with rice vermicelli and vegetabled in rice paper, beef steak, French salad, French baguettes. There is beer for Khanh and Khoa.
The girls, Khoa and I clapped.
As soon as she sat at the table, Auntie Ba asked Khoa:
_Is your father feeling better?
_Yes, he is. Thank you. Khoa replied.
Auntie Ba said:
_Today Huong and Lan will share with me my second 33 beer bottle. Khoa and Khanh will have beer as usual because they have to ride their scooters back to Saigon.
Lan, Huong, Khoa and I laughed and clapped again.
I felt so happy, thinking that today’s talk would be very open and intimate. Khoa was happy and smiled repeatedly.
Khanh has only been in Saigon for a year, but he makes rice paper rolls so well.
_I had a teacher who taught and gave tips. I said.
_Who was that? Lan asked.
The students’ homeowner and cook woman taught me.
Auntie Ba said:
_Last Saturday, the category From Saigon to Provinces posted two weird cases I had never known in my thirty eight years of age. Khoa and Khanh must have read those news.
_What a bad son and what a terrible criminal! The son was like an animal, and the national guard was worse than a wild animal.
_The national guard was the most unscrupulous, cruel, and stupid government member I have ever known.
_If the guard had been alive, he should have been killed.
Auntie Ba drank some beer and explained:
_”L’homme est un animal supe’rieur” (Man is a superior animal), so Man has originally animal sex nature that becomes extreme due to his intelligence. Man’s extreme animal sex nature was recently manifested in the two cases on the local news, and also in history.
_In history? I asked.
_Yes. Aunt Ba replied and continued:
_ The extreme animal sex nature caused kings to have concubines, harems; mandarins to have concubines and even poor men to have concubines. Women were oppressed for thousands of years just because they didn’t earn money and only did housework. Good educated people like you shouldn’t get married if they can’t control their extreme animal sex nature. Women shouldn’t marry anyone if they can’t avoid sexual misconduct.
Huong and Lan said together:
_ Yes, that’s right.
_ Auntie Ba implied people especially women should divorce their adulterous spouses. Almost all modern women today divorced their adulterous husbands. But I don’t understand why divorce happened without adultery?
Auntie Ba said:
_Interesting question. Its answer needs to be long.
Everybody kept quiet, waiting. I was glad to know Auntie Ba was thirty-eight year old, not over forty years of age as I had guessed.
Aunt Ba continued:
_Reasons for divorce without adultery could be as follows:
First: “impuissance e’lective” (elective impotence), that is, impotence in some situations only. For example, after having sex with his bride, the groom knew that she had lost her virginity. He became impotent to his wife only.
Second: married the wrong husband who was a gold digger.
Third: married a fake doctor, engineer, etc.
Four: the husband was so lazy that the family couldn’t get out of poverty.
Five: husband or wife was addicted to alcohol, opium, heroin, gambling; and unable to quit.
Six: spouse gave too much money to parents, brothers, sisters, and relatives.
Seven: spouse spent too much money.
Eight: bad breath, dirty hair and dandruff, stinky armpits, and dirty bottom.
Lan and Huong giggled. They made Khoa and I giggle.
Auntie Ba laughed and went on saying:
_Nine: spouse made the house messy and dirty and couldn’t change this habit.
Ten: spouse went out too much and was rarely at home: gathering, going to festivals, churches, and temples.
Wow, I can’t say it all.
Huong still giggled and asked:
If both husband and wife had bad breath, dirty hair and dandruff, stinky armpits, and dirty bottom, then they were an exact match of each other, why could they have a divorce?
Aunt Ba replied:
_They could still get a divorce because people couldn’t tolerate their spouse’s bad breath, dirty hair and dandruff, stinky armpits, and dirty bottom while they couldn’t smell their own bad breath, dirty hair and dandruff, dirty bottom; and they got used to smell their own stinky armpits.
Auntie Ba and everyone burst laughing.
Drinking some beer, I commented:
_What a speech Auntie Ba made! She summarized marriage as well as human extreme animal sex nature in just around one page.
Huong suddenly interrupted:
_People, especially men, how can they control their extreme animal sex nature?
_To be able to control the human extreme animal sex nature, first we have to accept a reality like two plus two is four as Auntie Ba said “Men shouldn’t get married if they can’t control their extreme animal sex nature, women shouldn’t marry anyone if they can’t avoid sexual misconduct”.
People have to know that adultery is an unjust and irresponsible act.
People want their spouse to be faithful to them, why are they adulterous. Adultery makes families broken and miserable. It can lead to murder, make children likely to have a bad future, for example becoming prostitutes, thieves, smugglers, drug addicts, murderers.
When someone treats you well with all his/her heart and you respond them with the worst act, you’re not different from a scoundrel.
_Khoa is so right.
_And great, too. Lan and I agreed.
Auntie Ba laughed and shared her second 33 beer bottle with Huong and Lan.
I asked her:
_Does Man have any other significant nature besides his extreme animal sex nature?
_Greed for money is another a human nature. The proof was that the cheap pen right in front of the bank teller had to be tied to his/her window to prevent it from being stolen. Bank customers stole a cheap pen although they were either rich or well-off.
Stealing and swindling money, smuggling, thieving, and robbing are the most basic manifestations of greed.
Stealing money and asking for bribes in the government are other manifestations of greed.
Auntie Ba paused, drank some beer, and said:
_Tell me about other human natures.
Feeling so excited, I blurted out:
Humans had an insolent nature. That was why there was the following folk:
Gan chua goi but bang anh.
Thay but hien lanh be but đi choi.
(When living near the pagoda, people had frequent contact with the buddha (statue of Buddha), they didn’t respect it anymore and called it “guy”.
Finding out that the buddha was meek, people considered it as a toy and took it away as a doll).
Everyone burst laughing, especially Lan. Auntie Ba shook her head and laughed…
_If we don’t have sorrow, dissatisfaction, and hatred, we will see life is obviously a comedy. Is that right?
Lan, Huong, Khoa and I clapped.
Everyone continued to eat happily.
People have a dreadful jealous nature.
_Competition is fun and good as Nguyen Ba Hoc wrote:
Chim co dan cung hot, tieng hot moi hay.
Ngua co bay cung đua, nuoc dua moi manh.
(Birds twitter better when they do in flocks.
Horses run faster in racing).
_Lan meant the human jealousy that resulted in hatred and harm. This kind of jealousy was expressed in the proverb “Xu dien o nga mi” (Ugly faces hate beautiful faces)
_”Xu dien o nga mi” (Ugly faces hate beautiful faces) meant more than it said as Huong explained. For example, three people go upstairs together. The upper person tries to trample on the middle person. The middle person does the same thing to the lower person and tries to pull down the upper person. The lower person tries to pull down the middle person.
_So Man wants to be better than others. This desire is competition in good people and jealousy resulting in hatred and harm in bad people. Besides, the desire to be better than others made people thought that what they did was better than what others did. For example, the following folk:
Xua nay the thai nhan tinh,
Vo nguoi thi dep, van minh thi hay.
(People always thought that
Others’ wife was more beautiful and their writing work was better).
