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Authors: Andrew X. Pham

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BOOK: Catfish and Mandala
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I didn't have a single gift.
At 2 a.m., we take a taxi-van back to the Nguyens' houses. My three “uncles” ride back on their motorbikes.
Away from the airport, the buildings look dilapidated, water-damaged, their metal doors shut tight. Straying vendors sell food from baskets by the light of oil lamps, feeding the beggars who can't sleep. Thin blankets drawn over their faces to keep the mosquitoes at bay, the homeless sleep on the street, lining the side of the road like casualties of war, scavenged and toe-tagged by the clean-up crew. Around them, an endless crush of buildings, weeping concrete, and clothesline rags hem in narrow streets. At the larger intersections, lighted billboards loom above the dark, odd ornaments at the joints of the city, some sort of somatic dreams hawking Honda motorbikes, Samsung color TVs, IBM computers, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Suzukis.
There's a cool stink to the city, a scent warped by too many people, too many things, and softened by the wet night. I turn, sniff-swallowing it all snake-like while fielding questions from Grandaunt.
Turning to and fro, desperately trying to penetrate the dark beyond the erratic sweeps of the taxi's headlights, I feel out of phase, a man panning for the memories of a boy. The purr of the van's engine sounds empty in this supposedly live city. The old angst, now unfamiliar, worms back through the years at me. Memories. My manchild fascination. I scan the gutters half expecting discarded uniforms of the deposed South Vietnamese Nationalist Army, like those the boy-me had scavenged off the streets on Saigon's final night. The night of our own downfall.
It was a night of madness and spectacular fires. I was eight and wild with greed for all the loot people had tossed in the street. You could find almost anything that night. The defeated army discarded guns, ammo, helmets, knives, uniforms, boots, water tins, and heaps of things covered with the flat green paint of army-issued equipment. Fugitives, peasants, and city dwellers left belongings where they dropped them: baskets, food, clothes, chairs, sleeping mats, pottery, wads of no-longer-valid currency. The night was choked with those who fled, those who hid, those who scavenged, and those who went mad with fear, or greed, or anger.
The bullies chased me down the alley. I heard them pounding the pavement hard on my heels. They were yelling. BANG! A shot went off. I couldn't tell if they were shooting at me. Maybe they were shooting in another part of the neighborhood. Guns had been going off around the city all day, but I was pretty sure they were shooting at me.
Earlier, I had been down by the empty lot showing off some of my loot to the other kids. Mom and Dad were busy packing suitcases and burning documents, so I was able to sneak out of the house and scavenge the streets. All the kids had something, mostly guns, ammo, and broken telephones. Some had pliers and were using them to take the tips off the bullets to get at the gunpowder. We drew dragons in the dirt with the powder and ignited them. I was firing my name when the older bullies came around. They had pistols and demanded we hand over our loot. The biggest bully wanted my pistol, which wasn't the black metal army kind. It was a shiny, pug-nosed six-shooter.
They started waving their guns at us, just fooling, when a shot went off and hit a boy in the leg. He screamed and blood squirted out of the wound. We scattered. I bolted with my gun and bag of goodies. The bullies yelled for us to stop. I glanced back and a couple of them were after me and my six-shooter.
I fled down a dark alley, running by instinct, feeling my way with the tips of my fingers on the moist walls. Turn right. Run down another alley. Keep the gun. Drop the bag. Too heavy. Turn again. Run through a larger alley. They were closing in on me. I stumbled over trash. Kept going, heading for the clear up ahead.
Then I burst onto the street. Crashed into the flood of refugees swarming in one direction. Refuse covered the ground, stampeded over and over again. The air reeked of smoke, loud with people. Down the road, the fish market was burning unchecked. Gunfire snapped in staccato across the city. Somewhere far away a siren howled. Above, red zipping bullets crossed the night. The sky ruptured with false thunder. Dull flashes of light bruised the city skyline. Growling helicopters skimmed low, their humping air vibrating my ribs, their rope ladders trailing behind like kite tails.
I dove into the tide and was swept along with it. The air swelled with panic, lanced with torchlight. I ran with everyone else, coursing down the avenue. The crowd parted, then closed again around abandoned vehicles like a wild river. In the narrows, people crushed and hammered each other against the brick walls, stampeding, barreling to salvation—the American ships waiting in the harbor.
I had lost the bullies. I ran back to the house and pounded on the metal screen door, suddenly infected with the city's terror.
Let me in! Let me in! I want to come home!
Strange-Hearth
The Nguyens' building is narrow and long, like a matchbox set on its striking side. Within its alley neighborhood, a two-floor cell block, each residence is sealed with a massive sliding steel door of mesh wire and bars. It is dark and quiet, everyone asleep.

