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Saigon Kids™ Stories: The Years of Innocence in Saigon

The Years of Innocence in Saigon

by H. Clark (St. Paul School, Saigon)

On my way to work one morning, the radio announcer said “today is the longest day of the year, the first day of summer solstice, Friday, June 21, 2013.” The weather prediction was days of searing heat with temperatures above 100 degrees for several days in a row ahead. It reminded me of Saigon, a far away place where I was born. This song popped up in my head: “Saigon Dep Lam.”

Miss Viet Nam Runner Up Hoang My Wearing White Ao Dai. Huong Clark Collection.I came across one of the video clips about Saigon, following the Déjà Vu Vietnam Saigon series, with this song played in the background. The title means “Very Beautiful Saigon,” not “Beautiful Saigon” as translated in You Tube. It was a song frequently broadcasted via loud speakers around Le Loi all the way down to the central market area, Cho Ben Thanh. The tune of the song was so well blended in with all other typical sounds of Saigon that you might have thought you’ve never heard it before. However, if you had lived there, you have undoubtedly heard it played once, a thousand times.

If you should have just two minutes in your spare time and would like to “revisit Saigon through a song,” you can hear that familiar sound again via You Tube. You will notice on You Tube, there are also many other versions of this song that are nonsensical; however, this is closest to the original one and I stand by it. I find this particular singer’s voice did justice to the song and reminded me of Saigon the way it was in my memory. The words Mat Ngoc (Diamond Eyes), appeared after the song’s name is the singer’s stage name. Can’t imagine such a make believe name, but that’s what it reads.

For the brave hearts, here are the lyrics of the first two verses. You might want to sing along, too, if you can… Try it, you might like it! If you don’t, I don’t mind, really!

If you don’t hear the “la la la la la” part, you might have the wrong song. Here’s the video:

Saigon Dep Lam (Beautiful Saigon)

Dung chan tren ben khi chieu nang chua phai,
Tu xa thap thoang muon ta ao tung bay
Nep song vui tuoi noi chan nhau den noi nay
Saigon dep lam, Saigon oi ! Saigon oi !

Ngua xe nhu nuoc tren duong van qua mau
Nguoi ra tham ben cau chao noi lao xao
Pho xa thenh thang don chan toi den chung vui
Saigon dep lam, Saigon oi ! Saigon oi !

La la la la la

It would be impossible to translate a language word for word to make any sense out of it. In its poetic Vietnamese way, the lyrics meant something like this (my translation only, not for singing along):

“When you took your first steps in arriving
ashore in Saigon before the sun goes down,
reflection of ladies in long silk dresses
catches your eyes as they seem to flutter
ever so softly with the evening breeze.
People came to this delightful,
very beautiful Saigon, hello Saigon, hello Saigon.”

Like fast flowing water,
came horses and cars.
You hear people greeting people, saying hello.
The city all over is welcoming me
and others to join in its festivities.
Very beautiful Saigon, hello Saigon, hello Saigon”

Well, that’s my version in passable English. And Saigon remains unforgettable in my mind, too. Notice how funny it is in some languages that the adjective comes after the noun? Even the words arrangements are also in the reverse order? Huhh…? The Vietnamese language happens to be in this way, as if you are in for a brain game. It challenges you to see how well versed you are in dealing with different strokes for different folks, a creative and survival skill you will master in a foreign land in no time.

I find music so powerful that it transports me back in time, every time. It reminds me when I was there, unassuming, young, and fearless.

The Saigon Zoo Mysteries

Saigon Zoo. Huong Clark Collection.In my early years growing up in Saigon, we lived on Tran Hung Dao Street. I saw a mix of people living there, the majority were Vietnamese and only a handful were Chinese. I heard the grownups talk about a place called Cho Lon, a china town, where all other Chinese lived. Here we go in reverse order again, Cho means “market,” Lon means “big.” Although it was only a stone’s throw away, as a young kid I thought the town, Cho Lon, was a big market very far away. I also had a funny thought that maybe the Chinese are so different that they like to live in a “big market.”

