Vũ Ký

Dear young friend,

I’m going to trust you, my dear friend, with some confidences, without plan or logical order since I can’t seem to think straight at the moment. I’m filled with a welter of disordered emotions and feelings as a result of this strange situation I have before me, this psychological and social environment in this strange land in which we find ourselves, thousands of miles from our cherished homeland. Here we suffer cold winds, little sunshine and a lot of snow all year round, and yet we’re forced to accept it as our second homeland. Are you living in North or Central Europe, Australia, East or West America? The sound of your footsteps on a deserted pavement on some chilly night resembles an intimate voice from the heart of a lonely traveler, a lonesome person who has lost his homeland, on days like these.

I said loss of homeland, not of faith. Faith in people, people like you and me.

I was wandering the streets and almost by accident I stopped by a restaurant owned by one of our Vietnamese compatriots. I hung my jacket on the stand and walked inside. The light from the lampshades made white circles on the snow-white tablecloths. The ceiling was dim, but it was just bright enough to discern the paintings lining the colored paper walls. The decoration was humble but aesthetic, as though the owner wanted to create a special atmosphere for his clients.

I felt its warmth spreading through me, quite unlike the cold I had suffered when I walked with difficulty to the restaurant. It was so cold out that I felt it spread from my heart and chest to my limbs and my whole body. That was the cold of loneliness and loss, familiar to all who have been deprived of their cherished homeland. Nothing like the wintry grimace you saw on the face of local Westerners.

I settled down and looked around at the Europeans eating and talking softly at a set of tables. Some Vietnamese were sipping beer or tea. On the wall in front of me was a painting made of thick paper or cloth. Against a gray background, the picture showed a dark green bamboo grove where a white stork stood on a bamboo branch, bent over a pond full of white, green and yellow lotuses. A group of peasants were planting rice, while other storks stepped carefully through the muddy field and more flew by overhead.

It was a familiar scene in our country, very popular in previous years, but in this time and place it brought me disordered impressions and many lovely images of a peaceful, patient, pure, and noble people. People that have now disappeared. A people and homeland that have drowned in blood and tears.

Let’s dwell on that painting for a moment, with the storks flying through the open skies. It’s a beautiful scene, isn’t it? It reflects freedom, adventure, virginity, and purity, offering hope to those who are trying to survive in the material world. But who now can look at those storks and not see the image of an army general inspecting his private kingdom, before stalking off to another zone?

The storks remind me of those simple folk songs so popular among Vietnamese children:

A stork out at night looking for food

Stood on a weak twig and fell to a pond.

“Fisherman,” he begged, “if you have to eat me,

Cook me with bamboo shoots in pure water,

Since I’d hate to die unclean.”

Do you feel any pity for the stork? The Vietnamese, by personifying it, use it to convey their wish to be treated with respect and nobility even at their final moment. It’s the symbol of a people who always want to maintain their virtue, and refuse to die in humiliation and impurity, which debase their saintly souls.

Storks have also been compared to Vietnamese women, who are legendary for their remarkable perseverance in fulfilling their duties. They have even played the main role in a psychological folk song used by a military general in the Uy Vien village to encourage his troops to keep fighting the Nung rebels and hold out for victory. How pitiful but noble the Vietnamese stork is!

Bamboos too have often been portrayed as an important part in traditional literature and painting. With long and pointed twigs spreading out from the base, they look as simple and uncouth as in a Chinese classic painting! They’re almost everywhere in the Vietnamese countryside, near a dike, beside a rivulet, bordering gardens, in front and in the back of a house. They’re found on hills and around rice fields. They’re as closely related to the Vietnamese people as their shadows. Where there are Vietnamese, there are bamboos. That’s Vietnam.

But here the temperature is never high enough, and you can’t grow bamboos. I’ve traveled all around but I’ve never found any, and sometimes I miss them so terribly and love them so dearly I sneak into flower shops to look at the fake ones just to appease my feelings and imagine I’m back home again once more. You can fool the eye for a moment, but you can’t recreate the familiar sounds of their leaves or trunks as they rub against each other when the summer wind blows through them in the countryside at noon on a clear day…

But bamboos are not just simple and humble.  Oriental thinkers and moralists have meditated upon them, finding them symbolic of the noble, the wise, and the gentle. Their longish sections run from the root to the tip that oscillates in the wind, producing beautiful musical melodies as if played by an orchestra with dozens of flutes. To the Vietnamese, the vertical structure of the bamboo represents the respectful morality and personality of those who devote their life to a great cause, devoid of selfishness and egoistic glories or privileges. The symbolic bamboo, you might remember, was used by the first Republic of Vietnam as its national emblem. The completely blossomed white and yellow lotuses dotting the pond at the bottom of the painting, seem to embrace both the positive and negative energies of the universe, whereas those still closed flowers seem to store the sacred soul of the scenery. Every single lotus is beautiful and fragrant with a sweet scent that cannot be smelled from the painting.

Absentmindedly, I repeat in my mind the old popular song:

Nothing in the pond is as pretty as lotuses,

Growing from mud, yet, they bear none of its stinking  odor.

