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Posted by on Apr 2, 2024 in The Vietnam Project, Writing | 0 comments



The Hodoor
The Winter Spring Hotel, which still comes up in an internet search under the Henry Iris name, had a small lobby with a couple of chairs, dimly lit by ticking fluorescent lights. Reception was on a slight riser, a counter with a desk with two computer screens. A guy dressed in a white shirt and black pants, his face harassed, welcomed me and confirmed my reservation for three nights. His English was not quite functional, but we managed the business. A kid took my bags while a white poodle, greyed by dirt, in high dudgeon barked at my heels. I stooped down to say hello, but he backed up and yapped fiercely. We went down the increasingly shabby hall, passing a rice cooker with a crooked lid and unused tea making equipment stacked on a table with some cases of bottled water, to a back stair that smelled of industrial detergent. There was a rag mop moldering in a plastic bucket and another bucket with yellow rubber gloves draped over the rim. The stairs reminded me of unrenovated tenements in the seventies. On the third floor he opened the door with a key, which he handed to me with a smile before retreating.
It was the smallest hottest hotel room I’ve ever seen, and I became immediately depressed, wondering how I’d manage three nights. The entrance area was the size of a phone booth, not big enough to put on a pair of pants or a shirt without bumping the walls. There were a few hangers above a mini fridge. There was nowhere to put luggage. The bed touched all four walls and there was a barred window with a view of sky. The bathroom was scaled like the room, about the size of an airplane toilet with a shower head and sink. The bed was a pancake, but it was made, and the sheets were clean. It didn’t smell bad, and the air conditioner worked, robust enough that it cooled the room almost instantly. I showered off the road sweat, dressed, and texted my friend Fred, who was meeting me in two days, a picture of the room and an apologetic description.
It was a little after five. Vuong was coming at six. I stood for a while at the third floor landing window, admiring the view of a collapsed tile roof, as if someone had squashed it with their foot. I decided to go get a beer and wait for Vuong on the street.
I sat down and drank the beer, watching the comings and goings of traffic as the light dimmed to dusk. Vuong texted that he would be later, 6:30, so I got another beer and sat, hungry and tired on the low step up to the hotel. The street and sidewalk were greasy, swept clean but embedded with dirt. Small bags of garbage were piled up in front of the stores. Private cars and taxis pulled up to the hotels across the street, discharging nicely dressed couples who looked a little out of place on a street with electronic and houseware stores selling pots and pans, stereos, air conditioners and appliances. A fruit wholesaler on the corner was unloading boxes off a truck parked half on the sidewalk. When he was done, he lowered the gates and locked up. A green electric tour car stopped, open on the sides, with twelve old ladies and young women dressed in ao dais, chatting and laughing.
Vuong glided by on his bike, and I shouted, “Vuong!”, startling the clerk, who looked around for who I could be yelling at, as I jumped up and ran after the bike. I caught up with him, waving my hands and calling his name, excited to be seeing him after three years. He stopped. His eyes lit up and we hugged. He was thin, damagingly thin, tall, and attractive, with a long narrow face that is helplessly expressive, by turns hilarious and somber. Vuong is a clothes horse, cultivating the image of a dandy. During COVID he and some friends started a business selling shoes and fine men’s clothing, which he would model on Facebook, always looking dapper, with a pipe in his mouth and black glasses, a Sartrean intellectual. He was dressed in a vest, suit pants, suspenders, jacket, and tweed cap. People here wear many layers of clothing when they bike to protect themselves from the dirt, the dust, the rocks and debris. I have never seen anyone sweat, despite the heat and all the layers. I felt his bones beneath the fabric. His wrists, which he had recently sliced open with a razor blade, were concealed by the cuffs.
“It is so good to see you!” I said.
“I didn’t think you would really come.”
“Why? I told you I would come back.”
“Everyone says that.”
He parked his bike and in a few minutes we were walking towards the night market. Colorful globes and lanterns were strung across the street behind a giant illuminated archway with the market name spelled out in red neon, decorated with yellow stars, shining on the crimson and purple tent tops.
“This is a tourist area, and the restaurants around here are expensive, and the food is shit. We are going to the real place where we eat in Can Tho. What do you want?”
