Three releases from the author:
Linda Loan Thi Baer was born Nguyen Thi Loan in 1947, in the small village where
she was raised, Tao Xa, Thai Binh Province, North Vietnam. Her father was killed
during a Viet Minh attack on her village in 1951. Her mother married again, to a
wealthy practitioner of Chinese medicine, and a war widower himself. Their family
relocated to South Vietnam during the mass exodus of 1954, where they were forced
to move constantly due to economic, political, and military conditions. They
eventually settled near Vung Tau, south of Saigon.
Loan left home at an early age of thirteen, to seek work at various menial jobs in Saigon to help her family, and to escape the physical abuse of her stepfather. She lived on the street as a dust of life. She grew up and became a club’s dancer, black marked dealer, later met and married to an American Air Force officer in 1968, and follow him to the United States in 1971.
She became an American citizen in 1973, and while raising two sons and a daughter, she obtained her high school GED and
attended many college courses.
Linda graduated first in her class from her South Carolina cosmetology school. Later she owns and operate a successful Beauty Salon business name "Elegance by Linda B."
She is the author of three books, “Edge of survival, Red Blood Yellow Skin, R.B.Y.S-Endless Journey. And the Dust Of life is in progress.
Linda L.T. Baer
The church where the author's father was killed and thrown out from this window.
Sample of Red Blood, Yellow Skin: Endless Journey
I wish to apologize in advance to those readers who might be offended by some of my remarks in this book.
It is not my intent to mock, judge, or insult anyone. I simply want to relate some of my own experiences, for their inherent humor and enlightenment, especially as they pertain to the differences in customs, cultures, and languages, that I have encountered during my worldwide travels.
It is my cherished wish that the world will accept the variances of differences in race, gender, religions, and status and then live in harmony and peace.
Thanks for reading this.
Thanks to you, Don Baer, my husband of 48 years, for loving and understanding me, for being patient through the peaceful and turbulent times, and for being my mentor and tormentor. Thank you for helping me with my English grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure. Besides helping me with my writing, you spent time to research the history for my book, and then make all of the preparations for publication. I also thank you for allowing me to share your most painful experiences, as they related to your alcohol and drug addictions, which almost cost us our marriage. But without you, my life and my book would not exist. Honey, I owe you my all.
And thanks to all of those who supported and helped me spread the word to promote my last book, Red Blood, Yellow Skin, and thanks to Carol Furtwrangler for proofreading this book’s “The Endless Journey” manuscript.
The day before our wedding, I paid two strangers to be my uncles and verify my identity in court. But, before my marriage papers were signed, I had to pay under the table to the authorized person to sign it. That was my daily life in Vietnam. I learned to deal with corruption, bribes, and black market, starting with the highest government officials, and filtering right down to the beggar on the street. Everyone wanted a life of luxuries, but no one was willing to pay the price. I am not proud to say, I was involved.
The war not only tore my country apart, but it ripped the fabric of our society. It took away our spirit, our dignity, and our self-respect. And that resulted in chaos, trauma, and tragedy. But through it all, I found humor and something worth living for.
My journey started when I was four, as related in my last book, “Red Blood, Yellow Skin, A Young Girl’s Survival in War-torn Vietnam.” It tells of the horrors, the pain, and the absurdity, along with the romance and humor of growing up during wartime in both North and South Vietnam.
In this book, The Endless Journey, I relate my family’s close scrape with death by just a few minutes, when we missed boarding the C-5 Air Force plane, which crashed soon after takeoff, killing 155 passengers, who like us, were trying to evacuate out of Vietnam in April, 1975.
Our travels took us from country to country, including three years in Iran, where I found their religion, customs, language, and food to be fascinating. That was why I learned to speak Farsi and cook Iranian food.
At the end of 1978, we left Iran abruptly, during violent anti-government demonstrations, and just weeks before the revolution took place, which overthrew the Shāhanshāh, and established the new leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The new regime later captured 52 Americans and held them hostage for 444 days; we were lucky to be out of there, before it happened.
Our love of warm weather took us to the gulf coast of Florida, where we bought a large waterfront property on Lake Panasoffkee. We planned to develop a fancy campground with a private recreation park. But it was a big mistake; it cost us all of our savings, and forced us to abandon our dream.
In frustration, Don and I bought a twenty-five-foot camper, loaded up our three children, who were five, six, and thirteen, and travelled west. We ended up in California, where Don worked with the Veterans Administration. While the kids went to their school, I went to Chaffey High School, earned my GED, and later attended college.
In 1980, our family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where I went to Cosmetology School, and after two years, I opened my own hair salon at 1617 Ashley River Road. I named it Linda B. Hair, Nail, and Skin Care, where sophisticated, high-class clients gathered, shared their family secrets, and created endless hours of drama, chaos, and hilarity.
And this is where my story begins.
I have always felt my life was incomplete until I wrote and shared my journey with you. I hope you have as much fun reading it, as I did writing it.
There are no strangers; you are friends that I haven’t had the chance to meet.
In the middle of a quiet night, loud and terrified screams startled me from a sound sleep. “Help! Help! Somebody please help me!” a male voice yelled. I jumped out of bed and turned on the light. What I saw was the police chief, wearing only underwear, pointing his gun at Don, my fiancé, who stood at the entrance of the outside kitchen, wearing only boxer shorts, with a giant crab hanging from his big right toe. His screams woke everyone in the house.
Confused and afraid, I glanced at six or seven people, including my mother, who were already at the scene. I looked down at Don’s foot, and realized he had stepped on one of the huge, four or five-pound black mud crabs I had stored in a bucket; it must have crawled out and pinched him. I ran to help him and motioned for everybody to calm down. The police chief put his gun away and ran to help me loosen the crab’s claw from Don’s toe.
The rest of the people were moving out of my way to make a bigger circle, as they were talking and laughing among themselves. It seemed everyone was on edge, and had a lightning reaction to situations - especially the police chief. Perhaps the intense war outside had something to do with it.
I took the giant crab back to the holding bucket, and noticed most of the crabs stored there had disappeared. I looked around and saw them crawling in all directions, and warned everyone to be careful not to get pinched. Don limped to the bathroom to clean off the blood and bind his wound. Then he used the bathroom as he intended, before the crab pinched him.
“Please, everybody,” I asked. “Please help me gather all of these crabs and put them back in the bucket.”
“Okay,” they all said.
While gathering crabs, I explained to my mother and several of my friends, who had stayed in my house to help me prepare food for my wedding, scheduled the next day. “These are the crabs I bought earlier. I planned to kill them to collect their meat and make crab eggrolls for the party tomorrow. But after I untied them, I was too tired, so I put them in a bucket, and covered them up with a lid; they must have helped each other push off the lid and crawl out.”
Mother joked, “One of them decided to have a piece of Don’s meat, before he got theirs.” We all roared with laughter. Don finished in the bathroom and helped me secure the bucket lid with a heavy piece of cement, and then we all went back to bed.
On Friday, September 5, 1969, Don and I went to the civil court in Saigon to get our marriage certificate signed. We stood in front of a man who might have been a magistrate, a judge, or just some person in authority; I wasn’t sure. We just wanted to swear in and have our marriage papers signed, but before he signed them, he asked for two witnesses who knew us well.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know we had to have witnesses,” I said. “I’ll go home and come back with two of my family members.” He nodded his head to excuse us. Just as we were about to leave, he said, “And don’t forget to bring a gift with you.” At first, his demand confused me, but I soon realized what he meant. He wanted me to bring him reward money for signing the paper. It was normal for those who were in his position. The high authorities are the ones who can give or take away our right to marry, our livelihood, or even our lives.
I knew the drill, and came prepared with a roll of money in my purse. They called it coffee money.
“Don’t worry,” I said with a smile and pointed to my purse to assure him I had the money.
We went outside, and I told Don what the man wanted, and what my plan was. Don seemed concerned. I smiled at him.
“Don’t worry; I’ll take care of it,” I said. “Since I don’t have any family here, I’ll get somebody else to stand in for us.” Don looked at me in confusion.
“How can you do that?” he asked.
“I’ll show you,” I said with a mischievous wink.
We walked out to the street and I waved down a couple of Pedi-cab drivers. When they came in front of us, one asked, “Where do you want to go?” I motioned for them to get off their cabs, and come closer to me.
