AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 39

They have crossed the border, without having to face either the Vietnamese or Laotian border patrol. They hide in the daytime and move at night. They have passed a few coffee plantations. They have picked up, without the consent of the owners, corn and sweet potatoes from the fields, to ease their hunger. They have crossed a few brooks, but only to get water, and dared not take a bath. They keep following the needle of the compass pointing West. Then one day they see a small road with vehicles moving on it. Chi Mai observes the road with her binoculars. The vehicles are military trucks of the Vietnamese Army. She feels quite relieved.

– “James, how well can you swim?”

– “Pretty well. How about you?”

– “I swim quite well.”

She throws away the compass, the machete, and other unnecessary things which may make people think that they have crossed the border.

– “James?”

– “Yes, darling.”

– “If anything should happen to me, will you keep on going until you reach America?”

– “I will either go there with you or stay behind with you.”

– “Don’t be so naive, my dear. If you stay behind with me, who will write the fairy tale from Hell? Don’t worry about me, James.”

– “But darling, we are almost near our destination now.”

– “No, James, danger is still waiting for us.”

– “America is waiting for us on the other side of the Mekong.”

– “You mean the other side of the Pacific?”

– “I don’t understand, Chi Mai.”

– “James, I long to go back to America with you. I long to be your wife. How often I’ve dreamed of kissing you by the Rio Grande. But you need to go back to America more than I. You shouldn’t die in Indochina. Do you understand now?”

– “Why do you say so?”

– “I just want us to be ready for any misfortune.”

She turns around to kiss him. He whispers,

– “More than I, it’s you who shouldn’t die, even to help me get back to America.”

Chi Mai is silent. With a pat on his shoulder, she pushes him to go forward. They go to the side of the road to wait for an army truck. James pulls out a cigarette and lights it up. He looks like a citizen of the Soviet Union. James is still wondering about the things Chi Mai just told him. He wants to talk to her, but suddenly remembers he’s now Boris Kanazev, so he keeps silent and continues smoking one cigarette after another. He feels overcome by sadness. Sadness arises the moment Chi Mai tells him to go on alone should anything happen to her. James believes that God will not let him suffer anymore. Nothing will happen to him or Chi Mai. If there’s such a thing, it is because she changes her mind and doesn’t want to go to America with him. Deep inside, he doesn’t believe she will change her mind. James’ mind is confused now. He believes nothing will happen, then believes that anything can happen.

– “James.”

– “Yes, I’m longing to hear you, my dear.”

– “In America, did you ever hear of a philosophy of those who ‘seek life through death’?”

– “Maybe.”

– “I’ve decided we aren’t going to Luang Prabang as they must have thought we would go.”

– “I’ll go wherever you take me, as long as you will go back to America with me.”

– “We’re already on the tiger’s back. Let’s ride it.”

– “OK.”

– “We’re going to Vientiane, where they must have thought I dare not go.”

A Molotova truck appears in the distance. Chi Mai walks into the middle of the road to wave. The truck slows down and stops. Chi Mai smiles at the soldier who drives it.

– “Where are you heading, comrade?”

– “Luang Prabang. Where do you want to go?”

– “Vientiane.”

– “I’m going the other way, but there will be some trucks going to Vientiane if you wait. Good bye, comrade.”

The truck leaves them there in a cloud of smoke. James is nervous again. He smokes one cigarette after another. There are a few more packs for him in his backpack. Chi Mai takes out the money she has brought along. She knows that the Laotian people also accept Vietnamese currency. The road is deserted. It seems no Laotian people or vehicles are traveling in this area. Chi Mai looks at her watch. It’s ten in the morning. She yawns. Almost all last night she was walking and didn’t sleep at all. Right now she is quite exhausted and cannot continue walking. Neither can James. They patiently wait for another truck heading south. It’s eleven now. A few vehicles are going north, but there aren’t any heading south yet. Chi Mai’s eyelids are heavy. She wants to sleep for a short time, but is afraid something may come up while she’s sleeping, and James isn’t ready to face it. Chi Mai makes every effort to stay awake. It isn’t until 12 noon when she sees a Molotova coming down from the northern curve. Filled with joy, she waves it with both hands. The military truck stops.

– “Are you going to Vientiane, comrade?”

The driver nods.

– “Yes, comrade. What are you doing here?”

Chi Mai shows him the letter of recommendation signed by the colonel. The soldier looks at it with wide eyes:

– “It’s a pleasure to serve you, comrade.”

Pointing at James, she says to the driver,

– “This is comrade Boris Kanazev, a geologist from the Soviet Union.”

James shakes hands with the driver. Chi Mai says,

– “We’d like to accompany you to Vientiane, comrade.”

The soldier smiles.

– “It’s boring to drive alone on this long trip. Please get in.”

Chi Mai gets in first and sits beside the driver. James sits next to the window. Chi Mai asks the soldier,

– “How is the situation in this area, comrade?”

– “Good. Our army is in full control.”

– “How long will it take for us to arrive in Vientiane?”

– “We shall get there tomorrow night.”

– “What is the situation in the city?”

– “Quite safe. The Thai forces no longer dare to shell it. However, we have our troops on high alert, as the Mekong River is low this season.”

About an hour later, the driver stops the truck in front of a roadside inn owned by a Laotian couple.

– “Let’s go in here and have a meal.”

Chi Mai and James follow the driver into the inn. They have a good lunch. Chi Mai pays for the lunch and buys some cigarettes, candies, and cakes to give to the soldier as gifts. They are on their way again. Chi Mai asks the driver,

– “You must know Vientiane very well, don’t you?”

