Return to Viet Nam
A Travel Back in Time to the Roots
My journey back to Vietnam in July 1997 was a return to the roots after a very long absence. This was possible thanks to the new political opening, after an unsuccessful attempt six years before. The revisit of a world buried in time but always present in my mind was a way for me to confront and conjure up my past. What a long way passed through since that year of 1950 when my parents, as heavy the affective and financial sacrifices were, sent me and my elder brother and sister to France for education because they knew there lay our future and wanted to spare us the war aftermath. I was eight years old when I began my scholarship in 1949, learning French at the renowned Lycee Yersin in Dalat, Indochina, then ruled by the French administration.
Vivid memories of my childhood linked to tragic events during the 1945-1950 period have haunted my mind ever since. During the course of the project, I was both excited and scared at the thought that once on site I would not be able to recognize or identify what I intended to see and was going back for. It would be a disappointment if the images I've always bore in mind were merely dreams or just stemmed from my imagination. Don't forget, remember... Both excitement and nostalgia were my companions throughout the trip. I was torn between joy to be back home and sorrow recalling dear memories from a world and a period gone forever.
We traveled by ourselves out of conventional touristic circuits and without assistance of travel agencies or local support. I have the knowledge of the Vietnamese custom and habits and some reminiscence of the language though lacking of practice for long. Apart from magazines and guide books on Vietnam (Lonely Planet, Guide du Routard, etc.) which were of help to me in my pre-trip dreams, I had my own idea and knew precisely what I wanted to see and to do. We just purchased the tickets for the round trip Paris-Ho Chi Minh City via Singapore and booked a hotel for our first two nights, the time necessary in my feeling to find on site the best way to proceed and achieve our goals. To take in all, the assigned objectives were met and the journey was successful beyond expectation.
Ho Chi Minh City
Together with my wife and my daughter we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in July, 1997, after some fourteen hours flight comfortably seated. I contrast this with the twenty-eight days navigation in rough seas with seasickness and homesickness I experienced forty-seven years earlier when I left Saigon. Setting foot again on the native soil long awaited and after such a long absence brought an indefinable feeling of internal joy and self-achievement. We were prepared for that, but the tremendous heat, the noise and commotion due to the dense two-wheeled traffic surpassed what we could have imagined.
During the time devoted to tourism, we went for shopping at the Ben Thanh market, making good bargains for silk lingerie, napkins and other local items, and wandered through the busy shops and stalls along the streets west of the city center. We made a nice stop at the Rex Hotel, relaxing and enjoying fresh drinks at the 5th floor garden-veranda in a quiet environment and cozy atmosphere away from the noise and pollution of the streets. My daughter was much frightened every time we had to cross the streets because traffic lights are rare and walking through dense two-wheeled traffic is a real challenge to foreigners. Very few policemen could be seen and no rules prevailed except care and self observance.
Cyclos, bikes and motorbikes, many of them ridden by two or more people, came from all directions at a time and tried to clear their own path at street junctions. It was fascinating, but surprisingly things went smoothly and we didn't see any accident during our stay. Getting by in any situation through resourcefulness seems to be a natural instinct and a second nature to Vietnamese people who had to deal with survival through wars, natural adversities and privations of all kinds due to the lack of means.
I remembered that day in October, 1950, a milestone in my life, when I boarded the Jamaique, a modest liner from the Chargeurs Reunis at Saigon port together with my elder brother and sister. (The other shipping line was the Messageries Maritimes with great liners such as Pasteur, Felix Roussel, La Marseillaise). Most of the passengers were French citizens, both civilian and military, and only a happy few were local people backed by close relatives who had succeeded in France. It was October 10th and coincidentally around this date took place a major military event we learned only much later (Cao Bang). We departed for a very long trip both in space and in time to our destiny with Marseille as destination, then Paris where my uncle Hoang Xuan Man, a renowned ophthalmologist from the Quinze-Vingts and La Salpetriere took us wholly in charge. He managed to get me boarded at the famed Lycee Henri IV right in the heart of Paris where I received all my education before moving to Strasbourg University.
We arrived at Marseilles the very day of my anniversary after twenty-eight days at sea and five stopovers: Singapore, Colombo, Bombay, Djibouti and Port Said. Very shortly after leaving the Strait of Malacca we ran into a long-lasting monstrous cyclonic depression which left us extensively seasick and totally exhausted without any force or desire of eating for days. After all that, the stopover at Colombo was welcomed as if we had reached heaven. In contrast, the Oman Sea was as flat as a lake with the friendly presence of porpoises accompanying the ship and the amazing sight of flying fish hovering all around. Djibouti was undoubtedly the hottest place I've ever known in my existence. Lining up in the days-long queuing awaited us at the end of the Gulf of Suez before entering the one-way Canal of Suez where our ship seemed to glide on the desert sand, so narrow was the channel and so wide was the sea of sand that encircled the ship in a surreal scenery. Near Sicily we had the chance to admire a fantastic sight in the night with the volcano Etna spitting out explosive glowing lava like fireworks.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the manager of the Mercury Hotel where we stayed helped us by providing information on traveling. We told him that we wanted to go to Phan Rang, Nha Trang and Dalat. I initially planned to rent a car for the whole trip and to drive by ourselves. But this turned out to be impossible. Even with a local chauffeur, the distance, the limited standard of most local cars and the bad shape of the road network make such a long trip too strenuous. Railways and buses both were jammed, slow, straining, and moreover, there was no train link with Dalat. Certainly the best thing to do was to fly. Regular daily flights between HCMC-Nha Trang and HCMC-Dalat are available, operated by Vietnam Airlines with 66-seated ATR-72, and the fares attractive.