You should greet Ganduncle first,
” Khuong whispers in my ear as we walk to the house. The alley too narrow, our minivan taxi dropped us off on the main street. “
Don
'
t forget to bow deeply.

I smile and thank him. He knows it is paramount that I don't give offense in my ignorance. Grandaunt unlocks the sliding gate and beckons her husband gently. Her sons and I wait in the alley. Granduncle comes to the door, smiling. He is a short, wiry man with a round, thinning head of hair.

Greetings, Granduncle.
”I bow formally from the waist. “
It is me, your grandnephew, An. Are you well?”

Ah! Good! Good! I am well,”
he bubbles enthusiastically, seizing me by the shoulders.
“Good thing you made it.”

I
'
m so sorry the plane was late and customs took so long. I apologize for keeping you up.”

Ah, it is nothing.
” He waves away my apologies. “
We welcome you inside. Let's go over here.”
Granduncle takes two steps across the alley and opens the steel door to another building. Viet goes into a third home just a door down. In a moment, lights are turned on in all three buildings as the Nguyen clan stirs awake to welcome me. My cousins and aunts step into the alley to touch me on the forearm—a welcoming gesture. They dash from one building to the next to rouse each other out of bed, the alley the communal hallway of their extended residences, all within two big steps of each other. Fourteen adults, children, and servants live here, three generations in three houses.
They give me a quick tour of the main house while a servant girl prepares the welcoming tea on a kerosene stove. Since it is late, the clan gives me a brief welcome around the dinner table with biscuits and tea. When I ask them about road conditions to Hanoi, Grandaunt launches into her litany of why I should abandon my trip.
“The roads are dangerous,” she says. “The country is not safe.”
“People are very poor,”
Granduncle adds, in agreement.
“This isn't Japan or America. This is worse than Mexico.
”He's never been out of the country.
“They'll kill you for a bicycle,”
says Viet.
“I was stabbed right around the corner by two muggers. They wanted my
motorcycle.” Hung shows me the scar beneath his shirt.
“One thousand seven hundred kilometers on a bicycle to Hanoi! A bicycle! When your parents find out that you're going to ride a bicycle to Hanoi, they'll be sick with worries. Think about your parents. They didn't bring you into this world so you can waste your life. Be considerate. Don't do it. There's nothing out there but jungle and bandits. You'll die,”
Grandaunt concludes with absolute certainty.
By the time they bid me good night, I am thoroughly worried. Maybe they are right. After all, they've lived in Vietnam all their lives.
Hung grins at me with his big cherubic face. “
Don
'
t look so glum. Leave it to me. I'll show you a good time in this city. The rest of the country is crap anyway,
” he says with the generosity of a dedicated host.
Hung has cleaned up his corner of the room. He emptied half of his clothes from the closet and drawers to make room for me. Hung offers me half of his queen-sized bed.
Awkward with Eastern sensibilities, I lie—the typical (and acceptable) Vietnamese thing to do. I say,
“Sometimes I get really violent in my sleep. I kick hard—a lot.”
Rubbing his vulnerable teddy-bear belly, Hung quickly acquiesces:
“Let's set you up on the army cot. The bed is a little lumpy anyway.”
Hung has brought his Vespa inside and parked it right next to his bed. Burglars once picked the padlock on the gate and made off with his last motorbike. We unfold an American army cot and wedge it between the Vespa and the dining table. He turns on two oscillating fans, one for each of us.
Mosquitoes,
he explains. I fall onto my cot dead with exhaustion, feeling like a side of meat protected from flies by the whirling fan.
In the morning, Viet, Hung, Khuong, and I go out for breakfast. We walk down the street past scores of diminutive eateries. The neighborhood food scene is the Vietnamese version of the Paris café-bistro life, discounted by a factor of twenty. The streets are twenty times dirtier, and much more crowded and loud. Old women sell food out of baskets. Knuckling their eyes, schoolchildren in white-and-blue uniforms jostle each other, crowding around the women to buy sweet rice, banana rice cakes, fried bread, baked goods, and rice porridge. We take one of the rusted tables lining an alley. A young boy immediately delivers three steaming bowls of beef noodle soup, each starring a six-inch section of ox tail. A rag of a mutt roots around under the tables for bones.
