Excerpt for Terrible Terrible - a Vietnam Story by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

- a Vietnam Story

by Kate Walker

Published by Kate Walker at Smashwords 2018
First published in ‘Changes and other stories’
(under the title ‘Tuan Huan’)
by Omnibus Books, Australia 1995
© Copyright Kate Walker 1995

ISBN: 9780463692974

This free eBook is for your personal enjoyment.
For educational or commercial use please reimburse the author through official copy agencies.
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This story is true. The names have been changed.

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______ ~ ______

Terrible Terrible
- a Vietnam Story

by Kate Walker

All people were different, Liz knew that, but the young man she met on the bus that day was utterly different from anyone she’d known.

She noticed him the instant she turned from paying her fare. He was Asian and stood out from the rest of the passengers because he smiled, not at anyone or anything in particular, just smiled. And Liz felt drawn to him as irresistibly as if he’d called to her, “Come please! Sit here please, next to me!”

His face was an open invitation, harmonious and clear; old, young and wise all at once, the way Asian faces often are. And she couldn’t believe her boldness, passing several vacant seats to take the one next to him. She’d never done anything like that before, and was sure the other passengers were smirking and thinking they’d guessed her motives. How could they? She didn’t know them herself.

The bus resumed its journey and the young man rocked comfortably beside her, holding a slim brief case on his knees. This bus came via the university meaning more than likely he was a student. Which also meant she’d have to say something profound or clever to start a conversation. With a complete stranger? On a bus? What was she thinking?

The bus lurched away from the curb and the driver accelerated through the afternoon traffic, breaking hard and often. Passengers were tossed about as the fellow tried, ineffectively, to hurry from stop to stop. Most passengers, at one time or another, had to reach for a safety rail to keep from being flung from their seats.

The elderly lady directly in front of Liz started up with genuine fear in her voice: “The way they drive buses these days, it’s a wonder more people aren’t killed!”

She screeched like a cockatoo, perhaps hoping the driver would hear.

“My friend Lottie Hollis was hit by a bus,” she told the woman next to her, “and what that poor woman went through. In a coma for twelve weeks. Pronounced dead half a dozen times.” Then went on loudly to describe in vivid detail the sutures, the traction, the drip.

It was a ghastly diatribe and Liz found herself leaning slightly toward the young man at her side.

By way of apology, she whispered, “Do the old people in your country carry on like that?” and immediately regretted the words. They were neither profound nor clever, plus Asians had great respect for their elderly. He might not even speak English! She’d said the first silly thing to pop into her head.

His dark head swayed with the bus’s motion and his thin arms remained at rest across his brief case. For all intents and purposes, it looked as though he was going to ignore her impulsive words.

“Only in private,” she heard him whisper, “or when alone with friends.” He had leaned likewise in her direction and answered in a discrete, confiding voice.

Liz’s mind raced, trying to think up a second statement to say in reply. Anything! But before she could speak the young man added a further, quiet comment and suddenly they were talking together. Just like that! And they continued to talk in easy, if meaningless, fashion for the rest of the journey into town.

She learned he was from Vietnam and studying Science at university. She was on her way into town to do some errands for her grandmother, including making the monthly payment on her grandfather’s funeral expenses.

“Have you been in Australia long?” she asked.

His English was good, and pleasantly stilted.

“Three years,” he said.

“How did you get here?”

“A boat,” he said. “A terrible terrible boat, almost sinking, too many people, and sharks.”

“Oh, dear!” she cried, not knowing what else to say to a statement like that. Then commented, “I bet you’ve got stories to tell,” at a loss still for a better reply.

“I could tell you stories if you wished,” he answered, with such disarming openness, she said,

“That would be great ... if you don’t mind!”

She hadn’t meant it as a request. But seeing he’d offered … why not? Most of her grandmother’s errands could wait for another day.

The young man was on his way home to the house he shared with four other students, and had no plans for the evening other than cooking dinner for himself. They got off the bus at his stop and went to the Brown Derby Café. An instant date, Liz thought, wondering how she’d swung it.

He was charming. At the café counter he ordered her milkshake for her and a cappuccino for himself, offered to pay but she insisted they go Dutch. They carried their drinks to a small corner booth and sat opposite each other and she got her first direct look at him.

