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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, June 19, 2005

Return to Vietnam

By Peter Delevett

Ho Chi Minh City — The last time they had walked down this narrow alleyway, Gerald Ford was president. And their mother was still alive.

Lam McNulty and sister Kim Delevett returned after almost 30 years to their childhood home in what used to be Saigon. McNulty found his old elementary school, remembering that the nearby river was filled with floating corpses. They also found the apartment where they had lived before fleeing as South Vietnam fell.

Peter Delevett

We were in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, looking for ghosts. My wife and her brother had fled Saigon in April 1975 — five days before the city fell to the Communists and South Vietnam ceased to be. Kim was almost 3 years old; her brother Lam was 10. Two children, packed on a plane crossing the Pacific, leaving behind everything and everyone they'd ever known.

They ended up in a Florida refugee camp and eventually were adopted. Kim grew up with no memories of Vietnam; Lam quickly moved to bury his. For years, he wouldn't talk about the place, expressed no interest in going back.

Until this spring.

Approaching the 30th anniversary of their flight and of South Vietnam's fall, my brother-in-law looked inside himself and decided the time had come. Maybe it's because he turned 40, recently remarried, talks of starting a family. Maybe my wife's stories of our trips there finally intrigued him.

Though not part of the official "Operation Babylift," which brought 3,000 Vietnamese orphans out of Saigon in 1975, Kim and Lam were among hundreds of other children who also fled days before the fall and eventually started new lives in adoptive American homes.

Kim, on the rocking horse, was photographed with brother Lam on the day the children fled Saigon in 1975. Mother Phan Thi Nuoi is at right.

Peter Delevett

Kim and I first went back to Vietnam in 1994, when she graduated from college. We spent a month traversing the country from north to south, and on the last weekend of the trip, a miracle happened. We had hired a driver to take us the six hours south from Saigon to Soc Trang, the Mekong Delta fishing town her family came from. We had an old address and a letter in Vietnamese explaining who Kim was, and we managed to find the small house where they had lived before moving to Saigon. We thought we were going to take a picture of the house and head back to America, but something happened that forever changed our lives: We knocked on the door.

The man of the house read our letter and motioned us to follow him. And when we came to another house, we were shocked to find an old man whose face we knew from a faded black-and-white picture, a man we'd all assumed had died years ago: Kim and Lam's uncle — their mom's big brother.

Since then, Kim and I have been to Vietnam three times. We've gotten to know and love four generations of Uncle Sam's family, those in Vietnam and those in Texas and Nevada and Germany who escaped on rickety boats and remade their lives as refugees. Uncle Sam had kept a stockpile of old photographs of Kim and Lam and their mother, and my wife has treasured and studied them. But Lam, a steady, self-made businessman, an architect in Alabama, had locked those photos away with his memories.

Until things changed this spring.

Finding the house

Kim Delevett visits the balcony in Vietnam where she last saw her mother alive.

Peter Delevett

The alleyway led to a place we'd seen in another old photo, one the children had brought with them when they escaped in 1975. It was the apartment where Kim and Lam had lived before fleeing. The only picture we have of the two of them with their mother was taken on the balcony; we suspect it was made the day the children left Saigon. Their mother, Nuoi, wears a brave smile. Kim, a toddler, sits astride a rocking horse, Lam with a steadying hand on her shoulder.

The few times Lam had talked about the house, he'd told us there was a movie theater on one side and a temple on the other. On our trips back to Vietnam, Kim and I had looked for that theater and temple, wondering where in the sprawling city they might be, whether we somehow might have walked right past them without knowing. But none of Kim's cousins in Saigon or Soc Trang had been able to take us there; they either had been too young in 1975 to remember or had been living too far south to have visited the place.

This time, we had a guide — my wife's cousin, Hiep, Uncle Sam's son. He was older than Lam; they'd been playmates in Saigon, before the fall. And four years after the fall, Hiep had said goodbye to his father and put out into the South China Sea in a leaking motorboat with six other men. Somehow they'd made it past the patrol boats and pirates to the open sea, where a U.S. freighter picked them up after nearly a week. Hiep had slowly made his way to America; he lives now in Las Vegas, where he runs a nail shop and goes by the name Tony. As American as apple pie.

