Greekish, Ghosts and New York Queers Disappearing Into The Mist

[Vung Tau, 6/13/22]

North Macedonia got into deep shit with Greece for erecting fake Greek buildings, many of them enormous, and for claiming Alexander the Great as somehow a forefather of their mostly Slavic population. Greekish buildings are mushrooming all over Vietnam, too, but as houses. If you have a successful mom-and-pop, you simply hire a contractor to stack floors on your store, with a pediment on top.

Despite popular conception, a Greek building isn’t one with a swinging back door, but one crowned by a dignified triangle, not unlike a conical hat on a person.

Speaking of Greece, I wouldn’t mind a decent gyros, I don’t know, maybe once a week, but the only gyros/doner kebab I’ve tried in Vietnam were atrocious, and that’s a very delicate word to use around here, but damn it, they were! Tzatziki was invented by a genius.

All memorable or addictive dishes and sauces are ingenious. Second only to its language, each population displays its greatest creativity, love and hope in its food.

I wouldn’t mind a Chicago hotdog right about now. If you’ve never been so blessed, drop everything and drive, for days, weeks or a lifetime if you have to, straight to Superdawg, Dave’s or Red Hot. I once took a two-hour South Korean train from Busan to Waegwan, thinking I might luck into a Chicago hotdog near Camp Carroll. My disappointment pains me to this day.

[Waegwan, 5/28/20]

Of course, a dish served too far from its birthplace is, more often than not, a travesty, though sometimes an improvement. As with language, food is always tinkered with, to suit local or just individual taste.

Even more than usual, I’ve been preoccupied with the chasms between languages, with translation as the rope bridges between them. Nearly all have fallen off. This morning, I sent a 62,000-word manuscript to Saigon. It’s my selected prose in Vietnamese. Its title, Tích ngàn thu sau bữa cơm ma, is roughly Thousand Autumn Tale After A Ghost Rice Meal.

Sounds kinda cheesy, I know, but only in English. In Vietnamese, it combines a super cheesy concept, “thousand autumns,” meaning death, with a humorous contemporary slang, “ghost rice,” meaning an all-night eatery. Only ghosts eat so late. The title also alludes to Dương Thu Hương’s Love Tale Told Before Dawn.

The first two stories are “Dead on Arrival” and “Elvis Phong Is Dead,” and there are ghosts all over, just like in real life. Nearly ghosts, we swim among ghosts, who pull our legs or trunks down, when not tickling us. We laugh with ghosts, watch them cry. Hardly seen or heard, we make ghost love or eat ghost rice with other ghosts.

As I write this, the parking attendant at Cafe Ca Dao is slowly clapping his hands again. An old, thin man with longish hair and a sunken chest, he’s just keeping time until his thousand autumns begin. It is a very boring job. I’ve tried to talk soccer with him.

In the story below, a ghost is described. The setting is northwest Vietnam, a rugged landscape of astounding beauty. I first saw it in 1995, then again in 2000. My first visit informs “Western Music.” Twenty-seven years ago, Vietnam was still abjectly poor, and foreign visitors were just starting to pour in. In my fictional account, the ugliest girl also shows up.

Before setting for the hills, I met Laurence Anderson at an art opening in Hanoi. Very friendly, the American Chargé d'Affaires handed me his business card, “Just call me if you need anything.” With so few Americans in town, Anderson was that approachable.

Of course, we’re not counting American ghosts.

Western Music

Outside the glass door of Fish and Chick, the white noise of the motorcycle traffic sputtered: putt, putt, putt, putt. Inside, Skinny and Dercum sat at the bar, their sweat cooled by the air-conditioning. Kurt Cobain was screaming on the stereo. It was the beginning of summer, just before the monsoon season. Skinny was drunk on Jägermeister. He shouted, “I’m sick of this place!”

“So am I!” Dercum said.

“I’ve got to get out of here.”

“We can go have a beer at M.I.G. or Bar Nixon if you like.”

“No! No! No! No! What I mean is, I’m sick of Hanoi!”

“Do you want to go back to New York?”

“I don’t want to go home. I just need to get away from Hanoi.”

“We can go to Sapa.”

“No, not Sapa.” Skinny took a drag on his Perfume River cigarette. He jabbed his face over his shoulder toward the Israelis, Dutch, Germans, Aussies, and Frenchmen sitting at tables behind them. “I’m tired of looking at these Eurotrash!”

“I’ll talk to Mai tomorrow.”