After a call to Vietnam Airlines with the help of the Mercury manager, a young porter from the hotel gave me a ride on his motorbike, deftly threading his way through the traffic jams on the busy thoroughfares, near missing other two-wheels at junctions. It was Sunday, July 6th 1997, late afternoon and the Vietnam Airlines office was still opened. I was a bit anxious and nervous, wondering whether we could manage to arrive in time without accident. Seated behind the driver, a refreshing wind blew in my face recalling for me the old time when, unconcerned, I had a similar ride with my cousin on a Motobecane through totally deserted streets on the evening preceding our departure to France in October, 1950.
We arrived at the Vietnam Airlines office on Nguyen Hue Avenue, just before the closing and I was lucky enough to get availability on the flights requested. The purchase of the tickets through Visa card was done straightforward amounting to $285 for HCMC-Nha Trang and Dalat-HCMC flights for three people. Our flight to Nha Trang was scheduled the next morning at 7:00 AM and that Monday at 5:30 AM we had a big breakfast served in-room before a taxicab rushed us to Tan Son Nhut airport.
After the air and noise pollution, the heat and humidity prevailing in Ho Chi Minh City, a striking contrast in climate and environment awaited us in Nha Trang, capital of the Khanh Hoa province. There we found blue skies, dry air, clear waters and sandy beaches. I didn't know Nha Trang before, because I lived all the time in Phan Rang and Dalat during my childhood. I remember only that once, as a baby, I cried and struggled desperately in the arms of my father who brought me to the ocean water on a beautiful beach with big waves, most likely Nha Trang beach.
To me, Nha Trang is above all the city where my parents lived before they died and where they are buried. I experienced a moment of great emotion when I met my niece Kim Loan living there. Together we paid tribute to the memory of my beloved parents in unique moments of remembrance, deep sorrow and gratitude, first at the cemetery then at the Long Son pagoda atop a hill dominated by a gigantic white Buddha that can be seen far away.
Kim Loan and her husband Tam live frugally, work hard, but they managed to take a day of vacation, driving us to a delightful and charming place for a beach picnic party. The name of the place is Doc Let beach, located about thirty miles north of Nha Trang. There we enjoyed seafood and delicious Pacific blue crabs grilled on the pot right to the order in a magnificent setting: white sand, unspoiled beach and clear water, deep-blue and salt-rich due to the combined effect of burning sun and confined situation of the bay encircled by islands (with many salines are nearby). Kim Loan and Tam accompanied us for a visit of the Po Nagar Cham towers and the Hon Chong chaos.
On another day we went for a day-long cruise to the islands surrounding Nha Trang bay, snorkeled on coral reefs and sipped drinks brought by the crew. We stayed in the water and later enjoyed a meal on board. The cruises are much attended by tourists who are touted for along the ocean promenade by competing cruise owners. We just booked our places in the afternoon for the following day. A minivan was arranged to pick us up at our hotel at due time.
Another great emotional moment came when we went for a look at the former home owned by my sister Tram and her husband Du. The house is a beautiful villa ideally located on the ocean front, close to our hotel. They had lived there for years before finding refuge in Florida, following the ebb tide of American troops withdrawing from Vietnam in 1975. Their property today belongs to the municipality.
During our stay in Nha Trang we were accommodated at the Nha Trang Lodge, a new tall building dominating the ocean front built with the help of investments from the Philippines. Long chairs, beach umbrellas and fresh drinks beneath dense palm trees awaited us on the opposite side of the street. The superior rooms display modern comfort and good space with a breathtaking 18-degree, three-sided panorama of the ocean and the islands. From our balcony we enjoyed watching the sun rising over the bay every morning. At dawn, around 5:30 AM, crowds flocked around the beaches that seemed to be the early rendez-vous spot of the whole city. People gathered there for swimming, jogging or simply doing physical exercises.
By 6:00 AM an intense activity took place. We were much amazed about that, but understood that it is the best period of the day considering the effect of the sun and the oppressive heat during daytime. During our stay, we went often for dinner at the Vien Dong hotel next to ours where we attended live local entertainment while enjoying our meal seated alongside the swimming pool.
After Nha Trang, we planned to visit Phan Rang then Dalat where a flight back to Ho Chi Minh City was scheduled. To achieve our goals the best thing to do was to rent a car with chauffeur. We negociated that at the Hai Yen Hotel, next to Nha Trang Lodge, where a number of commercial and touristic services are offered. An agreement was set at $147 for six days rental plus a daily fixed rate for food and lodging of the chauffeur, totalling around $210. The car, a comfortable-looking Toyota Camry, had inefficient air conditioning and tired shock absorbers probably suffering from heavy duties and bumpy roads. But in the end, we were satisfied with the car and with our chauffeurs, two of them - the owner and his employee - changing over after the first day. They spoke good Russian (Cam Ranh in the nearby is a big naval base used by Russians), very little English and no French; fortunately I was able to converse in Vietnamese, with difficulty at the beginning due to my total lack of practice since nearly fifty years, but much better afterwards, improving with time.
We arrived in Phan Rang, capital of the Ninh Thuan province, after a two hour drive. Phan Rang and its surroundings are a main key in my quest of the past and a milestone in my journey back in time. My roots are really from here and subordinately from Dalat. I was much excited, scanning the landscape and countryside with emotion when we came close to the city. The natural landmarks I had known are there, exactly as I imagined they should be: typical mountains and hills, eternal rice fields featuring this very special color of silky deep green particular to rice plants. We stayed at the Ninh Chu hotel, a rather modern establishment managed by the government, located in a very quiet setting on the Phan Rang bay, about five miles northeast of the city. The area is out of tourist circuits and we were the only foreigners. On the beach right in front of the hotel we could watch fishermen and their families working hard, hauling back a heavy net. It took them much time to retrieve the net for a meager harvest.
