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A Long Time Ago

Nguyen Tan Hung

     Hung was born in My-Tho province on the day that the war ended. He was just like a rescuer of the world; he often joked about himself like that. But, it was coincidental that he was born at the end of World War Two. Moreover, he was born on VE (Victory in Europe) day, the day that Hitler surrendered to the Allied Forces. Of course, he learned about that later on. At the time he was born, the Southern part of South Vietnam had 21 provinces. And the first given names of these provinces were arranged as a lovely poem that made it easier for him to remember:

     Gia Chau Ha Rach Tra
     Sa Ben Long Tan Soc
     Thu Tay Bien My Ba
     Cho Vinh Go Can Bac, Cap

     Those provinces were Gia-Dinh, Chau-Doc, Ha-Tien, Rach-Gia, Tra-Vinh. Sa-Dec, Ben-Tre, Long-Xuyen, Tan-An, Soc-Trang. Thu-Dau-Mot, Tay-Ninh, Bien-Hoa, My-Tho, Ba-Ria. Cho-Lon, Vinh-Long, Go-Cong, Can-Tho, Bac-Lieu. And Cap was the beach resort of Vung-Tau. Later on who knew how many provinces there were in the South? Some provinces became districts; some districts became provinces. Some provinces disappeared from the map; and some new provinces were popping up. From the beginning of the first presidential era in 1954, Thu-Dau-Mot became Binh-Duong; Ben-Tre became Kien-Hoa; My-Tho became Dinh-Tuong. . . These names had not pleased his ears at all at first. However, after a time they were familiar and accepted. When his military unit was stationed in the area of Tra-Cu, Duc-Hoa, Duc-Hue districts (the Parrot Beak area as it was named by the Americans), he had the opportunity to tease his local friends:

     "Hau-Nghia, Kien-Tuong, the names of your late born provinces first heard just stood for poor civilization. Those provinces were in no way a comparison with our provinces that have had 4000 years of cultural development such as My-Tho and Can-Tho."

     But that was the truth. His province of My-Tho was a long time famous province -- the only province in the Mekong Delta that had the railroad connected to the capital of the country, Saigon. It was too bad for him that this lovely railroad was removed by the government during the Diem Dinh Ngo presidency.

     The most ancient, famous architectural work in the city of My-Tho had been the Buddhist Temple of Vinh-Trang, built around 1840-1842, during the Minh-Mang emperor's era. The other areas such as Vuon-Lai (the tea flower garden), Cho-Cu (the Old Market), Ben-Tam-Ngua (the Horses Bath Ramp), Chua Cha-Va (the Hindu Temple), Cau Quay (the Quay Bridge), Ben-do Ty-cong-an (the Ferry at the City Security Department), Chua Phat-An (the Phat-An Buddhist Temple), Nha-Tho Lon (the Main Catholic Church), Bat-tam-bang Forth, Dai-Chien-Si (the tomb of the Unknown Soldier), Lo-Heo (the pig slaughter house), Cay-Xang (the Gas Station), Cau-Bac (the main ferry), Dat-Thanh-Tay (the French Cemetery), Bot-So-Tam (the 8th Fort), Ben-Xe-Moi (the news Bus Station), Ben-Xe-Cu (the old Bus Station), Vong-Nho (the small flood protected corridor), Vong-Lon (the big flood protected corridor). . . were nothing special in terms of how ancient they were. Hey, the two wells? That was right! There were no cities in the South that had a big well like that. Why were they not called lakes like Chung-Thuy lake in the city of Ben-Tre? A lake sounded bigger than a well; however, this was a special case: a well that was much much bigger than a lake. The wells were too old, too. They may have been dug when the city was established by the Left Marshal Duyet Van Le (there were Left and Right Marshals under the Vietnamese emperor) who built the fortresses of Dinh-Tuong and Nam-Vang (Phnom-Penh, Cambodia's capital) in mid 17th century.

