(ISSN: 1527-5467)
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.


JUL 2004


















            The brainstorming grows earnest after lunch, the hottest part of the day, when most sensible people close shop and hide from the sun. The four men sit on knee-high footstools on the sidewalk outside Tee’s modest café, three meters of prime storefront opening up onto Pham Ngu Lao Avenue. At night, this part of the strip glows with neon, infamous in Ho Chi Minh City for its streetwalkers and hostess bars, but during the day the road overflows with trucks and motor scooters, bicycles and taxicabs. The honking of horns and the whine of small engines fills the air as the men stoop their heads in deep contemplation.

Binh breaks the silence. “What about Beef World?” he hesitantly asks, his fleshy dumpling face extended in eagerness.  He is tall for a Southerner, chubby too.

            “Beef World?” Sam is incredulous. “That’s the dumbest name for a restaurant I’ve ever heard in my life.”

            “Well,” interjects Minh, Binh’s older brother, “it makes good sense. I mean, we will be selling hamburgers, and what are hamburgers made of? Come on, think about it.” He taps his temple with his forefinger. An elementary school dropout, he considers himself a very practical person.

            Tee immediately corrects Minh. “But listen, stupid. We’ll be selling chicken sandwiches, fried potatoes, and pizzas as well.  So that name would be misleading.” He points an angry finger at Binh, and nods at Sam as if he can’t believe how small-world his friends are.

            Inside the shallow interior of Tee’s café stand a few tattered beach recliners, thin canvas cloth stretched over bamboo frames. A blue and white striped awning shades the men, Café Minh Luan painted on the overhanging lip. They sit in silence, their minds baking in the heat. Neglected glasses of iced milk coffee melt in front of them. 

            A shirtless pedicab driver pulls up and indiscriminately parks his xichlo on the curb and takes a seat inside the dark room. Tee jumps up, tucks in the loose end of his saffron robe hanging under his armpit, rubs his hand over the fine stubble on his head, and walks over to take the man’s order. 

Sam sighs and shifts in his seat. He had forgotten how torturous the humidity was and his Hanes jockey briefs under his Levis are sticking. He isn’t any taller than his three friends, but seems to tower over them. Even when slouching he holds his spine straight. He wears an expensive salmon colored dress shirt neatly tucked into his jeans. The top three buttons are undone, showing off a thick 24 karat gold necklace worth a month’s salary. 

            A department manager at Beautiful Bath and Bedrooms, his job isn’t glamorous but he earns more in a month than anyone in his old neighborhood makes in a year. Not bad for a skinny kid with bad teeth and no English who stepped off that 767 in Seattle eight years ago. He had lived with an aunt and started as a stock boy at the home furnishings store after school. Though quick to pick up English and a hard worker, he wasn’t a good student, preferring to hang out and play billiards at the coffee houses on Rainier Avenue when not at his job or putting in the minimal credits required to graduate. After high school, he was made assistant manager of rugs and towels, and had patiently folded washcloths and bath sheets for two years before being promoted to manager of bath accessories.  Gung-ho for the company, he devours marketing videos and retail theory pamphlets. Meticulous and somewhat of a tyrant to his underlings, he hopes one day, with dedication and proper fawning, he’ll manage his own store in the fast growing chain. The prodigal son, he is back in his birthland for the first time. He’s saved for years to open his own business in Vietnam, a financial impossibility for him in America. One of his dollars in Seattle is worth ten in Saigon.             “Actually,” Sam says, “I don’t know if a fast food joint is the best idea any more.” He’s noticed many little snack bars catering to foreigners, especially the back packer crowd, have sprung up all over the city.  He might have missed his window of opportunity.

            “Yeah, Vietnamese people don’t like to eat that shit,” Tee agrees, returning to his stool. His gaunt frame and sunken cheeks perfectly fit the role of ascetic.

            “I like hamburgers,” Binh says, licking his lips as he remembers how Sam had treated him and his Minh to the Lotto Burger downtown. He looks at his watch and his stomach growls: 11:30, lunchtime. 

            “You’ll eat anything, fat ass,” Tee says.

            Binh gives Tee a dirty look, sticks out his bottom lip and sulks.

            “Knock it off.” Sam leans forward. “We need to think, work together, beat our brains. Something unique. Original. American.  Something they don’t have here yet.”

            “Yes,” Tee agrees, his turn to tap his forehead with an index finger. “This takes deeper thought than fixing a Honda.” The brothers Binh and Minh have a shop three blocks over where they repair motorbike engines and refurbish old parts.

