I had participated as part of the first delegation from the South to receive prisoners of war at the Hanoi Hilton in 1973. We wrote a popular book, One Day in Hanoi, about our treatment in the North.
I opened the door of my box and stepped outside. Lying close to the ground, I crawled for a short distance past the meeting rooms of the camp commander.
I can still recall the date, May 19, 1977, because that was Ho Chi Minh’s birthday. The entire camp was taken out to the fields to clear away the elephant grass — to “compete with each other for Uncle Ho’s birthday.” The grass grew head-tall alongside the main road. As we dug up the ground with our picks, we could watch the villagers go by and see the Lambretta bus on its way from Long Khanh to Cam My and Cam Duong, south of Saigon.
I deliberately made my way to the grass right by the road where the bus passed because I knew this was the day that my wife, Thuy, was coming to see me. I had learned this the week before through a letter smuggled in a bag brought to me by friends who had come to visit the re-education camp. Campmates often used such opportunities as the working parties to meet secretly with their wives. While keeping a careful eye out for the guards, they might have a few minutes to talk with each other and pass along a little food
It was about noon then, and the sun was hot. A bus from Long Khanh stopped at the Cam Duong crossroads just in front of a small shop that sold drinks. Some of the passengers got off. Although they were a good distance away, I could make out Thuy in a brown shirt with a small basket in her hand. Even though I had known beforehand that she was coming, the feelings that rushed through me stopped me in my tracks and made me numb.
Thuy walked next to the trench dug beside the road during the war years. Her eyes searched the fields, and I knew she wouldn’t be able to pick me out from among the many men chopping grass there. I turned to look for the guards and saw one in a jungle helmet standing on a small mound overlooking the prisoners. With my pick trailing behind me, I crossed a little clearing and headed in Thuy’s direction, realizing I could not avoid notice by the guard on the hill.
When I reached a place near her, with only a short stretch of grass between us, she finally recognized me. She froze, and we simply stared at each other, too deeply touched to say or do anything, though it had been two years now that we had been separated.
A look of alarm came into her eyes. I turned around to see the guard coming down the hill. Tossing my pick aside, I ran up to Thuy, leaping into the trench below her. Thuy sat down on the edge of the highway. Her lips moved as she tried to speak. Once more she glanced fearfully up behind me.
“Here’s some food for you,” she said finally.
She pushed a burlap bag down into the trench. Then she took a package of Vam Co brand cigarettes from her pocket. One cigarette in particular she pulled out, saying very quickly, “There’s an important letter in this one. Be careful!”
I shoved the cigarettes into my pocket, asking, “How’s the girl?”
“Fine,” she nodded.
I reached up and touched her hand. “How about Mama? You okay? Try to keep going.”
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “We’re all right. We have everything we need. My parents send us things from America. But you need to take care of yourself.”
Just then, there was a noise behind me. A friend from the labor unit whispered, “Quick! The guard!”
Thuy stood up. “I’ll come back,” she promised, moving hastily across the road back toward the crossing. I took the bag of food and was about to skip into the tall grass when I heard the guard shout.
“Get up! Give me that bag!” I stood up and carefully climbed out of the trench. The guard grabbed the bag, his eyes bulging. “Who gave you permission?”
Then he emptied out the bag before us. Two small cans and some plastic sacks with lump sugar, salt, and sesame seeds fell to the ground. Glancing around, I could see that all my friends had stopped working and were watching everything that happened. From far off, Cadre Binh, the commander of the camp guards, was running over. As soon as he reached me, he lashed out and slugged me in the face. I crumpled to the ground and received a hard kick in the ribs.
“Get up!” he barked. “Take off your clothes and empty your pockets!”
I struggled to my feet, pretending to be in great pain. As I slowly stood up, I tried to think of a way to get rid of the cigarette that Thuy had showed me. I took my time removing my shirt.
Cadre Binh turned to the guard, “See if there’s anything in the bag!” he ordered.
The guard opened the cans and dumped out their contents of dried meat, and he ripped open the bag of salt. While they were engaged in their search, I slipped the cigarette from my pocket and tossed it as far behind me as I could.
I removed my clothes and left them on the ground. Binh picked them up and checked them carefully along the hems and the pockets. He found the Vam Co cigarettes. Just then, I heard another guard call from behind me.
“Hey Binh! Look at this!”
The guard bent down to pick up the cigarette I had thrown away and which he had broken by stepping on. From inside the cigarette, he pulled out a thin piece of paper. Binh stomped over to him, snatched the paper from his hands, and read it. I grew anxious, thinking to myself, “What did Thuy write?”
