I’m renting a hotel room in Vung Tau for 0 a month. For just more, I could have had an air conditioner, but I don’t need it. Even the electric fan is often turned off. I have a TV, which I don’t watch. I’ve always preferred silence. I’m two minutes away from Mulberry Beach, the least popular in Vung Tau, so often, I find myself swimming alone, or with just a handful of others. Just offshore, there are small fishing boats and freight ships. A fisherman may float on just a woven basket, or paddle his tiny rowboat with his feet. Standing in shallows, bronzed men cast nylon nets. Onshore, there are restaurants and hotels, mostly modest if not shabby, but still clean. Five-star hotels and loud discos are on the other side of
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I have a TV, which I don’t watch. I’ve always preferred silence.
I’m two minutes away from Mulberry Beach, the least popular in Vung Tau, so often, I find myself swimming alone, or with just a handful of others. Just offshore, there are small fishing boats and freight ships. A fisherman may float on just a woven basket, or paddle his tiny rowboat with his feet. Standing in shallows, bronzed men cast nylon nets. Onshore, there are restaurants and hotels, mostly modest if not shabby, but still clean. Five-star hotels and loud discos are on the other side of the island. Around Mulberry Beach, four factory girls from Saigon can share a $8.63 room, so that’s their weekend getaway.
The slimmest walleted can even rent just a hammock for the night. You’ll share a large room with a number of snoring, belching and farting bodies, and while that’s not such a big deal, there’s also a damnable rooster that will start to crow at just after 2AM, and he’ll keep it up episodically until well after dawn. Sleep well!
During the boat people era, corpses routinely washed up on Vung Tau beaches, for it was near suicide to escape on an unseaworthy vessel, but such was their desperation. Though every local past a certain age remembers this horror, it’s recorded in no history book, so what else is new?
During the Vietnam War, 61,000 Australian troops were stationed in Vung Tau altogether, and many have returned to live out their last days, for just like half a century ago, they can still get plenty of sun, sea, sand and, well, a young pussy, though they might have to marry her now. Together, they can start a business. All over Vung Tau, you can see bars and restaurants that are clearly envisioned and even named by a Westerner. There’s Billabong, Down Under, Bearded Clam, Ned Kelly and The Office-The Way Work Was Meant to Be, etc.
The main hub for Aussies and Kiwis is Belly’s Watering Hole. With its large, airy space filled with comfortably spaced tables, it resembles a community center, and there’s even a library. Its 200 or so books are mostly garbage, however, with volumes by Ian Irvine, Sandra Brown, Lisa Unger, Scott Sigler and Alex Palmer, etc. Opening at 7AM, it’s patronized mostly by older white men who, more often than not, sit alone, to space out, listen to music with headphones, play computer games, read or eat in silence. They just want to wind down in peace.
All the waitresses are pretty, young women who must also speak enough English to understand what the fuck these old farts are saying. Bantering, though, is mostly out of reach.
Bald and pot-bellied Strayan, “Where’s Douglas?”
Viet Lolita, “He go bee.”
“He went to the ladies’ room?”
“He go bee.”
This raises an obvious question. If those two, say, get married, what can they possibly talk about before sleep? Even with a relationship built on humping, fellatio and cornholing, you must still chatter with your partner before and afterwards, and all day long too, for language is at the heart of all human interactions. A constantly compromised, frustrated and degraded dialogue must mess up an already suspect emotional bond.
Leaving Belly’s one day, I stumbled upon Century Fish and Chips, with two white guys sitting at the front.
“Is the fish and chips here any good?” I asked them.
“It’s all right.”
“And you too?” I asked the second man.
“He’s not from Chicago!” the first guy interjected. “He’s from some dumb place in Illinois!”
“And where are you from?”
“DC. And you?”
“Philly. I lived there for about 30 years.”
“Hey, it’s good to hear an American accent. All you hear around here is Australian!”
“He’s Australian,” the first guy nodded towards a balding, white mustachioed man sporting an earring, elaborate biceps tattoos, blue dress shirt with cut off sleeves and plaid shorts. “He just got married. Yesterday!”
