With just an old photograph in hand, a writer sets out to understand her father’s role in the Vietnam War—depending entirely on the kindness of strangers willing to help.
It was the three drunk men who pointed the way. Or, to be more precise, it was the boy who pulled up on his motorbike while I was talking to the three drunk men (all of whom, in truth, were far too inebriated—at the cocktailish hour of 10 a.m.—to do anything more than slurp at the cubes of coagulated pig’s blood that floated in their bowls of soup).
Leering, they passed the photograph of the beautiful woman, its once sharp lines now faded, to the boy on the bike. She had worked at the military hospital where my father was stationed in 1970, and although she was not the person I most wanted to find, I had brought her picture from home because I thought she might lead me to the person who was. Looking at the image, the boy on the motorbike remembered a woman one village over who had worked at the hospital during the war and married an American doctor.
My translator, Phuoc, and I set off down the dirt road that the boy indicated, across the highway and past the rice paddies. The heat was dense and fierce, and I soon gave up trying to wipe away the sweat that dripped steadily down my neck. We came upon a man walking home from the fields, and Phuoc asked him for directions. The man pointed his machete at a two-story house farther down the road. Like many of the homes in Thuy Phu, a commune just outside Phu Bai, its living room was open to the street, so we stood politely on the steps, shooing chickens away from our feet, while Phuoc inquired of the four women inside, “Is there someone here who married an American during the war? A doctor?” The oldest one nodded. She introduced herself as Van Thi Cuc and invited us inside.
I could hardly believe my luck. I was in Vietnam
without a single contact, and yet on my first excursion, I had found one of the two people I was seeking. Taking off my shoes and stepping inside, I allowed myself to hope that this first, near miraculous discovery would lead to a second.
“Here she is,” Cuc said with a smile. I looked around the room expectantly, but none of the other women came forward. Then I noticed that Cuc’s gaze was fixed on a photograph on the wall. It showed a middle-aged Vietnamese woman, her dark hair curled into neat waves, leaning into a man with a marked resemblance to the actor Elliott Gould. She was clearly not the one in my photo. “But he’s not a doctor,” Cuc said with a cluck any Jewish mother would recognize. “He’s a dentist.”
What was I doing in a stranger’s living room in a tiny village in central Vietnam, parsing professions and looking at family photographs? In a sense, I was searching for my father.
He had died the year before. His last few days were spent at home, propped up in a bed that had been positioned in his study so he could look out through the windows at the Georgia pines. Sitting with him as he slept, I was struck by the obvious, but no less profound, realization that my father existed outside of me. It was a thought that probably comes to all of us, eventually: that our parents have lives that have nothing to do with us, their children. In those last few hours, I wished I had known him better, the Mel Abend who was not my father.
As my family and I prepared for the funeral, we went through old photo albums, including the one my dad had brought back from his year as a surgeon in an evacuation hospital during the Vietnam War. He went to Vietnam when I was about six, and growing up, the album had simultaneously attracted and terrified me, for it was filled with gory photos of mangled bodies on operating tables. But what I noticed now, as an adult, were the images of a young Vietnamese boy, no more than six years old himself, sitting up in bed with a beatific smile on his face. I recalled my father telling me that the boy had been near an explosion and was brought to the hospital still impaled on the post that had cut through his torso. My dad had operated on him, and now, in these photos, the boy was sitting up, smiling. Here was someone whose life my father had dramatically affected, and who had known my dad at a time and in a way that I never could. He would be in his 40s now. I wondered if I could find him.
My quest started, logically enough, in a hospitality suite on the outskirts of Las Vegas
. In 1970, my dad was stationed at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai. Forty-two years later, the staff held a reunion. Now in their 60s and 70s, the doctors, nurses, and medics gathered in Las Vegas with what felt—even to this outsider—like relief. Decades later, most of them still didn’t talk about the war with family or friends. My dad, who could otherwise chat about anything, had never done so either. “No one who wasn’t there could understand what it was like,” Gus Kappler, a thoracic surgeon who had helped organize the event, told me.
Our only strategy was to approach anyone who looked old enough to have been alive during the war.
The high point of the weekend was a slide show that, with its images of helicopters and guys in fatigues flashing peace signs, seemed familiar, almost iconic. But for Gus and the other vets, the images on the screen weren’t icons but memories: the mud, the lack of hot water, the drain in the operating room floor where the blood from surgery was washed down, the football games, the boredom, the Bob Hope show, the “designated driver” they would appoint to stay sober in case any casualties arrived.