After the hour-long breakfast, we take my bike out to a major “auto shop,” a ten-by-fifteen-foot storefront where a dozen mechanics tinker with bicycles and motorbikes. The vehicles are fixed right on the curb by grease-blackened men and boys who work with shoddy hand tools. The cement is runny with oil.
The bike needs a major tune-up after my one thousand miles in Japan, and I'm not up to it. The airport baggage handlers have damaged the rims beyond my ability to true them. The broken brake isn't working properly either, no matter how much I fiddle with it. Then there is the puncture in my “puncture-proof” tire. I carry three types
of repair patches and try all of them, but Saigon's humidity foils every one.
The bike guru is a shirtless little Vietnamese, a five-foot-one, silverhaired grandfather. Since he is the shop's revered expert with the most seniority, the other mechanics defer to him the honor of working on my foreign bicycle. He spends a full five minutes marveling at my clunker, going over everything from the quick-release hubs to the grip-shifters to the cleat pedals. When he gets to work, he is amazingly fast. Somehow with a couple of wrenches, pliers, and a hot-patch press, he perfectly trues the wheel, fixes the brake, and gets the bike to purr like a kitten in twenty minutes.
He seems so enamored with the bike that I suggest he give it a test ride. At first he declines, claiming it is too big for him. I insist, and he capitulates with a childlike grin and leaps on it. How he manages to find the little pedals with his rubber flip-flops I don't know, but he speeds off around the city block like a racer, whooping and dodging traffic—wild as a teenager. He returns huffing, wet with sweat, rosy with pleasure. He wants to waive the fees, but I won't let him and settle the bill: $1 U.S.
Around sunset, Viet decides it would be funny to give me a tour of the city at rush hour, when the streets are legally open for trucks and every sort of traffic. Saigon is already so crowded its streets can't handle the large trucks and commercial vehicles during the day. City ordinance requires all vehicles larger than a minivan to park in sprawling dirt lots beyond the city limits and wait until 6 p.m. before assaulting the urbanscape.
Viet laughs when I ask him for a helmet.
“People can't even afford eyeglasses. Prescription glasses! And you're talking about a helmet? A helmet costs sixty American dollars—that's twice as much as a teacher makes a month. Nobody wears them anyway. It's too hot here, and people think you're scared if you wear a helmet.”
With that, he guns the Kawasaki down the alley, narrowly missing the kids playing soccer with a tennis ball. The roads are so people-thick I can reach out and touch four other motorists at any moment. Viet works the horn, the brakes, and the gas constantly. The whole
time, all I can say is,
Oh, shit. Oh, God. Look out!
to which his reply is a published fact: head injuries resulting from traffic accidents are the number-one cause of accidental deaths in Saigon. I see no helmets and extremely few eyeglasses.
Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble. People glare at one another and fight for maneuvering space. All parties are equally determined to get the right-of-way-insist on it. They swerve away at the last possible moment, giving scant inches to spare. The victor goes forward, no time for a victory grin, already engaging in another contest of will. Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity, and surrenders.
Viet veers, a second from being broadsided by another motorist. I panic, lose balance, and wrap my arms around his torso.
Viet shouts over his shoulder, somewhat embarrassed: “
Hey! Don't worry! It happens all the time.Just stop octopusing me. It's not manly. Only women do that.”
After I reluctantly untangle my arms from around him, he says,
