Saturday, August 22, 2009


The loud explosion tore the stillness of the night. Numerous incendiary bombs rained down from the sky, spraying sparks over the small village. Light exploded all around, trapping me in confusion and mayhem.

Then with a frightening suddenness, I convulsed violently, punching a hand on my chest, gripping my red-stained T-shirt. I dropped to my knees.

Explosions. Gun shots. Then an eternal silence. I screamed.

I jerked, turned my head frantically, searching for my parents. It was another nightmare among countless ones that had been plaguing me since I came to this refugee camp. Sometimes, dreams came in waves, up to three to four times a day, whenever I closed my eyes.

Two weeks had passed silently without any news from my parents. Fourteen days ago, on the night of the bombing, my family was still together under the warm dimly lit candle light. Then everything changed with the roaring sounds of the plane engines. Abrupt. Fast. Someone found me lying at the corner of the street, bruised, unconscious and alone.

After that fateful night, I totally lost track of my parents. I had been trying my best to search this vast refugee camp to hunt the smallest piece of information but nothing surfaced. Some said the whole village had been killed in that air raid while others said the survivors were staying in similar camps hundreds of kilometers away. Although one might never find out truth in this merciless war, I always clung to one hope, one belief in my heart – that was, they were alive.

Every desperate day crept by, I always climbed up the nearby bamboo watchtower. From there, I could scan the horizon trying to spot familiar faces, those that now haunted me like ghosts. However, all I could see were thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, like churning brown ocean, stretched out in every direction as far as the eye could see. All of them looked uprooted, hopeless and silent.

The war was overwhelming.

Days passed quickly. For some days, I often buried myself behind a mango tree, watching a family nearby gathering and having their dinner. There were five of them: grandfather, the parents, one girl about my age, and a plump baby. They always sat in a circle, around a fire lit by several gleaming charred wood. Then plates of newly cooked rice and pieces of dry fish or sometimes skewered chicken were passed around. The fragrance of the long-grained white rice drifted in the air, steamy and sweet, mesmerizing me. Everyone was bustling around, fretting, discussing and talking about a peaceful future.

At a faraway corner, wrapped by the dark cloak of night, I watched silently, all alone, isolated, feeling unwanted and neglected. The warmth of the fire could not reach here and neither did the warmth of having a family. The uneaten chunk of rice in my hand felt cold and frozen like ice. It was all that I had for dinner.

As always, I ran back to the tent and wept. All by myself, I could feel the darkness, loneliness gradually intruding my heart. “What if I can never know the truth? What if they are not alive?” I trembled violently, hugging my knees tightly, trying to restrain those bad thoughts but question after question flooded my mind.

Frightening. Desperate. Hopeless.

Finally, I decided to follow a convoy heading for another camp at the south border. The oxcart was cramped with people but I had cleverly taken the front seat in the early morning. In the chaotic crowd of people inundating the gate post, I spotted someone resembling my mother arriving in a convoy from south-west Vietnam.

The familiar voice. The figure that I had been longing to hug so tightly. The moment lasted until eternity.

Is it reality or just another dream?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

[ (misty) + (SAPA) ]

One of the most famous tourist attractions in Vietnam is Sapa, a valley buried beneath a sea of mist which cannot be easily noticed even from a helicopter. Why do tourists and millions of people flock to Sapa each year and why have they become to love this place so much? The answer is very much simple: once standing on one of the foggy mountain peaks embracing Sapa, one cannot help but be dazzled and intrigued by the mysterious, charming beauty of nature.

Sapa is a stunning beauty even when one has not got off the 3-hour bus for Hanoi to Sapa which slowly and laboriously struggles to climb up the high way spiraling one of the mountains hugging the valley, offering an aloft view of a misty Sapa. The valley seems to play hide-and-seek with the coach from afar. The city suddenly appears and evaporates from view, veiled by the thick layer of fog and the long and irregular mountain range.

