Rat meat

“Ah you grew up in Soc Trang. I did not know that. Quite a nice place, they drink very much there.” Trung spoke and put the two New Rice bottles on the only table still resting in the plaza. He opened one and cleaned the small cup with a tissue that I did not know where he found, filled the cup with the spirit and gave it to me.

“Thank you. We drink a lot tonight here also. We drink all a lot in this country.”

“No, Soc Trang is quite different. I have been there a few times, drink from morning to night for many days. The food is good, rat meat is very delicious, grilled or roasted with garlic. Do you come back there often?”

“Not as I wish to. I miss Soc Trang very much.” I finished the cup, filled another one and gave it to Trung. Trong was still sitting but now sleeping, his chin pointed to the chest. He breathed steadily.

“I see. There are lot of developments there. The country is changing. You will not recognise when you come back there.”

“What I hear about is there is a lot of corruption. Few years ago is in billions, now it is hundreds of billions, thousands of billions.”

“Yeah. It is very bad. You see, a few corrupted officers that spoil, and there are also self-changing officers.” Trung said robotically and finished his round.

“Not that a few. Stop kidding to me.”

“Since the Politburo published last year the Central Decree number four the situation is very much improved. The General Secretary has well defined the weak points in every officer, the degradation of moral, bad way of life. It helps to…”

“If you continue to speak like that, we had better go home and sleep. Stop it, it’s enough.”

“What?”

“Stop lying. You can say anything, anything, but not lying. There is no use, no point to stay here telling me these stuffs.”

“Keep calm guy. You drink too much.” Trung somehow astonished.

“I am perfectly OK.” I replied calmly. “If you continue likewise, it is a waste of our time and spirit. We can always go home now.”

Trung looked away a while, silent. He then took the bottle, filled the cup, raised it to his nose, smelled it as carefully as it was his first time drinking. He then rose his head, that I could saw his throat, raised the cup and finished it in one go. He then put the cup gently back on the table. We were still silent.

Love

In the middle of the plaza were many small restaurants, or let’s say, eating places, where foods were prepared and presented in small carts, surrounded by some wooden chairs and tables. While approaching a cart where the smoke was the most visible I found that they did not sell only sticky rice but also many other things: soft drinks, tobacco, and a few spirit bottles.

“Three big packets of sticky rice, brother.” Trung ordered.

“Which one, brother?” The owner asked. He was small, thin and dark skinned, nearly fifty years old, I guessed. A relatively fat woman, his wife possibly, stayed in a corner from the cart. She was occupied slicing a big part of pork, very seemingly not for the sticky rice. Discovering that I was looking, she looked up and explained “Brother, it is for tomorrow, just take advantage of the night that we don’t have many clients that I prepare this for tomorrow rice restaurant at noon. These days it is not that easy.” I smiled gently to her.

At the other end of the cart, a girl at around ten years old was standing, doing nothing. She had big eyes on a thin face.

“Whatever. No, wait. One sweet packet and two with meat and smashed dry fish. Is it OK for you guys?” Trung asked us.

“Whatever. Don’t worry.” Trong replied.

“How old are you, my niece?” I asked the small girl.

She was somehow shy, looked down and delayed to reply. “Eleven years old, brother. She is in year 5 now. You know, we try to keep her at school. For her future, brother.” Her father replied instead.

“Why is she here? It is late now.”

“I told her. But she doesn’t want to stay at home. She tells she is sad at home alone. Anyway, she used to be at home more than stay here, brother.”

“You like to go somewhere to drink more? I am too sober now. I take you to another place, very nice.” Trung asked and winked.

“Um um.” Trong replied reluctantly.

“Why don’t we just drink here?” I asked.

“Here? You crazy? Nothing to drink here.” Trung spoke.

“Let’s drink here guys. We have lot of spirits there.” I pointed at the few bottles on the counter where the small girl was standing. “Drink here to be nearer to the people guys.”

Trung looked at me, astonished, he looked quickly around.