_Aunt Ba said:
Finally, Man has loving and hating natures. These natures are good in good people who love what is good and know to hate what is bad. But in ordinary people, these natures were described in the proverbYêu trái “Yêu trái cũng tròn, ghét bồ hòn cũng méo” (When people love, they say water caltrops are round; when they hate, they say soap berries are distorted).
_Did Auntie Ba mean we have to accept that people have bad natures so we should try not to be like them; and when we meet them, we shouldn’t be surprised and try to have appropriate relationship?
_Exactly. Auntie Ba answered and asked how were the lunch foods?
Everyone praised the lunch food. I commented that this was the first time I ate non ground fish anchovy that tasted so good.
Khoa further commented:
_Today, if a formal French had been here, he/she would have noticed that only breadcrumbs were on the tablecloth.
_Auntie Ba has taught Huong and me dress making as well as housework since we came to the shop at our twelve years of age.
__Aunt Ba is really good and virtuous.
_Well, you can say about me whatever you want, but I’m afraid of being virtuous because “Les vertus se perdent dans l’inte’re^t comme les fleuves se perdent dans la mer” (Virtues are lost in interest like rivers are lost in the sea). Auntie Ba smiled happily in response.
After lunch, Khoa and I helped the girls clean up as usual.
Seeing Lan worked hastily, I asked:
_ You seem to be in a hurry, what happened?
_ Today it is my turn to go home to see my Mom. Lan replied.
I continued to ask:
_How do you get to the bus station?
_Huong will drive me there by bicycle as usual.
_I see. She doesn’t get used yet to drive you there by Mobylette. So Khoa and I will drive Huong and you there by schooters. Then he will drive Huong back to the shop before we come back to Saigon.
_I’m afraid that would make you late to return to Saigon.
_No, that wouldn’t.
_I’ll go with you. Thank you.
__Good idea. Let’s clean up fast to l hear again Auntie Ba’s talk.
_Auntie Ba did very well at school, too. She passed French Junior High School Exam with Mention Assez Bien (Fair Mention). Her father following the old tradition didn’t let her study further. On her book shelves now, there are plenty of French, English and Vietnamese books.
I suddenly had an idea. I went to the toilet to check my left over money after purchase of the Mobylette. I had five hundred seventy five dongs (piastres) in my wallet.
Riding behind Khoa and Huong, I told Lan sitting behind me on my scooter:
_We have known each other for a rather long time. I have a gift for you today. I hope you will accept it. I think you Mom would be happier because this time you bring more money to her. This make me happy.
_Khanh, you already spent a lot of money for the Mobylette. You want to give me money now. I feel truly embarrassed.
_Take this envelope that has only five hundred seventy five dongs (piaster), my left over money after I bought the Mobylette.
Lan sat still asking:
_Why don’t you keep it as a pocket money on your way to Saigon.
_No because I already have some. I answered.
Lan faltered receiving my envelope:
_Thank you very much.
She gently leaned forward and touched my back. In the rear view mirror, I saw her smiling and her hair flying in the sun…
On the way to Saigon, Khoa slowed down his scooter until he was close to me. He asked:
_You’ve just given money to Lan, haven’t you?
I was surprised:
_Why did you know?
_I accidentally saw in my rear view mirror Lan got an envelope. Was it the left over money envelope I gave you?
_Yes, it was.
_Money gifts that the girls receive from us shouldn’t be much different.
_So we should tell each other how much money whenever we give it to the girls.
_Let’s do like that. Khoa concluded.
We went back to Saigon a little lale, but it was OK because I stil had enough time to clean my new Lambretta as usual. I did with more pleasure because I already accomplished what I intended to do for Lan. So I could give her monthly from six hundred to one thousand dongs (piastres) when she went home to see her mother. Money still kept its value, five dongs (piastres) could still buy a bowl of pho (rice vermicelli beef soup), a bowl of hu tiu (rice vermicelli meat soup), or a bowl of Chinese mi (noodle meat soup). I couldn’t afford more. I earned much money only in Summer when I was free. I was studying PCB (Physics, Chemistry, Biology) and had little time to tutor studenrs. When studying Medicine, I would have no time for tutoring classes and my income would only consist of my military salary plus tutoring income in Summer. I told Khoa about my situation. He said after thinking:
_We will have to hire capable teachers to substitute for you when you are not available.
_Hire capable Law students from rich families.
_Why do they have to be from rich families? Khoa asked.
_Those guys tutor students just to have extra money and don’t intend to take our classes.
_I’ll do as told and hire two teachers to have their competition. Hiring one person, I would be pressured to increase his/her salary.
_This year, we don’t have to hire anyone. The percentage of our students passing the exam should be high so that our classes will be crowded next year. I think it should be seventy five percents or more.
Khoa looked worried:
_You’ll have your military salary. I rely only on my income from our classes to study in university. I wouldn’t know what to do if classes disband.
_That can’t happen because we gave short, clear, complete, and easy to understand lessons. Students were checked on for their study regularly. Poor study students were closely followed and helped.
_ Hope everything will be going well as you said. I will let substitute tutors take care of unimportant parts. In addition, I will discreetly ask students about teaching of subtitutes.
_Students who fail the exam twice would pay halt of the tuition fee if they want to continue to study. This should never be announced publicly.
Live went on smoothly thanks to our efforts and perhaps even luck. We studied, earned money, lived happily and waited for Sunday to go to My Tho.
On Monday, we began to have the joy of waiting to meet people we liked. They were very precious to us. To the people’s eyes, Auntie Ba, Huong and Lan were just a owner of a small busy dress maker shop and two dress making girls; they were beautiful, but not sure to have a rich or high social position husband. People could think whatever they wanted and only the future was to tell who was right and who was wrong. Around 3PM on Saturday Khoa often came to my room to share with me the joy of waiting that grew because a shared joy became bigger.
_You stay here reading newspapers and waiting for me. I’m going to buy beer and foods. I told him then rode my Lambretta away.
Each of us actually could drink a bottle of Larue beer.
I would say the round trip Saigon-My Tho on scooter was beautiful, physically and sentimentally. Our scooter running was the going by of time that was filled with flowers and dream, especially when the girls were sitting behind. Life was in pink color and a poem.
Sometimes I wondered if Khoa hadn’t asked me to come back to Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop, would I have gone back there to see Lan again? The answer was “Yes, I would” because I was only to delay my return. I suddenly got moved to find out Khoa was more honest and franker to me than I was to him. He always told me what he thought and and ahead of what he would do. I imagined what would have happened if Khoa and I had fallen in love with one girl, either Huong or Lan. We would have had to suffer pain. We would have met each other only when necessary although our friendship didn’t change because we accepted life as it really is, not as it unreally is. Fortunately, it was just my imagination. There were always luck and bad luck and “Sai mot ly di mot dam” (A minimal mistake may ruin the whole thing).
Finishing most of my beer, I told Khoa:
_Everything is going so well and I’m happy. But what sometimes concerned me was Auntie Ba would feel lonely because the relationship between the girls and us became closer and closer and we had nothing to blame for.
_Auntie Ba is a good person, isn’t she?
_Yes, she is through what she did and didn’t do. I replied.
_ She studied very well and passed Brevet (French Junior High School Degree) with high score so she understood clearly and completely what she learned. In the High School’s three years there were only some more literature, a bit of philosophy in addition to more sciences and technology. Thus, Auntie Ba was sufficiently educated. She thought and behaved as a liberal.
