By Harlow Covington, Esq.
James Jackson arrived in Hue by way of Hoi An. Along with some fifty or so other backpackers and adventurers, he made his way across the Hai Van Pass—a serpentine road carving its way through the mountains. Going South to North, as James Jackson was, the mountains were on his left; to his right were the most verdant vales he had ever laid eyes upon; further ahead were the crisp blue waters of the South China Sea. It seemed so calm and peaceful from up here, James thought to himself. It was hard to believe those waters were the great oceanic warzone of our time.
It had taken him two and a half hours to reach the mountain pass from Hoi An, a beachy-village town with a certain undeniable beauty and a knack for good tailoring. The trail took him through Da Nang, with its white sands and ubiquitous aroma of dead or dying fish, and onto jungle roads constructed of dirt and broken slabs of concrete that rose up and up before descending at vertiginous gradients. It couldn’t have been more than an hour before James Jackson came to the highway, the lush valleys disappearing along with the sea. That was by far the hardest part of the trip: the highway. Traffic was, like most Southeast Asian countries, a chaotic combination of cars, motorbikes, and trucks spewing black exhaust. Without warning, semis would swing U-turns, cutting one off and blinding their vision forward. It was no wonder the cherubs blessed so many travelers with the “Saigon Kiss.”
But James Jackson made it, and upon arriving, his hands and shoulders were locked in tension, his legs shook mildly, and his ass was number than the mouth of a dental patient under anesthesia. The Hai Van Pass, perhaps, as far as tourist attractions go in Vietnam, was rivaled only by Sapa with its terraced greenery and Halong Bay with its vegetative karsts floating in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Of course, that was only naturally speaking. On a sociocultural level, there was much to see: the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi, the Imperial City of Hue. James was planning to visit the lattermost tomorrow morning. Visiting hours were over when he arrived. But that was for the better: his arms and legs in stiffness ached; his ass yearned a seat to take. His only immediate goals were to check into a hostel and find lunch—and, perhaps, drink a beer.
He found cheap accommodation near the city center. Inside, there were dorms and bathrooms; there was no lounge. But outside, on the patio, there were tables where guests could gather. There was free breakfast in the morning—something like two eggs and a baguette or pho; patron’s choice. There was no one outside when James checked in, however, and he hoped that tomorrow’s breakfast would bring friends with it.
He locked up his backpack and left in search of food. Around the block, he found a restaurant. He ordered a plate of pork tripe and a beer. The dish came sauced, with a side of white rice. But it didn’t make a difference: the pig stomach was hardly chewable; or, rather, it was too chewable. He ate half. Disappointed, he paid his bill and left.
Back at the hostel, James lay in bed considering what he should do. The rice and tripe he had eaten was filling enough, but it hadn’t been appetizing or satisfying. He couldn’t simply exist with the taste of disenchantment plaguing his palate. Because once it was recognized, the taste could not be unrecognized. Not without replacing it. So he needed to eat again, but what exactly he should eat…. He didn’t want to be unadventurous, but he didn’t want to sadly consume another half plate of disappointment.
An idea came to him: Parts Unknown. His brother Johnny was an avid watcher of the program. James remembered joining him for an episode on Hue, since he would be traveling through Vietnam shortly. But now, in Hue, James could not recall where or what Anthony Bourdain ate. So he pulled out his laptop and streamed the episode: A third of the way in, he paused it to conduct research. He stood up, leaving the episode paused, and headed for the market.
The objective: a bowl of Bun bo Hue: a beef soup featuring rice vermicelli noodles, bean sprouts, scallions, blood cubes, tofu and sprigs of mint.
At breakfast the next morning, James met another American. His name was Thaddeus; he was eating eggs with toast. After the conventional small talk of newly introduced Americans—state of birth, city of employment/livelihood, sports, the Narcissist-in-Chief—James asked if the ex-military Virginian had any plans.
“Go to the Imperial City at some point. You?”
“Same. Want to go together? After breakfast maybe?”
“Sure,” replied Thaddeus in his southern drawl. “Just let me shit and shower.”
James laughed. He couldn’t help it: He would always be slightly immature when it came to poop humor and fart jokes. It was too much a part of his generation: Ren and Stimpy and whoopee cushions. “Sure you don’t need to shave as well?”
Thaddeus smiled. “Nah, I think I’ll be all right.”
The two set out at ten o’clock.
“You know this is where they filmed Full Metal Jacket,” James said casually.
“Probably not here, but in Hue somewhere.”
“I mean, I know it’s set here, but was it really filmed here?”
“Sounds like a question for the internet. Let’s look it up.”
“Later,” replied Thaddeus.
They never looked it up.