     The wells were used to store fresh water for the whole city of My-Tho in the dry season because in this season the salt water from the sea could reach there by following the Mekong river. In the rainy season, nobody paid any attention to the wells; however, in the dry season, the water level dropped lower and lower and everyone became concerned. Once about every ten years, the wells were dug again, deeper and deeper. The water was pumped out and the wells were left to dry for a while. Before the digging started, people could come down to catch fish, clams, and snails. The wells were like the openings of charcoal mines and the workers looked as tiny as black ants. It took a couple of months to dig about one meter's depth. Then, the water was let in. The smell of mud in the water was gradually reduced over several months. Overall, it took about a half year for the wells to come back to the normal situation.

     People who lived around the wells were allowed to use the water in the wells. But none could swim in it. The police would arrest them if they did that, except for the school pupils because of the belief devil first, ghost second, student third . Although the police often chased them out, they still sneaked around and jumped in to take a bath before they went to school or down town.

     When talking about students, there is need to mention the famous school in the city of My-Tho, the Chieu Dinh Nguyen High. This was an old, old school. This may be the third oldest school in the country, after Buoi (Grape Fruit) High in Ha-Noi and Petrus-Ky High in Saigon.

     The My-Tho province has five districts: Cai-Be, Cai-Lay, Chau-Thanh, Ben-Tranh, and Cho-Gao. Among them, the Cho-Gao may be the poorest district. People could tell by just looking at its small market place; it was about twice the size of a village temple. Five districts were laid along the Mekong river; the nearer the sea, the poorer the living conditions, as the people knew. They talked bad about girls getting married with the boys in the poorest areas such as married in wealth not in poverty . Hung was born in this area, so he had to carry the same burden as his ancestors. Carry the poverty and throw it away in the swamp, turning around, run and say . . . no, don't follow me . But, it always followed. By the way, the poverty may have made the children in this area study harder because they were all good students. . . Up to the border between the My-Tho and the Go-Cong provinces, the areas of Hoa-Dong and Dinh market, prosperity was reinstalled. Most of Hung's relatives on his mother's side lived there.

     Did you know how many legs the centipede has?
     How many supporting columns the O bridge has?
     How many people came to the Dinh market?
     How many people sold the boys' clothing?
     The inside market sold thread!
     The outside market sold needles!

     People who were crowded at the Dinh market looked like the the legs of the centipede? What a comparison in the folk song! Then, the O bridge was not the bridge between Dong-Son and Dinh? Hung did not know! This black bridge (O means black in Vietnamese) was also called the Fall bridge because the communists destroyed it. And why did they sell the boys' clothing, the thread, and the needles? Who knows!

     The Cho-Gao district has five villages: Hoa-Dinh, Binh-Phan, Binh-Phuc-Nhut, Binh-Phuc-Nhi, and An-Thanh-Thuy. Except for the An-Thanh-Thuy village located at the border of the Ben-Tre province, the villages were laid along the Cho-Gao canal. This canal connected the Mekong Delta to Saigon via Nuoc-Man (salt water) canal, and Long-Tao River.

     When talking about the Cho-Gao canal, it is necessary to comment about the Cho-Gao ferry that was located on the 35th Local Highway, between My-Tho city and Go-Cong city. This was a ferry powered by hand by pulling along a steel cable which hung across the canal. The ferry sometimes gave trouble for both the highway and the waterway. Every time a ship arrived, the ferry workers had to release the steel cable which sank down to the bottom of the canal for the ship passing by. The ship always had the right of way because its brake was not very good. The ship sounded a horn that could be heard far away to remind the ferry workers that she was coming; and then they had to estimate the ship's speed and to adjust their work. Sometimes they got a wrong estimate and released the steel cable even when the ferry was in the middle of the canal. People and cars were floated away, drifting into the bank at some point, needing several hours to get back to the ferry's ramp. Prior to the American withdrawal, the American Sea Bees built and maintained the Cho-Gao bridge. It was convenient, although people had to pay for using it. The ships were free because the bridge was so high. However, it was a sad sight for the two French built antenna towers that stood lonely in silence, sharing the same fate of being no longer used. Along the canal, the French had also built a red clay-stone road. However, when the Viet-Minh "revolution" (the Viet-Cong, VC, later on) came, the road was cut off. Some sections became trails and other vanished, swallowed by the dense plant growth of the jungle.