Binh came back to me, his eyes wide in anger and amazement and his lips trembling furiously. Grabbing the gun from the guard, he pointed it in my chest, shouting, “You plot against the revolution?”
I thought fast. It would not have made sense for him to shoot me right then and there, so I set myself up in a defensive position.
Binh approached me and slammed the rifle butt in my face. I jerked out of the way, and it hit me on the shoulder, knocking me to the ground.
I heard Binh tell the others, “Tie him up and take him back to camp!”
One of the guards pulled me up by the hair, made me dress, then thrust my hands behind my back and tied them together with electrical wire. “Move!” he shouted.
He escorted me back to camp just as the gong sounded to mark the end of morning labor. The guard shoved me down beside the hog pen as he stepped into the barracks, which served as the camp director’s office. A moment later, Tuat, the squad’s political commissar, came out to me. He had beady eyes and a dark face, but this time it was pale with rage. Without saying a word, he untied the wire that bound my hands and handcuffed me to the hog pen, then he left.
My campmates were returning from their labor detail. I recognized my friends from the secret meeting we held daily: Ky, Nyhia, Nguyen, Ta Anh, and Luu Khoung were all looking at me fearfully. Ta paused by the barbed wire and made a meaningless gesture.
Long after lunchtime, I was still standing there hungry and in pain. Nobody came to bother me. Probably, they were working out the best way to deal with me. I tried to stay calm, closing my eyes and trying not to think, to prepare myself for what was to come.
Suddenly, I remembered that Thuy had promised to meet me later in the field. I felt a sharp pain in my stomach that spread to my whole body. A nausea gripped me from fear and anxiety. If Thuy came back, the cadres would surely catch her. I was not aware of what exactly she had written in her note, but apparently it had been serious or they would not have treated me as they did.
I was already considered a very dangerous prisoner. The Communists divided the prisoners into groups according to how dangerous to the revolution they were considered to be. I had been a journalist, both as a civilian for Saigon radio and as an army officer for the government. I was part of the “political war,” which included the propaganda machine that the North Vietnamese so hated. Therefore, I was considered most resistant to re-education and would inevitably be moved to a prison in the north for long-term detention.
As afternoon labor time approached, I saw Cadre Binh coming through the compound gate with Ta Anh following behind carrying a large backpack. I recognized my bag containing my blanket and personal items. Ta Anh used to sleep next to me, so it was likely that they had “volunteered” him to bring out my things for the search. They walked over in my direction.
“Lay out the blanket,” ordered Binh, “and spread everything out on it.”
Ta Anh pulled out each item and set everything out on the blanket. Among my belongings were pictures of my family and the letters Thuy had sent me over the past two years.
Binh went off some distance to talk with Commissar Tuat. Ta Anh continued his task of exposing my belongings. Without looking at me, he whispered, “Back at the field, Binh called the team together and read your wife’s note aloud. She told you to get ready to escape. She has made the connections with a boat that will be leaving next month. The false papers and a hiding place are ready for you in Saigon.”
He looked over at the two cadres who were still busy talking, then turned back to me. “It’s dangerous for you now. Try to get out. They’re going to give it to you like they did to Ngo Nghia.” I knew that Ngo Nghia had been a prisoner who was caught while trying to escape from another camp the year before. He was executed in front of all the prisoners at the camp as a warning to any others who might attempt an escape.
As he got up, I said quickly, “My wife told me she was coming back this afternoon. When you go out there, try to warn her to get away before they catch her.”
“It’ll be bad if she should come back,” Ta Anh mumbled in agreement. “I’ll do what I can. You must keep cool.” He turned back to the two cadres and showed them my belongings, then headed back to camp.
Binh and Tuat inspected each item on the blanket. When they were finished, they took the pictures and letters and returned to their office.
They left me standing beside the hog pen until evening. When the afternoon labor time was over, Tuat came and unlocked my handcuffs, then took me to the office. The camp leader was already there. On the desk in front of him was my file from the time I first entered the camp, in June of 1975.
The camp leader questioned me about my past history. I repeated the same story I did every time I’d been interrogated: I was a journalist, then a lieutenant in the army who worked as a war reporter for the South Vietnamese government. I had worked in Laos and Cambodia, and I had participated as part of the first delegation from the South to enter the North and receive prisoners of war at the Hanoi Hilton in 1973. I didn’t have to repeat the fact that our delegation had cowritten a popular book, One Day in Hanoi, about our treatment in the North. It had skewered the Hanoi regime. That was in my file.
