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Chapter One

The year was 1946. The Franco-Vietnamese war erupted in Hanoi and then spread rapidly to all the provinces. My home was in the city of Nam Định. One day French soldiers climbed over the surrounding wall and fired randomly into the house. They fired into the second and third stories, and even into a couple of passenger vehicles sitting in the front yard.

Abandoning his spacious villa with its yard and garden, my father led the entire family to a place of refuge in the countryside: An Phú Village in Hải Hậu. A life of misery and privation began. Though it lasted no more than two or three years, my life in a farming village in the Red River delta sowed beautiful memories in the six or seven year-old boy’s soul that would never fade for the rest of my life. The melody of some country songs sounded to me like the heartbeat of the countryside. Though in later years, I would hear them sung again and again, they would never seem as beautiful and touching as those I heard and sung as a child.

Mrs. Nhuận was a servant in the family, but we brothers and sisters all called her “Auntie Nhuận,” Her husband and children had all died in the terrible famine in the year of the rooster (1945). She couldn’t read even half a word, but was a treasure house of traditional tales, such as Tống Trân and Cúc Hoa (a verse narrative about a husband who seeks his deceased wife in the other world), Phạm Tải and Ngọc Hoa (a verse narrative with many supernatural elements concerning a domestic love story), Hoàng Trừu (a verse narrative about the relationship of a Chinese prince and a Vietnamese princess), and many others. When the year of the (terribly destructive) land reform came, they attempted to imprison my father and then force Auntie Nhuận to “denounce” him, saying that he had cruelly exploited those who worked for him. Auntie would have none of this, and replied that my father was her benefactor—during the famine of 1945 he had helped many survivors and seen to the burials of countless unclaimed dead people. He also donated money for food to help people build a dyke in his district, a long dyke—and a long story—that old folks still talk about it to this day.

Auntie Nhuận was a kind and honest person. Mr. Song, a paternal cousin who, with his wife and children, shared the house with them for a time, had a bit of gold that he feared might get lost in the upheavals, so he secretly buried it beneath one of the pillars of the house. Later, when he moved back to the city with his family, he confided this secret to Auntie, telling her the spot where the gold had been buried, and entrusted her with the task of digging it up and sending it to him. Auntie Nhuận used every possible means to have the gold conveyed to the city and delivered intact into his hands.

LTD: How old was she?

She was the same age as my father. They were born in 1902, when the French built the Paul Doumer (now Long Biên) Bridge in Hanoi. When she was 62 or 63 years old, my father bought a burial casket for her, and he even crawled in and lay down in it to try it out. Everyone in the house was aghast with horror, but also amused. Auntie used the casket to store rice. It was not until twenty years later (in 1983) that she died, beloved and grieved for by all. Her death anniversary is the first one in the year in our family: the twelfth day of the first month of the lunar calendar. This is recorded in our book of family records.”

Auntie Nhuận left a deep impression in my soul. She looked after all five children in the family, one after another, as if they were her own, and they all loved her like a mother. Later on, in the film There Was a Village (1993), I incorporated this story about her in the conclusion, and it was highly appreciated by the Japan Broadcasting Company (NHK), the sponsor of the film.

LTD: Was she the “auntie” to whom you refer in the book And If We Go to the End of all the Oceans?

Yes, exactly. Auntie Nhuận was the person whom I asked where we could go once we had gone to the end of all the oceans. As “erudite” as she was, though, auntie Nhuận was stumped and unable to give an answer.

The story begins as simply as this. Like many other naïve little children in those days, no doubt I believed that the face of the earth was flat, like an enormous mat, that went on and on as far as your eyes could see. That was the cause of my perplexity—if you just kept on going and going, where would you get to? One day, my teacher brought a globe of the earth to the class, and only from that point on did I realize that the earth was round. But at such a tender age, I surely could not imagine where someone might arrive after endless travel.

In coming through the falling bombs of war and crossing the winds and waves of life, you might learn a great deal. Going to many places, you might learn many stories, and make the acquaintance of many people, till your hair turns gray. Only then did that question posed in childhood take on the depth of a philosophical preposition: “If you travel endlessly, you will at last return to your homeland.” But life also allows us to realize that many destinies are such that endless travel does not bring some people back to their homelands.

