By the time I met Axel I was ready to be looked after by a strong man. I had been in Vietnam only a week, making my way from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south, but the country had an intensity I lacked the energy for. The streets were buzzing by 6 a.m., a zillion scooters on the move. From every doorway, women called to me, flirtatious and luring. One of them convinced me that this pair of sandals she was just dying to make for me would change my life. So I ordered a pair of sandals. When I arrived to pick them up, they weren’t ready. Later, she delivered them in the wrong colour and insisted, with a fierce coldness, on a higher price than we had agreed. This transformation – from oozing warmth to iciness– was common: having relieved you of your cash, hawkers suddenly wanted nothing to do with you, as though the two of you had engaged in some degrading sexual practice that served only to remind them of their worst selves.
I was tired, too, of my fellow tourists – plump-faced twenty-somethings from America and Australia, suntanned and overly bangled, who presented an unfortunate blend of naïveté and woolly Western guilt. One exception to this was a middle-aged guy called Jeff, a genuine searcher who lived in a treehouse in Fiji and looked like a slightly healthier version of Jerry Springer. Be here now, he told me; it was just what I needed to hear. On the back of a motorbike travelling the 150 kilometres from Hué to Da Nang, the day before I met Axel, I actually managed it. The driver of the motorbike was Tu’u, a waiter I had met while having dinner at the cafeteria where he worked. He ran tours on the side. Tu’u was sweet-natured and soft-spoken, though when he came to pick me up the next morning he looked, leaning against his motorbike, like many young Vietnamesemen – like a character in a film in which violence was casually perpetrated and everybody was hard as nails and smoked without cease.
The trip to Da Nang brought us along the twisting mountain road known as the Hai Van Pass, about 500 metres above sea level on the national north–south highway. To the west of the pass were thick forests. To the east there were sheer drops to the sea and, occasionally, glimpses of white deserted beaches. We moved through banks of mist, and the mist itself moved. I had expected nothing in particular of the ride to Da Nang, and so was surprised, on the pass, to find myself in the midst of one of the most beautiful days of my life.
We hit Da Nang at rush hour. The sun was beginning to go down. Every inch of the long main drag through the city was occupied by bicycles and motorbikes moving smoothly en masse, and everyone, as usual, looked smashing. The women wore full-length gloves, all kinds of hats and high-heeled pointed shoes. Their stylish kerchiefs, tied over their faces to block the fumes so that only the eyes were visible, made them look like dangerous women in a James Bond film. I kept my hands hooked loosely around Tu’u’s waist and wished the road was longer than it was.
The dream ended abruptly. We turned off onto a secondary road and the traffic became stop-start and the dust was getting kicked up and I got a speck of something in my eye that I wouldn’t be able to get out for hours. The motoring armies lost their mesmeric quality and grew tedious and aggressive. We jostled for space on the badly potholed road.
The following morning, I boarded the plane for Pleiku.
There are a few laws that operate in my life, to trivial but instructive effect. I didn’t devise them, I just began to notice them in operation. One of them says that in a group of strangers, the person I most readily dismiss is the very person who will come to my rescue. Axel was the only other westerner on the flight. He was tall and lean and German, and I had dismissed him on the basis of his middle-aged ponytail. As we drifted out of the airport lobby, he took up his position on the kerb, briefcase and mobile to hand, and lit a cigarette. I don’t know why – he didn’t look like someone on the Lonely Planet loop – but I asked him if he was heading to Kon Tum, and if so did he want to share a taxi.
I was going to Kon Tum to see the hill tribes: ‘Montagnard-watching’, it’s called. The busiest Montagnard-watching spot in Vietnam is Sapa, in the northwest, where some tribes still dress in traditional clothing and practise old rituals – though the reasons for doing have long been blurred by the financial incentives connected with tourism. According to Lonely Planet, Kon Tum was largely unspoiled compared to Sapa. I had skipped Sapa, and my only experience so far of a ‘minority village’ had been accidental. On a bus tour I’d taken of the DMZ, our guide, with no explanation, had dumped us for ten minutes in a cluster of huts. Drifting among them were children in rags holding puppies. Except for a couple of wizened and rather menacing old women smoking pipes, none of the adults came out of their huts. It had been an excruciating few minutes, not so much because of their living conditions but because of the perfunctory way that we had been deposited there to observe them.
