One of my cousin Kim’s earliest memories is of a village burning. The Vietnam War was a regular feature on television news in the 60s, so many who grew up at that time may have similar memories, but for Kim the war was going on all around her before she ever saw it on television.
Living an unconventional life in unconventional times my Aunt Carmel decided to become an unconventional mother. Her Western roping act had led her East, where she was performing for American troops at bases in Vietnam. It was 1965. The US Military had adopted a strategy of Search and Destroy in imitation of British tactics in Malaya. In war success has been traditionally measured in terms of territory taken, but the Viet Cong’s guerilla warfare–attacking at night and falling back to hidden positions like the Cu Chi tunnels in daylight–made this measure meaningless. Territory held by US troops in the day became Viet Cong territory at night. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a popular tourist attraction in Vietnam now: here I am in the process of disappearing in a simulation of how the Viet Cong had managed to evade the French and then the Americans.
With their Search and Destroy missions, the US Military’s declared strategy was to measure success with body count. Promotions were based on the number of dead that officers could claim. Thus Kim and thousands of other children ended up in orphanages in Saigon.
Carmel often told the story of how the sickest kid in the orphanage crawled into her lap and threw her arms around her neck. It was love at first sight. Kim was malnourished and both of her ear drums had been punctured with pins to let off pressure from infection. It took a lot of paperwork and pulling strings for a single mother to adopt a child, but Carmel was determined. It took her five months to get Kim on a plane leaving Saigon.
The cover photo to this post, also shown below, is from a Japanese magazine. The photo is taken at the bar of a Japanese night club where Carmel was working after she managed to get Kim out of Vietnam. Being a single mother who worked in night clubs, her return to Canada was delayed seven months while she waited for permission for Kim to enter Canada. This photo was taken during that period of limbo. It must have been a strange life for a child, but much preferable to the conditions in the orphanage in Saigon.
Kim has still never returned to Vietnam, so when I visited there recently she asked me to bring some film clips back for her to see. This one is shot at a Buddhist temple named for Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk who on June 11th, 1963 set himself on fire at a busy intersection in Saigon to protest against the oppression of the US supported South Vietnamese government. The final shot is of Quan Am, Goddess of Mercy and Compassion.