Greetings from Bien Hoa, Vietnam!
I’m writing from the living room of my in-laws, and frankly, trying to determine what I should talk about this month. But there is no shortage of things to say about this, my second visit to Vietnam – it’s more a matter of what specifically to do with all that raw material. And this reminds me of my first Storytellers Unplugged essay, having to do with the subject of writing of what you know. I’m overflowing with images and impressions of Vietnam, just aching to find their way into a nice fat novel…but that novel hasn’t formed yet, despite several stillborn (and sometimes near lunatic) possibilities. With a Vietnamese wife, and more trips to visit the in-laws in my future, that novel is an inevitability. But for now, my impressions of things Vietnamese have been limited to shorter works like the forthcoming novellas THE SEA OF FLESH and CLOSE ENOUGH – and presently, to this essay.
It’s unfortunate and unfair to think of Vietnam solely as the location of an American war, since it’s a country with a history that long precedes it (try to search out anything about Bien Hoa on the internet and you’ll pretty much find yourself limited to war-related sites), but the horror writer in me can’t help but rub its hands together in glee at those things we Westerners might find strange, exotic and grotesque. For instance, my in-laws do not live in squalor, but one must accustom oneself to showering with geckos clinging to the bathroom walls (hey, they eat the bugs), chattering and flicking their tails at each other in reptilian morse code. This week I was nearly run over by a motorbike when crossing a street (city streets swarm with bazillions of them), and nearly mauled by a deceptively cute black bear that reached imploringly to me through a hole in its cage; luckily its sudden swipe was ill-timed, launched a second before it could sucker a lame-brained tourist into stroking its formidably-clawed paw. But what is exotic to one man is mundane to another. Vietnamese don’t look twice at the hordes of dragonflies constantly swimming in the air above the heads of bathers on the shore of the South China Sea, and think nothing of handling live prawns as big as small lobsters, with long blue arms and pincers that can grip your finger pretty damn hard (yes, it’s terrible seeing them cooked live, but no worse than what we do to the aforementioned lobsters). Commonplace or not, it’s all pretty magical to me. I don’t doubt at all that I would have conceived my city of Punktown (featured in books I’ve written like, oh, PUNKTOWN) in quite a different way had I been exposed to cities like Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Dalat, Bien Hoa, or Seoul, Korea for that matter, before constructing it in my mind, based more on my impressions of Worcester and Boston, Massachusetts. And however fantastical I have tried to make that imaginary city…well, it sounds trite but it’s true that reality is often more bizarre and fascinating than the strangest things we try to dream up in our imaginations. Real cities are built brick by brick from the imaginations of millions; a lone, humble fantasist can’t compete with that.
There has been one blatantly horrific attraction I’ve experienced, designed to be so. At a place called Suoi Tien Resort, which is more of a surreal theme park, one part historical and three parts breath-takingly tacky, my wife Hong and I ventured into the equivalent of a Vietnamese walk-through ghost train ride, situated inside an immense dragon head, from which reverberated an eerie and, to me, indecipherable voice. Inside, we witnessed a kind of trial by mannequin, with the soon-to-be-damned kneeling before glowering judges or demons. Descending into the bowels of Hell, Hong clinging to my arm (heh heh), we encountered day-glow skeletons and tombstones, and scene after scene of the damned in their torments. As in a movie like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the low production values only made the terrors more effective; a week before coming to Vietnam I took my son to Disney World, and the admittedly wonderful technology behind the Haunted Mansion just doesn’t have the same unnerving effect as seeing these figures in their blood-splashed white pajamas, each one’s face obscured ala THE RING in long black hair, undergoing tortures that are hard to make out, inflicted by demons even harder to make out (though I vividly recall one demon dipping a figure in and out of a vat of sizzling fire, and another using a tremendous saw to split a man’s head down the middle).
Well, this isn’t the only intentionally horrific attraction I’ve been to in Vietnam, but I was trying not to get into the war. Still, it’s hard to shake images from the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, where one can see fetuses deformed by Agent Orange preserved in bottles…blown-up photos like that of an American soldier holding up in one hand the upper half of a tattered corpse, a big grin on his face as if he’s displaying a prize-winning trout…and a gun-toting (and also smirking) mannequin of a US soldier, rather comically exaggerated with his large pointed nose and the cigarette butt hanging out of his mouth as a hut burns in the background (I’ll bet he used that butt to start the fire). My outrage at the horrors of war (inflicted by BOTH sides) didn’t prevent me, however, from eagerly paying extra to fire live rounds from an AK-47 and M-16 on the grounds of the famous Cu Chi Tunnels (and if you want to experience horror, try subjecting your big American body to five minutes crawling through one of those!). It’s pretty crass and ironic that you can come out of the exhibits at the War Remnants Museum and buy souvenirs made from rifle shells, but hey, people have to eat. At this museum last October, I bought a Vietnamese/English dictionary from a guy who’d lost multiple limbs (he offered me a stump to shake) and an eye to an American land mine; talk about a guilt trip.
And getting back to eating — can I scare you with some of the things I’ve consumed? No, not dog, though the washed-out mongrels here don’t look so furtive and distrusting for nothing. I’ve drunk rice wine from a bottle in which a dead cobra was preserved (good for the libido, I’m told) and a cool drink made from the saliva of birds (they use it to hold their nests together). Squid, deer, pig tongues…mmm. Actually, Vietnamese food is fantastic, and my stomach has pretty much behaved itself — but the horror to top all horrors is to rush into a bathroom and realize there’s no toilet paper to be had, though you might get lucky and see some scraps of newspaper wrapped around the dispenser’s roll (as elsewhere in the world, the Vietnamese use water instead, but it’s a bit disconcerting to have to resort to).
Ah yes…earlier this month, Disney World, and now Vietnam. The brain reels from the input. In a hallucinatory fusion of the two, in the four days Hong and I stayed in beautiful Dalat, I would see a garbage truck coming around that announced itself to citizens with trash to dispose of by playing, without cease, “It’s a Small World”. It is, indeed! That in itself might keep people from visiting Vietnam…but I am made of stronger stuff. Ahem.
I’ve filled notebooks with these experiences, and taken countless photos. It’s all so vivid. It’s all waiting to be put into service…
Will the inevitable novel, hefty enough a box to contain this treasure of souvenirs, be gratuitous in its detail, actually overburdened with my impressions — a travelogue masquerading as a fiction? I hope not. I hope, instead, that my enthusiasm for the subject, the locale, will be translated into an exciting STORY, first and foremost. But I hope that my enthusiasm will become infectious. That it will make the reader feel they too have whipped down a Saigon street on the back of a motorbike, or walked across the red volcanic soil of a Vietnamese forest. Behind me, my nephews (who take pleasure in saying “hello” to me in English several milli
on times a day) have been playing with clay, modeling sword-wielding figures and menacing snakes. Now, the clay is in my hands, so to speak. Waiting for the shaping to begin.
– Jeffrey Thomas