My childhood consisted of going to school, playing with my siblings, and taking trips with my parents on vacations or visit with relatives. I am the second daughter. My younger sisters and I call my older sister, the first born, Chi Hai. My younger sisters call me Chi Ba. Hai means two; ba means three. So why isn’t there a number one? The answer, is blowing in the wind! – LOL –

My dad was a linguist. He studied Latin in Cambodia and was to become a Catholic priest, but then when he returned to Vietnam for a visit and met my mother, the rest was history! After he got married, he joined the military in the special armed forces, working in the intelligence/investigative department, in a dangerous field I was told. He traveled a lot in short durations and moved us around where his work would dictate.

During Christmas time, I often heard him pray along with the priest and sing Christmas songs in Latin at the Saigon Cathedral. He also loved to sing Christmas carols in our neighborhood with his friends, one of the things that brought many families together. His best school friend, Nguyen Van Binh, was the Cardinal of South Vietnam at the time. Within the church goers, many priests at the Cathedral in Saigon and everywhere all the way down to the southernmost area of South Vietnam knew something about my father, because of his charitable work for the churches. As with Latin, he read, wrote, and spoke fluently in French and in English and helped me with homework. In my mind’s eye, he was the best father in the world! Although from a very humble upbringing, grandpa was a well-educated man and was a school teacher. As a result, we were home schooled in Vietnamese. Being devout Catholics as they were, my parents sent us to St. Paul School, an all-girl, French Catholic School, hoping to give us the best education possible. We used to have two household helpers, one family car (an Oldsmobile), and a driver. My world was uncomplicated and life was good!

Map of Saigon showing where lived with my family, Saigon Zoo and St. Paul School. Huong Clark Collection.After Tran Hung Dao, we moved to Thi Nghe, a town located behind the zoo, separated by a river also named Thi Nghe. The zoo was one of the oldest in the world, established over 133 years ago. Living so close by the zoo, we often heard animal sounds at night, most notably loud howling coming through the woods. Our new neighbors said the weirdest howling of them all came from the gorillas. They whined on and off and carried on for an hour it seemed, but it felt like an eternity. It was the most frightening, unpleasant sound, which made you believe you were living in the jungle, with Tarzan being your neighbor! We eventually got used to it.

Thi Nghe was so much closer to our school than at Tran Hung Dao, located at the opposite end of the airport. Instead of taking the school bus, we walked to school. Our dad bought us year-round passes so that we could walk to school through the zoo. In those early and happy days, it was safe; there was no fear of kidnapping whatsoever. In fact, kidnappings almost never occurred in Vietnam. Each family had so many kids and the majority of the people were poor, so kidnappers had no luck demanding any ransom.

Going to school from our house meant turning right out of the front door, walking two blocks, crossing a short bridge, and then we arrived at the zoo’s back entrance. Walking through the zoo was quite peaceful in early mornings. It seemed we were in a different world. The morning air was so fresh and wonderful, except you must know to keep a fairly far distance from certain animal cages! Our favorite routine was to visit the parrots and canaries. I often imagined they were our own pets. On occasions, we stopped to watch the peacocks dancing; their huge fantails with iridescent colors were just awesome and magnificent! Since it was too early in the morning and there were only us, three girls, and grandpa, the zoo seemed to belong to us. One of the things I liked to do as a young kid was to present my zoo pass to the guard at the gate, but it never happened. The guard wasn’t even there! In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing a zoo guard for all those school years. I guess after so many times passing through the zoo gates, we became so familiar to them that they never bothered to approach us if they saw us coming.

Out of the zoo’s front gate, we turned left, walked to the end of Nguyen BinhNguyen Binh Khiem street with the tall trees and zoo hedges on right where I played hide and seek with my grandpa. Huong Clark Collection.. Khiem Street, and took a right turn on Nguyen Huu Canh Street to arrive at the side gate of St. Paul School. These streets were off the beaten path, located near the Saigon river. The trip to school could have been made in 15 minutes, but we made several stops watching animals so it took us closer to 20 minutes. Grandpa, of course, walked with us every morning and afternoon. We stayed at school during lunch time. We often played hide and seek behind the tall trees on Nguyen Binh Khiem on our walk home. I miss seeing grandpa’s smile on his face every time he saw us.