The Imperial City, home of the Nguyen Dynasty, was fortressed by what remained of the Citadel of Hue—what the incessant bombings of the War and Father Time had left behind. It was still impressive. The sheer size confounded the boys until it sank in that this had once been the seat of a monarchical bloodline, their base of operations. Yet, like Angkor Wat, its vastness, while striking, bordered on repetitive.
Of course, if centuries-old architecture, especially pagodas, was one’s passion then maybe such antipathies could be avoided. Or, if one was particularly curious about Vietnamese history, dynastic rule, its function within broader Southeast Asian history, then, again, maybe the boredom of ubiquity could be avoided. Nevertheless, the boys spent two hours walking around the complex. They had spent their ten dollars, and the place was not named a UNESCO World Heritage Site without reason.
What still stood possessed a certain grandeur. The moss-covered stone bricks along the moat; the monumental slabs of rock turned into archways and defensive walls and buildings; the colors—faded yet vibrant: soft blues and cream yellows, brick red and monk’s-robe orange; the carvings, the stone dragons and what not, riding atop the entablatures; the endless columns; the paintings and other artwork decorating the walls; the heights one could look out from; the open space—so much open space; and the gardens and flowers: the nature blooming majestically within the walls.
“It’s funny,” James started.
“This place. If you think about it, we’re just visiting a series of buildings contained within a space. Buildings which belonged to an unelected royalty to be used for their whims and pleasures, their intrigues and politicking. All of this was for them alone—this grandeur, this magnificence—it existed only for the Nguyen family. Now they’re dead and what survives is nowhere near pristine. Yet, we flood it—we tourists and travelers, even some Vietnamese, probably not many, but some. It’s beautiful still, of course, it’s oddly tranquil and has an undeniable historic value—but isn’t it funny to think that when this place was in use, the people outside very well might’ve wanted to see the whole thing burn and crumble. Not all of them certainly, but definitely the communists. Ho Chi Minh might have been educated in France, but he learned from Lenin. And when it came to the Tsar and his Tsarina, the Bolsheviks killed the entire family. The Nguyen dynasty was the aristocracy, the monarchy, and the people outside were its subjects. Even before the rise of communism, the people were subjects. And we come here and pay homage to these hegemons and their imperial city. And we say, ‘Wow, look at all the pretty buildings.’ It’s funny.”
Thaddeus considered him seriously. He responded:
“Well, in a world so obsessed with the passing of a Time they cannot kill, there are worse ways to spend two hours.”
The newly formed friends whittled away the rest of the day with a few beers and some cards. They met a pair of Norwegians who taught them to play “Cucumber.” In the morning, over breakfasts of pho, (believing the hot soup would be a hangover curative) the boys decided to mix it up. They had discussed taking their motorbikes to visit the graveyards and tombs. Now, however, their thoughts were changing.
“Doesn’t it seem a bit played out?” asked Thaddeus.
“What—having a look at the tombs?”
“Yeah, it’s just one of those things every traveler does, but probably couldn’t tell you why. I mean, how many temples and tombs do you need to see before you’ve seen enough?”
“Don’t get me wrong, they’re colorful and nice and all that. It’s just; I think we could do better.”
“Alright then, how’s this sound: We set off out of town on the bikes and we ride aimlessly. We’ll rotate decision-making when it comes to possible turns. Whatever happens happens.”
“Okay,” said Thaddeus. “Whatever happens happens.”
Riding for over an hour, they had wound up in a village. The roads weren’t proper streets, but they were mostly concrete with only a few patches of gravel. Luckily, there weren’t any stretches of clay or mud. Some water buffalo grazed, as did some cows. Chickens clucked and a dog here or there barked and gave chase. On either side of them there was water, shallow and squared-off into troughs: rice paddies, James guessed.
They crossed a truly janky bridge. Two planks of woods were laid atop a piece of corrugated roofing metal and a complicated series of loops and rope somehow held the whole thing together. It was almost smarter to walk the bikes: If one fell, they would land painfully in a ditch of rock and glass and garbage. A filmy cesspool lined the bottom. It would not be a pleasant fall by any standards: Even the defenestration of Prague with its seventy-feet drop and trivial place in European history seemed more favorable than falling into this ditch and losing a limb to gangrene while dying of typhoid.
But they were young and stupid and in the mood for something different. So they crossed and came to another part of the village. Without purpose, they rode, examining the area around them, the uncertainty. More than a few houses were beautifully-built, with ornamental features and everything, yet the area was covered in plastic. Still, the village was vast and the people seemed to have all this space to themselves. James couldn’t decide if the people here were wealthier or if a few had worked their asses off to construct themselves a captivating abode; he wondered how many of them were happy. It was a lovely village, full of trees and vegetation, animals that to these Americans were exotic, and relatively empty of artificial noise. The sky was the perfect blue and the grass and rice paddies were an electric sort of green.
