Our house had once been elegant in the provincial French manner, with balconies and verandas and climbing vines of pink blossoms and servants’ quarters in the back. But like all the houses on the street, ours was now surrounded by a high concrete wall with barbed wire across the top.
In the summer of 1964, when we arrived in Saigon, our house belonged to the United States military, whose cheerful Vietnamese employees moved us in. A small, stooping gardener appeared almost every day, his face covered by a straw hat. He never spoke, but tipped his head slightly in our direction and dug assiduously in our small front yard, apparently weeding and caring for the narrow strip of grass. Chi Hai wet-mopped the red tile floors twice a day, or rather it was Chi Ba who mopped them, working under Chi Hai’s impatient and sometimes vindictive supervision. The kitchen belonged to Anh Ba, who cooked, shopped, directed meals, and oversaw Chi Hai’s service – with continual displeasure.
The stairway to the second floor had two long, polished, cherry wood handrails that were smooth and pleasing to touch. That first evening we tried sitting out on the front balconies, but the blue smoke from misfiring cars and motor scooters drove us indoors. Our bedroom and bath were at the back of the house. We opened the black wooden shutters of our window and looked out at the servants’ quarters strung with lines of our clothes, and across to the high wall and rooftop of our unknown neighbour.