His Vietnamese wife was maybe 30 years younger, and together, they owned this just-opened restaurant. The slim lady had her hair cut short and dyed blonde. She had been married for 14 years to an abusive Vietnamese, she later told me.
In every country, there are bad husbands who cheat, scream, drink too much or can’t bring home the carbohydrates, but in Vietnam, there’s also the added hell of wife-beating or a tyrannical mother-in-law, who often lives in the same house. Though “mẹ chồng, nàng dâu” simply means “husband’s mother, daughter-in-law,” it connotes the all-too-familiar abuse of the younger woman by the hag.
Often, the fury also has veto power over her son’s choice of a wife. One evening by the sea, I met a balut vendor who said she couldn’t marry the man she loved because of objections from both their families.
To cheer her up, I offered, “I’m only in Vung Tau because I just had a huge, violent fight with my mother-in-law. The old lady threatened to stab me more than ten times!”
She laughed. I laughed. It’s good to make people laugh.
It pains me very much to write this, because it involves a hurting toddler, my 2-year-old nephew, Suki. My mother-in-law has been abusing the poor child psychologically and even physically, for as long as I’ve been able to observe them together, which is nearly his entire life.
I witnessed a six-month-old Suki routinely overfed, so that he would often vomit. I saw the old woman press down the screaming child for half an hour at a time, to force feed her gross concoction into his mouth. When he spat this out in terror and pain, the old woman would rage and scream.
I’ve heard her say to Suki, “I’ll break your leg,” “I’ll tie you up with a rope” and “I’ll beat your mother to death,” which is the Vietnamese way of saying, “I’ll beat the living fuck out of you.”
Once, the old lady hit Suki on the ear in the presence of his mother, May.
May, “Don’t do that, mom. You’ll make him deaf!”
Old lady, “Let him be deaf!”
Why would anyone talk this way to a child, and why is she so angry?
My mother-in-law’s first husband was an ARVN captain who spent 13 years in a Communist reeducation camp. With her husband jailed indefinitely, she fled to her father-in-law in Can Tho, but he refused to accept her and her two young children into his household. Back in Saigon, the Communists then confiscated without warnings her stalls at Binh Tay Market, so there went her income. Desperate, she married a hickish and vapid Chinese, Sen, from way down the coast, who was already married and with a son, it turned out, not that Sen cared about them. Still doesn’t.
With Sen, she had a daughter, May, but then he cheated on her, with a fat and ugly Chinese in Cho Lon. Sharing the same language and culture, they could become genuine intimates. Even after she went blind and became an invalid, he stayed with her, until death. Despairing, my mother-in-law tried to hang herself, but botched her entry into a permanent hell. Though she and Sen stopped sleeping together, they have continued to share the same roof.
Those who’ve read my novel, Love Like Hate, would have recognized many of these details, so now you know, Kim Lan is based on my mother-in-law.
Although the lady has every reason to be deranged, she has no rights to abuse any child, but why doesn’t May intervene, and where is his dad?
In Love Like Hate, Kim Lan is also married to a Chinese Sen, and this chess playing man wants their daughter, Hoa, to wed a much older Taiwanese who’s missing a hand. Hoa is partially based on May, and the Taiwanese also exists in real life.
Although I’ve sometimes been accused of making everything up, I paint just about everything from life, so that even my fiction is barely fictional. I’m inspired by what Thomas Hart Benton said, “Every detail of every picture is a thing I myself have seen and known. Every head is a real person drawn from life.”
The fictional Hoa has much more integrity than the real life May, however. She believes in love and rebels against tyrannical family pressures. In real life, May did shack up with the one-handed Taiwanese for nearly five years, all for money, and she’s reeled in a few other foreigners as well, with the full support of her mother.
While May pleasured the Taiwanese at his apartment, the old lady cooked and did the laundry for him at home, so several times a day, food and clothing must be shuttled back a forth, a task assigned to her oldest son. Three Vietnamese, then, lived only to service one Taiwanese, but of course, he tipped them well.
In May’s presence, the Taiwanese boasted to me twenty years ago, “I’ve slept with over one hundred Vietnamese whores,” so May was just one more, except that she’s really a “rented girl” [“gái bao”], which was actually worse, for she had to be a loving whore all day long, year after year, without the time and space to regain herself. A mere whore can drop her act, go home, relax and fuck her real choice.
