I took a walk around this area of Saigon - I think I prefer Hanoi. HCMC is becoming so Westernized it is rather sad to see...men and children still pee on the streets and against the walls, the soup/noodle shops are on the sidewalks and in the streets due to all the construction going on - the street kids are just as persistent but without the playfulness and fun in their approach to selling postcards and such. The grown street vendors try to block your way and are downright sulky about "no".
Or - maybe today I just wasn't in the mood! I keep wishing the girls were going to see Hanoi. I hope the provinces we visit will be more like the North in attitude.
Lan and Mr. Tam picked me up at 10PM for the airport. The plane was an hour late and by the time all the professional stuff was admitted through customs (with Mr. Tam's help) we made it back to the hotel by 1AM. Of course the girls and I had to do our "girl talk" before we fell asleep.
First we met with the CuChi Veteran's Association. Two of these men accompanied us on the 3 interviews as well as a woman from the women's union. The first interview was with Vietnam's "Hero Mother". She was 75 y.o. and lost (they refer to it as sacrificed) her husband, three sons and one daughter to the American War. She and her remaining children, 2 daughters, were each wounded over the years while working in their fields. She is very nearly toothless; her home was probably considered a nice one; it was concrete with a tile roof).
The interview was conducted in the front room around a table. In this room was a bed (board with a very thin mat), a hutch/wardrobe type of thing and the funny little stools for sitting on. The neighbors and relatives were either crowed into the room or bunched around the doors and windows, lots of kids, dogs, skinny cats, roosters sort of wondered through at different times. There were windows with no glass, just bars, the eves of the roof didn't touch the walls of the house (ventilation?) and no actual doors for the door ways, concrete floor (not necessarily something one would want to eat off of) the heat and humidity was incredible. She was a fiesty woman with an attitude of "one does what one must." A very bold statement she made was that "our gov'ts "hated" each other - we didn't. she said that she and I are friends - the war is over.
She was very surprised that an American Widow was interested in the lives of the Vietnamese..even a Vietnamese widow. Her attitude about it was one of openess and willingness to participate. She said that before the war her life had been very hard, but after the war things were better...no more bombing and they could be safe in the fields. Then she wanted to show me her house (her original home had been destroyed by the bombing during the war and she had no pictures of her family prior to that time). It was a one level concrete with 4 rooms, none of which was a bathroom. The room we had been in, a small hallway, a bedroom with 2 of those board beds and one wardrobe, and the "kitchen". Off the kitchen was the pig sty with pig. The chickens sort of wondered in and out. Then she asked if my house was like hers? I had to admit it wasn't.
She invited me to stay with her for a week when I returned. I agreed to stay one day/night with her, but time constraints prevented any more than that. She asked if I had pictures of my home. I did. Then she said surely I wouldn't be able to stay in her home. I assured her that I had only one room and she had 4. Then she disappeared for a minute and returned weaaring an Ai Dau (or Ao Dai ) (the traditional dress) of maroon with her hero mother metals. And yes they did have stars. She had a metal for losing her husband, one for her children, one from designate as hero mother. We took a lot of pictures. I took polaroids as well as regular. She now has pictures of her existing family. Meanwhile, Mitty and Sarah were interviewing the 2 surviving daughters - one of whom had lost her leg. Their time was apparently well spent.
One thing happened during the interview with the widow. Mitty very nearly passed out. She said, "Mom, I'm seeing spots, I think I'm going to faint". immediately we sat her down on the stool and I turned the fan on to circulate the air. The women said no, not to fan her, it wasn't good. They they got out a small bottle of some liquid and began massaging it on her neck and forehead. Then on her neck, shoulders, and upper back they began doing something with the rounded end of a spoon and she was given warm water with sugar and lemon - they said it would help, that it was medicine..I knew it would raise her blood sugar, but I kept thinking - oh, no, tapwater!! After "crisis" and the interviews, there was much hugging and waving good-bye. She gave us a huge bag of peanuts - shelled, raw and a small bag of still hot roasted peanuts..she had grown the peanuts. Before I left she asked again if I would really would stay with her and I agreed. Then she did the funniest thing..She held our her index finger, horizontally and crooked. She then took my index finger and hooked it onto hers...the interpreter explained that was a binding agreement/commitment to do what I promised. I guess in July, during the monsoon season, I will be spending the night with the family...I only hope the hens don't roost on the beam going over the bed and the pig sty slopes down from the kitchen.
