Ulysses in Saigon

Apocalypse Now Bar

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam

10.82° N, 106.62° E

Hoạ vô đon chí

Vietnamese proverb, “misfortune does not arrive alone”

An American tourist is unraveling on the gutter’s edge. He plunges beer-bloated hands deep into tight blue-jean pockets. It is a futile attempt to anchor himself to something more tangible than his run-afoul luck. He’s rudderless. His nerves have been dashed & scattered to the wind. Whatever wits he had upon arrival to Vietnam have been sweat-out or shat-out in the last twenty-four hours. He stands at the entrance to the bar but does not dare make eye-contact. He watches with his peripheral vision as his eyes stare absently at neon lights in the near distance. He flinches at sharp noises, wincing at the cacophony of millions of motorbikes scooting obscenely along the picturesque Saigon boulevards. It is after dark, but not late. The bar is busy with foot traffic: mostly men entering, no one leaving. He was told to stay here. Act normal. Talk nobody. And so he stands. Normal. Talking nobody. His name was Vic, but that means nothing now. 

He first came to this dinghy fleshpot, the Apocalypse Now Bar, last night. Vic, back when his name still meant something, did not seek out this dive. Nor did he seek the young woman, Quỳnh. He did not seek anything as much as he had been led here. Led downstream along a current of consequence. A year ago, at a farmhouse outside of Milwaukee, half a world away, Vic officiated the marriage of a young couple: Jago VanDango and Ngoc Truc. So delighted had the Ngoc family been with Jago’s friend, they invited Vic to visit Vietnam for Tet, the lunar new year celebration. How could he say no? And when Ngoc Truc’s cousin insisted all Americans who come to Ho Chi Minh City love the Apocalypse Now Bar, who was Vic to disagree? And when Quỳnh, the fake-eye-lashed hostess in sparkling silver-sequined dress with her hair drawn-back to bare her graceful neck and shoulders, when she asked Vic to dance, why on earth would he say no? Vic did not necessary seek out his demise, but there is a clear, linear progression of choices which brought him to this bleak point of obliteration. His own little private apocalypse.

Vic was always a guy who enjoyed a seedy dive, but this fucking place he considered an abomination. He did appreciate Francis Ford-Coppola’s Vietnam Conflict interpretation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but Apocalypse Now did not require this: a thematic bar inspired by the movie, designed to entertain both perverse cinephiles and macabre tourists. A surfboard on the wall is stenciled with the words, “Charlie Don’t Surf”. The DJ mixes club music with samples from The Doors’ The End and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. The bar doesn’t serve local beer, only expensive imports. Last night, Vic begrudgingly ordered a Budweiser and found himself a seat at the bar. He was surrounded by old men of American and European origins: ear-pierced pensioners, corporate executive philanderers, white-knuckled perverts, all of them slack-jawed scoundrels drinking Bud or Heineken. Vic wanted to leave. Until she changed his mind. 

Hello, Mister Cowboy, Quỳnh had said, her clawed fingernails playing at a tuft of fur along his forearm. Hmm? Me?, he asked her, as if his arm could belong to some other mister. You are cowboy?, yes? Quỳnh asked. Vic shrugged, I got some boots. Sure, he said.

Apocalypse Now Bar

In retrospect, in his heart of murkiness, thinking back after all which has happened, this unraveling American still does not believe Quỳnh a villain. An opportunist? Yes. The mastermind of his undermining? No. Quỳnh is an innocent. He liked when she mumbled in Vietnamese as she talked to herself, while she cursed in French (merde!,when waiting impatiently at the bar, nique tes morts!, when angry at a few boisterous Dutchmen). Okay, perhaps Quỳnh isn’t an innocent, but he believes her innocent of his sabotage. So he hopes. He hopes and he waits. 

Stay here, Ngoc Truc ordered moments ago. Talk nobody. He stays here, a gutter cowboy, near the motorized horse he rode in on. He has no other option; the doorman of the bar would ask for documentation he did not have. He is the obvious tourist, yet cannot prove it. He waits and he picks his teeth, trying to eradicate a hunk of boiled shoe-leather (or perhaps poached ox meat) from an earlier bowl of consumed phở. He waits for Ngoc Truc and one of her cousins to return from Apocalypse Now Bar. He wonders, are they having luck speaking to the staff, bribing them for leads? Whodunnit? Who stole the soul of Vic Neverman? Could he buy it back?

