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by manhhai(CC BY 2.0), Photo Credit Brun

Photo by manhhai/Bruno Barbey(CC BY 2.0)

Catfish and Mandala

A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

Andrew X. Pham


Grandmother told me it had been written in my sister Chi’s fortune penned by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk on the day of her birth, in the year of the Tiger: suicide at thirty-two. We were sitting on Grandmother’s bed in the very room where Chi had hung herself. The rope was gone, but there was incense ash in the carpet, its fragrant prayers locked in. Grandmother closed her hands over mine and asked me quietly if I wanted to read my birth fortune. It was from the hand of the same monk, written twenty-seven years earlier. She pressed into my chest a yellowed fortune-scroll, crushed and tattered, its secret bound by an umbilical cord of red twine. I looked at this relic from a distant world, dreading its power. I said no, quit my job and bicycled into the Mexican desert.







The first thing I notice about Tyle is that he can squat on his haunches Third World-style, indefinitely. He is a giant, an anachronistic Thor in rasta drag, bare chested, barefooted, desert-baked golden. A month of wandering the Mexican desert has tumbled me into his lone camp warded by cacti. Rising from the makeshift pavilion staked against the campertop of his pickup, he moves to meet me with an idle power I envy. I see the wind has carved leathery lines into his legend-hewn face of fjords and right angles.


In a dry, earthen voice, he asks me, “Looking for the hot spring?”


“Yeah, Agua Caliente. Am I even close?”


  “Sure. This is the place. Up the way a couple hundred yards.”


“Amazing! I found it!”


He smiles, suddenly very charismatic, and shakes his head of long matty blonde hair. “How you got here on that bike is amazing.”


I had been pedaling and pushing through the forlorn land, roaming the foreign coast on disused roads and dirt tracks. When I was hungry or thirsty, I stopped at ranches and farms and begged water from their wells and tried to buy tortillas, eggs, goat cheese and fruit. Every place gave me nourishment, strangers plucked grapefruits and tangerines from their family gardens, bagged food from their pantries, and accepted not one peso in return. Why, I asked them. Señor, they explained in the patient tone reserved for those convalescing, you are riding a bicycle, so you are poor. You are in the desert going nowhere, so you are crazy. Taking money from a poor and crazy man brings bad luck. All the extras, they confided, were because I wasn’t a gringo. A crew of Mexican ranchers said they liked me because I was a bueno hermano--a good brother--a Vietnamito, and my little Vietnam had golpea big America back in seventy-five. But I’m American, Vietnamese-American I shouted at them. They grinned, Sí, sí, Señor, and grilled me a slab of beef.


Tyle says, “So, where are you from?”


“Bay Area, California.”


“No. Where are you from? Originally.”


I have always hated this question and resent him for asking. I hide my distaste because it is un-American. Perhaps, I will lie. I often do when someone corners me. Sometimes, my prepared invention slips out before I realize it: I’m Japanese-Korean-Chinese-mixed race Asian. No, sir, can’t speak any language but good old American English.


This time, I turn the question: “Where do you think?”




Something about him makes me dance around the truth. I chuckle, painfully aware that “I’m an American” carries little weight with him. It no doubt resonates truer in his voice.


The blonde giant holds me with his green eyes, making me feel small, crooked. So, I reply, “We nips all look alike.”


But it isn’t enough. He looks the question at me again, and, by a darkness on his face, I know I owe him.


“I’m from Vietnam.”


A flinch in the corner of his eye. He grunts, a sound deep from his diaphragm. Verdict passed. He turns his back to me and heaves into the cactus forest.


I stand, a trespasser in his camp, hearing echoes--chink, gook, jap, Charlie, GO HOME SLANT-EYES!--words that, I believe, must have razored my sister Chi down dark alleys, hounded her in the cold after she had fled home, a sixteen year old runaway, an illegal alien without her green card. What vicious clicking sounds did they make in her Vietnamese ears, wholly new to English? And, within their boundaries, which America did she find?


A man once revealed something which disturbed me too much to be discounted. He said, “Your sister died because she became too American.”




