This an excerpt from the book ‘Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands’, courtesy of the author.
‘Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands’ is the true story of Lượng La, a boy growing up in the Mekong Delta in the midst of the Vietnam War. When the 1968 Tết Offensive forces his family to flee the countryside for the safety of the city, they continue to travel back and forth to their island farm despite threats from the Việt Cộng and nearby firefights. Lượng only wants to catch fish and slingshot birds, but the war ends and Communism plunges him back in time to a land without electricity where books are burned and propaganda “kneads their skulls.” He starts to fight for his freedom the only way he knows how.
By Michelle Robin La (as told to her by her husband, Lượng La)
I put a basket of ripe soursops in my canoe and paddle through the canals to the place where the fruit wholesaler usually ties her boat. On my way, I pass the neighbor’s house. No clothes or pots hang outside. The countryside is the emptiest I’ve seen it. Most people have gone to the city where they think it will be safer when the final battle erupts. I can’t stand staying in the city waiting to lose. I listen for other boats or the rumbling noise from a distant firefight. All I hear is the stroke of the wooden paddle when I nudge the canoe away from the water coconuts on the bank.
She hands me back my empty basket and some money. “Sorry, Lượng, I didn’t see any good bánh today. No package either, but your mother sent a message. She wants me to tell you ‘Don’t be a lost bird flying away from the flock.’”
I laugh. What a strange message. I’ve been out here watching our land ever since school closed because the teachers stopped coming. I guess Má wants me to go home. “I understand,” I say. “I’ll leave with you the next time I have fruit to sell.”
Two days later, the fruit wholesaler walks all the way to my hut. “Your mother sent another message. You need to go home today. We’ll wait for you.”
I run out and harvest some fruit I’ve been watching. I put the fruit in a plastic net bag along with my clothes and the rest of the rice. After I tie the canoe to a water coconut, I walk through the island to the fruit wholesaler’s boat.
The boat turns out of the leafy passages of Cồn Tàu and into the wide open river. There’s nothing to do but look at the brown water curling away from the boat and the trees hiding the edge of the shore next to us. No ghost bodies float in the river. There weren’t any on the way down either, and I haven’t heard much gunfire. Why have we stopped fighting? The news on the radio is that the Army is fleeing — they must be retreating into position to make their last stand. In history books there’s always a heroic battle at the end. No one just gives up. We pass the stream that leads to our old home in Quới Sơn. We already fled once. Where can we go now?
It’s evening when we get to the fruit vendor’s dock in Tân Long. There are only a few boats tied up. The street is full of people waiting to see what will happen. Small boats travel back and forth across the river.
I find Má in her room. “Good. You’re here,” she says. “Go upstairs and pack your clothes.”
“How are we going to leave?” I ask.
“There’s a way.” Má has several big travel bags filled and hidden in her bedroom. “Now we’re just waiting for your older sisters. I sent a message a week ago, but they’re still not here.” She paces the house searching for things to take, trying to keep the front room looking normal so no one knows we’re planning to leave.
I put some shorts and a couple of shirts in a plastic rice bag, but I know we’re not going anywhere with my two oldest sisters still at nursing school. And Ba hasn’t packed anything. I think my father’s too scared to leave.
The next day Mr. Three East mutters to himself as he patrols the street in front of our house. He’s the only member of the Civilian Self-Defense still around. Whenever he runs into soldiers he asks, “Are you on break? Why are you home?”
“Our unit disbanded. We didn’t have anywhere to go,” a soldier answers, “so we put our arms down and came home.”
They’re running away from the fight.
Ba sees Mr. Three East walking by and calls him in for tea. I set the teapot on the table. “That’s it,” Mr. Three East says, “they’ll surrender soon. Everyone fell out of line. The Army is a snake without a head now. The head was chopped off a while ago.” He gulps down his tea and walks back to his house.
Two soldiers stop by the next evening. Má brings them to the dining area in the back of the house. I follow, along with my brothers and the sisters who are home. “Are you coming?” one of the soldiers asks Má.
“I’m waiting for my two oldest daughters,” she says.
Ba steps in from the lean-to.
“It’s hard to have everyone together,” the soldier says. “Why doesn’t your husband stay and wait? We’ll send another boat for them.”
“What if the carriers aren’t there?” Ba asks. “Can we go to Thailand?”
The soldiers shake their heads. “No. There’s not enough fuel.”
Má tells the men to wait in the front part of the house while she and Ba talk. She chases us kids out. I can’t hear what Má says, but Ba shouts, “Do you want to kill us all?”
