Tay

I met David Herbert in summer 2017 in Colorado. He told me about his service in The Vietnam War, and I noticed the name “Tay” in many of his stories, and her face in many of his photos. I asked about her. He said she’d been his favorite village girl. Times with her and other kids in Bong Son provided some of his only peace in 1969. I asked if he’d like to see her again. With emotion, he said yes. I decided to try finding her for him. This page provides updates from my ongoing search.


Background
Reassembled from Previous Emails 26 April 2018

David was stationed at Landing Zone English near Bong Son, Vietnam in 1969. Here’s what LZ English looked like during the war:

Here it is today on Google Maps satellite view:

When I showed these to David to verify that I had the right place, he emailed back:

“Bingo, you’ve found it. Our hooch or barracks were located at the bottom of the photo, just to the left of the end of the runway. You can see the two roads to the bottom left in the photo. Where they came together was around the exit or gates, from LZ English onto HW 1. That was where I last saw Tay. … You are bringing memories back. I can still see her face.”

This is where Bong Son is located:

These are the copies of some of David’s photos I took with me to help with the search:








This is a recent photo of David:

I sent the following email to him when I reached Bong Son on April 3, 2018:

I made it to Bong Son today!

The flight from Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] to Quy Nhon is not supposed to pass over Bong Son, but as I looked out my window I suddenly saw LZ English and the bridges of Bong Son as if they’d been perfectly framed. We’d gone too far, but what a bonus.

Turns out, the runway at Quy Nhon had an issue so we couldn’t land. Instead, we landed at Da Nang, refueled, then returned to Quy Nhon. On the way back, I didn’t see Bong Son again from the air, but did take photos of Da Nang and the countryside. See below.

It’s an 88 km drive from Quy Nhon airport to where I’m staying, and I asked to take Highway 1 through Bong Son, and we did. We passed over the bridge near where I believe you used to meet Tay when filling sand bags for English. My heart leapt when I saw the real thing, and then signs reading Bong Son. The photos are coming to life around me!

I couldn’t wait to get started and what a start I have to report! A chef at my hotel has an uncle on the Bong Son police force. Can you believe this good fortune?

I provided the details I have on Tay, including her name, estimated year of birth, parts of town I believe she may have been from, your name and that you were stationed at LZ English, where you used to meet Tay, and the silk story. He took photos of my photos of your photos. It’s all at the police station now, and I’ll go meet them there in the morning.






After seeing these photos, David emailed me:

“The photos of the river and country side are just as beautiful as I remember. And it sounds like the people are just as beautiful. … The beauty of those lush green rice paddies and the surrounding countryside have never left my mind. It is a very beautiful country.”


Narrowing the Search by the River
Report 1 filed 6 April 2018

My first day in town went well. Lots of progress to report!

The somewhat bilingual chef whose uncle is a police officer in Bong Son is named Buu.

He drove me on my rented motorbike to a town near Bong Son that’s part of the same police district. We stopped at the police office there.






The uncle had meetings and could not help out in town that day.

However, Buu’s boss from a former job, described to me as a “very successful man, very rich,” was available to help. His presence raised the level of respect for the project at several points on our journey.

We drove to his office and met him, a Mr. Tien.

He was friendly. He tried speaking English with me. He told me he likes America, and wishes we’d come back to Vietnam. I was surprised by this. He explained that he’s worried about the rise of China and wants America to help Vietnam push back. I thought, “Right, because something along those lines went so well last time,” but kept it to myself.

He looked at photos of Tay and said even though he’s roughly her age, he doesn’t know her. We looked at a map of Bong Son and he listened to my theory about where she might have lived based on the location of LZ English and the river photos.

He was skeptical. He said the river is long and there are many bridges and places where soldiers used to fill sand bags. He said we’d need to interview people in the area, which I knew all along, but his point was that we shouldn’t become too confident about where Tay lived based on thin evidence. True, I thought.

He offered to drive us for the day in his comfortable car to get us off my rented motorbike. On the way to Bong Son in his car, we stopped at LZ English, parked on the runway, and saw a monument with a long message in Vietnamese, which I’ll have translated when I can. It mentions C-130 landings there.

This is the dirt road to LZ English:

This is Buu and Mr. Tien on the runway, walking toward the monument on the right:


This is Mr. Tien walking back from his car on the runway. The camera angle is toward the northeast end of the runway. The monument is behind me:

From LZ English, we proceeded into Bong Son on Highway 1 and proceeded directly to the main bridge, built by the US Army during the war. This is where it seemed you went to fill sand bags and where you met Tay, near the old French bunker.

Coming into Bong Son:

It’s easy to see why the river was a good place for filling sand bags:

Bong Son’s main street from the town end of the bridge:

On the bridge built by the US Army, still in use today, and the remnants of the old one it replaced:


Our first interview stop was with people of the small shops and homes beside the end of the bridge on the town side. This is the neighborhood I assumed Tay is from. I pictured her walking down to the river to meet you and other soldiers who’d come down Highway 1 from LZ English. The merchants told us the remains of the French bunker were under their shops, and showed a small chunk of concrete.

Merchant women looking at Tay’s photos and discussing:

Many other people came as we talked. A small crowd gathered and called out ideas. They suggested we talk with an old woman living nearby:

She said Tay looked familiar, but that the older she gets the more all children remind her of the ones from long ago. Good point. The gathering suggested we go down into the neighborhood, which is where I’d wanted to go all along, to interview people there. Great!

My heart pounded because it felt like the search was already gathering momentum, and I was walking into the history I’ve been staring at for the past eight months since taking photos of your photos in Boulder. Could Tay be sitting in one of those homes below the bridge as we worked our way there?

Down the paths we went:

We approached the edge of the neighborhood facing the bridge and river, where it seemed it would have been easy for children to run out to visit soldiers:

From there, we began entering homes to see if anybody knew Tay or somebody else who might know her.

We entered the house closest to the river, where everybody said we’d find an old woman who remembered everything.

She listened to the information and looked at the photos.

The one thing she recognized was the backdrop in Tay’s posed shot:

She said it’s in a photographer’s studio in town. The man who ran it during the war is dead, but his son still operates the shop. He may be able to identify Tay and provide more details, such as the location of her family’s land. Buu wrote down the names of the photography shop, and the father and son who ran and run it.

As for the important physical details in the photos, the old woman suggested a man deeper in the neighborhood. We proceeded:

He was missing the ends of some fingers and the thumb on his left hand. He’d already heard from others in the neighborhood that we were there searching for a girl named Tay. He said the most important part of the search are the physical details of the photos.

He looked very carefully at the riverbanks, buildings, Army truck type, and so on in an effort to pinpoint where you most likely had met Tay. He said it was not near this bridge or this neighborhood, as I’d thought, but farther upstream. He was adamant.

He said he doesn’t know exactly where, but he knows the section, an area called Nha Luu Niem. He explained where it is:

We drove there:

Men around a table under a pagoda by the river listened to the story and discussed their ideas:


A man in a dark blue shirt said he was pretty sure he knew an older woman in the area named Tay. They took photos of the photos to pass around and show other people in the area:

The man in the dark blue shirt rode with us in the car over a narrow bridge where Mr. Tien nearly wiped out several people crossing on motorbikes. One needed to twist her body to avoid being scraped off her bike by his sideview mirror. We made it across and proceeded up the river on a dirt side road:


The house where an old woman named Tay lived was skeptical from the start. The intelligent seeming husband of the house, with piercing, thoughtful eyes, examined the photos carefully, examined me, and said the old woman of the house named Tay was in her 90s and too old to be the girl in the photos from 1969.


However, he said something about all of it seemed awfully familiar, and that he was pretty sure somebody nearby would know more, and he knew who. He joined our group.

He also pointed out that the girl in the middle of the photo with you holding a rifle is not Tay, but her friend, and that Tay is the one on the right, in the shadow.

By looking closely at Tay’s shirt in other photos, we verified that he was correct.

It was good to get him into the search party. He’s smart, observant, well-connected, and commands the attention of people around him.

He took us to an older man nearby who said the area in the photos was about a kilometer down river.

Our growing posse drove there.

People in the area gathered to hear the story and look at the photos, and offer their ideas.

The intelligent husband now led the discussions, with Buu taking notes while I recorded audio and took photos.


People agreed that we need to expand the possibility of Tay’s name. They said an American soldier probably never knew “Tay’s” real name, and that it could be anything in the vicinity of Tay, Tei, Te, Ti, and so on.

By the end of the day, Buu estimates we pulled in about 50 people along the river to help with the search. Many of them have photos of the photos.