From here onwards, one loses the actual sense of seasons. At low attitude, the air is cool, fresh and clear, giving visitors a feeling of an early monsoon spring when nature is lovely, green, noisy like a young bird at the first time being allowed to fly off its mother’s care. Going higher, temperature drops drastically to less than 10C where mist engulfs everything. White. Chilly. Soft to the touch. It is like cotton from thousands of pillows scattered everywhere around. That is when one is bewildered by the early typical northern Vietnam winter coming unnoticeably with freezing atmosphere and a silent beauty of nature.

Sapa’s charm not only lies in the scenery and unexpected weather but it is also hidden in its people. They are tribe men and women whose farming traditions and unique life styles fascinate every visitor. The women wore exquisite head dresses in the tradition of their individual tribes. The Hmong young men were dashing in embroidered caps and sashes with large, bone handled knives in the waistband. The children were stunning in their miniature versions of the traditional outfits. They live in thatched houses that are raised above the ground by pilings scarred by criss-crossing ruts which form a network under the house. There are a verandah and a wooden staircase outside each household. Each only possesses one single compartment with one corner as the cooking area. Families often gather in the middle of the house to have meals and discuss important issues.

Life is quiet, regular but full of colors. There are dancing festivals which at least hundreds of tourists are found there, holding each other’s hand, singing songs praising the rice god, joining the locals in each dance, mingling with each rhythm. There are also harvesting festivals followed by celebration and offering to the Sun.

Food culture is also something unique about this remote valley far away from the dusty hustle of city life which can be found nowhere in Vietnam. Plain dishes are served with local fish salt and decorated by colorful vegetables picked up in the wood. Supply of rice comes from local harvests. White. Steamy. One cannot help but be mesmerized by the special aroma drifting across the room from a bowl of cooked rice. It is definitely enjoyable to sit down with a local family, be taught the right way to eat the food and then let each bit of fragrant rice melt on the tip of your tongue. The nutty, sweet taste seems to dissolve throughout and impregnate the mouth.

There are many reasons that make Sapa an exceptional place of attraction. So what about sparing it a visit and discovering the world of yourself?

Thursday, February 5, 2009


The loud explosion tore the stillness of the night. I woke up to my father’s shouting, “Get up! Japanese air raid!” Fear grasped me as planes roared overhead and bombs crashed all around. When I was buried to my bed at the moment, my father grabbed me and we hurdled toward the darkness outside the torn-down door with my father and sister.

Outside the darkness was chased away by tongues of flame stretching hundred of meters into the night sky. Thick, acrid smoke swirled down the devastated streets. The incendiary bombs rained down from the night sky, sparkling and spraying sparks. I looked up, being entranced. “Look! Like meteors! So beautiful!” I murmured.

Since I could run faster than my mother and sister so from time to time, I would stop to look back. However, as the road was inundated with a flood of people running around and screaming chaotically, I lost trace of them. I looked around with my threatened eyes, desperately searched for their silhouettes. Thousands of faces were whirling past but none looked familiar to me. Suddenly, a cold shiver was sent down my spine and I was overcome with intense panic. I began to scream and cry as loudly as I could. I soon became bathed with my own perspiration and tear.

Suddenly, a tall, big man grabbed my hand and pulled me away. “Follow me!” he shouted. I did not realize who he was but I gripped his hand as tightly as I could to ensure I would not lose him. Together, we darted along a narrow lane filled with eerie orange glow from the scorched ruins around.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My VillagE

The sign “Lua village” appearing on the side of the road announced that I finally reached there. In front of me was the recently paced road stretching till the far-away paddy fields. New and totally unfamiliar. Somehow I managed to recognize those red ixora flowers growing around the village’s ancient communal hall. The perennial banian was being shaken by the seasonal wind, letting the yellow and red leaves fly and scatter all over the ground.

