Chien woke in the dark, before sunrise, just as the rooster began to crow. A gentle heat, sweet and damp, lingered in the air. His brother was coming today. They had not seen each other in forty years.
Outside, he could hear the low hum of Hanoi’s mopeds and motorbikes – impatient to start the day.
He dressed quietly, not wanting to disturb his still-sleeping wife, and collected his canvas, easel and the paint box and headed out into the streets, towards the large lake in the middle of the city. He wanted to capture the sunrise over the lake, and for the past three weeks, he had been building the light as it spilt like silver ink on the dark water, trying to stop time. It was coming along, but his hand often hovered too long, unable to reconcile the perception of light with the paint on his palette.
He loved this city in the predawn luminescence, when everything – despite being thrown in shades of grey and green – was cleansed in the even and pure hue.
His friend Tao said: ‘You can’t stop to think, you just do; otherwise it is gone, like water.’
But to him, the beauty of painting was the way the scene travelled through your eyes and your mind, even your heart, before it came out through your hands. Otherwise, why not just take a photo?
After an hour or two, when the sun was like a torch in the sky, he packed up his gear and went to have a breakfast of porridge at a food cart near his house. This was his morning ritual.
He approached Hoa’s cart as the morning’s propaganda song burst from the public loudspeakers. A part of him was still reassured by the rousing messages.
Today’s was about ‘Happy Families’. The young female voice exhorted the population to spend time together with one’s family doing high-minded cultural activities. He sat on a red plastic stool at a small table Hoa had set up for his customers and took out his cigarettes.
‘Are you going down to the puppet show later?’ Hoa asked as he poured the steaming fish porridge from a large plastic bucket into an aluminum pot.
‘I can’t; my brother is coming today.’
‘Ha, the one in America?’
‘What about his family? Are they coming?’
‘He is bringing his sons.’
Chien accepted a bowl from Hoa and helped himself to a spoon.
‘They are staying at the Hilton.’
‘Ah, so he is coming back as a rich man.’
Chien nodded as he swallowed a spoonful of porridge. ‘It seems so.’
He did not like to recall his last meeting with An, at a re-education camp where, following the war, many had been interned to learn about communism. Visiting as a war hero, he had not expected to find An tied up like a circus performer, one arm over his shoulder, the other around his waist, the rope digging into his flesh like wire cutting into fruit.
When he returned home, Chien found his sons eating breakfast. They ran an internet cafe for Western tourists, not far from Hoam Lake. They were entrepreneurs at heart, using the money they’d saved from their hustling ventures over the years to open a market stall selling imitation Levis, then selling tourist guidebooks they had photocopied. Now they had a fine shopfront of their own.
He helped himself to an egg. ‘Will you be here when your uncle comes?’
‘We’ll see them after the cafe closes. It’s really busy right now. Maybe you can bring them in for a coffee?’ his younger son said, chewing vigorously.
The older son nodded.
He studied them. Born one year apart, they were closer than most brothers. He and An had been like that. Close enough in age that sometimes they were mistaken for twins.
His sons showed none of the concerns of his youth: finding a wife, starting a family, working on the land. They were following a different rhythm, a different story. They cut their hair in the latest styles copied from foreign magazines and were making more money in a week than he had earned in a year.
His sons showed none of the concerns of his youth: They were following a different rhythm, a different story.
‘I am not sure. They may be too tired from the travelling.’
‘But they are staying at the Hilton?’ his oldest asked.
He should be greeting his brother there, but he didn’t like the idea of entering a five-star hotel.
As if reading his mind, his older son asked him, ‘Why are you not meeting them at the hotel or the airport? It’s been, what, forty years?’
Chien lit a cigarette. ‘He knows where I am.’
After his sons had left for work, Chien went to his favourite coffee house. On his way, he passed some young Westerners carrying large packs.
It seemed as if half his countrymen were working for the foreigners – feeding them, showing them around, cleaning their rooms – while the other half were making things to export for the foreign currency the country badly needed.
He sat down with his coffee and, lighting another cigarette, glanced at the newspaper. Celebrations for the 1000th anniversary of Hanoi were still continuing after six months. The front page advertised more puppet shows, more concerts, more distractions from the woes of the city, the nation. How long could this go on for? Especially when it was clear the country was moving in two different directions.
He could see that slowly and inexorably they were moving into an impossible situation, one that would imitate America, their former enemy. Look at his sons. They were doing well in this half-capitalist environment; how well could they be doing if they were operating in pure capitalist conditions?