Sipping at his beer, Khoa continued:
_Auntie Ba is not an ordinary woman so she doesn’t have jealousy and hatred by temperament. She was a woman of reason so she divorced her adulterous husband. Although she’s like a parent of us but she’s only thirty-eight year old. She doesn’t have any complex of getting old or lack of beauty. She’s only selective about men. Conclusion, Auntie Ba doesn’t feel lonely at all.
I took a deep breath and breathed out:
_Exactly. And the folk
Trai ba muoi tuoi dang xuan,
Gai ba muoi tuoi da toan ve gia.
(Thirty-year old men are young,
Thirty-year old women are about to get old)
is so ridiculous.
Khoa agreed immediately:
_Of course. And I think men wrote that folk to justify the presence of their concubines.
_And people rushed to believe it for thousands of years. I think wise women hated it and had to suffer from it silently just because they couldn’t earn money and only did housework. The situation was exactly like “La raison du plus fort est toujours la meilleure” (The reason of the stronger is always the best).
_Do you know the story of Lucille Ball’s remarriage?
_No, I don’t although I watched many movies she played.
_In 1940, Lucille Ball married Desi Arnaz when she was twenty-nine year old. Desi Arnaz was born in Cuba, and a handsome owner of a cuban band. He was six-year younger than Lucille. He used to have affairs with women, especially those in his band. This made Lucille very unhappy. Her mother told her women were still attractive at forty five years of age. She said if Lucille would like a divorce, she should have it before that age. Lucille divorced her husband when she was forty-nine year old.
_That’s right. Today forty-year old women are neither young nor old. People are only old when they are sixty-five year old.
(Edited by )
I suddenly remembered what Khoa said:
_Your carefulness was very good to accompany Lan on her way back home but became chicken to “land on” Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop.
He was right and I was chicken again when I was concerned that Auntie Ba would feel lonely because the relationship between the girls and Khoa and me became closer and closer.
This time I was going to tell him about several things, would he make the same comment?
He showed me seven tips to make people do what I want:
I have to know what people like (1), what people want (2), what people need (3), what people hate (4), what people are afraid of (5), their actual mental status (6) – joy, anger, love, hatred, sorrow, fear, desire – and be aggressive (7) (“Strike first to get advantage”).
I told him at a snack when he finished drinking half of his beer bottle:
_Auntie Ba told me once interprovince routes were safe in terms of robbery, but insecure at night because of activities of Viet Cong. So from now on we will start to go to My Tho after dark and be back to Saigon before dark.
_You made me remember that. Let’s do like that.
_Stop buying too much beer and saving it in the fridge because that may make Auntie Ba alcoholic. Just buy it enough for Sunday. Buy foods for Sunday and Monday only because old foods wouldn’t taste good. I’m not stingy, I’m just weighing up the pros and cons.
Khoa said after a short moment:
_OK, It’s better to do like that
Then he smiled at me:
_Why did you have those good ideas?
I kept quiet because I didn’t know why either.
I was still concerned that Auntie Ba would feel lonely.
Besides, she didn’t want us to waste money. She stopped me to order five iced glasses of coffee milk at breakfast after eating hu tiu (rice vermicelli meat soup):
_Let’s have tea. Drinking coffee at home would be more comfortable.
What the women at the shop did and didn’t do impressed me and caused me to be moved. I gradually liked then loved them although to people’s eyes, they were only the owner of a small dress maker shop and two dress making girls. Later when I earn money as a doctor, I wouldn’t be honest like them. For example, I would always prescribe at least one drug item available by prescription only instead of just over the counter drugs. Oh, the three women would be unreachably ahead of me In terms of honesty. I didn’t want to make comments on wealthy and high social position people because I didn’t want to harm anybody’s income.
My love for Lan was probably different from that of Khoa for Huong. I was impressed when I first met Lan, I was moved, I liked her and then I loved her.
Khoa loved Huong at first sight and then loved her more.
Maybe no one could know how deep their love for someone was and only time could help them know it. I smiled when thinking about the folk “Thuc lau moi biet dem dai, o lau moi biet long nguoi co nhan” (Only when people are awake long in the night, they can know how long it is, only when people have long contact with someone, they can know how good the person is) and changed it to “Thuc lau moi biet dem dai, o lau moi biet long ai yeu nhieu” (Only when people are awake long in the night, they can know how long it is, only time can help people know how much they love someone).
Khoa and I were actually like family relatives at Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop. We made ourselves at home. We opened the fridge to drink cold boiled water. Only when drinking other stuff and eating something, we asked people if they wanted to share. We automatically cleaned the house, but we only went upstairs when told. We took care of the beige Mobylette and if possible, we repaired things in the house.
Another Summer went by. Khoa moved up to the second year at the Faculty of Law and I to the first year at the Faculty of Medicine as Medical Student Second Lieutenant.
Khoa earned much money as usual. I made money less because of unavailability.
Winter came, Huong knitted a nice brown woolen sleeveless pullover for Khoa. Lan also knitted a nice dark woolen sleeveless pullover for me.
Auntie Ba gave Khoa a good dark brown pair of tennis shoes, and me a good gray pair of tennis shoes. We offered her a big National electric rice cooker and a good big electric Tapin Lu hot pot.
We offered Huong and Lan each an expensive golden Seiko watch.
On long holiday and Tet (lunar new year), we went to My Tho every other day.
We never slept overnight at the shop. When Khoa drove Huong on his scooter, Lan and I always accompanied them and vice versa. These conditions were naturally maintained for two reasons, we didn’t expect anything other than platonic love and we were very busy with studying and tutoring. But I found out the real reason for these conditions when I remembered I just did as Khoa wanted. He raised the issue of responsibility when he said if for any reason he couldn’t get married with Huong, she would remain virgin to people’s eyes. This was the case when people truly loved someone, they avoided doing anything that could harm and hurt the person. Maybe we behaved so to the girls because we loved the following English and French sentences:
You can do whatever you want provided that you do not hurt anyone.
Un homme est celui qui aime le bien et sait haïr le mal (A man is the one who loves what is good and knows to hate what is bad)
Anyway, we kept behaving so toward the girls naturally and happily. I thought there was no rush to get married with Lan when we were too young.
I wondered what would happen if Khoa and I couldn’t get married with Huong and Lan. Perhaps the girls would gain a good reputation they were friends for a long time with two students in Saigon and still remained virgin. But I completely believed Khoa and I were to get married with Huong and Lan. I kept my dark woolen sleeveless pullover clean and only wore it on the way to My Tho when it was cold. Along the way, I wore a loose shirt over my pullover to protect it from getting dusty.
Aunt Ba gave Lan a piece of paper and said:
_After lunch, you can go home immediately.
Lan showed me the paper. It turned out to be a telegram that Auntie Ba returned to her. I read: “Lan, go home immediately, your Mom was seriously ill”.
I gave Khoa the telegram. He read and gave it to Huong. She returned it to Lan after reading.
Lan got back the telegram and looked worried.
Everyone slowed down eating lunch and talked less.
After the girls, Khoa and I finished cleaning up lunch, I drove Lan to the bus station. Khoa drove Huong ahead. I had three thousand five hundred dongs (piastres) in my pocket. I borrowed Khoa three-thousand dongs. I gave Lan a sealed envelope containing six thousand dongs.
