combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

The Blond Viet Namese Guy

It was a beautiful morning. People in America could not understand how any morning in Viet Nam could be beautiful, but it was.

Kien Phong province, more commonly known by its traditional name of Cao Lanh, didn't have much of a war going on anymore. It was only years later, back in the States, that I found out that parts of Cao Lanh had, once upon a time, been hostile, but that was before the VC Tet attacks backfired, causing the VC infrastructure to implode. They lost militarily, and lost all credibility with a rural populace, who eventually came to view them as irrational adventurers, and bearers of hollow, deceitful, and lethal promises. Moreover, the Saigon government had launched a land reform program by which over 2,500,000 acres of prime rice land was given, free of charge, to about 800,000 former tenant farmer families, people who had been, and were no longer, doomed to a life of eternal penury. Now they had their own land and liked the idea. VC recruitment appeals suffered accordingly.

Hence, the purpose of this day's journey was to check out the implementation of land reform in a district, whose name I've forgotten, halfway across the province, along the Mekong River. Tom O'Dell, a USAID province representative, asked if I'd like to go along with him, and although it wasn't among my assigned duties, I gladly accepted. Serving on my third year in Viet Nam, and having had formal language training, and having worked with the Viet Namese on a daily basis, I'd attained a degree of functional fluency in the language, and had come to respect the common people of Viet Nam – a people long and unjustly maligned by abysmally ignorant and idiotic reporting. Yes, it would be a welcome diversion.

We set out in the USAID's International Scout, bouncing along a gravel provincial highway, rutted and pot-holed, leaving behind the province capital, and its population of maybe five thousand souls. In many respects, Viet Nam was not simply halfway around the world, but three hundred years back in time. No power lines paralleled the road, nor any other sign of the Twentieth Century. Traffic, such as it was, was limited to periodic Honda motorcycles or a battered provincial bus, jammed to the gills with people and trundled up ducks and chickens. The small hamlets we passed through comprised thatched huts, with no downtown to speak of, and looked much as they did, well, three centuries ago. The average stateside American would have been petrified at the prospect of driving, with no military escort and no firearms, save a couple of handguns, through the middle of the Mekong Delta, but there was no threat, no combat activity to speak of, aside from random terrorism, and so we were able to enjoy the bucolic tranquility, highlighted by Viet Nam's perhaps 485 different shades of green. Thirty miles away in Dinh Tuong, it was a very different and much bloodier story, but not in Cao Lanh. The fact is that we might just as well have been driving across Iowa, though on a much better road. Mud splats spread across the windshield as we bounced through puddles, mesmerized by the iridescent green of rice paddies, looming treelines, and even the inexplicable presence of what must have been an old French mansion, now abandoned and forlorn, within a grove of trees.

An hour or so later we arrived at the hamlet, located off the highway on a poorly maintained side road. The hamlet lacked power lines, pavement, or any other aspect of the Twentieth Century. People did not, as conventional wisdom would have it, all wear black pajamas, but most were barefoot, attired in simple cotton clothes, and engaged in normal village work. The women busied themselves around their thatch huts, some squatting as they prepared food, while the men talked with Tom. Again, contrary to the common perception that American units covered the countryside, few U.S. forces had ever operated this far up province, having primarily operated in adjoining Dinh Tuong and Kien Tuong provinces. Children, most of whom had probably never seen an American, clustered about, gaping, gawking – mutely wondering who and what these alien beings were with their light skin and blond hair. Tom set about arranging to inspect some rice fields while I simply tagged along, staying out of the way.

Preliminaries done, we set out on the hard-packed dirt lane that served as the hamlet's main thoroughfare. The children followed. Some of the younger boys, two and three year olds, were naked as jaybirds, while little girls wore cotton shorts. A number of older girls, perhaps seven to ten years old, barefoot in black cotton pants and floral pattern blouses, carried their younger siblings on their hips, obviating any need for dolls. All eyes were on us.

As we strolled through the hamlet toward the surrounding rice paddies, the children followed, whispering and twittering about the nguoi My, the Americans, not suspecting that they were understood:

"Troi dat oi!! Co mot nguoi My!" (Holy cow, there's an American!!)
"Thiet? O dau?" (Really? Where?)
"O do. DO!! Coi khong?" (Over there. THERE. See??)
The increasing volume of their lilting voices indicated the gaggle was growing in size, and once or twice I turned around and looked at them, seeing mouths and eyes agape, somewhat apprehensive, wondering, stopping in their tracks as the nguoi My briefly gazed upon them.

At this point it is necessary to mention that, to this country's discredit, few – very few – Americans learned to speak Viet Namese with any fluency, and it was universally assumed, as a given, that Americans could not understand anything said around them ... the same as water buffalo or ducks or any other dumb beast.

