Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ambiguous Episodes Feat. People I'll Never See Again

 July 30, 2012
Da Nang, Vietnam

Pt. I: The Enduring Menace of We, Colonizers

The concierge at the front desk of the Sun River Hotel was a minikin middle-aged woman wearing a dichromatic Ao Dai silk tunic. It was around 2300h and her teeth were yellow and her face was bright and when I asked for her opinion on a nearby bar that my cab driver had championed, she said the bar was called Bamboo Bar and it was open late. She unfolded a map, tapping a specific point on it with two fingers. She took my luggage and smiled sadly when I admitted to having paid the cabbie eight bucks for a ride from the airport. The hotel’s windows were agape. Rusted-out rotating fans shuddered and buzzed.

Walking the western bank of Han River, the water seemed semi-solid. Across the surface small-scale oil slicks merged and dissevered and drifted toward the South China Sea. A stonewall delimited the sidewalk and dropped vertically down maybe two meters into black water. Corpulent rats pressed themselves into the crook where sidewalk met stonewall and they sauntered more than they scurried. Motorbike traffic was heavy and northbound. The city sounded like an orchestra of engines and smelled like smoked meat and sunburnt coral.

Bamboo Bar was a two-story open-air pub on Bach Dang Street, facing the river. The waitresses were all young, bilingual Vietnamese women and the drinkers were every age and mostly male and mostly Caucasian. Island music pulsed and patrons danced. I ordered a rum tumbler for one dollar and went outside and sat at an empty table. The palm trees that dotted the sidewalk were tall and the fronds of their leaves wriggled autonomously, suggestive of giant centipede legs. Beyond the trees was the river and past that was the fluorescence of an all-concrete, aggressively-commercial beachfront development. The cable-stayed Han River Bridge twinkled green and crimson in the distance, like a capsized tower with a lightshow leftover from last Christmas.

A bald man plopped down at the adjacent table and he sipped his beer deliberately. He was middle-aged and normal-sized and unremarkable in his chino shorts and solid blue t-shirt. I did not initiate conversation because I was content at my table with my view and my rum. Eventually he spoke to me.

He was a Frenchman and this was his third stint in Vietnam. He uses the word stint because he does more than a holiday, he says. Is this the correct word; stint? Holiday is the wrong word. What he does is that he travels to a unique Asian country every summer for some months. Vietnam. Thailand. Japan. South Korea. The Philippines. He has stinted in them all. This is possible because he is an athletic teacher at the junior-school in Paris. Once upon a time he was a great tennis player, but now he teaches gymnastics. This is okay, he says. This is life. He has summers free and he has money to spend because he is without girlfriend and France pays the public staff very well. It is almost like a robbery, he laughs. He was married and he has children but they are of sufficient age now. So every summer he selects an Asian country and he stints in this country for two months and he talks to the women of this country. He loves the Asian women. He loves the Japanese women and the Korean women and the Thai women. But number one he loves the Vietnamese women. This is why he returns to Vietnam three times. The women are delicate and they enjoy his conversation. They have open-minds and they need no surprises or impressions. For example look at this waitress, he says. She will come and sit with him soon. Just watch. She sat with him the night before and now he has returned again tonight. She is playing games because she is not coming to sit. But she will. He is familiar with these games. This is the great aspect to Vietnamese women. He knows their games.

A gum huckster paused between our tables and she was a swarthy child with birthmarks on her forehead and a grin that owned the lower half of her face.  She tugged her own ponytail and she proffered a pack of gum and she wanted to toss around the ping-pong ball she was carrying. I bought some gum and the Frenchman seized the ball.

An American pop-song came on and the huckster girl pointed to the sky and laughed. The Frenchman threw the ping-pall ball to himself on a tight perpendicular trajectory, challenging the huckster girl to intercept it. She placed her carton of gum on my table and hopped foolishly forward, swiping at air. The Frenchman snatched the ball and rolled it across the ground, toward the street. The girl went hurdling after it and I became nervous and checked traffic. No motorbikes were coming.

You see this is the game, the Frenchman says. He will not pay this girl for gum, but he will play with her because now the waitress will watch him. The waitress will enjoy that he plays with the girl and she will come to him. It is this easy, he says. He will return here every night and the waitress will talk to him every night and then he does not know what will happen next. He laughs. He is only beginning his stint. He had thought to leave Da Nang soon, but now he will stay. He is building a relationship with the waitress. Look at her smile, look now, he says. She is beautiful. Now she is watching. It is easy.

Soon the waitress sat with the Frenchman. The huckster girl and I bounced the ball back and forth until a group of Vietnamese salary men sat at a nearby table and then the girl collected her carton and approached them. I watched motorbike herds zoom by and I did not listen to the Frenchman or his waitress. Nearby, an old woman swept the street area in front of her restaurant. I went to the bar and ordered a second drink and the waitress, a different waitress, said that she would bring it to me in a moment.

She delivered the drink and sat down and we chatted for half an hour. She was a pretty university student and she wanted to be a travel agent and she was very sorry that her English was not perfect but she was happy to practice and she thought I was kind and funny.

I did not notice the huckster girl leave, but at some point she was gone.

July 31st, 2012
Da Nang, Vietnam

Pt. II: A Disquisition on Lazy Southerners and Geopolitical Conflict

My Khe, My An, and Non Nuoc are three conterminous beaches situated along the eastern coast of the Son Tra Peninsula, just east of Da Nang city. During the Vietnam War occupying American soldiers nominally consolidated these three beaches, nicknaming them China Beach. Thanks to an eponymous 80’s USA soap-opera-type TV series loosely-based on the lives of these occupying US forces, pretty much all non-Vietnamese speakers now refer to any Da Nang proximate beach as: China Beach.

So my shoes were off and I was standing on China Beach and the white sand was without litter. It was mid-afternoon and I’d been craving a swim all day. The sky was cloudless and the water was that consistent, comfortable temperature you can marinate in for hours without your epidermis wrinkling or your teeth chattering or your nerves going haywire because you just waded through an especially tepid water-pocket. The scene was idyllic and I wondered why the two girls from Barcelona weren’t here with me.

That morning I’d woken up and decided to walk to the beach. It was a simple, practical plan for my first full day in Vietnam. I would traverse the city and sweat and then swim. The sun was hot and the air was still and objects had a russet, desiccated tinge. I was about ten meters from the Sun River Hotel when a blistered man on a motorbike pulled up next to me.

“I drive you.”

“No thanks. I’ll walk.”

“Where you go?”

“China Beach.”

The man laughed. The creases on his face stretched and contracted and looked charcoal-drawn.

“You cannot walk,” he said. “Too far.”

I dismissed him and continued walking, determined to avoid any more unlicensed, phony motorists like the cabbie from last night.

I’d been tramping southward for well over an hour when I arrived at Nguyen Van Troi Bridge and saw that it was under construction. Roadblocks and heavy-duty machinery and colorful signs with universally scary ideographs. I sat down on the curb of a busy rotary and re-hydrated and read a book. It was 11am.

 “Where do you go?”

Another man on another motorbike.

“I want to go to the beach.”

“I will take you to beach. First Marble Mountain, then beach.”

“I don’t want to go to Marble Mountain.”

“I drive all day. Six dollars.”

“Four dollars.”

“Here is helmet. Wear it. Hold motorcycle. Not me.”

I climbed onto the rear seat of the small motorbike and we set off, crossing the Han River Bridge and driving south along Truong Sa road. The South China Sea was visible and the beachfront was overrun with mammoth, deserted resorts; the pastel-colored ruins of some reimagined Occidental fetish. Horseshoe driveways and Corinthian columns and ornamented tympanums and grandiose spires. Fountains and bronze dragons and tigers and Buddhas and other vitiated Asian regalia everywhere.

My driver pointed at the resorts and shook his head and shouted that no one came here anymore. I told him that the people who’d come here ten years ago didn’t have money anymore.

“There is no dead animal on road because we eat for food,” he said.

Da Nang is an industrial metropolis on the South Central Vietnam coast, population approx. 900,000. It’s a historically significant port city that manufactures chemicals and machinery and other stuff forged in large factories. The beaches are nice but the topography is bland and tourists generally skip right over Da Nang on their way to the ancient, architecturally jaw-dropping town of Hoi An, located 30k south.

The Marble Mountains are one of a few legitimate geographical/cultural attractions in the Da Nang purlieus. It’s basically a collection of marble and limestone formations that protuberate from the dunes and timberland just south of the city. At the base of the Marble Mountains a nexus of family-run, tourist-targeted establishments have sprouted. They vend large, unimaginative sculptures and cold beverages and rent out motorbikes for an hourly fee. My driver parked his bike at one such establishment and introduced me to the owner, who was his wife. I refused to purchase anything and the wife was diffident and my driver promised to wait while I explored the landscape.

Deep inside the mountains a grid of narrow foot trails connected a network of caverns and caves. The cavities were tall and sepulchral and each one contained a shrine dedicated to Confucius/Buddha. I bought incense from a hunchbacked octogenarian and performed a Japanese prayer at each shrine.