It was Hiep who had come back to the house in Saigon with Nuoi after her children flew away to America. Nuoi had had a ticket for the plane, too, but she'd made a last dash to Soc Trang to say goodbye to Uncle Sam. Hiep told us how the road back to Saigon was choked with people streaming southward, running away from the Communist force that was as inexorable as rust. Dead bodies littered the streets. And by the time Nuoi and Hiep reached Saigon, the plane had flown and the city's time was almost up.

She never got to say goodbye to them.

"They're gone," Hiep had told her. "They're gone, and you have to move on." They slept in front of the movie theater that night, unable to get into the barricaded apartment, the city under siege.

And now here we all are, Kim and Lam and Hiep and me, walking past that same movie house three decades later, almost to the day.

At the end of the alleyway is a little courtyard, and Hiep speaks Vietnamese to the people there, explaining the lumbering white man and uncomprehending Viet kieu (emigrants). The family graciously lets us into the courtyard, and I'm panning the scene with a video camera, narrating: "This is the courtyard where Kim and Lam used to live. This is the house where the balcony was — " and I pan upward and stop short.

There was the balcony.

Treasured pictures

Lam McNulty studies old photographs with his cousins and his uncle, Phan Thanh Sam, center.

Peter Delevett

We'd arrived in Vietnam a day before Lam and were there to meet him at Ton Son Nhat, the same airport from which he and Kim had fled. Outside the arrival doors, we waited in crowds and chaos, hundreds of people jostling, and I was glad for that, thinking it might remind Lam of how it had been the day they left. Even though the crowds and chaos were only a fraction of what they must have been that day in April 1975.

Lam came through the same doorway he'd passed through as a skinny 10 year old, into the tropical humidity and the thicket of Vietnamese faces and words. The symmetry and symbolism almost overwhelmed me.

As we headed back into town, Lam told us how the man at the immigration desk had asked where in Vietnam he'd been born. Lam had said he didn't know. That's the kind of uncertainty you live with if you were born into war. Until we'd found Uncle Sam in 1994, my wife had never seen a baby picture of herself, never known her real birthday; someone in the refugee camps had invented birthdays for them to satisfy red tape. We still know nothing about Kim's father, next to nothing about Lam's, except that Nuoi divorced him years before Kim was born.

And it's only been slowly, over the years, that we've pieced together what became of Nuoi after Saigon fell. Hiep remembers how Nuoi fell too, into a listless depression that drew her away from the family, not talking to anyone except her baby niece and nephew, who must have reminded her of the babies she'd lost. Nuoi stayed that way for more than a year, until her sister suddenly died of heart failure and she said: "That's it. I've had enough." And just as Hiep had done, and Hiep's brother and sister after him, Nuoi went down the river until it met the sea, and she escaped.

She waited nearly two years in a Malaysian refugee camp, selling homemade sweets to make her living, while back in the States Hiep processed sponsorship papers. On a day in 1981, she put on her best dress and took a smiling picture in front of a palm tree, giddy with excitement that her visa finally had come through and that she would leave the next day to be reunited with her children.

But the excitement was too much for her broken heart. Nuoi went into cardiac arrest that night, overwhelmed by anticipation and nervousness and euphoria. Her death — just hours before she was to depart for America — has always seemed to me a cosmic injustice.

That's why those pictures taken on the balcony have meant the world to Kim. She has looked at them hundreds of times, knowing it was there that her mother last held her, last kissed her.

And when I suddenly pan the camera upward and see that same wrought-iron balcony, unchanged after 30 years, it is for both of us a cold shock of recognition. A place that seemed to exist only in two dimensions, almost a myth, is there in front of us.

The people who live there now are kind; they invite us up to the balcony, and I photograph Kim and Lam standing almost in the very spot where they stood as children on the day before everything changed. Kim is smiling and tearful all at once; she stays there for a very long time.

