Vũ Ký

Early one Monday morning, while the whole neighborhood slumbered in the winter cold, I groped my way down the narrow dew-soaked path to the Tam Ky market. Behind me came my parents’ farm worker, who we called “Little Dog Ut”, carrying two round dried ‘gourd’ containers filled with white rice, which my mother provided for my monthly room and board expenses.

Sometimes we would start out so early, our eyes half-open as we stumbled to walk in a straight line, that we had to stop at a thatched watch-post on our way and take a short nap until dawn.

Homecoming from school usually meant a 12-kilometer trip on Saturday afternoon, and ended with a departure early on Monday to be in class in time. I felt an uncommon love for my mother, and a deep affection for my relatives who lived nearby. And I loved the surrounding scenery. Monday morning was hard, and I always wished I could stay longer to enjoy the rustic pleasures and my mother’s indulgence. She was a descendant of Minh Vien Huynh Thuc Khang, a famous intellectual who once edited the Tieng Dan (“People’s Voice”) newspaper in Hue. My father, who was the son of a local wealthy landlord and a stout resistant during the national upheavals (especially after the failure of the royalist Duy Tan movement), still looked physically fit in his forties. He had gone to school with Senior Tu in the neighboring village to prepare for what used to be the state-run obligatory Chinese characters examination. Those were difficult times, but he still regarded schooling as critical, if we were to be knowledgeable and useful to society. He devoted a lot of thought to education, to our choice of school and teacher, and his children’s schooling arrangements, especially the new French education system that no one else in the area had tried.

An excerpt I had to learn in French from the book ‘Back to School’ went round and round in my head. I was supposed to learn it by heart. A sudden cockcrow echoed round the neighborhood, indicating to me and my rice-carrying companion that dawn had begun. We began to make out the path more clearly in the dim light.

Inside Thap Phan’s house, where I stayed during the week, I set my books in order and then rushed off to school, carrying my French Natural Science and Reading textbooks under my arm. My school was a Franco-Vietnamese primary district school with five grades. When the crash of the one-eyed janitor’s iron gong rang around the playground, the pupils formed up in lines on the cracked concrete floor. Classes were starting again…

The more I remember my innocent childhood, the more I’m filled with love for my mother, who had to cook in the midnight Sunday darkness for my early departure in the morning.


A serious air hung over the school that day. Teachers stood at the head of their pupils’ lines while the principal, holding a thick book, examined the children with piercing attention. His sharp eyes looked always looked severe under the gray cap he wore to hide his baldness, but now their fixed stare at the teachers and pupils became uncommonly important.

After three sets of peals from the iron gong, Vo Cam, the principal, ordered the pupils to enter their classes, then had the teachers gather round him to listen to a message he had received that morning from the Tam Ky provincial office. There would be no classes the next day: the pupils were to spend their time rehearsing the procession to welcome the return of Emperor Bao Dai, who was making an official visit to meet people in the country.

The following day, instead of marching into class, the pupils stood in straight lines forming a huge rectangle on the playground, the lowest grades in front. The teachers gave everyone a small triangular red paper flag to wave on command, accompanied by shouts of “Long live the Emperor!” The rehearsal went so well that the children were given three days off school, although not everyone was pleased: some of children were forbidden to go home in the vicinities of Tam Ky.

The great day finally arrived. In the afternoon, the pupils, accompanied by their teachers, walked three kilometers to Phu Ly, where they formed a semi-circle in front of the provincial office, together with local officials and notables in colorful brocade robes and black headbands. There we all waited at the gate, which was shaped like an arch and decorated with palm leaves, yellow flags, and accordion lanterns so magnificent the children caught their breath.

Two vehicles slowly moved in between the lines of honor formed by the provincial head and the notables, who clasped their hands together respectfully in front of their chests, while the students shouted “Long live the Emperor!” and enthusiastically waved their flags, in an noisy but nonetheless unusually respectful sort of way. To the conservative local officials, this ancient monarch had a divine mandate, and their respect spread to the teachers and pupils. A guard, dressed in a ceremonial wooden hat and bordered coat, stepped forward solemnly and opened the car door for the Emperor. His Majesty emerged wearing a yellow royal robe, a yellow band around his head, and an ivory tablet and glittering medals on his chest. He looked young and healthy, and had a kind, oval face. He was followed by a tall, stately French officer dressed in white uniform, probably the aide-de-camp provided by the colonial authorities to keep an eye on all his activities during his contacts with the people and the local Vietnamese mandarins. The Emperor had just returned from his schooling in France, and needed general knowledge of the national situation and the people who had come to venerate him. He walked slowly towards a large brown wooden armchair inlaid with mother-of-pearl which had been placed on a high pedestal in front of the provincial office. Despite the cold weather, two guards stood nearby to cool him with large white fans. One by one, the provincial heads and local notables filed past in their formal attire and bowed respectfully.