They said they would contact a bigger network overnight through word of mouth and electronic communication, and invited us to return the next day to pick up the search with more information at hand.

By the time we headed back out of town on Highway 1 for my hotel, I felt confident that we’re making good progress.

I believe we will find Tay!

  • Responses To This Report
    • David via email on 4/6/18:

      I recall saying I found these people to be very family oriented, kind, gracious, and hard working. When I was there, everybody knew everybody. I couldn’t go to town for more than five minutes and Tae would know I was there. It seems it’s still the same. They have open their homes, their hearts, their spirits in an effort to help. And they welcome Americans. After all that took place, they still are open to us. I am deeply humbled and in awe. Please pass on my deepest thanks to all those beautiful people and my deepest thanks to Buu and Mr. Tien.
    • David via email on 4/6/18:

      There is a place I’ve learned about a monument in Colorado that was built in the mountains to honor all those who have fought, no matter what side or country. The site is Soldierstone Vietnam War Memorial. It’s located along the Continental Divide in a field called Sargent’s Mesa outside of the town of Saguache. It’s on my list of places to hike this year. I would like to carry something there for the people of Viet Nam and especially for the people of Bong Son.
    • Roger via email on 4/7/18:

      She could have been a spy for the North and gathered intel by interacting with the US military? She could have become pregnant, and Amerasian babies and their mothers were not treated well by the North or even family and friends after the North took over. Some families even killed Amerasian babies. Hard to believe but it’s supposedly true. Their mothers were shunned by anyone who knew they had the baby. She may have disappeared completely? I hope none of the above is true.
    • Roger via email on 4/7/18:

      Please read the article linked below if you have time. If she had an Amerasian baby this could explain much about why Tay seems to have disappeared. This article highlights the sad truths of children and their mothers that Americans left behind when the war ended and they went home to America.

      www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/children-of-the-vietnam-war
    • Roger via email on 4/7/18:

      All you can do is look until you have exhausted all feasible possibilities and you will or will not find her. If you are unable to find her you may never know why she simply disappeared. It seems to me if you are looking in the right place and no one recognizes her then she disappeared for a reason no one wants to discuss, or she was not who [David] believed she was and when the war ended she returned to where she truly belonged.
    • Greg via email on 4/7/18:

      I have been closely inspecting the aerial photo you referred, and others in the area, following that river whose name I could never pronounce. I note certain meanders with broad sandbars on the “drift” side (i.e., away from the “cut”). I infer that this river cycles to a rather high and wide flow seasonally; I have heard of their monsoons. So had the engineers responsible for that new bridge. I note that it is very high! Which tells me the river and its banks almost certainly would not appear anything like the same to you today, compared with the late 1960s.
    • Lien (who is Vietnamese-American) via email on 4/8/18:

      I had to laugh! If you don’t know by now, the VN don’t wait for their turns talking. Just like they don’t understand why you’d have to stand in line. They swarm up all at once!The VN men are the worst!!!! I would love to be there with you but I would be of little use since I can’t function in VN heat and humidity. I was lucky to live in air conditioning most of the time, school and home, when I lived in VN. I am methodically following your journey. Now, I’m going to read your next email. By the way, Tay could be Tai. Tai means talent and sounds like a strong t “tigh.”
    • Jason to David via email on 4/7/18:

      I have some questions.

      Did you ever see Tay using a boat in the river? It seems she got around by herself and with friends in a small boat from where she lived, up the river to the main Bong Son village. Do you remember her using a boat?

      Did you ever hear back from Steve? We’re trying to figure out where he would have given Tay the box of silk from you, and where it was that he saw all the kids decked out in new silk clothes the next day. At the river? At LZ English? In town?

      Would you mind taking photos of all of Tay’s letters to you, and emailing them to me? Given all the evidence swirling here, I imagine we’d be able to find clues in what she wrote.

      Do you believe Tay was in love with you? I know this is a personal question, but it comes up a lot and only you have the answer from your perspective. People remember tidbits of what she told them, what they heard, and so on. It seems she was in love with you. Do you think so?

      Finally, for this note, a question I get every time I meet with a new group: Why did you not come with me on this search? I tell people it’s because you have too many bad war memories and do not want to come back to where they happened. Is this correct? Is there another reason you’d prefer that I give?

    • David’s reply to Jason via email on 4/8/18:

      Caffeine is being consumed. Brain engaged.

      I never saw a boat that she or her friends might have used. Tae, nor any of the other kids ever made any mention or sign that they had a boat. Your statement “It seems she got around by herself and with friends in a small boat” is a question to me. Someone has proposed that, I’m assuming. Every time I met or was around the kids, they seemed to be from the town, around where we loaded sand bags. I don’t know how you deduced the boat thing.

      Steve hasn’t been in contact. I did talk with Pete. It seems he and another Tracker, O.D., that’s Oscar Diaz, had made contact with Steve some time ago, with the same results. He didn’t seem to want to keep in touch. I’ll make another attempt but I’m not even sure if the email reply was from Steve. I sent a request looking for him by name. The reply was, yes it was him but that was all. It was an old email address and could have been anybody. I left my phone number and asked for a call, but never got a reply. This time I’ll ask some questions only Steve would know the answer too. That way I’ll know for sure, if I get a reply.

      No, I’m not good with the request for Tae’s letters. I believe you already have one or a part of one. To me, if I were to release them to the public, would be a great breach of trust. I won’t do that. However, when you find her, and she is still alive, with her permission I will. Only with her permission. If she has passed away or cannot be located, then I will release them after my passing.

      You must understand and impress upon others, who are prying, they were kids, children. They trusted me, I will not brake that trust. Ever !!!

      As for why I didn’t come with you, part of your answer is correct. Memories. However, if you recall, we met at Red Frog Coffee. You approached me about the art on the wall. I had mentioned it was from my Uncle, you have his book, and that brought up the Viet Nam conflict. You mentioned how interested you were in that time period and event. We agreed to meet again and did, about a year later, in Boulder. That was where I brought my albums. I recall you saying something like how privileged you felt that I would
      share this with you. I recall you saying you were planning a trip to Viet Nam and wouldn’t it be wonderful if you were to locate Tae. I don’t recall the offer to go with and your time to travel wasn’t defined, yet.

      I had plans in my mind to one day return, with my children, to show them the pictures and how those children lived through a war. But that hasn’t happened, yet. And remember, you traveled to and from Japan. I would be traveling from the U.S.A. — bit more of a stretch in time AND money.

      I’ve waited to answer you “personal” question for last.

      “People remember tidbits, what they heard and so on.”

      Who? If these people knew her and had talked with her then you have found where she is from. If so why didn’t you tell me that? Right now, I’m a bit upset with their underlying implying questions. It would seem someone is phishing, prying, looking for dirt. I can’t believe that YOU would be asking me this.

      If so, I’ve misjudged you, gave you information I’ve shared with almost no other, and our communication is OVER!! However, I don’t believe that. I think I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I didn’t see that in you. So someone else is prying.

      I can understand if they are. It was a WAR!!! In every conflict I’ve ever read about, there were events of inappropriate behavior. Children were abused. Abused in many ways. Made to do slave labor, terrified, physical abuse and on and on. They were easy targets. Unprotected, innocent, depending on others. Adults were also abused. I never had first hand knowledge of any events like that but can only imagine that they took place. From all sides.

      Whomever is proposing these questions to me, I believe they may have witnessed events. That would make them protective, on their guard. And rightfully so. There’s an old saying, “once bitten, twice shy.”

      I would recommend you review the book Seek On. The work we did. I was COVER. My job was to protect and walk cover. Several years ago I was told, in a sleep class by a retired Air Force Major, that the life expectancy of a Tracker Team was 3 months. A cover man, 3 weeks. I was always waiting to get shot!! Stress level off of the wall. That was our work and my position. As such, when I became friends with those children at the river, I felt safe or safer. In one direction was the river, wide and the other shore distant. Difficult shot for a sniper.

      And no one would be sneaking up on me from under the river. In two other directions the land was mostly flat, with little or no cover or concealment for the enemy. Look at the pictures. In one of those directions, was the bridge. American troops were stationed there. So the only direction I was on alert for was the immediate river bank we were on, and there was about 50 meters of flat until the edge of vegetation, and that vegetation was sparse. PLUS, I was surrounded by children, absolutely NO THREAT. I was safe.

      Can you even begin to imagine that feeling? Most of the time, fear of death, then a safe place. Now picture this with children. They are surrounded with a WAR. They have no protection. Along comes a soldier, a TALL, BIG soldier with a weapon for protection. Take a look at the picture of Tae and I standing beside the open door of our truck. I’m six foot two, she is what, maybe five foot nothing. And I’m her protection, she was safe.

