Milk flower tree in centre of Ho Chi Minh City

Sunday, 2018-05-20 15:09:17
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Illustration by Do Dung
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On the corner of Pasteur-Dien Bien Phu Road, Ho Chi Minh City, there is a flower tree completely different from the other trees around it. When October comes, the scent of the flower spreads all across the street.

For years now, a woman whose hair is now white has been seen around there since she was still young. When the tree was small, she watered it and cared for it. When the tree was in full bloom, she came to look at it and often brought some branches home. She calls it the milk flower tree.

In the mid-Autumn Festival this year, she was seen going together with a young girl to see the milk flower tree. The girl bore some features of a Western girl, with a high nose and white skin, but her eyes and hair were as black as those of the Vietnamese. She spoke fluent Vietnamese. Different from the other years when she came and watched in silence the flowers on the tree, she was smiling and looking at the girl with love in her eye. She slowly answered the girl’s repeated questions.

“Grandma, why is it called the milk flower? And why is there only this one in the middle of all these ancient khaya and tamarind trees?”

She was astounded at the question; her eyes welled up in tears, looking to the past...

*****

At the head of the alley, near the corner of Pasteur-Dien Bien Phu Road, there is a lovely villa with a trellis of antigone flowers which bloom pink all year round. The house owner was a doctor in charge of the surgery department of Cho Ray Hospital. He studied medicine in France. He had a beautiful daughter who was ready to help anyone in need.

In the Spring of Mau Than Lunar year in 1968, Saigon was quiet, indescribably tranquil, with lunar New Year festival (Tet) days around the corner, even though markets were in hustle and bustle, bars and pubs and dance halls were filled to capacity with the American GIs and Saigon soldiers. Fire crackers were allowed to be set off on the eve of the Lunar New Year. The whole of Saigon seemed ready to explode amid the fire crackers welcoming the New Year. Out of the blue, gunfire was heard all over the streets in central Saigon, in the key offices of the Saigon administration like Tan Airport, the Police General Office, the Saigon Radio Station, the US Embassy, the Independence Palace and so on. A Lunar New Year’s Eve night had shocked the US and the world, sent horror to the American GIs fighting in Vietnam. That the US Embassy, previously thought to be impregnable, was occupied by Viet Cong (Vietnamese communists) stunned the White House and the world. The fighting got even fiercer in the later days of Tet. A see-saw battle happened in every street. Eventually, the liberation fighters were unable to hold the occupied positions due to late reinforcements. Many units of the Liberation Army had to split into smaller units and they lost communications in Saigon.

At the corner of Pasteur-Dien Bien Phu Road, there was usually a small post guarded by a squad of the Saigon army; yet, on the night of the Lunar New Year, it was heavily guarded by a company of hundreds of soldiers with the support of three armoured cars to block the road. A Liberation Army unit had launched an assault onto this post in an attempt to open this road so that the liberation fighters could be able to advance deeper into the centre of Saigon to reinforce the fighters at the US Embassy, the Independence Palace, the Radio Station and other areas. All the houses around were shut. The doctor’s villa was also closed. But it was noisy inside. They had a guest, a special guest at that: It was a Viet Cong fighter. He was unconscious with blood smeared all over his body.

Immediately after hearing the gunfire at the crossroad near their house, the father and daughter had followed the fighting on the terrace. During the night, they had seen three liberation fighters fighting against the powerful firepower of the Saigon army. In the end, two of them had died and the third was heavily wounded. They saw him crawling slowly into a bush at the back door of their house. Without delay, the father and daughter went downstairs and opened the back door. The girl helped the Viet Cong soldier into the house, while the father tried to erase all traces of him. Then, a field operation room was quickly set up in the bunker inside the kitchen, which had already existed when he bought the villa. The doctor raced with time to save the Viet Cong man, while his daughter was in the house in case the Saigon troops came to question them about the missing Viet Cong.

Five days had gone by without having found the Viet Cong fighter, the Saigon soldiers had guarded everywhere and searched everyone passing by, as they believed that this Viet Cong could not have escaped. They were in great doubt about the house of the doctor, but he was a famous man who had saved a lot of lives in the city, even the lives of Saigon soldiers’ relatives. So they felt hesitant.

A week later, this Viet Cong soldier came to. He opened slowly his eyes and vaguely saw a beautiful girl and heard a sweet voice of a Southerner. What’s wrong with my body? Where am I now? - he thought. With great efforts, he spurted out a few words:

“Where….. where am I?”

“Oh, my word, you’re conscious” – the girl’s voice was as smooth as silk.