Most of the other tourists were Vietnamese so when I overheard two young women speaking Castilian Spanish, I approached them. They were best friends from Barcelona and happy to include me. We wandered the caves and I gave them incense and taught them the Japanese prayer. At the base of the mountains I told them I was going to a beach and they should come along for a dip. The girls asked how I would get there and I pointed toward my driver who was propped against his motorbike, looking bored. The girls laughed and said they’d rented their own motorbikes and didn’t know where they would go next, but they would not be accompanying me.

I mounted the motorbike and put my hands around my driver’s waist. He squirmed and I watched the Spanish girls speed off, stomping their gears and shouting.

My driver had left me at China Beach a few minutes ago with a promise to return in two hours, once I’d had my swim. I looked at the water and flexed my toes and walked off the beach.

A few hundred meters inland there was a shanty saloon with only outdoor seating. I took a beer from a large cooler and sat alone. There were five or six empty tables and one table hosting a party comprised of all breeds of people. A young mulatto man invited me to join them.

The common language was English and the accents were all-over-the-map and the personalities/personal histories were divergent. The two portly Australian women were in Vietnam to improve its education system and live an economical, fulfilling early-retirement. The two disheveled British men were unemployed and sans life-strategy. The handsome Brazilian owned a pizza joint in Sao Paolo but had been riding his motorcycle across Asia for the past fourteen months. The slender, spirited Vietnamese man owned the shanty saloon and claimed he couldn’t cook worth a damn but he lived for days like this, when people like this came to his house and talked like this.

In truth, we foreigners hardly spoke. The conversational dynamic was established and our host was the epicenter. His audience drank and smiled and occasionally asked questions. Mostly we just observed.

The man wore a bedraggled tank-top and cut-off orange shorts. Rubbery thigh skin sagged over his kneecaps and his veins were inky. Both fists rested at his waistline and his elbows projected outward so his arms formed a 90degree angle and he looked like a malnourished teenager mimicking a chicken. He orbited our table and when he spoke he grabbed our shoulders for emphasis. His hair was black + gray and his bangs were thick. He laughed and swigged from our beers and said we wouldn’t have to pay anything.

He’d lived his whole life here, on the goddamn beach by Da Nang. He was born here and he played here as a boy. He will never live any place else. He was 12yrs old when the Americans came. They took the beach. He remembers shooting some American fuckers, shooting his gun at their camps and into the trees. He didn’t want to kill them, but he was supposed to shoot them. So he shot them. Everyone was shooting them. Then the Americans won and they gave him hot dogs and hamburgers. It’s the most delicious shit. He loves hot dogs and hamburgers with real American ketchup. Fucking delicious. That is the difference between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The North wanted to fight. They always want to fight. They wanted to shoot and kill and they called the South traitors. But they were not traitors. He was no goddamn traitor. Here in the south, people enjoy life. Look at the beach. Look at the sky. Why should he kill fuckers when he can be here on this beach with a hot dog? So he fucking enjoyed life. He played American football with the American soldiers. They taught him football and he played it every day when he was twelve. The Americans sometimes had to fight but they wanted to play football and enjoy life every day. He made many American friends. He loves America because the soldiers were honest. He does not regret shooting them because he had to shoot them. But they were good shit-heads. They taught him English. He didn’t know it was dirty English until tourists came to Vietnam. Those fuckers were so surprised! But still now he always speaks dirty English because that’s the English he knows. He loves dirty English. The soldiers taught him to say I love you to women and fuck you to men. His favorite thing to say is, you know when you stand up to leave a place and someone goes where are you going? Well his favorite thing to say is I’m going to take a shit. Do you get it? It’s like to say fuck you you fucker, don’t ask me about my life. It is great. American soldiers taught him to say that.  

After an hour of listening to my Vietnamese host, I paid him two dollars and bid farewell. The other travelers were bonhomous and no one made any attempt to exchange contact information.

Forty meters from shore I treaded water and studied the panorama. The Marble Mountains were directly ahead and to the north white coastline formed a gradual incurve. The water was peaceful and good. I floated there and realized I’d never even heard the guy’s name.

August 1, 2012
Da Nang and Hoi An, Vietnam

Pt. III: Some Doubts About Auto-Authenticity

Across the street from the Sun River Hotel I rented a manual motorbike and spent a few minutes learning how to maneuver it. The speedometer and fuel gauge were busted-up and there was frayed wiring where the review mirror should have been. My small helmet rested on the crown of my big skull, like an indurated yarmulke. I latched the chinstrap and drove off.  

The numerous rotaries were jam-packed and instead of stopping/deferring to rival traffic, you were supposed to just decelerate, dive-in and weave your way through the vehicular mélange. After successfully navigating a few junctions, it occurred to me that this fluid and decidedly non-western version of traffic-flow transformed motorists into independent elements of a massive, ever-evolving, intra-dependent organism. Each bike had a destination and each driver wanted to survive and those two things took precedence and kept the whole system operating. A lead-footed sociopath or the panicked cessation of any single vehicle would have fucked up the homeostasis in addition to everyone else’s day. You didn’t stop moving and you figured it out.

The drive to Hoi An was scenic and striking. A few kilometers outside De Nang, the roads became dirt and halcyon and there were zero English language directional markers. Occasionally I passed through a hamlet where adults congregated around miniature plastic tables and shoeless, shirtless children chased each other into high grass. The rare motorist was usually an indigenous female. Her motorbike was piled high with offspring and agrarian produce and do-it-completely-by-yourself supplies; every thing balanced on top of/barely attached to some other thing, like a life-size, quiescent Rube Goldberg machine. 

Hoi An is famous and oft-visited because it’s a handsome, quaint riverside town with an architectural pastiche that makes it a synecdoche for Vietnamese history. There’s a Cantonese assembly hall and a Japanese covered bridge and French-Colonial cafés and Vietnamese tube houses. And way too many sightseers. They’re everywhere and they have wide-brimmed hats and predatory eyes and faces masked by an impasto of sunscreen and they’re so shrill and fervent that I fled Hoi An’s Ancient Town after just a couple hours. At least that was my intention. But my motorbike wouldn’t start.

The key went in the ignition but did not rotate. I gripped and released the hand brake and held the clutch and shifted in and out of neutral and stamped on an unidentified lever.1 Nothing happened. After a few minutes a nearby street vendor came over, brandishing a screwdriver. He tried the key then put it in his pocket and repeatedly jammed the screwdriver into the keyhole, stripping the aperture so thoroughly that pretty soon its vertical slit was more like a battered peephole. A cop joined us and he inspected the machine, guffawed and gesticulated that we should light the whole thing on fire and watch it burn.

Someone called a mechanic and when he came he kicked the bike over and then up-righted it, buttressing its mass with his body. The street vendor gave him the key and the mechanic unbolted some frontward, hard-plastic sheath and rejiggered a mess of multi-colored wires. The motor activated and the mechanic handed me the key and pointed down the road, away from Hoi An.

“No stop,” he said.

I sped northward, off course and distressed. The streets were made of alien, rubicund soil and the jungle was dense and the rivers were slow. Whenever I passed by confabulating/gambling seniors huddled around a miniature plastic table, I slowed and shouted Da Nang, Da Nang as an interrogative. I went whatever direction they aimed me and I did not stop.

Can the tourist really trust anything? I.e., when you’re a tourist, what percentage of your interactions-with-natives are specious? Seventy percent? Eighty percent? At that point, doesn’t it make sense to just assume that all locals associate with you for pecuniary reasons? So then, other than the fact you have cash that people want, what can you know and whom can you trust? Because for some locals the money thing is primary and for others it’s not. That’s just how people are. There’s an entire spectrum but you never really know for certain where on the spectrum a single person sits because acting nice for money and acting nice because you’re actually nice look pretty much the same. And now that you’re disoriented because your shit-detector is totally out-of-whack, what are you supposed to do? Wave the proverbial white flag? Distrust everyone? Behave like them and hope for the best? How do you authentically experience a foreign culture if you can’t be yourself in said culture? And does the observer-expectancy effect render this whole dialectic irrelevant anyway?

August 2, 2012
Hue, Vietnam

Pt. IV: Social Lubricant Doesn’t Need a Translation

A hired car was driving me 80k north, to Hue City. The male chauffeur spoke broken English and when we stopped at a touristic viewing vista along Hai Van Pass, he loitered with other drivers and disregarded me.

The vista featured flocks of sunburnt, souvenir-acquisitive Caucasians + breath-stopping scenery. You could look south over Da Nang Bay and make out the steely skyline of downtown Da Nang. To the north were Lang Co Beach and the South China Sea. 360 degrees of highland jungle and infinite ocean and shorelines straight from some paint-brushed travel brochure. A single, arabesque highway carved through the sierras, fashioning each mountainside into a two-story, wilderness superstructure. I took some photos and got back into the car and waited for my driver to finish socializing.