‘Chien!’ Lai, his wife, appeared, out of breath. ‘They are here, at the house.’
He nodded and paid the bill, watching his wife hurry home again.
When he entered their yard, she was already offering fruit to the guests and making coffee. Three figures sat shyly on stools around the table.
His brother stood up first. Chien would have recognised him anywhere. His hair was still very black, but he had put on weight, around the stomach mostly, but also on his face. He wore a large, loose T-shirt over his jeans and a gold watch flashed on his wrist. The brothers studied each other for a few moments before shaking hands.
‘These are my sons,’ An said and tapped the younger boy, about sixteen, on his shoulder. Both boys stood up and extended their hands to Chien. He realised that their hair was not black but brown and they could not speak Vietnamese. The older one was taller and looked close to twenty.
‘My two boys. They are at their cafe,’ Chien explained.
An’s eyes were brimming with tears. He had always been the emotional one.
Chien dropped his gaze and motioned for An and his nephews to sit. He too felt a sting behind his eyes.
His wife served the coffee. Chien gestured to the boys. ‘Drink.’ They glanced at their father, who spoke to them in English.
Chien turned to An and said, ‘They are big boys.’
‘Yes, their American mother is a little taller than me and her father, their grandfather, a German, is very tall.’
‘You are looking well,’ An said, sipping his coffee.
‘Yes, I am doing alright.’
An would not know anything about the shrapnel in his back nor of the painful struggle he faced each night as he tried to lie on it.
‘It didn’t take long to find you. Your name is still famous around here.’
Chien didn’t reply. He no longer enjoyed dwelling on this aspect of his life. Of course, following the revolution, he had been prepared to wear the accolades because his name could provide his village with the tools, animals and rice they had desperately needed.
‘So America has been good to you, I see,’ he said, looking at An’s middle.
An patted his stomach and laughed. ‘Yes and no.’
‘Why no?’ Chien asked, searching his brother’s face.
An rubbed his chin thoughtfully but didn’t reply. ‘It is good to be here. I hardly recognised this city from the last time.’
‘You were here before?’
An turned away, face red, blinking fast. ‘Yes, I came five years ago.’
‘You didn’t come and see us?’ Chien hadn’t meant to be so forthright, but he was the big brother again.
An hesitated before answering, eyes on his boys who could hear but could not understand. He spoke softly, ‘Yes, I brought my wife and boys to show them my home, but I didn’t feel I could see you.’
‘I see,’ Chien said, almost under his breath.
‘I thought you would still be angry with me.’ An played with his gold watch.
‘Angry?’ Chien darted a quick glance in his brother’s direction.
‘Well, you know, because…’
‘It was…’ Chien paused. A tremulous energy moved between them. ‘…such a long time ago. Well, you were scared. I thought you had returned to our village. Not headed south.’
‘I did return to the village, but I could see from a distance that nothing was left. As I got closer, I saw there were bodies everywhere, both human and animal. So I ran.’ An’s voice remained even, although his eyes narrowed.
‘I see.’ Chien was glad they were clearing things up early.
‘Yes, until they caught me and put me in the re-education camp. But, of course, you know that.’
Chien bowed his head as he remembered An’s pleas for help. At the time it had meant little because he had believed so fervently in the idea of one Vietnam.
Chien had invited the visitors to his sons’ cafe bar. He and An were seated at a table near the window. At the back, the four boys were behind the counter, showing off their mobile phones, laughing together, although they had just met. They belonged to a different world from their fathers, united not only by youth but also language: English, which Chien’s boys had eagerly learnt from their Western customers.
An looked around the long narrow room, furnished with dark bamboo furniture. Colourful lanterns hung from the ceiling and pop music jangled out of speakers. ‘This is a fine place.’
‘Your boys have done well, setting this up. I can understand. I have three restaurants back in Los Angeles.’
‘You have done well for yourself.’
‘It was hard at first, when I got there after three years in Hong Kong.’
‘Yes, I went to Hong Kong first, then America.’
‘You were alone?’
‘I made friends in Hong Kong. There were many of us there for a long time. But then I got lucky enough to be accepted into America.’ He coughed into his hand. ‘The scars from the re-education camp helped my case. In America, I started working in a shoe factory during the day and in a Vietnamese restaurant at night. Then I opened a restaurant of my own. I met an American woman who was a regular customer, and we ended up getting married.’
‘Where is she?’
