This an excerpt from the book ‘Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands’, courtesy of the author.
‘Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands’ is the true story of Lượng La, a boy growing up in the Mekong Delta in the midst of the Vietnam War. When the 1968 Tết Offensive forces his family to flee the countryside for the safety of the city, they continue to travel back and forth to their island farm despite threats from the Việt Cộng and nearby firefights. Lượng only wants to catch fish and slingshot birds, but the war ends and Communism plunges him back in time to a land without electricity where books are burned and propaganda “kneads their skulls.” He starts to fight for his freedom the only way he knows how.
By Michelle Robin La (as told to her by her husband, Lượng La)
I put a basket of ripe soursops in my canoe and paddle through the canals to the place where the fruit wholesaler usually ties her boat. On my way, I pass the neighbor’s house. No clothes or pots hang outside. The countryside is the emptiest I’ve seen it. Most people have gone to the city where they think it will be safer when the final battle erupts. I can’t stand staying in the city waiting to lose. I listen for other boats or the rumbling noise from a distant firefight. All I hear is the stroke of the wooden paddle when I nudge the canoe away from the water coconuts on the bank.
She hands me back my empty basket and some money. “Sorry, Lượng, I didn’t see any good bánh today. No package either, but your mother sent a message. She wants me to tell you ‘Don’t be a lost bird flying away from the flock.’”
I laugh. What a strange message. I’ve been out here watching our land ever since school closed because the teachers stopped coming. I guess Má wants me to go home. “I understand,” I say. “I’ll leave with you the next time I have fruit to sell.”
Two days later, the fruit wholesaler walks all the way to my hut. “Your mother sent another message. You need to go home today. We’ll wait for you.”
I run out and harvest some fruit I’ve been watching. I put the fruit in a plastic net bag along with my clothes and the rest of the rice. After I tie the canoe to a water coconut, I walk through the island to the fruit wholesaler’s boat.
The boat turns out of the leafy passages of Cồn Tàu and into the wide open river. There’s nothing to do but look at the brown water curling away from the boat and the trees hiding the edge of the shore next to us. No ghost bodies float in the river. There weren’t any on the way down either, and I haven’t heard much gunfire. Why have we stopped fighting? The news on the radio is that the Army is fleeing — they must be retreating into position to make their last stand. In history books there’s always a heroic battle at the end. No one just gives up. We pass the stream that leads to our old home in Quới Sơn. We already fled once. Where can we go now?
It’s evening when we get to the fruit vendor’s dock in Tân Long. There are only a few boats tied up. The street is full of people waiting to see what will happen. Small boats travel back and forth across the river.
I find Má in her room. “Good. You’re here,” she says. “Go upstairs and pack your clothes.”
“How are we going to leave?” I ask.
“There’s a way.” Má has several big travel bags filled and hidden in her bedroom. “Now we’re just waiting for your older sisters. I sent a message a week ago, but they’re still not here.” She paces the house searching for things to take, trying to keep the front room looking normal so no one knows we’re planning to leave.
I put some shorts and a couple of shirts in a plastic rice bag, but I know we’re not going anywhere with my two oldest sisters still at nursing school. And Ba hasn’t packed anything. I think my father’s too scared to leave.
The next day Mr. Three East mutters to himself as he patrols the street in front of our house. He’s the only member of the Civilian Self-Defense still around. Whenever he runs into soldiers he asks, “Are you on break? Why are you home?”
“Our unit disbanded. We didn’t have anywhere to go,” a soldier answers, “so we put our arms down and came home.”
They’re running away from the fight.
Ba sees Mr. Three East walking by and calls him in for tea. I set the teapot on the table. “That’s it,” Mr. Three East says, “they’ll surrender soon. Everyone fell out of line. The Army is a snake without a head now. The head was chopped off a while ago.” He gulps down his tea and walks back to his house.
Two soldiers stop by the next evening. Má brings them to the dining area in the back of the house. I follow, along with my brothers and the sisters who are home. “Are you coming?” one of the soldiers asks Má.
“I’m waiting for my two oldest daughters,” she says.
Ba steps in from the lean-to.
“It’s hard to have everyone together,” the soldier says. “Why doesn’t your husband stay and wait? We’ll send another boat for them.”
“What if the carriers aren’t there?” Ba asks. “Can we go to Thailand?”
The soldiers shake their heads. “No. There’s not enough fuel.”
Má tells the men to wait in the front part of the house while she and Ba talk. She chases us kids out. I can’t hear what Má says, but Ba shouts, “Do you want to kill us all?”
Má comes out alone. “Is there a wave after this one?” she asks the soldiers.
“All the big ones are going in the next twelve hours,” one of them says. “All the troop carriers and transports. This is a well-armed convoy and it’s being escorted. Only small patrol boats will be left.”
“We need more time.”
“You have to decide now.”
The soldiers leave without an answer. My parents argue for hours. “You don’t know where they’re going,” Ba says. “The Army says the carriers will be there, but other people say you’re just going out to drown or get ambushed by the Communists or even shot by the Americans. If it doesn’t work then we can’t come back. We’ll be traitors. Our house will be ransacked the second we close our door to leave.”
Aren’t the Communists supposed to be worse? After all of Ba’s talk about how bad Communism is, why are we staying?