“I don’t want to go anywhere,” I whispered, when they came within earshot.
“Then why did you stop us?” the first man queried.
“Do you want to be paid to act as our witnesses?” I asked.
“What do we have to do?” the second one asked.
“I want you to go with me into that office,” I said as I pointed to the building behind me, “and tell the man in there, that you two are my uncles, and no more.” When they both agreed to be my uncles, I explained, and gave them a quick history of my family.
“How much will you pay us to be your uncles?” the second one asked.
“Well, it depends on how good you are at convincing the man at the desk,” I said.
“Oh, I think we will be very good at that. Right, Tam?” The first one said.
“You’re right, Cong!” he replied.
“Do you two know each other?” I asked.
“Yes, we’re friends,” both answered.
Don looked back and forth at me and at the two strangers in confusion. He had no idea what my plan was or what I was talking to the men about. He kept interrupting me with questions, and I kept telling him I would explain later. Then I turned to make an offer to the Pedi-cab drivers.
“No! It is too low,” Tam said, and then he countered with a higher amount.
“Ah, ah, too much,” I said, as I shook my head. Cong gave me another price, but I didn’t accept it. We bargained back and forth until we agreed on a price.
Both men seemed happy with my offer and were excited to be my uncles on my mother’s side of the family. To make sure they remembered I repeated their roles to them several times. When I felt confident with them, we went into the office. While we were waiting for the magistrate, or whatever he was, to return to his office, I explained to Don what three of us were just about to do, and told him what to say.
“Whenever the man questions you, just nod your head and say, “I do.” It doesn’t matter what he says, just say, “I do,” unless I jump in and stop you.” Don rolled his eyes and shook his head in amazement.
When the man came back to his desk, he asked us many questions, but my two temporary uncles were very convincing, and the official seemed to have no doubts, especially when he saw the roll of money I had in my hand. He read the vows to Don and me in Vietnamese; I translated it to Don in English. Don did what I asked him to do; poor Don, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. The man at the desk signed our marriage papers, and handed them to me with a smile. I took the marriage license from his hand, and gave him a stack of money; he grabbed it, and stuffed it into his pants pocket. I thanked him, and we all went out to the street.
I counted the money, paid my “uncles,” and then I asked one of them to take Don to work, and the other to take me to Truong Minh Giang supermarket where I bought crabs and other food for our wedding party.
That next morning was Saturday, September 6th. All thirteen of us, including my mother, my sister, the two maids, Ba and Tu, and friends, prepared food for our wedding. While mother made red sticky rice, which was one of our traditional wedding dishes, I helped kill and clean the crabs. After boiling them in a big pot, we separated their meat from the shell, and used them to make eggrolls. It took us a whole day to prepare food, but we had so much fun cooking. We must have rolled hundreds, if not a thousand eggrolls, and that was only one dish; we had many more.
The rest of the food, the drinks and the wedding cake were catered by the hotel restaurant, where our wedding party took place.
At five o’clock in the afternoon, I wore a light pink, traditional Vietnamese dress.
Don wore a light brown suit and tie. Together with my mom and
Our wedding in Saigon - 1969
friends, we took taxis to our wedding party on the rooftop at one of the nicest hotels. When we walked into a well-decorated room, all the guests were cheering, and the live band started playing. I looked around and saw so many guests and friends there. They all applauded and yelled as soon as they saw us. Before the party started, a friend announced our marriage, and asked us to slow dance to the song, “Unchained Melody.” In the middle of the song, we stopped, and asked our friends to join us. We exchanged partners often throughout the song, and had so much fun doing it. The music was upbeat, the food was great, and the drink was plenty. We ate, drank and danced, until past midnight
In the end, I realized most of our guests showed up, but no one in my family did, except for my mother and sister.
I guess people in my family were too busy with their lives and didn’t have time to attend my wedding. Or perhaps they lived too far away, and couldn’t afford the transportation. Some might have been unsure about our mixed marriage and were too embarrassed to show up. I knew it happened with other people, but I had hoped it was not true with my family. I wouldn’t have blamed them, nor would I hold a grudge, even if it were true; I just wished more people in our society had open minds and accepted us for who we are. I hoped Don and I would be given a chance.
Ba, my sister, Tu, me, Eddie, and my mom
After paying for our wedding, we had to postpone our honeymoon, because we couldn’t afford it. Don worked for Lockheed in Saigon, and I was in the black-market business. We tried to save money for our vacation, and to make ends meet. We used Don’s old Honda motorcycle for transportation, and were often in accidents. One time Don took me on his bike to a studio for a photo shoot. He was driving on the very busy Tran Hung Dao Street, and was trying to avoid hitting a young student, who was about ten years old, carrying books, walking across the street by himself. The boy walked right in front of us; Don had to weave back and forth to avoid him, and we crashed to the pavement. The Honda and both of us were spinning like tops. When I came to my senses, I saw my shoe in one place and my purse in another; a car almost ran over both of us. We were okay, except for a few cuts and bruises.
Meanwhile, the war still blazed on around the country, and it was hard for those of us who were struggling to survive from day to day. But somehow, we managed to breathe and live.
In January, 1970, five months after our wedding, Don surprised me with a two-week honeymoon to Japan. Being from the hot climate of Vietnam, I packed everything which was light and sexy. I took two large suitcases, full of silk blouses, short skirts, bathing suits, sandals, and a few thin bell-bottom pants. I wanted to make sure I had enough clothes and sandals for the two-week trip. Don had two smaller suitcases, full of summer clothes as well. He and I expected to be on an island with a beautiful hot beach, and sandbars.
At twenty-two years old, I had never traveled to another country, or been in an airplane before. I didn’t know how it felt or what to expect, but I was excited about going to a different country, and flying in an airplane.
We took a taxi to Tan Son Nhut airport, and after a long wait, boarded a large jet airplane. I knew it was big, but I didn’t know how big, or what model it was. The flight, which I thought was so much fun and exciting, turned out to be quite different. I learned from Don later, after we landed in Tokyo, that we almost didn’t make it, because of the bad weather and turbulence. At one point, the airplane hit an air pocket and plunged over 4,000 feet. I rose from my seat but the seatbelt held me in place. I thought it was normal, and was yelling and laughing from excitement. I looked at Don and saw him look at me with a smile. I thought he was having fun too. I didn’t know he was trying to hide his fear, and I didn’t know our lives had almost ended that day.
Being a gentleman, Don carried my two large suitcases, and gave me his two smaller ones. We took our luggage to the information desk, and Don asked them about our travel agency’s location. The man at the desk gave us a piece of paper with the name and address and showed us where we could get a taxi to take us there. We thanked him and dragged four heavy suitcases to the street where a line of taxis was waiting for passengers.
After stacking three suitcases in the trunk, the driver put one on the front seat, and told us to get in the back. Don showed the driver the information note, and he took us to the travel agency in Tokyo. The taxi stopped, and the driver unloaded our luggage; Don paid him with the Yen he had changed in Saigon days before we left. We dragged the suitcases into the building and walked up to a long counter. A line of four or five well-dressed men behind the counter bowed to us; I thought they were so polite, but we soon discovered none of them spoke English well. I could tell by the expressions on their faces that they understood very little of what Don was saying to them. I heard Don ask for a romantic mountain cabin near the beach for our honeymoon. Instead of talking to Don, one of them turned to me and started speaking in Japanese. I shook my head, smiled, and said nothing. They must have thought I was Japanese, and took my silence as being snobbish. They started to show their attitude and began talking louder; at one point, they were shouting at us. I believe they hoped that with their louder voices, we would understand them better. Poor people, they didn’t realize our hearing was fine; it didn’t matter how loud they spoke, we still couldn’t understand them. Poor Don, he still tried to talk to them and explain what he wanted. Meanwhile, I started to feel the bitter cold and began to shake like a leaf. Those men looked at me and saw the way I was dressed; they must have thought I was crazy. I was wearing a thin see-through mint green silk tank top, with dark green shorts, and a pair of brown sandals. The men all wore sweaters, under suits and ties, with scarves around their necks to keep them warm.
