This coming of age tale begins with the birth of the author, Nguyen Thi Loan, in a village sixty miles from Hanoi in 1947. Her trials, tribulations, and rare triumphs straddle the French and American wars in Vietnam. She vividly describes them in Red Blood, Yellow Skin, A Young Girl’s Survival in War-Torn Vietnam by Linda L.T. Baer (formerly Nguyen Thi Loan) (River Grove Books, 330 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle).
A cast of characters worthy of a Charles Dickens novel runs through this story of Loan’s extended family, both the loved and the hated. Loan was often left to provide for herself and her siblings, encountering and sometimes eating crabs, water bugs, scorpions, buffalo leaches, snakes, and tigers, as well as being caught in crossfires and bombings. Loan’s father was killed in the French war, leading to her dependence on uncles, neighbors, strangers, corrupt officials, an abusive dtepfather, and deceitful cousins.
Chapter titles such as “Mountain Of Broken Glass” and “Saigon Tea” signify milestones during Loan’s tumultuous childhood. A close friend is killed in “Tiger’s Paw.” “Concrete Pillow” refers to Loan being homeless in Saigon.
The family moved often in search of safer villages and for opportunities for the author’s stepfather’s medical practice. He was very strict with little patience. Loan was often whipped and once even buried in a hole for allowing a baby to fall out of a hammock. She was rescued by neighbors. “Everyone saw the way my stepfather mistreated me, but there were no rules or laws against spousal or child abuse at that time.”
Loan and family joined some 900, 000 other refugees from Northern Vietnam relocating to the south in 1954 after the country was divided. Operation “Passage to Freedom” took Loan and family to Saigon from Haiphong aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Thirty-eight babies were born on the voyage, including Loan’s step-sister Nho. The family settled in Long Phuoc. It was there that 13-year-old Loan decided to go out on her own since her family was too poor to care for her.
“I’m going to Saigon to look for a job,” she writes. “Don’t worry, I’m thirteen years old, and I can take care of myself.”
Arriving in Saigon with no money, no job, and one bag of clothes, Loan thought: “I’ve reached my destination. Now what am I going to do? I left home because of the treatment I received there and I quit a job because I had been taken advantage of. I made up my mind that things had to be different.”
The sixteen year old made this declaration in 1963. She soon met 28-year-old Lynn and finally Loan’s life appeared to be on a sustainable path. She and Lynn lived on Le Loi St., a familiar street to many Americans who served in Vietnam. The two women operated a successful bar and dance club until Lynn’s child was killed and the club was sold.
Loan’s determination to succeed, along with her stepfather’s transformation, provide welcome respite from her calamitous childhood. Her mother and stepfather moved to Vung Tau, about 50 miles from Saigon.
In the chapter “Cicada Shell” she is eighteen years old and five months pregnant and approaching this gripping memoir’s finale. The chapters titled “Garden Of Love” and “Dancing Rainbow” reveal how Loan’s long-suffering saga concludes. I look forward to the release of the sequel.