An Empty Chair
Mar 01, 2019

I have a friend. In fact, I have more than one friend, which is always a bit of a surprise to anyone who knows me. Anyway this friends name is Binh. I’ve known him for about ten or eleven years now. He works for a tour company here in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s how we met. I was doing a shoot for his boss and, as the accountant, he had to pay me. For some reason which I’ve never thought about too deeply, we just seemed to hit it off. His first suggestion of meeting sometime for a coffee, was followed by the odd night out on the town enjoying more beer than was good for us. Before long we were getting together every second week or so to drink, eat, chat or go somewhere. I remember the first time he invited me back to his home. That was when I first met his mother, Ba Hanh.

Binh’s mother had been born in the mountains North West of Na Noi. She’d had a hard upbringing on a poor farm. Her father owned a little land, but not enough to support his family. Like many, he worked the lands of the village nobles during the daylight hours and struggled to till his own small plot before dawn or after dark. Old Mrs. Hanh once described to me how the family suffered when the French colonial regime conscripted her father to work on a road in a nearby province. With no income, and unable to work the lands she and her children survived by slaughtering and eating their few chickens and ducks… after that they were reduced to scavenging for snakes, frogs and snails in the rice paddies around their village.

In 1941 with the world at war, the Japanese entered Vietnam. Three years later the Japanese army confiscated the rice harvest to feed their own troops and famine spread across the land. People were reduced to eating grass and old leather. Over a million Vietnamese perished. Among them were Mrs. Hanh’s two youngest children. The family walked, and at times even crawled, to the city of Ha Noi in the hope of finding food. But there was none. One evening her husband went out to search for food and did not return. He was never seen again. Over the next few months her two remaining children grew sick, and died. A family of six, reduced to one. After the Japanese came the Chinese, who stripped the city of everything of value and transported it North.

And then… the French returned. President Ho Chi Minh had already declared Vietnam to be a free and independent country, and established a popular government. The French, however, humiliated by the Germans in Europe sought to reclaim their colonial possessions. The result was what is generally called “the First Indochina War” which ended. as everyone knows, with yet another humiliating defeat for the French army at Dien Bien Phu. Following the Geneva conference in 1954 the country was divided into two. The family that Mrs. Hanh had been working for fled to the South, and almost by default she “inherited’ their small dressmaking business. It was five years later, that she married again. He husband had been a soldier at Dien Bien Phu, and after the war had returned to the capital to resume his career as a teacher.

The marriage was a good one. Two older people, both of whom had seen the worst that life had to offer, were more than content with their simple, peaceful existence. They had three children, the youngest being my friend Binh. The years of peace, however, did not last long. By the early 60’s the population of the South was resisting the ever increasingly dictatorial rule of Ngo Dinh Diem, and the North began to send men and munitions to the South. American marines landed at Da Nang in 1965, and the stage was set for another bloody conflict in a land that had known war for over a thousand years. Mrs. Hanh’s husband had wanted to “go South” but was deemed to be too old, and her children were two young. She did, however, volunteer to help at a hospital near their home.

Binh doesn’t remember much from the first years of the war, and by the time he was old enough to remember he had already been evacuated to the countryside. Old Mrs. Hanh remembers it all. She described the tiny bomb shelters build along the streets in which she would cringe alone in the dark as the bombs fell. She told me about the rationing, the shortages and about the sense of pride and purpose she and her neighbors felt in keeping the city running. She laughed as she explained how she kept shutting her eyes as she was taught how to load an anti-aircraft gun on the roof of a nearby apartment building. She once told me, with tears running down her old wrinkled cheeks, about the day she went to work at Bach Mai hospital… only to find it wasn’t there. Obliterated by bombs from a B52. It could very well be the same way that Binh’s older brother died in 1973. Missing in Action somewhere on the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Long after the war ended, after finishing university, Binh found a job in Ho Chi Minh City. He brought his new bride and his then widowed mother with him. Every time I visited, old Mrs. Hanh would be sitting in her favorite chair in the corner of Binh’s small living room. Most of the time she watched TV, she really loved TV. No matter what was on, her failing eyes and thick glasses were glued to the screen. Sometimes I’d find here playing with her two grandchildren, telling them Vietnamese folk stories and snippets of family history. And sometimes, she would just sit there. Her mind filled with memories I could not even begin to imagine. I always joked that one day I’d photograph her, and she would always reply that that would be one photo I’d never be able to sell.

Old Mrs. Hanh’s chair is empty now. She died last winter. I never did photograph her. And you know what? I’m glad I didn’t. No photograph, no matter how good it might have been, could ever portray the struggles, personal calamities and pain she had to overcome and survive. No single photo could ever have done justice to the wonderful, courageous and kind soul that she was. Kugara zvakanaka!

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