I glanced at Don, and saw him drawing a picture of a mountain and a cabin, but he forgot to add the beach to it. I thought, “It’s okay, we’ll find the beach when we get there.” When Don finished with the drawing, the men yelled out loud from relief. They all smiled and nodded their heads, indicating they understood what Don wanted. They ran around acting as if they were happy and excited for solving our problem. One man made a phone call, and I guessed it was to make reservations for us. The other wrote down some information, and another called a taxi. When I heard the word taxi, I assumed it was for us. Don picked up the reservation papers, nodded his head, and shook all of their hands to thank them. In turn, they bowed to Don. We were about to leave, but the two men behind the counter raced toward us, grabbed our suitcases and took them outside; Don and I followed. They left the suitcases near the curbside, turned to us, and started bowing nonstop. At first, Don and I just nodded our heads, but the two didn’t stop bowing, as if they were waiting for us to bow back. We felt awkward, looked at each other, and started bowing back. The two men walked away.
The cab arrived and the driver came toward us. We all bowed to each other before Don gave him the information paper. After he read it, he bowed again, took our luggage, put them in the taxi, and drove us to a train station. He stopped in front of a ticket booth, got out, helped us with our luggage, and motioned for us to go there to get our tickets. Don paid him, they bowed to each other, and he drove away. We bought two tickets, dragged our suitcases onto a train, and lunged into two empty seats.
I felt even colder, my teeth began chattering, and I started shaking all over. I looked around at people on the train, and saw them all bundled up, from top to toes, with heavy coats, shoes, hats and scarves.
“Where are we going?” I asked Don, after we sat down.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“If you don’t know where we are going, then how do you expect us to get there?”
“Well,” Don replied, “I’ll show the papers to one of the passengers to see if they know where we will be getting off the train.”
Don got up from his seat and showed our papers to one of the men standing nearby. He smiled and bowed to us; we smiled and bowed right back. He looked at the paper, but spoke no English, and kept saying something to me in Japanese. I smiled, shook my head, and told him in English I didn’t understand. He then turned to talk to another man and the other man turned to another. A voice from the back yelled in broken English, “Go Minakami, train stop, you get out.” Don bowed, thanked him, and sat back down. We took turns to look out for the Minakami sign.
I noticed the scenery was turning white, and the further we went the whiter it became.
“Don, why is everything white?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s snow,” he replied. “I hope there’s no snow where we’re going,” he said with a worried expression, and I was puzzled.
“What is snow?” I asked.
“It’s like powdered ice and it is very cold,” he said, “and we are not prepared for the cold or the snowy weather.”
I stopped asking questions and looked outside.
Meanwhile, all of the men and the women nearby were staring at me and at my clothes; I noticed people staring at me, since I arrived at the airport. In the train, however, the men not only looked at me, I could tell they were talking about me as well. I thought my stylish clothes might be too revealing, and maybe too sexy for them to handle, and that’s why they were looking and talking about me. I saw no other women dressed like me; most of them wore kimonos and covered themselves up, unlike my skimpy garb. I was sexy and had style, or so I thought. Although I felt the cold the second I stepped out of the airplane, I thought nothing more about it, until I sat in the train. I was sure if I could see myself in the mirror, I would see that my lips were purple and my face had turned a ghostly pale white from the cold.
We had been in the train for a while, but because of the excitement and distractions, I couldn’t remember how far we had gone, or how many times it had stopped and went. It could have been two or three hours, or even five or six hours. I couldn’t tell and I didn’t really care, because it was our honeymoon.
As the train slowed down, I saw a Minakami sign, and I alerted Don in the middle of his nap. We waited for the train to come to a complete stop, grabbed our suitcases, and bolted out of the door before it closed again. When I stepped on the ground, I realized it was cold! I looked around, and saw everything was white, with five to ten feet of snow. I had never seen snow before, and didn’t know how it felt. Don knew about it, but he thought Japan was like Vietnam and had summer-like year-round weather. He made a big mistake and he couldn’t do anything about it, except to find the way to our cabin. Instead of a warm honeymoon on the beach, we ended up with a cold honeymoon in snow.
It was difficult for me to walk with my skimpy sandals and drag my suitcases on top of deep snow. We approached a line of waiting taxis, and one of them came to us, but he stopped for few seconds to look up and down at me, before taking the luggage from my hands. Don showed him our reservations for the log cabin. He looked at the paper, at me, and then frowned a little. No! Actually, he frowned a lot, but said nothing; he just put our suitcases in the trunk, and then motioned for us to enter the cab. The driver then came inside, and with some difficulty, drove us out of the frozen parking space, heading for our honeymoon nest. It took him a long time, to struggle with the heavy snow, to reach our destination at the base of a high mountain. After the driver stopped, he motioned for us to get out, and then he went back to the trunk. He took the suitcases out and laid them on the snow. Don tried to pay him, but didn’t know how much, so he just opened his wallet, and showed the driver a stack of yen, as he did with the other taxi drivers, and motioned for him to take what we owed. He took the money, counted it, took what he needed, and put the rest back into Don’s wallet. Before the driver returned to his cab, he pointed to the top of the mountain, and motioned for us to go up there. He took one last look at me, shook his head, entered his cab, and drove away.
I had never been so cold in my life. I had clothes on, but I felt like I was naked. I knew then why people stared at me, not because of my sexiness, but because of my stupidness. I thought I was going to die from the cold and wanted to get back into the taxi, but it was too late; the taxi already disappeared. I looked around, and saw nothing except white snow for miles and miles. We had no choice but to drag our suitcases and follow the trail upward to the mountaintop. The trail however, was not as easy as it looked; it was slippery and was almost impossible for me to walk on. Now and then, we had to step aside to let people pass us, going up and down the mountain. I noted they all wore heavy colorful clothes, with gloves and hats to cover themselves from head to toe. Each one carried two pieces of long, narrow, flat wood. One thing they all had in common; they stared at me as they passed by.
“Who are those people, and why are they carrying wood up and down the mountain?” I asked Don.
“Those are skiers, and what they are carrying is their skis,” he said.
“What do they use the skis for?”
“To ski,” he said.
“How do they ski?”
“They strap a ski to each of their shoes, and slide downhill on the snow,” he explained.
“That sounded like fun, but this is not a beach, Don,” I said, “and I didn’t dress for this kind of weather. I hope they have warmer clothes up there.”
“I’m so sorry for putting you through this,” Don said. “This is not what I had in mind for our honeymoon. I thought Japan was an island, and since it is not too far from Vietnam, I expected similar weather; I’m not prepared for this weather either. We both need warmer clothes.”
We trudged over the slippery trail with our heavy suitcases behind us for a long time, but had not reached the top. I looked up through the snow-covered trees and saw a cabin barely appear above the misty clouds.
“I hope we can make it up there before sundown,” I said.
“I hope so too,” Don replied.
As I dragged myself upward, I felt numb all over; I walked as if I was in someone else’s body. At first, I felt cold, very cold, but then I felt pain. It was like millions of needles poking me throughout my body. After the pain, I felt numb, but still shook like a leaf. Now and then, I had to stop walking for a few seconds to catch my breath. At one of those breaks, I looked down at my feet, and I realized I had lost one of my sandals, and didn’t even know it. I was too tired to mention it to Don, and kept on walking barefoot in the snow.
Finally, we reached the cabin and found our way to the registration office. It was late in the evening, and a man at the desk assigned us to our room. We walked back outside in the cold and entered one of the cabins. I looked around and saw that the room was already full of skiers; I believed they were all back from their sport, and retired to their bunk beds built along the walls.
There were five bunks on each wall, and all occupied by fifteen people of all ages and genders, except for the two empty ones, near the door; I guessed those were ours.
I glanced at the people, and saw all thirty eyes were on us.
“Don! Is this where we’re going to stay for two weeks of our honeymoon?” I asked.
“I don’t think so; this has to be a big mistake,” he said. “I asked for a romantic mountain cabin on the beach, not in a ski lodge; this is not what I had in mind.” He frowned and shook his head. “I have to find the manager to get this straightened out.”
“I hope you can, because I don’t like it here,” I said.
“Stay right where you are, and let me go back to the office.” He looked unhappy and left in a hurry.
I was in the middle of a room, with a bunch of strangers watching my every move. Even though I didn’t look at them, I could tell they were looking at me. I could hear them whispering, giggling, and I assumed they were talking about me. I’m sure it was something about my one shoe and the way I was dressed. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, but forced myself to stand still with my eyes fixed on my suitcases to avoid looking back at them. At the same time, I was shaking from the cold, and was thinking to myself, “I hope Don comes back soon from wherever he is, because I can’t take this anymore!”
