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The International Writers Magazine
:Hacktreks in Vietnam

Vietnam: Four Tours of Town and a Love Affair
Joe Sinclair

"English, American: small love. Television, one man – three, four, five women. Vietnam: one man, one woman. Big love."

We sat beneath palm trees in the stone courtyard of her brother’s café, beside a fountain, which dribbled. Vietnamese love songs oozed from the speakers and frogs croaked loudly out of time as it got dark.
Somehow it felt like we were on a date. This beautiful young woman, who I had met just a few hours earlier, with her wide brown eyes and a small birthmark smudged on her forehead, was beginning to tell me her deepest secrets. It felt dizzyingly surreal, but maybe the mud-thick Central Highland’s coffee was disorientating me.

I had been to this café earlier in the morning.
Having missed the 6.00am bus to Danang I was contemplating a lazy day when a small man approached, dressed in a big coat. He had gray cropped hair, a weathered face and a soft voice, which invited me for a coffee. Why not? I thought, and hopped on the back of his moto (moped).
He told me that his name was Hi Ho and, a little confusingly, that he didn’t like coffee. So he drank tea and explained that this coffee shop belonged to his son. His English was flowing quite naturally, but not in a way that I could understand, so I picked up bits and pieces and guessed the rest.
After coffee he invited me to meet his family. Why not? I thought, and hopped on the back of his moto.
The family house was adjoined to an infants school, which Hi Ho owned and his family of five teachers was running. As we drove through the front gate the kids watched wide-eyed and bewildered from their classroom windows.

Hi Ho introduced me to his healthily-sized wife before taking me on a tour of the house, which happened to include a look around an empty bedroom. Somehow I knew that Hi Ho would invite me to stay the night.
I looked at my watch: 8.15am. Why not? Maybe it would make a good story.
"OK. I stay."
"Good," Hi Ho beamed, "I take you on tour of Kon Tum."
Unfortunately, I had heard these words before. Twice. The previous day I had already been treated to two impromptu tours. First a gas station manager had pounced on me to try out his English and then, later in the day, a pool table attendant had happily driven me round in circles as the sun set.
Thankfully, Hi Ho was keeping his tour short. We ignored the ethnic villages, western churches and modern suspension bridge in favour of a bowl of pho noodles – thick-ish white-ish noodles in chili-spiced oily soup.

Back in my room I listened to the noise of kids downstairs and sat in the windowless window looking out across tiled roofs at lush greens and stunning pink blossoms. There was a desk, a computer, a bookshelf, a mattress and a guitar. I picked up the guitar and sat on the mattress to strum a song.
I was in the middle of an Oasis tune ("I’m free-ee to be whatever I – ") when a young woman breezed in, like blossom on the wind.

She sat down next to me on the mattress to talk. Nguyen, 28, a teacher, married with a boy and a girl. She seemed confident and happy and a little playful. I liked how free she seemed in the company of a stranger.
And then she offered to sing me a song and her voice pitched high and stirring and she held me with her eyes and I looked at her and couldn’t look away. For a moment. A beautiful moment.
A little while later I heard a voice calling to me through the window: "Joe" pause "Sinclair".

Nguyen was ready to give me a ride on her moto. She had dressed for the occasion in a pink suit. I sat behind her, careful not to touch, but with the strong smell of her hair and perfume it almost felt like I was touching anyway.

Town tour number four. The locals had watched as I rode past in pillion with a young, middle-aged and old man in succession. And now I had graduated to a beautiful young woman. They were really staring now.
Over pho noodles Nguyen told me about an ex-boyfriend, now living in California, and then asked me why I wasn’t travelling with my girlfriend. She found it strange that I had chosen to go solo.
Despite the language barrier, we both seemed to be able to fill in what the other person was trying to say and somehow managed to have a really good chat. At least I think we did.
And after noodles we were back at her brother’s coffee shop, listening to the frogs.
"When I saw you I happy. I can go eat noodle. I can drink coffee. I happy."
Her words made me happy.
Maybe the bus driver I had argued with earlier was now cursing me to his wife or joking about me with his friends. We effect each other without even knowing, existing outside ourselves in other people’s lives. Life can be beautiful.
And life can be sad.
Nguyen told me she was not happy. That she didn’t love her husband. He’s a good man, she said, but "I only ever one love". I asked her if it was her ex-boyfriend in California and she nodded, just once, as if saying yes would be too much of an admission.
"I smile," she smiled, "I always smiling but I not happy. I think all the time."

They had wanted to get married but Hi Ho had refused permission because the two families belonged to different churches. So her boyfriend had gone away.
Sometimes he still phones her and her husband – "a maths teacher, a good man" – gets angry. I wondered if I was the first person she had told. Sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger, especially when he can’t fully understand you – like splattering paint on a blank canvas.
We looked at each other. I saw a mother, a wife and a young girl with broken dreams who was still smiling at me.

When Hi Ho arrived with his wife she seemed a little suspicious of our tête-à-tête. Maybe she knew her daughter’s feelings well. Hi Ho however, was happily oblivious. One of the first things he said when the women had gone was, "My family very happy."
We ate dinner in a restaurant with tarpaulin walls and a pot of coals on the table – fried meat and bread, and more meat in a soup, which had to be sucked from the bone.
Hi Ho was also trying to tell me something – about his role in the war helping the Americans. I let him talk, nodding and smiling, although I didn’t understand much of what he said. Maybe this was the first time he’d used his English in 30 years and I wanted to let him say what he had to say without too much interruption.
He talked about Kon Tum, small city, good city, and Hoi An, big city, not good city, and seemed very content with his lot.

At night I lay on my mattress looking into the dark, wondering if Nguyen was in her room thinking about me as well, wondering if our dreams would brush against each other in the night.
I went downstairs early in the morning with the palm trees silhouetted black against a red sky. The dog barked at me; it had been a sleepless night with mosquitoes feasting on my feet, but I was happy.
Hi Ho held my hand to lead me passed the dog to the kitchen, where Nguyen was waiting. "Did you sleep well?"
"Very good," I lied, "and you?"
"I didn’t sleep well. Because I was so happy. I was thinking of you. It is first time I speak English."
I waved goodbye from the back of Hi Ho’s moto.
Hi Ho bought me some pho noodles for breakfast and drove me to the bus station where he even bought me a packet of sweets and some gum.
"You’re very kind. You’re very kind," I repeated over and over, knowing that it wasn’t enough. And then I was on my own, sitting on the 6.00am bus for Danang.
Sometimes travelling alone I feel dead to the world, at sea in the one-man vessel of my own head. Now I felt alive again.
© Joe Sinclair MArch 2004

Joe wins a copy of Colin Todhunter's book Chasing Rainbows

White Lights - Big City
Joe Sinclair in Japan

Take the Bus
Joe Sinclair in Vietnam

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