Traffic was slow as hell — a long and desperate crawl through streets packed with millions of people, all out to see the fireworks in District 1. Our driver tried to honk his way through traffic, but there was nowhere to go. I watched as the light in the distance went from green to red and then back to green again without anyone moving.
“This is fun,” I said, head leaned against my window.
“This is nuts,” Jess said. “We might be better off just walking.”
There were motorbikes all around us — more up on the sidewalk. When we finally made it to the lights, our driver ran the red and blocked most of the intersection, so we had dozens of people glaring at us in the back seat like we’d told him to do it.
Three songs later, we turned onto the canal that separates District 3 and Phu Nhuan. The restaurant was empty out front, but I could hear voices and music on the rooftop. Inside, a waitress looked up at us from her phone and pointed to the stairs: “Top floor.”
We stepped out to a hazy and cloudless sky. There was hardly any room to stand, let alone sit. At the bar, two older white guys with beer bellies and gray hair were mixing colorful drinks. They wore faded polo shirts and khaki shorts, like they’d spent the day teeing off, and the shorter of the two flashed me a panicked smile.
“Sorry about the seating,” he said. “We’re swamped here tonight. Business is really taking off.”
“You just open?” I asked.
“Last month,” he said. “This area is booming now. This used to be a sewage canal, but now it’s prime real-estate. We got the lease on this place in a heated bidding war.”
“Nice,” I said, not really sure what else to say. “Two Saigon Greens, please.”
“It’s only doable with a Vietnamese partner,” he added, as he popped the caps from the beers. “My wife is Vietnamese. She handles the numbers and government bullshit; I bring in the foreigners.”
“Seems like you’re doing a good job,” I said, eying the largely foreigner crowd. He looked about to delve into a story, but a woman I presumed to be his wife grabbed him by the arm and shouted drink orders at him. I used the chance the fade into the crowd, sitting in a chair Jess had stolen from one of the tables.
I looked around, taking it all in. All the tables were filled with older foreign men and their Vietnamese wives. The men were drinking heavily, chatting with each other, while the wives either smiled blankly or played on their phones. I finished my beer and got another one.
“You’re being quiet,” Jess said after a while.
“Taking in the details,” I said.
Jess sighed and turned away, so I strained to listen to the conversations at the other tables: “Vietnam is still a risky investment for foreigners.” … “Capitalism is trying to bring in the wealth, but their communist minders are scared.” … “The pedestrian-only street was my idea. I mentioned it to a party official friend of mine during a game of golf last year. He looks golden nowadays. He’ll be useful in the future.”
I felt venom working through my system, right as a middle-aged Vietnamese woman with bright jewellery and hideous make-up scowled at me from the next table over. As soon as Jess looked away, I made my escape to the ground floor, where I sat in a wooden chair on the sidewalk, watching life move by on the street. Down the road came a Bentley — chromed rims. It swerved at the last second around a teenage boy sitting on his his food-cart. The kid eyed me for a moment, but I waved him off. I just wasn’t hungry.
As I watched him peddle away, I thought about what Saigon would look like in another decade. It was changing so fast you could see it in real time — new construction lots every week, and pickup trucks racing through alleys that were built for bicycles. The future is happening quickly in Vietnam.
“There you are,” Jess said, sitting next to me. “Are you alright?”
“Bad vibes,” I said.
“Yeah, it kind of sucks up there.”
“I’d honestly just rather sit out here and watch the world flow by than sit with that crowd upstairs and pretend like I’m having fun.”
“Good, you’re still here,” Katie said, walking out to sit with us. She was another teacher at our campus, part of the group we’d come to meet. “This is not what I wanted for tonight.”
“Same,” I said. “So, what should we do? Go watch the sunrise on Bui Vien?”
“Not again,” Katie said, frowning. “We do that way too much.”
Over my shoulder, down the sidewalk a bit, there was a family drinking around a large table. “They’re having fun,” I said.
“Let’s go see if they’ll let us party with them,” Katie replied.
“What’s our intro strategy?” I asked.
“This is Vietnam,” Katie said, standing. “If we just walk by them, I guarantee they’ll ask us to drink.”
They were all in their thirties or forties, except one much older man and a few kids watching from inside the house — about a dozen in total. The table was covered in empty bottles, sliced mangoes, peanuts, rice crackers, and a grill loaded with fish. As we walked by, one of the men shouted “Hello!” and jumped to his feet. He walked up and handed me his glass of beer.
“It actually worked,” I said, laughing. Two other men gave their full glasses to Katie and Jess with big smiles.
“One hundred percent?” I asked, speaking Vietnamese. Everyone laughed and raised their glasses. One of the women said something to the teenagers in the house.
“Will you join us?” one of the men asked, as the kids appeared with three chairs.
“I guess we could,” I said, taking a seat. One of the kids placed a small bowl with chopsticks in front of me, and it was filled with food a second later.
“Hello, my name is Nguyễn.”
I started to speak, but I could tell from their expressions that most of the people there didn’t speak English — so I switched to Vietnamese. The oldest man, down at the far end of the table, nodded his approval.
