Historical Fiction Romance East Asian

One summer afternoon, I took a stroll along Lake Michigan. The path where I walked was behind the Milwaukee Art Museum, the icon of the biggest city in Wisconsin. It had a unique shape which looked like a sailing ship. It was 5 p.m. when the sail was almost folded down. I walked and watched the scenery around. Covering all was the magnificent landscape, in which a person felt humbler and smaller like a helpless leaf in a vast forest. Lake Michigan was as immense as the sea, where you were not able to see the other side but the faraway horizon. I used to walk along Lake Michigan in Chicago and the feeling for the spectacle scenery of the lake was the same. I wondered from my location, Milwaukee, which city on the other side was. I watched the seagull spreading his wings gliding on the sky, wishing I were a bird flying to the blue sky, through the floating clouds and to the other side of the lake. Turning back, I found myself in front of the vast green lawn in Veterans Park. Standing in the midst of the lawn, tall trees suddenly felt like dwarf mushrooms. Faraway, high buildings desperately attempted to rise above the trees which separated the park from the noisy civilized world out there. In this strange world, everything became slow and lazy. White clouds of various shapes slowly drifted as if they were in a race in which the slowest one would be the winner. Faraway, a big ship almost stayed still on the lake. The gulls did not bother to flap their wings, just glided on the air. Humans are not the exception in this unreal world. A fat man was lying sunbathing on a table. A couple was lying on the lawn kissing so passionately that even a pouring rain seemed not to be able to interrupt the endless kiss. Two middle-aged men were lying and cycling relaxedly on funny recumbent bikes. A Mexican couple sat on two camping chairs, which could be folded, watching Lake Michigan and holding hands together while their children were playing with kites. The scenery made me feel like I was lost in a fairy land, an unreal place which made me forget all the sorrows of life. In that world, there were no joy or sadness, all were engulfed in vague happiness and peacefulness…   

I had been absorbed in my thoughts until I found myself standing in front of three high marble pillars. I asked an old man standing nearby:

“Excuse me, what is the meaning of it?”   

“Oh, you don’t really know,” he answered. “This is the memorial for Vietnam Veterans in Wisconsin. By the way, you’re Vietnamese, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am. You’re great, other Americans often suppose I’m Chinese.”

“Oh, because I was in Vietnam for a long time, from 1965 to 1975. At first, I was a soldier, then a reporter. Were you born in the United States?”

“No, I’ve just been here for two years for college”

“Ah, I’m James O’Brien, call me James. Nice to see you”

“I’m Kien. Nice to meet you.”

“Oh, your name means diligence, doesn’t it?”

“Wow, you’re awesome”

“So, I still remember a bit Vietnamese”, James laughed.

The way he talked made me feel comfortable. When he said that he used to fight in Vietnam, a terrible thought swept through my mind: he had killed my fellow citizens. Yet his friendliness quickly dispelled that feeling.  

James pointed to the ground.

“Look!” he said. “Each of these bricks was engraved with a combatant’s name and his position, unit and service period in Vietnam.”

I looked at the bricks. An inexplicable feeling came to me as I saw the names: Bob Janicek, Raymond Parry, Michael Cieszki…

“This is my brick”, he showed me.

“James O’Brien



“And this is my close friend,” he pointed at another brick.

“Thomas Nelson



I was suspicious when I saw his period of service and James confirmed my suspicion.

“He died in an operation called “Harvest moon” in Que Son Valley where we were ambushed. I was by his side when he drew his last breath. It's a horrible memory that I can’t forget.”

He suddenly turned to be emotional and his eyes were wet with tears.

“Tom and I had been through many things together. We shared a lot of memories. We marched in tropical forests in endless pouring rain, sat side by side in the helicopter watching immense green forests, chatted on idle afternoons, and sometimes went to the city hanging out with beautiful Vietnamese girls. Tom was so handsome and smooth-spoken that a lot of girls liked him, and as I was his fellow, they liked me too. Tom often told me that when he returned to US, with the money he earned for his military service, he would buy a Mustang. But in the end, he returned to the US… in a coffin covered by the national flag. That’s awful as his death was right before Christmas. His parents had a terrible Christmas as their son had died before everything began… I’m sorry for telling such a sad story. Do you mind?”

“Not at all. I really enjoyed your story. So why did you take part in that war?”

“There are some reasons. First, our country called and we responded. At that time, a man went to Vietnam was considered a brave person. Plus, President Kennedy’s words had inspired me: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. Second, I imagined I would return home with sparkling medals and admiration of people like the soldiers in the second World War. But things turned out to be different. Vietnam Veterans was discriminated then. People considered us murderers who killed civilians. I rarely revealed that I had taken part in the war. Had I listened to my mother, my life would’ve been very different. She was upset when I didn’t go to college but enlisted in the military. She cried a lot as she was scared that one day she would receive a death notification of her son. But nothing could stop me. You know, I was an 18-year-old perverse teenager then.”  

“Do you regret that decision?” I asked him.

“No, I’ve never regretted any decision I made, especially that one,”he said. “Had I not come to Vietnam, I wouldn’t have met Tom, known your beautiful country, and most important, found the love of my life. It’s a long story.”