Má comes out alone. “Is there a wave after this one?” she asks the soldiers.
“All the big ones are going in the next twelve hours,” one of them says. “All the troop carriers and transports. This is a well-armed convoy and it’s being escorted. Only small patrol boats will be left.”
“We need more time.”
“You have to decide now.”
The soldiers leave without an answer. My parents argue for hours. “You don’t know where they’re going,” Ba says. “The Army says the carriers will be there, but other people say you’re just going out to drown or get ambushed by the Communists or even shot by the Americans. If it doesn’t work then we can’t come back. We’ll be traitors. Our house will be ransacked the second we close our door to leave.”
Aren’t the Communists supposed to be worse? After all of Ba’s talk about how bad Communism is, why are we staying?
The next day when I wake up, Má is already gone. Chị Tư tells me she went to Mỹ Tho. From our balcony I watch boats of all sizes stream south toward the mouth of the river. They’re staggered, three in a row, then two. Large ships, metal freighters, and troop transports in the middle with gunboats rocketing down alongside them, pushing up waves. For the first time, the Mekong looks small.
I walk out to watch the parade of boats from the end of the foot ferry dock. People stand around watching in front of Six Chicken’s house. “There goes the whole Navy,” someone says.
They’re abandoning us.
Soldiers step off small passenger ferry boats onto the dock, saying, “It’s over.” Everybody expects a final battle at the Army base along National Road 4. But how will it happen with all the soldiers coming home?
A woman selling steamed yams says, “I have to work . . . Communists or not . . . My family has to eat.”
People look around for any anti-Communist posters near their homes and peel them off. Mr. Three East walks by without stopping. He’s not wearing his uniform or carrying his gun.
Two men carrying a steel desk get off a small ferry boat. The boat owner says that over in Mỹ Tho people have started looting abandoned offices. Smoke billows out of public buildings from officials burning documents.
Women on a troop transport ship wave at us and point downriver toward the ocean. A soldier comes out and walks among them. The women stop. He leaves. The women start waving again and pointing downriver. Another soldier comes out and gestures them to get below. We should be on one of the transports. Even though we’ve stopped fighting, we should be with the side that’s free. Not stuck back here with the Communists. What is Má doing? Shouldn’t she be back by now?
Every once in a while there’s a rumble in the distance. Some Army soldiers say it sounds like a B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Still, it looks like the convoy will make it without being attacked. “What happens when they get to the ocean?” someone asks.
“They’ll drown,” a couple of people answer at the same time.
“No they won’t,” says a soldier who came home today. “The carriers are out there. The carriers will pick them up and take them some place.”
“What if you manage to get to the carriers, then what will happen to you?” an older man asks.
“They’ll probably go to Thailand, create a camp so they can come back and retake Việt Nam,” the soldier says. Another soldier nods.
“Come back and fight? With what?” the man says. “Where will they get troops or equipment? No, if you get on one of those boats, it’s a one-way ticket.”
He’s right. I’d like to find out where the one-way ticket goes, though. China has Taiwan and Korea has South Korea. Where will we go? To some tiny island somewhere? Wherever it is will be freedom.
I jump in the river to cool down. Transport ships stop along the way to pick up people who come out to meet them in small ferry boats. Maybe I could hire a ferry to take me out. Then I’d wave at one of the transporters going by to have it stop for me. All I’d have to tell them is that my father is already on a carrier.
A few hours later the boats are gone except for a transporter going full-tilt down the river every once in a while. Má comes back late in the afternoon. “I watched the convoy this morning,” I say. “Are we going to be picked up?”
“We’re waiting for your sisters,” she says. “We’ll all go together.”
It will be too late. And even if my sisters were here, I don’t think Ba would let us leave.
The next morning, I’m out in front of the house waiting for something to happen. My parents listen to the radio at the table inside with Chị Tư and Chị Năm. My brothers and younger sisters sit outside on the steps. I wander in and out. Every once in a while some small-arm fire or grenades go off in the distance. Each time, I hope it’s the start of our final fight to push the Communists back.
All at once, people on the street say that it’s an unconditional surrender. I run back inside. The voice of the Army general who’s been our president for only two days comes over the radio:
“The Republic of Việt Nam’s policy is the policy of peace and reconciliation, aimed at saving the blood of our people. I ask all the Army to stop firing and stay where you are. I ask our brothers in the Provisional Revolutionary Government to stop firing and stay in place. We wait here to hand over authority to the Provisional Revolutionary Government in order to stop useless bloodshed.”
