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by Tom Bissell

A son accompanies his father to Vietnam, where people are not always as they seem.

My father looked crumply-eyed over my shoulder, his mouth cast in the same emotionally undecided frown that I had noticed, with increasingly frequency, in recent photographs of myself. My back to the street, I whirled around in my crackling wicker chair to have a look. Simultaneously a group of German (or perhaps French) tourists entered the café and crowded around its entrance while waiting for a hostess to escort them to a table. The men were red-faced and abdominous, the women coltish and slim, sandals with socks all around. I turned back to my father with a querying look. "What is it?"

After a small, distracted shrug he said, "Nothing," and returned to his lunch, a lightly oiled row of circular squid tubes arranged Olympic-ring style upon his oval plate.

We were in Hue, in Central Vietnam. We had been in Hue for a little more than an hour. We had arrived at a small regional airport, in fact an old French airport, to meet Truong and Hien — our driver and guide, respectively. We had been told that Hien specialized in touring veterans of the American War, and with him we would spend the next twelve days. Both men seemed immediately likeable, friendly, and, I thought, were clearly touched by the nature of my father's and my trip. Hien had been shocked to learn that we lived so far apart in the United States, and wondered whether we saw each other much. My father had answered, "I see him just enough not to dislike him." Hien had then asked if we were hungry. He learned that in fact we were starving, brought us to this café, and then, with Truong, promptly disappeared.

Truong and Hien. Of the various moments of racial patronization in Graham Greene's The Quiet American — which is a great book, a very great book — none was as whistle-inducing as Fowler's observation that it was difficult to assess the age of Vietnamese men because "they are boys and then they are old men." Truong had a shaggy bowl haircut, a small mustache, long gangly arms, and a disarmingly goofy smile. Hien was only a few inches over five feet but compact and tough looking, not unlike a dwarf male gymnast. He was also in possession of the single longest facial hair I had ever seen. It grew out of a mole on his cheek and was capable, literally, of being thrown over his shoulder. In fact, I would learn, this he would often do. Such mole hair was considered good luck in Vietnamese culture. Hien looked to be about thirty-six. He was fifty-two. Truong, on the other hand, looked to be about twenty-two or twenty-three. He was thirty-six.

My father's tour of duty in Vietnam had never taken him to Hue, and I suffered no particular mania to visit this city. But as we had set up our "tour package," about which the less said the better, it was impressed upon us that a trip to Vietnam was not a trip to Vietnam without Hue, we had to see Hue. So now we ate in one of Hue's many small French-style cafés, sitting on wicker chairs covered with plush red cushions, our table draped with a velvety red tablecloth, large, frondy plants lurking in every corner, while Jimmy Buffet's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" played at a low but nevertheless unacceptable volume over some plant-shrouded speakers. As my father sipped from a tiny cup of Vietnamese coffee — "Hooo, that'll curl your toenails" — I saw, over his shoulder, through one of the café's windows, the wide brown motionlessness of the Perfume River. Long narrow wooden boats vaguely reminiscent of crocodiles floated along with ominous quietude. Sunlight this morning existed only as a wet, smoky haze. Or perhaps it was the jetlag, which had clipped off my nerves at their sparking ends. My eyes ached. The little sleep I managed to get had been like slipping a grit-lined pillowcase over my brain.

A few minutes later my father was again peering over my shoulder. His expression this time was small-eyed, considered, more thoughtful. "They're about the right age. Don't you think?"

I turned again. By now our fellow tourists had been escorted to their seats, leaving the café's spacious and doorlessly sunlit entrance clear. A few feet from the jamb huddled a one-legged Vietnamese man, clad in a dirty yellow poncho to fend off the rain that had not yet fallen but would, today and every day. This man was, among other things, a dead ringer for Manuel Noriega. Just beyond the Vietnamese Noriega was an even older shirtless man whose left hand was a freakishly withered twig of bony flesh. In his right hand was his beggar bowl. They had not been there when we entered.

I swiveled back to my father with a sobered expression. "Jesus Christ." I sat there staring at my plate of spring rolls and after a few moments looked up. "Do you think they're veterans?"

