Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART THREE. Taking the Long Road Back (1987-92)
8. Journey of a Thousand Leagues
THE JET that took me across the Pacific to Vietnam did more than change days at the International Date Line. It plunged me into another age when my homeland and soul were younger. After rediscovering my past by encountering my country’s present troi dat doi thay—after heaven and earth had changed places—I was on my way back to the future.
I had no idea what that future contained. I only knew that it would be nothing like my previous years in Vietnam or America.
First and foremost, my duty to my mother had been fulfilled, but not without surprises. Communist Vietnam was not at all as its supporters or critics described it. I expected to find a country reined in by jackbooted police and tanks on every corner. I did not expect to find, as my frail but steadfast mother and aging sister Hai had told me, “the war still going on” in the hearts and minds of everyone there, with the issue still in doubt. Crushing paranoia infected every person, including every member of my family—and eventually myself. I expected to find a very poor country, like Mexico. I did not expect to see people still begging and starving in the street; old and young deformed by explosives and chemicals; Amerasian kids (some now young adults) wandering like lepers in a land that hated them solely because of their parents; and hard-working people of moral strength and talent—like Jimmy’s father, Anh, and my own brother, Bon Nghe—reduced to poverty, their skills misapplied by a bumbling central government.
On the other hand, I did not expect to hear officials in that government candidly admit their problems, as they did at a supper Anh had arranged for our mutual enlightenment. Having gotten so used to saying no after forty years of sacrifice, the Northern regime had forgotten how to say yes to new ideas—to clear-eyed, if risky, proposals to make life better for the common people. Now, they acknowledged that Vietnam could not survive as a “pariah” nation. To feed its people, to heal them and to make the land itself whole again, it would have to extend its hand in friendship to its once hated adversary, the West—the United States in particular. Having outlasted a faltering America in an ungodly war of attrition, the Hanoi government found itself no match for America at peace.
So where did that leave me, Phung Thi Le Ly Munro-Hayslip—whoever she was and whatever she was supposed to be?
When I arrived in Vietnam I had a strong sense that I needed to return to my “mother of the breast” and the motherland that bore me in order to start my life again—to go “from low tide to high tide” as my mother once said. Surprisingly, the one who put me on a new course for the next cycle of my life—the one in which I would “climb mountains and turn stones into flowers” and “teach what I had learned”—was Anh, Jimmy’s father. He became like a spirit guide from my old life to my new one. We spoke very earnestly and for long hours at his sister’s house in Saigon. His mandate was simple:
“Em Ly, you must help people overcome the pain of the war—to learn trust where they feel suspicion; to honor the past while letting go of it; to learn all these things so that they, in turn, may teach. Only this way can the circle of vengeance strangling us be changed into an ever expanding sphere of enlightenment.”
I told Anh that although I may have come from a luxurious “castle” in the West, like the legendary Siddhartha Gautama, to have my eyes opened by the harshness of life in postwar Vietnam, I was no “Buddha” such as he became. I was, at most, a simple farm girl who felt uneasy around politicians and businessmen and their big plans and bigger ambitions. How could I cure Vietnam’s ills when I had so much trouble preserving my own little family?
Anh then asked a startling question. “Even if you’ve had nothing but trouble with love, has that ever stopped you from loving?”
I could only answer, “No.”
“Well then,” he smiled. “Don’t let the shortness of your arm keep you from reaching out. As I heard you tell your brother, Bon, ‘Nothing happens that is not imagined first.’ If you want to help our people, start with their hearts and minds, then healthy souls and bodies are sure to follow.”
I mulled over Anh’s advice on the flight back to Los Angeles, where I was greeted by all three of my relieved and smiling sons. After a little homecoming talk, during which I relayed my disappointment at not being allowed to return to my village (I met with my family in Danang), I tried out some ideas on my boys on the long drive back to Escondido. “Jimmy, your father wants to help Uncle Bon and me build a clinic for my old village, isn’t that something? Maybe someday you can go back and meet him; maybe help them get Vietnam back on its feet. The land is so beautiful but the people are so poor. Maybe you’ll build lots of clinics and …”
I chattered like a monkey, but the boys seemed happy just to hear my voice. When they had been quiet too long, though, I asked, “So, what’s been happening while I was gone?”
They looked uncomfortably at each other and Jimmy, who was driving, finally said, “You got a call from the FBI. They want to talk to you when you get back.”
“The FBI? My goodness—what about?”
“They wouldn’t say. They just wanted to know when you’d be back.” Jimmy gave me an impish smile. “Looks like you’re in trouble again!”
We laughed but I could feel my jet-lagged heart sink. After doing absolutely nothing to help me visit my family, the government now had some great interest in where I had been and what I had been doing. It was just like Vietnam again, only worse, because I didn’t expect this in America! Then again, perhaps I was letting my paranoia take control of me once more—an easy reflex after even a few days in the “people’s paradise.” I decided to let my higher consciousness take charge and not cross any bridges before I came to them, even ones guarded by the FBI.
The house was as big and beautiful as I left it—the litter of three young men paled after the squalor of even the best houses in Danang. I felt happy and lucky and guilty all at once—what a difference an ocean makes!
Within an hour of my return the living room began to fill with curious neighbors and well-wishers including my lawyer, Milton, who was relieved to know he did not have to execute my emergency plan, and Lan, who had trouble believing I hadn’t just gone to Thailand for a vacation. By the time I had told the story of my trip a dozen times, important things began to stick in my mind: the epidemic of paranoia infecting the people is unimaginable; the crushing war-and-soul debt the Vietnamese pay every day is beyond belief, or even cosmic justice. I did not try to convince my American friends about how lucky we were because even I wouldn’t have believed it myself until I had returned to see modern Vietnam.
The next day, Agent James Treacy called from the FBI to make an appointment.
He was tall, with hair as dark as his somber suit. He was very polite and introduced every question with a friendly comment, like a banker getting ready to turn down a loan application. His calling card said FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION in big, bold letters, like the credits to a TV crime show starring JAMES H. TREACY, SPECIAL AGENT. I knew very little about the FBI—only what I saw on television and from the forms Dennis had to fill out for his job with the Customs Department. On the other hand, I knew a lot about the Cong An Chim, the South Vietnamese secret police. During the war, if Cong An knocked on the door, you were wise to climb out the window.
“Please come in and have a seat,” I said, showing him to the living room and offering him green tea. “This is the first time I’ve talked to the FBI. Please excuse me if I’m a little nervous.”
“Don’t be,” he smiled pleasantly. “How was your visit to Vietnam?”
“Wonderful! Of course, the country is so poor—you wouldn’t believe it! Have you been to Tijuana? It’s worse than that. By the way, how did you know I went to Vietnam?”
