( about 1953)
Sometimes when I am dozing off, with a feeling like floating over the surface of a river, my soul becomes so gentle and peaceful. This is the moment I remember the tender childhood spent with my loved ones in Hoa Hao Village.
I loved to accompany my mother on her trips to Long Xuyen to visit Great-aunt Muoi. Great-aunt Muoi was the youngest sister of my maternal grandFather. She had great eyes with an austere air that turned me coy and fearful every time I stood in front of her with my arms crossed and bowed to her. She had a straight nose. Her mouth was big, but when she laughed she looked great, with good teeth and a gold-covered tooth at the corner. Her hair was carefully styled, all straightened at the front, and coiled in the back into a chignon that looked like a big black snail. She combed her hair with a small tortoise shell comb. She was of average height, with good poise and a demure attitude.
Great-aunt Muoi was nice to me, of course, but the best thing I liked about the trip was the opportunity to stay on her houseboat. By that time, the situation was chaotic, and many people had had to move away from their homes for safety. Great-aunt Muoi was one of them; she fled her own village on a sampan, and had been living on it, floating on many rivers and alongside many docks. Her sampan was a large and well-organized boat. Besides the regular roofing, it had extra steel coverings in the front and the back. To get into the sampan from the dock we would step over a small wooden bridge. I held my mother's hand firmly and followed her footsteps. Her other hand leaned on a pole planted alongside the bridge to make a flimsy handle. My mother walked very carefully so that I would not fall into the river. I was only about five or six years old by then. We left our sandals on the front of the boat, before creeping under the low roof. Great-aunt Muoi sat with her legs crossed in a mystical way and talked to us. She did not move much; when it was hot, she fanned herself lightly; when she felt tired, she lay down on the pillows. Sometimes my mother also lay down next to her to chat. I lay down too, or sat over the front of the sampan to watch the activities on the river.
The sampan of Great-aunt Muoi was always well-kept and neat. Everything from the wooden wall to the wooden floor was shiny. The front part, covered by a big steel screen, was used as a living room. It was so cool and it was so nice to sit there; the feeling of floating over the water was terrific; the sight of the immense silver water with many boats coming and going incessantly was so interesting. Sometimes I could also sleep on this amazing sampan. The main living area was under a roof covering the middle part of the boat, where all belongings were kept. In the evening, Great-aunt Muoi closed the front and back doors before going to sleep. She could also cook and take her meals in the small kitchen at the covered back of the boat. At the rear of the boat she hung a few cords to dry her washed clothes. Next to the steering wheel was a tiny covered bathroom. Beside the kitchen was a lower floor close to the water surface, where she could sit to wash her food or her clothing or get water from the river to use.