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Saigon Kids™ Stories: A December in Bien Hoa

Riding Santa’s Helicopter To Vung Tau

by H. Clark (St. Paul School Saigon)

It is always wonderful to spend time with loved ones and enjoy traditions. But our modern customs of the holiday season include gift giving. If you could give one gift to anyone, who would you give that gift to and what would the gift be?

In 1968, I was the recipient of one such unexpected, wonderful gift for Christmas to share with my family. So much time had passed since then, but it seems like just yesterday when my family moved to Bien Hoa in that year. The city is located approximately 17 miles northeast of Sai Gon by the Dong Nai River where the climate is milder. I found Bien Hoa a quiet, sleepy-hollow town by comparison. The lifestyle there was slow paced, I felt like I was traveling back in time, but I loved its old country charm just the way it was. As quaint a city as Bien Hoa was, what I found most interesting was that it has a fairly big and very nice post office on a tree lined boulevard, leading directly to the river. I had no friends when we moved there, so the post office served me well as an outlet to communicate with my friends in Sai Gon and abroad.

Pomelos N Milk Apples. Circa 2010 H. Clark Collection.

Pomelos N Milk Apples. Circa 2010 H. Clark Collection.

There were very few restaurants on the bank of the Dong Nai River, but our family enjoyed the foods there that were new to us. We especially loved to dine at a floating restaurant near our house. Bien Hoa was famous for its orchards of pomelos (honey grapefruit) that I like. My other favorite fruit is milk apples grown in my homeland. The times spent in Bien Hoa gave me the best and the worst, unforgettable memories of my life, because only a few months after we had settled in, my dad was killed in an ambush by the Viet Cong.

By way of explanation, my father had many counterparts in his line of work in the military and they became his good friends. Among his friends were the advisors from USAID at Bien Hoa. After my father’s passing, from time to time his friends stopped by our home to see how the family was doing. During one notable visit, the advisors offered my older sister and me jobs at USAID. I was shocked! And panicked! Me, working? But I only had learned French and from what I learned in high school, I could hardly speak English! What did I know about “work”? We lived on dad’s pension, so it proved to be very difficult for mom to raise five kids. Being too young to have an ID card but needing to help my mom, I went to work for USAID. Now what?

My father’s friends helped me in obtaining a temporary ID card so that I could get paid. USAID was within a short walking distance, a block and a half, from our house and it was on the same side of the main street of town. In my new working environment, I worked with the Americans, Vietnamese, and two Filipinos; there were no Chinese. In fact, I had never run into any Chinese on the streets, except in noodle houses or restaurants for the time I lived there.

It was at USAID that I self-taught how to type. I primarily worked closely with the interpreters and typed their transcripts in English, while many others typed their reports in Vietnamese. Interpreters and advisors went on field trips daily and their reports were voluminous. As it turned out, this position was a natural springboard into the career path I have been in my whole life.

Working inside of the USAID building made me feel as if I were in two different worlds. I worked in a three-story building. On the main floor, Vietnamese was spoken because they were all local employees. As you walked up to the second floor, English was spoken, more so when there were visitors, because they were mostly U.S. military personnel. The sound of heavy boots walking up the stairs, the men’s voices, their uniform with guns and pistols they carried were a constant reminder of the reality of a war going on not too far from the outside walls of the secure building. The senior advisor’s office and a huge meeting room occupied the entire second floor, which had limited access to others. On the third floor, the front part served as the reception area, again English was spoken, the back part was a kitchen and further back was the maid’s quarters, Vietnamese was spoken.

I remember when I received my first pay, it was an envelope about an inch thick filled with dong bac (piasters). While my salary didn’t come close to replace my father’s income, it certainly afforded my younger sisters a resemblance of a good, normal life growing up. It gave me some sense of satisfaction that I could help my family. Mom said I could buy anything I wanted with my first pay! So I bought my first pair of shoes I dreamed of having! Before that, she bought everything I needed. It was a great feeling, not because I bought new shoes, but because I bought them with the money I earned. Money made me feel I was in control in certain things, shoes for example. I thought I was too cool! Indeed! My shoes were stylish, low heeled, very comfortable, with an ornate cowboy type buckle to one side. I was the only kid in town wearing those unique, fashionable tan suede shoes that could only be found in Sai Gon! I was fascinated with the cowboy look and style back then. All eyes seemed to shift downward at my tan suede shoes when I walked by.

