The daughter of the Phoenix – the day of return

Update: 20:37 | 05/06/2018
LOAN – I want to capitalize each character of her name – just like the author Isabelle Müller, her daughter – has used in the literature the same name. That thought helped me feel better when I accompanied Isabelle into her recollection of her mother, into the life of over seven dauntless decades of “a phoenix” who always soars toward the sky with an intense feeling for her homeland.
the daughter of the phoenix the day of return Spring book street opens in Ha Noi
the daughter of the phoenix the day of return Polish writer’s book introduced to Vietnamese readers

Isabelle and I met right after she just finished a 10-day trip to the three mountainous provinces of Northern Vietnam – Lao Cai, Yen Bai, and Ha Giang – to set up several projects for the local children.

the daughter of the phoenix the day of return
The book “LOAN – from the life of a phoenix”.

It is hard to imagine – especially without her disclosure -  that a woman of such genuine European look would be half Vietnamese. And, without meeting her, only few may understand that behind those seemingly stern, even indifferent eyes is a person of deep compassion and of special affection for her mother’s homeland – where her mother had spent a rough childhood, a rough half of her life…

Isabelle Müller – the child of half Vietnamese and half French, made a career and married a German – is focusing on building the LOAN Stiftung to carry out social charitable projects for the children in the mountainous Northern provinces.

Taking a risk with her life

Mrs. Đậu Thị Cúc gave herself the name LOAN. In Isabelle’s memory, her mother’s hometown is a coastal village near Ha Tinh town. As Isabelle put it, her maternal grandfather belongs to ethnic minority (possibly Moi, an old name of Muong ethnicity) and thus her mother also belongs to the same minority.

Born at the end of the 1920s, in a remote countryside and in a then male-dominated society, it is easy to see why the little girl Cúc was not allowed to go to school. However, her yearning for knowledge lead Cúc to days and months of ferocious beating just because she snuck out to lectures.

the daughter of the phoenix the day of return
Isabelle Müller in the trip to Bac Me district (Ha Giang) in May 2018. (Picture: Corinna Buchholz)

At the age of 12, that little girl came to an audacious or even reckless decision when she left home to escape being sold to another person and also to end the days of enduring her father and her brother’s beating. Facing death times and times, being violated by the legion soldiers to the point of pregnancy… were the most bitter moments that Dau Thi Cúc has gone through after leaving home.

Since her childhood, author Isabelle Müller had harbored the idea of a book about her mother’s life, but only 30 years later could she be able to pen and finish the literature after 2 years. The life of LOAN – the main character with victories over fiercest tempests in life – reflects an active period in Vietnam history.

After its publication, the book “LOAN – from the life of a phoenix” stayed bestseller two years in a raw on Germany Amazon Kindle Edition and placed top 5 in the finale of Kindle Storyteller Award 2015

All the royalties from the book have been given to the LOAN Stiftung founded by the author to support minority children in Northern Vietnam.

Repaying the debt of gratitude

In the depth of her recollection about her mother, Isabelle occasionally lost her voice to emotion. It is difficult to imagine how an An Nam girl, running away from home and pregnant, managed to survive, to give birth in a society where outdated feudalistic mindsets were still trapping and suffocating each and every person’s fate. Yet, her survival endeavor and maternal instinct had pushed LOAN toward living and finding a new anchor for her life.

Fate sent LOAN to meet with Isabelle’s current father – who at the time was just a young soldier less than 20 years of age in the French colonial army and a newcomer in the Vietnam War. That young French soldier showed LOAN a gesture that she later had used her entire life to repay. He became the adoptive father of the very little boy that LOAN had guarded with her life.

From then on, LOAN’s life became the struggle with her husband’s migration to the South, and then followed him to France. Her husband denied her wish to enroll in a French school – alongside young children, since he believed a woman of that age yet still illiterate would bring shame to the family. Nevertheless, in her own way she learned to speak, to write, and to later become not only the economic backbone but also the one taking care of all documents, logistics… for the family.

the daughter of the phoenix the day of return
Mrs. Isabelle Müller (on the right) in an interview with The World and Vietnam Report's journalist. (Picture: Corinna Buchholz)

Bringing the homeland to France

After 5 years in France, LOAN managed to bring her son over for the reunion. In 1970, she opened the “Vietnam restaurant” in a countryside near Tours. While talking about her mother’s “Vietnam restaurant” – where she was “recruited” into a waitress since 8 years old, Isabelle’s eyes were filled with proud.

LOAN’s restaurant served the customers all kinds of traditional Vietnamese food such as stuffed pancake, spring roll, egg rolls, pho, soya noodles… Among those, LOAN’s soya noodles with chicken swiftly drew in not only the customers but also her own children. The very same Vietnamese dish later was quickly loved by Isabelle’s children.

“It is truly amazing that, after arriving in Vietnam and tasting all those dishes cooked by my mother in the restaurant in France, I find the flavors strangely similar” – shared Isabelle. She recalled the forever memorable 1992, during the second return to Vietnam, Mrs. LOAN and Isabelle stayed in Hotel Caravelle (Ho Chi Minh City). They found themselves strangely restless, hard to fall asleep, and severely craving for pho with beef. “The hotel’s chef spoiled us and turned the fire on to make pho at 3 a.m. I think, that can only happen in Vietnam. I always remember my emotion when I tasted the first spoon of the broth that day since it was identical to flavor of my mother’s one. Even more surprisingly, when I told her that, she said: “So I had successfully brought the homeland to France for you.”

The trips for the children

Lost in her own thought, suddenly Isabelle hummed the tune from a Vietnamese folk song. She explained: “I could not sing the song in Vietnamese like my mother, but she told me that the song describes the sound of Vietnamese farmers calling to work. It is just one of many songs in her cassette storage – kept in a spot that no one in the family was allowed to touch.”

the daughter of the phoenix the day of return
Mrs. Isabelle Müller (standing, yellow shirt) and Secretary Corina Buchholz (standing, white shirt) in a commemorative photo with the teachers and students in Ha Giang. (Picture provided by the character)

Throughout her childhood, Vietnam in Isabelle was the food her mother cooked, the folk songs her mother sang and translated for her. Nevertheless, since her first return to Vietnam with her mother in 1990 and witnessing the children’s deprivation in the poor countryside of Vietnam, Isabelle has wanted to do something.

About the book LOAN and her trips back and forth between Vietnam and Germany, she said: “The motivation for all of my projects is to make up for my mother’s childhood – one given to a little girl born and raised in a prejudiced society. Since my mother was not allowed to go to school, I would do all in my power to bring the children in the mountain area to school.”

Parting with Isabelle, I am still concerned about her wish: “It will be wonderful if the piece about LOAN’s life is incorporated into Vietnamese textbooks, because it reflects the Vietnamese people’s desire for knowledge and moving forward. I want all Vietnamese children to never abandon their dreams despite any difficult situation and to live a meaningful life.”

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Khánh Nguyễn