My first task in Phan Rang was to find the house where I lived in the early years of my childhood. It was a former school owned by my father who was the director. I remember that the building was rectangular, consisting of two main wings, one on the front side along the street and the other one on the rear side. A vast courtyard was in-between. Colonnades and arcades adorned the front wing and behind the rear wing was a brook where frightening giant varans could be seen roaming. Our house was the very first one on the right side of the street when entering the city coming from the north.
One day, so long ago, we luckily survived a deadly air raid by American bombers and today I'm still alive to bear witness to that. The tragedy and the aftermath make certain that all the details are engraved in my memories as if it were yesterday. I learned from an old lady I met there during my trip that it occurred on February 15th 1945. There was, at that time, a Japanese garrison in Phan Rang and most importantly a big naval aviation base at Cam Ranh, about thirty miles to the north.
On that day in 1945, the ominous wailing of sirens suddenly shattered the silence, warning of the imminence of an air raid. Unfortunately for most people, the time gap between the alarm and the roaring of the on-coming bombers was very short. We were at home and we had not prepared shelter. By chance, one of the warehouse compartments on the rear side had been filled the day before with grains of rice. I still remember crying when my mother took me in her arms and rushed to the warehouse, crossing the courtyard. We barely had time to plunge amidst the grains as the planes arrived right over us. I still have in mind the terrifying sight through the roof glass window of big twin-propeller and twin-fin bombers, likely B-25 Mitchells, flying just above our heads. With deafening noise, bombs exploded nearby and hails of machine-gun bullets beat down around us. We were lifted up and shaken like dead leaves from our improvised bed and thought in a flash that our last moment had come.
With the raid over, we were both surprised and relieved to have survived and gotten through unscathed. A rapid inspection of the house showed that the walls, pillars and roofs were badly damaged. The courtyard was littered with heavy metal chunks of bomb shrapnel. A tall tree in front of the house was literally chopped by heavy machine-gun bullets we collected afterwards on the ground. Our house, the very first one at the north limit of the city, was obviously a target. Luckily the bombs missed their objective, exploding just close to the north wall and all around.
We wondered about what happened to the city and worried a lot due to the violence of the bombing. My sister cycled to the city center and came quickly back completely devastated. Many of the bombs hit full-force the central market attended by crowds of people minutes before, causing very heavy casualties. The sight was unbearable. There were so many dead that a huge mass grave had to be dug to the north of the city where today there stands a memorial. On the other hand, the Japanese military had minor, if no, casualties. I was eyewitness to this tragedy and feel today awfully sorry that this sad page of history is so little known and reported. Thus, long before the mediatic Vietnam war of the sixties and seventies, a lot of Vietnamese civilians were already victims of American bombings.
I strolled again and again along the streets, scanning the houses in the hope of identifying our former home. The city has much expanded and it was a real challenge for me to recognize things dating back fifty-two years ago when I was barely four years old. Our house was the first one at the northern city limit, but today miles of constructions have taken place everywhere. Narrowing the field of investigation by elimination led me to a house which displayed some of the features I was looking for (colonnades, arcades, right side of the main street, close to the center, small brook behind, today filled in). Questioning the owner of a drugstore on the opposite side of the street I got confirmation for that. The old man had known both my parents and my sister Tram. I was both happy and relieved to know it, having come to the end. Deep nostalgia seized me at the sight of the very small part remaining from our former home. I must say that everything today appears smaller than what I had in mind from the memories of a small child.
After the air raid my parents decided to abandon our home, for fear of further bombing. We moved to the hinterland close to the mountains about ten miles to the north where my parents owned a big farm (Ray) featuring a variety of crops and a large number of livestock. We carried our meager movables and furniture on ox-driven carts. I still have a clear vision of the complex: a two-story building made of red baked clay facing the main courtyard and a lateral wing along the right side when entering. The former was for lodging and the latter for cooking and for the storage of drinking water collected in big barrels during rain falls. A poultry-yard was next to it. At the farm entrance lay the facilities for the cows, sheep and goats. The latter were kept in thatched sheds equipped with raised platform. Crops were grown in the vast fields behind.
We lived there in autarky, isolated, in a beautiful and wild setting, far from villages and human activity. We had neither running water nor electricity, but we lived there happy, out of time, lacking of nothing essential. We kept herds of cows, flocks of goats and sheep and bred scores of hens and chickens. We kids owned each of us a veal and a goat given by our mother and we learned to take care of them. The animals of the farm provided us meat, milk, cheese, and eggs. We just went to the surrounding forest to harvest honey and catch birds and hares. A lot of vegetables were grown successfully, mainly corn but also potatoes, tomatoes, marrows, groundnuts, and other products like cotton, coffee and tobacco. Rice came from the plantation my parents owned about half-way between Phan Rang and the farm.
The area was teeming with game: deer, hare, partridge, quail, grouse and many other species of animals and birds. A wonderful wildlife refuge and a paradise for nature lovers. It could have been a marvellous place for hunting, but we had no guns. Instead, we only used nets of varying sizes and sometimes bows and arrows, catching just what we really needed. I remember as in a dream walking silently one evening by moonlight with my elders to set up nets at prepared passages encircling a delimited area. We then made noise to steer the hares to the nets.
