There are places that I have always wanted to go. Prague, Salzberg, Dublin. There are oft-mentioned locations that I grew up dreaming about, imagining the wonders that Venice, Paris, Vienna might hold. In my family there were also places in exotic South East Asia that were the settings of stories we grew up hearing. The stories my parents told when we asked the question every kid wants know about their parents – ‘How did you meet?’. These places had names like Bien Hoa, Dalat, Saigon, Nui Dat and Vung Tao. The words are as familiar to me as the historic capitals of Europe, but their history is more personal.
I was happy to leave Phnom Penh, but I was especially excited to be arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still called by the locals. We had a horrendous bus trip and were then outrageously shafted by our taxi driver, our dorm room was up six flights of a spiral staircase but every step was worth it for the view, and the fact that we had arrived. It is 47 years since my parents passed through Saigon for the first time and of course a whole lot has changed, but from their stories and slides I think they would still recognise the cyclos (not their cost!), the street food stalls, the conical hats and the traffic bedlam.
They didn’t arrive together, but their paths crossed while they volunteered at a civilian hospital in Bien Hoa in 1967. Mum stayed on to fill a gap in the Queensland civilian medical team when her South Australian team had gone home after their six month stint was up. Dad was on the Queensland team. I’m not sure how they made their individual journeys from Saigon to Bien Hoa, about 45kms north east. It certainly wouldn’t have been on the number 5 local bus leaving from the bus depot near Chinatown, as we did. Positioning ourselves near windows to maximise airflow, we bought our fresh baguettes from the lady out the window, paid 75 cent for our tickets, sat back and watched the streets of Saigon bustle past. Or slept.
I had a hand drawn mud map – four lines on an A4 piece of paper that could have been a tree trunk but were in fact my one clue to finding the hospital Mum and Dad had worked as theatre nurse and surgeon. I also had a photograph on my iPad of Mum standing with her team in front of the hospital, on the wall of which was some Vietnamese writing. We asked a shop owner if he knew the whereabouts of the old hospital. Matt showed him the photo and zoomed in. “Is that the address?” my clever husband asked. The shop owner read the writing on the wall and told us it was the name of the hospital. The same hospital that had been renamed and still stood a block away. We had found it.
Technology is a wonderful and amazing thing sometimes. Having walked down the driveway and to the small out buildings at the back of the hospital, I called Dad. “We’re in Bien Hoa, standing in front of what I think was the hospital where you and Mum worked.” I could hear the emotion choking his voice as he tried to explain the layout and the buildings I should be looking for. “Hang on a minute, we’ll Skype you.”
Standing in the car park of the hospital, behind some wards full of patients and in front of the kitchen and dispensary, I Skyped Mum and Dad. We were in what was the forecourt, in front of what was the hospital building where my parents had met and they were there too, showing us which building was the children’s ward and trying to find the operating theatres. I had seen this forecourt in one of Dad’s black and white slides, strewn with wounded and worse. Dad asked me if I had noticed the water tower across the road from the hospital? That water tower was built by the Australians and during the Tet offensive, he told me, there were Viet Cong shooting from up there.
Having found the hospital, the tree trunk directed us easily to the staff quarters, a building now used as a hotel. The duty manager was very excited when we finally made ourselves understood, and happily allowed us to walk through the hotel. She even showed us into a couple of rooms. I could imagine the place as a refuge for the nurses and doctors, away from long days at the hospital. I can only imagine the volume of beer that was imbibed within it’s walls during those years! Maybe it was gin?
The rain came in hard. There were no taxis and it was getting quite late. The girls had walked all afternoon and we were all wearing the most ridiculous fluro plastic rain ponchos that dragged on the ground. Zoe and I sang ‘The ants went marching’ at the tops of our voices, stomping along streets my parents had walked almost 50 years before, but in very different circumstances. We rode the number 5 bus back to Saigon through the wet traffic-lit streets.
Walking through the park the following day I was approached by a couple of university students. They had formed a group to practice their English and help tourists with any problems they might have. Could I spare 5 or 10 minutes? I happened to be by myself so I happily sat on the edge of the park, surrounded by 10 twenty one year olds asking me questions. Where are you from? How long have you been in Saigon? What did you do yesterday? Bien Hoa? Why did you go there? No one goes to Bien Hoa. So I showed them my tree trunk mud map and explained as best I could why I had spent almost 2 hours on a local bus going to a place that no tourists ever go. After I had finished, the only guy in the group looked at me quite intensely for a little while and said, “You must be very proud of your parents”.
Yes. Yes I am very proud of my parents.