It suddenly poured down heavily. Dark clouds, lightings and thunders engulfed the sky. It was cold but I could feel warmth glowing inside me, Rains in the countryside were not as chilly as those I experienced in the densely-populated cites. They were like long lost friends whose images attached to leave my childhood memories.

One of my childhood memories was gazing at the heavy rains that turned the whole sky into a grey curtain. Lighting tore the sky into parts and thunder sometimes made my little bobby stand upright, run around and bark furious at no where. Far away, small-thatched houses stretched across the horizon resembling a thin dread on the grey background. People were working hard under the rain. Theirs bellow together with the dogs’ barking composed a familiar distinguished concerto of the village. I could hear oozing of bare foot on muddy ground coming near and fast. The farmers were chatting excitedly about the new crop plantation and new rice seeds that were rumored to be enchanted by the fairy hands of the scientists to be resistant to both harmful insect and harsh weather conditions. ‘Mud, paddy field and water buffalo are their beloved friends and those little white seeds that we eat everyday are their sons. Remember, my son. Rice is more valuable than gold because rice can nourish man,’ my father once told me. That lesson has been squeezed into my heavy life luggage till now.

After the rain, children besieged their parents, shouted to compete to graze the buffaloes. They pastured the buffaloes and wandered the nearby meadows. They created games which I thought were present in this countryside. They divided themselves into halves, battling each other, ridding the buffaloes as luxurious carriages which were only preserved for the feudal nobles and holding reeds as their tribe’s flag. The king of the victorious tribe would be carried pick-a-back around the village. They also played the king sport by replacing the ball by pomeloes which were grown in their parents’ gardens. Once my team won the championship but then I fell down a muddy drain because of the slippery ground. Many holes were punched through my new shorts, making them a rag. I was ordered to lie down and beaten by my father afterward (money was hard to make at that time so I had only two pairs of shorts!) but I still felt a triumph growing inside me. First I cried, then I smiled to myself, enjoyed a child’s sweet victory and my own self-adoration.

Night soon fell down after heavy rains. At night, the paddy fields were full of people holding glaring torches. They were catching toads, gossiping excitedly and boasting about their bamboo baskets which were soon filled up with toads. Toads were then used to make a special kind of sausage. Ground toad meat was mixed with pork, “lot” leaves and other ingredients in which my mum called the magic recipe. The distinguished and concentrated savor once swallowed seemed to last forever on my tongue. Once in a while, my parents sent me some as home-sweet-home gifts.

A motorbike grumbling nearby brought me back to reality. Behind the rain stood the high and modernly designed concrete buildings. Rain was still falling but seemed to make no sound to me. I suddenly found myself strange and unfamiliar in my hometown. I did not see anyone rushing for the plantation season. Each house then had a plating machine. I wondered, ‘Where are the buffalo battles that we used to boast about now?’

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The real trip to the ORPHANAGE

This was my first trip in an orphanage. It was an orphanage in Ho Chi Minh city, at 7p.m. I accompanied some of my Singaporean friends when they were on their tour in Vietnam.

“7 o’clock!” I looked at my watch.

“Ni hao!” a kid smiled at me.

Then words such as “Hello!”, “Hi!”, “Xin chao!” bombarded the air from a group of other boys behind him. They thought I was foreigner, a Singaporean. There were about 40 of them when I looked around. I even spotted a tiny kid who aged about 3 or 4. He could not run but walk slowly and speak separate and indistinct words. The oldest was in grade 12 (equal to JC2 in Singapore) because I recognized he wore a 12th-grade badge on his shirt. Nearly half of them wore school uniform to greet us, except the very small kids.

The boys looked smart, bright and happy. They greeted us by smiles and warmth as if we were angels who could make any of their dreams come true. We entered the house in a round of applause and could not sit down as the kids surrounded us, forming a circle of people.

A bell was rang by the master and a total silence soon came after that.

“Assemble!” a boy whispered to me in English.

