It’s always good to get up at dawn to walk around, for you’ll see a less guarded, composed and worn out version of humanity. They’ll still have the rest of the day to blunder, lapse, commit a crime or jump off a bridge. Passing a Nha Trang park, I spot middle aged broads dancing the cha-cha-cha, and an old man clapping his hands loudly as he sternly strolls around its perimeter. Like everybody else, Vietnamese are more or less insane. Always grumbling about the Chinese, they pray daily to Chinese gods.
Ducking into a cafe, I promptly email my friend Niccolo Brachelente in Okinawa, “I’ve been in Nha Trang for a few days. It’s my first close look at this city. Tons of Russian and Chinese tourists, and lots of restaurants serving foreign food. I talked briefly to a guy from Puglia. He owns Da Fernando. You may want to find work in Nha Trang. I think you’d like it here.”
A sommelier then restaurant manager, Niccolo has been in Asia and away from his beloved Tuscany for 15 years. He’d rather go home and teach yoga, but the economy there is bad. Niccolo’s sister toils in Germany.
I always take care of my fellow Italians, capite? I have no idea why il mio padre gave me such a non-Italian sounding name?! Vafanculo to him and his spaghetti barge, if there’s such a thing! Next time I’m in Sicilia, I’ll get La Cosa Nostra to burn down la casa nostra, with him in it. That will teach il coglione to not fuck with a real Italian!
It’s not even 7AM, so I better calm down. Tranquillo, tranquillo! This day might not go well. Like I said, I met Fernando. As I scanned his persuasive menu on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, the white-haired dude ran out.
“I lived two years in Italy,” I said to him in Italian.
“Me, many more.” Funny man. “I’m from Puglia.”
“I lived near Siena.”
““In Certaldo. The birthplace of Boccaccio.”
“Very famous, Boccaccio. No one knows him.”
A natural comedian, this Fernando. Hardly anyone in the West knows his heritage anymore, and if he does, he’s deeply ashamed of it. For soiling us all with The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare should be expunged, at least, if not drawn, quartered, decapitated and dipped in chopped liver. Ban that cracker!
In Vietnam, heritage is always stressed, for nationalism is what holds this nation together. Military heroes from centuries past are revered, and key poets have streets named after them. On propaganda billboards, it’s patriotism, national unity and the need to protect the country that are stressed, with nothing ever said about international brotherhood or communist solidarity. That shit doesn’t fly here. Russia and China, too, have become unequivocally nationalistic, and that’s why they’re still confident and strong, unlike a certain bickering, confused and opioid-addled pseudo nation.
In the US, working class bars are festooned with flags, and politicians spout patriotic slogans and concerns for Main Street, but it’s all mindless symbolism and desperate or cynical posturing. There is no emphasis on knowledge of history or preservation of heritage.
In Nha Trang, there’s a street and high school named after Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943), and his house is a museum. There’s even an Association des Admirateurs de Yersin that does a lot of charity work. A great man, the famed bacteriologist is justly honored in his adopted homeland.
Russians and Chinese swarm all over downtown Nha Trang, but do they mingle? Of course not, for they can’t talk, or have anything in common culturally. They both eat dumplings, but one with a thin sour cream, and the other with satay and soy sauce. When I sat in the Russian-owned Killed Kenny Bar for several hours, I met people from England, Northern Ireland, Australia and the United States, but no Chinese or even Vietnamese.
The American was Nathan Mathabane, son of Mark, who wrote Kaffir Boy. Nathan is impressive enough. A geology major who also ran Division 1 tracks, he’s now an Assistant Dean of Admission at Princeton. Nathan’s in Vietnam to check out its diving scene. Happy to run into each other, we talked at length about Oregon, New Jersey, Philly and the sad state of an increasingly angry country. I hope to run into you again, Nathan.
At Grill Yard, there’s a mural of a Chinese and Russian toasting, with the first in a Manchurian outfit, complete with queue, while the second is a rotund tourist, with a camera dangling on his vodka-infused beer belly. The Grill Yard’s cook, though, is a Vietnamese in a New York Yankees cap. Though American culture is still dominant worldwide, Chinese and Russians are consolidating their hold on Eurasia. Fearing to be left out in the cold, Uncle Sam is doing his best to disrupt this.
Now, I must make some hushed confessions. Yesterday, I slipped into a Greek restaurant to regale myself with an indifferent, practically smirking moussaka, and two days ago, I stole into Haus Bremen, to inhale, in near record time, its honest-to-God pork schnitzel. At Swiss House La Casserole, I also stuffed my face with a chicken cordon bleu. A Vietnam-based Swiss who can no longer taste anything, thanks to tongue cancer, told me about this wonderful joint. On its wall, there’s a mural of a Saint Bernard, lounging next to an alphorn, with the Matterhorn behind him.
Twice this week, I planted myself at Red Café to pig on its delicacies, with salty fish and beer on the last occasion. Vobla and pivo, I craved. You see, once you’ve enjoyed something, no matter how briefly, you’ll miss it at some point, so the more you roam and splurge, the more you’re constantly deprived of just about everything. Even in Manhattan, London or Tokyo, life must be local.
So don’t travel, OK? Just stay home with your meatloaf, corn and mash, but I miss that too!
Missing so much, contemporary man makes do with a ruthless stream of colorful shadows. Since he can’t be everywhere, he must welcome the facsimile of everything into his insatiable skull, and that’s the logic of television, the internet, endless pornography and even multiculturalism.