As the terrain leveled and became arenaceous, roadside lean-tos germinated along the roadside. They sold either cheap souvenirs or jars containing a coruscating, piss-colored liquid. When I asked my chauffeur what all that yellow juice was for, he mumbled either a) it was so pregnant women could have healthy babies or b) it was so women wouldn’t get pregnant.

I’d booked my hotel that morning and it was a fine place in Hue’s celebrated French Quarter. The rooms were white-painted with red duvets and private balconies for 15 bucks a night. After ditching my luggage I set off on foot, crossing the Trang Tien Bridge and entering the northeastern, old section of town. It was getting dark and the Huong River was teal and nebulous and didn’t smell like anything.2 Following the recommendation of a friend who’d lived in Hue, I went to a specific restaurant and ordered Bun Bo Hue. The soup of rice noodles and beef slices was spicy and sweet and salty and good. The waitress was broad-faced and beautiful and she sat with me and cheered me on as I stuffed my face.

Walking back in nighttime darkness, the road was narrow and sans tourist pedestrians. Restaurants were closing-down and last-call Vietnamese diners watched me. I discovered an abandoned street-side fruitage mini-market and photographed weird produce until an old man emerged from the shadows and snapped his fingers + noiselessly chomped his mouth. I showed him my camera and walked away.

A few hundred meters from Trang Tien Bridge, someone yawped from somewhere above me.

There was an elevated concrete plateau on the south side of the street – maybe two meters above street-level – and up there three adumbral bodies were gathered around a bonfire. The blaze illuminated a half-roofed, lopsided shack and beyond the shack was an immense wall, a thicket of trees and total blackness. A man leaned into the fire and his face was an atrophied face with fat, glossy eyes and minimal teeth. He grinned at me, extending a six-fingered hand.

“Beer,” the man said.

I ascended a makeshift ladder and joined my hosts at the fire and got comfortable on a tree stump. Large ground-insects skedaddled and the man-who’d-invited-me-up tossed some trash into the conflagration and introduced himself as Bua. I shook his hand and felt/imagined the bonus digit burrowing into my palm.  

Bua was pygmy-sized and his body was debilitated from years of alcohol and poverty. He stood up often and anxiously, never achieving corporeal perpendicularity. His tattered tee shirt seemed soggy and he was shoeless and his stained toenails looked like stubby weapons for bludgeoning and gashing. The gaunt man on Bua’s right was named Huynh and the squat woman was Huynh’s wife. Bua called her Madam.

None of them spoke more than a few words of English but, with the aid of aggressive gesticulation, I eventually understood that the house and fire were Huynh’s. Bua was homeless.

A small girl materialized and Madam spoke to her in Vietnamese. The girl clambered down the makeshift ladder and skipped off.

Bua reposed on his miniature chair, legs outstretched, girded by a circlet of plastic bags. He extracted a handful of some sinewy cream-colored meat from one of the bags, smiling at me nonstop. Using eleven fingers, he shredded the meat and then dipped a single strip into chili sauce and offered it to me. I ate the tendon and it tasted like peppery seafood + soil. Bua laughed and handed me a warm beer.

I stayed there on that pavement mesa for over three hours and, while I’d like to quote the conversation I had with Bua and Huynh and Madam, coherent verbal exchange was pretty much an impossibility.  Still though, we communicated. I spoke English and they spoke Vietnamese and we nodded and frowned and laughed. They comprehended that I was an American traveling alone and I had been living in Japan for two years.  They taught me the three-word incantation that precedes communal alcoholic consumption in Vietnam.3 Madam brought me individually wrapped crackers and I knew she’d done so because she believed the cream-color meat made me nervous. I ate the crackers and dehydrated seafood and Bua rubbed my forearm with his disfigured hand. Huynh gave me a tour of his house, which was basically just two bunk beds and a stove. The small girl returned with ten beers and Huynh drank most of them. He became drunk and rampageous, falling off his chair and smashing glass and entangling himself in Bua’s plastic bags and motioning that I was welcome to enjoy Madam sexually. Bua took me to his motorbike and called it a sit-low and I understood that schlepping tourists about on his sit-low was how he made money. The house was sans lavatory but there was a specific, saturated patch of dirt designated for pissing on. The small girl went to bed and Madam followed her. Bua held up his six-fingered hand, indicating that he hadn’t had sex in this many years.

At some point another man arrived. His tank-top was tucked up into his armpits so his convex stomach and protrusive bellybutton could get air. The skin on the left half of his body was scorched and cauterized and grotesque, like curdled coffee. He spoke some English and I asked him repeatedly if it was The War, the napalm, that had done him in. He laughed and explained that in Vietnam there were two economies: the tourist economy and the native economy. E.g. I could buy thirty beers for twenty dollars but he could buy thirty beers for eight dollars. E.g. I could have a prostitute for twenty-five and he could have one for five. I said that this dichotomy worked just fine because, for your average tourist, those prices still constituted a cheap night of holiday hedonism. Bua overheard us talking about prostitutes and held up his six-fingers and sighed melodramatically.

“Boom-boom,” he said. “No Boom-boom. Six.”

The burnt man looked at me and tried to roll his eyes and it was like marbles trapped inside canvas.

“He wants sex a girl,” the burnt man said.

“I can’t help him,” I said.

“Give five dollar. Five dollars him good.”

I gave Bua one dollar and a condom that had been in my wallet since I don’t know when. He shook my hand and hugged me and then spoke to the burnt man in Vietnamese.

“You come tomorrow,” the burnt man said.

Bua was drunk but insisted on driving me to my hotel anyway. The Trang Tien Bridge was thick with motorbikes and the French Quarter was buzzing with music and blotto tourists reveling in packs. Bua refused any recompense and the concierge at my hotel watched him drive off and she did not acknowledge me.

August 3, 2012
Hue, Vietnam

Pt. V: Fortresses, Europeans, Tour Guides and Other Anxiety-Inducing Stuff

Cong Tru Street was alive with motorbikes and street vendors and gamblers and sunlight and a cacophony of human + mechanized noise. Going north, I eschewed the men offering me their motorbikes. It was mid-morning and my sole objective was to visit the Imperial City at some point that day. The 400 yr old compound was on the old side of town and it had a 2k circumambient wall + moat that enclosed a historical structure I’d declined to research. A quick look at my guidebook elucidated: despite the horrific damage caused by the Indochina Wars, the result of recent restoration is an unusual complex.

This was, most likely, my last full day in Hue. A plane would fly me from Da Nang to Hanoi in two days and so far Hue had proven pleasant but unsolvable, in terms of tourism being an ineluctable commerce that made it really difficult to talk to people/have true experiences and so on.

Current population approx. 350,000, Hue was Vietnam’s national capital until 1945. It’s located pretty much at the country’s vertical midpoint, right on the Perfume River, a few kilometers inland from The South China Sea. In and around Hue are a series of pagodas, palaces and tombs. The French Quarter still feels and looks Occidental. The cuisine is famous and spicy and finely presented and veggie-centric. In short, there are lots of reasons to visit Hue. It’s a centrally-located, manageably-sized city with good food, a royal history and celebrated beaches. Domestic and foreign tourists have been coming Hue for a long time. So long, that by now tourism is an established lifeblood of Hue’s economy. There is the local Hue and there is the tourist Hue. One city, two modus vivendi.

Bua had been a late-night godsend, but his maundering, rash kindness only emphasized the fact that in Hue English was more moneymaker than means of human-human communication. You heard English at Spanish restaurants and British pubs and on garish tour boats and in shops filled with flagrant, fetishized bagatelles. Bua didn’t speak English because he lived just beyond this venal subculture. He was destitute and honest and generous and thus quarantined to his concrete plateau. The language chasm between he and I confirmed a simple truth: according to the social and mercantile laws of Hue, we were not supposed to interact.

While this dynamic probably makes the whole process of venturing beyond your own culture + daily routine more feasible to The Tourist, I found it psychically taxing. Constantly evaluating people’s motivations was arduous. I wanted to return to Da Nang where the architecture was lackluster and the economy functioned just fine without me. I wanted to ride a motorbike to China Beach and learn that bar owner’s name.

As I turned east onto Le Loi Street, a seated man at an outdoor café beckoned me over. He wore a collared shirt and his legs were crossed and his table was bare and he appeared to be just sitting there, 100% idle. I went to him and he greeted me in flawless English and invited me to join him for coffee.

The coffee was true Vietnamese coffee: thick and sweet with condensed milk. The man was in his fifties and wore trifocal glasses that pinched his temples. We drank two coffees each and chatted about his sister, who lived in New York City. The man spoke in accented, adjective-heavy bursts and was truly enthusiastic about all things American: the rich cuisine and the amusing entertainment and the nice people. He memorized my full name and requested that the waiter photograph us with our arms linked. Afterward, he shook my hand and said that we should separate now because he needed to pray and I needed visit the Imperial City. He asked if I had a serviceable map of Hue and I gave him mine and he circled a small intersection on the north side of town.

“Meet here at one-thirty,” he said.  “I will take you to delicious lunch.”