     Hung was born in the Binh-Phuc-Nhut village. There were two ways to come to the village: the waterway by the Cho-Gao canal or the pathway by the red clay road that exited from the 35th Local Highway. The red clay-stone road along the canal was used by the Viet-Cong only a few years after the country had been divided. About half way from the red clay road to the village, people were surprised by a big house that had mysteriously popped right up in the middle of a rice field, the house that had a swimming pool on the balcony and was called Miss 8th and 9th Chateaus. Miss 8th and Miss 9th married Frenchmen and had already gone back to France a long time ago, so the Miss 8th and 9th Chateaus, now ruined, had become the ideal resting place for the cow-boys and water buffalo-boys. Every time Hung passed by this place when his parents rented a horse powered cavalier to return home during the Tet (new year) holiday season, in the 50s decade, Hung always felt somber and sad.

     Hung did not know when his parents moved to the Binh-Phan village. He knew only that his father had to continue his grandfather's career, running a lumber company. The lumber mill was located at the Cau-Sat (Steel Bridge). No business, then never rich , his grandfather often said. Shortly after his parents' move, his aunt followed his father's steps and moved to the vicinity of the Cho-Gao district's market. She built a new house on the lot that his father had just bought. So, his father just gave that piece of land to her. Then, all were surprised that his aunt's business was geared up so fast. She got rich in a very short time. However, if you had a rich father or a rich mother you got off pretty well but if you had a rich uncle or rich aunt you would be the same and would gain nothing from them . One reason why Hung never got any help from his aunt was that she had a bigger family with over fifteen children. When she gave birth to the tenth child, she became tired of calling them by name so she just called them by a number in order of their birth: the Tenth, the Eleventh, the Twelfth. . ., up to whatever number Hung did not know. Then, she tired of calling her children by number and gave them names again: Bich Van, Bich Thuy, etc.

     Hung's parents could not get rich because they sold too much of their product on credit to people in the village and all over the district. Then, they spent too much time going around to collect the debts. Gradually, their cash ran out and the saw mill kept shrinking down. Some new mills with gigantic saw machines were established in the area. Hung's father still kept doing business the old fashioned way, sawing the log by hand. Because of their debts, the debtors continued to maintain the business and relationship with his family.

     Every time the logs were brought home from Saigon, the villagers came and helped to remove them from the float and secured the right place for the logs to lie down in the bank of the river. Then, there was a party. When bringing the logs from the river over the cross beam, the villagers came to help again. They used a big steel chain; one end to tie up the logs and the other end for going around a post. Two long bars threaded into the holes on a post free to turn. When the work was finished, there was another party. After splitting the log half and half, if the log was solid, his father was very happy and relieved; he knew that he would make some money; however, if the log was hollow, then he hoped that he would break even for that time.

     The highest skill of log working was to know what the inside of the log looked like from the log's outside. Some were ugly looking but solid like a candle inside. In contrast, some were nice looking but there were holes or cracks inside. On the other hand, one could buy the logs that looked ugly at a much cheaper price. His father was very fast when he computed figures on a Chinese abacus but he was really slow when he used pencil and paper. The problem was that he computed figures with the old and slow style of the multiplication table every time he wanted to write down a number. Hung remembered some of the calculations by listening to him often. Cuu cuu bat nhat, bat cuu that nhi, that cuu luc tam, luc cuu ngu tu . . . , it was similar to nine times nine was eighty-one, eight times nine was seventy-two, seven times nine was sixty-three, six times nine was fifty-four. . .