_Lan, put this envelope into your purse, don’t drop it.
I said again when she was hesitating:
_It’s six-thousand dongs I offer you to take care of your Mom’s illness.
_You give me too much money, thank you. Lan cried, saying.
My joy of helping her suddenly stopped when I saw her tearful eyes in the rear view mirror. I cleared my throat, saying:
_Fortunately, I am earning a lot of money. Use all that money to take care of your Mom’ illness.
On the way to Saigon when Khoa and I drove our scooters parallely, he asked:
_Khanh, what do you think about the illness of Lan’s mother.
I thought and said:
_So far we haven’t heard of any illness of Lan’s mother. So her actual illness is a new and serious one. I guess Lan’s mother is in her late thirties like Auntie Ba, that is, her immunity again diseases is strong. I think doctors in Ben Tre will cured her.
_I think so, too. Khoa said.
He then continued:
__Ben Tre is a province with many talented people. Many Ben Tre people held high positions in the government of Republic of Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese Communist party. So doctors in Ben Tre are supposed to be good.
I felt happy but worried soon when remembering Lan’s tearful eyes on the way to the bus station. Did she cry because either she got moved when receiving my money or she got the telegram? Maybe because of both.
I drove my scooter slowly to let Khoa go ahead, then we speeded up to Saigon.
Sunrays were fading away along rice fields on the sides of our road.
In the early morning before leaving for My Tho, I bought twenty banh ran (12) (deep fried cake made of sweetened green beans wrapped in a layer of sweetened flour) – favorite dessert of Lan and Auntie Ba.
When Khoa and I arrived at Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop, only Huong was sewing. I said hello to Huong and went put the cakes on the table. Thirsty, I took a glass and went to the fridge.
Suddenly Khoa called me back and said:
_ Huong just said Lan’s mother passed away.
I stammered, asking:
_Really? Why she passed away? From what disease?
Khoa lowered his voice:
She hanged herself after being raped by the village chief.
I suddenly became dizzy, my whole body trembled, and I dropped my glass and it clattered on the tile floor.
Huong sadly came to clean up the broken glass for me.
Auntie Ba went downstairs.
_Good morning Auntie Ba. Khoa and I greeted.
_Hi Khoa and Khanh. Her voice trembled. She was likely to return a paper to Huong.
It was a note from Lan that Huong transferred to Auntie Ba. She passed it to me. I read
“Dear Auntie Ba, please allow me to be off for several days to resolve my family problem. Thank you. Lan.”
I suddenly shouted:
_Huong, please write down Lan’s address and directions to go to Ben Tre. I must see her now.
Huong looked at Khoa. He shook his head lightly.
Auntie Ba told me:
_Khanh, according to Lan’s note, after solving her family problem in several days, she will come back to work and you will meet her. If you want to tell her anything, please write it down on a paper. I can go now to the post office to have it telegraphed. Viet Cong have their secret activities in Ben Tre to spy and recruit new communist partners. They don’t like Northern refugees and extremist communists may target you.
I sighed, went get a paper and a pen, and let myself fall into a chair to write:
Dear Lan, try to get a good lawyer to prosecute the village chief. I’ll pay for the fee.
Driving Auntie Ba to the post office, sometimes I looked at the rear view mirror. I saw her wiping her tears with a handkerchief. I was sad, sadder than I had been when seeing Lan’s tearful eyes.
When arriving at the post office, Auntie Ba told me:
_Just stay here, Khanh. I’m going inside to have your message telegraphed.
I said yes and did as told because I knew Huong and Auntie Ba didn’t want me to have Lan’s address.
The atmosphere was likely back to normal at the shop. Khoa and I made coffee then brought it and banh ran (12) (deep fried cake made of sweetened green beans wrapped in a layer of sweetened flour) to Auntie Ba and Huong who were working in the sewing room.
Auntie Ba said:
_Here come the coffee and cakes. Thank you, Khoa and Khanh.
Khoa grinned and I tittered.
Huong asked Khoa:
_What is in this bag you gave me?
_Two roasted ducks and twenty banh bia (11) (cake having sweetened green beans wrapped in thin multilayers of sweetened flour). I bought this morning in Saigon. Khoa answered.
Turning towards me, Huong said:
_Auntie Hai of Lan came to Ben Tre from Saigon and met Lan. Half of the single house where Lan’s mother lived belongs to Auntie Hai.
_Did Lan get a lawyer?
_I don’t know about that. Auntie Hai told me it was very difficult for ordinary citizens to win when they sued government officials. Lan’s mother was already buried, so it would be more difficult.
Not seeing Lan on two Sunday, I was a little nervous. I felt somewhat better after Huong told me about Lan in Ben Tre but I was still angry about the accident that happened to Lan’s mother. When I heard what Auntie Hai talked about injustice in the government, I blew up and wanted to go crazy. I said to myself, “No wonder communists existed everywhere and France withdrew in shame from Vietnam on the bank of the Saigon River, rolling up their flag to go home in front of only a small number of Vietnamese women who were widows or former wives of French soldiers. I wondered about the actual politic situation in South Vietnam”. I wanted to drink beer to go crazy but I didn’t because of my respect to Auntie Ba and Huong. I went to the fridge to get cold water to drink. I sighed.
It suddenly rained and I became cool but I still felt sad when thinking of Lan.
I tried to find out Lan’s actual mental status by using psychoanalysis. Lan was interventionist: she volunteered to guide Khoa and me to the traffic road. In addition, she was daring, a person of “Law of all or nothing” when she said “If the national guard had survived, he should have been killed”. So Lan was actually hating the village chief and wanted to kill him.
But I could be wrong because maybe I was a kind of paranoid and had “projection”, that is, I wanted to kill the village chief and I thought Lan wanted to kill him.
Most probably Lan and I both wanted to kill the village chief.
I was startled when realizing that the problem became terribly dangerous. I went to the fridge, got a big glass of cold water and drank it.
Lying down on the sofa, I sighed and closed my eyes.
I thought first I had to meet Lan and helped her get a good lawyer to prosecute the village chief.
I asked Huong for Auntie Hai’s address. Auntie Hai lived with her only daughter, Mrs. Luc or Sister Tam, at Thoi Trang (Fashionable) Dress Maker Shop on Tran Quang Khai Road (former Paul Bert Road), in Saigon.
Auntie Ba told me the same information plus the house number.
After parking my scooter, I entered the shop and saw a woman in her thirties sewing:
_Excuse me Mam. Is this the house of Sister Tam? My name is Khanh. I’m a friend of Lan at Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop in My Tho. I would like to see Auntie Hai.
_I’m Tam, Auntie Hai’s daughter. I’ve heard of you many times. Nice to meet you.
The woman looked at me, wondering whether or not I was Khanh. I picked out from my wallet a card:
_Here is my Medical Student ID Card with my photo on.
She smiled after checking on my card and me:
_My mother is at home, please go upstairs with me to meet her.
_Mom, this is Khanh, a friend of Lan in My Tho. He wants to meet you.
I said, bowing:
_Nice to meet you, Auntie Hai. I would like to meet Lan and offer her money to prosecute the village chief.
_Prosecute the village chief? Auntie Hai said, shaking her head. She held my wrist, and continued tearfully:
_Thanks very much for you kindness, son. But actually I don’t know where Lan is.