The Imperial City’s parapet was maybe twenty feet high and suggestive of a massive, distended, soot-covered brick. I was following the moat around the wall and searching for an entrance point when I spotted a tall, blonde-haired man who appeared similarly disoriented + frustrated. I approached him and asked if he had any idea how to infiltrate this damned thing.

“This is the point of a wall, isn’t it,” he said.

“I think the point is for us to take pictures of what’s inside.”

“Together we can go.”

“Let me get on your shoulders and scale this thing,” I said.

We stalked the Imperial City’s exterior, snapping photos and conversing. The ground was arid and the moat was scorched and fissured and loose trash had accumulated in whatever puddles remained. The blonde man was a young Dutchman and he wore a breed of pants that evoked the word knickerbockers. His backpack was jam-packed and his pallid skin was flushed and blotchy from UV rays and exertion. He’d been traveling alone for a two weeks and last night he’d met a group of attractive Dutch girls who had suggested reuniting for drinks later this evening. He wanted to go with them and he wanted to bring me but he could not. Attractive girls made him nervous, he said. It was an affliction he’d suffered his whole life. Girls liked him and he liked girls but girls didn’t truly like him because they did not know him because he could not act himself around girls. They made him speak differently and walk differently and he hated this about himself. Attractive girls made him hate himself. If I ever saw him act the way he acts around attractive girls, I would hate him too, he said.

We eventually found an entrance and paid the admission fee. The Imperial City consisted of multiple outdoor chambers with meadow quadrants and murky pools and stone walkways and old structures with roofs like angular ziggurats. None of it was particularly memorable. The centermost enclosure was called The Purple Forbidden City and I recall taking photographs and feeling overheated and apathetic. In the shade a peddler was vending water bottles and ice cream. I bought water and the Dutchman became indignant when I told him that it had cost me 50 cents. He hated this about Vietnam and all third-world countries, he said. He hated when people took advantage of him. He was very thirsty, but absolutely not would he pay 50cents for a bottle of water.

I walked to and waited at the intersection previously tabbed by the trifocaled man. He arrived a few minutes late, steering a motorbike and wearing goggles + a funky WWII-reminiscent helmet.  He said he was happy to see me and had been remembering me all morning. I hopped on and we sped westward.

Our motorbike weaved through traffic and the man pointed toward buildings, gushing historical facts that I could not decipher. Cau Phu Xuan Bridge was all pavement and planate and barely elevated. The Huonh River yawned away from downtown Hue and seeped into dense jungle-land. Boats were either functional + feeble or touristic + baroque. The sun was high and without a distinct location and I spotted a pagoda in the distance, on the river’s bank. The man pointed at it and shouted something. He only sometimes watched the road.

Once we were back on the southern side, the architecture became modern and the roads widened. The man parked his motorbike on the sidewalk and we walked to a restaurant that consisted of a single flat grill and maybe twenty picnic tables under a wooden roof.

We ate a lunch of countless spring rolls and we drank three beers each.  The man said he was planning a trip to visit his sister and he wanted to add me to the list of friends he could visit in America. I told him sure, go ahead, add me. He said these spring rolls were the best in Hue and he explained what ingredients made each roll unique. He said Americans did not often talk with him and he liked my face, it was a sweet, optimistic face. He said that he had been to America twice and New York once and he remembered eating pizza on Broadway. I told him that I had analogous, fond memories. He said today was a full moon and in Vietnam full moons were spiritual days and this was why he’d prayed that morning. I asked him why full moons were significant and he asked me why anything was significant. He said he had thought of me while he was praying, that he’d asked his gods to watch me and care for me. I told him that he was very considerate and I appreciated the gesture and my mother probably did too. He said it was funny I say that because this was the precise problem he had when he was praying that morning. He’d thought about my family. He’d thought of them and he wanted to pray for them too, but he could not because he did not know their names. He said would I please write the names of all my closest family members down here on this piece of paper so he could pray for them. He said he wanted to pray for my family because he wanted his gods to watch them and care for them too. I told him I would write the names down and I did but I changed some of the letters.

He folded the paper and paid for lunch. We mounted his motorbike and drove eastward on Le Loi Ave, the city gradually becoming congested and commercialized. Just prior to the French Quarter, the man turned onto a side street and parked the motorbike.

“This is an alcohol store,” he said.


“When we pray, we buy the best alcohol to pour at the temple. That is tradition.”

“How much?”

“One million dong.4"

“For one bottle?”

“It is the best bottle. It is for your family.”

“I don’t want the best bottle.”

I gave him 350,000 dong and we entered the liquor store.

It was a mothballed room with shelves lining the walls and a young women behind an antique cash-register. The man bought a bottle of something dark and there was no change.

The city blurred by and when I got to the hotel I reserved a bus ticket to Da Nang for the following morning.

August 3, 2012 (cont.)
Hue, Vietnam

Pt. VI: Hate/Love/God/Luck

It was late afternoon and I was drinking beer on my hotel balcony. The air was hot and roily. Hue’s subfusc skyline digested sunlight and spat it back in my face. Rooftops below were cluttered with discarded furniture and singed flora and small, ugly birds. Perspiring grossly, I placed my unfinished beer on the balcony and went downstairs and rented a motorbike from the hotel’s front desk; telling the concierge I’d be back sometime that night, I wasn’t sure when.

My itinerary for the evening was straightforward and symptomatic of serious foreign-culture fatigue. I would motorbike approx. 20k to Thuan Beach. There I would sit on sand and drink beer and shun all Vietnamese people. Street-cooked pho for dinner, a prompt bedtime and then, early next morning, I’d flee this damned city with its charlatans and faux-friendships and hot, hopeless skyline.  

Driving east, away from central Hue, traffic was sparse. The buildings became squalid and advertised everyday, domiciliary stuff no tourist would want. Motorbikes sometimes honked their cute horns. Locals broiled food on the sidewalk and teenagers moseyed into the street and adult males wore tank tops tucked up into their armpits. The air became tangy and my bike was low on gas. I turned onto Kinh Duong Vuong and passed a spa resort and then a half-constructed, hospital-suggestive structure surrounded by inoperative, heavy-duty machinery. The road became potholed and narrow and jungle canopy encroached. I stopped at a gas station with zero other clients and the attendant frowned when I gestured with two fingers that I only wanted a little, just this much. He filled the tank to capacity and demanded ten dollars.

At Thuan Beach I pulled into a wide sandlot packed with hundreds of parked motorbikes. On the beach a swarm of shouting, quaffing Vietnamese youth mobilized around colossal pyres. They chucked glass bottles in the air and sang songs and transported debris. I spun 180 degrees and absconded before anyone saw me.

Back on Kinh Duong Vuong and without a destination, I continued southbound. It felt good to drive. The agrarian, seaside air was foul and fresh and authentic. On the western side of the road there were rice patties and in the rice patties hulking, long-haired bovine just sort of stood there. Above them the sun dissolved into a distant filament of the Cau Hai Lagoon. I drove past two shirtless, shoeless boys lugging sacks of something heavy and they saw me and got bug-eyed and eventually, after a few seconds, shouted hello in exhilarated English. Occasionally I encountered hamlets of like twelve huts. In these hamlets there were numerous families eating at plastic mini-tables and zero legitimate businesses but usually a single hut selling beer. I decelerated once and a hobbling man stared at me and grimaced and looked profoundly confused plus slightly concerned. Mangy dogs trotted along the road’s berm. Bulky, airborne insects zoomed into my riding rictus. I came across a subjacent patch of hazardous-looking mud where approx. twenty scantly-clad, dark-skinned men were engaged in a soccer match. I pulled over and watched the game and listened to bare legs collide. Neither team scored. Two wooden vertical posts stood at each end of the designated field, both sans crossbar. Behind the northern goalposts was a small knoll and on it were maybe forty spectators. A gang of adolescent boys noticed me and whispered to each other. Soon the other spectators began murmuring + signaling in my direction. The atmosphere became overstrung and the players sensed a rival attraction so they paused the game. A tall man hollered something that sounded neither welcoming nor hostile. More like implacable. I activated my bike and continued south. The sun set.

I’d just passed through another twelve-hut hamlet when three motorbikes swerved widely onto the road ahead of me. They sped northward and I braked and veered left, onto the street they’d come from. It was a sand + rock, one-lane trail that led up into a small graveyard. The tombstones were modest and overrun with tall grass. I kept driving and the cemetery became bramble and the bramble became a thicket of trees. The trees thinned and I was on a broad tract of elevated sand dune. Directly in front of me was a single hut and next to it a ternion of straw-covered, open-air gazebos. Behind them, twilight melded with The South China Sea. Anterior to the main hut a family of six sat around a fire-pit. I parked my motorbike next to six other bikes and walked toward the fire. The moon was fat and bright and inert.

An elderly woman, ostensibly the matriarch, rose and smiled and ushered me toward a vacant gazebo. I gestured drink and said beer and she scuttled into the main hut.