She didn’t have a clue how old he was. He might have been thirty-five or fifteen, there was no telling from his face. It was round and boyish, with paper-tight skin and hard high cheekbones. His eyes showed hardly any whites, having big dark irises like dark stains. Mahogany eyes.

“What would you like to hear?” he asked.

“Whatever you’d like to tell me,” she said, thinking this was a strange kind of date. She’d picked up a handsome young man almost without trying, and now he was going to entertain her. She put her milkshake straw to her lips and sipped.

He rested his arms on the table and said, “Very well.”

His arms, like his face, were ageless, frail and covered with tight copper skin, and marked with fine white lines like cross-hatching. He stirred two spoonfuls of sugar into his coffee and began:

“They beheaded my grandmother in the middle of the town.”

“I beg your pardon?” Liz asked.

He looked up from his spoon and repeated, “They beheaded my grandmother.”

His gaze was direct across the table, yet easy to meet.

“I’m so sorry!” Liz gasped.

“It was because my grandfather had been a judge,” he explained. “We were forced to watch. That is, not forced but if we had not watched they would have known we were family and beheaded us too.”

Liz didn’t know what to say in response to that. Not that he waited for her to commiserate again.

“The Americans left, and the Communists came over the border,” he said. “It was 1972. I was thirteen.”

From that she worked out his age – twenty-two. Sometimes he looked younger – when he grinned. And when he grinned too much and creased his skin into a craze of fine lines, then he looked incredibly weathered and old.

“I lived near the border, here.” From his shirt pocket he took a slender pen, almost as thin as his fingers, and slipped a lecture pad from his brief case, opened it to a blank page and proceeded to draw a map for her. It was a diagram with neat geometric lines for borders and perfect circles for towns, reshaping his country’s geography into a delicate sketch, almost a work of art.

“When the Communists came, we went south: my mother, my sister, my brother and me. Our father had been a soldier. For that also we could be shot. We had to leave everything and flee.”

“Where was your father?” Liz asked.

“Father dead,” he answered.

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

He nodded graciously and went on, leaving the father behind like a bundle on the road.

“We moved many times, many times, until finally – Saigon.” He marked the distance on the map: one thousand five hundred kilometres. “Saigon, very big. No one knew us there, we felt ... safe?” He paused. “No. In Vietnam, never safe. You understand?” he smiled.

She understood everything – except that he smiled so often and at the oddest times. There was nothing haunted about his face or hollow about his eyes. He must have been one of the lucky ones, she thought, who had escaped the horrors you heard of.

“I was in Saigon one month,” he said, “then prison.”

“You? In prison?” she asked.

“Yes! Big criminal!” he laughed, making a face intended to be ferocious but more like the mask of a clown. “It was law,” he said. “From every family the oldest child was sent for re-education. My sister was older but they did not want girls. Vietnam very chauvinist.” He took pride in the sophisticated word. “And my brother also older but when the soldiers came ... knock! knock!” He knocked on the café table, making his story real. “My brother was sick with the ...” he tapped his fine fingers to his fine chest, “bronchial?”

“Bronchitis,” she said.

He thanked her and repeated the word, pleased of the correction. “Bronchitis. But they did not want sick people either.” He imitated his mother’s voice, “‘Come back later,’ my mother told them, ‘when he is better.’”

But the bus was waiting and the soldiers did not want to come back, so they took me. One day with my family, next day gone.

He wrote the date he was taken, and the distance from home to the prison camp – seven hundred kilometres, recording it like history.

“It was called re-education but really it was prison,” he said. “There was no education, only work in the rice fields twelve hours a day.”

As he spoke he moved his hands low about the table, sculpting images with the grace of a Balinese dancer.

“In the camp we lived in a GOSSI.” He spelt the word for her and sketched a rectangular building in precise three-D, its dimensions marked accurately: four meters by ten. “With platforms for sleeping off the ground, here and here.”

His strange, easy manner and pretty drawings puzzled her to the point where she wondered why he was telling her this. Then she realised it was simply because she had asked.

“In each GOSSI supposed to be,” he wrote the number, “two hundred and fifty people. But sometimes, five hundred.”

“Sometimes you must have had to sleep standing up,” she remarked, pleased to have something half light to add to the conversation. That is, if standing all night with hundreds of others could be upbeat or blithe.

