Delightful Local Lover (2/2) – Phuong in South Vietnam
Phuong was my first Vietnamese lover. The daughter of a Saigon intellectual who had taught saxophone, English and French and supported the Americans "before 75", the new authorities after 75 forced her family to settle in a drab Mekong delta village.
Phuong had a bunch of six or eight elder brothers and sisters. Of them, she was the only one to fully grow up after the "American War" and the ensuing hardship years. In her forming years, Phuong luckily experienced the first glimpses of doi moi, the liberalisation and economical take-off from the mid-nineties on. So while all of Phuong's brothers and sisters were rice farmers, noodle cooks or sweat shop workers, Phuong went to college: English was allowed again, and she learnt to be an English teacher. When we met, Phuong still went to college and just had a three month internship at the local primary school.
I stayed in Sa Dec, the sleepy riverside provincial capital in Southern Vietnam, in the rotten best hotel in town, but not for the Margerite Duras feeling. One late afternoon I had settled in an open-air coffee shop next to the road. I opened the Lonely Planet guide book to look for Thai’s Saigon phone number. My return flight was about a week from then, but I wanted to go out even earlier because I'd gotten tired of it all (I had overlanded all the way from Bangkok, with lengthy stays in Cambodia and Southern Vietnam).
I heard a school bell. OMG, I thought, now 1000 uniformed school kids will descend on me – the kids' "HELLO MISTAAAH" can wreak your nerves, and in this town I sure was exotic. Just a reason more to fly out early. Why didn't I check for schools before settling in that coffee shop? And I had just ordered another hot black Vietnam style coffee, those with the filter right on the glass.
Funnily enough, almost no kids passed the coffee shop, but a few lady teachers in their lovely silken white Ao Dais did. One attractive young lady was walking her simple 24" bicycle and stood there in my view for quite a while, looking back all the time, maybe waiting for a colleague, until she moved on and I turned back to the guide book.
That was Phuong. And when I looked up from the guide book a little later – the THAI phone number now written on a paper in my wallet – Phuong suddenly sat one table further upriver from me. As soon as our eyes met she smiled and asked "Why do you travel alone?" Then, "don't you have a family, a wife?"
"Please join my table", I said and ordered iced coffee with sweet milk for her. Such a good English in Sa Dec!
We hit it off immediately and I invited her for dinner. She said "I think I can come; if not, I'll call your hotel and leave a note." Then she left the coffee shop and said that before our dinner she had things to do, like prepare the lessons for tomorrow. A little later I paid and left the premises.
I walked to the post office and called THAI. When I came out of my phone cubicle, who was there – Phuong, leaving another booth.
"Hi, what have you been doing", she smiled.
"Oh, I just called my airline." I didn't say that now I had *extended* my stay for another week. "And you?"
"I called my father in the village. And yes", she said, "We can meet tonight".
"Oh, you asked your father if we can meet?"
"Yes, and he said we could make friends, no problem. See you later, I have to go!"
Our meeting point for dinner was at the coffee shop.
"So, please show me a nice restaurant you always wanted to visit", I said, "I am glad to meet you and I will be happy to pick up the bill." Great to know that she easily understood all English.
"Oh… hmm… I don't know… we always cook at home…"
She really had no idea where to go, and I had left the guidebook in the rotten best hotel in town. So we wandered to the main square and finally, at a noisy tiled food garage, she thought "Here it looks good".
Half of Phuong's time at the teachers' college was wasted with red-tinted "social studies"; of that she told me only later, so much did it embarrass her. But the English lessons were no wasted time: her English sounded a bit flowery and old fashioned, but correct, clear and rich.
She stayed in a boarding home, sharing a room with three other female students. She was basically free in the late afternoons, on Saturdays a few hours earlier. On Sundays she often was completely free, if she did not work on her thesis or had to prepare lessons. We'd meet most late afternoons and Sundays. On Sundays other friends of hers would join us on boat trips and picnic outings. Everybody considered us a couple – everybody except me.
I had thought all Viet gals want glitzy boulevards and cute shopping malls. Not so Phuong. She had organized another wobbly Chinese 24" lady's bicycle for me and we both cycled happily into rural, riverine Mekong delta Vietnam, often returning after dark, bouncing over poorly lit district roads with only a few potholes.
One afternoon we started a cycle trip to the countryside, but on the outskirts of town I thought I needed a bit more air in the back tyre.
"Could we buy an air-pump", I asked her?
I pointed at the rear tyre, where air pressure was low.
"Wait a moment!"