Later in the night, from the thick of the brush, Tyle ghosts into the orange light of my campfire. He nods at me and folds himself cross-legged before the popping flames, uncorks a fresh tequila bottle, takes a swig and hands it to me. We sit on the ground far apart enough that with outstretched arms we still have to lean to relay the bottle.


I grip the warm sand between my toes and loll the tart tequila on my tongue. A bottom-heavy moon teeters on the tree tops. Stars balm the night. We seem content in our unspoken truce.


When the bottle is half empty, Tyle begins to talk. At first, he talks about the soothing solitude of the Mexican desert. Life is simple here, food cheap, liquor plentiful. He earns most of his money from selling his handicrafts, bracelets, woven bands, beads, leather trinkets, to tourists. When times are tough, there are always a few Mexicans who will hire him for English lessons or translations. And the border isn’t too far if he needs to work up a large chunk of cash. Between the mundane details, his real life comes out obliquely. Tyle has a wife and two boys. He has been away from them nine years. I am the first Vietnamese he has seen since he fled to Mexico seven years ago.


When four fingers of tequila slosh at the bottom of the bottle, he asks me, “Have you been back to Vietnam?”


“No. But someday I’ll go back ... to visit.”


Many Vietnamese Americans “have been back.”  For some of us, by returning as tourists, we prove to ourselves that we are no longer Vietnamese but Vietnamese Americans. We return, with our hearts in our throats, to taunt the Communist regime, to show through our material success that we, the once pitiful exiles, are now the victors. No longer the poverty stricken refugees clinging to fishing boats, spilling out of cargo planes onto American soil, a mess of open-mouthed terror, wide-eyed awe, hungry and howling for salvation. Time has veiled the days when America fished us out of the ocean like drowning cockroaches and fed us and clothed us--we, the onus of their tragedy. We return and, in our personal silence, we gloat at our conquerors who now seem like obnoxious monkeys cheating over baubles, our baggage, that mean little to us. Mostly, we return because we are lost.


Tyle says, “I was in Nam.”


I have guessed as much. Not knowing what to say, I nod. Vets--acquaintances and strangers--have said variations of this to me since I was a kid and didn’t know what or where Nam was. The contraction was lost on a boy struggling to learn English. But the note, the way these men said it told me it was important, someplace I ought to know. With the years, this statement took on new meanings, each flavored by the tone of the speaker. There was bitterness, and there was bewilderment. There was loss, and there was rage and every shade of emotion in between. I heard declarations, accusations, boasts, demands, obligations, challenges and curses in the four words: I was in Nam. No matter how they said it, an ache welled up in me until an urge to make some sort of reparation slicked my palms with sweat. Some gesture of conciliation. Remorse. A word of apology.


He must have seen me wince for he says it again, gentler.


At that, I do something I’d never done before. I bow to him like a respected colleague. It is a bow of acknowledgment, a bow of my humility, the only way I can tell him I know of his loss, his sufferings.


Looking into the fire, he says softly, “Forgive me. Forgive me for what I have done to your people.”


The night buckles around me. “What, Tyle?”


“I’m sorry, man. I’m really sorry,” he whispers. The blonde giant begins to cry, a tired sobless weeping, tears falling away untouched.


My mouth forms the words, but I cannot utter them. No. No, Tyle. How can I forgive you? What have you done to my people? But who are my people? I don’t know them. Are you my people? How can you be my people? All my life, I’ve looked at you sideways, wondering if you were wondering if my brothers had killed your brothers in the war that made no sense except for the one act of sowing of me here--my gain--in your bed, this strange rich-poor, generous-cruel land. I move through your world, a careful visitor, respectful and mindful, hoping for but not believing in the day when I become native. I am the rootless one, yet still the beneficiary of all of your and all of their sufferings. Then why, of us two, am I the savior, and you the sinner?


“Please forgive me.”


I deny him with my silence.


His Viking face mashes up, twisting like a child’s just before the first bawl. It doesn’t come. Instead words cascade out, disjointed sentences, sputtering incoherence that at the initial rush sound like a drunk’s ravings. Nameless faces. Places. Killings. He bleeds it out, airs it into the flames, pours it on me. And all I can do is gasp Oh, God at him over and over, knowing I will carry his secrets all my days.