I learned some things about my dad. The man whom I had seen smoke exactly once in my life was photographed doing surgery with a cigarette dangling from his mouth in front of a sign that read OXYGEN. NO SMOKING. The concert-level pianist who gave up the instrument permanently when I was in fourth grade played so well in the officers’ club that the others dubbed him “Magic Mel.” When a newly arrived nurse finished her first, brutal night in the OR, my dad told her to go outside and hit something, just to get the rage and fear out of her system. And when one of the medics asked him what to list as “cause of death” for a particularly tragic delivery of body bags, my dad had insisted, “Murder.”
None of the veterans remembered the boy. But looking through a stack of black-and-white photos that I had brought, Kathy Gunson—the same nurse whom my dad had told to go hit something— recognized a Vietnamese woman. “She was the bartender at the officer’s club,” Kathy said. “She might have known that boy.”
Five weeks later, I flew to Ho Chi Minh City. An expat friend based in Asia told me that everyone still calls the city Saigon, but it was hard to reconcile the images that name conjures with the bustling, prosperous metropolis dotted with Louis Vuitton outlets and cupcake shops that I encountered. Working up the courage to traverse the busy, crosswalkless streets, I managed to make my way to the War Remnants Museum
. I had read that the museum’s contents—fetuses deformed by Agent Orange floating in formaldehyde, grisly photographs of napalm victims—presented a rather one-sided version of the war. But the exhibitions were so heavy-handed, and the decades-old Communist slogans so far removed from the bustling commerce going on outside the door, that they seemed almost ironic.
I left the next morning for Hue, the large city nearest to Phu Bai. Home to Vietnam’s last emperors, it stretches languidly along the Perfume River. I knew that Hue had been the site of some of the fiercest fighting during the war; it was the scene of a bloody battle and horrific massacre during the 1968 Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnam against the U.S.-supported South. But 45 years had done a lot to erase any trace of that past. Driving into the city, all I saw were tire shops and fancy homes under construction. I checked into a hotel in the backpackers’ district, where the welcoming staff had an adorable penchant for leaving animal-shaped towel sculptures on the bed.
I met Phuoc the next day. He was friendly but no-nonsense, with a cool efficiency to him that I found reassuring. I handed him the photograph of the boy and explained the nature of my quest. Phuoc didn’t seem to find any of what I said very remarkable. He did not remind me of how many people had been killed in the war or point out how many had emigrated after it. He did not, in other words, tell me I was crazy. He simply asked to borrow the receptionist’s helmet, strapped it to my head, and ushered me toward his motorbike. “OK,” he said. “Let’s go look.”
It was impossible to imagine this lovely, prosperous country torn apart by war.
As we careened through the streets of Hue, the tourist bars advertising air-conditioning and cheap beer gradually gave way to furniture shops and street markets overflowing with flowers and fruit. Phuoc told me he had worked with U.S. veterans groups, leading them on tours and translating at encounters with former Vietnamese soldiers. “Sometimes they even meet North Vietnamese,” he shouted above the motorbike’s din. “It’s always very meaningful for them to realize they don’t have to feel that hostility anymore.” I wanted to ask more, but I was too busy concentrating on maintaining my death grip on his bike. We narrowly missed colliding with a teenage girl who had balanced her phone precariously between her handlebars. She was texting as she drove.
We retraced the path I had taken in from the airport. Phuoc pointed to the mountains where Camp Eagle, the base for the 101st Airborne, had been located. We passed a rusted gate blocking a dirt road that seemed to lead nowhere. “That was the hospital,” Phuoc said. We circled back. Behind the gate there was only jungle.
We pulled in to the village of Phu Bai and chose a street to follow at random. It was hard to get a sense of the place: Expensive-looking two-story houses with balconies stood next to cement-floor shacks, and streets ended abruptly in rice paddies. With no name or address to go on, our only strategy was to approach anyone who looked old enough to have been alive during the war.
At our first stop, a man in his 60s invited us to pull up a chair around the outdoor stove where his daughters and granddaughters were cooking. Phuoc explained our mission. The man looked at the photo a long time, then looked carefully at me. He said something long and complicated, and I turned with anticipation to Phuoc.
“He said no,” Phuoc said.
I was incredulous. “All that talking and he just said ‘no’?”
“Well,” Phuoc expanded. “‘No, I have never seen him.’”
I handed over a second photo, this one of the woman that Kathy, back in Vegas, had told me tended bar in the officer’s club. This time the answer came faster. It was no again.
