A Tale of Two Tours: Part 1, Ba Chuc

We were racing the sun. It was begining to glow orange, cut into pieces by the great green palm leaves. The Mekong Delta—the landscape of every Vietnam War movie I’d ever seen, where boat engines sounded like the echoes of helicopter blades.

We were trying to get to Ba Chuc before the sun went down. It was the site of a Khmer Rouge massacre; a pagoda with the bones of the deceased had been constructed. I’d planned on visiting it the next day, but when Sam Mountain turned out to be a bust—cages full of endangered birds for sale, and small boys peeing between make-shift altars—I’d decided to make a run for it.

We pulled into a dirt lot with the sun low, barely above the squat structures—corrugated tin walls and thatched roofs. The motorbike driver didn’t speak English; he pointed at the sign on a small, concrete building. “Ba Chuc.” I handed him my helmet, and he leaned back to wait.

Inside was empty, a lonely government building—fading paint and dusty floors. The walls were lined with photos depicting the massacre. Along this stretch of border, there were several Khmer villages; it had, at one time, been part of the Khmer kingdom. In 1978, the Khmer Rouge had come into the town of nearly 4,000; only one person survived the massacre.

I’d read this all in my guidebook. Here, all the signs were in Vietnamese. The brutal black-and-white images didn’t need translation. I walked slowly, alone with the freeze-frame horror.

A barefoot woman entered the room. She was withered and hunched. She tugged at my sleeve, pointed to the picture of a girl’s body impaled through the vagina. She made a thrusting motion, her eyes desperate. She motioned around.

She kept pointing, I kept nodding—what else do you do? She held incense out towards me, made a motion for bowing. I didn’t want to buy any incense. Not so much that I didn’t want to buy it, but that I didn’t want to burn it, to bow—to mime the motions of someone else’s religion, someone else’s sanctity, someone else’s tragedy. Not mine, not mine. (I hadn’t wanted to go to my uncle’s funeral as a little girl, and it was the same feeling—an old feeling, buried feeling, that I’d forgotten—something in me saying, “No, no, no.”)

I walked over to the pagoda. It was in a grassy lot, mostly deserted. A large tree grew next to it. It was pretty, rural, littered with trash. Two teenagers sat holding hands. Three small, dirty boys played on the steps leading up to it. They leapt up, walked over to me, palms open. I shook my head (no, no).

They followed me as I walked in a slow circle around the pagoda. Behind glass, skulls had been arranged according to age: 0-2, 17-25… It didn’t seem real.

I circled around once, twice. I didn’t feel anything I thought I should be feeling (“There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.”) I didn’t feel anything, really, but numbness, and a “no.”

I walked back down the few steps, back towards the motorbike, the driver, another distance to be traveled in silence. A rock hit the groumnd beside my sneakers. I looked back, and the boys giggled. Had they meant to hit me? Was it malicious, were they playing, who was I, what was I doing there?

I walked back to the motorbike through the dirt-lot dusk, feeling nothing but “no.”

3 Responses to “A Tale of Two Tours: Part 1, Ba Chuc”

  1. 1 Hal Amen February 28, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for going here and writing about it. The KR-Vietnam conflict is always overlooked, seems like.

  2. 2 Margaret March 3, 2011 at 4:44 am

    Powerful experience expressed well. The numbness, the inability to feel what you think you might or should feel, when really, how can anyone be prepared to know how to be a witness to the history of such unthinkable/unknowable/undefinable horror.

  3. 3 shaun darragh January 12, 2012 at 6:35 am

    I went through Ba Chuc in 2005 and will go back again this year to see if I can locate where the old Special Forces Camp was in 1965. It is the scene of my next novel. Ba Chuc was home to U.S. Special Forces Detachment A-429 until April 1965 when the team was renumbered and moved to nearvy Ba Xoai. The troops manning it in those days were locally recruited ethnic Khmer who belonged to the United Front for the Liberation of Khmer Kampuchea Krom (KKK), which is the Cambodian way of saying “Ethnic Khmer of Lower Cambodia”. The KKK viewed the Vietnamese as their enemy, but during the Vietnam War many joined the U.S. Special Forces’ civilian irregular defense groups as they viewed the Khmers Rouges and their VC allies as a greater threat. The Vinh Te canal that runs along the border from Chau Doc past Ba Chuc to Ha Tien was built in the 1810s and 20s to mark the border, as a time when more Cambodians lived on what is today’s Vietnam side than did ethnic Vietnamese. Cambodian forced labor was used to build that canal, and you can find the Khmer view of its construction on the Internet. The King of Vietnam at the time was Minh Mang, whose policies in the South triggered a series of rebellions that lasted until 1835. The Cambodians had revolted over a new assimilation policy that would require them to adopt the Vietnamese language, Vietnamese dress, and Vietnamese names, as well as certain Confucian practices as Confucianism was the state religion. The Vietnamese also forced the Royal Cambodian government to sign a treaty of Protection with Hue that made Cambodia a virtual colony, to the point that the assimilation policies were also decreed for Cambodia itself. French intervention in the 1850s is what had saved Cambodia from extinction as a state, and when Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam a Republic n 1945, and proclaimed he would make the country ‘greater’, the Royal government immediately sent out draft orders to recruit two battalions for service under the French, with one battalion being recruited within the Kingdom, and the other battalion being recruited among the Khmer Krom of the Delta, which shows that under the French, Cambodia actually governed certain aspects of the lives of the Khmer Krom people. When the Lon Nol coup came in 1970, many Khmer Krom left Vietnam for Cambodia to fight in his army, so there was no love lost between the Khmer Krom and the Khmers Rouges, or between the Khmers Rouges and their Vietnamese communist allies.

    The bitter irony for the Khmer Krom people is that they were the ones who helped the last Nguyen survivor defeat the Tay Sons and reunify Vietnam under the Nguyen dynasty in 1802. Minh Mang was Emperor Gia Long’s son.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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