He asks my pardon yet again, his open hand outstretched to me. This time the quiet turns and I give him the absolution that is not mine to give. And, in my fraudulence, I know I have embarked on something greater than myself.


“When you go to Vietnam,” he says, stating it as a fact, “tell them about me. Tell them about my life, the way I’m living. Tell them about the family I’ve lost. Tell them I’m sorry.”


I give Tyle the most honored gift, the one gift we Vietnamese give best, the gift into which one can cast all his sorrow like trash into an abyss only sometimes, the abyss lies inside the giver. I give him silence.








I am a Vietnamese American man. In my work boots, I am of average height, of medium build and not too ghastly of face. I like going to the movies and reading novels in cafes. If I had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, I’d take Italian without hesitation, though I do harbor secret afflictions for hickory-smoked baby-back ribs and New Orleans gumbo. And I like buying cookbooks more than cooking. I enjoy tennis, basketball, baseball, football, and, lately, yes, hockey--from the bleachers or in my Lazyboy. My choice daily wear are a pair of five year-old Levi’s and a mock turtleneck (I have a drawer-full, all the same size, same brand, different colors). I don’t wear yellow, red, orange or anything bright; they complicate the laundry process. No G-string underwear. Socks, plain white or black only.


My family arrived in America on September 17, 1977. I was ten. Of the Vietnam War, I knew little, recalling only vignettes and images. Too young to know about its politics until I was about to enter American middle-school. Fifth-grade, Mr. Jenkin’s class, I raised my voice against a teacher for the first time. Eighteen months in America, that much English learned. He was lecturing on the history of the Vietnam War. Something he said must have set me off because I shouted at him, summoning forth adults’ drunken words I’d eavesdropped: America left Vietnam. America not finish war. One more day bombing, Viet Cong die. One more day! No. America go home! America chicken! Mr. Jenkin colored, a tomato-flush rising from his buttoned collar to his feathery blond hair. I could tell he wanted to strike me, but I knew they didn’t do that in America so I didn’t say I was sorry. Chopping the air with his hand, he screamed No! No! Wrong! And five minutes of English I couldn’t understand.


Much later, I realized with some guilt that perhaps his brother had died in the War and if it went on, he might have lost another. I wish I could tell him now that what I really meant was that my father was in prison because of the War. I was shouting about our imprisonment, about the dark wet cells, the whippings, the shootings, the biting rats and the fists of dirty rice we ate. These things I remember unfogged by the intervening years. Somehow terribly vivid, irreducible.


I was there. After Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Our family fled deeper south, hoping to find a boat that would take us to Thailand. Outside of Rach Gia, a port city, the Viet Cong had set up a road barricade and caught us along with some three hundred people heading toward the coast to flee the country. Women and children were locked, fifty to a room, in a wing separate from the men. We took turns sleeping on wet concrete, side by side. After a month, the women and children were released with permission to go home. The men were either executed or trucked off to the jungle to work.


My mother and I regularly visited my father at the Minh Luong Prison and Labor Camp. We lodged with peasant families and stayed for weeks near the compound so she could watch him working in the field under guard. Hiding behind bushes, I watched him whenever I could find him. Like her, I felt that if I kept my eyes on him, stayed vigilant enough, bad things wouldn’t happen. Some nights, she lay awake until dawn after hearing gunshots snapped in the nearby woods where they executed prisoners.


Two decades have thundered by since his imprisonment. Although we rarely talk beyond the safe grounds of current events, education, investment and work, he has frequently shared his tales about the Viet Cong re-education camp with me. The adventure stories he had told me as a boy on his knees, were replaced by his death camp saga. I believe it had something to do with my being his first son, with my having been there at the prison watching over him, witnessing what he thought were his death rites. In the years of telling, they became almost as much my stories as his. And this was strange since my father and I have never shared much, never done father-and-son things, no camping trips, no fishing excursions; no ball games, no hot-dogs in the park; no beers and Superbowl on the tube. Still, the stories passed back and forth between us even when I had grown and moved away. My father Thong Van Pham was bequeathing his rarest pearls of wisdom, imparting a sense of value for life.