      Figure it out.

      I showed my albums to Marian, a lady I’ve been hiking, skiing, etc with. She will also hike to Soldierstone with me. She read Tae’s letters and got a warm smile on her face, looked at me with a softness and said, “Awww, this little girl had a crush on you. How sweet.” For someone to ask of you to ask me if she was “in love” with me is absurd.

      She was, maybe at best, twelve years old. What does a twelve year old know of love. For that matter, what do many twenty year old’s know of love.

      They were children. Tae was a child. I believe they felt safe and protected around me. And they were, and happy. Take a look at their faces, the two young girls sitting on my truck. Smiling, happy. Take a look at the other kids. Climbing all over our truck. A playground.

      If someone is implying there was any inappropriate conduct with these kids or between Tae and I, they need to question themselves. I come from a family of military. My father served 31 plus years in the Navy during WWII with an impeccable record. His older brother, also WWII, Army.

      His younger brother, you have his book, Korea. All impeccable records. I would have to face them and I would have to face myself in a mirror. I have no problem looking into a mirror.

      Those children and Tae were the best of times during the worst of times. If she mentioned to others “tidbits” about me and they were caring, kind, loving words, I am touched. I am blessed. If there is ever any other questions that my have implied undertones, you will have to tell them, as best you can, what I’ve just written. And add this…….

      THEY WERE CHILDREN !!!!! TAE WAS A CHILD, and I was a SOLDIER. PERIOD !!

    • Jason’s reply to David via email on 4/8/18:

      Thank you for the answers to my questions. I’ll go through them one by one.

      I’ve noted that you never saw Tay (or Tae, as you wrote) or the other kids in boats. This helps in figuring out where they were from, although my next reports will probably reveal new information to you on this front.

      No problem if you cannot reach Steve. Just keep me in the loop if you do. He might be able to shed some light on the results of your sending silk to Tay.

      I understand your feeling about Tay’s letters, and appreciate that you would be willing to share them if I find her and she provides permission. I was looking for additional clues as to her situation when she lived in Bong Son and you were at LZ English.

      I didn’t mean to imply that I’m upset that you’re not with me, I just wanted to be sure I was representing your position correctly when telling people I’ve come here on your behalf due to the many hard memories you have of the war. It’s my pleasure to do so.

      Your response to my personal question came as a surprise.

      Please know that I’m not withholding anything from you or playing games with you or anybody here. My reports are a little behind the current situation, but that’s a function of my being out each day gathering information and having little time to report to you before heading back out. I’m keeping good records, though, and will get everything to you as quickly as I can.

      As far as I can tell, nobody has suggested any sort of inappropriate behavior between you and Tay, and I don’t even like writing that phrase. People are talking, sharing the tidbits they’ve heard, and I believe it’s in good faith to connect as many dots as possible.

      I read Seek On and know your family’s history. I know Tay was a child. I had already surmised on my own that the time with her and the other kids at the river was one of very few safe moments for you during the war, and why she was important to you. I know. It’s what I picked up on when we talked. It’s why I want to find her for you.

      I’m doing this for you and Tay, hoping to bring forward a little happiness from that unhappy time. The last thing I want to do is cause more pain for people who’ve already suffered enough. This is not an investigation or an indictment into anybody’s behavior during the war.

      We have a good connection, you and me. I’ve told everybody here that you’re my friend. We might not go back far, but we are friends and I’m on your side. When I’m back in Colorado, we’ll sit across a table from each other again and talk about all this. Please don’t think I’ve mishandled the private information you showed me from the war. On the contrary, I’m doing my very best with it to reunite you and Tay.

      I hope this resets your positive feelings toward my search. If you would like, I can call you to speak on the phone. Are you available now, at [phone number]?

    • David’s reply to Jason via email on 4/8/18:

      Reset noted. Positive feelings restored. Thank you. It is my nature to be on my guard. Wonder why. Might have something to do with my past?

      Thanks for your friendship.

      The information we share I’m fine with it being out there. So no worries. I was just overly cautious. That’s just me.

    • Jason’s reply to David via email on 4/8/18:

      It was great talking with you tonight, David.

      This is a meaningful project for many people, and we’ll treat it with the respect it deserves.

      Thank you for telling me other memories on the phone. I’ll be filling in some details for you soon.

      We haven’t found Tay yet, but we’re moving closer.

    • David’s reply to Jason via email on 4/8/18:

      I just returned from meeting some friends. They are very interested in the story.

      On another note, I think I owe you an apology. Reading over my reply I realize my over reaction. I should have never doubted you or your integrity.

      Years ago I had a friend say that sometimes I go to the same place twice. The second time to apologize. My deepest apology if I have offended you. I feel like crap.

      As for the story, my two friends said they hope you are writing everything down and documenting all of it. They are thinking you should write a book.

    • Jason’s reply to David via email on 4/8/18:

      No apology is necessary.

      I’m just glad to know you’re still with me on this, and that my goal of pulling forward a little happiness for you and Tay remains intact.

      I knew this would be an emotional project, and it has been, for both of us and several of the Vietnamese people involved. I have to believe it will come to some good. Everybody is trying to do good.

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To the Photography Studios
Report 2 filed 8 April 2018

The people upstream from the main bridge in Bong Son, the ones who contacted others overnight to see what they could find, turned up nothing. The leads they considered went nowhere.

So, Buu and I headed back to Bong Son on two separate motorbikes by backroads to see if anybody in a different area could help.




Buu’s own family was gathered for a party. They looked at the photos and discussed Tay, but couldn’t come up with anything.

Our main goal was to get to the photography studios where people said the backdrop in Tay’s studio photo was located. Maybe the studio would be able to pull up records from 49 years ago pointing us to where the family was located, and possibly reveal Tay’s true name.

Buu needed to ask directions to the studios in Bong Son.


The first one was not the shop, and told us to go to the other one, and gave us directions.


The second shop, named Phu Si, was the right one! The elderly photographer said the backdrop was definitely theirs and he knew Tay’s family.


We talked at length with the family and employees of the studio.

Did they remember why Tay had the photo taken? Maybe if it was for a school event or something connected with an organization we could go there for more information. No, they didn’t know the purpose of the photo. It was not an unusual type at the time.

Did they have business records from 1969 or thereabouts that might show the family’s address? No way.


However, the elderly man remembered where Tay’s family was from! He said they didn’t live upstream from the bridge, where we’d looked the day before, they lived downstream.

The name of the area is Dinh Tri village in the Hoai Nhon district.

We headed there straight away, and that’s where I’ll pick up the story in the next installment.

  • Responses To This Report
    • Greg via email on 4/8/18:

      From what I see in your wonderful photos, this is not an impoverished nation. You are in a more agricultural region, but I note that the society displays some well-finished edges. Not bad for a 3,000-year-old group! I know we tried our best to ruin it, but Communism Ho Chi Minh style has apparently not been so bad for these people. And, concomitant with that, I don’t detect much evidence of excesses. They spend money on cell phones, true, but cars? Lavish foods? Not so much, though I thought I saw two cans of beer on the table when you were meeting a few of the indigenous menfolk. There is a lot to like there, and a great deal to respect.
    • David via email on 4/8/18:

      Your photos of these people bring back very pleasant memories. Rice hats, bicycles, children dressed in white tops with black pants. Beautiful country side.
    • Roger via email on 4/8/18:

      Progress! The photographer knew the family, but did not know their family name or address? Too bad.
    • Lien via email on 4/8/18:

      The picture of tall grass/rice field and man in motorcycle with the cone hat is beautiful. For a few seconds, it looks like a Renoir painting of a girl sitting by a large water lily leaf! Looks like you’re getting close. Can’t wait to hear from Dinh Tri village.

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Dinh Tri Village
Report 3 filed 9 April 2018

The Phu Si photography studio pointed us in the other direction on the Lai Giang River, to a small area called Dinh Tri village, downstream from the main bridge toward the ocean, rather than upstream where we’d gone the day before. It’s on the side of the river opposite the town of Bong Son.

It was hard to find the right families to meet. Buu needed to stop several times and ask directions.

We went deeper into the countryside.

Finally, we came to the first family that recognized Tay in the photos.


They pointed us to another woman who would probably be able to identify the girl in the photo.

But she could not, and didn’t understand what was so important about contacting “just another war girl.” There was something mean in her eyes. They said, “I don’t know and I don’t care, and I don’t see why you people care.” At least she knew who would probably know, and the place she suggested was in the
direction of where the previous family had suggested, too.

We moved on to that family after several wrong stops along the way.

