Vietnamese Globe: Divided by War, United by Poetry and Compassion

When the plane was landing in Hanoi, I began to cry tears of joy to finally see my motherland and land of birth again. Later, I would realize that my tears were like the downpour of rain nearly every night that week of summer I was in Hanoi. To be in Hanoi was special to me because it was my grandmother and father’s birth city. During the first part of my journey, “Uncle” Quang (Tr?n Huy Quang), a Vietnamese writer who had served in the North Vietnamese Army during the U.S. war in Vietnam, took care of me and took me to Sapa, Ha Long Bay, around Hanoi and to Vung Tau. The first time I really saw large ponds of lotus flowers was in Vietnam and I was so happy to see those pink blossoms rising from the muddy waters, balancing on their thin, green stems surrounded by large, umbrella-like leaves.

The day after my arrival in Hanoi, I read my poetry at the Center for East West Languages and Cultures. We were celebrating the anthology, With Our Eyes Wide Open edited by Douglas Valentine. On a banner behind me was the title of the anthology translated into Vietnamese and a picture of the book. Two of my poems, “Depleted Uranium” and “Jumping Jack: The M16 Mines,” were published in the book, along with two of my translations of work by Vietnamese poets, “The Sound of Drums in the Night” by Dau Phi Nam and “Written in Red Tears” by Vuong Tung Cuong. Dau Phi Nam and I read at the reading. It was a special sharing of poetry. I read my poems in English and poet and translator Dang Than read my poems that were translated by various poets into Vietnamese. It seems as though the Vietnamese in Vietnam and I were torn apart by war, but connecting and reconciling again through poetry. Poetry brought me back to my motherland. It was heartwarming to share my words with “my brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts” in Vietnam. And I felt they listened deeply and responded openly and warmly to my heart and soul expressed through my poetry, and my heart began to heal in a way that it has never healed before. I feel now that there is a great bond between my motherland, birth country and its people that is created with genuine kindness and light. I met so many great and wonderful Vietnamese poets and writers.

I am listening to the rain
fall in Hanoi.

The juice from the freshly
picked coconut fills me
as the rainfall
and as the lake
and I feel that, before this lifetime,
I believed in Turtle-God-Kings
and a magical sword sinking back into
the heart of the city.

At first, the land of my birth country seemed to reject me as if I had been gone too long and my body could not handle the water or food there. After just a few days and after taking medicine, my body adjusted, and I happily ate the delicious food and fruits in the country. Every moment, I felt the love and care of my Vietnamese friends who treated me like a niece or an aunt or a daughter or a sister. The kindness and care that I received from my Vietnamese “family” filled me with great warmth and joy. The fruits and vegetables and trees and rivers nourished me. I felt welcomed home again. I visited the Lake of the Returned Sword and South Lake in Hanoi and visited several museums. The streets of the city were lined by beautiful, hundreds of years old trees whose gorgeous roots twisted and curved. Trees with champa flowers blossomed.

This was my second return to Vietnam. I had returned to Saigon for a week in 1996 to see my maternal grandmother again, and she passed away shortly afterwards. I wanted to see as much of the country in two weeks as possible.

Rides through the countryside were filled with beautiful rice fields, water buffaloes and cows. As we came closer Sapa, I knew that we were near Hoang Lien-Son, the mountain and re-education camp where my father was imprisoned for nine years. I knew it was near but for some reason, I didn’t ask for that mountaintop to be pointed out to me. My time in Sapa was filled with renewal, regaining my health and the magic and beauty of the land filled with rivers, waterfalls, and rice fields. For the first time, I saw gentle water buffaloes up close and I was filled with joy. It was wonderful to see the Hmong people and their connection with the land and each other. When we walked up to the top of the mountains, it was raining and I used a large leaf for an umbrella. We waited at a small resting spot with a straw roof overlooking the valley. I collected rainwater in a bottle and drank it. I was nourished by the sweet water of Heaven and Earth. Enchanting flowers bloomed around. I wanted to live here forever.

