THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 8 NUMBER 1
TO THE OLD PLACE
A SHORT STORY BY
Translated by Thien Nhat Phuong & Rhonda Corcoran
From the hotel window, I saw the golden sunrays perched on the arjurn’s bare branches at the first streak of dawn. Hanoi was getting cold, a bitter cold people said they had not experienced for more than two decades. Pedestrians bundled up with winter coats regardless of fashions. Motor scooters were running furiously back and forth, with riders wrapped in woolen hats, scarves and warm gloves. Some old women hawkers carried their baskets of delicacies under their arms, others put them on their heads, and still others carried them on their shoulders. All had warm scarves over their head. They scurried to look for customers, their loud voices died down behind the window glasses.
I returned from the window to lie lazily on the bed. The living set, the cabinet and the dressing table in this room, all made of teak wood, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, gave me an unfamiliar impression. On a corner of the dressing table lay an open magazine that I read last night before falling asleep. Dieu was supposed to be in this room with me. The bare dressing table reminded me of an unequivocal absence. Usually, in each of our trips, cosmetic bottles for Dieu’s embellishment were displayed on the dressing table. Dieu could not accompany me on this sudden trip. She had dreamed of going to Hanoi with me, walking on the same streets that took me to school as a young boy. “ I yearned to know your city,” she said, “ to revive the emotions when you came back to the old place, the place at the time you had not met me.” She talked passionately about it with a charming Hue accent that made me mistake her as a real Hanoian.
My cell phone kept ringing somewhere under the bedspread. I pulled it back to search for the phone
“Hello.” I said.
“This is Phuong. Where do you want to go today? I’ll be at your hotel in half an hour.”
“I do not think I need you this morning. I prefer to take a walk by myself, wandering around the city as a Hanoian during leisure time.”
“Well, well! When did you get that dream?” Her laugh was ringing in my ears.
“Living in the center of Hanoi without dreaming a little could be very silly.” I replied.
“Brother, you were born here. You should have said ‘shameful’ instead of ‘silly.’”
Phuong had corrected me, the last few days, for using Saigonese words with a Hanoi accent. Yet, some street vendors wearing velvet scarves selling goods on the old street corners complimented my genuine Hanoi accent though I had taken it along all over the world for nearly 50 years. Nowadays the Hanoi accent was different from what it was before, as it sounded slightly sour.
“Oh, my gosh, today is very cold. 12 degrees C; I just heard it on the radio. Do you think you should walk?”
I teased her.
“12 degrees C, really!”
“Please discard the word ‘really’ for me?
“Alright, I take it back. You’re very demanding. You’ve straightened my back so often that I am going to look like a mannequin to pedestrians here!”
Phuong kept on giggling on the other end of the phone.
“12 degrees. In “my” country we have minus 30, minus 40 degrees F. The cold in Hanoi cannot be compared to the one over there.” I added.
“Please stop talking about weather, you make me feel chilly. How come you are living in such a strange place where people become too small to see one another?”
Her unintentional but meaningful statement made me stop short. Since I returned to this land, my body seemed to expand. I shared with people here the same blood. I felt more indulgent with them. I felt compassion for their mischievousness, their trivial tricks which life had pressured them to maneuveur for a meager profit.
Hanoi’s December winter was just cold enough to make me feel awake when I got out of the hotel. Alley Bao Khanh jostled with the old streets. I just headed out of the alley and faced a crossroad. Turn left or right, I asked myself. I tried to remember which direction Phöông turned her old motor scooter to. I moved along the street and stood bewildered at the next intersection. I looked at the street signs. I was lost. Turning right at the next intersection, I saw people throng the street. All the commercial streets targeted tourists. Foreigners walked back and forth. The old trading system is too obsolete to catch up with the market economy today. I kept on walking leisurely among other pedestrians with no idea of direction. After I had gone a while without reaching anywhere, I stopped and asked a peddler the direction to the Main Cathedral. She told me to go back two blocks then turn left and I would see it. If Phuong knew that I got lost after leaving the hotel she would probably burst out laughing. She reiterated several times this morning that I had to telephone her right away if I got lost. I adamantly answered that it would be impossible for a Hanoian like myself to get lost. I would not phone her, I must keep my pride and not contact her. The knowledgeable peddler was right, no sooner had I turned left than I found myself facing the two old, black steeples of the Main Cathedral.