     His father's business kept going down. Now, he became the debtor to some of the business-men in Saigon. Every time they came down to collect, his mother had to make a good lunch for them, and his father had to find some money to pay them back. He was never able to pay them all off at once.

     At that time Hung was sent to elementary school. The elementary school was across the river from the saw mill. It was the Tham-Thu river, a small river, that poured its water into to the Cho-Gao canal. The school actually was the vacation house of Mr. Luong, the chairman of the village council. The foundation of this house was so high, much taller than Hung at that time. It was built in the French style: very tall for more air space. Every day his father had to take him to the school and back home by the canoe. Inside his school bag, which was made by several layers of corrugated paper, there was only the ABC alphabet book. A year later, Mr. Chairman took his house back; and so Hung was forced to graduate early. The elementary school was moved and consolidated with the middle school that was located at the district's market.

     The middle school was also a vacation house of a high ranked person in the district: Mr. District Chief. Oh! what a poor district! Hung began to go with his older sisters and brothers to attend the new school, one kilometer each way. He had to run to catch up with the speed of the others. However, he now carried the straw school bag like everybody, not a paper school bag anymore.

     About a half year later, the district council planned to build a new school and return the house to the District Chief. All classes including the kindergarten, were held only a half of the day; the rest of the time everybody would go to work at the new school. The new school had three buildings that formed the U character shape and two small octagonally shaped buildings at the front for teachers and the school's superintendent. At the intersection of two walkways that formed a cross, the flag pole would stand with many flowers planted around it. In the four corners, there would be fields for physical education classes or games such as badminton or volleyball. . . Nobody could believe that the beautiful model school would be built in the jungle.

     Besides learning to read and write the Vietnamese language, the students had a choice of French or English as a second language; and both were frequently used. The boys and girls like Hung in the elementary classes mostly played during the working time, but they always wanted the class time to go by faster so they could "work" for the school. Anyway, the upperclassmen did all the hard work, cutting down the trees and moving dirt from the hill side to fill up the swamp spots. Water buffalos were used to plow the ground. A soccer field gradually appeared. The walkways then were constructed. Dirt was mixed with the shells of rice for easy drying. The shells of rice were everywhere people walked. At that point, the work of the students was ended and the rest of the work was reserved for skilled carpenters. The wooden structure was raised; the roof was covered by palm leaves, and so forth.

     Several months later, the Province Chief came to open the school with a big ceremony. Every one sang together Nay cong dan oi dung len dap loi song nui . . . (Vietnamese anthem: Oh, citizens, stand up for the nation. . ., and Ai bao nam vi song nui quen than minh. . . (President Diem's song of praise for his works: Who forget himself for the nation. . .

     Time went by and the school's dirt floor became dried and cracked. Student tables and benches were warped, one end up and one end down. But nobody complained about that. All the village schools were closed and consolidated to this new school. The number of students kept increasing every year. At break time, there were ice cream bars, ice water with syrup, and wheel of fortune for candies to eat. A couple of cents were enough to spend on the sweets.

     Every time Hung passed by the old school, when he was growing older, he always thought of his teachers who were still there: Mr. Tam Chuong, Mr. Chin Chuong, and Mr. Hoang -- even Mr. Tu, the ice cream salesman was there. Hung remembered about the spanks he got from his teachers, the fights with his class-mates, the mid-autumn parade at night with free cakes, and the prizes for the best work (the contest of making star shaped lanterns from colored papers and bamboo sticks). He thought that there were not many people who had a chance to build their own school.

     Now back to his parents' business. Besides the saw mill, they also had to take care of several acres of rice field that had belonged to his grandfather. This field was located at the end of the Tamarind Road of Mr. Hoang, named by the former chief of the village himself. This was the only road that led to the village soccer field. Next to the soccer field was the Cay-Diep (Autumn Tree) Jungle that their rice field abutted.

