Street Stories and Portraits

[Trương Công Định Street in Vung Tau, 4/14/22]

I live on Trương Công Định Street. Leading up to 6,000 men, he fought the French in the 19th century. On September of 1863, General La Grandière captured his wife and children. In August of 1864, he broke his spine in a battle. Some claim Trương Công Định committed suicide to avoid capture. Others insist he was executed. He was 44-years-old.

In Gò Công, just down the coast, there’s a large temple dedicated to him. Vietnamese worship their military heroes and martyrs. They don’t tear down statues of those who have ensured their continued existence.

For beating the Mongols twice in the 13th century, Trần Hưng Đạo has the most temples honoring him. Great feats should never be forgotten. Vietnamese have even erected a Trần Hưng Đạo Temple in Vientiane, Laos, and I’m quite shocked, really, there isn’t one in Westminster, California. Maybe it exists in some strip mall.

As for Vung Tau, its greatest hero is Võ Thị Sáu, who is credited with tossing a hand grenade at French soldiers on Bastille Day, 1949, killing one and injuring several. In 1952, she was executed at age 18 or 19. What happened in 1949 is still unclear. Many people in this area claim most of her victims were Vietnamese, with some even insisting she was mentally ill. In any case, there’s a Võ Thị Sáu Temple in nearby Đất Đỏ [Red Earth]. Her grave on Côn Sơn Island, where she was imprisoned, attracts hundreds of pilgrims daily. It’s often shrouded in incense smoke. Vietnamese ask her for better luck in life, love or with the lottery. On Côn Sơn, parents scare their misbehaving children by saying Võ Thị Sáu would show up to twist their necks.

We live on stories. Gossips aren’t just for the nosy. Revelations warn or teach. Tales entertain. Steadily fed bullshit, we become manure. Most importantly, stories ground us.

Singularly minded, sex tourists or sexpats, though, couldn’t care less about stories, and the few they happen to hear are spun by professional liars anyway. A Vietnamese noun for prostitutes, điếm, is also an adjective for “deceitful.” Ah, you so handsome, and not some sweaty old fuck making me want to throw up! You no small-time globalist raider!

[Ba Cu Street in Vung Tau, 6/18/22]

In Vung Tau, the street I spend most time on is Ba Cu, as in the capital of Azerbaijan. The best bay on the Caspian Sea, its name is likely derived from the Persian bad kube (“blown upon by mountain winds”). I’m on Ba Cu most days because that’s where Cafe Ca Dao is located, though in an alley. I’m sitting there right now.

Walking up and down Ba Cu, I’ve noticed a bunch of regulars, such as a man of around 60 who pushes his grandson’s stroller around each day, without fail, just before 6:30AM. Retired, Vietnamese grandparents are supposed to take care of their grandkids. At some point, this trim man in shorts will pray for a minute in front of the locked gate of Phật Bửu Tự Temple, with its turquoise, peach, pale pink and yellow ochre color scheme, many swastikas and Islamic doorways. A third of Vietnam was once an Islamic kingdom, Champa.

There’s a crazed homeless crone who’d glare at you. At night, she sleeps at a nearby wet market. People give her food. If strangers give her money, however, she’s likely to curse at them. Guests at funerals and weddings have discovered this. If especially enraged, she might hit herself or threaten to slam a beer bottle against her own head. Self-harm as protest, coherent or not, is a Vietnamese tradition. Monks immolating themselves is a sublime example.

At a cellphone and computer repair shop, there’s a curious sign, "FREE JOB TRAINING FOR THE HANDICAPPED, ORPHANS AND THE POOR."

In Vietnam, you'd see in public water dispensers and glass cases with loaves of bread, all left out by private citizens. Plus, there are charitable eateries that charge less than a dime, or even nothing at all, for a plate of rice with vegetables. Though all these aren't too common, the poorest know where they are, so it's literally impossible to starve here.

There’s a deeper story at the phone repair shop. Its owner was born with shortened arms, so he only hires handicapped people. The only exception is a man needed to lift heavy objects. Our boss married a pretty rural girl, who gave him two kids, but she has moved on to a Chinese businessman. No sweat. Bossman found an even younger and prettier replacement. Even with shortened arms, our charitable stud has no problems driving a car or even a motorbike.

Whatever you do, don’t buy anything from Davi Bakery, what a pretentious name in English, for its croissants and donuts are only croissant-shaped and donut-shaped travesties! Its fraudulent patés chaud also does not have yeast-leavened laminated dough!

Around 6:30AM each Saturday, there’s a line of shabbily dressed people outside Jamun Medical, a South Korean company that promises you a century of living, if only you’d buy its heated mattress, ceramic padded heated pillow, heated belt, health promoting necklaces, magical tablets and stone turtles, etc.

Often raising their hands, as if surrendering after some fierce urban skirmish, this line of Jamun sales reps would respond to prompts from a leader.

“Jamun?”

“Number one!” (in English).

“Merchandises?”

“Sold out!”

Before settling in Cafe Ca Dao for the day’s labor, I often get an egg sandwich from a man my age. Since introducing him to you, I’ve found out more, but such is one’s relationship with anybody. There are always more layers.

In Joyce’s “The Dead,” Gabriel gazed up at his wife standing at the top of the stairs, listening to some distant music, to realize he had had no inklings of her deepest wounds and longings. He didn’t know her. Rimbaud via Louise Varèse, “Should I have realized all your memories,—should I be the one who can bind you hand and foot,—I shall strangle you.” So inattentive, we barely notice anyone’s most blatant form.

An ex-cop who makes banh mi, he also takes his wife to Saigon once a week to buy clothing, to sell on a Vung Tau sidewalk. Paying just over $40 a month for rent, they get by, but what’s most astounding, I just found out, is that they’re also supporting two grown sons!

One, 36-years-old, was in a traffic accident just after graduation from high school, so now is little more than a vegetable. “He was such a smart and good looking kid. He had so many girlfriends.” His monthly disability payment is $41.33, so there’s the rent money.

His 30-year-old brother, though, is just a bum. Weighting up to 275 pounds, he’s now down to a more manageable 210, though a few months ago, he even huffed and sweated himself to 190, after eternities on a treadmill, bought by his parents.

Biggie has had just one job, as a parking attendant, but that didn’t last a month. A chain smoker if allowed, he’s only allotted six cigarettes a day. He spends all his waking hours playing computer games or watching movies and, I’m assuming, porn. Separated by a makeshift wall, his disabled brother lies in the same room, and at night, his dad shares his bed. His mom sleeps in the living room of their 230-square-foot home.

Four people, then, are crammed into a studio apartment, with one so large, he must count as two. Imagine this arrangement during a Covid lockdown! Many Vietnamese have even less living space.

If it’s hard to imagine a 275-pound Vietnamese, there’s a young man weighting 472 pounds in Bình Dương, near Saigon. With increased prosperity, much is possible. Economic collapse will also bring tons of surprises, if not shocks.

Brace yourself.

[Vung Tau, 6/13/22]