Sài Gòn – August 1967
The clouds burst. The monsoon rains swooped upon the city. The rain was a chant, a promise, an anointing. Sài Gòn’s avenues were silver strands of wet. In the market squares, buyers and vendors alike sought the nearest canopy or canvas. Plastic raincoats and ponchos blossomed like so many exotic plants.
Nearby a pedicab was stopped, its driver shrouded in a funereal black slicker. His white pith helmet made him into a giant weeping mushroom, struggling to snap a canvas cover over the passenger seat where sat a young girl and her mother. They were laughing – at the rain, at the driver’s frantic efforts to shield them from the cool torrents of music…but they were already wet, so they could laugh.
Beneath an awning on the Boulevard Trần Hưng Đạo, I stood together with market women in their bright áo baba and black trousers, and high school girls wearing the traditional white áo dài, and men in Western trousers and ties, some with suit jackets, who were either pick-pockets or lawyers. With coy impropriety three young women, speaking in low tones, discussed me, not aware that I understood their dialog. One was certain I was French.
Round the corner came a bulbous Fiat painted in blue and dusty yellow. Or was it some gigantic beetle forced earthward by the unrelenting rain? The gnomish taxi miraculously was free, off-duty. I began to shout “Xe taxi! Ở đây! Taxi! Over here!”
With the suddenness of rain the globule of steel leaped toward my voice through the watery veil. The driver’s head swiveled to spot his fare. I was waving now. With mechanical politesse the car stopped near the curb. The rear door, like the wing of a preening bird, struck outward into the air. I picked up my suitcase and ran from beneath the awning toward the cab. The rain seized me with innocuous violence.
The cab’s door slammed shut. I had been ingested by the little machine. The tiny knuckles of rain sought me beyond the metal of the roof and the fog of the windows and the skin of the door. The driver looked at me quizzically in the rear-view mirror – and I at him.
“Tôi muốn đi đến khu vực ga Nancy…”
To Nancy Station, a neighborhood near Chợ Lớn.
“O. K.,” he replied.
We sped into the layers of falling damp, past the high school and the Đại Nam Theater, past the Plaza Hotel.
“Trời mưa rất nhiều, phải không?” I said.
“Yes,” the driver responded. “It is raining much harder than usual…”
His voice was mellow, sonorous. His accent told me he was a Northerner.
“You are from the North originally?”
“Yes, I’m from Hà Nội. You know Viet-Namese very well…”
We passed the American hospital, and some bars. We passed another school. The rain now hunted me with vengeance, and pummeled the car harder and harder still.
“Thank you. I’ve just returned from America. I’ve been discharged from the Army.”
We passed the fire station and the Labor Department on the left. The rain was relentless.
“Beyond the police compound, please stop and turn around.”
We slowed and turned. The rain was a maniacal rage.
“Near the gas pump over there. The cops won’t let you stop beyond that point…”
He stopped a yard or two beyond the pump at the curb. The rain was rabid, incessant. In a doorway stood a cop, his carbine’s muzzle peeping from beneath his plastic poncho. He blew his whistle.
“How much?” I asked the driver.
“Whatever you like…”
I gave him a hundred-piaster note. The cop came toward us and tapped on the window. The driver leaned toward the door and rolled the window down halfway.
“You must move your—“ and the cop looked at me. I knew him.
“Ah, Mister Vinh! You are back. You can stop before Mr. Minh’s store…” He waved the taxi forward.
I pointed toward the last building before the Labor Department compound. The rain beat down insanely. Even the driver seemed upset now.
“You know that song about the rain?” he asked me.
“The lyrics go:
The rain is the joyful tears
of the girl whose love
is home from the war.
Rain is the bitter tears
of the mother who learns
her son is no more.”
The taxi stopped. Minh’s store sat in the rain and felt its fury and smiled.
“Goodbye,” I said grasping the door handle.
“Thank you, sir. Goodbye.”
I pushed the car door outwards. I felt the little damp fists bludgeoning me on hair and face, on my suit. I leaped a puddle. I brushed aside the canvas hanging as a rain guard in the doorway to Minh’s store.
There sat behind the counter a longhaired girl doing her lessons. Sáu looked up. Her face burst into a smile. She jumped up.
“Chị Lan o’i! Xuống đi ! [Lan, come down!] Anh Vinh trở về nhà. [Vinh’s back home.] Vinh về!”
Down the steep narrow steps came Lan, almost tripping. The water dripped from my suit, from my hair, and my eyebrows. Lan ran to hold me. Her warmth pierced the cool damp of my clothes. She cried. The rain began slowing. And still Lan held me.
* * *
(c) Gregory V Driscoll 2013