In Bien Hoa, the ladies in office were older and they only wore the traditional ao dais to work.  Being a new kid from Sai Gon, I think I might have shocked the old culture. I believe I evolved the traditional old style from the 1950s to my style in 1968, wearing mini dresses to work with my shoe style being modern and different.  As a teenager in the 1960s, in the mini-skirt era, and had a French education, my iconic figure in fashion, music and style was Francoise Hardy.

Francoise Hardy

Francoise Hardy submitted by H. Clark

I grew up knowing almost all of her songs and owned most of her records. As a perfectionist that I am, let’s just say my sense of couture was particularly chic and appropriate for the times. I selected my own fabrics, sketched my favorite but simple designs, and had my dresses made at an affordable cost. I later self-taught how to sew and learned to save a lot of money; one of the hobbies I still enjoy now. I didn’t even own one ao dai until I returned to live in Sai Gon a few years later when I was twenty.

Months passed, then came December when I believed I met a real Santa! It was my first year of work and first Christmas at USAID. In Viet Nam, the predominant religion is Buddhism. Except for the celebration of Tet, the Lunar New Year, by tradition there was no gift exchange during the year, and certainly not during Christmas. It’s also due to the majority of people are poor, they struggle with putting their daily food on the table, so the gift exchanging is out of the question. Being Catholics as we are, Christmas represents the happiest time of year for our family. Our family’s tradition has always been my mother would prepare in advance a lot of food for us to eat after the midnight mass. It’s the one special night we would stay up and talk and laugh into the morning; however, things happened very differently on this particular Christmas, being the first one without my dad. His passing definitely affected the mood and the tone of the moment. There was no discussion about celebrating Christmas that year.

My mother went away to visit her relatives in Ca Mau city in the southernmost of Viet Nam and was due back on December 20. We promised to be good until mom returns, but the silence around my family was deafening. It was really emotional, really intense. I was counting the days waiting for mom. December 20 and 21 came and went, silently! My older sister had been transferred to work in Vung Tau during this time. In those early years, no household in Bien Hoa, including ours, had a telephone so I had no contact with either of them. I was all by myself with my three younger sisters, the youngest was six. December 22 came, nothing! I became worried, scared, very scared, and my imagination went crazy. My anxiety turned to irritation and then back to anxiety again. The long wait felt like a mix of nerves and fear and anger, and then replaced with sad resignation and heart aching with the effort it took to stay calm. December 23 morning came and by noon I went home to check on my younger sisters, no news! Returning to work, I was caught crying by my boss. It has been 44 years since then and his name escaped me. I can only vaguely remember it was Steve Brady. He was a family man and I remember I had met his wife, a Vietnamese, her acquaintances called her Co Ly (Ms. Ly), or Ba Brady (Mrs. Brady). I have completely forgotten her name and it only came back to me just now. And they had a young son who was about my youngest sister’s age. They once lived right behind our USAID building.

helicopterIt’s funny that while I am so bad remembering names, I vividly remember these events. Immediately after my boss said we could find my sister and bring her home by day’s end, I rushed right back home to let my younger sisters know and that I would be very late and to go ahead with dinner without me. He then took me in his jeep, put me into a helicopter with him, and we headed for Vung Tau to find my older sister. This was my first helicopter ride and the first flight of my life. I had always dreamed of being up there in the sky to have an aerial view of where I lived and to fly out of the Sai Gon and Bien Hoa areas. The swift takeoff and smooth landing were powerful and fanciful that I almost forgot all my worries. My sister worked for USAID in Vung Tau, so it was not difficult to track her down.

In the morning of December 24, mom brought home lots of food and goodies back with her from the country side. Her trip home was delayed due to the two large canals that can only be crossed by ferries. Those ferries were like dinosaurs and as I always feared, so broken down, dangerous and scary. We were so relieved to see her back home safe. Being so kind hearted to all, she shared our traditional foods with my boss’ family. I didn’t know that it was customary for all local employees to receive a two-week bonus during the major holidays, and it was all in cash. I received a one-month bonus. My boss probably added his own money in my bonus envelope, but that I will never know. He gave me an unexpected Christmas gift that no other kids in Bien Hoa would have dreamed of. I had the feeling of being the richest kid in Bien Hoa on that day, but the care and attention I received was unimaginable that it impacted my life in a most positive way. Thanks to him, we had a very happy ending that year, mom and kids were all home together in the nick of time for Christmas. In my mind’s eye, my boss was a real Santa! He put aside his duties in the background to do a little more than his duty in the foreground, just for my family. Early January, I was promoted and worked for the senior advisor, and then the following year I left Bien Hoa to work in Saigon.