In 1949, French troops and local soldiers under French direction conducted a sweeping operation through Hải Hậu. Rifle fire rang throughout the area, rat-a-tat-tat. The villagers ran in all directions. Women and girls, afraid of being captured and raped, smeared dirt on their faces and hid in the rice fields. My sisters did the same. My elder brother Trần Văn Vĩnh was shot dead at the age of fourteen. The bullet hit his heart, shattered his chest and sliced through the woven reed bag on his back, making a dozen holes in the mosquito net in the bag. Anh Động, the eldest son-in-law, carried Vĩnh’s body on his back, crossing the rice field and a river, finally depositing it at the base of a banyan tree at the head of the village. The night was pitch-black. Here and there in the distance, you could still hear the rat-tat-tat of gunfire, and somewhere the dim light of a kerosene lamp kept struggling in the wind, showing the shaking figure of my father now laying down on the ground to embrace his son’s corpse, weeping and weeping…

The funeral was hurried; the family borrowed Mrs. Ngũ’s casket to bury him that same night. Poor Vĩnh, he was so kind, so good at school, and so loving to his younger siblings. Had he lived, Vĩnh would surely have been a firm source of support for me later on, as I set out on the path of life, though he was only four years older than me.

After that event, my father decided without the least hesitation to take the entire family back to the city—and of course the city then lay under the control of the French army.

That was in 1949. My brothers and sisters recommenced their studies at school. In Hanoi, my eldest sister lived with her husband and children at 41 Ngô Sĩ Liên Street across from the gate to a Chinese pagoda. When summer came, I went up to Hanoi, where I roamed around and practiced swimming at the Ấu Trĩ Viên (now called “Children’s Palace”). There I had a teacher and swimming classes. By age eleven, I was very skilled at swimming; I could do breaststroke, backstroke, crawl, and so on.

Two men with a donkey in the Vietnamese countryside.

Thủy at the age of 12 with his family in 1952 (furthest to the left).

In Hanoi, many children did the same, but in practicing swimming, as a little imp I never dreamed that I was training myself in an essential skill, without which I would have been dead dozens of times as an adult on the battlefield. All this will be related step by step in subsequent pages. Our elders have a saying: “If you are blessed, you’ll have children who know how to swim; if you are doomed, you’ll have children who know how to climb.” At any rate, I got to sneak away from home for “swimming.”

We kids would roam around the streets, from Ngô Sĩ Liên, and then along Sinh Từ to Hàng Bông (“cotton goods”), Hàng Gai (“fishing nets”), Bờ Hồ (“lakeshore”), and all the way to the Children’s Palace—just as if these places were next-door to where we lived!

…Now, at seventy-something, I still swim fifteen or twenty hundred meters every day. I swim without feeling any fatigue, just like walking on the ground, till I get bored.

My youth included some experiences related to my later professional activities. As a result of my father’s decision to “dinh tê” (a transliteration of “rentrer”—to return to a city under French occupation), I saw a great many films as a child during the period 1949 to 1954. I was so in love with films that I spent all the pennies I could save in movie theaters. That is how I came to be familiar with such figures as Tarzan, Zorro, Charlie Chaplin, and films such as Rashomon, I’m Trying to Feed My Child (a Japanese film), The Bicycle Thieves, Samson and Delilah, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, The Three Musketeers, Les Miserables, and Gone With the Wind… and I saw many other classic films as well during that period. I even collected portraits of all the famous stars of that time, such as Robert Taylor, Clark Gable, Victor Mature, La Latourne, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Trần Văn Thủy as a schoolboy.

I spent all the pennies I could save in movie theaters.

The first movie theater that I ever stepped into was the “Bắc Đô” (meaning Northern Capital) on what is now Hàng Giấy (“paper-goods”) Street. An unforgettable thing happened on that occasion. We had come to see Tarzan. When we little kids stepped into the theater, the lights had been extinguished and the film show was already in progress. We held on to each other’s shirts as they sought places to sit down. It was so dark we couldn’t see a thing. Feeling about with our hands, we could tell from touch that there were rows of chairs, but we couldn’t understand why the seats of the chairs all seemed to be upended. Our eyes glued to the screen, we stealthily sat down on the hard edges of the chairs, putting up with the discomfort as we watched. Only when we stood up at the conclusion of the film did we see what the problem was: the chairs had all been overturned!

I was also in love with the popular music of the day, such as nhạc tiền chiến (“pre-war” music, a darkly soulful genre) and knew many songs by heart from childhood on. Later on these romantic songs would be strictly forbidden—some people were sent to prison just for gathering and singing these songs to each other. This would prey greatly on my mind. I also pursued, though in vain, a course of study on the Hawaiian guitar with the musician Đoàn Chuẩn in 1958–1959. Just recently, in 2010–11, I made a documentary film about the troubled history of what is known as “yellow music” (a term that in government parlance means “degenerate music”).

After high school, I enrolled in a museum course in anthropology organized by the Ministry of Culture. The venue was 22 Hai Bà Trưng Street, formerly the Department of Museums and Preservation. It was directed by Đặng Xuân Thiều, a cousin of Mr Trường Chinh (a former party chief). This course was to train activists for missions in the mountainous regions.

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