Mine was the central gazebo. To the left a pair of senior Vietnamese men ate from a common platter and did not see me. In the dextral gazebo a mixed-gender party of young-adults caroused. I scanned their company, ogling the prettiest girl. There were five revelers in total, all of them finely dressed and four of them physically ordinary.

The pretty girl was a paradigm of exotic beauty. Oblong visage, dark hair, amygdaliform eyes, hoop earrings, form-fitting gown, cheeks like jawbreakers, nostrils like pearls, skin-colored skin, a capillary upper-lip easily supported by its embonpoint bottom-half. She caught me staring so I walked to the dune’s edge and gazed into negative space. The dune slanted at 70degrees, approx. 8 meters from apex to base.

The matriarch arrived with an opened beer and, after taking it, I sat on the gazebo’s timber floor. The full moon secreted eerie, potent incandescence and the two seniors did not stop eating.

The matriarch returned a few minutes later. Standing over me, she repeatedly brought two fingers to her mouth. I shook my head negative. She pointed toward the dextral gazebo and reprised the whole fingers-to-mouth routine. I watched her. She grinned. Go, she said.

Swilling beer, I slinked to the adjacent gazebo. As I approached, the elegant Vietnamese coterie saluted me and the two boys cleared a space between them. They were young men with oleaginous mops for hair. The pretty girl smiled once but avoided eye contact and did not speak. She was wearing a wedding ring.  

I climbed onto the gazebo floor and crossed my legs under the centroidal, elevated table. On the table were: one salver of shell-on boiled shrimp, one chopstick dispenser, chili sauce, beer bottles and lots of disposable napery. I introduced myself to the assembly and it was evident that none of them knew English. They told me their names and I only listened to the pretty girl. Her name was Thien.

The six of us sat there for maybe 90min, discussing familiar, manageable topics like everyone’s age and where I was from and what Vietnamese food I liked best. We drank beer and whenever I sipped, the two boys raised their bottles and recited the same incantation Bua + Huynh had taught me. I extracted chopsticks from the dispenser but Thien snatched them away and wiped them down and then gave them back. The two boys were reticent and the non-pretty girls were plump and garrulous. Thien observed her companions and labored through stilted English. I implored her to teach me Vietnamese, echoing her inflection and mangling diphthongs + triphthongs. She laughed and pointed to her form-fitting gown and explained that they’d just come from a friend’s wedding. We ordered more beer and shrimp. I gorged. Everyone commented on the moon. Sometimes they conversed in Vietnamese. Thien’s face became flushed, her cheeks that splotchy, maroon tint of half-sucked hard-candy. 

At a certain point everyone, all-of-a-sudden, arose and patted their personal belongings. The boys shook hands and the girls held each other’s arms. Confused, I waved an indiscriminate goodbye. One boy plus the two non-pretty girls waved back. They smirked and squawked Vietnamese at Thien. She and a pimply-faced boy stayed. The pimply-faced boy gazed at me with profound indifference.

“Why don’t you go?” I said, looking at Thien.

She touched her napkin and sat down.

“I talk you.”

“What about him?” I nodded toward the pimply-faced boy.

“He motorcycle me.”

“This was a good night. I am happy. Thank you.”

“I ask you,” she said, using two arms to pantomime the act of beckoning. “Here.”

“You invited me. How old are you again?”

Thien extended two fingers, nodded, and then raised five. She jabbed her finger at me, extended two fingers, nodded, and then used her left hand to raise six. I nodded. The pimply-faced boy inspected a shrimp, flaying strips of translucent carapace.

“Why did you invite me here?” I asked.

“You are one. You are handsome.” Thien leaned backwards, torso extended into airspace, neck somewhere out over the dune’s precipice. She looked at the sky. “Night,” she said.

“You’re nice.”

“You are American. I want go America. I want go many place.”

“You should come. You should go.”

“No money.”

“Do you have a job?”

“I job bank. I job tomorrow.”

“You work at a bank, but no money?”

“Vietnam very problem. Very problem.”

“You can leave. Just go.”

“I live mother and father together.”

“They’ll understand.”

“They Vietnam. Very Vietnam. I home time ten, every night.”

“I like this beach. I will remember this beach.”

“Tonight is first,” she touched her own clavicle.

“I’ve never been here either. Where do you live?”

“I live Hue.

“My hotel is in Hue.”

I unfolded a city map and pointed to my hotel’s neighborhood. She nodded. The pimply-faced boy grabbed the map and studied it.

“Very far. 60 kilometers here,” Thien said.

“Husband?” I flicked my head toward the pimply-faced boy.

“No, no. No husband.”

I touched her ring. She laughed.

“No true. No husband. I have this because,” she shrugged and took a sip of beer.

The pimply-faced boy said something to Thien and exhibited his watch.

“I go,” she said.


“Ten. Mother and father. Very Vietnam.”

“Can I see you tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow I job.”

“After your job.”

I wrote my e-mail address and Thien tucked the paper into her wallet. The pimply-faced boy wriggled out of the gazebo, clutching a beer, waiting for me to raise mine. We chanted and drank and Thien cupped the base of my bottle and shoved it into my teeth.

Alone, I finished the shrimp. The matriarch cleared the table and when I offered her five dollars she pushed the cash back at me and pointed toward the parking lot. Handing me two cold beers, she mimicked my prior drink gesticulation.

I removed my shoes and sprinted down the dune. The shoreline was less than 4 meters wide and the sand was cold and pliant. Walking into spume, I disrobed and tossed my clothes behind me and sprinted into waves and swam and swam and floated supine and experienced something like bliss. The water was warm. My stomach churned. The gazebos loomed like watchtowers.

Back on sand, I felt intensely ill: my guts rejecting so much shrimp. After drying of with a tee shirt, I jogged toward firelight but did not get far. Going into a fetal squat, I shat right there on the beach. The full moon made the sand feel like cotton.

Driving back to Hue, the twelve-hut hamlets were asleep and oncoming traffic was non-existent and my face plowed through insect brumes. I was glad the gas station attendant had filled my tank.

Bua and Huynh were drunk when I parked my motorbike across the street from their concrete plateau. They welcomed me with catcalls and spilled beer and I scaled the makeshift ladder and sat on my tree stump and told them about Thien. Huynh sent his daughter to fetch more beer.

A few hours later I parked my motorbike in the hotel lobby and checked my email inbox. It was empty. Upstairs I stepped onto the balcony and reposed and drank the leftover beer from before.

Is love-at-first-sight a real thing? Can the convergence of two distinct personalities + personal histories feel instantly good and make long-term sense? Is it possible for two people to meet each other and just know? And what if we skip over the mushy, romanticized definition of love? What about a mother’s/brother’s/best-friend’s love? Is that kind of love possible at-first-sight? If so, how do we know when we’ve just fleetingly encountered someone we are capable of best-friend loving forever? And when you find an-individual-who-maybe-qualifies, what the hell are you supposed to do? Do you tell the creepy-sounding truth? Do you remember the infinitude of other people you’ve never met? Do you consider the fact that you hardly know this person and he/she probably comes with a litany of vexing personal issues? Should you even try? Will this decision have long-term personal consequences?

August 4, 2012
Hue, Vietnam

Pt. VII: (untitled)

Sent: 0750h, ICT

If you want, tonight, I will meet you neer [sic] my house. We will come to thuan an beach. I really want to see you again. Don’t worry.

In the hotel lobby I drank coffee and informed the concierge that I’d be postponing my departure until next morning. It was another hot day and I had approx. 8hrs to kill before meeting Thien. My knapsack held a water bottle and a map. Walking along Perfume River’s southern bank, I discovered an open-air market displaying a variety of shriveled meats and banal, severely-chromatic landscape paintings. The vendors accosted me and I was glad to speak with them. A fleet of flamboyant dragon boats was docked on the waterfront and the skippers shouted and summoned me. I waved back and kept moving.

Anchored underneath the Trang Tien Bridge was a single, shoddy boat. The boat’s hull was flecked with excoriated yellow paint and its windows were covered from the inside. I wondered if maybe the sun was too strong for this particular vessel. It looked overcooked, ready to surrender. The bow and stern sloped upwards and the top deck was loaded with anchors and rigging and plastic chairs and a cooler box. The cabin was maybe 5m x 2m x 1.5m and all wood. Two small children emerged from the cabin; a little sister chasing her older brother. The boy, an avian thing of maybe 5yrs, scrambled off the deck and onto the sidewalk. He looked at me and froze and shouted into the boat. The girl, maybe 3yrs, got caught in rigging so she sat down and pouted. A shirtless, very short man exited the cabin. He disentangled the girl and picked her up and came ashore.

“You want river tour?”

“How long does it take?”

“You say. I bring you back.”

“Sure. River tour. Let’s do it.”

The man said something to his children and the boy extended his hand and led me onto the boat. The man made a phone call.

“My wife,” he said, pointing to his mobile phone.

