An 18th century hero is now the deity of the village of Khanh Hua.
By Seth Mydans , April 30, 2000
KHANH HAU, Vietnam, April 28 -- "No," said Bui Thi Van, a frail village woman of 80, "I don't think anything has changed."
She cast her mind back through the history of the village -- through the American war, the Japanese occupation, the French colonial administration -- back through six generations to her illustrious ancestor, Nguyen Huynh Duc, who, long before today's Communists, fought in a war to unify Vietnam. "No," she concluded, "it's not different at all. We still work in the fields. We still worship here. We have water and electricity now, but actually nothing has changed."
She paused to swing a mallet three times against a great brass bell as a visitor lit a fistful of incense sticks at the altar of Marshal Duc, who is now the village deity.
Then she added, "I don't go anywhere, so how can I see any changes."
Indeed, if she traveled only a short distance to the main north-south highway, she would see the forward edge of advancing development from Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, 30 miles to the north, into the fertile farmlands of the Mekong delta.
She would also spy several miles away a small red banner reminding travelers that Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war and the reunification of northern and southern Vietnam under Communist rule.
Here in Khanh Hau, it takes only a short walk from the noisy highway to enter the timeless world of rural Vietnam, where 80 percent of the nation's people live, hidden behind thick stands of coconut and areca palms, banana trees and feathery bamboo.
Like the rest of Vietnam, Khanh Hau has not escaped the ravages of Vietnam's wars and the pressures of its politics and modernization.
In a narrow strip along the highway, new factories manufacture textiles, ceramics, plastics and aluminum plate. Billboards advertise tires, pesticides, face cream and family planning. The nearby village of Ben Luc, famous for its pineapples, now uses its fields for factories and imports pineapples from elsewhere to be sold along the roadside.
But Vietnamese villages are insular places, stubborn and self-contained. They absorb the pressures of history, adapt to them and, like Khanh Hau, go on very much as before.
This is a difficult country to subdue or to manage. In an often-repeated saying, the mandate of the emperor stops at the village gate.
"Rural communities have always been the real areas of negotiation," said Shaun K. Malarney, a Tokyo-based American scholar of Vietnamese village life. The history of Vietnam is not just the history of great national events, he said; it is thousands of histories of individual villages.
"Once you pass through the village gate you are in a way entering a different history, a different sense of place," he said. "If we are going to write the history of Vietnam since 1975, it's not just the liberation of Saigon or these types of things. It is also the story of what has happened in communities like Khanh Hau and how they pursue their own needs and desires and traditions."
As successive governments have recast history to suit their politics, Marshal Duc -- a hero of the Tay Son rebellion of the late 18th century -- has shifted in and out of official favor. But his cult has persisted into what is now the 10th generation of his descendants, and pilgrims still come here to pray at his shrine.
Continuity and change are easy to assess in Khanh Hau because this is one of the most thoroughly examined villages in Vietnam, the subject, among others, of a classic study by the anthropologist Gerald Cannon Hickey called "Village in Vietnam" (Yale, 1964).
"At high tide, the water rises and the stream presses in around the houses lining the bank, giving the impression that Ap Cau is a floating hamlet," he wrote, "a green island in the midst of paddy fields.
Like the flood tides of the Mekong delta, history has washed across the village -- and its scattered hamlets like Ap Cau -- but it has remained a place that Marshal Duc would recognize.
Indeed, Khanh Hau, with its population of about 3,000, was something of an island during the American war -- the site in the early 1960's of a "strategic hamlet" in which the American side relocated the more remote villagers into a tightly defended cantonment.
"When I was a boy I didn't know anything about the war," said Nguyen Huynh Khanh, 45, a farmer who is one of Mrs. Van's nine children. "This was a protected village and everything was quiet here."
From time to time, Mr. Hickey wrote, the farmers paused in their fields to watch the bombing of a distant neighbor, the village of Cu Chi, a stronghold of Communist resistance that has remained famous for its network of tunnels.
But not all in the family escaped the war; three of Mr. Khanh's brothers fought on the South Vietnamese side. One was killed and one emigrated to the United States in 1991, after serving for six years in a re-education camp after the Communist victory.
The family has little contact with its American son, Mr. Khanh said. "It would cost us a whole rice crop to make one telephone call to him."
The martial history of the village also tied it to the war, both before and after 1975.
During the war, a series of South Vietnamese and American officers and government officials stopped here to pay their respects to the memory of Marshal Duc and to record their visits in a fat red guest book. They included William E. Colby, at one time the top man for the Central Intelligence Agency in Vietnam and later its director. He took the occasion of his visit in May 1969 to tout America's policies. Updating Vietnamese history, he wrote, "With gratitude for Marshal Duc's inspiration to better pacification."
The guest book is mostly blank after 1975, reflecting the new government's suspicions both of Khanh Hau's recent history and of Marshal Duc's role in the long-ago Tay Son rebellion.
"For a while, things were a little difficult," Mr. Khanh said. "They accused us of being in the noble class. They called us collaborators with the French colonialists."
Much of the land the family had held for centuries was redistributed, and the brothers found themselves doing the hard work that laborers had performed for them in the past.
"But now things are pretty much back the way they were," Mr. Khanh said. The government leaves them alone. The shrine is newly refurbished. The crowds on Marshal Duc's feast day number in the hundreds.
Vietnam's villages remain some of the poorest in the world. But there has been some change. When Mr. Hickey studied Khanh Hau nearly 40 years ago, there were no motor vehicles here. There were just six battery-powered radios, owned by the most wealthy residents.
Today, Mrs. Van's family has a motorbike and an electric clock that announces the time in a recorded woman's voice. Some of Mrs. Van's grandchildren study in Ho Chi Minh City; one works there as an accountant.
One 10th-generation descendant of Marshal Duc, 3-year-old Nguyen Huynh Thanh Tong, may be the bearer of a message about the future. On a recent day, he wore a T-shirt with the words "Born to be wild."
"You can't judge the present by the standards of the past," Mr. Khanh said. "In the past, in Marshal Duc's day, the children of kings were kings. Now it is the people with talent who rise."
But until there is a revolution that is more far-reaching than the Communist victory of 1975, even the wild and the talented will remain rooted in their villages.
In her long life, Mrs. Van has seen her nation convulsed and transformed, and yet, as she says, she has seen nothing change. All day long, she paces through the newly whitewashed shrine, sweeping, dusting, adjusting the flames of small oil lamps.
Not far away lies the imposing tomb of her ancestor, Marshal Duc, its stone walls pitted by age, its precolonial Chinese lettering faded. Other family tombs lie here and there around it, arranged according to astrological dictates, covered by waxy white flowers from the trees that shade them.
The scene is a reassuring anchor for a people buffeted by history.
"When I go," said Mrs.
Van with a note of satisfaction, "I'll be buried here too."
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 2000 by Neil Mishalov