He smiled. “We read about it in the Tribune. We get lots of information from the newspapers, just like everyone else. I wouldn’t be bothering you now except it’s our policy to interview anyone who returns from a Communist country.” He pulled out a notebook and pencil just like a reporter. “Now, could you tell me how long you were there?”
“About two weeks. I stayed in Bangkok a few days both coming and going.”
“I see. Did you visit your relatives?”
“Oh yes. I saw my mother, my brother, my two older sisters, and my niece.”
“They’re all okay?” He sounded like he was genuinely concerned. Maybe he had brothers and sisters in some faraway place.
“Yes, they’re fine, thank you.”
He made a little note. “Vietnam’s a long way away. As you know, the State Department prohibits direct travel there. Who helped you get into the country?”
“Nobody in particular.” I showed him copies of the letters I sent to U.S. government officials, including his boss, President Reagan. “As you can see, I wrote to just about everyone, but people either didn’t answer or they tried to discourage me from going. Finally, I met a gentleman by accident at a bar and he gave me a name to call at the United Nations—the Vietnamese Mission—and they obtained my visa.”
“Do you remember the man’s name?”
“Oh no. Like I say, we met very casually, by accident.”
“Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”
I sighed and stared at the ceiling. “Well, he was tall and distinguished looking, I remember that. He had gray hair and wore a dark suit—like yours—but three-piece, like a businessman’s. He was very soft-spoken and said he came from New York. That’s about all I remember.”
Agent Treacy wrote furiously, then asked, “Did he say what he did in New York? Why was he in San Diego?”
“He told me all that, but I forgot. Sorry.”
“Was he alone or did he have companions?”
“I think a couple of people were at his table, but we weren’t introduced and I didn’t talk to them. Kathy and I were busy—”
“Kathy?” Agent Treacy brightened. “Who’s Kathy?”
“Kathy Greenwood. She’s my old boss and a good friend.”
“I see. Could I have her address and phone number?”
I was now getting very uncomfortable with this whole thing. Agent Treacy was too much like the local cadremen and village “watchers” who used to control our behavior with sly questions and innuendos. Their specialty was asking the same thing over and over again to different people until inconsistencies began to surface.
“James,” he said smiling. “You can call me James.”
“James—I don’t mind you coming into my house to talk about my visit. I know you are concerned about terrorists and spies and drug smugglers and I’m happy to do my part. I just don’t like giving you all this information about people who have nothing to do with my trip. They are just friends and acquaintances. I don’t think it’s right for me to get them involved in all this.”
“Involved in all what, Mrs. Hayslip?”
I took a long breath. It was starting again! I clammed up.
James put down his pad and pencil. “Look, Mrs. Hayslip—Le Ly—I believe we need to find out more about this man who helped you. He might be just a friendly citizen, as you suggest, but he might also be a Communist spy. I mean, don’t you think it’s funny that a man who just happened to have the information you needed just happened to be at the bar that night? Believe me, this is exactly how those people work.”
“Okay, all right,” I said. I gave him Kathy’s home phone number but wouldn’t tell him where she worked or any more details about anything. “You’ll have to ask those people directly for the information you want.” My tone wasn’t very friendly.
Agent Treacy put away his pad. “Okay. I think I have enough to work with.” He got up and I escorted him to the door. “May I call you again if I need more information?”
“Of course,” I said halfheartedly, “but I don’t really have much more to say. You seem like a nice young man. I believe you are sincere about what you believe and how you do your job. I just want you to know that I will not spy for anybody, okay? Not for the Vietnamese, not for the American government, not for anybody. You see, I’m thinking about doing humanitarian work for my people—not for the Communist government, but for the people, like the Red Cross. That means I must return to the country some day. I do not want either side to mistrust me. I must work hard to remain impartial.”
“That’s a fine idea, Mrs. Hayslip,” Agent Treacy said. “But you must also realize that lots of other people don’t feel that way. My job is to see that our country isn’t harmed, even inadvertently.”
After he was gone, my paranoia kicked into high gear. I thought about the forms I’d filled out in Vietnam before and after I married Ed—information attesting to my background and character to get into the United States. Checking one story against another was an old police technique for ferreting out people who had something to hide.
I was particularly concerned about my brother, Bon Nghe. I was sure I had identified him on those old forms as KIA or MIA (which he may well have been—nobody had seen him since 1954!), implying, but not really saying, that he was a Southern soldier. I didn’t volunteer to Agent Treacy that Bon had an estimable war record with the North, and was now a responsible Communist official in Danang. No doubt Agent Treacy would begin a tedious cross-check of my answers with my State Department and Immigration files. Perhaps he would even “shadow” me as I drove around town—to see if I had any illicit rendezvous with the mysterious man from New York. He might even tap my phone. In wartime Vietnam the government used to read and censor mail, so even my personal correspondence might make a quick detour to the Federal Building downtown before it finally arrived in my mailbox. And, of course, my manuscript lay scattered around the house in easy view of anyone—from FBI agents disguised as utility repairmen “looking for gas leaks” to burglars creeping around in the night. What would a surreptitious reader think about my tales as a teenage Viet Cong conscript? For that matter, how could I be sure that anybody I might meet in the future wasn’t an FBI agent or someone on their “enemies” list? It was incredible! For the last two weeks in Vietnam, I knew I had been “supervised”—sometimes from the next seat in a car or a bus or at a restaurant table; sometimes from a distance by a hazy figure with binoculars—and it didn’t bother me at all. I expected nothing less from a war-worn, paranoid, totalitarian government. Now, back in the “land of liberty,” I was somehow presumed guilty of something I did not do and hadn’t even been charged with!
After a day or two, I returned to work at the Hollylinh. The staff and partners and most of my regular customers greeted me like a returning astronaut—with teary kisses, hugs, even flowers. I was moved not only by their affection but their obvious acceptance and understanding of what my trip really meant: that the door kept closed so long between Americans and Vietnamese was now opened at least a crack. The example of my one small step back onto my native soil could be seen as a giant leap for so many souls in pain. I spoke—perhaps too freely, since I didn’t really have a plan—about trying to raise money for a clinic in Quang Nam, hopefully near Ky La, to help peasants harmed by the war.
Not everyone agreed.
“You’ve got to be careful, Ly,” one waitress said while we were relaxing after my shift. “Everybody’s smiling and laughing now, but some of the staff are convinced you must be a Communist. After all, why would the Vietnamese government let you out?”
“That’s silly,” I said, being silly myself to think that simply because I was fortified with the truth everyone else would see it, too. “They let me out because they have no reason to keep me and every reason to want me to come back. They want all Viet Kieu to come home and help develop the country.”
Kenneth was also disturbed, but for different reasons. He showed me the ledgers from the last few weeks.
“Look at this, Ly,” he said dourly. “The restaurant lost three thousand dollars while you were gone. People came in and asked for Ly, and when we told them you were gone, they turned around and left. You’ve got to forget all this crazy talk about building clinics, at least for a while. You’ve got to think about the business.”
