In 2019 longtime Lambertville resident Sandy Hanna published “The Ignorance of Bliss: An American Kid in Saigon,” her remarkable memoir (available at Farley’s Bookshop in New Hope and on Amazon) about growing up in Vietnam from 1960-1962. We talked to Sandy (visit her website) about her experiences and the history behind the book. Sandy will exhibit and discuss select artifacts from Vietnam at the Marshall House November 9-10 and 16-17.
Why is ignorance central to your book?
My memoir is the story of a time when ignorance set the course of events for a small country halfway around the world, when propaganda and paranoia created the facts upon which decisions were based and actions taken in Vietnam. My father, “The Colonel,” asked me to write this book when he was in his late eighties. When I asked “Why now? Why write a book about Vietnam so many years later?”, he said that in not understanding this history, the what and why of Vietnam, especially in the early years, the United States would be destined to repeat history in other countries. This is the ignorance I refer to in the book, because we were all like crickets in sheltered places. In not understanding the history of Vietnam—the culture, the politics and the people—our decisions were based on ignorance of this amazing ancient society and country.
As a 10-year-old you sold baby powder and Hershey bars in a Saigon black market.
Military kids are independent. We have to be. We are moved around the world without being given much notice that we are moving. We leave our friends, our schools, our homes and we never look back. We are BRATs (British Regiment Attached Transfers). In Vietnam I decided I wanted to get a horse and go to the Olympics. I’d never ridden a horse, but it became a driving force to what I ended up doing in Saigon for two years with my older brother. He’d been trading items he would buy at the Post Exchange before we went to the underground movie theater, a place our mother sent us whenever possible. He’d slip out and go to the black market to sell stuff then spend the rest of the time betting, playing pool, drinking beer—total freedom from us underlings and the parents. I blackmailed him one day by saying I’d tell on him, so he agreed to let me in on what he was doing. My products to sell on the black market were baby powder and Hershey bars. A little disheveled man would slide in between the other vendors and remain for as long as we were there. In Saigon everything was known–it was just my parents who didn’t know what we were doing. My brother spent his ill-gotten gain as soon as he made it. I squirreled mine away in a cigar box. Do I think Saigon made me independent and savvy…most certainly! Our life was our own and it was glorious! I did buy a horse when we became civilians but gave up the Olympics idea. I was just happy to have a friend I would keep with me for the rest of her life. She died in my arms in Yardley, PA, having joined me on every move I ever made thereafter.
You write that the Vietnamese have a different view of history.
I was lucky to have the daughter of our cook Thi Ba, Lucy, struggle to have me understand the Vietnamese and how they viewed the world. “The Vietnamese don’t believe in death in the same way you do in the Western world. They believe there is no end. By being buried in the rice field, the dead continue to sustain the family. The body will become soil. All things are in harmony. There is a succession of life even after death for us.” To this end, there were innumerable holidays welcoming the dead back home. Tet was the major holiday to be with family and to honor ancestors. It was a great celebration that was prepared for over many weeks. Some of the attacks made on American facilities during what the Vietnamese called the American War were concentrated around Tet.
Besides you, there is a figure in your book with a link to Lambertville: Lady Bird Johnson. She visited Lambertville in August 1965 to see the operations of Project Head Start, the program to help preschoolers in low-income families.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson’s visit to Saigon in 1960 was to assess the situation in Vietnam. They were both going to make a speech behind the horse stables at the Cercle Sportif, our swim club. In true Vietnamese fashion, subtly reflecting the Diem regime’s real attitude toward Americans, a wooden stage had been built over the manure pile that was there. We kids knew what was under the stage, but I doubt most of the adults or the Johnsons were aware of it. We were snickering on the sidelines knowing what lay beneath. It was not a large group in attendance, but it was heavily guarded. Johnson said he had come on a fact-finding mission and said the usual “thanks for being here.” It is ironic in my relationship with the Johnsons that after my college years I would help build Adventure Playgrounds throughout Massachusetts for Head Start programs.
Your father was General Patton’s highly respected ordnance officer and helped design the Sherman Tank during World War II. He was a dedicated officer up through his time in Vietnam. But then he retired and even helped your brother avoid being drafted into the Vietnam in 1969. What changed for him?
The Colonel, that’s how my siblings and I refer to him, was Chief of Ordnance with MAAG (Military Aid Advisory Group) and had a counterpart, also Chief of Ordnance, with ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). His name was Colonel Le Van Sam. Sam had been trained in ordnance in the United States and he and my father worked well together. They had become friends. Sam is central to the story as my father listened and learned about the complex politics of the ancient civilization and nation of Vietnam. An odd incident had changed everything toward the end of our first year in Saigon. Mrs. Sam, Ngai, was a cousin of Madame Nhu, the Dragon Woman. Vacationing in Da Lat that summer, she saw Madame Nhu going into General Don’s boudoir. Madame Nhu saw her. She was the wife of President Diem’s brother and very influential. She also didn’t like anyone knowing what she was up to. Mrs. Sam told her husband what she saw. He spent that night and the following writing an expose of the Diem regime, outing them as not being pro-American. He showed up in the middle of the next night to give this expose to the Colonel. He said he was afraid something was to happen to him and his family because of this sighting. I was on the staircase spying on them during this exchange. Sam feared he would be assassinated or imprisoned because of this incident. He was in fact imprisoned with false accusations. The Colonel got him out, but Sam had lost his position as Chief of Ordnance. He would later that year be told he was no longer in the Army. The ordnance efforts in Saigon fell apart with the removal of Sam—he was one of the only pro-American members of that division. Sam’s expose showed the regime for what it was and also helped the Colonel understand what was really going on there. The Colonel’s view, along with other military officers stationed in Vietnam, was similar. They believed it was a civil conflict, not a place where America should be intervening.
What drew you to Lambertville?
I bought a house in Lambertville in the mid-1980’s. I had been consulting with Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) in New York on the theme park, Sesame Place, in Langhorne. I relocated to the area in 1980 to be the Educational Program Director and eventually the Marketing Director. I found the Boat House one day and met Jim Hamilton and was hooked by the stories of the place and the feel. I felt I’d found home. This is something all BRATs hope for but usually never find. I loved the town’s diversity, something that was a given as a military kid, as well as the town’s bent toward art. I am also a painter. At that time the town was still in the process of recovering from poverty. Stores were still empty, houses needed renovation, but I loved the older residents—their nicknames, their stories, their friendliness. It was a wonderful place. Lambertville is home and I’m still holding on tight.
Where is the nearest good Vietnamese food to Lambertville? Any dishes you recommend?
My favorite is in New York City on MacDougal Street called Saigon Shack. Small, inexpensive, with excellent Pho—my favorite dish. You could buy it from the street vendors in Saigon. They would make different sounds by knocking two blocks of wood together to tell you what they were selling that day. “Toc-Tap-Ticky-Toc” would be one of the sounds you’d hear as the vendor rolled down our street, Doan Thi Diem. The aroma and the taste of Pho takes me immediately back to the place I love so much, Vietnam, my second home. Phi Vietnamese in Doylestown and The Pho Spot in Princeton both serve Pho.