Dumbshits may think a whore’s main task is cock sucking, and while that should never be discounted, it’s her drama skill that’s essential and most developed, for she must act sweet and inviting to all comers, no matter how repulsive she may find any banger, or how she felt at that moment.
Speaking of bangers, I’ve already found two places in Vung Tau that serve smashing bangers and mash, for both VBF and Offshore Bar were owned by Brits. Though those two have left, their Vietnamese cooks still know how to dish up authentic English classics. At Offshore, I just had a heartening Sunday roast, complete with roasted potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and cauliflower cheese.
We’ll get back to Suki’s terrible dilemma, but I need a brief break from what is too painful a scenario. I’m typing this in Offshore. Just a moment ago, there was an eruption of English, mostly pidgin. As an old Aussie paid his tab, the barmaid rejected his money, for his 500,000 dong bill was too beat up.
“Maybe it’s fake money,” he laughed.
“No fake. Old. You change.”
“Maybe they’ll put me in the monkey cage for this!”
“Tiger cage,” I corrected him, referring to the infamous prison on Côn Đảo, in the same province as Vung Tau.
“Yeah, that’s right, tiger cage!” He laughed and showed me the rejected bill.
“Look at this,” I said, “it’s clearly fake and you’ve defaced Ho Chi Minh’s face, too! That’s an even more serious crime. You’re fucked!”
“I better tear it up!”
“No, you better run to the airport,” and for a second, the old dude stopped laughing, with images of Midnight Express, probably, running through his cobwebbed mind.
During the Vietnam War, the Aussies ran a prisoner of war camp in Dirt Mountain [Núi Đất], near Vung Tau. It had a sign, “NUI DAT REST CENTRE / BED BREAKFAST / BODYGUARDS / RUNNING WATER.”
Suki is also a prisoner, I’m afraid, and also of the Vietnam War, if only indirectly. I tried to intervene as delicately or forcefully as I could. Repeatedly, I talked to the old lady, May and the child’s father, Quan, who was also my boss at the plastic recycling plant in Ea Kly. Whenever in Saigon, I tried to spend as much time as possible with Suki, for each second in my presence meant one less second with his psycho grandma. Lying on the hammock, she scowled while staring at FaceBook, and only lifted her head to glower at the world. Together, Suki and I escaped this madhouse to go for long walks through alleys, or spend a couple hours in a nearby amusement park or shopping mall. At home, I played toy cars with this wonderful child.
I taught Suki many new words: crab, shrimp, fish, stingray, dolphin, pig, cow, horse, deer, duck, chicken, dragon, temple, church, banana, durian, rambutan, mushroom, grape, apple, orange, red, yellow, blue, white, gray, green, purple, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, car, truck, bus, bicycle, motorbike, etc., and he loved each new word, for he was super eager to learn. With a surprisingly low voice, he would roar, “Craaaab!” and never tired at looking at crabs at any market. He was fascinated by cement mixers, and one of his first fully formed sentences was, “It spins around and around!”
At home, his grandma only made him fold his arms, bow and say, “Yes” or “Sorry, grandma.” How can any two-year-old be guilty of so many transgressions that he must constantly apologize to his tormentor? She didn’t want to teach him anything but abject submission, to her.
She also encourages Suki to hit people, starting with his nanny. Handing him the feather duster, the old lady would say, “I give you this so you can hit her, all right?” Once she urged Suki to hit his own dad. All this I saw being in that house part time, for I lived primarily in Ea Kly.
With the handle of the feather duster, she also hits Suki whenever she feels like, for it’s an adequate weapon to war against a terrified infant. It was one such strike that triggered our final blow up. From the crazed woman, Suki learnt “feather duster,” as a word with terrible implications.
Walking into a room where there were just the nanny, me and Suki, she angrily snarled, “Who teased you?”
“No one teased him, mother,” I answered.
“Whoever teases you, I’ll beat him to death!”
“Don’t talk so violently in front of Suki, mother.”
“But I must teach him. You’re always interfering!”
It’s not senility that has made her like this. She’s always been verbally violent. Twenty years ago, I heard her scream at a domestic servant for nearly three hours, but with brief interruptions, of course, so she could catch her breath and refuel her rage.