The problem was, for the first time ever, I was truly thinking about business—my father’s business—my life’s work, in fact. I told the waitress to tell the skeptics not to worry, that I was the same Ly they had always known. I told Kenneth that I would try to spend more time at the restaurant, particularly during rush hours, but I couldn’t promise anyone that my first trip to postwar Vietnam would be my last.
Under these conditions, daily life just dragged. My increasing dissatisfaction with things showed on my face and in my words. My dreams, like the window of my Vietnamese touring car, were filled with gaunt-eyed Amerasian kids, crippled beggars, and starving farmers. The bills that had stacked up during my absence now multiplied like rabbits. Tenants in my San Diego rental moved out and I had to replace them fast to keep up with my insatiable mortgage and insurance payments. My portfolio of other investments demanded more of my time. Kenneth now “rode my bumper” to make up for losses caused by my absence, and the nice, wealthy retirees I used to entertain with songs and fortunetelling now seemed grotesque—overfed and overprivileged parasites hoarding and wasting food and medicine and shelter that could have kept thousands going for months in Vietnam. I was losing my perspective—and my ability to smile.
Even worse, my own household was beginning to show the strain of keeping up with our rich, materialistic lifestyle. On my trip, I envied my niece, Tinh, whose children would help each other get ready for school and eat all their meals—sometimes only a bowl of rice—together. They would come home in the afternoon, bow to their parents (Bien was a barber who had a shop in the front of their house), and say, Thua ba ma con di hoc moi ve—“Greetings, mother and father, we’re home from school!”
Now, back in the United States, my own son Jimmy—conscientious, independent, and hard-working, like “Grandpa Phung”—was taking his toughest courses in computer science and working part-time; he seldom called home, even for money. Tommy’s high school counselors called plenty, though, to complain that he was still tardy or cut too many classes. Even little Alan, who had only recently come to terms with his tragedy, started doing poorly again—withdrawing into himself, ignoring his friends, showing little interest in academics or the big wide world around him. This was not good for a growing, thriving young spirit. On the contrary, it was all too typical of graying, dying souls. Not only had I become a harried “capitalist,” I had lost my touch as a mother.
As the demands of the material world increased, my will to keep up with them diminished. I would come home from the restaurant and sit at my desk trying to sort through the mountain of bills and paperwork. Tasks that before my trip took ten minutes now took an hour. Sometimes I would fall asleep at the desk and wake up with a terrible headache or backache. Other times, I would stretch out on the couch and not attempt the long climb up the stairs to my bed.
Like it or not, I had become danh loi, a slave to my wealth. I had reached the oasis of glittering treasure for which every poor peasant yearns. But I found that after tasting security and comfort and excess luxuries of every kind, their sweet syrup was as dust in my mouth.
And now Agent Treacy was on the phone again, asking for another interview.
On the day of our appointment, I took the morning off and caught up on my reading in spiritualism and philosophy. I listened to new-age music to calm down and prepare for whatever would come. Agent Treacy wouldn’t say what this second interview was for, so I could only assume he had checked my background and run into discrepancies. If the holes in my story were big enough, I might not even be home to make dinner for Tommy and Alan. Even in America, it seemed, you could be asked to come to a meeting.
James was polite as always as I poured him some tea. This time, he came armed with a thick manila folder, which he carefully laid on my coffee table like a loaded gun.
“I looked through your visa and marriage application from 1969,” he said. “I couldn’t read most of it, so I’ll have to ask you to help me out.”
He produced his trusty pad and pencil and I knew I was in for a grilling. Even if most of my file was in Vietnamese, the FBI could undoubtedly have had it translated. It was clear that he intended to trap me with my own story: to see how well a comfortable, naturalized citizen’s recollections matched the statements of a terrified teenage mother sixteen years before.
“First of all, how many brothers and sisters do you have? I’m afraid the record isn’t very clear on this.”
I gave him the capsule history of my family, including my wayward “Hanoi brother,” Bon Nghe. He wrote furiously in his book. One’s first instinct in a war zone is to try anything that works, but I resisted the urge to make up stories I thought he wanted to hear. I recalled what I had heard before I left about the officials in Communist re-education camps forcing you to write and rewrite the story of your life—your “political errors”—until failures of memory and contrary opinions looked like criminal guilt. I stopped worrying about what I said sixteen years ago and said only what I knew was true today. Oddly enough, the simple truth worked just fine.
When he was satisfied with my past, Agent Treacy inquired about my future.
“Have you contacted the Vietnamese Mission since you’ve been back?”
“Yes, a couple of times,” I replied, surprised he didn’t just listen to his tapes of my telephone conversations—unless, of course, the line wasn’t tapped. “The first call was to thank them for helping me see my mother. The second was to ask for information about what I could do to help Vietnam recover from the war.”
“And what did they tell you?”
“They said that because the U.S. does not officially recognize the government of Vietnam, I would have to make my contributions through private channels. They sent me a list of charitable organizations currently operating relief programs in Vietnam, and lists of medical and educational and industrial supplies they need most. They said that if I decided to do anything on my own—we had talked about building a small health clinic in my home village—I would have to have the proposal cleared by the government. I told them I wanted to meet some of the UN staff, just so I would know who I was dealing with before I got other Americans involved.” I gestured around the living room. “I live in a nice house, but I’m far from wealthy. I will have to depend on outside donations to get the job done. And there is still a lot of corruption in Vietnam. I would feel personally responsible to see that the money wasn’t wasted, or went to the wrong people or was spent for other purposes.”
“When will you meet with the UN representatives?”
“Not too soon. I’ve got a lot of problems to clear up first—with my business and my kids.”
“Did the people at the UN Mission ask you to do anything for them—any favors—even innocent things, like carrying papers back and forth?”
“No, they did not ask me to be a courier or spy or anything like that. They did ask for one thing, though—” I covered my mouth with a hand to squelch a giggle.
“What was that?”
“They wanted me to sing some songs to them over the phone. I told them my father had taught us lots of humorous songs about the Viet Minh and Viet Cong and Republicans and Americans during the war. I think the men in New York were a little homesick. I heard them laugh and shout around the office for the other employees to pick up the extensions. I felt like Bob Hope entertaining the troops.” I laughed out loud. Agent Treacy managed a sick smile.
“So, have you decided to go ahead with your clinic?”
“I’ve decided to look into it. I already know that I need permission from our government to build anything over there. The State Department must grant me a license and exemption from the law that prohibits ‘trading with the enemy,’ although you would think that they, of all people, would know the war was over.”
“Well, be very careful when you deal with these people, Ly,” James said as he closed his notebook. “Communists are very tricky people. They’ll make believe they’re your friends, then suddenly, pow—you’re in way over your head. And once they’ve got enough evidence to incriminate you, you belong to them. I know. I’ve seen it happen before—to servicemen, businessmen, even housewives.”