The theft had not occurred here, but the seed of conspiracy might have been conceived at Apocalypse Now Bar. Saigon is a den of thieves and some thief had snipped Vic Neverman’s interior pouch, pickpocketing his identity. The theft occurred earlier today. Oh shit, he said upon the realization, patting his pockets. Fuck. Where the? Fuck. He was at the new year flower market when he realized what had happened. The scenery was extraordinary to behold: a kaleidoscope of flowers and endless streams of humanity flowing around the floral displays. Vic was adrift in this world with his lifeline to home strapped to his chest, under his shirt. Until it wasn’t. Fuck. Head on a swivel, he searched the crowd. Vic stood taller than the majority, but this perspective offered no insight. His height advantage had only made him an easy target: he was a doe-eyed, beer-buzzed, naive, American sore thumb.  

Upon realizing the theft, he retraced his steps with the Ngoc cousins. They went to the police station and were promptly interrogated as if they were perpetrators of the crime, not victims. The translated conversation went in circles. We are chasing ghosts, he said after an hour of going nowhere with the police. What you mean?, Ngoc Truc asked him. We’re looking for something which does not exist, he explained. Vic is gone, he said. Jago VanDango interrupted to pronounce, Vic Neverman is dead! Long live Vic Neverman! Shut-up!, Ngoc Truc scolded her husband. Vic, she asked, what was name of girl last night? 

Who, Quỳnh?

Last night, Vic Neverman was sitting cavalierly on a barstool at Apocalypse Now Bar. The scent of Budweiser and cigarette smoke brought memories of his father immediately to mind. Beer & menthol were the old man’s cologne. The thought of his dad inflated Vic’s already distended confidence. He was well-traveled, Vic, but a passport heavily-inked had not made him a wise man. He is no idiot, but Vic is a common fool. A navel-gazing parlor intellectual, at best. His father would have been the first to call-out Vic’s hubris, if he was here. But it was only the ghost of a father’s scent which lingered. 

Most of the clientele of Apocalypse Now Bar would have been Vic’s father’s age, if Old Man Neverman were still alive. Each of these sunburnt westerners had a paramour hanging on either arm: Asian girl or Eastern European woman or Taiwanese boy in a sailor suit or a Thai transvestite named Tom Yum. These hair-dyed, liver-spotted, paunch-bellied, post-colonial, ex-pats were on a mixed cocktail of pharmaceuticals to ease their heart, flush their gonads and spike their testosterone. Earlier in the day, Vic had visited the War Remnants Museum featuring captured American tanks & helicopters and pictures of Agent Orange victims. Vic left with empathy and sincere reflection, which only heightened his disgust when encountering the archaic pederasts and philanderers dancing about at Apocalypse Now Bar, gyrating their replaced hips, browsing the sex workers as if at a butcher-shop counter. Vic didn’t want to be there any longer than the last sip of his first beer. Then Quỳnh arrived. 

Where you are from?, she asked. Chicago. What you do?, she asked. I deliver pizza, he said, half-jokingly. And what might you do?, he asked Quỳnh in return. I write poetry, she said, about loneliness. Vic laughed on impulse and immediately regretted it. Why you think funny?, she asked. Honesty can be shocking, Vic said to her. You are beautiful and I would not expect you to be lonely, he said. Quỳnh put a second hand on his forearm. I have loneliness, she said. Vic frowned. Quỳnh suggested buying a bottle of top-shelf vodka for them both to enjoy, please. No thanks, Vic shook his head, no. Please?, she asked. Nope, he said. Quỳnh tilted her head and nodded with sudden understanding. Okay, yes, she said. You are then being gay, she said. Ha!, Vic laughed. No! I am not being gay. Quỳnh batted her fake eyelashes and pouted. You are then not liking me?, she supposed. Jesus, Vic shook his head in prayer. Fine, he said, let’s have a bottle of vodka. But maybe something mid-shelf. I’m on a budget. 