“OK guy.” He tapped on my back. “You good, you good man. Hahaha.” He turned to the owner. “Give us two New Rice bottles my niece. Yeah, that’s right. These sausages, cucumbers, give us all. And a pack of Three Number Fives. No, The Cat is better.”

“Three packs of The Cat, please.” I spoke and tapped on Trung’s shoulder. “It will be a long night.”

I reached for my pocket, took the money and gave it to the man. “Keep it. Go home. Give us the food, drinks, tobacco and close it all and go home. We will be fine here with these chairs and a table.” I turned to the small girl. “And my niece, study well, please. It is important, important. OK?”

“Yes. Thank you, uncle.” She looked at me, mumbled.

I stayed silent a while and afterwards stepped away from the cart. It was silent now the plaza. Nearly all other carts have been closed. I saw at the other end of the plaza the imposing, large façade of the market, painted in yellow with some opening stripes in white. There were some letters or numbers carved on the façade that I could not see from afar. Should be very old, hundreds of years old this market and plaza. Everything was so intimate, so close to me, the plaza, the market, the houses and the electrical wires in big bunches. I can’t leave this place any more, never any more.

I felt suddenly the love, love for this plaza, love for the river that flows near here, love for the banana leaves scattered below me, love for the girl with big eyes on thin face, love for Trung, the communist party member, the rising star of the town, whatever he had spoken, or he and his colleagues did or do or will do to me. A sudden love of a moment, isn’t it enough?

The town market’s plaza

The car left the high street, made a few turns and entered a smaller street, which seemed dustier and less well lit by streetlights. The car was slowing down and I could feel the bumpy road and the wheel crunching the gravels. On the two sides of the street instead of imposing buildings there were now lines of and small shops and houses: cafeteria, DVD shop, barber shop with neon lights, some hotels with giant price boards of 100 K VND/hour or 200 K VND/night at the entrances. The hotels were still half open; I could see inside some rows of motorcycles. No one was at the reception; on the counter there was just a small cylinder in green colour, from where we can buy some chewing gums or other things needed for the stay in the hotels.

The car made a gentle turn to leave the street and stopped completely at a big open square space. We were now at the town market’s plaza, the heart of every town in the South of Vietnam.

The plaza was in the middle of four streets and surrounded by buildings of different heights, most of them two or three floors with narrow surfaces. The car parked before a building that extruded to the road with a dark glass facade going from the first floor to the top, which looked very much like a Karaoke restaurant or some kind of office building. Next to it was another high rise building, so high that I couldn’t see its top, but could only tell that it is a jewellery shop thanks to the white board in front with Vietnamese and Chinese mingling letters in red.

At the corner of the plaza was a large two floor house, an old French architecture house. The balcony of the house was in rugged cement and painted in white, not as other house nearby where the balconies were all in metal. There were different types of vegetation that cover all the width of the balcony on the first floor. The house hosted a tailor shop. There was a board at the front with an elegant old style letters “Tailor Lan Huong” and below some smaller ones “Fashion Western and American”. The letters were painted so gracefully that they caught my eyes a few seconds. Lan Huong or Fragrance of Orchid, what a romantic and illusory name. Is it the name of a woman, the wife of the owner, or his daughter?  The shop was obviously close; otherwise I would have got in to meet with its owner.  Or I could come back tomorrow morning.

All the buildings were built differently and did not have anything in common in style. They were spotted at the front by tall lamp posts, which in turn bore on them big bunches of black and twisted electrical wires. Separately the buildings seemed so chaotic and disordered but put together they went on very well. They looked so pleasing, full of charm, and most of all very natural and intimate.

“Let’s make a breath of air outside guys!” Trung said. I woke up my my friend, Trong, and we all got out of the car.

“That’s it. Here we are in the heart of the town, of the market. Have you ever been to a town market’s plaza in the South of Vietnam?”

“Guy, I grew up in Soc Trang.” I replied. We were heading to some eating places still open late to the night in the middle of the plaza. I could see the smoke coming from a cart, there could be some sticky rice or rice porridge there.