I looked out the window and saw the sun going down behind the mountains. It was getting dark and Don was still gone. He may have been gone for ten or fifteen minutes, but it seemed like hours. I was worried, and thought, “Oh no, he might have been kidnapped. After all, he is an American and this is Japan. They were at war before, and who knows, some Japanese might still be holding a grudge.” I was cold, tired, hungry, and then I was scared. I wondered what more could happen to the first day of our honeymoon.
Thank God, Don came back and told me it had been a mistake. “They now understand me,” he said. “I told them I wanted a honeymoon cabin in the mountains, and not a ski resort. I’m so sorry I put you through all of this, but the worst is over. All we have to do now is to go back down the way we came up, and catch another taxi to take us to a small village below,” he smiled.
I felt better, knowing I didn’t have to spend two weeks of my honeymoon on a bunk bed, in a ski lodge, sharing a room with fifteen other people, and have them gawking at me all the time.
“Can you wait for a little while?” I asked. “I need to get my sandals and clothes from the suitcase. I don’t think I can go back down the mountain in my bare feet.”
“Oh? What happened to your other sandal?” he asked.
“I lost it on the way up here,” I said.
“Again, I’m so sorry for putting you through this.” He shook his head and smiled. “Of course, you can get your sandals and change your clothes.”
Never-the-less, those thirty watchful eyes peered at us from all different directions, as we talked and smiled in front of them. I opened my suitcase, took out a pair of sandals, and looked for a pair of purple or red bell-bottom slacks, along with two long sleeved blouses, which I thought I would never need. I put the single sandal back into my suitcase, hoping I could find its mate on the way down.
I went outside and looked around for the bathroom. When I found it, I walked in, and closed the door behind me. After using the bathroom, I put the newer clothes on top of the older ones, layer after layer. I felt like a stuffed scarecrow, and I was sure I looked like one too. It reminded me of when I was younger and had to do the same thing with my clothes, when we were fleeing from North to South Vietnam.
Don looked at me when I came back from the bathroom, and started laughing. “You are so cute,” he said. “You look just as good fat as you do thin.”
“Thanks a lot,” I said with a smile. “Can you find someone to help us with our suitcases down the mountain?”
“I sure can,” Don replied. We found a Japanese man who helped carry the two larger suitcases, while Don carried the two smaller ones. Without carrying anything, I still had problems with the slippery trail. I fell several times, even though I was trying to be careful.
“Going down is harder than going up,” I told Don.
“Just be careful,” Don warned me, but right after his words, he too fell, and all three of us started laughing.
“I just hope we don’t slide over a cliff,” I said.
Not too far down, I found my lost sandal, half buried in the snow. I picked it up and carried it, as I continued to slip and fall. Don and our helper were concerned, and they asked me to hold on to them at first, but that couldn’t keep me from falling. In the end, they just watched me, and smiled each time I fell. I started getting used to the falls, and began having fun by sliding in the snow on my behind. I discovered what it felt like to ski, but wished I had a ski board.
We reached the road and saw a taxi waiting for us, with its engine running. We waved to the driver to acknowledge him.
“The ski lodge people must have called the taxi for us,” I said.
“Yes, I asked them to,” Don replied.
The driver got out and greeted us. Don and our helper sat our suitcases down near the taxi, and all four of us bowed to each other. Don pulled out some money from his wallet and handed it to our helper, but he wouldn’t take it. He just smiled, and bowed to us, as we smiled and bowed back.
The taxi driver and our helper exchanged some Japanese words and they bowed; soon we all bowed at each other again. At one point, I was so confused and didn’t know whom to bow to next, so I bowed to Don and he bowed back to me.
We bowed non-stop. I thought, “If we don’t stop bowing to each other, we will never get out of here.” Don changed the bow to a handshake with our helper, and after a few more bows, he started back up the trail, and we climbed into the taxi.
One thing I learned about Japanese people: they bow a lot. Everyone bowed everywhere we went. I wondered if it was their custom to bow, or if they were just competing to see who could bow the most.
The taxi took us to a small village below, not too far from the ski resort. He stopped at one of the largest hotels in the area, and after the driver took the suitcases out of the trunk, Don paid him; we bowed once more, and he drove away. We went into the hotel, dragging our heavy suitcases behind us.
A young man at the desk saw us and stood up. He bowed and said, “Hello and welcome.” In English! Wow, we were excited. Don began explaining to him what happened, and how we ended up at his hotel. As Don talked, I saw the young man nodding, but we both realized his English did not go beyond “hello” and “welcome.” Don showed him our reservations, he showed us to our room, and motioned for us to enter. He then put the two large suitcases down; we exchanged a few bows, before the young man exited to the corridor.
I looked around the simple room and saw a small television against the wall, a short rectangular table in one corner, with two small pillows underneath. On the opposite side, I saw an open closet with a shoe rack, but I didn’t see a bed, just a large, thin mattress and two large pillows in the middle of the floor.
While Don organized the suitcases, I walked toward one of the walls, hoping I could find a bathroom. I stared at the strange looking wall for a second, and walked closer to investigate. I touched it and realized it was made of paper, a white waxy paper! I gave it a little push and it opened into another room; to my surprise, it looked just like ours. I slid the wall back into place and said, “Hey Don! You won’t believe it, but the wall is made of paper and it’s moveable.”
“I heard about the paper walls in Japan because of the earthquakes,” he said, as he changed his clothes “but I never saw one.” He continued, “It’s late; let’s change to our pajamas and go to sleep. I’ll check it out later. I’m so tired.”
Our hotel attendant and me
“Okay, honey,” I said, and we hit the mattress as soon as we changed into our pajamas. I gave Don a kiss, and that was all I remembered, until there was a knock on the door the following morning. I jumped up, opened the door, but saw no one, until I looked down at my feet and saw a female attendant, dressed in a kimono, kneeling on all fours. A tray containing a teapot and two cups was on the floor beside her. She said something in Japanese as she bowed nonstop. I stepped aside and signaled for her to come in. She picked up the tray, walked timidly to a table and set it down. She poured tea into the two cups, bowed again, returned to all fours, and crawled backwards out the door, without once looking at me.
Don was up and witnessed the entire show, but said nothing. He waited for her to leave the room and for me to close the door behind her, before he climbed off the mattress, and sampled the tea.
I skipped the tea, opened the curtains, and looked outside; what I saw was unbelievable scenery. Just for a second, I thought, “This could not be on earth; I must have frozen to death last night, and now I’m in heaven.” I could not wait to open the sliding door and step out on the balcony.
“Hey, Don, come here!” I yelled as I slid the door open. “Look, look!”
Don drinking tea in his kimono
Don put his tea down, and ran toward me. We stepped outside, and from the balcony, we saw a deep half-frozen, white canyon, with a misty fog hanging over a stream. Farther up on my right, I saw a beautiful waterfall glistening in the sunlight, with a red arching bridge built above it. Heavy snow covered its rails, and let only partial red spots show through the entire length of the bridge. I looked down on my left, and saw white steam, hovering over the slow-moving water. On the opposite side, I noticed a few small birds chasing each other on top of the white tree. Other than a few protruding grey rocks and some brown spots under the tree’s branches, everything else was white. I never dreamed of seeing anything on earth so majestic and magnificent. It was one of the most beautiful sights on earth.
Don walked to me, gave me a kiss, and we held each other tight as we stood and drank in natures art. Don bent down and whispered in my ear, “Happy honeymoon, baby.”
I looked up into his tender eyes and said, “Happy honeymoon, to you too babe! I love you with all my being and I will continue to love you until the day I die, and that is forever.” I made my vow to Don.
“I love you even more. I promise you I will love you for eternity, and if possible, I will continue to love you after my death,” he responded, as tears pooled in his eyes.
“It’s not possible for you to love me more,” I smiled with tears running down my cheeks. “But I won’t argue with you today, since it is our honeymoon, and it has turned out to be the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Thank you for bringing me here.” I said.
“There is a rainbow after the storm after all,” he said smiling.
We loosened our grip a little and continued to watch the water flow; we forgot that we were still in our pajamas in the freezing cold.