He picked up his big folder and I escorted him to the door.
“Well, you don’t have to worry about me,” I said, a little irritated at having to say it. “I’m an American citizen now and that means a lot to me. America has been very good to me and I’m not about to betray her. But I am also a daughter of Vietnam and its people are my brothers and sisters. They need my help and I really don’t think either government should stand in the way of my giving it to them. You know, we have a saying: An trai nho ke trong cay—When you pick fruit from a tree, remember who planted it. I owe my life to both countries. I want each to be better places—to get over the war and get on with life.”
“That’s a lovely thought.” James smiled and shook my hand. “We’ll talk again.”
I knew he was right on both counts.
As soon as he left, I picked up the phone and called the Vietnamese UN Mission. By now, it was late in the day in New York, but Mr. Tan, to whom I had spoken on my last call, was still in the office.
“Chao anh Tan,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “Hello Brother Tan. This is Sister Ly in California.”
“Oh, Chi Ly. How are you?”
“Just fine. I’m calling to let you know that I had another meeting with the American FBI. They are very interested in the Vietnamese I talk to in the United States. I think they’re afraid you want me to spy for you or something. I just want you to know that the purpose of their visits have been to question me. So far they have not asked me to spy for them and if they do, I will say no—the same as I would say to you. For me the war is over.”
Mr. Tan laughed. “It’s over for us, too, Chi Ly. Feel free to tell them anything you want—about us, about what you saw in Vietnam—everything. We are trying very hard to establish good relations with the U.S. government. We understand their concerns and know they have a right to inquire into these matters. We only hope they do not cause you and others to lose your will to return to Vietnam and help us out. So tell them the truth and tell them everything. When they see they have nothing to worry about, they’ll leave you alone, I’m sure of it.”
Mr. Tan’s words encouraged me and I said, “I’m very glad you feel that way because I would like to schedule a meeting for us to talk in New York. I want to tell you about the plans I have in mind to help the people of my village. Could we meet sometime in the next few weeks?”
“Of course.” It was now Mr. Tan’s turn to sound pleased. “Just let us know when you’ll be in town and I’ll make some time to see you.”
To thank the guardian spirits—the am binh, or “death soldiers”—who had escorted me on my journey, I decided to sacrifice a whole roast pig (a very pious and generous offering among villagers) on my family shrine. It was only the second time in my life that I had made such a gesture. The first time was as a teenager in Danang, when my chances for leaving the country looked bleak. The spirits looked kindly on my offer and a week later, I met Ed and the cosmic machinery was set in motion that eventually took me to America. Now, I would make another grand sacrifice, this time with the idea of getting my charitable work off the ground.
I couldn’t get a whole pig at Safeway, so I asked my girlfriend Hong to pick one up at a Vietnamese grocer’s on her way to join us for Vietnamese Thanksgiving. While I waited, I decorated my altar with flowers and fruit and burned incense and ceremonial money and spirit clothing.
But the appointed time came and went, and Hong was nowhere to be seen. After two hours I called her house and was told she had left with time to spare for the forty-five-minute drive.
A couple of hours after that, I was beside myself with worry.
I was about to call the police, fearing an accident or worse—perhaps an ambush by someone in Little Saigon who knew her hostess was a “dirty VC sympathizer”—when the phone rang. It was a woman who had stopped to aid Hong when her car broke down on the freeway. She just wanted me to know that my friend was all right and would be a little late.
Shaking with relief, I went to the altar and asked the spirits to return tomorrow for their “feast.” I then went for a walk in the sunset, chastising myself for letting my imagination run wild. The new course I had set would be full of opportunities for wrong thinking and panic. If I gave in to each of them—or even to more than a few—I would not only fail in my new mission, I would go crazy, and could easily forfeit my life. What I needed most was clarity—of purpose and of vision. I knew that would not come without a price.
Shortly after Hong and I celebrated our belated thanksgiving, I met privately with Kenneth in his office. He was happy that restaurant traffic had increased again. Since we were now making at least enough money to break even, he couldn’t understand why I was unhappy.
“I can’t work here anymore,” I confessed. “I’m always thinking about Vietnam—what I can and should do to help. In Danang and Saigon, outside restaurants like this, cripples and beggars line up for food all day long. The scraps we throw away daily could feed those people for a week. It just isn’t right. Before I came home, Anh and I were eating at a small restaurant and I finally told the manager to serve whoever was waiting out back a regular meal and put it on my bill. He gave a dozen people a feast and it only cost me five dollars. Five dollars! Here, I work like crazy and all I get for my troubles are more bills and more worries and headaches. Am I really so much better off with two houses instead of one, or three houses instead of two? Where does it all end? When I’m in the hospital? When I’m dead?”
I told him the story my father had told me of the rich farmer who asked to be buried in a hollow log.
“I feel like that rich farmer, Kenneth. It’s time to tear down my treasure house and give something back to the people who helped put me on this life’s circle.”
“Look, Ly”—Kenneth shifted uncomfortably in his chair—“you know I don’t really believe in all this spiritual mumbo-jumbo. I mean, it’s a nice show for the customers and maybe there’s something to it, but I’m a businessman, all right? It’s just not where I’m coming from. But I know you mean well. You’re my partner and you’ve helped my family earn money and I respect that. If you don’t want to be in the restaurant business anymore, just say so and I’ll find an investor to buy you out. To tell you the truth, some of the staff think you’ve hung around too long as it is. They’re afraid that all the publicity surrounding your trip will put us in danger. Here, take a look at this.”
Kenneth opened a drawer and withdrew an article from the Los Angeles Times. It was about a Vietnamese man in Little Saigon named Tran Khanh Van who was shot and seriously wounded during my trip because he talked openly about helping the people of Vietnam. I didn’t read the details—the businessman wanted to supply Vietnamese schools with computers or something like that. I’m sure Kenneth envisioned my name, and maybe his own, in the headline.
“You know who did this, don’t you?” he said. “The Chong Cong —the Vietnamese right-wingers. The Khan Chien and Phuc Quoc organizations actually run around in black pajamas and sandals and practice small-unit tactics at Camp Pendleton—yes, the CIA trains and equips them! They plan to keep the war going on in people’s hearts and minds. They want the Communist government to have more, not fewer, problems. They want to lead an insurrection or invasion. If a Vietnamese doesn’t support them, they assume he or she is Communist and burn their home or business. Their youngsters form gangs—South against the North, can you believe it? It’s ma cu an hiep ma moi—old ghosts come back to haunt the new! That’s why they stopped this poor fellow, and why they may try to stop you. Nobody likes the way you’ve been holding hands with the FBI, either. A lot of people came into this country on false papers or with illegal gold and jewelry and they want to stay as far from the police as possible. Like I say, Ly, I think you’re a wonderful person and I applaud what you’re trying to do, but my restaurants and employees don’t need this kind of trouble. We’re just trying to get by, eh? And do the best we can.”