Suki is a sensitive and intelligent child, and actually looks out for your needs. I’ll give you but two examples, out of so many. Once at a shopping mall playground, he soiled his diaper, so I took him to the men’s room. Changing his diaper, I was briskly efficient, to get him back to his fun as quickly as possible.
“There, Suki, you’re all clean!”
As I picked up Suki to carry him back to the playground, he asked, “Have you peed yet, papa Linh?” And this from a child who was just starting to talk.
One afternoon, I met a friend for lunch, but the food was too spicy for a toddler, so Suki didn’t get any, but as we were eating, Suki said, “Let me spoon-feed [đút],” and with that, he grabbed the spoon from my hand and spoon-fed me.
Startled, my friend took out his phone to record the unusual spectacle of a two-year-old feeding an old man.
Strangers everywhere brighten when they see him. As we walked through a dark alley one evening, a stranger called from her third floor balcony, “Hello, my child!” We looked up to see an old woman, smiling brightly. “What a lovely child. I just want to wish you good night, my child.”
Suki loves to look at the moon, and it was one of the first word he learnt. “There’s the moon!” he would shout, night or day. When the was no moon, Suki would explain, “Clouds are covering it.” Now, how can you possibly not see how special this child is, and yell at him so much to make him cry or tremble?
Years before marrying me, my wife was engaged to a Vietnamese-Canadian, but changed her mind. When she called off the wedding, the old lady went berserk and yelled at her for several years, until my wife popped an entire bottle of pills. At the hospital, they pumped her stomach and saved her miserable life.
Since Offshore Bar is vast, I’d move from table to table, or just walk all over.
Barmaid, “Why are you so sad, brother?”
“I’m not sad, I’m sick of life. There’s a difference!”
She laughed. It’s good to make anyone laugh, but then Vietnamese will laugh at just about anything. A century ago, the great scholar Pham Quynh complained about this.
In one of Offshore’s pool rooms, there are three painting reproductions, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. This heroic image of an imperial white man on a fiery steed is super popular across Vietnam, and I’ve seen it in a private living room, in miniature on an ostentatious gate and on the facade of a four-star hotel, etc.
The Taiwanese actually proposed to May, but she said no, for she wanted to go to the US, not Taiwan, so they kept screwing, until he got a bit tired of it, inevitably. Needing fresh sensations, he bedded a few others, for young and desperate pussies were all over. Dude hardly had to look. These predator pussies tracked him down, clamped their soft, wet maws over his defenseless meat, as he tried to fend them off with one pitiful, feckless hand. When May caught him, they fought, but as a rented girl, she had no leverage, really. After nearly five years together, they split, but it was no loss to May, for she got hers, all right, and so did the old lady.
For a century, America has relentlessly advertised itself as the richest, coolest and sexiest promised land ever, so of course, billions want to swarm in, for to be washed up on its shore would be the culmination of their lives and solve all their problems. It’s like an incel craving to shove in it for the very first time, so you haven’t been fucked, you strafed or napalmed jungle bunny of color, until you’ve been loved by the lovely United States of America!
With the Taiwanese out of the way, May could begin her search for an American sucker in earnest, but every other Vietnamese slut was doing the same, so she couldn’t reel in any. To improve her chances, she studied English extra hard, though not hard enough to, say, read this article. My in-laws shun all texts longer than menu items or FaceBook babbling. Words, to them, are just annoying thickets.
Online, May finally found her match, some lonely dude in Illinois named Monty.
It should be obvious that no man would look across the globe for a lifemate he couldn’t really talk to unless he’s completely unwanted in his own society. Flirting in retarded English and likely flashing, May lured this chronic masturbator to Vietnam, and Monty dug what May had, up to three times a night, so decided to marry her.
Donning the traditional Vietnamese headband and tunic, Monty marched down May’s alley to her house, past two rows of male and female greeters, plus a throng of curious onlookers. Inside, he offered her parents’ cups of rice wine and bow three times to the family altar. Monty and May also made a romantic wedding video that’s filled with the most earnest love songs, starting with Ave Maria, “You by my side, that’s how I see us!”