Axel wasn’t going to Kon Tum. He was waiting for his driver. They could give me a lift into Pleiku, where I might catch a bus or hire a taxi. ‘But Kon Tum is awful,’ he said. ‘It’s dirty. There is nothing in Kon Tum.’
I mumbled something about hill tribes and Axel waved his hand in dismissal.
‘Come to Quy Nhon with us,’ he said. ‘There are great beaches there. And there are no tourists.’
Though I really did want to see the communal rong houses – long thatched-roof structures on stilts – it was actually a relief to be told that Kon Tum was a kip. I felt lazy. I was tired of lugging things, of arranging and haggling, of thinking up what to do next. The idea of being passive, even for a day, insulated against hawkers and driven around by someone who seemed to know exactly where he was going and why, appealed to me. In order to justify my laziness, I told myself that Kon Tum would probably just be a variation on the DMZ detour. I ditched my plan and hopped into the van with Axel and the two Vietnamese men who had arrived to collect him.
As we settled in the back of the rather nice van, Axel said, ‘We have to make one stop on the way. I have a basalt quarry near Quy Nhon.’
I smiled. ‘Great,’ I said. ‘I’ve never been to a basalt quarry.’
Axel was a Master of the Universe. Masters of the Universe never say things like: I dunno, what do you want to do? They trust their instincts and they act. They say, Of course, it’s up to you, and then expect you’ll be as decisive as they are, or at least recognize immediately the wisdom of their decisions. They like to have people around them, because it’s no good being a Master of the Universe if no one sees you being one. I became, briefly, Axel’s entourage.
I am not a Master of the Universe, but I trust my instincts when it comes to who I get into a car with, and as we pulled out of the airport parking lot I had only a moment’s flash of worry that I was setting off with three strange men. I trusted Axel.
We stopped for coffee in a café just outside Pleiku and sat at a table with a laminated top featuring a group shot of Boyzone. Axel pulled out a packet of Drum and started rolling a cigarette. I shuddered. I swallowed. I wanted to rub myself, cat-like, up against him.
Having mistakenly assumed I would be able to buy loose tobacco in Vietnam, I hadn’t brought enough for the two weeks. My stash would be exhausted in two days. I was not a heavy smoker, I smoked only a few after dinner, but to those few I was profoundly addicted. As I disliked the taste of factory-made cigarettes, I saw only craving and unhappiness on the horizon.
Had I only known that Axel was in my future! A chain smoker of both Drum and Marlboro. I traced an outline of a Boyzone’s head with my fingertip and told him how I loved tobacco, and how low my supply was getting.
He said, ‘Oh, I have plenty of tobacco.’
Of course you do, I wanted to say.
The one you dismiss is the one who will come to your rescue.
‘I will give you some,’ he said with a shrug.
Quy Nhon was about 180 kilometres from Pleiku. Because we had to reach the basalt quarry before dark, or simply because our driver was Vietnamese, we were hurtling down the road at absurdly high speed, careening through traffic as though in a video game. Appealing to Axel’s masculinity, I indicated my terror. Though he was clearly a man who wanted to get where he was going, what he liked more was to call the shots, to be the one in a position to offer protection. He smiled indulgently and told his driver to slow down.
The quarry, with its toppled columns of basalt, looked like a Roman ruin. People in Europe and the US – none that I knew, but this was what Axel told me – put basalt columns in their gardens as decorative features. I walked around for a few minutes with Axel, scrambling over the piles of columns, then retired to the ‘security’ house at the quarry entrance while Axel attended to business. The woman minding the house – attired, even in this dusty outpost, in the usual matching pretty slacks and pyjama-like top – sat me down on her bed and told me in her limited English that she had once loved an American GI but then she’d married someone else and the GI had gone home. She was the fourth elderly Vietnamese woman to tell me she’d loved a GI. An elegant woman on a tiny stool on a bridge in Hué, wearing pearls and smoking a cigarette, had said of her wartime lover: ‘He had wife and babies. He say come. I say no. I don’t like one husband, two wives.’
I needed the bathroom. I found ‘toilet’ in my dictionary but my pronunciation was way off. The woman just looked puzzled. So I squatted slightly and said ‘sssttsssttss’, which not only worked but made her laugh and clap her hands with delight.