The crowd lined up in two rows that ran all the way back to the My Thanh village field. The whole event lasted two hours, and took place in uncommon silence. When he finally moved on, his convoy stopped again about three kilometers away at the Champa shrines in Phu Hung, where he took in the scenery before proceeding to the provincial capital of Quang Ngai.

The Education Inspector gave the Tam Ky primary school pupils two days off school to participate in festivities such as the lantern procession in the town and human chess games in the school playground. Once back at school, they couldn’t hide their sadness and lack of attention, and kept thinking back to the past few days. Mr. Ton That P., my fourth grade teacher, set aside the first two periods in the morning for us to discuss our thoughts and impressions about the procession. Many questions were asked, some childish, some simply curious, some of them unexpectedly difficult to answer.

“Sir, what does the Emperor’s repatriation mean?”

“It means he has returned to his royal court, to his country.”

“Where has he been, Sir, and what has he been doing?”

“He went to school in France, the country that once ruled Vietnam. You’ll understand his mission when you’re an adult in about fifteen years’ time.”

This was in 1932, so according to my teacher, it would be 1947, which turned out to be two years after our emperor voluntarily abdicated for the happiness of the people, and as a result, lost all his power to the communists. Not a man of great perspicacity… In each class, two pictures were hung high above the blackboard: one of the Emperor wearing a royal court robe and a winged hat, and the other of his beautiful wife, Empress Nam Phuong, in a no less resplendent royal costume. Both were regally poised on thrones.

The festivities over, the tiny rural town of Tam Ky returned to its dull routine.


In front of the Representative Office, which was usually known as Tam Ky Station, a group of soldiers in blue uniforms, their pants tied around their calves, were doing their basic training, learning to stand to attention, running, jumping, and marching in line. “One, two, one, two!” shouted the smartly dressed sergeant.

Tam Ky was like a miniature city: it was a provincial capital and representative office, and it boasted a maternity hospital, post office, elementary schools for boys and girls, an infirmary, and a market garden beside the former Vietnamese royal transportation station by the bridge.

The French administration had placed a Consul and Customs Officer there, to oversee the protectorate government’s dealings in the Tam Ky, Tien Phuoc, Thang Binh, and Que Son district.

The liveliest scenes took place in the Invalid’s Service yard, where local peasants gathered to deal with legal matters related to illegal alcohol production or illicit tobacco storage. The inspectors (a French team leader and two Vietnamese agents) used to ride their bicycles through the country lanes in silence, hoping to avoid detection; but dogs seemed to know they were coming, and barked noisily to alert the peasants, who would quickly hide any evidence of their illegal products. Occasionally they would resort to lightning raids, and hound the bootleggers, particularly in outlying areas.

The new Tam Ky Market included a row of low brick houses, built along the main road, where items needed by local and neighboring people were sold. As with all developing towns, there was not much to see; although the old Tam Ky market did have a history of its own, having had a previous existence as the Tam Ky Quarter. Legend had it that the Chinese used to come there to trade, and settled long ago in groups along the main rivers of ancient Vietnam. The Vietnamese called these areas quarters, and they were filled with prosperous shops that served the Chinese settlers. The Tam Ky quarter itself wasn’t ancient, but it was comparable to Hien, some 50 kilometers away, and Hoi An in the provincial capital of Quang Nam, which had traded with foreigners like the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Spaniards…

The old town in Tam Ky consisted of two rows of old buildings, some up to three stories tall, with five- or seven-step staircases and weather-torn gray or whitewashed walls where the masonry was cracked, exposing the bricks beneath. In one shop, behind long wooden counters, red-labeled cabinets of Chinese medicinal herbs lined the walls, and bottles of irritatingly sweet lemonade were hung from iron rings. The shopkeeper was Chinese, and had a big belly, rosy face, and loose clothes, and he greeted his customers loudly in Chinese-inflected Vietnamese. Each time I went to the market to buy medicinal balm or some dried jujubes, I loved to hear this special language. Many Chinese would speak like that on purpose, putting extra emphasis on high tones, as if they could not speak Vietnamese fluently and correctly.