Get by and do the best we can. How often I heard and thought those very words during my last few years in the war zone. Everybody yearned for peace so much that they came to the United States—often at great risk—and then promptly forgot the reason for their journey. Buddhist temples have sprouted everywhere but we still don’t listen to the temple bell. It was as if none of us had left home! Hadn’t we learned anything from the war?
“Okay, brother Kenneth.” I put my hand supportively on his arm. “We agree. If I learned one thing on my trip, it was that I have no right to endanger the ones I love simply by trying to help them. You have my permission to find a buyer for my part of the business. I’m sure you will set a fair price. I’m going to New York in a couple of weeks to find out if this whole idea of building a clinic is a real possibility or just a daydream. If it looks realistic, I’ll want to move very fast.”
“Good,” Kenneth smiled and winked. “A moving target is hard to hit!”
Just before I left for New York, my old friend Agent Treacy called and asked if I would be willing to chat with his State Department colleague—someone named Christopher Mayhew. Naturally, I said yes, mostly because saying no wouldn’t discourage them and would only make them more suspicious. I also realized I would eventually have to do business with the State Department to get waivers for the medical equipment and supplies I hoped to ship to Vietnam.
Agent Treacy’s visits were now becoming routine. By the time he rang the doorbell, punctual as always, I had green tea and Chinese cookies waiting by the sofa.
I shook hands with Mr. Mayhew. “I didn’t know my family reunion was so important as to bring you all the way from Washington,” I said with a smile.
“Any American contact with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is important, Mrs. Hayslip,” he replied pleasantly. “Believe it or not, your government truly does want better relations between the two nations. We depend on people like you—who take the initiative and go ahead of the diplomats—to tell us what to expect, and to let us know how we can help.”
“Well, that is a pleasant surprise!” I gave James a kinder look. Perhaps I had been too harsh on the young policeman whose biggest sin, like my brother Bon Nghe’s, was being too straight-arrow in his job.
I showed Mr. Mayhew the same trip photos—of my family, crowds of Amerasian kids, shots of various hospitals—that Agent Treacy had seen on his last visit. He riffled through them quickly. His questions, like his examination of the pictures, were cursory. For a man who wanted to help the Vietnamese people, he didn’t seem very interested in their problems.
“Tell me, Mrs. Hayslip,” Mr. Mayhew said finally, taking off his eyeglasses, “did you see any military installations over there? Any tanks or aircraft—anything like that?”
“No—just the old American planes at Tan Son Nhut.”
“How about troops in the streets? Artillery pieces? Jeeps?” They both had their note pads out now.
“No, only street policemen. And maybe a few jeeps.”
“Jeeps, you say? Were they Russian or American?”
“Well, I don’t really know what a Russian jeep looks like. They looked pretty new, though; not like the old GI jeeps I remembered from the war.”
Mr. Mayhew looked up at James. “Could be Soviet.” He turned back to me. “How about Russian soldiers? Who was riding in the jeeps—Vietnamese or Europeans?”
“I really didn’t notice—”
“When are you going back?”
“Well, I have an appointment next week in New York at the UN Mission. I hope they will tell me how I can return with some relief material for my village—you know, medicine, bandages, maybe an incubator for the little babies—”
“If you decide to go, please give me a call.” Mr. Mayhew presented his card. “There are a couple of things I’d like you to do for us—in the interest of better relations, of course.”
I stared blankly at his card. Somehow, it was more intimidating than Agent Treacy’s. “What sort of things?” I asked.
“Oh, strictly routine—things we ask of every citizen who goes into a country that’s closed to us diplomatically. We’re primarily concerned about Soviet involvement. Our satellites can tell us a lot, but they’re no substitute for a good pair of eyes on the ground. We want to know if you see any Soviet weapons or troops. Any installations for their soldiers or sailors or Russian warplanes at the airports.”
For a diplomat, Mr. Mayhew began sounding a lot like a spy. “I’m sorry, but I think you misunderstand me. If I go back, it will be to see my family again and to take whatever supplies I can to help my village. I really won’t have time to go looking for that kind of information, and wouldn’t want to do it even if it was allowed.”
“Of course, I understand.” Mr. Mayhew raised his hands. “No problem. Perhaps you can find somebody in Vietnam, then, who’d be willing to do that for us. Perhaps a relative or a friend. Somebody who trusts you. Trust is a hard thing to come by between Vietnamese and Americans, isn’t it? I’m sure you know somebody over there who shares our goal of better relations—somebody who would appreciate having a little bit better life.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! No way was I going to get somebody to spy for the State Department or CIA or the army or whoever sent this guy!
“I don’t think that would be possible.” I stood abruptly, signaling that the meeting was over. “Nobody in my family can read or write. They’re just simple peasants.”
Reluctantly, my “guests” stood too. James said, “I understand you traveled into the country with a gentleman from Norway, a representative of the UN’s technology training mission, is that correct?”
My god, he’s talking about Per—the kind European who befriended me in Bangkok when I got cold feet about going into Vietnam. His compassion and quiet strength was the only thing that got me on that airliner and through a foul-up in Vietnamese customs. What could they possibly want with him?
“Yes, I met a UN worker, that’s right,” I said cautiously. “Why do you ask?”
“No particular reason,” Mr. Mayhew said. “Did he offer you any money to work for him?”
That was the strangest question yet! “No, he was just a good friend to me—very kind and compassionate. What on earth is all this about?”
Mr. Mayhew smiled brightly. “Oh nothing. Nothing at all!” At the door, he extended his hand, which I shook tepidly. “Thanks very much for your cooperation, Mrs. Hayslip. I hope we’ll be hearing from you as your plans progress. Oh, by the way, I think I know of somebody who would be willing to pay your travel expenses—”
“You mean someone who would donate my airline ticket?”
“Something like that. For that matter, he might even be willing to donate some money toward your medical equipment. That kind of gear is awfully expensive, you know. Of course, you would have to bring back the information we talked about. That’s what interests him most.”
“That’s enough!” I shouted. “Look, I am nobody’s spy! I will not spy on Americans and I will not spy on Vietnamese! Who do you think you’re talking to? Stuff like that almost got me killed when I was a kid! I’m not going to get involved with it again! To you it’s just a big game, but to people like me it can get out of hand and is a matter of life and death. And your coming here like this, over and over, doesn’t help at all. When I wanted to go visit my mother, nobody at the government would even talk to me. Now that I plan to go back, you want to pay me to do your dirty work. Well, I won’t, do you understand? So please don’t ask me again!”