As Phuoc and I stood to leave, the man mentioned a house a few doors down; the owner had been friends with some American GIs. We stopped by. No one there recognized the boy or the woman either, but again, everyone seemed to want to send us off with some kind of lead—a man who had worked at the base, say, or a woman who had been injured and sent to the American hospital. With each meeting, I would run through the same cycle of emotions: nervousness at approaching a stranger, hope as they contemplated the past, disappointment when it became clear they didn’t recognize anyone, and then, unexpectedly, a light balm of gratitude at their willingness to take my search seriously and send me off with another suggestion. In this way, one person led to another until, finally, Phuoc and I found ourselves in Van Thi Cuc’s living room, the one with the chickens outside and the photograph on the wall.
Cuc told me that the woman in the photo was Thuat, her sister-in-law, and that she had moved to the United States in 1972. Before that, Thuat had worked at the hospital, doing laundry and other jobs. She might know the woman or the boy I was looking for. I asked Cuc if she had contact information, and she sent one of her granddaughters searching through a stack of papers in a credenza otherwise stuffed with Barbie dolls. The girl came up empty-handed. “But you could talk to her nephew,” Cuc said. “He should know how to find her.”
The past I was searching for revealed itself only in bits and pieces.
We met the nephew, a sullen man in his 20s named Can, in the café he owned near the main highway. Phuoc asked him about his aunt, and Can abruptly stood up and disappeared into the back to fetch some photos. I used the interval to gaze at the mural that covered one of the café’s walls: a nude woman floating inside an egg that, in turn, hovered near a waterfall while white chickens observed the scene. I was trying to figure out the message—had the chickens laid the egg the woman was floating in?—when Can returned with a phone in his hand.
“Here,” Phuoc translated. “You can talk to his aunt.”
I did a quick calculation in my head: It was 1 a.m. in Boston, where she lived.
“I’m so sorry to disturb you at this hour,” I stammered into the phone.
“It’s OK, I couldn’t sleep anyway,” came the voice on the other end. “I’m in the hospital.”
“You’re in the hospital?” I was feeling more sheepish by the moment.
“Yes, I’m having a tumor removed tomorrow.” Thuat paused. “It’s benign, though.”
I was in a roadside café in a village in Vietnam, talking to a distant insomniac about the growth she was about to have removed. And no, she didn’t remember a woman who had tended bar in the officer’s club.
In the following few days, I adopted a routine. In the morning, Phuoc and I would go to Phu Bai and follow a daisy chain of connections that inevitably led nowhere. In the afternoon, I would take in Hue’s sights in an attempt to put myself in my dad’s place, to see what he had seen. I hiked out to the Thien Mu pagoda, where the lovely gardens were thick with butterflies. I ate dumplings that put the glue in glutinous rice and watched schoolkids practice tae kwon do with militaristic precision. I rode a dragon boat down the river and was predictably ripped off after I refused to buy a handpainted bookmark from the captain.
One night, while eating dinner at a vegetarian restaurant on the grounds of a pagoda, I was hit on by a monk, despite the fact that he was about 20 years younger than I and, well, a monk. His name was Hanh, he was waiting for friends, and he wanted to know what I was doing later that night. I looked up from my hot pot to notice that all the Westerners had by this time cleared out of the restaurant; except for the waitresses, Hanh and I were alone. Just as the situation was about to get really awkward, a bus pulled up in front and began disgorging dozens of passengers clad in identical brown robes. The place filled with monks, who bowed to each other jovially as they took their seats. “My friends,” Hanh said. I was off the hook.
And the war? The past I was searching for revealed itself only in bits and pieces. Walking along the river one day, I found a vendor selling dog tags, the names—Brian Carson, Michael Danzinger—still legible. I had a beer one night at a bar that seemed to owe its tremendous popularity among Australians solely to its name: The DMZ. One afternoon, I visited the Forbidden City, former home to the emperors and today a compound of graceful, crumbling pavilions surrounded by a carpet of weeds and wildflowers. I eavesdropped shamelessly on a tour group and heard their guide say, pointing out one ruin, “American shells did that.”
Wandering through Hue, where the hot bustle of shops and traffic would unexpectedly cede to tree-lined streets almost poetic in their stillness, I thought often of my father. Curiosity was one of his most pronounced personality traits, and I know he would have wondered, as I did, who thought to adorn the fat, brightly painted statues at the Thien Mu pagoda with real facial hair. He was a great eater and, like me, would have loved strolling through the market, peering at open vats of strange, fermenting things. And, as someone who delighted in family celebrations, he would have been just as charmed as I was by the high-cheeked couple posing in the street like fashion models for their wedding pictures as their parents looked on, beaming.
It was as if everything from that time—the violence, the fear, the physical artifacts themselves and my father’s experience of them—lay out of reach.