Regardless, her observation pleased him. And again she was confronted with that sublime smile that had drawn her down the isle of the bus. That same harmonious expression, just as pleased to sit silently in a bus as tell a story in a café. And such a story.

“Some slept on the ground and some stood,” he said. “Except for times when all were standing and no one sleeping.”

He referred back to his map and drew a small insert diagram on the page.

“The river was here, the camp was here, and the river was tidal. Each month the river would flood, with water rising sometimes to here.” He held his fine hand perfectly horizontal against his chest, at about mid-height.

“Oh dear, it must have stunk,” she said.

“Yes, with so many people together, a very bad smell,” he said. “And some with diarrhea.”

She had meant the smell of the mud, not the people. He didn’t elaborate on that part of his story. He knew what to tell and what to leave out. Perhaps story-telling was an art in his country. He had the voice for it – melodious – as lulling as a song.

“In the camp we worked all day, except for the meetings,” he said. “Every afternoon were the small meetings of twelve people, and at these meetings each person had to say of himself a thing he had done wrong in the day.”

“Could you be punished if you did something wrong?” Liz asked.

“Oh, yes.” He nodded. “Oh, yes.” The nods continued.

“Then why tell?”

“You had to. If you refused, bad trouble for you. It was better to tell.” He nodded again.

“But if you told, you’d be punished!”

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. That was Vietnam. You never knew. And if you tried to keep a bad thing secret, someone else would point to you and tell. At the small meetings, everyone had to point at someone else and say a thing he had seen them do wrong in the day.”

“And if you hadn’t seen anyone do anything?” she asked, automatically trying to solve the problem, even when it had passed.

“You had to watch. All the time watching so you could point. If you could not point ... bad trouble for you.”

“So people had to tell on each other?” she said.


“Spy on each other?”


“That’s ghastly.”


“Everyone kept spying on everyone else!” She found the idea difficult to get passed. “Surely friends banded together and made things up? Small things no one could be punished too badly for?”

His mahogany eyes were expressionless.

“There were no friends,” he said.

She couldn’t accept that.

“But didn’t the kids in the camp help one another?” she asked, aware that these ‘people’ he talked of were actually children – teenagers at best – working in the rice fields surrounded by guards; sleeping in the GOSSI, some standing all through the night; some with diarrhea.

He shook his head and smiled as broadly as his taunt skin allowed. “The groups were changed often, there could be no friends. No talking was allowed, not at night or while working. Never any talking or someone would see and point!” He showed the deadly motion with his fragile finger.

Terrible, terrible. It was a phrase she began to repeat in her mind for him.

“And then there were the other meetings, the big meetings,” he went on with the same melodious ease. “With the whole camp kneeling first on bamboo many hours for the lecture.” He dipped slightly to rub his knee. “Then people were called up and had to point at a person from another group and tell of something they had done wrong.”

“And the person pointed out, what would happen to them?” She knew the answer.

“He would be punished.”

“And if you couldn’t point.”

“You would be punished. All the time watching. Watching,” he motioned with his hands either side of his eyes, “for people doing wrong. You had to.”

Had he ever been called on to point? she wondered.

Just as he knew what not to tell, she quickly acquired a sense of what not to ask.

“That must have been the worst of the camp,” she said. “No one to talk to. No friends.”

“No,” he said, as impassive as ever. “The worst was no food. Never enough food. All the time hungry.” He outlined the size of the rice bowl he was given twice a day by bringing his fingers closer and closer together to approximate its size. “And for punishment,” he parted his hands, “nothing.”

Liz had finished her milkshake but kept hold of the container.

“And are your family still there?” she asked. “Your mother?”


That sounded a positive note to her ears. Not that he had ever sounded negative.

“When you finish your studies and start earning money, will you send for them?”

“No,” he said.

That startled her so much she asked again, “Wouldn’t you bring them over?”

“No,” he said, showing no shame. “Life is different here. The language is different, the culture. They would never get used to it.”

“They could learn. You did.”

Again he answered bluntly but gently, “No,” and began another story which possibly contained the answer. Or part of it.

“My mother one time came to visit me at the camp. She was allowed to visit on Sundays. There was a bus, and she could bring food and clothes and money. There was a special room where visitors sat one side of a table and prisoners on the other, with guards standing and listening. Listening to your talking and watching what you got. You could not say, ‘This is a terrible terrible place.’ You had to say good things about it.”

