A intriguing novel set during the bygone days of Old Saigon
Author Charles Gerard recently published his first book called Yen’s White Lie. The following description comes from the book’s back cover:
Saigon, 1997 – Vietnam has opened its borders to adventurous travelers, who stay on and make the country their new home. A culture-shocked foreigner, who makes his living by teaching English and doing odd jobs for casting agencies, befriends a young Vietnamese woman at the Saigon Café, an infamous expat hangout. Unaware that she is not who she says she is, he flirts with her during his heavy-drinking sessions, and their friendship deepens. Their appetite for kinky sex soon turns their relationship into a tumultuous competition where they vie with each other in the quest for novel erotic adventures. Five years after they have parted, he returns from Helmand, Afghanistan, and learns the staggering truth about her identity. Then he discovers he has only been told the truth so someone close to the young woman can exploit him—with tragic consequences.
The following are excerpts from Yen’s White Lie:
Yen arrives at the Saigon Café shortly after me, and we both order coffee at the same time.
We talk about the people that walk by and their negotiations with the local street vendors.
Yen finds it all very amusing and often taps me on my arm or leg to let me know what’s going on, in case I miss something.
Three girls from England are thrilled to see a young Vietnamese woman helping a decrepit old European gentleman walk down the street.
“Oh. Look at that! That is SO cute! A young girl is helping an elderly tourist walk down the street,” an English girl says excitedly.
The English girl’s excitement gets my attention, and I look to my right and see why the girls are animated.
It’s The Captain and Phuong!
They both stop, and I assume The Captain is out of breath, but no, he sticks his tongue in Phuong’s mouth.
“Oh, my God! Did you see that?” the English girl says.
The three girls are appalled by what they see, and when it becomes clear to them that The Captain and Phuong are coming to the Café, they pay their bill and leave.
The reaction of the three English girls, who are shocked and disturbed by the unexpected turn, is epic.
With a crackle, I turn to Yen to ask her if she noticed what I saw, but before I can say anything, she tells with a smile why the English girls were appalled, pointing at The Captain and Phuong.
“The old man is my friend. I invited him because I want you to meet him. He is a friendly and charming man,” I tell her.
Yen leans against my shoulder and whispers, “dâm tặc!” then laughs, hiding her face behind my shoulder.
“What does that mean?” I ask Yen.
“Trâu già thích ăn cỏ non,” she says with a grin.
“Old buffalo likes to eat young grass? What does that mean?” I ask her with a grin.
“Good morning. You must be Yen,” The Captain says, reaching out his hand to introduce himself.
Phuong and I help The Captain in his chair, and I sit next to him so that Yen can talk to Phuong in Vietnamese.
Yen wants to ask The Captain why he is walking with difficulty and turns to me to translate her question for The Captain.
The Captain who is conscious of the age difference between Phuong and him and therefore reluctant to admit that his disability is due to old age, asks me to tell Yen that it’s an old war wound that is playing up.
“Did I tell you that I was a soldier in the Korean War?” The Captain asks.
“Yes, you did. Several times,” I reply.
“After the Malaya Campaign, I was sent to the Korean Peninsula. Our fatigues were suitable for the tropics, but not for the cold winters in Korea. The Americans were kind enough to give us proper gear. But after I got wounded, I woke up on an American hospital ship. They must have assumed I was an American soldier.”
“Do you have any old photographs? I’d love to see what you looked like when you were young and handsome,” Yen says, expecting me to translate this in the same provoking fashion.
With his middle finger, The Captain pushes his glasses with aspherical lenses that magnify his eyes to the size of golf balls further up his nose and stoically says, “You mean when I was younger and more handsome.”
Right in front of us, a Japanese tourist is asking for a ride to the war museum.
Two cyclo (Pedicab) drivers run towards her, pulling their cyclos behind them.
One of the cyclo drivers is a tall, lanky Vietnamese man, the other a short, stocky Khmer-looking man.
They both offer to take her to the museum, but the woman is so intimidated by their aggressive behavior that she cannot make a decision.
The two cyclo drivers start an argument over who saw the Japanese tourist first and, therefore, gets to take the new customer to the museum.
The argument soon turns violent, and the two exchange punches in the middle of the street.
The tall driver has the upper hand because he has a greater reach.
The short man is taking punches, and it seems that he is losing the fight, but with a swift dive, he manages to grab the taller man’s legs.
He lifts him off the ground and slams him hard onto the tarmac, his back lands on the ground first, followed by the back of his head.
His head bounces like a coconut, and the fight ends abruptly with a fraught silence.
The tall man has stopped moving and is not responding to his friend’s efforts to revive him.
To the relief of many onlookers, there is a sign of life; he’s still breathing.
