four weeks in saigon

Cornflower blue fades from milky yellow to deep blue. A streak of orange sits on the horizon, then the sky dips to black. The stars aren’t out yet, though the hazy city lights won’t reveal many of them. Chinese lanterns pop on one by one, their reflections bobbing on the water’s velvety surface. Humidity hugs the coast, a soft blanket cut only by a sea breeze floating in from the South China Sea.

This is when Saigon comes alive, she thinks, dipping a broad, flat-bottomed spoon into a wide bowl of phò. Broth spills over the sides of the spoon and fills it up. A noodle slips in. She tips the spoon over and watches the liquid splash out, then places it back down. She has the urge to move on, rise from her seat and walk into the night. The heat makes her restless, and she realizes that moving around the city is no way to cool down. But what a night to waste in front of a fan in some unfamiliar hotel room.

There’s enough of a moon now for the skyline behind her to cast a slight shadow on the water. The outlines of buildings waver as the wind pushes ripples across the harbor. She places a few dong on the table, slipping them under the bowl, and gathers her things. Book, wallet, phone – the phone she hasn’t turned on in two weeks – go into her bag, the bag gets slung over her shoulder, and she moves into the night.

Four steps in and guilt slides up her throat. Has it already been three weeks? Has she really done this? She recalls the dread that filled her as she sat in row 38, seat F, of a widebody jet rolling off the runway and into the sky. It hit her as the wheels folded into the plane’s belly, and she whispered “what am I doing, what am I doing, what am I doing.”

She took the job with the travel magazine four months ago, wooed by the idea of all-expenses-paid trips to foreign countries. For years she’d read travel essays like an addict, often rewriting the stories in her head. She dreamed of sleeping in yurts, hiking along the spines of mountain ranges, or sampling baguettes from cafés around Paris, drunk on cheap red wine and the lust of travel. It would be so easy, she thought, packing up a few things – notebook, laptop, too many pens, DSLR, a few outfits – and taking off for a week.

She had been ecstatic when the offer came through: assistant travel writer. It wasn’t the most glamorous; she covered domestic travel, mostly weekend trips. Her husband had been happy with this appointment. Her husband, who wanted a child within the year. The idea terrified her, paralyzed her some days. Her uneasiness and his eagerness were two tectonic plates sliding together until they created a rift resulting in days of silence.

And here she was. A month ago, the deputy foreign travel editor’s recent trip to Africa had resulted in a case of malaria. This trip to Saigon (for a 2,500-word feature story in the September Asia issue) was already planned and booked. Pass it off to another writer, he said; but no one could scramble their travel plans with a week’s notice. Her assignment, a 700-word article on last-minute weekend trips, involved booking a same day flight and hotel for a truly authentic experience. With no planned travel, her editors swallowed the risk and let her go.

Excitement outweighed nervousness in the days leading up to the trip, but the latter won out as her plane cut through a night sky above the dark velvet carpet of the Pacific. The first day, she lay curled in her hotel bed, not crying or shaking or really feeling anything. Maybe it was culture shock, maybe it was fear. On day three she realized that maybe this was an opportunity, and she took it.

Monday of week two, she stopped keeping track of time. Phone off, laptop shut. She glanced at the hotel clock, numbers blinking red, before leaving each day. She watched the sun loop across the sky, and found that her timing was never far off from reality when she slipped into bed each night. This morning, she had pulled the alarm clock’s cord from the wall, marveling at the wide, flat prongs of this foreign plug. If her time stopped, would it for everyone else? How long could she exist in this vacuum?

After her allotted week in the city, she’d booked another room on her personal card, moving the burden of her – what was it? a breakdown, escape, retreat? – her thing from the magazine to her own bank account. What were they thinking? Were they worried? Of course, they must be. They must be. Her husband – she buried the thought. The email she sent before closing her laptop for good would have been enough, brief as it was.

It’s lovely here. Staying longer than expected. Don’t worry.

Snip, snip, snip. Sentences meant to reassure, but would they? Did they? Her first draft, short as it was, had included I’ll see you soon. But she wasn’t sure of that.

She floated through the city at night, staying out until the early hours of the morning. When the sun pushed its first light above the horizon, she went back to the room. Some nights she felt like she could stay out forever. End the reservation, pay her bill – how high that must be now – and keep cycling through the sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset like some human tide pulled to and fro by the moon.

Tonight she walked down the leafy avenues of District 3, stopping to admire ivy-covered French colonial buildings before heading northwest down Dien Bien Phu. She stopped at the edge of Le Van Tam Park, deeply dark but oddly inviting.

