After spending his entire adult life haunted by the decisions he made in wartime Vietnam, a former US soldier and now filmmaker returns, camera ready, to search for people from his past — including his child who may not even exist. By Chris Mueller. Photo by Nguyen An Vinh.

When film maker and former US soldier Lawrence Johnson returned to Vietnam in 2012, he had hoped to put the ghosts he’d carried around with him for 40 years to rest. But what he got instead was a lead on where his lost love — and perhaps the child he fathered with her — was living. 

Over the next year, Johnson travelled to Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana, trying to track her down, but the trail went cold. He returned to Vietnam in 2013 to find more clues, only to discover that the woman he had been chasing was the wrong person.

“When I found out the Lien I’d been following for a year was not the right one, I was just crushed,” he tells AsiaLIFE in an interview from his home in Portland, Oregon. “It was like my child was taken away from me again.”

Behind the design A look inside the penthouse of one expat-Vietnamese couple who injected colour and personality into their plain Saigon homeLove and war
It was 1972, and for 22-year-old Larry Johnson the dangers of the American War were never very far. As bombs exploded only a few kilometres away, the Nebraska native spent most of his time on duty in an old French-designed compound in northern Saigon, where he pushed paper more than pulled triggers.

As a member of the Command Military Touring Shows, Johnson’s duties were to play drums and organise entertainment for the troops.

“People were suffering all around us, but we were in this little bubble — Saigon,” he says. “The only thing we had to worry about were the cowboys [thieves].”

At night, instead of standing watch in dark jungles or deep trenches as depicted in now-cliché Vietnam War films, he headed to the Continental Hotel in District 1. The café and bar on the ground level was nicknamed the Shelf at the time, and was the preferred haunt of journalists and CIA types.

“It was a pretty rowdy, weird place and I loved it,” he says.

That’s where Candy first caught his eye. Struck by her beauty as she strolled toward the Continental, Johnson had his wingmen — children he used to joke around with as they sold beads outside the hotel — make an introduction. Once the conversation began, he invited her for a cup of coffee. “She was very discrete about the whole thing and sat at a different table to talk to me.”

Johnson was wary at first and worried that Candy, whose real name he would later learn was Truong My Lien, could be running a scam. “She wasn’t a call girl. She wasn’t a prostitute,” he says. “But I do think she was trawling for an American boyfriend.”

But he quickly warmed to her. From that point on, rather than partying and smoking weed in the barracks with his fellow soldiers, he would head to downtown Saigon to spend time with Candy. They would go out for coffee, just sit and talk or escape the tropical heat by ducking into local cinemas, where Johnson remembers watching Romeo and Juliet dubbed in French and with three sets of subtitles. It didn’t take long, he says, before he fell in love with her.

“I think the thing that really captured me about her was the mystery. She kept me guessing all the time, and it’s all locked up with the magic of Vietnam as well — with this wonderful place. I was just a young kid and I had never experienced anything like that before.”

Angry ghosts
But it didn’t stay a fairy-tale love story for long. After dating for several months as the war continued to rage around them, the relationship began to have its ups and downs. Millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americans had already been killed, and Candy came to believe she, like many Vietnamese at the time, had been possessed by the angry ghosts of those killed violently in the war.

Vietnamese culture places an importance on dying well, writes anthropologist Mai Lan Gustafsson in War and Shadows: The Haunting of Vietnam. To die well, according to Gustafsson, was to die “in old age, body unblemished, with surviving children, and properly buried and mourned.” If a person doesn’t die properly, he runs the risk of becoming an angry ghost.

With the inescapable carnage wreaking havoc on the country, so many people died badly or were killed violently far from home that many Vietnamese believed their spirits became angry ghosts trapped in some type of spirit hell, destined to wander without rest and become jealous of their surviving friends and family.

Those who believe they have become possessed often exhibit strange behaviour, such as depression, hallucinations and self-mutilation, according to Gustafsson. The only way to placate these ghosts was to use a spirit medium to find out what they wanted.