Mr. Mayhew had wilted against the door. Agent Treacy, though, didn’t seem surprised.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Hayslip,” Mayhew said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. But facts are facts. Vietnam is a Communist country. They may have treated you fairly, but even as we speak they are killing people in Cambodia. They have invited the Russians to come into their country and occupy all the installations Americans built. Our satellites show Russian ballistic missile submarines going into and out of the harbor at Cam Ranh Bay. Now, you may not think that’s important, but your government does. Our job is to keep this nation safe, Mrs. Hayslip, to protect even the citizens who don’t agree with us.”
“Cong san, Tu ban—” I stopped myself, took a breath, and began again in English. “You remind me of my brother Bon Nghe. Always suspicious. Never willing to take a chance and trust the other side. Don’t you see? You both say the same thing, just in a different language!”
I did not see Mr. Mayhew again. The more I thought about him and about my brother the more frustrated I became. Why couldn’t worldly men like Mayhew see the warmth of the Vietnamese people as well as the cold steel of tanks and missiles? Why couldn’t brother Bon admit most Americans were good people just like most Vietnamese—that everybody wasn’t trying to steal his country?
That night, I chatted with my father in a dream.
“Well, Bay Ly, you’ve done it again, haven’t you?” he said.
I liked these dream encounters because I was always very young again—never older than I was at his death—although I remembered everything that had happened since then, too.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Why, you’re caught in the middle again, aren’t you? The Americans think you work for the Vietnamese and the Vietnamese think you work for the Americans. What are you going to do?”
“They’re foolish. All they think about is the war.”
“True, but the hungriest child deserves the most food, isn’t that right? Mot mieng khi doi, hon mot goi khi no: A bowl of rice means more when you’re starving than when you’re satisfied. You shouldn’t turn your back on anyone who’s troubled, little peach blossom. Angry hearts are as much in need of healing as the sickest beggar in Danang. The beggar is healed when his belly is full but wounds of the soul take much longer to mend.”
“But how can I serve both the needy and the angry? Half want peace and the other half want war!”
“Build a center, Bay Ly—a place where both sides can come together, where the homeless and crippled can come to rebuild their bodies and their lives and the angry can make peace with their souls. Make it a place where everyone is welcomed with open arms, even if their wounds are hidden from the eye. Tell me, what would you be willing to pay for such a place?”
“Why, it would be worth everything I have, Father,” I cried, “and more!”
“Then you have named the price. I will send two am binh to protect you: the one at your left arm, a soldier; the one at your right, a monk. But only your feet can find the right path. Prepare yourself for a long and winding road.”
Shortly before my departure for New York, I received two more messages that would change my life.
The first was a letter from Per, the Norwegian technology adviser I had met on my way into Vietnam. He was responding to a letter I had written to his business address, asking for advice about relief work in Vietnam: what supplies were needed most, which officials to deal with and which agencies to avoid. He replied with a list of individuals he trusted and the names of international agencies and associations that could help me develop fund-raising contacts. Best of all, he mentioned he would be in New York—at the United Nations—during the same dates as my trip. I dashed off a letter with my itinerary including times that we could meet. Through Per, I could see a whole new world of humanitarian resources opening up beyond my little circle of friends in San Diego.
I also received a phone call from Dan.
He sounded very old and distant and I felt like asking some personal questions just to make sure the voice belonged to the man I remembered. He also sounded very anxious. He said he was on the mainland for a few weeks—in Washington for a military seminar and was calling between sessions to ask if I would fly East and visit him—to share the few days’ leave he would have when his seminar was over. I told him god was still looking after us—I would be in New York anyway and would love to come down after I had finished my business.
We said goodbye and my brain began to whirl. I wondered first why Dan had chosen to call now, after all these years. We had communicated sporadically since my card to him in Korea. I knew he was now a lieutenant colonel and that his career with the army had been very successful. He had served with distinction in fourteen Asian countries and was now living in Hawaii. He spoke not only Vietnamese but Mandarin and Korean, which meant he had more than a passing acquaintance with Asian culture. His eleven-year marriage to Tuyet, a Vietnamese woman, had produced two children (in addition to the two he and his first wife had adopted). The language of love in our letters had cooled considerably over the years. We talked less about finding peace in each other’s arms and more about making peace with the real world life had presented us. We were no longer two lost souls starving for love in a war zone. We were mature, middle-aged people with separate lives, hopes, and desires. A reunion with Dan would be nice, but I could not understand the sense of urgency in his voice—for me to come all the way to Washington when a stopover in San Diego on his way back to Hawaii would have served just as well. Still, as my mother used to say, Tinh cu khong ru cung toi—Lost love always finds its way home.
My meeting with Mr. Tan in the fancy UN building was more like a visit to a kindly family physician than to a high diplomat. He was mature but not elderly, and still “war thin”—bony like so many of his countrymen. He speech revealed a fine education and his etiquette showed fine parents. I gave him a short letter that described my modest plans for a health clinic near my native village. By this time I had decided that it would be best for me to provide the equipment and expendables—medicine, X-ray film, bandages, syringes, and so on—from the United States and to provide funds for construction materials if Vietnam would provide the labor. I also hoped to arrange for a few volunteer physicians and nurses to go over, too, but so far I had no commitments. I had no financial statements or working schedule or lists of patrons. I just wanted to show the UN representatives that I was sincere, capable, and uninterested in playing politics on either side.
Mr. Tan read my letter carefully, then said, “I am pleased with your desire to help, Chi Ly. I will forward your letter to my superiors in Hanoi. In the meantime, I advise you to work with the U.S. State Department. No materials can be shipped until you have obtained the necessary waivers to the laws restricting American trade. I warn you, though, it will be difficult. Yet even if you fail, your actions will be noticed by the politicians who make American policy. Eventually, if enough Americans feel and act as you do, these needless barriers will be dropped and your village will have its clinic and more, I’m sure of it.”
I was a little deflated as Mr. Tan showed me out. I’m sure he regarded me as another well-meaning housewife with a little cash and spare time whose big plans would shrink quickly once the going got tough.
My meeting with Per was more encouraging because he knew many more ways to skin a cat. Per’s solution, like the advice I had received from others in San Diego, was to work through established organizations that already had permission to perform humanitarian work in Vietnam. This made sense, especially since I was a little nobody and big organizations like the UN and Red Cross had money and staff and connections in high places. Still, I was mindful of what Mr. Thay Vu Tai Loc—the famous psychic—had told me in my latest reading. My fate was to lead, to spread the seeds, so that others could follow and cultivate what I had planted. Giving plans and money to big organizations to do the work fate had assigned to me just didn’t feel right. Still, Per’s encouragement alone was worth a million dollars. I knew his ideas and the list of resources would be invaluable later on.
