Ho Chi Minh City rushes past as you fly down the street. You cling to your tour guide, Jason, on the back of his motorbike. You asked for his Vietnamese name, but he insisted you use his English one.
Jason swerves the motorbike onto a curb. He wedges into a spot between two other bikes and holds his hand out for your helmet. You jump off, not as gracefully as you’d have liked, and hand it to him.
This is the last stop on your Saigon food tour: Acoustic Bar. You walk in, feeling the heat from a hundred bodies. The dimly lit joint is packed, with a horseshoe of chairs around the stage, and more people crammed in the back. Jason tells you to find a spot; he’ll bring you a beer. He disappears into the crowd before you have time to tell him you prefer Saigon in a can rather than a bottle.
You find a spot in the back. A rock band with Irish accents introduce themselves as The Sangsom Massacre from Bangkok. They announce that they only have two songs left in their set before a woman named Phuong will take the stage. Everyone cheers.
The chairs around the stage are filled with Vietnamese customers. They’re smiling, and you think they’re enjoying the music. But they are also sitting perfectly still, not even nodding along with the band. It looks strange, especially compared to the people standing in the back. Mostly white foreigners, and from their outfits and accents, you assume most are American, like you. They’re dancing, jumping, their fists punching the air.
Jason returns with two bottles of Saigon beer. You thank him, handing him a tip before he leaves.
The band finishes. The crowd calms down. The people sitting seem more engaged now that it’s over. You make eye contact with a shaggy-haired man in a blue flannel.
The lights dim again and a woman you presume to be Phuong takes the stage. The opening notes of Linkin Park’s ‘In the End’ sound off.
‘This is going to be GOOD.’ The shaggy-haired man moves closer. You smile at him.
You remember how much your mom loved Linkin Park. Your friends had always found that odd. But that was just how she was.
The shaggy-haired man is right. Phuong is a Vietnamese woman who has to lower the microphone after the rock band. Her hair is pulled up into a sleek black ponytail that is the same colour as her knee-length dress. Nothing about her appearance suggests she is anything out of the ordinary. But then she opens her mouth.
The man next to you repeatedly screams ‘Holy shit!’ He’s jumping again. You join him. Phuong is rapping. Now Phuong is screaming. The man is screaming along with her. Before long, even the people sitting are nodding along.
The song ends and everyone cheers. The man claps longer than anyone else.
‘Didn’t I say she was going to be insane?’ he asks you. ‘That was fucking awesome.’
You nod. You find the man attractive.
The first notes of ‘Crawling’ start, and you wonder why she’s only doing Linkin Park.
‘It’s a tribute,’ the man says as if he could read your mind. ‘Since Chester died last week.’
Phuong goes through six more Linkin Park songs, finishing with ‘What I’ve Done.’
‘I hate that she had to do the Transformers song,’ he tells you. ‘But goddamn did she do it well. Want another beer?’
You nod and ask for another Saigon.
‘I’m Ivan,’ the man holds out his hand.
‘Like “the Terrible”?’ you laugh.
‘Like “the Great,” thank you very much,’ he replies, jokingly offended.
You pretend you’re sorry.
You and Ivan talk as the next performer sets up.
‘Let me guess,’ he says. ‘Chicago?’
‘How the hell did you know?’ you ask.
‘It’s the accent,’ he nudges you. ‘I’m from New York. What do you do? I don’t really do anything. I’m just traveling.’
‘I’m a senior in college,’ you say. ‘I had some time to kill before school.’
‘So, you came to Vietnam?’
‘I like pho.’
He laughs. The next performer pulls out a harmonica holder and puts it around his neck.
‘Nope,’ Ivan says when he hears a quick slide of the harmonica. ‘Want to get out of here?’
You nod. ‘Meet me outside.’
You sit on tiny stools at a tiny table on the sidewalk. Ivan orders two beers and two Vietnamese pizzas, one beef, one chicken. You laugh at the way he uses scissors to cut both pizzas in half.
‘Look around,’ he tells you. ‘This is how everyone does it here.’
‘So, you don’t do anything?’ You take a bite of the chicken pizza. ‘How old even are you?’
‘25. I dropped out of school because fuck that. And now I’m here.’ He leans back, hands behind his head, and smirks.
You take another bite.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he laughs. ‘But I’m not a loser.’
‘Never said you were.’
‘And I’m not here on some Eat, Pray, Love bullshit either. It’s cheap here. I worked random jobs and saved up.’
‘You’re just traveling around Southeast Asia?’
You and Ivan polish off both pizzas while he tells you about his time kayaking in Ha Long Bay, trekking in SaPa, ATVing in Siem Reap. You hang on his every word, wishing you had more time.
‘I never asked why you’re really here,’ he says.
‘I told you, I had a week to fill.’
‘You kill time in Florida. Not Vietnam. Girls like you are usually here to find themselves. Was it a breakup?’
‘What do you mean girls like me?’ You hide the smile you can’t fight in your can of beer.
‘I really love pho.’
