Bittersweet orange

The mysteries of a fleeting romance in Hanoi: He put his chicken in my soup. How should I respond?

By W. Madrigal
Published April 27, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

"You, parlez francais?"

I looked up, alarmed. I had been sitting on a bench in the dusk, watching as young Vietnamese men and women chatted and ambled slowly around Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake. A startlingly handsome young man with a bicycle stood above me, smiling down. He was wearing a paper-thin white shirt that looked like it had been washed countless times, black slacks and rubber sandals like everyone else.

Not another one, I thought. People were always asking me to speak English or French with them, when all I wanted to do was practice my Vietnamese. The result was always a frustrating conversational impasse.

"Oui, je parle un peu." I told him that I wasn't French but that I spoke a bit, then I told him in Vietnamese that I was an American graduate student, in town for a month to do some research. My tongue tripped over the difficult vowels. "My name is Wendy."

"Ahhhh!" He smiled, pleased. "My name is Tuyen. I am studying to be a lawyer. May I sit down?" He looked so sincere, so young and pleasant, that I moved over and made space for him. He sat down and we spoke innocently for a while in pidgin French and English about the lake, the city, his job, the weather. At one point he stopped his cheerful, almost incomprehensible patter to ask me, "Why did you come to Vietnam? There is nothing here for someone like you."

How could I describe to him why? The first time I had visited in 1993, the year before, I felt like crying as the plane swooped down low over the quilt of neon green rice fields. I was filled with conflicted images and emotions about finally seeing a place that carried such a heavy weight back home. I had been warned by Vietnamese and American friends alike to "watch out for the commies," but on my first trip I had been welcomed with giddy joy by nearly everyone.

"I am here because it is a very beautiful place," I said stupidly. I thought for a second about the irony of my words as my mind flooded with images from the old Life magazines I had scoured as a child, war photos that had been my template for understanding the country for years.

A peasant woman with a shoulder pole and two dangling baskets of fruit and candy squatted in front of us. Tuyen bought an orange and she moved away like a shadow. I watched him peel the tiny green orange. It sat in his palm, small and webbed in white, and he offered it to me. I hated these green Vietnamese oranges, but his look was so pleading that I took half and suffered through each stringy, sour bite, letting the warm juice ooze down my throat.

By this time, twilight had fallen, and headlights swarmed around the lake like fireflies. It was a Friday night in late summer, and couples on dates darted by on bicycles and mopeds. Tuyen looked at his watch. "Can you meet me here again?"

I was speechless for a minute; there were no familiar handholds here, nothing against which to measure his question or my proper response. What if he was a spy? He did work for the Ministry of Law part-time, after all.

Because he had no phone, I gave him my number and pedaled back to the house I was staying at, a huge empty structure rented by an American friend now in Bangkok. My heart was beating quickly in my chest and throat, even though I was moving in slow motion through the thick jam of bicycles.

The following Friday evening I found myself sitting on the bench as the parade of young people began again. How many years had this been going on? Secret kisses in the shade of the willow that draped itself over the edge of the lake, sweet glances and muffled laughter. It seemed eternal, and yet I knew that it hadn't always been like this, that for decades Hanoi had been anything but the almost sickeningly romantic place it was now. Most of these young people had been born during the war, but they pedaled and walked around now with a kind of laissez-faire, a sheer enjoyment of the moment that was completely unexpected.

I could see Tuyen coming toward me down the lakeside path, pushing his rusty bicycle. He sat down beside me. "Comment allez-vous ce soir, Wendy?" he asked formally, shaking my hand. I looked at him for a moment. Although he was in his mid-20s like me, his face was seamless, his eyes clear and bright. The part in his thick black hair was perfectly straight, and his cheekbones looked burnished in the fading light.

"Oh, I'm fine. My research is going well." This was a blatant lie. I had spent the last week trudging through various ministries, drinking endless cups of green tea, talking unconvincingly about the research I wanted to do on family planning practices in the countryside. The officials always smiled and nodded, but were completely noncommittal. Tuyen asked me a few questions, also looking unconvinced, so I quickly tried to change the subject by asking him about his childhood.

"I come from a small village. I live with my brother's family now. I don't get to go home very often." He told me that he had come from Hoa Binh province to seek a better job, but that he sent most of his monthly salary -- all $40 of it -- back home every month. He wanted to be a lawyer and was taking classes at night, but he really didn't have any hope of ever becoming one because he couldn't afford to stay in school. But he told this to me with a smile. Somehow, I expected this story to be a segue into a story about the war, or about the poverty of the country, but he seemed happy to just sit by the lake, gazing out into the water.