      Tee knows the difficulty of running a business. At least two or three sidewalk cafés compete on every block, from air-conditioned karaoke bars to grandmothers selling iced coffee from curbside stands. Some of the cafés even have pretty girls. Lacking the money for fancy chairs or tables, or luxurious amenities like air conditioning or a karaoke machine, he was forced to be inventive. So he named his cafe Minh Luan, “The Shining Halo.” He keeps his head shaven and wears a saffron robe as he tends shop. He owns four identical robes so he always has a clean one on hand, after all, he isn’t a beggar monk, and he does serve a few edibles. Mainly boiled peanuts and cheap fried snacks he buys at the street market every morning. 

            He doesn’t properly belong to any order, but once spent three weeks in a mountain monastery overlooking the beach town of Vung Tau. The monks made a decent living off the tourists by selling authentic “monk-made” Buddhist prayer beads and blankets. His last day there, a young French-Canadian woman had been touring the scenic grounds, admiring the mango orchard and the view. Tee had been under a bodhi tree shaving the head of a fellow novice named Pure Virtue. She had approached them alone and politely asked if she could snap a photograph. She had looked so cute with her blonde hair and large Western melons nestled under her smiling Uncle Ho t-shirt, that before Tee could catch himself, he had winked and said, in his best Streamline Course English, “yes, if I shave you after,” pointing the pink disposable razor at her khaki shorts. Blushing, she took the photo and then hurriedly joined the rest of her tour group. Later that day, a proctor told him to pack his few possessions and leave immediately. The order came from the head monk, the proctor told him. 

            Pure Virtue had evidently understood English. What a rat!  It was Pure Shit as far as Tee was concerned. In three weeks he had never even caught a glimpse of the head monk much less speak to him. Word went up the chain to the high commander who, after deliberating, handed his judgment down to another, and then Tee received the word second or third hand.  Just like Heaven operates!  He had to live under decree, never to see God or plead on his own behalf.

            F*** this, he had thought. Monkhood had been his mother’s idea. One of the proctors was an old friend from the Delta.  Seventeen years of age, he had come only to escape the boredom of the rice fields. So instead of heading back to the Mekong, he stepped on a bus to Ho Chi Minh City, like millions of others, to seek his fortune. Borrowing money from relatives, he began renting his little shop. 

Tee doesn’t know why Binh or Minh are needed anyway. He and Sam can do this on their own. Binh and Minh, Sam’s cousins, had introduced him to Sam just a week ago, and they took to each other immediately, sharing a common entrepreneurial spirit. But Sam believes in the American notion of team work, so essential, he says, to his success as the big manager of a large department store back home. Four heads are better than one.

            “I was reading the paper the other day.” Minh ponders and scratches his chin. “The majority of the population is under eighteen. We’re a young country.  Perhaps we should focus on that crowd.” He keeps a scraggly goatee and mustache, and has dyed his shoulder length hair orange. He fancies resembling an old time scholar or a Hong Kong rock star.

            “You an idiot?” Tee asks. “Because really, if you are, you can tell us.”

            “Wait, Minh might have something there,” Sam says.

            “Children don’t have money,” Tee insists. “What can we sell them?”

            “Not the kids, but their parents. The more money people start to make, the more they spoil their brats.” This is marketing, Sam thinks to himself.

      “Obviously,” agrees Minh. 

            “How about an amusement park? With rides and slides and a petting zoo?” Binh dreams of one day visiting Disneyland. He treasures a tattered old American magazine his father once gave him with a pullout color ad of Mickey and Minny Mouse holding hands in front of a storybook castle. Flowers of bursting fireworks light up a twilight California sky in the background.

            Tee snickers and Binh’s bull face blushes.

      “How about swimming?” Minh asks. “It’s so hot, and I know kids love swimming.” Minh can’t swim and is afraid to even take the ferry across the channel, but his niece and nephew like the water and those are the only two young people he knows.

            “City people don’t swim,” says Tee conclusively. 

            Sam’s mind tumbles and his thoughts grind against each other like rice in a husking chamber.  A single idea sifts through.

            “A water slide.”

            “What?” asks Tee.

            “A water slide,” repeats Sam. He describes the concept to the others.  In his mind he sees the Enchanted Water Park alongside Interstate Five. He drives by it everyday on his way to work. Long blue tubes snake and cross each other to drain in shallow swimming pools.  On hot summer days, the park is crowded with bodies and long lines.

eighteen. We’re a young country.  Perhaps we should focus on that crowd.” He keeps a scraggly goatee and mustache, and has dyed his shoulder length hair orange. He fancies resembling an old time scholar or a Hong Kong rock star.

            “You an idiot?” Tee asks. “Because really, if you are, you can tell us.”

            “Wait, Minh might have something there,” Sam says.

            “Children don’t have money,” Tee insists. “What can we sell them?”

            “Not the kids, but their parents. The more money people start to make, the more they spoil their brats.” This is marketing, Sam thinks to himself.

      “Obviously,” agrees Minh. 