“Now, sit up straight. Don't slouch. And put your hands on your knees. It'll help you keep balanced. If you have to grab something, grab the seat. Just don't grab me.”
“Yeah, right.” I don't trust him and prepare to abandon ship at the first sign of an imminent hit. Twice motorbikes graze my legs. Within fifteen minutes, we see three accidents, one of which is serious, involving a cyclo and a motorcycle.
The air becomes toxic, unbreathable as all of Saigon struggles to get home from schools, market, and work, and all the commerce from the rest of the country pours into the crazed streets. In their blue-and-white uniforms, children ant out from their school, eager to go home, to play. High school girls in their impeccable white
ao dai
uniforms, as pretty and perfect as unlit candles, wiggle their bicycles through snarls of minivans, construction rigs, eight-wheeler trucks, cars, and ox-drawn wagons. Construction workers push carts loaded with bricks and sand. Peasants ride motorbikes hitched to produce
carts. Pedestrians cross the roads in clusters, holding hands and eyeing the oncoming motorists, mincing through the mad roar slowly, careful to keep their profile to a minimum.
The intersections are the worst, particularly for those who need to make a left. Traffic lights are rare. Where there is one, there is never a turn signal. When Viet wants to make a turn, he simply does it, plunges in ahead of the coming traffic, hoping that his timing is right so they don't run us over. He goes into it, blasting his horn, dodging moving obstacles as aggressively as everyone else.
At the free-for-all junctions, Viet waits until enough traffic going in our direction accumulates—this never takes more than ten or fifteen seconds—and moves forward with the flow when our team inches into the intersection. With such a large contingent, the cross traffic screeches to a halt to prevent collision. But close calls and accidents—if one can call them that—are common, so Viet instinctively worms into the center of the pack to minimize our chances of being hammered on either flank.
Do it the Vietnamese way,
he hollers at me.
Let others take the risk. Travel on their lee and let them take the hits.
It is more difficult than it sounds because everyone else uses the same principles. No one wants to get hit, but there's always a hothead who happily leads the effort.
We park the motorcycle in front of a fancy saloon. Viet hands over his motorcycle to an attendant like a cowboy handing over horse reins. He tosses the boy a dime bill and tells him to wipe down the seat. The boy mumbles,
Yes, sir,
hands Viet a numbered ticket, and walks the vehicle into the sidewalk parking lot, corralled off by ropes.
Inside the bar, Viet introduces me to his friend Binh, a successful tour operator. I flag the waiter for a round of Saigon 333 Beer, a brew waterier than Coors. We start shelling boiled peanuts and exchanging jokes.
Binh is a short, rotund man whose sun-dark face is even merrier than Viet's.
“So, Brother-friend,
” he drawls to me after the third round.
“Brother Viet tells me you're planning to ride your bicycle alone to Hanoi.”
He eyes me closely
. “True, no?”
“First, I'm going to ride out to Vung Tau and sit on the beach. Then I'll ride north to visit Phan Thiet, my hometown. From there, I'll head north on
Highway 1 all the way to Hanoi. What do you think? You're a tour guide, how's the road to Hanoi?”
“Not good. Very dangerous,”
he replies. “
You know that's seventeen hundred kilometers—over one thousand and two hundred of your American miles.”
On cue, Viet asks his friend,
“Don't you have a group bike tour coming up in a few weeks?”
“Yes, I do. Maybe, you, Brother An, should join my group. I'm organizing a bike tour from Saigon to Hanoi for fifty-two foreigners. Two of them are Viet-kieu like yourself. We'll have two support buses, one in front of the bikers, one behind. We'll be staying in hotels and eating in restaurants all the way up there. It'll be fun and safe. Look, I'll waive my fees. You'll just pay for your own expenses.”
BOOK: Catfish and Mandala
8.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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