Memoir. Steve Coffman. Perfume River.

On the fourth day we again separated from the tour group. Around 9 a.m., in the teak-paneled lobby of Hue’s Century Riverside Hotel, we joined our excursion mates Roy and Karl and our day guide, a slender soft-spoken young Vietnamese woman named Lo-an, who led us from the hotel garden to the docks along the Perfume River where the dragon boats were heading out on day trips.

The night before, Bobbie and I had dined on crab soup and tamarind prawns at a restaurant just past the busy stretch where many of these same lit-up boats had been taking on passengers for night cruises. If not for a drizzling rain, we likely would have taken one of those cruises, even though unsure if they were dinner cruises or tea cruises or booze cruises or something else, only knowing how delighted and intrigued we were by this unruly fleet of brightly-colored flatboats and variously-sized sampans all with dragon head bows and dragon tail sterns.

Actually the boat we boarded was a small houseboat with sleeping quarters underneath. We never saw the pilot but his pretty strong-shouldered wife cast off and tied up, sold us beer and soft drinks, set out assorted goods on the fore deck—jewelry, then silk scarfs and robes, then local artwork and handicraft souvenirs. Our guide Lo-an gently urged us to check out each new array of items, but both she and the woman were refreshingly low key, laughing along with us even when we didn’t buy. Later Lo-an explained that the couple had bought this boat for $10,000 and lived on it with their two children who were attending school in town today.

After leaving the dock at Hue,  we passed under two impressive bridges. The first called the “French Bridge” was an elegant span. From our dinner table the previous night we had watched the bridge turn a magical rainbow of spotlighted colors, every minute or so turning from gold to red to lavender to blue and back to gold while the dragon boats and cascades of paper lanterns lit for happiness and set on the water had floated past.

By daylight the river was less romantic, its unlit French Bridge busy with bikes, carts, pedestrians and scooters, its functionally-designed American Bridge, transporting a faster and more aggressive mix of cars, trucks and daredevil mopeds. Our dragon boat engine was so loud that it was hard for us to converse across the four or five foot width of the boat without yelling and the misty fragrance was more diesel than perfume. The Perfume River was about as wide and muddy as the Susquehana, though nothing else about it reminded us of New York State—or Pennsylvania, where Karl and Roy lived near Gettysburg.

At first we just contented ourselves in watching the river go by, women in pointed straw hats in the flat green rice paddies. Planting, hoeing, stooped over in timeless tableaux. Fields of working water buffalo. Grazing humped Brahma cattle. Banana trees, unknown crops, coconut palms. Thick hills of impenetrable green.

On the river itself we passed a few other dragon boats, but most of the traffic was an endless stream of small, family working boat sampans, each carrying a pyramid of ochre colored sand, as much as it would bear, its driver cramped back in a squat beside its putt-putt engine, each boat sitting so low in the water that it looked like the slightest side wake would swamp it and a tropical cloudburst would sink it. I turned to my right and told that to Karl and he laughed, saying that he had just been thinking the same thing.

“Heckuva a lot of cement-making going on here somewhere,” he added.

Karl neither looked nor sounded like my idea of an ex-marine. Lean and bespectacled, his longish graying hair tied neatly back in a small queue, he had more the demeanor of a Zen master. Humble. Calm. Self-controlled. As with the river, his depth not easy to read. Karl ate very little meat and didn’t drink alcohol. He didn’t mind being with meat-eaters or sitting at the bar but disliked being called “nondrinker” or “vegetarian.” Just his choice, he said.

His wife’s brother Roy was quite the opposite. He had spent many years as an army nurse and had recently returned from serving in the Kurdish area of Iraq. Roy was bold, gregarious and loaded with opinions, a full-bellied meat-eater ever up for one more drink. Roy had a practice now as a therapeutic hypnotist.

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” he had told me at one point, summing up and cutting off some U.S. foreign policy point I’d been trying to make. But Roy also had a lot of puppy dog under his bark, I thought. He had accompanied Karl back to Vietnam. To find peace. Or reconfirm a peace that had always been in him. In any case to go back to the small village where Karl had served as a supplier for a company of Korean troops, for whom he had felt considerably less warmth than he had felt towards the sweet rural folks of the Vietnamese villages near their camp.

“They were so nice to me, despite everything,” he told me over the roar of the dragon boat. “I just loved them. Even though I always wondered, as kind as they were to me during the day, would they have taken the opportunity to kill me at night? I almost couldn’t have blamed them, and I really never knew.”

We pulled in next to several other dragon boats at the tower of the Thien Mu Pagoda, an octagonal, seven-tiered brick stupa, according to our guidebook, and stupendous it indeed was. The tower was flanked by two pavilions, each of which contained an enormous cast bronze bell  that dated from 1710, each said to weigh over 4000 pounds. As a blacksmith, Karl was fascinated by the history of the bells and had many more questions about them than Lo-an could answer.