The liveliness of the Tam Ky quarter during the days leading up to Tet was unforgettable for a young pupil of 12 or 13 in the fourth or fifth grade like me. I remember my mother hurrying to get to the quarter at 10 o’clock in the morning, then going to my school to ask the principal’s permission to take me shopping with her for Tet. Chinese and Vietnamese shop owners welcomed us warmly: my mother was a regular, and a wealthy customer. First she bought items for the rituals, like candles, scented incense, gold and silver paper, white wine, and long, thin strings of red firecrackers to display during Tet days. She also ordered two new robes for me, made to measure, to wear to school, one white and one black. Tailored clothes always meant trouble: she always wanted to have them made too long, so that I would grow into them over several years. But I thought the extra length made me look like a girl, so I had them shortened in secret to stop my friends from teasing me and calling me a miserly rustic. Then my mother took me to a clean and tidy Chinese grocery store, with Dog Ut following behind all the while, carrying two heavy containers filled with the morning’s merchandise. Once inside, we were greeted by the owner’s wife, whose speech and gesture marked her out as Chinese, but who did her best to act Vietnamese. She was dressed in shiny black satin, and she offered us a broad smile under her thin eyebrows, plump cheeks, and shoulder-length hair.

“You’re… shopping for Tet… so early,” she said to my mother, drawling her words. “Please … won’t you come inside…”

She invited my mother to sit on a smooth plank-bed, and began to take down rolls of Chinese fabric from the glass shelves for my mother to examine. But all my mother wanted was a few meters of extremely thin dark blue crepe for a robe to wear inside another one of the same color, which was embroidered with huge chrysanthemums. The Chinese lady then took down a stack of red-covered, white lined copybooks and several rolls of red, yellow, and blue papers for me, the sort of things pupils needed in their everyday class activities.

The owner, meanwhile, was busy dealing with customers and making skillful calculations on his Chinese abacus in a corner. Most of them were peasants who came to the Tam Ky quarter for Chinese medicinal herbs placed on a piece of paper and packed in perfect squares, ready for sale.

“I’m sorry, I almost forgot,” said my mother as she took a piece of paper covered with Chinese characters from her pocket and placed it on the counter for him to read. “My husband also wanted you to add these items to his package,”

“Madam,” he said, pointing to a few characters on the note, “please tell your husband I’ll get this excellent item for him from Hoi An in three days. Everything else is available.” He pulled open the drawers and picked out items like black plant roots, bark, and gracilaria, weighing each of them on his shiny brass scales, quickly adding or removing little amounts in a professional manner. He always completed a package by adding a few dark jujubes which we children, back at home, would pilfer from the package with pleasure.          

He offered my mother a thick Chinese calendar, with a drawing on the red cover of two children holding globes. My father needed such a thing for the list of good and bad, positive and negative days in the lunar year that it contained.

At dusk, I watched my mother and Dog Ut leave the market and head back home. I felt extremely sad as they reached the New Market intersection on their way back to Tien Phuoc. I wanted to run after her and ask to stay home for a few days, when suddenly she turned around. “Don’t forget to ask for permission to come home early for the farewell rituals to the Kitchen Deities!” It was one week before Tet, and I had no final exam that year.

I was so deeply attached to my mother that she was almost a sacred figure to me. As I watched her disappear, I was suddenly reminded of a French test I had sat in my final examination two years earlier at the Tam Ky Franco-Vietnamese primary school.

I spent four or five years lodging in the house of Danh, a distant aunt who lived near a parking lot beside the North-South highway, as this was closer to school. Danh used to provide room and board for 6 or 7 students from the countryside, who paid her by the month. She was a very pleasant lady who smiled a lot and talked little, but she was seriously addicted to gambling. Sometimes she was so hard up that she couldn’t even afford rice and food for her boarders. I can still see her picking up her speckled laying hen and clutching it dearly, before putting it in a bamboo case and taking it to the parking lot where she sold it for one day’s food for her boarders. The white eggs lay exposed in the bare-looking nest, and were a tremendously touching sight, both for her and for the hen, which had been forced to leave her own flesh and blood behind. Danh sacrificed her last treasure, her fowl, so she could make me breakfast on that important morning of my final exam. I felt so sorry for her, and wondered how she would manage the next time her addiction struck.

