Despite all my attempts to avoid an encounter with the law, I found myself eating lunch with it.
Do to a slightly irrational fear of being thrown in a Vietnamese prison, and being polite, we were only able to take a couple of very low quality pictures of our first day in Muong Do.
When I finally arrived in the village of Muong Do, I didn’t know what to expect. If I’m honest I was will filled with a mixture of fear, anxiety, and hope. If all went well, I was going to get meet the people that captured my father back in the war. I tried to calm my mind by telling myself that this was an adventure like any of the other ones I had gone on, but that was only working partially. I knew this trip was different. The incomplete roads full of potholes, insane inclines, and beautiful views could only help so much in keeping me distracted from the plethora of possibilities that awaited me in the village.
I knew that I was in an interesting position, one that most visitors to the country don’t find themselves in. As the child of a former prisoner of war I was in an odd spot where my actions and words may have widespread political implications for myself and my family. The Vietnam-American War may be over, but the wounds were still there. When my father had made the same journey a year before it was so sensitive that an entire government escort guided him through the country. He even had a personal translator and handler present to make sure that all parties didn’t do anything to offend each other. I had none of that. I hadn’t even notified the government that I was about to make such a potentially politically sensitive visit.
On top of that, as an American born expat my head had been filled with all sorts of ideas of being detained as political prisoner. Growing up in America, the only version of Vietnam I was ever told had been through personal stories, war movies, and anti-communist tropes which made Vietnam sound akin to China where I could be thrown in a dark, cold, and damp prison for the slightest offense. Then, when I had arrived in Vietnam and told others of my plan to meet my father’s capturers, city dwelling foreigners who had never left the protection of their self-exiled expat ghettos filled my mind with more of the same. It was 2018 and the government had just instituted a new branch of the military dedicated to monitoring cyber traffic in the country, which had made many of the internet dependent foreigners nervous.
It was because of all these fears that I had decided to make this journey the way I did. No government notice, no Facebook announcement of what I was about to do. We hadn’t even told the parents of my partner and translator who was going with me. I wanted the real stories. Ones not listened in on or interrupted by a political official. I knew that whatever I was going to hear was going to go through the filter of memories already tented by time or distilled through the generations. I wanted to make sure I got the purest form of the stories I could. Ones my father couldn’t hear the year before as he was paraded through the countryside as a symbol of hope and friendship between two nations.
...Outside of my father and the body reclamation team sent by the US after the war to locate my father’s copilot, there had only been one white man of note to visit the village. A French explorer who had gotten lost in the mountains in the 1910’s...
So there we were, straddling an idle motorbike during national naptime, in the middle of Tet. The sun was high, and most of the uncles and aunties where either dozing off or so far through a bottle of rice liquor that standing wasn’t a viable option. Off in the distance we could hear children playing in the shade under stilled houses. The GPS said we were in Muong Do, but from what we could see, we were just in a mountain saddle. There was no semblance of a town, village, or even a hamlet. Just some random houses along the side the road. All we had was a name and a picture from an old Facebook Post a year before when my father had been there. We had been able to learn only one name, that of Mr. Chien.
My traveling companion Dieu Anh got off the motorbike and walked over to one of the houses. We could faintly here the sound of people chatting and laughing. Clearly, they were enjoying the freedoms from work afforded because of Tet. After a few moments she came back, took her helmet off and notified me that the house we stopped at happened to be the party leader of Muong Do. Furthermore, the men he was drinking with were the police.
It was the exact people I had hoped to avoid for as long as possible. I knew I was most likely going to run into them, or word of my arrival brought them to investigate. I wasn’t too thrilled, but I figured if it was bound to happen, I might as well introduce myself. On the upside, now no one could say we didn’t make our presence known to the proper authorities. I unseated myself from our little motor bike, took of my gear and made my may to the house.
I was welcomed in what I had become accustomed to as the typical Vietnamese greeting of a Westerner. Beer cans and glasses of rice liquors were raised, as a chorus of “ehhhhhssssss….” announced my arrival. I nervously sat down with a big smile, as irrational worries of a being a political prisoner raced through my mind. I purposely hadn’t told them who I was, and why I was there yet. I didn’t know how they would take it.
Over the next thirty or so minutes, a plethora of people passed through the house as word of my arrival spread like wildfire. From every direction uncles tried to ply me with liquor so as to be the one that got to drink with a foreigner. Thankfully, I had Anh there to explain my inability to drink alcohol otherwise I’m sure they would have constantly harassed me till I did. In exchange for me not drinking, she became my designated drinker. Every time an uncle appeared, new drinks would be poured.
