As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Hiep, 54, has been a caretaker at a Cemetery in Saigon for 27 years. Interview by Nhung Nguyen Thi, photo by Sylvain Marcelle.
My first son died when he was nine, in a hit-and-run accident. It was in the early morning of the second day of Lunar New Year. He crossed the street to open the cemetery’s gate for people to visit the graves. I had just seen him sitting on a chair in our house a few moments before neighbours called me out to check whether the body laying on the road was his. At the scene, I could only recognise him by his clothes and sandals, with the key of the cemetery still in the palm of his small hand.
In that very same year, I lost two other sons. My second kid was two years old when he was infected with smallpox. Being in the final month of pregnancy with my third baby, I had to carry him to the children’s hospital in the city that is 10 miles away from our house. After two days, the doctor announced that they could not save him and he died in my arms when we arrived home in the afternoon. Next morning I woke up and felt that there was something wrong with the baby in my womb. It seemed as though he was not moving, and we rushed to the hospital again just to hear the doctor say that the foetus had left the placenta and had stopped breathing. I could not totally understand what he told me, but it had something to do with my baby’s heartbeat still being heard and that we had to wait for him to be absolutely dead before they could remove him in pieces out of my womb.
The sudden deaths of my children left me falling to my knees. If it was not for my husband, I don’t know how I could have gotten through. He was by my side the whole time and encouraged me to move on. Two months later, we adopted a baby girl. In a visit to my friend’s house, I met an ill mother with a small daughter in her arms. She was so sick she could not even soothe the crying baby. I spent a few days taking care of them but the mother could not make it. Before she died, she asked me to look after her daughter. My husband and I believed that it was fate that had brought us and the baby together, we decided to officially adopt her. Five months after that, I got pregnant with another girl. Both of them now are married and have families of their own.
I started to work in Tan Xuan Commune Martyrs’ cemetery in 1978, when I went to live with my husband’s family. At the time they earned money from Government contracts to collect and transfer fallen soldiers’ corpses temporarily buried in the area surrounding the cemetery; I joined in to help. The two families were close neighbours for years, and my dad and his dad considered each other as brothers. When I decided to drop out of school in the 10th grade to move in with my boyfriend, I was seventeen. When we got married two years later, we were too poor to conduct even a small ceremony. So my husband just went to ask for my parents’ blessing. We became husband and wife as simply as that.
My father-in-law passed away after years of being exposed to dead bodies. The job was taken over by us and some of my brothers-in-law for two or three more years before we switched back to farming and herding. The cemetery was left unattended then, except people came to cut grass sometimes to feed the cows. By 1989 all the tombs were covered in overgrown weeds; I couldn’t stand it any longer and headed to the commune authority. I asked them to take some action. That was when they decided to hire me to clean the place twice a year. My husband joined in to help me renew the tombs, whitewashing them and rewriting the names of the martyrs on the stone. After a while, we asked for some government funding to plant trees and to buy incense-burners to place on top of the graves. Over the years, during the construction of new houses and buildings in the area, more martyrs were found in the ground. And in 1997, the authority began to hire me as a civil service employee to take care of the place.
We have never been rich but we were comfortable. And then suddenly, one afternoon two years ago, my husband told me that he had fallen in love with another woman and he was leaving me. She was our former neighbour and used to hang out with us all the time. At first I couldn’t believe it. I mean, we had just come back from a fishing trip and were sitting in a hammock together. He had been a loving husband and a caring father in the thirty-three years of our marriage. But later on he moved out of the house to live with that woman and only came home to take his clothes and his papers. Then he started to beat me for begging him to come back and forbade me from calling him “darling”. The other day I was hit by my husband right at this cemetery when I was sweeping the ground. He has also left work and told me to do the same, saying: “You are paid only VND1 million (US$50) a month to work at this cemetery, why do you want to keep the job?”
But I know the commune cannot find another person to take care of the cemetery. Nobody wants to do such a low-paid job. And after my son’s death, the place has become much of a consolation for me. I have asked the martyrs here to take care of my kids in their world. Since my husband’s affair, I have started to come here more often to find peace of mind. I remember the name of each martyr laying here and the exact location of their graves. Sometimes I talk to them while tidying up as if they are my family members. Many of them died at very young ages and had not married yet. Now and then some graves are visited by middle-aged women. They are the ex-girlfriends who have travelled all the way from the North to come here and burn incense for lost ones; or the comrades who used to fight by their side. But other than them, few people pay attention to the martyrs and they are slowly being forgotten.
Things are harder without my husband as I have to do everything on my own. The other day when I was trying to prune a bush in the cemetery, the sharp scissors fell on my foot and left a deep wound there. But I am learning to adapt. My daughters have been a great encouragement. The neighbours are also kind enough to sit down and talk with me more often, telling me to take better care of myself. At times when I am too stressed about what is going on in my life, I just take the bus to visit friends and relatives, or go to war memorials in the city. I can just stand there for hours finding familiar names. It is like I am letting them know that they are still being missed by the living; and that somehow their names still matter in peacetime.
This is one of three ‘Letters from Saigon’ that appeared in Womankind ‘Tiger’. You can purchase a copy of the magazine here.