            “How about an amusement park? With rides and slides and a petting zoo?” Binh dreams of one day visiting Disneyland. He treasures a tattered old American magazine his father once gave him with a pullout color ad of Mickey and Minny Mouse holding hands in front of a storybook castle. Flowers of bursting fireworks light up a twilight California sky in the background.

            Tee snickers and Binh’s bull face blushes.

      “How about swimming?” Minh asks. “It’s so hot, and I know kids love swimming.” Minh can’t swim and is afraid to even take the ferry across the channel, but his niece and nephew like the water and those are the only two young people he knows.

            “City people don’t swim,” says Tee conclusively. 

            Sam’s mind tumbles and his thoughts grind against each other like rice in a husking chamber.  A single idea sifts through.

            “A water slide.”

            “What?” asks Tee.

            “A water slide,” repeats Sam. He describes the concept to the others.  In his mind he sees the Enchanted Water Park alongside Interstate Five. He drives by it everyday on his way to work. Long blue tubes snake and cross each other to drain in shallow swimming pools.  On hot summer days, the park is crowded with bodies and long lines.

            Minh laughs at his simple-minded younger brother. “That’s nothing. It takes money to make money. In America, money grows on trees and trees like that, you have to water with more money.”

      Tee imagines having a thousand dollars to spend on his café.  Visions of a glass storefront, air conditioning, and the sounds of karaoke dance in his head.  He’s already discussed Sam as partners and building up the café, but Sam thinks there are too many coffee houses already. Tee respects Sam’s business sense, but a water slide?  Whoever heard of such a thing? It certainly was original.

            “We could call it Dolphin World,” Binh says, so excited he bumps up and down on his seat. The fragile plastic legs on his stool threaten to snap or fold at any second.

            Tee glares at him sideways, and Binh settles down.

            “How about Water Snakes?” Too scary, they decide.

            “Water Fun?” Too plain and straightforward.

            “Ocean’s Eleven?” Huh?

            “Charming Water?” This is Tee’s suggestion. In spite of his cynical attitude, he is secretly inclined towards the romantic.

            “Wait a second,” Sam says. “Nuoc Duyen…” He translates it into English. “Charming Water. Water Charm. Yeah.”

            “Sounds like a girl’s name,” Binh says.

            “Yeah, a beautiful water nymph,” Minh says, and the other three burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?” he asks.

            Tee now remembers the name is from a fairy tale his mother told him as a child. “It’s too feminine.”

            “See, but we’ll only use the English translation. That’s part of the appeal,” Sam explains. “Water Charm.”

            “Again,” Tee urges Sam. He listens carefully, trying to feel the cadence and melody. It is important that a title be harmonious to business and attract money like a magnet attracts iron.

            Sam repeats the name several times. Fast. Slow. As a question, “Water Charm?” As a demand, “WATER CHARM!”

            Wah-tah chom,” Binh says.

            “War-tum chum,” Minh repeats.

            “Water Charm,” Sam corrects. “Wah-wah-wah waaaaaaaaah-tuhhh ch-ch-ch char-muh. Water Charm.”

            “Yes, very like, very good,” Tee says in English. “Wah-tah Chom.”

            “Whatever,” says Sam. 

            Binh is delighted, already imagining riding the slides, while Minh nods his head in self-satisfaction, convinced his brains will make him famous someday. 

            The cyclo driver is asleep in his beach chair directly under a fan, two empty bottles of Tiger beer in front of him. He snores a steady bass line to accompany the fan’s warbling treble.

            Tee loves names. The proper names open doors. And the creator of The Shining Halo Cafe he feels Water Charm has potential.

            “Now that’s a good name,” Tee had said when Sam had told him the name of his employer back in America.

            Beautiful Bath and Bedrooms in English sounded sweet to Tee’s ear―the booming alliteration of B’s impressive―but the literal translation was even better.

            Gorgeous Toilets and Sleeping Chambers. 

            “Wow,” Tee had said, shaking his head in admiration, “you Americans really know how be poetic in a business sense.”




            Minh and Binh’s father had left their mother when they were just children for a pretty Central girl twenty years his junior. He had been a good looking man, with a sharp wit and an even sharper tongue, who made a good living before ’75 as a go between. If someone needed a thing―jewelry, auto parts, wooden planks, cheap plumbing work, a girl―he would find it and charge a commission to the buyer, or the seller, whoever was easier to rube cash from. After liberation, with the Americans and many of his connections gone, he grew depressed and began drinking more and beating his wife and kids. It was hard finding any kind of job unless you had connections to the Northerners. He had told Aunt Sau one night he was going to the pub to get plastered as usual. He never returned. The family eventually found out from Uncle Nam, his younger brother, that he’d been seeing a bargirl. She’d manage to save a couple of thousand dollars despite the austere years after the takeover (communist or capitalist, all men liked alcohol and women), and they had run away to stay with her family in Hue. He had stumbled home ten years later, kicked out by his second wife and looking half dead and forty years older. Aunt Sau took him in and took care of him until his death from tuberculosis two years later. 