“I love it out here,” Don said, “but it is so cold. I can’t take it anymore. I have to go inside.”
“I’m cold too, baby,” I said, “Let’s both go inside.” We held hands and walked through the door.
“We have to go to a store and buy warmer coats and shoes, if we want to go anywhere,” I said.
“I think so too,” Don agreed.
We opened our suitcases and found the warmest clothes we had.
“Before we change,” Don said, “we have to find a bathroom.”
“Where is our bathroom?” I asked Don. “I haven’t seen one in here.”
“I sure hope they have one indoors,” Don smiled, “Otherwise we will freeze our buns out there.”
“I agree,” I said, and we both laughed.
Still in our pajamas, we opened the door and stuck our heads out to look up and down the hallway. When we didn’t see anybody, we tiptoed back and forth in the quiet corridor, trying to find a bathroom.
“There is a door,” I said, out of curiosity, “it has a man and a woman symbol with Japanese written on it, and it looks different from the rest. Would you like to open it?” I asked.
“Yes, we should try,” Don said, and pushed it open; we discovered what looked to be a community bathroom. A tall white towel rack, full of towels, stood in one corner, near a large sunken hot tub. We walked deeper inside, and found toilets, sinks, and showers. “Where is everybody?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Don said, shrugging his shoulders, “I was wondering about it myself.”
We went back to our room to get our toilet articles and a change of clothes. When we returned, we used the bathroom and then grabbed a towel from the rack.
“I hope these are the right towels and the right bathroom for us to use.” I said, and we both laughed.
“I hope so too,” Don said as we went into our own shower. We took a long hot shower and changed into clean clothes.
“I feel better,” I told Don.
Don smiled and said, “Me too.”
On the way out, I pointed to the large steaming hot tub.
“The tub looks good,” I said. “We’ll have to come back tonight and try it out.”
“What a great idea; I can’t wait.” Don winked at me, with a mischievous smile.
“Ok then, we will do the tub when we get back from shopping and sightseeing,” I said, as we walked back to our room. We grabbed the things we needed, Don’s wallet, my purse, and walked back out.
A young man intercepted us at the hallway; he bowed, and asked, “Are you Mr. and Mrs. Baer?”
We both answered, “Yes, we are.”
“My name is Hero, and I am one of the hotel managers,” he said. “I heard you are Americans, and need a translator. I am studying English, and I would be happy to assist you.”
Both of us were so excited and happy to meet him. It was a great relief, because there was finally someone who understood, and could help us. Hero took us into his office, and after we sat down, Don asked him where and how to get to the stores and restaurants. He explained and Don wrote it down on a piece of paper, and then he asked what to say to the taxi drivers, to take us to the interesting places, and back to the hotel. Hero gave us a map and all of the information we needed. We thanked him and all three rose from our chairs, and bowed to one another, before we left his office.
Don and I walked hand-in-hand through the ice and snow-covered street to look for a clothing store. I couldn’t walk and had to cling to Don to keep from falling. Each time I slipped, Don caught me, and when it was his turn, I stabilized him before he fell. We laughed at each other, and had a good time.
We walked into the first clothing store we saw, and I tried on the only red coat hanging on the rack. It was a little large for me, but it was thick and warm; I had no choice, but to buy it. I picked out a few sweaters, several pairs of socks, and a pair of white boots. Don bought the clothes he needed, and after paying for everything, we changed into the new clothes.
“There, I feel much better,” I told Don. “Now I am ready to go farther.”
“Me too,” Don replied. The sales lady, who spoke no English, watched us with a smile as she nodded her head as if she agreed with everything we did. She put our other clothes into a couple of large bags and handed them to us with a deep bow. We smiled and bowed back, and then walked out of her store.
Beautiful landscape and my new coat.
We stayed in the very small town of White Valley, near Minakami. I believe it catered to the skiers, and there was not a lot to do but walk around and take pictures of the snow on trees and rooftops.
Later we were hungry, found ourselves a restaurant, and walked in. Although it was small, there were quite a few people in it, and all of them seemed to be enjoying their meals. Don and I found an empty table, and sat down to wait. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, but we just sat and waited. The restaurant looked very busy, but I saw just one server wearing a colorful kimono, and it seemed she was running the whole show all by herself. A few minutes later, she brought a large tray full of food and set it at one of the tables behind us. Don saw an opportunity and waved to her. She walked toward us, smiled, with several half-nods and half-bows to us. I guessed she was too busy, and didn’t have the time to bow deeply.
Don asked her something in English, and she answered him in Japanese. Just as we expected, she didn’t speak English and didn’t understand a word Don said. In desperation, she turned to several tables nearby and asked people for help, but no one in the whole restaurant spoke English. After talking with his hands for few seconds, Don looked behind us and pointed to the tray she had just served, and motioned for her to bring us the same one.
She smiled, bowed, and walked away as fast as she could in her tight kimono. About half an hour later, she returned to our table with a tray full of raw food, along with half a dozen skinny, long forks. She carefully set everything in front of us, bowed, and left.
There was a problem: we didn’t know what to do with a tray full of uncooked food. I looked closer at the food tray, and saw a small pot full of oil, sitting on top of a tiny flame burner in the middle. Surrounding it was a pile of peeled shrimp, bite sized cut fish, a handful of dead baby octopi, several long pieces of eel or snake, and a mountain of assorted raw vegetables. Besides all of that, there were two small bowls, each with a small egg in it. I couldn’t tell whether the eggs were raw or cooked. The way everything looked, I figured the eggs were raw too. I looked at Don, and he looked back at me; we smiled and made funny faces at each other. I knew he was just as confused as I was.
“What are we going to do with these?” I asked Don.
“I have no idea,” he replied with a frown, “I just hope we don’t have to eat everything raw.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I saw a cooking burner and I’m sure it’s for cooking our food. But I need for the waitress to come back and show us what to do with everything, especially those eggs in the bowls.”
Since we didn’t know what to do, we just sat and stared at the food, at each other, and grinned. Don rolled his eyes, I stuck my tongue out, he winked at me and I winked back, and then, we giggled.
I watched as the flame under the pot burned brighter, and the oil in the pot bubbled faster. I heard my empty stomach growling, as my mouth began watering, but I couldn’t do anything except stare at the food, instead of eating it. When the waitress came back to our table, she looked at our untouched food, and realized we were dumfounded. She smiled, rolled up her kimono sleeve, and showed us how to cook and eat our food.
First, she broke a raw egg into each of our bowls, added a little soy sauce, and stirred them. Next, she took one of the thin, foot-long, two-pronged forks, poked a piece of raw fish, lowered it into the boiling pot, and then using another fork, pierced a vegetable, and placed it into the boiling oil. She looked at us, smiled, gave us forks, and signaled for us to do it ourselves. We speared a couple of shrimp, and octopus, and lowered them into the pot. We continued until all six of the forks were in the steaming hot cooker. The oil in the pot was burning too hot and it almost boiled over. She turned it down, and a few minutes later, she took the cooked food out and dropped it onto our plates. Then with a regular fork, she picked up a piece of hot food, and dipped it into the bowl of raw eggs; I believed the raw eggs were there to cool off the food. After all of the ritual, she motioned for us to eat it. We did. The food tasted so good and we loved it.
After the lesson, our teacher left us, and we began to cook for ourselves. I was a quick learner, and I was doing well for myself. Don, however, was a little confused, and was having a hard time getting the food to stick onto his skinny forks, especially the clammy octopus. Now and then I glanced at him, and saw him watch me as he tried to copy me.
Since he never had to cook for himself, I gave him credit for trying. Suddenly, I heard Don cry out loud, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” Everyone in the restaurant stopped eating and looked at him. He had eaten his food directly from the hot fork! I saw his lips and chin turn bright red, with the fork imprinted on his face. Don was in great pain and embarrassed, so we paid our bill, and left the restaurant as fast as we could. We found our way back to the hotel, with empty stomachs.
The hotel manager greeted us at the entrance and asked, “How is everything?” I knew Don was in too much pain to talk, so I took over.
“Oh, everything is great!” I said, as I winked at Don and smiled, “except for the cooking lesson. Don didn’t do well; he was very hungry, and tried to eat his fork straight out of hot boiling oil.” I laughed, but Don didn’t, and Hero was confused. He frowned and wondered why Don tried to eat his fork. I saw his confusion and I explained about the hot cooking pot.