‘You’ve mentioned,’ he raises his eyebrow. ‘Why aren’t we eating pho then?’
Ivan calls an Uber, forgetting that standard Ubers in Vietnam are motorbikes. The driver shows up and insists he can take both of you on the same bike. Ivan offers to call a car.
‘Fuck it,’ you tell him and get on the bike.
Ivan is staying just five minutes up the road. He is in a single room in a boarding house. With no air conditioning. A beige blanket that looks like it’s never been washed covers his bed. You ask to use his bathroom. It’s not much better. Tiny gnats swarm around the shower, which also looks like it’s never been washed. Your hostel is much fancier. That’s what you get for an additional three dollars in Vietnam.
You walk back into the room to find Ivan rolling a joint.
‘This whole place is awful.’
‘Let me guess,’ he doesn’t look up. ‘You got the more expensive hostel, for air conditioning and fancy breakfast, didn’t you?’
You remain silent.
‘Once you’ve travelled enough, you’ll learn that even a few bucks go a long way here. I’m not going to splurge. The fan makes it cold enough during the night.’
He heads out to the balcony and lights the joint, calling for you to follow. You walk out and stand in the tiny space, looking down at the parking lot of a club.
‘Dude, what is that?’ he asks, passing you the joint. You look to where he is pointing and see a person hanging out of a van, butt-naked. ‘Is she peeing?’
You laugh and pass the joint back to him. ‘That’s definitely a butt. A very pale butt.’
The woman gets out of the van and puts on a skirt, heading towards the club.
‘Did that woman forget her shirt?’ Ivan is on the edge of his seat.
You grab the joint from his hand and take another drag as you both watch a large bouncer send the woman back to the van.
Your alarm goes off at six the next morning. Ivan groans next to you. You remind him that he knew you’d be waking up this early. He rolls over and pulls you closer, but you peel his arm off and head back to your own hostel.
You spend the day squeezing into the old Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong. When it rains, your tour guide stops at local houses. Men bring out fruit and chairs. One girl brings you a hairdryer. No one speaks English, but they all welcome you into their yards.
After the third stop, you ask the tour guide how he knows so many people. He says he doesn’t know them.
You love Vietnam.
When you get back that evening, you see a text from Ivan.
‘Rooftop bar?’ it says. ‘I’ll meet you at your hostel.’
You send a thumbs up.
You’re drunker than the first night, which means you stop for a second dinner. Ivan brings you to ‘the best street pho in Vietnam.’
You remember the first time you tried pho. Your mom took you to a Vietnamese restaurant near your home.
‘This will change your life,’ she told you.
You slurped some noodles. Your mom stared intently, waiting for you to transubstantiate or something.
‘It’s really good, Mom,’ you said with a full mouth.
She rolled her eyes.
‘Tell me the truth,’ Ivan’s voice pulls you back to the moment. ‘Why are you actually here?’
‘For the love of god, Ivan. I’ve told you a million times.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘Shut up and eat your pho.’
‘How good is this though? Didn’t I say it’s the best?’
You nod. It is, after all, the best pho you’ve ever tasted. Just not the same.
You go to his room again. You ask him why he never finished college. He doesn’t answer. Instead, you have sex again.
It is your third day in Ho Chi Minh City, and you regret booking back-to-back bike trips. Your legs are not fit enough for this.
You remember the last time you went on a ride. You were 18. It was the last time you were able to go on a Mother’s Day bike ride with your mom before she died. She loved it. You felt bad that you hated biking, so you gave in to her only request.
For the first time, being on a bike felt like flying. You loved seeing the trees in the nature preserve, the lake buried in the back of the forest, all the different birds and flowers that somehow your mom could name. She wanted to cycle in every country.
Suddenly, your bike is heading toward the rice field. The tour guide led you down cracked, narrow path between a duck pond and a rice terrace. You’re flying over your handlebars. You land face first in the mud. The rest of the group panics, but you stand and bend over in laughter. Your guide pulls you out of the field and hands you tissues. You think it’s all very funny, until you see your crash has killed two field mice. The guide yells to the men working in the fields and assures you that the mice’s death won’t be in vain. You think about what that actually means.
You and Ivan go back to Acoustic. There’s no live music, it feels too quiet. You tell Ivan about falling off the bike.
‘Holy shit what? Are you okay? You could’ve gotten hurt! What’s wrong with you? Pay more attention next time.’
He grips his drink until his knuckles turn white. He seems mad.
‘What’s your problem?’ you ask. ‘I fell into mud. The only ones hurt were the mice, and possibly some rice.’
He’s quiet until you make it back to his room. He rolls a joint and heads to the balcony. This time he doesn’t ask you to follow him. You do anyway.
‘Ivan, what the fuck is going on? Why are you so mad that I’m an incompetent bike rider?’
‘I’m not mad,’ he pulls you onto his lap. ‘Just worried. Sorry.’
‘I don’t believe you.’
A week later, it’s your last night in Vietnam. You know this. Ivan knows this. You both ignore this. But you stay up until 4 am talking. Mostly about who has the best celebrity impressions on Jimmy Fallon. You’re starting to fall asleep.
