Pink Orchid: A Mini-Memoir

By Ngoc Pease
From her new book, All My Tears, All My Blessings: A True Story of Courage, Hope, and Faith, as told to Wayne E. Groner. Available from Amazon store in paperback and Kindle. 
Ngoc Pease

I was fourteen years old when I found her. On a cold morning before dawn I made my rounds in front of rich people’s houses about an hour from my village. I untied their garbage bags, selected what I thought would help make a meal for my family, placed the pieces into my own small plastic bag and retied the bags so the homeowners and garbage collectors wouldn’t know.

Sometimes there were streetlights, sometimes only porch lights. I approached a house with
porch lights on. No lights were on in the house. A towel-wrapped object was tucked between the garbage bag and porch steps. I approached, and the object moved a little. I looked closer, and it moved again. I saw a tiny face smeared with blood wrapped in a blood-stained towel. I screamed, dropped my bag and ran. “Help! Help!” I cried and ran for maybe five minutes until I had to stop and catch my breath. After I calmed down I walked back to the house. Lights were on inside now, but no one came out. I looked up at the house’s iron front door. This area was downtown where people sometimes sold things in their houses during the day, such as Asian medicines, clothing and jewelry. Seeing no one, I picked up the baby and walked hurriedly back to our village hut. The baby cried but not loud.

I woke my father and told what happened. We unwrapped the towel and saw a baby girl. She cried a little when we cleaned her face.

Our hut was built against my aunt’s stilt house. She was my mother’s sister. Such construction was common among poor Vietnamese families. My mother woke her sister in the house, and my parents and aunt talked about the baby while I held her.

I Panicked Again
“We must take her to a midwife,” my father said.

“Take her to the Catholic church where they can care for her,” said my mother.

My aunt had another suggestion. “We have to take her to the hospital.”

I asked my father where the midwife lived.

“Close. About two miles.”

I rushed to the midwife’s house, woke her and told her what happened. She got up slowly.

“Quickly, there’s blood all over!” I said. “Get on my back and I’ll carry you; the baby needs help!”

She continued to move so slowly. “It’s okay. I can’t explain it to you, but the baby is not bleeding. She will be fine.”

Lucky for both of us, the midwife refused my offer to carry her. It was daylight by the time when we arrived back at my hut. My aunt and my mother had boiled water. The midwife cleaned the baby and cut the cord. I didn’t know what that thing was hanging from the baby’s belly. She slapped the baby’s butt to make her cry, then wrapped her in a towel.

The adults continued to talk about what to do with the baby. I listened for a while then offered my plan.

“Why can’t we keep her?”

The Wise Village Elder
They stopped talking, looked at me then at each other.

“I’ll take care of her. I found her, I should keep her.”

My aunt said we needed to talk to the head of the village. “He will tell us what we should do. If he says we can keep her, I’ll help you.” 

My aunt, my parents and I walked to the house of the village leader. I carried the baby. The leader usually was an older person, elected by villagers because of his wisdom and caring. Among his jobs was to help people solve their problems, to point them in the direction they should go.

“At which house did you find the baby?” he asked. I remembered only the general location. He said he needed the house number and street name. I walked back to the house, got the information, and returned to the leader.

He said, “I’ll write everything down and see whether I can find someone to investigate, someone with more authority, perhaps the police department. In the meantime, you can keep her. If we can’t resolve the issue, and you don’t want to keep her, then you take her to the Catholic church.”

I didn’t like that plan. “I found her, I should keep her.”

“We must do all we can to find the baby’s family,” he said.

I prayed they wouldn’t find anyone who would take the baby from me. I prayed to God, I prayed to Buddha, I prayed to my ancestors: Please, please, please let me keep her.

A Pleasant Chore
A week later the village leader told us no one had claimed the baby. Oh, what joy in my heart! I cried with happiness. I named her Hong Lan, which means Pink Orchid.

When word got around the village, some families offered to take her. They said: “You have a big family and can’t even take care of yourselves. You couldn’t possibly care for another child.”

That didn’t matter to me. I determined to raise Hong Lan as my sister, no matter what it took. I would find a way.

For the first few days I wrapped her in a towel to keep her warm and safe. People in the village gathered baby clothes.

I had to find more food. We drank water from boiled rice, but didn’t have enough for our family. For as long as I could remember, I collected excess rice water from neighbors. Many families threw out water after boiling rice, so it was easy for them to save it for me. With Hong Lan to feed I had to go to more neighbors. I even went to nearby villages. I collected the water in buckets at both ends of a don ganh, or carrying pole, laid across my shoulders. Even though the buckets sometimes were heavy I considered it a pleasant chore.

At home, I boiled the water again and added a little sugar. My aunt gave me money for sugar, baby bottles and nipples.

I wrapped Hong Lan’s bottom in dried banana leaves, not too dry so they were still soft. I laid her on several dry banana leaves to soak her pee and poop. All of us slept inside a mosquito net, and I didn’t want her waste to bother my brothers. I washed her bottom outside in a small rock enclosure with rainwater collected in buckets. I wiped her poop with banana leaves and threw them into garbage bags to be burned or used for fertilizer. We also used rainwater to wash dishes and clothes.

When Hong Lan was old enough for solid food, I cooked rice until it became like mashed potatoes. Later I added bits of fish and cooked them down.

Hong Lan grew and was healthy and smiled a lot. She was well accepted by my family and villagers.

Ngoc Pease survived the Tet Offensive and escaped Vietnam with the help of a top CIA agent one week before the fall of Saigon. Her new life in the United States included owning and managing three restaurants at the same time in Portland, Oregon. She has two children and four grandchildren. 

Photo courtesy Ngoc Pease

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