Six a.m. Ho Chi Minh City is a steaming engine. Though I can hear motorbikes toot their horns or a bus grind its gears, the city is dominated by an electrical hum, an audible heat, as if a swarm of cicadas hovers over the restaurants and apartment complexes, the green lakes and street vendors. Conversations break through the din and sound angry, even aggressive, and I wonder what there is to fight about at six a.m.
Last night, I spoke with the owner of our hotel, and as he poured me another shot of rice wine from a plastic water bottle, he said the language only sounds hostile. “Sounds and meanings are very different.” He took a sip. I asked him what he hears when we talk – Americans, I meant. Another sip and his smile grew. “I hear R’s. All the time R’s.” He stood up and began to bark, or maybe cheer. “Ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra. Very much.” He sat back down and shrugged, as if to say it wasn’t my fault.
Vanessa and I gather our things and meet our guide in the lobby. He is a thin man in a short-sleeved dress shirt and black jeans, a braided leather belt and white sneakers. He sits in a large, intricately-carved chair, holding a steaming bowl of pho inches from his face. The lobby is filled with other travelers, white men and women with enormous backpacks – Australians, Germans, Swedes, my fellow Americans, some French. The hotel staff, in matching mint-green Polo shirts, rush out like a pit crew and surround the new arrivals. They reach up to help the travelers remove their backpacks; the travelers turn and bend down to tip them.
As Vanessa and I walk through the lobby, our footsteps rattle the glass cabinets filled with ceramic Buddhas and lacquer paintings. Our guide stands and bows and reaches for my hand. To him, we are “An-tun-nee” and “Ba-nessa.” To me, his name sounds like three coins dropping into a glass of water, and I can’t imagine what it sounds like to him when I say, “Pleased to meet you, Anh Dung Nguyen.” He nods several times, then pulls a map from his back pocket.
“So. You want to see Long Binh, yes?”
“Yes,” I say. “And also Bien Hoa.”
He nods. “Because you father?”
“He still alive, you father?”
A big smile. “Why he no come?” He opens his arms wide as if offering a hug.
Vanessa and I look at each other and laugh. “I’m not sure,” I say. “Too far away, I guess.” I realize after I’ve said this that it’s the only reason I can think of. I never asked my father to come and he didn’t offer. He hates long flights, can’t sit in one place for too long. My father seemed satisfied with his memories: If I had to live my life over again, I’d go back.