The road to a good time is paved with good intentions. I’m pissed. Again. May Allah strike me down, I’d every intention today of settling in a quite coffee house, cool and airy, to pass a few hours perusing my superb collection of Vietnam War essays, Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land. (That’s me busted: the title of my first missive this trip was filched.) But striding a Kon Tum side-street with said goal in mind, I was hijacked by extended family taking Sunday Lunch on the pavement: “Hello!”
It always begins innocently.
I take the offered seat. Beers are sunk, delectable home cooking sampled: fried fish dunked in tamari and chillhi; green mango salad with dried minnow chopsticked from communal bowl to private gob via (less fiery) dunking sauce no 2. The bonhomie is off the scale positive. Other than Binh, a junior member of the family whose High School education and tourist guide aspirations have equipped with passable English, no one speaks my mother tongue. But what care I when the food’s so good, the alcohol flowing free, the company so congenial and the shade of a mango tree – source of the very fruit I’m eating – to moderate a blistering sun? I’m in a state of advanced conducivity before I’ve even touched a drop.
“Is this every Sunday?” I ask Binh, to my right. Not exactly. You’d never in a thousand years guess it, but his is a celebration of Vietnam Women’s Day. I’ve already picked up from this morning’s Google graphic that it’s International Women’s Day, so it looks a tad odd that everyone round the table – Binh’s father, uncle and many cousins – are manifestly not of the honoured gender. The latter, two metres away, stoke fires, ferry beers and swap remarks even I can see – some things are universal – are ribaldry derogatory references to the all-talk-and-no-trousers menfolk.
Prompted by his engineer father, Binh wants to know if I’m married. Sisters, forgive me. I’ve now sunk four cans that never touched the sides, and in my experience a bit of male bonding works wonders for international relations. Yes, I say; but I’ve come alone – for peace and quiet. This, with mimed ear-bending and its hand-signalled negation, are translated. Uproar ensues, glasses are clinked. The women – once my comments are relayed – pull good-naturedly up yours! faces.
Having assured one and all for the third time – and I bloody well mean it – that Viet food is the National Gallery, the Garbo’s salary of world cuisine, things seem to be winding up and I make ready with the farewells. (I’ve already secured Binh’s email address for the many pictures I’ve shot.) But no, there’s more. They – the menfolk, by way of celebrating Women’s Day you understand – want me to join them on a Karaoki visit.
Skid lid procured, I mount behind Binh as we take off in convoy to outer suburbs for Another Side of Kon Tum. At first venue we’re ushered not, as I’d expected, to a crowded bar but to a side room with central display screen and fruit laid out on low tables. It’s almost clinically clean, and puts me in mind of a UK university seminar room. Clearly, for the Viet middle classes, Karaoki is a serious business.
But there’s a problem. This joint has no English songs. No problem, I assure Binh. I’ll relax and take pictures. They’re having none of it: we want to hear you sing! Skid lids are donned again and it’s vroom vroom to the next joint, where a few words establish that, yes, if English is called for, they can oblige.
So there I am, pissed again and by far the oldest man present – Binh’s uncles not excepted – hunched with inebriated passion over the mike to deliver: My Way (now that has grown on me with age), Satisfaction (as in can’t get no), Blowing in the Wind (not, alas, Dylan’s rasping original but an insipidly saccharine variant) and Let it Be.
Call me big-headed – or just drunk – but it where my new pals rate scores (displayed after each song) in the eighties, I get 100 every time. When it comes to crooning I’m Inferno’s Dante. The Great Durante.
All things must pass. Binh, too young to drink, taps my knee. He has to be somewhere else. I can stay if I like, or ride pillion back to my hotel. (My offer to pick up the tab has been thrice rejected.) My sluiced brain – hope the pix come out! – tells me to quit while I’m ahead. So here I am, back in my room. Kind of Blue plays on the tinny iPod speakers bought for a song last night. I’ll crash in a mo but must sluice a gallon or two of water or head will throb when I awake. In any case, I doubt I’ll be up for reading essays on the war.