The professor

“Do you hear about the professor recently expelled to France?” I asked my wife. We all now got to the kitchen. Kim was already there, particularly calm on her heightened chair, sucking her milk bottle. I hugged her and grabbed the grind coffee box. She was always very slim as a needle; it’s why we called her Kim.

“No. What’s the problem?”

“He is a French – Vietnamese, a mathematician, professor Pham Minh Hoang. Came back to the country a few years ago and organised some classes to teach students about history and some living skills.”

“Again with all that movement. Remember to call your colleague to ask it for uncle. He has just phoned me again.”

“The professor was jailed once.”

“Is that not enough? He should have stopped it.”

“What do you mean enough? What enough is enough?”

“Thanh, I just care for him. He should know the danger living in this country and…”

“Care for him. You just don’t want to talk about these things.”

“You are right. Today I don’t want to talk about all this. We have to hurry up, please.”

“Not only today. You do never want to talk about these things.”

“No, I don’t want. No use knowing these things.”

“No use. You just want to stay silent. You should know the silence is not that good for us all. This country is silenced for so many years. No one cares about anything, anything. It is the reason that it is that bad. No more fish. Do you dare eating fish? Or fish sauce? Or salt?”

Ken had finished his breakfast and went to his room to change clothes. Unfortunately his sister could go nowhere, she was moaning. The milk bottle halfly finished fell from her mouth and spilled out on the table. She began to cry.

“That bad, that bad, it is your words. All our friends just don’t care about all that. They are doing quite well, very very well. Or if you would like to be jailed like him? Speak up!”

“You defy me?”

“No, I just want to live in peace, do my things and care for the family.”

“Care. You care for nothing!”

“It is you who care for nothing. You get all these stuffs on social network? Everything is fake.”

Kim was crying more and more loudly. And screaming now, and not only her.

“You use it well those social networks. You use it, shop with it all the times.”

“I shop for you all.”

“You defied me recently. You think that I dare not speak up? You think I am a coward? It is enough!! How dare you say so to your husband? And you want me to be jailed. You should be happy if so. You!”

“I have to go now. Kim, stop crying and go with me to the nursery. You take care of Ken, it is late, very late now. I have more than enough with your professor and the expel story. How on earth that I can support all that! Let me with peace, please.”

“You are fed up of everything, of life, of everything. You keep yourselves silent and you will see we all go to hell in this country. All to hell. What a…”

“Take your son to school soon. It is very late. Ken, get down here, now!”

The whiskey in the morning

“Wake up, darling. Not that early any more, wake up, wake up.”

“Ya, yaa,” I moaned drowsily “What time is it?”

“Six oclock already. You do some exercises with Ken. He got up already.”

“OK, OK.”

I got out of my son’s bed, went to the toilets and begun with all the morning matter. How I did find the way to his room a few hours ago? Did I publish what I wrote to only me and like it? Should be, as usual. On that I am very careful.

“How are you Ken? Slept well?” We named him Ken at home following favourite beer brand.

“OK daddy. But you snored too much.”

“Hum hum. Take it as a training. You may sleep under bombing noise one day. Be ready for war time.”

“Ya ya dad,” Ken accepted reluctantly. He was a little less grumpy than used to be. I was surprised.

“He was very bad last night. Playing with Ipad until very late. I had to keep it away,” My wife said.

“Do you know that you should not do that Ken? I have told you that Ipad is for studying only. You want to spoil your eyes?”

“No more Ipad for him. Studying? He just hangs around with all that bad things on the internet.”

“I’ll put a password and no more Ipad.” I said. Giving password is my speciality.

“It’s also because of you. I have told you many times that there is no use all these things Ipad, internet. He should read books; there are so many books to read.”

“Some searching on the internet may be good for him at this age.” I defended faintly.

