Thetford Resident Recalls Her Life in Vietnam and Years of Travel
|Published: 08-06-2018 12:12 PM
What tastes like simplicity itself actually requires a vigilant eye and hand so that the broth doesn’t boil and become muddied. Clarity is the aim.
“You have to simmer it for a long time, and skim the residue,” Browne said, walking back and forth between stove and table in her Thetford home. She spends the winter months in New York City. Her cat, Blondine, a 10-year-old tiger, pads silently around the room before vaulting onto a couch where she takes a nap. A recording of one of Bach’s English suites plays in the background.
A long simmering soup with disparate elements brought into harmony is, in a way, a useful metaphor for Browne’s life. Now 83, Browne has written and self-published the recently released Bend the Willow, a memoir about her life in Vietnam and the United States.
It traces her childhood, her education in France and her return to Vietnam where she worked from 1960 to 1966 as an interpreter and liaison in Saigon between the foreign press and the South Vietnamese government. It is also the story of her marriage to journalist Malcolm Browne, their travels together and the tumultuous events of April 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the Viet Cong.
Malcolm Browne, who took the famous 1963 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the Buddhist monk immolating himself in protest against the policies of the South Vietnamese government, died in 2012 from Parkinson’s disease. He is buried at the back of the property, his grave surrounded by hydrangeas. Le Lieu Browne, a slight figure with short, silky white hair, often takes Blondine for a short walk to visit him.
Life without him has been difficult, she said, melancholy written on her face. But then a tough pragmatism takes over. She’s endured profound losses — of family and country — and life is about the business of getting on with it.
Last year, her younger sister, who is married to a Frenchman and has lived in France for decades, wanted to make a trip back to Vietnam. “I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to return,” Browne said. But her sister persuaded her in the end. She has mixed feelings about the enterprise now.
“Whatever I visualized about the past in my head, it’s not there anymore. It’s painful in the way that it wiped out whatever I had in memory.”
She had made a previous trip with Malcolm in 1994, when the poverty seemed more visible. War veterans begging in the streets, 20 years on; women and their children, too.
What struck her last year was the relative prosperity, the high rises, the population growth, the transformation of small villages to major towns, the loss of some natural habitat. The former AP bureau where Malcolm worked in downtown Saigon still stands but is now dilapidated.
When Le Lieu Browne and her sister spoke French to an older Vietnamese cab driver in Saigon, he told them he was happy to use it again because he almost never had the chance; a majority of the Vietnamese population was born after Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in April 1975, according to an article in The Atlantic.
Not everything about the enormous changes that have taken place disturb her. “I’m glad that they’re prosperous, I’m glad that the country is unified because there’s peace.”
Still, travel without her husband felt unnatural. “I found it very, very sad to go through the past without him — and because it’s a Communist country,” she said. She is quite certain that it was the last time she would see her home country, she said.
Browne grew up in the southern city of Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta in the 1940s and 1950s, one of seven children born to her mother Nguyen thi Le and father Huynh van Tet. As part of French Indochina, Vietnam had been under colonial rule since the mid-19th century. The Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War II, and Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Viet Minh party was formed in 1941 to resist the Japanese. The Viet Minh’s ultimate objective, though, was to oust the French and declare independence.
As the French fought their way back into Vietnam in 1945 to reclaim the country, the Viet Minh came and took away Browne’s father, a high-ranking land administrator who was considered suspect because he had worked with the French before the war.
He was put under house arrest and no one in the family knew whether he was dead. But Browne’s mother succeeded in tracking him down and, after months of separation, the family went to live with him, still under house arrest. As the French advanced, the Viet Minh moved the family farther into the jungle. But, when a friend of Browne’s father urged escape toward the French Army in Ben Tre, her father refused.
“Why should we escape? We didn’t do anything,” Browne recalled him saying.
The Viet Minh came for him that night. The theory in the family was that someone denounced him to the Viet Minh for trying to flee. Browne remembers hearing the knock on the door, the voices demanding to see her father, and then seeing her father, dressed in shorts and an undershirt, walking out the door. That was the last time they saw him, and when months went by without word, they presumed he’d been executed.
Although her father had worked with the French, he was a nationalist, Browne said. He was an admirer of both Ho Chi Minh, she said, and the goal of wresting the country from French control.
In retrospect, Browne said, “I thought maybe he was naive but I know he really loved the country, he really wanted independence.” Her mother, by contrast, did not want the French to leave.
The disappearance of her father, naturally, was a life-altering shock for her and her family. (His friend arrived safely in Ben Tre the next day, which led over the years to numerous iterations of “what if” for Browne.) Her mother, a school teacher, was left with seven children to raise.
“It affected me very much,” Browne said. “I miss that kind of father’s love.”
Her father’s death also turned her against the Communist Viet Minh. “After they killed my father I decided it was not for me.” Like her father, though, she later came to admire Ho Chi Minh for his desire to see the country freed from colonialism.
The French return initiated a long struggle between the French and the Viet Minh for dominance, culminating in the surrender of French troops at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The country was then divided into North and South Vietnam.