There were also dangerous animals like tigers, leopards, snakes and scorpions. I remember watching harmless green snakes living in the tall kapok trees close to the second floor balcony; they bore the same color as the branches to which they were mingled. One day we were much surprised to find a big snake huddled in a travel bag trying to get out when we opened it. I also remember coming across giant black scorpions when removing the lid of the water barrels. We had to be aware and to deal with all those things without assistance of medicine or medical care, managing to get through in all circomstances like a biker through the traffic. Hazards were part of our life.
Money was unknown to us since we were self-sufficient. We didn't make any commerce, but as a tradition, we swapped products with the Moi, the ethnic minorities living in the mountains nearby. They descended from time to time bringing us bamboo shoots and other vegetables for which we gave them in return salt, spice, rice and corn. So we lived happy without concern in a generous wonderland, in harmony with a wild and wonderful environment. But unfortunately this could not last for long.
The Japanese troops based in Indochina increased from around 6000 men by the end of 1944 to ten times that figure by March, 1945 with the arrival of several divisions from China and Burma after their military reverse in the South Pacific (Manilla was liberated on January 5th). As a consequence, American air raids targeting Japanese military objectives increased in number and intensity over Indochina in early 1945. The raid over Phan Rang that we witnessed in February was one of them. On March 9th the Japanese forces launched a sudden and powerful military strike against the French troops with whom they cohabited till then according to agreements dating back to August 1940 and July 1941, and took over the whole country.
A short time after that, we received at our farm a visit by Japanese soldiers. They were very polite with us, saluted and thanked us for everything ('aligato' was the word I learned from them). Because of the more and more frequent American air raids over the area, we dug a big trench close to the house covered with logs and bags of earth. The Japanese soldiers took shelter there as well. They did not stay for long and left us one day, seeing that there was no strategic interest and nothing to do there.
We continued to live peacefully on our farm, but in constant fear of American bombings. I remember that we dug, in addition to the main log-covered trench close to the dwelling, individual holes just the size of a person far from the house in fear the buildings might be a target. Regularly at twilight, we heard the tremendous roar of scores of American heavy bombers (probably B17s or B29s) in successive waves, flying over us from north to south at rather high altitude. We rushed to our individual holes and stayed there crouching, keeping still and waiting. From our holes in the dark we could hear the frightening rumble of bomb explosions like thunder in the distance. From time to time we could watch air combats over the hills (Nui Ca Du) dominating the ocean between in-coming American aircraft and Japanese fighters taking off from the nearby Cam Ranh naval airbase.
So, long before the Indochina war and Vietnam war, the Vietnamese people had suffered from fighting opposing enemies foreign to their land. With the end of the French administration and colonial rule in March, 1945, a period of uncertainty prevailed. Two days after the Japanese strike against French forces permitted them to take over the whole of Indochina, emperor Bao Dai (who reigned since 1926) proclaimed the abolition of the French protectorate on March 11. He nominated a new government in which my uncle, Hoang Xuan Han, was put in charge of the ministry of education. Hoang Xuan Han was a scholar, historian, writer and scientist who graduated from the French Ecole Polytechnique and Ponts et Chaussees and held the agregation in mathematics
But this didn't last long. Following the surrender of Japan on August 15th 1945, formally signed on September 2nd, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam on that very day, making reference in his speech to both American Declaration of Independence (1776) and French Declaration of Human Rights (1789). He gained the sympathy and confidence of American agents from the OSS by fighting against the Japanese. Enthusiastic popular movements towards independence spread over the country. In a patriotic fervor, my father and my two elder brothers left us to join the leading forces of the nation constituted mostly in the North where historical events were to take place.
In fact, our future had been set and sealed far from us at Potsdam by the winners of WWII on August 2nd 1945. In accordance to the treaty, British troops debarked in the South on September 12th to disarm the Japanese soldiers while Chinese troops did the same north of the 16th parallel. But more important was the fact that French troops, in agreement with the British, debarked in Saigon as well, aiming at protecting the French citizens and assets. For a couple of months there were only minor military actions, but we all were very anxious about the next move to come.
The French forces strengthened up and gradually took control of the whole Saigon area. In January 1946, they launched a powerful blitz strike towards the north with two armored columns, one along the coast and the other one through the highlands, aiming at taking over the whole South (Cochinchina and South of Annam) with Nha Trang as a main target through Dalat and Phan Rang. I bear witness for the effect of surprise and the panic among the population as the bad news spread like wildfire running ahead of the fast progression of the French columns. So after a short period of euphoria, during which the Vietnamese people thought that they were at last the master of their own destiny, they had to be disillusioned and disenchanted when all their plans towards independence came tumbling down.
One morning by the end of January, we suddenly saw a cloud of dust rising from the track leading to our farm. A motorized military column arrived at high speed, preceded by a half-track. The leading armored vehicle screeched to a halt in the middle of our main courtyard and from the opened turret a standing French commander brandished and waved a pistol in his right hand, shouting to us inquiring about the presence of rebels. He asked all men to line up for inspection. But most if not all valid men were elsewhere, either in the north Vietnam or in the nearby forests and mountains.
After a brief search for possible hidden weapons, the military column made a U-turn and sped away as quickly as they came, obviously in a great hurry. We had expected such a visit for several days, knowing the progress of the French column. Nevertheless, this sudden and feared appearance was most impressive to us. The image of the half-track in our courtyard and of the revolver metal shining and glittering in the sun in the hand of the French officer are engraved forever in my memory.