Of his last days in the death camp, Thong remembers the silence most. It was a thick creature that sat on his chest and lodged its fists in his throat. In the Viet Cong prison hut, he heard only his heart. Above, an indigo sky spilled light into the room, dyeing the gaunt faces of his fellows squatting on the dirt floor, fifty-four prisoners waiting for the execution call.


It came twice every week over the loudspeakers. Sometimes days passed between the calls, sometimes the calls came back to back.


Every evening just after they had scraped the last of the rice and the broth from their tins, silence fell as crickets wooed the coming night. The hut stank with fear and the food in their belly soured. Always, someone vomited.


He waded through his swamp of emotions. As the end neared when the indigo was deepest, two feelings remained. Sorrow for his wife, his children. Regret for a thousand things not done, a thousand things not said, a thousand things taken for granted.


His best friend in prison, Tuan, a helicopter pilot, edged close to him. Sitting on his hams, Tuan leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Thong, promise me.”


He squeezed Tuan’s shoulder. It was December 17, 1975. If they called his name tonight, Tuan would die and his promise would be worthless. Tuan believed the VC would release Thong in a few years. He would carry Tuan’s last words to his wife and son. Thong didn’t tell Tuan he believed that death was the only way out of Minh Luong Prison.


“Promise me!”


“Tuan ...”


“You'll get out soon. Your wife's uncle is a VC colonel-a war hero.”


“The bribes didn't work, Tuan. We're broke. Anh borrowed and sold everything we owned.”


“No, she'll find a way. Anh is smart.”  Tuan had never met her.


The gloom obscured his friend’s face, but Thong could pick out the hollow cheeks and the wild vacant eyes. Before Vietnam fell Tuan was a handsome young officer with all the promise of a good military career. He was only twenty-eight. He was married to his high school sweetheart and they had a son. On nights when it was very cold and they huddled together for warmth, he would speak of her, the way she moved and intimate things. Things not meant for the ears of others, but in prison it was all he had. All that kept him going.


Tuan’s quivering voice was rife with self reproach. “I shouldn't have confessed that I was a pilot. I was scared. When they said the penalty for lying on the confession essay was execution, I lost my mind. I wrote down everything. I confessed everything. Everything I could remember.”


Thong didn't.


“Thanh said I was honest. That's why she loves me. I shouldn't have written about my service in the Air Force.”


He wanted to tell Tuan they wouldn’t call tonight, wouldn’t come for him, wouldn’t punish him. But he didn't. It would have been a lie. He wanted to hear Tuan’s voice because it might be the last time they talked. A dying man had the right to talk, Thong said, and they were all dying. If the executioner didn’t kill them tonight, jungle diseases would kill them soon enough. Then there were the minefields, the hundreds of landmines they were forced to unearth and defuse with shovels. Death always came round, one way or another.


“You'll be all right,” Tuan said, reassuring his friend even through his fear. “You're just a teacher. They don't punish teachers.”


Tuan didn’t know his secret. No one in the prison did.


“They'll let you go soon. You only violated martial law.”


Tuan murmured himself to silence. There were nervous movements in the hut. Someone in the far corner retched.  The loudspeakers crackled and screeched to life, whipping a charge of adrenaline through the room.


“Bastards!” someone hissed in the dark. “Why at night?  Why do they only call at night?”


Silence answered him.


“If they are going to kill me, I want to die in the sun,” the man said, his voice rising on a false note of courage. “Why do they only come at night?”


A voice replied from across the darkness. “They are afraid of what they do. It is easier to kill in the dark.”


Someone else said, “No laws, no reasons, no mercy.”


“It is the way of the Viet Cong. I know them,” an old voice said. It was Khuong, the fisherman. He was in his sixties. He had given fifteen years to the Nationalist Army.


The first man shouted out the window, “Cowards!”


“Shut up!” someone trilled.


“Yes, shut up. It'll go hard for us if you don't.”


The murmurs of consent angered the first speaker. His voice tinged with fear became a shout. “You're all cowards. You wait like chickens¾they kill you like chickens. When they kill me, I'm not going to kneel. No shooting in the back of the head. I'll look at the eyes of the man who pulls the trigger.”