In the end, the camp leader handed me a blank piece of paper and a pen. “Write down your entire scheme to escape from here,” he commanded. “If you are honest, we will be lenient with you. But if you lie, the revolution will deal with you accordingly. Do you understand?” I wrote enough to fill up three pages, neither admitting to the crime of opposing the revolution nor denying it.
Afterward, they locked me into a metal box that was old and rusted, a relic from the war used by American soldiers for shipping equipment. This conex box, as they were called, was next to the fence where the cadres dried their food. These strongboxes were used as jail cells by both sides. There was only enough room for one person to lie down. It had no actual lock but was held shut by a stiff wire threaded through two holes and twisted on the outside, then locked by a metal ring passed between the twisted wire. The floor on the conex box was wet, filthy, and cold. I stayed in that miserable lockup for nine days.
Early in the morning on the first day, the guard opened the box so that I might walk to the latrine. I looked around to memorize the area and the position of the barbed wire fence around the camp. I was determined to flee – if I didn’t, they would execute me the same way they did Ngo Nghia. My problem was to get ahold of some metal object with which I could break the lock of my cage. What I needed was a piece of metal firm enough to slip in between the wires and twist until they broke.
All I could find next to the latrine were two long nails, too short to be of any help then. Still, I placed them in my pocket, just in case they might come in handy sometime.
On the second day, right after opening the cage for me to go to the latrine, Tuat pulled me into the camp office. This time, there was a strange cadre present, a man who appeared to be of higher rank than the regular camp cadres. Tuat stood at attention. “Reporting, comrade!” he barked, and promptly left the office.
The new cadre seemed to be a professional in the art of interrogation. He strode back and forth in front of me. After a question, he slapped me in the face. I put up with the beating all morning, repeating my answers over and over. He wanted me to reveal the names of any other prisoners who were plotting to escape, the organization that was making false papers, and the address I had planned to flee to in Saigon. I took the blows, responding firmly each time, “I don’t know.” Finally, he picked up an old board spiked with rusty nails and hit me with it on the back and shoulders.
Before returning me to my cage, he said to me, “We arrested your wife last night. If you tell us the truth, you’ll both be released. If not, your wife will get the beating in your place.”
Those words struck me harder than the beatings I had received. I grew dizzy and lowered my eyes so the cadre would not see my outrage and to keep myself from laying into him.
Commissar Tuat came in and took me back to the conex box around twilight. I lay down and dropped off to sleep. When I awoke it was quite late, and I was up for the rest of the night, feeling hurt and thinking of Thuy in some squalid jail with no one to look after our daughter, little An. I like to think of myself as a man who can deal with any situation. But this time I wanted to collapse in my helplessness.
The next few days were repetitions of the first two, with the same questions asked, and the beatings harder and carried out in different ways. Once the cadre got very violent and thrust a big farmer’s pipe in my face. I rolled over, pretending to have passed out in order to avoid further blows. Another time, Tuat said to me, “The Revolution has cracked tougher nuts than you. Wait until we take you ‘to the field.’ Then you’ll be on your knees.”
I knew for certain that no matter what I told them, they would still “take me to the field,” as they had Ngo Nghia. They kept pushing me to divulge my plot to escape and the names of the people making the false papers, which they suspected I knew. In fact I knew none of these things, but here and there I pretended to let out some information to make them believe I knew something so the interrogation might drag on longer. When they decided I had nothing more to say, they would take me out and deal with me as they wished.
I still had not found the metal piece I needed to break the cage’s lock. But I had strong faith that somehow I would escape, and I felt my body and spirit were fit enough for it. I pretended to be ill and made myself limp when I walked. They thought I had been in the box too long, so that one of my legs had become numb. At times when the interrogations had become too intense, I feigned blacking out, but once they came and poured the water from a farmer’s pipe on my face, pulled me up by the hair, and continued their beating.
During the eighth night in the cage, it rained hard and my box was flooded. I was drenched and sat up shivering all through the night. The next morning when the guard opened the door for me, I caught sight of a short piece of metal someone had thrown beside the fence near the cage. When I came back from the latrine, I asked permission to hang up my wet clothes on the fence to dry. I went right to the spot where the metal strip lay, removed my clothes, and hung them right above that spot. I was wearing only shorts when I entered the office and presented myself to the cadre for what would be my last beating, this time with electrical wire.
