An American author captures the highs and lows of foreigners’ lives in Vietnam
Lotusland is defined as a place that induces idle pleasure and luxury; it’s also the title of author David Joiner’s debut book, which weaves together tales of the expat experience in Vietnam. But rather than a blushing elegy on the joys of a far-flung paradise, the novel is an authentic account of expats struggling with love, money and trust in the realities of Vietnamese culture. Native characters are keen to leave their homeland, too, and so many allures of this lotusland swirl paradoxically into illusions.
Set in the early 2000s, the tale serves as an antidote to the conveyor belt of tired fiction about a war that ended more than 40 years ago. It’s a formative time not only for Vietnam, which is on the brink of joining the World Trade Organization, but for its protagonist, 28-year-old Nathan.
Like Joiner, Nathan is an American writer who has embraced the Southeast Asian nation—some of the lead’s experiences are drawn directly from his own—yet the 46-year-old Ohioan is keen to point out the similarities end there.
“Nathan is kind of a jerk,” he laughs, “and I’m not… I’m not Nathan but, you know, the characters are filtered through me.”
The books open with Nathan meeting Le, an enigmatic pink-haired painter, for the first time. Nathan, a struggling journalist, immediately falls for Le as their train rumbles past paddy fields on the way to Hanoi.
Initially she skips the formalities and suggests a businesslike deal: Nathan would help her obtain a visa for the US and, in return, the young woman would be his ‘girlfriend,’ signaling that she could offer him sex.
“Sex is one way for women in particular to get power where otherwise they have none,” says Joiner. “It’s something that I don’t think will last forever in Vietnam as the country develops, the economy develops and people aren’t forced to make those difficult decisions.
“The relationship between Vietnam and the US too, it’s a power thing. Vietnam needs the US. I’m not saying they whore themselves to the US but there’s a power dynamic and there’s a power dynamic in relationships between Westerners and Vietnamese.”
Nathan and Le’s relationship blossoms into a genuine romance, but falls short of preventing Le from gambling everything for the American dream. A distraught Nathan turns to his old friend and compatriot Anthony, one of the many jaded alcoholics tied up with a Vietnamese family to grace these shores.
Several people gave Joiner the impetus to create the character of Anthony, who has struck gold with a real estate business, two kids and his wife Huong.
Nevertheless, the man has been beaten down into a state of bitterness and stress. He admits his marriage reeks of resentment and infidelity, comparing it to a business, “the sole aim of which is to put forth good face to the world.”
Vietnam is “hurtling forward myopically… there’s no grand plan,” he tells Nathan, and that it’s “lost its identity in the stampede to make money.”
Anthony’s in-laws have moved into his home without acknowledging his presence and his children hate him, which is in no way helped by his lack of the Vietnamese language.
Joiner, who now lives in Japan, recalls meeting foreign men who were kept on the periphery of their own families because of their apathy for learning Vietnamese. “The fathers couldn’t communicate with their children but the mothers could and the mothers were very controlling of language in their family.”
A distraught Nathan accepts a lucrative role selling houses in Hanoi with Anthony’s company. The decision sidelines his writing ambitions and life in Saigon. “These days the only traces most foreigners left were underused belongings, humdrum gossip and old lovers,” Nathan considers, as he disappears from the south without a footprint.
Amid the vivid descriptions of Vietnam’s beauty and traditions, we then begin to see the self-serving motives of each character crash or come to fruition. The personal flaws are clear in Le, Huong, Nathan and Anthony, but that doesn’t stop one craving to discover their fates, especially for those who’ve seen Vietnam firsthand.
Joiner is conscious of avoiding one-dimensional stereotypes when creating foreign characters. A Vietnamese person may be portrayed as a spirited entrepreneur or an avaricious opportunist. Both, however, would be a shallow description and so Joiner used detail, real people, events and experiences to submerge deeper into the characters’ psyches.
“I’m a lot more careful when trying to portray a Vietnamese person,” he says. “Politically, it can be a very difficult thing to deal with, portraying someone from another culture. You do have to be cognizant of differences and think hard about how your portrayal of them is going to be taken by readers. Authors play with stereotypes all the time. Some people are successful at overcoming them, others simply don’t get there.”
On the international stage, the mention of Vietnam still often provokes images of war despite its people and economy progressing far away from that era. The consequences of war are touched upon in Lotusland when Nathan visits a hospital treating children with health problems related to Agent Orange.
“I’d always felt that the continuing effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam were underreported in Western media and I wanted to bring them to readers’ attention,” says Joiner, who visited the hospital himself.
It’s particularly relevant to the real world, as Monsanto, the US biotech company that manufactured the devastating poison, has been quietly welcomed back into Vietnam to cultivate genetically modified animal feed, even as it refuses to compensate its Vietnamese victims.
Joiner came to the country in 1994 and became the first American since the end of the war to live and work in Dong Nai Province. Working as a teacher in the countryside, he had an abundance of free time and not many distractions. After reading copious amounts and writing several 75-page letters, the thought struck him that he might be a writer.
“If you’re even not writing about Vietnam, it’s still a good place to be a writer. It’s an inexpensive place and it’s still very stimulating just generally.
“One has a sense of adventure just going out for a meal and you can’t really get that in your own country; just crossing the street is an adventure. You get the chance to really get close to people who are living lives that you admire or are curious about. There are so many human stories that you can’t find in the west; they’re just fascinating.”
