Chapter 1. Welcome To Saigon
January, 1987; Birmingham, England
Standing near the edge of a steep cliff, an elderly woman spreads white ashes in the wind and watches as they fall to the ocean below. A dozen onlookers, all dressed in black, are gathered around a priest chanting prayers. Some cover their faces in tears; most look down with their hands clasped beneath their waists.
With a grimace on his face, a young man separates himself from the group. In a dark sleeveless dress, an attractive woman tucked in between the black suits watches his every step. The young man nears the green, and leans against a tree. He holds his emotions back as he wipes his tears with his sleeve.
“Stop blaming yourself! Neville’s death is not your fault, Tom,” a female voice utters from behind him.
Tom abruptly turns around. “How can I not? Neville would be alive if it weren’t for me! You’re partially responsible as well, Desiree.”
Desiree stands her ground. “I let it go already, so what do you expect me to do - carry this burden around for the rest of my life?”
With his eyes closed, Tom faces away. He takes a deep breath; the cold ocean breeze fills his lungs.
Desiree takes a cautious step closer. “We should be together and forget this whole deal. It’s not anyone’s fault.”
Tom slowly opens his eyes and faces her. A storm seems to surge behind his eyes. “I’m going on a trip for a while. Don’t ask where I’m going…or when I’ll return. I will contact you when I am ready.”
- Three months later -
April, 1987; Indian Ocean
Thomas Ryder, a young English journalist of 24, leans against the railing on the Hail Mary. The wind buffers against his six-foot frame and sends his coppered colored hair in all directions as the sun glimmers off its cropped surface.
Twelve years after its war ended, Tom and a ship full of European tourists are bound for the distant land of Vietnam. Having never traveled outside of Great Britain, Tom feels a rush of adventure course through him.
Tom chuckles to himself. Most of my colleagues would label me a as a bit of a recluse or a university library hermit, but now look at me-on board a ship and headed to Saigon!
After having gone through some magazines and newspapers at the local bookstore, Tom filled out an application for the position of English professor at a small school named Luu Elementary School. Several months later, the acceptance letter arrived. He recalls memories of joy combined with anxiety rush throughout his body as if he had won the lottery.
Saigon…what a change in direction. I know I’m doing the right thing.
Tom’s true motive for traveling to Vietnam is not pleasure or to teach English—he is on a mission. He took a job for the Alcott Journal, a small startup magazine company in Birmingham. He challenged himself to a task that none of his fellow coworkers dared to take: Tom agreed to seek and write the story of Chuyện ma, an enigmatic spirit of Vietnam.
Tom takes a break from his sea gazing and heads inside the ship and sits down at a table. From his single-strapped brown backpack, Tom pulls out the black and white sketch of Chuyện ma’s head: a creature that shares resemblances to a beast with large lower jaw fangs, eyelid-less round peeled eyes, and overly thick lips. The only piece of evidence the Alcott provided Tom with is this single sketch of what they know of Chuyện ma.
I have never seen anything like this before. My first thought when I saw this sketch was…this has to be science fiction.
According to the Alcott Journal, the Chuyện ma myth is the most well-kept secret of Vietnam—a spirit that haunts its people, a legend cautiously protected by the locals.
Limited information of the Chuyện ma legend survives to date. As a matter of fact, nobody at Alcott knows if the story of Chuyện ma is real or fiction. After extensive research, Tom came to the conclusion that the insufficient information he discovered of Vietnam leads him to believe that it is an abandoned country, isolated from the rest of the planet.
The only tales of Vietnam heard in England are those from American GIs as they recount their cruel experiences of war. Though the war ended a decade ago, the media and Jimmy Hendrix’s music lead Westerners to believe that Vietnam is a war-torn country and nothing else. Most would never dare to travel to Nam. Tom’s university peers back home warned him that his trip to Vietnam could lead to a dead end, not to mention the possibility of disappearing without a trace.
Honestly, I don’t know what to look for or where to start. Most likely I am chasing a myth.
On the other hand, if such a legend does exist, the probability of finding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow exists as well. If someone else were to get his or her hands on the story first, the opportunity of a lifetime could be lost.