The master soon spoke some greetings on the behalf of the orphanage and all the boys. The performances awaiting us that he later mentioned in his speech made me amazed, thrilled and feel like a VIP. This orphanage was a boy’s so we could see no girls around. As the girl’s dancing part came, small boys wearing girl’s clothes came out. Though they were not as professional and skillful, they were smart and could get all the movements and postures correct, drawing the picture of a countryside Vietnam in front of us. All those traditional songs which were very familiar to me seemed to evoke a sense of pride as my Singaporean friends were enjoying them, and excitement because everything was prepared finely and carefully for us.

To me, that night was a night full of amazement, hope, belief and a pure love of many unlucky childhoods there. Everyone belonged to a big family. No one was discriminated, no one was an island.

When we distributed the sweets, a small boy took the bags, briskly and skillfully opened and passed each handful of candies to others around him. Finally, he realized that he had not had a single candy left for his own. Then another boy turned back to him and gave his uneaten one. The first boy took it and smiled. I wondered then if there was some adults who would give his only special ration to his friend without any hesitation.

After that came the “snack feast”. I called it the snack feast because there were lots of people and snack. We bought enough for all of them so each could take one of his own. But after taking their own share, they immediately got into a group and poured all the snack they had on a big piece of paper on the floor. That moment reminded me of my own primary school years. We used to do that, to eat like brothers and did not use to care what we had or what another got. But as I went higher to my secondary years, everyone just minded what they could get. They did not know what they could give so no one shared, even I. However, that was not what I saw now. The coke was drank in bowls not glasses because they did not have enough. Everyone sat in circles sharing each piece of snack and each bottle of coke. When there was a little coke left, they did not use bowls but they used the bottles’ lids because then the coke could be shared longer. I finally joined a group and drank some. It tasted much better than normal coke I had in those fast food restaurants back in Singapore. It was the sharing that counted I thought. There was laughter everywhere. People were talking to each other loud despite the barrier of language, sometimes doing some incomprehensible and funny gestures.

We also taught them English songs. When we left, there was a boy insisting on asking us to teach him all the spellings and tunes. I hope that he can sing out alone now. Other boys that impressed me were the ones that kept asking me about the scholarship I got when they knew I was a Vietnamese! They had hope and belief. I encouraged them and prayed that their dream would come true one day.

After all, the moment that a small boy turned back to me and gave me a candy that we bought for them was the most memorable. I noticed some of his teeth were missing when he smiled. His eyes glittered as the light was behind us and his hand was small, open up. The candy was in the middle. I refused then but he insisted. His patience and determination was something I could feel so I finally I took it. He smiled back at me and ran away, sharing the rest with his fellows. That smile, that face, that determination I will never forget…

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Special Day

Today is Vietnam teacher’s day. I’ve been waiting for this since the beginning of the year because it is just so special. On this day every year, teachers are commemorated by millions of Vietnamese.

In schools, people usually hang good wishes on the wall engulfing the school’s premises, classes’ walls and even on trees and pillars. Every school celebrates it by organizing a ceremony. It’s accompanied by students’ performances which are carefully selected days before. All the retired teachers are invited to return to the school to be honored and remembered. The principal comes up the stage, gives out a speech about the days and its special meaning. After all, students will be released to express their appreciation to their beloved teachers.

Joining the flow of students, I also returned to my secondary school on this special day. Many of them were smiling and laughing. They really enjoyed it. To them, it is like a chance to escape school pressure, to have a date with friends or simply to go off with family on a picnic to the peaceful countryside. However, to me, it is really a day I had been waiting for to meet my old teachers, give them a hug and tell them I had been living and how much I missed and loved them.

Walking along the corridor on the second floor, I stopped, tiptoed and pulled a leaf off the tree in front of my classroom. I never know its name but we used to call it, “Big Brother.” Its shade spread and covered enough for us in every P.E. periods. My classroom was a bit darker. The school didn’t use it anymore. Dusting off the dust-covered decks, I could feel as if I was standing here not as a stranger but as a student of this class where I used to write, sit and even stand and walk on these desks. Memories I have not sensed for a long time flashed through my mind. Feelings blocked my senses. I have returned finally. All but the old happy days has returned finally.