But in many ways he became more mysterious to me in Hue. By the time I was old enough for such things to matter, my father was an experienced traveler, however when he’d arrived in Vietnam, he had never been much of anywhere. I had trouble imagining what a young man from an insular neighborhood in Boston would have made of the cone-hatted vendors balancing baskets of limes across their shoulders like human scales, or the monks with their massive, flapping fans. It was impossible, as well, to imagine this lovely, prosperous country torn apart by war. Whenever I asked about it, people always answered vaguely: Yes, it was terrible, a tragedy for all involved, but things are better now. It was as if everything from that time—the violence, the fear, the physical artifacts themselves and my father’s experience of them—lay out of reach.
Toward the end of my 10 days in Vietnam, I went to Da Nang, a coastal city about 60 miles south of Hue, to see a nun. I had become convinced, based on no evidence other than my own desperation, that the boy I was seeking had been an orphan. Sister Xavier had run the Kim Long orphanage in Hue during the war, and now lived in a home for retired nuns. Well into her 90s, she was hard of hearing and frail enough to require a wheelchair. But she glowed with a kind of contentment I’ve not often come across. She took the photo, looked at the boy, and said he was very beautiful. “Did you know him?” I asked. “Oh, yes,” she replied confidently. At that moment, a novice interrupted us, bearing glasses of weak tea. When I tried to turn the conversation back to the boy, Sister Xavier couldn’t remember what we had been talking about.
Why had I wanted to find the boy in the first place? My father had saved his life, but I didn’t need him to tell me my dad was a hero; I already knew that. I had told myself I was looking for the perspective of an outsider—someone who would have known my father intimately but in a different way than I had. I thought that by shifting the frame, by adopting someone else’s viewpoint, maybe I would come to see my dad more clearly. But if I’m being honest, it wasn’t just my dad I was hoping to see. I also wanted to see myself through my father’s eyes, to know, with just a little more certainty, who I had been to him. In his letters home during the war, he barely mentioned me or my siblings. But the boy he operated on would have been more or less the same age as I was, the daughter he had left safely behind.
I wondered if all those photos of the boy smiling from his hospital bed were a substitute for the ones of birthday parties and Halloween costumes he couldn’t take that year. Or if he had thought of me while he tended to the boy, if he had been especially careful with him because he recognized that, in a different world, it could have been me on the operating table.
In any case, I didn’t find much of the war, and nothing at all of the boy or the woman I had gone looking for. But I found something else. A group of haunted men and women in a Las Vegas hotel had led me to the boy on the bike with a good memory, and he had led me to the older woman who was willing to pick up her phone in a far-off hospital room. It went on and on, and it made me think: What was that series of random, interlaced, seemingly endless encounters if not a metaphor for life itself? Maybe I didn’t find another Mel Abend, the one who existed outside my memory of him. But I did find a chain of people willing to help me, a stranger on a quixotic quest. I found connections, maybe not to my father, but from one person to another, and from them to me. And isn’t connection, after all, a buffer against the things that haunt us—a year at war, the past that disappears, the death of someone we love?
Maybe there was no Mel Abend who existed apart from the father I knew. Maybe the only way I could know him—maybe the only way any of us can ever know anyone—was as the sum of these branching connections.
On the last day, Phuoc and I went back to Phu Bai. We spent that morning as we had the ones before, following the bread crumbs that elderly strangers cast before us. At one house, a couple invited us to sit at their dining table. It abutted a household shrine containing a photo of their son in uniform. He had been killed during the war.
As we were leaving, the woman suggested another house, a few doors down. A local physician lived there; maybe he knew the American doctors. We walked over. A handsome man in his 70s named Vo Kim Mai and his equally handsome wife welcomed us in. They were both dressed in pajamas: his of striped cotton, hers of purple silk. A puppy gnawed at my feet as we sat to talk. By now, I had given up on finding the boy, and I adopted a different conversational tack. I didn’t explain about my father or show the photos. I simply asked the doctor if he had known any American soldiers during the war. He told a long story about a GI who was always trying to get others to drink with him. Mai outfoxed him by pouring his drink into a napkin.
I tried again. Had he known any of the surgeons at the military hospital? “Oh, yes,” said Mai. Malaria was very bad back then, and once he had flown in a U.S. helicopter with an American doctor to bring medicine to a village. Did he remember the doctor’s name? No, he did not. I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket. On it, I had copied a photo that one of the 85th Evac vets had given me back in Las Vegas. It depicted six of the surgeons, dressed identically in fatigues and standing in a row. I showed it to Mai and asked if, by chance, any of these men were the one with whom he had flown in the helicopter. He didn’t hesitate. “That one,” he said. And he pointed to my father.>> Plan Your Trip with AFAR’s Guide to Vietnam