Suddenly a toddler belonging to one of the married daughters darted towards the exit, dodging everyone’s attempts in the room to capture him. He giggled and swerved away from outstretched arms the same way a combat soldier evades sniper bullets in the battlefield. Panicking relatives screamed in Vietnamese, “Wahhhhhhhhhhhh! Stop him!” The prospect of a ten metre drop into rocks and dirt below must not have entered his mind. Eventually the young boy was caught by his older brother, who fed him some ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee). The long sips taken by the child was potentially enough to keep him hyperactive for another three days. But the toddler remained seated and did not move from his spot for the rest of the afternoon.
As I slowly sipped my coffee, I could tell that Dinh and the cafe owner were arranging something devious. They had been whispering, pointing and laughing for a few minutes, enough to attract my attention. Then suddenly the owner called out “Hua,” along with a series of instructions in Vietnamese. Hua was the owner’s remaining unmarried daughter. As she greeted me and went away to fetch a second coffee, I overheard Dinh utter something about a “foreign banana”. Within two minutes, Hua returned to deliver my hot coffee. At this point, I noticed that her arms were covered in bruises, and my first impression was that one of the guys out the back was responsible for this. But I never found out exactly what happened.
“David, you stay here,” Dinh announced. “The house owner and I have things to talk about.”
“When will you be back?” I retorted.
“When you are the new son-in-law.”
Now I felt embarrassed and began searching for an escape, but to no avail.
“Dinh,” I began to stutter, “That’s not a good idea. I cannot stay here.”
“No problem. Her father has friends working in immigration. You can stay here no problem.”
So what were my options? Going along with what must have been a joke, offending a family, running foul with the cool guys playing cards out the back and possibly ending up in the Mekong? All I could do was smile politely at everyone. But Dinh had not finished with me yet.
“Tonight we go on boat cruise. You invite Hua. I tell you what to say now.”
Suddenly I froze, just as if I was a child caught stealing chocolate biscuits from the cookie jar before dinner time by my parents. I looked at Hua, who was receiving instructions from her father. Maybe she was being informed of the joke and instructed to go along with the joke’s intention. As I tried to make sense how everything had come to this point, Dinh wrote a sentence on a piece of paper and then handed it to me. No English translation accompanied the piece of paper, but that would have defeated the purpose of this set-up. He reassured me that all I would be doing was asking her to ask her permission to come along on a boat cruise tonight that Dinh and I were attending.
There was definitely no way I could get out of this embarrassing predicament. After looking at the scrap of paper one final time, I scrunched it up, and took a deep breath. Hua obviously felt equally uncomfortable in being thrust into the spotlight. When I stalled twice after beginning the sentence, Dinh urged me to get on with the job, or he would leave me stranded.
“Hua,” I said, “An duoi em.”
The entire room went silent. Even the group of young men, who were busy laughing amongst themselves, stopped their card game. Suddenly, as if an earthquake had struck, somebody let out a shriek of laughter, and then everybody else joined in. Hua became flustered and quickly left the scene, joining the group of guys. I stood there dumbfounded, unaware of what I had just done. What happened? Did I insult her? Was the guy who glared at me earlier her boyfriend?
I wished that one of the wooden planks would split and cause me to fall into the Mekong River.
Sensing my discomfort, Dinh motioned that it was time for us to leave. But I wanted a translation of the sentence which made me feel uneasy. Dinh refused, and he said, “I tell you later.” After paying the bill and saying goodbye, Dinh and I descended, hopped into our boat. I could see that Hua was brandishing a big smile and waved to me as we took off. Apparently I did not cause any damage.
When the boat was several metres down the river, I asked, “Dinh, what did you really teach me to say?” His eventual confession did not really surprise me. “The sentence means, ‘Hua, you are beautiful and I love you,’” he admitted. I also wanted to know why he made reference to the “foreign banana” comment, but maybe it was better not to ask.
After returning the boat, we made our way to the jetty, only to find ourselves spectators observing a confrontation. Two aggressive middle-aged men were blocking two young women with peroxided hair and low-cut denim skirts, presumably prostitutes. Every time the women tried to walk past, the two men formed a wall and refused to let them move. Oddly enough, both men stopped their bullying tactics in my presence, and they smiled at me. This had less to do with intimidation and more with not wanting to be the cause of the embarrassment of a foreigner noticing undesirable behaviour. During the confrontation’s lull, one of the girls turned in my direction and gave me a desperate glance, hoping that I would intervene and somehow whisk her away to safety.
Unfortunately, I did not know the Vietnamese translation for, “I am sorry, but I cannot help you. I left my Superman costume at home today.” All I wanted to do was walk past the guys without incident. Neither Dinh or myself wanted to be a dead or maimed saviour in a matter we knew nothing about.
Dinh said to me, “Those guys are ‘Number 1’. They just want money for dinner, so they find easy targets, people who cannot fend for themselves.” If the women refused to yield to their demands, he said, they may be arrested for refusing to cooperate with the police. At this point, I remembered Dinh’s message of community service.
As we headed towards the motorcycle which was waiting for us near the jetty, Dinh told me, “Don’t look back, it’s the best way to live.”