"Co gia dinh chua?" he asked me, the first thing he had ever asked me in Vietnamese.

"Chua co." No children. Not yet. I was careful to use the phrase that all unmarried women used. I knew that here, a woman my age without a family was considered an embarrassment. Suddenly panicked, I looked around. Three old men were sitting on a nearby bench, watching us, leaning on their canes, cackling to each other. "What are they saying?" I asked Tuyen.

"They say you are very pretty," he said. "That you are very tall and your eyes are very blue." The look in his eyes was teasing and sly, and he moved closer to me on the bench.

We sat there until it was completely dark, talking as best we could about our families, about America. We skirted carefully around politics, but the topic hung there in the air in front of us, a subject thankfully too difficult for our motley language skills. When I told him how cold it was in California compared to here, he looked concerned. "Does it snow in your town? Do people die from the cold?" I tried to imagine Tuyen in California with me, eating a burrito, walking down Haight Street, drinking a nonfat decaf latte. Impossible.

"People don't usually die from the cold there, no," I laughed.

He seemed to ponder this forever, a slight crease between his eyebrows. The temperature in Hanoi had probably never dipped below 50 degrees in his lifetime.

The swarms of people reached a frenzied peak just as the last streak of light left the sky. It was still hot, and I was sweaty and getting hungry. "Do you want to go eat?" I asked him. "Let's go somewhere. I'll take you to a nice place I know."

He seemed confused and embarrassed. "I don't have any money."

"No, no, I'll treat you. It's OK. Don't worry about it."

He looked at me and laughed. It was a wonderful sound. "No. Next time." He got up abruptly, touched my hand briefly, and pedaled off. "Meet me in two days, same time," he called over his shoulder.

The next couple of days I pondered these strange meetings. I was definitely attracted to him, his gentle voice, his striking face. Was I just lonely? I was surrounded by people in Hanoi, by old women barking orders to everyone, schoolgirls giggling and walking hand in hand. Everyone was friendly. I had no reason to feel alone. But everything was so different now, so different from the first time, when I wandered the country like an idiot savant, not knowing a word of Vietnamese.

Now that I could speak a little bit, a completely different world was opening up to me, and I didn't know how to navigate it at all. With every new word I learned, I was drawn in deeper, into worrying about how to interact with people. I pondered their relationships, which seemed fierce and temperamental, yet unwavering. I could not place myself in these complicated hierarchies and began to seriously doubt if I should even be trying.

Sunday afternoon when I walked up to the bench by the lake, Tuyen was already there. He grinned up at me.

"I have a present for you," I said, handing him a small package.
Earlier that day, I had been wandering in the touristy part of town, where I spent $2 on a tiny pewter box. Lacking anything small enough to put inside, I had taken a shiny new quarter from my wallet and dropped it in. A quarter, I thought with shame as he opened the box. But he sighed with happiness, then said, "I can't take this. I don't need it."

I knew it. I had done something wrong. "No. It's for you. I bought it for you." I pushed it back at him. He sighed again, closed his eyes and held the box tightly. Somehow we managed to talk for a while, about art, about family relationships, about anything we could manage to describe. I watched his face, his slender hands, hypnotized by his low, intense voice. It began to get dark.

"Let's go eat." I motioned him to his feet. He was taller than me, which I hadn't noticed before.

He stood there, grinning. "I still don't have any money."

"I'm paying! Don't worry about it," I pleaded.

"First I want to take you somewhere." He pushed his bike out to the street and waited for me, with my heavy book bag, to catch up. The parade was starting again, and this time I was in it, in my bright American clothes, riding awkwardly.

We rode toward my end of town, then he turned abruptly down a dark alley. We were going slow enough that I could see the look of surprise on the faces of the people at the noodle stall on the corner. The alley was muddy, and a tangle of puppies yelped and tripped in front of our bicycles.

"Here we are." He pulled his bike into an open, lighted patio, where a stout, smiling man stood in a doorway in shorts with two children hanging on his legs.

"My brother Dinh." Dinh motioned for me to sit down in the wooden armchair in the front room. Most Vietnamese families had a room like this, filled with hard, decorative furniture arranged in front of the family altar. It was the guest's room. I had never seen any other room in a Vietnamese house.

Dinh brought out bottles of warm lemon soda from his shop next door and I sat there sipping nervously as Dinh and Tuyen had a hushed conversation. I heard Dinh say to him, "Go ask my wife." Then Dinh turned to me and went through the typical questions: Do you have children? How old are you? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Tuyen gazed at me from the loveseat, his cheeks flushed. Then Dinh's wife, a tiny woman with a scarred face, came quietly into the room in her nylon pajamas. Tuyen pulled her aside and they went out onto the patio, where I saw her give him a wad of crumpled bills.

