An excerpt from the forthcoming novel, A Life in Saigon
I pulled the hefty metal gate closed behind me, the routine screech of metal followed by the click of the lock. It was a muggier than average weekday as I mounted my obscenely tall electric bicycle, best to see over traffic with, before heading for work. Turning the handle, the electric motor engaged the chain and thrust the bike forward, propelling me into the wide arch I take around the corner where I was forced to suddenly release the throttle and slam on the brakes. A fight was in progress between what looked like a father and son, with a smattering of onlookers standing around.
The older man showed serious determination as he lunged at his cowering junior, landing face shots and kicking jabs into the legs. The boy absorbed the blows and edged away, only giving the older guy a new angle to lunge at. The boy, being beaten badly, did little to defend himself. The only way he fought back, was by holding back tears.
While it wasn’t a good scene there was little I could do. I’d learned years before that Vietnamese don’t appreciate foreigners getting into their disagreements. Once I had been run off after attempting to stop a deranged man from beating a woman with a brick. As I was being pushed away by the males in the crowd, the last man communicated a clear message through his pigeon English, ‘Vietnamie entertainman, you no like, go home’. Fair enough.
Still, as the lopsided skirmish continued there was another compelling urge to break it up. Then I recalled a more recent night when Ngoc and I, as we usually did for the breeze, opened the third floor balcony doors before we slept. In the breadth of the night some stolen valor Spiderman scaled the vertical front of the house, climbing for the open doors of the third floor. By chance a nocturnal neighbor doing the wash on her balcony in large plastic pails shouted and scared the would-be robber off. So as the kid took a slug to the stomach I wondered, wouldn’t it take a neighbor to see that our balcony doors were open? Could this boy have been the thief?
So I watched the fight alongside the rest of our neighbors. As the man fatigued he pinned the boy into a corner and the action subsided. I put one foot on a pedal, pushed off with the other, pulled back the throttle, rang my bell and cycled onto work.
When I arrived back home in the evening I told Ngoc what I'd saw. She reminded me that many of the neighbors are poor and that it was best I didn't get involved. Living down the narrow hamlets zigging and zagging through the local areas of the older districts, such as ours in District 10, social ills can’t help but at times spill out into them; child abuse, sexual exploitation, domestic violence and more; all part of the rich tapestry of life for the modern, urban poor. Yet compared to my experiences in America, Vietnamese were much less retrained. Events that would utterly jar the American consciousness, fights in the streets, whores on the prowl, old lady shouting matches, cock fights, street vendor calls at the crack of dawn, motorbike accidents, shirtless old men pissing on walls, whatever it may be it is on an almost daily basis, with me passing by, shaking my head and thinking, yup, that's about right.
The next night I returned home from work to an alley brimming with jockeying neighbors. It was impossible to pass so I parked along the side near a couple of the big police motorcycles with their siren stick erections mounted on back. My immediate thought was, after all of the money I’d invested in the local cannabis industry, and this is how they’re going to repay me, by taking me out with a public shaming, the red carpet of the debased.
One of the cops in all his gear and his utility belt stepped purposefully toward me. He looked me over crossly, then held out his nightstick, parting the sea of gawkers so I could move forward to my house.
As I mounted up on the bike I rose above the heads of the crowd to see the center of activity, the front of a house where the larger alleyway split into smaller ones where a dead body, a nondescript, hardened by a working poor existence, middle-aged Vietnamese woman, lay. As I picked up momentum and headed out of eye line, the body, surrounded by a throng, was covered with a blanket.
Once to the gate it was already open, with Ngoc standing in front talking to the neighbors. "Did you see the body?" she asked.
"Yeah. What happened?"
"The lady over there hung herself. Everyone came out to look. The police just took her down and put a blanket over her."
"Everyone came out to have a look at her hanging?"
"They want to see it dear. They're curious."
"Dear, do you remember the fight you saw yesterday before work?"
"That was her son. They're very poor and he has a problem with betting on football, and um, gambling, you know?"
"He's a gambling degenerate."
"Yeah, he gambles and loses money he can't pay."
"Yeah, he's a gambling degenerate."
"That guy you saw beating him up, he owed him four million dong ($175) and couldn't pay. So, that man pulled him into the hamlet to hit him in front of the others so people would know he's no good."
"Damn, a definitive public disgracing. And now his mom hung herself. That poor family."
"I talked to some of the ladies from the market and they said that when that lady was at the market this morning she was really upset. She was telling the others how she felt so much shame because of her son and his gambling debts that she wanted to kill herself."
"That's terrible. But why are the police letting everyone around the body? Why don't they make those people disperse? Show the lady a little dignity. I mean, shit, she hung herself out of shame after all."
"They're just curious, dear."
"I'm a little curious myself, but I’d rather not see a dead lady in the alley."
"The ladies at the market say that her son won't be far behind. He brought a lot of shame to his family and they think he'll kill himself too. The neighbors are trying to raise money just to be able to buy her a coffin because her son doesn't have any money."
"Yeah, but I don't like having a dead lady in the hamlet. It makes me scared."
"You know, if that guy's a degenerate gambler with debts, maybe he was the one who tried to break into our house."
"Yeah dear, maybe."
Was this just another day, or a day of Saigonese intensity? It felt like a bit of both. That day, the day that woman hung herself, was known as Le Vu Lan, or Vietnamese Mother's Day, which falls on the seventh full moon of the lunar calendar. It’s a day where swarms of Vietnamese head to pagodas to honor their mothers by lighting incense and wearing a rose, red if your mother is alive and white if your mother is dead. It was a day that Ngoc concluded, "Her son started the day wearing a red rose and finished it wearing a white one."