Khuong replied, “You won't. It is dark. The night hides everything.”


The loudspeakers blared, “Stand outside your hut when your name is called.”  Without preamble it rattled off names like a shopping list. “Nguyen Van Tung, Do Nhan Anh, Tran Truc Dang...”


A wail pierced the hut. Someone across the room convulsed on the ground. The loudspeakers boomed, “Vo Ba Sang.” Oh, God. Not the auto mechanic.


“Le Tin Khuong.”  The village fisherman. “Dinh Yen Than.”  The local pig farmer. “Vu Tan Khai.”  The village storekeeper. They were killing all the locals linked to the Nationalists. People were turning in their own neighbors.


Thong stared at Tuan in the dark. Tuan was a local. They both heard it: “Phuoc Tri Tuan.”


Then it was over: thirteen names, six from their hut. Tuan retched on his mat and curled up in it shaking. Thong held him. Sang, the mechanic, took his place at the door, seemingly at peace with his lot.


The guards came in with oil lamps. Thong saw the fear, the ugly fear of the spared and knew his face mirrored it. He saw the terror of the condemned and the way the tallowy light danced wicked shadows on their twisted features. The VC took the fisherman, the farmer, the storekeeper, and another man.


They dragged Tuan away by his ankles. He did not resist and he did not speak. Tuan gave Thong no final look and no parting words. It was so quick and simple how the VC had taken him and plunged them back into darkness.


Thong sat on his mat in a vile mixture of grief and relief. He had learned to block out the VC's “trials” broadcast over the loudspeakers. They invariably followed the same script: an account of offenses against the country, a conviction, and a death sentence¾never a defense or a last rite. Occasionally, a few men were not tried. Tuan was the fourth one tried and his crimes were the same as those before and after him.


A long, long silence followed. Then eleven sharp pistol reports, distance-softened. It was over. They never knew what happened to the remaining two men.    




Thong woke three hours before dawn. He heard some other early risers moving in the dark and hurried to be the first out of the hut. The smart ones woke early to use the latrine before the morning rush. Not all could go before the guards came to take them out to work.


The bloat-bellied moon sagged low on the horizon and silhouetted the guard tower just beyond the barbed wire fence. The night sounds of the jungle hummed and the earth was cold and rough beneath his bare feet. Outside the compound, the sentries shadowed the perimeter on their watch, ignoring him.


The latrine was a wooden structure overhanging the edge of a shallow pond inside the prison fence. He snagged handfuls of grass and climbed up the five-stepped ladder. The latrine reminded him of a hangman's platform, the kind in the American Western movies Mom was so fond of. Only this one did not have a hanging post and in place of the trap door was a circular hole situated over the water. The surface beneath the latrine began to churn, roiling with catfish. He squatted over the opening and proceeded. The catfish fought wildly for their meal, leaping out of the water. He shifted to avoid the splashes. And so it went¾the fish leaping and him shifting¾until the business was concluded and the soiled grass discarded.


As he made his way back to the hut, others strayed out one by one to the pond. The clouds had swallowed the stars on the horizon. He crawled back to his bed and before he remembered, he moved to huddle against Tuan for warmth. Tuan’s straw mat was still here, reeking of the sourness of vomit and the cloying sweetness of urine.


Thong curled up and wound himself tightly in his blanket and Tuan’s. The wind snaked through the thatched wall and ran cold tendrils over his scalp. He rolled onto his other side and bumped against Danh, a prison mate who lay perfectly still. Danh could have been dead. He could not tell and he did not wake him. If Danh were dead or dying, there was nothing Thong could do and nothing the VC would do beside tossing Danh into the mass grave in the woods and covering him with a thin layer of dirt.


Thong often daydreamed of the time before his world became undone. His Saigon in the April of 1975, was another life. A good life that he didn’t think could end even in the final days. He was a teacher, three years retired from the military. His wife, Anh, was a tailor in her own shop with three workers. They had made their fortune before the American pulled out in 1972 and they had to shut down their business. Comfortably well-off, they continued to work because it was in their nature. They lived in a three-story house and had five children, one girl, four boys. A shining member of Vietnam's tiny middle class.


