Finding Muoi

(Click on the photos for a larger image.)

October 2010, Muoi gets a visit from her cousin and sends me a greeting and photos from Vietnam: http://www.karlgaard.net/muoi2010

Journal entry below from a May 9, 2009, trip to see if we could find a little girl from 40 years in the past...

Almost exactly 40 years ago, in May 1969, I was working as a correspondent for the 2nd Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. I spent quite a bit of time at Fire Support Base Jackson, located about 35 miles northwest of Saigon. I would accompany infantry units in the field, taking photos and writing stories for the the Division's weekly newspaper called the Tropic Lightning News.

One day I decided to take photos of a Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP), where the battalion surgeon and several of the medics were going to one of the small villages near FSB Jackson. They would conduct a sick call for the village residents. They treated everything from ringworm to infections and even pulled abscessed teeth.

On this particular day we went to a little hamlet called Loc Binh, and I was taking photos of our medics helping the residents. One of the medics took a photo of me with a 12-year old girl who attended the MEDCAP with her mother. She was a friendly girl with a striking smile, who had certainly lived through hell as we and the South Vietnamese Army fought the Viet Cong and NVA in this area. It was on the main NVA supply route from the Ho Chi Minh trail in nearby Cambodia into the Saigon area.

The photo has been stashed away in my box of Vietnam stuff ever since I returned. I don't know why I decided to take it along this time. I knew just about where the photo was taken. I also had scribbled a name -- Gi -- on the back of the photo and the date it was taken -- May 1969 -- 40 years earlier.

I guess I thought if we got close to the hamlet on this trip, maybe we could ask someone to see if they knew this person. I figured the chances were pretty slim, given the 40-year gap and all the disruption caused by the war. The hamlet is only a few miles from where Nick Ut took the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the naked little girl running down the road after being accidentally hit by a napalm strike. That image was burned into my mind as we looked for my little friend from 40 years ago. (Nick Ut's story & photos: http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0008/ng2.htm; more information on Phan Thị Kim Phúchttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phan_Th%E1%BB%8B_Kim_Ph%C3%BAc)

We visited a couple of other sites this morning in the Cu Chi area, about 25 miles northwest of Saigon. After a quick lunch, we headed for Trang Bang, Go Dau Ha, and finally Loc Binh. The road went from paved four lanes to paved two lanes to paved one lane to red clay just about the time we reached Loc Binh. And it started raining. Monsoon raining. Buckets of water. Six inches deep in a low spot in the road in minutes. A gully-washer, as we used to call them in North Dakota.

We drove to the GPS coordinates I had, and looked around for an older person to ask about the little girl. The first person we talked to seemed to know something about Gi, but thought she was dead. He didn't recognize her from my photo and told us to drive down a wet, greasy clay road and ask again. The rain had slacked off, but our van was sliding all over the road. We eventually slipped just off the edge, so Thi, Larry, Thane and I got out to push. We managed to get the van moved out of the soft area and drove another few hundred yards to ask again. Again we got the news that Gi had died some time ago, but to ask again at another home. The road at the left isn't exactly one we were on, but it's close to the way it looked.

This time we talked with a woman who seemed to recognize the photo. She and Thi, our guide, talked for several minutes while we waited. Once again we were told to check farther down the road. We came to a house where a young man looked at the photo but again didn't recognize the girl. He seemed to think that Gi was his wife's grandmother, who had died some time ago. But he agreed to use his cell phone to call his mother-in-law to see if she recognized the photo. Apparently she was in another part of the hamlet.

We waited a few minutes, but there was no sign of the woman. I left a small print of the photo and Thi exchanged cell phone numbers with the young man. He promised to call us if anyone could figure out the mystery. We climbed back into the van, bringing along several pounds of red clay mud on our shoes.

We hadn't gone very far down the road when Thi's cell phone rang. The woman had just returned to the house, and told Thi that she was the woman in the photo. It turned out that Gi was her mother, and her name is Muoi. I have no idea why I wrote down the wrong name 40 years ago.

I felt like I'd been on a roller coaster. She's dead. She may be living down the road. No, she died years ago. Yes, it's her!

We carefully returned down the muddy road to her house. I recognized her smile the minute I saw her. She ran to me and gave me a hug, and we were both completely overwhelmed. We spent several minutes just trying to absorb it all.

Thi helped translate, and we talked about things since 1969. She told me she has two daughters and a son, and has lived in the area ever since 1969. I gave her a photo of my family, and it was like the 40 years between our visits was gone. She was very interested in learning about the Karlgaards.

It was an emotional time for both of us. I had always wondered if she survived the war, and the famine that followed. It was such a relief to find out that she made it, and managed to raise a family as well. We didn't get an opportunity to talk much, but I hope to exchange letters and learn more about her family.

As we were leaving, I made a comment that I should buy a lottery ticket. I had been so lucky today that I would certainly win. Thi said, "You just did."

 Another meeting...

A day or two later, Muoi called our guide and asked if we could get together again before we left Vietnam. Since we were going to be traveling through Trang Bang in a couple of days, we agreed to meet at a restaurant there.

This time we got to meet her two daughters, son-in-law, and four-year-old grandson, who is almost exactly the same age as our granddaughter. She told us that her husband and son work in construction and couldn't join us.

 She told us that we were the first Americans to visit her village since he early 1970s. As the war was coming to an end, it was a tough and scary time for her and her family. They moved many times as the fighting swirled around their village.

She said she is now famous in Loc Binh because I brought the 40-year-old photo and found her. I told her she is famous in America as well, because of the Internet. I think she was still pretty amazed about it all, and I am as well. I'm sure there was some apprehension on her part to have these foreigners poking around after all these years. This photo shows Muoi and her two daughters and the husband and son of one of the daughters. Her grandson is almost exactly the same age as our oldest granddaughter.