The crowd in the bar was mostly expats and English teachers, whiling away the hours drinking cold beer in the sweltering heat. The night began to spiral when a Frenchman who owned an ecotourism business in Hanoi stopped in for a drink and a chat. He was followed by a drunk American who punched himself in the face reaching for a glass of whiskey and the three of us ended up doing karaoke until three in the morning when the cops came by. This was a good bar, and I came back every day for one week.
It was a happy existence that abruptly ended one evening when a girl I had never seen before came to work at the bar. She was slim and beautiful and moved with the confidence of someone from a distant and far superior dimension. When she looked at me, I felt like running away.
“My name is Phuong,” she said, drifting over and she gave me a look that twisted something inside me. She asked me my name, and where I was from and what I was doing in Saigon and I bit off some rote answers but what she wanted was for me to buy her a drink so she could earn a commission and this I did with no regrets.
Phuong and I went to the disco that night, and I felt like I was in a cloud of hot steam. We danced to the beats of heady American pop music, the tentacular throb of which is inescapable even in the remotest corners of the world. Once my nerves were doubled down with a few whiskeys I pretended to cast a fishing line at Phuong and reel her in. She played along and hopped like a fish on the line. If that isn’t love, then what are we living for?
She led me down a rabbit warren of back alleys to the house where the girls from the bar stayed when they weren’t working, the kind of cat house where a foreigner didn’t need to register his passport with the police. It cost two hundred thousand dong for a room, but the toothbrush was free. I went upstairs and lay in a dirty bed. Phuong turned off the light and slid into bed next to me. Her body was as warm and smooth as a phantom.
I have never been a romantic. I don’t believe in soul mates, and I surely don’t believe in love. What are human beings but an orgy of molecules strapped to a rock that is spinning through endless black space with no particular destination in mind. And yet I found myself at a corner restaurant eating one dollar pho and feeling intensely happy as hot rain splattered the windows while Phuong tossed herbs into my broth and stirred it with a pair of chopsticks. We watched traffic snarl on the streets; the drivers huddled under cheap rain slickers. I told her I would buy her a run-down motorbike that scooted by pathetically. She laughed, and I felt smart.
After we ate, Phuong got up and left. There was no doubt I would see her again. The next night I was back in the bar, and Phuong smiled when she saw me and hung on my arm the whole night. Over another bowl of pho in the morning, she asked me if I wanted to go with her to Mui Ne.
“Do you go to Mui Ne with all your boyfriends?” I asked and then pretended like the answer didn’t matter. She smiled. It was a coy smile, the kind that could have meant anything. It is a common response in this country.
It was a five-hour bus ride to Mui Ne, once a sleepy little beach town but now teeming with Russians on vacation. We rented a motorbike and drove down the coastal road. As storm clouds ripened over the sea, Phuong slipped her arms around my waist and pressed the weight of her body into my back. The road sped by beneath us, and the jungle throbbed around us, and I felt the universe open up. It was the kind of experience that pulls back the curtain on language and reveals what a small thing words are in the face of the abyss. It rained on us on the way back to the hotel. I have never felt more alive.
We returned to Saigon, and I started my English teaching job. It was easy enough, teaching upper-class Vietnamese kids how to read for what passed as a decent salary in a developing country. The dress code was formal business attire, the heat of Vietnam brutal and punishing in those stuffy shirts, but everything has its price. I rented an apartment not far from the school. As soon as I was settled, I asked Phuong if she would move in with me. She said no.
“You can keep working at the bar if you want,” I said.
She paused to consider for a few moments. Then she said: “Buy me a motorbike.” It wasn’t a question and, of course, I did buy her one. She moved in a few days later.
They say that if you move to Vietnam, you should leave within three years. If you stay longer than that you will never leave, that everyone is seduced sooner or later by this country with its emerald charm and sticky jungle heat. It’s probably as true as any other thing that people say.
I chartered a boat in Can Tho, and it ran us up and down the fingers of the Mekong Delta choked with floating hovels where pineapple ladies sold us fruit and cokes. Phuong split the pineapples with gleeful chops of the pineapple lady’s big flat knife, and the juice made our fingers stick together. I leaned over the side of the boat and washed them in the salty water of the Mekong. It had come all the way here from the Tibetan highlands, splashing through the gateway of the Golden Triangle and finally merging into nothing here in the Delta. The simplicity of the thing never failed to amaze me.
When we got back to Saigon, I asked Phuong to go to the art museum with me, though she showed no interest in it. It was housed in a cream-colored French colonial that was crumbling around the edges. The collection included standard flag-waving propaganda, peasants in the field and heroic soldiers basking in splendor as they marched against imperialism and toward destiny. Then there were some electrifying pieces from nameless artists where the lacquer ran red as blood and sprang off the wall with no political message, just texture and color, and light.
The inner courtyard was once a tennis court where French officials used to travel thousands of miles to play tennis before contracting malaria in a country that was not their own. It was mostly populated now with statues, including a headless Buddha that was more French than Vietnamese. I was thinking these clever thoughts when I noticed Phuong had stopped in front of a statue of a Vietnamese man. He had one arm stretched skyward while the other cradled the lifeless body of a woman. The shapes were heavy, weighted with rage. It was called Vengeance. Phuong stared at it for a long time with the kind of liquid vision that looks deep into the past.
“Do you like that one?” I asked.
She turned away from the statue, and her vision was solid again. “Yes,” she said simply, and the trip was over.
We splashed in the water that cascaded over the famous rocks of Da Lat. Phuong couldn’t swim, but she jumped in the little rivulets, throwing back her head and laughing like a whiskey priest in the spray. I felt happy, and the water was cool and clear.
The old Catholic church loomed large against the sky. It was made of huge stone blocks that seemed to have been there for a long time. The interior was all light-swallowing wood that gleamed and creaked while inhaling the smoke from the censers. The priest held Mass at six o’clock and spoke French and Vietnamese. The inside was gloomy, and the air smelled different, not hot and wet like Vietnam but ancient like God. Phuong knelt in a pew and said her prayers. I sat quietly in the back and watched the small congregation bend their knees and tilt their heads to their God in the rarified light of a church built by conquerors. They had abandoned it to the jungle when God abandoned them to the communists, but that didn’t seem to matter now. Phuong held my hand, and we walked down the aisle toward the rectangle of light from the outside. “Do you feel better about your sins?” I asked. She ignored me.
Later that night in our bungalow she told me she had stopped working at the bar. The mosquito nets were draped around our old four post bed, and in the wet twilight, they could have been a waterfall of lace. Phuong was ethereal in her nightgown, and I took my time undoing every strap and tie, holding them for a long while before letting them drop away into nothing. Her breath came in short, hard little gasps and there was an intense heat that obliterated all things. I placed my hand upon her cheek, and the heat in her skin went through me like lightning. “Is this what love feels like?” I asked, but she didn’t understand the question.
I suppose we lay there for a long time after that.