“I’ll eat anything you want. BBQ? Beef? Chicken? Fish? I would like rice and vegetables. And as I told you, I am paying, so we can go anywhere.”
We reached the end of the night market and crossed another wide avenue, this one with fast dense traffic. There was a narrow strip of concrete dividing the lanes and we waited there for a break in the flow. Now the street became brightly lit again, this time with restaurant storefronts and fruit and vegetable stands.
“This street,” he said, “is an old Chinese street. Chinese people still live here, the Minh Huong—” The Minh Huong are descendants of Ming dynasty refugees from south China who fled the Qing in the 17th century and settled in the Mekong Delta. “Families still speak Mandarin at home.”
“All these hundreds of years later?”
“Yes. Let’s get vegetarian hot pot.”
The place was called L?u Chay Ch? Út. L?u is hot pot. It had a large dining area and outdoor seating along the sidewalk. It was bedlam. Waitresses ran about with trays while loud diners called out orders for drinks and food. We took a table on the sidewalk, and I said, “You order.”
“And to drink?”
“Something else too? They have some Vietnamese drinks.”
I looked at the beverages. I ordered the corn milk, Sua Bap, which is made by boiling coconut milk with corn: the cob, the kernels, and a bundle of the husk and silk. It is rich and slightly sweet and tastes grassy, herbaceous, like a cornfield on a hot day in the Midwest.
The waitress lit the charcoal and filled the hot pot with a strong vegetable stock and delivered a platter of noodles, napa cabbage, several varieties of mushroom, tofu, carrots, bean sprouts, and a stack of fresh herbs. While we waited for it to come to a boil we talked about Vuong’s economic woes. He could not find a job.
“You can always come to America,” I joked.
“The American Dream is total bullshit, Jon.”
I burst out laughing. “You mean the streets aren’t paved with gold?”
“Everyone thinks if they can go to America, they will get rich and be free. But it isn’t true. They say we have no freedom here. I can go on Facebook and say what I want. Nobody is going to stop me. I am free.”
The stock came to a boil. I picked up some enoki mushrooms with the chopsticks and lowered them in. “I thought you didn’t like politics.”
“I don’t. It is meaningless. Everything is meaningless. It is all bullshit.”
There was a huge pile of napa cabbage. “Can I take more of this?”
“You can take as much as you want.”
“How are you feeling?” I looked at his arms. They were recently scarred. On Facebook he had posted pictures of them bandaged. Vuong wanted to die. He had tried many times.
I asked him why he couldn’t find any work.
“Every time I find a job, I lose it because I get depressed.”
“What does that mean?”
“I can’t sleep for days, and then I can’t get out of bed. I don’t eat. I hate food. I hate everything. I can’t stop thinking about Sonia. Now I don’t care about anything.”
“You have a therapist.”
“Yes, I see a therapist. And when I try to kill myself, they put me in a mental institution and make me take drugs. But I hate drugs.”
I decided not to pursue it and finished eating. The soup by now was very rich. “This is so good,” I said. “Do you want another beer?”
“We can go to my friend’s bar. It’s not a long walk.”
I paid the check and we walked. “Whose bar are we going to?”
“My friend Tomas. He is from the Czech Republic.”
The street ended at an oval lake set in the grid of streets, a few blocks square, named Ho Xang Thoi, which translates to Xang Blow Lake, perhaps a Google hallucination. The lake is fed by a canal and a few blocks from it is a Khmer Temple, Chùa Pitu Khôsa R?ngsây. Its tall red and golden spire flamed over the surrounding buildings. There were signs that said, “No Fishing”. A few old men were threading bait onto hooks and casting into the light-streaked, obsidian water.
“It says no fishing,” I observed. It was a rare instance of a sign in English.
“If a sign says you can’t do something, people will do it. There is even a store where they can buy bait, right here.” This was the clearest expression of Vietnamese contrarianism I had yet heard and to a New Yorker it was as familiar as pizza and bagels.
