Ho Chi Minh City
‘Can you take me to the post office?’ She knows enough Vietnamese to fit together sentences, but she clutches onto English the same way she clutches onto her purse. She doesn’t trust the young men on their Hondas, offering rides for a mere US dollar. The greying man with floppy Bata sandals on his grey feet seems more honest. He reminds her of her father, loose-shirted and wiry-limbed, his skin leathery and dark from too much sun.
‘To the post office? Yes.’ His English is slow like an ox. It chomps up multi-syllabic words into easily digestible monosyllabic chunks, and swallows the consonants.
The girl clambers into the xich lo. The greying man stands, using all of his weight to push the pedals and gain momentum. They overtake grandmas with poles slung over their shoulders, fruit baskets dangling from either side like pans from Madame Justice’s scales. The Hondas overtake them in turn, and the young men are laughing. Unwieldy and slow, the xich lo is for Western tourists.
The girl pats her pocket where she keeps a fifty-dollar note and a copy of her passport folded and hidden in the battery compartment of a battered Nokia. She keeps both on her just in case the cong an officers mistake her for a local. Not that they would ever make that error. Her hands are white and smooth. She is soft like the idle Ho Chi Minh ladies who tuck pedicured feet into plastic heels before they go to the bakery. But the ladies were not always so idle, and their rouged faces are hard. So far, school has been the girl’s greatest adversity; she wears the unformed face of a child.
Outside the post office, the xich lo driver tells her how much she owes him.
‘Five US dollars!’ she says, still holding onto her preferred English. ‘That is too much.’
He is stubborn. ‘Five US.’
Five US is a day’s wage. Five US could buy her five pho ga. They both know he is sharking her. Disgusted, she pulls out a rumpled five-dollar note. It is plastic, pink and purple, and has the head of Queen Elizabeth etched on it, but the Australian dollar is close enough to the Greenback to pay for such larceny, and she thrusts it in his hand like it’s a shameful thing. The girl walks away with small, quick steps, one empty hand bunched by her side. Her Vietnamese pride smarts for being willingly duped, but her Western pride refuses to bargain with a man who makes five US dollars on a good day. Her sixty-four-year-old father mows lawns on forty-degree days and makes thirty Australian dollars an hour and six hundred dollars a week. Let the xich lo driver keep his tip.
The girl watches kids ride their bikes past the hairdressing salon. It is not really a salon. It is more of a backyard setup—there’s a dog and a TV, a Honda and a toddler in the same room, and the woman uses the kitchen sink to wash rags and rollers and other bits and bobs—but in Vietnam, backyard hairdressers are just as legit as the ones in the fancy shops, better because they don’t chop their clients with inflated prices.
The woman slathers dye over the girl’s scalp. It stings and will probably turn her hair into straw, but her cousin Chi Trinh has convinced her of this, and this woman is Chi Trinh’s neighbour, and the dye’s already in her hair, so she settles and tries to get Britney Spears out of her head. The ice-cream man has poor taste in Western music. Oops, he did it again, and now it’s Backstreet Boys. But he knows what sells and carts around durian-flavoured lumps in polystyrene cups with popsicle sticks poking out like fingers of incense. The kids chase after him like the kids do back at home.
The girl sighs. Home: one in a row of mild-mannered mock-Georgian townhouses dressed in ivory and clotted cream, where garden beds are carefully demarcated, where stone lions perch awkwardly on the steps outside.
The woman has succeeded in turning her hair into a fashionable shade of brown. Cousin Chi Trinh thanks the woman and counts out the thin notes she has earned from hawking cigarettes and chewing gum. Her customers buy one stick at a time, and grumble at the price. When the girl tries to repay her, Chi Trinh laughs, her ears blushing, and pushes the fat wad of notes away. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she says.
The afternoon drags. There is no homework, no English novels to read, no internet. The girl is a tourist, but there is nothing to see in her mother’s hometown. Chi Trinh confiscates the straw broom she has uncovered and confines her to the sofa.