Vietnamese people from our ancestors downwards have often expressed their sentiment, spirit, and personality through such simple popular songs. In difficult situations, we Vietnamese stand fast with our morality, our just cause, and our national pride, allowing no wrong, inhuman, and unjust ideologies to influence us. Mud and dregs exist in any society; but the legacy of our ancestors was to teach us how noble the lotuses are so we can try to live up to that nobility, even though that’s not easy for the majority of us. At least, we can learn to be able to distinguish between the good and the bad to avoid being attracted to or drowned in the mud. ”Growing from mud, yet, they bear none of its stinking odor.”

I was so deeply in thought that I forgot to look at the next painting by my seat, depicting a serious youth with an extremely fine figure, uncommonly bright eyes, a red hat on his head, and a long black belt around his red-bordered blue coat. He sat upon a dark brown horse that galloped through a group of soldiers, its front legs rising high above a forest of bloody red flags. The young man, probably an army general who is enjoying victory, seems to be pursuing his enemy.

You may guess I’m thinking about something else. Well, I’m sorry about that. I don’t know what came over me in that inn tonight. Perhaps I was impressed by the surroundings, and suddenly I felt I loved our country so deeply that each object – a tree or a detail of a scene about the homeland – came to life, drawing me back to the far-away land on the other side of the ocean.

People often say that culture is what remains after everything else is forgotten. In this case, you and me, though we have been away from our distant homeland for years – five, six, or longer – the people and the country’s souls are still intact, forever lasting and present in us even if we want to forget or deny them. In fact, they attract us to the homeland more than ever since we have to live in exile perhaps indefinitely. But let’s go back to the painting by my side in the inn. I looked for the artist’s name at the bottom but I could only see a red seal with zigzagging lines under two fantasy words: Saigon 1962.

The artist was probably a Vietnamese who wanted to portray a young man of our country, one of thousands of vigorous youths who have been courageously and fiercely fighting our enemy to save the people and nation from danger.

The young man in the painting could well be Pham Ngu Lao, who defeated the invincible Mongolian invaders and the neighboring Laotian rebels, or Tran Binh Trong as described by Phan Ke Binh:

How outstanding Tran Binh Trong was

A descendant of Le Dai Hanh

A talented warrior

A loyal subject to the king

A hero who refused to live in humiliation

And chose to die in glory…[1]

Or he might be Ly Thuong Kiet or Tran Hung Dao or Le Loi. The way our country is now, perhaps every one of us is waiting day and night for the rebirth of a great hero like them to punish the enemy and take back the homeland lost as a result of so many wicked events.

We mustn’t neglect another possibility: the young man in the painting might also be Emperor Quang Trung, an unusually talented warrior from the Binh Dinh area. He was one of our greatest heroes, and gloriously fought the stronger Chinese enemy during the very first days of a Lunar New Year in the recent past. The youth’s poise reminds me of his demands, as king of a small country, that China return the two Kwang-Si and Kwang-Tung provinces to Vietnam and allow one of China’s princesses to be his wife.

I’d like to say more, in the hope of detecting the artist’s frame of mind when he painted the picture; nevertheless, I should let your memory work harder to enrich our already abundant national epic. History has proved that those known and unknown young men, our homeland’s dearest, brave children, always appear in our country at moments of crisis. Like the other numerous, brave and undaunted men who still fight on as I write, all of them have willingly worked just to glorify our traditional philosophy. “Where dictatorship, oppression, savagery, and hatred reign, resistance is born.” The noble concept of “To win over violence by great cause and overcome brutality by kindness” will eventually materialize again.

Our people’s bloodied and subservient attitude lasted thousands of years, yet, thanks to our heroic population, we raised our head again with pride, leaving behind as mere memories of all those historical, impermanent upheavals. The same is true at this present time. I’ve lived through poet The Lu’s “The tiger that misses its jungles” full of deep resentment, and an understanding has developed in me for those indomitable Vietnamese heroes who spend long nights in the huge prisons that litter our homeland these days. I believe they are firmly getting themselves ready for that day of national restoration to come. With that heroism, Vietnamese tigers will again return to their home jungles, and we shall never say die. Our presence on this planet shall perpetuate and flourish.

Now I’m going too far. Please accept my apologies. Just a few more words before I sign off. Everything in those two paintings – trees, objects, people – is so dear to me. Everything stands for something else, a sign, a message, a duty for us to carry out to pay respect to the soul of the homeland. All of them portray Nobility, Holiness, Gentility, Altruism, Indomitableness, Heroism, Responsibility, Patriotism, and Loyalty.

Storks, bamboos, lotuses, fighters… they don’t need much from our country, but that’s the lasting lovely nature of our Vietnamese fatherland. My being with our homeland has been unexpected and short-lived. My return to our origin has also been so short and in disorder, yet, only true feelings from the bottom of our heart count, right?

“Would you like a drink Sir?” a waiter asked with a smile, handing me his menu. “I’m sorry to have kept you waiting. I have to serve too many people.”

“That’s all right. I’d like a cup of tea please.”

“Of course. A friend from Saigon has just brought some special tea from Di Linh, Dalat. I’ll bring you a cup.”

“Thank you.”

And this is the end of my letter. I’ll write you again later.



[1] When captured in battle by the Chinese, General Tran Binh Trong was offered a very high position if he agreed to cooperate. He chose to die rather than serve the enemy, and was beheaded.