In 1949, Browne’s mother sent her to Paris at the age of 15 to get an education, where she lived with a relative who was unsympathetic to her homesickness. When Le Lieu cried one day, the result of chopping onions, the relative was derisive, telling her to grow up.
“At that moment I told myself, never cry, never cry again, and I kept my promise. I decided I would have to depend on myself,” she said.
That she did.
After graduating from high school in France, she continued her education at the London School of Economics, until acceding to her mother’s request to come home.
She’d always been intrigued by journalism, and in 1960 she got a job at the South Vietnamese Ministry of Affairs in Saigon, working as a Deputy Minister of Information, coordinating with the foreign press to set up interviews with government officials.
In the course of her work she met journalists from all over the world who were coming to Vietnam in search of the next big war. She was friendly with Western journalists, and felt more Westernized at that point than she felt Vietnamese. But she was also wary of their intentions and quietly contemptuous of their ignorance of Vietnam. Until, in 1961, she met Malcolm Browne.
“He looked very young, like a young British man with very white skin,” she recalled. Browne was tall and lanky, with a shock of red hair. He was married at the time, with a baby. This violated her cardinal rule: no married men.
He had characteristics, however, that set him apart from some of the other American reporters who tended to be loud, demanding and blunt, which was not the Vietnamese way. He was “really very correct, polite and courteous,” she said. He tried to learn Vietnamese, which also separated him from other American journalists.
In hindsight, she said, psychologically Malcolm reminded her of her father. Still, it had never occurred to her that she would become involved with an American and his promises to leave his wife left her skeptical.
“I didn’t believe him. I never trusted any men, especially Americans,” she said.
However, when he convinced her of the seriousness of his feelings for her, cabling his wife that he wanted a divorce, she decided she wanted to be with him. Theirs was a long and close union, without children.
Her mother approved of their marriage; her father would never have consented to her marrying someone who was not Vietnamese, she said. She did want to have children, she said, but she also wanted to travel the world with Malcolm and do her own writing and photography. Her desire for the latter superseded the former.
The Brownes married in 1966 and were in Vietnam, off and on, until the Tet Offensive of 1968, although Le Lieu really left for good in 1966. Malcolm went to work in 1968 for the New York Times. Le Lieu became a photojournalist for the Times, and worked alongside her husband.
Over the years they lived in Latin America and Eastern Europe while he also covered the India-Pakistan war, Vietnam and Cambodia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They maintained an apartment in New York, where she still lives. From 1977 he was a science correspondent for the Times, making a number of trips to Antarctica.
In March 1975, Malcolm heard that the Viet Cong (the South Vietnamese guerillas fighting with the North) were advancing on the Southern city of Kontum. Hundreds of thousands of civilians as well as the South Vietnamese Army began to evacuate.
“When Kontum fell, he said Vietnam will also fall,” Le Lieu Browne recalled. Her mother and some of her siblings were still in the South, so she went back to try to bring as many out as she could.
At 70, her mother was frail and sickly and Browne was afraid she wouldn’t survive an arduous, uncertain evacuation from Saigon and the surrounding areas.
Although Browne was able to get out two of her brothers, who now live in California, she made the wrenching decision to leave her mother behind, as well as some of her other siblings. Like everyone else in the city as the Viet Cong closed in, she was in a daze, she said. People were crying in the streets, walking around in shock. Browne got on the last commercial Air Vietnam flight out of Saigon on April 30.
“I never saw my mother again. She died two years later,” Browne said.
She has had decades to think about the conduct of the war. “The deeper we got into it, I realized that the Vietnamese military had no sense of war. They left war to the Americans.”
The rural people threw their lot in with the Viet Cong, who controlled much of the countryside.
“You side with the people who protect you,” Browne said.
The Americans brought their own insularity to the country. “They live separately from us, they keep their own culture, they don’t bother to learn the language. They come in, they don’t understand anything, they rape the culture,” she said.
Nonetheless Browne felt more Western than she did Vietnamese, not only because of her European education and independence working in Saigon. In traditional Vietnamese society there were expectations of how women should behave and what they should be permitted to do. It was too hidebound for her; she felt frustrated by the proscriptions. Her mother encouraged her to seek a career, to liberate herself from convention.
Browne has lost much of her Vietnamese language and she wrote the book in English. The language of Vietnam now is more Northern than Southern, using North Vietnamese dialect and vernacular, which makes it difficult for her to understand, she said.
“I can kind of talk with my family and friends in half English, half French, and some Vietnamese,” she said.
She misses her husband’s kindness and generosity, his eclectic nature, his sense of honor and his honesty, their companionship and shared exploration.
“The worst part is in the morning. You get up, you’re by yourself. But Blondine wakes me up every morning at 5:30 and I’m grateful for that,” Browne said.
Bend the Willow is available through Amazon.
LeLieu Browne will participate in a panel discussion after a screening in Middlebury, Vt. of the documentary Dateline Saigon, which covers five notable journalists who covered the Vietnam War: Malcolm Browne, Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, Peter Arnett and photojournalist Horst Faas.
The screening takes place on Friday, Aug. 24 at 1:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury as part of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. For information go to middfilmfest.org.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.