In Haus Bremen, I met 60-year-old Dieter and 50-year-old Hằng. Before opening this restaurant 3 1/2 years ago, they had a beer garden in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a decade.
Since neither speaks the other’s language, they communicate in a barebone English. It apparently works well enough to keep them together into old age.
Hằng has two daughters of her own. “But I’ve known them since they were this small,” Dieter said as he lowered his right hand to just above his knees. “I taught them how to swim.” He made a butterfly stroke through the air. “They are my children.”
The older is majoring in engineering in Saigon. Already fluent in English, she’s studying German and will go to Germany for her last two years of college.
Each year, Dieter and Hằng go to Germany for a month, primarily to see his mother. Hằng has been to Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen. When I asked if she had seen a German Christmas market, Hằng said no, since they had to be here for their business. “And it’s too cold for her!” Dieter added.
It was only yesterday, it seems, that I strolled the streets of Leipzig and could take a quick train to Dresden. You are everywhere you’ve been and, most organically and essentially, every dish you’ve eaten.
Mao doesn’t quite sell, so the Chinese Communists have settled on reactionary Confucius as their international brand, but they already have a much better weapon in the battle for global stomachs, hearts and minds, the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant. Each plate of pork fried rice bathes the Middle Kingdom in a warmer glow, though this can quickly backfire with acid reflux!
Displaced, Dieter has established roots in Southeast Asia, but he doesn’t pretend to be Cambodian or Vietnamese, and except for too frequent shakedowns from corrupt cops, no one bothers him here. Non integrating whites are welcomed in Vietnam, for there aren’t too many of them, and they don’t cause serious social problems. A case like Gary Glitter screwing 12-year-olds is extremely rare.
Whites in Vietnam don’t prey on local women, but are routinely targeted by cold blooded gold diggers. In touristy areas, pale ones are harassed by motorbike-riding pimps and touts, who offer “boom boom.”
In Vung Tau, there are actually thousands of Russians, there mostly to work for Vietsovpetro, an oil drilling company. They have their own walled compound. A Russian couple own possibly the worst donut shop on earth, for the glaze often drips right off. She’s bald, and he has just one hand, supposedly lost in Afghanistan. They never smile. In Nha Trang, Russians own or work in restaurants, or are employed by tour operators.
There are also hundreds of Aussies in Vung Tau. Thanks to their boozing habits, they’re much more conspicuous than Russians.
Two weeks ago, I met 75-year-old Warren at Ned Kelly. Before coming to Vietnam in 1967, he had fought Communist insurgents in Malaysia, “I got here after Long Tan, so I missed that, but then Tet came. My tour was over, but after the fighting started, they said, ‘You’re not going anywhere!’” The white bearded, glassy eyed man chuckled.
After the army, Warren ended up in Holland and the UK for nearly five years. Illegal in Europe, he mostly worked on an oil rig off Scotland.
“It took me more than four decades to return here,” Warren said of Vung Tau. On his tenth day, he met a woman at a bar, and they’re now married, with two kids, 6-years-old and 11-months-old. She also has a 16-year-old daughter.
Warren rents a three-bedroom house in a choice neighborhood for just $216 monthly. Here, he lives with his wife, their two kids, her 16-year-old daughter, her parents and brother, though this man chips in $43 a month. Warren’s not sure what his brother-in-law does for a living, only that he often leaves the house in a green uniform.
“Is he in the army? Post office? Electrical company?”
“I have no idea.”
Though his wife wants to go to Australia, Warren tells her they can’t afford it. When he dies, she’ll get a handsome war widow’s pension of $2,500 a month. Is she counting the days? Warren doesn’t care. He has no illusions. He’s just grateful for the daily sunshine, sea breeze, endless 86-cent beers and even burgers with beetroot, just like down under.
“The one thing I worry about is getting sick. If I’m too sick, they won’t allow me on a plane, you know what I mean?” Warren won’t be able to go home for free treatment.
When I met Warren that day, he already had six Tigers by noon, so it was nearly time to hobble home for a nap, hopefully not dirt. He had on a bone-colored, embroidered shirt with knotted Chinese buttons, something you’d more likely see on a small boy. “See ya later!” Maybe I will.
With this article, I close my Nha Trang chapter. In two hours, I’ll board an all-night bus for Hoi An, a town that has retained more of its history than anywhere else in Vietnam. Every other place has been well razed, bombed, bulldozed or simply improved. Man doesn’t just befoul, but make much that’s worth preserving, at least until recently. Progress is the heroin of the masses.
There is still time for dinner. I think I’ll pass on the “Lady Beef Pizza.” It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. That bus will rock me to fitful sleep. In the dark, I’ll snake up the coast.
In Hoi An, I’ll meet poet Phan Ba Tho, whom I’ve translated. Twenty years ago, I cleaned his vomit after a drinking bout in Saigon. He’d have done the same for me.
Suddenly, I think of Vallejo’s fortifying yet heartbreaking lines:
I like life enormously
but, of course,
with my beloved death and my café
and looking at the leafy chestnut trees in Paris
This is an eye, and that one too; this a forehead, that one too… And repeating:
So much life and the tune never fails me!
I would like to live always, even flat on my belly,
because, as I was saying and I say it again,
so much life and never! And so many years,
and always, much always, always, always!
Much gratitude to Clayton Eshleman for this magnificent translation. One can’t say thank you often enough. May your inner tune never fail you, always, always and always!