There is an old, worn helmet that adores the entrance to our house. There is a name engraved on the back – Mung Vin Noc. It belonged to my uncle. Father once told me it is our spiritual guardian – to keep calamity away from our home.
Uncle Mung was a motor-racer – a biker who grew up in Saigon. “He is a champion,” father says with misty eyes. Good looking and daring, he was the kid everyone looked up to while growing up. Life was good in Saigon, even as war broke out.
In 1974 Saigon falls to the communists. All hell breaks loose, city stores are set aflame, and the old aristocracy flees the capital. Our family had fled further south, where the Red Cross and other international groups are taking in refugees from the war. My father stayed behind to make sure the family holdings were accounted for, but was captured by the Vietcong.
“I doubt you can imagine how I felt at the time.” He says with a hint of regret. Alone, without our servants or relatives, been marched down the arcade by Vietcong while they waved banners declaring us to be corrupt capitalists. “I felt betrayed by the family. They were safe somewhere, and no one came for me in the last moments.
“God knows half of Saigon turned out to watch us been marched – but I was so alone; my gut was icy, like I had swallowed a mouthful of shrapnel.”
My father and a group of well-off families were taken outside Saigon. “We rode a truck that carried pigs. It stunk like crap.” He reminisces with a dry smile. “There was a dozen young people with me, all male. God knows what they did with the girls.”
Once at the farm they were told to get off, strip down, and were chained like goats to a large block of wood. Twelve to twenty men to a block, their one leg shackled to the plank. To escape would take an Olympic feat of coordination.
The same afternoon they were given an orienteering by a young boy, no more than fourteen or so dressed in the brown and green of the Vietcong. He wore a star cap that barely fit his head.
“You are all scum.” The boy said in his high-pitched voice. “You are not Vietnamese, you have sold out to the Americans.”
The irony of the moment was not lost on the watching throng of men chained to this local log. Here were men born and bred in Saigon watching a brainwashed kid in a green pyjama shouting slogans at the top of his lungs. “You are French slaves! Listen to the advice of comrade Ho Chi Ming! If you are truly from our motherland, than fight for him!”
“Then one of us cracked.” Father said. “One of the guys just started laughing, like he was mad. Long, deep snorts and then shrieks of hilarious laughter that exploded in waves.”
The kid wasn’t impressed, so he produced a guard, an adult this time who came up to the laughing man with a solid length of wood.
“Stand up” he said.
“We can’t stand up.” Father reflected wistfully. “We were all chained to this massive block of wood. For the laughing man to stand up, we all have to move so that chain could stretch out.”
“Did you guys move?” I enquired.
“No one dared.” Father replied. “We were scared witless.”
“So the man starts to beat the laughing prisoner. Thwack! Thwack! His laughter started to turn into screams, then howls. It took only a few hits before he collapsed.”
Father looked still for a moment.
“They beat him like a sack of potatoes.” He adds. “Thwack! Thwack! The sound was wet.”
That night they dragged their length of log into their resting area. The laughing man was unconscious or dead. No one dared check. He got dragged into the room with the rest of the inmates.
“It was summer. It was hot and it stank in there.” Father grimaced. “I would say it smells like fear, but it was just piss and excrement.”
“In the darkness I thought about my family.” He said. “The good times, the bad times, the fact that they abandoned me to this. At first I thought it was hate, because I was burning up inside.”
“But that was just hunger, I was starving.”
“After a while I realised it was loneliness, and I deeply, desperately missed them.”
“Then I heard a sound outside the camp – A deep, throaty roar. It was a bike, and the sound was one I was deeply familiar with.”
“Uncle Mung?” I asked.
“Yes. Although I didn’t know at the time.” He replies. “Uncle Mung had shown up with his bike and a cart full of fruits and food.”
“From the sounds of the commotion outside, it sounds like he was giving it to the communists.
“Then Mung’s face popped into the prison room, like a dream”
“That one.” He said. “That’s my brother.” Pointing at me. “The guards let me out of the chain. Around me other prisoners stared daggers. Envy, hate, despair, every emotion was mixed together.”
Father choked at this point, suppressing a deep shudder of the powerful emotions he had felt at that time.
“We got out of there on foot.” Father said. “You uncle had given the commander of the barrack his bike – the champion bike of the best rider in Saigon to get me out of there.”
“The elbow does not bend out-wards…” Father tells me; a Vietnamese saying suggesting that the virtue of family was sacrifice and loyalty. Unfortunately my uncle passed away shortly after leaving Vietnam. “Home sick” father would say. “No one loved Saigon like your uncle did. It was the only home he ever wanted.”
The bike helmet hangs even today. A guardian to ward away calamities.