     The Cay-Diep jungle was said to be the ghost area. The rumor was that devils and ghosts appeared as tigers. They killed and ate people; bones filled up their dens. Hung never saw devils or ghosts; he saw only the cemetery of the members of the Viet-Minh "revolution" (the Indochinese Communist Party formed in 1945), the people who should have no place in this world when they lived and no place in the ground when they died. The Viet-Minh members once buried a large number of their comrades, about a battalion, there. It was surely not an easy job to do because they hid the old bodies anywhere they dug. They would dig and cover back, night by night. The jungle seemed to have already several layers of dead bodies.

     Any time Hung went to the rice field, he had to pass this strange cemetery that always scared him. The scariest time was at night when it rained or drizzled. The light from his small lamp could not brighten the path of his feet, so how could it brighten the bushes and trees around him? He crossed his fingers and kept on going with a shaky feeling. Staying in the middle of the group was much better, and the worst thing one could do was be at the end of the line. It looked like the souls of those who died suddenly by the bullets and the bayonets did not want to go anywhere, even to heaven or hell. These souls just wanted to stay or wander around their totally broken bodies which were uncarefully buried in this forgetting world.

     The rice field was right on the edge of the Cay-Diep Jungle. The two man, foot operated water wheel faced toward this jungle. At night, the water wheel's operators often kept the time by burning incense. That seemed to give a sense of praying for those souls to go some place. The men switched their turns when the incense was completely burned out. The perfume from the incense was not strong enough to run off the mosquitos which from time to time would bite much like a bee sting. The incense seemed to burn forever because the men had to power the water wheel for a long period of time. Their feet kept pushing down even while their bodies were going to sleep. A wrong step would occur and then a leg would get hurt. The friend on the other side would also complain:

     "Are you sleeping? Just a couple of sticks of incense burned, and now you are falling fast asleep? To finish our shift, the whole bundle of the incense has to burn don't you know? The low tide is just changing now, a couple of hours more; we still have not yet finished!"

     "It sounds terrible. Take a break, men. We must go into the jungle to find some manioc to eat. Go, quickly men, I am hungry."

     The hungry ghosts were never afraid of the devils that did not even have a place to die! Manioc were plentiful although no one planted them. Guava was also plentiful, but it may have been planted by the birds: they would eat and shit the seeds everywhere.

     Hung's father finally stopped running the saw mill business. He founded the rice mill in the Binh-Phuc-Nhut village. He bought the machine and equipment from one of his friends near the Cho-Gao ferry. He took it apart, brought it to the new place and put it back together. From the beginning, the business picked up real fast. People in the village no longer had to bring their rice to the Quon-Long mill. However, his father was not comfortable for a simple reason: the mill was in one place, and its owner was in another. After going back and forth a couple of months, his father finally assigned the rice mill to his uncle. Once in a while his father came to visit the mill and received the money. In his mind, he never was comfortable at all. He actually foresaw that something bad soon would happen. One night he dreamed about a worm, a big, green, and fully haired caterpillar larva. He did not know where it came from; it suddenly appeared on the table. It slowly moved and climbed up on the lamp. It reached the lamp bulb and. . . bang , the lamp bulb exploded. Early that morning, he received bad news about his rice mill: the fly wheel of the main engine was broken. One piece had flown away and hit the house post. The house collapsed on one side and several people were wounded. The engine was too old with two fly wheels, one on each side, and missing one it could not be operated. There were no parts to replace and it was no use to reweld the wheel they had because there was no warranty that it would not be broken again. Finally, his father sold the engine and the rice mill equipment to be used as recycling metals.

