Oh, my Mom. Did I tell you about my Moms fish sauce business? That was before the adventurous encounter with the Chinese smugglers on the Gulf of Tonkin and right after my grand fathers funerals.
Since my aunt, Ba Giao, was wealthy, she knew people in high places who could afford to be gourmets among other things, and of course a good fish sauce would make the difference. At that time, transport could only be done by trains or by boats. Trains were high on fare and not always available, boats were slow and suffered all kinds of risks while at large. But my aunt and her friends didnt let these insignificant problems bother them and their culinary pleasure. What they couldnt do, their husbands would have to manage at higher places.
And there my Mom was, with some of the money the family inherited, embarked in a tasteful journey North VietNam would remember in the future, for since then Hanoi was provided with the most incredible fish sauce ever. Wooden barrels full of the delicious sauce made in the province of Quang Binh were sent over by ship cargo and my Mom would have men pick them up at the deck and transported on cyclos to addresses planned. Cyclos are double seats on wheels with a driver pedaling behind. Those were good time for everyone. The manufacturers on remote beach areas, where my Mom regularly paid a visit to select her merchandises were happy, (I guess that must be like going to a wine tasting event?) My Mom enjoyed it and both her clients from both ends enjoyed it and she put plenty of food on the table at home. Needless to say, we enjoyed it: the sauce was divine. Light of color and transparently pure, you would need only half a teaspoonful of the sauce on a regular bowl of rice and you would feel delightfully contented.
Fish sauce from VietNam is like wine or cheese, it ages with time, when it is ready you will notice it, the smell would entice you, but do not let it venture on your clothes, my Mom said, because fish sauce would become dead fish. We would all have this experience sooner or later in our Vietnamese present reincarnation.
As we prospered my parents then rented another one story house right next to where we lived. The house had a store front and my Mom set up a sort of specialty place there selling only fish sauce retail to the lower middle class housewives of the "lower East Side". My sister Le, third in line of six children, who was then graduated from the Catholic Nuns School was designated to run the business. She fit in the situation perfectly. Being kind at heart, she became our little mother. She took care of the business, watched out for the little brothers and me who depended on her totally for primary care while my Mom was away. The servants would do the hard work in the house and cooked but still sister Le had to plan the meals, buy groceries and exercise some authorities over them. We didnt have glass doors or even sliding metal gates. We had large, huge hardwood panels with wooden hinges to close the front of the store every evening and to open it each morning. They were extremely heavy. It took a strong and muscular man to handle this task twice a day which was also an acrobatic show because the place was full of huge earthenware full of fish sauce of different kinds. These "pots" had a pear-shape and were haft buried in the floor for security purpose.
One night, and to our surprise, the store was broken in. Had not been for our little "Japanese dog" we would be caught by an unpleasant surprise! The thief had tried to lift the heavy door off its hinges and the dog, in barking, ran upstairs and pulled on our mosquito nets till we jumped up from sleep! It used to be my little dog when it was a puppy. We named him Mickey, at the beginning of the Walt Disney era. Mickey and I we spent a lot of time together. He and my oldest brother, whenever the latter could visit, were my two favorite playmates. Only Mickey was quieter. Picture him with white and brown fur laying leisurely on the couch and me sitting next to him, fanning him patiently and affectionately. Brother But was also quiet for a big boy that he was but he would do anything to get me a laugh. Children especially need to be listened to and talked to with attentiveness and my brother just did all that for me all the time. And we played silly games seriously, and we talked seriously about silly things. He liked to check on me to see whether I had cut my toenails or taken my daily eye drops. If he had to give me something, no matter how casual, he would always kneel down at my eye level to be able to look in my eyes to smile at me. One of the most incredible experiences of my childhood happened when I was 4, living in Vinh at the time. Brother But arrived from Hanoi the night before and I was already in bed. The next morning as I tried to make it downstairs, half sleeping half awake, there he was at the bottom of the stairs coming toward me with bright eyes and a smile that set fireworks in my little heart. And he handed me a piece of sweets he had bought for me while on the train. And we hugged and laughed.
Some ten years later, in the middle of the Battle of Quynh Loi, a comrade found him with a bicycle in a trench that was set up as a shelter for warfare. When asked why he was with a bicycle, my brother said: "If we survive this, I will take the bicycle to my little sister". They had to move South that night; Brother But and his friends had to do it crawling on their stomach. He pushed the bicycle in front of him inch by inch till they all came back to headquarters which was our house looking over the University campus. The French troops were not far away.
Three days later, we lost the battle of Quynh Loi. I lost my 3 brothers in one day and I lost a bicycle I have never seen.
If my brother But is still alive today, he would be 80 years old this November. I have no idea what we might have become. He would have had a family with children and grand children. They might have been happy or not very happy, but one thing I know for sure at this very moment is that I have plenty of love and sympathy for everyone on this earth. The seed of this wonderful feeling has been with me all the time but I, being overwhelmed by the ups and downs of survival, did not pay attention to it, let alone nurturing it. Hardships of different kinds inside and outside have taken turn to conceal it and have tried to damage it. Haft a century has passed by, now that I look back, the love has never been concealed or damaged. On the contrary, it fed on itself and grew and grew and waited and waited for me to be ready.