Ken slid away to the kitchen to join his mother; I was alone in the living room. I felt a little bit detached, my head empty and my movement was light, as if I was floating. Regaining ourselves after a drinking night is never that easy. One of my techniques is to take a shot of whiskey in the following morning. People told that sometimes a glass of milk could also help. However between milk and whiskey, I preferred naturally the later. Furthermore it was handy; I was just next to it. I opened the glass cabinet discreetly, took a bottle out, found a teacup nearby. Great. The whiskey seemed to fill all the voids inside of me, I shook my head slightly to feel it again and stomped my feet to recuperate my weight. It was much better. I looked at the bottle a while and tried to put it back to the cabinet.

The mother

I climbed up to the first floor and opened gently the door to our bed room; the small child and her mother were sleeping there, calmly. The other room was still open; my son was sleeping also. He forgot to turn off the light. I looked around the room, his desk, the bed, to find the Ipad. I did not see it. Good sign, so far. He was playing too much with the Ipad these days. We could not stop him using it; sometimes he also needed the Ipad for some learning, at least following him. Our rule was that he could use Ipad, but not that stick to it all the time, particularly not to go to bed at night with the Ipad, which means he would not sleep at all. He was ten years old and I found taking care of him could be even more chaotic than of his two years old sister. The most difficult task was to find him a decent- God knows what decent means- school. In this aspect, we were still old-style comparing to our friends who sent all their children to private international school. He was going to a public school, a kind of having some good reputation in the district. To do that, we had fortunately not paid too much, only around 50 millions VNĐ or 2000 USD, quite a fair price thanks to the help of Trang’s uncle who had some connection in the District Education Office. Of course we had to provide them as gift some bottles of brandy, but of that I had a quite few naturally. In this country, the more important you are, not yet in my case, the bigger your cave is. However the somehow more disturbing stuff, if I could say, was that the uncle would like me to help him on something that I was not that very at ease with. In Vietnam we were far more connected than other countries in the world.

I turned off the light of my son’s room and climbed upstair to my study room, my sanctuary, no one came here normally. I found my way to the big book case in in the middle of the room, plenty of books, too many useless books in the upper shelves. I opened a cabinet on the lower left hand side, a little bit hidden behind the desk and the armchair. Two levels, each with lines of bottles appeared. Good. The few bottles downstair in the living room did all well their decoration job. I took out one, a Glenfiddich, a reindeer, a single malt Scotch could help. I fell myself on the chair, grabbed a nearby crystal glass, poured one out and sipped quietly, felt the spirit that touched my lip, itched my tongue, slowly infitltrated into all of my mouth and calmly burnt my throat.

I touched the keyboard to wake the laptop up, entered a series of password, waited patiently for Chrome to be started, and hit f for Facebook.

The first newsfeed is that of Trung Bao Nguyen showing a photo of the mother of blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Me Nam). Her daughter was jailed without any judgement since 8 months. The mother was sitting, quietly, holding on her hand a white peace of paper with some handwriting words encouraging her daughter. Her eyes were looking slightly in the air, speechless. Was she praying or was she looking at me?

I reached for the bottle.

Incognito

I turned right from the road to get to the small alley. When I was a few meters from home, I turned off the engine of the Jupiter so that the motorcycle slid silently towards the gate of the house. I opened the gate and managed to get myself and the motorcycle inside as quietly as possible. It was late and I did not want to wake anyone up, particularly tonight that I would like to write something.

I tried to write once every three or four days. It was a habit that I had when I was doing my Master degrees abroad and tried to keep after coming back to Viet Nam. I stopped writing a few years after our marriage and having the first child. Too busy working and going out drinking at night. There were various reasons to drink, whether to greet someone from Ha Noi, to celebrate a newcomer or to please some kind of future partner. Or sometimes just between friends or so-called friends to indulge ourselves with beer, brandy or whiskey. We had quite a lot of them these days. This evening while we were drinking Heineken with our friend coming home from abroad, a tall long legged girl came to invite us trying Sapporo, a few minutes after a gentleman recommended us some Cuban cigar and Latino brandy. This country was deluged with alcoholic drinks. Afterall, what is the point of not drinking and staying sober at the present time? There is no point.

