Last night in Vietnam, just as I was deciding I would never return to this hellhole, I was invited to a Bui Vien Street birthday party for two friends of, none other than, Vy.
It was the day before that final night, though, that things became truly revealing.
There I am, strolling, slowly, proudly, confidently, down the footpath of the narrow avenue that joins the main Bui Vien Street and my favoured ‘back way’ home – for those instances where I’d rather avoid the clamour of Bui Vien the second time around – watching three small motorcycles execute unwieldly U-turns before again coming at me, this time, from the front.
Although I avoided eye contact with any of the four incoming youths, with my peripherals I could see, and with my being I could feel, all their eyes upon me. From around ten metres out I detected the revs dropping of the salient scooter; as he coasts to a stop I neither engage his eyes nor alter my pace. Suddenly brakes are squeaking as he tries to pull up before I go past. The two trailing bikes are forced to abruptly halt also, as it becomes clear that no one in Vietnam is proficient at maintaining their motorcycle braking systems. “Hey, hey!” the leading rider attempts to stop me.
I honestly don’t know what he expects from me; he and his trio of scooter-bandits have basically just ‘attacked’ me from behind and now he wants me to stop – for what – a chat…?
“Hey, you,” the leading rider has kicked down the stand and is now clambering from his bike.
Deciding I’m not in any immediate danger from the scrawny youth, I stop, turn, clench my teeth, tilt my head, elevate my jaw, and literally stare down my nose at the little punk.
He steps forward, having pulled off his helmet, chest now all puffed up, seemingly trying to staunch me out, exuding around ten times the level of machismo than is warranted by a man of his stature.
Over the following moments I observe as his confidence steadily dissipates, his initial belligerence going with it.
“Heh,” he now utters with attempted gruffness, in a peculiar burst of air, as though trying to remove a lump of phlegm from his throat.
“Sin chow…?” I reply slowly, almost comically, appreciating the irony.
We lock stares for some time longer before he finally speaks. “You … You sleep with my sister…?” he says with uncertainty, as though he isn’t sure if he has the words right.
I look deeply into his eyes and see a scared little boy just trying to look out for his big sister; admittedly, I admire him for it. “Noobie,” I eventually say, nodding.
“You gon marry her?” he demands, his confidence returned.
I step forward, he shuffles back; I notice that his buddies have stayed seated on their bikes throughout our discussion, which surprises me. I continue staring into his deep, soulless eyes. “Honestly, yes, I would like to … I would very much like to marry your sister…”
A glimmer of a smile appears on the face of the youth.
“…But the thing is, I don’t think she likes me – anymore.”
“You sleep my sister, you need marry her,” his response is immediate. “She Buddhist, you know.”
“I know she is,” I reply, feeling strangely bashful. “Your sister is a good person, I like her a lot.”
He smiles now, openly, fully, as though he has made a friend for life. “So you marry my sister, when?”
I attempt to soften my expression and shake my head slightly, “I’m sorry, Noobie doesn’t want to marry me … You should speak to your sister – ask her – she doesn’t want my love.”
The poor lad looked as though he was going to cry; truly I had to admire that kind of brotherly adoration for an elder sister, and in fact I almost asked him – ‘Say, do you carry on like this every time a tourist or other White man becomes besotted with your sister and takes her to bed, because, my God, it must happen a terrible lot?’ – but decided to leave it on a tasteful note. “I’m sorry,” I said, and offered my hand.
He took it, gave it a limp embrace; then I turned and walked sedately home (what the hell? One month in this place and I’m already referring to my hotel on Bui Vien as ‘home’…?).
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by D Fee Ted
Photography by Tia Rust