Thuong Vuong-Riddick was born in Hanoi, Vietnam. She studied in Paris, France before emigrating to Canada in 1969. She has had a poetry manuscript accepted for publication by Ronsdale Press (formerly CACANANADADA Press). She returned to Vietnam recently in order to research a book she is writing about her family. These are some of her impressions.
I am back in Hanoi thanks to a Canada Council grant which is allowing me to research my book A Country That I Left, a history of my family. It has been 41 years since we moved to Saigon, then to France in 1968. before landing as immigrants in Montreal. I am currently living in Vancouver.
Before we arrived in Hanoi, we had to stopover in Singapore. I was happy to see Singapore so prosperous because it is an ideal of what Vietnam would like to be in twenty years or forty years. Singapore is also special to me because my grandfather went from Singapore to Vietnam.
Hanoi itself seems to be awakening from a long sleep, stirring from the lethargy of the past forty years when most of its energy went to the war. Everything is the same as I remember it, altered only by decrepitude, division or disappearance. Only in the past three years, according to the open politic, has the restoration of buildings, hotels and certain residential quarters begun.
The traffic is a whirlpool. Having been away so long, I find I am no longer used to such a density of people. Furthermore, Vietnam’s population has risen dramatically since I left. There are now about 75 million people living in Vietnam, more than 7 million in Ho Chi Minh City, 5 or 6 million for Hanoi, 2 for Haiphong.
I am told that since the peace, much of the population from the country has moved to the town to try and find an easier life. To them, the towns represent a paradise of goods and prosperity. In particular, I am told that many people from the north come south to Ho Chi Minh City. Half of them are less than twenty years old and have never known the war.
I go to visit my parent’s and my grandmother’s house. They are now inhabited by multiple families and unrecognizable. My grandmother’s house is specially run down and occupied by many people from the country. In the yard behind they plan to construct buildings. I also tried to find my great- grandfather’s house in the suburbs but it has been completely razed to the ground.
I now have just my cousin’s wife to try and contact. It turns out she has been living these past years in Hong Kong and has only now settled in Hanoi. She is currently away in Shanghai. All the rest of my relatives are gone from Hanoi. They are in Canada, America, France, or Australia. Those who remained in Hanoi were all drowned in 1975 when the Vietnamese government put the Sino-Vietnamese to sea.
“The Chinese are gone from Vietnam. Only are left those who declared themselves only Vietnamese.” my host tells me. I knew my cousin’s wife’s relatives had remained in Hanoi but I didn’t know if they considered themselves as people from Hong Kong or Vietnam.
In spite of my host’s words, I did encounter Chinese in Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City, I found many Chinese although all the people I knew are gone now except for my uncle and aunt and their children. Even when we were up north in a restaurant in Halong, the table next to us was full of Fukien Chinese speaking loudly in Fukienese. They were not tourists.
In Ho An, old Falfo, the town close to Danang, who welcomed the foreigners for centuries and kept its old houses from the eighteenth century, I visited the pagoda from Fukien, well kept by the Fukienese people who stayed in Vietnam.
From the beginning at the airport. I found I hadn’t lost my Vietnamese which helped quite a lot in finding out people’s stories.
At the hotel in Halong, the owner told me he was a former Vietminh (the name of the Communists during the French occupation) and so he received help from the government to open the present hotel.
A similar story was told to me by the captain of a sampan we rode in Halong’s famous bay. He said he was a Vietcong (the name of the Communists under the Americans) sent to the south for ten years and especially during the “Têt” 1968, the terrifying New Year offensive that made my mother decided to take all her children out of the country. He had eight wounds and was considered a national hero. The Government lent him money for his sampan and he was never bothered by the local police.
Also in Halong, a restaurant owner told us he was in the army and belonged to the Communist Party that was why he could serve as a tourist guide. On the other hand. a rickshaw driver we saw in front of the Colonial Hotel spoke Parisian French but said he could not serve as a guide for all the numerous French who came to Vietnam, nostalgic for the old Indo-China. because he didn’t belong to the Parti. The driver’s father, who also spoke French. was still hidden in the north because he was afraid of the police.