The next day when I wake up, Má is already gone. Chị Tư tells me she went to Mỹ Tho. From our balcony I watch boats of all sizes stream south toward the mouth of the river. They’re staggered, three in a row, then two. Large ships, metal freighters, and troop transports in the middle with gunboats rocketing down alongside them, pushing up waves. For the first time, the Mekong looks small.
I walk out to watch the parade of boats from the end of the foot ferry dock. People stand around watching in front of Six Chicken’s house. “There goes the whole Navy,” someone says.
They’re abandoning us.
Soldiers step off small passenger ferry boats onto the dock, saying, “It’s over.” Everybody expects a final battle at the Army base along National Road 4. But how will it happen with all the soldiers coming home?
A woman selling steamed yams says, “I have to work . . . Communists or not . . . My family has to eat.”
People look around for any anti-Communist posters near their homes and peel them off. Mr. Three East walks by without stopping. He’s not wearing his uniform or carrying his gun.
Two men carrying a steel desk get off a small ferry boat. The boat owner says that over in Mỹ Tho people have started looting abandoned offices. Smoke billows out of public buildings from officials burning documents.
Women on a troop transport ship wave at us and point downriver toward the ocean. A soldier comes out and walks among them. The women stop. He leaves. The women start waving again and pointing downriver. Another soldier comes out and gestures them to get below. We should be on one of the transports. Even though we’ve stopped fighting, we should be with the side that’s free. Not stuck back here with the Communists. What is Má doing? Shouldn’t she be back by now?
Every once in a while there’s a rumble in the distance. Some Army soldiers say it sounds like a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Still, it looks like the convoy will make it without being attacked. “What happens when they get to the ocean?” someone asks.
“They’ll drown,” a couple of people answer at the same time.
“No they won’t,” says a soldier who came home today. “The carriers are out there. The carriers will pick them up and take them some place.”
“What if you manage to get to the carriers, then what will happen to you?” an older man asks.
“They’ll probably go to Thailand, create a camp so they can come back and retake Việt Nam,” the soldier says. Another soldier nods.
“Come back and fight? With what?” the man says. “Where will they get troops or equipment? No, if you get on one of those boats, it’s a one-way ticket.”
He’s right. I’d like to find out where the one-way ticket goes, though. China has Taiwan and Korea has South Korea. Where will we go? To some tiny island somewhere? Wherever it is will be freedom.
I jump in the river to cool down. Transport ships stop along the way to pick up people who come out to meet them in small ferry boats. Maybe I could hire a ferry to take me out. Then I’d wave at one of the transporters going by to have it stop for me. All I’d have to tell them is that my father is already on a carrier.
A few hours later the boats are gone except for a transporter going full-tilt down the river every once in a while. Má comes back late in the afternoon. “I watched the convoy this morning,” I say. “Are we going to be picked up?”
“We’re waiting for your sisters,” she says. “We’ll all go together.”
It will be too late. And even if my sisters were here, I don’t think Ba would let us leave.
The next morning, I’m out in front of the house waiting for something to happen. My parents listen to the radio at the table inside with Chị Tư and Chị Năm. My brothers and younger sisters sit outside on the steps. I wander in and out. Every once in a while some small-arm fire or grenades go off in the distance. Each time, I hope it’s the start of our final fight to push the Communists back.
All at once, people on the street say that it’s an unconditional surrender. I run back inside. The voice of the Army general who’s been our president for only two days comes over the radio:
“The Republic of Việt Nam’s policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at saving the blood of our people. I ask all the Army to stop firing and stay where you are. I ask our brothers in the Provisional Revolutionary Government to stop firing and stay in place. We wait here to hand over authority to the Provisional Revolutionary Government in order to stop useless bloodshed.”
The tape repeats and the unconditional surrender starts again.
I thought we had more time.
Ba turns on a small black and white TV mounted on the wall. The same general is at Independence Hall announcing the surrender. It seems more official on the screen.
On the street people say, “Unconditional? How can that be? . . . He was supposed to be negotiating for us . . . He must have been working for the North all along.”
I come back inside to see what we need to hide. We hid most of the tape players and TVs earlier. Má moves through the house looking for any flags or symbols of South Việt Nam. She finds the flag from the boat and takes it off the pole. Then she gathers up some paper flags on sticks and pulls down posters. She puts the pile of yellow in the kitchen fireplace and lights it. All around us, we smell our neighbors’ flags burning, too.
I go to the back of the house and climb onto the thick tin over the kitchen, the only place on the roof I can stand on now without crushing it. The South Vietnamese flag painted on our rooftop has already faded away. No need to scrape it off. I stop to listen, hoping there’s going to be one last fight, but there are only small bursts of gunfire in the distance. A few boats rush downstream. Is it too late for us to go?
I spend the rest of the day waiting for something to happen. In the evening, people stand outside in the street whispering and watching the sun set. As soon as the sun goes down it’s completely dark. For the last three weeks there hasn’t been any diesel for the town generators. Someone points overhead to a new formation in the stars—shoots coming off a handle like a broom. I look at stars all the time in the countryside, and I haven’t seen a constellation like this before. “It’s a sign from the sky that we’ll be swept aside,” people tell each other. “The Communists will sweep away our wealth, our food, our lives, everything.”
I don’t need the stars to tell me that it’s going to be bad.