Shortly after, we received a visit by French soldiers from the Legion Etrangere. They were impressive in their perfect dress, with well-maintained weapons and strict discipline, setting in a flash a routine with machine guns as soon as they arrived. They were very polite with us and asked us if they could have a few chickens in exchange of cans of corned beef. We couldn't refuse them anyway, but in fact we were quite eager to taste the canned food new to us. Once the agreement was set, a strange, noisy and feathery ballet took place in the poultry yard with sprinting legionnaires trying to catch bare handed the hens and chickens and found it to be a very difficult task. Good relationship was established between us. The legionnaires came back many times, showing us the way they made use of their guns and demonstrating their shooting skill with incredible success on various targets (birds, hanging thin ropes, etc). Most of them were Germans, a few were Italians, the other from Central and Eastern Europe.
With the buildup of a national armed resistance and the oncoming guerilla warfare all over the country, my mother realized that it was not possible to live any longer out of time and out of the swirl. One day in year 1946 (I can't remember exactly when), she decided to definitely leave our remote estate and to move to the rice plantation (Ruong) we owned half way down to Phan Rang. It was really heartbreaking for us to abandon overnight everything we possessed in that wonderful setting. A page had been turned, a root of our life had disappeared. We hauled what we could on ox-driven carts down the red clay track again. At one point we crossed the railroad, a prominent landmark in the landscape bearing high importance for that period. A tiny railway station and a very small village with a few dwellings lay beside it. We then crossed a small bridge and followed the river bank towards our new lodge, a grass hut, some two hundred yards away.
Our new home was located on the border of our rice plantation, beside the river bank. My mother and my sister assisted by workers who grew rice plants. My favorite hobby at that time was to catch fish by various means: bare hands, nets (irrigation basins), keep-nets (irrigation channels), and angling (river). Many freshwater species abounded such as round-head fish (ca trau), small fish which can survive buried in mud (ca ro) and flat-head, bearded catfishes (ca tre) living in schools in holes or troughs along the irrigation channels. The latter can inflict painful injures causing illness and high fever with poisonous stingers located on both sides of their head. I still remember setting keep-nets in the water flow of irrigation channels between plantation compartments in the evening and picking them up the next morning with fish trapped inside. Fish was our main protein source and, combined with rice and salt-rich 'nuoc mam', was our daily basic food.
The French legionnaires had their garrison in a village named Ba Lap located at the junction with the road linking Phan Rang to Nha Trang, some two miles from our home. One night we were woken up by intense gunfire. The soldiers from the attacked post shot blind in our direction and a hail of glowing red-orange heavy-bullet tracers ended their course right on our dwelling. It was frightening. We had no prepared shelters and had to put ourselves under our beds to find some protection. The legionnaires made frequent patrols in the area and sometimes stopped to visit us as they crossed the bridge on their way to the railroad. The railway was a strategic link, the only possible and relatively safe means of transportation, and after several attacks an armored train was specially designed in Thap Cham for the line, served by squads of legionnaires.
The legionnaires were courteous with us, even friendly. Seeing that it took us hard work to catch fish, they once demonstrated to us a rapid but drastic means to catch them by throwing grenades into the water. I remember running with them and falling flat on the river bank just after the grenades were thrown into irrigation reservoirs. A lot of fish were killed but it turned out to be a wrong method, because the dead fish were irretrievable, lying in the bottom of the waters or were just pieces floating under the surface. The soldiers were much attracted by my sister and visited us to see her.
One day an ambush took place just as they crossed the bridge, causing a number of casualties. Minutes later they ordered all of us to come to the bridge and asked for our identity papers; we were terrified, seeking desperately after our ID documents without knowing what they really wanted. I still remember running from our lodge up to the bridge under machine guns and automatic rifles pointed at us all along the way. Fortunately for us my sister managed to calm the soldiers down, thanks mostly to the fact that they knew her.
Today, in 1997, I am back here, trying to travel back in time and revisit the places I treasure deep in my mind. That was not straightforward because lacking a detailed map, I couldn't locate the road, the village or the small river I was looking for. The only clues which guided me was the approximate north direction and the railroad. Thoai, our chauffeur, drove us from Phan Rang to the north. After a few miles we went past the memorial to the victims of the 1945 air raid. Then we came to a junction with a fork to the west. There, it seemed to me that everything emerged from the depth of time. Great emotion seized me at the sight of familiar landscape. The old road I knew before, apparently had never been repaired, and only a few bikes were visible. At one point we had to stop before crossing with great caution a narrow bridge made of disjointed logs barely supporting the weight of a car. The road threaded its way through extended deep-green rice fields in the middle of an impressive atmosphere of calmness and quietness. Blue-green mountains in the distance added to the atmosphere of peace and eternity.
Finally we arrived to a gate bearing a large billboard : An Hoa. This is the place I was looking for. I heard of this name for the first time from the old lady when I questioned her on the day of my arrival in Phan Rang. A small notice on the pillar warned of a 'damaged bridge' (cuu hu) and we couldn't drive any farther. I asked Thoai to drop us there, then I walked up the earth track with a heavy heart. The small bridge, a key of my past, stood there exactly as I imagined it, like it was frozen in time, badly damaged and bearing scars due to time and wars. The marks of impact and holes of bullets from the ambush we witnessed are likely still on it. I walked along the clay path on the river bank as I did as a small child, half a century earlier. Everything was in keeping with my memories: the bridge, the small river, the river bank, the palm trees, the rice fields, and even the cottage very similar to ours I could see from the bridge. I was gripped by deep nostalgia and sorrow, thinking strongly of my mother and of my whole family. It seemed to me both as yesterday and as from another life.
