1: The Store Owner
This Viet Kieu1 comes into my shop usually three, four times a week. He's in his thirties I think, and each time, he brings with him a new girl, buys her a gift, and they leave together arm in arm. The girls are twenty-somethings, freshly made up, with the new bodies we see now on Vietnamese women—a little fitter, curvier, with firmer butts. They're the ones I always see on Instagram making duck-face selfies or at the gyms not breaking a sweat, flirting with the trainers, taking mirror photos. Some of them are probably part-time models, or Facebook entrepreneurs. I see them and I think to myself, God, it must be exhausting. It just seems like a lot of work for young women, nowadays, this primping and preening for a phone that's also a camera. I don't remember ever having to do so much at their age.
It takes a lot of time and effort for the Viet Kieu too, taking a different girl to the shop each time. Imagine having to remember all you've told each girl, all you've said and done, with whom you said and did what with. How do you keep all those storylines in your head for all the girls?
My shop is on a busy stretch of Saigon's new walking street. When I started it, my business partner, Linh, warned me there would soon be construction. All of Vietnam is under construction. The government was turning it into a pedestrian friendly zone, she said, so be prepared for noise, and tough times, but if we get in right now, I promise you, she said, it'll pay off after. She was right, of course, but we didn't get any customers at first. The rare one would come in, sit down for one second, complain about the noise, and leave. But we stuck with it because we knew, once all the street construction finished, we'd do okay. A hip new shop and café was perfect here. The trick was to figure out when the construction would finish. The government promises completion dates for their projects, then they'd be delayed until the last bit of extra cash can be passed under the table, you know, to "speed things up", or just to properly start. Inevitably, these constructions stretch into a future that never comes, and we owners wait in limbo. Linh and I took our chance, and then we finished the interior, we cleaned up the shop, distressed the walls, making it look inviting for photo filters, all the while checking our daily accounts and seeing them dip into the red. It's like the girls and this Viet Kieu, if you think about it. Each of them playing a waiting game, waiting to see if there would ever be a return on investment.
When we finally finished, we thought we'd get a lot of teenagers come in with their friends to take pictures, because our interior was colorful, and had that texture the young tend to like for their photographs. After all our work designing this shop for potential customers, I never thought it'd become what it turned into, a revolving door for expats and Viet Kieu Casanovas!
Once, we saw two different regulars shopping for the same gifts they usually bought. They started out at different sections with their newest girls; the older white man in the far corner, looking at shirts, making his way to the bracelets section with his girl; the other, Korean it looked like, was making his slow way to the same area. Linh joked and told me that they should meet up at the register and trade seduction tips.
I do feel bad sometimes, though. Conflicted. White expats, Korean expats, Viet Kieu, they all bring their girls here knowing that I know too. They trust that I'll be discreet about what they do. I am, but feel like my discretion makes me complicit. Maybe that's in the nature of keeping a shop such as mine; you keep your mouth shut and smile, even if you want to say something. But the truth is, they're my best customers, these foreign Casanovas operating in the new Saigon. They keep business humming. We haven't done a separate account category for expats and Viet Kieus buying gifts for young Vietnamese girls yet, but I bet it'd make a good portion of our income.
I keep telling myself that someday I'll tell the girls, when the guys aren't looking. I see some of them getting really emotional when they get a gift, especially a bracelet, and I feel like grabbing them and saying: "Little sister, he's bought dozens for girls just like you!" or "Little sister, you're the third one that cried this month. Get over it already!"
My husband says to me: "Troi oi, em oi2. You don't need to tell the girls!" he says. "You're not deceiving anybody. In fact, I'll bet you anything that the girls know too. Like those Casanovas, they're playing along. And some of them, I guarantee you em, some of them have a collection of these bracelets, from all the boyfriends. Saigonese women, don't you know? You're a Saigonese woman yourself!"
I punch his arm and we laugh. I don't know if he's right or I'm right. Anyway, I never tell them. I keep the shop, and watch the routine happen, day after day.
