Double

“So don’t you want to have my Facebook? In case you know who messages you.” Trung asked me.

“Yeah, you are right. Of course yes, please, if possible.” I took my phone out and asked for the wifi code from the boy in the cafeteria. During waiting, Trung gave me his phone number and some of his friends. Trong was reading Tuoi Tre.

“Search Hoang Cong Tu, it’s not my name of course. Search someone with the chrysanthemum flower.” Trung told me when I was connected. My phone nearly ran out of battery.

“You don’t put accent. Is Cong Tu a name or is it The Prince?” I asked.

“Whatever. Everything has more than one meaning in this country. All is double. Have you been told that during the difficult years, people use the brick to replace themselves while queuing for food or tickets? We put bricks in every line now.”

Trung stayed silent while I swiped his Facebook then continued. “Do you know why I choose chrysanthemum as avatar?”

“No.” I replied.

“It is because the chrysanthemum flowers do never fall and its leaves never leave.” Trung spoke.

“Uh huh, thank you. I like that. You had better go, it’s late for your meeting.”

“Phone me when you have your phone number. OK?”

“Will do.” I replied.

“Take care. Be careful. Any problem call me.”

“Don’t worry. I am in my country, no?”

“Yes, it’s one of the reasons.”

“OK, go. I will stay here with Trong for a while more. Shall we go around the South together, Trong?”

“It depends on how many meetings I have. You know, meetings and talks, I have quite a lot of them.” Trong spoke and winked at us. We burst into laughter, wholehearted and joyful laughter.

“OK, bye guys.”

“Bye Trung. Have a nice day and meeting.”

Kafka

I gave Trung my Facebook.

Trung typed and swiped on his phone. “I saw your photo. Ah, I have read quite a few from you. Um hum, Pham Cong Thien, it sounds the name I have also heard somewhere else before.”

“Yeah, a philosopher and writer in the South before 1975. I like him very much.”

“What did he write?”

“Poems, among others. He wrote about Viet Nam, his pain as a Vietnamese, an artist and a dreamer.”

“Sounds tempting. What book do I need to read of him?” Trung asked.

“New Concept in Art and Philosophy. A should read book; he wrote it when he was under 20 years old. And he admired his youth, a little bit too much.” I smiled slightly.

“What is it in the book?”

“He wrote about different authors. About Kafka and Hemingway, for example.”

“How is that Kafka, a strange name?”

“A German writer. Kafka wrote about human failure facing its destiny, about our loneliness and about our lost in the bureaucratic maze of life.”

“I have to go. I have an important party organizational committee meeting at 10 am.”

“Good, then go. Drive carefully.”

Listen

“No. I am not alone. We are not alone.”

“We neither. So what will you do now?”

“I will continue my journey in the South. Maybe with Trong if he has time.”

“You want to use my car?”

“No, thank you. I am OK with coaches.”

“I am sincere. It is a private car. You are worried?”

“Not at all. I simply prefer coaches.”

“I will give you some phone numbers of my friends to meet. They are good. They can speak. And listen. It is important that they listen.”

“You are right. You take time to listen. I appreciate that. The most important thing is to speak out and listen to others. We need each other.”

“Maybe I will join you later on the way.”

“Thank you. You are free to do whatever you feel OK.”

“So what is your phone number?” Trung asked.

“I don’t have it yet.”

“You can later go to the shop over there to have one. It is easy.” Trung spoke and pointed me the mobile phone shop on the other side of the plaza.

“Will do. You can message me via Facebook.”

“What is your Facebook?” Trung asked me.

You are not alone?

“It’s interesting last night.” Trung spoke. We were now in the cafeteria giving to the plaza. I did not remember how we got here. Two coffees and a bowl of hot noodles did really help me to be awake, but still with a detached and floating feeling. It was bright outside, the eating places in the middle of the plaza were still closed, apparently they were opened only at night. People were going all around to the market, motorcycles were honking noisily.

“Yeah, I did enjoy it.” I replied.

“It’s not what you said. All that I knew. But the way you said that. The way you shared it.”

“Uh huh. Thank you.”

“You just told it out wholeheartedly and with all your belief. Or at least you showed that so well.” Trung looked at me.

“I do really believe in that. We can always choose love and be together.”

“It’s not easy.”

“But it is the only way, the only way to go ahead. We can always be cynical. We can always choose other thing than love and go altogether to hell. Is that what we want to be to?”

“No.”

“So you choose love, this mirage?” Trong poked in smilingly. He was still eating his bowl.

“Shut up.” Trung spoke.

“Seriously, when we are at the bottom, when we face with fatality, we have to seriously consider hope and love and find a way out together.”

“Good. I like your way. I like you.”

“Thank you. Not only me. My friends can tell you even much more interesting things.”

“You are not alone?” Trung asked.