But since a few years, I tended to drink and go out less at night. Particularly since last year when they discovered dead fish along the coast in the Centre of Vietnam. The less I drunk, the more I wrote, and of course read. At the beginning no one noticed the change. However with time, some of my colleagues and friends begun to pose jokes and after that even questions: “Staying at home taking care of wife huh?” Even some advises: “Women do not need you that much, get out with us,” “Or you have more than one women guy? Lucky you. Present her to us!” I just smiled away or laughed out, citing various pretexts and felt happy that they don’t know. Who could know and even care that I write? Is it that such a crime that I write? Anyway, I tried my best not to let anyone know that I wrote or even I read, let alone what I wrote. I changed my password regularly, and used any possible means to keep people away. I never let any trace in any social network, I liked no one, I commented nowhere, I expressed nothing, no anger, no sad, no tear, no laugh. I even tried to use incognito when I search for things and read. I shared nothing. I kept them all for myself, no one ever knew or will know. I put all in only me mode.

Empty

I did not remember how long we stayed in the bar. But when we got out, it was nearly around 11pm, rather not that late for so much we drunk, possibly because we began early. My friend took me to the thatched roof restaurant at noon just to discover that others had been there waiting for us and drinking. It was Friday; people stopped pretending to work earlier than on the other days.
I felt so empty, not drunk any more, even quite sober, but just empty, nothing in stomach, nothing in my head, nothing any more inside. I stumbled a little when my friend pushed me in the car, quite a big one with soft leather seats. I stretched myself out, yawned heartily when the car roared its way through the silence of the town.
“Tired already? Fancy a trip around the town?” Trung asked. Just at that moment I recognised that he was driving.
“Yeah” I yawned again and replied. My friend was sleeping already.
We turned right to get into the high street of the town. It was a big, dual carriage one with two lanes on each side and a wide separating space in the middle. It seemed to be a recently enlarged road with small trees planted regularly on the pavements. The trees were supported each by three sticks that were joint on the trees and tightened at their ends by a black rubber lace.
On the two sides of the road were big and imposing buildings. They were all new built, and looked strikingly similar, about three to four floors, with huge entrances and tiled roof, in red colour? I could only imagine for it was night and all the buildings were retreat from the road. Vast spaces spotted with trees planted in big tubs separated the building entrances and the gates. All gates underlay boards in red and yellow that I could read whether “The Communist Party Glorious, Long Lasting” or “The People Court Independence Freedom Happiness” or another one, possibly of a police commissariat “Vietnamese Police, Forget Themselves for the Country and its People.” Yeah, couldn’t agree more, they should forget lot of things serving people. Or another gigantesque one “The Party is the Sun, the People is the Sunflower, the People turns to the Party like the Sunflower to the Sun.”
The street lights in this road were surprisingly bright, particularly at this time of the night and the road was so deserted.

Laugh Out Loud or Sad, Joy or Tear?

“This way, darling,” said the charming young lady, graciously swung the small beam light to show me the way to the restroom, in a bar in a remote province South of Vietnam.

I followed her robotically. She was tall with long hair dyed to red. She wore a very short black skirt and high heels. When she walked, her backside swung and her ivory long leg shined and showed me the way rather than any other light in the bar. The music was so loud. They were playing a remix of Toi Van Nho on the stage just next to us.

Tôi vẫn nhớ câu chuyện tình đầu

Đã ngủ quên trong cõi thâm sâu…

The remix of this old song was so dynamic. The lady singer sang and danced, waving the mic and her body energetically amidst a group of a few more ladies, all in very appealing dresses and movement, very in rhythm with the music even though having nothing to do with the lyrics of Ngan Giang.

The bass sounds vibrated every of our paces. Strolling my way in this music and atmosphere invigorated me, gave me a strange masculine feeling, a we-can-fucking-do-anything feeling.

 

A gentleman wearing a perfect black suit with a white handkerchief on his chest opened the door of the restroom for me from the inside. He was really big, much bigger than me, dark skinned. When he smiled, his broad face expanded to be even broader showing black and rugged teeth. And he always smiled heartedly whenever he touched eyes with me.

As I expected, the interior was clean and unnecessarily too shining. The light was dim but brighter than it was outside.