Last Valentine's Day, a flood of them came in with their Casanovas and the bracelets sold out in minutes.
2: The Casanova
The Northern girls will cut your dick off, man. If they catch you cheating. Or if they're mad at you for no reason. Sure, they're gorgeous, traditional, kind. But man, when they get jealous… it's vicious! Girls from the South, here in Saigon, are great! Easy going, friendly, cool. They're totally down with you hanging with other girls. But, they're all hustling, man. If they're hot, they're definitely seeing other guys, and then they'll be really into money, so it sucks if you don't have some. Gold diggers, bro. Gold. Diggers.
The girls from the middle region, from Hue? Damn man. I mean damn, they're the BEST! So innocent. Super kind. Kinder than the Southern girls. But you can't understand what they're saying. I mean. Literally. Not a word. That accent. I got just enough Vietnamese to barely open the girls from the South as it is. Chao em! Em dep qua. Blah blah blah whatever. But the girls from the middle region, shit, they might as well be speaking Chinese.
No one type of Vietnamese girl is perfect, you know? Which is why I'm still single at my age.
But I love it, man. Love it! There's not enough time in the day. They're my Kryptonite, man, Vietnamese women are my KRYP. TO. NITE. It's not just me though, all the guys visiting now got the yellow fever.
They were just skinny before, you know, but that's back in the 80s and 90s when my family left. I was the same too, man. Just a skinny, hungry little kid. But now they're all working out. Squatting at gyms building dat booty all day, know what I'm saying? Unreal!
Yeah sure, they see me and they see that ATM lighting up. Or they start hearing Alicia Keys "concrete jungle where dreams are made off…" Whatever, man. I don't care. I'm from Garden City, Kansas. Podunk town in the middle of nowhere. My folks worked in the beef packing plants breaking their bones cutting cattle tendons for a living.
You hustle with what you got, right? Right now, I got a passport, so that's what I hustle with. You think I can swing this scene back in America? America? Where I'm round chop, ching chong, little dick ding dong? Fuck that. I got away from all that racist shit man. I'm killing it here and I'm never going back.
You know what you need to do? Take off those glasses, man. They might be hipster or whatever in America but here you need contacts. Or get Lasik surgery. And maybe shave, and probably not wear these cargo shorts. Get some jeans man, seriously. Damn. I never needed to do all this shit when I first came back, you know, but now I just changed my whole wardrobe.
Everyone hustles here, man. Everyone. My family, once we got on that boat, we knew life was about hustle: one hundred people on a fishing boat, man. We hustled our way onto it, we hustled our way off it, we been hustling ever since. Fresh off the Boat, baby! The Viet Kieus that were born in the States, they got no idea. Soft ass motherfuckers.
Hey, at least I'm not some fat white dude with a mean looking but hot girl forty years younger, man. Right? I mean at least I dress decent and speak some Vietnamese, you know? None of that Xin chao em shit.
The girls at this shop I go to here like the bracelets. They love them the bracelets, man. It's how I test if they're into me for my looks and charm, or my money, you know? So, I get them these bracelets. They're cheap, but they look nice. I put them on and look into their eyes and I try to see what's up. Like what's up girl, are you a gold digger, or are you legit? Straight up.
And people here still think we got it easy in America, man. Like we rolled into the U.S. and everyone loves us, like the whiteys just up and gave us jobs man. Seriously!
Oh, what's my field, what's my job? I'm an engineer. Knowledge, motherfucker! Worked bitch ass hard for my degree too. Been working ever since I graduated from Rice University. Haha, yeah, my parents probably pushed me to go there 'cos it sounded Asian… and safe, you know? They're so racist. Ha ha!
Let me give you my number, man. Yeah, hit me up. There's gonna be a party later on. At the New World Hotel. Sweet scene. Pool party. You should come. Ditch the glasses though.