The next day I went in search for what may have remained of our former ranch. Because of the tremendous heat, I asked Thoai to drive me late in the afternoon and drop me at the An Hoa gate. I crossed the small bridge dear to my heart and walked through An Hoa village, which was just a few houses with animals lining the path. Alone and solitary, my mind busy with memories, I came to the railroad and headed for the hinterland. On the path I passed herds of cows and goats returning to the village, reminding me of those we owned long before. The land is rather flat and the red earth track slopes very gently towards the foot of the mountains. Semi-arid vegetation with cactus and agaves abound, lining the path. It seemed to me that the vegetation was less dense than before, but this turned out to be only an impression. The vegetation grew denser growing closer to the mountain.
With nostalgia, I recognized at once the surrounding landscape and the typical landmarks which are imprinted in my memory since I was small child: red clay path contrasting with green vegetation, deep-green hills and massive blue-green mountains dominating our farm. This place really has haunted my mind all the time and is dearest to my heart. Despite all my efforts, no remnant of our former farm could be seen. Maybe the search was not complete due to the lack of time. With the sun declining and the dark coming rapidly after 6 pm I had to hurry back, awfully sorry, vowing to come back again one day. Thoai, my chauffeur, worried about my long walk and came to the railroad where he waited for me. I was pleased to meet him there at dusk.
Before driving to Dalat, we visited the famous Cham temple of Po Klong Garai at Thap Cham, a few miles west of Phan Rang. The monument is a wonder of architectural balance and harmony, remarkably preserved, crowning a steep isolated hill overlooking the surrounding. The heat was intense under a blazing and burning hot sun. The contrast between cactus and other rare desert vegetation capping the hill and the surrounding green contryside is striking. The majestic towers are made of red bricks and date back to the 13th century. Above the entrance of the main tower is a sculpture of Shiva dancing and waving his six arms. We saw very few visitors and amazingly we met a man who had known my sister Tram when he attended English courses taught by her in Nha Trang. He spoke French quite well and accompanied us during our visit.
On the following day, we left the narrow coastal flat land for the highlands, heading for Dalat. The road, badly damaged in places, twisted its way up the mountain range through a steep slope. At one point, we had to stop before crossing a narrow one-way wooden bridge. The road was unknown to me since the only convenient means of transportation between Phan Rang and Dalat previously was the cog railway (train a cremaillere). We used it for the last time in 1948 when we finally moved from Phan Rang to Dalat without any hope of return. Thoai made a stop at the Bellevue pass for a look and we enjoyed a marvellous panorama over the coastal plain lying some 4000 feet below us (Dalat's altitude is around 4800 feet). On the highland the road, in good shape, stretched out through beautiful pine forests and we could drive at normal speed. We arrived in Dalat after a stop at the Prenn waterfall for a visit.
What a drastic change in climate and vegetation between Dalat and Phan Rang, only 70 miles away. We had left a couple of hours before where we had suffered from oppressing heat and burning sun. We passed without transition from tropical climate to near alpine environment, with the flora recalling temperate settings such as in the French Alps or Switzerland. Here there is no problem of sweating or sun burning, the weather is pretty cool, the air is thin and pure. Air conditioning was unnecessary and instead we had to be fully dressed and even to put on our wool clothes, anoraks or raincoats. I had much difficulty to recognize the former Dalat I had known, so smart, because of dense urbanism and poverty triggered by the exodus from the North after the partition in 1954, then the reunification in 1975.
During our stay, we were lodged at the Sofitel Hotel, formerly Langbian Palace then Dalat Palace, a white massive building built between 1916 and 1922 in the style of an early century colonial spa and majestically located atop a hill surrounded by tall pine trees and overlooking the scenic Xuan Huong lake and the golf course.
This place hosted important events in the course of the history and the making of Vietnam. It was the location of the first anti-colonialism cell created by the employees in the kitchen, state conferences in 1946 between the French officials and Viet Minh representatives, state dinners given by emperor Bao Dai, etc. Today after thorough renovation, it is owned by the Accor group. Paradoxically, the local personnel at the reception desk spoke only very little French. That seemed rather surprising for ownership by a French group and in a city formerly a renowned center for French education.
The rooms and bathrooms, beautifully refurbished in ancient style, display large space and high ceilings. I realized the chance I have today to be hosted in such a historic building, something I dreamt about when I was a kid marveling at the surrounding magnificence. The Dalat Palace is exceptional for its heritage, past splendor, architecture and unique setting, but it lacks modern facilities and equipment. This gap is going to be filled with a big new Novotel from the same Accor group, a few steps from the Dalat Palace, near to completion at the time we were there.
I remember quite well the two schools I attended for my first year of scholarship. The first one was a Vietnamese local primary school close to the city center. The class rules were old-fashioned, featuring stick-beating on the platform by the teacher in punishment for mistakes in dictation or arithmetic. I boarded at that school for just a couple of months before my mother managed to get me enrolled at the renowned Petit Lycee Yersin, named after the famed French doctor who founded the modern Dalat in 1897 (a centennial at the time I came back !) and made a lot of good for the welfare of the local population. The establishment, isolated and ideally situated in a quiet setting amid tall pine trees and atop a hill, was attended mostly by the children from the large French community. I had been among the Vietnamese privileged few.
The school was quite far from the city center, but rather close to the French quarter and its posh French provincial-looking villas and chalets disseminated in the hilly pine groves. I remember accompanying my mother one evening to visit my teacher at Christmas at her beautiful home, offering her presents in gratitude to her teaching and her kindness. The overall education level was outstanding, in harmony with the beauty of the setting and the quality of the environment. Our main goal and concern were to obtain honor rolls and class prizes distributed in the form of books at school year end. My elder brother Yen attended the Grand Lycee Yersin, much bigger than the Petit Lycée Yersin, located far on the other side of Xuan Huong lake, whilst my elder sister Tram attended the Couvent des Oiseaux, a smart institution managed by nuns for girls mostly from high social families. It is close to the Petit Lycee Yersin in a similar setting, being located atop a pine-covered hill.