“You speak Vietnamese very well,” Nguyễn said.
“You just heard all of it,” I said. There was a moment of silence, so I raised my glass and said a Vietnamese cheers. All our glasses shot in the air. Then, as I watched my beer refill itself, the old man asked where we were from. I told him: Canada and America. He smiled and, after a moment, the others began chatting in Vietnamese that I couldn’t follow.
“This is so much better,” Katie said, now that the attention was off of us. “I knew you guys would be up for something like this. The others wouldn’t have been able to do this. They’ve been in Vietnam for years and still can’t speak any Vietnamese.”
“The language is part of their culture,” I said. “It’s pretty much an insult if you live here and you don’t make any attempt to learn it. I’m not good, but at least I try. Actually, I love the laughs I get when I butcher something.”
I saw the look of dread on Katie’s face before I saw the microphones.
“Do you like karaoke?” Nguyễn asked.
“Only when I’m drunk,” I said, watching a woman in floral pajamas check the batteries in the microphones. “I enjoy listening to people who can actually sing, but the problem is that I can’t sing at all.”
Nguyễn laughed. “It is no problem. In Vietnam, we only do karaoke for … how do you say? For fun. Ah, my English is bad. I only speak a little bit. I study when I was young, but I don’t use for ten years.”
“You have a good memory then,” I said.
“Very good,” Jess added. Then the music for Let it go, from the film Frozen, played from a large speaker behind us.
“Oh god,” Jess said, while Katie let out her Kentucky Cackle.
“At least you know all of the lyrics,” I said. Then, looking at Nguyễn: “She teaches kids, so she listens to this song about twenty times a week.”
Jess held the microphone to her forehead. She hesitated at first, but then she launched into an an eyes-closed, fist pumping performance, with Katie adding backup. One of the teenage girls sang with them as well, in perfect English. Everyone else swayed and hummed along. The song finished to enthusiastic applause.
“You two sing beautiful,” the teenage girl said.
“Get a chair and sit with us,” Jess said.
“No, it’s no problem,” the girl said. “I stand here.”
She wasn’t allowed to sit at the adult table; this was a night for the grown ups. As I listened to Katie and Jess chatting with the girl, one of the women held out a glass of liquor for me.
“My sister wants you to drink with her,” Nguyễn said.
The burn of homemade liquor punched me in the stomach. The woman who gave me the drink laughed as I gagged and covered my mouth with my hand. Then she pulled out a 2L pop bottle with no label on it from behind her back and pointed at my glass. I brought my hands together, pleading for mercy. She laughed even harder.
“Was it good?” Nguyễn asked.
“Awful,” I said, grimacing.
I focused on my breathing to give my body a chance to deal with the liquor. The volume and spirit of conversations picked up, with squid sizzling on the grill and chopsticks digging into small bowls. My stomach settled a moment later.
“Nguyễn, is Ho Chi Minh City your hometown?” I asked.
“My family from here,” he said, “but I go to work in Hanoi for ten years. My wife and kids are in Hanoi now.”
“How often do you visit?” I asked.
“I am here now because work,” Nguyễn said. “I don’t see my family a lot — the people you see here. I also have family in America I do not see for many years.”
“Have you traveled to America before?”
“For a Vietnamese to travel to America is very difficult. I do not have enough money, so I cannot go.”
“Yes, I know that is a problem.”
“Vietnam is a poor country,” Nguyễn said.
“That’s changing fast,” I replied.
Nguyễn smiled. “How long will you stay in Vietnam?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “We have plans to be here for a year, but I’m not sure what we’ll do next. I like that, though. I like not knowing what’ll happen next.”
“Why did you come to Vietnam?” he asked.
Before I could answer, though, I heard a metallic thump. A man on crutches, missing a leg, was passing on the street. He wore ragged clothes and had lottery tickets in his hand. He paused to sell to our table, but he kept going when he saw foreigners.
“That is a good question,” I said, standing. “But please excuse me for one minute.”
The man had only gone a few meters before I caught up to him. “How much for one?” I asked, speaking Vietnamese.
He looked surprised. “Oh, you speak Vietnamese? 10,000vnd.”
He took my money with dark, rugged hands. His eyes were deeply lined, radiating humility. I felt warmer walking back to the table.
“I was bored with life,” I said, putting the ticket on the table. Nguyễn gave me a look that meant I couldn’t leave it at that, so I went on: “I worked for five years in a job that I should have been very happy to have, but I hated it. I made a lot of money, had respect, and a good future, but I wasn’t happy. I quit and moved to Vietnam because I needed to live somewhere very different. I had to know if my problems were because of me, or because of where I was.”
Nguyễn had a solemn look on his face — a paternal look of concern. “Do you miss your family and friends?”
“Of course,” I said, “but I don’t want to be the old me again.”
“The past is you,” Nguyễn said. “With no past, you are nothing. In Vietnam, the past is very important.”
“Do you know the word, ‘ancestors’?” I asked.
“Yes, family who live before you.”
“Exactly,” I said. “In Vietnam, you respect ancestors and have them in your thoughts. But when I try to think about my ancestors, I just think about all the reasons why they wouldn’t like me.”