It had been very different at the beginning. His family were impoverished refugees, fleeing south in 1946 when the Viet Minh took over North Vietnam. Hers were Southerners scratching out a living admist civil unrest. They married without the blessings of either family. Under a leaky roof, they scraped, worked hard and saved prodigiously. Somehow, they got by on love and rice. Then came the thing--the thing that catapulted them out of poverty--that which he would forever keep behind closed door to his children.


When the army drafted him, they gave him an officer’s commission because he was a college graduate at a time when South Vietnam's annual crop of college graduates was fifty. His fluency in French and English yielded a translator post. In 1967, his education landed him the office of Assistant Chief of Phan Thiet Province, a coastal city state of central Vietnam. It was a paramilitary post that dealt in psychological warfare. He was only a lieutenant, but under his proctorship were two thousand men. They wrote literature, broadcast Nationalist ideology, pro-American sentiments, and anti-Viet Cong messages. They accused, ridiculed, blamed, and generally vilified the Viet Cong, their actions, their theories and everything they stood for. His men patrolled the countryside and played good Samaritans, lending the peasants a hand to win their favor, their loyalty.


They swayed the peasants who did not care which side won the war because they were so hungry and poor. It was difficult for simple farmers and fisherfolks to understand how one regime could be worse than another. They paid the poor to spy on the VC movement in the countryside. They kept many from openly joining the VC. They found men to replenish the South Army.


The VC hated propagandists more than they hated the American GIs. They hated propagandists more than they hated the Nationalist Army. More than Nationalist Air Force. And Thong was the director.




“Get up!” cried the guard from the doorway. It was Hong, the local hoodlum turned VC. He was seventeen, mean as a fighting cock, taut as a bamboo switch. He leaned on the door frame and sucked a cigarette, the tip flared an evil eye in the half light. “Fuck!  Fucken lout!”  He kicked the closest man who was old enough to be his father.


They filed out of the hut into the ashen dawn, and marched across the compound, going down the row of barracks, five corrugated steel buildings wallowing in the mud and overgrown grass, the sidings riddled with bullet holes and bleeding rust, the glass windows cracked and furred with dust. They slowed as they came upon the VC mess hall where the air was fat with aromas of coffee and fried eggs. They marched out of the garrison and onto the dirt road that cut through the rice paddies to the jungle beyond. They left the road at the edge of the jungle and began to work beside it, clearing undergrowth and cutting down trees to prepare the land for farming. The trees and grass were burned in a great bonfire. Black smoke curled skyward. The sky turned a steel-gray and the sun baked the air through the clouds.


Midmorning, rain came down heavily. Warm tears slapped the broad green leaves of the jungle canopy and killed the bonfire. They pounded Thong’s back and they pounded the brown earth on the road. The water gushed down, steady and thick, from a gray sky. The dirt road that bandaged the jungle to the rice paddies-but parted both-was reduced to an endless series of large gray-brown puddles: grayed by the sky, browned by the rich soil. There was no wind, no peals of thunder, no ruptured flashes of lightning, no crackling gun shots in the distance, no muffled booms of artillery fire from the horizon. It was just another monsoon rain like those of his youth.


He looked to the road where the rice paddies met the forest. A boy in faded black shorts stood feet apart in a fighting stance, ankle-deep in a puddle. Tanned skin a shade lighter than the soil molded around his slim muscles, defining the thinness of his body. One raised arm held a long bamboo stick like a javelin with the sharpened end canted at an angle to the ground. Water plastered straight black hair against his sharp face, young but all edges without a hint of softness. Slanted black eyes riveted on the ground blinking away the water streaming down his face. He stood frozen. At his feet, the rain pockmarked the puddle like pebbles.


A flash of motion, the bamboo stick speared into the water. He thrust his face at the torrential sky and barked a cry of victory. An impaled frog jerked its death throes on the spear tip. He taunted the sky with his prize before stashing it in the burlap pouch at his waist. Thong felt a brief rush of joy, a touch of pride at the boy’s success, remembering the simple pleasures of his youth, remembering his first son.