Today I am back here revisiting both schools, the Vietnamese one and the French one. The latter is dear to my heart because there took place a determinant shift in my destiny. I got there my first school books and had my first French lessons in an environment new to me. There I discovered our ancestors the Gauls and had my first girl friends, two sisters named Aline and Berthe. I have today some difficulty in finding the place because the site is surrounded by dense housing and no longer isolated on a hill away from the city. I was much relieved to see again the whole compound preserved from destruction, though in bad shape for lack of maintenance and repair for decades. Today, it serves as a cultural center for teaching instrumental music.
At the very moment I crossed the main gate, I felt like I was transported forty-eight years back in time, reliving the instant when the concierge, a strong blond-haired French woman from Normandy, appeared at the door of her dwelling on the left side behind the fence and the rang the bell. She then opened the gate, a moment long awaited from the other side of the barrier. As I walked up the main alley, splendors of the past emerged in flashbacks: flowers everywhere around the buildings and along the alleys, cool-shaded pine trees, manicured lawns, well-maintained premises, clean classrooms, perfect discipline, outstanding teaching and learning. Today all the buildings I had known are there in front of me, remnants and ghosts of a glorious past. Nostalgia and sadness gripped me as I relived in my mind events known only to a few. I recognized at once the classroom I attended, first grade in the primary scale, located at the very end of a long flat building with green wooden French shutters and yellow walls. I wanted to visit the interior but all the doors were closed. It was summer holidays and the site was completely deserted.
The next morning I went for a long planned visit, a major key in the search for my roots. Shortly after my arrival in France, my elder brother Thai who was the leader of the armed resistance (Viet Minh) for the Dalat area died after a fight against the French forces in May 1951. I remember that I secretly met him once in 1950 together with my mother, my sister Tram and my cousin Hiep, in the forest surrounding Dalat. A rendez-vous was arranged and he came out from the cover with a few bodyguards to meet us. I was much impressed by the Sten submachine gun he bore with him. We were aware about the risks taken for both parties in doing that, but we absolutely wanted to see him before leaving Viet Nam.
All I knew about him was that he was buried at the cemetery of the National Heroes close to Dalat but I didn't know where the memorial was, and neither did Thoai. A rough and imprecise map helped me in locating the presumed site, a few miles west of Dalat. We drove past the Petit Lycee Yersin again, the Cam Ly falls, then through beautiful pine forests. We finally arrived at the memorial located on a hill covered by dense tall pine trees in a wild and lonely setting. The weather was in tune with the purpose of the visit. I was not quite sure that it was the right place until I read the name of my brother and the precise date of his death on the register at the entrance office. The staff gave us directions to get there and we climbed up the steep hill under misty rain and cold wind. A great emotional moment came when I saw his name and the date of his death engraved on the tombstone, one of the first in the alignment of graves at the summit of the hill.
We made a stop at the Cam Ly falls, a very popular family place and rather known scenery of Dalat, not far from the Petit Lycee Yersin. For fun, you can be photographed riding a small horse in cowboy dress in a wonderful landscape, beautiful but rather unusual for the purpose.
We visited the Bao Dai's Summer Palace set in a pine forest atop a hill, formerly used by the emperor and his family for relaxing, hunting or just to escape the formidable heat prevailing in other places. It is now a museum displaying the furniture and many personal objects replaced in their original setting. I was agreeably surprised and rather proud discovering that Vo Dinh Dung, the father of my brother-in-law Du (now living in Florida), was the builder of the Summer Palace in the early thirties (1933). I read his name on the relief inscription to his honor on a metal plate adorning the main hall.
The Bao Dai's Summer Palace is relatively close to the Institut Pasteur, a venerable massive building designed and founded in 1936 under the direction of Dr Alexandre Yersin. I just got a close look at it since no visit is possible without a precise objective or a special permission. The Institut Pasteur is a prominent landmark of the Quartier Francais where beautiful mansions and posh villas and chalets are nicely disseminated in pine groves up the hills or over the crests south of Dalat. They are in French provincial style from various parts of France, mostly from Normandy, Brittany, Savoy and Basque regions This smart-looking and quiet residential district is surprisingly well preserved and gives an idea of how the French aristocracy lived there till approximately April 1956, date of the withdrawal of the last French troops from South Viet Nam, far from the busy city center and its local bustling activity. To me when I was a child, this area was something out of reach as from another world and I never even dared to venture over there. Today nostalgia seized me as I wandered, alone and anonymous, through the deserted streets of the former French Quarter shrouded in a deep silence.
With much nostalgia, I revisited the Gare de Dalat (railway station), a well-known site dating back to 1928. Its style and architectural design are delightfully old-fashioned. You feel like you've been transported to some rich provincial station in France from the early century. This place was bustling with activity during the old time of the French presence and for long the railway was the most convenient and affordable link with the coastal plain. The line is less than 55 miles long ending at Thap Cham on the periphery of Phan Rang where connections were available with the main line running north-south along the coast.
The trip was both scenic and spectacular yet somewhat risky and hazardous. The train a cremaillere (cog railway) ran at very low speed from near sea level to some 4800 feet, particularly in the steep section across the mountain range. Passengers wondered each time whether the train could manage to arrive at the Lam Dong highland plateau without running backwards and tumbling down. Today, as I stroll through the deserted hall and platforms, phantoms of a brilliant past, I recall all the good memories on this railroad and its station which were for us a vital link towards a brighter future. The building, though in bad condition, has not changed much as far as I can remember. The line has been closed since 1964 and a couple of trains are stationed there as a reminder of the old times and for the enjoyment of the tourists.