With business behind me, I had the luxury of feeling like nervous little girl on the short flight to Washington, D.C. I hadn’t seen Dan in fourteen years. I knew from his letters and telephone voice that he had changed—as I had. Overcoming false expectations can waste a lot of time and cause a lot of heartache. It would be far better, I decided, to encounter Dan afresh, with a clean emotional slate, than to overload him with baggage from an era—a war and a life cycle—so long past.
The shuttle bus from the airliner deposited me at the terminal and after struggling with my carry-ons to the concourse, I spotted Dan standing tall and straight as a flagpole in his dress uniform.
I dropped my bag and we embraced like old friends rather than lovers. As curious as I was, I avoided staring into his face, but took in the wrinkles, gray temples, thick eyeglasses, and sagging chin through shy glances as we walked to get my luggage.
“How was your flight?” Dan asked, not above a little peeking himself.
“Sad,” I said. “I sat next to another Oriental woman and all we did was talk about our families. At least I’ve seen my mother one last time, and this lady was very jealous of that. But how have you been? You are as handsome as the last time I saw you!”
“It’s the uniform,” Dan joked. “I’m still the same dumb Wop you remember. How are the boys?”
“Jimmy’s a computer whiz in college. He’s helping me with my book. Tommy’s in high school—he likes chasing girls and playing baseball more than going to class. Alan’s doing okay in elementary school, but I think he’s a little lonely. He deserves a better home than the one I’m giving him now.”
“I still think they have the greatest mother in the world,” Dan said as if he meant it. “And one of the greatest-looking. You haven’t aged a day—really!”
We found his rental car and started the long drive to his hotel, talking about old times and avoiding what was really on our minds: what our lives would have been like if we had stayed together and what, if anything, the future held for us.
After dinner, I began talking about the great comfort I had discovered in my studies of the spiritual world, but I could see Dan tune me out. This surprised me, because, with his great knowledge of the Orient and decade-long marriage to a Vietnamese woman, I would’ve bet he had developed a deep appreciation of this all-important side of our nature. In some ways, I felt again like the ignorant little farm girl he first met in An Khe. In other ways, though, I felt like a monk myself: old maid Ly who had finally transcended her earthly cares—at least the small ones. I knew most Americans, even the very religious ones, pooh-poohed spiritualism and Eastern philosophy because they worshiped at the shrine of science. They couldn’t acknowledge the possible existence of a more-than-rational world—a flip-side to the universe, as hidden to the five senses as the inside of the atom. It all made perfect sense to me, which was why people like Dan never quite knew how to handle my enthusiasm for it. To them, I was just a gullible peasant and always would be.
Dan offered to let me share his room and save on hotel expenses. I was grateful for that and said I would take the couch. I could tell he was a little disappointed that we would not sleep together, but he was still a gentleman and said an old soldier would be more comfortable on the couch than a pretty lady, so we swapped. It was a queer way for two old lovers to spend the night, but it was the only way that felt right.
The next day Dan went to his seminar at the Pentagon and I treated myself to a quick tour of my adopted nation’s capital. All the grand monuments and sprawling buildings stood in sharp contrast to the shoestring memorials (often made with salvaged materials, like U.S. artillery casings) and dumpy offices used by the Vietnamese government. I was especially impressed with the enormous statues of Thomas Jefferson and my favorite, Uncle Abe Lincoln, who stared down at me like a Buddha, all-knowing, and a little bit sad because of what he knew. These men were heroes, of course, so it was okay to make them larger than life; but they were also politicians, which meant compromising and hurting some people in order to help others. From this perspective, religious statues seemed much better, because the monumental size reflects the immenseness of the viewer’s own spirit. I could only wonder what people like Dan felt when they stood before the big statues of conquerors and generals—shrines to earthly power. Perhaps their awe was the closest they would ever feel to true spirituality. If so, it was a poor imitation of one of life’s best things.
After Dan got off work, we walked to the Vietnam War Memorial, which vibrated with psychic energy. I was not surprised to learn that a young female Asian architect had designed the monument. To me, it embodied the dark spiritual connection between heaven and earth that the war was all about. We walked slowly down the enormous family headstone: U.S. servicemen and women killed in the war. I shivered as a spirit voice called, “Lanh leo co don qua—I am cold and lonely, why am I here?” I answered silently, “Because it was your karma.” I looked down at the flowers arranged neatly all around the wall and silently added, “At least your family has remembered you.” I wondered if Americans realized how much this great memorial resembled a Buddhist shrine.
I stopped and put my fingers on one of the names. I wondered if I had talked to or seen this man during his tragic, one-way visit to my country. I wondered how many of these men had made love to dark-skinned, dark-haired Vietnamese girls and left their seed to bloom as the gaunt Amerasian kids who had stared at me on my visit. What would the children say if they could be magically transported to Washington to encounter their fathers at this shrine? I couldn’t help but think that both souls would find a little peace.
I also wondered how much longer and taller and sadder this wonderful monument would be if the names of all the people killed in the war were added—the millions of Vietnamese, including civilian women and children. It would remind us that war is only a factory for building bad karma and reinforcing blind vengeance—not some kind of athletic field for showing patriotic prowess. The spirits inside the giant statues of politicians would never allow such a monument to be built, of course. With such a terrible truth staring them in the face, no men born of women could ever again order their sons off to war.
After seeing the wall, Dan and I had a quiet dinner, although my heart was anything but still. The more I wanted to talk about my feelings, the more Dan seemed to withdraw. To him, matters of the spirit were best left to the chaplain. Giving and following orders was part of military life—he accepted death along with his GI paycheck. As much as he loved children, his own and mine included, he would not hesitate to send them into battle even if he knew they would return only as names on a wall. “That’s life in the military,” Dan had said on more than one occasion. “That’s how we are trained: to kill or be killed.”
I got so discouraged with my “soulmate” that I could think of nothing more to say. After I had been quiet a long time, Dan forced a smile and said, “So—what are you going to do now that you’re out of the restaurant business?”
“I am thinking of starting some kind of organization to help my people in Vietnam.” I tried to keep it simple and businesslike—no spiritualism—just organization and mission, terms Dan would understand.
“Hey, that’s great! I know the Vietnamese want all the help they can get. You know, my wife visited her family not long before you did. Her uncle is a physician trained in the North. If we had known you were going, we could’ve given you some pointers.”
“No kidding! Tuyet went back to Vietnam? Even though you are a high-ranking army officer?”
“Sure. My background had nothing to do with it. She just wrote for her visa and went.”
“And she didn’t get any calls from the State Department or the FBI?”
“No, why should she?”
I was silent again, but this time in puzzlement. My first impulse was to accuse the government of racism—of harassing me because I was Vietnamese; but Tuyet was Vietnamese, too. It didn’t make sense.
“Well, anyway,” I continued, “I’m trying to finish a book about my life and my family. If I can tell Americans what life was like in the villages, they’ll understand the war better and some may even feel like helping.”
