I met Li-en on a local city bus last summer. She stared at me for a while before peppering me with thickly accented questions about where I was from and what on earth a foreigner was doing on a city bus. Though Saigon is firmly entrenched in the SEA backpacking circuit and full of foreigners, it is extremely rare to see westerners on city buses. Most of the sights are walkable; for those that aren’t, a ride on the back of the ubiquitous motorbike taxi is a cheap, quick and easy (if terror-inducing and life-threatening) transit option. The city bus system, on the other hand, is slow, steamy hot, crowded, and nearly impossible to navigate if you don’t speak Vietnamese. So I was quite a novelty for Li-en.
Li-en was a fiery, sprightly, romantic, tender, strong, proud Vietnamese grandmother. When I told her that I was American, her face lit up. Suddenly her ability to translate her thoughts into English could not keep up with the syllables escaping her mouth. Prior to my trip I was unsure what kind of reception I would receive as an American in Vietnam. I was repeatedly surprised by the warm welcome most of the Vietnamese offered me. But Li-en’s reception was by far the most enthusiastic.
When she finally regained her composure, Li-en began a long, emotional tale about her one-time American lover. As a young woman in American-occupied Saigon she met a handsome young American soldier. Posted to a desk job at the embassy, her young American had plenty of time to devote to Li-en. The lovers spent nearly a year together before the soldier was sent out on a combat mission in the jungle. He never returned.
Forty years later, on a dirty city bus, Li-en’s eyes welled with tears as she confessed that she loved her American soldier even though he died killing her own countrymen.
She then asked me if I had met a Vietnamese lover, yet.
(And I wasn’t looking.)