After her words she suddenly hugged me and cried.
I was stunned, said goodbye to her and left.
Lying on bed in pain, I kept thinking and thinking.
Was Lan raped and killed, and then her body suppressed by the village chief? No, because that would have complications, he would rape and leave as he used to do. If so Lan would feel terribly painful and avoid seeing family relatives and friends for a while. In this case, I would get married with her and later as a general surgeon doctor, I would join the communist party with her. I would train as a gunner to kill the village chief. I had been a good and fast gunner in pre and military trainings. It would take years to do that and I hoped the village chief would be alive until then. Finally, Lan and I would live in the communist zones.
But alas, after months in absence, Lan killed the village chief.
She and a communist man assassinated the village chief and was actually most wanted by police. According to the testimony of the body guard of the village chief, they were shot suddenly as soon as they turned around a corner of thick bamboo trees, and got seriously wounded without resistance. A man shot the body guard and a girl shot the village chief. She then went close to the village chief and shot him in the forehead.
After Huong told me the story, I felt glad for seconds, and became dizzy and fell down on the floor because I knew I lost Lan forever.
_Khanh passes out! Khanh passes out! Huong shouted.
Khoa rushed to me, took me up and put me on the sofa.
Auntie Ba rubbed my nostrils, temples, neck back, and two sides of my spinal bone column with peppermint oil.
_Thank you, Auntie Ba. I’m feeling much better. I can drive to Saigon as usual.
I suddenly felt numb with shock to realize the whole problem. Auntie Hai’s family was communist. It helped Lan go to a communist zone to train as hit girl to kill the village chief as she wanted. I was suspected by Mrs. Luc (Sister Tam) as a stranger coming to her house to spy. Auntie Hai lied to me she didn’t know where Lan was. She then got moved, hugged me and cried. Mr. Luc, Sister Tam’s husband, owned a big transportation truck. He was also its driver on Saigon-Ben Tre round trip. He supplied money, rice, fabric, medical equipment and drugs, newly recruited communists to communist zones in Ben Tre. At night communist drivers parked their trucks in areas South Vietnam government couldn’t control. They opened the hood or jacked up their vehicles to pretend to do repairs. And Viet Cong came out to get supplies.
I absolutely kept the truth I realized in secret.
The only thing I actually could do for Lan was to supply her with money, medical drugs and fabric she really needed.
One evening I came back to Auntie Hai’s house. I offered her one big bag of expensive good coffee and ten cans of Nestle’ sweetened condensed milk. I told her the story about Lan I heard from Huong as if I gave her an interesting information she hadn’t known. She burst into tears.
_Auntie Hai, I want to send money, medical drugs, and fabric to Lan, but I can’t.
She cried loudly:
_Khanh, you’re really kind. Lan talked to me many times about you. Nice to meet you again. Half of the single house where Lan’ mother lived is mine. I’ll sell it. Half of the sales money will be sent to Lan in any necessary way. And if necessary I’ll give her my shared money.
I said promptly:
_So when you can send something to Lan, please let me known. I’ll send something to her, too. I’ll keep this in secret and pay for all the sending fees.
Then every week I came back to Auntie Hai to offer her either banh ran (12) (deep fried cake made of sweetened green beans wrapped in a layer of sweetened flour) or roasted pork, roasted chicken, roasted duck, deli pork . She gladly accepted my gifts, thanked me and looked at me quietly until one day she held my wrist and burst into tears again:
_I’ve been able to send money to Lan. You can now send supplies to her. This is dangerous for us so keep it in secret. I tried to pretend I knew nothing other than she helped me send supplies to Lan.
I felt glad somewhat and intended to join Lan after my graduation as a general surgery doctor. So I agreed when Khoa asked me to go to My Tho with him as usual.
At the shop I saw Auntie Ba sometimes went to the kitchen probably because she was about to drop tears for Lan, for love between Lan and me, and for me. She did it for Lan most. I went to the toilette, used my clean hand to let faucet water run over to my eyes, wash away my tears, and keep me calm.
After each supply to Lan, I always got a note from her. I knew it was from Lan because I recognized her writing. The note was only a kind of list of grocery prices. After I added all the prices and omitted the periods and commas, I got a number exactly equal the money I sent..
Soon later Auntie Ba had gynecologic disease and I drove her to Saigon for treatment. Dr. Jacques Tavernier said she had Cancer du col ute’rin in situ (Cervical cancer in situ). He did surgery for her cancer and got married with her one year later. He had divorced his wife and had no children. He returned to Paris with Auntie Ba when his employment contract ended.
Huong became the new owner of Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop. She hired two dress making girls.
Luck came to Auntie Ba and Huong when worst luck happened to me.
When I was to become General Surgery Doctor in two years, Auntie Hai told me she lost contact with Lan and didn’t know where she was. I felt so sad that I was about to fall down on the floor. I dragged myself to a sofa and laid myself on it. Autie Hai rubbed my nostrils, temples, neck back, and the two sides of my spinal bone column with peppermint oil. I drove home in a state of shock.
Two things would happen. First, Lan would die, I had been about to fall down because of this possibility. Second, Lan would marry the communist man who shot the body guard of the village chief so she wouldn’t want to get my supplies anymore. I didn’t want Lan to die because I would feel painful most.
Two years later, I became General Surgery Doctor and my love wound pain left to my soul a scar that sometimes swelled up to give me a shock. I was no longer interested in girls and women anymore. I considered them as men.
(Edited by )
Whenever the scar in my soul due to the pain of not being able to see Lan again swelled up, I felt sad and numb with shock. I drank beer, slept, or went out to the coffee and refreshment bar.
That day, I was sitting in the bar, soullessly watching the street. Walkers were just like moving objects to my eye. Suddenly, a woman screamed in the bar:
_ Robber! Robber!
Startled, I looked in the direction of the scream, a man took away a purse from the table of a female customer, and ran out to the street.
I immediately chased the robber. When I got close behind him, I dug my left hand deeply into his collar, pulled him back and down. He leaned back slightly, his right hand moved the purse ahead, leaving his right side exposed. I punched him hard in the right ribs. He fell down covering the hit spot with his hands. The purse was held loosely. My right hand snatched it. My left hand searched his pockets and around his belt for weapons. Finding nothing, I turned back to the bar.
I returned the purse to the robbery victim standing in front of the bar to wait for me.
_Please check to see if anything is lost. I said to the girl.
She said everything was OK and thanked me.
I told her:
_Let’s leave this place right away. If you have no vehicle, I’ll drive you home.
After driving for a short distance, I turned my head and asked:
_Excuse me, Miss. What’s your name?
_My name is Cuc.
_What Cuc, Thu Cuc, Bach Cuc, or Hoang Cuc?
_My full name is Nguyen Thi Cuc. That’s all.
I was startled remembering Lan’s answer “My full name is Nguyen Thi Lan. That’s all”. I said:
_Nice to meet you. My name is Khanh.
Cuc asked me to stop on Tran Quy Cap Road, at the gate of a very big three-floor house painted light brick color.
_Please get indoors. Goodbye, I’ll see you later. I said then picked out from my wallet my business card and gave it to Cuc.
