“The Vietnamese have the strange habit of smiling under any circumstance. They smile whether they are congratulated or yelled at, whether they are good or bad, whether they are right or wrong… There is nothing more frustrating than having to deal with a smile which is a response to your questioning or yelling at a person….” -Nguyen Van Vinh
It’s the year 1968. American troops deployed in the South are stationed in Saigon, the bustling capital of Vietnam. The South is at war with the North, whose leader Ho Chi Minh is the calm face of communism. While the world scrutinizes the war, its atrocities, its leaders, its actors, in Saigon, its residents are doing its best to resume city life. My father was seven in 1968, when the war was becoming ever present in the streets of a developing Vietnam. Xin Loi is my exploration in his history, deeply rooted in both the South Vietnamese and the western archival perspectives on the war.
1:The Departure “The Vietnamese smiled not only when they were happy, but also when they were sad or ambivalent about something. They smiled because as straightforward people they could not ﬁb very well and were often at a loss for words to explain their complex feelings. This is known as a “sorry-smile,” a unique Vietnamese trait that has been misunderstood by westerners and Vietnamese alike.” - Nghia M. Vo, in the Viet Kieu in America
xin lỗi is Vietnamese for I’m sorry.
In the midst of a war, Saigon was brimming with life.
It was a snapshot
of the hustle
and the bustle.
Saigon was the meeting place for all walks of life.
On the corner of Phuy and Nguyen was the bakery Hoa Kỳ. Hoa Kỳ means the United States.
My father’s mother and father owned Hoa Kỳ. Every brother, sister, parent, and child were responsible for upkeeping the business.
My father was the second oldest of 7, and at the ripe age of 8, he was balancing his responsibilities and his un-responsbilities.
Every day in the city was a new adventure. He gained his independence wandering through city streets after school.
On the streets of Saigon were backbusting commoners, the handsome and brusque American soldiers, and the stone-faced AVRN.
He learned from his mother, what to expect from people of all types.
Always haggle with your equal.
Respect them like you respect your country.
Americans donâ€™t share our sense of humor. Beware of their emotions.
Saigon gave my father a certain air of confidence.
Saigon also made my father feel very small. People came together in large numbers, for reasons he could not yet understand.
In the rice paddies in nearby villages, his neighbors were showered with remimders about the dangerous Vietcong. In the city, Saigon made it clear that a good boy would root for the home team, the Republic of Vietnam.
In the rice paddies in neighboring villages, his neighbors were showered with remimders about the dangerous Vietcong. My father didnâ€™t quite know the enemy. But he knew to root for the home team. City folk had to support its troops.
Conversations overheard in the bakery taught my father that the Republic of Vietnam was the party to trust. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam were cold communists, with backwards ideal.
February 2nd marked the arrival of the Tet Offensive in Saigon. On the early morning of the 2nd, the Vietcong infiltrated the American embassy, and multiple other targets. It was havoc that the soldiers did not anticipate.
Like routine, news of fighting brought my father and his family to safer grounds. Safe havens tended to be schools, hospitals, and temples. That night the earth shook, and muffled booms and screams littered the night. It was one of the loudest nights of his lifetime.
The sounds were unbearable, but what remained the next morning was probably more frightening.
Combat photographers were abundant in Saigon, and pictures were sent back to America with news about the fighting.
AVRN General Ngoc Loanâ€™s execution of a Vietcong guerilla made the front page. It was the shot heard around the world.
But the picture could only say as much as it could about the consequence of war. Who could have known that General Loan was a respected chief, or that that the guerilla who met his fate too had a history?
As part of the drill during any fighting, my fatherâ€™s family had moved out all the valuables in the process of evacuating.
When fighting subsided, and reality set in, Hoa Ky joined the rest of Saigon in rebuilding to soon resume its busy life.
By 1970, the war required overwhelming numbers, from both South and North Vietnam and America. The draft announcement came as no surprise to those in Saigon.
They knew that it meant desparate times, when older men were drafted to navigate the unpredicatable North.
Politics were simple then. If you had money, or if you had connections, a bribe removed you from the draft. But a majority of Saigon were commoners working commoner jobs to support their families.
He thought of Hoa Ky, of his pregnant wife, and of his immature children ...
and just like that, he was gone.
Many hands make for light work. My father and his brothers and sisters quickly filled the role of their father.
Every night, my fatherâ€™s mother prayed that her husband would be safe, that her children would grow up faster, for her unborn baby.
A yearâ€™s worth of praying brought a tall figure to Hoa Ky in 1971. He wore a helmet and had the figure of an ARVN soldier.
It was not my fatherâ€™s father.
It was a man with a letter and an apology.
declared Missing in Action. There is a great likelihood that he has been captured by the Vietcong, in which case we cannot claim responsibility for him. He has thereby been relieved of his draft terms, and is no longer deemed a civillian soldier of the ARVN.
So where was my grandfather?
Was he on earth, heaven, or hell?
to be continued...
Published on Mar 29, 2012