“It must have been nice to see her,” Liz said, hoping to reconnect him with his family even in spirit. Like her Grandfather’s funeral payments were a precious, if fleeting, connection with him.

The young man nodded, a response that Liz sensed did not mean ‘yes’.

“My mother was allowed to give me money. But only ...” he told her the figure in Vietnamese coins then converted it to, “fifty cents. When visitors left, prisoners were taken to another room next door, and here the guards saw what you had been given and took what they wanted. They would take your clothes and food, but left you your money. Your money they would get when they sold things back to you.

“This time my mother brought a cake. She knew life would be easier for me with more money, so she gave me the fifty cents I was allowed, and also baked into the cake forty cents more. She could not talk of it, but made signs with her hands and her face. You understand how?” Liz understood well. “To tell me the money was in there. Except I could not say, ‘Take the cake away!’ The guards had seen. If she took the cake away, they would know something was wrong and big trouble for us.

“Always the guards looked in cakes for knives and things. I could not tell my mother this.” He spread his hands out, palm upward, empty. “There was nothing I could do. My mother left and I carried the things she had given me to the next room. The guard took a bayonet and cut the cake open ... open ... open.”

On the café’s table top he played out the small ceremony of the bayonet with his hand.

“They found the money and beat me. And in Vietnam when guards beat you, you must scream very loud. You must make noises like you are dying or they keep on beating, beating.” He raised his arms to show the shielding of a head. “Beating, beating and forgetting to stop. But my mother was outside. She would hear me if I screamed and know it was me.”

He did not speak of the choice he’d made. Instead he told Liz of his first escape, when he was taken to the hospital, and the guards at the hospital didn’t know him. He got up one day and simply walked out. And walked home, seven hundred kilometres to Saigon.

“A neighbour saw me and the neighbour knew I should be in prison. My family could not help me.” He neither smiled nor frowned. “They had to send me back.”

“And were you punished?” Liz asked.


There was a gap of a second, which he did not fill.

“I escaped again,” he said, “later. From the same hospital where guards did not know me. This time I did not go home. I lived in a cemetery, under a gravestone, by a bay. I ate prawns. Very expensive here! I ate prawns all the time.”

While he waited for a leaky boat, one with too many people, and sharks. Waited how long, she wondered, and worked at what or stole what to afford that terrible terrible trip?

“How on earth did you survive?” she asked. “All those years without friends? Without family? Hardly any food?”

“I did,” he said. “Others did not.” It was not a thing he questioned.

She asked him would he like another cup of coffee and offered to pay. He accepted, and in return told her one last story.

“Sometimes in the GOSSI the person sleeping next to you would die. People often die,” he said as if telling her something she didn’t know. “The guards would not open the gate till morning. You had to wait. With so many people together and everyone squashed in, no one would move to make room for you. You could not get away from the person who was dead. You had to lie next to them all night.”

He was right, she knew nothing about dying. Her picture of death was clean chatty nurses skivvying around the ward, St Vincent de Paul ladies taking old suits away, and monthly funeral re-payments.

Whereas he’d lain next to death. He knew death first hand, and hence life first hand, and was no longer afraid of it. That’s what she’d spotted from the far end of the bus. And heard in every word of his modulated tale. That’s what was written on every smooth plane of his face. All that life could do, it had done to him, and thus brought him very young to the knowledge that in living all experiences are equal, each one being simply the next thing that happened to you. Like a meeting on a bus, stirring sugar into a cup, or telling a story that you survived to tell.

The young man’s name was Tuan Huan, and in the face of his calm, she felt fearless too.

“Please come home and have dinner with us,” she said. “I’d like my family to meet you.” And he to meet them.

He closed his lecture pad and accepted as he accepted all things.

She paid the funeral director, and as they stepped out into the street, there was their bus lumbering toward its stop. They had to run.

Seated together once more and swaying to the rhythm of the bus, he said quietly aside, “I like in this country that when you run for the bus, nobody shoots you.”

THE END … but please read on.


Peter – YA Novel
A 15 year old dirt bike rider and aspiring photographer, with the usual adolescent hang-ups, spends a brief, unplanned afternoon with his brother’s friend, David. David is 20, tall, good-looking and immaculately dressed – everything Peter is not. And David is gay. A very personal look at a boy’s awakening sexuality.

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