On the way back, I asked to pick up my clothes by the fence. The guard stood a few steps away. I pretended to drop my shirt over the metal strip, and I rolled it up into my shirt and took it back into the conex box. It wasn’t until the guard had gone that I could take a close look at the strip. It was a brace for the back seat of a bicycle, and the right size to fit in the wire of my cage. This made me feel better, and I thought about my escape that night, before it was too late. I also knew that if they caught me, I would be shot on sight.
It rained again that night. I began working on my cage around midnight. I slipped the brace into the wire and, with my hands on both ends, twisted it around. The door beat against the frame of the cage. The rain was pounding loudly on the roof and that made me work boldly and with all my strength. After an hour or so, the ring of wire started to twist with the brace. I pulled hard a few times, and the wire finally snapped. I fell back in my cage, exhausted. Although the rain was cold, I was covered with sweat.
The rain stopped as morning approached. I opened the door of my box and stepped outside. Lying close to the ground, I crawled for a short distance past the meeting rooms of the camp commander. When I reached the manioc fields, I got up and ran, bent low between two furrows of manioc, heading for the paths I used to take to the fields to work. I could still recognize the path in the dark. I raced across a clearing leading to the stretch of elephant grass and continued running to the trench, where nine days earlier my wife and I had met. I jumped into the trench and lay there, tired and anxious, my heart pounding.
I had gotten out of the camp, but it was not over yet. The further away I ran, the better it would be for me. The people living around the camp were Catholics who had come from the North in 1954. I figured they would be willing to help me.
It was beginning to get light out. I could hear people talking on the road. I leaped up onto the road and, standing erect, walked back toward the village of Long Giao. Along the way I met several people with shoulder poles heading for the market.
Daylight had come by the time I arrived in the market. In the distance, I could make out a Lambretta bus stopped beside the stalls. Suddenly, I spotted the jungle helmets of guards around the bus. Frightened, I turned off the road and went down to a house, circled around behind it, and discovered a small path through the village. I could not allow myself to be seen in the market at that hour. The soldiers waiting for the bus to Long Khanh may have been from another camp and thus did not recognize me, but after living in a cage for nine days with my face unshaven, my hair unkempt, and my clothes dirty and ragged, it would not have been difficult for them to pick me out as an escaped prisoner.
I quickened my pace down the road behind the market and went to the next hamlet. There was someone chanting prayers in one of the houses. I charged inside. A woman was saying the rosary, and she looked up at me, startled. I spoke to the point. “Aunt, I’ve just escaped from a re-education camp!”
She got up hastily. “Jesus and Mary! Oh Lord! Well, where do you plan to go?”
“I don’t know. Is there a bus that runs straight to Saigon?”
“You have to go to the main road and take a Lambretta to Long Khanh. From there, the buses go to Saigon. You’ll have to leave at once. It’s not safe to stay around here!”
“I have no money, Aunt. Could you please…”
She was hesitant and afraid. “I only have a piaster for you to take the Lambretta. Take it for now. Go in peace! Oh, my! God protect you!”
I took the money with a “thanks” and headed back to the road. There was no other way. When I got to Long Khanh, I could decide what to do next. I stood beside the road trying to look inconspicuous and waved down a passing bus. It stopped a little farther down the road. I ran and jumped on board, sitting down beside a woman without looking at anyone else. The Lambretta driver gunned the engine just as I spotted a guard from my camp sitting in a corner of the same bench. His eyes nearly popped out when he saw me.
“Oh! Oh! You!” he gasped. Then he charged forward, grabbing me by the shoulders, hollering, “Stop the bus! Stop!”
I jerked out of his grasp and, with all the strength I had, landed a hard punch in his face before I rolled out of the Lambretta. My head hit the road. I heard the bus brake sharply, and the guard was shouting. Bolting up, I sprinted back to the hamlet, jumping through a barbed wire fence and slipping into someone’s garden. The occupant of the house was doing her laundry. She jumped when she saw me and raised her hand in the sign of the cross.
“Oh my God!”
I ran past her into the house, saying, “Let me hide here. They’re after me.”
I found a low bed and squeezed underneath, pressing myself as close as I could to the wall. I lay there flat against the ground. I could hear my own breathing and the sound of my heart pounding. Soon I also heard footsteps and the guard asking, “Did you see a prisoner go by here?”
The woman’s voice trembled. “No! I didn’t see anyone!”
The footsteps ran off in another direction. A moment later, the woman was whispering above me. “Come out. They’re gone.”