Soon we stopped at a garage and she ordered a tiny oily guy to pump up the tyre. Paid a few Dongs and on we went.
After ten kilometres along stunning canals and red clay roads lined with palm trees we stopped at a noodle stall for a snack, next to a rice field.
Phuong was proud of her Southern Vietnam heritage – food, language and the anti-communist stance. She even tried to teach me Vietnamese there in the noodle shack.
"Uh, those rising and falling tones are even more difficult than in Thailand", I complained.
"No! Just speak this, you have to learn it: 'Anh yeu em.'"
"Before I speak – what does it mean?"
"It means 'I love you' with the boy speaking to a girl. Say 'Anh yeu em'!"
"Oh, why do you teach this? Better tell me how to order lemon juice without a ton of sugar!"
"No, you'll need this sentence when you meet a lovely Viet lady! Say 'Anh yeu em'."
"Hm, ok, Phuong – will you be my translator when I need it? I won't remember this sentence for long. But IF I meet a Viet lady I love, I'll ask you to translate 'I love you' for me, ok?"
"I don't want to be the *translator*", she moaned in low voice. To break the mood I quickly asked about where and what to have for dinner.
Much more than noisy Saigon or the grubby provincial capital we both liked quiet, natural, serene places – just like those palm tree ringed rice fields we visited. To be enjoyed in a quiet mood of togetherness.
When we'd settled at another noodle stall next to a rice field and swaying palm trees, Phuong looked dreamily around. "I grew up like that", she said, "on the countryside. We'd play in the rice field all the time, mother watched from the front yard or the cooking shack. I wasn't even scared of worms back then."
"It's lovely", I said. She may have sensed that I was a dedicated village boy.
"Yes, and my dream is a happy family home in such a setting – near the fields, where I could see our kids playing from the house."
I wanted to see her face, but not possible: She had one of those hats local ladies use to prevent a tan, and her eyes were shaded by the hat. Her head was slightly leaning to the side.
"Where could your 'happy family home' be", I asked cautiously in the direction of her shaded eyes? "In Vietnam – or in the west?"
"Oh, that's not important. I'll love my man and I can stay anywhere!"
Castles in the air? Don McLean came to my mind, and I sang pianissimo:
In the fields, away from city strife
I need a country woman for my wife
I'm city born, but I love the country life…
And Phuong, I don't know why, she knew a pop song for every situation, she whispered back a Richard Marx tune:
Day after day…
Wherever you go, whatever you do
I'll be right here waiting for you…
We sing what cannot be spoken. Nothing was the same after that exchange. I went through a violent silent rush of 'Anh yeu em'/marriage proposal/family plan and had to swallow madly. Finally I managed to break the mood by asking where and what to have for dinner.
It was obvious that slim, pretty Phuong, 24, had never had a boyfriend. And her first boyfriend would be her future husband. Forever. Period.
"Our culture is very clear about this", Phuong informed me proudly over a coconut we shared in one of those incredible fruit garden – coffee shops an outsider would never find. We took a picture there because it was the quintessential tropical dream: hammock, palm tree, coconut, cuppa coffee, Phuong, I.
"No man can touch me before I have a promise."
So our relationship remained strictly platonic, until for one time in the coffee shop when I couldn't help touching her flowing hair (a gesture she actually supported by leaning her head in the direction of my hand, and a moment I'll never forget).
I remembered our encounter in the telephone office. "According to your culture, you also have to phone up your father to ask if you may come to my dinner invitation?"
(Only much later I learnt of another aspect: They believed her father was still under police scrutiny, so western family contacts might worsen his position.)
Our wonderful time, Phuong's and my time in lush green Mekong delta Vietnam, was to end. My last night was in Saigon before an early morning flight out of Than Son Nhat airport.
"I can bring you to the airport", Phuong had said, "if you want…"
She might still harbour doubts that I had another gal in the southern capital. I don't like humid airport goodbyes, but I also wanted to show Phuong that I was there for her all the way to departure gate. So for the last Viet night I booked a hotel room in Saigon for me and another one for her, next door.
On my – on our – last Viet afternoon, we took a rambling bus with no window glasses back to the city strife and checked into the hotel. Obviously Phuong had never been to a western style hotel, so I explained air-con, keycard, hot water and breakfast coupon to her. After showers in our respective rooms – actually Phuong's first hot shower in her life – we stepped onto the boulevard.