Standing in the front platform of the cathedral, I recognized my old school, Duõng Laïc on the left. The premise remained the same but the school was now called, The Hoan Kiem Tan Trao School. The railing was rebuilt with its tall steel gate. In the old days during recesses, I used to pinch a piaster- a monetary unit- between my forefinger and my index, then sliding my arm through the gate steel bars to buy an ice cream cone. I glanced at the area in front of the school fence and saw no one. Where were the old hawkers? I still remembered the dried beef jerky peddler and the shrimp pancake vendor. It seemed as if I could see the beef jerky’s dexterous action. He used both hands, one bottle in each, putting the mixture of soy sauce, vinegar, white garlic cloves and hot chili pepper paste on small dishes of grated papaya with slices of beef jerky on top before serving to us. And I smiled, recalling a trick of how to buy just one shrimp pancake from the lady but to get two or three small bowls of fresh shredded lettuce and herbs while she was busy catering to other customers. A boy about 10 years old with a blue and brown striped sweater standing nearby seemed to share the smile with me. I rediscovered my own self of many years before. I raised the camera, asking the boy if he wanted to have a picture taken, he shook his head and ran away.
I turned right onto Church Street. This street, usually quiet with residential houses, was now bursting with business. In the middle of this narrow street, one found a Catholic Sister’s school the gate of which was always closed. Back then, when our school was dismissed, the girls from the school were out at the same time. I could not remember the school’s name. I lingered in front of its tall gate, staring, hoping I could see through it. I was then too young to enjoy the beauty of the girls. What I did instead was to see some young boys who wanted to act as grown-ups, however awkward they looked
Trang Tien Street appeared a wider avenue now with more traffic. I made a left turn toward the lake. I reacquainted with the Turtle Lake as soon as I landed in Noäi Baøi airport: the taxi driver hurriedly drove me to the hotel at noon. After throwing my suit- case into a corner, I telephoned Chí right away. Chí was the brother of Hoang’s friend. Upon my arrival in Saigon, I contacted and found that Hoang was still in Hanoi and would return to Saigon the following day. Hoang told me as soon as his plane landed in Saigon he would call me. Hoang kept his promise and asked if I could spare a few days. He said I must see Hanoi. That was why I went to Hanoi: within one morning, Hoang booked the air flight, made a hotel reservation, called Mr.Chí to guide me, and handed me a cell phone for easy contact. Chí came to the hotel after receiving my call. During our chat, we found out that we had something in common: we attended the same Dung Lac High School. Chí was two years ahead of me. Looking at Chí with his salt and pepper beard, his freckled cheeks and wrinkled face, I could hardly imagine how I would look like two years from now.
“It all depends on the circumstance. Lucky you for falling into a better place which gives you a fresh and comfortable condition, whereas I am confined to an uncomfortable location with constant heat burning, therefore I look so miserable.”
I reached for a glass of Halida cold beer on a wicker table. Chi’s glass was bubbling with ice cubes. Holding his glass, Chí looked at me, and we toasted,
“Hey, let’s forget other things. Glad to meet you, two former Dung Lac High School students of Father Mai.”
Chí took a swig of beer, and said slowly:
“Father Mai was promoted to Bishop; and Father Trònh Vaên Caên, don’t you remember, a successor to Father Mai as the School Principal, was named Cardinal afterwards. They both passed away.”
I broke a dry smile.
“Well, you have your way to live and I have mine. They have reached their destination. We sometimes want to end our life, too.”