The old man trembled and gazed at Lake Michigan. We walked closer to the lake as he started to tell me his love story.

“After Tom’s gone, I endured a hard time. It’s the first time I saw a man dying, and worse, he was my close friend. Before going to Vietnam, I supposed death in combat would be something heroic. But since that battle, I really felt the fear of death and my only desire was to survive and return home. And gradually when I realized the meaninglessness of this war, that desire became more intense. I had been drowned in sorrow until the day I met Huong. After a few months fighting fiercely on the front line, my Lima company was drawn to Da Nang air base to rest. On off-duty days, we were allowed to go to the city. One day, my platoon mates took me to a bar called Blue Ocean where I met Huong. I told her that I was so sad after losing my close friend and she comforted me. She had a gentle voice which made me seem not to hear loud noise around. And when seeing her eyes, I felt the same feeling as I was standing in front of Lake Michigan: being overwhelmed. In that moment, I knew that I fell in love. Returning to the base, I could not stop thinking about her. Afterwards, I went to Blue Ocean whenever possible just to see her. Whenever I saw her laughing with other guys, I got mad. But afterwards, when she just looked at me, talked to me, I would forget everything and only feel happy. After some times refusing my invitation to hang out, she finally agreed.

On our first date, we strolled along Hung Vuong road, watching the scenery and talked about our families, hometowns, dreams, and other things. It seemed that I could tell her everything, even my little secrets. She was the only one who could touch the deepest part of my soul. I realized that I would never meet anyone like her in my lifetime. So, I decided to make her mine. I held her hand and said “I love you” in both English and Vietnamese. She was surprised and speechless. Then I kissed her. She seemed to be happy but then suddenly stopped. She was scared and told me that she couldn’t love me. I seemed to fall from heaven to earth. I was confused and asked her why. She told me that her family would not allow her to love me, moreover, people would say that she loved me because of my dollars. I was disappointed but still hoped that she would change her mind. However, everything changed when a terrible event happened. We discovered that Blue Ocean bar was only the cover of a Viet Cong spy nest. Those bar girls collected information from our soldiers and officers. A sergeant was even kidnapped and became the prisoner of war. I felt painful and hated Huong as if she had betrayed me. I wondered if everything between us was totally fake and if she just talked to me to collect intelligence information. Huong had escaped. I thought I would never see her and quickly forget her, but her silhouette was always in my heart. I loved her and hated her at the same time. Then, I was wounded in a battle, which gave me a ticket to return home with a “Silver star” and a “Purple heart” medal. Coming back to the United States, I still missed Vietnam and wanted to return there. Finally, in 1969, I came back to Vietnam as a press reporter. This time, I stayed in Saigon, Paris of the East. As a reporter, I could meet and talk with many more Vietnamese than before. The more I witnessed the brutal fights, the more I felt sorry for Vietnamese and Americans who had bled. Once I met a woman, whose son had gone North to join the North Vietnamese Army in 1954 and another son drafted to the South Vietnamese Army. She was always haunted that one day, one of her sons would kill his brother in the battlefield.

As time went by, work invaded my mind, but before sleeping, I always thought of Huong. Sometimes walking on Saigon streets and seeing a woman who had a similar shape, my heart beat faster but then I would be disappointed as I realized it wasn’t her. One day, I met a Senator of South Vietnam Parliament. He introduced me to his wife, Mrs. Le Van. When seeing me, she was pale. Mrs. Le Van, the wife of the Senator, and Miss Huong who had worked at Blue Ocean bar before seemed to be the same person. I tried to hide my surprise and said:       

“You look familiar. Have we met before?”

“No, I don’t think so,” she replied.

But I’m sure she was Huong even though she had changed her appearance as I still recognized her gentle voice and beautiful eyes. Seeing her, I had mixed feelings. Glad as I saw her again, but also upset as she had married and angry as she had betrayed my love for her. After that day, I could not stop my desire of seeing Huong again. So, I tried to find ways to approach her husband. I provided him some valuable information in return for his sympathy. But Huong always avoided meeting me. Whenever I met her, she would appear with her husband. I wasn’t discouraged and finally, my opportunity had come when she and her husband came to a big ball. There were a lot of important people: Prime minister Khiem, US ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, generals and statesmen of both Houses. I only paid attention to Huong however. At the ball, I asked for her husband’s permission to dance the waltz with her. He accepted my proposal. So, after five years, I held her hands and was so close to her again. I still remember the fragrance of her perfume that day. I stared into her eyes. I loved her but still remembered the pain she had caused me. So I asked her sarcastically:

“How many names do you have actually?”

“I won’t hide the truth anymore, James.” she said “My real name is Mai. Have you been satisfied? Why can’t you let me live peacefully?”

“Why? Because you broke my heart. I loved you. I thought you really wanted to be my friend but it turned out you just took advantage of me.”

“So, what do you want now? Revenge? Then do it, tell CIA or the secret police of Saigon to arrest me.”