We walked the periphery of the lake, pausing along the chain strung on concrete posts to watch the water. Then we turned up Huynh Cuong Street and came to a small bar lit with cobalt and cherry neon signs called Hodoor. It was a dark pocket with teal walls and minimal lighting, tucked away where tourists weren’t likely to find it, and felt like places I had been to in Berlin and Prague. There was a couch and some chairs around a low table and 5 stools at the bar. Vuong introduced me to the owner and bartender, Tomas, a Czech, and his Vietnamese partner Tai. They were in their early forties. Tomas’ mustache and Jimmy Cagney build made him look like a Tammany Hall saloon keeper. Tai was tall with long straight hair and an aloof gaze that took it all in but was slow to react. We ordered beer and I asked about the bar. They’d owned it for a couple of years, moving south during COVID to get out of Saigon.
“We are trying to sell more food,” he said.
“What kind of food do you make?”
“Mexican,” Tai said.
“Mexican?” I asked. In a country full of amazing bar food, why Mexican?
“It’s very popular,” Tomas said. “We are serving quesadillas now.”
“Where do you get the cheese?”
Tai said, “You buy it in stores.”
When we were done laughing, I asked, “Where are the cows? I haven’t even seen a water buffalo.”
Sarcasm burst out of Vuong. “You want to see water buffalo? All you have to do is drive out of this town and you will see water buffalo.”
A red-faced older white man pulled up onto the stool next to Vuong. “Hello,” he said in a strong, working-class English accent. Ralph taught English at a local private high school. He’d been in the country for over ten years. He wasn’t yet drunk, but he had two of three sheets to the wind.
“How did you two meet?” Ralph asked.
“I was here in 2020,” I said.
“Jon was a guest at the Nguyen Shack when everything went to shit,” Vuong said.
“We were the last ones,” I said. “Two Germans, Dieter and Sara, and me.”
“And Sonia. We drank every night and played Uno.”
“And I picked up garbage.” We started reminiscing, completing each other’s sentences.
I asked Ralph where he worked and he launched into a description of the school, the students whom he seemed to like, and his daughter. “She went home when my wife left.” He shook his morose, florid face. He was obviously unsuited to the tropics but had lived here so long I’m guessing he’d grow mold if he went home. “The wife never liked it here, too bloody hot and too much fish sauce.”
“Those are the best parts,” I said. “At home I always have to ask for fish sauce.”
Vuong laughed. “You have to ask?”
“You know what a bowl of Pho costs? 250,000 Dong.”
He laughed harder. “The streets are paved with gold.”
“Let’s have a shot,” I suggested.
“The piss is fine with me,” Ralph said.
“How much is the Jameson’s?”
“Ahhh…” Tomas got out his phone and scrolled, the bar so dark it illuminated his thumb and face. “75k.”
He poured us New York doubles in rocks glasses, and we clinked. “Prost,” I said. From there the conversation followed the whiskey around and somehow ended up on the war. I knew Vuong didn’t care about the war and I had promised myself I wouldn’t be a mansplaining asshole. I was in Vietnam to listen, not to talk. I think the war bored him. The only people interested in it were older Americans like me and the Communist Party, which hammered citizens with Vietnamese heroics and war crimes committed by Americans and the southern puppet regime. Vuong was a southerner and his grandfather had told him when he was young that he didn’t want to talk about the war years because he didn’t want Vuong to become bitter and angry. It was best to move on and forget. Nevertheless, by some lost but devious road Vuong got there. He said, “Americans were bad, but Koreans were the worst.”
“I thought you didn’t talk about the war,” I said.
“I know, but no one ever talks about the Koreans. They never apologized for what they did. At least Americans apologized. Or some of them did.”
“I apologized,” I said.
Ralph wagged his head miserably and drank. “Terrible things happened.”
Tomas said, “The ROK marines massacred thousands of civilians before My Lai.”
I said, “I read about an ROK Marine massacre. This Colonel marches his company into the center of a village, sits behind a desk, and calls everyone out. Once everyone had gathered, he raised his hand, and they gunned them down with hidden .50 caliber machine guns.”
