A Journey To Remember
by Thong Ba Le
The United Airlines Boeing 747 began to taxi toward the runway of the San Francisco International Airport. From the left, the morning rays of the sun during the second week of May penetrated the small windows of the huge airplane. One commercial jet after another took off against the light wind blowing softly from the Bay. The fully loaded airplane that carried my in-laws, Doctor and Mrs. H., Minh and I was ready at the end of the runway, waiting for the order from the control tower to take off. On board the plane were passengers of different nationality, but mostly South Korean. All seats in the coach section were occupied. Over the intercom, the captain asked the passengers to fasten their seatbelts and then the loud roar of the four large jet engines of the airplane drowned out the noisy people. Under the power of the jet engines, the huge airplane pushed toward the azure sky above.
I sat near the window, holding the left hand of my wife firmly while the hull vibrated slightly. Then I felt as though an unknown force was lifting me off along with the big airplane. Light white clouds drifted quickly outside, through the wide left wing of the airplane heading for Seoul, South Korea. The plane circled once above the airport then headed out to the Pacific Ocean. I could soon see the shoreline of California below, under the wing, and white capped waves undulating in the blue water. According to the pilot, Capt. Clark, the non-stop flight to Seoul would take about 11 hours and 40 minutes at the altitude of 34,000 feet.
During the trip, the flight attendants would serve two big hot meals and snacks. The menu was available for passengers to choose their preferred dinner, either a steak or chicken. The airline offered a varied selection of wine and provided soft drinks, coffee, milk, and tea continuously at the counters onboard. The beautiful and young flight attendants were courteous and pleasant and made passengers feel very comfortable.
My in-laws, Minh, and I had decided to take this trip to visit our newborn granddaughter, Le Thanh Thuy Linh, the first daughter of our son Le Ba Dung and his wife, Duong Hoang Lan. Both mother and child were doing fine and stayed in the hospital in Seoul, South Korea for one week to recover and would move to their new village on the day we arrived in Seoul.
The sound of music through the headset kept me awake for most of the flight. Dinner was served on plastic trays with dinners that were previously frozen. I was not too hungry, therefore I did not enjoy very much this kind of so called "airplane food." After the dinner, my in-laws and Minh tried to get some sleep beside me. Passengers moved back and forth except when occasionally forbidden by the Captain as the airplane flew through rough pockets of air in the atmosphere. Time went by slowly, I felt uncomfortable in the small seat and tried a sitting position that could help me to relax on this long trip. I had not flown for this long a trip since I came to the United States of America in August 1975. During the last 25 years, 22 of those, I worked almost all the time and did not travel. Three years ago, I decided to take early retirement from my job and devote my time to write. From time to time, Minh and I took trips to visit our son Tri and his family in San Diego, California. Minh also traveled back to Vietnam to visit her 81-year-old mother in Hue on 1996.
The onboard movie started the second show after the Boeing reached the northern route and began to change course to the south-southwest, toward the Korean peninsular. I had not seen the James Bond movie, " The World Is Not Enough," since it was released and shown at my neighborhood theater now kept me awake for another two hours.
The last snack was a Japanese cup of instant noodles. I held the covered foam bowl and wondered how that cup of noodle would be prepared and served. As if reading my thoughts, a flight attendant pushed a cart toward us and poured boiling water into each passenger's bowl of dried noodles. "It was so neat," I said to myself. Hot cups of Japanese noodles served aboard a famous American airline instead of hamburgers or ham & cheese sandwiches. That was not a complaint but rather a compliment because I felt better after enjoying the hot soup and I was sure that other Asian passengers felt the same.
At about 1545 PM local time, the Boeing 747 touched down at the Kimpo International airport in Seoul, South Korea. Passengers got off the airplane, went to the baggage conveyer belt area to pick up their baggage, and then lined up to go through Immigration. The agents looked so cool, checking the paperwork that the passengers had prepared in advance aboard the airplane. Then we went through the Customs gate and to the waiting room where our son was waiting for us.
We were so pleased to see our granddaughter for the first time and hold her in our arms. She was so cute and adorable. The little baby looked like her father, but she had her mother's nose.
The first morning in Seoul was sunny and cool. My in-law, H. and I decided to explore the small shopping quarter in the neighborhood by walking along the streets nearby. I also wanted to stretch myself a little after having slept on the floor Korean style-with a mattress of course. This was the first time I did this since I was in Vietnam.
