The second in a series of stories about a family of aristocrats in the Mekong Delta examines the sybaritic habits of Councilor Trach’s most famous son.
Perhaps the person who is most familiar with all the tragicomedies and anecdotes of Tran Trinh Trach’s family is Phan Kim Khanh, the patriarch’s grandson.
Khanh lived with his uncle, Tran Trinh Huy – who was also known as “Uncle Ba Huy” or “Bac Lieu’s Prince” – in Saigon for many years.
At present, Khanh is a health expert who lives inconspicuously by Cau Sap Canal in the southern Bac Lieu Town.
According to Khanh, Councilor Trach had seven children – three sons and four daughters.
None of them worked as hard as their father did.
The three “princes” had their own frivolous ways to waste money.
The eldest son Tran Trinh Dinh had many wives and was willing to buy a house for any woman he liked.
He established Hau Giang Rice Mill, the biggest mill in the six southern provinces.
Tran Trinh Khuong, the youngest son, went to study in France, married a French woman and settled abroad.
He never worked but instead received annual financial allowances from his father in Vietnam.
Tran Trinh Huy, or Ba Huy, was the offspring most renowned for his extravagances.
With his father’s vast wealth, he frittered money freely.
He was the one who persuaded his father to buy an airplane to visit the rice fields.
Once he got slightly drunk and told his father: “Buy an airplane to visit the rice fields, it’s more useful than Emperor Bao Dai buying a plane to fly to Buon Me Thuot for holidays.”
Later, only the two biggest rubber companies in Vietnam, SIPH and Terre Rouges, bought planes to distribute cereal to their workers.
“Uncle Ba Huy” had an airport located in Vinh Chau District’s Tra Nho Commune.
He bought a canoe that could slide over grass and mud, and would visit the rice fields by using a Chevrolet car which pulled the canoe.
Ba Huy was conversant in the French language but could not write well.
He employed a French secretary at home to read him letters from his foreign friends and reply to them.
He also changed secretaries frequently.
Ba Huy adopted a Western lifestyle and opened a Western-style music room to gather famous female singers.
He did not use drugs like his father, but was a kindred in gambling.
He made good prey for deft gamblers in Cho Lon in contrast to his father, who had accumulated lands through gambling.
In those days, “Bac Lieu’s Prince” was a familiar guest at the Continental and Majestic hotels.
Gambling lavishly was a normal thrill for him.
Once he even seized the steering wheel from a pilot for fun while traveling on a plane and went astray in Thailand.
His father sent fleets of barges carrying 200,000 gia of rice (1 gia = 40 liters) to Thailand to get him back.
After Councilor Trach passed away, Ba Huy became increasingly sybaritic.
Some 94 percent of houses on Gia Long Street in Saigon were his father’s property and he managed to mortgage them all to sustain his habits.
He went to dance with beautiful girls every week.
Dancing girls were extremely glad for his patronage because he would give each girl a tip worth no less than 20 tickets.
When he was living in Saigon, every month Bac Lieu’s Prince would hire a band to perform at his house and usually organize parties to win beautiful women’s admiration.
He, however, did not forget his countryside origin and often returned to the Mekong Delta to eat mam ba khia (fermented crabs).
Ba Huy had many wives, even a French wife.
Among them, he loved the one from an average family in Saigon the most.
She and Khanh, his nephew, were nearly the same age.
When spending time with her husband in Bac Lieu, she asked Khanh to hang a big mosquito net in the middle of the house for the three of them to sleep together to be less afraid of ghosts.
“At that time, my uncle lived in Saigon,” Khanh recalled.
“His soon-to-be wife was only 17 and sold bread on Gia Long Street. My aunt-in-law was very beautiful. If she had not been beautiful, my uncle would not have spent 50,000 piastres buying her.”
Among Ba Huy’s relatives that still live in Bac Lieu, Khanh is perhaps the most prominent member.
His mother was Tran Thi Dong, the sixth child of Councilor Trach.
Khanh is similar to his famous Uncle Ba Huy in terms of having a penchant for fun.
Nowadays, Khanh is 64 but looks much younger than his age.
When he was 60, his wife had given birth to a son.
Khanh told me that the family had stipulated that descendants can stay for free at all of Councilor Trach’s villas in Saigon, Da Lat and Vung Tau.
If anyone needed money, they could get it from the housekeepers and they only had to sign their names in a notebook so that the money could be subtracted from their crops or properties at the year’s end.
In the early 1970s, at his father’s advice, Khanh took a course for health experts.
He did not care much about studying but spent around one million piastres to have fun in Vung Tau and Da Lat every month.
At the advice of some Chinese men in Cho Lon, he stole some precious antiques belonging to his grandfather to sell to support his lifestyle.
Khanh sold two pairs of antique vases for 500,000 piastres.
To give context to the antiques’ value, a brand new Honda motorbike cost 33,000 piastres at the time while a ticket for a car trip from Saigon to Bac Lieu only cost one piastre.
In contrast to the brazen thievery in his youth, Khanh said he is now most concerned about the family’s antiques.
When he went to Da Lat to hunt for animals 25 years ago, the housekeeper at Councilor Trach’s villa asked him to inquire his uncles – Ba Huy and Hai Dinh – on the whereabouts of an antique sword.
According to the housekeeper, the sword was a gift a French queen had presented to Councilor Trach, which had since gone missing.
As Khanh remembers, Bac Lieu’s Prince was an elegant man who spent money without counting it.
He had many beautiful wives but none of them dared to be jealous.
Every time he met Khanh, he would ask his wives to give his nephew several hundred piastres for spending.
Most of Councilor Trach’s descendants now live abroad.
Some are engineers, interpreters and secretaries and lead an ordinary life.
Only Tran Trinh Dinh’s grandson still lives at 121 Nguyen Du Street in what is now Ho Chi Minh City.
Tran Trinh Huy’s last wife owns a well-known restaurant in the coastal Vung Tau Town.
Reported by Hong Hanh
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