He was still staring at them, his forehead deeply lined. "What else would they be?"

"I wonder which side." But I probably did not need to wonder. Veterans from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were said to have some right to hospital beds and other shelter, and these men were almost certainly former South Vietnamese soldiers. Already this morning — outside the airport, inside the airport, outside Hue's hotel while we dropped off our luggage — we  had met so many Vietnamese men who claimed to have fought with the Americans that my father finally muttered, "If all these people were with us then why the hell did we lose?"

He continued to look at the beggars, his eyes bulging in helpless concern. He shook his head and then began to fork away at his squid. Only after a few bites did he speak, his head still down.

"When we leave we should give them something."

This astounded me. My father's politics were best described as Orthodox Midwestern independent, uncomfortable with the moral superiority of the left and irritated by the moral certainty of the right. But his fierce antipathy for those who did not, in his mind, work hard — street people, Europeans, his Communist son — coursed through the ironworks of his mind like a vein of molten slag. Were my father himself not a hard worker this attitude would have been infuriating. But he was one of the hardest-working men I had ever met. I was only occasionally hard working. Beggary also made a hash of my conscience. Give it a face, render it helpless, and place it before me, and my heart split along its sinewy seams and my pockets were emptied. On the issue of beggars I was a hopeless enabler and not to be trusted. Yet in the face of my father's surprise willingness to give I found myself hardening. "Well. If you want to give them something, okay."

My father nodded. We finished eating, each of our bites requiring thirty preoccupied chews. Maybe this idea of my father's was in fact an entirely lovely notion. Think of it in literary terms. Symmetry. My father stumbling upon these quiet, disfigured fellow veterans — such good portent! and on our first day! — and paying them even the most meager alms suddenly expanded in my mind to achieve a kind of poetic nobility.

We settled the bill, tipped heavily, looked at each other, rose, pushed our chairs back under the table, and moved across the tourist-crowded restaurant with grim purpose. Our strides were long; we were bureaucrats of munificence. At the entrance my father turned and whispered, "You take the other guy," by which he meant the withered-handed man. I went over to him smilingly and caught a sidelong glance of my father handing Noriega a 10,000-dong note. This was about eighty cents. Noriega took the money with a thankful quiet nod. The withered-armed man was without expression as I searched through my bills for a 10,000-dong note. All I seemed to have were 20,000-, 50,000-, and 100,000-dong notes, though no matter the denomination a different-colored portrait of Uncle Ho stared kindly up at me. Frustrated, I caved in and gave the withered-armed gentleman 50,000 dong — a little over the considerable sum of $3.

Suddenly, a legless crablike man wearing a flip-flop sandal on each hand scuttled out from the shady interior of an across-the-street convenience shack. He moved with the disarming, skittering quickness of a longer-armed primate. As an image it was fairly nightmarish, as a biophysical display nothing short of astounding. The crabman had for some reason dead-reckoned upon my father and scrambled right past me. By now a little crowd had gathered. They were mainly young Vietnamese who took in the unfolding and no doubt daily drama with smirking but not hostile amusement. Some tourists — Germans, I guessed (or perhaps French) — were obviously trying not to watch as they hurried from their cars and ducked into the café.

By now the crabman had reached my father, whose clean khaki pants had never looked cleaner, whose blue shirt had never looked bluer. With heartrending proficiency the crabman extricated his begging hand from his filthy flip-flop's homemade webbing and held it up to my father. My open-mouthed father stared down at the crabman. Suddenly I, too, had more supplicants. They were emerging from the hibiscus and palm trees lining the street and from all the shacks and alleyways. A little boy in a wheelchair came rolling up to me and practically skidded to a stop inches from my Nikes. "What's cooking, bub?" he asked. I was outraged. Outraged that this boy was not nearly old enough to have been a veteran. Outraged that he would attempt a parasitical relationship with these men. I gave him money anyway, if only to make him go away, which he did. In fact, he wheeled on directly toward my father.