"OK, let's go now." Tuyen swept me out of the room and we went back to the noodle stand on the corner. Everyone stared at me again, chopsticks poised halfway to their open mouths, until Tuyen told them to move over. They squeezed together on the low wooden bench, and Tuyen sat across from me.

"But I wanted to take you to a restaurant!" I whispered to him.

"No, it's better this way." He turned to the woman at the soup pot and I heard him order her to put only the best chicken in my soup.

"Do you want a beer?" he asked, probably thinking that all Americans have to drink beer, like water. I hesitated. Most women didn't drink beer in Vietnam, and besides, I didn't want him to waste all of his money on it, and I knew he wouldn't let me pay. But I was feeling so dizzy from the heat, this strange evening, that I thought a beer would help smooth the edges out.

"Yes. Let's share a beer."

We sat there forever, shoving long noodles into our mouths, drinking beer, laughing at nothing. All of the other customers left, but we continued to sit there. He took a piece of chicken out of his bowl and put it into mine, looking meaningfully into my eyes. Was I supposed to put chicken in his bowl too?

When it was time to leave, we wove unsteadily on our bikes as I tried to find my way back to my house. Although it was a Sunday night and quite late, everyone in Hanoi seemed to be out, laughing, eating, scolding children, sitting on the sidewalk on tiny stools watching televisions in cafes. My skin was thrumming with the noise, the heat, the heady smell coming from the blooming milkfruit trees that lined the streets.

We reached my house, with its metal folding grill over the entire front of the house. I knew that the housekeeper, a moody old man who lived in the attic, had probably locked me out when he closed up the house for the night, assuming that I was in my room reading as usual.

We stood straddling our bicycles as the crowd flowed around us. Horns bleated, engines revved, people yelled, but we just stood there looking at each other.

"So I'll see you Wednesday?" he asked. He held my hand briefly, pressing the knuckles on the back of my hand one by one. Then he was gone.

Late that night, a cold storm began pelting my window with heavy rain and thrashing winds. Within an hour, the sound of the storm had achieved a rhythm of permanence. I spent the next two days in the house, staring out at the brave souls in plastic rain ponchos who scurried here and there. I had only a few days left in Hanoi, and began to wonder if I would spend them all inside.

By the third day, Wednesday, the streets of Hanoi were knee-deep with milky brown water. Mercifully, the rain stopped in the afternoon, leaving an eerie silence in its wake. The streets became calm rivers reflecting the gray sky, pierced here and there by persistent cyclists. Three o'clock came, and without even thinking about it, I hauled out my bicycle and slushed through the streets to the park.

It was dark and empty at the park by the lake. The omnipresent lovers had moved inside, the beggars and sellers were probably working the tourist restaurants. I was the only one sitting on a bench in the gloom, shivering in my soaked shoes and pants. Why was I here? I could be back in the house, reading academic journals, writing research plans. I could be safely inside.

I waited for an hour, and Tuyen never showed up.

That night, as I was eating noodles in the kitchen, the phone rang, startling me.

"It's Tuyen. I'm sorry, I was there at 4:10. Were you there?"

"I was there until 4."

"I'm so sorry, I couldn't get through the streets."

"Well, what are you doing now? Why don't you come over? I'm only four blocks away."

He paused. "But it's so late."

"Khong sao," I laughed. No worries.

But I was worried. I ran upstairs to find a halfway decent dress and took my hair out of the ponytail I had worn for weeks. Within minutes, the doorbell rang. Tuyen stood there astride his bike with a boy who looked about 14 clinging to the back. I backed away from the door and they stepped inside, leaving their sandals at the door.

Tuyen settled on the couch and his silent friend perched nervously on the other end. "This is my cousin Hoang," Tuyen said offhandedly as I handed them cans of soda.

"Oh, your cousin, hmm?" I sat there, perplexed. Why would he bring his cousin, who was so obviously bored? I stared hard at Hoang as he sat there, fiddling with his can, staring at the ceiling. Then it hit me: Hoang was Tuyen's chaperone! It just wasn't seemly for Tuyen to come alone to a strange American woman's house at 9 p.m. I started to laugh.

"What is so funny?"

How could I explain it? I tried to control my giggling as we went on to talk about my research. Every idea I proposed he shot down, simply saying, "That's not the way it is." I looked at him sitting there, a dashing, handsome guy with a devilish grin. The more he talked, the more lost I felt. Should I sit next to him? Back away? Cross my legs? Drop out of grad school? I wasn't used to this aggressively flirtatious side of him. Suddenly he stopped talking and said, "Come sit here next to me." His cousin looked up from the seat where he had been dozing, eyes momentarily wide, then nodded off again.