For five dollars a day, Mr. Mai waited every day for Dercum outside the Victory Hotel to take him where he wanted to go. He was Dercum’s personal cyclo driver. Wiry, with a bronze complexion, he was in his midfifties, a grandfather. He was too well dressed for his profession. In public he wore a tailored shirt, tie, polyester slacks, and imitation leather wingtips. Unlike most men his age, he was not a veteran. He was not allowed to serve, because his parents were branded reactionaries by the Viet Minh, who executed his father in 1955 during the Land Reform Program. His mother committed suicide soon afterward.

Dercum walked out of the hotel lobby and found him, as usual, lounging in his cab beneath the flame tree. “Chao Ong!

Mr. Mai roused himself from his seat: “How are you doing this morning, Dirt? Where we going?”

“I don’t know yet. Maybe nowhere.”

“Nowhere very good. I sit here and drink beer.” Mr. Mai eased back down, lifted a plastic cup of beer to his lips. His eyes were bloodshot.

Dercum lit a Marlboro. “My friend is getting sick of Hanoi.”

“Skin Knee sick of Hanoi?”

“Yes, Skinny is very sick of this place.”

“Tell him to go home.”

“But he does not want to go home yet.”

“Tell him to go to Hanoi Hilton.”

“Now, now, let’s not get personal. Skinny is sick of looking at the Eu-ro-trash.”

“Year-old trash?”

“Eu-ro-trash. Like White Trash.” Dercum smiled good-naturedly. “Like me, but Eu-ro-pean.”

Mr. Mai finished his beer, burped, crossed his leg.

Dercum continued: “We want to go the countryside, somewhere where there’s no Europeans or Americans.”

Mr. Mai jiggled his empty cup. “For how long, Boss?”

“A week.”

“To do what?”

“Do nothing. We just want to relax in the countryside.”

Mr. Mai jiggled his cup, thought for a moment, then said, “We can go to my wife’s home village.”

“Where’s that?”

“Three hundred kilometers from Hanoi.”

“Nine hours by car?”

“Ten.”

“Which direction?”

“West.”

“In the mountains?”

“Yes.”

“Near Son La?”

“Between Son La and Yen Chau.”

“Is there a hotel there?”

“Hotel?!”

Dercum called Skinny at the Metropole. “It’s all arranged. We’re going to the sticks for a week.”

“Sounds excellent.”

“You should bring along cans of Spam as a precaution.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve eaten ox penises and dogs.”

“You have?”

“And sparrows.”

“What else have you eaten?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“And we should bring along seven cases of beer. A case for each day.”

“I’m really looking forward to this.”

“I’ll bring the toilet paper.”

Dercum Sanders and Skinny, whose real name was Dave Levy, had met at Columbia. Dercum never finished college but dropped out after his sophomore year. First he worked as a bike messenger, then as a sous-chef at Coûte Que Coûte in Midtown, then as a luggage handler for United Airlines, which allowed him to travel to Asia for free, and then his grandmother died. Before Dercum left New York, he said he was going to Vietnam to teach English, but after his first week in Hanoi, he thought, Why should I feel apologetic about not working? Why shouldn’t I just hang out? After six months in Vietnam he sent a fax to Skinny: “You must come over soon. This place is wild. COMPLETE FREEDOM. One feels uninhibited here. I feel like a new man. I am a new man. I cannot wait to see your face again. I think about you day and night. I mean it. In New York nothing is possible. Now I see my past in a new light. You must come over.”

It took Mr. Mai three days to make arrangements for the trip. Dercum and Skinny would split the cost of hiring a four-wheel drive, at six hundred dollars a week, gas and driver included. The party would be composed of Dercum, Skinny, the driver, and Mr. Mai.

To avoid traffic, they decided to leave first thing in the morning. The car showed up promptly at 5 A.M. in front of the Victory Hotel. It was a Jeep Cherokee. They started loading. Dercum said to Mr. Mai, “All this beer is for you.”

Mr. Mai stared at the cases of Heineken filling the luggage compartment and shook his head convulsively, “Not enough!”

“Not enough?!” Dercum shouted with feigned astonishment. Everyone laughed except the driver, a burly, bearded man in jeans and a pale blue T-shirt with “Mountain Everest Is The Highest Mountain In The World” on the front and “Solo Fucker” on the back.

“You want a beer now?” Dercum asked Mr. Mai.

“Sure.” Dercum handed him a beer. “And one for the driver.”

Dercum handed a beer to the driver.

“Thank you, mate!” the driver said.