“Oh, I am sorry,” Hero said with a smile. Don couldn’t smile, but his eyes told me he was going to make me pay for making fun of him. We found out from Hero, what we ordered was called “fondue.” I was sure it would have been a lot of fun to do if Don hadn’t burned himself. I believed it would be a long time before Don would have any more fondue. We went back to our room, I examined Don’s burns, and they didn’t look good.
“It looks bad.” I said. “You have a long narrow blister from your mouth down to your chin; I think the burn was not just from the hot fork, but also from the hot dripping oil. I’m afraid it will be a while before you can kiss me,” I joked.
“Thanks a lot,” he responded, “that’s all I need for our honeymoon; no kisses.”
“Let’s go out to our balcony and enjoy nature’s beauty,” I suggested, “you’ll forget about your burns.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” he said, as he took my hand and led me outside through the sliding door.
We sat on the balcony’s floor, hand in hand, with our heads leaning toward each other. Silently, we watched the fading sun go down behind the snow-covered trees. I looked down at the misty white creek below and it looked even more mysterious in the twilight. I believed there was no greater place of beauty, peace, and serenity on this earth. I thought, “If there is a heaven, this must be it.” We sat in our own heaven on earth, until nature went to sleep, before we went inside.
“Hey babe, do you feel like going to the hot tub we saw this morning?” I reminded Don.
“Yes!” he exclaimed, “It would feel good after sitting on the cold balcony.” Don stood up first and helped me to my feet, and we walked shoulder to shoulder through the door.
I opened one of my suitcases, found a skimpy bikini, and put it on, while Don put on his swim trunks. I felt the pain in my hips and I looked down. I discovered I was black and blue with bruises on my hips, thighs and legs; I showed them to Don.
“Hey Don! Look at my bruised legs; I don’t think I should go to the hot tub in my bikini.” I pouted.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “it doesn’t matter how your legs look; there’s no one here to see them except me.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said with a weak smile.
Don came closer to examine my legs. “Let me see how bad,” he said. “Wow, your legs do look bad.” He was showing concern at first, but then he started to laugh, with his hand covering his blisters, “Now your legs match my blistered lips.” He said. “We’re in great shape for our honeymoon.”
“Well! Thanks a lot, I’m glad you think that it’s funny.” I frowned, and then laughed.
“Besides, I hope nobody will ever see those legs but me anyway,” he said, and winked at me.
I grabbed his hand, dragged him out to the hallway and toward the hot tub. It was very quiet and no one was around.
“The hotel is almost empty,” I remarked.
“It must be the wrong day or wrong season, or it might be too cold,” Don replied.
“Who knows?” I said. “But now we have the whole place to ourselves.” I looked
at the hot inviting tub; it was clear, bubbling, and steaming hot. I felt good to have our own private spa, and began lowering myself into the sunken bath.
“It’s hot! Be careful,” I warned Don. “We need to go in slow and let our bodies get used to the heat.” Don was holding on to my hand as he stepped down into the tub.
“Oh wow! It is hot!” Don exclaimed, as he lowered himself deeper into the water.
We moved closer and sat down next to each other. We were talking, holding hands, and enjoying ourselves.
From nowhere, two middle-aged Japanese men appeared, with towels around their waists.
“I hope they don’t come into the tub with us,” I whispered to Don.
“I hope so too,” Don replied.
As the two men walked towards the tub, they bowed as soon as they saw us. We nodded slightly to them, because the water level in the spa was up to our neck. They came within a couple feet of the spa, but they didn’t get in; they pulled their towels off, and to our shock, they were both naked! I stopped smiling with them and turned to look away as they lowered themselves into the tub.
Don and I felt so awkward, but the men paid no attention to us, as they continued talking to each other, acting as if we didn’t even exist. On the other hand, we felt so uncomfortable, and wanted to leave the tub. Instead, we lingered, and acted cool, as if we had done this many times before. I saw Don frown, so I signaled for him to stop by kicking his foot under the water. Lucky for me, one of them sat close to me, and each time I glanced down at the crystal-clear water, I saw his turtle’s head popping up and down as though it was alive and was dancing with the bubbling waves. Each time our eyes met, the men always smiled with me, and I couldn’t help but smile back at them.
“I can’t take any more of this,” I whispered to Don.
“Me too!” Don said. “Are you ready to go?” he asked. The two men thought he was talking to them, they turned to say something to Don, but he just smiled and said nothing.
“I am more than ready,” I replied, and we both stood up. We bowed to the men and they nodded back. They couldn’t bow, because the water was up to their chin, and if they were to bow, they would drown. We helped each other and climbed out of the tub. I went straight to the towel rack for a towel to dry myself, and Don was right behind me. I looked back at the two men and noticed they were staring at my black and blue legs. I whispered to Don, “I’m sure they looked at my bruised legs and think I had it rough last night.” We both laughed.
“If they looked at my swollen lips,” Don added, “they might think so.” We laughed again.
“Hey Don,” I said, “you were wrong about nobody being here, and nobody to see my bruised legs,” I giggled.
“Yes, I was wrong,” he said, “now let’s hurry up and get out of here.” We each wrapped ourselves in a large towel, went to the toilet, and giggled all the way back to our room. As soon as we closed the door behind us, we started laughing so hard that, our backs and stomachs hurt. I saw Don hold his mouth while he was laughing, and told him to be careful with his burns.
“I saw the guy’s private part in the tub,” I told Don, laughing. “It looked like a live turtle’s head, swaying back and forth, daring me to catch it,” I exaggerated.
“I’m so glad it didn’t crawl out and bite you!” he said, and we continued to exaggerate our story, as we kept on laughing. Poor Don, his burned lips really hurt him when he laughed, but it was too funny for us not to.
After changing into our pajamas, Don turned on the TV, and it was in color! I had never seen a color TV before. Even though we didn’t understand most of the programs, it was interesting for us just to watch them in color. We were tired and soon fell asleep. The following morning, the same attendant came back. After she served tea, she went to one of the walls, and to my surprise, she pushed it open. I looked through the open door and saw a bathroom. I watched her as she walked in and looked around for a few seconds, but the bath was in perfect shape, and she walked out. I didn’t know it was a bathroom; I thought it opened into another hotel room, like the other wall. That was why I didn’t even try.
Don and I in our kimonos with our Geisha girl.
Each morning the hotel maid came to our room, performed the same ritual of walking in to serve tea, cleaning the toilet, getting down on all fours, and crawling out backwards. Each afternoon, a female host, who spoke no English, came to our room and dressed us. She took the kimonos from our closet and helped us put them on, then escorted us to a restaurant in one of the hotel’s wings. She left us there long enough for us to eat, and then came back to take us to a nightclub in another wing, for drinks and live entertainment.
Our host, dressed in a different kimono, wore white makeup with very red lipstick. She was sweet and friendly. I believed she was our personal Geisha girl, and we liked her very much.
After breakfast one morning, Don and I walked to Hero’s office to ask him some questions, but he gave us more information than what we were there for. We discovered the hotel offered more than just a place for people to sleep; it was also a place for men to have fun away from their wives.
I was often mistaken for a Geisha girl, and many of the men flirted with me. Some even tried to touch me. Don was more than a little jealous because of the inappropriate attention I received. While we were having dinner one night, several men were sitting at a table across from us. We noticed they were looking and talking about me among themselves. After a few drinks, they began talking to me in Japanese. Of course, I didn’t understand a word they said; still I gave them friendly smiles, but my smile wasn’t enough for them. They must have thought I was being snobbish, because I didn’t speak to them. They became angry, and gave me mean glares. Although I didn’t understand Japanese, I could tell they were cursing at me and threw things around on their own table.
“There it goes again,” I said to Don, “I have to put an end to the misunderstanding.” I took my ID card and passport out of my purse and walked towards them. I smiled as I approached their table and handed my ID card and passport to them. They read them, and
Back in Tokyo city.
realized their mistake. They all stood up, bowed to me, and offered their hands. I smiled back and shook their hands. I believe they were apologizing. They also came to our table and shook Don’s hand, and ordered him a drink. From the expression on their faces, I think they were embarrassed.