I remember it happened only one day that grandpa didn’t escort us. The walk seemed longer and boring without him. We didn’t follow the same route he often lead us, but sidetracked to the left from our usual path and walked along the fence for a great distance. All of the sudden, we realized we were too far from where we were supposed to be, and we found a fairly large hole in the hedge. We never dared to do anything wrong before, except that time. Nobody was around, only us. We all looked at each other and the consensus among us three was to squeeze ourselves through the hole in the hedge. Wow! That was fun! As if we have discovered a new world! We found a shortcut to school. Nobody came to arrest us! We looked forward to repeating our shortcut on the way home; however, we never found the hole again.

St. Paul of Chartres School Saigon. Buildings inside of the school with the church where I attended masses with my school friends. Huong Clark Collection.That day on our trip home from school, we walked along what seemed like the longest hedge you could find in Saigon. We thought we would not miss that big hole in the hedge that we have just discovered. We created a larger opening when we squeezed through and displaced some of the branches in the morning, so we carefully stopped and inspected every little opening, even checked into the leaves and branches that were out of place, but couldn’t find it. Dang!!! Disappointed, we were determined to find any other holes just big enough for us to go through, but no such luck! We went home the long usual way again for the rest of our school years. I imagined the hedge was fixed right after we left and that was that. In the years that followed, I continuously had nightmares about getting lost and not finding my way back home, walking through dark winding alleys. I am now convinced it was possibly due to this darn hole in the hedge!

Mom took us to the zoo for a picnic on one weekend. I still remember she cooked jasmine rice. She put a huge ball of freshly cooked rice onto a stack of staggered banana leaves, wrapped it up real tight into a cylinder shape, closed the two ends, and secured it with a string. She also brought some barbecued meat and vegetables to eat with rice, and cut up the yellow watermelon in wedges for desert. From the outside, the yellow watermelon looked just like any other watermelon. When cut open, it displayed an amazing arrangement of showy colors, the rind is green with jagged dark green stripes against white and the edible part is of the most beautiful yellow color, sprinkled with striking black seeds. They are extremely sweet and more honey-flavored than the red-flesh watermelon. I was told yellow watermelons were grown in the sunny, sea coast area of Vietnam. After the food was packed neatly in a rattan tote bag, we walked to the zoo.

I remember vividly our picnic place on the lawn. We sat near the steps of the museum where there were huge bushes and plants. I noticed one particular bush had the biggest and most interesting white flowers. The flowers were formed of big white leaves at the tip of the green branches. These flowers were so unique and intriguing to me. I didn’t know what they were, being a kid as I was, I didn’t inquire about its name. It was only my observation.

We had several pictures of us taken in front of that bush as well as at the museum’s stairway.
Unfortunately, we no longer have those special pictures, along with so many others. They were either lost or mom burned them along with other photographs she thought might incriminate the family after 1975. Among them were those family pictures that held sweet memories of my childhood I wish to have most. I am now left to resort to reviewing those moments in my head as long as memory can serve me.

Only years later, after coming to the U.S., did I find out the flowers I liked at the zoo were actually poinsettias. They grew poinsettias in Saigon? It’s true, and I stand by it! I loved our trip with mom at the zoo. We didn’t have a lawn at our house, so the zoo was the only place we could stretch out on the grass and look up at the sky. Also, it was a chance to look up those animals that made such loud, scary noises in the evenings including gorillas, elephants, tigers, lions, and all. They just lounged around and didn’t seem to fuss during the day, but only at night, maybe just to frighten young kids, I thought.

St. Paul of Chartres School Saigon. Main building and front gate at 4 Cuong De (now 4 Ton Duc Trang). Huong Clark Collection.One notable mid-morning while we were still in class, mom came to pick us up in a motor cyclo. We were tiny back then sitting next to mom, so we all fit in the cyclo – mom, and the three kids. It was exciting for us to see mom during morning hours. Then we saw other moms’ kids doing the same thing. She explained President Kennedy had been assassinated and all the stores were closed down everywhere to prevent any chaos. People were told to stay inside their homes. As I remember, we had the rest of the day off and went back to school the very next day.

At St. Paul School, our principal was a French nun, Mother Therese, the rest of the nuns were Vietnamese. As it was an all-girl French Catholic school, all Vietnamese nuns were teachers and only spoke French. The school was gated, had its own church, dormitory, big assembly rooms, class rooms, and a huge schoolyard for over 2,000 students. The complex was structured to be a convent for nuns and self-sufficient. For big events, students were required to dress in white. Hence, it was known as the “white school.” We prayed, confessed, and attended masses in French, so I was used to this culture of French at school, Vietnamese at home.

