The International Writers Magazine:Hacktreks in Vietnam
Four Tours of Town and a Love Affair
American: small love. Television, one man three, four, five
women. Vietnam: one man, one woman. Big love."
sat beneath palm trees in the stone courtyard of her brothers
café, beside a fountain, which dribbled. Vietnamese love songs
oozed from the speakers and frogs croaked loudly out of time as it got
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 Highlands 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
didnt 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
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
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 ("Im free-ee to be whatever
I ") when a young woman breezed in, like blossom on the
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 couldnt
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 wasnt 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 brothers coffee shop, listening
to the frogs.
"When I saw you I happy. I can go eat noodle. I can drink coffee.
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 peoples lives.
Life can be beautiful.
And life can be sad.
Nguyen told me she was not happy. That she didnt love her husband.
Hes 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
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 its easier to tell a stranger, especially
when he cant 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 daughters 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 didnt understand much of what he said. Maybe this was
the first time hed 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 didnt 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 Hos 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.
"Youre very kind. Youre very kind," I repeated
over and over, knowing that it wasnt 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
Lights - Big City
Joe Sinclair in Japan
Joe Sinclair in Vietnam
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