“That’s very admirable, Ly. But how are you going to support yourself and the boys while you do that?”
“Tommy and Alan still get a little cash from Ed’s and Dennis’s social security. I’ll make some money when my share of the restaurant is sold. Besides, I still have three houses in Southern California, although the rent just pays the mortgages. I have some money in stocks and bonds, too, and I still have title to that silly property in Idaho Dennis bought. Maybe when I’m an old lady I’ll move up there and grow rice and sweet potatoes!”
Dan’s face lit up. “How much do you think all your assets are worth?” He got out a pen and turned over a cocktail napkin.
I was pretty sure what my Escondido house was worth, but I could only guess about Dennis’s land and our old house in San Diego. And we hadn’t owned the house in Temecula (which we used as an apartment for Hollylinh staff) long enough to have much new equity. I hadn’t checked the value of my portfolio, either, although my broker kept calling and asking me to invest in one scheme or another. I made the best guesses I could, erring on the side of not-too-much, and Dan added them up.
“My God, Ly!” He whistled. “You’re a millionaire!”
The bottom line on the napkin read “$1,300,000.”
I was speechless. Everyone joked about American millionaires but I never guessed I was among them. My cash on hand was too puny to feel wealthy—I almost always came up short on monthly bills. To me, the houses were security for old age, when I couldn’t work anymore—like rice paddies full of grown sons and daughters.
“Well, here’s to that little farm girl from Ky La.” Dan raised his cocktail glass. “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
I answered his toast with a grin, but my mind was racing ahead, wondering how Escondido’s “newest millionaire” could use her sudden wealth to realize her dream for her people. After a minute or so in the fog, I realized Dan was speaking. “I’m sorry—what did you say?”
“I said now that you’re a lady of means, you should have a man to look after your assets.”
I shrugged. Somehow, inviting a man into my life seemed like the last thing I ought to do. “I don’t know. I seem to be doing okay.”
“Sure, right now,” Dan was more animated than I had seen him since our reunion. “But what happens when you get preoccupied with your organization? What happens when you want to spend more time in Vietnam, or travel on the fund-raising circuit, or go on radio shows to talk about your book? What will happen to Tommy and Alan with no parent around to guide them with their problems?”
These were all good questions and, to be honest, I hadn’t thought about any of them. I’d somehow imagined that I could raise money and get equipment and supplies and coordinate transportation and write my book and do all of that from my house. What did I need besides my shrine, my kitchen, and a telephone? But Dan was a man of the world—feet planted in reality, not spiritual outer space. I couldn’t ignore his advice.
That evening we sat together in Dan’s room, shoes off, in our bathrobes, talking like old married people. With some hesitancy, Dan admitted that his life with Tuyet had not been the bowl of cherries he had led me to believe.
“To tell you the truth, Ly,” he said, “that’s why I invited you to D.C. I wanted to see you again, to help me make up my mind about leaving Tuyet. The children are the only reason we’d stay together, but I’m beginning to think that would be a big mistake.”
Dan cradled his head on my lap. I stroked his silver-streaked black hair and really felt sorry for him, and also for myself.
“You know,” I said, “I was jealous of Tuyet all these years—married to the only man I ever loved while I wasted my life with Dennis. I let him bully me into marriage. If I had been stronger, you would’ve married me, not Tuyet, and you would not have these problems. Toan thien toan my—Both our lives would be perfect.”
We fell asleep in each other’s arms, just like fourteen years ago at An Khe, before Viet Cong rockets disrupted our paradise forever.
The next day was the last day of my visit and Dan decided to make the most of it. After more sightseeing, he drove me out to a picturesque point by the Potomac and brought a chilled bottle of champagne and two plastic glasses out of the trunk. My stomach was churning—I was already beginning to miss him—but I didn’t want to spoil his mood.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked, accepting a cup.
“In five years,” he began, “I’ll retire as a full colonel. Between now and then, I’ll have my choice of assignments—I’m thinking of Indonesia or Malaysia. The army will provide me with nice quarters and a houseful of servants. I’ll have big parties and entertain diplomats and businessmen from all over the world. After that, I’ll take a civilian job that’s been offered to me for more than a hundred and twenty thousand dollars a year. So here’s the deal. You want to help the people of Vietnam and I want to help you. If you live in Asia, it will be much easier for you to visit Vietnam and control the resources you provide. If you have a good man to watch over you and your boys, your mind will be clear and you’ll be able to concentrate on your mission. That’s what I’m offering, Ly. I want us to pick up where we left off. Tuyet and I are finished. Anh yeu em nhieu lam minh oi—I still love you. You are the only woman I want in my life, but only if you still want a big dumb dago like me!”
I hugged him hard, spilling my champagne. “Of course I still want you! I have wanted you all these years. Maybe god has made us wait so that we could each learn our lessons about marriage first—so this time we could get it right, eh?”
He hugged me back and we kissed like teenagers and he finished his champagne and mine as well.
“Of course,” I said, “I must discuss this with my boys. Their life is in America now. They may not want to leave California.”
“Don’t worry.” Dan’s enthusiasm was boundless. “I’m stationed in Honolulu. It’s just like San Diego, only better: prettier beaches, prettier girls—and all the Big Macs they can eat. The boys will love it.”
Everything was moving so fast, I was literally out of breath. One minute I was a lonely widow trying to keep the world from running me down; now duyen den! I was a bride, with the whole world spread out before me.
“What shall we do first?” I asked. A thousand details crowded my mind.
“First, you should move to Hawaii—right away, before the end of the summer. That way, the boys can start school in the fall semester and we can be together while we plan our wedding and new life.”
“Well, I can’t just pick up and go. It will take a bit of time.”
Dan smiled. “I’ve been in the army twenty-five years, Ly. Everything I need, everything that really counts, fits into one duffel bag; that, or right here—”
He placed his hand over his heart. I kissed him again.
“Anyway,” he concluded, “I’ll pay for everything. Get a property manager to rent your houses. Put the things you don’t need into storage. Tuyet and I recently sold some investment property so I’ll send you thirty thousand dollars as soon as I get back. Will that help you settle your affairs?”
I could think of no reason—practical or otherwise—to say no to Dan. We returned to the hotel and celebrated our honeymoon early. It was the closest thing to that golden week in An Khe I had yet experienced. I was secure. By going back to Vietnam and returning, I had completed the first great cycle of my life. I had discovered my life’s mission and was making ready to fulfill it. My boys were healthy and on their way to becoming fine young men and good Americans—a credit to their Phung ancestors. Now, I would marry the love of my life and, like Lao Tzu’s famous traveler, take the first step on my “journey of a thousand leagues” to be at his side. I had finally paid off my debt of hi sinh and was my own person in the universe. My next life circle was opening with the power of love—of the smiling Buddha—behind me.
What could possibly go wrong?