Return to Vietnam: Family reunion worth journey

March 16, 2006

Return to Vietnam: Family reunion worth journey

JAMES A. JONES JR.
The Herald

Day two of an eight-day series

It’s quite a jolt, going from sleeping in my East Manatee home one day to waking up in Ho Chi Minh City a few days later.

But we would be in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, fewer than 24 hours before members of my wife’s family arrived in a rented Mercedes minibus with a hired driver to spirit us to Bac Lieu, the town of her birth.

It was a surreal moment seeing two of her brothers, a sister, and assorted nephews and nieces standing in the lobby of the Hotel Oscar. Everyone grabbed a piece of luggage and we got an early morning jump on the drive to Bac Lieu, six hours to the south down Highway 1.

In 1969, Bac Lieu was home to the second-largest signal site operated by my U.S. Army unit, Company D, 52nd Signal Battalion. It was a link in a network of communications between province capitals in the far south of the country, including Soc Trang, Ca Mau, Vi Thanh and Rach Gia. We also had a four-man team operating a radio relay site at Gia Rai. Those signal sites were in turn linked back to the regional capital, Can Tho, and from there to the rest of the world.

Among those using our telephone links, secure teletype, and around-the-world high-frequency radio, were U.S. attack helicopter companies, Special Forces, advisors from the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) and the only friendly infantry in the area, a division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

Aside from the geography of the area, I knew little about Bac Lieu back then and had no contact with its people. The glimpses of the dusty town were fleeting, when I would take a Jeep, a driver and two soldiers, all of us armed with M-16 rifles, and drive as fast as we could, about 60 mph, between Soc Trang and Bac Lieu.

Being alone out there, rushing past thatched huts and expanses of rice paddy, no one needed to be told to stay alert. You made that trip with your heart in your throat.

Now, after being away for 35 years, we were once again headed down Highway 1, headed to Bac Lieu.

Initially, we were overwhelmed and intoxicated by the sights and sounds of Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many.

I recognized several landmarks, and it was good to see that the military strongpoints had been replaced by widespread construction. There were remnants of the old low-rise Saigon, decorated with new year wishes for the Year of the Dog, and national flags, but there were many new high-rises, too.

It was a déja vu experience seeing this city again and its people going about their daily activities.

But I began to think less about the view than how we were getting to our destination. The driver’s aggressive driving style kept me cringing in my seat and my right foot pressing the floor hard for a brake that wasn’t there. Once again, my heart was in my throat.

For the next few hours he blared his horn as he roared up on motorcyclists, buses and trucks alike, often squeezing by with just inches to spare. Almost all of the motorcycles carried at least two riders, some as many as four, including babies. The driver ignored our requests to slow down. The last thing I wanted was for our bus to injure someone.

Our driver wasn’t the only one practicing this brand of road warriorism. Many of the truck and bus drivers simply took over the entire road, driving southbound three abreast, in both the northbound and southbound lanes. Oncoming motorcyclists had no choice but to get out of the way.

Strangely, there was no sign of road rage. If the driver came within a few inches of another big vehicle and sounded his horn, the other driver would gently signal for him to pass.

During our journey, we saw little traffic enforcement, just an occasional road checkpoint where police would cite a driver if his bus was loaded with too many passengers.

We did view the aftermath of a traffic accident, an unattended motorcycle ominously knocked down in the middle of the road. A few minutes later, we caught up with an ambulance driving with emergency lights flashing and siren blaring. Our driver hit his horn and passed the ambulance. I slumped in my seat.

Later, he passed to the left of a concrete road barrier intended to separate oncoming traffic. I heard my wife scream as approaching buses flashed their lights. The driver found a break in the concrete barrier and veered back into his lane. It took all my self control to show no fear. I suspect I failed.

In the old days, there were at least two ferries on Highway 1 between Saigon and Bac Lieu. The one at Vinh Long has been replaced by a modern suspension bridge, but at Can Tho, a fleet of ferries still provides transport across the river.

South of Can Tho, we began seeing intensely green rice paddies sweeping to the horizon and, in some places, harvested rice drying to a golden brown on the shoulders of the road. There were 100-pound sacks of rice stacked along the highway and on the beds of trucks and on pedicabs.

Our driver kept us on Highway 1 through Soc Trang and someone pointed out a narrow lane, the way to the U.S. Army’s old airfield, where my company headquarters was once located. We heard that the airfield had fallen into disrepair. We would take a day trip there to look and reflect, but not today.

Soc Trang, like many of the cities we saw, featured wide, modern boulevards and a jumble of houses and businesses jammed together right on the main drag.

And I saw the same kind of ox carts being pulled by dusty men, scraping out a threadbare existence, that I witnessed more than three decades ago.

When we arrived in Bac Lieu, or more properly Tra Kha, a village just a mile or so from downtown, the trip got really exotic. We walked down a rocky lane off Highway 1, past a Vietnamese Army medical detachment, to river’s edge.

Some family members ushered me onto a sampan, a long, narrow boat riding just inches above the waterline, with two of my wife’s nieces. A boatman rowed us across the brown water to a tree-lined path on the opposite side.

I found myself on one side of the river and my wife, the translator, on the other. I was feeling a little overwhelmed as I walked into her mother’s house. The last time I saw my mother-in-law was June of 1971.

There are a couple of good reasons for that. For many years, there were no diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, making travel nearly impossible. After relations were restored, I thought it was more important for my wife to go home, while I stayed busy with my newspaper job.

But eventually, I felt a moral requirement to go home with my wife and get to know her family.

As I walked into the dark, quiet house, I wondered how my mother-in-law would react to me.

I walked to her bed, took her hand and said, “Chao Me,” Vietnamese for “Hello, Mother.” She squeezed my hand and smiled at me. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew that I was welcome.

I held her hand until my wife arrived a few minutes later. When mother and daughter met, there were tears, laughter and embraces. I stood back and enjoyed the scene. We had reached our destination.

Tomorrow:

Down to the market

TODAY

The road to Bac Lieu

TUESDAY

To the local marketplace

WEDNESDAY

How we found Soc Trang

THURSDAY

Stories that will break your heart

FRIDAY

Tet, lunar new year celebration

SATURDAY

The mayor of Bac Lieu

SUNDAY

Reflections

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