Your mind drifts back to that conversation with your dad. You told him you booked a flight to Vietnam, expecting him to be upset you’d be leaving.
‘I think that’s a fantastic idea, honey.’
‘You’re okay with this?’
‘I’ll miss you, but you’ll have fun.’
When he dropped you off at the airport, he hugged you tightly.
‘Your mom would be so happy,’ he whispered. ‘She always wanted to go to Vietnam. Not just for the culture. She just wanted to eat real, authentic pho. Thought it was worth the trip. Make sure you have a bowl or two for her.’
Ivan’s voice keeps you from falling asleep.
‘You don’t have to tell me why you’re really here. But I’m glad you are.’
‘Why did you choose Vietnam?’ you ask him.
He turns away. You move into him, wrapping your leg around him.
‘This time last year, I was launched off my motorcycle. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. I lay in the middle of a country dirt road knowing it would be hours before anyone found me. I knew I’d be dead before then. I didn’t even care. I wasn’t scared when my body hit the gravel. I heard my shoulder pop. For a moment, when I was in the air, I thought about how much it would cost to fix the bike, but even that thought quickly left my mind. I just didn’t care. I lay there for two hours. Two hours until some teenagers who were trying to lose their virginities in a truck showed up. They called an ambulance and waited until it got there. I’m pretty sure they never even ended up having sex.’
You squeeze him a little tighter. ‘You came to Vietnam because you almost died?’
‘No,’ he holds your hand. ‘I came to Vietnam because it took four months of physical therapy to get my shoulder working again. And I realised how fucked up it was that I didn’t care about almost dying. And my mom started hovering. She thought I was suicidal or something. I didn’t crash on purpose. Or maybe I did, I don’t know.’
You chuckle and he turns to give you a look.
‘Are you telling me that you came to Vietnam to get away from mommy?’
He pretends like he’s mad for a second.
‘I came to Vietnam because I was saved by horny teenagers. I thought the best way to pay them and the universe back was to leave that hemisphere and go see something completely different from New York.’
‘I thought you said this wasn’t Eat, Pray, Love.’
‘It’s not. It’s more of a trying to appreciate the beauty of the world thing so that I would want to stay in it more.’
‘That’s literally Eat, Pray, Love.’
‘Shut up,’ he nuzzles into your neck, wrapping a strand of your hair around his finger. ‘At least I met your annoying ass.’
‘I love that our “meet cute” isn’t that we both stumbled into a bar. It’s that a couple of teenagers wanted to go have sex.’
He falls asleep. You think about your mom. Would she have liked him? You think so. You look at Ivan and think he looks like a young Pierce Brosnan.
She would have definitely liked him.
You imagine bringing Ivan home, introducing him to your dad. You slip into a dream, of walking into your red-bricked house, Ivan on your arm. He shakes hands with your dad, and your mother runs down the stairs. Ivan gives her a kiss on the cheek. She wraps her arm around you as you head into the kitchen.
‘Great choice, honey.’
Ivan said he wouldn’t take you to the airport, but at the last minute, he hesitates. You insist he stick to his word. He promises he’ll keep in touch, and you do the same.
He tries to act nonchalant as he gives you a quick kiss and opens the door. You grab his face and give him a kiss to remember. He gives your hand one last squeeze. You feel the tears wet your face, and you will yourself to stop before the taxi driver sees.
You can’t sleep, and you have twelve more hours of the flight to Chicago. You regret sleeping the five and a half hours from Tokyo.
You find yourself smiling as you scroll through the pictures on your phone. Pictures of the different foods Jason made you try, of your head poking out of the Cu Chi tunnels, of the little girl with the hairdryer, of you standing in the rice field, of city hall and the opera house. Scattered in between are pictures of you and Ivan sitting on a curb eating street food, of Ivan trying to take your phone, of Ivan cross-eyed with three chins.
You open the folder of hidden pictures. Squares with your mom’s face in miniature appear. Countless pictures you hid at the funeral.
You scroll down, building the courage. You see her sleeping on the dog bed the first night you brought Suzy home. Another picture of the two of you on the swing set in the backyard.
You stop scrolling before you get to the pictures taken in the hospital. You know what you’ll find. You, putting on her makeup while she lay in the tiny bed. Your dad next to her with his guitar, singing her favourite song.
You don’t open any of these. Instead, you open the last picture you took from before the hospital.
She sits at the table, her feet propped up, her face red with laughter. Your dad sits next to her, twirling a piece of her hair around his finger.
You turn your phone off. You pull your eye mask over your eyes. You smile as you float off into a dream, where you and Ivan hug your parents before getting onto a plane heading for somewhere.
About The Author
Nicole Christine Caratas is a fiction writer from Chicago. She currently lives in Edinburgh where she is pursuing a PhD in creative writing. Her work has appeared in From Arthur’s Seat, Newfound, and is forthcoming in an anthology from Running Wild Press. She is working on a novel.
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