My Father’s Gifts

Dad gave me the most wonderful mornings walking to school in a unique environment. Those were the magical and memorable mornings none of my friends could have by going to school in school bus, or in fancy white cars, with chauffeurs wearing white gloves, opening car doors for them. Although too young to recognize or know how to express my gratitude, I enjoyed walking through the botanical gardens and the zoo every morning to see other living beings sharing a brand new day. The episode of squeezing through a hole in the zoo’s hedge was my idea and sparked my adventurist spirit.

We were not rich by any stretch of imagination; privileged, too briefly maybe; rich, no. We were just comfortable. He put us up at St. Paul School. It was a private school and was considered one of the best in Saigon for privileged kids, but it all came with a very high price. Dad sacrificed everything he had during his working life to give us a solid education and prepare us for our future.

He taught us how to be kind to others and do the right things. I remember when we were living on Tran Hung Dao, there was a big fire in one nearby section of town. Our neighborhood was dangerously threatened. I can still remember seeing the sparks and smoke high up in the sky. He spent all day helping firefighters and rescuing kids and the elders out of their burning homes. Mom was left at home with four kids, too worried for us and his safety. We felt humble and proud for all that he did in his power to help put out the fire.

After a few years living in Thi Nghe, our family moved again, this time to Bien Hoa, approximately 17 miles north of Saigon. My father was ambushed and killed in a field trip. The Cardinal of South Vietnam, his school friend, came to my dad’s funeral which took place in Saigon to pay his last respects. He also personally visited and blessed our small home in Bien Hoa afterwards. This was never before witnessed and the highest honor ever extended to any Catholic family. I miss my dad. He remains forever young in my heart. He was only 43.

It took me a long time to adjust to my new circumstance without a father. He was a powerful source in my life, but he was gone. I started to look at the world differently than my friends. I knew things they didn’t know. At times I became angry at what life handed me. I had to learn how to let go and survive, fast!

Slowly, life returned to what was seemingly normal in Bien Hoa until my first brush with life and death was lurking, waiting to torment me.

9 comments to Saigon Kids™ Stories: The Years of Innocence in Saigon

  • jim lou

    I see that you mentioned Tran Hung Dao. I lived in Cholon, which was the big China Town, and the street was Tran Hung Dao. I lived in alley that had a very large school that taught Vietnamese. On the street itself, we were equidistant between 2 large move houses.

  • Mike McNally

    Huong, thank you for the memories and photos. It was all very interesting. I am sorry you lost your father the way you did.

  • H. Clark

    Mike,

    Thank you for your kind note. How time flies. It seems like just yesterday I was there in Viet Nam.

    Huong

  • frank

    Huong, Very moving story. Vietnam was certainly a place of joy and sorrow, especially for you. Your Father seemed to have done very good by you. You have a great story and I thank you for sharing. Frank

  • frank

    Huong, Enjoyed the Song. I found it a little disappointing that today in Saigon a person will see little evidence of the “ao dai”. I could not find your address under the Saigon Kids directly. Send me your address to stoddardfrank [@] hotmail.com and I’ll send you three CD’s I made several years ago.

    • H. Clark

      Frank,

      Thank you for your kind words. I am happy to know you have no problem understanding my writing. We wore ao dai’s to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday four years ago. I’ll be in touch.

      Huong

  • frank

    I do not know how to place this in the Saigon Blog. Five Saigon Kids that I have seen at our past reunions are no longer with us…Dini, Pete, Dan, Burt, and Sondra (I think about them a lot). This does not count the ones that have already died before 2000. Today, I heard that a friend of mine, he was in Berlin when the “Wall” went up (later on patrols in Laos), had a massive heart attack. I know this is expected as we get older, but it sure does not make it any easier.

    Oh heck, I forgot about Terry. He was the first to die. Oh! I feel so bad. That makes six.

    • Frank – That’s what the *Contact Form* is for, to submit articles you’d like to write and have published on the blog. The Contact Form is located in the Menu at the top of the this page. Click the *Contact and Help Desk* tab on the Menu then follow the instructions for submitting articles. 🙂

      Bob

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