She said after seeing it:
_Dr. Khanh, you took risks to get back my purse from a robber and save me two-thousand dongs (piastres). Please let me introduce you to my family. Everybody is home today Sunday.
I hesitated a bit before setting up my scooter and following Cuc to enter her house. I met her parents and her younger brother who was about fifteen-year old. Cuc introduced:
_This is Dr. Khanh who took risks to get back my purse from a robber and save me two thousand dongs.
I looked at her father, bowing a bit:
_Nice to meet you, Sir.
He smiled and raised his hand to me. We shook hands.
Her mother told me after we greeted each other:
_Please have a seat, Dr. Khanh.
_Please call me Khanh. I’m a doctor of my patients. Please just consider me as a friend of Cuc.
Cuc’s father smiled:
_Would you like some tea and cakes.
_Yes, thank you.
I enjoyed a very good Chinese tea and an expensive fresh banh bia (11) (cake having sweetened green beans wrapped in thin multilayers of sweetened flour).
I went home and was impressed with what happened today.
I suddenly remembered the rich intellectual family of Brother and Sister Tam in My Tho. Cuc’s parents were rich people in Saigon. Cuc’s father was an architect and a contractor. His house was surrounded by a two-meter high brick wall with steel pickets on top, and a large brick yard. Flowers were planted along the wall. After the kitchen and in the back there was a small house for a housekeeper in her fifties. Cuc’s mother was a housewife. Cuc finished French High School but only had the French Junior High School Diploma (Brevet). Cuong, Cuc’s brother recently got this diploma.
To the eyes of jealous people, Cuc was an old girl because she was twenty-five year old, one year younger than me. But to me, she was a beautiful intellectual girl of a rich family. I didn’t know Lan and Cuc which one is prettier. Lan had the provincial beauty and Cuc the Saigonese beauty.
The love wound scar in my soul often swelled and stopped me from thinking further about girls. Cuc was only my nice girl friend. I was ready to be helpful for Cuc and her family. I came to see her every Sunday evening. I gave her a list of good specialist doctors in Saigon. Cuc’s father invited me for dinner at the Dong Khanh and Bat Dat restaurants. I offfered him French Martell cognac and Hamm’s beer. Sometimes Cuc’s mother also invited me for her home dinner. I offered her Hanoi deli pork and cakes. I noticed that rich people silently ate what was delicious produced by anyone and sold in the market without complimenting their own local meals.
Six months after meeting Cuc, I recollected Lan’s situation. I thought either she died or married the communist man who shot the body guard of the village chief so that she could kill the village chief. Marrled, she wouldn’t want to receive my supplies because of her good temperament of not taking advantage of people, and possible jealousy of her husband. My recollection gave me a kind of relief because of “Time is a marvellous remedy” instead of Cuc’s presence. In addition, according to the mourning process in Behavioral Science, “People are back to normal two years after their spouse’s death”.
I thought if I terminated my relation with Cuc, I wouldn’t be fair to a person who was good to me. In addition, Cuc didn’t have anything that prevented me from selecting her to be my wife.
After the wedding, Cuc followed me to my military unit. She lived in our rented room in Hue and I worked at the Operational Regiment Headquarter colocated on a hill with a Fire Base. Every three or four week I spent a two-day off with my wife. I rode an American helicopter to Hue airport where I got my Jeep.
One year later Cuc went back to Saigon to give birth to my first daughter, Be Hien (Litte Hien). She stayed in Saigon for a couple of months then came back to Hue to live with me. Be Hien remained with Cuc’s parents in Saigon. Cuc had a wedding gift of sixty-thousand US dollars from her parents. She put this money in the British Chartered Bank in Saigon. One US dollar actually costs one hundred fifty dongs (piastres). So sixty-thousand US dollars cost nine-million dongs. Five dongs could actually buy a bowl of pho (rice vermicelli beef soup). Months later, I was tranferred to Saigon. I rented a small house to live and open my doctor office.
I worked and lived in that house with Cuc and Be Hien until the fall of Saigon to Vietnamese Communists in 1975.
After a short time, I had to report to the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) to enter a camp they called Re-education Camp but in fact it was a Prison Camp. So I had to be apart from my parents, siblings, and especially my wife and daughter for an unknown time.
Labor at the camp was not hard, except digging wells and latrines.
We had only to dig a well for our confinement area. But well digging would be fatal when (1) the steel bucket full of dug soil that was being pulled up on a rope fell on the digger although he wore a helmet, when (2) the digger who was being pulled up on a rope fell down to the bottom of the well, and when (3) the digger who was being laid down onto the well bottom fell down to the bottom of the well. This accident didn’t happen in my area.
Each group of more than thirty prisoners had four voluntary “feeding brothers” (cooks) who were exempted from labor. They were supposed to go get food supplies, cook lunch and dinner, distribute meals to prisoners of the group, clean the table and the underneath, and wash dishes and cooking tools. Each “feeding brother” was automatically and discreetly watched by the three other “feeding brothers” and the group of prisoners for stealing meals and food supplies. This was a very fun and interesting anti-corruption method of Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists).6
Their second more interesting anti-corruption method was that prisoners had to write answers in class to questions. Each prisoner had to read loudly in class their written responses that were sent to an unknown communist organization to score and determine the release of each prisoner. The proof was that when prisoners were about to be released, communist teachers at the camp came to families of these prisoners to suggest bribes. Although most families didn’t pay bribes, their prisoner relatives were released. This was also a very good method of spying closely on each prisoner’s thoughts. The minimum prison time was three years.
Each undisciplined prisoner was confined in an American connex that was a steel box cube with 6-foot sizes that had been to store supplies. Each connex had a window that was only large enough to pass a food tray to the prisoner. Prisoners who had “anti-revolutionary” words, writing or attitude were beaten and sometimes shot in the legs. Caught escaping prisoners were beaten and moved away. Escaping prisoners could be shot dead during chase.
Prisoners could make good friends with other ones. Nothing more that was significant to tell about prisoners.
Every weekday, there was an eight-hour class that could be reduced to around one-hour class by a good professional teacher.
Communist teachers hated prisoners but they can only humiliate them in the class. For example, they said to prisoners:
_You were hired soldiers of the Americans.
_You were minions of traitors against the country.
_Your wives were prostitutes for Americans.
_Ngo Dinh Diem wanted to offer South Vietnam to the Americans to make it a state of USA so his family would be its governor forever.
_Nguyen Van Thieu asked American army to come to Vietnam.
_Nguyen Anh sold the country to the French for his throne.
_Nguyen Binh Khiem was not a prophet at all. He was a jobless Ph.D. of the exile Mac dynasty. He separated the country and divided its people. He convinced Nguyen Hoang to betray his brother in-law, Lord Trinh Kiem by occupying the southern territories assigned to him and proclaimed himself Lord Nguyen Hoang. Trinh Kiem couldn’t lead a big troop to defeat Nguyen Hoang because if Trinh had done so, China would have invaded North Vietnam and taken it.
_And so on.
Two worst problems for prisoners were (1) prisoners were given only lunch and dinner. They had to save their dinner or even lunch and dinner foods for breakfast because without it they would collapse in labor. Each meal consisted of ninety-percent sufficient rice and a piece of pork or fish that was not bigger than two fingers. Prisoners had to grow vegetables to eat. They lost weight and became weak. If they were seriously sick, they would die. Health care was only a Dispensary that lacked medicine and medical equipment. No major surgery for prisoners. Many prisoners died in the Camp. When I was twenty-five year old, I had duodenal ulcer. Fortunately it didn’t recur more than a decade later when I was in the Camp.
