Vietnam Part 4: A Night to Remember
Before the Communist invasion of South Vietnam in 1975, Mai’s family was affluent by Vietnamese standards, even having a car and a driver to escort them around the small city of Hue. After serving in the Vietnamese Army for several years, Mr. Nguyen became an entrepreneur, eventually owning three successful grocery stores. Being a loving but strict father, he taught his military martial arts skills to his children from the time they were toddlers. All of Mai’s siblings were skilled in the use of nunchakus and long-poles.
I once watched a documentary about martial arts styles around the world. Still today, in some Asian dojos the floor is made of wood, not thickly-padded as are the floors of dojos in most Western studios. In other words, when practicing judo, one lands on a hard wooden floor instead of a soft, comfortable mat.
After the celebration of our arrival at the family home, we were shown to the rooms we’d be sleeping in. I was given a small room to myself, furnished only with a small bed….a wooden bed. A flat, hard wooden bed with a small pillow and a sheet, but no mattress. I was beginning to realize that the Vietnamese don’t think of ‘comfort’ in the same way that we Westerners do: the hard metal seats in our van, the lack of upholstered furniture, the wooden-floored dojos…at my first sight of that wooden bed after our 28-hour road trip, I knew I was truly learning about Vietnamese culture.
In the violent aftermath following the 1975 invasion, the Communists seized the family home, the car, and the three grocery stores. For a time, the family disappeared into the chaos, yet somehow remained alive and together.
Eventually, after communication was reestablished between families in Vietnam and refugees in America, Mai was able to offer financial help. The family moved into their humble home on the hillside. The government, not concerned about traditional values or family ties, had divided a cemetery into lots. The ‘yard’ behind the family home was a mix of small trees, overgrown grass, and small, sun-weathered headstones.
Also in the backyard was a hole in the ground that served as the toilet facilities. In respect for our Western modesty, Mai’s father had added a three-sided ’wall’ made of tree limbs and plastic wrap. There was no indoor plumbing in the home, other than the bucket of water and plastic cup that served as a shower. Mai’s older sister, Lom, had the daily chore of filling buckets of water from the community well at the bottom of the hill. She transported the 5-gallon buckets of water with a yoke on her shoulder, stopping every few steps to steady the buckets so the water wouldn’t slosh out on her way home.
Vietnam boasts the highest number of venomous snakes per-square-foot in the entire world. Normally this wouldn’t concern me too much, but the room I was assigned to had a small, narrow, wooden door leading out to the backyard. There was a 4-inch gap at the bottom of the door. The door may have prevented a blind sheep from entering my room, but snakes and small mammals probably saw that 4-inch gap as a welcome mat.
The family owned two small, terrier-like dogs that wandered around the house eating table scraps and the occasional bowl of leftover rice. They were semi-feral, never an object of affection, treated more like furry vacuum cleaners than pets.
I’ve told you all of that to set up the crisis I encountered that night:
At three in the morning I was awakened from slumber by an urgent need to use the bathroom. There was no electricity for electric lights, no streetlights, no moon in the sky. I arose from my wooden bed, opened the narrow door, and stepped out into the darkness. There was enough light from the stars to search the ground for snakes, but we had arrived at the home after sunset, and I didn’t know if there were any other houses nearby. I greatly feared…no, I was sweating bullets…that a neighbor would see me in the yard, and, thinking I was desecrating an honored relative’s grave, come running down the hill with samurai sword in hand, screaming Vietnamese curses.
I hurriedly used the facilities and turned around to reenter my room, and then I saw those two little dogs lying on the ground right next to my door. Of course they didn’t know me. They started growling.
I stood there in the darkness, already beset with paranoid fears of venomous snakes and angry neighbors, and I thought to myself, “I’m going to be torn to pieces by little dogs in Vietnam.”
To be continued...