A few hundred feet onward, they were stopped by a pair of oncoming bikers. They were both young men like James and Thaddeus, only a few years their junior. They asked the Americans if they were lost.
“No,” the Americans replied.
“What are you doing here?” asked one of the men. He looked especially boyish; the other appeared not to understand English very well.
“Just riding around really,” answered Thaddeus in his slow not-quite-southern style.
“Come with us,” said the one with an adolescent’s visage. “Come to my house. We make food, we drink beer.”
James and Thaddeus exchanged a look: a raise of the eyebrows, a shrug of the shoulders.
“Why not?” they said together.
They pulled over at a store that just as easily could have been a house. (In fact, it was both a house and a store.) The local boys went in and returned with a gurney sack of live birds and a twenty rack of Huda, Hue’s local beer.
Twenty minutes and a series of zigzags later, they arrived at their domicile. It was nicer than either of the Americans’ parents’ houses. The adolescent, whose name was Chinh, introduced James and Thaddeus to his father and mother. The silent one, whose name was Truc, was his cousin.
The four went out into the backyard. It wasn’t the sort you’d find in the suburbs of the States, but it was enough: a patio of stone, a line to hang clothes, a bathroom and some space for gardening. Chinh and Truc bent down and the Americans did the same. Truc reached into the gurney sack and pulled from it a mountain squab: an unfledged pigeon: It couldn’t even fly: There were eight of them. He held it by its feet and swung it sideways against the wall. The blood coursed through its veins and it shook, but it was dead. He handed it to Chinh to de-feather and grabbed another. This one he gave to James. The next to Thaddeus. And the fourth for himself. James’s hands were shaking; though he had eaten plenty of meat in his life, he had never been this close to the killing process and the feel of the dead squab’s thumping heart was unnerving. Thaddeus, on the other hand, had his clean and was already working on a second. He hadn’t moved to Richmond until university; but rather spent his first eighteen years in rural Virginia so that killing and plucking fowl was nothing new. Some of the birds had egg-shaped sacs inside them that Chinh and Truc pushed out through the rectum of the squab.
When they finished cleaning all eight, they brought the squab inside to the mother. She washed them and prepared a pan with oil. The others went into the living room. It was satisfactorily spacious, nicely tiled, high-ceilinged; there was a coffee table, a sectional, a television and cushions for floor seating. The father, whose name was Danh, brought out five glasses. They opened three cans of beer and filled the glasses. A toast was made. The glasses were refilled. A toast was made. The glasses were refilled. There was a choir and the chorus was moat hai bah, yo. Soon enough, half the case was missing.
Danh spoke English well and the five lapsed into a manageable conversation. They sipped their beers; cigarette smoke drifted acridly up and up to the high-vaulted ceiling. James wondered if it wasn’t a bit sexist that all the men were in here drinking and laughing while the only woman was cooking. But Thaddeus had a simpler answer: The best chef cooks the food; and, anyways, would she really enjoy drinking with her son and these strangers?
The mother came into the living room after fifteen minutes. She came bearing a tray of innards. The squab wasn’t ready yet, but as an appetizer there were the hearts and other organs, as well as those odd, egg-shaped sacs. They ate with chopsticks, sipping beer between bites. It wasn’t so much that James and Thaddeus were surprised they enjoyed what they were eating as they were by the mere fact of eating it: Squab was largely considered a delicacy in the West and organ-eating was out of fashion. Yet, if they were asked to recommend these miniature organs to a friend, each one would answer: “Yes,” with this addendum: “So long as the cook knows what they’re doing.”
Hunger delayed, the men went back to their drinking, their bilingual blend of body communication. The heat had led them to take their shirts off, and someone found a deck of cards. They shuffled the cards and dealt out a hand. They played tien len, a Vietnamese game that involved shedding cards. The first out was the winner; the last out was the loser. They played with ten cards each, leaving two out of play. Funny, James mused, as they played and drank and waited, how numbers convey so much that words can’t.
When the mother returned again with the squab, there were only five beers left. They were each handed an empty plate, while the squab was set down in the middle, separated into unused wings and baby breasts; the head was there too, extending from a scrawny neck. And yet, James and Thaddeus would recall later, the skull was, quite possibly, the finest bite of the meal. Unbelievable as it may sound, the two would swear for the rest of their lives: That brain was delicious. The rest of the bird was equally pleasant. It was cooked in a simple sauce of nam pla, black sesame oil, garlic, shallots, and black pepper. Danh and the boys recommended the Americans eat everything, bones included. They were tiny enough and the crunch was akin to that of watermelon seeds.
When the meal was finished, all but James smoked a cigarette. Chinh and Truc agreed to take the bike and get more beer. On their way out, Chinh asked the Americans if they needed any weed. A raise of the eyebrows, a shrug of the shoulders. “Why not,” they said together.
