Vietnam’s very landscape sometimes seems to chant “reproduce, reproduce, reproduce”—so much so that an expat’s vague disinterest in having children can quickly fester into a vasectomized vigilance built upon half-baked notions that valorize selfishness and permanent adolescence in the face of a coming apocalypse.
Sometimes Vietnam likes to slap you around a little bit.
Don’t take it personally.
Think, instead, of the fat fruit vendors who gave you gauze while you spit blood onto the road and the pretty, pale nurse who smiled with her eyes as she pressed sutures into your lips.
I suspect the secret reason that the Party passed on gay marriage had something to do with rumblings that it might cramp all their heterosexual hand-holding.
Sự vật vần xoay đà định sẵn,
Hết mưa là nắng hửng lên thôi.
—Hồ Chí Minh
Int. High-end Ho Chi Minh City Dentist’s Office. Everything resembles a space ship; all the dentists are German.
An orthodontist named Seigmar tells me I am plagued by Bruxism (which he pronounces Paroxysm) and the only solution is to spend a month’s salary on a custom polymer mould called “the Bionator” that will prevent me from grinding my own teeth into dust.
"It is a modern ailment," he says leaning back, removing his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. "I am your colleague in this."
"Bruxism comes from not being able to do what you want.
We always talk about the fight between your mind and your stomach. If you are an aggressive man, every day you want to express your aggressions. But you cannot. You cannot do what you want.
And so, every night, your jaw muscles are going to the gym.
They love this. For them, it is so much fun!
And so you cannot tell them to stop.
They will not listen.
Now they do what they want.
You will do this for the rest of your life. You will destroy your teeth. I’ve had patients who broke the roots of their own teeth grinding them together at night.”
I suppose all growth requires a certain amount of destruction.
But the Saigon I found when I first arrived has been utterly gutted.
Thousands of businesses have close their doors every month for years, making way for international corporations who planned to spend all that time eating losses in exchange for “market share” (e.g. total control of a product/service).
The notion of “fair competition” here is a farce—on both sides. But Vietnam’s efforts to protect local interests look increasingly desperate.
The government is actively considering a proposal to stop asking struggling local companies to pay taxes, in part, they argue, because there’s no way they’ll ever be able to pay them.
Meanwhile, the vultures are circling.
A major push to open Vietnam’s frozen property market to foreign investors narrowly failed during the last National Assembly meeting. Those who objected to the measure noted that millions of average Vietnamese families still can’t even dream of buying an apartment, most of which were shoddily built for high-end investors on land taken from farmers or slum dwellers.
I’m not an economist. Shit, I didn’t even take pre-calculus. I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.
But I did get an eerie feeling, this weekend, walking into the corpse of the canteen that used to share a floor with my newsroom.
The place was once exploding with pretty uniformed office girls, jostling for their $1 lunches. You could crane your neck out the window and bum cigarettes from construction workers building towers on all sides of the place. But nothing drowned out the cries of the plump delta waitresses who worked and slept there.
Now there’s no one left but the rats and ông táo.
I have a friend with whom I share a habit of “doing” curry.
We’ll set aside certain evenings (“curry nights”) to binge on unholy amounts of greasy, unpredictably-spiced goos at one of Saigon’s several fine Indian eateries.
Our plan always involves clearing a whole 36-hour block after the meal, of any romance, transportation or heavy lifting. Gastrointestinal “events” aren’t inevitable during this period, but are considered highly likely.
Vietnamese curries, on the other hand, make you feel like doing a backflip.
They’re light, sweet and mildly-spiced. Here in the south, they’re commonly served on people’s birthdays.
Those desperately seeking a little burn can make use of a dipping bowl lined with a slick of lime juice, salt and bird’s eye chilies. Even with that on the side, it’s a meal fit for a Russian gymnast.
Ms. V. serves hers with sticky rice, cucumbers and plenty of fresh herbs. If only I could execute something approaching a backflip. Perhaps a sommersault?
I remember people at home stressing the importance of thoroughly browning stew meat like it was tantamount to vaccinating your children.
No browning, that I know of, takes place prior to kho-ing thịt here.
But one of my favorite dishes involves cleaving a “pink fish” in twain, marinating it in fish sauce and frying it until its head achieves the consistency of a graham cracker.
