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Home Again, With Hope

June 13, 1995|KIEU CHINH

Hanoi, April 19

Even though we had not seen each other in 41 years, my brother and I immediately recognized each other when I arrived at Noi Bai Airport in Hanoi.

Wearing a white shirt, necktie and holding a bouquet of red roses, my brother leaped off the ground when he saw me. As we hugged, laughed and wept, I whispered, "My God, brother Lan, brother Lan," over his shoulder.

He responded, "I have been waiting for you so long."

Lan came to the airport with his wife and their daughter Loan. As we drove to my hotel, we held hands. I was happy to see that his hands were still firm and strong despite decades of suffering and hard work.

I reminded my brother of what I wanted to do and whom I wanted to see while I was in Vietnam.

"Don't worry," he said. "Everything is set up the way you wanted. Tomorrow at 8 a.m., we will return to take you to Son Tay to visit father's grave."

At 3 a.m., the rain woke me up from my nap. Hanoi rain. As I looked out of my hotel window, I wondered what Hanoi was like now. I wondered if the Philamonique movie house and the Cau Go theater I used to go to with my father were still around. I wondered if my family's old house at 10 Le Truc Street was still there, along with the ngoc lan tree that filled my childhood with fragrance and shade.

I suddenly thought about the last night my father and I were together in the old house. Waking up at midnight in the nearly empty room, I saw him sitting alone, smoking.

"Back to sleep, daughter," he said. "Tomorrow we will go to the airport. We have to go south."

But the next day at the airport, my father pushed me into the plane alone and said, "Chinh, you have to go first. I'm going to stay to search for Lan. I'll come south later."

"Be brave" were his final words to me.

April 20

My heart was pounding as we drove to Yen Ky Cemetery, located in the mountains of Son Tay Province, about 40 miles northeast of Hanoi.

My father, mother and two brothers are all buried there. My mother died when I was 6. She had just given birth to a son, when her hospital was bombed during a World War II raid. My other brother, Khue, also died when I was young.

When we arrived at my father's grave, I realized that it was brand new. My brother couldn't afford a good grave after my father died, he told me. He had this one made, with a headstone, only two weeks before I arrived. He didn't want me to think my father died without dignity.

After approaching the grave, I put both of my hands on the headstone and instantly felt my father's presence. I felt as though we were touching.

I spoke aloud to him.

"Father, it's me. I've come back. I wish that I could have seen you in person instead of seeing your grave."

Tears streamed down my face as I asked for his forgiveness for not being next to him when he needed me most.

After burning incense and offering flowers and fruit, my brother and I planted a small bamboo tree in front of our father's grave.

I stood trembling for a while, then knelt and kissed the headstone.

"I have to go, father. I love you."

*

After leaving the cemetery, we visited the Hoa Lo Prison, which the American prisoners of war called the "Hanoi Hilton."

My brother told me our father was put in this prison for two years before he was moved to another one.

Hoa Lo Prison was being torn down; on its site an international hotel is planned. Its gate and some walls remained standing. The sounds of the hammer machines continued to pound in my head even after we left.

In the afternoon, we looked for our old home at 10 Le Truc St.

"What do you see?" my brother asked me, as we stopped in front of a small flea market where a woman was selling shellfish soup and vermicelli.

"Here, look carefully," he said.

I still didn't recognize anything until he pointed to a cluster of small stores.

"You remember? There's the iron gate."

The iron gate used to be the entrance for cars. In front of our former two-story villa were now seven flats and stores selling everything from shoes to bird cages.

"After you went south, the house was confiscated and remodeled to house a dozen families," Lan said.

Our formerly spacious living room was now filled with beds. When I stepped up the worn wooden stairs to my old room, a young girl opened the door.

I asked her which part of the room she slept at. She pointed to the left side, which is where I used to stare out of a small window, dreaming, during my happy childhood days. Outside that window I used to see the beautiful ngoc lan tree; now the girl and I saw only uneven roofs of houses.

I quietly wished the best for her dreams.

April 21

Today, I visited my godfather, Ngoc Giao, who had been a leading writer of Hanoi before the country was divided.

Our house used to be something of a literary salon. Artists frequently came to our home, including Ngoc Giao, who was my father's best friend and had authored best-selling novels before the war. After the Communists took over the north, my godfather was forced to stop writing.

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