There’s also “Because I Love You” by Shakin Stevens, “If I got down on my knees and I pleaded with you / If I crossed a million oceans just to be with you / Would you ever let me down?” Monty did cross half a continent and the world’s largest ocean, only to be spun around and around by a young broad with a jaded mind, heart and pussy, but hey, dude got his licks in. Monty chose all these songs, obviously. May couldn’t follow the lyrics.
Wedding over, Monty went back to his double wide abutting a cornfield, to wait for May’s arrival, but she never came, for she was finally introduced to the term “trailer trash.” She investigated what it meant and brooded over it. Hell no, I ain’t going there!
Although May decided Monty was a no-go, she and the old lady thought they could just come to Illinois for a quick look, see America, you know, then find an excuse to go home. How can you pass up a chance to glimpse the most magnificent place on earth ever?
When I heard of this idiotic plan, I said to my wife, “If they try to pull that stunt, Monty’s going to shoot them both! He thinks he has a real wife, you know, and he has relatives who can’t wait to meet her. You can’t use people like that!” Since May and the old lady never boarded that plane, I may have saved their lives.
Monty ditched, May had to stalk anew, and it took a while before she managed to snag some Vietnamese-American, a disturbed man she nicknamed “Black Pig.” Once more, there’s an elaborate wedding, with his parents and relatives arriving from the US, but this marriage didn’t even survive the honeymoon. In Thailand, Black Pig fought with May and grabbed her arm so hard, it left a nasty bruise, forcing her to wear long sleeves for the rest of the trip. Black Pig also picked a fight with my wife. From Black Pig’s own sister, May discovered he had been arrested in the US for throwing a woman into a swimming pool, so this Romeo, too, was out.
Now what? All too soon, May celebrated her 35th birthday, and not in New York, Florida or California, say, but Saigon’s District 6, where she had spent her entire life. Nothing had gone according to plans. Her biological clock was also ticking, not that May gave a shit about being a mother.
Three years ago, Quan showed up. A competent businessman with simple taste and no vices, he’s also tall, soft spoken and reverent towards his elders, so May lassoed him. Together, they’ve already had two kids, Suki and his little brother, but there’s no marriage certificate or wedding, so what’s the deal?
Seeing how much I loved Suki, May suggested that I formally adopted him about a year ago. Odd, I thought. Declining, I explained that Suki would be hurt knowing his own mom had abandoned him, but a few months later, May offered Suki to me again, so what’s up? Each time, she did it indirectly through my wife, I should clarify. Why would Quan consent to this? I immediately thought the first time.
Only in Vung Tau, with enough time to think about this, have I figured it all out. May wants me to adopt Suki so I can take him to the US, and when he’s old enough, he can bring her there also. May hasn’t given up her American dream. Without a marriage certificate, Quan has no rights to the child, so won’t be able to prevent this. He’s only used as a breeder, in short, or am I being too cynical?
With Quan having no legal rights to his kids, May can still marry an American, one who doesn’t mind having two stepsons, or she can pay for a fake marriage, and the going rate is at least $40,000. This process is complicated, however, for one must convince US Immigration that the marriage is for real, through several steps lasting years, and if you’re rejected, well, back to Ho Chi Minh City you go!
With May, one can’t be cynical enough, for she’s always scheming, and Quan is too much of a doofus to realize this. Quan was already 40 when he met her, and it’s weird for any Vietnamese man of that age to have never been married, and this guy even had cash. Like many other semi successful businessmen, Quan’s too smug and thinks he knows everything, but this conceit may cost him dearly, including access to his own kids. Quan’s a simpleton.
Before I left Saigon, I called him, “Quan, we must talk, man to man. It’s very important. Come to that grilled beef place as soon as you can. I’m already there.”
From me that afternoon, Quan found out that his “wife” had already been married twice, with neither out of love, and that she was a rented girl to an old Taiwanese for five years, and that his “mother-in-law” was not this kindly old lady with Confucian values, but a calculating woman who allowed her beloved 20-year-old daughter to have sex for money. All this I said so Quan knew exactly who he was dealing with.