The air was less humid than in Virginia and made us feel good. The stores on both sides of the two-lane street reminded me very much of Saigon before May 1975. They were tiny; family operated shops, homemade bakery stores, small food markets, and general merchandise places. Automobiles moved hurriedly, drivers blew the horn at the restless ones, so very like the traffic back home.
I did not see any beggars nor homeless people on the streets. Young men in coats and ties or dark suits talked on their cellular phones while they walked. Young girls in dresses or pants and blouses also strolled with the cell phones pressing to their ears. School children were in uniforms that were very neat and colorful.
This was the first image that came to my mind. I liked to observe local people so I could imagine how they lived and to what kind of society they belonged. The standard of living of a country that slowly recovered from the Korean War in 1950-1953 and the economic hardship during post war period was so impressive. It was apparent through the well-grown foods in the fields and by the polite and courteous citizen whom I met during the days after.
During the afternoon, the cool air blew from the direction of the river that flows through the heart of Seoul. The sunshine did not bother the five foreigners looking for a BBQ restaurant. We walked back and forth in a small shopping area next to the Royal Palace where we had just finished a guided tour. We were exhausted after trying to locate the restaurant and we were unable to ask anyone due to not knowing the Korean language. Perhaps he noticed the way we were looking through the windows of restaurants on both sides of the street, a tall Korean who said that he spoke a little English, signaled us to follow him. He pleasantly guided us, stopped by many restaurants, and asked the managers if their stores served BBQ. After about ten minutes of checking and pointing he finally found a nice BBQ restaurant for us, said goodbye and left.
He had gone; a complete stranger that we happened to encounter on a street, but that normal Korean citizen already marked his action and his hospitality on my Web site. He had spoken of the fineness of his country on behalf of his people to me, a Vietnamese-American who was a visitor of The Republic of South Korea. What he did to us that afternoon was much better than the trained, paid tourist guides who tried to show us the special places of their country. Because I would remember that "stranger with his big heart," rather than the picture of the old monuments.
In the days after, Minh and I decided to stay home and take care of our granddaughter while my daughter-in-law and her parents went sightseeing and shopping. I finished my two short stories in English: "The Task Force Sea Tiger" and "The Journey of Destiny" in ten days while enjoying the company of Thuy Linh during break times. She was growing beautifully and had gained over one pound in a short time
We planned to throw a dinner party and invite all friends of Dung and Lan in Seoul. The party, celebrating the birth of our adorable and beautiful granddaughter, was held on the second weekend of our visit. Doctor and Mrs. H. and Minh prepared delicious Vietnamese food. Fifteen guests came to Dung's house to celebrate and enjoy the food. I was so impressive with their company. I confessed to our guests of my admiration of what that I had experienced in the last two weeks of my visit here. The hospitality, the politeness, and the well-organized society of a nation, the high standard of living and the proud people that had the same situation with our country but overpassed ours in all areas.
During the last week of our visit, the grand parents of Thuy Linh took advantage of the visit in Seoul to go shopping and sight seeing with our new Korean friends. The lady who had helped Lan and Thuy Linh from the beginning was also our guide and Dung's chauffeur was also very friendly and helpful to us. We treasured the friendship and the hospitality that they so pleasantly and sincerely gave to us.
Furthermore, I must admit that the way the Koreans ran and managed their businesses surprised me a great deal. As a General manager of a big supermarket for almost 21 years in Washington Metropolitan area, I always believed that service with care and with a human touch was one of the most important factors to succeed in business. In Korea, every store and business provided excellent and courteous service. Their well-managed and clean stores also contained plentiful young uniformed clerks, ready with their pleasant bows and welcoming smiles on their faces to greet customers. While the owners of supermarket in the US limited the number of employees to save labor cost that in turn cut down the service of well deserved customers. Here in every aisle, in every section of the department, there were nice employees waiting to assist their clienteles.
We went to the Hyundai department store in downtown Seoul. At the gate, several young and pretty girls dressed neatly in gray uniforms, directed traffic while bowing at us as our car passed by. The indoor garage was huge and well organized with ten of young men talking on cellular phones and controlling the parking area, ready to assist the customers who drove in and out of the crowded garage.
