During that period, my mother came regularly to Hung Nhon canton, where many new war refugees made their temporary shelter. She brought medicines to them. The most common disease was scabies, due to the lack of hygienic living conditions. She gave medicine to the patients; for the ones who were gravely sick she used warm water and a purple disinfecting solution to wash infected areas, and a clean cloth to dry these areas. Then she sprinkled medicinal powder over the area and covered it with bandages. It took only a few days for the infected areas to be healed. The light itches on the skin were easier to treat, using only balm. My mother was very happy to do such job.
On the side of Grandma Co's house there was an extra penthouse, which was like a leaf-covered porch with a few benches reserved for leisure moments. My mother called in the beggars to stay there; some were blind, some had scabies, others were handicapped, mute or deaf, lame or crippled. She did her best to help them. However, her ability was limited, and more and more of those poor people kept coming. The shelter was not big enough for them, and they did not pay attention to common cleanliness, defecating all over the place. Mrs. Sau Nhan announced that the place was too small for lots of people, and that as refugees ourselves we were unable to take care of them. Finally, my mother was constrained to tell these poor people to go away.
My mother also tells me about wedding customs in the countryside. The bridegroom's family came to greet the bride on small motor-boats. They had to arrive exactly on time. According to Vietnamese customs, if they came before the auspicious time, they must find some other place to land their boats, since the bride's family would not welcome them. They believed that if the time was wrong, this would bring bad luck to the bride and other girls in the house who would not be able to get married in the future. Therefore, the bridegroom's family should run their boats around the river, waiting for the right time; then the bride's family would let them land their boats and come in their house. The marriage ceremony was a very happy celebration, since all the neighbors, adults as well as children, came out and stood around to watch the ceremonies, sharing the joy with the married couple and their families. Almost all the people in the village would participate in the reception.
In those days a rural wedding was very simple. While the elders wore traditional long dresses and turbans, the young people might wear anything they had, so long as they were clean, serious, and polite.
I still remember that during that time many young villagers wore pajamas to attend weddings or ancestors' anniversary banquets. They ironed the outfits carefully to make all the folding lines very straight to look new and nice for special occasions. It was not easy to iron clothes, since they used the coal-iron, which required them to burn hot coals and put them inside the heavy black iron. When the iron became cool, they had to open the cover to fan the coals or to put in new hot coals.
Sometimes my parents also attended other people’s ancestors' anniversary banquets. As female guests, my mother and most of other women would come into the kitchen to help the hosts prepare food. They plucked chickens or ducks, cleansed fish, or washed vegetable to cook meals for the offerings. After performing the ancestors' offering rites, the hosts invited guests and family members to consume the food which had previously been offered to the ancestors. The guests were not supposed to bring anything, but if they wished they could offer some meals or fruits to the hosts' ancestors, and these were of course welcomed.
When it was time to take meals, the men sat on chairs around the tables, while the women sat hunched up around food trays placing over the plank-beds.
All the Hoa Hao families observed the same popular customs at mealtime. Before eating, everyone placed their chopsticks across their rice bowls, then joined hands to pray in a low voice, saluted three times, and started taking the food. After eating, they placed their chopsticks once again across their bowls, and then they saluted three times before standing up.
My mother explains that this gesture was to express filial piety to the nine generations and seven ancestors, the deceased grandparents and parents. This custom originated from the doctrine of Four Great Debts of Gratitude, as expounded by the Prophet: “We have the benefit of this land and this grass thanks to the gratitude of the country. We have this rice and this cloth thanks to the gratitude of the people and humanity.”
When the thought came to my mind, I asked my father about the meaning of the piece of brown cloth that the Hoa Hao Buddhists placed over their Altars. My father explained:
“The brown color is the combination of all other colors. Thus it symbolizes human harmony, without discrimination against races or individuals. Therefore, we worship it as a symbol of supreme Buddhist spirit.”
The activities in Hoa Hao village, according to my mother, were flourishing, with markets, hospitals, schools, pagodas, mills, boats, and vehicles of all kinds, but it was peaceful rather than tumultuous, without the disorder and hurry that brought pressure and chaos to the minds of people in the cities.