            Regardless of the fact that their father had been a drunk, a philanderer, and generally a terrible person, the boys had loved the old man and waited on him hand and foot. He had learned a few things about fixing motorbikes up in Hue and showed the boys how to rebuild a carburetor, machine an old part to fit a new bike, and other little mechanical tricks before he died. Occasionally he tried to boss Aunt Sau around, but she took none of his crap. Once, after he had tried to hit her with a sandal after being served burnt rice, she beat the old man with the handle of a feather duster so bad that the boys refused to speak to her for a week as they nursed their father’s welted shoulders back to health. And even though Aunt Sau scrimped and struggled, selling cigarettes and coconut rice from a little stand in front of the house to support them all, the old man revealed on his deathbed that he had had two ounces of gold stashed under the kitchen tiles the whole time. With the money, Aunt Sau bought a new glass display counter to sell her Marlboros, Jet, 555, and Dunhill cigarettes, chewing gum and sweets, and the boys bought a used lathe and tools.

            But the motorbike repair business is slow. Though their mother has a steady clientele, the boys lack their father’s nose for money.  When they do get work, it is only because the customer is a family member, can’t afford anyone else, or owes their mother a favor.

            Aunt Sau sits behind her shiny glass counter fanning herself with a fashion magazine. Sam is half asleep in his chair, dressed in Bermuda shorts and a bright green polo shirt. Minh wrestles with the inner tube on a motorcycle tire, greasy black from his elbows to his fingertips. The guy from the shop across the street comes over and buys five cigarettes from Aunt Sau. He hands her 2,000 dong and nods a greeting to Sam, who lazily waves in acknowledgment. 

            Got his nose in the air, Hoang thinks. He and Sam were good buddies growing up, and now Sam has forgotten all about him.  Hoang doesn’t need him though. His shop is one of the busiest on the block. He’s even had to hire a couple of guys to help him keep up. He returns to his side of the street and loudly bosses one of the boys around to keep face.

            “Where’s this f***king friend of yours,” Sam asks. 

            “He’ll be here,” Minh replies. He’s finally gotten the tube off without bending the rim and begins searching for the hole. “Don’t worry.”

            A young man on a bright red Honda Dream pulls up on the sidewalk. An oversized pair of coral patterned sunglasses dwarf his skinny face, and his shiny purple dress shirt tucked into his slacks make his flimsy flip flops look out of place. 

            “Aunt Sau, how are you?” he asks.

            She doesn’t say a word, just gives him a hard, tight-lip stare.

            “This must be your cousin I’ve heard so much about,” he yells to Minh. He pushes out his chest as he stands in front of Sam.

            Minh runs up with a wide smile and slaps his friend on the back.

            “Watch it, this shirt cost me ten bucks.”

            Ooops, sorry,” apologizes Minh with a laugh. “Sam this is Cuong. He knows everyone. His uncle is a chief in the secret police.  He can get permits for anything.”

            Sam holds out his hand. “Nice to meet you Cuong.” Sam isn’t impressed with Cuong’s limp fish handshake.

            Minh runs inside to grab Cuong a chair. 

            “How much is this going to cost?” Sam asks. He is all business.  “I take it Minh explained what we’re trying to do.”

            “Sure, sure, it’s crazy, but no problem,” Cuong says. “But it’s going to take more than just giving away cartons of cigarettes.  They’re probably going to have to make up a special new permit for this project. I’m going to have to wine and dine these guys.  Shit,” he whispers so Aunt Sau can’t hear, “I might even have to lay some these old farts with some pussy.”

            “How much?” Sam asks again.

            Cuong contemplates how much he can ask for without shocking the overseas Vietnamese. “One hundred, maybe two.”

            “I thought your uncle was high up?”

            “He is, but even his nephew doesn’t get the chicken for free.  He didn’t get where he is by giving it away.”

            Minh returns with a chair. “So how’s it going?”

            Sam stands and smiles at Cuong.  “Excuse me.”  He motions for Minh to follow him inside. 

            Out of Cuong’s earshot, Sam asks, “Can I trust this guy with my money? The bastard says it’s gonna take $200.”

            “Hey, his mom’s brother-in-law’s is our cousin’s nephew. He’s family, don’t worry. His uncle is a big shot.  Look at his motorbike, it’s a real Japanese, not made in Thailand.”

            “Okay, but this is on you,” Sam warns.