Voluntary doctors at the Dispensary were also exempted from labor. I was neither a voluntary “feeding brother” nor a voluntary doctor at the Dispensary.
After I was one year in the Camp, Cuc, Be Hien and her younger brother Cuong who was actually twenty-one year old came together to the Camp to visit me. Cuong helped his sister bring foods and other supplies to me. Six-year old Be Hien rushed to me and shouted:
I was happy and moved. My right arm put around Cuc’s back, my left arm around Be Hien’s shoulder. After a short talk, Cuc suddenly cried and caused Be Hien to cry. I tried to be happy talking to Cuc, Be Hien and Cuong. A moment later, we was back to normal. After the so called “feeding visit”, families of prisoners left the Camp for home. Prisoners were happy opening their “feeding visit bags” and checking it. Cuc brought me a lot of stuff: dried pork, dried duck, dried fishes, dried shrims, fresh and stewed roasted pork, fresh and dried fruits, fresh cakes and cakes that could last long, a lot of salty fermented shrimp (mam ruoc) cooked with chopped bacon and hot pepper, fresh and dried bread, cooked sticky rice, rice and compressed rice balls. The Camp didn’t allow prisoners to receive uncooked rice from their families, discreetly spreading a rumor the Camp was concerned “feeding brothers” would steal Camp supplied uncooked rice and claim that it was supplied by their own families. The real reason was that the Camp wanted prisoners to be only ninety-percent full after eating lunch and dinner.
I never knew after that visit I was never to see Cuc again.
Six months later, I had a second “feeding visit”. I was happy to find the time between “feeding visits” was reduced to half. I went out to see Cuc and Be Hien and get them and supplies to the visitor hall. When I was surprised not to see my wife and daughter, I suddenly heard people calling me:
I saw my sister Dao and my youngest brother Hung waving at me. They brought foods and supplies to me.
_How is everybody at home? I asked.
_Where is Cuc and Be Hien? I asked again when going to the visitor hall.
_Everybody is fine at home. I have news for you, I’ll tell it when we are in the hall.
Dao told me she came to Cuc’s parents’ house to meet Cuc because for a quite while she didn’t see Cuc coming to her shop to buy fashionable clothes. Cuc’s parents told Dao Cuc and Be Hien got on a boat to flee Vietnam and they were actually waiting in Indonesia for immigration. Cuc’s parents gave Dao ten Vietnamese ounces (one ounce = 37 grams) of gold. Cuc gave Dao two ounces and asked her to keep eight ounces for me.
Cuc’s parents also told Dao a communist partner, Chief of Cuc’s District saw Cuc when see went to the Cooperative Society Market to by foods. After he pursued flirting her vainly for a quite while, he sent her a document demanding her to report to his office for “working on a matter”. Cuc didn’t come because she suspected he would rape her. Cuc fled her District with Be Hien and then got on a boat to flee Vietnam.
In the Camp I heard often stories about prisoners’ wives at home were flirted by men especially friends of their husbands. I was surprised even my wife was also a victim of flirting.
I opened my “feeding visit” bag that contained much less stuff than Cuc’s bag but anyway the supplies were enough.
Six months later Dao and Hung came again to see me. Dao told me she went to Cuc’s parents’ house to ask for information on my wife and daughter, but the door was locked and neighbors told her Cuc’s parents had moved where no one knew.
I continued to have no information on Cuc and Be Hien until I was released from the Camp. Dao showed me two beautiful photos of Cuc sent from the U.S. In the first photo I saw Cuc and Be Hien. The second picture showed Cuc in wedding gown standing next to the groom who was Duong, RPh. I suddenly realized everything. Two photos sent to Dao meant to me, that is, Cuc avoided to tell me directly the truth about her actual situation. I felt so painful that I went lying on my bed. I remembered everything.
In the beginning months of my acquaintance with Cuc, when I was sitting in Cuc’s house, a man of my age happened to come in, Cuc got up and I got up. She introduced:
_I would like to introduce Duong, pharmacist and Khanh, doctor.
Duong and I shook hands to make friends. Then I only met him again a couple of times at Cuc’s house. Later, Cuc told me Duong was the only child of a rich family. His parents used bribes to make him exempted from military service. I understood Duong didn’t have to report to the Vietnamese Communists to go to the Prison Camp because he was a private pharmacist, neither a military officer nor a government civil servant. I guessed when I was in the Camp of Concentration, Duong came back to see Cuc and later they got on a boat with Be Hien to flee Vietnam.
But why Cuc didn’t wait for me and married Duong? It was also easy to understand. Cuc didn’t want to wait for me because I would either die in the Camp of Concentration or be like a character in a novel by Boris Pastenak, Dr. Zhivago who was confined by the Russian Communists almost forever. Cuc was a kind of person who considered things until their ends and didn’t want to take risks so she escaped the rape plot of the communist partner.
I got up from my bed and went get a cold water bottle. I sat down on a sofa and drank cold water. I concluded Cuc was not guilty at all about not waiting for me and I still loved and respected her. I only was sad and regretted I lost her.
I miss my daughter Be Hien endlessly …
(Edited by )
I heard many times communist teachers said in the class at the Camp of Concentration:
_You will have to surrender to the Revolution and accept to be labor workers for three generations.
But when I was released from the Camp, I didn’t have to go the New Economy Zone to work as a laborer, I got a doctor job at a Health Center in Binh Thanh, Saigon instead. Vietnamese Communists didn’t trust me to work as a general surgeon in the hospital as before. I was not permitted to open my doctor office. At the Health Center I was paid eighty five dongs (piastres) per month. The price of a glass of coffee was actually one dong. I thought I didn’t have to work as a laborer because the country lacked physicians. Sometimes people in my neighborhood asked me to come over to take care of their illness so I got an extra income.
Dao gave me eight ounces of gold from Cuc. This gold was the price for an adult to get on the best boat to flee Vietnam. One ounce of gold was actually worth five hundred US dollars.
I bought a bike to go to work.
I felt healthy after I ate sufficiently for a couple of months. I took out my Lambretta that was abandoned for three year to clean and try a ride again. It still worked good and had no indent, nor scratch. I prepared to go to My Tho to meet Huong to ask for information on Khoa, Auntie Ba, and Brother and Sister Tam’s family. I saw many communist sentinel posts along the way to My Tho.
I arrived at Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop by 9AM. Huong rushed out when seeing me:
_Oh my Gosh Khanh, when were you released from the Camp?
_Just recently. How are you and your daughter? Is Khoa released? Any information on Auntie Ba and Brother and Sister Tam’s family?
_My daughter and I are fine. Khoa and Brother Tam are still in the same Camp. Auntie Ba is fine in Paris. Little Tan, son of Brother and Sister Tam went to France in 1970 and lived there.
_So Khoa and Brother Tam can help each other because they are in the same place.
Huong made coffee for me in a busy way and I was surprised she looked at me and smiled many times.
After I finished my coffee, she proposed:
_Khanh, can you give me a ride to the market. Today I have to treat you a big meal.
