Thanh Quit: Mr. Phong’s Neighborhood
Hoi An, in its serenity, is a weird place from which to watch a war, but our visit to the nearby village of Thanh Quit brought the effects of war into sharper focus: only two houses in this village of 15,000 people survived the Vietnam war. Our guide, Nguyen Ba Phong (not the same Mr. Phong who took us on the boat trip; this one’s at 90 Bach Dung St), told us that his family has lived in Thanh Quit for 13 generations. The whole family was amazingly gracious and generous with us, inviting us to share in the rice, spring rolls, banana flower salad, roast pork, bitter melon, and sticky rice sweets set out for the “memory day” ritual for Mr. Phong’s grandfather.
We learned that the practice of ancestor worship extends even to the Americans who died in Thanh Quit during the war: to this day, villagers pray, light incense, and burn xeroxed dollars for dead Americans to spend in heaven. During the war, Mr. Phong fought for the South and afterwards spent a year in a re-education camp. His uncle, who we also met, fought for the other side. As the daughter of a career Marine who survived two tours in Vietnam, it was strange for me to shake hands with a former VC soldier. Mr. Phong’s uncle showed us a book full of maps showing the positions of American and communist forces; by every American outpost, there was a little mark denoting a VC tunnel. We saw a riverside bunker originally built by the French, used during the Vietnam war, and now appearing to be a pretty good place from which to catch a fish. They said that during the war there were two governments in Thanh Quit (both of which taxed the villagers!): during the daytime, Thanh Quit was ruled by the South, but at night it belonged to the communists.
Having fought for the south, it was difficult for Mr. Phong to find work after the war, as those who supported the communists get preference for jobs. Restrictions have loosened now, but he explained in vivid detail how ten years ago he’d been interrogated and fined for talking to foreigners (“Why you lie? Tell the truth!”). Now his glass-topped table is covered with photographs of tourists he’s escorted through the village, yet he can remember each person and what country they’re from.
The visit was like an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, Vietnamese-style. We just walked from house to house, chatting and drinking tea with one after another of Mr. Phong’s friends. We spun a globe with a former Communist who, haunted by the souls of those he’d killed, converted to Buddhism. His globe had different names than the ones we’re used to: the name of China translates to “Center of the Flower” and the USA is rendered “Hoa Ky,” which means “flowery flag.” Wouldn’t our foreign relations improve if we started going by that name?
We stopped by the house of a snake-seller and saw rattlesnakes and cobras in bags; these snakes (unless seized by the government en route) are transported to Danang and then to Saigon, eventually ending up in China. Vice notes: we saw a homemade rice wine distillery, and the whole town was one big drying rack for tobacco – the fragrant leaves hung everywhere, in houses, in temples, even in schools. We met a sweet bonsai farmer, Le Tu Ky, and a wonderful old sage, Le Tu Ran, who studied a tome called The Book of Ten Thousand Years and concluded that Erica will be divorced three times and I’ll have a happy life. I’m not sure what that insight does to our relationship, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
Just steps off the tourist circuit, everyone we met that day seemed genuinely happy to see us. I haven’t been greeted with such warmth since the last time I was among family in North Carolina (lots of tobacco and moonshine there too: a connection?). I’ll never forget that day.