Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
During my first moments in Saigon I half expected to see something shocking,
surreal, a time-warped American tank, or columns of Viet Cong marching down the
street. Instead I saw a rather poor, pleasant looking city of wide boulevards,
hundreds of bicycles, motor scooters, cyclos, and a few cars and trucks. The
people, dressed in a wide variety of clothing from lovely Ao Dais to Western
business suits, appeared lively and attractive.
Leaving the taxi, three white jacketed doormen quickly whisked my bag and me
into the lobby of the Saigon International, a small French-era hotel. Within
minutes I was registered, assured that the required notification with the
authorities would be handled by the management, and escorted with smiling
efficiency to my modern air-conditioned room on the third floor. There was no
elevator; however the stairs were wide with large windows on each landing, like
those of an elegant European house.
I unpacked, cleaned up a bit, and went for a walk. Upon leaving the hotel I
was approached by a cyclo driver.
"Hello. Where you come from?"
"Where you going?"
"I give you tour? Go to war museum. Go shopping."
"No, thank you, I just want to walk around."
"Maybe good restaurant? Show many temple."
"No, thanks. Maybe later."
"OK. No problem. I am here."
It turned out that the War Museum was at the first corner, but I missed the
sign and kept walking. Despite some interesting examples of colonial
architecture, the area seemed amazingly uniform. Each block had a few stores and
at least one street vendor.
One shop that caught my interest was sold Buddhist paraphernalia; icons,
incense, calendars, and so on. I went in and tried to ask a few questions about
the wares, but no one spoke English. I managed to buy a calendar with a picture
of the Buddha surrounded by Vietnamese children.
After returning to my hotel to regroup and study the map and guidebook, I was
ready to venture forth again. Negotiating a US$1 fare from my cyclo driver took
only a minute or two and we were off. A cyclo, short for "cyclo-pousse", is a
bicycle powered mini carriage with the driver sitting behind the rider. Though
one may feel a bit of guilt at being peddled about, it is a pleasant form of
transportation used by anyone without a motorcycle. It is slow enough to enjoy
the scenery and, if you look like a tourist, it comes with advice and commentary.
Within a few blocks my driver began a pitch to be a guide for the rest of the
day, the night and however long I might be around. I assured him that I wanted
only to be let off outside the Rex Hotel and that from there I intended to walk
about and explore.
"Okay, I wait for you, bring you back, Okay?"
I let him know that I had no idea how long I would be or where my walking
would carry me. I might be two hours or late into the night.
"Okay, no problem. I wait."
"Maybe long long time you wait," I said.
I use "broken English" regularly and without self-consciousness. I had
discovered in previous wanderings that this simplest form of language was
effective and appreciated.
"Okay, no problem. I bring you back to hotel."
Realizing that I would most certainly be returning, I asked him how much?
"No problem, it's okay, anything you want."
The driver dropped me off at the Rex Hotel, an ornate Gothic building which
once served as a sleeping and watering spa for US military advisors and now home
to one of the better known massage services. I walked east on Le Loi Boulevard to
Deng Khoi Street, wandering off onto side streets now and again; absorbing sights
and sounds. Every block or two I would pass cyclo or motor bike drivers who would
ask me where I was going, or gesture questioningly.
Late afternoon found me still wandering the streets, I knew I was hungry and
would have to eat soon if I wanted to keep my energy up but I could not make up
my mind where. I wanted to try some of the local food from a small cafe or street
cart but could not remember, beyond some rather strongly worded warnings about
unwashed fruit and unboiled water, what the guidebooks had said about this.
Finally I ended up eating some fast food chicken from a place called California
Fried Chicken. It was dreadful and served me right for being so fearful.
Feeling dislocated, I returned to the Rex Hotel, where my driver found me
immediately and gestured for me to get into the cyclo. "You want go eat?" he
"I eat already," I replied, as we headed down the street away from the
"Want go to nightclub?"
I said nothing for a moment, trying to decide if a beer or two would feel
right, or if I should return to the hotel. Part of my mind was warning me that I
should watch out where I let myself be taken in this indecisive and somewhat
"You want meet girl?"
"No. Maybe a beer."
"Okay. I know good place. Cheap." And off we went, east on Le Loi Boulevard
and south down Deng Khoi Street again. Good lord, I thought, he's taking me to
one of the tourist bars.
However, we were soon at the end of the street, turning right along the river,
and the driver was saying something that sounded like "Foreign Paris."
"What?" I shouted, over the noise of a hundred mopeds.
"Foreign Paris, Foreign Paris" he exclaimed excitedly, pointing to a huge,
very ugly Hotel floating on the banks of the Saigon River.
"Ah, yes, Floating Palace. From Australia." I agreed.
"Yes, Foreign Paris."
We turned another corner and pulled up at circular
kiosk located in a traffic island in the middle of Nguyen Hue Boulevard where the
patrons sat at tables by a long unused fountain. My driver indicated I should go
get a beer and he would wait. I ordered a 333 local beer that turned out to be
quite palatable. two young Vietnamese jumped up from the closest table and
gestured for me to sit. They joined a larger group at another table. Almost
immediately, another young man, perhaps in his late twenties, joined me.
The conversation began haltingly. He asked me where I was from; I replied and
asked him what his name was. I learned, during the course of twenty minutes or
so, that he was studying English, wanted to get a job in a Hotel, was somehow
related to the owner of the Kiosk, and that his sister had a restaurant somewhere
nearby. Although I was enjoying the first conversation I had had since arriving,
I felt a vague sense of unease. There would be long minutes of silence. His eyes
would often search around, almost as if there were some danger or possible
"Should I eat at your sister's restaurant?"
He looked at me as if he weren't certain what I had said.
"Is good food at sister's restaurant?" I rephrased.
He smiled and shrugged as if to say, not really.
A long pause ensued and then he asked me, "You want come to party Sunday?"
Uncertain I had heard properly I repeated, "Party?"
"Yes, party, Sunday. You come?"
"Where?" I asked.
"Sister's restaurant? Sure."
Another long pause ensued. Finally I asked, "What time?"
"Yes, Two o'clock."
"Where we meet?" I asked.
He looked decidedly confused and I began to feel more uncomfortable. Had the
invitation been a whim that he already regretted? Was this some sort of scam that
he hadn't quite worked out and wasn't certain he could carry off? However, he
repeated, "You come to party? Okay?" in a voice that seemed somehow
"Okay, Where we meet?" I asked again.
"Yes," he replied, "we meet here. Two o'clock. Sunday."
But he wasn't looking at me. Something was definitely wrong here. What do I
say? Surely this much discomfort couldn't be simply from the difficult of
speaking English? Without much enthusiasm I said I would be there.