            Sam climbs the steep narrow stairwell to the second floor. Binh is sprawled out on the tile in a pair of shorts. His rolls of fat and flesh quiver and glisten with sweat as he snores away. Quietly, Sam slides the dresser away from the wall. He reaches behind, removes a loose brick, and retrieves a bundle of American dollars wrapped in a red rubber band. After counting out $200 in twenties, he returns it and carefully pushes the dresser back over his makeshift safe, so as not to wake Binh. Before he disappears down the stairs, he stamps his foot and shouts, “Wake up, the world is passing you by!”

            Binh shifts in his sleep and mumbles, “Another ride, sir? Please, one more go?”

            “Idiot.” Sam bounds down the steps.

            Cuong is sitting in Sam’s chair drinking a Pepsi. “Hey, where’d you go? I got appointments.”

            Sam stands in front of the little hustler. “Okay, I’m trusting you to straighten things out with your uncle. I want things to go smoothly.  If this works out, you can be part of something big.” He leans over, slips Cuong the cash, and whispers, “Don’t f*** me. I don’t care if your father is the president.”

            “Hey, big brother, don’t worry.” Cuong jumps up with an enormous grin. “You’ll hear from me soon.” He jumps on his bike and with a loud, ostentatious roar of his Honda Dream, melts into traffic. 

            Hoang sees the transaction from across the street and laughs to himself. He knows Cuong too well. But it’s a bitter amusement, because he can imagine all the amazing things he could do with that kind of money.

            Minh reassures his cousin. “Don’t worry now, Cuong knows everyone. He’s a smooth one.  Things are just beginning.”

            Sam sits down and starts drinking the rest of Cuong’s Pepsi. He sweats heavily and wonders how he could have lived in this goddamn heat for the first sixteen years of his life.  




            “No way,” Phuoc tells Minh. “No way I’m going mention that crazy idea up to my boss. Water slides?  Plastic dicks? He’ll think I’m a moron.”

            “What do you know?” asks Minh, growing impatient. “This shit is big in America. You have to have an open-mind if you want to make money, my friend. What are you going to do? Work in a hot factory your whole life?”

            “At least I have a job,” Phuoc snorts. He’s short and stocky, square like a d-cell battery. Bad acne from the chemicals and heat of the plastic molds cover his face. “Besides, we don’t make anything that big.”

            “It can’t hurt to ask,” Minh insists. They’ve just finished a meal of goat meat hot pot at a well known restaurant just a few blocks from the house, compliments of Sam, who is in Long Xuyen visiting his mother’s family. “If my cousin was here, he’d explain it in more detail to you. But here are some plans and dimensions. Just look at them.” He hands Phuoc some rough sketches Sam and Tee have worked out. 

            Phuoc looks at them and nods his head. “Interesting,” he goes.  “I’ve never seen anything like this, but it is definitely different.” He puts the sketches down. “I can tell you one thing, we don’t make gutters this big here. The factory can only accommodate grooves up to 30 centimeters wide and half that high. You’d have to build several new molds, and then join each gutter section piece by piece.  It’d be expensive.”

            “But it’s possible though?” asks Minh. 

            “Yeah, but we’re talking thousands of dollars. We’d have to order them from Taiwan.”

            “Don’t worry, my cousin is loaded.”

            Phuoc takes another look at the plans. This is so crazy it might work. He’s been dreaming of an opportunity to show everyone he can do more than pour molten plastic. Most nights, he sits alone in his cramped home after his mother, grandmother, younger brother, wife, and three kids fall sleep and sketches amateur designs of villas, irrigations systems, futuristic automobiles, just about anything he can think of. “I tell you what. I’ll take these and look over them a little more, maybe touch them up, and maybe if I can get these plans to look a bit more professional, I’ll show them to my boss.”


            “Sure, it can’t hurt.”

            Phuoc orders another beer, his fourth. He checks out the teenage waitress clearing their table. His libido stimulated by the goat meat, he tells Minh, “She’s so light skinned, I bet she’s from the Delta. They drink a lot of coconut milk down there, said to keep the complexion milky white.  She’s probably Cao Dai too. I heard Cao Dai women really love sex.”

            Minh blushes, hoping the girl didn’t hear Phuoc’s lecherous comments. He laughs because he doesn’t want Phuoc to think he’s not with him.

            “I tell you what Minh, my brother. There’s a new karaoke lounge on Pham Ngu Lao and I’ve heard they have the prettiest girls in all of Saigon, and they’re cheap too. If you take me there tonight, I promise I’ll talk to my boss first thing in the morning.”

            Though twenty-eight years old, Minh has never had a girlfriend.  Even the idea of sitting with a girl makes him tingle uncomfortably.  Phuoc has already eaten and drunk most of the $20 Sam gave him, and he knows those places are expensive. 

            “Come on,” Minh laughs, “you’re married. Very funny.”