The next widow very nearly broke my heart. She was youonger than 75 but looked much older. As she told her story, Tam didn't interupt her - but his face reflected horror and sorrow. She had been married with 11 children. One day the RVN arrested her on suspicion of harboring VC. She was kept in jail 2 months and was tortured; cigarette burns on her body, electrodes connected to her breasts and vagina, she was beaten. When she was finally released, she returned home and found her home had been destroyed (burned or bombed), her husband and all 11 children were dead. The nieghbors had tended to the burial. She wanted to die but with the help and support of her nieghbors she didn't.
The entire time she was reporting this she had her body turned away - she would not look at me. I asked if she hated Americans. Her response was to say she hated (lookin right at me this time) but didn't know who to hate. Again turning away. The interpreter told her I was also a widow. Her response was "we both understand the pain of losing our husband, but there is nothing to compare with losing your children, your whole family."
At this point, Sarah asked if she would go with us to the cemetary to honor her children and husband. The woman turned straight in her chair, looking at no one and agreed. So we loaded up the van, stopped at the market and bought fruit and flowers - I thought Lan had gone overboard on the amount. The woman and I walked together, alone, with our offerings across the cemetary. Nothing was said (interpreter was not with us). We came to a grave, she stopped, stared at it, then began talking again in a soft voice. She lit the joss sticks and began placing them in the holders on the graves. I began putting out the flower bunches.
I had heard about families dying in a car wreck and always think how sad...but until I saw the 11 small graves and the larger one plus her parent's, only then did I grasp the true meaning of losing everything. Then the woman looked at me. I was crying. I tried to tell her how sorry I was for her loss, but of course, she didn't know English, I placed my hand on my heart and then her heart. Then she began to cry, we held each other's hands. I had foolishly left my hat in the van, so she took off her cone hat and held it in such a way as shade us both. And there we stood, crying over such incredible loss, such needless loss. We stood in the heat and sun for what to me seemed an endless time (not used to the heat). She seemed to study each grave. Then she turned and hugged me, took the plastic bags and went to each grave and collected the fruit. That is when we realized how destitute this woman was. We returned to the van where the others waited. She asked me to come again "to this place" with her. This time I offered her the crooked finger commitment. We returned the woman to her home where she lived with a distant relative, carried her fruit inside (at last she had something to offer for their hospitality to her). She smiled for the first time. Then it was time for the polaroid and the other cameras again. Much hugging, kissing of cheeks. Once again, of course, all the neighbors and all were gathered around. We took polaroids for them.
The third widow was a farmer. Her husband was a "hero of the armed forces." She had been 29 and her husband had been 31. They had a 3 1/2 y.o. daughter. She is 55 and an attractive woman today. Again, the space was filled with family and friends, the family ox or water buffalo, skinny cats, scrawney dogs, and lots of kids. She smiled a lot. Admitted her life had been hard without her husband. After her husband had been sacrificed, the only time she could visit his grave was at night until after the liberation. She said until that time she sold things, gardened and generally did what she could to take care of herself and her family. She felt her life was much better now. Then Mitty interviewed the daughter.
I forgot to mention that along with my trusty Minolta and a Polaroid we had TJ and the ABC camera. The children loved having their pictures taken. The first 2 widows had no relics or photos of their families. So with the polaroid I made several instant family portraits. at the last widows home one very old woman who had black enameled teeth was so proud of her polaroid she said it could be used when she died.
It was near dusk by then and we were all exhausted. Cu Chi is only about an hours drive back into Saigon, but we had to take our escorts home. Our last "delivery" was Col. Phim Van Tranh, Vice Ch. of vet association.. He was a retired Col but had been head of the forces at Cu Chi and had dug the tunnels. He said there was over 200 Km of tunnels during the war, connecting the villages. They are now unpassable because of the disuse. He was a very interesting man and was just "itching" to be interviewed.
By the time we returned to HCMC no one even was interested in dinner - just shower and bed. A truly remarkable day.