My next trip was to Halong Bay where we explored the largest cave in the bay and then kayaked to a secluded island where travelers and I swam among the million year old limestone mountains, where I floated on my back and watched the ancient stones rise to Heaven and watched the blue sky where two eagles soared above me. Nearby were beautiful red and green fishing boats. Then, we kayaked around the islands and saw monkeys and a large jellyfish. I watched the sunset behind the mountains seeming to disappear into the dark water, the pink and orange fading into my heart. At night, it was peaceful around us with shadows of islands floating in the darkness of water with stars twinkling messages to me. I woke up early the next morning to catch the sun rising above the mountains on the islands, its rays spreading across the water like diamonds. Two minutes later, there was a downpour. Later, I would realize that much in Vietnam, during the summer season, depends on the rain.

From Ha Long Bay, I returned to Hanoi and before leaving the city, I was filled with happiness to meet the first Vietnamese poet that I ever read, Nguyen Quang Thieu. Thieu’s heart-moving and beautiful book of poetry, The Women Carry River Water, which he translated with Martha Collins, made such a huge impression on me several years ago and was the seed of my growing love of Vietnamese poetry. It was such a deep honor to meet Nguyen Quang Thieu in Hanoi with several Vietnamese poets and writers for lunch, including poet and editor, Nguyen Thanh Phong. My journey back to my motherland and heartland was surreal and magical.

Next, I traveled to Vung Tau, a beach city in the south of Vietnam where I spent the night and day and met wonderful writers and poets. I met poet Le Huy Mau who is the Chairman of Literature and Arts Association of Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province. One of Le Huy Mau’s poems will be published in a dual-language anthology that I am co-editing/co-translating with poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai, Handful of the Earth: An Anthology of Contemporary Vietnamese Poets. We had a wonderful evening of sharing our poetry and eating fresh durian fruit.

When I traveled to Saigon, I found the hospital, Benh Vien Nguyen Trai, where I took my first breath of life and I also found the place where my parents and grandparents used to live on Hung Vuong Street. In Saigon, I visited the War Museum and the History Museum. Also, I had the great honor of visiting the Peace Village where the children, including infants, who carry the effects of Agent Orange, live and play. It was painful to see the effects of the dioxin on the bodies and minds of these children. It was also heartening to see the joy-filled laughter and playfulness in the children and I was glad to laugh and play with them. One boy hugged me around the neck and gave me a kiss on the cheek. It filled my heart with such warmth. Some children were able to scoot around on their bums as their legs did not develop. Others had hands with undeveloped fingers or other abnormalities. One other child moved around by scooting on a chair. Other children who suffered more severe effects were bedridden and hardly moved. There was one boy whose head was swollen many times the normal size. His eyes were open while he lay in bed immobile. There was a room with newborn infants affected by Agent Orange. The village was well-named as a reminder of the importance of peace and the long-lasting consequences of war.

My itinerary was planned out in Hanoi but not in Saigon; however, I was miraculously able to see all the places that I had deeply wanted to see thanks to my “sister” Tu? An who took me around in a motorbike.

My next trip, to Con Dao Island, Vietnam, was a complete miracle since my “sister” Thao happened to be traveling there and I happened to be meeting her in Saigon since I missed her in Hanoi and we were able to go to Con Dao Island together. At first, I thought that I was visiting a resort or paradise island which accurately describes Con Dao Island, but later I realized that it was also the home to the prisons, including Tiger Cages, that were built during the French occupation of Vietnam and later reopened and used by the Republic of Vietnam and the U.S. military to imprison and torture Vietcong during the U.S. war in Vietnam. I had wanted to visit this island and see the prisons and I was actually going to.

Watching raindrops
dance on lotus leaves–
Con Dao Island

The night we arrived on Con Dao Island, we went to the cemetery to pray. We bought incense, chrysanthemum flowers and fruits on our way to pray. This was a life-changing experience for me. There were altars at each gravesite in the cemetery where people placed incense and offered fruits and flowers. Some graves were marked with a yellow star and a name, many others were marked by a yellow star but no name because the person dead could not be identified. Everywhere I looked in all directions, as far as my eyes could see, were gravestones of people who died on the island from the wars, including those who died during imprisonment during the most recent U.S. war in Vietnam. I offered incense and prayers for peace and love for these souls.

Endless gravestones
a yellow star on stone
lights the night

I try not to breathe in spirits
but I breathe in
the smoke of incense.

