On the Banks of the Perfume River

by Ian C Douglas

A traveler in Vietnam meets two locals whose lives reflect the ongoing consequences of the Vietnam War. This story was chosen as a runner-up of the Wrong Turns travel writing competition.

Hue, December 2nd 1993.

The day comes early in Vietnam. A tropical dawn flared outside my guest villa, as if at the throw of a switch. I threw back the shutters. Outside, a sea of terracotta roof tiles glistened in fierce sunlight. The alleyways were still under darkness. But as I watched, their shadows evaporated like puddles. Incense snaked up from the pavement. Unseen cockerels crowed. And somewhere, lemongrass was simmering. A sensory call to action and my stomach answered that call with enthusiasm.

I headed for the Station Square Café, a collection of tables and chairs out on the cobbles. Keen to see Po again. He’d found me the day before, stumbling off the Nha Trang Express, Lonely Planet in hand, scratching my head. Lost. He’d taken me under his wing, fed me, and guided me to the cheapest digs in town.

But he wasn’t there today. Instead, his auntie took care of me.

“Where’s Po?” I asked. She smiled and shrugged. 

Auntie spoke no anh, that is, no English. An ideal quality in a breakfast chef. And I must say that her soup, a simple bowl of noodles and fried pork, proved perfect. Then, Po emerged out of all the toots and clinks of the rush-hour cyclists. Skinny as a needle, big dark eyes, smile as bright as a camera flash.

“We drink coffee together,” he said in fluent English.

Auntie rustled up two cups of black Robusta, the national brew, twice as caffeinated as its western counterpart. She dropped in huge dollops of condensed milk, which vanished mysteriously.

“Stir,” Po said.

Slowly, very slowly, my teaspoon swirled up the milk, and the black lightened to brown. Po and I sipped and talked.

“My father was a doctor, a good one,” he said.

“And?” I asked, half-guessing the answer.

“He treated South Vietnamese soldiers. He was struck off for life when they came to power.” They being the winning side in the war, but you had to be careful what you said aloud on a busy Vietnamese street.

“And that means that…?”

Po smiled stoically. “I would like to study medicine. But I am banned for life.”

“Because of your father?”

He nodded.

Now I got it. Why a young man as clever as Po was reduced to the impoverished life of a noodle vendor.

“Auntie, my sister, and I, we cook. It is only job allowed. So, we work hard and be best café outside station.”

I agreed. The magic they cast with coriander, bird’s eye chili, and lime already had me under a spell.

“We Vietnamese bear the scars of the war,” Po said, his smile briefly wavering. “Some scars you see, some are hidden.”

My mind went back to the baked antheap that was Saigon, and the ex-soldiers still unemployed after nearly twenty years. Entire armies crouching along roadsides, waiting for a passing bicycle with a flat tire that they could fix for a pittance.

“You are looking sad,” Po remarked. “I recommend a visit to Plaza of the Temple of Heaven. Please, finish coffee, and I help you hire some bike.” 

With a set of wobbly wheels, I rode out along the Perfume River. Not what I was expecting. I had an image of Eau de Cologne flowing in canals. Or possibly, a stream choked with lotus blossoms. But it was neither. The Perfume River was broad and still. A looking-glass world reflecting back the parade of straw-hatted cyclists. So above, so below. Mirror images. A handy enough metaphor for the East versus West divide my culture-shocked brain was still figuring out.

The shacks and huts came to an abrupt halt. Balancing with one leg on the tarmac, one on the pedal, I studied Po’s hand-drawn map. Oops, I was lost. Had I missed the right turn? At this moment, an emaciated, mustachioed male in a Bill-and-Ben hat, bedecked with flowers, cycled up and swore allegiance. In broken English, he undertook an oath to help me on my quest. Whatever it might be.

Clearly, he was bonkers. I furiously pedaled ahead.

Later, as I sized up the enchanting Tomb of Tu Dac, boasting cement stupas and a couple of fading pagodas, he caught up with me. After many weeks in Asia, I was accustomed to children chasing me for coins. But this crazy middle-aged man freaked me out. My pleas of “no money” had no effect, as he didn’t want any. He wanted to chaperone me, whereas I desired solitude. I cycled faster. He cycled faster. And with one hand waving papers frantically. Stuff and nonsense, I assumed. This was a poor deluded soul, and I couldn’t help him.

At the Plaza of the Temple of Heaven, I gave him the slip, walking in through its dragon-encrusted arches. A good two hours of contemplative revelry, wandering the pavilions and imperial boating lakes. The sunshine was radiant and the air sticky. Cicadas chirruped their machinegun staccato invisibly from bushes. The architecture reminded me of palaces I’d visited in China. Indeed, I sensed a subtle shift in influence as I traveled up the spine of Vietnam. The riotous Southeast Asian merging into the more restrained harmony of the North. I could see a Chinese heritage in each engraved roof tile and dragon balustrade. Every stone mandarin and stele seemed sculpted in sync with the contours of the land. Crescent-shaped ponds reflected back the courtyard pines and frangipani, like bejeweled mosaics. While half-naked gardeners, quietly digging away, added to the color. Their weathered skin blended with the ochres of the soil. As though the clay had come to life and was shoveling itself.

Outside, he was waiting for me. This madman. I started cycling back to Hue. But he kept pace, still waving his papers. And saying things in Vietnamese I did not understand. I was growing impatient. Why was he picking on me? Should I be rude? I braked abruptly and faced the man and summoned a string of insults to send him fleeing. He was standing so close I could smell his sweat and garlic. But, before I could speak, he thrust his papers in my hand. Forms. Documents. What was all this? Words jumped out from pages of scrawl.

It was an ODP application. The acronym stood for Orderly Departure Program, an organization created to allow safe and orderly emigration of Vietnamese. To avoid the Vietnamese Boat people putting their lives at risk at sea and causing headaches for foreign governments.

More words. Re-Education Centre. Prison camps set up after the war, infamous for brutality, indoctrination, and forced confessions.

Another word. Torture. This dotty man before me was a torture victim. The document listed details of the crimes perpetrated against him. Details perhaps best left unsaid. 

Po’s conversation at breakfast came back to me. “We Vietnamese bear the scars of the war. Some scars you see, some are hidden.”

And then I got it.

Here was another ex-South Vietnamese soldier or sympathizer. Sent to a re-education center for the crime of being on the losing side. And pain and suffering had driven him mad. His dottiness was really some kind of burnt-out psychological trauma. Guilt smacked me in the face. This poor man just wanted some validation from a westerner. After all, wasn’t he incarcerated for the sake of westerners? So, I read his documents dutifully. Gave him a thumbs up. Learned how he hoped to move, like so many, to the United States. Silently, I wondered whether he would ever be so lucky.

Somewhat chastened, I pushed off. He waved after me, and in a triumphant tone cried, “America will come back. But slowly.”

On the ride back to my villa, I mulled over his words. Did he mean America or capitalism? Or just democracy? And would any of those things do him good? An iced Coke and a hamburger seem scant recompense for years of imprisonment and abuse.

At least he’d taught me something. To be sympathetic to strangers in a strange land. I must tread carefully where I know nothing of local dynamics.

And I pedaled on, already looking forward to dinner at Po’s pavement café. 

Cover photo credit

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