And so we’re in Vung Tau, a sleepy, seaside city at the mouth of the Saigon River. I’m staying in a hotel owned by an Army unit. My room is quiet, cheap and has an ample balcony with an ocean view. I’ve only stumbled onto two other guests, each sitting on a massage chair.
The beaches here are named Front, Back, Pineapple and Strawberry, with the last two the ugliest, despite their pretty names. I was at all four as a child. Each time I traveled to Vung Tau, I would pass a cemetery with hundreds of French graves. It was razed in 1983. Like all conquerers, the French never thought they would be expelled. Grabbing this land from the Cambodians in 1658, the Vietnamese established three villages named Thắng Nhất [First Victory], Thắng Nhị [Second Victory] and Thắng Tam [Third Victory].
Malay pirates established a stronghold here in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1960s, Yankee and Aussie grunts relaxed on its beaches, then entered bars with names like Olympia, Flower, US Moon or Milano to pick up prostitutes. In the 1980s, thousands of Russians and Azerbaijanis came to work for Vietsovpetro, a Vietnamese/Russian oil and gas exploration company. Now, there are around 600 Russians here, but most are walled off inside their own compound. Those who’ve ventured out have opened at least three restaurants, so don’t despair if you must have some decent borscht while in Vung Tau.
Near Front Beach, I saw a billboard advertising Paramount, a cable channel showing Hollywood flicks. I recognized Tom Cruise, Marlon Brando in The Godfather and some GI in a Vietnam War film. While the Pentagon can’t seem to beat anybody, Hollywood has colonized hearts and minds for decades, with Americans among its billions of abject victims.
The adjacent billboard pitched Imperial Plaza, a shopping mall. Nearly all the faces on it were white. Vietnamese billboards for upscale private schools also feature mostly white kids. Though they are gross distortions of their student bodies, they reel in Vietnamese parents who want their kids to mix with whites. It’s the way forward, upward and, hopefully, even out.
Two trustworthy Russian spies have relayed to me that all signs at the Moscow train station are in Russian and Chinese only. No English. It’s certainly a political statement. Constantly seduced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, most Vietnamese are not buying it.
On my next to last legs, I’ve come to Vung Tau not to swim, shop or eat Russian but to hang out with my close friend, poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh. Before this Vietnam trip, I last saw Chanh in 2005 in Berlin.
Yesterday, Chanh, Vietnamese-American poet Hai-Dang Phan and I went up Núi Lớn [Big Mountain] to have some wonderful boiled chicken, rice gruel, gỏi and beer. We talked about mutual friends, societial trends, literary strategies, my Guam experiences, 1975, interesting locals and Chanh’s girlfriend in California, which he hasn’t visited, and may never, for he’s not all that interested. Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo is a professor at UCLA.
In a dirt yard were dozens of empty beer cans and water bottles, ready to be recycled. Scrawny chickens scrutinized the dirt, pecked, reflected, moved on. Half a dozen hammocks beckoned. We laughed quite a bit, read a few poems. It was sweltering under the tin roof.
“Big brother,” Chanh said to the owner, “you should put some palm leaves over this roof, make it less hot! They don’t cost anything!”
“Yes, yes, I’ll get to it.”
The wiry, dark man and his wife have six children, three grown and moved out. They came to this mountain from Bến Tre, in the Mekong Delta. Hearing me and Chanh spew poems, his remaining kids ran out from the house to watch. One documented the odd happening with his cellphone.
Café owner, “Last year, some poets also came by. I’m always happy to see poets here.”
“Just by opening a café at the top of this forlorn mountain, you too are a poet!” I said.
Unable to publish freely in Vietnam and ignored by just about every critic, Chanh has turned to making pottery sculptures. Increasingly complex, elegant and fascinating psychologically, they’re approaching his poems in accomplishment. He will be heard from internationally as a visual artist, I’m convinced. Chanh’s dealer is Dinh Q. Lê, whose works have been collected by MOMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There’s a lot happening on this side of the globe.
Chanh’s grandfather, a nationalist, was jailed by the French at Hỏa Lò [Hanoi Hilton]. His dad was also locked up by the French, but on Côn Sơn Island, now a popular resort. Laughing, Chanh said, “When they brought me in for questioning a few times, I wondered if I, too, would be jailed on Côn Sơn Island!” For noticing and saying the obvious, many Vietnamese have paid a very high price.
Through Chanh, I found out the owner of The Sausage Factory is an Australian who drove a tank during the Vietnam War, that there’s an old lady who won’t charge more than 9 cents for her bánh tiêu, although it’s the best and most popular in town, with each one made only by her. There’s a sidewalk café that opens at 2AM to serve late night carousers, prostitutes and early risers, with each cup costing but 22 cents, “You’ll even see rich guys in suits sitting in the dark, nursing their cheap coffee. I told the lady she should charge more, but she said 22 cents were enough.”
The cup I’m drinking right now costs four times that, just slightly more than normal. Arriving this morning, I found the café’s doors wide open but no one around, so I simply sat down in the thin demilitarized zone between business and street, then shouted towards the back several times, “Selling coffee yet?!” No one answered. Suddenly emerging from an alley, a woman informed me, “She’s sleeping.” Fair enough. Making odd, touching noises, a deaf-mute looked at me with concern and pointed to a café across the street. Declining to move, I began this article.