We stopped first at Thien Mu Pagoda. Situated on the river’s northern bank just east of Hue, it was the pagoda I’d seen yesterday from Cau Phu Can Bridge. The entrance was congested with tourists so I walked behind the seven-story octagonal tower and found a small, dark cafeteria where a covey of like twenty teenage monks was eating. Beyond them was a garden and a small garage with a blue, rusted car parked in it. A flimsy barrier prevented you from vandalizing the car and an anterior sign read: In this car the Venerable Thich Quong Duc went from An Quang Pagoda to the intersection of Phan dinh Phung street and Le von Dayet street on June 11, 1963 in Saigon. As soon as he got out of the car, The Most Venerable sat down in the lotus position and burnt himself to death to protest against the Ngo Dinh Diem regime’s policies of discriminating against Buddhists and violating religious freedom.

No one was in the garden so I walked its perimeter. Suspended from an especially thick tree branch on the garden’s southwestern side was a 70lb canvas heavy-bag. The canvas was frayed and bruised and the punching bag just hung there.

My captain and his kids waited for me at the boat. When I returned he gave me a thumbs-up and we re-embarked, sputtering southwest. I sat on the deck and took off my shirt. The little boy gave me a bottled water from the cooler.

The next stop was a muddy plat of riverfront where a woman was waiting with a motorbike. The little girl climbed to the prow and yelled at the woman. The woman waved. The man docked the boat and tied it to a tree.

“My wife,” he said and kissed the woman.  

She shook my hand and climbed onboard and scolded her children.

My captain mounted the motorbike and handed me a helmet.

The roads were mostly dirt and you could touch the jungle. We dodged potholes and sped past indigenous females driving their laden motorbikes. At the Tomb of Tu Duc and then at the Tomb of Khai Dinh I gave my camera to the captain and he followed me around, snapping photos and grinning. Khai Dinh’s concrete exterior was French-influenced and built into an elevated hillside. The staircase was daunting. The mausoleum was garish. The view was good. My captain was happy. 

Back at the boat, mother and father switched places again. Continuing upriver, the motor puffed dark smoke. The water was viscid and I recalled that scene from The Deer Hunter when American POWs are submerged in bamboo cages. Jungle birdcalls sounded extraterrestrial. Local mariners actually wore those conoidal hats often found in severely-chromatic landscape paintings. I became hot and ducked into the covered cabin.

It was a ramshackle interior suffused with loose stuff: buckets and brooms and ropes and knives and toys and lychee nuts. On the port side was a berth consisting of two kid-sized beds stacked beneath an askew shelf with a row of 1-liter water bottles on it. The brother was asleep on the top bunk, his arm dangling off the edge. The little girl sat on the bottom bunk, watching me. Sometimes she reached towards her brother’s limp fingers, but never touched them. I called her over and she became shy but eventually sashayed in my direction and then slipped behind a silk, improvised curtain. One of her fat brown cheeks protruded from behind the fabric. She giggled.

The girl’s black, chin-length hair fell over her fat forehead. Her open mouth was smaller than her eyeballs and she wore a diaphanous yellow smock. She blinked often and vigorously and afterward her eyes would get wide, adjusting to daylight all over again. We played hide-and-seek for a while; she the hider, me the seeker, silk curtains the only hideout.

We were still playing when the boat hit rough water. Lurching, the girl grabbed my knee. I held her vertical and she screamed with pleasure. Over at the berm, a 1liter water bottle slid off the shelf and landed on the boy, spilling water all over his face. He leapt up, dashed across the cabin floor and sobbed and came to me and stared at me with bewilderment and fear. Water on his forehead, tears on his chin, neither of us budged. The girl released my hand and embraced her brother, pressing her cheek into his belly. She looked at me and her physiognomy was pure and good. The boy rubbed his face with both palms then sniffled then composed himself. He put his left arm around his sister and held her. From the stern my captain watched, grinning.

We docked a few minutes later and the wife was there again with the motorbike. My captain chauffeured me to The Tomb of Minh Mang and we stopped at a small textile shop owned by my captain’s best friend. I did not purchase anything and neither man seemed to mind.

It was early afternoon when we motored past Thien Mu Pagoda again. Hue was visible and I sat on the cabin floor. The little girl was asleep next to me and the boy performed slight-of-hand tricks with a piece of yarn. The boat slowed and my captain climbed out and moored us to the same dock where I’d found them that morning. The wife was there and the boy was happy to see her. I gave my captain twenty dollars and he shook my hand twice and spoke to his wife in Vietnamese. She nodded vigorously.

“You meet sister of wife?” my captain said.


“She very beautiful. You good. You meet she.”

“I have a date tonight,” I said.

My captain spoke to his wife and she wagged her finger at me.

August 4, 2012 (cont.)
Hue, Vietnam

Pt. VIII: Two Roads, Equally Traveled

Retracing yesterday’s route, I motorbiked northeast on Quoc Io. The dirt road was teeming with weekend motorists and I zig-zagged through them without thinking; the tenets of two-wheeled cruising second nature by now. The weather was like it had been for the past week.

Thien was waiting for me at the entrance of that spa resort I’d noticed yesterday. Her motorbike was more like a moped and her back was perpendicular and rigid and her fingertips held the handlebars delicately, like how a magician would hold his cape just before the big reveal. Her helmet was olive-colored and orbicular and it rested on her eyebrows. I pulled into the driveway and she activated her moped and sped off, motioning me to follow.

She drove punctiliously, circumventing small protrusions and signaling turns with her arms. I recognized the roads and the sun was behind me. My motorbike was the same one as yesterday and it still had gas. Thien wore a tight blue tank top and jeans. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail and I could locate individual vertebrae on her spine. The drive took about twenty minutes.

We parked outside a small lean-to with all of its windows open.

“You like Vietnamese coffee,” Thien said. “This best.”

The café was intimate and without patrons. There were three wooden, kotatsu5 reminiscent tables with floor cushions around them and a single, regulation-height countertop with a young woman behind it. Elevated in one corner of the room was a widescreen HD television that broadcasted a tawdry Vietnamese game show. Thien and I sat at a table and the waitress came and Thien ordered two coffees and the two girls chatted like old friends.

“You are tall, she say.” Thien said once the waitress had left. 

“I’m too tall for Asia.”

“It is good. Vietnamese boy small. No good. 

“Americans are big.”

“I kiss French boy once. He big.”

“That sounds nice.”

“Go to France is nice. America is nice.”

“You should travel. Your family will understand.”

“Very Vietnamese. Very Christian.”


“They want me marry.”

“You don’t want to get married?”

“No now. No Vietnamese boy. No good.”

“What are Vietnamese boys like?”

“Very Vietnamese. I no work. I have baby.”


“But no money.”

“Marry a rich man.”

“I want.”

The waitress brought coffee and it was syrupy and hot and sweet.

“You can meet rich foreigners. You are beautiful. That fixes everything.”

“I skinny. Vietnamese boys no like. Mother and father very Vietnamese. They meet boyfriend. Old boyfriend.”


“They meet he. They want me marry.”

“But you want to travel and marry a rich man.”

“I want. No money. Family very Vietnamese. Vietnam very problem. No do anything.”

“You’re out tonight.”

“Family think I with friend. I home ten. Tomorrow I church and cook dinner with mother.”  

“Tomorrow I’m going to Da Nang and then Hanoi.”

“Very bad.”

“Thank you for tonight.”

“I happy.”

We finished our coffees and ordered two more. I asked Thien how often she came to this café and what her friend’s name was. She said once before and that she’d just met the waitress tonight. Thien didn’t have many friends and she didn’t get out much. She worked four days a week and her annual income was approx. 2,000 dollars. She’d just bought an iPhone so she wouldn’t have money for a long time. She used her iPhone to translate the words: depressed, romantic, bored, and fate. After our second coffee I paid and we walked to the beach.

It was getting dark and Thien ambled next to me, watching her feet. Her jeans were tattered and not especially tight. Her face was paler than last night and speckled with pockmarks and freckles. Her legs churned and her posture was like she was wearing a corset.

The beach was wide and the waves were slight but they landed loudly. I removed my socks and put them in my knapsack. On the beachfront there was a large, alfresco bar and gathered around it were young Vietnamese people. They drank and laughed and ignored us. We walked past them and Thien went straight into the surf, drenching her jeans. She stood there, ocean up to her knees. On the southern shoreline were three bonfires and lots of rowdy, drunk men.

“I don’t like sea,” Thien said.

“You should have rolled-up your pants.”

“We walk.”

Going north, Thien walked in water. We passed a resplendent resort and she said that if she could speak English she would work there. Voices hollered. Thien splashed me. There were fewer night-ramblers and then there were none. We sat down and faced the sea. Waves almost touched us. The moon was even fuller. We kissed.


Thien turned right just after the spa and I watched her spine dissolve into night. She would go home and go to bed and go to church and cook Sunday Dinner with her mother.