Ready to have both feet on the ground and smile and be proud. Be proud of what I am and of what I am not.
In the meantime the fishsauce story, like all happy stories on earth must also come to an end. World War II roared in the West. Its echos rippled through the lives of innocent people. Vietnam trembled under the weight of foreign powers. No more delicious fishsauce in the famous noodle soup Pho or the favorite stew. The fishermen feared of venturing at sea when the Japanese were controlling the Pacific Ocean and the coasts. Reconnaissance Air Force from the U.S was circling Hanoi, and later bombed Japanese military establishments. Of course, they missed them.
The capital was in that mood when my Mother, a housewife who could hardly read an write, left home for the Chinese border in the hazardous mission I have mentioned before. My father took me to Thanh Hoa where one of my aunt from my mothers side had a vacation house on the Sam Son beach. We were safe there. I went to a school in town 17 kilometers from Sam Son staying with a family -friend of the family and only came home to see my father on weekends. After a while, my family joined us; My parents were worried and disappointed, my sisters helpless and confused. There was no news of Brother But. Brothers Nghien and Mac stayed behind in Hanoi: number 1 they were not allowed to leave, number 2 they didnt want to leave. Thanh Hoa is about a few hundred miles from Hanoi, but to us then it was so distant away. We couldnt communicate with one another and we were living on our mere savings. We were seven in the household and nobody was working. The Japanese were like ants all around. They have made Vietnam their training ground and their general Army Supply Store. Like Europe under the Nazi Occupation.
I used to have a teacher in College who was in Paris during the Occupation. She was of French origin and we used to talk a lot about these muddy times. Our conversation often turned around Anatole Frances written passage on Humanity:" La guerre a tue le genie francais et je meurs au seuil de la barbarie !" She was very sad and had no hope in a turning around from wars. I myself maintained that Humanity never dies, and nobody has ever to die because of it. For Humanity is the expression of the Universal Truth, like the Sun or the water at the bottom of the sea. The clouds may seem to chase the sun away sometimes, but *it* is always there. The hurricane may cause the waves to ravage the sea at times but hurricanes and winds are part of an ephemeral happenings; When they leave, the ocean will be calm again. That is water in its natural and genuine state.
During and toward the end of World War II, VietNams Sun has been chased by ugly and naughty clouds for a long time. Hurricanes and windstorms attacked VietNams Sea ferociously, so to speak. Humanity bent. Soon, the greatest Famine in the 4000 years of VietNam History arrived from the countryside and collapsed at the threshold of the monumental city. I wish somebody could tell my why the Japanese threw thousands and thousands of freshly harvested rice into the ocean and put 20 millions of hungry stomachs on rations of stale and moldy rice? When the stomach cries out of hunger, the heart goes dry. Revenge, anger and hatred prevail instead.
Bach Mai Street was where our family lived before and after the temporary evacuation to Thanh Hoa. Remember the University Campus? That was the SouthEast gate of town. It opened toward the Delta Provinces, the Red River Delta with all these rich orange tinted sediments from the Red River bed. A small rice basket if compared to the Mekong Delta in the South but it provided North VietNam with enough rice and vegetable for a happy and peaceful life since the people in the North are always known to be economical and disciplinary, ethically and materially.
Unfortunately during World War II, most cultivable land in Vietnam was confiscated by the Japanese Authorities to grow flax and other fiber plants thus nothing was left for future edible crops. People had no idea where the past years harvests went and wondered fearfully where the next would come from. The only path left for them to take was hopefully getting some jobs in the cities. But the cities were also condemned: Long lines, very long lines waited on the sidewalks under the scorching sun for thin quantities of rice rations, half of it already eaten by worms and moths. At home we ate rice soup instead of steamed rice because, with the water in the soup, it filled faster. But then it went faster too. We got hungry again after a couple of hours, may be less, and stayed hungry till the next meal which would not be served very soon.
Besides the puzzle I got with the Japanese mean attitude towards us Vietnamese, I was always happy at home among the hungry. Nobody ever got angry or frowned. Everybody tried to do their best and shared what they had. At least the family was together. And we still had one servant, only because she had no family to go to and she depended on us for her ration of rice. My brothers were still going to school, a friend of them regularly stopped at our house to have lunch with us, rice soup that was. He was from another small town of a poorer family so my parents offered to help out. I didnt understand what was going on at that time but in my pure and innocent mind I trusted that was something very good and worthwhile, that my parents had done for my brothers friend.