At that time I was still on film. Sa Dec had had no trustworthy lab, so I now brought my Fuji films to an express lab in Saigon, because developing and printing were so much cheaper than in my country. We also went to Benh Tanh market where I bought basketry, palmwood cooking spoons, Tanh Long (dragonfruit) and other souvenirs for friends and family back home. Then we found a food market with great curries, fresh salads and even sinh to cam, fresh orange juice, for dessert. Around 9 PM we picked up the piles of pictures from the lab and slowly walked back to the lodge, not knowing how to further extend our time together.
That was that. That was our time! Over! She and I would now go to our respective rooms and sleep until reception's wake-up call. Then a hasty breakfast and a sad trip to Than Son Nhat. Xinh chao. Our glorious weeks had come to an end, and still there was no promise and almost no touch.
We stood in front of our doors, fumbling with key cards, 5 meters apart.
"Good night, Phuong, see you tomorrow morning!"
"Don't you want to look at your pictures", she asked?
"Oh yes, I will check them now in the room. I cannot sleep anyway."
"Oh, I would like to see them too – if that's ok for you…"
She might still harbour doubts that I had another gal in those pics. And I still wanted to spend more time with her, although I already sensed things wouldn't get easier as the night grew on.
"OK, sure, let's see the pics together!"
I didn't like the noisy hotel lobby, and she didn't like the lobby either, as one receptionist was "a northerner, I can hear that from afar!"
So I suggested: "We meet in your room?"
I found it slightly obtrusive to suggest her dig, but my own room was such a mess with all my things spread around before a last packing – including souvenirs – for the long distance flight.
She had no problem with meeting at her room.
The prints were on Fuji paper and ok, but the negatives stored lousily. We kneed on the carpet floor and leafed through the sea of pictures – often showing Phuong and me next to rice fields, in noodle stalls or on the riverside. Phuong had taken her own pictures, by the way, with her old Kodak camera, and said she didn't need any prints from me.
Was there a little tension? It was the first time that we spent any time in one enclosed bedroom. But as we leafed through the pics, our fragile relationship that was about to break apart forever suddenly seemed to get something of a fundament: We had a common past we could look back onto! We could say "Remember!" There was the old and some kind of new familiarity between us.
Rambling through the pictures, kneeing on the floor, our bare arms, our legs (in jeans) would touch casually. Our hands would touch when we exchanged the prints. The contrast of her slim, sensual, delicate bronze fingers and my white fingers – still a thrill sight. Those touches had nothing erotic, nothing calculated, nothing demanding or promising about it, I felt. It was more like… brother and sister… so natural… so… self-evident like the floor we were sitting on…
Still we were even drifting closer to each other here, and that was not good, on that very last night. I did have a responsibility for Phuong's well-being beyond my take-off. I did not want to leave her burnt.
Air on fire.
One pic showed Phuong and me with a relaxed look behind an opened coconut with two straws, hammock, cuppa coffee and palmtree in the back. So tropical, so lovely!
But I remembered something else: "That's in the fruitgarden-coffeeshop where you told me that you have to ask your father for permission. Right? You asked him if we can go for dinner."
"And now, this trip to Saigon with the westerner? Did you ask your father about that?"
"I called and told him that I would visit my old school friend Miss Tai in Saigon. I need her help with my thesis."
"No, I will see her tomorrow after the airport. That's ok for papa."
"Phuong – you are 24! Do you ALWAYS listen to your father?"
"And, Phuong, just an EXAMPLE, ok, only as EXAMPLE: you want to marry a westerner you love, will you follow papa too? If he says no, you'll obey?"
Her jaw fell to the floor. She looked at me as if I had asked the stupidest question since Alexandre de Rhodes. Now here he is, said her bewildered look, Hans, a well-traveled and obviously wealthy European, asking monstrously silly questions!
"But Phuong, I mean it – what if your father says you CAN'T marry that westerner you love? Will you listen?"
She shook her head heftily. Obviously not as an answer, but because of her shock about my abysmal understanding of her Southern Vietnamese culture.
"Of course…", she said.
"Of course", she lectured in a decided, even slightly embarrassed tone, "I only listen to him if and when he's RIGHT!"
She stood up and locked the hotel room door from inside.
This is the second submission where you have talked about sharing the natural beauty of a place with another in a quiet mood of togetherness. It is interesting that one of the women was Cambodian and one Vietnamese. Thais are much more inclined to want to enjoy a noisy, crowded shopping mall. In fact the peace and serenity of the places you clearly enjoy would be most on so many of them. Thai women often abhor the idea of being outside. A date in the countryside appeals to few…something I find rather sad!