Lo-an did tell us though that the monks of Thien Mu had a long history of opposing colonialism and it had become world famous as the home of Thich Qunag Duc, a venerable Buddhist monk who had assumed a lotus position of meditation in a main intersection of Saigon, having other monks douse him with gasoline then set him on fire in protest of the puppet Diem regime supported by the America and France. In response, Diem had arrested four hundred nuns and monks, a number of them thrown off the top of the Thien Mu tower.

The humid day was quickly heating up and when we got back on the boat, Bobbie cracked open a bottle of water, Karl ordered a Coke, Roy and I Saigon beers. The woman of the dragon boat  brought out a display of garish silk bathrobes which she convinced Roy and me to try on to prove that she had sizes that would even fit our Buddha-like girths, Roy’s in royal blue, mine crimson, both regaled with golden dragons. Standing side by side in the middle of the narrow boat with cans of beer in hand, all of us, including Lo-an and even our dragon boat haberdasher laughed over the diesel sound at the silly sight of it, Bobbie stilling herself long enough to snap a picture for a futurely embarrassing memento.

After disrobing back down to my jeans and light brown travel shirt, I came over to Bobbie and Roy’s side of the boat, leaning over to whisper some joke or other to Bobbie, whereupon the boat severely leaned to our side and the dragon boat woman quickly pulled me back to bring the boat back into balance.

Soon we reached the Mausoleum of  the Nguyen emperor Minh Mang, a serious and strong monarch especially known for his distrust of Western religion. A magnificent interweaving of natural setting and artistic rendering, Minh Mang’s resting place took his mandarin followers fourteen years to decide upon and then took ten thousand workers three years to build, finishing in 1843. In the center of the sight, like aligned stars stood the elegant Stele House, the Sung An Temple and the Mihn Lau Pavilion of Pure Light, all of which look across Tan Nguyet Lake to the Tomb Mound, the cluster of house, temple and pavilion, each flanked by small lakes to their left and right.  Minh Mang’s emblematic bed stood at the open center, so placed that he could see the moon and lakes, feel the night breezes, and write poems for eternity.

After taking ample time to reflect on the beauty and history and take a few anachronistic interposing pictures of each other, we climbed the stone steps back down to the dragon boat where a new array of handicraft souvenirs were already laid out for us to peruse.

The intermittent cortege of sand-loaded sampans had a cumulative effect on me. Beyond their visual interest they began to take on a certain weight of some transcendent enormity being somewhere built or buried. Perhaps both at the same time. Eventually, we came to a spot of hillside where the lush green of palms and banana trees had been peeled away to reveal the source of sand, a large portion of the hill already gone, several dozen men incessantly shoveling sand onto waiting boats.

With a gesture at the sand quarry, Roy leaned toward Karl and loudly quipped over the roaring diesel, “Damn, one Bobcat would put most of that crowd outa work pretty fast, wouldn’t it?”

Karl seemed not to hear and Roy waved him a never mind.

The hillside quickly blurred into jungle green and then flattened back into a long stretch of peaceful rice paddies. Karl told me that this area reminded him of where he had been posted in 1968 on the outskirts of a village near Da Nang, where he hoped to return to tomorrow. This river reminded him of a river there, a river that had only had one bridge across it, a bridge that kept being blown up every time it was rebuilt. Karl’s commanding officer had assigned him to manufacture some kind of fuel line across the river.

When Karl talked about the war his face often locked in a small, inscrutably dimpled smile that struck me like long fixed camouflage meant to deflect delving into things he wanted to talk about or show.

Now, however, he suddenly burst forth a long story about his several fool’s errand attempts over many weeks to design and jerrybuild that fuel line across the river. Over the blaring dragon boat engine I couldn’t make out enough details to understand the mechanics of each effort (especially given my pronounced mechanical deficiencies) but one of his efforts, some kind of floating flexible pipe, only managed to create a catchall for river flotsam and rubbish including unexploded shells, body parts, enormous insects, poisonous snakes, etc. But when he tried to rebuild the line below the water, the further across the river he went the more uncontrollable the line became. Each effort more futile than the last. Still, at least it was better than doing nothing, he said, just sitting around in fear and boredom.

Finally, his frustrated attempts were ended by a week’s leave home between his tours of duty. Then, after his week home, he came back to Vietnam to discover that his camp was gone, blown up! Unbeknownst to any of them, their camp had been completely surrounded by Viet Cong tunnels the whole time, and, just by chance, they had waited to attack until he was home near Gettysburg. It seemed pretty clear that those same prairie dog-like VCs had been watching him out there in the middle of the river everyday like a fool sitting duck. Maybe he’d been their antidote to boredom, which was why no sniper had ever bothered to pick him off. He shrugged, and grinned his dimples deeper in as if to say, which made about as much same sense as anything else in that stupid war.