Previously convinced he needed nothing, Vic found himself desiring her company. Quỳnh didn’t laugh at his jokes, but he was used to that from the civilized world in general. She didn’t mind his eye-patch. It’s temporary, he explained his injured eye. Another stroke of bad luck. Quỳnh never smiled, but her eyes watched his lips while he spoke and he kept speaking just to keep her attention. She wanted him to serenade her on the karaoke stage. No, I am a terrible singer, Vic admitted. She pouted and petted, stroking his hair and chest; he acquiesced. Vic sang a Texas cowboy love song called La Grange (there was more air-guitar than singing). Quỳnh then sang to him the “America happy new year song”. He didn’t know which song she meant until she began, “I wish you a merry Christmas, I wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year! At the mentioning of figgy pudding, Vic realized he was rather taken with this woman. He knew then he was in trouble. He began to plot his retreat. 

Quỳnh was not pleased when Vic announced his departure, but it would take more than her pouty lip to disable his instinctual paranoia. He left Apocalypse Now Bar with his identity still strapped to his chest. It wasn’t until the following day at the flower markets where Vic’s papers would be picked. After his ordeal at the police station, the Ngoc cousins sought their familial contacts in the police to offer “coffee money”, a reward for discovering the missing American passport. The Ngoc Family had connections within “the party”, but calling upon them for bureaucratic “fence-breaking” brought more risk than potential reward. Best leave the communist party out of the picture entirely. The Ngoc Family did alert their neighborhood monks, asking for additional prayers and candles for their guest. But prayer to Buddha alone was not enough, Ngoc Truc explained to the displaced American. Buddha very, very, busy. Pray to your ancestor instead, Ngoc Truc insisted to Vic. And so he did. Vic prayed to his dead dad. Wherever you are, old man, I hope they have Budweiser. 

The man formerly known as Vic Neverman

Buddha, busy as he was, never responded. Neither did Old Man Neverman. And the American Consulate wasn’t taking any calls: their representatives in Ho Chi Minh City were on holiday for the week of Tet. With no help from the American State Department, he would be persona non grata indefinitely. In speaking with Korean Airlines, if he had to change his departure, the next available ticket out of HCMC would be a month later. This is a very busy time of year to travel in Southeast Asia, they said. This is a very bad time to unbecome who you arrived as. 

There are now two Americans in the street outside Apocalypse Now Bar. The man formerly known as Vic is joined by Jago VanDango, who is busy eating a spring-roll. No, so dude, Jago VanDango says to the taller American. Aleister Crowley once said Hell is where God buries his mistakes. 

The fuck is that supposed to mean?, he asks Jago, exasperation evident in his tone.

No, dude, it’s just…, Jago says before pausing to chew. It’s just… y’know, you’re pretty fucked, man. 

Ngoc Truc and her cousin emerge from the bar. There is no Quỳnh. Not anymore, not inside, not outside, not anywhere. F/K/A Vic rubs his face with the palms of his hands. He asks, what now?, not expecting any fun answer. 

Ngoc Truc’s cousin speaks a Vietnamese proverb. Tai vách mạch rừng. Ngoc Truc explains to the American men, he say ‘wall has ear, tree has vein’. Oh shit!, Jago giggles at the madness. Dude!, he says to the taller American, you’re definitely fucked now. Jago’s wife tells him to stop it. Ngoc Truc goes on to explain the expression means everyone is listening. The communist party would not be lenient on a family harboring an undocumented American. In Ho Chi Minh City, there are many walls listening. We need to go, Ngoc Truc said, now. This is not safe place. 

I get it, the nameless American agrees. Apocalypse now, home later. 

She suggests they go to the Ngoc ancestral home in the hinterland, a village along the Mekong River Delta. He is agreeable to anything. Anything other than being abandoned by his friends. If they were willing to remain by his side, he would walk with them anywhere.

Jago VanDango whispers to the former Vic Neverman, whispering to not be heard by his wife. Hey, dude, so y’know the commies don’t believe in God. Right? So if God buries his mistakes in Hell, where do the Viet Cong bury their mistakes? Jago pauses a beat, smirking like a maniac, before he answers his own country. They bury their mistakes in the Mekong. 

Vic’s belongings at the beginning of his trip to Southeast Asia

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