About a mile away, Tom can make out green and brown land from the bow of the Hail Mary. Visible as the ship nears, distance lends enchantment to the view.
“Ah, Vietnam,” Tom sighs and then thinks, I’m just about ready to walk on land. I have formed so many expectations for the past couple weeks, I have to just approach the matter with an open mind. His stomach tightens as he then thinks, Will I be able to adapt? Perhaps I have taken on a task too large to handle from the start.
For two months of the voyage, Tom kept a 1987 calendar, which now contains 59 X-ed squares.
Thousands of questions jump around in his head. He feels his heart race as the ship comes closer to the mainland. The Hail Mary reaches the shore of Vietnam with a loud thump. Vietnam has finally arrived.
Well, the arrival sure didn’t sound easy on the ship. I wouldn’t be surprised if a section of the deck was destroyed.
Tom makes his way to the edge of the ship, and leans over the safety rails. A weakened extension of wooden platform from the dirt meant to be the dock barely stands a foot above with its thin fragile legs above the ocean. A crew of five carry over a long bamboo gangplank, and connect a diagonally horizontal pathway to the pier from the ship.
This is it—the moment I’ve been waiting for.
Tom joins the handful of European travelers down the bamboo steps. All of this seems like a lucid dream. For a while I didn’t think I would make it at all.
He looks up to the burning sun and lets go of the tension that has built-up over the past couple of months on the Hail Mary. For the first time in his life, Tom feels sun rays pierce through his skin. It is a dry heat, and not a droplet of sweat develops on his skin.
How can the sun be so excessively hot yet the atmosphere dry? It doesn’t make any sense.
A blast of dust puffs into the air as Tom sets down his luggage. Large amounts of filth have accumulated in and around all of his belongings during their 59-day rest in compartment #102.
If I remember correctly, someone from Luu is supposed to pick me up.
Luu is a fairly new school, having been built in 1986 at the center of Saigon for the local children aged ten and below. This is where Tom will be for a year, as per his signed contract. Supposedly the apartment provided by Luu includes a luxurious master bedroom.
Coffee, regarded as his highest priority, is one of Tom’s personal dark fetishes, and before embarking on his journey, Tom was pleased to learn that Saigon is where the most exotic cups of coffee are served. Apparently weasel coffee is the distinguished specialty of the café located within his apartment complex.
As Tom examines the small crowd of 50 rambling in the small seaport, he has one of those rare light-bulb moments; a concern that has never occurred to him before.
This is Asia not Europe. Different races, distinct skin colors or hair does not exist here.
He looks out at the sea of black hair, dark brown skin, and flat noses; the English language is not heard at all.
Not being able to talk to anyone can be a problem. Amazing how this pervasive fact hasn’t come up in my thoughts until now.
“Mr. Ryder! Mr. Ryder!” a voice in broken English calls out from a hailing distance.
A short Vietnamese man in his forties wearing a collared shirt, black pants and black office shoes approaches Tom with a large smile.
“My name Anh Nyugen.” Anh extends his hand, and Tom gladly shakes it.
“I’m Tom Ryder. Nice to meet you.”
“Welcome to Saigon, Mr. Ryder.”
Mr. Nyugen is not the most attractive person in the world; however, a welcome with open arms from a total stranger in a foreign land triggers a sense of relief from the countless concerns Tom has bottled up inside. As Anh smiles, his large canary yellow teeth obscure the rest of his features. It looks as if he chronically smokes Marlboros without thinking twice about it. Anh snatches Tom’s heavy luggage and signals for Tom to follow.
“Where are we going?” Tom asks as Anh walks away.
Anh just keeps walking forward without responding.
Soon, Tom can see what looks to be the seaport’s parking lot, but it is occupied by soiled Japanese motorbikes; there’s not a car anywhere.
Anh snakes his way between the bikes and unlocks a black Suzuki motorcycle that had just been secured by ample chains wrapped to a pole.
Looks like I better watch my belongings here.
“Hia,” Anh says.
“What?! This is what we’re going to ride? Where are all the cars?” Tom asks with a considerable amount of apprehension.
“Xe máy. Get on.”