3. The Girl
People say there's no service industry here in Vietnam, but all women here get ready to do in this life is give service. Service men. Service country. Service our parents. Maybe I'll get reborn in my next life and everyone will work for me for once. It probably won't happen this life. You probably don't know what I mean unless you've been raised as a girl here, or maybe if someday you have a girl of your own to raise.
There's nothing to look forward to. Marriage to somebody ugly and poor enough that they won't cheat on you? Hoping for marriage to someone too old and senile to hurt you? Neither option's good.
Speaking frankly here, the Viet Kieus that left a long time ago, maybe you and your friends, come back thinking all the girls have been innocently waiting for you to come back, with your kindness and money, like we all need you, you know? The Korean and Japanese men come here asking for a certain kind of girl in all these bars also all think the same way, that we've been waiting here, waiting for them to come. My friends who work in Japan Alley, on Le Thanh Ton, tell me all about their clients. Make them feel like they never left their country, their bosses said, like they're still at their local Japanese bar or Korean bar, but a group of beautiful Vietnamese girls appear out of nowhere to pour their drinks and laugh and flirt with them. The food here is the same, the drinks, sake, soju, the same; we cut meats with scissors the way they've been told to from their cultures. The girls wear kimonos, speak the same Japanese greetings. Irasshaimasse!
Some of my friends that work the Western bars tell me their bosses said to act like they don't know English. The customers, they'll like you better if you don't speak English, they say, or if you bumble and trip on the language. I know girls who are eager to learn it, thinking it'd help, but our bosses tell us there's no point. If girls can speak clearly, it just means less tips. The men get suspicious, so we pretend to speak in broken Vinglish. As for speaking Japanese or Korean, we never get beyond the few phrases we're told to learn. Why should we, when no one wants a conversation, when we're better off in the background, and chatting with them just takes a cut out of our paycheck?
My family? We're from Buon Ma Thuot, high up in the mountains. I think I probably have some kinship from the hill tribes. It's so pretty there. The air gets cool, starting in October. It's quiet too, peaceful. But sometimes too quiet. There's not much to do, so when I was done with high school I came down to the city to find work with my sister. She came back, but I… can't. This hot, bustling city. Saigon. No, I don't think I can come back. I'm probably gonna be here for a while.
I miss my family's cooking, though, the cool air, chatting with friends in cafes. All my friends who stayed in Buon Ma Thuot never left. They have families now. They all tell me I'm too old to be single. I won't be beautiful for long, they say. I don't see anyone I want to marry in this city though. I don't see that kind of life for myself.
When I was a little girl in Buon Ma Thuot, I saw a fight between two teenage boys while walking back home from school. Other people gathered to watch it too. It was just a fistfight at first, but then the two boys started grabbing bricks and flinging them at each other.
It must have been about jealousy, I think, the fight. Jealousy and love, they always go together. The girl they were fighting over watched nearby. She was crying and concerned but she couldn't stop it. I couldn't tell which boy she was concerned about, though. Maybe both.
I was just in the crowd watching, but a brick they threw missed and nicked me on the side of my head. It happened so quickly that I didn't feel any pain, just a quick jolt. I touched my head and my hand was red.
I came home with blood dripping down my face. It soaked my shirt and stained the top of my pants. But it looked worse than it felt. I didn't cry or complain, or say anything. It just happened, and I was surprised, that's all. I just smiled. My mother took me in her arms and held me, and said, oh my poor baby girl, oh my baby girl, it'll be fine, it'll be fine, my poor little baby girl. She couldn't stop crying, but I was tough. I didn't feel anything. You can feel the bump now if you brush my hair apart, let me show you. Yeah, there it is.
4: The Past
Years ago, in Bataan, Philippines, a woman hanged herself.
She had been there for years, and her husband was still in Vietnam. Her name was Lien, meaning Lotus Flower, and no one spoke to her to get her full story. There was a rumor that she and her friend who travelled with her had been raped by pirates on the journey there. Others on the trip corroborated, and they both were shadows in the camp. Families, children, couples and singles were all waiting for families to arrive too, for lovers left behind to magically appear, everyone had their own concerns, everyone waiting. When she hanged herself though, the news left a gloomy pall hanging over the entire camp.
