A life of love in Laos
by Kim Anh
|Nguyen Manh Tan says he leads an eventful life in Laos, where life is easygoing.
Nguyen Manh Tan, also known as Khamteum Southideth, looks younger than his 63 years. Having lived in Laos since the age of four, Tan can speak both Vietnamese and Lao fluently.
He told me that he was sad when a diplomat asked if he could speak Vietnamese.
"Overseas Vietnamese always remember where their home is," he explained.
When I asked him about his limited hearing capacity, he explained it was because of artillery shelling.
Tan revealed that when he joined the Lao liberationarmy, he was admitted as a cook because he was only 17 and small.
"When I asked them why I had to be a cook for so long they said: ‘Because I cooked well'," he recalled.
After begging many times and even threatening to burn the army kitchen, Tan was sent to a battlefield in Xieng Khouang Province, more than 400km from the capital Vientiane.
"Unfortunately my leg was wounded on the very first day I served as a real soldier," he said bitterly.
"I was hospitalised for 25 days and I couldn't move two of my toes as a result."
Tan was injured twice more before he was demobilised from the army.
"Once my truck was shot by the US army and upended," he said. "I was lucky I didn't die but I sustained a serious injury to my arm."
On the third occasion, he broke several ribs.
Tan remembers the time when he passed out following heavy shelling. Regaining consciousness, he realised he was at a Vietnamese field hospital.
"When I was well enough to return my unit, my comrades were holding a funeral for me, and thought I was a ghost."
The highlight of Tan's military career was the day he gunned down an enemy aircraft in 1970. He was rewarded with a trip to his motherland where he was reunited with his first love.
However, the love was just a sweet memory, he said, since there was no cross-border marriage at that time. "We bade farewell to each other and I came back to Laos," Tan said with regret.
Tan said that his case was not isolated. Many soldiers from Laos who came to study in Viet Nam fell in love with Vietnamese girls, but few of those relationships had a happy ending.
"I know one soldier who put his girlfriend in a tank and smuggled her across the border. Luckily, customs didn't spot her and they lived together in Laos, he said. "I was not as clever as that soldier."
|Plain of Jars in Laos, one of the former battlefields where Nguyen Manh Tan, or Khamteum used to fight.
Tan admitted he was named "silly" and "crazy", maybe because he interfered in other people's work.
One example was when he visited his wife's hometown in the central province of Quang Binh. Tan was sad to see a beautiful area being demolished by miners. He immediately phoned local authorities to ask why they had let such a thing happen.
In Ha Long Bay, he told local tourism authorities to cut the traffic chaos near the wharf and control the spiralling service prices, because otherwise no-one would return. He also advised them to look at tourism in Laos, where they knew how to make customers happy so they'd keep coming back for more.
While Tan considers it his responsibility to speak out against the absurdity in society, other people call him a "crazy man".
Tan is even called "mad man" for carrying a tube with him to siphon petrol out of his own motorbike to help those who run out.
Above all, Tan's real weakness is women.
Despite earning a large sum of money from making rock-gardens, which he learnt in Australia, he has little property left after six marriages and five divorces.
Property doesn't seem important to Tan, and that explains why he has been willing to set aside his business to help Vietnamese people trace their loved ones in Laos.
When Laos was at war, many Vietnamese soldiers voluntarily supported their fight for independence. Many of them died.
Pointing at a picture he took with a soldier in Ha Noi, Tan said sadly that the man had died recently, but he also had a friend who went missing in Laos.
"Recently, the missing man's daughter contacted me and asked for help to find her father."
"If she comes I will accompany her to central Laos to trace her father," Tan affirmed.
He went on to explain about a girl named Luong Thi Thuy, a Lao-Vietnamese girl with a pitiful fate.
"Thuy's father was a military engineer. Her parents met each other in Viet Nam where they studied together. However, as with many other couples, the couples' parents opposed the union.
When Thuy's mother became pregnant, the couple attempted to escape the family to Laos, but she was not allowed to cross the border.
Thuy's mother died when she was eight. Living in loneliness, Thuy longed to meet her father.
Together with Vietnamese patrons, Tan tracked down Thuy's father's home in Lao, but it was too late, he had died.
Tan was determined to help the girl, and raised money for her settle down in Laos, as was her wish. He used his own money to buy her a motorbike and helped her to find a suitable job.
Tan has composed hundreds of poems and songs in Vietnamese and Lao. Responding to the call of the Vietnamese People's Association in Australia, he composed a song for New Year 2000. His song, which highlighted mutual support among Vietnamese people, received great applause from the community. A choir of 800 people performed the song on New Year's Eve.
The song Tham Tinh Lao-Viet (Laos - Viet Nam Deep Affection), which he wrote for the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Viet Nam – Laos diplomatic relations, won him a prize. The Vietnamese embassy in Laos awarded him a trip to Do Son Beach in the northern city of Hai Phong.
The ministries of culture of Viet Nam and Laos presented Tan certificates of merit for his song President Ho Chi Minh in the Hearts of Indochinese Peoples.
In his home in Vientiane, Tan sings his self-composed songs and points at his rock garden, telling me that he spent nearly a hundred million dong to create a cool place to entertain his friends.
I have done all these things just because my philosophy is to enjoy life and help as many people as I can, Tan says with a smile. — VNS