Jessica here with an update from Vietnam.
The past few days have been among the strangest, most challenging and most wonderful of my entire life. There is no way I could even begin to do them justice in this blog post. All I can do is bring you a basic outline of what has transpired over the past few days and promise you that soon after I return home we will begin work on a documentary to bring you this amazing story.
Click "Read More" below for the story and pictures.
I came to Vietnam on May 20th with Homer R. Steedly, Jr. He was returning to Vietnam for the first time since he served here almost 40 years ago. His mission was to meet the family of Hoang Ngoc Dam, a North Vietnamese soldier and medic he had met on a jungle trail, shot and killed in 1969. He had promised not only to travel and meet the family, but to journey with them into south Vietnam to recover Dam’s bones, and then to return with the family to their small village for the funeral. He hoped that this trip would offer the family some closure for their tragic loss, and also help him in his recovery from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a recovery he began several years ago with the help of his wife, Tibby. The story of how Homer got in touch with the family of Hoang Ngoc Dam was the subject of a CEM produced documentary called Wandering Souls. You can listen to it by clicking here.
But now let us move to the story and photographs of what has transpired over the past few days.
We departed from Hanoi by van early on Saturday the 24th. Our destination was the village of Thai Giang in the province of Thai Binh. The village is about three hours south of Hanoi but a million light years away. It is a rural place, home to only a few thousand people. The road into Thai Giang is bumpy and lets you know that you are officially off the beaten path. When we pulled into the village, we were met by the youngest brother in the Hoang Family, Hoang Dang Cat. He shook every one’s hands and whisked Homer and Wayne at once into the People’s Committee House, where they were asked to provide the passport numbers and full name of everyone who was traveling in our party.
The People’s Committee House
People’s Committee House
After a few minutes, they returned and we all got into the car and went to the Hoang family home.
We heard the wailing as we walked up the alley to the home, and the sound increased as we entered the courtyard of the home. Homer was carrying a tray laden with fruit and other offerings for the altar. He walked into the home with wailing women on either side of him. We were all given incense to place on the altar. The room was hot, with fans pushing the air around. The wailing intensified as we approached the altar. We each paused before the altar with the incense in our hands and bowed our heads in Dam’s memory, and then we placed the incense in the holder. The smell filled the air. The wailing continued.
Homer in the courtyard holding the offering
Relatives of Hoang Ngoc Dam weeping as Homer approaches the altar.
At some point we were ushered back into the courtyard. While we were outside, quite stunned by the heat and the emotion, one of the Hoang sisters, Thi Dam, began to experience what was described to us as a possession by her late brothers spirit. Stamping her feet and speaking words that the Vietnamese speakers among our party did not recognize, her behavior heightened the tension. She was surrounded by her family members who attempted to find out what was going on. Finally, her family brought the message to us that Dam, speaking through her, had instructed us to bring him home and then "everything will be okay." We were moved back into the house and offered chairs. We introduced ourselves to the family and they introduced themselves to us. A huge feast was served and we all sat on the floor and shared the meal. After we ate, the dishes were cleared and we began to discuss the schedule for the next few days. It became apparent quickly that there had been some miscommunication between the family and us. They had settled on a schedule that was one day longer than what we had expected. We relented, because there was no other option but to relinquish control and follow their lead.
At 3:30, we set out with sister Hoang Thi Tuoi, brothers Hoang Dang Cat and Hoang Huy Loang, and brother-in-law Hoang Minh Dieu.
What to expect? How could we know? Emotions and tensions had run high the entire time we were at the family home. When the sister Thi Dam began to shout and stamp her feet, I think several of us felt fear that the entire situation was about to spin out of control. But as soon as the four family members got into the vehicle with us, they were gracious, friendly and curious about us. Their good nature continued as we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with them at a hotel in nearby Nam Dinh while we waited for our train. There were many toasts, questions, and smiles.
We boarded the train at around 8:00 pm and arrived in Vinh around 1:00 am. We made our way quickly to the hotel and to bed. It had been quite the day and tomorrow would be just as packed.
We awoke in Vinh and met for breakfast. The family was in good cheer again, shaking our hands whenever they saw us and happily attempting to pronounce our names. We set off without them to visit the home of Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Thi Tien. Tien is retired now, but she spent several years running the effort to find and identify the remains of the more than 300,000 Vietnamese who are still MIA from the American War. She designed and built a memorial and museum to that cause in Vinh, and she took us to that museum, where we were met by the Hoang family.
From left: Lt. Col. Tien, Hoang Huy Loang, Hoang Dang Cat, Hoang Thi Tuoi, and Hoang Minh Dieu at the MIA museum in Vinh.
You can read an article about Lieutenant Colonel Tien here.
Quite unexpectedly, at the home of Lt. Col. Tien we were introduced to this gentleman, the truck driver whose drivers license had inexplicably been on Dam’s person at the time of his death. Though in his 70’s and suffering from a bad knee, he had driven 40 kilometers on his motor scooter to meet Homer and the Hoang family.
After saying goodbye to Tien, we went to the hotel to test. At 6:30 that evening, we caught the overnight train to Quy Nhon.
We got off the train in Quy Nhon at 10:30. We had to move
quickly because, by our estimation, we had a 6 hour drive to the grave
site. The Hoang family had to arrange the release of Dam’s remains and
the remains had to be exhumed that evening. The family went in a
separate car from us in order to be able to take care of those
arrangements while we traveled to Pleiku to find our hotel room for the
evening. It was a three and a half hour drive from Quy Nhon to Pleiku,
through some truly beautiful country including the exquisite Mang Yang
Pass. We arrived in Pleiku and found a hotel. We got back in the car
and had been driving for about five minutes when the phone rang. It was
the family calling. The process to secure permission to exhume Dam’s
remains was taking much longer than they had anticipated. They didn’t
think it would be done until much later that evening. We will stay here
this evening, they said, you go to the hotel and come meet us here
tomorrow to light incense sticks for Dam, then we will go back
together. We returned to the hotel and hoped things would go more
There is so much more, but it is very late here and I must get some sleep. I will update you on the final days of our journey to return the remains of Hoang Ngoc Dam to his village as soon as I can.