We arrived at a farming family. Cows mooed from a barn in back, hens and chicks ran around the yard, pigs grunted in their sties. The old man in the black tank top became a key figure in the search. His name is Le Diet. Remember him.

After looking and discussing the photos with his family and neighbors, Mr. Diet said he knew the girl in the photos. He said a name, and caused a reaction in the crowd. His wife and others leaned in to ask, “Are you sure?”

He said he was sure, but we still didn’t know what the disturbance was about. He said we should verify “with her relative” before getting too excited. He pointed the way to the relative’s house, which was just up the road.

The relatives listened to Mr. Diet and looked at the photos. A larger crowd gathered and a storm of conversation followed. It seemed that they were disagreeing, emotionally, about parts of the story. Some people were happy to see the photos, some very unhappy, and the two sides tore into each other.

The man with no shirt in the photo below is named Nhat. He is another key figure for you to remember.

I got questions in edgewise through Buu, and we were able to piece together a narrative from the group.

Mr. Diet grew up with Tay. They are roughly the same age, and used to ride across the river as kids in the same small boat together. He remembers her being pretty and popular, and eliciting jealousy in the community. He says he can’t forget her beautiful face.

When pressed for details about her personality, what they spoke about in their boat rides, whether he remembers her mentioning you or other soldiers, he demurs.

It’s unclear whether he does not remember, does not want to remember, does not want to share what he remembers, or something else. He helps, but only so far and then shuts down. He’s frustrating to deal with at times, but just when we’re about to give up on him he comes through with another useful nugget of information.

Now, for some big news:

Tay is not her real name. According to Mr. Diet and Mr. Nhat, her real name is Nguyen Thi Sau.

Everybody guesses that you and other soldiers heard the “Thi” as “Tay.” Because we have been referring to her as Tay from the beginning, and that’s the name you remember being hers, I will continue referring to her as Tay in these reports and when speaking with you about her. In the ongoing search, however, we’re now asking people about a Ms. Nguyen Thi Sau, not Tay. For short, we call her Ms. Sau.

Unfortunately, Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese family name. However, Vietnamese people are used to navigating around this reality, so knowing her full name is still useful—certainly more useful than asking for a “Tay,” which is not only incomplete but wrong.

As for Mr. Nhat, his mother is Tay’s niece. His mother passed away and he has not seen Tay in many years, but he was confident he knew how to reach her.

He’s another frustrating node in the network. He gets goofily happy at times, like he’s about to reveal something that will make us ooh and ahh at his lead part in the drama. I get the feeling that he sits around doing nothing most of the time and is only too happy at having something going on for a change.

This would be fine except that he never comes through. He has the phone number of Tay’s sister near Saigon, but she never answers. He knows somebody else but they never materialize. He quotes a phone number that doesn’t work, then changes the number. He sits dialing forever on his phone with nothing coming of it.

If he’s calling relatives, what’s the problem? Wouldn’t relatives know right away about a relative? If not, wouldn’t they know somebody who would know? He laughs, he claims “95% confidence” in various parts, but nothing concrete ever comes from Mr. Nhat’s activity.

Separately, at one point I began to doubt Buu. Was he not translating correctly, or missing key points, or just playing around? I didn’t want to think so, but there were moments when everything was shrouded in mist and I couldn’t figure out who was failing to clarify what should be easily cleared up.

I’ve since changed back to trusting and appreciating Buu. He’s as frustrated as I am at times, which is comforting. It’s not just a language barrier. There’s something strange going on in Tay’s family and former neighborhood.

That’s a key part I haven’t mentioned. Tay doesn’t live in Bong Son anymore. She moved near Saigon, but nobody can recall when or reach her. They disagree on her family situation.

Some people say she married an American and moved to America. No, married an American but stayed in Vietnam. No, had a child with an American but never married one. No, two children. Yes, two children, but not with an American, with a Vietnamese husband. No, not one Vietnamese husband, two of them. Oh, and actually three children.

Hmm. How could a family not have definitive answers to these basic questions about a relative? It’s confounding to Buu, too.

What came from the cloud of as-yet unverified ideas is that Tay probably lives in Binh Duong province, about 40 km from Saigon.

The person most likely to know her whereabouts, and confirm that the girl in the photos is the Ms. Sau everybody is talking about, is a Ms. Hon living with her son, Mr. Danh, and her grandchildren in Bien Hoa, about 33 km from Saigon. Ms. Hon is Tay’s sister.

We would need to get Ms. Hon on the phone, but guess who has her contact information? Mr. Nhat, the least reliable link in the chain. While he fumbled with his phone, and rummaged through the accoutrements of his life, we took a detour to see what Mr. Diet could show us of his childhood with Tay.

He took us on a walk, a most meaningful walk that you’ll want to take with me through photos and narration.

That is what’s coming next.

  • Responses To This Report
    • Greg via email on 4/9/18:

      I appreciate the tangled web from your last report. I see you have disclosed more, and included a good bit about the dead ends, the false flags, the fruitless references. I still think some who “don’t” know, do not wish to know. And have forgotten. The young lady may well have been the “black sheep” of the family, and so subjected to a sorrowful spurn. I think you’ll get no closer.
    • Roger via email on 4/9/18:

      Strange findings to be sure. The key seems to be finding her sister? Good luck. All the confusion about her seems strange, but of course I am unfamiliar with family bonds in Vietnam.
    • Oscar (David’s platoon mate) via email on 4/9/18:

      Wow!

      I feel as if I am with you on this search. I am tense with anticipation and each installment feels like a tease for the next. My frustration with the people you visit is as great as yours, but perhaps understood. A stranger inquiring about one of their own can create serious suspicion.

      National Geographic once had a cover of a green eyed refugee girl from Afghanistan. This was at a time when the Soviet Union was occupying that nation. A film crew went to locate the girl decades. They eventually found her, but only one of the crew was allowed to meet with her, and for a short time with her husband and family present. We never saw what she now looked like.

      Yours is a similar quest. I wish you greater success than that film crew in Afghanistan.

      Thank you for keeping me in the loop. I spent over six months in the region and your photos bring back memories.

    • Jason’s reply to Oscar via email on 4/9/18:

      Thank you for your service in the war. I’m so glad you’re following this search!

      David mentioned you, and I always thought it would be better if more veterans of the Bong Son area knew about the search.

      You’re right about the queasiness people feel when strangers come around asking questions. I remember that girl on the cover of National Geographic, and the follow-up. It’s a good comparison.

    • Oscar’s reply to Jason via email on 4/9/18:

      I can’t help. I have no recollection of her in particular. I recall kids washing the trucks, and some vending goods like sodas but I recall none specifically. I and some of the guys generally went to a nearby bar while we waited.

      Herb [nickname for David, from his last name, Herbert] mentioned that they sometimes took the labs [Labrador retriever combat tracker dogs] to swim at the river. Could something involving the dogs, such as their color, be of help? They were distinctly different from the local canines.

    • David via email on 4/9/18:

      This is really getting interesting. If you happen to see Mr. Diet again, you might try showing him some of the other photos I sent you of the river area. In some of them are boys in the background. Maybe he might have been one of them.

      I’m also wondering if some of these people might be giving you the runaround? What do you think?

      Since all I have to go on are your emails and how things are worded, my observations are slim at best. But you know from my other emails that I have a tendency to be protective or doubtful and I’m prone to over react. I would say, stay on your toes and if possible, confirm and re-confirm.

    • Jason’s reply to David via email on 4/9/18:

      Yes, it is getting interesting! You can see now a little more of the “tidbits” type of conversations I’ve been navigating.

      I don’t think the main characters are giving me the runaround, but I think they are hesitant to share everything they know.

      There’s a sense of wanting to let sleeping dogs lie, which is now the mystery. Why? Nobody’s accusing Tay of anything. Then, again, maybe they don’t trust that. Maybe they think we want to hold her accountable for something. I’m speculating.

      In advance of finding her, can either you or Oscar (or another wartime friend you may have) provide me with a question or two for Tay that only she would know the answers to, as a way of verifying that she is who she claims to be?

      It occurs to me that if any Vietnamese woman in her 60s told me today that she’s Tay, I’d have little way to verify. Not zero, but little, and I’d like more.

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Tay’s Life by the River
Report 4 filed 9 April 2018

While most of the Dinh Trin village group continued looking for ways to contact Tay, I asked Mr. Diet to show us where Tay lived.

He led us to a narrow path between properties down to the river. He said he and Tay and many children in the area used to walk up and down the path daily.

I asked him to show me where she lived. He walked toward the river.

He pointed to a corn field on the left.