‘She didn’t come this time. She is very busy at work. She owns a hairdressing salon.’
An pulled out his wallet to show him a photo of a brown-haired woman with pale skin and shiny eyes. Chien found it difficult to imagine this woman married to his brother, his sister-in-law.
‘How long are you here? And what are your plans?’
An looked over at his boys. ‘They want to do the tourist stuff. You know, Ha Long Bay. Things their friends back home have talked about.’
Chien nodded. Vietnam is a tourist hotspot, his sons had told him when they decided to open this place. He had not wanted to be a part of it; he had seen it as a sort of betrayal. But he loved his sons, not just Vietnam.
Chien, though unsure, agreed to a family dinner at the fancy restaurant of An’s hotel – at An’s insistence. Lai got dressed up, and his boys made no attempt to disguise their excitement. During dinner, it became apparent that his sons were drawn to An and their American cousins. An explained that his younger son had just entered UCLA while the older boy was about to pursue doctorate studies at a university in England. An’s sons had made the most of their American passports.
When Chien’s boys expressed their desire to go to America, even England, An suggested, in Vietnamese, glancing at Chien, ‘Maybe you can go one day. Maybe we can all go together,’ as if all the corners of the world were at his fingertips.
Wearily, Chien studied the room. The opulence struck him as something both natural and ugly. How many of his countrymen would be able to afford even a glass of water in this hotel? Yet he was sure, if they could, they all would jump at the chance to do so. Another step towards his own re-education on modern Vietnam.
Chien studied the room. The opulence struck him as something both natural and ugly.
After all these years, he wasn’t sure whether he was genuinely disappointed in the state of this new Vietnam, or whether he was still lamenting his unrequited love – for a single idea, for a single country.
Nevertheless, he also belonged to these people at this table. They had ordered the usual fare, but the dishes were served on pristine white plates as thin as paper, and sparkling champagne filled the long-stemmed glasses.
‘An, this is delicious!’ exclaimed Lai as she dropped a piece of pork into her mouth.
‘What is America like?’ Duc, his younger son, asked An in Vietnamese, chewing busily.
While his sons lived in Vietnam, American skyscrapers, jets and cars commanded their imaginations.
An replied, ‘America has everything.’
‘You live in LA?’ Hung dropped these letters as if he was familiar with the place.
‘That’s where all the movies get made, right?’ Duc joined in.
An’s face was so bright that it seemed to be radiating energy – as if he alone was responsible for the glittering reputation of his American city.
Chien looked down at the table.
An said quickly, turning to Chien, ‘You have to come and visit us. There is a lot to do there. I think your boys will love it.’
‘Dad, yes, let’s visit them,’ Duc suggested, eyes wide.
Chien’s stomach felt as if it had been scooped out with a giant spoon. The room began to recede. His wife’s happy expression only added to his discomfort.
Chien patted his chest. ‘This wine. I’m not used to it.’
‘Why don’t we go to the lobby and have a proper drink?’ An asked.
In the lounge area, An ordered cognacs and offered his brother Marlboro cigarettes. ‘Your boys are so quick and smart,’ he said.
‘Yes, they are. Impatient too. They should have finished university but…’
‘I was talking to them about the cafe bar. They are doing well. They are ready to open a second one.’
‘So you headed south?’
An nodded. ‘My mistake was falling in love along the way. I met this girl. Her brother worked for the Americans and although I had nothing to do with him, it made no difference; when they arrested him they took me in as well. And, of course, when they discovered I was a deserter…I was sent to the camp straightaway. They killed her brother, but I don’t know what happened to her.’
Chien was baffled. Why had An returned here? To the country that scarred him? ‘I’m surprised you came back. I know what you went through at the camp.’
‘I begged them to finish me off. I was barely alive.’
Chien took a sip of the cognac and allowed it to warm his insides. It was easy to inflict pain on others if you had been a victim yourself. After a while, pain and death became as perfunctory as the movement of one’s bowels.
It was easy to inflict pain on others if you had been a victim yourself.
‘When they released me after two years – I was one of the lucky ones – all I wanted to do was leave Vietnam. I understood that my country, even after winning the war, would be at war a long time.’ An paused and took a long drag on his cigarette. ‘But I am here this time to make peace.’
Chien managed to secure a large boat used for tourists. He took his brother and the boys to Ha Long Bay, where they would cruise the green waters for a few days, buying provisions from vendors in kayaks. One night, while the boys were at one end, he and An sat at the other, smoking and drinking beer.