Mirage (very strong language, to be read with lot of care)

“Let him sleep, we don’t have enough spirit.” I told Trung. He continued though by one hand moving Trong’s shoulder, the other hand filled the cup and overwhelmed it. The spirit spilled out on the table and flowed on my knee.
“You thought that I am sleeping? You are all wrong guys.” Trong opened one eye, and then the other. “What the heck do you know about love? Nothing, you idiots know nothing about love. There is no love at all in this world, this immoral world.”
“Stop teaching us. Drink!” Trung said and pushed the cup to Trong’s mouth. He took it and drank it slowly, then poured another one and finished it. He intended to continue but I stopped him.
“Do you know Bill Clinton?” Trong asked abruptly.
“Yeah, I know better his wife.” Trung replied, half sitting on his chair half lying on the small table.
“Good, you are good. Then do you know what did he say when asked by the judge if he had made sexual intercourse with the girl, what her name is? Monica Lew…Lewinsky, yes? He rejected that all, he lied totally, he crushed her completely. Oh my dear Monica, you are so miserable, so miserable being in the hands of that guy.”
“And then, why do you tell us that junk.”
“You see: no love, the president of the United States, no love and moral. Don’t speak about love, it is just a mirage, it is not true.”
“You bastard!” I shouted, astounded by his capacity of twisting things. Trung laughed and laughed.
“But even though. Silent! I told you silent. Even though, it is better there than here, in this country. He had however made love to the girl but just did not want to admit it.” Trong continued. “In this country, yeah, this beautiful country, they even do not make love, people just fuck each other and afterwards tell about that in court, to the public. You know what fucking is? Not making love, guy. Yeah, fucking each other hard and talking about money. And they are so proud about that, and they applaud.”
“They are fuckers. All in this country!” Trung spoke.
“You are nothing better! The government fuck the people whenever possible; the people just fuck off the government and fuck each other, wherever they can. And all together, we fuck this country hard. And you speak about love. You! This country is fucked!” Trong added and turned to me. “Thien, tell me, tell me.”
“What?”
“How do you say this country is fucked in French? I forgot all out of this language.”
“Ce pays est baisé.” I tried to keep myself on the chair.
“Xe pe i e be de. I speak French, you see.” Trung repeated and then shouted “Xe pe i e be de” again and again into the night.
Tired, he reduced his voice gradually and leaned on the table with his two hands, hid head thrust forward, immobile. From afar he should look like a crouching tiger waiting for the prey, patiently, silently. Trong was busy pouring the bottle to the cup and on the table. He emptied the bottle and tried to put his mouth to the cup.
I suddenly felt the smell of soil on my face, some gravels so close to my nose and I saw the four slim legs of the foldable table with the bars connecting them. Something like water dropped on my ear, and even more now ran into inside of my ear. I turned myself to lie completely on my back, my hands wide opened. Above me I could see all the darkness of the sky.

Innocently immoral

Trong gurgled and moaned slightly. He should be very tired today, drinking 12 hours already.

Normally he drunk much better than me. He was notoriously the best drinker of the university dormitory many years ago. Trong was from the North of Viet Nam. He moved to the South with his family after 1975. He told me his name was originally Trong without any accent: “It means pure, limpid, you see. It was some officer working on my paper that turned it accidentally to Trọng by adding an accent below it, which makes it mean respect, heavier and completely different, less pure Vietnamese.” I replied to him that the two names sound fine and however it is, in English, his name means always pure and limpid. He liked my idea very much and spoke about that everywhere.

We were quite close friends. He took me to see all his friends and presented me to them with the kindest words that sometimes embarrassed me. As this noon he told Trung about me. “Here is my friend coming from abroad that you can discuss everything, from drink to politics or woman.” “He exaggerated. I came mostly to listen.” I said to them.

Trong grew up in the South but most of his relatives were still in the North. He was particular; he told a lot of stories about his family members in the North and others that he knew so well.

“Thien, my uncle was always running for the party chief position at a town up North. Spent quite a lot of money already. Last time when my dad spoke to his wife, she told him that they run out of money. You see. My dad was angry, telling me that how can a wife say that? She has to support her husband. She has to find money, she knows all the people working for her husband.”

Or some years ago he told me:

“The family of my cousin was again separate. His wife ran again sleeping with other guys. My cousin could not support that any more. He begun to drink again and doesn’t care anymore for his political career. The family is now arranging to get rid of his wife by sending her and her boy friend she chooses abroad for some kind of studies during my cousin runs for office. No more news is good news. You see people up there in the North still care very much about the family situation when you run for some positions. So old-schooled this country.”

Or

“After the last year session studying kind of how to learn and follow Uncle Ho’s example, some high officers in this town turned on cassette player with the sound of pigs in their houses’ living rooms: oink oink like that. So that people believe that they are now turning to bring up pigs for their living, following very well the Uncle’s example. Funny?”

Trong could spend all day telling me these stories that he had quite a lot. He told without any judgement and so naturally that some times, however close we were one to another, I asked myself if he had ever thought about any moral issues in his stories. Was he simply ignorant, immoral, or more exactly innocently immoral? Once when we were very drunk, I told him my feeling. He just burst into laughter.

