I knew him briefly, but I quickly understood why my student – the one who introduced us – called him Uncle.
Sometimes I see older faces in Huê, and I wonder what those old eyes have seen. I found out when I asked Châu. He was older than me, and had seen much.
He was a physician – French trained in Sài Gòn after school in Da Lat. He finished medical school in 1968, and returned to Huê, but was drafted into the southern army in 1972. He left his homeland and went to America, where he spent five years in Mississippi learning English well enough to take his medical examinations. The rest of his time in America he spent in Houston practicing public health.
Age brought retirement and a yearning to live in Việt Nam again. You see, he was the son of mandarins. He belonged in Việt Nam. He belonged in Huê.
His grandfather had been a mandarin in the courts of the last two emperors. He built a stately home on the banks of the Phú Cam canal, and though some of the buildings are over 100 years old, they had been passed on to Châu. Along with his family, Châu had endured the horrific battles of Huê in 1968 when at one point the front line was literally the wall separating his home from a school. The Communist forces thought the home was a pagoda and didn’t enter it. His sister had kept the beautiful old place intact, and he wanted to live his remaining days there.
And he did.
Enter through gates that seem to seal you away from the busy street outside. Quiet gardens and neatly trimmed trees tell you this is a place of contemplation unhurried by the world. The whole place has a patina of age carried gracefully. There is no reminder anywhere of the damage done in 1968 when the roofs were blown off and bullets gouged the walls. All is serene now.
The home is actually three buildings – a guest house (built in 1910), a house for worship (built in 1889), and the main residence (built in 1901). In the center is a covered porch for greeting guests. I wonder how many deep conversations took place there . Châu told me he often read the morning paper and enjoyed his morning tea in this place. I understand why.
The residence is like a museum. To his regret Châu could not read these classical Vietnamese ideographs, but he certainly enjoyed the ambience. In the main sitting room were many cherished relics from the past, when his grandfather was a man of honor in the court of Emperor Khai Ðinh. By the way – what you see in the photo are not Chinese characters, but classical Vietnamese characters based on the Chinese system. Today’s Romanized alphabet was developed in the 1600s, and adopted officially in the 1920s, but some official documents are still written in classical form, much like some university diplomas are written in Latin in the United States.
Châu was not a man who brooded over the past – he was a man of vision who saw great things ahead for Việt Nam. We obviously had a mutual interest in my young student – so full of ambition and promise. Of course, he had his concerns that the young would deviate too much from the traditions that had made Việt Nam strong, but he also would tilt his head, and tell me with a wry smile, that Việt Nam had been buffeted by foreign cultures many times in the past, yet had always remained Vietnamese in its heart. He knew the young would experiment, then find the same soul of Việt Nam – just redecorated with new ideas.
Dr. Bưu Châu – may your honored soul rest in peace. I look forward to many conversations over tea sometime in the future.