            “Bullshit, a man needs to have a little fun when doing business.  It seals the deal.” He glares at Minh. “I thought you said your cousin was loaded? He should know what it’s like doing business. If we don’t go, I don’t know if I can help you.” He throws the plans back on the table and begins picking his teeth with his fingernail. “What’s the matter?” he adds. “Don’t you like girls?”

            “Of course I do,” Minh replies immediately. “I love girls.”

            “Well, come on then.” Phuoc stands up and signals the waitress to bring the bill. “I’m married, I can’t stay out too late.” He walks back to the john.

            As Minh is paying the bill, he wonders how he can get out of this.  He stands outside the restaurant waiting for Phuoc and the early evening air is the perfect temperature. Not too hot and not too cold, but Minh still sweats uncontrollably. Young men dressed in their best cruise two or even three to a Honda. Pretty girls sit sidesaddle behind friends or lovers. He can’t f*** this up. Sam is depending on him. Phuoc stumbles out to the street.

            “Hey,” Phuoc says loudly, “I asked her. She’s from My Tho. I was right!” 

            Minh laughs with Phuoc, putting up a good show. “Let’s stop by my place real quick. It’s on the way.”

            When they get there, he tells Phuoc to wait quietly while he runs inside. Everyone else is out, and he pushes the dresser away from the wall and removes Sam’s money from behind the brick. He feels terrible, but he’ll explain later to Sam how necessary it was. He takes five $20 bills from the roll, hesitates and thinks for a second before taking another $100 out. He quickly rejoins Phuoc.

            “Hurry up,” Phuoc says. “The girls are waiting.”

            Shhh, don’t tell the whole neighborhood.”

            Phuoc laughs. “Come here you sissy.” He throws an arm around Minh as they walk to Pham Ngu Lao Avenue, and asks him, “Are you ready to sing a song of love?” 




            Binh lays on a beach recliner in the dark listening to the Beatles.  Recently, Tee has been buying American compact discs to play in the café. Binh doesn’t speak English, but he knows enough of this one song to sing along. 

            Let it be, let it be, let it be, oh let it be… nah nah nah da nah nah, let it be…  

He likes to watch the lights on busy Pham Ngu Lao and imagine it’s him quickly passing by, and not the traffic. He’s gazing out the window of a train or a plane at street level, and life is a blur, while inside everything is comfortable and quiet. Across the street, the lights of a new karaoke bar hum in red and green neon. A white shirted boy attends to rows of motorbikes parked outside the narrow four-story building. He watches as two men, obviously drunk and with their arms around each other’s shoulders, walk through the doors. One of them laughs, and Binh recognizes him right away as Phuoc. He knows Phuoc is out to dinner with Minh and, sure enough, his brother is the other man. Binh’s surprise is rivaled only by his jealously. It was bad enough he didn’t get eat hot pot, but it’s really unfair that Minh doesn’t let him go along and sing too.




            Sam and Aunt Sau arrive home at 11pm. She says goodnight and falls asleep in the hammock she stretches across the single downstairs room. Sam’s exhausted and crawls up the stairs. It’s always an ordeal visiting his family in the delta region.  It cost $80 to rent the bus for the trip down and back, not including food for him and Aunt Sau. His maternal grandmother and his aunts and uncles, as well as their children, are all poor rice farmers, and he can’t visit without doling out the cash. His dead mother had been the eldest of her siblings and Sam is her only child, so he realizes it’s his duty to help as much as he can. It’s all the socializing that wears him out.  Every second of his two-day visit is full of old friends he can’t remember, and bumpy trips to outlying villages to visit extended family. He figures he must have spent over $1500. Out of the six grand he brought with him, he calculates less than half is left.

            He flicks on the overhead fluorescent and immediately notices the dresser has been moved. It’s halfway out into the room and he can see the loose brick clearly. 

            “F***,” he says out loud in English. Where the hell are the two brothers? He removes the brick and is relieved to find the money still intact. But he counts only $2000 when there should be $3000. Why would a robber take only $1000 and leave the rest? His face grows hot, and he rushes down the stairs searching for his cousins.  His aunt asks him where he’s going, but he doesn’t hear her, the blood rushes so violently through his head. He runs two blocks over to Café Minh Luan. There are several bodies sitting inside but it’s so dark he can’t distinguish any faces.

            “Hey Sam, how was the trip?” Tee asks, emerging from the back.  “Want a beer?”

            Where’s Minh and Binh?” 

            “What’s the matter?” Tee asks. 

            “Where are they?”

            “Calm down Sam,” Tee tells him. “Binh’s right here.”

            Binh has been cringing in the dark, hoping Sam doesn’t recognize him. “Hi Sam,” he says weakly.

            “Where’s my f***ing money, fatboy?”

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            “I think you do. Look me in the face and tell me you don’t know.”

            “I don’t Sam. What’s wrong?”