Unexpectedly, Lo-an took us next to a small temple, less impressive and well kept than Chien Mu and Minh Mang, yet still exotic in its brightly cluttered way. Made of wood, three levels of altars were connected by narrow stairs with timeworn flags hanging from the banisters. Each level offered its own red and gold shrine and money plate. The temple was crowded with statuary. A central female figure was  flanked by nine larger-than-life male figures on her right and nine equally large females on her left. The center figure was the Mother Goddess, whose temple this was, Lo-an explained. These honored disciples had witnessed the miraculous reappearance here of the Mother Goddess in 1843. It was a temple for people with bad troubles. We were stretching our legs and nosing about, taking a picture or two of this dusty and forlorn temple of misfortunate souls, when Lo-an abruptly announced, “This is my temple. Please, I must pray a little here.”

Bobbie and I on one side, Karl and Roy on the other, we were all suddenly jolted to a new level of respectfulness and interest as she bought a bundle of incense, then supplicated herself in the center of the altar and waved the incense two times on one axis and three times in the other, two times and three times once again, and then after placing the bundle on the altar, prostrated herself in prayer, the perfumed smoke now filling our noses. After a few moments of prayerful bobbing, she raised herself up and took a decorated red and gold wooden canister full of spindly sticks off the altar. She shook the canister causing four or five sticks to jump out onto the kneeling platform in front of her. Tossing us a lightly embarrassed smile, she said, “Too many. I must try again.”

On her second try, only one stick jumped out upon the alter, whereupon she immediately grabbed it up, examined it on each of its four slender sides, then excitedly ran ito a back room behind the altar that we hadn’t seen before. In less than two minutes, Lo-an returned, her eyes wet and shiny, so much happiness in her gait and on her face that she almost seemed to be dancing as her singing voice announced: “Good news! Wonderful news!”

When we started back to the boat, Bobbie touched Lo-an’s arm and said, “Whatever your troubles are I hope they get better soon.”

Lo-an nodded profusely and thanked Bobbie. “Now I think they will, but I must pray very much,” she said.

On the boat, the dragon boat woman had set out a display of stone jewelry, pearls and variously shaped antique coins. In Vietnamese, Lo-an told the woman of her good luck, and then, in her surge of excitement, also told us.

“Please excuse me but my life have much trouble. I am in love with a man and he love me. We both study linguistics in same school where we meet. He not complete course but have very good job in construction. And I have good job. My parents approve. His parents approve. His mother tells him, you love her why don’t you marry me? He has no other girlfriend; I have no other boyfriend. Four years we love each other. Why he not marry me? I go to fortune teller, she tell me to pray. I pray and pray so much. I’m born in 1976, now it’s 2006! I ride on back of his motorbike. Everyone see us. Hue not like Saigon, not like Hanoi. Hue very traditional. Once a girl ride on back of a boy’s motorbike, what other man ever have her? I don’t know why he not marry me yet, but today—-!” Her face opened into one of the sweetest, saddest most hopeful smiles I’ve ever seen.

It was part soap opera, part country western song. We all sniffled and blinked and wished her good luck. Impulsively, Karl bought an hexagonal coin from the dragon boat woman who had already told us that it was good luck on one side and bad luck on the other.

“For you!” Karl told Lo-an boldly, then flipped the coin in the air, caught it and held it out to her. “For your luck—-” She took it with trepidation and then saw her good turn of luck again and beamed her thanks to him and us all.

Back at the dragon boat dock in Hue we all settled up. Karl and Roy had already  paid thirty dollars up front for the boat. Lo-an was owed twenty-five and we gave her a five dollar tip which we thought made things square. When I shook Lo-an’s hand goodbye, though, I could feel some folded money in her palm from Roy that she hadn’t yet had a chance to transfer to her pocket, reminding me for that awkward moment that our relationship to her was still essentially commercial. Bobbie also wished Lo-an all the best. And then Karl unexpectedly embraced her with a big bear hug farewell that she seemed to return.

Walking back to the hotel, Bobbie, Roy and I agreed that we had wanted to hunt her boyfriend down, march him to the altar or just kick the shit out of him.

Karl laughed. “Yeah, well I guess I’m just all about peace and love these days. Anyway, it’s her life, isn’t it?”

Bobbie told Karl she thought his coin maneuver had been a little risky. “What if the wrong side had come up?”

“Then I’d be a damn poor cheater,” Karl said, his bristly dimples twitching like stars through the thinly-veiled clouds. “Come on, now way I could take a chance on something like that.”

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