She decides to get her photos developed. The shop near the bridge has just got a digital-photo-developing machine and it is cheap compared to home. She will pay extra for the matte surface. She will print copies and gift them to Chi Trinh. She decides this as her sandaled feet scuff the gravel roads that her mother once cycled through on a hand-me-down bike.
The kids who chased the ice-cream man now chase her denim and lace skirt. They point at her brown hair. They call out, ‘Co Dai Han, Co Dai Han.’ Korean Girl, Korean Girl. She pretends she doesn’t understand.
The air is full of rain, the clouds are full of rain, and it will rain any day now, the hawker who sold them the banh mi thit cha pronounced it so. Her mother tells her to eat the banh mi. She won’t get sick. Her stomach should be used to the food by now.
The girl has discarded her damp denim skirt with its lace underlay for her mother’s pyjama suit. It is light blue and spotted with white flowers. It does not crease when scrunched and dries quickly. When she puts it on, she likes to pretend that she is from a small village.
They catch a motorboat down to the royal tombs. At each tourist attraction, they must pay an entrance fee. Locals do not pay as much as the foreign tourists so her mother always asks for two local admissions. They are tourists, yes, but they are also Viet Kieu, expatriates, and can speak the language. The girl’s mother is sun-spotted from helping her father mow lawns. She splays her feet with each step. No self-respecting Viet Kieu would waddle the way she does. Meanwhile, the girl is wearing the pyjama suit, looking very much like a provincial visiting the big city, gawking at the most mundane things. Just before, she was agape at the sluggish, swollen turns of the Perfume River. In her twenty years of existence, the girl has never seen such a lake of a river before. The Yarra is a muddy trickle compared to it.
‘Give two local admissions,’ says the man at the booth outside Emperor Ming Mang’s tomb. His tone goes up and down in the wrong places, the Vietnamese equivalent to Pig Latin. Whether he is repeating or questioning her mother, the girl cannot tell. She can feel his scrutiny however; she maybe wearing a pyjama suit but her skin is too white. Korean maybe? Chinese? Japanese? And so, the girl opens her mouth, ‘Ma, Ma!’ The Vietnamese struggles against her, stubborn and unruly, but the man at the booth is from Hue and he dismisses her Western accent as an odd Southern dialect, and waves them through.
They can see the Middle Kingdom from across the river. Teo, her cousin, wants his photo taken with the flag in the distance, red and four-starred, similar yet dissimilar to his own. He is a true provincial, a country boy living five kilometres out from the fishing town of Phan Thiet, swallowing consonants even in his own dialect. Lao Cai is the furthest he has been from home.
He dogs her around Lao Cai market. The girl thinks it is overrated, but to Teo, it is the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, teeming with seventh-wonder black-market Chinese imports. He buys an electronic keyboard for his six-year-old daughter Hong. An electronic keyboard with a manual full of Chinese characters will transform Hong into a musical genius.
The keyboard is large. Teo must embrace it to carry it onto the train. Before Lao Cai, Teo has not been on a train before. Or maybe he has, but never in first-class, where four passengers share a private compartment and there are soft mattresses to sleep on.
They are a group of three, Teo, the girl, and her mother, so the fourth bed is occupied by a large Canadian woman. The woman’s eyes dart this way and that. She clamps her thighs together and jiggles but is too scared to leave her baggage in the hands of the three ‘locals’ firing rapid Vietnamese around her. Teo tucks his keyboard under the blankets and asks the girl’s mother to watch over it. He doesn’t want someone to nick his belongings either.
As the train’s wheels start to turn, he grabs the girl’s hand and they run down the carriage corridor. Their noisy progress baits the westerners. Like tortoises, fair-skinned men and women poke their heads out from the safety of their cells to watch a Vietnamese man and a girl in a blue pyjama suit flap past.
‘What are they doing?’ one asks. She clutches at her camera, the twenty-four-carat Pentax gold dangling around her neck.
‘Stealing our stuff that’s what.’
Oblivious, Teo sticks his head out of the window, neck stretched, eyes shut. The girl, on the other hand, looks over her shoulder at the tourists whose hands now hover over hidden money pouches. She stares and stares until they finally glance away.