Before we left the quarry, we had to pay a visit to the house of a Bahnar man – one of the ethnic minorities of the region. There were two young men sitting on the porch and another, older man inside. The older man invited us to have tea with him. If I understood correctly, the government of the province had paid him for his land so that it could be rented to Axel for thirty years. Axel then had to pay the same man in order to have his quarry on the land the government had paid him to release. With this money, the man had outfitted his home – little more than a lean-to – with a very sleek Sony TV and stereo, encased in a large, hideous cabinet that covered an entire wall. Speakers perched on top reached the ceiling. Axel shot me a look. Clearly, the incongruity of house and entertainment system appealed to his sense of irony.
As the four of us sat ‘drinking’ tea (‘don’t drink it,’ Axel whispered to me, ‘just touch it to your lips’), I noticed that Axel’s foreman had an ant crawling on his shoulder. I flicked it off with my finger, prompting Axel to whisper to me again: ‘Never touch a man in Vietnam. If you touch him, he goes down in the other men’s esteem.’ I wanted to burst out laughing. I wanted to run my hands all over the foreman, who, I noticed, had not thanked me for flicking the ant off, or even looked at me in acknowledgement.
As we were leaving, having all smiled much and nodded more, I heard the young men on the porch saying, ‘Good-bye-eye…thang ghu berry much,’ and giggling at our retreating backs. Axel gave me a sidelong glance. It was all a game. The old man had to be humoured, with visits and smiles and fake tea-drinking. But in turn the old man had to humour Axel. For without Axel, there would be no home entertainment system. We had dinner at a fish place Axel knew. At the table, the foreman dished out for Axel and me but not for the driver. The driver had a lower position and therefore had to serve himself. Aside from the moment I’d first stepped into the van, neither the driver nor the foreman had addressed me directly or even acknowledged my presence. When I remarked on my seeming invisibility to Axel, as we were leaving the restaurant, he told me in a whisper: ‘Women are nothing in Vietnam.’ Though he clearly did not share this conviction, I couldn’t help feeling that a tiny part of him took pleasure in telling me.
They dropped me at Barbara’s Backpackers, a hostel just across from the beach. I turned to thank Axel. He shook my hand. For the last hour, I had been thinking of nothing but the Drum, which Axel hadn’t mentioned since our first exchange about it. Like a snivelling addict, I fidgeted where I stood and could barely look him in eye. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry to ask you this after you’ve been so generous, but, um, would you mind … you know … the tobacco …?’
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I didn’t forget.’
He fished two 25g packets out of his bag. As Axel and I had agreed to meet for an early coffee before he headed back to the airport two days hence, I said, ‘I’ll replace them with Marlboros. I’m going to buy you some Marlboros.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ he said, and gave me one of his hand-waves of dismissal.
There was a leper colony in Qui Hoa, listed in Lonely Planet as ‘a tourist attraction’, and the following day I cycled there. On the way, I stopped at a roadside café, high on a bluff, with a panoramic view over the sea. One of the mysteries of Vietnamese capitalism was that if you were walking down the street, minding your own business, you would be accosted a hundred times over by people trying to sell you things, but if you walked into a place that existed for the purpose of selling food and drink you might be gazed at with apparent bewilderment or just ignored. In that near-empty café, three people who were obviously employees ignored me. Finally, another customer, a Vietnamese man, turned to me and said, ‘You want something?’
I said that I wanted something to drink. He translated to the bartender, then asked me where I was from.
‘US,’ I said.
‘Ahh.’ He smiled, and pulled an American passport out of his back pocket. His name was Tom. I got my Coke and he followed me over to the lookout point. He told me he had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, and after the war he had been imprisoned in a re-education camp for six years. Like millions of others, he eventually fled Vietnam, going to Thailand by boat and then on to the US. He lived in Houston now, and had eight kids. He had voted for George Bush. When I asked why, he grinned and did a quick flex and said, ‘He strong.’ People outside of the US tend to think that Republicans are all rednecks who’ve never set foot outside of the country. Meeting people like Tom always makes me feel a little better about being American. We are not uniquely stupid. No. Our country is a great melting pot of stupidity.
He showed me a picture of his girlfriend, who looked as though she might be his girlfriend just for this trip, and gave me his number in Saigon, urging me to look him up. Before I left, he showed me a wad of dollars. He grinned happily and said, ‘You can get anything you want in Vietnam now.’