In Hué, many of people we spoke to had spent time in re-education camps. The owner of a mini hotel in Hué had been a high ranking officer of the army of the south who had been in a camp for eight years. His daughters were school teachers but also took care of the hotel. We also met an old man whose grandmother had 120 acres and was now left with nothing. His wife would not speak to us. probably from sorrow.
Our guide in Nhatrang, a former English teacher was sent to a camp at the “liberation”. Two years after his release, he was working as a pedicab driver when friends told him that with his English he should be a guide. Now he worked for an agency.
Our taxi driver was in the army and went to a camp for two years. However, now he didn’t want to leave Vietnam. His brother was a vice-president of a bank in Chicago but his cousin was killed by a gang in Los Angeles. He was scared of the violence in North America saying that outside of the war and traffic there was no violent death in Vietnam. Our observations seemed to back up his words. At night we can circulate safely. There seems to be no crime. Police presence is everywhere.
We did encounter a class of privileged people. In the north when we visited Halong, we were on the ferry with a well-dressed family chattering quietly around a toothless grandmother. The men were tailor dressed and the women so elegant that I asked them if they were “Viet Kiêu” (Vietnamese living abroad), which they didn’t like. A group of teenagers, short-haired and dressed in leather, were playing cards and cracking jokes. I remembered the lady I met in the hotel in Hanoi. She wore three diamond rings, had a limousine waiting for her every morning, spoke about her Swiss travel and said she came from Ho Chi Minh City.
At the market in Saigon, it is possible to find clothes of quality: jeans, embroidery. everything you can imagine. The country seems to be booming with all the foreign investors: Japanese, Taiwanese, Hong Kong, Singapore, French and now American. Japan had previously also built a hospital and done other reparations to make up for what they had done during World War II. especially “the big hunger”, so in a sense, Japan is the first investor. It is written that the north is at the age of bicycles while the south is at the age of Vespa scooters and motorcycles. Japan, eager to tap the vast new market that Vietnam represents, is hoping to introduce the age of cars.
There were so many tourists from all countries. There are hotels with a full range of prices from 5 to 200 dollars. In Halong, where there are many recently built hotels, you can have a hotel for as little as 10 dollars. In Ho Chi Minh City, I had a good room for 12 dollars. In other towns, 15 would be average for me. The food is good and cheap, the fruit delicious. An average good meal: 2 dollars. The book “Vietnam” published by Lonely Planet is the bible of most tourists. But everything changes quickly.
English is the most popular foreign language for the younger generation but there are some who take advantage of the French classes. French is still spoken by the forty and older generation. Some Vietnamese spoke Russian and German. Mandarin and Cantonese are common in Cholon, the Chinese town in Ho Chi Min City. I saw groups of Vietnamese speaking Japanese in restaurants and museums. I am amazed at how this country could survive so many invasions and speak all the languages of the world. There seems to be no resentment shown in the population. The Vietnamese are very warm towards all the foreigners who come as tourists. In Ta Ninh, I was moved by the beautiful ceremony in which the Caodaists, one of the religious sects in the south, gave homage to all the beneficial minds of Humanity including Buddha, Sun Yat Sun, Victor Hugo, Lao Tze and Joan of Arc.
On my return, I reread different testimonies of writers, politicians, citizens who have been in camps. They described the ugly side of the agrarian reform in the north, the corruption of the party, and in the south, the confiscation of properties, the camps, the corruption of new riches. And I knew first hand the measures applied to Sino-Vietnamese. Besides my dead relatives in the north, all my relatives in the south have fled by boat I have described one of them in my poem “Pacific“.
Despite all this, the country is one and independent. ‘”Thông nhât” or “unity”, is the term that the militant use proudly for their hotel, stores or businesses. The songs I hear now are cheerful. Before they were so sad. The country is so willing to catch the rhythm of the world It deserves its chance at happiness.
This #ThrowBackThursday article “Coming Back to Vietnam: Notes on a Trip by Thuong Vuong-Riddick” was originally published in Ricepaper Magazine’s Summer 1995 Issue, Volume 1, Number 3. Would you like to read more of these retro pieces? Stay tuned for more.