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  • Coming Home
  • Wayne Karlin (bio)

The room in my mini-hotel on Le Van Huu Street was large, clean, and high ceilinged in the old French style. It had yellow walls, a ceiling fan, and heavy, black teak furniture ornately carved with dragons and yin-yang symbols. The armoire was huge, and the bed the largest in Ha Noi. On the wall near the bed, a set of laminated rules was posted in two columns, like the tablets of the Ten Commandments: one in Vietnamese, the other in what my friend Phan Thanh Hao once referred to as Vietglish. Rule number 7 read:


The room had double doors that opened to a balcony overlooking the street. I went out and gazed down at the tops of purple-flowered bougainvillea, at the street pulsing with colors and light and motion fragmented through the lace canopies of the trees. Le Van Huu was lined with pho soup stalls where customers hunkered over steaming bowls; the crowded communal tables and low, blue plastic stools blocked the narrow sidewalks. Nearby, street barbers were clipping the heads of men perched on folding chairs, while next to them women were stacking bamboo cages stuffed with miserable chickens, their bead eyes darting frantically as if all the panicked motion their bodies were calling for had gone into them. The intersection swarmed with motor scooters, bicycles, and cyclos—their horns blaring like the sonar emissions of bats—swerving around each other in near collisions and forming a pattern glimpsed but not understood. When I finally understood it, I would belong here.

Some café people and pho vendors were staring up at me, and I smiled and nodded at them too enthusiastically.

I drank my coffee and looked down at the corner. It was crowded with cone-hatted women from the countryside, squatting behind heaps of vegetables and flowers that blazed in reds and yellows against the chipped and muddy pastels of the buildings. "Hello, hello," they called to me, and I waved to them, to the whole scene, suddenly feeling a kind of stupid happiness for simply being there. The people on the street busily going about [End Page 141] their lives seemed to me a counter-parade to the invisible, unacknowledged procession of dead and damaged that I could not help seeing too: the outtakes from the movie I worked on, the explosions and inflammable material and disgusting badly smelt things that weren't allowed in the room. I stood on the balcony for a time, until I again became aware of someone else: a younger self who stared at me over the rim of a foxhole, surprised at the middle-aged man whom he'd become and who was somewhat at ease in the enemy capital.

There was a knock on the door. When I opened it, the novelist Ho Anh Thai strode in and began examining the room critically. I pointed to the blanket on the bed. It was imprinted with pictures of little angels and the repeated phrase I LOVE YOU/I LOVE YOU/I LOVE YOU: BE MY LITTLE ANGLE. I explained the error in spelling.

"Mister American Man," Thai said. Shaking his head when I pointed out rule 7 to him, he laughed and said, "Can you manage?"

"It's a restriction I have to live with." I looked at him. "How about you?"

He smiled sourly and said nothing. He was fiercely nonconformist and daring in his writing, and he cared only for writing. But he knew that to live in the room, he had to be aware of and abide by the rules—and he knew the rules were more complex and flexible than they seemed. Things could be done with them; they never had one use only. "Mister American Man," he said again.

We both grinned. On one of my previous trips to Ha Noi, he'd arranged for me to stay in a mini-hotel near the Lake of the Restored Sword. None of the staff spoke English, and I was the only Western guest. They would address me with "Chao ong...