Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter
My Lai Today
The village of My Lai is nestled amidst other small hamlets on the central coast of Viet Nam. I had wanted to visit it since my arrival to the country. The "American War," as the Vietnamese put it, was still fresh in my mind. And, I came to both Viet Nam and this small village to put faces and lives to the images I grew up with. It was still logistically challenging to get around Viet Nam, but finally the planning for my arrival to this small rural outpost paid off. When the 1968 white Ford Falcon turned off coastal highway number 1, and onto the dirt road leading to the village, I instructed Khanh, my driver, to wait while I walked in.
I walked the mile or so down the wide dirt path, toward the hamlet of My Lai, accumulating along the way a procession of lively children and women on bicycles. The hot morning sun beat down upon all of us and made me wish I were also the owner of a cone-shaped straw hat like each of them wore. Despite the moist heat of the exposed road, they all stayed by me to the age of the memorial. Once there, they let me go on, seeming to understand that only I should enter this literal ghost town.
Tombstones and some sculptures remained where a village once stood. A tile mural told the story of that day, twenty three years ago, when 107 people were thrown into the trench beside it and executed. I walked the quiet grassy fields, trying to make out the delineation of rice paddies that once sat beside the straw homes of the people who lived here.
I sat there a while, listening to the stillness, and the faint buzzing of cicadas nestled in the bamboo stands nearby. I listened as well to the voices that still seemed to exist here. I placed a flower on a grave and watched a butterfly feed on it.
I wanted the people of this land, carved out of the humid forests, to be just over there, some day before March 18, 1968. They should be tending to rice fields and water buffalo, I thought. Children should be playing nearby with their dogs, or perhaps an old ball. Families should be tending to the decorated ancestral alter sitting proudly inside each house. But, sitting in the open fields there in My Lai, there was only stillness.
It was time to go, and I made my way out of the large iron gate of this lonely and deserted compound. Once back on the road, I came upon a small crowd gathered around a squatting old woman, who was just inside a thatched roof overhand. She sat on her heels and fried doughy balls in a grease-stained wok over an open flame. Lifting them out, she placed them in a napkin and handed the sweet, greasy concoctions to the next buyer. Everyone's focus changed over to me when I arrived. I knew I should try some. I bought two and she gave me two more for free, giving them to me with a broad, toothless smile.
Within seconds, the crowd doubled and about fifty women on bicycles surrounded me, looking curiously at my purchase, and talking excitedly amongst themselves about me. This was not uncommon in Viet Nam; everywhere I'd been, I was the anomaly. Foreigners are new and I always drew a curious, friendly crowd. But this time was different. I felt more self-conscious, guilty perhaps, for surely these people must be the relatives of the 504 people that died that day in My Lai. Surely, they must remember; how do they feel about me, I wondered.
My eyes immediately focused on a middle-aged woman standing just at the edge of the crowd. One hand held her bicycle, and the other hand was outstretched toward me, waiting for my arrival. Her face was gentle and she smiled warmly at me. I found myself walking to her.
She took my hand in hers and I immediately relaxed. She said something in Vietnamese. I replied, in pantomime, "I went over there (to the memorial) and I have been crying," revealing my puffy eyes hidden beneath my sunglasses. She shook her head with acknowledgment and then proceeded to talk. What she said was very long, very serious and seemingly very important. All the while, she pointed in the direction of My Lai, then pointed to me, and back and forth. All the while she squeezed my hand and spoke in the voice of nurturing mother, with a gleam in her eyes. What she said lasted a minute or so, and I will never know what it was. But, I will never forget it.
For she became in that moment my mother--a dearly missed mother, speaking to a wise and sensitive, yet still young, daughter. A daughter who lives on the other side of the world--a daughter also of those who killed her family for unknown and misunderstood reasons--but genuinely a daughter to whom she needed to pass on wise words. The words, I feel sure, were reassuring and forgiving. They spoke of days remembered and pain put away. And, simply a welcome of my arrival and return. I gripped her hand to say good-bye and nodded to the rest, and walked back down the road toward Khanh's Ford Falcon. I found myself feeling elated. Kids and women surrounded me again. Others stood in their gleaming rice fields just to the side of the road, ankle deep in mud, and nodded me a greeting. This place seemed so peaceful.
--Kathy Winogura, Mountain Travel--Sobek: The Adventure Company, 6420 Fairmount Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530.
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