“Mr. Mai, please tell him that we’re not Australians.”

“They’re not Australians.”

“I’m Dercum.” Dercum shook the driver’s hand.

Mr. Mai interjected, “Dirt!”

“It’s actually ‘Dirk.’ ”

“Dirt,” the driver said.

“And this is Skinny.”

“Skin Knee.”

“What is your name?”

“Long.” On closer inspection, Long appeared to be only about thirty, although his beard and scowl had made him seem much older.

“Long?”

“Long.”

Skinny looked at Dercum with a twinkle in his eyes. “How long?” he blurted. Dercum burst out laughing. Long stared at Mr. Mai, his face blank.

“Never mind,” Dercum said.

“I think I want a beer also,” Skinny said.

“I didn’t know you drink beer at five in the morning,” Dercum said as he handed Skinny a Heineken.

“Skin Knee is becoming Vietnamese,” Mr. Mai exclaimed.

Dercum and Skinny sat in the back. Mr. Mai sat up front. All except Long were elated as the car started moving. At that hour the streets were filled with people of all ages: walking, jogging, doing tai chi, kicking a soccer ball or a shuttlecock, or playing badminton. They passed a squadron of legless men rolling briskly down Le Hong Phong Street on wheelchairs. “Old V.C.,” Mr. Mai said. Long tapped a morselike staccato on his horn. On the tape deck was Louis Armstrong singing Fats Waller: “What did I do … to be so black and blue?”

“Do you like Louis Armstrong, Mr. Mai?” Dercum asked.

Mr. Mai didn’t answer him. He was suddenly withdrawn, reflective, charmed by the sights of his home city. Each scene was made novel from the vantage point of a speeding car.

“I like jazz and blues,” Long said.

Most of the motor traffic they encountered was going the other way: people coming into the city from outlying villages. Within twenty minutes, the houses thinned out on both sides. Long tapped on his horn constantly, passing motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, buses, and cars while dodging chickens, pigs, cows, dogs, men, and buffalo. After three hours the road turned to gravel. Mr. Mai rolled the window down four times to throw up his three cans of beer.

Long said, “Easy, Grandfather.”

Mr. Mai moaned, “I’m not used to sitting in a car.”

Dercum said, “We should stop for lunch soon, Long.”

Long turned his head around. “Good place to eat: twenty minutes.” The car ran over a dog. Long could see a rapidly diminishing black shape twitching in the rearview mirror.

“Sounds good.”

“Twenty minutes.”

“Boys! I think we just ran over a dog!” Skinny yelped. “Did we just run over a dog, Long?” Dercum asked.

“No.”

“Can I have another beer?” Mr. Mai said.

Long drove the Cherokee onto the side of the road. The little eatery was fronted by a pool table beneath a fiberglass awning propped up by bamboo poles. They walked past a glass cabinet displaying imported liquors and cigarettes, stepped over a dozing yellow dog, and entered a bright, airy room. On its lime-colored walls were posters of busty white women hugging enormous beer bottles. Up high in one corner was a shelf-altar: In front of a framed, retouched black-and-white photograph of a handsome, smooth-faced, doe-eyed cadet was a sand-filled teacup holding joss sticks, a plate of mandarin oranges, and a plate of boiled chicken. At the back of the room a very old woman sat, all bunched up and immobile, on a bamboo settee in front of a very large, very loud TV, watching a soap opera. They sat down on little plastic stools at a low table. They were the only patrons. The waitress came out of the kitchen and said, “Today we have fried catfish and wild boar.”

Mai ordered: “Bring those dishes, Sister. And fried tofu; boiled watercress; two bowls of soup.”

“What nationality are these people, Uncle?”

“American.”

“They look like Russians.”

“They’re gay.”

“Gay!”

“Hurry up, Sister, we are all starving to death!”

The waitress went back to the kitchen.

“What did you tell her?” Skinny asked Mai.

“She said you look Russian. I said you are Americans.”

Dercum asked, “Where are we?”

“Thao Nguyen.”

Long said to Mai, “Are they really gay?”

“Of course!”

A gaggle of giggling children stood outside the restaurant to stare at Skinny and Dercum. Skinny smiled at them and said, “Boo!” The bravest of the children separated himself from the group and, with goading from the rest, shouted in English, “I love you!” before running away. The rest of them scattered, screaming, “I love you! I love you!”