The frying seals in all the moisture and creates a nice crust on the fish before its sautéed in a chunky broth of onion, tomato and (“asian”) celery.
High up there on the shockingly-wonderful-breakfast list.
I walked into a juice place today called Guanabana—Spanish for Soursop.
The sign promised “California-style smoothies” and I wondered what kind of girls I might find there.
But all I found was Rex.
Rex looked like one of those Peter Pans you find in Saigon: 64, with muscular legs poking out of his cargo shorts, blue eyes and clean-swept snowy hair that looked like it belonged on a 12-year old.
I sat down next to him at the counter overlooking the street and ordered a guanabana-mango.
Rex slammed down his first Supergreen.
"That was soooo good," he said to the silent room, a little too loud. "I’ll have another."
Rex was on his third tour of Vietnam.
His first began when he was an 18 year-old Marine stationed in Danang.
He spent a year and a half getting shipped out to the Lao border for 90-day combat stretches. He didn’t talk about what he did out there, but described America as a country with the touch of death.
When he came back to Vietnam the second time, it was 1992 and he was accompanied by two veterans.
His third trip was inspired by the 2010 election. Rex doesn’t vote because he believes the US “is handcuffed by its two parties.”
Rex also believes that humanity has grown too unkind to itself and the planet. What’s worse, he finds it too voluminous.
During his four year, self-imposed exile, he mostly survived on a diet of raw food, exercise and girls.
"I have the body of a 24-year old," he said.
Rex would have left earlier, but he had committed to putting a high-school dropout through yoga school.
"Now she’s making $1,500 a month," he said. "But we’re just friends now."
Rex doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He’s spent most of his life eating vegetables, long-distance hiking and, it would seem, living the shit out of pretty much every hour.
Saigon would seem the perfect place for such a man. But it weighs heavy on him.
"It’s too everything," he said cheerfully. "It’s too overpopulated. It’s too polluted. It’s too hot."
He’ll fly back on March 3, the same day he landed here as a Marine.
"Full-circle," he said. "Seven more months…"
Rex will return to a cabin on the edge of Glacier National Park in the Montana wilderness where he’ll be separated from his nearest neighbor by three and a half miles of dirt road.
"I’ve got Grizzly Bears in my front yard. Wolves and mountain lions. When I get back to my cabin, I’m gonna breathe in the air and kiss the ground."
He painted vivid images of himself trudging through the tundra on cross-country skies, taking long, solitary hikes through wildflower meadows and dedicating the autumn of his life to tackling years of neglected yard work
While we sat there, he spoke absently out how much extra food he’d have to load into his root cellar to survive the impending global environmental/financial/political rapture.
"Our-father-who-art-in-heaven-be-thy-name-thy-KINGDOM COME," he said. "The kingdom is coming."
"Shit Rex," I said. "I think you’re right about the end of the world; wish I could get with you on the kingdom thing."
He smiled; he’s used to it.
We didn’t talk much more about the apocalypse. My only real question for Rex was how he would live in a world without legs.
Rex launched into a long list of his conquests—beginning with the 20-year old masseur he’d seduced just a few hours before his double-smoothie.
"That’s not what I mean Rex," I said and pointed across the street to the woman getting her things out of a motorbike in a hospital parking lot.
We could barely make her out, but could discern the glow of her bright white legs moving along a variegated gold wall, through all the rush of motorbikes and taxis and down a set of stairs—out of sight.
Legs like hers are everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City and let us know we are working and struggling and jostling together for a beauty you can’t find in isolation. I’d imagine, they rival all of the wildflowers and Grizzly Bears of Glacier National Park.
Rex seemed lost for a moment. He muttered about a date he might have that night.
"Seven more months," he said. But he said it differently.
I hope the next time my life comes apart — give it a second — these two will run in with their bamboo ladder and set everything straight.
- Anonymous said:Cool it man, Vietnam was over 30 years ago. No one was being mean or disrespectful. It was just a joke. And if you have a problem with that comment, either ignore it or just let them know POLITELY why you didn't like it. Either way, stop being so high strung.
Okay, how about you don’t be high strung when people show up at your country and start shooting people.
Please do point out which part of me was...
- “Kafka is a ‘writer of absence’, describing a world that remains religious in its structure but in which the central place belonging to God is empty.”