The old man squatted on the floor by the foot of his bed. With unsteady fingers he pulled up one of the floor tiles, then another, and finally a group of tiles joined together to form the hidden trapdoor entrance to a long tunnel beneath his house.
Here, he said proudly, the leaders of the "liberation forces" in the village took refuge against Saigon government sweeps. Since he is among the richest men in the village, a fourth-generation landowner here, the hiding place, by his account, was both unsuspected and undetected throughout the war.
Small revelations such as this told something of life as seen from the other side of the struggle in Vinh Kim, now that the fighting is five years past. I had come back to the rice roots of the rich Mekong Delta to gain such insights and write a new chapter in a local saga of unusual interest.
Because of an American scholar well acquainted with the village, I selected Vinh Kim for study and journalistic reports in 1966 and 1969. Washington Post correspondents Peter Jay and Lee Lescaze reported on the same village in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
During my recent visit to Hanoi I asked authorities there for permission to return to Vinh Kim when I traveled to the south. The arrangements were made. I rode from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in a rented car 45 miles south along National Route 4, the transportation lifeline of the Mekong Delta. I was accompanied by a government interpreter and several members of the province's "people's committee" -- the local governing body -- we picked up in the provincial capital of My Tho.
The brief introductory meeting in My Tho was fascinating mainly for one fact. It was held under a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh at a house I knew well from the past as the former residence of Saigon government province chiefs. Now it is the quiet house of the people's committee.
The province's boundaries have been enlarged and the name changed. A large map of the new province was propped up along one wall -- partially obscuring the old government map of the old province, complete with the green cloth curtain that used to be drawn to conceal classified information on Vietcong guerrilla military activities.
The men sitting at the table with me were leaders of the Vietcong throughout the war. They were joined by a former university student from Hanoi who is a political officer in the province. They had been standing by since early morning, more than an hour before my arrival by car, to greet the visiting American.
After a brief chat we were off down the road to Vinh Kim, familiar terrain including a final stretch of a mile or so of narrow, unpaved roadway lined with coconut and banana groves. For the first time in all my visits, I had no concern about an ambush, a prospect that used to fill me with terror. Now the former guerrillas were in control, and riding with me.
A walk through the familiar Vinh Kim marketplace showed that except for local fruits and vegetables and other commonplace products, there was little on sale and few buyers, though the market was jammed with sellers.
I quickly attracted a crowd of village children who followed me shouting, "Lien xo, lien xo!" -- literally, "Soviet Union." Villagers said that several Soviet groups have visited Vinh Kim since 1975 but no Americans. Unlike the Americans during the war, the Soviets have no permanent presence in the village.
Residents reported that Vinh Kim Village, which is composed of six hamlet settlements, has grown to 8,700 people despite war casualties. It was estimated at 4,000 in my first visit in 1966, and about 6,000 on Liberation Day in 1975. Village life, the people's committee said, includes a "fatherland front" for unification with the north and organizations for farmers, women, youth and students and parents as well as village militia.
A surprise was waiting for me in the communal hall of the town, a small settlement by the local river. In the long one-room shed, redecorated since my last visit with the yellow-starred flag of communist Vietnam and pictures of Ho, refreshments had been parpared -- tea and fruit laid out on plastic tablecloths. At the front door were two young soldiers of the Vinh Kim Liberation Army force with AK47 assault rifles held in front of their chests -- an honor guard, I was told, for the American guest.
Four members of the Vinh Kim people's committee, two of whom had been Vietcong fighters and two political officers during the war; joined the visitors from My Tho and Saigon around a table. They seemed to know nothing of our reporting on Vinh Kim Village during the war, and could not recall any of the succession of American district advisers who had directed the battle against them. They knew well, however, the local Vietnamese personalities we had written about and, in most cases, their ultimate fate.