I’ve been unable to get a clear answer on whether he means there used to be a house there, where Tay lived. I didn’t see any evidence of a structure having been there, so am assuming that he was just showing us where he, Tay, and the others went back and forth to the river.

We continued down the path.

Even though I did not know Tay and was not in the war, walking where she and Mr. Diet and other children walked during that time brought a feeling of nostalgia over me. I was putting my feet in the same sand where Tay’s feet had walked during the time in the photos I’ve been staring at for eight months.

I pictured her face along the path. How did her voice sound with the other children’s voices on their way to the river? Did she say your name? If so, how did she say it?

Did the wind in the bamboo sound the same back then as it sounded to me during our walk? Was there corn? How different were the river banks? Did the sun feel the same on their faces as it felt on mine? How much anticipation filled Tay as she went to see you and her other cherished American soldier friends in the war?

Mr. Diet said they rode in a boat together. I asked if Tay got to and from Bong Son by boat, and he said yes, but I’m not sure. They used small boats to cross the river, no doubt, but it would seem that a bicycle or motorbike or something else might have been easier for the kids than pushing upstream 5 km in a boat.

We know she managed transportation, though, because you saw her at LZ English, which is about 5 km from Bong Son. That required land travel, not river travel, so I’m not sure how much of a critical part the river played in Tay’s ability to move about the area.

Ultimately, it might not matter beyond a way of verifying that she lived beside the river where people say she lived. At this point, I’m assuming so, however, so it’s not critical to figure out how she went from there to the bridge and LZ English. We know she did. We have the photos and your memories.

The reason Mr. Diet and others emphasized her getting to the river and taking off in a boat could have something to do with their wanting us to know that she had a life of her own during the war, and that not all of them were thrilled with it.

What could this have been? Theories abound, with scant evidence.

Did she maintain a relationship with a soldier or soldiers? Some say no way, given her young age. Others point to more mature-looking photos of her and say it’s a possibility.

Was she dealing in some kind of business, or just receiving money or other favors from soldiers? This is the most popular theory, and Buu’s preferred one. He thinks she fared better than other villagers during the war, did not share her good fortune, lost that good fortune when the war ended, and found herself ostracized from the community as a result. Then, she ran away to Saigon.

If this history is true, it could explain why nobody is in touch with her or has easy access to a way of contacting her, or a desire to do so. Maybe they think she’s about to come into good fortune again and don’t want to help it happen. Maybe they know something bad she did during the war and fear that we’re trying to bring her to account.

Do you believe Tay might have benefited in any way from her time with you and other soldiers? You said it was a privilege for the kids to ride in the trucks with you, and that Tay seemed like a ring leader. Could there have been money or goods coming her way?

We eventually reached the riverbank where Tay and Mr. Diet launched their boats.

We’re calling it Tay’s beach. Bong Son and the bridge where you met her are upstream, to the left.

I stood there a long time, listening to the water and imagining the sound of choppers and bombs and gunfire and shouting voices mixed in. I thought—and not for the first time—that I would understand and forgive just about anything local people did to survive the war. Ditto the soldiers.

I don’t know that anything wrong happened, of course, but there’s something in the way people discuss Tay that suggests they think so. Standing on Tay’s beach, I just thought again that a great deal of leeway needs to be granted from the luxury of peacetime to what people do during wartime.

Somehow I felt closer to Tay while standing on her beach. I almost wanted to say something out loud to her. I hope I get the chance to do so. This is not over yet.

It was time to go home for the night.

We drove out through the beautiful countryside of Tay’s childhood.

The sun set over the river as we drove along it. The man in a boat triggered my imagination into seeing Tay out there, pushing her way back from a day with the only people who brought her any sense of safety during the war. Is that all that was going on? If so, how sweet. Is that what she would have looked like on the orange water?

Coming soon: More detail from Mr. Diet and Mr. Nhat via different interpreters, just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything via Buu.

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The Meeting with English Teachers
Report 5 filed 10 April 2018

Buu has been trustworthy and generous with his time, but in the interest of being sure to get all the information I could from Tay’s neighborhood, I decided to interview people there with the help of other English speakers.

My first stop was the Nha Tho Thac Da Ha Catholic church I’d seen on the road to Tay’s village.

The current priest at my mother’s church in Estes Park is Vietnamese, and priests often speak multiple languages, so I figured I’d have a good chance of being able to communicate with the priest at the church near Tay’s village.

One theory is that Tay became interested in foreigners by attending the church, where some showed up now and then even before the war. The church has been there for ages. Would the priest know Tay and her family?

I walked around back to the rectory, which was beautiful, and found Father Nguyen Ba Thanh. He and others there took time to look at Tay’s photos and speak with me in rudimentary English.

However, he did not know Tay. He said he’d never seen her before and could add nothing to the story of what happened to her during and after the war. He took down my information and said he’d get back to me if anybody in the parish knew something. So far, I haven’t heard from him again.

I paused and thought about who else could help. I stood at the edge of the church entrance, looking across the road to the river. People went by on motorbikes, buggies, and bicycles. Many on bicycles were children. Many of them wore school uniforms. How about their school? Wouldn’t there be an English teacher who might help?

I drove up the road in the direction from which the children came. They kept streaming toward me. I drove, asked directions to their school, which they provided excitedly, drove more, asked more, and finally arrived at this school:

As I crossed the courtyard toward the classrooms, I was met by the principal and vice principal, who wondered what in the world I was doing there. I tried explaining, they couldn’t follow, but did what I’d hoped they would: brought an English teacher.

Her name was Ms. Phuong. She said she was busy with classes and could not go with me to meet Mr. Diet and Mr. Nhat, but if I brought them to the school she’d help me talk with them. That was reasonable. Would she be able to write an explanation for them on my notepad so they understood what I was asking? Sure, she said.

Toting her note, I zoomed back down the river some 10 km to Tay’s village, where I had no trouble locating Mr. Diet, sitting on his porch listening to a program on a portable radio. I showed him Ms. Phuong’s note.

To his credit, Mr. Diet said he would go. He fetched Mr. Nhat from next door, and asked him to drive. They went on Mr. Nhat’s scooter.

I have been impressed by the generosity of Bong Son’s people. There is nothing in this search for them, but they give freely of their time and energy to help me find Tay, despite some of them not being particularly fond of her. More on that later.

Our arrival at the school caused another ripple of excitement. At various times during our meeting, several faculty members and dozens of students surrounded the tables. I recorded audio of the entire meeting.



The key points relayed by Buu were confirmed, which was a relief.

Then, new information started to flow, the theme of which was that people in the area have lost contact with Tay for a reason.

There was talk of children, again the speculation that one of them was half American, and other stuff. Sorting this out is not my immediate goal, however. I’m looking for Tay. She’s the ultimate source on what happened in her life.

Again, Mr. Nhat fumbled with his phone but could not reach Tay’s sister, his aunt, Ms. Hon. Could he reach her? Definitely. Then do it. Something went wrong. Try again? Something went wrong.

Another English teacher, Ms. Huong joined the mix. Her English was even better than Ms. Phuong’s. She wrote down some notes on my memo pad. She and the entire staff suggested I enlist the help of a Vietnamese TV program that finds lost people: Nhu Chua He Co Cuoc Chia Ly, and supplied the phone number of the show.


What I took away from this meeting was that I need to get to Ms. Hon, the relative who seems most likely to have information on Tay’s whereabouts.

Along the way, it was time to sort out who was who in this expanding family tree. Hon is a sister, Nhat is a nephew, and other figures in Bong Son were other relations. Why is this family so disconnected from Tay?

The weight of evidence suggests that Tay was not a bad person. On the contrary, she was good. She took children back and forth across the river. She was honest in her dealings with people.

You told me she never asked for money, never stole anything off the trucks, helped you recover missing tools, asked how much you paid for an item in town and then returned to the merchant to negotiate some of your money back. You told her to keep it when she tried returning the money to you, but she said, “I no want your money.”

By most accounts, Tay was a good person during the war. It was unclear to me why her community all but disowned her afterwards.

The most frequent comment about her is that she was beautiful. Could jealousy explain the distance? I doubted it.

I wanted to clear this up, and decided it was time to return to Buu for help in doing so. This turned out to be a good move.

More on that soon.

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Tay’s Family
Report 6 filed 10 April 2018

The results in recent reports might seem like a collection of nothing. If so, good. I want you to get a feeling for the flood of dead ends, side tracks, diversions, unconnected thoughts, and other irrelevance that has characterized the search.

Keep in mind, too, that the reports are a distillation. The photos and recordings and notes in their raw form are much longer, with lots of repetition and immaterial chatter.