While they waited, Danh, a former police officer, showed James and Thaddeus the basics of karate. Before instructing them in any stances, he showed them how to arrange their knuckles and make a fist. It took James a second, but Thaddeus had boxed and it was much the same. Then he had them flatten their hands, turn them so the palm was inside, and thrust them fingers-forward at the wall. This, he told them, would strengthen the muscles in the hand. After this he put them in proper stances and asked them to propose an attack. With each new lead came a new defense. His goal wasn’t to teach them to fight, but to demonstrate how to protect themselves. They must’ve been at it an hour before the boys returned.
Everyone opened new beers and resumed drinking. Thaddeus took the weed (it could’ve been tealeaf) and broke it up for a spliff. Only the Americans smoked, but everyone drank. Eventually, someone suggested going into town for dinner and billiards.
They got into Danh’s car and headed for the city center. (The mother stayed home, of course.) They found a bar easily enough. They ordered two pitchers of beer and some dried squid. James had seen it plenty of times in Saigon, but never imagined he would try it. But today, he was mixing it up.
Drinking their beers and eating their khô muc, they split up into teams and played a game of pool. Danh sat first, and it was James and Chinh versus Truc and Thaddeus. Down to the eight ball, the game ended when Thaddeus scratched. As punishment, he sat the next game out. James and Chinh lost badly, and they rotated teams again. They played two more games before switching to carom billiards, which only used three balls. It was interesting, but somehow less exciting than what the Americans thought of as normal pool.
Sleepiness and hunger mounting, they paid their bill and set off in search of food. At a restaurant halfway between the city center and the village, they stopped. They ordered waters and coffees and white rice and broth and roast duck. They ate peanuts as an appetizer.
When they arrived back in the village, they all agreed the Americans were too drunk to drive home; they would stay the night.
With what little beer was left, James thought they would make a short night of it. Which was fine with him: The dual forces of smoking and day drinking were draining.
But instead of staying in for the night and taking it easy, Truc proposed (by way of Chinh) that they go bird-shooting. James had never fired a gun, and wasn’t sure if he was up for the killing. Sport killing never made much sense to him. And the idea of killing birds that they might not eat would despoil the beauty of earlier: of being the one to swing the executioner’s axe, of using everything. He didn’t say anything though.
The night was black. They were on a trail in the expanse of grass beside the road. Truc had a shabby-looking rifle focused upward to the trees. A fuzzy beam of yellowish-white light followed. He walked in stealthy circles around the tree. A little kid showed up on a motorbike; his dog was with him. Chinh held his hand up and mouthed be quiet. Truc was walking backwards now, the gun still trained on the branches above. He fired a shot, then another.
He stepped back, then edged his way right around the tree. He stooped to one knee and positioned the rifle. He fired another shot. Then two more. A fourth.
He shrugged his shoulders and spoke to Chinh in Vietnamese.
“Okay,” Chinh said, “let’s go back.”
They got back and took a seat on the floor. Chinh went to the kitchen and grabbed four beers from the fridge. They opened their beers; Thaddeus lit a cigarette; Chinh was asking James about America; and Truc was pounding his beer on the ground to get their attention. Everyone turned. He lifted up his arm, bent it at the elbow, and turned it so the palm was inward. He used his other arm to point out an opponent: It was Thaddeus.
The arm wrestling bout was nothing like the lore of Hemingway, and Truc was bested in less than a minute. But soon he was bested by Chinh, who took down James as well, before losing to his cousin.
They switched to leg wrestling, an altogether homoerotic affair. It involved putting opposite knees together and using the strength of one’s quads and hips to overpower the other. James went undefeated.
Innocent contests of strength (manliness?) completed, they sat back and finished their beers. They entered into a conversation about their goals. Truc and Chinh were nineteen: a good age to have goals and dream big. So the Americans listened and drank.
And sleep slowly crept over them all.
In the morning, James and Thaddeus left without breakfast. The family had done enough already, they told them again and again. Eventually, the boys yielded and let them go.
Arriving back at their hostel, they ordered two bowls of pho as well as two baguettes and jam. As they ate, they laughed over last night’s serendipitous happenings.
Stifling his mirth, James asked:
“What’s your plan?”
“I was thinking about heading to Phong Nha to do some spelunking. What about you?”
“The same, actually; but I heard about this abandoned amusement park here in Hue. You want to check it out before we go?”
Eyebrows rose. Shoulders shrugged. “Why not,” Thaddeus replied.
Harlow Covington, Esquire (they/them) is a writer and proud member of the LGBTQIA community. Their interests include painting, exploring international cuisine and traveling the world. You can follow all of their adventures on IG at @the_wandering_nickel .