“If you make a billion dollars and have a hundred factories, Quan, you’ll still be a complete failure if you fail to protect Suki now,” I said. “No child should feel unsafe in his own house. The other day, when I carried him home after a walk, he simply looked dejected, he didn’t want to go home, so I asked, ‘What are you afraid of?’ I know Suki and his moods. He was afraid to go home because of the crazed woman.
“Before he was even one-year-old, I taught him to pay at the café, and he did it eagerly, happily. Now he won’t do it and won’t look people in the eyes. Neighbors who know him well now ask me, ‘What’s wrong with Suki?’ He’s screamed at so much, he’s afraid to engage people.
“A father’s most sacred duty is to protect his child, Quan. Two weeks ago, when the mad woman was again screaming at Suki, I said, ‘Mother, I can’t take this anymore, so I’ll leave this house for good tomorrow morning. You can kill him tomorrow if you want, but spare him for tonight at least, so I can play with Suki one last time?’ I was just trying to get Suki away from the crazed woman, but why should anyone have to say that? And why should any child have to put up with such psychological torment? Suki was trembling. You know what the mad woman said? She said, ‘Leave this house if you want, but I must teach this kid! Otherwise, people will laugh at him.’”
No one is laughing at Suki, idiot, but only you, for benefiting from your daughter’s cunt for sale.
That night, I took Suki to my room and tried to cheer him up, but he merely lay in the corner, like a wounded dog, in silence. Next evening, Suki teared up when I carried him into the living room, for the previous day’s trauma was still fresh.
When there’s nothing on the line, Quan would gush to Suki, “Oh, you’re my piece of gold,” a Vietnamese term of endearment, but when his child needed him the most, this man would stand in silence as the old woman screamed at Suki. Understandably, the two-year-old is already showing contempt to his own dad, for he’s often stone faced when addressed by Quan. “He won’t talk to me,” Quan has complained to me several times.
Suki’s real name is Thiên Ân, meaning God’s Gift, so this radiant, celestial child has been sent here to teach May and the old lady how to be kind, attentive and reverent, but it clearly hasn’t worked. May and the old lady seem too damaged to be fixed. Yes, they buy Suki expensive clothes, but these are not meant to please the child, but flaunt their relative wealth. It’s all about appearance. Likewise, May loves to snap cute photos of Suki, some with ridiculous sunglasses, to post on FaceBook, but she won’t cook one meal for her son. She doesn’t know how and won’t learn.
Is this depressing or what? My heart tightens. To lift the gloom a bit, I wander to the bar to chatter with Ron, a 53-year-old Filipino who’s been in Vietnam just five months. Though Ron didn’t know a bloody mary from a martini, he was immediately hired as a bartender here, thanks to his barely adequate English.
Like me, Ron also has family troubles. After 25 years of marriage, Ron has separated from his wife, and that’s why he’s in Vung Tau.
“So you and I are, like, the same,” I laugh. “We’re both adrift.”
“I’ve never been to the Philippines, Ron, but I must go. Maybe I can go to Baguio and become a bartender, just like you here!”
Ron laughs, though his gentle face is still shrouded by worries. He’s removed from his two kids.
It is another day, and I’m in the ocean, alone, just after dawn. Facing the shore, I can see a huge madonna hoisting up a baby Jesus, with his arms outstretched, a happy infant. It’s one of several gigantic religious statues on this island.
“If I could cry, I’d cry,” I think of Stanley Kunitz’ line, “but I’m too old to be anybody’s child,” then I start to pray, not to Jesus or Buddha, but simply Sky, the traditional Vietnamese word for God, “Sky, please protect Suki. Please protect him, please. Please protect Suki.”
Floating, I turn to face the ocean, and though I try very hard to will it into being, no corpse of a crazed woman float into view, with her skin greenish black from blistering and much of her face bitten off by some innocent fish, but it is not entirely hopeless. The old woman is in terrible health and should die soon. Suki will have a tranquil childhood, I pray.
Suki, angelic child, you deserve so much better than to be in that madhouse, and I’m deeply sorry I couldn’t do anymore. Please forgive me. I tried my best. I’m very sorry.
When your grandma is finally gone, I’ll be in your life again. No one will stop me. Papa Linh will return soon.
Reprinted with the author’s permission.