I would park at my hotel and walk to a two-story bar where I would sit and drink until a duet of Madrileños who carried guitars and sang rumba would come and sit with me. We would imbibe and speak Spanish and discuss professional Spanish sports. The bar manager would invite the two men downstairs because there were customers who wanted to hear music. The thin Spaniard would be bald and voluble and he would tell the bar owner that he wasn’t going anywhere without me because I was the band manager and by the way I only spoke Spanish. The two Spaniards would be normal, middle-aged guys with regular jobs who weren’t married but had played music together in university. Their minstrel uniforms would be the uniforms the university music company had worn. The two of them would travel all of Vietnam this summer. Every summer for the rest of time they would travel a different country. They wouldn’t have to pay for anything because when they travel, they play music. It would be bad music, they are not professional musicians and this is not true Spanish music, but these people would not understand. They would buy old CDs of the university company and they would buy us beer. I would see. We would not pay for anything.

We would finish our beers and go downstairs and sit outside at a small table that would be adjacent to a long table with like 12 vacationing Vietnamese socialites at it. The socialites would purchase us beer and the thin Spaniard would explain to them his torero-suggestive costume and his guitar. His English would be subpar and the Vietnamese socialites would enunciate impeccably and the fat Spaniard would not speak. Like a dumb bull, he would just sit there with his stomach out and his hair all slippery and tortile. The Spaniards would play guitar and the socialites would clap. The Spaniards would become tired/concerned that they’d exhausted their playlist and so then they would sit down and speak Spanish and drink more beer that the socialites had bought. The thin Spaniard would insult socialites and rich people and Vietnam and Spain. The fat Spaniard would mutter something truly offensive. He would show me CDs and say that making one cost 25cents but these bastards, these rich of shit sons of whores, would pay twelve dollars.

The rich socialites would buy two CDs. They would buy us eight beers each and they would not notice when they heard the same song twice. They would ask me if I would sing along with my troupe and the thin Spaniard would act like it was an audacious, insolent thing to say. We would leave the bar without paying anything and I would guide the Spaniards to another bar where we would order cokes and the Spaniards would produce from their coat-pockets two flasks filled with whiskey. A mixed-gender posse of Brits would invite us over and buy us flaming liquor. The Spaniards would perform and the Brits would get smashed and I would act hypercritical. More beer would come.

My bus would leave the following morning at 0812h and it would be packed with tourists and I would resent them all. I would go to the Da Nang airport and consider how all these Vietnamese travelers looked wealthy by Vietnamese standards and are airports here maybe a type of socio-economical sieve that they aren’t in America? I would land in Ha Noi and take a van to my hotel. My room would not be ready so I would be upgraded to a top-floor suite. I would sleep in a big bed and wake up and walk around Ha Noi with my knapsack.

Thien would go to work and be an accountant for 8hrs and make approx. 9 dollars.  

I would spend two days in Ha Noi and then ride an overnight train to La Cai station in northern Vietnam where I would take a car to Sapa village and hike the mountainside rice crops, stacked high like staircases for the gods. The native tribeswomen6 would invite me into their huts and market their handmade quilts. I would eat duck at the local market and sit at a lakeside café, surrounded by French chateaus. 

Thien would write to me that she’d dreamt of me and she didn’t want me to love my ex-girlfriend anymore.

I would return to Ha Noi and take a bus northeast to Halong Bay where I would ride a junk boat into various inlets and befriend a Spanish girl traveling with her mother. The boat would anchor in an island cove and I would sit on the deck all night, drinking beer with two French girls. The one who spoke good English would verbally divagate as the boat drifted in slow rotations. The other one would reveal that she actually could speak English and her English was muculent. The first one would become disoriented and hostile and she would deride neighboring boats for not be properly parked. The deckhands would stay awake because it would be their job to serve us beer.

Thien would visit her grandmother at the hospital.

I would fly from Ha Noi to Tokyo and spend the day peregrinating and eating with a cute ex-coworker whom I’d wanted to befriend for over a year and was just now willing to hang out one-on-one. I would leave Japan.

Thien would get offered a promotion but reject it because she wouldn’t want to be an accountant the rest of her life. She would not be able to sleep.

I would, along with twenty other Caucasian males, attend my best friend’s bachelor party in Vermont. We would do drugs and discuss: homebrewed beer, handguns, in-transit flatulation, physically pursuing girls, the best USA fast food meals, Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver, and pocket knives that also function as butane lighters. 

Thien would get fired and become disheartened because she would have too much free time. She would find another accountant job that paid 80 dollars a month.

I would be a groomsman at my best friend’s wedding in Princeton, New Jersey. It would be a four-day affair and a JCrew employee wearing a plaid shirt would tie my bowtie.

Thien would tell me not worry about her because she is Vietnamese so this is no problem. She would cite the apothegm what will, be will be.

I would move to Connecticut and live alone in this big house.

Thien would marry her ex-boyfriend and she would request that she and I remain intimate friends forever.

My parents would work in big northeast USA cities and my sister would raise two daughters with her husband and sometimes I would babysit. My friends would move into new apartments and study and work and get engaged. I would consider adopting a dog, but in the end I would not.

Thien would become pregnant and abdicate her position as accountant at some bank in Hue.

What does it mean to have a nationality? Apart from being born here, what makes me American? Has my upbringing instilled some personal characteristic that was similarly inculcated in all other people born here? How is this characteristic different from what other countries instill in their citizens? Why does it take me two days to make a real human connection in Vietnam, but one year in Japan? How are Vietnamese and Japanese people different from each other? How are Americans all the same? And, assuming such a thing as “culture” not only exists but that distinct cultures encourage certain behaviors and thus promote and reinforce certain values, what should we do about those innate personality traits of ours that conflict with the value system of whatever culture we were born into? Would it be better or worse if everyone in a country not only shared the same instilled cultural values, but also the same innate personality traits? And what are you supposed to do if you just don’t naturally fit into your native culture? Is it possible that millions of people worldwide are unhappy primarily because their native culture represses/condemns their innate personality traits? And if these individuals never have the chance to travel, how can they realize that they’d be happier elsewhere? What if ceremonious, demure Americans could just become Japanese? What if independent, loudmouthed Japanese girls could become Spanish? What if Thien were American? Is it even possible for a person to truly update his/her nationality, in the metaphysical sense? And what would happen if countries were comprised of only of those citizens whose personalities aligned with the cultural value system of that specific country? Wouldn’t those relocated people be more synergetic and just happier in general? And would this version of homogeneity be a good or bad thing? Would it be good for those relocated individuals, but dangerous for the world? Is it even remotely possible that we’re approaching the whole immigration issue from a totally misguided POV? What if the USA government quit spending money on keeping motivated foreigners with USA-disposed personalities out and instead focused on excommunicating all those USA born individuals whose innate characteristics would be better fostered somewhere else? And what about those people who simply don’t have a partner country/culture? Is it possible to be raised in one country and live in many countries and still not completely identify with any of them? What are you supposed to do when different countries endorse different aspects of your character, but no one culture fully encompasses/represents/accepts you? Do you just settle on the best fit? Do you keep traveling? And if so, what are you missing out on? Are nomads aloof? Are entrenched locals part of something bigger? What would be gained/lost if they switched places? Is it better to be challenged or comfortable?

March 19, 2013
Iida, Japan

Addendum: When Full Circles Become Black Holes

I was sitting in a banquet hall on the top floor of a chic hotel located in downtown Iida, just north of the train station. My table was circular and the tablecloth was white. There were seven teachers from Toyooka Junior High School sitting there with me. The men wore black suites and the women wore gowns. A platter of sashimi sat at the table’s midpoint, untouched. To my left was an identical table with eight more teachers sitting at it. Behind me were two unoccupied tables and at the room’s forefront was a microphone. The curtains were open and it was springtime in Japan. After seven months away, I’d returned for this day. The TJHS third year students had graduated that morning and my presence at the ceremony had shocked and delighted them. I’d sat in a special section reserved for special guests and I’d listened to speeches and then eaten a bento lunch in the teachers’ office. The girl students had recruited their parents to snap photos of us posing together. My basketball team had mobbed me and we’d talked and laughed and shoved each other and ended up on the ground, rolling around in our fancy clothes. Now it was evening and I still had on the sullied heather gray suite I’d worn that morning. It clashed with everyone else’s somber tones. Clarinet muzak hummed. I chatted with Japanese teachers and was glad to know that my Japanese language aptitude had not gone to shit.

When the teachers at my table stood, so did I. Someone muted the muzak and everyone applauded. The main entrance of the banquet hall opened and thirteen teachers entered in a single file line. These teachers would be transferring schools over spring vacation. They would be shipped to small towns and medium-sized cities across Nagano prefecture and they would probably never see each other again. Some of them had worked at TJHS for five years, others for only two. I knew them all well and liked most of them. Three were close friends: Shimodaira the impish gym teacher who’d always volunteered to sit next to me at formal functions, Ichiba the virtuous English teacher who’d basically been my personal mentor, and Sekijima the head basketball coach who’d been my best friend.

The departing teachers distributed themselves between the two previously unoccupied tables and everyone sat down synchronously. Otsuki Sensei – a cocksure 2nd yr teacher and the evening’s designated MC – made a toast and we all began drinking and eating and conversing. The women at my table were sexagenarian and motormouthed and they did not abridge/simplify their Japanese. The men guzzled food and occasionally interjected a terse comment. Sitting at the table to my left was a prematurely balding Caucasian. His name was Logan and he was the AET who had replaced me.