Of course, today this “possession” is commonly diagnosed as depression or even post-traumatic stress disorder. Gustafsson writes that “possession” was a way for traumatised victims of war to internalise and make sense of the effects that war, whether directly or indirectly, had on them.

Candy believed she was possessed by the ghost of a Buddhist nun and it had a clear effect on her relationship with Johnson. “I believe that she believed it was real,” he says.

Although their relationship was sometimes turbulent, they decided to get married anyway. Shortly after their decision, however, Johnson was preparing to return to the United States with his unit and wasn’t able to cut all the red tape to bring Candy home with him — and at that point he wasn’t really sure he wanted to — so the marriage was called off.

“We had a chaotic relationship,” he says. “I felt I was being manipulated. Let’s just call it misunderstandings.”

But right before he was to ship out, Candy gave him some startling news — she was pregnant with his child.

“I didn’t believe her because she never showed any signs of pregnancy, so I just wiped it out of my mind.”

Life goes on
By December 1972, Johnson was back home in the United States. Over the next 40 years, he would marry and divorce twice, and have two children and five grandchildren. Professionally, he became an award-winning filmmaker based out of Portland. Two of his most notable documentaries are Hand Game (2001), about a Native American sport, and Stuff (2011), a feature-length documentary about his father’s death.

Despite his personal and professional success, Johnson says the emotional scars he received in Vietnam have affected him his entire life.

“I’ve never been able to settle down anywhere,” he says. “I’ve never been able to really have a happy family. I’ve tried, but it’s always been chaotic. I feel that I’ve just carried that chaos with me and it emerged out of that war.”

Behind the design A look inside the penthouse of one expat-Vietnamese couple who injected colour and personality into their plain Saigon homeFinding peace
His 2012 trip back to Vietnam was supposed to be a way for him to make peace with himself and the decisions he had made.

“I didn’t see anybody killed, I didn’t get wounded or anything, but still I was a part of that mess,” he says. “I feel like I was just as responsible as the guy who was pulling the trigger.”

And as a filmmaker, he decided he had to make a documentary about the search. He is using super-8 film he shot in Vietnam in 1972, footage from his 2012 and 2013 trips, as well as animation he draws personally. The film is titled Ghost Money, after the votive paper that many Asians burn as an offering to make peace with the dead.

Johnson, who will take another trip to Vietnam this spring, is also hoping the film will shine a spotlight on an oft-forgotten legacy of the war: Amerasian children.

The plight of Amerasians, or children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women, has been well documented, from being refused citizenship by the United States to discrimination in Vietnam. Brian Hjort, who started the Amerasian advocacy group Fathers Founded, says about 30,000 Amerasians have moved to the US since the late ’80s. However, he believes there are still many more remaining in Vietnam, anywhere from 500 to 5,000.

“No one knows the number,” he says. “There are Amerasians in the mountain villages that are hard to reach and that never apply to leave for the US.”

As the potential father of one of these Amerasians, Johnson says he feels an obligation to do everything he can to find out if he has a child and to be a part of his life. But why did he wait until 2012 to start looking?

“I think there’s a stage of life that a lot of GIs are entering,” he says. “The natural thing is to look back at your life because you see the end. So you want to turn back and look where you’ve come from. And when you do that, you start to observe and remember things that maybe you still have a lot of questions about.”

On both his 2012 and 2013 trips, he brought his long-time friend and cinematographer Gerald Lewis. Lewis, who has been shooting films since the ’70s, including years as a BBC cameraman, says he has seen the toll the search and film have taken on his friend.

“I think it’s been emotionally draining for him. It’s been a real rollercoaster,” he says. “I think he’s strong enough for it not to have lasting effects. But if he has a child, he desperately wants to find out.”

Lewis says he thinks the documentary team, which includes an American translator and Vietnamese producer, has exhausted all possible ways of finding Candy. They’ve done everything from placing ads in newspapers in Vietnam and the US to appearing on Vietnamese television, without any luck.

Johnson, however, remains hopeful.

“I don’t think I have come to a place where I feel like I have to accept that I won’t find her,” he says. “I still believe I’ll find her.”