The Qui Hoa Leper Colony was a tidy mini-village, pretty and peaceful, on the seafront at the bottom of a steep hill. Patients lived there with their families in neat little houses. Some of them fished or worked in the rice fields or in craft shops nearby. You had to buy a ticket at the bottom of the hill – whether for access to the beach or to the lepers, it wasn’t clear. On my bike I did loops through the laneways, hoping to catch sight of a leper. This was the first time I had really thought about the word ‘leper’ as anything other than a metaphor. On my final loop around the village, a man emerged from a knot of men I’d passed earlier and called out, ‘Stop! What are you doing?’
The only reason anyone in Vietnam had ever called out ‘Stop!’ to me was for money and so I thought he was going to try to sell me another ticket – I’d had to buy two already. But he started asking me questions instead.
‘Where are you from?’
‘How many children?’
‘Are you here alone?’
His hands were obviously deformed but, to the untrained eye, the cause would not have been apparent. People with leprosy look not so much as though they have lost fingers or parts of hands (in the way of someone who has suffered an industrial accident) but as though their fingers and hands are retracting into their arms. I looked at what was left of his hands and thought of one of those films showing nature in time lapse – buds sprouting in seconds, and then the process seen in reverse.
As we chatted amiably under the palm trees, I began to wonder if he did want money from me. The lepers – quite rightly – must regard themselves as the draw here and so perhaps expected tips. But no. It didn’t seem so. All he wanted was to chat.
I stopped in Quy Nhon late that afternoon to buy four packs of cigarettes for Axel. The shop, which was attached to a family home, had only one pack of Marlboro in stock, but a young man told me to wait five minutes while he got more. He darted out the door and a young woman who looked like his sister glided out from behind the counter.
‘Please,’ she said, pulling back a curtain and gesturing to me, quite formally, to enter the family’s inner room. ‘We invite you to watch television with us.’ There were three family members inside – her mother, a sister close to her age and a brother who looked about four. The boy was wearing sparkly toenail varnish – not unusual among boys of all ages in Vietnam. After a few minutes of smiling and nodding and my answering the usual questions of age, number of children and travelling companion, they offered me a glass of water. I thanked them profusely. People kept doing this, giving me glasses of water, and in the heat there was seldom anything I desired more. But of course I couldn’t drink the tap water. It was like what happened in a bad dream. It was a metaphor for something. Hell, presumably. I fell back on Axel’s method of fake-sipping until the cigarettes arrived. As I stood to go, the young woman said, ‘I am very happy to meet you.’ Her little brother added, enunciating with similar care: ‘Can I help you?’
I stepped outside and a man reclining on a cyclo beckoned lazily to me and let fly a gob of spit in the opposite direction. Everywhere in the world, I thought, people are doing two things: smoking and watching television. And somewhere, a man is spitting.
The thing about Axel was this: apart from our initial exchange of particulars, he had never once asked me a single question, either about myself or about what I thought of anything. I did all the asking, but I couldn’t get an easy fix on him. He seemed part rapacious capitalist, part humanitarian. His dealings with the Vietnamese were tinged with an imperialist air. But he was benevolent, too. He and his wife had adopted two orphaned boys from Thailand, through a charity they supported. At one point on our way to the basalt quarry we had to detour through a town so that Axel could check on a girl whose coffee shop had been vandalized and who he had helped out with money.
After a while I began to resent the fact that if I stopped asking questions, the conversation died. I resented Axel’s apparent assumption that there was nothing about me worth knowing. (Perhaps I was the egoist: there I was, with a free lift and a future full of Drum, no strings attached, and I required, on top of it all, that my benefactor find me interesting.) If I ventured an opinion, Axel responded graciously, and so for a while I tried to expostulate, to opine, to explicate and observe; but the harder I tried to avoid asking a direct question, the more self-conscious I became.
Finally I just gave up and looked out the window. The silence, to my surprise, proved companionable. I gazed at the fields and the rice paddies and the occasional bits of litter flying past. The usual figures dotted the road – people pedalling bushels of vegetables or bundles of sticks, herding oxen, walking, walking. Despite the waning hour and the gruelling toil behind them, they did not appear exhausted. In a world of increasingly fat people, the Vietnamese are lithe and nimble. They layer loose clothing to great effect. Farming the rice paddies where bomb craters are still visible, they look like they’re in a photo shoot for Benetton. One morning at about 6 a.m., a bus I was on stopped for fuel. On the open patch of tarmac, a young couple played a spirited and graceful game of badminton. Suddenly, as though someone in a remote location had pressed a button, they stopped playing, hopped on the boy’s scooter and zoomed away.