Driving Huong along the way I drove Lan before, I missed her. I told Huong my wife Cuc and my daughter Be Hien got on a boat to flee Vietnam when I was in the Concentration Camp. They actually lived in the U.S. and Cuc had already a new husband. I wanted to pay for the groceries but Huong stopped me and said today she was to treat me. I asked her about the shop, she said it went well because there were wives of communist partners and officers as additional customers. She added:
_There is now a kind of new business. Many used clothes salespersons became rich. They bought used clothes of old rich people for cheap prices, sold them to new rich people and families of communists, and got big profit. Used clothes of old rich people were clean and looked like new. So they were attractive merchandises.
When a dress making girl and I were helping Huong cook lunch, a woman happened to come with a girl at her age of around ten years. I was startled when I recognized the woman was Lan. I exclaimed in shock:
_Lan, uh …
I intended to say “Lan, my dear” but I twisted my saying when I thought the girl was Lan’s daughter.
_Oh my Gosh Khanh, how are you? Lan looked at me asking.
Huong intervened when I was about to reply Lan:
_Lan and her daughter Mai are now widow and child of hero. Khanh’s wife Cuc and their daughter Be Hien got on a boat to flee Vietnam when Khanh was in the Concentration Camp. Cuc already had a new husband.
I felt glad to answer Lan:
_I’m fine. How about you and your daughter?
_We’re fine. Go to the sitting room to rest, let me help Huong cook.
I made the kitchen neat then left.
I suddenly understood why Huong many times looked at me and smiled, she was to give me and Lan a surprise, she cooked to treat me and Lan and Mai, too.
Huong told me confidentially Lan’ husband name was Huynh, the communist man who shot the body guard of the village chief. Huynh was born in Ben Tre. His father was killed in an operation of South Vietnam army, her sister was raped by South Vietnamese soldiers. Huynh joined the communist party and became Chief of an Assassination Squad. He was killed in battle in 1975 as a captain. After shooting the village chief dead, Lan attended many communist political classes, but she didn’t join the communist party and kept being a dress maker.
When I was drinking tea with Lan and Huong, Mai came and said:
_Mom, I’m to submit my homework tomorrow. I couldn’t do a part of it. Please come over to help me?
_Sorry, I’m busy finishing a dress for a customer who will pick it up today. Let Uncle Khanh help you.
After helping Mai, I told her:
_You shoes have got old. I’ll buy a new pair for you next Sunday.
_Thank you Uncle Khanh, but I’ll have to ask my Mom about it.
That day I drank more beer and was back to Saigon late.
I then drove to My Tho every Sunday to see Lan.
Six months later I got married with Lan. Our wedding had good foods, but was simple and had a small number of guests. Lan wore a beautiful rose wedding gown, I was in my old suit tailored five years ago and still looking new.
One year later, Lan, Mai and I were interviewed for immigration in the U.S.
My family, Huong and her daughter Thanh, and Sister Tam accompanied Lan, her daughter Mai and me to the Tan Son Nhat airport to say goodbye. Sister Tam told me her son, Little Tan became an electrical engineer in France.
I applied for settlement in Cuc’s state in the U.S. to be close to my daughter Be Hien.
Be Hien later lived with me.
Lan gave birth to a daughter named Truc.
(Edited by )
Huong owned Nhu Y Dress Maker Shop after Auntie Ba went to France with her husband, Dr. Jacques Tavernier and Lan was absent. She hired two dress making girls. Her shop was going well thanks to new customers that were wives of communist partners and officers. After becoming widow of hero for a quite while, Lan came back to the shop with her daughter. Huong didn’t lay off a dress making girl because she felt compassion for her; anyway keeping her didn’t cause any significant impact on the shop. Huong could afford to raise her daughter and supply her husband Khoa’s needs in the Camp of Concentration. She kept contact with Auntie Ba in Paris who let Huong use her house to live and open the dress maker shop for free.
Vietnamese communists took the mansion of Brother and Sister Tam on Chi Lang Road to use as a Health Center, but reserved for Sister Tam a room, the kitchen and restroom. Sister Tam could ask her son, Little Tan to sponser her for immigration in Paris, but she didn’t do it because she wanted to take care of her husband, Brother Tam in the Camp of Concentration.
After six year in the Camp, Khoa and Brother Tam were released.
Brother and Sister Tam were sponsored by their son to immigrate in France very quickly.
Khoa, Huong anh Thanh, their daughter were settled in my state in the U.S. Huong sold her busy dress maker shop for twenty thousand US dollars. She and Khoa brought the money to the U.S. and put it in a bank. They sent a ten thousand dollar check every year to Auntie Ba following her advise. Auntie Ba told them to do so and she was exempted from tax because the amount of so called gift money was not over fifteen thousand dollars per year.
Khoa house was near mine. It took me fifteen minutes to drive there. Our children Thanh, Mai, Be Hien and Truc played together happily. Our families often gathered for dinner on Saturday. I imitated the dining table of Brother and Sister Tam to buy another one that was long in width so a guest’s feet couldn’t touche the ones on the opposite side. The table could be extended for twelve guests. I reduced it to half. Khoa bought a similar one.
People usually said a killer’s look was sharp and cold like bronze. Sometimes I tried to look at Lan’s eyes to see if the saying was true.
_What are you thinking about? You thought of Cuc, didn’t you? Lan asked.
_No I didn’t. I answered hugging her.
She resisted somewhat:
_Take your hands off my body.
But I already held her tightly and kissed her …
I thought the village chief who was shot dead and the communist partner, chief of Cuc’s district who sent her a document demanding her to report to his ofiice to “work on a matter” were both Hell. So what was Paradise? Paradise was what good people did for each other to be happy. Hell was what bad people did to others. A government that protected bad people was also Hell and the leader who protected bad people was Hell, too.
Paradise and Hell that people talked about were not true because no one knew where and what those Paradise and Hell were.
Huong, Khoa, Lan and I went to Paris to visit Auntie Ba. I was actually forty-five year old, Auntie Ba was sixty-five year old because I remembered she as well as Lan’s mother were twenty years older than me.
Dr. Jacques Tavernier and Auntie Ba didn’t have children. He passed away from lung cancer when he was seventy-five year old.
Five years later, Huong received a letter telling Auntie Ba was seriously ill because of uterine cancer. Huong, Lan, Khoa and I went to the hospital to visit her. The two girls went to her bed, hugged her and cried. Khoa and I each stood silently on each side of her bed, our hand held her foot. Auntie Ba gave Huong her will stating that Huong and Lan each inherited half of her bank accounts and half of her house she was living in. In total, Huong and Lan each was to receive one hundred fifty thousand euros that were equivalent to two hundred twenty five thousand US dollars. This amount of money actually could buy a large convenient house in the U.S. state where I lived.
Three days later Auntie Ba agonized. Huong and Khoa as well as Lan and I each couple stood on each side of her bed. Huong and Lan each held a hand of Auntie Ba, burst into tears, reciting in the old days Auntie Ba used to joke she was their foster mother who didn’t feed them and they never expected today she was like their real mother:
_Oh my God, oh my God. Huong and Lan cried loudly saying.
My eyes were filled with tears and my trembling hand held a foot of Auntie Ba that became colder and colder. She passed away at her age of seventy five years./.
(Edited by )