To qualify for the final French oral, I had had to write a dictation, given by an examiner from Hue, about a text entitled “The stream,” which contained a slew of difficult vocabulary. But I was confident I hadn’t made too many mistakes, and sure enough I found my name on the list of students who had made it through to the last round. The oral test took place in the afternoon in a room filled with numerous observers. The examiners were incensed at the idea that these observers might help the children, and so they angrily ordered the room to be emptied. This made things harder still, as the questions became much more demanding. One question was: “What is the adjective for shoulder?” No student was able to answer, and they probably weren’t intended to: it was an examiner’s trick to silence the observers. “Scapular,” wrote the examiner on the board, in a deathly hush. The question for me was: “What is the adjective for man?” which I wrongly answered: “Humanity.” He smiled but said nothing to correct my error.

Near my aunt’s house lived an eccentric former village teacher, Mr. Am, who often got drunk and would walk around the area in the evening, stopping by at every house and talking about the news to anyone who would listen. Once in a while he offered to teach me at his house on Sundays but I wasn’t interested in his methods: he would always require an entire essay to describe something, a hangover perhaps from a Chinese method he had learned in his childhood. I well remember coming home one afternoon and seeing him with a red face and tattered pants, swearing uncontrollably. As soon as he caught sight of me, he yelled “Dog biting, dog biting”, and asked me to write 10 lines about it. Then he went into my aunt’s house and, after lecturing me severely, complained about her failure to teach me properly, and about how I was turning into a mischievous, uneducated boy who ridiculed and teased him, a person with no more respect than my father or grandfather. Another afternoon, when I went to his home to play with his grandson, I was suddenly filled with admiration, even though I was only a small child incapable of understanding the humiliation and pain suffered by the people under feudalism. Taking me completely by surprise, he demonstrated unexpected support for a local young man who had stood up to the mandarins. Nguyen Qui H. was a young man who had gone through the French education system and graduated with a high school degree, and had refused to bow to the district head, as required by the ancient tradition, when he accompanied his father to the district office at the invitation of the official. He had offered his hand instead, in the Western style, for a handshake. Both his father and the district head were enraged, and he ended up in custody at the district office and being reported to the province as a probable anti-colonialist element. Later, having constantly refused to become a public employee, he went to Hue to work at “Tieng Dan” (The People’s Voice), the newspaper owned by Huynh Thuc Khang, where he wrote under the penname of Lac Nhan and worked as  a whistleblower, exposing the protectorate government’s errors and bad habits, and the backward style of living.

While talking to a friend of his from the countryside, Mr Am showed his outrage at the events by banging his fist on the table, cursing the French colonialists, insulting the district head for his behavior and enthusiastically praising Mr. H.’s personality and sense of honor. His wife had to calm him down and convince him to speak more softly in case the authorities overheard. I stood there listening quietly, and a conviction that he was right to react to the district head’s shameful deeds in such fashion slowly dawned on me. My respect for his stance dated from that moment.

Another thing I remember with sadness was the unexpected dissolution of an artistic group, which left a deep scar on my soul, even though I was only a pupil of 10. This was the tragic end of the Ta Duy Hien circus, which gave its final performance in Tam Ky quarter on a narrow harvested field full of rice stubble.

The circus came to the area every two or three years, and impressed all with tigers, bears, panthers and horses in cages under a big top. The animals performed tricks like running and jumping through rings of fire, while pretty girls in splendid costumes did somersaults on ropes hung dangerously high in the open air. All of a sudden, the heavens opened, the way they did every year in Central Vietnam, and the field was quickly flooded as it sat lower than the road. The rains lasted two weeks, and were accompanied by storms. The circus tent, unable to withstand the harsh weather, ripped in half and fell down. The animals, caged up for days on account of the rain and starving as the circus had no money coming in, dropped dead one after the other.

Destiny had decreed that the Ta Duy Hien circus, renowned throughout the land, was to be dissolved amid scenes of great sorrow and pity. Right there in Tam Ky, my hometown.