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Hangin’ With Charlie In ‘Nam

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No one goes to Tua Hai (pronounced Twee Ha). Only wandering plein air painters with too much time on their hands. I like the name. Twee Ha. It sounds like a broken whistle. Kind of like me.

I clamber aboard the northbound local train clutching my ticket for the cheapest seat possible. The agent at the Nha Trang station thinks it is hilarious. Only country bumpkins travel in that class.

Bodies squat, sprawl in the aisles, sleep under the hard wooden seats — an enterprising father has packed his kids into the overhead luggage rack. The conductor barks orders and utters threats. He is paid no heed. He redirects his umbrage at me. I can read his expression as he examines my ticket: ‘What the hell are you doing here? Sit there.’ A family of three squeeze into their allotted single seat freeing a small space for me. I squeeze in.

Everyone looks at me. I am a smiling freak show. They soon grow bored with me. My easel takes the center stage. I mime painting. The penny collectively drops; of course, he is a painter. That is why he travels in steerage class. Clickety clack. Clickety clack.

Painting by the author of the tressle mentioned in this story

Painting by the author of the trestle mentioned in this story

Tua Hai is the first stop on this line. There are few touts in Tua Hai, save for a few xe-om drivers looking to make a few extra dong. I haven’t a clue where to go. I hire an elderly fellow to take me to a good hotel. Cheap. I need cheap. ‘Okey dokey,’ he says in Vietnamese.

He delivers me to the La Giange Hotel. A good choice. It is a faded French colonial affair. My room has a balcony overlooking the street. The balcony is small and barely adequate to hang a pair of socks to dry. It is homey. I like it here.

Counted among Tua Hai’s sparse attractions is a Cham Temple high atop a hill. I do not bother with the climb. There is a bakery around the corner. This bakery is only open at night. That makes sense. Who wants to troll in the early morning hours for dinner rolls?

Tua Hai’s splendiferous attraction is the river promenade. It is lined with beer guzzling, pass the garlic prawns, open air, karaoke establishments where the men are men and the waitresses are groped and otherwise harassed. My kind of place.

I spend the afternoon painting the train trestle that spans the river. I do not know its name. The wind catches my palette and presses it against my shirt. Once a pure white, Moslem-wear, pull-over it is now extravagantly decorated with accidental smears of oil paint. A frosty beer will set things straight. I trundle forth seeking a suitable establishment in which to imbibe.

A motorbike careens out of control and skitters along the pavement. The elderly driver is thrown and tumbles skidding across asphalt. He lays sprawled and dazed. I hurry to his aid and clumsily help him to his feet. We struggle to upright his bike. A cheer erupts from the karaoke bar next to us. We are invited to join a party and small, children-size, plastic chairs are set out for us. I am being honored. I am humbled. Free beer is in the offing. I accept my frosty accolades.

A song is sung extolling my virtuous courage. It is a Vietnamese love song. Melancholic. Wanting. Melodic. Despairing. I have another beer. I am a hero.

The elderly chap whom I rescued is a former Viet Cong guerrilla. His name is Can. Forty-five years ago I would have been his enemy. Forty-five years ago I was too young to be drafted, I tell him. Today we slop back Tiger beer.

In Tua Hai Tiger beer is ordered by the case. It is expected to be drunk. No excuses. Woe to the eunuch that cannot keep pace. Sweet lord, this is a challenge. I bravely drain my share of the case — twelve large bottles. I cannot feel my eyeballs. Can readily handles his dozen casualties. More cases of beer are ordered by our cadre of inebriates and a guitar player is summoned. He is quite accomplished.

Four cases of Tiger beer are delivered. Many love songs are sung. They are beautiful and forlorn. I cannot feel my nose.

Someone collars the waitress and plops her onto my lap. ‘You boom boom!’ this someone encourages.

‘Yah! Boom boom!’ I cry. I think I cry. I cannot feel my lips.

The waitress smiles politely. No boom boom. She is an auntie. I know this intuitively. Do not ask me how. I just know. For a thirty-year something Vietnamese woman in the provinces spinsterhood is a condemnation to an unrelenting ever-ness of loneliness. It is the same everywhere, I guess. The wall that divides us is too well built.

‘You sing Hotel California.’ The microphone is pressed into my hands.

‘I do not know the lyrics,’ I protest.

‘Bullshit!’

The guitar player riffs the opening bars. I croak and squeak a line or two of made-up lyrics. ‘O Hotel California … a Motel 66 … there is a sunset … .’ I cannot sing beautiful love songs.

‘What? That is not it!’ I am found out.

‘That is how we sing it in America,’ I declare.

‘Bullshit!’ We toast my bullshit. Glasses are clinked by all and sundry. More love songs are sung. I do not understand the words. I know that they mourn for loss. Loss that was. And is.

I think about Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and Platoon. Movies that taught me that Charlies’ life has no value. Shadows in the jungle; anonymous extras on a movie set; gooks to kill. I look at Charlie sitting across from me. How do you kill someone that sings love songs?

Auntie attends to my valiantly emptied glass. She refills it to the brim and plops in some ice cubes to chill it. I have misplaced my head, it has departed from my shoulders and wandered off. Someone slips their hand up Auntie’s dress. She is embarrassed and humiliated. She has to take it. That is her job. Maybe we can kill that one. The one with the trespassing hand.

Oh joy! The heavens rejoice! Someone has fallen off their little plastic chair. He is passed out. Horizontal. Flattened. I, somehow, remain vertical. My manly virtue is assured. Brain damaged. But a man.

Can is teetering in his chair. He cannot focus his eyes. Any moment now the grizzled warrior will kiss the table. It is assured to be a lingering, sloppy kiss.

The conversation has changed. I missed its shift.

‘If you invade my country … I will kill you.’

‘Yah!’ I cry, ‘Here’s to killing!’ We toast indiscriminate killing and clumsily clink our glasses. More beer is poured … I am looking up at Auntie’s panties … a blurry galaxy of little blue flowers … I have fallen off of my little chair … I am at peace here … a laughing face blocks out the little flowers … I am fallen … vanquished by Tiger beer.

A love song is sung. It is not beautiful. It is droopy and slurred. I am pulled back up onto my child’s chair. ‘More beer! Drink!’ I am commanded.

‘I need to take a piss.’ The bathroom is far, far away. I opt for the street curb. I want to go home. Back to my hotel room. I do not know where it is.

Can wants to go home, too. He offers me a ride. I accept. Can crashes his motorbike into a clump of bushes. We will not be going home. I return to my little chair. I feel nauseous. I slowly slide off of my chair and gaze at all the stars in the universe. I prefer little blue flowers. I sleep with Charlie. On the pavement. It is nice here.

Michael Britton
April 30, 2013

Filed under: Articles, Drink Drank Drunk, Travel Stories, Vietnam

About the Author:

I like the velocity of travel — it is the constant motion, like the flitting movement of a loaded brush over canvas, where a rhythm develops and is occasionally syncopated by thwarted plans or minor disaster. It is a way of living and an exploration of the outer world and my inner landscape. There are dangers in such a way of living. Rarely are there external dangers; what is to be feared is the habit of exchanging nullity for nullity, drifting from visa to visa until either the money runs out or the earth simply swallows you. Painting and writing is the binder that holds my center together while also compelling me onward. To what end I do not know … these are voyages of discovery. The destination, if there is one, will manifest itself at some point.

has written 26 posts on Vagabond Journey.
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