The Turtle Tower looked closer to me under the afternoon sunlight. The weeping willows swayed back and forth on the clean lake bank. Years ago, after school, I used to stick my fish pole along the lake bank to catch some tiny fish. Now there was no place for us to stick our fishing pole as the walkways were paved with bricks.
“You have been away for almost half a century, now that you are returning home, what are your impressions?” Chí asked.
“The Turtle Tower looks so tiny. I have the impression that I can reach out to touch it. “
Chí smiled, joking.“ That’s because you’ve grown.”
“We’ve grown older, my friend, at our age, we stopped growing. It seems to me that things look bigger in our memory than in reality. We used to magnify and beautify our memories. And you, sitting with me in our familiar setting, what are you thinking?”
Chí’s head leaned back with his eyes half-closed, and his body seemed to sink into the large rattan chair.
Chí replied, “I see my disadvantages. Coming back home, you look at the Turtle Tower with a different view, and I look at it from different angles: Life seems a treacherous yoke to me. Not only does it impede my growth but it also takes away my energy until I feel exhausted, and no longer desire to live.” Trying not to look straight at Chi’s face, I turned towards the lake:
“Have you ever tasted the French pate sandwich sold by a youngster here?”
“No, my home was beyond the old town streets, that’s why I rarely frequented this place. Where did you live then?”
“Near Hoâm Market.”
“Then you have to pass by this place daily.”
“Absolutely. This is the place I used to get my French pate sandwich. Before, there were only grass and trees, no refreshment stalls like now. The youngster drew a tiny, hot French bread from his bag, then, slit it with a knife, I still remember he stuffed it with a thin slice of salami then shook salt & pepper over. It was delicious, especially on a cold day like today.”
“Wonderful! I know some well-known hawkers, like the old Chinese selling roasted peanuts on the other side of the lake.”
Following Chi’s eyes, I saw the square brick gate. My voice raised merrily:
“I still remember that man’s face. If he is making his way across the crowd now, I can recognize him immediately: his glasses with a loose black frame covering the blinking eyes. He looked like smiling all the time with his big yellow teeth. And I will never forget his sitting position and his cheating hand. Do you remember it? He used to thrust his hand into the roasted peanut bag as if pulling all the peanuts out but when he withdrew, only some roasted peanuts clung to his clasping fingers. Then he released them quickly into the cone-shaped paper bag (made of old newspaper). He did it three times, closed the bag, and gave it to the customer with his hand wide open to get money. If the customer asked for some more peanuts, the additional thrust would be worse. People still waited in line to buy the stuff, though.”
Shaking his legs, Chí roared with laughter:
“The good smell from the five-spiced marinated peanuts was so irresistible.”
I swallowed my saliva:
“Especially on rainy days when the old Chinese man was sitting under the covered gate to shun away the cold weather while I had to stand shakily outside to wait for the roasted peanuts in the cone-shaped paper bag handed to me. The heat radiated in my hand made me so happy!
I passed the mossy brick gate, wondering whether it looked more quaint or rustic? I touched the cracked coat of mortar on the gate. I visualized the old Chinese man snuggled in there. The gate looked almost the same, but it was so mossy that it couldn’t be mossier. I was touching the past, I felt numb under the paralyzing emotions. I turned around when I heard someone ‘s voice behind me.
“Do you want to exchange money, brother?”
A woman with an ankle-length coat looked at me, waiting. She flashed a smile on her placid face. I shook my head.
“No, thank you.”
“I’ll give you a better rate than the bank, brother.”
I shook my head again.
“Please exchange your money with me. I haven’t had any business since this morning.”