I got out from under the bed, and before I could thank her she took my arm and stammered, “I pity you boys in the prison camps. But please pity me, too! I can’t keep you here. It’s dangerous!
Her face was pale, and her hand shook on my arm. “All right, I won’t bother you. Do you have some men’s clothing so I can change?”
The woman looked at my old battered military uniform and shook her head. She was at the point of tears. “You have to go now! Go now!”
Letting go of me, she stepped back. I ran out front as she prayed behind me: “May the powers above protect you. May God forgive me.”
At that point I did not know where to go. I was certain that the guard was somewhere in the neighborhood and that before long the area would be surrounded. Suddenly I heard a church bell in the distance. I ran back to the woman, whose eyes grew wide as she saw me. She clasped her hands in front of her breast, praying softly, “Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!”
“Point me the way to the church,” I said.
“Go this way,” she answered, indicating the left. “When you come to the crossing, turn right. Go straight to the field, and you’ll see the roof of the church.”
I thanked her quickly and patted her on the back. In a flash, I was out the gate and heading in the direction she had shown me. I went straight to the church. I had interrupted their prayers, and some of the people in the back pews had turned to look at me. I dashed forward, asking in a loud voice, “Where’s the priest? Please tell me where…”
They were stunned, but no one answered. Even the people up front turned to look, and their chanting grew softer. Finally one young man in the front pews stood up and came over to me.
“Father’s in the rectory behind the church. Go this way.”
I ran forward, glancing briefly at the statue of Jesus high on the wall, then bolted out the side door and around the back. The rectory door was ajar, so I pushed it open and went inside. It was a rather large structure with many rooms. I went to the room in back next to the bathroom. It was simply furnished with a small bed, desk and chair, and a closet for the priest’s vestments. Looking around, I decided that the safest place to hide still seemed to be under the bed, so I maneuvered myself down and over to the wall.
Shortly afterward I heard someone enter the room. From underneath the bed, I saw the bottom edge of a black cassock. I was worried that if I came up at just that moment I might frighten him. A dog came in, stuck its muzzle under the bed and barked loudly. There being no other way, I crawled out and stood expectantly before the priest. He was only momentarily taken aback.
“I’m an escaped prisoner.” I told him. “The guards were getting close, so I had to come here. Please help me, Father. Let me hide some place temporarily, then I’ll go away. Help me! If they catch me, they’ll shoot me!”
“All right,” he answered in a gruff voice. “You can stay here.”
He was an old man, perhaps over 80. His face was lined and his voice was weak. He said not another word but slowly went over to his closet, removed his vestments, then dressed and left for church to conduct Mass.
I thought possibly because of his age he had not fully grasped the seriousness of my plight. The camp guards were right then surrounding and searching the area. The church would likely be the first place they would consider. I decided to look for a hiding place more secure than the empty room I was in. I gazed carefully at the closet, which stood taller than my head, the top part being glass with wood below. The priest’s cassocks and long robes were hung there. I opened the closet and stepped in. Then I sat down and scrunched up as small as I could, so I would not be seen from the outside. I pulled in my legs and shoulders and leaned my head back against the wall, and in that position I fell asleep.
When I awoke, I heard the old priest cough. Assuming he did not know where I was, I opened the door and stepped out. I stopped short, however, when I saw another person with him. She was a middle-aged woman and showed no surprise at my appearance. Perhaps Father had told her about me already.
“How can you lie in there?” Father asked. “Take my bed and rest.”
“Please let me stay in the closet, Father,” I pleaded. “I’m afraid they’ll come and search in here.”
He nodded and informed me that they had searched the houses along the main road already. They had come to the church but had not entered the rectory. He then asked the maid if she had something for me to eat. “Follow her inside and have dinner,” he told me.
The maid responded quickly. “No, let me bring it in here,” she said. “There are many people coming and going inside.”
He assented and went out. All this time he never asked how long I intended to stay and how I planned to get out.
The maid brought me a big bowl of rice and some hot vegetable soup. When I finished eating, I went back inside the closet and lay with my legs doubled up and my head back. I tried to get some sleep. It was dark when I awoke. I heard talking inside the room – the old priest and another man. I raised my head to peer up through the glass. The light was dim, but I could make out the figure of a young priest having dinner with the old pastor. They were talking about the parish. I assumed the younger priest was the assistant. He looked to be about 40 years old, with an intelligent and ruggedly handsome face. His voice was deep and clear, as compared to the slow, pleasant speech of the pastor. I felt hopeful that if I explained my predicament to the younger priest, he might help me to find a way out.