The tape repeats and the unconditional surrender starts again.
I thought we had more time.
Ba turns on a small black and white TV mounted on the wall. The same general is at Independence Hall announcing the surrender. It seems more official on the screen.
On the street people say, “Unconditional? How can that be? . . . He was supposed to be negotiating for us . . . He must have been working for the North all along.”
I come back inside to see what we need to hide. We hid most of the tape players and TVs earlier. Má moves through the house looking for any flags or symbols of South Việt Nam. She finds the flag from the boat and takes it off the pole. Then she gathers up some paper flags on sticks and pulls down posters. She puts the pile of yellow in the kitchen fireplace and lights it. All around us, we smell our neighbors’ flags burning, too.
I go to the back of the house and climb onto the thick tin over the kitchen, the only place on the roof I can stand on now without crushing it. The South Vietnamese flag painted on our rooftop has already faded away. No need to scrape it off. I stop to listen, hoping there’s going to be one last fight, but there are only small bursts of gunfire in the distance. A few boats rush downstream. Is it too late for us to go?
I spend the rest of the day waiting for something to happen. In the evening, people stand outside in the street whispering and watching the sun set. As soon as the sun goes down it’s completely dark. For the last three weeks there hasn’t been any diesel for the town generators. Someone points overhead to a new formation in the stars—shoots coming off a handle like a broom. I look at stars all the time in the countryside, and I haven’t seen a constellation like this before. “It’s a sign from the sky that we’ll be swept aside,” people tell each other. “The Communists will sweep away our wealth, our food, our lives, everything.”
I don’t need the stars to tell me that it’s going to be bad.
The next day, everybody’s face has a numb, scared look. The radio stations are down in Sài Gòn and Mỹ Tho. Everything is hushed. Usually with so many people crowded on our small island there’s a lot of noise, but even the dogs have stopped barking. I sit on the porch. People in the street say, “I hardly heard gunfire and it was over.”
A man walks by in a homemade uniform calling out, “Turn in any weapons you have.” As soon as he leaves, people call him an April 30th Communist for converting to the winning side on the day we lost.
When I get home I tell Ba, “If you haven’t turned in our gun, I can take it.” Maybe I can do something more than just turn it in. Someone should.
“Wait until there aren’t any people around,” Ba says. “We don’t want anyone to report us for having a gun.”
When the people in the street thin out, I take our M-2 carbine and the two clips of ammunition down from the top of the glass-door cabinet. As soon as I get a few steps past the house, I slap a clip in. I haven’t fired it before, but I know how.
The April 30th Communist standing by the guns doesn’t notice me. He keeps looking over his shoulder into the alley. When he turns his head, I go behind a fence on the other side of the street into Mr. Three Belt’s shipyard. I’m not sure what I can do. If we have to turn our gun in, I want to do it without anyone seeing which house I came from.
It’s dark under the roof covering the shipyard. I brush aside a spider web and glance around to see if the meter-long lizard that lives in the wood pile is poking its head out. Then I get down on my stomach so I can look through a hole near the bottom of the fence and watch the soldier.
The April 30th Communist’s knees shake as a woman walks up to him, head down, and puts her family’s gun in the pile. He clenches his rifle to his shoulder. His face looks white, like it wouldn’t bleed if you cut it, and he keeps looking back at the houses in the alley as if someone is going to attack him. I’m sure he doesn’t know I’m here.
I lie with the gun at my side, looking through the hole. Are we all going to stand around and let the Communists take everything away from us? Everything my parents worked so hard for? There’s no one else out on the street. It’s late morning and hot. I stare at the soldier. Besides being so scared he’s probably thirsty. Sweat drips down my face. There’s no gunfire, no fighting anywhere. All I can hear is my heartbeat in my chest. What’s wrong with us? If one person does something, maybe it will give other people the courage to stand up.
I slide the gun barrel into the bottom of the V-shaped hole. If a shot came, no one would know where it came from. My heart pounds against my ribcage. It feels huge inside my chest. Where’s that April 30th Communist’s head? I move the gun around until his face is in the sights. He looks straight at me, but he can’t see me here in the dark. My hand feels damp against the wood stock of the gun. All I have to do is aim and squeeze the trigger.
My hands start shaking on the gun. What if I pull the trigger and it doesn’t fire? How many bullets will it take to kill him? I’ll empty the whole magazine. If he’s not down, I’ll put in the spare clip. If he fires back, he won’t make it. I’ll run straight to the river behind me, swim out to the deep part, and drop the gun. No one will find it.