The boy looked at Thong looking at him, then turned away and left the road in long, limber barefoot strides, heading toward the rice paddies. The curtain of rain closed over the boy and all was silent save sky-water drumming the earth and old men hacking the jungle.


A revolution¾everything shifted and nothing changed. Thong flailed at the weeds, a boy speared frogs barefoot in the rain.


When the rain stopped, they ate lunch, two fists of rice in a tin of vegetable broth. Because the cut trees were drenched and would not burn, they were marched back to the garrison to clear landmines.


The prison had been a Nationalist garrison during the war, a country outpost far behind the fighting front. It was deep in South Vietnam, but it was viciously fortified. Two hundred yards of no-man’s land ringed the garrison, thoroughly infested with landmines, studded with claymore mine posts, laced with miles of barbed wire, and scarred with concentric trenches, all cloaked in thick grass, vines, and small brush.


Given shovels which they dared not use, the prisoners began from the sandbagged walls and worked their way outward. They had already cleared the mines and trimmed the vegetation of the first twenty yards, but everyone still treaded lightly to the outer markers. The VC waited behind the walls with their guns trained on the prison crew. No one spoke save the VC who wagered on the outcome of today's session.


Thong was to clear a straight path for the log team. He hunched down low and began parting the grass one cluster at a time, searching for the black trigger rods of the canister and ball mines. He probed the ground with his fingers, praying to the gods he didn't believe existed that there were no pan mines in his path. These were completely buried and near impossible to find without metal detectors. The soft earth played tricks on his mind, giving under his knees.


He found two canister mines and marked two parallel paths, fifteen yards apart, with ropes. It was the loggers’ turn. Everyone else took cover.


Six men pulled on two ropes tied to opposite ends of a log. The team divided and walked on the parallel paths, dragging the log on the ground between them. Eyes quivering on the edge of hysteria, the loggers trembled, looking like overworked nags strung out by the scent of slaughterhouse blood. One young man in his early twenties cried as he put his back to the task.


Thong lay flat on the ground, shielded his head, listening. The log rustled the grass. Loggers traded nervous words. An explosion rented the air.


Screams. A man clutched a raw gash in his thigh. Flood spewed out, reminding Thong of a butchered pig--making him hungry. Dirt and wood splinters filtered down. A bitter piquancy of gunpowder. Another man sat on the ground, childlike surprise on his face, holding his red squirting wrist, hand blown off.


The VC replaced them with two others and a new log. The work went on until sunset.




Back in the compound, the murky pond captured the clouds fleeing from a crimson waning of light. Prisoners bathed and washed their clothes at the far end of the shimmering water, across from the latrine.


Dinner was rice and catfish soup. They fed the catfish at dawn and ate them at dusk. Then the indigo light fell and silence crept in.


The loudspeakers crackled to life. A smothering stillness glassed them off from the world.


“Stand outside your hut when your name is called. Pham Van Thong. ...”


They came with their oil lamps and dragged Thong out into the dark.




The next day, Thong climbed off the back of an army truck at an unmarked crossroads. The truck spat blue exhaust at him and rumbled back on the dirt track. He stood barefoot and penniless under the blazing sky, looking down the forked roads before him.



Excerpt from Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X Pham, published by Macmilan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Picador).

Andrew Pham

Andrew X. Pham

Andrew X. Pham is a Vietnamese American writer. He came to America with his family after the Vietnam War, in 1977 when he was ten. He graduated from UCLA and worked as an aircraft engineer, but switched career to become a writer. His first book "Catfish and Mandala" won the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize amongst others. His other works are ”The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars” (2009) and ”Last Night I Dreamed of Peace” (2008) which is translation of  Dr. Thuy Tram’s diary that was written during the Vietnam War.  He had always wanted to write a cookbook, the one that combines recipes with his life experiences, and published "A Culinary Odyssey" in 2012; it includes his travels and memories of Southeast Asia.  According to, Andrew writes and lives on the Thai-Laos border in a traditional wooden farm bungalow he built on the Mekong River. He teaches writing and occasionally lead bicycle tours in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. 

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