Sale prices of merchandise were high here as compared to the prices in the US. Imported products such as sunglasses, cosmetics, leather goods, and luggage were more expensive as expected. Minh checked the price of a hat that was similar to the hat she was wearing. To her surprise, it was 100 US dollars more than the hat she bought six months ago at the Macy's Department store in Springfield Mall, Virginia. A large fruit basket was listed at about 120 US dollars and a ten-yellow small fish package cost almost 100 US dollars. We all agreed that we preferred to shop in the United States and kept our money to spend there when we returned home. However, for our eldest daughter Thanh Nhan's upcoming 40th birthday, Minh bought an imported gold necklace for a reasonable price.
After spending a great deal of time and some money in the Korean department store in Seoul, we departed for a well-known mushroom restaurant located in Kimpo City, 30 minutes driving time from downtown Seoul. This small remote town was located in the south and about 40 kilometers from the DMZ. During the drive to the town, our young woman driver told me some aspects about South Korea with which I completely agreed-from the high price of an apartment to the pride of being a South Korean.
We passed the suburb area with rice paddies on both sides of the narrow two-lane road. The peasants were working in the fields like the Vietnamese. Further in, there were poor old houses standing next to the trash dunes under the sunshine. We were aware that this was the other side of any society. However, the Koreans did not show this in the streets of Seoul; I could not tell the difference between poor and rich people while I walked along the roads over here. I did not observed many foreigners either on the subway or on the avenues. The English language was not understood in the stores and US dollars were not excepted for the products.
I felt sad when I compared the current conditions of Vietnam under Communist regime to this country. Vietnam's economy relied on foreigners and people spoke broken English every where. It was completely opposite than what it had been before and was moving in a corrupt and desperate direction. The Koreans seemed to be very distinct from the West and they proudly kept their culture, custom, tradition to their own goodness. I truly admired them for that.
We arrived at the mushroom restaurant in the countryside west of Kimpo International Airport. The service again gained my respect and the food cooked with a variety of mushrooms that I saw in the US Supermarket. It was served fried and boiled on low tables. While sitting on the floor and enjoying the hot and spicy meal, we had the opportunity to look around and outside the wide-open windows. The barbwire fences along the riverbank reminded me of the war in Vietnam.
The guide told me that the South Koreans built the fences to guard Seoul from the infiltration of North Korean Communist soldiers. A tunnel called the "Third Tunnel" was discovered in 1978. The North Korean Communist created this tunnel to prepare for future surprise attacks through the DMZ. Again, the remembrance of the wartime of my life brought sorrows to my heart. I no longer tasted the delicious beef that was frying on the skillet.
That night, I began to type the first line of this memory when everyone in the house was sleeping. The house was as quiet as the emptiness in my soul. This was the first time in the last 25 years that I was in a place so close to my Motherland. It made me think of my past in a lonely night in a strange town. Yes, it was true that it took only over five hours of flying from Seoul to Hue, my dearest hometown, the same length of time for a flight to get to San Francisco from Washing D.C.
The last day in Seoul went by quietly. Minh and I took a walk to the nearby Supermarket to buy Beef and pork to cook "Bun Bo Hue"- Beef Noodle soup, Hue style for Dung who loved it very much. That soup had reminded us of the famous restaurant that served Bun Bo Hue in our hometown, Hue City.
The time finally came for us to say goodbye to Dung, Lan, and Thuy Linh. It was a journey that provided plenty of souvenirs. I remembered what my elementary teacher used to tell me-" You will learn a lot when you travel." It was true this time for me. I had learned many good things from people of Seoul who were so courteous with their hospitality and friendship that I would always treasure. I had seen the progress of a post war nation that could be a model for Vietnam to follow; unfortunately, it did not happen.
I also realized that there was no place like home, even a home that was my second country. I sincerely believed that I like to live in the United States of America and I loved the American who had given me my second life.
I thanked my new Korean friends in Seoul for their friendship. But I was grateful to the Americans for the cozy house in which to live, a good life, and the wonderful opportunities that my children and I had taken advantage of to make life better for us.
Most of all, I thanked the people of the United States of America for the freedom that was like the fresh morning air that we breathed in at the start of every new day.
Eighteen years later
Somewhere - West Side Story - Leonard Bernstein
performed by Thuy-Linh Le who has been accepted to attend Harvey Mudd college (HMC), located in Claremont, California, United States in fall 2018
Virginia, Spring 2018
Thong Ba Le