Walter Pearson peruses the rich variety of people inhabiting his countryside town.
It was a remarkable feat really, given that Chon Thanh is more than 30 kilometres away and he only had the use of one leg. And one hand. And he was on a bicycle. But he had to get his wife to the hospital.
Velvet’s father was wounded while in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He had lost the use of one hand and one leg. He had five daughters and a son. In the mid-1980s, his wife fell quite ill, requiring an emergency dash to hospital. But in those days up in the bush, transport was hard to find. The only motorbikes were a few Honda Cubs and old Vespas. There were no mini-vans and cars for hire like today. So he set off with his sick wife on his bicycle. He had no choice.
Sister Four is an unhappy woman. That’s not surprising. She was badly shot up by an American helicopter. Her torso is laced with ugly scars, her right eye droops. She is in pain most of the time. She proudly shows off her Army discharge certificate and the house has plenty of photos of her in uniform. She never married after the war and now lives in a house with her younger brother where she undermines his marriage with constant complaints about his wife. Fortunately, she is now spending a lot of time at his other farm at Loc Ninh, 35 kilometres away.
Brother Four grew up here in Binh Long when it was known as Loc Ninh. He was drafted into the Southern Army. At 22, he was defending the town during the 1972 Spring-Summer Offensive. That was when the Liberation Forces first used tanks down here in the south. The fighting was intense. US planes bombed the tanks and flattened the centre of the little town. Only the schoolhouse remained standing. Brother Four escaped the battle and continued to fight as the southern troops withdrew and the Revolutionary Forces liberated the province, then known as Phuoc Long. He was at Long Khanh as the regime entered its last days. There he surrendered.
Most of Brother Four’s family now lives in California. I asked why he stayed here. He told me life was too hard in the United States, he can make more money and live more comfortably here.
My sister-in-law Sister Eight had a son. In 2005, he was eight years old and was playing in the rubber plantation over the other side of the ridge. He and a friend found an old hand-grenade. As they were tossing it to each other, it exploded, killing her son outright. Sister Eight went into a depression for a year.
Chicken Man — as we used to call him, because he supplied free-range chickens for us to kill and eat — is now known as okra man. We became friends because he wanted to practice English, after having worked with the Americans at the huge Long Binh Logistics Base outside Bien Hoa. After the war, he had four children. Then his wife died. Although many urged him to re-marry he refused, preferring to raise all four children by himself. When they all had left home, he finally did get remarried to a young woman.
My mother-in-law, Ba Ngoai, came to this area in 1957 when all the villages around had X’Tieng names. She and her husband eventually moved to Loc Ninh. They had seven children. Her husband was in the Southern Army. Mother became pregnant and came here to Binh Long (then known as An Loc) to have her eighth child. But the 1972 Spring-Summer Offensive that would destroy the town and kill 3,000 people started while she was giving birth. She had the child and then walked the 35 kilometres through the fighting back to Loc Ninh to find her family. When she got there, she discovered her husband had disappeared in battle. Her children were scattered among a number of families, but she gathered the clan back together and returned to An Loc.
The other evening, I was riding back from tennis and passed Velvet’s father with his wife going to church as they do every day. Now he rides a Honda Wave with her — much easier than the bicycle.
It truly is the people that make Vietnam so interesting a place.
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