He left and I got back in the cyclo. The driver had further ideas and
suggestions concerning the rest of the evening but I insisted we return to the
hotel. Once this was accepted the negotiations for tomorrow's tour began. Feeling
somewhat more confident in my ability to direct my own destination despite
continued suggestions from him, I asked him how much he wanted to be my driver
for the day tomorrow. He suggested that whatever I offered would be fine.
"Okay, no problem."
Half way back to my hotel, a motor bike pulled up alongside and slowed to match
our pace. On it were two attractive young women, perhaps in their twenties. The
driver had a charming smile, full of playful energy. The rider, who looked a bit
younger, was willowy, with dark hair and deep, searching eyes.
"Hello," the driver shouted, "where you come from?"
"USA", I shouted back.
"America. You want massage? Make love, good?"
Speechless, I smiled, looked away, then looked back. I shrugged.
"Where you going?"
"We give good massage, good make love, yes?"
Rallying, I replied, "You young girls, I'm old man."
"Make love us, you feel like young man."
They were laughing and so was I.
"Hotel no let you come in." I said, trying to regain some control over the
"You come us, we take good care you," the driver said. She really seemed to be
"How much?" I asked, out of curiosity I hoped.
Shit, I thought, what do I say now. What did I want? I was certainly enjoying
this conversation. And suddenly the somewhat fragile feeling I had had all
"I give you ten dollars. Just massage."
Her smile disappeared. I could see that she was sizing up this new suggestion
and that she didn't believe me.
"Twenty dollars, massage, make love, two hours."
Suddenly, I didn't want this to end here.
"Listen, I give fifteen dollars, but just massage, no make love."
I could see that this offer was tempting from a monetary point of view but
that somehow it didn't feel right to her. I believe she thought I was being
cheap. There was no smile. Suddenly the motor bike veered off and turned around
and was gone. I sighed. Welcome to Saigon.
The next morning I persuaded my self-appointed cyclo-tour guide to take me to
the market area along Huynh Thuc Khang. This was not an easy task as he had many
other ideas for our day's sightseeing. It wasn't that I had no interest in the
museums, temples, shops, restaurants and assorted other suggestions he offered,
but I wanted to experience the unexpected.
The market and surrounding streets were bustling, noisy, and absorbing
in the variety of foods and goods for sale. There were Michael Jackson T-shirts,
durian fruit, housewares, incense, sausages, an amazing variety of shoes and
sandals, Ao Dais, statues, calendars, blenders, watches, "war-era" magnifying
glasses, gold jewelry, and just about anything else one needs to live, survive
and keep up with the Vietnamese Joneses. I immediately lost myself in the sights
and sounds and odors. It was here that I first realized how wonderful the people
of Saigon are; the directness of their gaze, the open and friendly smiles, and
their extraordinary energy. These people are alive, and aware of it.
The first conversation I had was with a high school girl who was selling
postcards and spoke English quite well. I had bought a pack from her and she
initiated a lengthy conversation about her plans for the future, what her school
was like, life in Hong Kong versus Saigon, and more. We ended up trading
While I was looking at some fake war-era binoculars, a man of my age (about
fifty) introduced himself and asked if I was an American. When I said I was, he
grabbed my hand, remarking that he was so happy to see me here. He had been some
sort of military advisor to a Lieutenant Steve during the war; they had become
close friends, and when the American withdrawal occurred he was left behind. For
several years Steve had tried to get him out, had sent money, sponsored him for
an America visa and did whatever he could to arrange for his emigration to the
US. The government of Vietnam, at that time, refused to allow him to go. When the
easing of restrictions began several years ago, he had tried to get in touch with
Steve to no avail. Had he moved? Was he dead?
I asked what Steve's last name was, thinking perhaps I could do something to
find him, but oddly, he didn't reply.Instead he took my hand and with tears in
his eyes said, "I am very happy you are here again."
I didn't know what to say? I wanted to cry as well.
He gripped my hand hard and said it again, and then moved on.
I decided to head back to the central district and spend the rest of the day
and evening there. My cyclo driver was quite incensed when I insisted he not hang
around the Rex for four or five hours. I did not know where I would be when I was
ready to return. I told him to meet me tomorrow around 11 AM.
As the evening came on, I felt hungry, and a little aimless. I decided to buy
some bread and cheese from a street vendor. I ate as I walked. It helped some but
I was now quite thirsty. Finally, I came to the realization that I was looking
for someone or something to distract me from the emotions of the day. Telling
myself that this nonsense must not go on, I stopped at another street vendor and
bought a beer.
I walked up a side street that had a steady flow of cyclos and motor bikes,
but no shops, plopped down under a tree, and watched the traffic go by. Within
minutes I began to realize that I was an object of curiosity. Every few moments
someone would see me and suddenly smile, or point me out to whoever they were
riding with -- most motor bikes and cyclos carried at least two people. Quite a
few friendly souls waved and shouted "hello". That did it, I was suddenly
grateful to be here, at peace with myself and the end of the day.
Soon a young man came by and sat beside me, saying, "hello". I offered him a
cigarette and we both sat and smoked for a while before he spoke.
"What your name?"
"Ted, and you?
"What your name?" I asked.
"Trouc. From where?"
"Ah, America, good. How long you in Saigon?" We made small talk and after a
while he left.
I walked to the corner and got another beer and went back to my tree. Trouc
passed by again and offered me a stick of gum. I sat for at least an hour. The
sun had set. Time for some more substantial food.
Still feeling anxious about unwashed vegetables, I ended up in a place that
advertised German food, eating an overly heavy stew of some sort. This is not
going to do, I thought, I'll have to take some risks if I am going to eat
Wandering again, I came across a small local restaurant with no custumers but
five waitresses, all standing or sitting on stools out front. They seemed anxious
for me to come in. I said with a combination of gestures and English that I had
already eaten but I would like a cup of coffee. I expected to get tea. One of
them indicated for me to come in. It was a very hot evening and I wanted to stay
outside, so I sat down on the steps. This was a source of immediate amusement. I
was quickly brought a chair from inside.
As I waited, one of them pointed at me and asked, "name?" I told her, she
tried to repeat it, and they all giggled. So, I pointed back and asked, "name?"
When I repeated her name the laughter was unrestrained. I tried again, more
laughter. So, I pointed at another one with similar results. This game went on
for the ten or fifteen minutes it took me to finish my drink which was
deliciously French-brewed coffee. The game was the only means we had to converse
and each us at some point felt some frustration. I vowed to myself to learn
Around 9 pm, I came upon an outdoor restaurant across from the Saigon Concert
Hotel and sat at a table facing the square. Before long a motor bike pulled
It was the same two young women from the previous night.