A bat flutters by
A green grasshopper lands by my feet
Someone is saying hello

Waking up in the morning the day after our arrival on Con Dao Island, I took a walk along the beach and noticed the absolute beauty of the sea, the mountains, the sand, the coconut trees and flowers. Soon, we began our tour of the four prison systems on Con Dao Island – Phu Hai Prison, Trai Phu Binh, Phu Binh Camp (Tiger Cages), and Historic Vestige Human Skulls Ground. I walked around the prison grounds, walked into the rooms where people were imprisoned and tortured, including the solitary confinement rooms and the Tiger Cages. The prisons were old, kept as is. I could see the scars on the deteriorating walls and smell the scent of hundreds of years of suffering people shackled to the concrete beds. The rooms were small and in some of the rooms were models of prisoners who were emaciated from hunger and pained in suffering and bondage. It was disturbing to see the prisons but it was also eye-opening and heart-opening. I was glad to hear that on the fall of Saigon, on April 30, 1975, the prisoners were all set free. Though this day was also the beginning of suffering for my family and many Vietnamese who sympathized with the U.S. and served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam [aka as the South Vietnamese Army — DV Ed], I was glad that the people on the island were released from prison and torture. I prayed to Buddha, to Quan Am, to my ancestors and to the dead nearly every day at Buddhist temples scattered around the island. It was healing for me to offer my prayers to those who died on the island, to offer my love and compassion.

There are not enough
incense sticks for all
of the graves on Con Dao Island.

When I mentioned that I was traveling Con Dao Island, my fathered messaged that it was a prison as he had mentioned months before when I interviewed him. He told me that the island was haunted because so many people died there. Strangely, when I was on the island, I did not feel afraid, as I usually am, of ghosts. I felt that these were good people. I felt glad that I can go to the island to pay my respects and offer incense and prayers to the deceased. Some people were, perhaps, even sent to prison on the island due to a judgment by my father who served as a judge in the Ministry of Law during the war. Many things appear to be what they are not and in the chaos, fog and corruption of war, what is right and what is wrong can be mistaken. Perhaps it was karma that my father was imprisoned for nine years in a Vietcong reeducation camp in Hoang Lien Son after the war. Perhaps, my father was a pawn in a game of war. I don’t know, but I do know that my father is a good person and would not intentionally hurt anyone.

I remember the first time I took a philosophy class in college, the professor asked us how we know we really exist and that we are not being controlled by an Evil Genius. I took this class about two decades ago and I think I am beginning to understand his meaning on a deeper level or perhaps on another level. The Republic of Vietnam has been referred to as the U.S.’s puppet government. Descartes stated that the way we know we exist is: “I think; therefore, I am.” Perhaps, what controls the thought, controls the existence. Is it the puppeteer?

My return to Vietnam, my motherland/birth country/heart-country has been an incredible and amazing experience. Throughout my time in Vietnam, I was called by my Vietnamese name on my birth certificate – Tu? M?. It was profoundly heart-warming to reclaim the name that I lost when I left the country as a child. I feel connected to the earth, the trees, the flowers, the water buffalo, the cows, the rivers, the lakes and especially to my Vietnamese “family” who welcomed me, with such kindness and caring, home. I was nourished by the delicious cuisines of my country, the rice, the rice noodle soups, the fresh fish and chicken, the fresh vegetables, the succulent fruits – watermelon, jackfruit, lychee, longan, durian, mangosteen, rambutan, mango, coconut, dragon fruit and banana. I was nourished by the rivers, lakes, caves, bays, sea, islands and mountains of my motherland and her bountiful flowers – orchids, hibiscus and lotus flowers. I am filled with love and compassion for Vietnam and its people in the country and scattered across the Earth.

I am undivided. Let my heart, in the light of the sun, in all its red and yellow, be my flag.

Teresa Mei Chuc is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Red Thread (Fithian Press, 2012) and Keeper of the Winds (FootHills Publishing, 2014). She was born in Saigon, Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. under political asylum with her mother and brother shortly after the Vietnam War while her father remained in a Vietcong "reeducation" camp for nine years. Her poetry appears in numerous journals and in anthologies. More of Teresa's poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees. Read other articles by Teresa.