But my thoughts soon returned to Axel, and to Axel’s thoughts about my thoughts. I wondered if he’d laugh if he knew the extent to which I was deconstructing him. Maybe not. Maybe men like Axel viewed such attention as their due. Maybe Axel was simply leaving me in peace to get on with the business of thinking about him, of witnessing his life. The wads of cash he counted in the back of the van and the hushed discussion on the mobile about bribing customs guys at the port. His knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine and customs. The cool apartment he kept in Quy Nhon. And, finally, to my surprise and relief, the phone calls he made to his wife and adopted sons back in Germany.
That was Axel. I kept waiting for the catch, but it never came. Even in Quy Nhon, when we got to his apartment before he took me to dinner and he asked me if I wanted to have a shower, I had not the slightest feeling that he was hitting on me. It wasn’t ego that fuelled my disbelief so much as experience. Middle-aged men usually didn’t give tours to footloose younger women unless they thought there was a possibility of sexual adventure. But the closest Axel came to getting sexual was showing me his fabulously phallic basalt columns.
Perhaps I was a trophy for Axel, but in a chaste sort of way, a way that raised his standing with his Vietnamese employees. My presence offered him another opportunity to demonstrate both his power – he had the money to buy a van and employ a driver and thus render himself impressive enough to be trusted by a strange woman – and the fact that he didn’t trade cheaply on that power.
When we met for our farewell coffee, I handed him the four packs of Marlboros. He laughed and thanked me and managed not to be patronizing about my insistence on this trivial paying of my debt. He knew that I knew that it was totally unnecessary, and thus he could afford to find it charming. We sat there as the sun rose over the South China Sea and I felt for a moment that I knew him much better than I really did and a tenderness welled up in me that took me by surprise.
‘Where will you go now?’ he asked. He said it with a kind of solemnity, as though we had been through some Homeric ordeal that had tested our mettle and left us with a deep and mutual respect. Now we had reached the final act, it was time for us to go our separate ways.
‘Mui Ne,’ I said, sounding equally cinematic. ‘I’m heading to Mui Ne.’
All through the trip, Mui Ne had been my El Dorado. Lonely Planet described it as a long and beautiful stretch of white sand with swaying palm trees, a relaxed and welcome change of pace for traffic-weary travellers. I arrived in the morning and checked in to the Red Sun Seaside Resort. The bed sheet was made of stretchy polyester. Breakfast was a demi-baguette and a triangle of Laughing Cow cheese. Laughing Cow was the breakfast food of choice in Vietnam’s backpacker hotels, and I had begun to take a perverse pleasure in it. It put me in mind of certain bodily fluids, and it half slithered, half bounced down my throat.
In my room was posted a list of house rules. They included the following:
In case, a man and a woman who want to stay together, must have a clear relationship document, if the guests haven’t got the relationship certificates, the guests must be responsible to the receptionist and the organism in charge.
If there’s a burn in the room, the guests must inform to the receptionist at once in order to stamp out the fire with the direction.
You can receive your relative at the drawing room, must not yourself take them to the room without permission of the receptionist.
In the village of Mui Ne, café after café, restaurant after restaurant, stood empty, their proprietors either jumping up to apply the hard sell or sashaying shyly towards the road, gesturing at the menu board: Good eve-en-ning… Some of them, too disheartened to attempt either of those strategies, watched you with dead eyes as you passed. The hotels looked empty too, the grounds silent.
One night I wandered into the Mai Khanh Chez Nina Restaurant for dinner. A young woman – maybe fourteen or fifteen – served me. There was something almost hysterical in her attempt to be charming. Something Judy Garland about her.
As I was leaving she cried, ‘Zee ya later, alligator!’
I smiled. ‘See ya later,’ I said.
‘Nightie-night!’ she cried. ‘Zleep tight! Don let za bed bugs bite!’
By the time I got to Saigon, I was tired of the battle being waged between the Vietnamese and the westerners on their soil (the first time tragedy, the second time farce). I was tired of the false intimacy –
For you, 30,000 …
Nice room for you …
That. Very expensive for you … but thiiiis …
– and of being spoken to in the imperative –
You! Stop! Come here!
You come into my shop!
You buy something!
– everybody pointing at the same four items on their roadside carts: bottles of water, Pringles, cigarettes, M&Ms. Once, when I didn’t need any of the above, I obeyed, just for the hell of it. ‘Okay,’ I said, and walked over to the cart. ‘What do you want me to buy?’
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 38 Spring 2010