Da Ban stream, Phu Quoc, South Vietnam

The water wasn’t flowing heavily but it was a pleasant quiet walk first in the cool shaded forest and then along the stream.  The name Đá Bàn – table rocks – is indeed very fitting. There were only a couple of groups eating and drinking near the beginning of the trail. Further up, I passed by two older couples bathing in the water. A younger Vietnamese guy that looked like their tour guide was prepping fruits by the side. A nice spot but I kept going looking for more seclusion. I climbed all the way up to where there were no more chutes but just a soothing stream. A small trail poked out from the side and I went exploring. A few forks off here and there, but nothing too exciting so I turned back. As I exited the trail back to the stream again, I saw a guy stand about looking left and right. Turned out that he was the guide I’d passed by earlier. He explained that the women got worried seeing that I was by myself so they insisted that he go check on me.

On the way back, the guide told me that these 2 couples are Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) from France. None of them looked Vietnamese. In fact the 2 men looked 100% foreigners: one is olive-skinned with deep eyes, slim long nose, and thin lips; the other one is fair skinned, blue eyes, blond hair. I naturally assumed that the two women were Vietnamese who got married to French men and settled in France. Once we reached the spot, the olive-skinned man started talking to me first, in perfect Vietnamese and with the unmistakably Saigon accent. I was intrigued but didn’t want to compliment him on his Vietnamese, as I am myself so fed up with people remarking on my English. He asked me about my solitary walk and then invited me to join the group at the mini-waterfall. There, I was trying to find the perfect seat to enjoy the massaging punches of the water when the white man pointed to a spot and said: “Here, you can sit here. It’s flat.” Again, in perfect Vietnamese, in perfect Saigon accent. I almost turned to talk with him to hear him more. His Vietnamese is that of someone who grew up speaking the language, not one who learned it later in life (no matter for how many years).

It didn’t take long to clear the question off my mind. They all love talking and are hilarious, throwing jokes back and forth with each other. Typical French bavarder, with a Vietnamese twist of course. (“Oh her name is MarieThérèse, but Vietnamese can’t pronounce that, so they call her Mari Té-re,” Raymond the white man introduced his older sister. His sister calls him Mond for short, as in Mông đít, specifying the brother-in-law.)

They were all born in Vietnam to Vietnamese mothers and foreign fathers (3 French and 1 Indian) and left, or were forced to leave, in 1975 as they held French nationality. They now live in 13e arrondissement in Paris, where apparently there are quite a few mixed Vietnamese. Here in Vietnam, they like to emphasize that they’re Vietnamese. And judging by language only, they are indeed perfectly so. I wonder if they feel 100% French when they’re back home in Paris.

Before meeting them, I’d wondered for a long time why I didn’t see more mixed children from the French colonization. If you go out to villages around Sapa in the northeast, you see plenty of blue-eyed, blond hair kids. Their tourist fathers came and left their seeds with ethnic girls. The Americans were here for 2 decades. Kids from their affairs with native women were numerous enough that the US had to orchestra Operation Babylift and then later enact the Homecoming Act. And the French? They were here for more than 100 years; many families stayed for generations; yet I knew nothing about the mixed French-Vietnamese.  Now, you still spot people here and there with a trace of French genes: slim nose, almond-colored hair, hairy chest, but it’s often a painful story of rape, sometimes accompanied by shame, and never with a link to the French side of the family.

I should have easily guessed that more legitimate families and children all left, like the 100% Vietnamese with French connections, like the Amerasians. It’s just interesting that I don’t hear about them, neither their situations back in the day, nor their current life. đi một ngày đàng học một sàng khôn – the more you travel, the more you learn.