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
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.
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
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
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
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. . .
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
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
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.
not a big curse, just make a small one
, their Goddess taught them
that. Hence, Hung's father received many complaints. This was from
"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
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
(In rememberance of when I was in Elementary School)
Bài Kế Tiếp