She was one of those legendary women across cultures who raised her daughter’s new born child in her advanced years.

My mother, her fourth child, died in childbirth at the young age of 35. My brother was ten days old, still at the provincial maternity ward. I was five.

Grandmother had been there a week earlier. That was an arduous half day trip on several buses from her village on the bank of the Mekong River, some seventy kilometres south of Saigon.

No one had expected this disaster. Grandmother had already returned home to her farm responsibilities. Then news of the loss of her daughter arrived.

Grandmother came back to take the baby home to her village. She and her youngest son, still single, began raising the baby. It was the tenth time for her and the first for her son; but what a terrific surrogate father he became. She was 65 and her son 26 when this happened. After he got married, his young wife lovingly raised my little brother with him.

Grandmother was a terrific woman herself, almost a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, not that she was even faintly aware of the lives of independent women who lived oceans away in the rich first world.

I have more memory of her than of my own mother, having known her for more years, although without a photo of her I had long forgotten her face. What I still remember most though is her calmness, a safety shore for me as a child sleeping in her village home when I visited, listening to the echoes of war in a distance. She lived through two major wars, quietly protecting her children.

She had nine children, five girls in a row followed by four boys; the third youngest was pierced to death in his youth by a buffalo. It was truly a family tragedy, although not very unusual in the life of rice farmers who lived and worked in close proximity with their primary field helpers.

Pham Muoi 1935 (copper)

In 2008, I visited the village where my grandmother’s house was. My last link with the family – her son who was the father figure, was no longer with me. I kept searching from the familiar street for the long tranquil path to her house but it had vanished.

The canals that crisscrossed the village, bringing water to nourish the coconut groves of its livelihood, looked a lot more shallow, less lively. But then a lot of years had lapsed impairing my recollection.

What was not distorted was my clear image of her parting gift each time we visited – a bottle of caramel made from the fruits she grew, made only for her descendants.

We used caramel to colour and sweeten a traditional casserole and southern favourite. It took days of simmering a large volume of clear coconut juice to condense it into thick golden caramel, much like the essence of her noble life which she reserved for us.

My grandmother was capable, gracious and independent. I observed her life with deep affection from a young age.

During the anti-French phase of the war following the August Uprising of 1945, the composer Pham Duy travelled far and wide to places where the population faced particular hardship from war activities. Like a war graphic artist, he sketched in music the devotion of a mother in Gio Linh District.

My grandmother from the south, like millions of mothers who knew war more intimately than peace, would know the sentiment of another from central Vietnam.

Mother of Gio Linh

Her crops support her son on the battlefront

She subsists on her more meager meals

Her love of country matches his, her only son

She prays silently for his passionate life

The night brings echoes of gunshots

The elderly mother waters her vegetable garden

She hears wailing in the neighbourhood

The enemies had captured her son

He was beheaded at the market

Speechless, she hurries …

searches for her headscarf

She goes out to wrap his head

Walking home on that lonesome village road

Evening brings echos of pagoda gongs

She feebly raises her hands, tears fill her eyes

She looks at her son’s head

Her own white hair blown in the wind …

(Lyrics by Pham Duy 1948)



My grandmother and grandfather were a couple who lived apart for as long as I knew them since I was a small child visiting them every summer holiday.

Legend had it that he had a brief liaison when younger. She was so hurt. She packed up her kids to live in a house she built as far away as she could on their land and single-handedly raised her family. Their lives revolved around her as the matriarch. The era was the first half of the last century.

My grandmother’s house was new and airy, set in a large coconut grove – the village’s livelhood, surrounded by the greenest rice fields. For years to come, I vividly remember as a child being woken up by the fragrance of orange blossoms wafting in from the garden. The first sound of the day was water lapping in the canal by the side of the house, coming from the force of the rising tide of the Mekong River far away.

Coconut grove, Vietnam

Some decades later, I visited the historic One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi in sprng and immediately recognised that same fragrance from an ancient orange tree. I wished I could bottle that memory to take home.

One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi

However, as far as I can remember my maternal family, the family home was where my grandfather resided. It was formal and beautiful, furnished with antiques, but dark and empty.

I was endlessly fascinated by my grandfather. I still remember the charming squint of his eyes. He never said very much, as though he had seen everything in life before. His daily life proved it. It was so uncluttered, so at one with nature. His wealth never showed but his position of respect in this little village did, through his very dignified demeanour and generous giving.

He cooked for himself in an outdoor open hut with a thatched roof at the back of his house. He ate squatting by the side of the canal, bowl and chopsticks in his hands. I still remember playing around him as he ate by the water in his vast garden with no neighbours within sight, birds flapping and singing under the clear tropical sky. In the rain he sat on the bench alongside the stoves in the open hut.

His meals never changed, made up of steamed rice, vegetables and a river fish casserole which he cooked in a small clay pot just for one. Then he had the daily fruits of fragrant finger bananas or custard apples from his garden. After the meal, he stepped down the wooden plank a few metres away to wash his bowl and chopsticks in the canal.

He walked everywhere; he was fit, elegantly thin and lived to the age of 92. I was told he never travelled on wheels anywhere. He visited his wife often enough; I sensed there was a quiet respect and affection in their advanced years.

He longed for their reunion after life. He had two coffins of beautiful dark wood tucked away on the side veranda of his house. In the coconut grove on the far right of the garden, two graves were already dug up side by side for years. His deep affection manifested itself.