They never referred to me during the course of their meal. Perhaps the young priest was still unaware of my presence and only the maid had been told.
After they were done eating, the young priest left. I guessed he slept in the adjoining room. The older priest came up to my hiding place and called me out to eat. He had left me some pieces of pork and a dish of vegetables. I ate with his bowl and chopsticks. The maid returned, and the three of us discussed my escape. The pastor suggested that early the next morning I leave on the five o’ clock Lambretta to Long Khanh. If I went early from there, I could catch a bus to Ho Nai, and there I would be safe. He gave me money for the fare. The maid advised me to slip the money secretly to the driver, as there were too few seats for all the people who wanted to ride, and bribes were required. “But you will have to bathe, shave, and change your clothes first,” she said. The pastor gave me some of his clothes. They were tight, but I could wear them. I slept on the pastor’s bed that night while he stayed in the living room.
The church bell woke me the next morning, and I quickly prepared for my escape. The old priest was nowhere around. He may have been getting ready for Mass. Nor was the maid there to say goodbye. I went past the bathroom, opened the back door, and walked around to the front. It was beginning to get light out. I looked for a way to the main road to catch the Lambretta.
It wasn’t long before I saw the bus coming. But I could see the heads of the passengers dotted with jungle helmets, so I stepped off the road and hid in the trees. I felt that if I took the bus, one of them might recognize me, or in any event the bus might stop at a checkpoint between here and Long Khanh. I traced my steps back to the rectory and went to the back door, but it was locked. Hearing noises in the bathroom, I swung myself up to look in the opening and saw the young priest brushing his teeth.
“Father, open the back door for me,” I begged.
Dropping to the ground, I waited by the door. I heard the lock click, and the door opened. The priest stuck his head out and looked at me in surprise. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“I’m an escaped prisoner. I’ve been hiding in the priest’s room since yesterday.” As I spoke I tried to slip past the door. The priest reached out and pushed me by the shoulders back outside. I lunged at the door but heard the lock click again.
“The old pastor let me hide in his closet!” I shouted, pounding on the door. “He gave me money for the bus this morning, but I missed it and came back. Please open up for me!” There was no response, only the sound of footsteps receding into the house.
I walked around the front and knocked on the door but was met with silence. I did not know where to find the maid. There was nowhere else for me to go but back out to the church. Since it was early, only the first few rows of pews were occupied. Father was in the confessional. I went straight to him, knelt down, and whispered into the screen. “I couldn’t go. Please let me go back to your room.”
He stood up and strode around the confessional, without looking at me. Quickly he left the church and entered the rectory, with me following behind. As he left me in his room, I heard him lock the door from the outside. I went directly to my closet.
After Mass he came back, and I heard his voice along with that of another person. He said he was feeling tired and asked the person to drive him to the hospital in Ho Nai the next day.
I lay there in the closet until noon. The maid knocked on the door and handed me a bowl of sticky rice. She never said a word, but her face showed worry and fear. I remained in the closet all day. At night, the young priest came again to have dinner with the pastor. They talked again about things in the parish. Neither mentioned me. The young priest talked about working with the parishoners, his voice deep and active, as it had been the previous night. He probably had no idea that I was hiding there, two steps away.
After they finished supper, the pastor called me out to eat. He spoke concisely, saying that in the morning, he would be going by car to Ho Nai. I was to go along with him but not speak with the driver.
Very early the next day, just as he had said, a La Dalat model car was waiting outside the rectory. I sat next to the old pastor in the back seat. Another man sat in the front with the driver. The car pulled out of Long Giao parish and went without incident to Ho Nai, about 40 kilometers northeast of Saigon. Along the way, the pastor sat half asleep and never spoke to anyone. I, too, remained quiet the whole way. Only the two in front talked a little in soft voices. The pastor must have advised them ahead of time.
We stopped in front of Sao Mai hospital. I got out and tried to say a few words of farewell to the pastor, but no sound would come from my lips. Father took my hand gently. “Go in peace,” he said in his slow, tired way. “God will protect you.”
I knew then that if I said anything, I would cry. I just nodded and turned, moving quickly alongside the road toward the market. Suddenly it occurred to me that I did not know the priest’s name. I ran back to the car, panting. He looked at me expectantly.
“Father, I don’t know your name.”
For the first time, I saw him smile.
“Trac. What’s yours?”
I gave him my name, and this time I could not hold back my tears.