While the internal migrants may live in the Mekong Delta for decades, their thoughts are always with their homes in the central provinces, approximately 1,000 kilometers away.
Nguyen Dac Khanh, 78, and Nguyen Trung Thanh, 50, who reside in Tan Hong District, Dong Thap Province, both hail from the central region, and can still vividly remember their ‘exodus’ more than fifty years ago.
The pair, along with some thousand others, mostly from the central provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai – the ‘Quang people’ for short – settled in the district’s Sa Rai Town more than five decades ago.
“In my father’s memory, everyone expected to die during the trip. No one could even see the outside as the car windows were covered with black cloths,” Thanh recalled.
Khanh’s life-changing journey toward the end of 1958 remains vividly imprinted on his mind.
Under the former regime, thousands of residents from the two central regions were sent to the Mekong Delta in a plan designed to develop new economic zones and remove revolutionaries from their bases.
“They did not take us straight here, but rather all the way to Cao Lanh [the provincial capital today]. The journey involved countless twists and turns to prevent us from recognizing the route,” Khanh recalled.
Born in 1907, Khanh’s father, Nguyen Dac Dai, was a revolutionary activist when he was rushed to Ba To District in Quang Ngai for treatment after contracting malaria in 1955.
Three years later, learning of Dai’s intention to resume his revolutionary activities in the forest, the former regime’s army held him and his whole family, as well as hundreds of other families, in a concentration camp before sending them to the southern province in 15 buses.
None of these 700 people, including Thanh’s paternal grandfather and father, knew where they were heading or what to expect.
Khanh was 18 years old then.
Do Van Anh, another settler whose ‘thickened’ accent is typical of those from the central provinces, has kept his carrying pole, a useful tool from his hometown, for dozens of years now as a memento and reminder of his descendants.
The migration of residents from the central provinces continued after 1975, when the country was reunified, and formed the current mixed community.
However, some decided to migrate for strange reasons.
Le Tan Tho, 56, said that he was orphaned at a tender age and worked hard to support himself well into adulthood.
Impressed with scenes featuring immense fertile paddies and rivers laden with fish from a famous Vietnamese film, he and his friend’s family decided to give it a try and made the move in late 1979.
The south-bound journey took them two weeks by train, coach, ox-drawn carriage and finally on foot.
After covering a staggering 1,000 kilometers, they reached the ‘promised land’ and started afresh.
Nguyen Dac Khanh's roof, which is rich in architectural traits from his hometown, Quang Ngai Province in central Vietnam. Photo: Tuoi Tre
“Most of the migrants fared well thanks to the weather in the first few years. Their crops, however, were ravaged by floods and pests in the years after, plunging them into hunger and untold hardship,” Tho recalled.
Daunted, many came back to their hometowns empty-handed.
“Only a few of them made it out alive as the area was densely wooded and riddled with predator-infested canals,” Khanh further recalled. Most of these settlers have now managed to make a decent living or at least been able to provide their children with a proper education.
Truong Quang Hoa, 73, said he and several others had picked up agricultural practices from natives.
They can now grow three crops each year instead of one.
The elderly man added that one can tell when a person is from the central provinces simply by taking a look at the architecture of their house.
His dwelling, just like those in his hometown, boasts a low roof and sturdy walls.
The distinctive architecture is indicative of their reverence for the wrath of Mother Nature as the central region suffers the most storms and floods every year, though the elements are considerably less inclement in their adopted home.
The settlers have also held their traditional culinary delicacies and cultural practices close to their heart.
Sa Rai Town is home to around 30 shops serving ‘mi Quang’ (a Quang-style noodle specialty served with shrimp, pork, and chicken in broth).
Vo Van Chuong, 61, one of the shop’s owners, said that he runs the shop to cater to local demand and introduce the dish to visitors from around the country, as it is one of the hallmarks of his hometown, Quang Nam.
Number 92, as his eatery is named, is also a nostalgic reminder of the first two digits of vehicle registration plates used throughout Quang Nam.
Hai Nam, whose full name is Van Cong Dung, also embodies the distinctive features of the Quang people.
The 64-year-old recalled first setting foot in Tan Hong District in 1959, before returning to his home province, Quang Nam, where he got married.
Set on turning over a new leaf, he took his wife and children back to Tan Hong in 1980.
“I pay a visit to my hometown and relatives whenever I can, and keep telling my children to never forget their roots,” he said.
Four of his five children are now university graduates and have landed good jobs.
Hai Nam willingly gave his eldest son permission to work at Dung Quat Refinery in Quang Ngai, neighboring his home province, as a petrol engineer.
According to Pham Van Hang, chair of the Tan Hong People’s Committee, the Quang community has contributed considerably to the district’s socio-economic development.
Children of many settlers have carved out successful careers at agencies and companies across the region and in Ho Chi Minh City.