Anh sits on the driver’s seat, grabs a second helmet dangling from the left handle, extends his arm and hands it to Tom. He signals for Tom to hop on.
Tom straps his suitcase on the rack behind the back seat. I’ve never ridden on a motorbike before. I hope the suitcase doesn’t fall off during the ride.
Tom jumps on with the helmet strapped around his head. A little small, he struggles for close to a minute to fully snap it into place. The helmet’s damp interior soaks his hair.
I feel like I just dipped my head into a bucket of water. Whoever used this helmet before me is one sweaty pig!
The Suzuki is way too small for a lanky Westerner, leaving Tom feeling cramped in a semi-squatting position. This broken down piece of junk made of parts from several different vehicles doesn’t look like it can run.
The engine begins with a loud roar and off they go. The Suzuki loses its equilibrium several times. It swerves left to right but Anh manages to regain balance effortlessly every time. This is going to be a long ride.
The small dirt road surrounded by grass from the seaport leads to a large highway packed with Japanese motorbikes, bicycles, the occasional car and 3-wheeled bicycles transiting to the city from their villages.
Although the highway is quite open, the drive through is a mission even for the locals. Women drivers have their whole bodies wrapped around in white togas. Their arms, hands and mouths are completely covered from head to toe like Arab women, exposing only their oval-shaped eyes. Men on the other hand seem more liberal. They wear casual t-shirts and shorts, allowing their skin to tan in the heat.
Are women not approved to show their skin? Definitely some major cultural differences from back home. Women seem more limited, as if their freedom is stripped away in Vietnam.
Tom frowns upon cultural inequalities of society. But in many parts of the world, cultures have evolved for thousands of years. Deeply rooted into the minds of its people, it is virtually impossible to change cultural programming.
Thick black fumes spew out from the countless motorbikes that drive by. The black smoke belching from the exhaust pipe combined with the sun amplifies the heat by two-fold.
I already can’t tolerate the heat.
After about half an hour of mediocre traffic, the main freeway opens the path for a smooth ride. Anh steps on the pedal, heightening the bike’s velocity.
“Say, are we going to Luu?” Tom shouts.
“I am driver of Luu!” Anh chuckles.
The charging wind current against Tom’s face makes communication very difficult. Anh doesn’t seem to understand, and since Tom can’t quite figure Anh out, he leans back to enjoy the scenery. The Suzuki blazes in maximum velocity, passing by paddy fields populated with farmers and wild buffalo. About 15 minutes into the ride, empty open space suffused by soil and dirt returns. Debilitated from the never-ending bent position, Tom can feel his legs go numb on the cramped backseat of the Suzuki.
What? Is that a broken tank in the street?
Amid numerous large circular pitted areas on the dirt fields, random battered down war vehicles lay scattered in every direction.
It looks like there has been some kind of attack. A missile shower perhaps? I had imagined Vietnam a little differently. I pictured jungles and people riding elephants, but this is…
The reality of Vietnam is not at all as Tom expected. The war is here, noticeable in every which way. The war’s impact is enormous even a decade past its termination. As they travel further in, after extensive empty dirt space, another row of rice paddies comes into sight. From foul brown water, female farmers wearing traditional round hats pick rice grains.
How can pure white rice come from such ugly colored water?
About an hour passes, and now local time is approaching 6:00 pm. They’re well past the highway and into the heart of Saigon. The harsh pollution of the city makes breathing difficult. The houses look nothing like European houses, thin and long, 2 to 3 stories in height, painted brown, yellow, pink and light blue.
Watching the houses pass by from the moving bike reminds me of random books in a bookshelf, just like my university library.
“Mỹ! Mỹ! Mỹ!” children and adults shout as the locals catch a glimpse of Tom. They stare and point their fingers at Tom drive by, as if he is an extraterrestrial from outer space.
Are these people really so ignorant?
The ride goes on smoothly as grey polluted air beats against Tom’s face. A lot of time passes, but zero time has passed.
Now I understand what following the emotional guidance system means a little better. In theory, when we humans enjoy what we do, time is not created as much. Which means I’m enjoying the ride.