After one week, we ran out of things to do in the small village and decided to go back to civilization in the big city. Tokyo was large and came to life with people on the move. There were many tall buildings, packed tight with stores, restaurants, and many kinds of entertainment. The price of everything in the city was very high, far more than we had expected, and more than we could afford.
Within days, we almost ran out of money, had to give up our hotel, and went to Yokota Air Force Base, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Since Don was a retired officer, we were able to stay in Officers’ Quarters, at a reasonable price. We dined on snacks and noodle soup most of the time; for entertainment, we walked up and down the streets, taking pictures and window-shopping. There were many nice restaurants, with mouth-watering entrees displayed in the windows, but we couldn’t afford to go in.
It had been over a week since Don burned his mouth. The small spot on his top lip looked better, except for the scab, but his bottom lip and chin were still red, with blisters. We still hadn’t had a real kiss yet. I think we were saving our kisses until we returned to Saigon.
While at the Air Force Base, Don met a couple of his old friends and their wives. The six of us spent time together, playing cards, and listening to music. We also went to a bar and casino, where I learned to play slot machines.
Leaving our hotel in Japan to go back to Viet Nam.
One night I was lucky and won enough money to buy all six of us dinners and drinks; that night we stayed out late with our friends. The next morning, they took us to the airport early, and said farewell. We arrived back in Saigon that evening.
The violence of the war raged on right outside my doorstep. There was no safe place for those of us ordinary citizens who were not even involved with the war. One day, a theater and a nightclub were blown up. The next day, a restaurant and a hotel were bombed. Even an innocent outdoor street-market was shattered by an explosion. I didn’t feel safe at work or at home, and didn’t know when all the violence would end. Don worked at Bien Hoa Air Base, and a mortar exploded right outside of his office. A piece of shrapnel flew right over his head and imbedded in the wall behind him. Thank God, Don was sitting down. If he had been standing, or was a few inches taller, he would have been decapitated. He removed the five-inch piece of razor sharp shrapnel from the wall, and kept it as a souvenir.
My stepbrother, Den, was a Major in the Vietnamese Rangers. He was wounded and part of his leg was shattered. He lost a lot of blood and needed transfusions. My family and I took turns visiting him at a distant hospital. Thanks to Don’s job, we were able to purchase an old blue Datsun; I used it to take my family to and from the hospital to see him. When I was on the road, the police often stopped me, for little or no reason at all.
Each time I was pulled over, they always asked me for my driver’s license and ID card, which I always had. For one reason or another, I always had to pay fines. It was not just the money, but it was the nuisance as well. The fines I paid were not because I did something wrong, but because I drove the car. They believed anyone driving a car had to have money; if people had money, they were sinners, and sinners had to pay fines. There was no exception; the police always looked for a reason to make me pay. They charged me for driving too fast, or too slow, my horn was too loud, or didn’t work, and the lights were either too dim, or too bright. I was surprised they didn’t stop me for the car’s ugly color; even I didn’t like the pale blue.
If the police couldn’t find a reason to charge me, they would ask, “Can you spare us some coffee money?” That meant money from my pocket to theirs. I got used to the drill, and came prepared. Each time they stopped me, I just handed them a roll of money, with the larger bills outside, to make them think there was more money in the role, and then I kept moving. I always looked in my rear view mirror and smiled, as I watched them count it.
I didn’t blame the police, and in many ways, felt sorry for them. Some of them were very poor, with small incomes and large families to feed; just like many others, including myself; we did what we could to feed our family.
Den’s wound was better and he was able to walk, but there was one drawback. The blood he received was tainted, and he developed hepatitis. One day, he said to me, “It’s better to have hepatitis and be on my feet, then not to have it, and be six feet under.” I agreed with him, but wished the circumstances were different.
Since Don used the car for work, I bought me a new Honda motorcycle, and called it my two-wheeled car. I used it for all my transportation needs, from my English classes to supermarkets and from the church to my black market business. I strapped a large box on the back seat, and packed it with everything I wanted or needed to carry. I loved my bike. If I had time, I would go with Don or friends to drive out of the city for fun. I just loved to feel the country fresh air blowing on my face.
Every Sunday, Don or I drove the motorcycle to church together. It was cheaper on gas and easy for us to find a parking space. After church, we often went for a drive out of town, usually to Bien Hoa or Thu Duc, about ten or fifteen miles outside of Saigon. The traffic was always bad and sometimes it took us an hour to get there. I was a faster and better motorcycle driver than Don; I knew the road, and was able to weave in and out of traffic without trouble. When we arrived at our destination, we often went to our favorite restaurant to have a bowl of pho, Don’s favorite rare beef, or chicken noodle soup. Other times we just went to our familiar café, to drink a special coffee, processed by a catlike creature, called an Asian Palm Civet. The little civet loves red coffee beans, but they can’t digest them, so the whole bean comes out the other end. The poor people, who worked on the coffee plantation, collected the beans expelled by the civet, took them home, washed and roasted them, and brewed them for their coffee. A plantation owner discovered that the civet made delicious coffee. Later it became popular, expensive, and it’s supposed to be the best coffee in the world; it has the price to prove it. It costs tens if not hundreds of times more than regular coffee. Only the rich could afford to drink civet-processed coffee. Don and I weren’t addicted to the civet poop however; we just went there because everyone else did. It was the place for “people of high status” to go for their coffee. We always had to wait a long time for service, because of their popularity, and after one cup each, we returned home. Frankly, I couldn’t tell the difference between the civet-processed coffee, and the one I had in my own kitchen, which probably contained rat and cockroach poop. According to the FDA, regular coffee contains a lot of poop from all kinds of creatures. Who knew what kind of poop my coffee had? Beside poop, I believe my coffee also contained some of the bug carcasses too.
It reminded me of what I heard about the American Lobster, which was once considered trash. The plantation owners fed them to their slaves, and later discovered lobster was tasty; they then fought with the slaves to eat the lobster themselves.
Don was taking me home from the church one Sunday, and while we were on a bridge about two blocks from our house, there was a loud and terrifying explosion just in front of us at the Truong Minh Giang market. The violent blast, shocked Don so much, that he almost crashed. After swerving back and forth, he was able to gain control and stop the bike. We stood in silence, watching people running around, screaming for help. I looked at Don and saw him harden his lips to a straight line, shaking his head in disgust. Although we had no idea what caused the explosion, we blamed the war for what happened. Together we stood like a pair of statues, watching part of the market burn down.
My business was running smoothly. Usually, I went to my friends’ homes who had American husbands or boyfriends. Through them, I was able to buy whisky, cigarettes, canned goods, and sometimes stereos and American currency. I took them home, separated them, and priced them one by one. I piled the merchandise into a large box, tied it behind my two-wheeled car, and took the box to various well-known stores. I sold them for double or triple the cost, depending on how slick I was with my bargaining skills. That was how I made a living; thank God for the black market. Together with Don’s income, we were able to purchase a few investment homes in Vung Tau and were able to help my family and my relatives in need.
My beloved uncle Ky borrowed a large amount of our money to change my cousin Bao’s birth documents. He wanted to change his son’s age to avoid the military draft. His other son already sacrificed his life to war, and my uncle did not want to see Cousin Bao die like his brother. The more money he paid to corrupt government workers, the younger his son became. My uncle hoped his son could be as young as possible, so by the time my cousin reached draft age, the war would be over. I lent him a large amount of money, and hoped it would save his son’s life. I was happy I could help him and didn’t intend to ask for the money back. My uncle was successful with his son’s new identity, but my cousin looked much older than his birth certificate said.
Most people in Viet Nam, including my own family, did not have their real ages and names on their ID cards or their birth documents; people could make up anything they wanted, as long as they had money to pay for it.
Besides being a black market dealer, I also attended English class in Van Khoi School; I liked the school and went there three times a week. I hoped to improve my English before I went to the United States. One Wednesday, after my class, I walked to the parking spot where I kept my bike, but didn’t see it. I looked around, but it had disappeared. I ran to ask the guard, and he acted as if he didn’t know what I was talking about. In desperation, I ran around, asking everybody, but no one saw my bike.
