The main market in Go Cong before 1975.
The Unforgotten Day
As Told By: Van Pho
Memory is slippery like eels. We remake and recreate memories without even knowing that we're doing it. We fill gaps in our own stories with tales others tell us. Excavating old memories is neither pleasant nor straightforward, and sometimes trauma exacerbates the experience and reveals things long buried. But there are some events, no matter what else has happened in our lives, we have never been able to forget. Historians refer to them as "unforgotten days". I precisely remember what happened on that day. It was Wednesday, April 30 1975. The 120th day of the year 1975 in the Gregorian calendar profoundly shaped my life and the lives of my family and the rest of the South Vietnamese population at the time. That day was a powerful tsunami with such incredible force; it demolished all structures on its path. It dissolved and broke down the rocks and sands that stood in its way before dragging everything, including humans, to the sea. Nothing and no one escaped its impact. The memories of that day have followed me like a person's shadow. At night, they infiltrate my dreams, and during the day, they knock on the corner of my mind whenever I take a moment to rest. They come and go, and I can do nothing but let them take me as an unfortunate prisoner of conscience.
The day officially ended of the Vietnam War or "Cuộc Nội Chiến Bắc Nam", as we, Vietnamese called it, when the communist North overran the capitalist South.
In my town - 60km southeast of the epicentre, Gò Công, although the inevitable annihilation by the communists had widely been anticipated, its residents never even imagined the social upheaval would follow as a consequence. No one could fathom such a catastrophe due to their naivety and ignorance of politics. To be fair, however, the taste of communism was non-existent; hence we did not know how inherently vicious, cruel, raw and unjust it was. As the last attempt by the local information department to give residents a glimpse of the communist system, a captured northern communist commissar was paraded in front of the adult inhabitants at the main town theatre to provide glimpses of the true life under the communist rule in the North. What he said was incredible, sort of eye-opening, but seemingly nobody heeded his conveyed warning. Peace and freedom were generally taken for granted and rarely warranted more than a passing thought!
During that intense period, my school was operating as usual. However, the worries about the forthcoming were clearly shown on teachers' faces. They got us, students, focusing on the given lessons, but it was all pretending. Some became anxious and agitated, especially those having their families living in the provinces where the fighting was raging on. Some wondered about what the future would hold if the government were changed hands. But no one talked openly about the tsunami was coming, pretending it was just another stronger wind in the yearly monsoon season.
At lunch break, we made jokes about the reported war news. They were undeniably awful news, but we had been used to this senseless war that had been ongoing for twenty years. Over that time, there had been periods of heavy fighting and lull periods. A province was lost today but would be retaken tomorrow. Dead soldiers this year would be replaced by fresh recruits next year. Life has been kept going like that regardless of mounting sufferings. We had a more pressing priority to deal with. Indeed, our energy had been spent debating what study band should we enrol in for the next academic year as we were in the final year of the junior secondary school level. For example, there were Band A (Biology & Chemistry), Band B (Mathematics & Physics), Band C (Literature & Foreign Languages) for choosing. By stereotyping, male students were anticipated to enrol into Band B. Similarly, Band C for girls. Throughout my junior secondary school years, I had been an excellent all-round student, so my teachers' expectation was for me to follow the norm.
However, I was unconvinced as I never liked studying natural science subjects. I consulted with my older sisters about my best study option. I believed that as close siblings, they should have genuinely seen me from a better light. Their consensus response was that Band A or B would open up the door to get into engineering or medical courses at university. They added further that eventually, a miracle would make me love mathematics and physics.
At home, those horrible scenes of hundreds of thousands of refugees struggling to find a place on ships or planes or simply on foot to take them to safety further in the South were shown on television daily. One particular image haunted my conscience. An infant was slipped from a pair of hands being reached out from a group of people standing on the high-up deck of a merchant ship when his young mother was trying to pass her infant up. I would know neither whose hands they were, possibly from the child's father or just simply a stranger who was offering help nor the fate of that child. What had triggered them to embark on that perilous journey? Communism must have been synonymous with death for the human exodus to take place.