"Sit down" I said, "Have Coca Cola or a beer."
They parked the bike and joined me at the table.They ordered the local version
of Coca Cola, which is fairly good, although a bit sweeter. We exchanged the
usual questions. The older of the two sisters was named Lien, the other
Lien asked, "You here one?"
"Yes", I replied, assuming she was asking if I was alone.
"Tonight you get massage?"
I thought for a bit. I was enjoying the company, I wanted the contact.
"How much, I asked?
"Twenty dollars. Good massage, good sex, feel young."
Feeling young sounded pretty good at the moment.
"Tonight", I replied, "you give massage. No sex. Okay?"
They were still skeptical. I pointed out how much my legs hurt from walking
all day. I showed them the bald spot on top of my head. I said that massage was
much better than sex. We haggled a bit and agreed finally on a price of ten
dollars. I could see that they were still skeptical. They felt that I had
bargained my self into sex and a massage at half price. Next we discussed where
to go. They asked me what hotel I was staying in. I told them and said I wasn't
sure the hotel would allow guests. (I could just imagine the reaction of the desk
clerk and white jacketed bellboys at the Saigon International to my walking in
with two young Vietnamese prostitutes.)
To my relief, the girls agreed this was a bad idea. Lien said that the police
often fined them heavily if they went anywhere near certain hotels. Lien said to
come along with them and we all hopped on the very small motor scooter and headed
off. Before long it became evident that the scooter was not going to put up with
this kind of a load without complaining so Lien got off and said she would meet
us back at the cafe later.
We crossed a bridge leading out of central district and soon I was lost as we
crossed a bridge heading into a district south of the river. Eventually we turned
onto a narrow side street and maneuvered our way through pedestrians and assorted
vehicles for several blocks.
In front of me was a very dark, narrow passageway between buildings. Huong
took my hand and led me down it. Images from Deer Hunter crossed my
mind. I was scared. Oh well, I thought to myself, you have to trust now; this is
part of the flow.
I do not usually wander about with my passport, Visa card, etc. I take what I
hope will be sufficient cash, my international driver's license, and a photocopy
of my passport. However, this time I happened have a Visa card in my wallet.
Hell, I thought, why are you worrying about a Visa card when you should be
worrying about survival?
We came to an open area in the middle of several dwellings. I could see a
number of people through unglazed windows and doorless entrances. An intense,
muscular looking man stared at me as I passed one dwelling. In a few moments we
were in a small room, perhaps 10 by 12 feet. The walls were plywood covered with
red and gold wrapping paper with a hearts and flowers design. Overhead were
tinsel bells hanging from a neon light. It looked like a child's room decorated
for Christmas. There was a dresser and self-standing closet along one wall. The
floor was concrete. A portion of the room on the left was enclosed in mosquito
netting, with a woven straw mat and pillows on the floor inside. On the dresser,
and in various neat piles elsewhere, were a variety of clothes and other
belonging. Huong said that she rented this room, that it cost $100 a month. I
assumed she meant for business. It must be a room that normally belonged to the
children of one of the families, I decided. I supposed it was a source of extra
income for one of these families.
Huong indicated that I should step inside of the netting. Then she hung a
large cloth across the center of the room, enclosing our half from the side with
the door. She entered the net and sat facing me. She was waiting for me start! I
took off my shirt and said, "Okay, you give good massage now. Okay?" and I lay
down on my stomach.
The massage was short and tentative. When I realized it was over, I took out
ten dollars and gave it to her. She gestured for me to stay where I was and left.
Before long she returned; behind her a much older woman entered and squatted
outside of the net. She had a bowl, a knife and an Asian apple. She pealed and
cut the apple, handed a piece to Huong who offered it to me. After eating two
slices, I indicated I had enough. The old woman left. I put on my shirt, then
took a condom from my pocket and handed it to Huong. She smiled and looked at me
questioningly. I said , with a smile, that she should keep many of these and use
them. This bothered her. I said, "Up to you, Okay?" She nodded and put the condom
in a box in the dresser.
Back at the cafe a smiling Lien said, "You feel like young man now?"
"No. I feel very happy, very good. I am still old man, but no hurt legs." This
wasn't exactly true, my legs were still pretty sore.
"Only massage," she asked?
"Yes." I replied.
A conversation ensued between her and Huong in Vietnamese. The gist of it
seemed to be that Lien didn't believe it and Huong, while agreeing it was so,
seemed unsure what it meant.
"Why?" asked Lien.
At the moment I had no answer. I thought of saying again that I was an old man
but that was quickly becoming a cliche. Should I tell them of my concerns about
AIDS? A discussion of my relationship? Perhaps I could say something about my
sense of morality. Good grief, I thought, that's pompous. I didn't know what to
say. So I shrugged.
The talk shifted to families, then places. Lien had a limited English
vocabulary but was patient and quite good at communicating despite the
limitations. Huong spoke far less but evidently she missed very little. Then, at
one point she said, "You want to see Buddha?"
Not sure what she meant, but responding to the obvious tone of invitation, I
"You understand? Buddha?"
"Yes," I said, more confident that I had heard correctly, "Wat, pagoda,
temple, Buddha." She smiled.
"Family go, we take cyclos." said Lien.
"When?" I asked. The two sisters were involved in what seemed to be an
animated conversation around planning. When they slowed down, I asked again.
"Yeah!" I replied enthusiastically. "Family come too?"
"Yaaaah!" Lien mimicked me, laughing.
The girls introduced me to a cyclo driver named Deng who took me back to
my hotel. I decided during the ride back to change accommodations. Not only was
my hotel a bit far from Central, but I had seen far less expensive places that
were quite nice. Deng assured me he knew of a guest house near the cafe that was
safe. I asked him to meet me at the hotel tomorrow at ten am to take me there. I
had forgotten about my arrangements with the other driver.
The next morning Deng was waiting. The other driver was too. He came over and
said, "You say eleven morning!"
I tried to explain that I had decided to move hotels and he could take the
bags in his cyclo, I would pay him. He wasn't listening through, and there were
some angry looks between the two drivers. Finally, I took out two dollars and
gave it to him and said I was sorry for the mistake, that I had forgotten. Then I
put my bags in Deng's cyclo and got in. Frankly, I was relieved. Deng seemed far
more accommodating, far less likely to take me where I didn't want to go.
