Exploring the Wonders of Vietnam

January 17, 2006
Stories and a Poem

Kim Marino sat next to me on the plane from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang. She is 39 and lives in San Jose, Calif. She last saw the country of her birth when she was 13, in 1980, back when she was Kim Nguyen.

Kim told me her story in a matter-of-fact manner, as if her homecoming were just another vacation. Her family was from the town of Nha Trang, about halfway between Saigon and Da Nang. Most of her memories of Viet Nam are of war—"fighting, dropping bombs very close to where we lived." Her father, a truck driver who owned his own vehicle, built a bomb shelter for the family.

When the South Vietnamese Army collapsed in early 1975 and the communists were roaring south along Highway 1, the Nguyens fled to Saigon, hoping to get out of the country. She remembers making it as far as a beach where U.S. helicopters were ferrying people to ships offshore, but they could not get aboard any of them. They returned to Saigon, and later went back to Nha Trang. But life there was very difficult after the war.

"They [the communists] took everything," Kim told me, her voice betraying some emotion at last. "My parents were always trying to find a way to escape." Part of the persecution was political—her family had backed the wrong side in the war.

Eventually, they found some friends who offered them a place on a boat and, with 113 people aboard, they left Viet Nam for the Philippines. They spent six months in a refugee camp there before being sponsored for admission to the United States by a church in Texas. Among the escapees were her father and mother, an uncle, three brothers, two sisters, and Kim. Her younger brother, John Nguyen, was accompanying her on the flight.

Missing the company of other Vietnamese, Kim's family spent just two years in Texas before moving to California, where they finally settled in San Jose. Kim married an Italian-American man (she is now divorced) and has two sons, age 15 and 13—the same age she was when she left Viet Nam. "They don't even speak Vietnamese," she says.

Kim now works as a cosmetologist. (Before I took her picture, she pulled out a mirror and checked her makeup.) She plans to stay in Viet Nam for about a month, through Tet and into February. What was she looking forward to? "Seeing some of my childhood friends—and Auntie Nan and some of the places where we lived."

I gave her my card and asked her to send me an e-mail after she gets back to the States. I'll be interested to see how it went.


The second story is an accidental adventure.

This morning, we went to Thien Mu Pagoda on the north bank of the Perfume River, a few kilometers above Hue. It's a magnificent spot, perched above a bend in the river, with a large tower and a beautiful temple. We arrived by boat from the city. To reach the level of the temple, you climb a steep bank of steps, the bottom of which seemed ideal for a group photo of the Swarthmore group. We passed the word to gather there at the end of the allotted time.

Swarthmoreans don't herd well, so it took a few extra minutes to get the travelers together, but we managed to get them all on the steps. I put down my backpack and handed my camera to Tran, one of our guides, who was to take the picture. It was hot in the sun, so when the photo was taken, everyone bolted for the bus. Tran handed back my camera, I checked the shot, and off we went to visit the Citadel. If you are paying attention to this narrative, you will have noticed that I did not pick up my backpack.

I didn't discover its absence until I was preparing to get off the bus at the Citadel—the former palace of the Vietnamese emperor. My heart sank. Although I had left my computer on the bus and was in possession of my camera and wallet, the backpack contained a pair of glasses, all of my trip notes, and (worst of all) my iPod.

I sheepishly reported this to Tran, who told our main guide, Tom, who said not to worry. While the others went into the Citadel, we would rush back to Thien Mu on motorbikes and look for the missing item. "I'll just go by myself," I said, but he would have none of it, hailing two drivers. (The motorbike guys are everywhere.) Off we went, with Tom's driver setting the pace and mine trying to keep up. I held on tight, and in a few short minutes—it had taken the bus about 15—we were back at Thien Mu.

No backpack, at least where I knew I had left it, but Tom wasn't even looking there. He emerged from one of the vendors' stalls that cluster outside every temple and monument and waved me over. We went in the back room, and there, on a bed, was my backpack. I checked it over while Tom began negotiations in rapid-fire Vietnamese. (All Vietnamese seems rapid-fire to me, but this sounded even faster.) After confirming that all of my items, including the iPod, were still in the pack, we handed over 60,000 dong, about $4.00. Add the round-trip motorbike fare and my mistake cost me 7 bucks — a lot less than it would cost to replace my glasses and the iPod. We buzzed back to the Citadel and caught up with the tour.

As we crossed the moat at the old palace, Tom glanced at me and said, "That was fun." Uh-huh.


Finally, a short poem by Paul Arrington, who was inspired by a Friday night walk in Saigon:

On the banks
Of the steamy Saigon,
January moon,
Motorbike love.

About This Site

In January 2006, a 40-person contingent of Swarthmoreans is traveling to Vietnam as members of the Alumni College Abroad. The trip, led by Associate Professor of Religion Steven Hopkins, will focus on the history, religion, and the vibrant culture of contemporary Vietnam. A smaller contingent will accompany Hopkins to Cambodia, including a tour of the famous temples of Angkor Wat.

Jeffrey Lott, editor of the Swarthmore College Bulletin, has joined the trip to write about it for the magazine. This site is a series of reports filed by Jeff from Vietnam and Cambodia during the trip. Your responses are invited.

Vietnam 2006 Itinerary

List of Travelers

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Blog Entries

Leaving Tomorrow: Jan 9, 2006
From 35,000 feet: Jan 11, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City: Jan 12, 2006
Museums of Vietnam: Jan 14, 2006
Temples and Tunnels: Jan 16, 2006
Stories and a Poem: Jan 17, 2006
Skipping School: Jan 18, 2006
Dateline Hanoi: Jan 19, 2006
Three Days in Hanoi: Jan 20, 2006
Winding Down: Jan 26, 2006
Poor Phnom Penh: Jan 27, 2006
Chuc Mung Nam Moi: Jan 29, 2006