            Tee takes Sam by the arm and sits him down. “Calm down, and tell us what’s wrong.”

            “What’s wrong is I came home and $1000 is missing. The rest of the money is there, just $1000 gone. If you didn’t take it, who did?” Sam asks Binh.

            “I don’t know.” Binh is crying. “I don’t know.”

            “Where’s Minh?”

            Binh is silent. He knows his brother has left the karaoke lounge once already and returned, and now he expects the worse.

            “Where the fuck is Minh?!” Sam screams.

            Binh whispers, “he’s across the street,” and points to the neon lights.

            “That motherfucker!”  Sam darts across dodging traffic with Binh and Tee in toe. Tee holds up the skirts of his robe as he tries to keep up with Sam.

            “Where’s Minh?” Sam demands from the housemother who watches a desk on the ground floor.

            “Calm down buddy, if you want to see someone special, just be patient,” she says with a tired smile. “There are plenty of girls for everyone.”

            Sam manages to control his temper. “I’m sorry, I’m looking for my brother Minh, we’re supposed to meet him here.”

“Oh, I know who you’re talking about. One of my best customers.” She laughs a wicked little giggle. “Upstairs.” She beckons with a hand, and a bouncer appears out of nowhere.

            “Room Four,” she tells him. “Follow him.” She points after the bouncer and returns to the kung-fu comic book she’d been reading.

            As they near the room, the unmistakable voice of Phuoc’s singing growls through the hall. The bouncer opens the door with a grin on his face, and the volume rises by ten. Sam pushes by the muscular man into the dark room as Binh and Tee peer over the man’s thick shoulders.

            In the light from the music video playing on the television screen, Minh and Phuoc are sprawled on a sofa, each with a girl wrapped around him. At least two dozen empty Heineken cans are on the table.

“Excuse me.” A skinny doorman pushes past the crowd at the door with a broad smile and a unopened case of beer in his hands.

            “What are you doing here?” Sam demands.

            “Sam?” Minh asks, his cousin’s face a blur in the kaleidoscope light shining out from the television screen. He has drunk more beer than he ever has in his life, and rather than feeling ill like previous occasions when he has overindulged, he had been feeling happy and carefree. 

            When they first arrived, Minh had been nervous. He’d only heard about these places. The housemother accompanied them upstairs to their own private room, with a couch covering three walls, the fourth wall occupied by a large television and a karaoke machine. Big black speakers hung in the corners. He was then introduced to Mai, a pretty young girl in her late teens dressed in a body hugging black dress. An old shoe to places like this, Phuoc sat with his girl at the other end of the couch and immediately began molesting her. She skillfully deflected his most loquacious probings with playful giggles. He left her alone long enough to sing a few songs in his deep froggy voice, before setting down the mike and resuming his attack. Mai tried to initiate some pleasant conversation, but Minh was dumb.  She kept pouring him beers, deigning to even hold the glass to his lips. Not knowing what to say, Minh drank.

            Soon, Minh was feeling less nervous and he sang a few songs, encouraged by the girls’ compliments and cheering. The beer continued to flow except Mai wasn’t drinking so Minh egged her on.  She took a few tiny sips out of her glass and resumed feeding Minh salty peanuts washed down by more Heineken.

            After some serious whispering, Phuoc left with his girl to a back room, and when he returned was rubbing his belly and smiling broadly. Not soon afterwards, he was gone again, the result of all the goat meat. Minh just kept singing and singing, song after song.

            Mai, a longhaired beauty from Da Nang, growing bored and tired of his off-key tenor, had reached down his pants and squeezed him, whispering in his ear that, “With a little more money, heaven is the limit.”

            He had already spent the $200 he had secretly borrowed from Sam, so leaving his married friend as collateral and accompanied to the front door by two tough looking thugs, he had stumbled home with his only thought being Mai in her tight dress and coquettish smile.  Finding no one there, and not really caring, he had clumsily and drunkenly retrieved more dollars, not really aware of the exact amount, forgetting to even push the dresser back into place. 

            Everyone was glad to see him when he returned. He was getting ready to move to the backroom with Mai when Sam, Binh, and Tee had busted in on his dream.

            “Where’s my money?” Sam demands.

            “Calm down, friend,” the bouncer says goodnaturedly.

            “Fuck you!  He stole my money.”

            “Maybe you better leave.” Peeved, the bouncer grabs Minh by the shoulders and pushes him back out into the hallway.

            “Sam, I can explain,” Minh shouts after him. “It’s business.  We’re going to be rich.”

            “What about me?” Mai pouts, pulling him back onto the couch.

            Tee and Binh get tangled up in the limbs of the skinny kid who brought the beer, as the bouncer wraps his arms around Sam and tries to monkey hug him.

            “Get your f***ing hands off me you gorilla!” Sam screams, kicking the bouncer in the shin.