“No, that ain’t what I’ll do. I will keep it a secret. I just want to talk to you, a real conversation”

“Then…okay, I accept it,” her eyes were gentle again. “I’ll let you know when we can meet later”

The waltz ended. I regretfully bid farewell to her. Her words made my hatred suddenly vanished: 

“James, I still remember the day I hang out with you. I was really happy”

If she lied, it’s the sweetest lie I’ve ever heard. A week later, we saw each other again when we pretended to coincidentally meet in a tea room to listen to Khanh Ly, a popular singer at that time. Mai asked me if I understood the meaning of the song the singer was singing. It was an anti-war song of Trinh Cong Son. I forgot its title but still remember Trinh use a metaphor that a mother was hurt as her two sons fought each other to imply the situation of your country. We stayed there for a while, then I invited her to my apartment. There, she told me that she worked for National Liberation Front (NLF) and that she could sacrifice everything for the reunification of her country. Her marriage also resulted not from love but from her mission.  

“How about me, do you love me?”, I said emotionally.

“Yes, I love you, James”, she said.

“How can I believe you?”

She didn’t answer but give me a passionate kiss. We made love that night. It was the happiest day in my life. Since then, we secretly dated occasionally. Our affair was somewhat dangerous to her. Her superior officer was not satisfied with our relationship but she explained to him that I was a valuable source of information. We enjoyed a fragile happiness for half a year. Afterwards, CIA began to doubt that she was a spy. I knew that through a friend in CIA. All other people of her network were arrested. CIA hadn’t had enough evidence that she was Viet Cong but when they asked her where she’d gone and who she’d met on the day she gave the secret report to her organization, she couldn’t answer. The situation was urgent and I had to take risks. I told CIA that she had been with me, that we loved each other but she got married so we had to secretly date, that if people knew the affair her life would be hell so she couldn’t answer. Thank God, they believed me. They thought a patriot like me, who had spent two years in the forest hunting the Communists, would have no reason to cover up a Viet Cong. So, she didn’t have to go to jail but couldn’t continue her work, and her husband didn’t allow me to get close to her anymore. She was locked up in the house and didn’t intend to escape as she thought it was her fault to cheat on her husband and it was the price she deserved to pay. We were separated again for a long time. Then, on April 30th 1975, Saigon fell and the Communists reunified Vietnam. Her husband fled to the U.S. while she still stayed in her country with me. We had a happy time together, ignoring that the earth was shaking out there. But happiness seems never last long. Once again, we were separated as most foreigners were forced out of Vietnam. I returned to the United States, hoping that I could come back soon when the situation in Vietnam was stable. However, several years had passed but the road returned to Vietnam was still obscure for Americans. I sent her some letters but did not receive a reply. I didn’t know that my letters did harm her. The Communist government suspected that she was the spy of the United States, so she had a tough time. Nobody knew that she used to be the spy of NLF, a loyal Communist who risked her life many times for the cause of reunifying Vietnam. Her superior officer, the only one aside from me who knew that, had died in Con Dao prison. Besides, she didn’t even want to reveal her real identity, letting her fellow countrymen consider her the wife of the Senator of the old regime and the betrayal of her country. Two years later, she died of pneumonia. That’s all I can tell you.”     

James became silent, his eyes were wet with tears. We were absorbed in our own thoughts. In front of us was Lake Michigan, which was as immense as the sea. A seagull glided in the air. Cool breezes blown from Lake Michigan seemed to ease the sorrow of mine and the old American who had lived an extraordinary life. 

February 03, 2023 08:48

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Jeff Khoo
07:00 Feb 09, 2023

This is a well written piece, Kien. The vignette is so vivid. I haven’t been there and yet I was there for a moment. James’s story is also neatly written and every sentence just flows to the next. Love it.


Dao Huy Kien
02:28 Feb 10, 2023

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.


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08:29 Feb 06, 2023

That's a bitter sweet story, interesting detail about the Vietnam era. Have you been to Milwaukee? I spent a lot of time on the shoreline you mentioned in my youth. I can imagine anyone who had contact with the old South Vietnamese govt or the US military had a lot of difficulties after the end of the war, and you captured that well.


Dao Huy Kien
16:32 Feb 06, 2023

Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. I visited Milwaukee twice during my summer program in Wisconsin long time ago. The spectacular landscape at the shoreline inspired me to write a vignette which I used in the beginning of this story. Glad to know you are familiar with the setting of the story. As far as I know, most Vietnamese endured difficulties for two decades after the war due to our inefficient economic policies, another conflict with Cambodia and China, and the embargo imposed by US government. But of course, as you menti...


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Wendy Kaminski
13:34 Feb 03, 2023

A very raw and poignant story, Kien. I found it fascinating and not just a little tragic, as the Vietnam action was before my time. Thank you so much for relating this story, and for the character's grace in the face of what must have provoked some levels of internal turmoil.


Dao Huy Kien
04:21 Feb 04, 2023

Thank you very much for your lovely comment. Actually, this is a fiction I wrote long time ago when I was a student, based on some real war stories of both sides and my imagination. My first intention is to write a novel, but I dropped it after 100 pages. James O'Brien is a fictional character who share some of my traits. I'm glad you enjoyed the story.


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