Leaving the guest house later that morning, my excitement was heightened by
anxiety as the old elevator with no door or gate literally creaked and jerked as
it descended. I arrived at the cafe promptly at eleven. I was warmly greeted by
Huong and introduced to Mama; who turned out to be the same woman who had brought
fruit to the room after my massage last night! It was a revelation; that small
room must be where Huong and her sister lived. After a coffee, We piled into two
cyclos, Huong got in with me. I felt conspicuous passing through the crowded
streets with a very young Vietnamese lady sitting in my lap, but most people
either ignored us or smiled, so I began to relax and enjoy myself.
Outside of the temple, Chua Ngoc Hoang, Mama and Huong bought bundles of
incense. As we entered the courtyard a line of monks with shaven heads and
saffron robes were sitting on the ground. Some were children, as young as 5 or 6.
They had alms cups and I was going to give a small donation when once again Huong
stopped me. "Later," she said.
Entering the main sanctuary Huong divided her bundle of incense, giving
me half and and showing me how to light it at the brazier. Taking me by the hand,
she led me around and showed me where and how to place the sticks of incense. As
we moved around she told me about each of the Buddha images -- one was for "happy
future", another for "have money", and so forth. After we had placed all but a
few sticks of our incense, we knelt before the central image, "This is great
Buddha," she said, "you know great Buddha?"
"Yes," I replied, "Siddharta, Buddha from India." She looked at me
uncertainly. (The Guidebooks informed me later that this was Ngoc Hoang, the
Taoist Emperor of Jade.) Standing before his altar, she began the prayers, taking
time to show me how to do them properly, how many times to gesture before one's
face with hands palm to palm, how many times to prostrate one's forehead to the
floor, palms up.
Next, with Mai, the youngest sister, and Mama we began to take photos. This
was a big hit with the whole family; pictures of each of us before various Buddha
images. At first I felt a bit uncomfortable, was it really all right to stand in
the main sanctuary where people were praying and start clicking off photos?
However, when one of the monks offered to take a picture of all of us, I
We walked the various other areas of the temple, one of which held a large
cistern with turtles sunning themselves along the sides and large carp swimming
lazily in its murky waters. These I assumed were dedicated to the Vietnamese
version of Tin Hau, Goddess of the sea.
Back in the main courtyard, Huong bought a cage of small birds. She
gently removed two and placed one in each of my hands. Taking two for herself she
told me to make a wish and let them go. I find it difficult to describe the
pleasure I felt at that moment. The pagoda, the monks, Huong's family, the
sunlight, the pungent smell of incense, and the murmur of worship all combined to
create a moment I shall never forget. On the way out we all placed alms in the
monk's cups. I had received much more than I had given.
Next we stepped back into the cyclos and were off to the zoo. First stop was a
Vietnamese water puppet play at the History Museum, which is just inside the
Zoo's entrance (note: the museum has an excellent collection of Bronze Age
artifacts from various area cultures).
The water puppetry was highly entertaining to all of us. It related the defeat
of a Chinese Overlord by an early Vietnamese Prince, who had been given a magic
sword by a turtle god or goddess. Suddenly, I began to realize, when Mai took
hold of one arm and Huong the other, that I was being treated with surprising
intimacy by this family. Even Mama seemed to take a proprietary stance with me. I
was delighted but a bit suspicious at such rapid intimacy. However, I fought this
back and decided to damn well relax and be grateful for such warmth.
The next realization came while we were watching a zoo-keeper and her dancing
bear. Huong had taken my arm and I became very aware that she was watching me
closely as I watched the bear. I smiled at her. I didn't know what else to do at
that moment. A part of me delighted in the contact and her obvious delight at
being on this excursion. Another part of me thought, "She's got a crush on me?
Good grief!" I vacillated between these two emotions the rest of the afternoon,
whose most exciting moment occurred at the tiger cage.
They were two fully grown, healthy looking beasts in a large open cage
comfortably landscaped with rocks, water and trees. As we approached a Vietnamese
man climbed over the outermost protective railing to get a photograph of them
through the inner bars. In the blink of an eye one of the tigers, with a
frighteningly deep growl, sprung at him, covering the intervening twenty five
feet in less than three seconds. The man jumped back, out of reach of a tiger paw
poking through the inner bars, and fell over the outer railing. His hands were
shaking as he examined his broken camera.
As we walked on from this incident, Huong held my arm even tighter and I knew
it was not out of fear. We received a few disapproving looks from elegantly
dressed Vietnamese men and women. I had nothing to feel guilty about but it
bothered me none the less. Huong was aware of these reactions but seemed not to
Back in Central, Lien meet us at a local soup shop for dinner. Properly
prepared Vietnamese soup is a wonderful experience. First a large bunch of fresh
green herbs, something from the mint family, were brought to the table. Mama and
Huong proceeded to pick individual leaves off, placing those that were
unblemished in a pile at the center of the table. Lemons were cut up and arranged
on a small dish. When the large bowls of soup appeared selected greens were
placed in each bowl. Despite my misgivings about eating fresh unwashed greens the
soup was delicious: hearty yet light, with a variety of flavors and textures.
During the meal Lien asked me if I wanted to meet them later that evening to
play pool. By now my "yeah" had become a source of humor to everyone in the
We met at the cafe at 8 pm and went to Apocalypse Now, an expat bar just East
of Deng Hoi Street. As cliche as it may seem, the Doors' "The End" was playing as
we entered. On the right was a narrow bar and the opposite wall was covered with
a chalk board for graffiti. Other walls were covered in posters from various
Vietnam war films, including the Coppola film after which the bar is named. At
the back is a large room with a full sized pool table.
We were early and managed to play a game or two of pool before the place began
filled up. The men were almost all expats; business and engineer types, mostly in
jeans and T-shirts. Several young Vietnamese women easily outplayed most of the
As the place filled, names went on the blackboard by the table. Whoever won
would play whomever was next on the board; if you kept winning, you kept playing.
Huong and Lien were paired up to play the current winners and, mostly because of
Lien's skill, managed to beat them. Lien asked me to take Huong's place as her
partner to play the next challengers. I hadn't played in years and was distracted
by the noise and smoke of the bar. I joked about my bad shots and tried to keep
it light. I don't think Lien was impressed. She took her game seriously and had
hoped for a decent partner. We won, but I had not made a shot. I looked for Huong
but could not see her. Feeling fuzzy headed I decided to go for a walk around the
The walk lasted about fifteen minutes. I returned to see Lien and another girl
lose to an engineer from Norway. Lien was in a foul mood from losing (it would be
quite awhile before her name came up on the chalkboard again) and Huong was angry
that I had left without saying anything to her. I had a pretty good headache from
the crowd, smoke, and noise, and managed to persuade our group to cross the
street to another bar that was considerably less crowded and noisy. In the back
was a pool table and only a few players.