            More men instantly appear and one of them quiets Sam with an abrupt punch to the side of his head.

            “What are you doing?” Tee screams as he and Binh are manhandled out the front door into the street after Sam’s limp body. 

            “You-f***ing-bastard-dog-motherfuckers!” Tee screams at them from the sidewalk.

            “You got a dirty mouth for a monk,” one of them laughs. 

            Tee picks up a chunk of asphalt and threatens to hurl it through the glass front.

            “Cool it monk. I don’t want to have to piss off Buddha by having to beat your dick into the dirt.”

            Tee watches Binh sobbing uncontrollably, kneeling over Sam’s unconscious body, and drops the rock.

            They carry Sam back to the café and lay him in a beach chair and immediately Sam starts snoring loudly.

            A few minutes later, a sheepish Minh stumbles across the street.  

            “I’m sorry Sam,” he says to his sleeping cousin, before passing out the floor. “She said I had potential.”




            On the way home from Dalat, the bus stops four times for bathroom breaks at roadside restaurants. The driver has a deal with the owners of each stop. He earns a commission for every head he brings in. At each stop Sam quickly downs a couple of beers before boarding the bus again. By the time they arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, he’s stumbling drunk. 

            A week after the karaoke scene, he still hasn’t said a word to Minh, despite Binh’s and Aunt Sau’s pleas for forgiveness. His fraternal grandmother lives in Dalat, so he’s been in the mountains visiting her for the past several days, a chance to escape the lowland heat. As the bus drops him off at his cousins’, he hears a fire truck rushing down the next block. Like moths to the flame, people are funneling towards Pham Ngu Lao. Sam can already smell smoke, and looking up, a dark plume rises and disperses over the entire neighborhood. He follows the crowd to the karaoke lounge.  Policemen are keeping the mob back, but he can see flames licking out of the broken glass of the front façade. Sam doesn’t feel elated or redeemed. He stares with everyone else. The colors of the fire fascinate him.

            Cuong spots Sam in the crowd and hides behind a group of laughing children. Although it’s 90 degrees outside with the fire heating the air even further, Cuong is wearing a shiny new black leather jacket. He nonchalantly walks around the corner and disappears running.

            Sam grows tired of the spectacle and walks back to the house.  He needs to get packing. His plane for Seattle leaves in a few hours.  He’s just tired and wants to go home.




            “Do you really think he did it?” Binh asks as he sips his Pepsi bottle through a straw.

            “I don’t know. He was pretty upset. Anything’s possible I suppose.” Tee is rinsing out glasses in a tub of hot water in the back of the café. His robe is gone, replaced by a smart white polo shirt and American style jeans that hang like parachutes over his skinny legs. The sound of Vietnamese pop music echoes loudly through the small room.

            “Hoang claims he saw Sam stumble home that night drunk and laughing. Thought he might have even smelled gasoline on him,” says Binh.

            Tee washes the last glass and places it on the rack to dry.  “Hoang is full of shit. I wouldn’t believe a single thing he says.”

            “Yeah, that’s what I thought. But still–“

            “Hey, can you find me something dry my hands with?” Tee asks as he hold his wet fingers away from his clean white shirt. 

            Binh looks around and grabs a saffron colored rag stuffed into an empty coffee can. He snifts it to determine if it’s clean and notices the smell of gasoline. He hands it to Tee without a second thought.

            The café is filled with people. Every chair is taken, and a pretty teenager runs around taking orders. Another group of young girls sits in front of a television with microphones in hand, singing along to lyrics flashing across the screen. The sound pumps out of two large black speakers hanging in the corners of the room. The grilles on the speaker covers are melted in spots, but most of the heat damage is negligible. Tee smiles as he surveys the crowd. After the song is over, a young man takes the mike, and Tee goes over to his Pioneer karaoke machine and puts in a new disc. Like the speakers, some of the plastic casing on the laserdisc player is warped, but the equipment works fine. Tee is proud of himself. Not a bad deal for $200. 

            Across the street, workers are rebuilding the lounge. The owners will fill it with all new equipment and twice as many rooms as the old place. Most everything was destroyed in the fire, but what could be salvaged was sold cheap.

            Tee steps out into the dying afternoon sun and checks out his new sign: Water Charm Café. Poor Sam, he thinks. His fancy ideas didn’t stand a chance. But he knows Sam still has his cushy job back in American. Easy come, easy go, Tee thinks, as he imagines a glass and aluminum front to his café and the words air conditioning etched in a classy scroll above the door.


                                     LEE MINH McGUIRE



 · THE WRITERS POST (ISSN: 1527-5467),
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.




Editorial note: All works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004. (ISSN: 1540-1723).

Copyright © Lee Minh McGuire 1999-2004. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/  The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.


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