From the Series: Decameron Relived
It’s an ordinary morning. I wake up lying on my back. I can feel my joints aching, they always ache in the morning. Eyes still closed, I enjoy the smell of newly boiled rice, soft and mild. My grandchildren’s voices reach me from the kitchen, like little birds, eager and happy. I look at the alarm clock next to my bed. 6:45 already. I get up, jump into my army shirt and put on my green helmet. My wife often tells me to stop using it. “The war is over now,” she says, “couldn't you just use an ordinary helmet, like the children do?” But I feel comfortable wearing this helmet. It’s part of me. My father used to wear this kind of helmet too. He was admired in our village. A man of courage. Thanks to his intelligence, patriotism and loyalty, he was sent to Russia for training. This was in the 1950s, the time of anti-French resistance. My father was among the resistance leaders in our village. As a boy, I was proud of him. And I knew what he expected of me.
In the kitchen, my wife and the children are finishing their meal. My wife brushes our granddaughter’s hair into a ponytail, ties a pink ribbon around it, and pats her head. “Let’s go, children,” I say. Knapsacks on their backs, they jump onto the back of my Honda Dream. Of all the many moments that make up a day, this moment makes me feel most happy. The children sitting behind me on the motorbike in their dark blue school uniforms, red scarfs around their necks. My granddaughter’s arms around my waist. We set off, heading towards the school. I steer the motorbike carefully down the narrow hamlet lane. As we pass our neighbor’s house, I see Ông Hiền sitting under his pomelo tree in the yard, waiting. His name fits him well. Hiền. Gentle. He is my age, a quiet and honest man. When we were young, he was the most handsome man in our hamlet. The sunlight sifts gently through the leaves of the tree, drawing a fine pattern of shifting shapes on his white shirt. He has his best clothes on. Today is the day of his visit to the provincial hospital.
Hiền and I grew up together. In 1968, we joined the same army unit and were sent to central Vietnam. We were both lucky. We came home again. I still recall the day I returned. My mother’s tears, my father’s pride. The darkness in my aunt’s eyes. She lost her husband and three sons. Even though her daughter took good care of her, and everyone in our village admired her for her sacrifices, she was never herself again. Our province, Thái Bình, was the province that lost the most men during the war. People here are loyal and courageous. We fight for what we believe in. Fate treated me well. I came back in one piece. Hiền did not. In 1969, a bomb hit him, injuring his legs. He lost two toes. At first, we thought he was going to be fine. Two toes only. But the wound got infected, and they had to cut off his left leg. They cut it just under the knee. While I stayed with our unit, he went to an infirmary. We didn’t meet again until the war was over.
We reach the school. I watch my grandchildren as they run across the school yard, toward the entrance doors, two little ducklings in the flock. They are doing well, both of them. Last year, they were both awarded a school prize for excellence in studying. My father always told us to study hard, so that we could do our duty to family and nation. “One has to be useful,” he said. “Remember, you were born with a debt, and you must repay it. Think of how much you’ve been given.” I wish he could have met his great-grandchildren. He would have been proud of them. They are obedient and attentive. Every morning, our granddaughter sweeps the yard in front of the house, and our grandson often helps my wife carry the groceries home. We can rely on my son and his wife, too. They work in Hanoi, more than a hundred kilometers from here. They work hard, coming home for weekends only. They take good care of us. We have good children. We never lack for anything.
Not all children are like that. Some parents in our village have difficult fates. After the war, my wife and I had four healthy children, three girls and a boy. They came one after the other. My wife gave birth easily, like a cat. Unlike us, Hiền and his wife had difficulties having children. After many years of trying, they had two sons, born five years apart. Hiền and his wife took good care of them. But when they got married, they both moved away. The youngest son lives in Japan, the eldest has bought a house in the provincial capital, twenty kilometers from here. They earn good salaries, both of them, and they work hard. But they keep their earnings to themselves. Every year at New Year, they bring their parents presents. But the rest of the year, Hiền and his wife must manage on their own, living from his veteran’s pension. Their house is so quiet, compared to ours.
My grandchildren reach the school doors. Turning around, they wave goodbye before disappearing into the yellow building. I turn my motorbike around, heading home. Along the road the rice is ripening, the grain changing its color from green to gold, pulling heavily toward the ground. Soon it’ll be harvest time. I’ve always loved the sweet smell of ripening rice. It makes me think of innocent childhood afternoons, playing dragon catch with the other children at the edge of the village. Our times today are so different. I pass the commune health station, a simple one-story building with white plastered walls. It’s empty and quiet this morning.
The commune health station was built in 1965. It used to be a busy place. It was established thanks to Uncle Hồ, thanks to the Party, for the sake of the people’s health. We received it enthusiastically. Women went there to give birth. Children received immunizations. Mothers were taught how to feed their children so that they would grow well. In front of the building was a garden with medicinal herbs. We knew that to build a strong nation, we needed strong and healthy people. Over the front door large letters in deep red say: “A doctor is like a gentle mother.” The paint is peeling off, but the words are still there, like echoes from another time. These were the words of Uncle Hồ. He was right. A good doctor is like a gentle mother.
Last week, the commune health station ran a campaign. “Come and have a free blood test done,” they called on the village loudspeakers. “We’ll check your health.” We went there together, Hiền and I. We arrived at 7 am. When we reached the health station, a large crowd of people had already gathered, lining up for blood tests. Most of them were our age. People are concerned about their health these days. There are so many new diseases. The ponds, the fish, the fields, the vegetables, the air, everything is polluted now.
When it was our turn, Hiền went first. The doctor pricked his finger, a tiny drop of blood came out. The doctor looked at the measuring device, then looked at Hiền. “Oh—your blood sugar level is much too high,” he said. “You must go to the provincial hospital for further examinations. The sooner you go, the better. Go tomorrow if you can, and no later than Monday.”
Hiền looked perplexed. He didn’t say anything. I held his elbow, leading the way as we left the room. Sitting on the bench outside, he called his eldest son. I thought of the provincial hospital. We went there when my wife fell off her bike last year. We were afraid she had had a concussion. It’s a large hospital, and very crowded. It was difficult finding our way around, and the doctors were not friendly. They talked to my wife in a coarse tone. Perhaps they had expected us to pay more. We had prepared a small envelope only. “A good doctor is like a gentle mother.” A gentle mother. I sometimes think that today, we have no gentle mothers anymore. Often, doctors don’t seem to care about their patients like they did in the past.
“Child, try to come on Monday, will you,” I hear Hiền say. He puts his phone back in his pocket, then turns to me. “I hope my son will come, but he couldn’t say yet,” he says. “Maybe he’ll accompany me to the hospital and help me talk to the doctors. I’m not so used to large hospitals.”
“We’ll see on Monday,” I said, “I’m sure he’ll come.”
Today is Monday, the day when Hiền will be going to the provincial hospital. Driving home, steering carefully down our lane, I pass his house again. He is still sitting there, in his neatly ironed white shirt, in the shade of the pomelo tree. Waiting.
This fictional story draws inspiration from ethnographic fieldwork conducted in northern Vietnam over many years, and particularly from recent collaborative research carried out in Vietnam’s Thái Bình Province as part of the project, “Living Together with Chronic Disease: Informal Support for Diabetes Management in Vietnam.” The project is funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and conducted as a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen, the University of Southern Denmark, and Thái Bình University of Medicine and Pharmacy (https://anthropology.ku.dk/research/research-projects/current-projects/living-together-with-chronic-disease/).