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
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
"Troi dat oi!! Co mot nguoi My!" (Holy cow, there's an
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.
"Thiet? O dau?" (Really? Where?)
"O do. DO!! Coi khong?" (Over there. THERE. See??)
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
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,
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
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
"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.