A perfectly arranged pile of tissue folded in triangle shape was placed just next to the lavabo in stone. I washed my hands, waved them slightly and tried to reach for one tissue just to discover that the gentleman was already there with the tissue. He bowed and gave it to me with his two hands. I took one and said thank you.

I headed to the door. The gentleman bowed even lower, opened the door with one hand and the other gave sign to show me the way out, just as if I could get lost if he did not help, and he gave me an even broader smile. I said thank you and my hand reached my trousers’ pocket looking for some money to tip him. He shook his head and said “No, Sir, it is my greatest pleasure tonight to be with you.” His accent was from North Centre of Vietnam.

 

I retrieved my place next to my friends and the rising political star of the town, Trung. He was laughing and seemed not ready to pop out of this bar as he had done with other places. Four to five girls were now around the table. One was opening another bottle, possibly a VSOP cognac due to the bottle’s slender shape.

“What took you so long? I thought you got lost and tried to send a squad to look for you, haha,” Trung spoke to me, and then turned to one of the girls. “Babe, this is my friend, back from Europe, take care well of him, huh.”

I took out my phone, wiped my finger on Facebook, there was a post on Doan Trang Pham about Priest Nguyen Dinh Thuc. He was at the moment being arrested or under risk of being attacked by the authorities or some local residents. Just been able to see some photos of broken glasses and red, blood? Dangerous it is tonight for him. Poor Priest, he informed people about the bad environment caused by Formosa and took people to sue this company and now others were calling to expel him and threatened him. I slid my finger to icon Sad below the post.

The girl leant over to me, engulfed me with her breath and her perfume. She heated me up.

“Put down your phone, be with me, darling, give me the phone, I am yours, my love,” she murmured to my ears.

She grabbed the phone from me. I struggled to keep but too late, she put the phone inside of her and got hold of me. My eyes were blurred by her breath. I just had enough time to ask myself whether I had chosen below the status about the danger for Priest Thuc icon Sad or Laugh Out Loud.

Lucky you, lucky me

“One more pint?”

“No, thanks, I have to drive.” Reply I “To come here, I have waited for the bus nearly half an hour just to know that there is no service this evening, what a shame.”

“Are you OK, enjoy the night?”

“Very much, yeah just relax with music and, you see, charming girls overthere.”

“You are lucky, I am not that well positioned.”

Yes, I am very lucky, the three young ladies sitting just a few tables opposite to where I sit. One of them is so pleasant to see. Blond, not really, rather marron with deep blue eyes and perfect sensual lipstick. She wears a silky long skirt that swirls with every movement of her body. She touches her hair, smiling. Chatting with her friends, wiping phones, caressing the border of her glass, does she notice anything? She touches her hair again- a little bit more frequenly, smiles distantly and looks away from me.

“It is terrible, isn’t it, the fire in London.”

“Yes, too bad, mothers threw their children out of windows. Too many bad news in this country these days.”

The BBC turns now to Kolh, it is too noisy inside, can only read the running subtile: “Helmut Kohl earned his place in history by securing the successful reunification of Germany after the collapse of communism.” After the collapse of communism, lucky you Germany. Had the reunification been done likewise in Vietnam, we should have been much better off.

The girl overthere seems noticing some thing, apparently next to my table, maybe the painting of chaotic stripes in different colours with a line in the middle “Shall we dance the night away?” that impressed me a little when I entered the bar. Her eyes rest on the painting a while, slide carelessly on mine with an unfathomable smile before going back to her friends, giggling. One of her friends swings the cellphone, taking or showing some photos.

“I have to go now, it’s late, see you next week.” My colleague pushes the chair, stands up.

“OK, so do I.”

I get out of the bar, on the way out trying not to wander my eyes and look straight ahead. Already dark now outside, I take out my phone to check time, 11pm. It is a fresh English summer night still I can feel some hot resting air of the day, people are still gathering and chatting loudly outside. I pace the pavement reluctantly, feeling so sorrowful and lonely leaving a deep beautiful blue sky back in where I have just been to.