The procession continued for another twenty meters or so as we approached the rice fields. The children's voices increased. The crowd was growing larger and more unruly. I stopped, turned around and faced the children. They halted, gazing in puzzled wonder. It was time to have some fun, so I said, summoning all the clownish expressions of surprise I could muster: "Co mot nguoi My ha? O dau? Cho toi coi nhe? Toi muon coi." (There's an American? Where? Won't you show me? I want to see him.)

The children became as silent as if struck dumb and motionless – as if witnessing the miracle of a tree talking, a carp tail-walking, or a parrot smoking a pipe! It simply didn't register.

I tried again: "Toi chua bao gio thay mot nguoi My nao. Toi muon coi. Xin vui long cho toi coi nhe?" (I've never seen an American. I want to see one. Please show me, OK?)

The women sweeping in front of the hooches, or squatting as they washed fresh vegetables, stopped, themselves amazed, and began smiling, while others looked out the doors of their homes, wonderingly.

The children stood, motionless, open-mouthed, petrified with puzzlement, exhibiting the beautiful sense of awe and wonderment that only children possess. Finally, an older boy, of perhaps eight or nine, broke the silence. He gazed up at me, somewhat shyly saying: "Ong. Ong la nguoi My." (You. You're an American.)

I turned around as if he were talking to someone behind me, then faced him again, saying: "O dau? Toi khong thay." (Where? I don't see.) – again acting like an American TV kids-show host with exaggerated mannerisms. That broke the dam. A chorus of voices erupted.

"You, you. You're an American!!", they squealed. Smiles crept across the faces of older children who sensed the game was on.

"No, no," I said. "I'm Viet Namese!" More smiles, more impish mirth.

"You are not Viet Namese ... you're an American!!!"

I was ready for them. "If I'm an American then why am I speaking Viet Namese?" Pausing for a second, I followed up with more convincing testimony to my ethnic origin. "I eat rice with chopsticks ... and I eat cha gio and pho and hu tieu and banh cuon all the time." Then came the ace in the hole: "And I eat nuoc mam (the tasty fish sauce) all the time."

These declarations simply did not compute, and the silent stares resumed. It was hard to keep from laughing as the smallest children stood bewildered, while their older siblings and friends displayed just a tinge of skepticism. I'd now gladly pay big bucks for close-up pictures of their bemused faces, and even more for pictures of the laughing mothers and grandmothers who were enjoying the buffoonery. The older ones renewed their inquisitorial assault.

"No, you're not Viet Namese. You're an American. You are. You have blond hair."

The rejoinder came instantly, along with a preemptive response to other anticipated questions: "I dyed my hair blond ... to look like an American. Then I had surgery to make my nose and eyes big, just like Americans. That's the truth!! Really!! Why would I make up a story like that?"

It didn't work. Now it was evident that the whole thing was a ludicrous farce, and the older kids' laughter set off a sympathetic explosion of giggles and laughter among the little ones ... yet I never conceded and kept insisting, while laughing with them, that I was Viet Namese. Dozens of birdlike children's voices rang out "You're not Viet Namese! You're an American! Yes you are!!" Denials brought even more laughter, and I laughed right back, vainly declaring my feigned Viet Namese origin. I ... WE ... were having simple goofy fun. Laughter rang forth on that beautiful day in a remote district of the war.

Tom's rice paddy inspection and discussions came to a routine conclusion and we got ready to leave the hamlet. The children clustered around again, eager to resume the great game. Though reaffirming my ethnicity I dropped the clown act and, as we left, somberly reminded the kids to study hard, always listen to their Mothers and Fathers, to be polite, and NEVER to dye their hair blond because they were already pretty girls and handsome boys. A few, still laughing away, insisted on telling me I was an American. As the Scout pulled away, I looked back out the window and waved, and the gaggle of children responded in kind, their little arms moving like rice shoots in the wind.

I've always wondered how long the story of the blond Viet Namese was batted about by the kids ... or their parents for that matter. Someday, if I could even find the place, I'd love to go back, just to see if anyone remembers that day, recalling it with the same joy as I do.

by William S. Laurie
... who is a veteran of the advisory experience in Viet Nam, founder of COUNTERPARTS, an association of Second Indochina War advisors and advisees, and co-editor of its newsletter, the SITREP. His book reviews have appeared in the National Viet Nam Veterans Review, the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, as well as the Pass in Review column in this magazine. He is the author of numerous short stories and essays, and is co-author, with the late Frank Brown, of an annotated bibliography of American fiction about Viet Nam. He has lectured widely and has published a pamphlet on the myths of the Vietnam War. He is working on a playscript and two book-length manuscripts of historical criticism.

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