Logan was from Tallahassee and he spoke fine Japanese but chose to shout English instead. He was an avid golfer and sometimes at school he demanded that students listen to him play the piano. He liked to affect a rural Florida panhandle accent for no good reason and he didn’t want to stick his nose in my business, but he was pretty sure I’d come to Toyooka to propose to Sekijima. He knew we were friends because he’d had to give her those personal items I’d left in the house that he’d moved into last August. Japan is pretty far away from America, so that’s just what made sense. I was here to get married. Sekijima would be excited, Logan was totally positive.

Yamamoto Sensei massaged my scalp and then shook my hand. He was a handsome, fratboy-reminiscent science teacher who’d transferred to TJHS one year ago. He wanted to talk to me about the girls’ volleyball team. He was the coach and he knew I’d been chummy with the third year members, that during especially exasperating basketball practices I used to wander over to the adjacent court and gossip with his team. The three third girls had all passed the high school entrance exam and Yamamoto thought I should know. He forced me to chug a beer and then he jounced off.    

I gathered two 1-liter beer bottles and went over to a different table. Shimoidaira was sitting there and his face was red. I refilled his glass and sat down. He put his hand on my shoulder.

“You remember the Japanese drinking custom,” he said.

“You taught me.”

“I know many foreigners. I see Logan every day. You are not like them. You are Japanese. Your heart is Japanese.”

“I’ve been thinking about that.”

“We planted the trees you bought for the school”

“That makes me happy. Where are they?”

“Come to school tomorrow. I will show you.”

“I’ll go this week.”

“Good. Let’s drink. I am staying at this hotel tonight. I do not drink alcohol often.”

“It must be sad to leave Toyooka.”

“That's life. I wish I could know what you will do with your life.”

“I’ll come back.”

“I won’t be here.”

“We can write.”

“Let’s drink.”

I found Natali Sensei and learned that she was finally engaged to her longtime boyfriend. Matsumura Sensei was still having problems with that one special-ed student. Hayashi Sensei was worried he wouldn’t be the baseball coach at his next school. Itsubo Sensei was going to retire, but not really. The Vice Principal claimed to miss me on a daily basis. Sekijima had a police-officer boyfriend and she would tell me all about it tomorrow, when we went to the beach. Ichiba and I nodded at each other, acknowledging that we should put in time with other people. The muzak recrudesced, louder than before. Shimacho7 and salad were served. I poured more drinks and visited every table. Yamamoto ricocheted around the room and Logan boomed English language curse words to no one in particular.

When teachers began filing back to their designated tables, I returned to my assigned chair and sat down. Otsuki announced that the subsidiary speeches would commence and then, one by one, a staying teacher panegyrized a departing teacher. I comprehended maybe 80% and the orators all tried to be funny.

Afterward, the departing teachers - in succession - went to the microphone and made speeches that were loquacious and emotional. Shimoidaira tickled a coworker when he stood up. Itsubo taunted the MC and then got very serious. Osawa wept. Ichiba was grateful and graceful. Sekijima declared that this group of people in this room had changed her life. That we had accepted each other and supported her and nurtured the students and she was a stronger, more confident person because of it. We were allowed to eat during the speeches so I picked at victuals pretty much the whole time.

The after party was held at a nearby izakaya, the same one that had hosted my welcome party thirty months prior. It was raining hard and the TJHS Principal invited me under his umbrella. The izakaya was small and we clambered onto tatami mats and crowded around two tables. Sekijima wrote everyone’s drink order and buzzed the waitress bell. Logan sat next to me and Shimoidaira was across from him.

Shimoidaira drank a gin tonic and Logan drank beer and I drank shouchuu. Food came and everyone ate and nattered, the alcohol taking hold. Logan put his arm around me and repined that USA politicians were mouthpieces and no one was honest anymore and the world was going to hell in a handbag. Shimoidaira refused to eat a single bite of miniature pizza and repeatedly squeezed more lime into his gin. Eventually Logan asked for the lime so that he could put it in his beer. Shimodaira frowned.

“Here, put this piece of fried chicken in there too,” he said.

“That’s ridiculous! Chicken! Listen to him,” Logan swatted the chicken. “He doesn’t get it!”

Shimodaira smirked.

“It is an American drink. American. Drink,” Logan annunciated.

“I think fruit in beer is actually a Mexican and Belgian thing,” I said.

“Eat this pizza,” Shimoidaira said, nudging the pie toward Logan. “We call this sushi.”

Logan leaned into my ear and whispered these fucking people don’t understand anything.

Shimodaira collected all the lime slices from both tables and dropped them into Logan’s beer.


I spent the rest of the week attending TJHS basketball practices and feasting at my favorite local restaurants and shopping with Sekijima and borrowing her car so I could drive two hours north to have dinner with that cute teacher who’d met me in Tokyo last August. The basketball team held a party and I made a speech. My adult conversation class invited me to dinner. The Toyooka town hall returned 900 dollars it apparently owed me. I lay on the banks of the Tenryu River as often as possible. The ground was usually wet and the Minami Alps still had snow.

On my last morning in Japan I went to Toyooka Junior High School one last time. It was spring vacation so the building was absent most students; only the baseball team and brass band were practicing. Teachers cleared their desks/prepared for next semester’s classes. I ate lunch with Ichiba and then hugged everyone goodbye. Hayashii San, the school groundskeeper, requested that we get our photo taken standing on either side of the saplings he’d planted on my behalf. Ichiba followed me to the parking lot and blew me kisses and the baseball team whistled and accused her of infidelity. Sekijima drove me to the highway bus station and I caught a bus to Tokyo.

It was a four-hour ride and I recognized all the all scenery and rest stops. Japanese passengers were silent. A few seats in front of me an American mother and son whispered back and forth and jostled for window position whenever Mt. Fuji became visible.

The bus parked and the driver declared that we would stay at this service area for eighteen minutes. I dismounted and overheard the American mother telling her teenage son that she didn’t know when they should be back on the bus and wasn’t it a shame that she didn’t get better shots of Fuji. The son jogged toward the restroom, holding his baseball cap on his head.

“There’s a viewing spot over there, just past those trees,” I said to the American mother. “You can see Fuji. Beware the power lines though, they’re everywhere.”

“Can you take a picture of me?”

“The bus leaves in eighteen minutes.”

“Where are you from?”


“Are you going home?

“I used to live here. Teaching and coaching in the town next to where you got on the bus. I came back to see my kids graduate a few days ago. It was great. I missed them. I missed Japan. I fly tonight.”

“I’ve been traveling for two weeks. I was scared to come here. But Japanese people are so nice.”

The woman gave me her mobile phone and I snapped numerous photos. We went into the shopping center and I bought a chilled green tea.

Sitting on the bus, I looked out the window. The mountains were big and Lake Suwa was milky and the bus bathroom did not emit that odorized chemical stench that USA buses always do.

In Tokyo I rolled my suitcase through Shinjuku and waited at a crosswalk. Someone touched me. I spun and saw that it was the American mother.

“Have fun with your students in Tokyo,” she said.

1) In case the laymen phraseology didn’t make it obvious; my knowledge of all things mechanical is severely substandard. I know how to drive a car and inflate my tires. Beyond that, I’m hopeless. If my ignition doesn’t ignite, I’ll just walk.

2) The river’s name translates to “Perfume River” so, whatever. Maybe it used to smell good. It doesn’t anymore.

3)  Mt hai yo! Or “one, two, go!”

4) approx. 50 USA bucks.

5) Kotatsu are Japanese tables that are heated. Basically you drape a cloth over a kotatsu and sit on the floor with your legs tucked under the table and you stay warm in the winter. Why don’t you just use central heating instead? Good question. Ask Japan.

6) There are eight different ethnic minority tribes in Sapa, totaling approx. 3,000 citizens. They’ve been living in these mountains for god knows how long, but weren’t discovered until the French came in the late 19th century. The men farm and the women tend house and weave fabrics that they sell to tourists. The kids are required to attend school until age ten, at which point they generally enter the local work force. My hiking guide was a 22yr old, 8-month pregnant woman who navigated the rocky, muddy terrain with aplomb bordering on nonchalance. Two young girls, maybe 7yrs old, accompanied us, racing ahead and offering assistance whenever the land got especially treacherous. At the hike’s conclusion, I gave the young girls each a dollar and then they scrambled back to the center of town and did the whole thing over again, with new tourists. The tribes are poor, even by Vietnamese standards. However, due a recent influx in tourism, their English is really good. I departed Sapa feeling slightly guilty and deeply perturbed. It’s disconcerting to dabble in someone else’s hard life and it’s depressing to know that the best mode of survival for a subculture is to commercialize/merchandize its unique and totally beautiful history + lifestyle. Redmond O’Hanlon would shudder.

7) Cow intestines. The large intestines. Grilled. So gross. 

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