Writing challenges: Thuy Linh Nguyen
Thuy is that type of writer that loves to be challenged into writing. According to her this is why she has regularly submitted to Peril, because each edition’s theme provoked a creative spark that she had to nurture. “The challenges don’t always have to be so structured. Sometimes it could be something as basic as writing from a point of view I don’t sympathise with, or writing in a genre that I’m uncomfortable with. I spent much of the last two years writing reviews because I hate writing reviews,” says Thuy.
While writing to Peril’s themes has facilitated some of her published work, she muses that she doesn’t think that her writing has a theme.
“I don’t think my writing has a theme. Maybe a mixture of disappointment and a feeling of disconnectedness? Even in the reviews. It’s rarely ever positive.”
“My parents taught me well,” jokes Thuy.
Finding names to suit the title of a story or a poem, is something that some creative writing types will agonise over. Possibly in the creative process, the right title comes at the end. What about finding the name to suit the author? Thuy had to grapple with this aspect of her identity.
“I had hoped that a pseudonym would free me from personal or professional obligations but instead I find myself restricted in other ways. Like a title of a story, Thuy Linh Nguyen is a promise I must choose to honour/dishonour. After reading Nam Le’s The Boat, I spent a couple of years deliberately avoiding ‘writing up to the name’ but now I just write whatever I feel like.”
While Thuy Linh Nguyen is not Thuy’s legal name, the name is her Vietnamese name. But, according to Thuy, “no one really uses it”, not even her parents.
Writing poetry for Thuy is more of an academic, rather than pleasurable exercise. Thuy explains, “This is perhaps due to the fact that I was made to rote learn it in Vietnamese school and dissect it in university. School ruins a lot of things. Having said that, I think I would be a very different writer if I hadn’t studied poetics at uni: I would be spending more time pondering over the etymology of each word instead of listening to the sounds”.
Thuy’s contribution to the Peril Map project theme of “terra/land/place” is a prose piece called ‘Tourist’ which evokes narratives of expatriates returning as tourists, or “Viet Kieu”. “When I travelled through Vietnam for the first time as an adult in 2004, the locals would mistake me for a Japanese/Korean tourist whilst other tourists would mistake me for a local. ‘Tourist’ is loosely based on these encounters, ” says Thuy.
“Even though it was written prior to Peril’s callout, it seemed like a good fit for the theme. Not only is it anchored geographically, it also reconstructs a sense of not belonging to a particular place. Not only does the protagonist feel uncomfortable with her home in Australia ‘where stone lions perch awkwardly on the steps outside’, she also feels out of place in Vietnam. Like Alice Pung’s Her Father’s Daughter, where Pung goes back to China and finds out that she has nothing in common with the people there, I think it’s a refreshing counterpart to the traditional migrant-experience-in-Australia narrative”. In terms of writing ‘Tourist’, Thuy reflects, “I said before that I would have turned out a very different writer if I hadn’t studied poetics. While I find poetry challenging and very subjective, I do draft in free verse before switching to prose. It enables the writing to sound less predictable. ‘Tourist’ came out of one of those free verse drafts.”
In terms of pinning her work/biography to a geographic location, Thuy says, “Much of my Vietnamese-Australian work borrows from places like Footscray (‘Footscray Whitewash‘) or Richmond (‘Poh/Pho‘) or make references to Thuy Nga and Paris By Night (‘Watching Home Videos’). My other writing is much more generic. ‘Renovations‘, for instance, could be set in any suburban house in Australia. I think that when I write a Vietnamese-Australian piece, I am often trying to recreate a line of thought or a memory of a time and a place; whereas with other writing, it’s more abstract.”
When I asked Thuy about the work that she is currently working on, Thuy replies matter-of-factly that she is currently “keeping a blog on personal finance”. Why, I wonder?
“It helps me keep out of the red. It’s not very challenging however and my writing muscles are probably suffering from major atrophy. But it forces me do things I wouldn’t necessary do like trying out clothes swaps and peeing on lemon trees.”
 Nguyen, Thuy Linh “Watching Home Videos”, in Verandah Literary and Arts Journal, volume 23