I sat next to him. As he continued to talk, he touched my knee, demurely covered by my skirt, very lightly. Then he put his arm across the back of the couch. When I started to get up to get another can of soda, he pressed on my shoulder. "No. Don't worry about it. Stay here." Then we ran out of things to say. I had a lump in my throat and kept swallowing convulsively. "Maybe when you come back I'll take you to visit some temples," he finally said.

"Yeah. When I come back." This was the first time he had mentioned my plan to return to Vietnam in nine months to do a year of field work.

"When you come back ... I'll have a motorbike then. I'll save money all year so I can take you out to the countryside. We can go to the flower market, we can visit my family in Hoa Binh." He smiled fondly at me. "You are coming back?"

"I think so. I hope so."

Did I hope so? I didn't know what I wanted. Before meeting Tuyen, I had been in a vile mood about this country, about the weather, the bureaucracy, the constant attention, the hectic pace of life. But what would the place look like from the back of Tuyen's motorbike?

Hoang forced him to leave soon after that, and I sat fantasizing about Tuyen for hours, knowing that in 48 hours I would be back in California and this strange dream would be over, this newness and rawness that made me realize that everything I knew about myself and this place, which was so little to begin with, was completely wrong.

That night I slept poorly. It was approaching the mid-September children's festival, and all night motorbikes buzzed up and down the street. Even with the air conditioner on full blast and the drapes shut, the noise and humid night air seeped through -- this nocturnal community life of the doorstep and sidewalk that I knew I would miss.

I had accomplished what I had set out to do -- I had finally secured a vague affiliation with a local research center -- and yet I felt completely unsure. Even more than before, my research project began to seem like an excuse for keeping distance between me and this lovely, unsettling place.

At 5 a.m., I finally got out of bed and went onto the balcony. The tiles were warm under my feet and the sky was lavender. I was wearing silk pajamas that I had bought in the Old Quarter, and a warm breeze ruffled them as I leaned out and watched old men in striped boxer shorts striding down the street on their morning walks, children playing badminton under the trees. The temperature was perfect; it felt as if there was no temperature at all. Leaving. I was leaving this too soon.

At 7:30 the next morning, I was just finishing my coffee when I saw Tuyen peering in the long window in the entryway. I rushed over to open the door. The tranquil street of a couple of hours ago was a cyclone of motorbikes and honking old Volga sedans. It was dusty and humid; it would be a scorcher today, but one of those days that would leave a sultry, warm evening behind, which I would miss. I would be shut up in an airless plane, on my way home.

Tuyen untied two packages from the back of his bicycle and handed them to me.

"Oh, why did you --" I started.

He drew his finger across his throat brusquely. Was he telling me to shut up? "I didn't get you anything --" He made that movement again. I unwrapped the first package: a tiny sculpture of a boy on a water buffalo, made entirely out of seashells and heavy epoxy. It was precious in its ugliness. The second package was wrapped in Christmas foil. Inside I found a fuzzy white muffler. Oh! He had been trying to tell me it was a scarf!

"You said it gets cold in California. I don't want you to get cold." I just stared down at the scarf in my hands. Where did he find a scarf at the end of summer in Hanoi? Tuyen took the scarf from me and wound it around my neck, holding onto the ends and pulling me closer.

"So you are ready to leave now?"

"Not really. I don't know."

"You will write to me."

"Of course I will." I smiled slowly at him. "But you had better practice your English."

"No! You practice your Vietnamese," he said to me in Vietnamese. "From now on, we speak only Vietnamese, because your Vietnamese is terrible," he joked.

"So I'll see you in nine months, then," I said, looking hard at his face. I didn't even have a photo of him.

"Nine months. Nine months. OK."

We stood there awkwardly for a few minutes in the open doorway as the morning traffic sped by. I had no idea what came next, so I simply pulled him closer and touched my cheek to his hot one for a brief second. He squeezed my hand, got back on his bike and was soon lost in the crowd.

I never wrote him, paranoid about my language skills, but four months later, I came home to find a tattered little envelope of flimsy airmail paper. It was postmarked a month before. Inside, Tuyen had written in flowery Vietnamese:

"Sometimes I go to our bench by the lake where we used to sit and talk for hours. I think of the fruit we used to eat, the bitter orange that was still so sweet and pleasurable ... the taste remains with me. It warms my heart in the middle of this cold winter."

I smiled, imagining him standing barefoot on a balmy beach in Vietnam, wearing a scarf, gazing out at the Pacific that divides us.

W. Madrigal

W. Madrigal is a freelance writer based in Oakland.

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