Before long, the Norwegian engineer came in with several friends, including
one European woman. The round of pool started. Lien tried again to beat the
Norwegian but, even though he played badly this time, she lost. Her spirits were
low to say the least. The Norwegian sat down at the bar next to me, openly
smoking marijuana. He commented loudly on how poorly he had played.
"Well, One usually plays better if the competition is strong, right?" I
"That's right," he replied.
I asked Lien if she would team with me against him and his partner. She
unenthusiastically agreed. Although the engineer played a bit better, we won
handily. Fortunately, I had become clear-headed, focused on the game and was able
to make four or five difficult shots in a row. This so picked up Lien's spirits
that she was laughing and playful as we left the bar. We went back to the outdoor
cafe for coffee and Cokes and there Lien proposed that I rent a car the next day
and we all go to Vung Dao, a beach resort two hours south of Saigon. When I
agreed she went off to find Deng who could get us a car.
Deng suggested we go and stay the night; that he'd arrange a hotel room. Lien
wanted no part of this. I couldn't seem to find out what all of this was going to
cost. Meanwhile, Deng quietly said to me that he wasn't sure I should trust these
two. "Maybe good persons, maybe bad persons," he said. "Maybe, You and I go. I
know good hotel, cheap."
Thinking about his warning, I began to feel a bit paranoid. Still, I said
He said that he knew a girl I might like better than Huong.
I told him I wasn't interested.
Lien, who caught some of this, got angry. Finally he gave up his efforts and
said he would arrange the car for us. I managed to make known my concerns about
cost which started the whole thing up again. Deng said it would be cheaper for me
to check out of the hotel and stay in Vung Dao for the night. I objected that I
had to make a plane the next day and did not want to be that far out of town.
Lien and Huong said I would not have to pay any hotel at all because I could stay
at their house tomorrow night!
Finally we settled on renting the car just for the day. Lien informed me that
they would pick me up at the hotel at five thirty in the morning! It was now
about 2 am. Christ, I thought, what have I gotten myself into now.
The phone rang at 5:30 sharp. I groped for it and said, "Hello?"
"You go Vung Dao, now?, asked a male voice.
"What, who is this?"
"Go to Vung Dao?" It was Deng.
"Yeah. " I said, "what..." but he had hung up. I immediately went back to
sleep, I had not really been awake.
About twenty minutes later I woke with a start. I got up and went to the
window. Below was Deng, and sitting in his cyclo was Huong. She was dressed in a
bonnet and a very bright floral beach shirt and slacks. I tried, as best I could,
to put together a bag for the beach: towel, shorts, T-shirt, camera, film. I
finally arrived out front about 6:10. Huong made sure I knew that she was angry
at having been made to wait so long and then she dropped it. We got into the
cyclo and Deng peddled us around the corner to the cafe where Lien was waiting
with the owner of the car.
I had made it clear last night that I didn't want to drive. Lien had said
she'd drive but I think she could see I was skeptical about that. Perhaps she was
a very good motorbike driver but how often she had a chance to drive a car? I
never found out because the owner had decided to drive us there himself for no
On the way to pick up Mama and Mai, Lien asked if she could bring a friend and
I said, of course. How all seven of us were going to fit into this Toyota, with
bucket seats in front, was something I had to see. However, Mai ended up staying
home to make room for Lien's friend, a nice young Malaysian man named Tun. It was
still pretty crowded.
Huong and Lien were in a holiday mood, shouting over the tape player which was
blasting an eclectic assortment of popular tunes from a variety of countries. Due
to the lack of sleep, the tight squeeze, and their laughter and horse play I
began to feel a bit testy. Both young women had the playful habit of hitting and
pinching me; and on several previous occasions I had said, with a smile,
"ouch",or "stop it" -- this time when Huong pinched, I pinched back. She looked
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Why you do so hard?"
"You hit me, you pinch me, I tell you stop, now I pinch."
"Too hard." she said, "Just talking."
I realized she was right -- it was communication, and I was missing the point.
I smiled and pinched her gently. She hit me, I hit her back and, after a dozen or
so repetitions, I gave up. All was forgiven.
Next, Huong decided she was sleepy. She put her feet on Lien's lap with her
upper torso across my chest, her head on my shoulder. Before long, Lien decided
to sleep also. I don't know how Tun felt, but Huong's bony back was almost enough
to keep me from enjoying the scenery. At least there was relative calm, except
for the tape player which was, at the moment, blaring out a selection of country
and western -- Wallon Jennings, Vietnam style.
Vung Dao was full of surprises. We stopped at a restaurant and beach house
that looked as if it had been built in the 1950s. It had that typical open to the
air, grey weathered look common to unpainted wood houses on the shores of New
England. At the back door were a couple of Vietnamese body builders lounging
self-consciously. Here the party ordered a light breakfast of soup and French
bread, I had a cup of coffee. Huong insisted upon feeding me part of her meal
over my mild protestations that I wasn't hungry.
The next stop was a modern resort, with a lovely restaurant, changing rooms,
gift shops and a terrace over-looking the beach. We paid 1000 dong to use the
dressing rooms and then went down to the beach. Lien, and Tun, Huong and I,
paraded down the beach behind Mama. At the end of the crowd, the resort staff set
up chairs and umbrellas for us and we settled in.
We lounged for a while and then went swimming, or rather wading, since I was
the only one who knew how to swim. Of course I ended up carrying Huong around on
my shoulders because she was afraid to go in deep (4 feet). There was the usual
splashing and horseplay.
After a while I went back to my chair, put on sun block lotion, and fell
asleep in the sun. Before long Huong woke me; we had to move because the tide had
come up a bit. This was not as easy at it sounds since the wind had gotten
stronger and the umbrellas wanted to imitate kites. Mama had disappeared. I think
she had gone back to sit with the driver and drink tea.
It was camera time and I shot two rolls of film. Posed photos of Lien
and Tun standing with their arms around each other, Lien sitting in Tun's lap,
Lien and Huong in a Beachnut Twins pose, Lien in an assortment of bathing beauty
poses, Tun with his best Humphrey Bogart cigarette dangling pose, the four of us
(taken by a passing German), Lien lying in the surf with her hand behind her head
and so forth. It was a lot of fun and it reminded me of Ocean Beach in
Connecticut where I had spent many summer days with my mother, whose 1940s
bathing suit and attitude on the beach were identical to Lien's. The one
discordant note occurred as I was taking a shot of Lien and realized that she had
a large area of discoloration on one thigh and several smaller ones on her arms
and lower legs. These were not bruises nor birth marks, but looked to be the
results of either burns or very bad scrapes.
