And so we're in Vung Tau, a sleepy, seaside city at the mouth of the Saigon River. I'm staying in a hotel owned by an Army unit. My room is quiet, cheap and has an ample balcony with an ocean view. I've only stumbled onto two other guests, each sitting on a massage chair.
The beaches here are named Front, Back, Pineapple and Strawberry, with the last two the ugliest, despite their pretty names. I was at all four as a child. Each time I traveled to Vung Tau, I would pass a cemetery with hundreds of French graves. It was razed in 1983. Like all conquerers, the French never thought they would be expelled. Grabbing this land from the Cambodians in 1658, the Vietnamese established three villages named Thắng Nhất [First Victory], Thắng Nhị [Second Victory] and Thắng Tam [Third Victory].
Malay pirates established a stronghold here in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1960's, Yankee and Aussie grunts relaxed on its beaches, then entered bars with names like Olympia, Flower, US Moon or Milano to pick up prostitutes. In the 1980's, thousands of Russians and Azerbaijanis came to work for Vietsovpetro, a Vietnamese/Russian oil and gas exploration company. Now, there are around 600 Russians here, but most are walled off inside their own compound. Those who've ventured out have opened at least three restaurants, so don't despair if you must have some decent borscht while in Vung Tau.
The adjacent billboard pitched Imperial Plaza, a shopping mall. Nearly all the faces on it were white. Vietnamese billboards for upscale private schools also feature mostly white kids. Though they are gross distortions of their student bodies, they reel in Vietnamese parents who want their kids to mix with whites. It's the way forward, upward and, hopefully, even out.
Two trustworthy Russian spies have relayed to me that all signs at the Moscow train station are in Russian and Chinese only. No English. It's certainly a political statement. Constantly seduced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, most Vietnamese are not buying it.
Yesterday, Chanh, Vietnamese-American poet Hai-Dang Phan and I went up Núi Lớn [Big Mountain] to have some wonderful boiled chicken, rice gruel, gỏi and beer. We talked about mutual friends, societial trends, literary strategies, my Guam experiences, 1975, interesting locals and Chanh's girlfriend in California, which he hasn't visited, and may never, for he's not all that interested. Thu-Huong Nguyen-Vo is a professor at UCLA.
In a dirt yard were dozens of empty beer cans and water bottles, ready to be recycled. Scrawny chickens scrutinized the dirt, pecked, reflected, moved on. Half a dozen hammocks beckoned. We laughed quite a bit, read a few poems. It was sweltering under the tin roof.
"Big brother," Chanh said to the owner, "you should put some palm leaves over this roof, make it less hot! They don't cost anything!"
"Yes, yes, I'll get to it."
The wiry, dark man and his wife have six children, three grown and moved out. They came to this mountain from Bến Tre, in the Mekong Delta. Hearing me and Chanh spew poems, his remaining kids ran out from the house to watch. One documented the odd happening with his cellphone.
"Just by opening a cafe' at the top of this forlorn mountain, you too are a poet!" I said.
Unable to publish freely in Vietnam and ignored by just about every critic, Chanh has turned to making pottery sculptures. Increasingly complex, elegant and fascinating psychologically, they're approaching his poems in accomplishment. He will be heard from internationally as a visual artist, I'm convinced. Chanh's dealer is Dinh Q. Lê, whose works have been collected by MOMA and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There's a lot happening on this side of the globe.
Chanh's grandfather, a nationalist, was jailed by the French at Hỏa Lò [Hanoi Hilton]. His dad was also locked up by the French, but on Côn Sơn Island, now a popular resort. Laughing, Chanh said, "When they brought me in for questioning a few times, I wondered if I, too, would be jailed on Côn Sơn Island!" For noticing and saying the obvious, many Vietnamese have paid a very high price.