Ha Long Bay under moonlight looked eerily like a world of the unreal, a place that was confusingly half water and half land. Chien wished that he had brought his painting materials.
An hummed, swaying to a silent rhythm in his head. He began to sing, slow and low, a familiar song, the national anthem, which was really a marching song for soldiers as they went to battle.
His voice was lamenting, and by the end of the song, the words ‘One Eternal Vietnam’ trickled out of his throat, bitter and sweet.
‘There are things you never forget. It is like you are born with certain words, thoughts,’ An said when he finished the song.
Chien still loved the song. But now, what did it mean?
The boys’ laughter caressed Chien’s heart. But An’s face, which came into view as the moon rose above a cloud, was covered in tears.
‘You should have helped me.’
Chien turned away. He went inside the cabin and climbed into one of the bunk beds. He had felt betrayed by An’s desertion; but now he was sorry for many things. He understood the futility of trying to deny the deep seed of the individual in every person. It can be expressed through the brushstrokes of a painting or the way we comb our hair with oil or in the mournful plucking of dàn dáy.
Chien opened his eyes. It was dark. And quiet. He heard breathing near him. When a body jumped on him, he tried to push it off, but its weight pinned him firmly and he went slack. Chien felt the coldness of metal against his throat.
‘It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t human.’ An’s voice trembled.
‘An, An, listen to me, this is a dream. The morning will come and you will see, it’s just a dream.’
An’s tears fell on Chien’s cheeks and his body – the tension gone – slid off and he rolled onto his back. Chien moved closer to the wall, then lay still, stunned. His brother buried his face, sobbing. Soon it turned into the slow and deep breathing of sleep. The smell of beer clung to him.
As soon as the light glowed beneath the door, Chien sat up. An was still asleep. In his hand was a small, crude knife with a red handle. His brown belly, as round as the behind of a water buffalo, was exposed.
Chien climbed out of the bunk and quietly left the cabin. The light was clearer now and, on deck, he helped himself to one of An’s cigarettes. The bay was mysterious in the early morning mist, the water as smooth as aspic jelly.
An emerged from the cabin and without looking at his brother walked to the edge of the boat and threw the knife high over the water. Its blade sliced open the dull, silver sky, and the red handle appeared like a drop of blood.
Sitting at the cafe window with An, Chien saw Duc running towards them.
‘They have taken David to the police station,’ he said, out of breath.
An stood up.
‘The police said that he was selling drugs.’ Duc looked at his uncle then at his father.
‘David? Selling drugs?’ An’s face was grim and had clouded over with a shade of red.
Duc nodded. ‘He is at the police station now.’
An’s face then relaxed. ‘It’s a mistake and I know exactly where this is going.’
The blade sliced open the dull, silver sky, and the red handle appeared like a drop of blood.
They found David sitting at the rear of the police station. He looked frightened, but upon seeing his father, sat up straight. Ceiling fans whirred above them and lifted the papers and calendar pinned to the wall.
Behind the counter, a policeman sat at a desk. Seeing the three enter, he stepped around to meet them. Chien glanced at his name badge: Long. He had heard of him in the neighbourhood. The son of a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Ministry of Agriculture, he was known to have a nasty streak.
‘Why is my son here?’ An nodded towards David.
‘You should be careful how you speak. Your son is a drug smuggler. I found this in his backpack.’ He lifted from beneath the counter a small plastic bag the size of a thousand dong containing clumps of yellow powder.
‘My son would not even know what that is.’ An let out a snort.
Chien stepped forward. ‘So, how did you know he had it in his bag? Why were you searching him?’
The policeman’s face hardened. ‘We do our job and follow tip-offs. He was seen hanging around the edge of the market where we know there is a lot of dealing.’
‘I want to talk to my son.’
An was let into the room at the back. David stood up quickly and fell into his father’s arms. The boy started to cry as if he was three again. An whispered into the boy’s ear.
Chien stepped up to speak to Long. ‘You say you body-searched him?’
Long nodded, eyes flickering like sharpened steel.
‘Where did you find the bag?’
‘Why are you asking all these questions? How dare you interrogate me?’ Long glared as if he was prepared to arrest Chien as well.
Chien lifted his hands, palms facing Long. ‘Please, it’s just that…he is normally a good boy.’
‘What are you saying? That we are making up his arrest?’ Tiny drops of spit ricocheted from Long’s mouth. ‘Are you accusing my contacts? And this evidence?’ Long held up the bag again. ‘This is a serious crime. You know what the punishment is.’