Old documentaries of terrible Geman concentration camps where scantily clothed and malnourished Jewish people were held waiting for their extermination during World War Two were also repeatedly replayed. Although the TV reporter drew no direct correlations between the communists and Nazi Germans, they all disregarded human lives.
Further, footage of US President John F. Kennedy, when visiting West Berlin in June 1963 before his assassination with his remark in front of the Berlin Wall dividing the city was replayed. He said:
"There are many people in the world who don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the communist world. Let them come to Berlin. There are some who say that communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe, and elsewhere we can work with the communists. Let them come to Berlin. And there are even a few who say that it is true that communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Let them come to Berlin." His above statement about the nature of a communist system was thought-provoking. Still, unfortunately, it also fell on deaf ears of the townfolks. One only knew what one knew and didn't know what was unknown to them.
According to some history books, Gò Công meaning "a hill where peacocks rest", was established in 1900 by the French colonial government. It was just a tiny backwater town on the Mekong (Cữu Long) Delta. Its natural boundaries with other provinces were rivers, and a coastal line stretched out to the South China Sea. However, it was famous for some significantly royal and historical ties compared with its small size.
If one takes a short walk around town, one will notice that most houses were single-story simple housing structures of Chinese or Vietnamese architecture. There were some colonial architecture houses with long verandahs and paved corridors, but they were rare. In the summer evenings, groups of men and women sat outside to escape the heat, with paper fans in their hands and light-hearted conversations floating in the humid air. Life wasn't perfect but peaceful and easy-going despite the raging war elsewhere. Men could find odd jobs to earn enough to feed their families. Children were able to attend schools with adequate clothing and affordable textbooks.
My family wasn't originally residents of this township. When I was around 3, my family was uprooted from Tân Thành to Gò Công because our house was burnt down during a surprise attack by Việt Cộng. The communist insurgents had got strength and staged their indiscriminate attacks anywhere in the South. That tragedy marked the beginning of the darkest episode of my family history. We were then resettled in Gò Công as war refugees. There wasn't any government assistance because refugees like us were all over the country. My parents couldn't find a place big enough for the whole family to stay together. There were eight of us: a maternal grandmother, parents, and six kids. They were forced to split their children into multiple families willing to give us temporary shelters. We were moved from one place to another to get by. Every day from dawn to dusk, my mother carried two woven baskets on both ends of a bamboo pole, walking around town selling needy and cheap goods to earn money to feed us. Inside one basket was her selling merchandise. And my younger sister was on the other basket. She was still a baby, and my mother couldn't stay home looking after her as the whole family would go hungry. My father used to be an itinerant hawker when he first arrived in Gò Công from China to support himself. That was also how he met my mother in Tân Thành Village on one of his selling days there. This time around, my mother was doing that. He worked in other jobs, such as serving in a Chinese restaurant or driving a bus.
Almost a year after the tragic event of the house burnt down, my father successfully connected with a local Chinese mutual assistance association. Through its help, a small place was given to us at a heavily discounted rent to live with other Chinese families in a large building. That building was being used to host Chinese communal functions, mainly funerals. We were reunited under one roof. That building was a horrible place by any definition. Walking along the long and dark corridor leading to our place after finishing school was torture. My legs became soft like jelly when walking past a small room to house a deceased's coffin waiting for burial. It was always dark inside, with only some burning candles and incense. I tried not to look at it, but I couldn't help because I felt a ghost watching my every move.
After several years of hard-working, my family's circumstances improved. Combining their savings with a loan from the Chinese association, my parents bought a fabric selling business and a bigger house for us to live in. However, those fantastic arrangements all happened in secrecy. One night, all of a sudden, at the family dinner, my father simply told us to pack up to move out of that horrible building within the next few days. You couldn't imagine how happy I greeted the news. It was an indescribable overjoy. Only several more days, I didn't have to walk along the dark and cold corridor to see a lone coffin and to hear people's crying griefs. Having witnessed death and associated mourning rituals regularly in childhood was a terrible experience to endure. There was nothing for me to pack apart from some clothes, pictorial books, and odd toys I had collected from the street between home and school. I didn't have to move to a new primary school because it was the only one in town.
People said that tough times would never last, but only tough people would. I believed so because I thought we were brought up tough like steel during those years.