Sweat runs down my eyebrows and drips down the side of my cheeks. What if I don’t make it to the river? I’d have to kill myself — say goodbye to everything, my family, the land in Cồn Tàu. Even if I made it, what if someone found out it was me? My family would be punished. Lying on the dirt, my body feels hot and cold at the same time. My face and tongue tingle. I take a few deep breaths. If I do this, all I’ll do is kill him. He’s from the South, not the North. He’s so scared, what’s the point? He probably got recruited yesterday. He’s just stupid and killing one stupid person won’t change anything . . . but it could destroy my family. My knees go weak. I can’t feel my tongue, or my eyes. If it was just my life to lose, it would be gone, but I don’t want to hurt my family.
The April 30th Communist guarding the pile of guns glances behind at the alley again. I step out into the sunlight, sweaty and dusty. I approach with the gun pointed down and loaded, safety off. If he looks at me like he’s conquering us, if he says anything, I’ll shoot him. He turns toward me. His knees shake like they’re going to shatter and his white knuckles clench his gun. I take the clip out and toss it and the spare into the pile.
I give him a cold stare as I gently lean the gun against the stack of weapons. “Don’t you worry that someone’s going to blow your head off?”
He looks over his shoulder and back at me. He doesn’t answer. He could be dead already. I start walking toward my house. After half a block, I turn back. The April 30th Communist is running toward the town hall, clasping his gun. I killed him without shooting.
A former Army soldier leans against a wall smoking near my house. “Did you see that guard collecting guns?” I say. “He ran away pretty fast.”
The ex-soldier ignores me and takes another draw from his cigarette. I walk away. I should have had the guts to pull the trigger.
An hour later, I return to the pile of weapons. It’s still there, unguarded. I hunt through it, looking for the big rounds used by single-shot sniper guns. At least I’ll collect some bullets I can use for building forts. I think about taking a gun, but too many neighbors are watching. I find a small clip of sniper bullets and head home.
There must be mountains of ammunition over in Mỹ Tho. I get on a ferry going to the Mỹ Tho market. The ferry heads into the smaller river that divides Mỹ Tho in two. Near the base of a bridge, a standing face boat sits with the flat ramp on its face for loading troops tilted above the shore. The South Vietnamese flag is painted on each side. The captain probably tried to destroy it by ramming it into the bank.
Communist soldiers stand on the bridge looking over the railing. They disappear behind us as the ferry passes underneath. I get off at the market and walk back toward the standing face boat. Locked iron gates cover the storefronts lining the street. Smoke drifts out of the wide open doors of two administrative offices. Inside mounds of ashes smolder. Scattered papers cover the floor. Only a few large metal desks and file cabinets remain. Kids wander in and out of the buildings looking for anything left.
At the entrance to the bridge, a tank and a personnel carrier stand guard. Two men stick their heads out of the tank and another sits at the gun turret. Nearby is an enormous pile of weapons. Below the bridge, a group of kids and grown-ups scavenge metal chairs, pipes, antennas, and lights from the standing face boat. I go down and climb on the boat. The metal deck lists backward under my feet. Twin machine guns sit on each side of the cabin. I could still do something. The cabin door doesn’t have a handle, so I try the door on the other side. It’s stuck. I pick up a piece of metal and pry it open. A man follows me inside. I go up to the control panel and push one button, then another. The man glances around for something to take. The radio hisses. I could do something.
“You better get out before you get killed or arrested.” The man steps back out.
I lock the doors. On the bridge above, five soldiers stand against the railing. There’s a hatch in back I could crawl out in case they come after me. This time I could get away. I look through the scope—it’s black. I push a couple more buttons. The scope lights up and I point it down. Below, the tide moves out around the large boats of fruit wholesalers. After I shoot, I could jump out of the hatch and swim around by the boats like nothing happened. No one knows me here—it’s not like the April 30th collecting guns next to our house where the first people they would blame would be the families living nearby. If I do something, then other people might, too.
I drag a chain of bullets from the holding area, push it into a reservoir, and press the load button. The chain snaps in and the guns click. I put my face back into the scope and hold onto the handles. The twin barrels move with me up to the bridge. The soldiers up there look as if they’re standing next to me. They wear regular uniforms and hold their guns like seasoned soldiers — not like the April 30th collecting weapons in our neighbourhood. If I pull the trigger, they’d be gone. They’re looking everywhere but at the guns pointing up at them.