Two street vendors rush over to carry the poor man, who is unconscious, to the sidewalk next to the Café in front of a travel agency that hasn’t opened for business yet and still has the shutters closed.
The owner of the café, Mr. Viet, is closing in on the spot where the cyclo driver’s head hit the pavement and points to a liquid on the ground.
He turns around and looks at me, shaking his head gently, then slowly walks over and says, “He die soon,” and explains that the liquid on the ground is, in fact, cranial fluid.
Yen looks at me and tries to tell me we should finish our coffee and move to a more peaceful place.
I concur and ask for the bill, which takes a while to arrive, and when it takes even longer to get my change, I ask The Captain and Phuong if they want to join us, but they decline the invitation.
We walk to the travel agency next to the café where I parked my bike.
The injured man is still lying on the ground with his eyes now open, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of what is happening around him.
I start the bike and follow Yen’s directions to a coffee shop she frequents during her lunch breaks.
We get to the corner of Le Lai Street and Nguyen Trai Street, where the coffee shop is.
The coffee shop that looks like a pavilion in a park has an entrance on the Le Lai side of the corner where we can park my bike.
We walk into the place that has no walls, and we pick a table away from the street and the traffic noise.
“Em oi, can we have something to drink?” I ask with a voice, loud enough for the young waitress in the coffee shop to hear me.
The young waitress slowly approaches us with a timid expression on her face but keeps a distance.
I ask Yen what she would like to drink, but instead of telling me what she wants, she turns to the young girl and speaks to her in Vietnamese, presumably telling her what she would like to order.
Although I prefer fresh milk in my coffee, I am in no mood to explain to the waitress how I want my coffee, so I ask for a hot coffee with condensed milk.
Without talking to each other, we sit and look around the coffee shop.
We are the only customers in the coffee shop of Yen’s choice, but that doesn’t surprise me.
Who would want to sit in a pavilion in the middle of one of the busiest intersections of this city?
We do, and that worries me a bit.
The young girl returns with our drinks and carefully places my coffee in front of me before she gives Yen her drink.
She walks around Yen’s chair and gives her a bottle of Tri soy milk with a straw.
Tri soy milk comes in a bottle that resembles a Pepsi bottle, but what is even more striking, is the label on a Tri bottle.
The colors of the label are exactly like the colors of a Pepsi label.
Even the font of the letters T, R and I, is the same.
Watching Yen drink her soy milk is amusing, and I wonder how a girl can be so comfortable and content with a bottle of her favorite drink.
Between sips she looks around the coffee shop like a child in a theme park, but once she is aware that I am watching her with a tender smile, she stops looking around and laughs with her chin down and her eyes up, looking me in the eye as if she just got caught doing something silly.
I tell Yen that my ex-brother-in-law, Wayne, is coming to visit me in Vietnam for two weeks.
She raises her eyebrows and asks, “Were you married?”
“No! My ex-brother-in-law is the man who was married to my sister. He’s coming to Vietnam because he’s having a tough time back home. He lost his job a few weeks after the divorce, and now he’s about to have a nervous breakdown. My sister asked me if he could come to Vietnam for a visit. She thinks a trip to Asia will clear his mind. At first, I was skeptical about the whole idea, mainly because my ex-brother-in-law is an over-opinionated moralist and a narcissist, but after a few days I relented and called him to tell him to come over.”
I am tempted to tell Yen why my ex-brother-in-law got fired from his job, but I promised my sister not to tell anyone that he got the boot for sexually harassing his boss, Mrs. Wheeler, the owner of Galaxy Dance School where Wayne worked as a salsa instructor.
“Oh!” Yen says, surprised to hear my opinion of him, “When is he coming?” Yen asks.
“Tomorrow afternoon, I believe. I’ll have to check.”
“Oh, Sa Lee. That reminds me,” she says, “Tomorrow I will go back to my hometown in Phu Yen Province. I will move out of my room, so I don’t have to pay rent for the time I am away. When I get back to Ho Chi Minh City, I will move to a bigger room.”
“When will you come back?”
“After the Tet holiday. I will be away for three weeks, I think.”
“When you get back, give me a call at this number. If I am away, you can leave a message with my landlord.”
I write my landlord’s telephone number on a piece of paper and give it to Yen.
We kiss each other goodbye, and I get on my bike and ride back to the Saigon Café to get the lowdown on what happened while I was away.
With very few bikes on the road, I go full speed down Pham Ngu Lao Street and slow down to make the turn into De Tham Street where the Café is.
I want to park my bike, but several people are blocking the parking space.
They are all standing around the tall cyclo driver who is still lying there motionless.
A street vendor turns to me and says, “Chết rồi!” (“He’s dead.”)