It’s like that saying goes, “You don’t know the worth of water until the well runs dry.” Except that my case it’s the opposite. My well has been dry for a long time and now suddenly filled to the top. After weeks on the Hail Mary, being on land couldn’t feel any more like paradise. Finally I’m here!
Saigon is a bustling city populated with hard working people. Large numbers of street shops covered in colored tents sell goods on the sidewalks. Motorbike traffic fiercely stalls the path.
In a way, Saigon shares some similar traits to London.
The Suzuki slows down to a full stop in front of a shabby two-story building.
“We arrived? Is this Luu Elementary School?” Tom asks.
Anh ignores as before. Tom gets off the bike and follows Anh to the building. The solid orange walls that surround the wide two-story building give off a monotonous tone. The wooden window doorframes colored in light baby blue do not match the orange whatsoever. A rectangular signpost nailed on top of the door-less open entrance reads “Ho Chi Minh Inn.”
It’s an American motel. Why did Anh bring me here?
“Madam Bridgette! Madam Bridgette!” Anh shouts towards the second floor. Tom hears someone coming down the stairs in flip-flops.
Could this be…?
A young attractive Caucasian woman walks down from the stairs. She is attractive enough to be way out of Tom’s league. Yet she doesn’t seem to be the snobby, arrogant women he has run into several times back home. She greets the stranger with a warm smile.
“Hello, you must be Tom.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
She studies Tom up and down, then slightly smirks.
What is she thinking?
“I’m Bridgette. I live in this building with a couple other teachers,” she says, breaking the silence.
As Tom extends his hand for a shake, she turns the other way disregarding his hand.
What? Do I smell like pollution?
Bridgette is a young woman in her late twenties. She speaks with a British accent, smells like a rose garden and is attractive enough to be a 10 out of 10. What truly distinguishes her from any other woman is her bizarre sense of style. She wears an Indian sari of diverse bright colors, large earrings and flip-flop sandals. Her black curly hair comes down to her waist. Her eyes slant like those of an East Asian’s pigmented in a yellow glow of honey in her irises.
“This is your home during your stay. Let’s go to the second floor; follow me!” Bridgette talks as she walks.
Anh helps with Tom’s one-size-fits-all luggage and leads the way upstairs as Bridgette makes small talk with Tom.
“Vietnam is very different from England. For most teachers, it takes about a week to get used to everything,” she continues as she walks up the steps.
“So, it seems Ho Chi Minh Inn is an American motel. Am I right?” Tom asks in a tired tone.
“Yes, you’re quick to notice. This building was built by the Americans during the war.”
Tom studies the narrow corridor of the second floor. Luu teachers must reside here. Only four rooms on the entire floor?
With each step Tom takes, the wooden floor generates the most undesirable squeak. The once white walls have aged into a mustard yellow covered in cracks. Bridgette pulls out a ring attached by a bunch of keys from her shirt pocket. She opens room #205, the very last door of the right side. She detaches one of the keys from the golden ring and hands it to Tom.
Bridgette is most likely in charge of the guesthouse. She must be one of the main long-term teachers at Luu.
A putrid old-carpet smell pours out of the room as Bridgette opens the door. The dust amassed clogs Tom’s nostrils with every breath he takes. My room is worse condition than the hallway. Nonetheless, the room’s condition is not of any importance right now. I only have one objective: sleep.
Small in size, his new room accommodates a narrow single bed, a shower with glass doors, and a small lamp beside the bed illuminates the room. It looks as if the furniture was forcefully cramped into the room.
Exhausted from the voyage, Tom’s still unsure if any of this is real. The sea voyage and motorbike ride have left him dazed.
“Anh will leave your bags here next to the closet. It’s your time to rest,” Bridgette says.
“Thank you.” I can’t budge a muscle. Indeed, it’s time for a nap.
Immediately after the door closes, with barely any strength left to remove his shoes, Tom pounces onto the bed. Eyes closed, Tom lets out the deepest of all deep breaths. With Bridgette and Anh long gone, he now has the whole room to himself. Stretching his feet and arms outwards like a cat after digging its claws into a couch just before it departs to a deep sleep, Tom looks up to the cracked yellow tinted ceiling.
I’m finally here. This has got to be the most relaxing, comfortable, peaceful bed I have ever slept on.