I went to Vietnam to surf and was forgiven for a war.
My knees were bent and nearly touching my stomach as I sat in a small, red plastic chair. I was dripping with sweat and sipping a beer on the curbside of a corner bia hoi in Hanoi, Vietnam. Feeling like a half-drunk toddler, I looked up, wiped my perspiring forehead, and motioned to the young woman who had served my first pitcher.
“Hello?” I said sheepishly. “May I have another pitcher of beer?”
She smiled gently, coquettishly, with a hint of shame and flirtation, and replied, “Yes, of course. Would you like some food with it?”
“Yes, thank you.”
She turned and her light blue outfit whirled slightly as she walked inside the tiny building where her mother was cooking and pouring.
As I waited, I watched bicycles roll by, heaped over with crates of fruit, vegetables, baskets of clothing, and children. Some had items stacked up seven feet high and were driving just feet away from me. One had a pig strapped to the back and a baby was sitting on the handlebars in front. In the near distance, there were people sleeping on plastic patio furniture in front of small shops specialized in a single product: fans, padlocks, or bamboo ladders.
The heat was pushing 98 degrees Fahrenheit, but with the humidity, we were swimming in air that was approaching 106.
I was 28 years old and it was an early afternoon in July 2001.
The bia hoi had become an oasis for me from the extreme noise and frenetic pace of Vietnam. It was a half block off a main street where the constant blare of motorbike horns speeding seven-deep on the French-style roads echoed down smaller, narrower streets. There were no stoplights in Hanoi’s colonialist-built streets, and the drivers guided themselves on motorbikes like schools of fish, narrowly missing each other as their careened around roundabouts, through bicyclists and pedestrians.
The sidewalks were covered in people and I had quickly begun to feel like a walking dollar bill immediately after my arrival in the country a week before. When walking, I would be quickly surrounded by a flurry of activity.
My Caucasian body was larger than most Vietnamese adults and I loomed over the locals, stumbling through piles of scurrying children and men standing near their mopeds yelling out, “Ride!! Ride now! You want ride?!” and “Motorbike! Motorbike! Motorbike!”
One day, moving through the buzzing bedlam, I felt the small hands of several children digging for anything I had in my pockets. At the same time, a man with a loose-fitting button-up shirt, found his way through the melee, came uncomfortably close to my face, and asked in a harsh whisper, “You want girls? Good girls. You want? Or boy? You want boy?”
On the other side of me, another man, teeth yellowed from tobacco, crept near my right ear and asked, ”Drug? You need drug? Good smoke. Good pills.”
To gather my senses from the assault and calm my nerves, I made my way off the busy street toward a small gathering on the corner 50 feet away. There, men drank beer from plastic pitchers with one large ice cube in the center of the container keeping it cool. They ate boiled peanuts, fried tofu, fresh basil, sunflower leaves, and noodle pancakes while they smoked cheap cigarettes or puffed from a tobacco bong. All crouched low on the same small chairs.
I soon found myself happily among them.
“Here you are,” my server had returned. A round face and quiet, contemplative blue eyes looked at me reflecting sadness and curiosity. She asked, “Are you British?”
“No, I’m American. From San Francisco.”
I had quickly learned to add the city I called home to the end of my responses. My shame in being American was complicated by fear. I was scared of what the Vietnamese people would think of me because my father was a veteran of the Vietnam War.
“Oh, that’s very nice,” she said. “I have always wanted to go to America. America is a place of freedom. What is your name?”
“Gentry”, I replied.
“Gennnntryyy,” she said very slowly. “I have never heard this name.”
I laughed. “It’s not a usual name. What is yours?”
“Minh,” she said, paused, and a smile grew across her lips. “I hope it is not rude to ask this…but…may I sit with you and talk? I would like to know more about America.”
“That would be very nice. Please sit.”
“Oh. Thank you. Yes.” Now, she began to be bashful again. “I must check with my mother first. Enjoy your drink and food.”
She lowered her head and returned to the kitchen.
A week earlier, I landed in Da Nang in Central Vietnam, far to the south of Hanoi. A throng of people were packed outside the small airport’s glass doors, some waving handwritten signs, and others jockeying for position, hungrily anticipating us: the new arrivals and our money.
When the doors slid open, a flume of hot, humid wind struck me in the face like a furnace and the sound increased to the level of an arena. My back constricted immediately into a steel knot that didn’t let go for months.
My decision to fly to Vietnam was based on a naive desire. I wanted to return to the country where my father was sent to be a soldier in 1969. He returned a changed man filled with trauma, physical pain, and mental illness.
I was born two years after my father returned, but the war stayed, lingering over my family and never leaving completely. My lofty goal was to cleanse my family and me from the anguish of the war by surfing in Da Nang.
I learned quickly that there were very rarely any waves in the Vietnamese summer and the only board to rent was a broken and taped-up shortboard sitting against a tin shack near the backpacker’s hotel I checked into. It was a poor and densely populated area and I took my jetlagged head to the beach to survey the water. My heart sank looking out at the flat sea in front of me.