One of my uncles was a police officer in Norwood, Ohio. When I was a boy, he took me on a tour of the station. I was most interested in the detectives’ desk. I asked my uncle what separated a good detective from a mediocre one. He replied, “Good ones know what to ignore. Mediocre ones chase everything.”

He explained that anybody can build a thick file of information. Walk down a single city block, ask a question of everybody going by, and you’ll build a file. So what? What are the keys to your goal, and what pieces of evidence lead to it? This is not always straightforward, of course, because we can’t always know what’s relevant until later in the search.

I wished at several points so far in this search to have had my uncle with me, or my high school friend who is an FBI agent. My detective skills are not as good as theirs would be, I’m afraid.

This came to me over the past few days.

Inspired by memories of my uncle, I began tuning out anything that had gone nowhere. I began interrupting to say I don’t need another explanation of the wartime situation, or a summation of fishing boat revenues, or to be reminded that nobody in Bong Son has laid eyes on Tay in decades. The singular focus is to learn where she is now, and how to reach her.

This focused push finally produced Tay’s sister’s phone number, an accurate one, which she answered. It had been on Mr. Nhat’s phone all along, but he’d told it incorrectly to Buu and others. Her name is Ms. Hon, and she lives in Bien Hoa, about 35 km from Saigon’s District 1. I mentioned this before.

Back at my hotel, I asked Buu to extract as much information as possible from Ms. Hon. We needed to show her the photos of Tay.

The man on the right in the shot below is a colleague of Buu’s who understood my frustration and helped push Buu forward. He has a strong personality, and the universe produced him for me at just the right moment, as it often does.

First, could Ms. Hon verify that the girl in the photos was her sister?

It was too noisy, she couldn’t see the photos clearly, and couldn’t say for sure.

I wanted to email the photos for a clearer look. However, Ms. Hon cannot manage email on her own, nor speak English, so her granddaughter, Ms. Duyen, who is good with technology and pretty good in English, took over the phone at the other end.

With her staying on the line with me, we high-tailed it to my room to exchange information before the battery died or the connection failed, issues that had dogged us before.

We made it to my room. I sent the photos. We exchanged contact information with plans for me to visit the family home when I returned to Saigon.

What I wanted from Ms. Hon and family was:

1. Tay’s current address and phone number.

2. More recent photos of Tay.

They could provide neither. What? Why not?

They hadn’t seen her in years. Nobody had. They thought she lived in Binh Duong, about 30 km from Saigon’s District 1 and 30 km from Ms. Hon’s home, but in place of an address they offered only that she’s probably within a 5-km radius of a bus station in Binh Duong called Bus Pacific.

Well, rats.

A 5-km radius in a crowded city is quite a haystack, especially when your only identifying evidence is an album of 49-year-old photos.

These are some of Buu’s notes:

Not all of them are correct. His map of Saigon (HCM City), for instance, shows inaccurate distances. He was just guessing.

Ms. Hon’s family suggested we contact a Mr. Son in Bong Son. He is Tay’s nephew but from a sister that is not Ms. Hon.

We began to piece together an initial picture of Tay’s family to try mapping out the connections.

I now know that the following schematic is wrong, but want to show it to you so you can see how the information evolved:

The box on top is Tay’s father. There are children numbered 2 – 9 below him, because in Vietnam the first child is labeled 2 instead of 1, evidently because the 1 is assigned to the parent(s). We thought when pulling together this tree that Tay was the fifth child of her father, or #6, labeled Sau (her real name).

Mr. Nhat was the child of #9, who was dead. Ms. Hon was the first child, with her son Mr. Danh below her. The new lead, Mr. Son was the child of #7, who was dead.

We continued working through the rest of the tree.

We went to visit Mr. Son.

He lives in Thai Lai, directly across the river from where Tay lived. It was hard to find the right roads, but in the car of Mr. Vu, one of Buu’s friends, we made it to Thai Lai.

Mr. Son’s home is a modest one.

He wasn’t there at the time he said he’d meet us. We found a neighbor who had an alternate phone number for Mr. Son, and wrote it in pencil on a piece of wood.

Finally, Mr. Son arrived. He apologized for his messy home, explaining that his wife does not live with him. He was proud of his coconuts, though, and treated us to a round of milk from some taken fresh from the trees in his yard. It was good.

When we finally got down to business, he verified that the girl in the photos was his aunt, Ms. Sau (Tay). Good!

He said the last time he saw her was when she attended his wedding in 1977. Well, that would have her eight years older than in the most recent photos I’m carrying, so could we see pictures of her at his wedding? He didn’t have any.

Again? What was going on here? We put it to him straight. Did he have:

1. Tay’s current address and phone number.

2. More recent photos of Tay.

No.

Could he think of anybody, other than Ms. Hon, who might have these items for us?

No. The same brick wall.

What was going on with this family? Even Buu said he’d never seen such a disconnected family before, so it’s more than a cultural difference between the West and Vietnam.

This came up when I said in a moment of frustration that even if I hadn’t seen any of my brothers and sisters or even cousins or nephews and nieces in decades, if somebody showed up asking how to reach them I’d be able to produce the connection quickly. Buu said he would, too, and everybody he knows would. The disconnect between Tay and her family and village is unusual.

After much more digging, calling Ms. Hon’s family back, re-re-re-interviewing people in Tay’s village, following up with everybody we could, we finally produced what we believe is a definitive family tree for Tay. Study it carefully, as it contains what we think is the key to the disconnect:

Ignore the notes at the bottom. They are about why many Vietnamese men who helped America during the war went to prison after it ended. It’s part of tangent I’m not yet sure to be useful.

Tay’s father (SAU Father, at the top) had three wives. With his first wife, he produced Ms. Hon then the wife died soon thereafter. With his second wife, he produced Tay then her mother died soon thereafter.

With his third wife, he produced five more children, one of whom was Mr. Son’s mother. Mr. Nhat also appeared farther down in the group originating from Tay’s father’s third wife.

The key to the disappearance of Ms. Hon and Ms. Sau (Tay) to Saigon appears to be that they are each an only child of a deceased mother. They have no full-blooded siblings in the family, and the group below the third wife pushed them out.

The shared circumstances between Ms. Hon and Tay did not create a bond between them, so they have not cared to keep in touch with each other, either. They were both shot out to Saigon on different paths, neither looking back much, nobody caring what became of them.

Does this bring me closer to Tay’s location? Not really, but it brings me closer to Tay.

It tells me that her rejection from the people of her childhood may have had nothing to do with her having been a “bad” person during the war, or having amassed a fortune that she chose not to share, and so on.

Instead, she becomes more endeared to me as a girl who suffered greatly in the war, with less family support than others might have had.

Even when you knew her, Tay was one of two half-blood rejects in the family, not close to the other half-blood and possibly shunned outright by the children of the living wife of her father.

Part of her joy at spending time with you and other soldiers may have been just finding people who liked her, and were kind to her. She returned that kindness, in ways you remember, such as negotiating back the amount you overspent on an item in town, and other ways you might not have known about.

When the war ended, her American friends left and she found herself a young woman with few friends or supportive family members, possibly pregnant, and fled to Saigon to try starting anew.

This is just a theory. I remain focused on finding her to discuss it with her, powered by a new wave of energy.

It’s time to get to Saigon.

I need to visit Ms. Hon’s family in-person. I still want more recent photos of Tay and her address, but doubt I’ll get them until I reach Tay. They won’t be tools of the search, they’ll be rewards of finding her. Will that moment ever arrive?

To Saigon, then, and an efficient handling of practical matters so I can dive back into the search for the three full days I’ll have available to me before returning to Tokyo: renting another motorbike, and finding another interpreter.

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Goodbye to Bong Son
Report 7 filed 11 April 2018

With little to go on, just that Tay might live within a 5-km radius of the Bus Pacific station in Binh Duong, and the hope that I could extract more useful information from her sister, Ms. Hon in Bien Hoa, it was time for me to leave Bong Son for Saigon.

I will miss the area, which I came to know well during my week there. What was a war zone during the time you and Oscar Diaz saw it 50 years ago is now a charming countryside filled with bucolic scenes and smiling people eager to say “Hello!” to me.

I cannot forget the rush of feelings that overcame me when walking the path that Tay walked to the river, listening to the wind in the bamboo, and looking across the corn field where her house may have been located long ago.



The people at the Sa Huynh Resort, where I stayed and where Buu works as a chef, were wonderful.

They fed me, cleaned my room, laundered my clothes, reported back to Buu when I safely returned from trips to town, and made me feel like part of their family rather than just a guest.

Ms. Tui on the left below, and Ms. Hien hiding from my camera on the right, were especially charming.