I strode away, wondering how that woman knew that I had dollars. Looking down at my clothes, I knew how I betrayed myself. I found the old Go Da department store on the left, which was now Trang Tien Business Center, and I walked straight toward it. Hueá street sign appeared in front of me. Walking south in the direction of the Hoâm Market I would find my old house. Business was booming. Business stalls and shops mushroomed everywhere. It was rare to see any of them in the old days. Street scenes had changed, and I felt something very familiar was missing. I pondered for a while and found out that the old trolley with its clanging bell had completely disappeared from the street. In the old days, twice a day on the way to and from school, getting in and out of the trolley was our favorite game. We played hide-and-seek with the white uniformed ticket conductors by jumping from the stopping train at the station to the incoming one, or sneaking from one wagon to the next as fast as squirrels that the conductors could never catch us. They could never squeeze out any money from us for tickets.
The cell phone in my trouser pocket rang furiously. I pulled it out and answered.
“Where are you now?” Hoang’s voice echoed on the line.
“I am walking on Hue Street.”
“To find the way to my old house, the old place.”
“Are you with Chí?”
“No, by myself.”
“Where is Chí, by the way?”
“He is down with the terrible cold of Hanoi. Out with me only once and it was too cold for him to withstand.”
“And what happened next?”
“Don’t worry. Chí is very considerate. He has found me a young lady, a substitute guide.”
“You are lucky, aren’t you?”
“Lucky about what?”
“That’s the matter. When you return to Saigon this time, I’ll take a look at your palm’s lines and see how lucky you are with women. You seem to be attractive to them.”
“Hey, don’t be silly. She is about my daughter’s or granddaughter’s age.”
“Oh, my gosh! You’ve got lots of grandchildren. Well, don’t talk shop any more, I’ll call you later.”
Putting the cell phone back in my pocket, I remembered Chi’s wailing voice over the regular telephone at 7 o’clock in the early morning while I tried to get some more sleep.
“Hello, this is Chí. Did you sleep well last night?”
“Thank you, I did. After walking all day, as soon as I returned to the hotel, I hit the sack like a log.”
“You are really in good shape. I am much worse now. I am feeling quite ill.” His voice sounded hoarse with a few coughs.”
“Oh my God! You’ve become sick because I took you along. It’s because of this nasty weather that you are sick.”
“I am sick because of my own worn-out body, not because of my going out with you. I am afraid that I cannot be your guide any more. I have, however, asked a friend’s niece for a substitute. She works for a travel agency and knows more than I do about sight seeing. She will come to see you this morning. Best wishes with your Hanoi visit!”
The tour guide was as tall as a model. My height was above average for an Asian male, but Phuong was slightly less tall than I was. She was not cheating on height. Her shoes were flat; her hair was not curled and parted flatly in the middle. Under her fake brown leather jacket, she wore a purple turtleneck and a half-black, half-brown scarf pulled up to her chin. Her long hair was hidden underneath a wool hat, and her hands snuggled in wool gloves. Hanoians were well prepared for the weather!
Walking through the hotel glass door, Phuong saw me sitting there, waiting for her. She tried to shake off the cold by moving her body up and down gently like dancing. I raised my voice when she stood still.
“ You are Miss Phuong, aren’t you?”
“ Yes, I am. Let’s plan where to go this morning. How many places have you been so far, brother?
How professional she sounded! Her manners and her way of talking put me at ease. It was not only Phuong who had this manner. The people living in Hanoi nowadays seemed to be more casual than before. They easily addressed themselves in a friendly manner as younger sisters to older brothers. For example, one time I heard Phuong talk with a contract driver of the same company by expressing herself as “em” (little sister) and addressed him as “anh” (older brother). When the driver left, I asked Phuong if she was related to that man. Phuong said that it was the first time she met him. I wondered why people would waste those endearing terms, which should be used only when dealing with relatives.