The woman with the bottle interrupted us, handing me another glass. I tried to refuse, even pretending to vomit on the ground, but she insisted.
“To Vietnam,” I said. Everyone joined in.
As soon as it hit my stomach, I felt my vision spinning around me like a carnival ride. “One minute,” I said, pushing back my chair. Nguyễn stood as well.
“This way,” he said.
When we got to the bathroom, I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him, “Will my ancestors enjoy this?”
He laughed. “You were polite to drink. I think they forgive you.”
I emptied my stomach into the toilet. After dry-heaving for a while, I leaned against the wall to catch my breath. My heart was beating so hard I could feel it in my eyes, and my rancid breath was making me gag, so I squeezed a bit of toothpaste into my mouth and scooped up some water from the sink.
“Are you alright?” Jess asked, speaking through the door. I gargled the mixture and spit it into the toilet before walking out of the bathroom.
“Fuckers love their rum,” I said.
“You can say no,” she said.
“It’s cool, my ancestors know I was just being polite.” Jess gave me her usual, you-know-I-don’t-get-that-joke look, so I added: “Nguyễn and I were talking about ancestors before I puked. He told me they would forgive me.”
She rolled her eyes. “Get out of the way. I need to pee for my ancestors.”
I slouched back into my chair, next to Nguyễn. The others must’ve been talking about me, because everyone went quiet.
“How are you?” asked Nguyễn’s father, the old man.
“Better now,” I said. Nguyễn translated and everyone had a good laugh. The woman offered me another glass of rum, but I held up my hands and said, “Only beer.”
From the street, a voice called out, “There you are!” It was the rest of our group, the ones we’d left at the last bar. “We had no idea where you three went,” they said. “Why didn’t you guys tell us you were leaving?”
“Your friends?” Nguyễn asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “We were at a different restaurant with them before we came here.”
Nguyễn turned and shouted for the children, who emerged with another table and more chairs. As soon as everyone was seated, the atmosphere changed. I knew none of our friends could speak enough Vietnamese to chat with the family, which made for a weird disconnect. We’d split their family gathering in two.
“What do you do in Hanoi?” I asked Nguyễn, trying to ignore the tension.
“I work for a bank,” he said. “And what do you do?”
“English teacher,” I said.
“Do you teach in Canada?”
“I was an Engineer.”
“Engineer is good work,” he said, looking surprised. “Why don’t you be an Engineer in Vietnam?”
“I didn’t like it.”
Lines creased his brow. “Do you like teaching?”
“Not really,” I said. “But my life is more interesting now. In my old job, the future seemed boring. Now, I’m happier.”
Nguyễn considered my words for a long time. I could hear enthusiastic Vietnamese to my left and idle English to my right.
“Is she your wife?” Nguyễn asked, pointing to Jess.
“Not yet. We’ve been together for three years.”
“Why not married?”
I shrugged. “We decided that travel was more important to us. If we had spent our money on a wedding, we probably wouldn’t have come to Vietnam. Then I never would’ve met you and your family.”
He raised his glass. As we drank, the rest of our friends began to leave, hailing taxis on the street. The looked upset, but I was kind of glad they were leaving. The second they were gone, the kids leapt into action and cleaned away any evidence that they’d been there at all.
“They’re so well trained,” Katie said, watching the kids.
“They aren’t happy,” Jess said.
“The kids?” Katie asked.
Jess laughed. “Not them — the others.”
“Oh, they’re pissed,” Katie said. “They kept telling me it was alright, but they’re mad as fuck. I mean, they should be. We just left them there. I’m kind of disappointed in myself, actually. It was pretty selfish.”
“To being selfish assholes,” Jess said, raising her glass. Even though the family hadn’t understood what she’d said, everyone else raised their glasses as well. We all roared “One, two, three, cheers!” and I almost spit out my beer from laughing.
When we finished, Nguyễn took his father by the arm and walked him around to our side of the table. His eyes held so many memories. “Canada good,” he said. “America good. Vietnam good.”
“Thank you,” I said. We all bowed our heads to show respect, which made him smile. As he left, a few of the others around the table yawned.
“We should take off,” I said. “I think they want to sleep.”
“Want to go somewhere else?” Katie asked.
“We could walk down the canal and find another spot,” Jess said.
“Sounds good.” Then I turned to Nguyễn: “Thank you for everything. This was a lot of fun. I think we’ll go now, so you can enjoy time with your family.”
He seemed to appreciate this. “Good night my new friend. I am glad you are happy in my country.”
When nobody else was looking, I hid some money under a bowl. I knew I had to be sneaky, but we were barely ten seconds down the road when one of the teenage boys chased us down.
“Excuse me!” he shouted, waving my money. “You don’t pay. It’s no problem. No money.”
“I wasn’t sneaky enough,” I muttered. “Okay, thank you.” The boy smiled and ran back to his family.
As we walked along the canal, I glanced at my watch and noticed it was well past midnight. We’d missed the New Year’s countdown, but I didn’t care. It had been an amazing night: a sidewalk restaurant, endless beer, and friendly people — the Vietnam I love.