He felt a little bit stronger. He asked the girl in a weak broken voice of a Northerner:

“Where am I now?”

The girl said slowly:

“You’re in my house; you’ve been unconscious for the last few days. My father is a doctor and he has treated you. And what’s your name?”

“My name is Long. Where is my knapsack?”

“My name is Ha. Don’t worry about it. Everything has been saved. Your gun has been carefully hidden”

“Please, would you do me a favour to open the knapsack or else the small tree inside it will die?”

“What tree will die?” – The girl asked, running to the corner of the room to fetch the knapsack. She saw some green leaves cropping out of it. She took it out and found that it had been wrapped in a bag. She gave it to him.

“This tree?”

“Yes, it is. It’s the milk flower tree. How lucky, you are still green, my dear tree!”

With great care given to him by the doctor and his daughter, the young liberation soldier, as heavily wounded as he was, was recovering fast. He learned that the girl was 20 years old and a student in the medical school. Her father was a doctor who had studied in France. She had beautiful eyes. She also knew that he was 20 years old and a student of Hanoi Polytechnic University. He had fought in the Southern battlefield for three years. His house was located in an ancient street of Hanoi. Its name was Quan Su Street. His maternal grandmother’s house was in the flower village of Ngoc Ha. Even though he was still bandaged, he looked handsome and robust. Through his stories about Hanoi and the North, the girl discovered that all the propaganda launched by the Saigon administration to smear the North was fake. Hanoi with 36 ancient streets looked amazing in her mind’s eyes. And she asked him a lot about the milk flower and its scent. She wondered if this flower was associated with a girl in Hanoi, so he had to bring it along with him. As if he had guessed her mind, he looked at her, smiling:

“This is a small bag of seeds my grandmother gave to me before I hit the road to the South. She told me to sow these seeds in the South just in case I could not return, she could find me by going to find these milk flower trees in the South. I have gone through almost all the regions in the South and this time in Saigon, I have only one seed left, so I germinated the seed and thought I would cultivate the tree in Saigon where I fought. Milk flowers bloom in autumn, around mid-Autumn Festival. It has a strong, but warm scent.”

Suddenly, the girl asked:

“Have you ever gone with a girl under these milk flower trees?”

“Not yet.”

“But what you’ve described makes me disbelieve you…..”

“It gives me the same feeling of each time I walked around Thien Quang Lake on Nguyen Du Street. The flower has an unforgettable scent. The more you inhale it, the sicker you will get, you know!”

The girl smiled, looking far away as if she was wishing to be in Hanoi together with him. Suddenly, she blushed. The stories he had told made her feel ever closer to Hanoi.

Twenty days had gone by. The wound had healed and the Viet Cong man recovered. After he told her how to contact his liaison, the girl contacted his men who came to take him back to the rear. Only half a day left before he had to say good-bye to the girl. The young people felt greatly for each other during these days.

They sat by their sides in silence. He took her hands, looking deep into her eyes. They exchanged looks as if they wanted to keep the image in their head forever. And as if unable to stand the moment, they kissed each other. Time seemed to stay still.

“Wait for me when the milk flower season sets in!”

*********

On April 30, 1975, Saigon was liberated.

The girl became the doctor of a military unit. After the Viet Cong soldier had left the house of the doctor for some time, the girl also left for the revolutionary resistance area. The house now had a six-year-old boy. His father was not there. His name was Long Ha.

One day, the girl transplanted the milk flower tree in the corner of Pasteur-Dien Bien Phu Road where that wounded Viet Cong soldier had lain the other year. She watered it every day; she cared for it with great concern. When she was asked about the tree, she answered that it was the milk flower tree of a liberation soldier from Hanoi. When the first flowers were in bloom, she picked one branch of flowers and put it on the altar where beside the photos of her father and mother, there was a photo of the soldier.

She looked for and found the grave of that soldier at the Mien Dong Cemetery. She burnt incense and prayed: “My dear, I have been waiting for you for a long time. Our son has now grown up. The milk flower tree has now grown so big and bloomed. Do come back with us along the scent of the flower. I will go to Hanoi and look for the house where your maternal grandmother stayed and tell her all about our love in Saigon.”

Year after year, the milk flower tree has been standing there for half a century. The girl in that Mau Than lunar year is now old. Today, she took her granddaughter to see the milk flower tree. Her father Long Ha had gone to study medicine in France and married a French girl. This was the first time the girl came to see her paternal grandmother and was told about the grandmother’s love story with a liberation soldier who was now sitting on the altar.

By Hoai Huong/ Translated by Manh Chuong
VNS