My intention to exorcise my family’s demons eroded quickly into the thick, humid jungle.
After visiting the Marble Mountains, China Beach, and Monkey Mountain — the three places my dad had recommended and nostalgically remembered — I traveled to Hue and boarded a train. I rode in a third-class car, sitting on a hardwood bench for 28 hours en route to Hanoi.
There was no air conditioning, so the windows were kept open the entire journey. Every time we went through a tunnel or near a building, the whoosh of wind generated by the train’s passing created a loud, high-pitched shriek throughout the train car. Each time this happened, I was startled awake from my nightmarish attempts to sleep.
By the time I arrived in the capital, I was filthy and greasy from train soot mingled with sweat. My head throbbed, my back felt like a metal bar had been inserted where my left kidney used to be, and my nerve endings were raw and pulsing.
That morning in Hanoi, I found a room to rent. It resembled a prison cell, with no windows and only space for a single bed. After showering, I took to the streets of Hanoi.
Now, shielded from the chaos of the city, on my second pitcher of large ice cube-cooled beer, I found myself facing Minh across a tiny plastic table.
Minh asked, “Are you here in Hanoi for business?”
“No, no. I’m just traveling.”
“Have you been here before?”
“It’s my first time.”
“Do you think it’s beautiful here?”
I paused for a moment, reflecting on my previous days of anxiety-filled travel and violently lingering pain, and said, “Yes, I do.”
“Is it beautiful in San Francisco?”
“Yes. It’s a beautiful city.”
“Why did you leave your beautiful city to travel in my country? It’s a long way and America seems very nice.”
“I wanted to see where the war happened.”
“The war. With my country. The one that ended in 1975.”
“Oh yes. That war,” she smiled. “That was a long time ago. We have forgotten about that war. I wasn’t even born then. And people like my mother have forgiven America and the south. It was so long ago.”
Rain began and we slid our chairs further under the shallow awning. A monsoon downpour began and the air felt like a magic potion had been poured into the clouds. Everything became cool and the traffic noise quieted to a calming drone.
For all my life, the warrior ghosts of Vietnam haunted me and my family. My father had nightmares so extreme that once while I was watching cartoons, I heard him yell out from my parent’s bedroom, “Fuck you, Gooks!” and then he punched a hole in the bedroom wall in his sleep. The hole was there for years.
As a child and a teenager, there were countless events like that, and I had wondered what it was like in Vietnam thousands of times. My only references had been movies, TV, and books.
Now, I was not only being forgiven as an American, but Minh acted as though the war had happened hundreds of years ago. Like it was ancient history.
I gathered myself from this shocking revelation and asked, “Is your family from Hanoi?”
“I was born here, but my father is from China. I am half-Chinese. It makes things difficult for me here.”
“Why is that?”
“Because many people do not like the Chinese. They come here as tourists and some are not good. My people make things hard for me.” She looked very sad when she said this and I felt her sink.
I wanted to ask more, but Minh got up and said, “I must work now. Will you return?”
“I will. This bia hoi is very nice.”
She grinned and went inside.
Each day, I returned to visit Minh. Slowly getting to know her mother and the men who drank there. Minh translated and I gobbled boiled peanuts and threw back glasses of inexpensive beer.
After several visits, Minh asked if she could show me Hanoi, and I was delighted. We walked the streets of the city filled with people and heat and humidity to her family home where her mother made me pho hai san.
As it got dark, Minh said, “We must go. It will be dangerous soon.”
As we walked, she grew silent. Through the cacophony of sound, there were people yelling at her, but I had no idea until she spoke with her head down, “Those people are saying bad things about me. They are saying that you hired me. That I am ‘your girl’ for the day. It makes me sad.”
“But I didn’t hire you. You are my friend.”
“I know. But they do not know. And they are not my friends. People come here, like you, and they are also not friends.”
“I hope you don’t think that way about me.”
“I do not. I like that we are friends. A Chinese-Vietnamese girl and an American boy from San Francisco.”
During my time in North Vietnam, I trekked in the mountains of Sa Pa in the far north near the Chinese border. And I traveled to the mysterious rising islands in the mists of Halong Bay. Each time I returned to Hanoi, I visited Minh. I flew to the south that August, getting intentionally lost for a while in Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta before moving on.
After I returned to San Francisco, Minh and I sent letters to each other. I enclosed music of mine in a package once and she enclosed some artwork of hers in return.
We never exchanged emails and I don’t know why. It wasn’t something we ever thought to do.
Our correspondence by mail didn’t last long. Maybe six months. And then we each disappeared into memory.
We only took one walk through Hanoi together.
The sound I remember hearing in my head during those hours with Minh was the quieting of noise. What a gorgeous sound that was. No music, lyrics, chords, or melody. Just quieter than it had been for a long time.