I found myself lost on the old streets. Looking up at the street sign, I saw “Hang Bai” sign. I started. Was I lost? I looked around. This must have been the former Ciros movie theatre. But there were no vestiges of a movie theatre! Business stalls elbowed one another. I must have gone astray. I asked an old woman peddler on the curb. “This is Hang Bai Street,” she said, “just go southward, do not turn left or right, then you will hit Hue Street.” I said “thank you” to her but my mind was still wandering. I could not recall Hang Bai Street. It was a street that I had gone back and forth on daily, how could I miss it? Walking a little farther, I saw a military campus. My memory rushed back. This used to be the Bao Chính Doan barracks of the Third Military Region. In my old school days, I frequently met the military band heading out to practice on the street. The band consisted of more than one hundred members loudly playing different kinds of military music. We kids used to follow the last two rows with soldiers blowing the big trombones to keep rhythm for the whole group. The sounds from the trombones excited us kids who at that time nurtured a simple dream: Joining the Army once we’d grown up, to play the big trombones.
Nguyen Trai High School remained a school. On the other side of the street, the Majestic theatre was rebuilt and renamed “August Theatre” showing “The Quiet American” movie. I stood silently to look at it across the street. We kids needed to scurry to obtain as many current movie flyers as possible for our collection. We could not get them from the ticket counter. So, we acquired the flyers from the goers who did not want them, or picked them up on the ground. I remembered my friend Tran, whose forehead was so big that we jokingly called him “Abnormal” Tran, had an excellent memory: only reading the film story once, he could recite it word by word.
To my relief the next street sign read: Hue Street. The cross street was Ham Long. It was very close to my home. The tiny familiar bookstore Bình Minh, whose owner was probably the beautiful wife of poet Ho Dzenh, was no longer. In its place was a well-lit optical shop. The Cam Bình ice-cream shop was also no longer there. Thinking of the ice-cream shop made me crave my old favorites, mung bean or chocolate bars.
My feet seemed to be assembled like a machine. The more I neared my home, the heavier and clumsier they became. The Hom Market across the street bore no familiarity to the old market that I knew. Nowhere could I find the old market’s fence; no peddlers with their goods in front of the old market’s pavements; no youngsters selling Nguyen Bính’s book of poems; no young peddlers running around to sell Cau Am Co Chieu and Khoe magazines or the daily 16-page serial of a martial story.
My eyes blurred when I reached the Tran Xuaân Soan intersection. I was standing in front of a movie theatre specializing in showing Chinese films. I forgot the theatre’s name. My memory went blank. The only thing I could remember was my anticipation for the Grand Opening day in which the theatre would present the main feature film, entitled “ The Burning Hoàng Lien Pagoda ” with knights flying. All actors & actresses ‘s clothing were fluttering amid the clouds, blown by the winds. It was, however, hilarious that the cinematographer was so inattentive to allow the goers to watch the actors & actresses standing firmly on the platform, instead of flying as they were supposed to do. The theatre now became a big store selling wedding gowns. Where did my one-time warriors go?
Like a somnambulist I turned left following Tran Xuan Soan Street. Traffic was hectic and the streets were tremendously crowded. I strained to see my objective. It was my house, located right on the corner of Phung Khac Khoan Street. I almost stumbled as I approached the old place of my youth, which haunted my mind since I left Hanoi many years ago. I skirted along the waves of people scurrying back and forth. I was overwhelmed with all kinds of fabric shops. Fabric stalls lined up the whole Phung Khac Khoan Street. The front yard of my old house was even fenced to hold two fabric shops. Again I almost stumbled. I recalled in the old days, it was completely quiet on both sides of the pavements where we kids spent our time playing marbles, at chucks, and the tipcat. It was the sanctuary of my youth. I became enraged. My pavements were stolen. After 50 years in exile, I now returned to my old place. I was desolate. Did I have to cry? My eyes became dry due to emotional stress. I stood there, motionless. Old images were churning in my head now covering with two kinds of hair, the old age pepper gray hair, full of missing emotions, overlapping the youthful black hair.
