Mai Lien
SHADOW OF THE PAST
         I was born in the capital city of Saigon although my grand parents came from the town of Bien Hoa, twenty miles away. Bien Hoa served as a weekend getaway for the Saigonese who were tired of the hustling and bustling life of a modern city. A quaint and bucolic town in a sea of changes, Bien Hoa was also known for its mouthwatering and sweet grape fruits as well as its rustic but fine diners.

         When I turned five, my father who was an Air Force officer moved his family to Nha Trang where he stationed until April 1975. Located about one hundred and forty miles northeast of Saigon, Nha Trang hosted the National Air Force, Army, and Navy academies where young men were trained into seasoned officers. Each weekend, the face of this seaside town was transformed by the presence of multi-rank cadets in their crisp, sharp uniforms going out on dates with their girlfriends. For one night, almost all young women dressed themselves in beautiful white ao dai looking like fairies out of the old Cham Empire. Suddenly the sleepy resort town was revitalized like desert cacti after the first rains of the year. The pageantry and enchantment of the party imprinted an indelible memory on visitors and participants alike. The city was also an exotic seaside resort known for its beautiful, sandy, and palm-tree-lined beaches as well as its various sea products. One can find the best and biggest lobsters around the Pacific Ocean.

         I enjoyed the beach a lot and loved to jump in its waves and to swim in its warm waters every morning before school. I exposed myself so much under the sun that my skin turned dark. This led my father to lovingly nickname me, the first born and dearest daughter, as Mai Lien-the "Cambodian princess". Mai Lien in Vietnamese euphonized with Mien Lai (dark as a Cambodian). Actually, Nha Trang was once the capital of the Chams, a proud Hinduized civilization that thrived in the region from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries. The ruined but once magnificent Cham temples that have lasted for more than ten centuries still dot the landscape. They emerge out of nowhere like sand-stone castles amidst the arid countryside under the hot shining sun. They now seem to be out of place among the completely Vietnamese population. Life in Nha Trang thus appeared to be a fairy tale for me with its Cham monuments of yesteryears, the Saturday nights' pageantry, and the beautiful beaches.

         Alas, that fairy tale did not last long. By early April 1975, the communists began moving southwards along national route 1 that linked Hanoi to Saigon. All kinds of rumors flew all over town forcing people to migrate further south. Father could not leave his post because the city was still in the hands of the Saigon government. He however thought we needed to be evacuated for safety reason. He put mother and all of us on a military plane to Saigon. The plan for us was to temporarily stay with Auntie number seven and her family in Saigon until matters settled down. On April 28, he sent us off again on another military airplane to Phu Quoc to be with thousands of other refugees who were evacuated aboard an American ship, the Pioneer Contender. On that island, we were quartered in a camp that soon housed 40,000 people. We lost contact with father from that time onward. On the night of April 29, we were ordered to proceed to the island beach and to get back on the Pioneer Contender that still lurked around the waters of Vietnam. The ship picked up the remaining refugees the following day before heading toward the island of Guam, an American territory in the Pacific Ocean.

        Please read the rest of the story in REMEMBERING SAIGON.
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