As fate would have it, I had two missed opportunities to reconnect with my Santa. The first opportunity occurred in Sai Gon in 1971. Walking out of Passage Eden, I caught a glimpse of him in front of Rex Cinema in Sai Gon reporting news with a TV crew. At first, I didn’t believe my own eyes whom I saw from a distance, but as soon as I realized that it was him, I quickly worked my way through a big crowd, ran over across the street in an attempt to meet him, but by then it was too late. The TV crew had already finished up and sped away with him in a jeep. I was too disappointed but at the same time happy for him, knowing that he became a TV news reporter as he had wanted to do after the military and after USAID.

The second opportunity came a few years later, somewhere in 1975 in the U.S. I saw him only one time reporting the news on TV. I was just starting to settle into my new life, plus family matters got in the way, the months, then years seemed to fly by so quickly that the thought of trying to get in touch with him escaped my mind. Like a faded dream, I never saw him again.

I have the good fortune of being an intimate part of the human spirit. My family has grown larger in number now and so much has changed with the passage of time. The one thing that has never changed is each Christmas when we get together, it’s nostalgic! We give thanks for another very good year with everyone in good health. While we enjoy our good and peaceful life, we also reminisce about my father’s life, the energy and kindness, and grace that he had. All those beautiful memories from years ago keep flooding back. As quiet thoughts come floating down, I still remember my first amazing helicopter ride to Vung Tau with Santa.

A newly found friend recently introduced me to these stories, Deliver Us from Evil, The Edge of Tomorrow, and The Night They Burned the Mountain, by Dr. Thomas Anthony Dooley III. He passed away 52 years ago on January 18, 1961, but I didn’t get to read his book until this year. I find his radio message to the world particularly touching:

“How could I take huge emotions and thoughts that were in my heart and in neat, clipped and precise form to put them into a few minutes? I had too many thoughts, but I tried to express in fragile words our feelings on that Christmas night in the high valley of Muong Sing: This is Dr. Tom Dooley speaking to you from half a world away. I know you will not hear this message during the Christmas season, but I believe the spirit of Christmas throughout the whole world lasts more than just the days around December 25th. I think the Christmas spirit should last each day, each week, each month, each year of all our lives. So what I want to say to you tonight, even though it may be the end of January when you hear me, is this: Christmas is a timeless thing.

“It is a good thing to observe Christmas Day, but it is better to hold the spirit of Christmas through the year. To hold it helps one to feel the supremacy of the common life over the individual life.” “You can keep Christmas for a day. Why not keep it always?”

My memory already fails me on a lot of things, but I will always keep Christmas, December 1968, timeless in my heart.

8 comments to Saigon Kids™ Stories: A December in Bien Hoa

  • Great Christmas story! — 🙂

    Bob

  • H. Clark

    Thank you, Bob!

    Wishing you and yours Merry Christmas and a very Happy and Healthy New Year 2014!

    Huong

    🙂

    • H. Clark

      Bob,

      The video of Francoise Hardy is so cool! It’s like a special present for Christmas!Sure brought back memories of my time growing up in Viet Nam. Thank you!

      I also want to take this opportunity to thank Kevin, if he reads this, for twisting my arms to read and write and send in this story. He is a mentor. He introduced me to reading Dr. Tom Dooley’s book. I highly recommend it to anyone.

      Huong

  • Sarah Rogers

    Wow, what a wonderful Christmas story! My father worked in Bien Hoa with USAID during those years. I wonder if you would have met him at one time. My mom was there as well and one of the few American spouses.
    Happy Holiday.
    Sincerely,
    Sarah

    • H. Clark

      Hi Sarah,

      Thank you for your kind words. Now I am wondering if I had ever met with your father but did not know? I certainly hope to be reconnected with my Santa, Mr. Brady, and his family. I worked for the senior advisor at USAID before I left Bien Hoa, so I knew many people there, but for the life of me I can’t recall their names. Some of them wore civilian clothes and some of them were in military uniforms.

      Happy Holiday to you and yours.

      Huong

  • Huong, you write so beautifully! I can easily imagine that I was reading something in the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine. Please keep writing those beautiful remembrances.

  • H. Clark

    Bruce,

    Thank you very kindly for your vote of confidence. It’s the first time I receive compliments from a writer I admire. I am so honored.

    Happy Holidays!

    Huong

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