Mornings began with a nourishing bowl of noodles and meat, over which they ladled soup from a homey pot.

I was always happy to return to the resort, and my comfortable Bungalow 09, in front of which I parked my motorbike.



People invited me to return one day, and I like to think that I will.

I may not know Tay’s whereabouts yet, but I sure know the scenic backroads from Sa Huynh Resort to a US Army bridge built half a century ago, where soldiers and local children enjoyed rare moments of safety and happiness together.

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Bong Son Sand for Soldierstone
Report 8 filed 11 April 2018

You asked me to bring something back from Bong Son that you could carry to the Soldierstone memorial in Colorado.

I think I have just the right item to honor the place you served and acknowledge Tay’s role in reviving it in your mind recently: sand from the river.

I collected it in two water bottles.

One sample is from Tay’s Beach.


Another is from the US Army bridge area, where you met Tay.


I’m also bringing two made-in-Vietnam ceramic jars, purchased in downtown Bong Son. Tay was unavailable to negotiate a better price for me, but I didn’t mind paying in full.

You can put sand in one jar for Soldierstone, and in the other for your home.


I hope you like this way of remembering Bong Son at Soldierstone and in your home.

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Into Binh Duong
Report 9 filed 12 April 2018

I hit the ground running in Saigon, then hit it on full alert in traffic. No matter how much you think you remember Saigon traffic, the re-entry is a shock. Rules are optional. Proceed and pray.

I arranged delivery of a speedy motorbike to my hotel, a Honda Air Blade.

Next, I reconnected with a person I met a year ago when visiting Saigon, a Ms. Phuong Phan. She speaks Japanese pretty well, and Vietnamese natively, so she could help me with interpretation. Chalk this one up as a fringe benefit of being gregarious.

In a stroke of luck that’s further evidence of the universe providing what we need when we need it, she works at a hotel located just 100 meters from mine in the Japanese section of Saigon. How about that? I had no idea.

Here she is with her colleague at the front desk of her hotel. She’s the tall one on the right. Their uniform is a kimono. Little wonder she speaks Japanese.

I brought Ms. Phuong up to speed on the search for Tay, and she said would help where she could within her busy work schedule that provides only one day off per week.

I asked her to accompany me right away to look for Tay in the 5-km radius around the Bus Pacific station in Binh Duong, then to join me in a meeting with Ms. Hon and family in Bien Hoa.

She agreed and we set off.

I should mention that I knew it was a long shot to show up on the streets of Binh Duong with 49-year-old photos and a name, and expect to miraculously find Tay.

Even so, I just wanted to continue the search in the area where she probably lives. I was tired of searching for her from hundreds of kilometers away. I wanted to experience the possibility of actually finding Tay.

I used Google Maps to plan out the route from my hotel to Binh Duong, then Bin Duong to Ms. Hon’s area in Bien Hoa, then back to my hotel.

I double-checked the accuracy of my maps with Ms. Duyen, Ms. Hon’s granddaughter who speaks English, and made sure Ms. Phuong’s phone could follow the map links. Everything checked out and we set off.

I followed Ms. Phuong through Saigon’s traffic to the outskirts of the city. She wore a red sweatshirt, red helmet, and a backpack. I committed this image, plus her license plate’s top line, 60-U7, to memory for the jet-coaster-like dash behind her through the city.

Even though she’s a Saigon native and our trip was well-planned, she still needed to ask directions several times.



At long last, we arrived at Bin Duong and hit the streets with Tay’s childhood photos and her real name.


It was very busy, with all manner of traffic around us.

It was a complete bust, as I figured it would be. Nobody knew a thing. Still, we were searching an area where it was possible, just possible, to actually find Tay. That felt good.

The man’s face in the shot below characterized how it went. “Seriously?” he seemed to be wondering. “You think I can recognize a woman from those photos, and you think I care about the names of my customers?”

I half-joked with Ms. Phuong that we should make a sign showing an enlargement of Tay’s main photo and her real name, saying we’re looking for her, and march around the area.

We could also record a looping audio message saying her name and that we’re trying to find her, then play it over a portable loudspeaker.

Ms. Phuong gave a nervous laugh.

We were spared the indignity of giving up by instead needing to leave the area to make our evening appointment with Ms. Hon’s family in Bien Hoa.

As we left Binh Duong, I was happy for the feeling of futility that the street search put in us. It made it obvious to both Ms. Phuong and me that we needed more information.

Luckily, we were off to see a family that might be able to provide it.

I’ll pick up there in the next report.

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The Meeting with Ms. Hon
Report 10 filed 12 April 2018

Like the drive to Tay’s area in Binh Duong, the drive from there to Ms. Hon in Bien Hoa was a tricky one.

Ms. Phuong needed to stop for directions many times, and finally asked Ms. Hon’s son, Mr. Danh, to meet us and lead the way. He did so.

This was a sobering reminder of why it’s so hard to find Tay with scant information. Even with an address from Ms. Duyen, Google Maps, and information over the phone, a Saigon native could not get to Ms. Hon’s house.


We finally arrived.

Ms. Hon verified again that the girl in the photos was her younger sister, Nguyen Thi Sau. The man in the background is her son, Mr. Danh, and behind him is the parking area in front of their nice home. Poverty stricken, these people are not.

Ms. Hon said Tay’s real name was not Nguyen Thi Sau, but Nguyen Thi Minh. This came as a surprise. The name Sau has been widely verified by now. I pressed Ms. Duyen to press Ms. Hon for Tay’s full name, and then she said Minh was actually a nickname and the real name was indeed Sau.

She said Tay was born in 1950, which would have made her 19 years old in the main cover photo. You remember her being only about 12 then. This is a tough one. Vietnamese people frequently look younger than their age to Westerners. Tay looks child-like in some of her photos, but like a young woman in others. If Ms. Hon is correct, then Tay is about 68 years old now.

I asked her about the theory that she and Tay were pushed from the family due to each of them being the only child of their different mothers with their shared father. She verified that the family tree was correct, but said there was no different treatment in the family for her or Tay. “No problem,” she said, in translation through Ms. Duyen. It was a loving family.

She said Tay has four children, one with her first husband and three with her second. The second husband is dead. She has no idea what happened to the first one.

I’ve heard different stories about Tay’s relationship history. Everybody has their own idea. The big mystery is the father of Tay’s first child. Some think he was an American, some don’t. Some think he was a boyfriend, others a husband.

Occasionally, I get the feeling people tell me he’s an American to thicken the plot, because I’m an American searching for Tay.

Ms. Hon says Tay’s first child had already been born when you knew her in 1969. His name is Nhon, and he supposedly lives with her to this day. He repairs watches, but nobody knows the name of his business or former or current employers.

In Ms. Hon’s telling, after Tay’s first husband died, Tay was dirt poor and went to her grandfather’s house to get rice for sustenance. He lived in Quang Tri.

Ms. Hon told many other stories, and her son, Mr. Danh, and his wife, Ms. Dao, added to them. It was emotional at times. The people in the photo below, from left to right, are Dao, Hon, and Danh.

Something felt amiss. They were holding back. It felt like they were on edge most of the time.

Examine Mr. Danh’s face in the next photo. He looked this way at many times during the exchange, tense, alert to trouble, wanting to make sure they stayed on script, wondering where I was going with this.

I finally asked why it felt this way. “Why do you seem so nervous?” I asked through Ms. Duyen. Ms. Hon said some things she knows about Tay she wouldn’t even tell her husband.

I said I didn’t mean to pry, I just wanted to find Tay, but this provided little comfort.

Mr. Danh wanted to know more about me, where I fit in. I said I’m just a friend and searching for purely personal reasons, not with the police or government, not bringing Tay to account or investigating anything, just trying to reunite two people who knew each other during the war in a friendly way, who seemed to find some of their only peace in each other’s presence.

This relaxed him a little, but still no useful information was forthcoming. I described my enormous search area around the Bus Pacific station in Binh Duong. I asked Ms. Phuong to explain in more detail how impossible it is to walk around asking for Tay. Was there anything they could give me to narrow the search area?

No, but on Sunday Mr. Danh would go in search of Tay himself. Why couldn’t it happen before that, while I’m in town, given how far I’ve come and my small window of time? He’s too busy. Earlier is impossible.

Alright, how about telling me how he’ll go about searching for her? If he knows who he’ll contact or what businesses he’ll visit, Ms. Phuong and I could go to them in advance. No.

I tried a different tack. Because Ms. Phuong was with me on the streets of Binh Duong and experienced the futility of our current search capabilities, she could bring the feeling to Mr. Danh. What would she want from him to make our job easier on the next trip to the area? She tried asking for this and that, which I would detail for you except that there’s no point because nothing came back.