Vuong has never said what he thinks about the politics of the war, and I haven’t asked, though I’ve made no secret of my own. I don’t think his father would be old enough to have fought, given Vuong’s age. His grandfather might have fought, but whether for the Viet Minh, the Nationalists or one of the sects I didn’t know. There were hints. His father’s family had been in the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect, and he had an aunt and uncle living in exile in Paris whom he said sided with the French. If the family had worked for the government or served in the ARVN, they would have gone through reeducation. For some it was weeks of reeducation sessions, with confessions and self-criticism, followed by political indoctrination. Others were sent to hard labor camps in the jungle for ten or twelve years. Vuong had strong opinions about everything else, including his political apathy, so I assume he had ideas about the war. When I had emailed him Ulysses I asked if it was safe for him, and he replied that Vietnam wasn’t 1984. China is, with cameras and listening devices everywhere. It isn’t safe for Uyghurs to speak in their own homes. It may not be as Orwellian in Vietnam, but it is a country where politics is deadly. Apathy and silence are the best way to stay out of trouble, especially since you are perfectly free to be a disaffected, alienated, overeducated despiser of the world, so long as you don’t criticize the party or organize others.
“We owe a debt to your country,” I said, feeling the shame and anger and sadness I have never been able to shake. They are indelible. “I know you don’t like to talk about it, but it’s true. My country has never apologized for killing millions of people for no reason. The Cold War was insane.” I was saying this to people who had been on the other side of the iron curtain.
“Everybody killed everybody else, they don’t care about human life,” Vuong said, lighting a cigarette. “That is war.”
“Enough blame to go around,” Ralph mumbled. “You didn’t do anything. You were a child.”
Vuong said, his face and voice animated by a wicked sort of merriment, “Tai worked at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.”
Tai smiled slowly and nodded her head.
I stared at her. That would be the most depressing job imaginable. “You worked there?”
“Yes. When I was at the university, and some years after.”
She said it so matter-of-factly, that it deflated the bloat of horror the museum provoked in me, as I saw it as a workplace, with an HR office and a breakroom. “What did you do?”
“Gift shop. Zippo lighters, dog tags, posters, books, T shirts and hats.”
We all laughed.
Vuong said, “You know who is worse than the French, the Americans, and the Koreans? You know who we REALLY hate? The Thais.”
“Why?” I asked, surprised.
“Because Thai people did not fight against Japan, and they were against us when we saved Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge.”
Thomas said, “Vietnamese have been fighting about Cambodia with Thailand for centuries. All the Delta was Khmer. Philip Taylor—”
“Philip Taylor?” I yelled, “You’ve read Philip Taylor?”
“Sure yes. He’s very good. What happened in 1947, that was madness,” Tomas said. “The Hoa Hao, the Viet Minh, the Cao Dai, and the Khmer slaughtered each other. And when the Khmer fled the Vietnamese took their land. The Khmer are always getting screwed by the Vietnamese.”
“I’m going to all of the holy mountain Goddess sites Taylor writes about,” I said.
Vuong said, “I don’t believe in any of that folk religion shit you are so interested in.”
I needled him. “You are a Buddhist.”
“I just say that because I believe in nothing. That doesn’t mean I am a Buddhist.”
I felt myself start to swoon and looked for a clock. The bar glowed amber into the indigo and red lights. I looked at my phone. It was 11:45. I knew I would wake up at 5 or 6. It was time to go. But the conversation had taken another turn. Vuong began to talk about his father, and Tomas, Tai and Ralph who had heard this all before, were watching silently, letting him speak. They weren’t just boon companions but friends. Tomas gazed on him sadly as he ruminated about his father’s verbal abuse and beatings. Ralph, holding his liquor like a swollen water balloon didn’t say a word. “I feel so bad I just want to die,” Vuong said. “I have to live in his house. Every day I feel so sick I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, and I can’t get a job.”
We were drained of conversation. I said, “I think I need to go home.”
Vuong and I walked through the empty quiet streets and said goodnight. The hotel doors were locked, but the night clerk came out, lifted the heavy wooden board that secured the glass doors and let me in. I fell asleep until six when the sun started to brighten in the sky. The bed was like a comfortless nest. My neck hurt. My feet were crammed against the backpacks. I sat up and lay back against the cold wall and checked the phone for messages, scrolling through the day’s news, and then I ate a few bananas, dressed, and went in search of coffee.

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