As the day wore on we moved the chairs several times, with the wind becoming
increasingly stronger and by late afternoon umbrellas were taking off with some
frequency and the beach had almost disappeared into the tide. We packed up our
gear and headed for the changing rooms.
Mama appeared as we came out of the bathhouse. Amazing timing, I thought. We
went into the restaurant where Mama ordered a large bowl of crabs and, following
Tun's example, I ordered myself a beer and some Malaysian chicken.
The afternoon sun settled lower.The beach disappeared completely,
waves washed against the tide wall, and wind whipped the palms. A magnificent
bowl of steamed crabs appeared, as well as our chicken and a plate of vegetables;
I was ravenous. As Mama, Lien and Huong began opening up the crabs I reached for
one, but Huong pushed my hand away. She cracked a claw, extracted some crab meat
and fed me. I was allowed to feed myself the chicken. The crab was delicious --
she would extract a choice morsel, and dip it in fresh lime juice, cracked pepper
While we were all feasting, Lien and Huong discussed my staying over for the
night. As Mama seemed comfortable with this I agreed.
Then a discussion began between Mama and Lien about whether Huong and I would
be having sex tonight. It seemed lighthearted but I could sense some serious
undertones. Mama was amused but also curious. Lien was pushing it a bit. Once
more I repeated that I did not intend to have sex with Huong. The mood deepened.
Lien wanted to know why?
I said, "I am oldest person at here -- older than Mama!"
They laughed at me and for good reason; Mama, they pointed out, was 71 years
"You touch woman here," Lien said, touching my arm, " you young man. You touch
woman here," she touched my leg, " you old man."
More laughter and agreement.
I wasn't entirely sure what she meant, but Huong, Lien, and I had been
touching hands and arms all day, and Huong and I were frequently hand in hand or
arm in arm. If it all was indeed conversation, just what was I saying?
Huong seemed quite unhappy about the whole conversation. I told her I would
talk with her about it, that I liked her very much, and not to worry. Lien joked
about it halfheartedly for a little longer and then the subject was dropped for
the moment. Mama insisted on paying for the entire meal.
As we walked to the car; Lien asked me if it was because of money? I said,
"no" that I intended to give each of them $10 tonight, so that they wouldn't have
to go to work. What I had not spoken of, so far, was my other life. My twenty-two
year old daughter, seventeen year old son, ex-wife. The common law wife and her
eleven year old son with whom I live. It wasn't that I had wished to hide this,
but there had not seemed to be cause on my part or expressed interest on their
part in my background. I reflected now on my answer to an earlier question Lien
had asked, "You one?". I had understood it to be a question of whether I was
traveling alone. I wondered now that if had I answered with some background on my
personal relationships, had said for instance that I had a family, if I might
have saved myself a lot of trouble?
I was attracted to Huong; flattered by her attentions, yet I could not accept
the role of lover with someone this young. This was not morality, however
important its moral implications were, it was cowardice. I could imagine how I
would feel as I told this tale to others in my life. Would they not see, as I
did, a betrayal of who I was? This was not a pretty picture to me. I remembered
the moments of embarrassment I had felt when Huong took my arm at the zoo or sat
in my lap in the cyclo as we passed down the streets of Saigon. Those were
nothing to the feelings I would have if I forgot myself.
We drove along the coast and came to a particularly lovely spot with large
boulders adjoining the sea. There was a gift stand across the road. Huong and I
walked together up the road. I told her that I liked her very much and knew that
she liked me.
I asked, "You like me, yes?" She nodded.
"I think you like me because I am good friend, and because I like your family,
and because I make you smile -- not because I have sex with you. Okay?"
She smiled at that and took my arm, and I could tell she was a little happier.
We walked back to the car where she left me and crossed the road to a gift stand.
She returned with two identical necklaces; each with a heart carved in shell on a
woven string of shells. She put on one and placed the other over my head. I
thanked her and, looking into her eyes, held her hand for a moment.
The drive back was more physically uncomfortable than the drive down. Huong
was asleep again on my lap and my legs kept going numb. It seemed endless.
Finally we stopped at an open air market, and Mama and Huong got out to buy
vegetables. I got out also but was immediately accosted by extremely insistent
vendors - men, women and children. The driver indicated that I should watch my
wallet. They were so aggressive that I had to get back into the car, where
several continued to ply their wares at the closed window.
As Mama and Huong returned a man in a official-blue shirt, was writing out
what looked like a parking ticket. Mama dealt with it, although I did not see
exactly what she did.
We dropped Tun off, and everyone waited outside while I went into the Guest
House. I had a new dilemma; should I really take all of my luggage to some place
I didn't know, and probably shouldn't assume was safe. I decided against
I only had about ninety dollars left and I had to be certain I had enough left
to get a cab to the airport in the morning. I had promised to give Huong and Lien
each ten dollars. I also wanted to give some money to Mama for the family. I had
bought some ebony chop sticks at a craft store the first day here and I decided
these would make a nice gift. I put a fifty dollar bill in the card section of my
wallet and a ten and twenty in the bill section and packed an overnight bag.
On the way to their place they asked about my bags; I lied, I said that they
were too much to drag around, we could pick them up in the morning. It was the
first of several lies I would tell that night.
It was still light when we arrived and I could see much more of the life of
the community as we passed through. There were at least five families living
here; people were busy at a variety of tasks: washing clothes, preparing food,
cleaning auto parts. Those who made eye-contact with me seemed much more open and
friendly than two nights ago.
introduced to others of Huong's family: Hua, an older sister who was nine months
pregnant and who had an 3 year old girl; and Tai, Huong's 10 year old brother, a
dark-eyed young man with a magnificent smile. Huong, Lien, Tai and I went into
the small room where Huong had given me that tentative massage 36 hour before. We
all sat on the floor and I was handed someone's 4-month-old to hold. Members of
the family came and went, the floor was swept, and clothing and belongings that
had been scattered about were put in order. I handed twenty dollars to Lien and
told her it was for her and Huong, that I hoped they would not have to work this
night. She accepted it with a smile. Huong also asked me for some money to
contribute to food and drink for supper, I gave her the ten. I now had nothing
left in the bill section of my wallet. Lying once again, I told her I would have
to go to the bank in the morning to get more money. She pointed to the side
pocket of the wallet, but I shook my head.
Eventually the immediate family, seven of them, gathered into this room bringing
a variety of food for dinner. It was at this moment that I realized this tiny
room was not simply a bedroom, but rather it was home to the whole family - it
was their dinning room, bedroom, and living room all rolled into one; cooking was
accomplished in the common area of the compound.
We all sat on the floor in a circle. I was handed a very large bowl of soup.
