It is wednesday in danang, and a driving rain pelts the city in a sideways storm blowing in off the South China Sea and turning the once-bright day into a dark and wet tropical afternoon.
I am sitting in Café Lien, on Dong Da Street, across from Phan Thi Kim Lien, a pretty, dark-haired Vietnamese woman. The two of us are inside the dimly lit restaurant as the rain hits the front awning and an occasional motorbike splashes through the wet street.
Using plastic chopsticks, Lien and I nibble on small bowls of chicken and rice and drink hot tea from glasses so thin I fear they will crack from the heat. We are crying and laughing at the same time. We are also instantmessaging Lien’s daughter, Han, whose chubby, smiling face beams up in occasionally refreshed still images on the computer screen. Han is in her dorm room at the University of Washington in Seattle. Lien turns her tiny Web camera to me so Han can see the visitor from the United States who is sitting in her family’s café on the other side of the world.
I had not planned to visit Lien or the café when I set out on my walk through the city. I was staying at a hotel 30 minutes south of town. I had never been to Danang despite several previous visits to Vietnam, but I had studied the Vietnam War. I have taught college courses on the war and I am friends with many Vietnam veterans who had told me about a Vietnamese woman named Maryann, the owner of a restaurant at Danang’s My Khe Beach, who had stories to tell about the war.
My plan that day was to find Maryann.
I stopped at the café to get out of the rain, but Lien and I connected immediately. After some small talk about Danang, I gently asked about her life during the war. Like every Vietnamese over a certain age, she had fascinating stories to tell, usually tragic ones. She was a very young girl in Hue when the Tet Offensive broke out in 1968, and she remembers street battles near her house. Her family moved constantly. After the war her father, who had been with the South Vietnamese Army, was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for more than 15 years. Family members died during the war. They lost a nice house. During that part of her story, she cried.
The laughter came when Lien turned on the café’s computer and started instant-messaging her daughter in Seattle via a technological wonder that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Lien said things are better now in Vietnam, although many members of her extended family live in a very small house near the café. Her 22-year-old son completed an American company’s online course in software engineering but has been unable to find a job in Vietnam. She has traveled to Australia once and spends hours imaging what life is like for her daughter in the United States.
It was difficult to leave the café. We exchanged email addresses, hugged goodbye as if we had been friends forever, and parted with tears in our eyes. The rain stopped and I made my way through the muggy Danang streets, now beginning to fill up with motorbikes and cyclos — the human-powered bike-cabs ubiquitous in Vietnam. Young girls and boys talked on cell phones; elderly women balanced long bamboo poles with baskets of fresh fish, eels or white rice dangling from each end; and street vendors sold banh cuon, steamed rice pancakes filled with minced pork — out of New Yorkstyle Sabrette carts.
Through much of the 19th century, Danang — like the rest of Vietnam — was under French control. The city, known then as Tourane, became the most important port in central Vietnam, with long stretches of whitesand beaches along the South China Sea and a deepwater navigable river that oddly separates downtown from the waterfront.
I walk past several large, stone, French country-style houses. They look worn and out of place in this thoroughly Southeast Asian city. The century of occasion ally brutal French colonization has long passed, leaving at least one icon — the ubiquitous baguette that the Vietnamese bakers whip up as well as any in a Parisian patisserie.
By the time I reach Phan Dinh Phung Street, it is raining again — another heavy downpour that falls in windblown sheets, drenching everyone. It is getting late, and I want to find Maryann before dark. I stop the first cyclo driver I see and get into the seat where I am protected by a cover, but the warm rain still blows in on all sides. My driver is an older man — rail-thin, wearing rubber sandals, torn shorts and a baggy tank top bearing a Nike logo printed across his narrow chest.
I usually avoid taking cyclos. I am discomforted by the experience: a three-wheel bicycle with a hardpedaling driver bearing one or two passengers who sit like royalty in the small cab at the front. The old man’s legs work hard getting the cyclo over the uphill grade, but we move faster once we crest the span and head down to the beach. Despite the rain lashing his thin and wiry torso, my driver’s strength overcomes the elements, and within minutes he stops in front of Loi — Maryann’s restaurant — a casual, open-front café across the street from My Khe Beach, often called China Beach by American soldiers and tourism promoters.
I ask a man where I can find Maryann, and he points to a woman sitting alone at the back of the café. I discover that Maryann’s real name is Ho Thi Gioi. U.S. soldiers gave her the Americanized nickname.
Maryann is hesitant at first to answer questions about the war and waves over her husband, the gentleman who greeted me on arrival, to sit with her for support. I ask if there are old pictures she can share, but Maryann says she destroyed all the photos that showed soldiers swimming in the surf, drinking at local cafés or standing in uniform — sunglasses on in the bright Danang sun — before the North Vietnamese captured the city in March 1975.
I suggest to Maryann that we walk along the beach, and together we cross the street, passing the more upscale hotels and restaurants. Maryann said the North Vietnamese government may have known about her connections with the Americans after all; they never allowed her business to obtain seafront land. We walk on the beach, where the surf is rough and loud, and the darkening sky is ominous with the threat of more wind and rain. In the distance I can see the Marble Mountains to the south and Monkey Mountain to the north, both well known to U.S. troops during the war.
Maryann tells me that U.S. soldiers advised her to open a restaurant on China Beach when the war ended and to call it Maryann’s. Now, almost 40 years later, Ho Thi Gioi has her restaurant, her husband, eight children, many grandchildren and fond memories of dancing to the Beatles and Creedance Clearwater Revival in the honky-tonk bars which once catered to the young Americans.
The string of colored lights illuminating the restaurant patio sways in the sea breeze as I shake hands with what seems a platoon-full of family and friends. In the days that follow, I visit the stunning, historic town of Hoi An and the exquisite new beach resorts south of Danang, but being invited into the hearts and lives of the Vietnamese I met in Danang will be a lasting memory.
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Park Hyatt Washington
2008Dec 10, 2012
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