I cried. A tear dropped, spreading slowly on the dusty desk.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


I woke up. Sunlight slanted down the window, slithering on my white blanket. I closed my eyes to allow memories to flash through my mind. I had seen the light at end of the tunnel then but still darkness was all that surrounded John, my best friend in life. 

Suddenly, a 5-year-old child ran across the road, and his mother came chasing after him. I slammed on the brakes and yanked the wheels. The car skidded, the tires screeched. I lost control of the car. It continued skidding on the avenue until it crashed into a parked truck. I could feel my forehead was bleeding. I felt dizzy and my eyes dropped momentarily. 

I opened my eyes slowly and was sshocked by the intravenous injection and the feeding pipe running down the edge of the bed and finally piercing through my skin. Everything was white. My white clothes. White bed sheet. White blanket. The atmosphere was so silent that even the “tick-tick” of the electrocardiogram placed on the table besides my bed could be heard. I tried to move my limbs. My left hand and left leg could be lifted up a little. How about the other two? I did not feel anything and after a few minutes trying, I could not believe my eyes. They could not move! I broke out into tears. Vain and pain gripped my heart and at that moment, I fell unconscious again. 

When I woke up, there was a doctor besides my bed. 

“Calm down! I know how you feel but accept it and be happy that the accident did not take your life!” he said in a mellow tone. 

“How do I live with this disabled body? It is even worse than hell! Worse than hell!” I yelled back at him. 

“No, it is not hell because you are alive. There is still hope if you keep yourself happy and make good use of some physical therapies. Your disability is not forever. It can be healed. Understand?” 

“…Only if you keep yourself elated can miracle happen. I assure you can recover then, of course not fully, but you can walk and leave this place. Ok?” he continued. 

Silence covered us and I felt as if I was drowning in a sea of despair. 

My room was a two-bedded one. There was a man suffering from prostatic cancer. His name was John and John was in is his last state of the disease. That means he could not live longer than half a year more. I did not know where he was going to face his own death but we soon became good friends as there were only two of us in this ‘separate’ world. With him, I felt less lonely and that life was somehow meaningful as we shared our beautiful memories. 

Every evening, he sat up, leaned against the wall, looked outside the window and described what were happening there as I requested. This is one of his descriptions: “The rain has just stopped, my old friend (the name he usually called me). The murky clouds are pulling apart like curtains, revealing the sapphire sky. The peach-colored sun hangs brilliantly above the horizon, reflected by the sparkling ocean now surrounds the beach. Children are playing their toys. Some are slashing water at each other and some are pulling their mother’s dress. Couples spot the area, hugging and kissing each other. Wow! What a pure, untouched and unspoiled beauty, man!” His descriptions gave me a lot of imaginations and I really felt as if I had been walking along that marvelous beach.

Days had been crossed off the calendar quickly until I was announced that my hope to recover is now possible due to my positive altitude. I felt as if I had been on the moon and the first one I broke the news with was John. He did not say anything, just frowned and turned away. That day he did not talk to me anything. He might be tired then? 

The next three days, I had not seen him once. I was transferred to sleep on his bed. Feeling curious, I asked the nurse and found out John was dead while sleeping. He could not endure any longer and had left this old friend behind without a goodbye. I stoned and fell into deep silence. Suddenly, remembering the wonderful outside world he told me, I asked her to help me sit up. However, all I saw was just a blank wall. No beach. No sun. No couples. 

“Where are the beach and the people there? Has the wall just been built?” I frowned at the nurse. 

“Who told you so?” she murmured, staring at me. 

“John,” I sighed. 

She replied in a soft voice, “Did you know that he was blind?”