“Do you know who can judge people?” He then asked me.

“Go on.” I told him.

“To judge people, you should be or have one of the following three. First it is God. Second it is Buddha or Vietnamese tradition who taught that if you sin you can be punished. And third it should be a Republican system in countries like France where the judges represent so well the common will; hence they can define themselves as the justice.”

“You read a lot, Trong. I can say that all these things are wiped out completely in this country.”

“Then what’s the point of judging people here?”

“So in this world without God, Buddha or any belief and justice, do you know where we go?” I asked him. We stayed silent a while.

“Should we invent something?” Trong replied.

Wake up

“Was this country not spoilt even rotten already? Do you see what happens in the Centre of Viet Nam? Do you see Formosa and now hundreds of thousands of people without job, home, future and even you and me here threatened every time we eat, in touch with anything relating to the sea: fish, fish sauce, let alone bathing in the sea? And sadly not only Formosa! Do you see that Viet Nam is losing its control of its sea? More than 40 years, the communist party has an absolute power in this country. If they don’t do it well, share the leadership with others!”

“You are too idealistic. No ruler does that, particularly in this country. If you are strong, you are fine. Otherwise you are crushed, crushed. However bad the situation is, people just ignore and take any possible occasion to crush each other. It is very hard.”

“That’s it. I don’t say it’s easy. At least we should recognise that there is a problem, that it is bad, and then discuss to find a way out. We should discuss, and different voices should be heard, the grip should be loosened. The communist party should stop jailing people because people speak out. And we will find together a way out of this.”

Trung kept silent for a while. He lit another cigarette and smoke. Trong moved his head slightly, his breath was less steady and he made little sounds like hiccup from time to time. Poor Trong, he was one of my closest friends. I recognised now that he wore eyeglasses, which had not been the case last time we met, maybe because he read too much. He loved reading, particularly political and historical books. His hair turned now to white nearly completely. It had been gray since the days we were studying together, because of some kind of bad blood problem, as he often explained when we posed joke (not at all kind we were) about his hair. He was small, mild and very kind to me, as always. He took me to see all of his friends whenever I went to the South.

“It is not that easy to tell all out in one shot.” I continued “But at least what I can say for now is that this country is failing, the environment is dying, irreversible, it is vital. And the responsibility is with the communist party, who runs this country alone for so many years. I am sorry that I talk too much, Trung, but…”

“Don’t worry. I would like to listen. You say we should discuss, don’t you?” Trung replied.

“Thank you, I appreciate that. Coming back to your allusion between the management of a country and company, what I can say is that country is not a company. In a company, the boss can be sacked by the board or can go to another company. In a country, you have nowhere else to go unless you leave your country. Or at least most of you, you can’t go all. Here it is your house; it is our house, your children and grandchildren’s house. Do you love your daughter, your son?  Do you want to send them away forever? We are here to love each other and love this country.”

I looked at him, tried to catch his eyes. Trung opened the other bottle and turned to Trọng, who was at the moment half awake.

“Wake up guy. You sleep enough. Your name is Trong but you don’t show any respect to us. Wake up and drink your round.” Trung tapped on Trong’s back and moved his shoulder. Trong gurgled and moaned slightly.

Slaughter

“So do you work abroad?” Trung broke the silence.

“Yes.”

“It may come across that you manage people. In where you work, do you care about who work for you or do you care more about what your manager thinks of you?”

“It depends.”

“Well, whatever, you needn’t say. In every system, people care more, if not only, what their manager, their boss says and feels. Do they need to care any heck for the people who work for them? No, these people don’t have any say on the promotion of their boss, so why does any boss or ruler need to care for them?”

“Go on.”

“In every system or country, leaders do never care for the people, what they care about is how to gain the power, stay there, and cling to there and not to be kicked out. Viet Nam is just another case.” Trung finished his round and filled the cup.

“No, the biggest difference is that in democratic countries, people can vote and choose the leaders or the party that they prefer. They have a clear say. In those countries, there are more than one parties representing different groups of people and proposing different ways to manage the country. People can kick their leaders or a party out if they don’t like them. Can people seriously do that in this country?”

“You think that there aren’t different voices inside the party? You are wrong. There are a lot. I am struggling every day more with my colleagues and comrades than with those so-called the “people”. If I don’t pay enough attention, my comrades slaughter me, they do it very quickly. We should not have any doubt; we should not show any hesitancy.”

“Thanks for sharing about your comrade. However different you are, you are still in the same party, with the same ideology or way to do things, as let’s say keeping the state economy as the principal one, or the policy face to China, or the consideration of environment in the economy development, cited as just a few. I care less about the democracy in your party, if there is any. What I care about is the democracy for Viet Nam, is that people can choose their leaders, hence the corresponding policy. It is that that help the country going forward.”

“Forward? Give them democracy; they will spoil this country.”

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?