Agents saw Lotusland — written intermittently over seven years — as a hard sell, according to the author. A novel set in contemporary Vietnam was less attractive to publishers than the tried-and-true formula of war stories.
That being said, the literary community in Vietnam and international readership for stories about the country are both expanding. In April 2015, a month after Joiner’s debut was published, Viet Kieu author Viet Thanh Nguyen released The Sympathizer, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Joiner felt he had no access to a literary scene while in Vietnam, but that it’s “probably better now than it’s ever been.” He explains that the industry is paying more attention to Southeast Asia and audiences are interested in hearing from the large pool of talent in the Viet Kieu and Vietnamese populations.
“There’s more knowledge about Asian culture now than there’s ever been before. That’s beneficial for people writing about Vietnam, for example, but I do still think there’s a disconnection between potential readership and the industry itself which is so focused on what has been successful before.”
He’ll test the waters again with an upcoming book set in the early 90s, a story about love and infidelity among river dolphin researchers in the Lower Mekong Basin of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Excerpt from Lotusland
Nathan tossed and turned on the hard lower bunk of his sleeper class room. He peered at his cell phone; it would take 30 more hours to reach Hanoi. He was struck by how things were always a long wait for him. Nothing was simple, and whatever seemed certain had a way of being turned on its head without warning.
The sound of the train was low and whooshing, like the winds of a relentless rainstorm. Whenever the train pulled into a station the lull of stillness became just as loud, howling inside him, heightening his restlessness.
Lying there, discomposed by his companions’ snores, a premonition of endless night took hold of him. Unable to stand it, he left the room.
In the passageway a young man sat on a stool with his face buried in a copy of the Army Newspaper. There was nowhere else to sit, though Nathan did see, at the end of the last train car he was in, that the door was open and led to a small platform.
He stepped outside and sat down. The night was cool and full of starlight. With his legs dangling over the edge he watched a mosaic of moonlit fields emerge from a tangle of trees now receding on both sides of the track.
Nathan turned around at the sound of someone approaching the platform door. He was surprised to find a young woman with a train issued blanket draped over her head. It was an odd way to wander through a train, and coming outside alone and as late as this piqued his interest. As she stood in the doorway considering the small space that Nathan occupied, or whatever was on her mind, he gestured for her to sit with him.
She tugged the blanket from her head and, when she slipped into a shaft of moonlight, her hair appeared as pink as a rose.
Her age was hard to guess, though she was young, between 20 and 25. The more he looked at her hair the more its shape came to resemble that of a rosebud: it enfolded her face so that the ends nearly met beneath her chin.
She wore loose-fitting pajamas and tatami sandals. She asked him for the time—Trời oi, mệt quá . . . Bây giờ là mấy giờ rồi? Her pronunciation— z’s in place of y’s and r’s; ch’s in place of tr’s—was lilting and feminine, yet distinctly northern. There was something almost startling about the Vietnamese she automatically used, and it pleased him that she would.
He pulled out his cell phone and saw it was just after two. Hai giờ rồi.
Hai giờ hả?
The northern accent was easier for him because it distinguished more between sounds. Yet there was something cold and hard about the northern way of speaking, a wintry almost martial quality. But maybe it was only Hanoi’s chill weather and thick cloud cover that bled the color from the streets, buildings, even the clothing of the people, and made him feel this. For there was something warm and inviting about this pink-haired young woman.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“I came outside to get a phone call.” She rubbed her eyes. Under the dark sky he couldn’t tell if she was merely tired or had been crying. “Why are you out here?” He didn’t feel like explaining his insomnia.
“I can’t sleep on trains.”
They were silent a moment watching their knees sway back and forth. He pushed himself backwards until he leaned against the wall.
“Going to Hanoi?” she asked.
“Why didn’t you take a plane?”
“I must have forgotten I can’t sleep on trains. Where are you going?”
“Same as you.”
Watching her yawn into her hand, he asked if she lived there.
She shook her head, finishing her yawn. “I live in Saigon. But I’m moving to America.”
Her plan to move to America stirred his curiosity. “Why are you going to America?”
“To make a life for myself.”
She turned away as if his interest made her uncomfortable.
It occurred to him that she had notably large eyes—like an infant’s, he thought. She was as disarming as anyone he’d ever met and he found her alluring.
“Are you married?” she said, turning back to him.
Nathan held up his ring-less hands.
From out of nowhere the train came upon a crossing. Two streetlights stood opposite one another and bathed yellow a strip of stony dirt. An old man in a dark green uniform pulled a lever to lift the safety cross on each side of the railroad.
“You should go back to your room,” the girl said. “If your girlfriend wakes up, she’ll worry you’re not there.”
Her clumsy attempt to learn if he was alone amused him. “Maybe her snoring keeps me awake.”
She lifted her thin eyebrows and glanced down the corridor. “It’s late. I’d better go back myself.”
“What about your phone call?” When she didn’t answer he said: “In that case, why not keep me company a little longer?”
“It’s late,” she said again. She bid him goodnight and disappeared through the doorway.
The blue night suddenly telescoped, reduced to a receding square: a window onto a dream fading rapidly into nowhere. He grew colder in the chill night. For a moment he felt like he was traveling away from life itself. But in the next moment the feeling passed. He saw that the train had only entered a tunnel. A high metallic wailing began to echo off the tunnel walls; a moment later utter darkness curtained everything he’d just passed through.