     Having no success with the rice mill, Hung's father changed his career once more, making the saw mill into a furniture and coffin manufacturing company. He went back to Saigon to buy logs again, but processed the cutting at the saw mill of the log owner. Then he brought them home by car on the road instead of by boat on the river. He often bought a small amount of lumber, just enough for his own use, if nobody ordered house frame materials. Several carpenters in the villages came to work for him and they usually preferred to stay over night at their working place, going home only for the weekend. At night, these carpenters usually got together for talking and drinking tea. They joked, too. Mom, I would like to marry a carpenter, because he always plows the wood deeper and deeper . Some sang a poem or folk song. Some played music using a leaf of the holly tree for an instrument by placing it in the mouth. It sounded just like funeral music.

     If a carpenter wanted to get rich, he would have to curse his energy power -- the Lo-Ban curse as the Vietnamese said -- into the products he made. For example, he might secretly carve any symbol (Chinese characters or pictures) into a rabbet. The carpenters had to do it if they did not want to see their houses ruined, their wives and children die young. If not a big curse, just make a small one , their Goddess taught them that. Hence, Hung's father received many complaints. This was from Mrs. To:

     "The bed that I bought from you is weird. Every morning when I get up I can not figure out how to get out of it. The door of the mosquito net is on one side but I always try to open it on the other side."

     Then, Mr. Dai also complained:

     "From the day I brought my bed home from your company, my wife always turns her face into the wall when she sleeps!"

     But the most serious complaint was from Mr. Trau:

     "What the heck do your carpenters curse? My son wets in bed every night! The bed I ordered from you is for a married couple, don't you know? If this situation keeps on continuing, my son's wife cannot live with him anymore because of this blasted problem, don't you hear me?"

     No one knew what was happening! No one knew if the superstition about bet wetting was true or not! However, Mr. Trau kept yelling at Hung's father like that every day. Hung's father got tired of the complaint and kindly replaced Mr. Trau's son's bed with another one at no cost.

     The special carpenter was the one who made the coffins. His unique skill was to know how to trim a big piece of wood to fit the coffin cover. He used his special tool: an ax with the ax-head (balance bar) longer than the ax-handle. It was not easy to do this job; everybody knew it. The cover of a man's coffin was different from that of a woman's coffin. His salary was the highest, almost twice that of the other carpenters, but he always said that he planned to quit the job or to go work at the other place if he could not get a raise. Hung's father always had trouble with this man, but it was not easy to find someone to replace him. We always wondered if at night there were some strange noises going on in the coffin area, whether, in the following morning someone in the village had died and a coffin was sold. Every night Hung saw his father pray on the table of prayer; but he did not know what his father was praying. Did he pray that everybody in the village would die tomorrow?

     When Hung's mother started a small department store, his father stopped running the furniture and the coffin company. He had a new career now: shipping, receiving, and paper work for his wife. The store boomed with profits and kept going strong for a couple of years. In those years in the Tet holiday season, there were flowers, watermelon and other fruits, foods, fire crackers, and money as Tet's gift for every one. However, some bigger stores that were open near the bridge on the highway tried to win the customers. His mother's store was a little bit far away from the market place and began to lose the people's interest. Merchandise was less and less; shelves were becoming empty and empty. Man had felt, now woman had felt it, too. People's lives were just like the water tide, sometimes high sometimes low. . .

     Bim-bip (a slow bird) sang,
     high tide comes, darling.
     No profit for the business,
     we are tired of moving the boat.

     The boat that was used to float the logs home was gradually deteriorating in the shed. Hung's father felt bad for his boat and tried to bring her back alive by fixing her up. Then, he started a new generation of saw mill businesses. He mortgaged the rice field to get money for capital for his new venture.

     That was the year Hung began going to the Chieu Dinh Nguyen high school at My-Tho city. Each one had one's own home-village and one's own childhood. That was it; Hung's home-village and childhood had no big things; however, it always followed closely with him like a man and his shadow. It is there in the front of him like it is happening now; but sadly it passed by a long time ago.

     (In rememberance of when I was in Elementary School)

Bài Trước Trang Chính Bài Kế Tiếp