We pressed, and pressed, and pressed. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

As the night wore on and people began to sag, we finally got the name of one person who might be able to help, a Ms. Hen who visited Tay some 7-9 years ago with her husband. She is the wife of Ms. Hon’s other son, Mr. Danh’s older brother. She might remember the location of Tay’s home. Good! We even got her phone number.

They said her husband was dead, but I wanted to verify this with her.

I wanted to end on a pleasant note, less business and more friendly. I asked about their family, complimented their home, and invited them to ask me questions. It became a fun conversation. I took photos of their photos. They got a kick out of that.

This is the wedding photo of Mr. Danh and Ms. Dau, and them standing below it:


You can see that the mood had lifted significantly by this time. It felt a lot better, and they assured me that they would remain in touch as they continued the search after I go. I don’t know that they will turn up anything, but I believe that they will share it with me if they do.

This is Ms. Hon in younger days:

We left for the night. They led us out to the main roads. From there, Ms. Phuong could get us back to Saigon’s District 1.

The fact that both Mr. Danh and Ms. Dao escorted us out speaks to the warmer relationship by the end of the meeting.

Ms. Dao and Ms. Phuong spoke as they drove next to each other. I later found out the main point of conversation was how Ms. Phuong was connected to all this. She said it also seemed to her that they were sincerely interested in helping and would stay in touch.

I wanted to bring Buu back into the search because he knows it better than Ms. Phuong. I asked him to call Ms. Hen and get what he could from her. He did so the next morning, but came back with nothing. Nothing! She couldn’t remember a single landmark, street, or anything else to narrow the search area. Nothing!

With just 1.5 days left in Saigon, I made a list of follow-up questions for Ms. Hen. I’ve learned that general inquiries, such as “What do you remember that could help?” get me nowhere here. It’s better to ask highly specific questions and make pinpointed requests, the way one must do when programming a computer.

For example, it’s better to ask, “Did you see the tall yellow building near the park that night?” than it is to ask “What do you remember from the drive there?”

I wanted the follow-up questions to be asked of Ms. Hen by somebody who understands my urgency and will not accept meaningless answers unless they’re completely sure that they’re all Ms. Hen has. If so, fine, but how could she remember truly nothing about a family visit just 7-9 years ago?

I asked my Vietnamese friend, Lien in Los Angeles, who is fully bilingual and knows me well and would have no trouble translating my urgency into Vietnamese and persisting in a lengthy Q&A with Ms. Hen, if she would be willing to make the call. She said yes, and was standing by to do so if necessary.

While I was waiting to hear back from her (my request went to her in the middle of the night, California time), I asked Ms. Phuong and Buu to speak to each other by phone. I wanted Buu to tell Ms. Phuong everything he knew so that the next call to Ms. Hen did not retread what had been tried, making her frustrated and shutting her down.

While we were waiting to hear back from Buu in a follow-up call, Ms. Phuong and I walked to look for better glasses for me to wear on the long Saigon drives. My sunglasses are pretty good, but dust still blows in the sides of them sometimes.

By chance, while we were walking past the famous Ho Chi Minh statue in front of Ho Chi Minh City Hall, just a few blocks down the street from my hotel, Buu called back. I swear that the following shot of Ms. Phuong talking with Buu was not staged.

They spoke at length. Afterwards, Ms. Phuong was fully onboard and eager to make the critical next call to Ms. Hen. I set to work on the list of questions for Ms. Hen. They are:

_____________

You mentioned that when you and your husband visited Ms. Sau, only your husband entered her home. Did you see Ms. Sau at all on that visit? For example, maybe she came out of the house to say hello. If so, what did you talk with her about?

Did your husband tell you what he and Ms. Sau talked about? If so, what was it?

Do you have any photos of your visit with Ms. Sau?

Is your husband still alive? If so, would he remember the location of Ms. Sau’s home?

On the drive to Ms. Sau’s home, did you pass the Bến Xe Khách Bình Dương bus station? If so, was it on the right or left?

Did you pass the Go Dau Stadium (Sân vận động Gò Đậu)? It was built in 1973, so it was there nine years ago when you visited Ms. Sau.

Were you near the Saigon River (Sông Sài Gòn)?

Who planned your visit with Ms. Sau? Did she contact you, or did you contact her?

How did you communicate to arrange the visit? Phone? Email?

If by phone or email, did you write hers down somewhere? Are they in your old history? Could you contact the phone company for help getting Ms. Sau’s contact information?

Do you know anybody who could help us find Ms. Sau?

_____________

In parallel, I searched for watch repair stores in Binh Duong and found two that Ms. Phuong will call to see if they know Tay’s son, Nhon. Unfortunately, we could not get his full name from Ms. Hon’s family. Another oddity, but onward we go.

The watch shops are Đăng Quang Watch Bình Dương and Cửa Hàng Đồng Hồ Queen Watch.

That’s the latest. It’s Thursday morning in Saigon as I send this. In less than 24 hours, I’ll be on a plane back to Tokyo. Keep your fingers crossed for a last-minute miracle.

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Back to Binh Duong
Report 11 filed 15 April 2018

My Vietnamese friend in Los Angeles, Lien, called Ms. Hen to make sure she truly knew nothing about the night that she and her husband went to visit Tay in Binh Duong.

Ms. Hen was friendly, to the point of calling Lien back from Vietnam to complete their conversation. Lien said it did not feel that she was hiding anything. On the contrary, Ms. Hen wished she could help more but simply didn’t have any information.

It was not 7-9 years ago that she and her husband visited Tay. It was 11 years ago. They parked on a main street, and only he walked back through rows of homes to Tay’s. Only he saw the home and Tay and spoke with her. He relayed very little back to Ms. Hen. She can’t remember a thing to help track down where Tay lives, or at least lived 11 years ago. That’s getting to be quite a while back.

As a final offer, Ms. Hen suggested I have somebody contact her brother-in-law, who might know more, but the number she supplied belongs to Mr. Danh, the son of Tay’s half-sister, Ms. Hon, whom we met two nights prior. It was Mr. Danh who had supplied Ms. Hen’s number; now she was supplying his. An infinite loop to nowhere.

With that, all I had to go on for my final night in Saigon was the thin knowledge from Ms. Hon, Tay’s half-sister, that Tay’s first son, Mr. Nhon, repaired watches in the Binh Duong area.

Neither of the watch stores I asked Buu to call knew anything of a Mr. Nhon.

I decided to enlist the help of a bigger search team to go with me to Binh Duong and drive around on motorbikes, stopping at watch stores with the photos and Mr. Nhon’s and Tay’s names in hopes that somebody in Mr. Nhon’s line of work near the area where he supposedly lives would recognize him.

Joining Ms. Phuong and me were an English-speaking waitress named Ms. Hang, whom I first met a year ago when in Saigon, and her boyfriend, Mr. Nunh. We set off for Binh Duong.



The first watch shops said they’d never heard of Mr. Nhon, and couldn’t do a thing with the old photos of Tay.

However, they told us about a part of Binh Duong that is known for its concentration of watch shops, the Watch District, as it were. They told us how to get there.


The Watch District was less friendly. People became angry if they saw me taking photos. It was better for me to stand across the street, in hiding, because the presence of an American freaked some of them out.

One man said that if we paid him money he might be able to show us the right street, but the Vietnamese people with me dismissed this offer out of hand. “No way,” Ms. Hang said. “It’s a scam.”



Finally, we caught a bit of a break.

The owner of one watch shop said that the right place to ask was at one of the oldest shops in the area, Tien Phat. That owner knows everybody in the Binh Duong watch industry. If there was a Mr. Nhon fixing watches nearby, she’d have heard of him. She told us how to get to the shop.


We set off for Tien Phat.


There, we learned . . . nothing. She’d never heard of a Mr. Nhon, or variations of his name, didn’t recognize anybody in the photos. She couldn’t help at all.

That’s how Trip 1 concluded.

I needed to leave early the next day for Japan, so we called it a night and returned to Saigon’s District 1.

As you read this, it’s Sunday night in Vietnam and Duyen has assured me repeatedly by email that her family—including her father, Mr. Danh, and her aunt, Ms. Hen—would be searching Binh Duong for Tay and Mr. Nhon today. She will report back what they find.

I don’t expect much. New thinking and information is needed, followed by a better-planned return trip to Saigon.

I left Saigon and Vietnam . . .


. . . and returned to Narita Airport near Tokyo.


By the time I landed, I’d pored over my notes and come up with ideas to explore. I’ll detail those, and what I hear back from the Mr. Danh family, in another note.

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