Noticing a crucifix and a Madonna holding Child on the wall, I asked the owner about the clear Catholic presence in the neighborhood. Down the street, I had noticed a monastery, plus a humongous statue of the Virgin Mary holding a Baby Jesus. White, it poked out from the verdant hillside. “Our priest encouraged all of the Catholic families in this area to move here, so we could be closer together and establish a parish.”
“When did this happen?”
Remarkably, this parish has survived everything.
While it’s obviously true that the essence of a place, its most meaningful incidents or secrets, are almost never told, this is particularly true of Vietnam. Beneath the white-washed official narratives is an infinity of stark, eye-opening or heart-breaking stories.
In 1975, Hai-Dang Phan’s father was a South Vietnamese Navy captain. Instead of escaping towards the Pacific, he steered his boat up the Saigon River, towards his family, and ended up spending 4 ½ years in a reeducation camp. A daughter of his was born and died while he was in jail, and he only saw this child for half an hour, during a rare prison visit. Escaping Vietnam by boat, he landed in Malaysia, where they stayed for six months, before resettling in Wisconsin. Now retired in Lawrenceville, Georgia, he’s writing a Vietnamese novel about the American South. In their continued humiliation springing from one defining defeat, he sees himself.
In 1975, a group of South Vietnamese soldiers refused to disperse but retreated to nearby Can Giờ to continue fighting. They were wiped out, of course. A group of teenaged navy cadets also fought to the death. Although the world is most contemptuous of these losers, some Vung Tau locals remember these incidents and men, until they themselves are flushed from memory.
A local, sanctioned hero is Võ Thị Sáu. According to the official bio, at 14-years-old, she tossed a grenade at a group of Frenchmen in 1948, killing one and injuring eleven, but some locals remember it rather differently. They say that she killed about a dozen Vietnamese, all innocents. In the end, though, it is the symbolism of the act that matters. Even if she had killed a thousand Vietnamese and no Gauls, she would still be lauded as a hero, because she was willing to sacrifice her life to massacre foreign invaders. Võ Thị Sáu was executed at age 18 in 1952.
I ranted to Chanh, “Or think of Nguyễn Thanh Trung. He was a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot who was really a Communist, so he killed thousands of his comrades just so he could make one symbolic act at the very end, by bombing the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace. Though he failed to kill Thiệu or anyone that day, he became famous, and the fact that he had killed thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers while posing as an ace South Vietnamese pilot is completely forgotten. It doesn’t matter. Only the symbolic act at the end matters. In that sense, Nguyễn Thanh Trung is a poet, and much more of a poet than either one of us.”
“Of course, of course,” Chanh laughed.
I wiped the unending sweat from my face with my bare hand, gulped some Tiger then finished off another bowl of rice gruel. Cradled by a hammock, the café’s owner’s wife had fallen asleep. Since boyhood, I’ve tended to sweat way too much when eating, so it’s interpreted that I would have a very difficult life. Vietnamese see signs everywhere. Onto the side of this mountain, the French planted several massive cannons in 1905 that would never be fired. They sweated for nothing. Many left their bones here.
Though I can ramble on, I’ll wrap up since I have to catch a high-speed boat back to Saigon. Just before this last paragraph, Chanh and I were interrupted on the street by a young madman. Retarded-looking yet filled with bravado, he approached Chanh while shouting, “Must hit Uncle Ho! Must hit Uncle Ho!” Walking along Chanh, he struck my friend repeatedly on the shoulder, and not at all in a friendly way. “Must hit Uncle Ho!”
“So he’s Uncle Ho?” I said to the deranged retard.
“Ha, ha! Must hit Uncle Ho!”
At a roadside café where we stopped for a few Tiger Beers, an old lady laughingly said, “His twin-brother is even more mad.”
As we stretched out and enjoyed our cheap iced beer, a guy came by on a motorbike to collect money for electricity.
Preoccupied with me, the lady couldn’t quite catch what her bill was.
Straddling his bike, the helmeted dude snarled, “I’ve told you several times already! Why do you keep asking?!”
“I can’t even ask without getting yelled at?!”
Smiling, he backed down, “How many times must you ask your husband a day, big sister?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s deaf!” She laughed. Her husband was a heroic Viet Cong, I’ve been told, not to mention tall and good looking. While she sells coffee, beer, gasoline and pumps tires, he does almost nothing.
Laughing also, the bill collector rode away. Raised in Wisconsin, Hai-Dang couldn’t quite catch the nuances and dynamics of Vietnamese conversations, so I explained to the still young man, “The best compliment any Vietnamese can receive is to be considered có duyên, which can be loosely translated as being witty while pleasant and considerate to all those present. The opposite, a shameful faux pas, is to be perceived as vô duyên, which is to appear, even fleetingly, as an insolent moron.”
With 92.7 million citizens and rising fast, Vietnam will be increasingly devoured and trashed by its insatiable humans. Already in each urban area, one can’t take a step without being swarmed and swirled along, but in Vung Tau, there is still the serenity of a more eternal Vietnam. Walking down its relatively empty streets, one can still smell the fragrant vegetation. Fighting a desperate, rearguard battle, nature still rules here. While chattering with Chanh and Hai-Dang in yet another café, we didn’t have to pause munching for too long before ants overtook our table, so that our plates of shrimp and pork were crawling with the dogged, seemingly chaotic yet well-organized insects.
Dipping each morsel into the thin sauce, I watched many die and ate the rest.