Everyone but Skinny sat at the table picking their teeth with toothpicks after the meal. The waitress wiped the table cursorily with a rag, sweeping the little fish bones onto the tiled floor. She was wearing a lurid pink shirt with little black dots and red flowers. On her hair was a bright yellow bow. Long said to her, “Sister, do you want to go to the mountain with us?”

“There is nothing but ghosts and savages in those mountains!” She smiled and walked back to the kitchen.

In college Skinny and Dercum were not lovers. Each refused to acknowledge the unbearable fact of his attraction to the other by frantically trying to become a heterosexual. They dated many women, overlapping on occasions. (Skinny would sometimes think, as he was making love to a woman, His penis has been in there too.) But they remained emotional intimates, returning to each other for comfort after each failed relationship. When Dercum left for Vietnam, Skinny had just come out. Dercum was still undecided. Their love was consummated in Skinny’s suite at the Metropole Hotel a day after his arrival.

The car climbed steadily. The road was mostly bad, alternating between asphalt, dirt, and gravel. They passed tea plantations, a litchi forest, fields of maize and fields of tobacco. They drove through Viet towns of wooden and whitewashed brick houses; Black Thai bans of houses on stilts, with cows and buffalo beneath them; a Kha Mu village of thatch-roofed huts with walls of woven bark. In every Viet town there was at least one café with a sign outside advertising “karaoke.” They saw a group of Flower Hmongs. One of the men carried a flintlock rifle. The women had woven horsehair into their own hair, creating enormous turbans. Neither Skinny nor Dercum said anything for a long time. Long glanced at the rearview mirror: The two men were asleep leaning against each other.

Mr. Mai said, “How long have you been a driver?”

“Just a year.”

“It seems like a great job.”

“You get to see places.”

“And you get to meet foreigners.”

Long chuckled. “There are classy foreigners, but there are some who are impossible to deal with.”

“Like who?”

“Last week I drove three Koreans. They were very unfriendly.”

“How are the Americans?”

“They’re actually not bad. Most of them tip.”

“Any women?”

“Huh?”

“You know, you meet any women?”

Long chuckled. “A couple.”

Mr. Mai waited for Long to continue. Long continued: “Most of them travel with a husband or a boyfriend. And then you have the old and Christian ones, who travel in pairs, but every now and then you catch yourself an odd single.”

Mr. Mai waited for Long to continue. Long continued: “For example, a couple months ago I drove three people from New Zealand: a couple and a single girl, all college students. I drove them to Sapa, where we stayed in two rooms at the Auberge. The girl’s name was Hillary. She was my girlfriend for a week.”

Mr. Mai, with a pained look on his face, made an unconscious sucking sound with his throat.

Long chuckled. “I evened the score a little, you know.”

“Ah.” Mr. Mai sighed. “But I’m an old man, and a grandfather.”

“And then there was this other one. American. Becky her name was. After I drove her to Halong Bay on a day trip, I would come to her hotel in Hanoi three or four times a week for a month. She was a sex maniac, this Becky was. ‘I’m not your girlfriend,’ she said, ‘I just want sex.’ ‘Fine with me,’ I said. She was sleeping with at least two or three other guys, as far as I could tell. This girl couldn’t get enough of it. She was delirious. She asked me, ‘Am I pretty?’ ‘Sure you are,’ I told her. And she was pretty. Maybe not that pretty, but pretty. She told me one night, ‘I’m a very ugly girl, a very ugly girl.’ She was actually crying over this, that’s how crazy she was.”

“Maybe in America they don’t think she’s so pretty.”

Long furrowed his brows. He wasn’t sure whether to become angry.

“You know, it’s the same with some of the Vietnamese girls we see hanging on the arms of foreigners. We think these girls are ugly, but the foreigners think they’re very pretty. They think some of these girls the most beautiful on the face of this earth.” Mr. Mai glanced at the back seat: “At least these two,” he lowered his voice, “are not corrupting the chaste women of Vietnam with their decadent imperialistic materialistic pollution!”

“Ha! ha!”

“Actually these two guys don’t seem to like other white people. They requested that I take them somewhere where there’s no Americans.”

Long was glad the conversation had veered away from his sex life. What a dirty old man this Mai is, he thought. “But the whole country is crawling with Americans.”

“That’s true.”

“If not live ones, then dead ones.”

“That’s true.”

“How do you know there’s no Americans in Muom Village?”

“I’ve been there three times. It’s my wife’s native village.”

“How did she end up in Hanoi?”

“I kidnapped her!”

“Ha! ha!”

“Actually my wife served in the army. That’s how she made it to Hanoi.”

“I figured.”