In America, parks were painted as safe havens by day: places where children can play, dogs can chase balls, people can jog. But at night, they were places where women could be raped, people could be mugged, bodies could be buried…

She wasn’t sure if she felt reckless or fearless. Maybe both, but she had no qualms about walking into Le Van Tam and disappearing into the trees.

Aside from the occasional snap of fallen branches beneath her shoes – moccasins made by a street vendor, her first purchase here – it was dead quiet. The stars were visible, the big dipper floating above her head through the tree branches, just as it had floated above her husband’s head hours before. That was the funny thing about this earth, wasn’t it? Despite being thousands of miles away from home, she saw the same sun, moon, sky, stars. There are some things that can’t be left behind.

She lay on her back in a grassy meadow. Like this, with the dewy grass beneath her and an inky sky rimmed by trees above, she could be anywhere. The rub, she thought, was that she didn’t yet know where she wanted her anywhere to be. It wasn’t here in this purgatory, a purgatory she had created for herself when she decided not to leave.

Flat on her back, with the weight of the sky pressing her against the earth, she wondered why anyone would want to introduce a child into a world too expansive to ever explore in the blip of a lifetime. Instead, the child would move from school to school, venture off to college, settle in a nice suburban neighborhood in a town close to home, raise a family. And then what? Retirement and then on to death? What a grim outlook I’ve developed, she thought.

Fears are ignorant of boundaries and borders, always coming along for the ride. And so she let hers overwhelm her, waves flowing over her and pushing her against the ground. She stayed like this until the sun had risen over the horizon.

The next afternoon she settled on a redbrick patio, pulling fresh seabass from a banana leaf. The steamed fish fell into flakes as she forked through it, dragging each bite through teriyaki glaze before lifting it to her mouth. Her notebook lay open before her, a weak sentence fragment staring back at her: “Saigon at night is…”

Where was she even going with that? How many great travel essays started with the name of the city? It had to be some anecdotal vision from the city, filled with lust and life and sound and feeling: Victor grabbed my wrist and pulled me into the waves, speargun gripped tight in his hand, joy on his face. As the salt stung my face, I realized that I had found the heart of this deeply complex city. She supposed that she had to make one of these authentic experiences happen. The park at night seemed too trite, too unauthentic.

Her detour, as she called it, had not dimmed her hopes of actually writing those 2,500 words. She even had a working name and a hundred or so photos on her DSLR. Carefully, she dragged a line through that awful first sentence. Flipped a page. Set the nub of her pen on clean paper. And felt a jolt somewhere deep inside.

It hit her quickly, nausea rippling through her body. This was new. Her mind flipped through her last few meals: plantains over jasmine rice, fresh bread and a banana shake from Ben Thahn Market, beef and goat cheese over arugula. She tried to convince herself that one of these had given her a bout of food poisoning, but she knew otherwise.

She gave herself four days. Four days doubled over the sink, curled on the bathroom floor. She ate rice and bananas in the evenings, sometimes trying a larger meal. She drank water.

The concierge directed her to a dispensary in District 1. She went and returned, and did the thing she dreaded doing; the thing she had done many times that year. Her husband insisted on it: Have you checked this month? Are you late?

One line each time, a release of breath and a glass of wine. Despite her misgivings, they kept trying, though every failed test was her little victory.

Three minutes passed and a cross appeared, right on time. Her diabolical plus sign. She doubled over again and vomited in the toilet.

Saigon brought you to me, she always told her daughter.

At four years old, this statement confused her daughter, who had a rudimentary understanding of the globe (the one in her room, collecting dust on her dresser). Nevermind, her father said.

At ten years old, her daughter began to understand, hungry for details of the city by the sea that had slowly, painfully, given her mother the courage to embrace her fears.

At fifteen, her daughter read her mother’s article, which was published in the September Asia issue, with a byline despite the writer’s termination. It won three awards: “a gritty masterpiece illustrating internal struggle and acceptance in a foreign place”; “a contemporary travel essay unlike any other”.

Each time the Saigon story resurfaced, her husband would shush her, frowning at the trip that had gone awry.

Let’s not talk of this, he had said at the airport that day. I don’t know what happened to you. You’re not the woman I married.

For a moment, she was detached from reality, giving him nothing but a blank stare. The words simmered before bubbling up.

You’re a father.

He pulled her into him.

Come here. Let’s go home.