The American advisers had left Vinh Kim following the 1973 Paris accords. Vietnamese government forces, both locally recruited and assigned from afar, had remained until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. At the news of that event, the Saigon troops in the village fled or surrendered, villagers said.
According to the members of the people's committee, about 420 local soldiers and low-ranking functionaries of what they called "the old regime" were given "reeducation" for a few weeks in the building where we were sipping tea. After that they were permitted to return home, the village leaders said. They are allowed to participate in Vinh Kim's social activities but not in military activities.
About 10 higher ranking "old regime" officers, mostly lieutenants and captains, were sent to My Tho for more extensive "reeducation." I was told that all have returned home, although further discussion cast doubt on that statement.
"Of the local personalities described by me and other Post correspondents in the past, the village officials said:
Maj. Vo Van Dal, the highly unpopular district military commander of Peter Jay's 1971 report, was transferred to another area a few months later. From the revolutionary perspective Dai was bad but did not seem to stand out from all the other imported government overseers.
Nguyen Van Nu, a homegrown Vietcong chief who defected to the Saigon government in 1966 to lead a government-sponsored assassination squad and was reported by me to have been kidnapped and probably killed in 1969, is still alive. He is said to be in a reeducation camp in a nearby district.
Ba Hanh, the veteran local party secretary who originally recruited Nu and was subsequently captured by government forces, was released by "the old regime" after imprisonment and now lives nearby in retirement, with honor. She went back to work for the revolution as soon as she was released from prison, I was told.
Be Ba, a member of the government self-defense corps who switched sides to become village guerrilla chief, then switched again in the middle 1960s to work for the U.S. 9th Infantry Division, underwent reeducation for 'more than a month" following the revolution and has returned home to the village. When I asked to see him, people's committee members said he was away in the rice fields and not available.
Senior Sgt. Bien, the government intelligence chief for Vinh Kim in the 1960s, a perpetually cheery and effective functionary, later became a commissioned officer assigned to the U.S. 9th Infantry Division base at nearby Dong Tam. Bien was said to be still in a reeducation camp.
I wondered about the death of Pham Ky Ngoi, a local intellectual who served me tea and Vietnamese cakes during my 1966 visit and who was knifed to death shortly before my 1969 visit. The people's committee told me they had killed Ngoi because he had been a government spy.
The victors of Vinh Kim said they had never doubted the final outcome of the struggle, which seemed to me at the time to be a see-saw battle. "The old regime didn't win the hearts of the people. Nobody put confidence in them," a revolutionary committee member said.
While we were talking around the table, Nguyen Van Hol, the 82-year-old landowner, arrived leaning on his cane. He was introduced as "adviser" to the Red Cross in the village and an honored person. Later he invited me to his house to see the secret tunnel as well as the bomb damage to his house and garden that occurred in July 1972 during a battle reported at the time by Lee Lescaze.
According to Hoi's description of a document in Vietnamese, he was promised U.S. compensation for the bomb damage, but never received it because the "compensation fund" had been depleted in 1971. He still wants compensation, and he asked me to help.
I was unable to reconcile his demand for U.S. compensation with his declaration of unwavering loyalty to the revolution, which he said he had supported since the return of French colonial rule following World War II. sNor could I square his claim that the tunnel was unknown to the government side with the numerous defections of Vietcong leaders of the village throughout the American war.
It did not prove possible -- in a brief visit under official sponsorship -- to measure with confidence the change in the lives of the people of Vinh Kim.
Economic conditions seem poorer than before. The physical plant of the village, however, is in better shape. A new footbridge over the river has been built since 1975, and war damage to the marketplace has been repaired.
As in the Mekong Delta for centuries the rice grows and the cock crows and village life continues. The young boys fish in the paddies, and the fruit is abundant. The people and the land are fertile.
Vietnam is now engaged miltiarily in Cambodia and at the Chinese border, and some of the young men still must go off to war. But in the Delta, the guns are silent Vinh Kim, at last, is experiencing a period of peace.