– “Yes.”

– “I’ve heard about some people trying to cross the Mekong River to Thailand.”

– “It’s not as easy as they think.”

– “Who are they?”

– “The reactionaries from Saigon.”

– “Where do they usually cross?”

– “Usually they go to Tha Dua, about six kilometers from Vientiane, and swim to Tha Bo on the Thai side. Before the war, Laotian people used to go to Tha Bo by ferry to trade, and Thai people were free to visit their relatives in Tha Dua. People had friends and relatives on both sides.”

The soldier continues,

– “It’s different now. The frontier has been closed. The river is divided in the middle. Those who attempt to cross may risk being shot at.”

She asks,

– “Which side will shoot?”

The soldier replies,

– “Both. They shoot anyone who reaches their half of the river.”

The two ideologies have stretched barbed wires of hatred along the Mekong. Wherever ideologies go, they take hatred along. The soldier takes a glance at James.

– “This comrade just came to Vietnam?”

– “Yes.”

– “You two are studying the soil along the border?”

– “Yes. We are from a team consisting of ten people who have been working in the border forest. We must go to Vientiane to buy some supplies for the team.”

– “No wonder.”

– “Why?”

– “Your team must have had a hard time in there.”

James dares not open his month. He smokes and looks outside the window at the sceneries that move backwards from him. The soldier knows the road quite well. He remembers every inn and village along the way. The war has also laid its mark on the deserted area. The bumpy road must have been bombed many times, for James can see craters all along it. The rough surface of the road makes it impossible for the truck to go very fast. Sometimes the driver has to slow down and maneuver his vehicle to avoid debris. The hot sunlight is boiling down on the three people. The temperature in the cabin must have reached a hundred degrees. Their shirts are soaked with sweat. James has drunk the last drop of water in his canteen. He has gotten tired of smoking and looking at the sceneries of the Laotian highland. James lies back against the seat. The truck is running more smoothly as the road seems to be sloping down. James closes his eyes and tries to sleep, but is unable as his head keeps bumping against the cabin ceiling when the truck hits a pothole.

When the sun is going down, the weather is softening. And when their shirts are dry again, the cold winds begin to blow. At eight in the evening, the truck stops in front of a small restaurant. Chi Mai asks the soldier whether he can order a special dinner to treat the “comrade from the Soviet Union.” The Laotian couple who own the restaurant are very kind and hospitable. They ask the three guests to take a bath before having a meal. Dinner consists of steamed chicken, Laotian-style beef, salad, and vegetable soup. James drinks beer with the Vietnamese soldier. After dinner, they have papaya as dessert, drink coffee, and smoke filtered cigarettes. Chi Mai pays for the dinner. She also buys some beer and cigarettes for the soldier. Then they are on their way.

The weather is getting colder, but more comfortable. The wind is blowing harder, and James has to roll up the window. When it is past midnight, the driver stops at a stretch of land by the roadside for them to sleep before continuing the trip. He lets James sleep in the truck cabin. He places a rush mat under the cabin and hangs a mosquito net for Chi Mai to sleep in. As for him, he rolls himself in a blanket towards the end of the truck and goes fast asleep. In the cabin, James is sleeping soundly. Chi Mai is too tired to think of anything else. And she goes to sleep in a few minutes.

After a peaceful night’s rest, they depart the next morning. Chi Mai knows she doesn’t have to guard against this sincere and good-hearted soldier. She taps on James’ shoulder.

– “Comrade Kanazev.”

James is stupefied. Then he smiles.

– “Yes, comrade Chi Mai.”

– “We shall arrive in Vientiane tonight. Then we can go to America right away.”

James gets so excited when he hears the name America. Chi Mai asks,

– “What’s the first thing you’ll do when you arrive in Thailand?”

– “I’ll go to the US embassy.”

– “Then what?”

– “I’ll have a news conference.”

– “And then?”

– “Get on a plane for Texas.”

– “Why do you need a news conference?”

– “So that I can introduce Mrs. Chi Mai Fisher.”

Chi Mai turns to the soldier.

– “Comrade Kanazev appreciates your kindness to us.”

The soldier takes a quick glance at James and says to her,

– “Please tell him I say ‘Thank you’.”

The truck passes through some prosperous towns and a few checkpoints without being stopped. At midday, the soldier turns to a wider road, covered with asphalt, where a lot of vehicles are busy moving back and forth. Most of these vehicles belong to the Vietnamese armed forces. Chi Mai asks the soldier to stop at a restaurant for lunch. After lunch, the soldier checks the radiator, adds water to it and fills the gas tank. Then they depart and do not rest until late in the evening, when they stop by an inn near Vientiane and have a big dinner.

– “Comrade soldier.”

The soldier looks at her.

– “Yes.”

– “What is your name?”

– “Thanh.”

– “Comrade Thanh, I’d appreciate if you could take us around Vientiane for a sightseeing tour.”

– “I’d be glad to.”

– “Is there a curfew in Vientiane?”

– “No. We are free here, just like in Hanoi.”

– “Could you take us for a tour tonight?”

– “Aren’t you two taking some rest?”

– “We don’t have much time.”

– “All right.”

At eleven in the evening, the Molotova truck enters Vientiane. James’ eyes are wide with excitement as he watches the Mekong River flowing by the Laotian capital. His heart is beating faster. James holds Chi Mai’s hand tight.

—>40

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