There were two of these and I tried to share mine but was told it was for me
alone. Lien and Huong shared the other one. I was also given a glass of tap
water, which I could not bring myself to drink. Huong selected various vegetables
and pieces of steamed chicken from the common dishes to feed to me.
You are not suppose to drink water unless it has been boiled for twenty
minutes; you can get dysentery from salads and unpeeled fruit, and even cooked
foods can be a problem if the preparation areas are not sanitary, or if they have
been left to cool or been reheated. So, what do I do? Do I tell these people that
their generosity might hurt me? Pretend to be sick or not hungry?
The soup was delicious, and even though my stomach kept reacting to my
anxieties, I managed to finish almost all of it. I continued to eat whatever
morsels Huong put in my mouth for a while and then when I was full said, "No
more, thanks. It was delicious. Very full now."
It occurred to me, during dinner, that Lien seemed to hold the most status in
the family, closely followed by Huong. This was evident from the quantity and
choice of food apportioned to each - these two had shared the other bowl of soup,
and seemed to get first pickings from the common dishes. Mama served everyone,
assisted by Mai. It also appeared that Huong's status was elevated somewhat by my
presence and I assume that both sisters derived their status from being the wage
earners. Mama was clearly the final authority within the family, as everyone else
took their clues from her concerning when to eat and what their part in
preparation and clean-up was.
After dinner I was brought French-brewed coffee. A conversation ensued,
initiated by Mama and interpreted by Lien, in which she expressed her desire to
see both Lien and Huong married and pregnant. I grew somewhat dismayed when I
realized that this discussion somehow included the idea that I might be a
possible choice for Huong. I deflected this by asking Lien how it was that she
and her sister had managed to avoid pregnancy. I was also concerned about their
awareness of AIDS, but didn't feel I could go that far in my questioning yet. I
did not get an answer. As at the resort, the atmosphere had become strained; only
this time it seemed more intensely so.
Mai decided she was going to give me a massage so she began pounding on my
back. Apparently a vital aspect of Vietnamese massage consists of holding the
hands held together as if praying and using the sides of the palms and fingers to
beat upon the muscles. I had encountered this form in Chinese massage, but only
as a sort of punctuation once the kneading and rubbing was over. Mai was
enthusiastic with this, if a bit haphazard. Soon Huong and Lien had decided a
group massage was in order. Therefore, I was told to disrobe. In fact, bedtime
was evidently approaching as Lien and Mai also changed into their nightclothes.
At this moment I caught further glimpses of the damage that had been done to
Lien's body; she had innumerable scars on upper arms and legs, as well as the
discolorations I had seen earlier.
After removing my shirt and pants and putting on a light cotton robe from my
pack, I was handed a toothbrush, soap, towel and led to the bath, which was a
small wooden room. A cement tub of water, with a pitcher sitting on its edge,
occupied one end of the room. A small hole in the cement floor provided drainage.
As near as I could tell the hole was the toilet, although it did not smell like
one. I removed my clothes and washed quickly, dried myself, and returned to the
The message began with three sets of hands pounding and kneading the back of
my torso, arms, legs, and head. I felt like a lump of pizza dough. The massage
turned into a training session as Lien and Huong criticized Mai's technique. Then
Mai, at Lien's prompting, began walking on my back and legs. At this point Huong
and Lien lost interest and after fifteen minutes or so Mai finished. I wondered,
briefly, if I should pay her?
I was beginning to realize that my struggle was not based entirely on issues
of sex between Huong and I. How often over the past two days had I worried and
lied about money? Their evident poverty suggested that all of this attention I
was receiving might be based in the riches I represented. This tension took
several forms, the most disturbing being that I would be eventually be robbed in
some way or another. I had worried about having my wallet stolen and being left
in Vung Dao for instance; or, inversely, that I had taken unfair advantage of
them by letting Mama pay for lunch. These thoughts left me feeling quite sad.
After the message, mosquito netting was hung on both sides of the room,
leaving an open area between. Woven straw mats, pillows and blankets were laid
out. Mai and Tai were in one area, Huong and I in another, with Lien and Mama in
between. I assume that I had taken Lien's usual spot in sleeping arrangements.
Lights went out and within minutes I could hear someone snoring lightly. Huong
had arranged herself up against me with one leg over mine. As I was still wearing
only my shorts and light robe, and Huong a light cotton gown, this felt extremely
intimate. I did my best to accept it without "talking" in any way that would
encourage further intimacies.
I was slowly drifting in and out of sleep when there was a voice at the door
and everyone got up. For a moment I thought there was a crisis. Then, dressed as
I was, I was excitedly dragged by the hand to another family dwelling where an
elderly, toothless, grandfather, several middle-aged men and women, along with an
assortment of small children were sitting around on the floor watching a
Vietnamese-made film on TV. Lien, Huong, Mai and I were provided with benches to
sit on, and a mosquito coil was placed between my feet.
The film was about the war, or rather the effects of the war upon a family
(which war was not made clear.) The film techniques were at once both
stylistically complicated and cinematically simplistic. Visually it resembled a
television comedy of the fifties not unlike The Honeymooners, with
stagy settings and straightforward medium range shots. Stylistically it was a
blend of soap opera, melodrama, situation comedy, and stage musical; all with
It began with a rather humorous scene in which a Vietnamese government
official visits a family's home to conscript the oldest daughter - who is married
and has a nursing baby. Her husband is apparently already away in the war. (He is
going to be blind from a war wound, I am gravely informed by several of the
viewers). The humor in the scene arose from the buffoonery of the Chaplinesque
official as he attempted what appeared to be an inept seduction of the loyal wife
(and unwilling conscript.) Vocal tone, gesture, and facial expression were
sufficiently exaggerated and familiar enough that I was able to understand most
of the intent and motivation of the characters without being able to understand
This was followed by a melodramatic scene (and a song or two) in which the
wife is forced to leave her infant daughter with her mother and go off to war.
There followed one tragedy after another: the husband is blinded and receives
news that his wife is dead, likewise the wife believes him to be dead, the
mother, carrying the baby, finds him on the battlefield and she dies, leaving the
infant in his care; it was one coincidental and tragic event followed by another
After the war, the wife meets a well-to-do businessman, whose wife has died
leaving him with a boy child. She marries him and adopts his son as her own.
Meanwhile, blind husband number one has raised their daughter, who is now 10, and
she in turned cares for him, making his meals, etc.
There was much weeping throughout this film. In fact, at one point I went to
my back pack and brought back tissues which I distributed to one and all,
including the toothless grandfather. Everyone thought this was terribly amusing.
Lien had kept me up with the action by providing occasional commentary through
which I learned that they had all seen the film several times.