My father  and the crabman were still regarding each other, the crabman's tongue now unfurled with canine extravagance. The expression upon my father's face … I was not sure that I had ever seen it before. One would think that after nearly three decades of surprising, disappointing, pleasing, and worrying another human being, one would have seen all possible permutations of facial expression. But this was new. Upon my father's face was not a look of sadness, or fear, or anger, or guilt. His face asked no questions and expected no answers. It was a face looking deeply into that of another human being with no need other than mercy. He gave the crabman a 50,000-dong note, the smallest bill, I gathered, that he now had. He turned away from the crabman and, though he had been trying to ignore the wheelchair boy, he handed over some money to him as well. My father then walked on. Where precisely he was headed in this city he had never been I had little idea, but he was certainly in a hurry to get there. I moved after him, but after two steps another beggar reached through the heat, latched on to my hand, and softly tugged.

Hien materialized with panic-widened eyes and rushed up to my wandering-away father. When Hien grabbed him by the arm it took my father a moment to turn around. When he did he looked down at Hien with a face simultaneously lost and thankful. Just as suddenly as Hien had appeared the car pulled up to within two feet of the café's front entrance. With Secret Service efficiency Hien pushed my father down into the backseat. The car went into sideways reverse, squirted forward, and was suddenly beside me. I handed out several more 50,000-dong notes before falling into the air-conditioned anti-sauna. Hien slammed shut my door, a sound that seemed inordinately harsh. As we began to pull away I looked out the window. What had felt like an invading army of the scrofulous and maimed I now saw as six or seven peaceful, if insistent, beggars sensibly plying their trade at one of Hue's major tourist arteries. The boy in the wheelchair was laughing and the crabman dragged himself back toward his darkness. Only Noriega waved goodbye. Some tourists — an older couple, clad in white — were now emerging from the café. The remaining and extremely keyed-up beggars quickly gathered around them. I turned away. How difficult we had made this couple's egress from lunch. How needlessly we had complicated their intake of Vietnamese exoticism.

We drifted along in silence. My father's head was lolled back against the seat. His glasses were off, his eyes open, his hands in his lap. It did not even seem as though he was breathing. Outside the sun was bright.


Months later I would share with a friend the story of my father's run-in with the beggars of Hue. My friend was something of a Vietnam hand, and would respond by telling me that such a collision was becoming a stock scene in the literature of Americans in the new Vietnam. My friend would not say this to be snide or dismissive. Even as I was watching my father and the crabman there had seemed a ghastly familiarity to it, an elementary fatedness.

"Hey, Dad?"

As I now looked at my father, his eyes still fixed on the car's ceiling, my voice as obviously unheard as Truong and Hien's respectful silence, I sensed that he had just confronted something for the first time. It did not matter on which side those men had battled, or who wounded them, or what wounded them, or that the only people that boy in the wheelchair had likely ever fought were his brothers and sisters. As a young man something in my father had compelled him to come to Vietnam, to engage in what he knew was war. Now he had come back to see just what his youth's passion had contributed to. The reason this was becoming a stock scene in the literature of Americans in the new Vietnam was because a confrontation with the lingering costs of war was inevitable and necessary for every American who came here. It was inevitable and, for those who fought here, incalculably painful. Even a broken heart is a cliché.


His mouth opened. "That was... ." His voice was thick, throat-tightened. "I think that… ."  The sluice of the rim under his reddened eyes' glowed with moisture. He cleared his throat — a revving, strangely formal sound.

"Go ahead, Dad."

He nodded. "I think maybe that was probably a mistake."

"I don't. I don't at all."

He took my hand and squeezed it.

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Articles in this Issue

A Soul's Weight, by Mary Roach
Know Me Now, by Steve Lohse
Veterans, by Tom Bissell
A Field of Trees and Bones, by Kate Pickert
Circum-schism, by Grant Stoddard
Nutrition, by Benjamin Hart
Hospitality and Tourism, by Peter Olszewski
Horticulture, by Kathryn Small
Penmanship, by Jeff Steinbrink
Economics, by Robert Sullivan


Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea, a travel narrative; God Lives in St. Petersburg, a story collection; and (with Jeff Alexander) Speak, Commentary, a volume of fake DVD commentaries. He is currently finishing a book about his journey to Vietnam with his father that Pantheon will publish in late 2006. He is contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and The Virginia Quarterly Review and lives in New York City

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