“How could that be?” I thought. “My red Honda was the newest model, and had many extra attachments. When I parked the bike, it stood out from the rest, and I had many complements from people who saw it. I was so pleased and proud of it. I paid extra money to the school for an inside, locked gate, parking space, which also had guards. I didn’t understand how my Honda could disappear without a trace.” I went to the office and talked to the principal; he advised me to talk to the school manager. I went to the manager’s office, talked to him, and he advised me to talk to the guard, who was supposed to be watching the parking area. I went back to the guard and asked him again about my bike. He told me he had not seen it, and advised me to call the police. I talked to several students before I called the police, and they told me thieves stole many bikes like mine from the school, but nobody did anything about it. According to them, thieves would target the newest and the best vehicles, because they would bring the most money. I knew of the problem, and that was why I paid the extra money for the guards, and for an inside parking space.
I had no choice, but to use the school telephone to call the police; two officers arrived and brought their bad attitudes with them. One man stood with parted legs, hands behind his back, and stared at me, with his ‘know-it-all’ kind of smile, while the other one questioned me as if I was the thief who stole the bike. After snarling and snorting, they acted as if they were trying to help me, by looking around for my bike, in the very same place I had already looked. A few minutes later one said, “No one in school saw your Honda.” He grinned, winked at the other policeman, and continued, “Perhaps you came to school in a taxi, and thought you rode your bike.” They both laughed out loud. I looked at them in disgust. I believed they were all in it together; since there was no law to protect me, and no point for me to look any further, I went home crying.
President Nixon, after his election, vowed to end the Vietnam War. He promised President Thieu his plans would bring peace with honor. I couldn’t wait to see that happen. I thought if the war ended right away, it would save millions of Vietnamese lives, and some of the 280,000 American soldiers who were still in our country. Don and I were anxious to see peace come to Vietnam, but after Nixon took office, the war still raged on.
In February 1971, Don’s contract with Lockheed ended, and while at the coffee table one morning, Don turned to me and said.
“I’m getting so tired of this war, tired of watching friends and innocent people die,” Don sighed, “I think it’s about time for me to take you to America, to meet my family. What do you think?” he asked.
“I think it’s a good idea!” I replied, “I heard America is like a heaven on earth. I heard it is clean, beautiful, interesting, with sky-high buildings, and all nice people, who don’t lie, cheat, or steal.” Don looked at me with a smile, as I continued. “They are all rich people, they don’t work and still get paid, and if someone has to work, they use machines and don’t have to do hard labor like we do here in Vietnam.” Don rolled his eyes as if he was surprised, I stopped to catch my breath, and continued. “Wow, I heard America is the most perfect country on earth. I can’t wait to go there.” Don shrugged his shoulders, as if he half agreed.
“Where did you hear all of that?” He asked.
“Everywhere I go. If the topic of America comes up, they all say they want to go there; I think everyone in this world wants to go to America. And now, I will have a chance to see America for myself; I can’t wait.” I smiled and danced around Don.
“I’m so glad you’re happy, and want to go to my country with me.” Don stopped me from dancing, and hugged me.
It took weeks and a lot of money for us to prepare the legal papers and passports for my son and me. Eddie was five years old, but we had to change his age to three and a half, because the Vietnamese government officials told me they would not allow boys five years or older to leave the country. “They are potential soldiers,” they said, and I had to pay a lot of money to have his birth certificate changed. I didn’t know whether it was true or not, or he just wanted to make more money from me. Normally it cost less for those who want to change their documents, but because Don was an American, and most Vietnamese believed all Americans are rich and had plenty of money; they could afford to pay more. The rules were simple; if someone had money, they should pay extra for everything, because the rich could afford it. A man at the immigration desk said, “If you have the money, you could buy a Genie out of the bottle, much less have your son’s birth documents changed.” In other words, he told me I could afford to pay him extra.
Although I spent extra money, it still took us a long time to get Eddie’s birth certificate and our passports ready. Because of the war, not many of us cared about our real identity, and some never had one. It was easy for us to change our identity, but some people took advantage of the system and got away with murder. I am not proud to say that I too, took advantage of our government’s corruption, and got away with the black market activities, and document alteration. That’s because it was easier for me to do, than not to; I chose the easy way out.
While waiting for our papers, I spent a lot of time shopping for gifts and souvenirs for Don’s family in America. Before we left, we sold our car to Chuck, a friend of Don’s, and I sold most of our furniture, but kept some for my family. I gave my old clothes to the maids, and packed the rest into five suitcases, bags, and boxes.
A few days before we left, my mother and Bay, my beloved thirteen-year-old brother, came to stay with us, to say goodbye. It was sad to leave my family, but at the same time, I was excited to see America, the country I had heard so much about, the country made of diamonds and gold; where they ate food without having to cook, lived in tall buildings without having to walk up or down stairs, and all doors opened and closed automatically. “What a magic place, I can’t wait, I can’t wait!” The thought kept running through my head, twenty-four seven, and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about it. Since Don asked me to go with him, I couldn’t sleep well, especially since my mother and my brother came to stay with us. We cried our eyes out, whenever we were together and talked about my departure.
The day Don and I prepared to leave. We all had a sad breakfast, and together we took the luggage to the front-gate. While waiting for the taxi to take us to the airport, Mother began sobbing.
“This is it,” she cried. “I will never see you again.” She continued. “I heard rumors that when Vietnamese girls go with their husbands to America, most of their American families are very prejudiced; they are not going to like the Vietnamese women, and if the husband gets tired of his wife, he will kick her out and bring home a new one. Sometimes they sell the old wife to another man, and the process continues. You’ll never be able to come back to Vietnam!”
“No Mother,” I replied, “Don’t worry, Don and I will never, ever get divorced, but if we do, you know I’m smart, and I can take care of myself if something like that ever happens to me.” I tried to convince her. “Besides, I don’t think American people are as bad as you were told, so don’t believe everything you hear.” She cracked a weak smile and seemed to feel relieved by what I said. I could tell from her swollen eyes, she was worried about me, and had cried all night, just as I had. Even my five-year-old son, Eddie, and the two maids had red eyes.
“Where is my brother?” I asked Mother when I didn’t see him.
“I just saw him a few minutes ago at the sink, washing his face,” she answered in a sad voice.
“I think my brother must have been hiding, because he didn’t want me to see him crying.” I continued. “Excuse me, Mother,” I said and then left.
I went back inside to look for him. I found him lying on my bed, with his face in my pillow, sobbing. I sat next to him, stroked his hair, and let my tears stream down my face. A few seconds later, he pushed himself up from the pillow and hugged my neck. I could tell he too had been crying all night, because his eyes were swollen to the size of lemons, just as Mother’s and mine. I knew my mother would miss me, but I believed my brother would miss me even more. He was very close to me, and I was like a second mother to him.
Me, Don, my brother Bay, and Eddie, at Saigon Catholic Church, days before we left Vietnam in 1971
I remember, whenever he heard I would be coming home to visit my family, he always trapped wild birds, caught sand lizards, or dug mud crabs in the river behind the house; then cooked them and saved them for me. He knew what I liked to eat, wild and weird food. According to other family members, after he cooked the food, he hid it and would not let anyone touch it until I came home. I loved him so much and couldn’t bear the pain of a long separation. But there was nothing I could do, except cry.
“Don’t worry, my little brother,” I said, as I pulled him closer to my chest, “I will only be gone for a while.”
“No! I think you will be gone forever,” he sobbed.
“No! You are wrong, I could never leave you for good, and I promise you I will come back one way or another.” I murmured through my tears, “Now let’s go outside, I think the taxi is waiting.”
I got up first, held out my hands, pulled him off the bed, and we walked outside.
Don and the driver loaded our belongings into the van cab, while the rest of us hugged and said farewell. The moment before I entered the taxi, Bay ran to me, threw himself to my feet, and hung onto my legs tightly. “Please, my dearest sister, please don’t leave me,” he sobbed, “I don’t want you to go.” I was too choked up to talk, and just stood there letting tears stream down my face. He continued, “Mother said when you go, you will never come back, and we will never see you again!” He held on to my legs even tighter, and cried.
I bent down, pulled him up to his feet, hugged him, and let my tears soak his shirt.
“Don’t worry my little brother,” I whispered, “You will see me again, I promise. I will come back for you one way or another; you have to believe me; you will see me again.”
I let go of him, and jumped into the waiting taxi as fast as I could. Without looking back, I urged the driver to hurry up and go, go, go.
Saying goodbye to my mother was hard, but saying goodbye to my brother was so painful.