It was 1945. At the beginning I saw country people setting up tents on the campus, in front of the big buildings, on the lawn and later they spread out onto the large main driveway entrance. They were fine folks, some of them well mannered and educated. They came to sit down with us for a cup of green tea on the sidewalk benches and seemed to enjoy the changes that might bring better luck. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, black clouds hovered over all SouthEast Asia and VietNam was the main target. I watched our visitors get gloomier and gloomier and thinner and thinner. I watched their family get fewer and fewer and each morning a truck from the sanitary department would come to pick up the bodies of their loved ones to bring to a unknown collective grave. I saw limbs hanging out of the sides of the truck. I saw the mother go first then the father and I saw two beautiful sisters left behind sleeping in a dirty and worn out tent, on unfriendly grounds. They curled up with each other as if by making themselves the smallest possible, they could prevent themselves from hunger and cold. Their eyes got bigger with no life in them. I knew then that death has come, eating the once beautiful world of theirs, slowly. Why? Why? Could Anatole France be right when he desperately and indignantly said that Wars did nothing but kill all source of life creativity? In my mind I was hanging to a thin piece of hope and would bet my life so I might see a little light at the other end of the tunnel.
One day, walking nonchalantly across a driveway on the side walk, I was enjoying the fragrance coming from a package of grapefruit flowers I had on my hand, when suddenly, a man jumped out from nowhere, grasped it with such a violence my package and ran. At first, I was scared but then confused as to why the man would take some grapefruit flowers? And why was he so angry? Later when I figured that out, I cried for several days. It still hurts me every time the picture comes back. What happened was the starving man had taken the white and yellow color of the grapefruit flowers for the color of a cooked mung bean and sweet rice treat, a delicious snack. The atmosphere of hunger, fear and despair went on for a while. It was not unusual for us to open the front door in the morning to have a corpse or two falling in.
Food was scarce. I went to school whenever and wherever I could. So did my brother Nghien. Mac dropped out. He was seeing lots of friends in the neighborhood. I had no idea what he was into. Brother Mac was outgoing and friendly. He would help anyone in the house with errands or chores. My oldest sister Viet was the one who would take advantage of his good nature, and with Mom's saving too. Sister Viet was born in lavish comfort until she was 18 and could never give the practice up. She talked my mom into giving her all the savings she had, moved to Saigon to invest in a bakery/café, a practice very popular at the time in South Vietnam. My sister, with her extravagant style of living soon turned the café into a Mme de Sevignes boudoir where she would entertain her friends and spent all the money my Mom had made out of her sweat blood and tears. Mom didnt say a word while my aunt raged behind closed doors.
One had to protect ones familys honor. Otherwise my sister would miss chances to find a good husband.
With the Chinese Troops of Luu Han coming to disarm the Japanese after World War II, and the failure in business of my sister Viet, the family fell from Grace again. My parents rented the front store to a young man selling custom- made cotton blankets he would make from scraps. Raw cotton balls had to be beaten with a special wire instrument until it got really fluffy white at first before some other more complicated works. The sound of the big wooden club hitting the wire at regular intervals was a familiar music to us. He was a quiet soft spoken man who soon got attached to my brothers and my family a lot and used to help out with chores around the house. When the War against the French broke out, he joined the Resistance group to take care and cook for my brothers. Brother Mac had secretly adhered to the VietMinh Army. Brother But came back to join him as an independent combatant within the Tu Ve group defenders of the capital. He had been fighting at the NorthEast gate where he and his friends used to live. My guess is that Brother Nghien, inspired by the courage of his two brothers, volunteered to be engaged in the fighting for he was the most private and selfish one of the three. His dream was to be a Medical Doctor and he resented the war and everybody for having ruined it for him. He would never complain of the lack of comfort at home but would not raise a finger to help anyone either. We used to have a study room apart from the other room in the house where Nghien had his own desk. He would not let Mac of I come close let alone borrow or take his things away. He was quiet and of somber mood. His only love affair as I knew it ended sadly. The young woman died and my brother Nghien was heart broken for a long time. He kept it all to himself because he never really knew how to share, except once, with me. I love him for that forever; the moment had touched my heart deeper than I could imagine at the time.
It was one day during the madness and the sadness of Famine and Air Raids. Despair and Ruins reigned where grown-ups were on their feet running everywhere, haggard, looking for work, businesses, or anything that could help them through the day, where children were completely lost, alone and fearful at home waiting for the unknown. I was alone indeed when the door burst out open and my brother Nghien called my name aloud. He made sign for me to follow him into the kitchen. I was astonished because neither of us had hardly put our feet in the kitchen before. But there he was, trying to boil some water and after he had poured the water into a wide-mouth cup, pulled two small, very small packages from his pocket, opened them carefully then slowly poured the contents into the cup. I smelt chocolate. He looked at me and smiled. With a small porcelain spoon he stirred the liquid in blowing in the cup then handed it to me. "Go slowly, said he, may be you can save some for later". There was not much to save. The sweet cacao melange was delicious. It could use a little more sugar but it was good enough for me. I had almost finished the whole thing before I looked at him with my eyebrows raised, to what he shook his head. "No, I dont want any, thanks" he said. Then he straightened up, told me to be good and walked out of the door. I never thought of asking him where on earth he could find such a thing as cacao and sugar at such a wretched time. We never talked about it later. To these days, I cant have chocolate drinks or chocolate without feeling the taste of that hot cup of cacao Nghien made for me some half a century ago.