"Finding it touched me right to the core," she tells me later. "I tried so hard to remember it, to remember her calling my name. In a way, it was more powerful for me than when I first found my family."

For Lam, though, the memories are painful. He always holds his emotions deep inside, but we know he had been glad to leave Vietnam behind, had thrown himself into football and had developed a taste for spaghetti. How he'd feared, while their mother was awaiting her sponsorship papers, that she would take them away from the safe American life they'd found. Nothing had been safe or normal in wartime Saigon.

Then at 10 years old, he suddenly had to become the big boy, the protector. In the refugee tents and foster homes, tiny Kim had been so frightened that she could not sleep unless Lam was near; he learned to fall asleep standing next to her crib as she squeezed his fingers tight.

Standing now on the balcony, he spends several minutes staring at the next-door temple he'd remembered, and I finally ask what he's feeling.

"I don't feel anything," he says quietly, and I wonder if he worries that he's expected to react in a certain way. Kim and I try to walk the line between wanting to document the moment and not wanting him to feel he's under the microscope. We try not to ask too many questions, to be discreet when snapping pictures of him, but part of me still feels like a guilty paparazzo.

Later, we go hunting for the school he had attended as a boy. "I remember it was next to a river," he says, "a wide, stinky river." Hiep has a vague recollection, and when our driver finally nears the spot, Lam points to an old French colonial building and calls, "That's it!" We pile out of the van while Lam silently regards the scene.

"I remember bodies floating down the river." He says it matter-of-factly, almost offhand, but none of us knows how to respond.

Forgotten faces

Yet it may be less painful for Lam to remember the house and the school, maybe even the floating bodies, than to have forgotten the names and faces of his family.

From those first moments at Tan Son Nhat, when a young relative had thrown his arms around Lam's neck, Hiep has squired us around town to the homes of cousins, second cousins, cousins once and twice and three times removed. Lam meets old men and women who smile and say that they remember him, marvel at how big he's grown on American food. At first Lam smiled, too, but after a while, after meeting yet another baby sitter, yet another former playmate, he begins to feel guilty.

"These people all remember me," he says, "and I don't remember any of them." He cannot speak a word of Vietnamese, all scraps of it gone after a lifetime of disuse. "I'm just a tourist here," he tells Kim.

He is unable to eat, to sleep. He gets up at 4 a.m. to wander the darkened streets. We can't tell if it's jet lag or something deeper — sorrow, shame, anger, disconnection.

Kim's own re-entry had had its painful moments. After our last visit here in 2003, she was squeezed with guilt about the years she had missed out on. Wishing she knew the family better, seeing how closely together they all lived and worked, contrasting that communal bond to the estranged relationship she and Lam now have with their American parents. "Don't bother looking for your relatives — they're all dead," their adopted mother had advised before our first trip back to Vietnam.

But Kim eventually had decided of her long-lost family, "I've got the rest of my life to get to know them." She speaks of the power of blood and the unconditional love with which the Phans and Vos have embraced her. She wants Lam to avail himself of those things.

In many ways, the story of my wife and her family is the story of modern Vietnam — millions of tragedies played out against the backdrop of war, and an ongoing uneasiness over how to make sense of it all. Just before we left San Jose for Saigon this spring, Kim and I attended a community dinner at which the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam was presented and the old national anthem sung. It was a heartbreaking reminder that we live among a community in exile ... and a sobering realization that these people were still pledging allegiance to a country that ceased to exist three decades ago.

But we like to think it's more than coincidence that brought us to San Jose, a city with 100,000 other Vietnamese. It gives us a chance to connect to the extended family Kim never knew while growing up, to learn about the language and the culture and to one day pass some thread of that on to our children.

Lam says he'll go back to Vietnam someday, to bring his new wife and stepkids and maybe a child of his own.

I remain moved by his courage in coming back. Just as I am moved by the courage it took Hiep to sneak out to sea in a crowded, leaky motorboat, and by the courage it took Uncle Sam and his other children to stay behind.