Chien nodded. Yes, death. His heart jolted and blood rushed to his head. He wanted to tell this officer, ‘Did you know I helped to kill over three hundred American soldiers? That I was part of the Tet?’
‘Alright, I need to speak to my brother. Will you let me do that?’
Chien, like everyone else, had learnt to bend and negotiate the invisible machinery of this city. They were all actors, improvising and performing an old story. David’s story, to Chien, was as familiar as Hoa’s food cart and one that would eventually merge and disappear into this city like the tail-light of a motorbike.
‘You have five minutes.’ Long moved aside to let Chien pass.
Before he made his way toward his brother and nephew, he turned around and motioned for Duc to go, disappear.
Chien and An spoke quietly in the corner.
‘You cannot argue your way out of this. This is impossible.’
An took a deep breath. ‘He was set up. The drug was planted in his bag while he wasn’t looking.’
Chien simply nodded. ‘Give him money. As much cash as you can get hold of. I’ve heard $1000 to $1500 US will be enough.’
‘I can get about $1200.’
‘Then go now, quickly. I’ll stay here with your son.’
An moved towards the door. He didn’t look at Long as he passed him but exited the station quickly.
Chien sat next to his nephew, patting him on the back, murmuring the snippets of English he knew. ‘Everything okay. Okay?’
The boy’s lips trembled, but he nodded.
Half an hour later, An returned to the police station, covered in sweat.
He went up to the counter and stood facing Long. They held each other’s gaze until An dropped his eyes and slid the envelope under Long’s clipboard then nodded at Chien and David. Without acknowledging Long, who was busy writing, they filed out of the police station.
Chien was by the lake, at his favourite spot beneath an old weeping willow, when he heard An approaching.
‘So you paint now, pass yourself off as an artist.’
Chien ignored the bemused tone in his brother’s voice.
‘Why didn’t your wife come with you?’ Chien stirred his brush in a bottle of brown water.
‘I told you, she is busy.’ An lowered his body onto a large rock. ‘Well, actually, we are getting a divorce, now that the boys are leaving home.’
‘Doesn’t your oldest live with you? He is not married.’
‘He has his own apartment. He lives with a girlfriend.’
‘Ah, they are really American.’
An stretched his legs and gazed at the water. ‘My wife says she wants to move back to San Francisco, where she grew up.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Well, I have my restaurants. They make me more than enough money. But I will lose some money with the divorce.’
‘You have to give her your restaurants?’
An laughed. ‘No, I have to give her half of what they are worth. Whatever the lawyers say.’
Chien shook his head.
‘It’s okay. Her hairdressing salon will be included in the split. So we shall see. But I will lose her.’
‘You should have married a Vietnamese woman. You wouldn’t have this problem.’
An shook his head. ‘It’s not possible anymore. I have gone past that. I am no longer fully Vietnamese.’
‘There must be other Vietnamese women, like you, who have been in the West a long time.’
An sighed. ‘It is not that simple, brother.’ It was the first time An had addressed Chien like this. ‘Besides, they are all married. And I have many American friends now and I get on well with them.’
‘You should be proud of your boys.’
‘That’s true. They have lives I could not have imagined for them had I stayed here.’
‘They have the world at their feet. They will do things.’
‘But you know your place is here, our home. Sometimes I want to be in Vietnam so bad my body hurts. But I know I cannot return. You have your boys around you and your wife will never divorce you.’
It was true. But Chien worried for his country, for his family. As his generation passed away, the country would be left to some like Long and his young associates and some like his sons. There could be another war.
An watched his brother dab little bits of paint onto the canvas. After a couple of minutes he gave his assessment: ‘You are not too bad, but I think your water needs work.’
Chien did not answer. This was his ninth picture of exactly the same scene. He was determined to capture this small piece of the lake. But the light on the water possessed an elusive, ever-shifting quality that stubbornly refused to be interpreted by his hand.
The restless personality of the water never stopped astonishing him. Like the city, it was constantly changing; and although it might look the same if you glanced at it, a closer look would ensure there was not one aspect of it that wasn’t moving or transforming.
‘Monet painted the waterlilies in his garden for twenty years. This is my garden.’
‘You, of all people, copying those unscrupulous French, those heartless bastards, as lightweight as the baguettes they eat. This is indeed a new Vietnam. Everyone is remaking themselves.’ An laughed loudly and his round belly bobbed up and down.