There is no way to reverse the course of history or to go backwards, but considering that the heritage from the French colonial period has not yet been destroyed, I'm wondering why there is no financial support from the French Government to help in maintaining or restoring such remarkable sites. They were created by the genius and spirit of France far from its homeland, of which we are proud, Vietnamese and French alike. I would say that thanks to private investments, the Dalat Palace and the Golf course have been beautifully restored and are today the pride of Dalat. But what about all the other historical sites (Quartier Francais, Petit and Grand Lycee Yersin, Couvent des Oiseaux, Cathedrale, Institut Pasteur, Summer Palace, Gare, etc.) left to crumble for lack of money ? I'm much concerned about that because it was part of my life and because I feel there is still time to protect and restore this unique legacy, a page of history and of humanity culture. It is surprisingly well preserved through decades and successive wars. I'm quite convinced that Dalat and its beautiful historical sites concentrated in a small area are worth such a cultural salvage.
Dalat and its surroundings are both a flower producer and a fruit and vegetable garden. Wandering through the central market in the heart of city, you can find a wide variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables. We also made an interesting visit to the Lat village to the north where live the mountain ethnics and hilltribes. During our stay we liked having dinner in a small but nice restaurant serving authentic Vietnamese cuisine for a reasonable price. Thanh Thanh is the name of this restaurant located in a back street next to the central market. It seems to be known abroad because most of the customers are Westerners. Other addresses are the Thanh Thuy on the northern shore of Xuan Huang lake where you can order Vietnamese deer meat and eat in a nice setting, and the Thuy Ta located on the southern shore, right at the foot of the Dalat Palace. Formerly La Grenouillere, this white building on piles over the waters is one of the most typical landmarks of Dalat from the French period.
It was now time for us to quit Dalat with much regret. The airport shuttle minivan of the Dalat Palace was entirely reserved by a group of Japanese tourists and businessmen, so the hotel ordered a limousine just for us for the same fare; $10 prepaid on our hotel bill. Lien Khang airport is about 20 miles southwest of Dalat in the direction of Saigon. Our departure again recalled dear memories of the day in July 1950 when my family and I left Dalat after the end of the school year and took the same road and the same direction towards safety and higher education without hope of return. We traveled in very hard and hazardous conditions to Saigon to be prepared for our next departure for France scheduled in October.
Year 1950 was determinant in Vietnam history in many respects. Some of the most important events were: the return of emperor Bao Dai in January to the head of the newly created Vietnamese state, to whom President Truman and the US government decided to give economic support (as well as military assistance to the French expeditionary force); formal recognition of the Vietminh government by the Soviet Union and the newly established People Republic of China (January); beginning of the Korea war (June) ; long-lasting conference in Pau - a city in the south of France where I now live - between France and the three 'associated States' of Indochina (June to November) ; French military disaster at Cao Bang (October) ; new commander-in-chief, Général de Lattre de Tassigny, having full and whole power both civilian and military (December). But to us the most visible thing from that period was the US aid with the massive arrival of American trademark cars and trucks (Dodge, Ford, Studebaker). We all admired these brand new vehicles, beautifully painted in red, blue or green, with utmost modern mechanics and requiring no more starting handle since they were equipped with electrical starters, just a small button to press on the dashboard. A minivan with a roof fan served as school bus in fast and confortable conditions unknown to us before.
By that time, due to attacks on the transport links, food and merchandise supplies between Dalat and Saigon by road were transported by truck convoys under protection of soldiers and military vehicles opening the way and playing the role of sheepdogs. Regularly, convoys were organized through concentrations of trucks lining up the evening before the scheduled journey. The signal for departure was given at dawn and though the distance is only approximately 190 miles, the journey required almost a whole day drive. The route was a long descent through winding bumpy roads for a drop similar to that between Dalat and Phan Rang but over a much longer distance. The driver had to be very careful and watchful for both potholes and possible ambushes. Most of the time nothing occurred but it did happen that vehicles were burned or mine blasted. The deadliest ambush took place in March 1948 with heavy military and civilian casualties.
For this decisive journey for us, my mother had managed to find seats for all four of us in two trucks and I found myself seated between her and the driver in a brand new gleaming red Dodge truck. Today as always, I feel much attachment for this model as I do for the other means of transportation I used on my way towards education and a brighter train a cremaillere, Motobecane, Jamaique). We felt much relieved when we came close to Saigon, our good Dodge gaining speed over long flat and seemingly endless straight lines of red earth road across vast hevea plantations. At some strategic points we could see tanks keeping watch. Lastly we entered into Saigon much like as we had won a battle.
Now, on our way to Lien Khang airport, our limousine driver made a stop for us at a stall where people from the high plateau sell hand-made articles. There we purchased a beautiful and colourful rucksack for our daughter. It's hard to imagine that there could be an airport somewhere ahead as we presumably came close to it. No sign, no activity, no indication of any kind, no control tower in sight, but only countryside and vegetation. This seemed strange to us but suddenly, after a right turn on a small road, there appeared a small building invisible from the main road: that's Dalat airport. We passed the security control with some difficulty because our daughter had a small pair of scissors in her handbag. We then waited in the small lounge, unhurried, together with the other passengers, many of them Westerners. When the plane took off, things had come full circle for me. Once again with a pang I said farewell to this dear land where lie my roots, vowing that I will return some day, for sure, as soon as possible.
Copyright Khanh Le Tran, 2000
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