Lights out in Vietnam by
(10 Stories)

Prompted By Hello Darkness

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Lights out in Vietnam

The most complete darkness I ever knew was in Vietnam


In 1957 my family moved to Vietnam—parents and three sisters aged 5, 7 and 8.  It was only a few years after the French were routed at Dien Bien Phu, and the country was divided North and South.  To many, it was still “French Indochina”, and it seemed no one where we lived in Michigan had heard of it or Vietnam.

My parents must have looked forward to the two-year posting.  My dad had studied Japanese in WWII and visited post-war Japan before mustering out; he was entranced by the experience and found an opportunity to work in China soon afterwards.  He and my mother met as ex-pats in Peking (Beijing) in 1947 , married the next year, loved the country and only left when safety couldn’t be assured in 1949.  My older sister was born there, delivered by a western-trained Chinese woman obstetrician (I ended up being named after her though).  My dad then studied agricultural economics, eager to return to Asia with skills he thought would help “developing countries”.  So, Vietnam.

We hopped our way across the Pacific:  California, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, Hong Kong, Saigon.  It took weeks.  There were planes, new climates, languages, dress, food, and stories.  As kids we only partially appreciated the geopolitical history.

Finally in Saigon, we arrived at temporary housing in a whitewashed two story building.  It was hot and humid.  Nothing was familiar.  Our sea freight hadn’t arrived with supplies from home.  My parents were invited out in the evening, and we were left behind with a Vietnamese minder. French was the language used between Europeans and Vietnamese, and we kids hadn’t learned it yet. I was sick.

As night fell, it started to rain, a thundering monsoon rain, pouring down, washing heavily over the courtyard, terrifying, incessant.  And then the electricity went out.  Darkness. Total, black, stormy, disorienting darkness as I had never known.  Unknown country, unknown language, unknown house, unknown parental whereabouts and no way out.

That darkness passed, but after we left two years later, it intensified for the country.  Soon everyone would have heard of Vietnam.  English would become the lingua franca.  The beautiful coral bay of my memories at Nha Trang would become a giant naval base.  The roads we traveled to cool and lovely Dalat, sometimes unsafe due to “bandits”, would be impassable due to war.  The boxes stored by the cook in our garage were removed one night–all long, flat cases perfect for guns. Bombs, body bags, napalm, tunnels, My Lai, and benighted politicians brought darkness to both Vietnam and the US.  I joined many when I wore the black armband on my Harvard graduation gown in 1973.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: , moving, well written


  1. Thanx Khati for sharing your wonderfully written memories of your years in Saigon as a young child – one dark night but also happier memories of your family’s life in a beautiful country.

    Then after you left, as you say the darkness “intensified for the country.” Of course what followed was just a “conflict” since no declaration of war was made, but semantics makes little difference to the civilians and soldiers who died.

  2. Suzy says:

    Khati, this was fascinating! I always wondered what the origin of your name was – how fitting that you were named after a Chinese woman doctor. Your description of that night of the monsoon, when the electricity went out, and you were in total darkness in a strange place, is so vivid and just about the most terrifying experience I can imagine. What a perfect story for this prompt!

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    What an amazing story Khati. I loved your description of the darkness of that night when you were left in a storm with a strange babysitter in a country you didn’t know yet. Of course, the darkness of the Vietnam war that followed is a sad and shameful part of our history.

  4. A beautifully rendered story, Khati…thank you!

  5. Marian says:

    Wonderfully written story, Khati, that took me to that very dark night in Vietnam. A perfect rendering of all kinds of darkness.

  6. Khati, your story is so moving and powerful. I hope you’re writing a memoir…

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Powerful memoir, Khati, moving from the lights out of the terrifying monsoon, through the horror of the Vietnam war, which you summarize so perfectly in a few perfect words. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  8. A prosaic opening eventually turns into a beautiful poetic rendering of this experience! Very powerful.

    p.s. About “Agricultural economics.” There must have been many trained in that field who took more conventional paths, but the only other name I think of when I hear that profession is…William Hinton, author of Fan Shen.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I read Fan Shen and it made a big impression on me. I think my mother had a passing acquaintance or knew of Hinton, if I recall the reaction when I mentioned his name. She was not a fan of the Nationalists but not as keen on the Communists as Bill. Always very outspoken, and a teacher of history and economics, she was appalled at the pigheadedness of the US intervention in Vietnam. With a cigarette and a martini in her hand, you would always be in for a lively discussion. The past four years would have put her in her grave if she weren’t already there.

  9. A beautiful, impressionist story of a time, a place, and a child’s perceptions. If I’ve done my arithmetic correctly, you must have been about seven! The cook’s long boxes speak volumes for so many of us who lived, breathed, and acted on Vietnam. Speaking of Fan Shen, have you ever read the work of Lady Borton, an American Quaker who worked in Vietnam before, during, and after what the Vietnamese call “The American War”? Her major work, “After Sorrow” comes to mind. Thanks for your post!

  10. No duplicates here, Khati. Here’s a quick review re After Sorrow/Lady Borton FYI. Write on!

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