I stepped in when I saw the side gate of my old house left open. Three rooms on the first floor carried 3 big padlocks. The stairs were extremely filthy. Each step, still shining in blue tiles in my memory, was encrusted with dirt. I climbed up the stairs without using the handle. The wide verandah on the second floor was also very dirty. Multi-colored tiles now lay flat and gray. I also saw three big padlocks dangling in front of each room upstairs. I walked along the hallway towards the back section of our house. The play place on top of our garage was converted into another room. I stood there, agape, looking up and down. There was no one to be seen anywhere. Finally I walked toward the front. Our garage also turned out to be another fabric shop, whose owner talked to me merrily as he knew that I, once, had lived in this house. He told me there were ten families occupying this house. Nobody took care of the common areas: the stairs, the hallway and the gate. He led me to the corner of the house just to show me the electrical meter still bearing my father’s name. He laughed at my stunned face: “ Even the water meter is still under your father’s name!”
I walked out of the house, pensive and perplexed. Is it true that I was stepping on the same ground on which a disheveled boy used to run around and play with his friends?
The cell phone in my pocket was shaking like a fish.
“ This is Phuong, brother. Where are you now?”
“ I am standing in front of my old house.”
“ Oh, my gosh! Sorry to bother you. I am afraid that I am intruding on your thoughts!”
Her laughter resonated in my ears. Phuong had a “loose” laugh. The word “loose” was the one I just picked up in Hanoi, I was not sure if it was used appropriately. I liked it, because it sounded imaginative.
“ Hey, my little girl, you have no right to make fun of my emotions.”
“ Sorry, I cannot retrieve my laugh once it burst out. Can I come by to pick you up?”
“ OK, come on over now. I am waiting for you in front of my house.”
“ Are you still emotional? How will I know where your house is located?”
Stupefied, I started laughing:
“ You are so clever! My old place is at the corner of Tran Xuan Soan and Phung Khac Khoan Street. Just unfold the fabrics and you can find me.”
“ Oh! I can find you by opening up the fabric? Are you covering yourself with that stuff?”
“ No, around me are all fabric shops. I am surrounded by fabrics!”
“ Ah! I know where that Fabric Market is. It’s the woman’s instinct! I’ve been worrying since this morning that you might get lost. It may, however, help you lose a few pounds by walking.”
“ My goodness sake! You’re so concerned for me!”
“ Jesus! You’re responding like a Hanoian. Hey brother, it’s still very early; after picking you up, will you please go visit Uncle Hoà’s tomb?”
It was the third time that Phuong urged me to visit the Ho Chí Minh’s mausoleum. The first time we passed it by, I declined. The second time occurred after I bought a statue of a one-pillared Pagoda as a souvenir at Ngoc-Son temple shopping area. Holding the statue in hand, I liked to pay a visit to the Pagoda. Phuong told me that in order to visit it, I had to go through Uncle Hoà’s tomb. I pretended not to hear. I then looked deep into her eyes. How could I explain to her that a person who had carried out such evil deeds should be unworthy to be adored.
“ I’ll do it another time; now I want to go see some of my old friends around this area.”
“ It’s up to you.” Phuong’s voice was loose.
When Phuong arrived at my old place, I was still taking in the old house, which needed a new exterior coat of paint. The two flower-patterned dividers allowing the wind and the sunlight coming to the stairs had now turned dark. The steel bars on the window overlooking the street had become rusty with time. I wondered whether the warped, dilapidated doors could fit their frames.
Standing by me, Phuong looked at the house and raised her voice hesitantly:
“ Your old house?”
I just nodded. Phuong patted my shoulder and whispered:
“You’re the son of a ‘landowner’.”
I turned around sharply. Phuong took her hand off my shoulder, dumbfounded. I stared at her. When the war ended, Phuong was not yet born. How could she acquire the word ‘landowner’ which I thought by now should be obsolete. From her stupefied expression I guessed my look must be quite strange. I felt chilly, listening to her indifferent voice. Her face suddenly relaxed. She cracked a smile, showing two rows of white teeth. Fortunately, Phuong had a very kind and affable smile.
Translated by Thien Nhat Phuong & Rhonda Corcoran
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Thien Nhat Phuong & Rhonda Corcoran 2006. Nothing in this magazine 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.