“In my family the decorated veteran is a woman!”

“Ha! ha!”

“Hey, it worked out great for me: If she’d been near her family, there would’ve been no way they would have let her marry me.”

“And how do they treat you now?”

“Like shit!”

“Ha! ha!”

“Stop for a second.”

Long stopped the car to let Mr. Mai out. Dercum opened his eyes, saw the back of Long’s head, forgot where he was, panicked, recovered, closed his eyes again. Long thought, What a concept: gay Americans!!! But they all seem so … so … so … thick! So macho! All body hair and meat and sweat and swagger. Well, maybe not the Skin Knee guy.… Were gays allowed in the U.S. Army? Can there be such a thing as a gay imperialist? Mr. Mai climbed back in. “I feel much better.”

After they started moving again, Mr. Mai said, “You know, Brother, there’s an American ghost in Muom Village.”

“Really?”

“My wife said that, in ’69, a plane was shot down over Muom Village and they found the pilot’s leg in the forest.”

“Just his leg?”

“Yes, but it was a very big leg. My wife told me it was as tall as a man’s chest. This guy was a giant.”

“They’re all giants.”

“But this guy was really a giant.”

“People tend to be shorter in the mountains anyway.”

“It’s the lack of nutrients.”

“No sodium.”

“That’s right. The villagers buried this leg where they found it, but his ghost began to show up at night, knocking on people’s doors and asking for water.”

Long took a sip from his Heineken. “Why do ghosts ask for water anyway?”

“Not all ghosts. Only the ones who have lost a lot of blood while dying.”

“And did his entire body show up, or just his leg?”

“What do you mean?”

“When he knocked on people’s doors at night, what did people see: a leg, or the entire body?”

“You really don’t know?”

“No, I don’t.”

Mr. Mai raised his voice. “When you die, it doesn’t matter if all that’s left of you is your asshole, you come back as a whole person.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“That’s because you grew up in the city.”

“You’re right. There are no ghosts in the city.”

“There are a few, but not many. There are not many ghosts in the city because of electricity.”

“Tell me more about the American ghost.”

“This guy kept bothering the villagers, always showing up at night and asking for water, so they went back to the burial site and erected a little shrine. After that he stopped bothering them.”

“He’s getting more than he deserves for dropping bombs on them.” Long chuckled.

“But you can’t hold a grudge against a dead man. I’ve seen this shrine: There was a bottle of wine and a cassette player.”

“A cassette player?”

“Yes, a cassette player playing Soviet music.”

“Why Soviet music?”

“Because they didn’t have tapes of American music. This was in 1989, in a place where ‘monkeys cough, herons crow,’ where ‘dogs eat rocks, chickens eat pebbles!’ ”

“Whose idea was it to play him music?”

“I don’t know. But it makes sense if you think about it. They probably thought that since he was so far away from home, he would appreciate hearing some Western music.”

Dercum made a little noise. Without opening his eyes he said, “Are we almost there, Mr. Mai?”

“We’re almost there.”

“The only Americans I want to see this week are these two guys back there,” Long said. “I don’t want to see any ghost.”

“Don’t worry.”

But Mr. Mai did not explain to Long why the American ghost could not go home again. Maybe it was because he did not know the reason himself—he is, after all, also a city person.

When the American pilot was shot out of the sky, his body was scattered across several bodies of water. And a ghost, as any peasant will tell you, cannot cross a body of water, even a tiny brook, unless his own body is whole. So this American had nowhere to go but to stay where he was. From that point on, Muom Village would have to become his village. His asking for water from the villagers was only a ruse to be allowed inside someone’s house. That is, until they decided to build him his own house: the shrine. What the peasants saw when they opened their door to the American was simply his wish to be whole again. They all noticed, for example, that his uniform was untorn, and unstained by blood.

They crossed a truss bridge spanning a deep, leafy ravine, then turned onto a twisting dirt road descending steeply into a narrow valley. Crowding the road on both sides were elephant grass, patches of daisies, mango trees, mangosteens, bamboo, creepers, and a hundred different vines even the locals don’t have names for. A copper-colored river appeared and disappeared through the foliage. Shafts of pale light pierced through the bluish-gray clouds, and in the sky someone’s kite was spiraling. Now they saw the first villager: a small girl walking toward them alongside an albino buffalo. As they passed, she stared at them blankly and did not wave. Now came the village: thirty houses clustered together, surrounded by rice paddies. The encircling mountains were covered by mist.

[Dien Bien Phu, 1995]