A picture worth a thousand words
Nha Trang Travel Blog› entry 124 of 126 › view all entries
I only had a single photo with one of the hooch-maids from my army helicopter base at Dong Ba Thin. I didn't really know her then but always remembered her as being one of the prettiest. She was also taller than the others. Few of those cleaning girls spoke English but her dedication to hard work combined with that graceful Vietnamese demeanor and style automatically commanded high respect from all the GIs. Some of those Viet workers married soldiers and live in the United States now but others remained in the local area. And most all of them kept in contact with each other over all these years.
I scanned the old photo during a visit home, had it printed in Nha Trang, and flashed it more than a dozen times at random fuel- or coffee-stops on motorbike excursions into the surrounding countryside.
For better search results I needed the girl's name so posted the picture on the 243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company's web page - our army unit at Dong Ba Thin - to see if anyone remembered her. Sure enough, a 'hit' finally came several weeks later. One of our pilots, Jon, had kept in contact with another of the hooch-maids, Hoa, who now lives in Virginia.
Cuu Loi was just six miles up Highway 1 from our old compound at Dong Ba Thin and about 15 miles south of Nha Trang. I was already familiar with the village after exploring its low-lying fish farms for an off-road way from Highway 1 to the South China Sea by skirting the northern wetlands of Cam Ranh Bay.
I showered, shaved, put on my best shirt; a blue short-sleeved button-up with a collar, then headed to Cuu Loi and searched for a coffee stand near the Catholic church in the center of town. I needed time to gather my thoughts.
I sipped an iced coffee wondering whether to dare make the call but finally decided to do it.
About ten minutes later a motorbike pulled up and it was Hoa's sister Huong. She was expecting me after a 'heads-up' phone call from Hoa that there would be a visitor in town today. I followed her along a couple of side-streets then down a narrow dirt track puddled by a recent rain. We went to the home of Le, one of their brothers. The old blue family house was nicely shaded by guava, mango, and banana trees. Chickens roamed the side-yard around an idle ox-cart.
'Lieng, oi!', they shouted as a bicycle rattled into the yard. The rider looked familiar but was definitely NOT the girl in the old picture. While she studied the shot, I studied her; both of us equally confused.
Le sped off on the motorbike and returned with another woman who was escorting a young grandson. Her name was Uoc. She was big boned and husky for a Vietnamese. As she took a seat on the living room couch next to Lieng, Uoc seemed to have a hard time breathing and I wondered if that was a result of Agent Orange which was heavily sprayed outside our perimeter wire. (To this day nothing grows in that area). Her expression looked worried as though wondering 'Why was I summoned here?' But her eyes lit up and she beamed a smile upon seeing the old picture from Dong Ba Thin. I had to study it again myself for several long moments before my mind confirmed that this lady was in fact the 17-year-old girl in the old photo.
We sat around grinning, pointing at each other, gesturing, laughing, and mumbling memories in our own languages. The old photograph spoke for us. It showed a couple of teenagers in a confused and troubled world. Now, a lifetime later, we sat just as bewildered as then. The brief and awkward meeting surly raised more questions than answers. One thing for certain was that "A picture's worth a thousand words" applies to any language.
Uoc and the boy climbed on back of Le's motorbike for their ride home somewhere in the countryside. Lieng put on her cone-shaped hat and blended into the village on her bicycle. Me, I rode my motorbike down Highway 1 to Dong Ba Thin to kick and stroll the sands of Sugarcane Beach and try to begin absorbing what had just happened.