The war is over and the wife is happily married and loves her adopted son.
Coincidentally, the daughter is hired to be a housekeeper by her real mother, who
did not recognize her. This employment only lasted a few minutes because the
stepson grew immediately jealous.
Through a series of complicated plot devices involving other relatives the
wife eventually discovers that husband number one is alive, as is her daughter.
Then husband number one also hears, from a cousin, that his wife is alive and
remarried to a wealthy man from the city. He decides not to reveal that he is
alive, even though he still loves her very much; however, he is willing to let
the daughter go to live with her mother because they are relatively wealthy and
can provide more advantages for her.
These conflicts are the crucial conflicts of the film: how to resolve the
wife's unintentional bigamy, what is best for the children, and how can the love
that each person feels for the others be resolved?
The wife has an emotional scene with her second husband about her decision to
go visit her first husband and daughter. He gets angry and walks out.
She arrives at the first husband's humble dwelling just as he is sings, sadly,
of his love for her and his willingness to give up his daughter for her own
happiness. Hearing this she decides her place is with the daughter and first
husband, that she still loves him. Suddenly he realizes she is standing behind
him in the doorway and breaks down weeping. They argue a bit about what to do and
she tells him she still loves him. The second husband and the son show up and
after much soul searching husband number two graciously bows out. He leaves his
son who, sorry for his earlier outbursts, remains with his new family.
As complicated as it was I was able to follow easily. This was partly due to
Lien's commentary, but mostly to the clarity of performance. The enemy in the war
was never shown, identified or even characterized, nor was there an antagonist of
the sort that most film plots are so dependent upon. The most unsympathetic
character was a Vietnamese government official who is responsible for the false
information on deaths. These facts, coupled with the emotional responses of the
viewers, led me to the conclusion that the people of Saigon seemed to hold little
grudge against the Americans or French, but were deeply concerned with how to
heal their wounds. The film resolved its conflicts with compassion, integrity and
the restoration of basic values. These are a generous and strong people.
Back to bed. Everyone was asleep except Huong and I. I could sense her
expectation, feel it in her slight movements and hear it in her breathing. I was
lying on my back with my eyes closed and drifting. She said something to me so
quietly and oddly that I was not certain what it was. I thought, for a moment,
that she had asked about a condom.
"The key opens." she repeated.
I was completely still, barely breathing. I didn't know what to say.
"You sleep now?" she asked after a few minutes.
I nodded, gave her a hug, lay back and closed my eyes. Before long she was
asleep. The night passed in disjointed impressions separated by fitful periods of
sleep. Strange sounds and smells came to my awareness and passed; hazy
imaginings, emotional flutters, and self-reflections did as well. Once during the
night I arose to use the toilet. My shuffle started a dog in the compound
barking. As is their way, the message was passed on by every other dog in the
vicinity and I could hear them for several minutes after, the barking moving
father and father away through the neighborhoods of Saigon.
Shortly before dawn the roosters begin their declarations. The first began at
a distance, one then another, growing closer; the reverse of the dog's message.
Finally the rooster quartered immediately behind the wall of our room crowed. I
laughed. His "cock-a-doodle-doooo" was oddly abbreviated, so that it sounded
like, "cock-a-doodle-oop"; sounded just as if he had been strangled mid-crow.
With everyone up and about, I was given toiletries again. Oddly, I couldn't
bring myself to brush my teeth. The odor of the bathhouse and toilet this morning
was not nearly as inoffensive as it had been the night before and that
strengthened my anxiety about the water.
Likewise the sight of the rich, opaque, breakfast soup filled with
unrecognizable bits of meat and vegetable initiated a sort of nausea that was
heightened by my lack of rest and emotional confusion. I forced myself to one
spoonful and then another. Before long I had almost finished the bowl and was
feeling a great deal better for it.
Mama made what apparently was a joke about Huong now having a baby. I suppose
I should not have been surprised at this continuation of the previous night's
conversation, however I was. I decided then and there that if we were going to
have a discussion of intimate relationships it was not going to be limited to
Huong and my presumed affair. So, I asked Lien once again how she and her sister
avoided getting pregnant.
She seemed not to understand but I repeated it with an addition, "You, Huong
have many men for sex, how you not get pregnant?"
She said something so softly that it was not intelligible, but the pain in her
voice and eyes taught me that Lien had suffered a great deal more then I
Later that morning, in the guest house, I discovered the fifty dollar bill was
gone from my wallet. I was at a loss. I had planned to get the bill changed at
the desk and give Huong and Mai ten each as a going away gift. I was going to
give Mama ten to take a taxi back from the airport. That left enough for the taxi
and the departure tax.
Now what do I do? Do I confront them, express anger or disappointment? Who had
taken it? Was it one of them, or some other who had snuck into the room while we
were watching TV last night? I had come to the decision that all of my anxiety
about money and motives was unfounded, now I felt hurt and betrayed. I left the
hotel in a muddle and walked around the corner to meet them at the cafe.
As I sat down and ordered coffee, Huong moved close and took my arm. I looked
at her for a moment and then told her that someone had stolen money from me. I
told her that she had been right yesterday, that I had had more money in my
wallet. I asked her to tell Mama. I told her I didn't want Mama to think I was
cheap when I didn't pay for their taxi home or give any more money to the family
before I left.
She said she would tell her. She spoke angrily to Mama for a moment but I
could not tell from Mama's lack of expression what Huong had actually said to
I told Huong that we would need to go to a bank that took Visa before we went
to the airport. Then I gave Mama the ebony chopsticks. Mama looked at me
questioningly and I nodded that she should open the gift. Her reaction, when she
saw the chopsticks, was a combination of amusement and confusion.
Outside the airport entrance Mama, Mai and Lien all crouched in typical
Vietnamese style by a pillar as I went to buy a pack of cigarettes. When I
returned I sat down with them, which caused some laughter. I think it was because
I sat on the ground instead of crouching. We lounged for a while without
Then Huong looked at me and said, "I very sad."
"Why?" I asked.
"I sad you go."
"I sad too," I replied, "but only little bit. I happy too. I meet you. I meet
family. I am happy more than sad."
And I was. I was grateful for the experiences of the past few days, and for
the affection I felt from each of them.
Mai kept looking at my camera and I finally gave it to her and told her to
take pictures. She happily took a few pictures and handed me back the camera. I
gave each of them a hug, but it was awkward, they seemed embarrassed by it. I
think the place was too public for such physical displays of emotion.
On the plane I thought of home, of my world - so narrow in that peculiar way
that familiarity breeds. There I am secure in my emotional life, unafraid to tell
the truth, one who knows himself thoroughly.