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Vietnam Part 3 of 7.


simplybill

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Part 3:  Arrival   

Hue, the one-time Imperial City located in the center of the ’ox-bow’ country of Vietnam, is full of history. Established as the capital of Vietnam by the Nguyen Dynasty in the early 17th century, Hue remained the seat of the Imperial Palace until 1945 when political divisions led to Hanoi becoming the capital of North Vietnam, followed a few years later by Saigon becoming the capital of South Vietnam.  

We arrived in Hue after sunset, around 8:30 at night. Mai’s parents lived outside of town on a hillside overlooking pastures and rice paddies, on a dirt path that wasn’t wide enough for motor vehicles. Our driver parked at the bottom of the hill, and we waited in the dark as Tuy-Van’s brother ran to the home to notify everyone that we’d arrived. 

A group of people came down the hillside, opened the van doors, and took all of our luggage. 

Hmm…Barbara and I looked at each other, then we looked at Mai and asked, “Uhhh, Mai, where’s our luggage going?” She assured us that her family and their friends were showing us respect by carrying everything up the hillside for us. I actually wasn’t completely reassured, knowing that most of Mai’s eight siblings were born after she escaped in 1975, and I wasn’t confident she could distinguish her siblings from the potential highway robbers that may have infiltrated the crowd.  (No doubt my paranoia was fueled by the fatigue caused from sitting on a metal seat in a rickety old van on a bumpy road for 28 hours).

We walked up the hillside in the dark, our path illuminated by the flashlights of our luggage porters. We were met by a crowd of fifty or more people who gave us a small-scale Imperial welcome. After everyone had gathered inside the house, on the porch, and on the path outside, someone lit a string of firecrackers. These weren’t the tiny Black Cats or Ladyfingers that American kids set off in the driveway on the 4th of July. There were a hundred or so M-80 sized firecrackers in a two-foot-diameter coil that exploded continuously for about a full minute. Mai, Barbara and I were standing in the candle-lit main room of the house, surrounded by dozens of people smiling at us with Mona Lisa smiles as the room filled with billowing smoke from the eardrum-numbing explosions. A small breath would send the smoke billowing across the room like fog on a windy day. It was quite an experience. 

Introductions followed, as Mai met the brothers and sisters that she’d never seen before. It wasn’t emotional at first. Vietnamese stoicism held back the tears, though it was obvious that emotions and tears were just below the surface. But how does one react to a seventeen-year separation caused by war and fear and sadness? A 12-year-old daughter escaping to a strange country with a strange culture, and a family who lost everything when the Communists overran South Vietnam in a fury of revenge and retribution; I’m sure there were emotions present that I’ve never experienced.

Someone brought out pastries, and the dozens of friends and neighbors that had gathered for the reunion became more animated, and even joyful. It became a party. Mai, dressed in stylish Western clothes, was like a movie star: the young girl who had escaped from the fallen country had returned home educated, successful and confident.  

Then, in the midst of the celebration, the spectre of totalitarianism arrived in the form of a single policeman. He came walking up the footpath in the dark, said a few words to Mai’s father, then took a seat at a table on the front porch. The crowd went silent as Mai and Barbara and I presented our passports and visas to the officer. He wrote everything down in a small logbook, and reminded us that we had 48 hours to register at the Police Station in town. When he was finished he returned our paperwork, said his goodbyes, and walked back into the darkness.

To be continued...

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