This could make a difference, start something. Sweat spills down my face.
How do I aim a gun with two barrels so far apart? I practice sweeping the crosshairs over the soldiers. I just need the guts to pull the trigger. If one person stands up against the Communists, maybe others will. A soldier on the bridge looks down as if he’s staring into the scope at me. He moves to talk to the soldier next to him. They all slowly back away from the railing.
One of the soldiers peeks over the edge. Then, two men jump down the side of the bridge. They’ll be here in seconds. Army soldiers say that you need to destroy your equipment, so the enemy can’t get it. I grab a fire ax and smash it into the dashboard. I crack the gun scope and handles. Then I crawl out the hatch and jump onto the shore. I would have done something. There just wasn’t enough time.
The soldiers pass by me on the way to the boat. “Who was in there? What’s going on over there?”
I’m sweating like crazy. “I don’t know.”
The soldiers scold the kids playing next to the boat and they scatter. Out of the corner of my eye, I see them approach the cabin, the barrels of their AK-47s leading the way. Relief pours over me. I’m glad I didn’t have to make a decision.
There’s a pile of ammunition taller than my head near the bridge. This will be my only chance to get gunpowder to make rockets with. The soldiers in the tank and on the bridge, the ones I almost shot, look at me searching though the pile but don’t say anything. When I have as much ammunition as I can carry, I head toward the ferry dock in Lạc Hồng Garden.
The two teenage sisters of the Eight Talent family have their parent’s small boat lined up next to the other ferry boats, waiting to get enough passengers. “What are you doing with all that?” one of the Eight Talent girls says. She and her sister sit back by the motor with nón lá covering their heads from the sun. “You’re going to get in trouble.”
“It’s just bullets. If you don’t have a gun to fire them what does it matter?” I see an even larger mound of ammunition down toward the end of the park. “I’ll come back.”
I drag myself and the chains of bullets over to the other pile. Two men in a personnel carrier stand guard. They look at me and then at each other. I wrap a chain of M-60s around my chest in an X like machine gunners do. Then, I slump toward the ferry dock with a tank shell in each hand, cradling loose belts of ammunition. I try not to fall down the wide stone steps on the edge of the river leading to the ferry boats.
“Did the soldiers say anything?” one of the Eight Talent girls asks. “Aren’t you going to get in trouble carrying those shells?”
I make my way over the other boats to theirs, trying not to drop anything. “I took it in front of the soldiers. They didn’t care.”
I sit in back by the Eight Talent sisters and put down the tank shells and loose chains. I wipe the sweat off my forehead. Two older women sit up front with their baskets and shoulder poles. “That ammunition is dangerous, you’re going to hurt yourself,” one of the women says. “You should throw it all away.”
The motor is noisy so I can’t hear the rest. “I worked hard to get this,” I shout up to them.
People stare at me as I step onto the ferry dock near my house walking doubled-over with all of the ammunition. “What are you going to do with all of that?”
“Make rockets and build my fort.”
I put the shells and bullets away and get a bowl of rice. “Where’d you get all that?” Chị Tư asks.
“There’re piles of it in Mỹ Tho.” I scoop rice into my mouth. “After I finish eating, I’m going to go and get more.”
“No,” my sister says. “Stay home and play with what you have.”
I spend the rest of the day using a vise and pliers to pull the bullets out of the casings and empty the gunpowder into a tin cup. I save two bullets to use as gate posts when I build castles. “That’s a lot of brass,” Ba says. “When you’re done playing, we can flatten them to make hinges.”
By the time I finish, it’s night. I can’t sleep with the silence. Before, there was always gunfire somewhere if you listened. I still can’t believe it’s really over. I lie awake wondering what will happen to our family. I should have done something. It haunts me worse than any ghost.
In the morning, I take the casings to the alley next to our house. I line them up along the tops of the old sandbags I made into a fort. Neighbors come over and hand me empty 105 artillery shells given to them by relatives in the Army. They’re worried about having anything from the old government. I dig the 105s into the dirt at the corners of the sandbags, so it looks like the old Army fort. I want to remind everyone walking by that we shouldn’t give up. It’s all I have left to remember what we were. A Communist soldier passes by on the street. I aim my fingers and pretend to shoot. Then I crouch down behind the walls.
Michelle Robin La’s first book, ‘Catching Shrimp with Bare Hands’, is the true story of her husband growing up in the midst of the Vietnam War and his struggle for freedom after the communist takeover. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Creative Nonfiction Magazine, Literary Mama, and Mom Egg Review.