The Viet Kieu of our story, our Casanova, was just a boy then, so he knew none of this. He could only sense the adults' restlessness around him, could feel the heat's oppression hover over the camp. Like them, he breathed the same air heavy with uncertainty and anxious waiting.
That night, someone had access to a radio and played music that echoed throughout the compound. Couples gathered and congregated to listen to the popular American songs of the day, songs that were banned back in the old country. Sometimes the radio dipped back into the seventies, with disco and love ballads reverberating in the air. Parents and kids came out to listen; the barracks and compounds were steeped in sound.
Our future Viet Kieu Casanova was nine. He was sitting in the hollow cavity of a tree trunk, with his friends perched nearby. He hated being inside the barracks with all the other runaway families from his country. They were humid little shacks filled with the sounds of other people's chatter, with corrugated aluminum roofs that trapped the heat throughout the day, and only let it out at night. Infants born in the camp wailed all day, couples argued deep into the night. Our Casanova preferred being outside, roaming the dirt and clambering onto trees, testing the limits of the compound, wandering near boundaries that suggested the wider, foreign country of the Philippines beyond. Extended summer, no school, no homework, nowhere to go, days of kicking around the dust, shooting marbles, days blurred in a weird contentment that seemed to last forever.
That night, the boy had just finished a solid afternoon winning four rounds of marbles against his friends, and now he rolled the crystalline spheres that were his prize winnings round and round inside his pocket, like a little monk shuffling prayer beads in his palm.
It had been a good haul, and as he and his friends relaxed, nestled on the lower branches, sipping chilled Coca Cola in plastic bags tied together with rubber bands, the boy tried to picture which country his family would end up in. His friends had told him about people settling in France. There were Vietnamese people there who drank wine all day, eating baguettes, which were like banh mi but filled with cheese instead. Others told him of relatives that settled in America, and snow, and kids that built little houses out of ice and played in them. The boy tried to imagine what was going on in his old neighborhood back in Saigon, his apartment by the river, his school, his teacher and classmates probably fretting about, waiting for his triumphant return. When he gets back to them, rich after some years in America, they would all get together in the classroom, hands on chins, eagerly awaiting his stories: "Oh you were so brave, the bravest! How did you do it, cross the ocean so many have died in!? How did you do it?"
The music started playing faster and faster. Young couples knotted themselves, limb layered over limb, bones and muscles locked steadfast like tied lifebuoys set adrift on a disturbed ocean of sound, as if in the music's storm, entwined fingers, clutched hands, elbows and knees were all that kept them alive. On a nearby tree stump, the boy's friend Tu made the gesture of hugging a girl tightly to himself and moaned suggestively for effect. He and Tu laughed, but in a moment, the music's urgency turned them silent again.
No warm July
No harvest moon to light one tender August night
While the tune itself was upbeat, the music trippingly light, the crowd listening acted like it was music sadder than anything they had ever heard. The singer's voice and the amped resonance of the synthesizer lingered in the air, making the compound's wooden walls and aluminum roofs ache and sway. And indeed the voice was sweeter than anything the boy had heard; it tasted sweeter than the cool sips he was taking from his Coca cola bag. Years later, he would hear that voice and the lyrics he had once heard but couldn't understand, playing on the airwaves of a classic soul station. Years later, when he was finally in America and had become a teenager searching for a way out of his own loneliness, he would listen to the song play on the radio and remember Stevie Wonder's voice echoing among the corrugated shacks of Bataan:
"I just called, to say. I love you.
I just called to say… how much I cared…"
 Term to designate a member of the overseas Vietnamese diaspora. In this case a member of the first group that left by boat after the war.
 Phrase of endearment translated to "Good heavens, wife!"