Anh did her best to act as translator. There are 54 official ethnic groups in Vietnam, each with their own language and customs. Anh is Viet Kinh, the largest ethnic accounting for 87% of the population. The villagers of Muong Do are Muong, arguably the oldest in the country and most closely related to the Viet Kinh. While modern Muong and Viet are close and stem from the same proto language, Anh was still having a hard time understanding much of what was being said. It didn’t help that she spoke in a very proper Hanoian accent, and the villagers did not.
As she translated, we learned that the men we were meeting with were all party people and had seemingly come from a line of party members. It turns out, that very few white people have ever been to their collection of hamlets. Outside of my father and the body reclamation team sent by the US after the war to locate my father’s copilot, there had only been one white man of note to visit the village. A French explorer who had gotten lost in the mountains in the 1910’s.
In all the confusion, I had failed to take note of the young man at the table. He was younger than me and I assumed just a son of one of the uncles. He had been making phone calls and walking about through my entire short arrival. I also hadn’t noticed he hadn’t been drinking. It turns out that he was the new local chief of police, and he had just recently returned home from the police academy. Those phone calls he had been making were to those higher up the food chain. He was determined to do everything by the book.
After a while he politely informed everyone that we had to leave. Not to leave the village, but to head down to the local precinct and record my arrival. Anh says that outwardly I seemed happy and ready to forge on but internally I was panicking. The young police chief in his t-shirt and sandals hopped on his motorbike and waited. Anh translated to me that he wanted us to follow. As we started to pull off and crank the trusty little motorbike into second gear, three other young men from the gathering hopped on their motorbikes and rode along with us. I figured they were just along for the adventure as it was Tet and there was nothing else to do. I was wrong, they were the rest of the of the local police force.
As we continued down the road we wound through rice fields and rocky outcrops till we came to a steep incline up a piece of karst. I would later put together that it was the same piece of karst that my father had tried to climb during his escape attempt. Once on the other side of the climb we descended into a high mountain valley. In the distance we could clearly see the only two concrete buildings in the village, both panted government yellow. One the local party office, the other was the school.
As we pulled into the parking lot of the party offices, the police chief was already at his desk looking for a logbook to record our comings and goings. From his old and musty office, with cracked stucco he shouted out for us to bring him our passports. “This is it,” I thought “now they’ll know who I am for sure and my plan is ruined.” As we began to unpack our bag looking for the passports, I whispered to Dieu Anh that we should come clean with who we were and why we were there. I figured at this point if we tried to hide anything that would be suspicious, and if they recognized my last name then they would already assume a connection.
To my surprise the men didn’t seem to care that much, which makes perfect sense. It was a war long before their time and they had no personal connection to my story. For them, the story of the village capturing a prisoner of war was just something that happened a long time ago with no effect on their daily lives. They copied our papers and let us go. Well mostly let us go. We asked the police chief if he knew of a Mr. Chein. He did, but wasn’t exactly sure where the old man lived, but he invited us to dine with him at his house for a late lunch.
While we were technically free, it seemed to me that we had moved on to an informal interview of sorts. While the officer welcomed us into his home, his wife brought out all sorts of holiday delights. Again, a round of uncles appeared looking to clank glasses with the unexpected traveler. Again, Dieu Anh came to my rescue. As we told our story of why we had made the journey from Hanoi to this little village we ate. There we ate smoked frogs that had been tediously captured by hand the night before, roasted pork so rich in flavor the only spices on it were salt and peppers taken from the forest, seasonal buffalo jerky, fresh chicken, sticky rice, and of course the Vietnamese holiday special of chung cake.
After about two hours of confused delight, the young police chief appeared and notified us that that we could not stay the night in the village. I assume that our lunch had served yet another purpose of keeping track of us while he talked to his superiors. While this was perfectly fine, it did leave us in a bit of a predicament. The nearest hotel was about an hour’s drive away for someone that knew the way and was comfortable driving doubled up, with luggage, on dirt roads. For us that looked like it was more likely going to be a two-hour trip. To make things harder, it was already around 16:30 and the sun sets earlier in the mountains.
That though, and the next day when we finally got to meet Mr. Chien, will have to be reserved for another time and another day.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Writer, Adventurer
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