No Hanoi summer lasts forever
It's been brutally hot and, at times, fairly airless in Saigon this week, which reminds me of this old piece of fiction set in Hanoi when 'we' had no aircon (and when uncle Leo was up to no good).
Illustration by Oslo Davis
SOMETIMES I THINK ABOUT THOSE LONG, insufferable Hanoi summers years ago and I can’t believe that we survived without air-con at home, can you? In our rented house, we only had ceiling or standalone fans but all they did was push the hot air around at faster speeds. The worst and weirdest thing was the temperature didn’t seem to drop at night. Maybe that was down to the humidity, or maybe it was all the pollution, or maybe it was a little bit of column A, and a little bit of column B—I don’t fucking know. I only know it was brutal.
Our tall-and-skinny house sat in direct sunlight all day long and come evening the walls would be warm to touch on the inside. The water tank sat on the flat rooftop, so you couldn’t even cool off in the shower. And there was no point opening the windows— in summertime the wind only ever comes to Hanoi with a storm.
Looking back, I feel like we went out every night and maybe we did. Even if we’d been out till silly o’clock the night before (and we very often were in those days), we’d go out the next night to nurse our hangovers with a gallon of cheap beer, and maybe later on we’d switch to gin and tonic in one of the bars on Bao Khanh or Ta Hien. On filthy hot nights, we’d scoop out a couple of ice cubes and stick them in our armpits to cool down.
We’d always feel better for sputtering across town on our not-so-trusty two-stroke motorbikes. The breeze we’d feel on our faces would be warm but at least we’d have stopped sweating. Along the way we would take solace from seeing that the locals were also suffering. Young couples would sit on top of their scooters by the Water Plant on the Dyke Road to feel a faint spray that came over the 20-foot-wall. Grandmothers, maybe even great-grandmothers, would sit on their hunkers outside their tiny tube houses in the Old Quarter fanning fractious babies. Vietnamese men would strut around with their t-shirts pulled up looking equally proud whether they had a six-pack or a beer-belly. If you made eye contact with anyone on nights like those they’d give you that classic multi-purpose Hanoi grimace, which in a heat wave meant: “it’s too hot to even speak about how hot it is.”
But it was never too hot to go drinking. Not for us anyway. In those days, we had no mobile-phones so we’d keep riding around town until we spotted a motorbike we recognised outside a bar or saw a cluster of folk we knew hunched around a blue plastic table on the side of the road.
In the early evening, we’d often find people at that beer place on Lý Thường Kiệt Street—yeah, the one run by that spindly old battle-axe and her even spindlier daughter. They weren’t exactly known for their warm-welcomes or charisma but we went there all the time; less for the übergreasy deep-fried fishcakes, more for the large glasses of cheap bia tươi that had enough fizz and froth to remind us of a proper beer we’d get back home.
That’s where we used to usually run into Leo, who back then was, correct me if I’m wrong, the only guy we knew who had air-con at home. He was from somewhere that’s apparently idyllic in California (Santa Barbara maybe?)—the kind of place most people would love to retire in and age gracefully.
But Leo had chosen to age much less gracefully in Hanoi. Aged around 55, 60 tops, he was lean and tanned but hardly the healthiest of individuals—he looked like he’d been smoking two packs a day and boozing hard non-stop for four decades straight. Not that we were judging him. Being all grizzled and weathered like that was like a badge of honour in our eyes back then. But we could see there was a melancholy side to Leo, like he’d spent a good portion of his days regretting the bad decisions he hadn’t been able to stop making since 1963, or thereabouts.
Whenever we arrived, invariably he’d be there, sitting on his blue plastic stool, sipping on his beer, or puffing on a ciggie, gazing out at the traffic, patiently waiting for things to get slowly out of hand. The teenage boys who poured and delivered the beer called him ông già (which could be translated as ‘old gent’ but could also mean ‘old grandpa’). We’d shout out, “Hey, Grandpa Leo, grab a stool over here!”—we were friendly like that back then—and even though he didn’t like us calling him grandpa, he’d always shuffle over anyway, hamming up his grumpiness, and invariably in return, we’d be treated to a good story about whatever the fuck he’d got up to the previous night.
Loads of people around town had told us he was a draft dodger but because we actually talked to the guy we found out he crashed his motorbike and fractured his skull after getting drafted. “Luckiest bit of bad luck a man could have,” he’d told us. We believed him. I think we figured there was even a bit of him, deep down, that wishes he had gone, that maybe he’d be less of a lifelong fuck-up if he’d gone to war. But there were more than a few sceptics, like that young American guy from Boston, who was in Hanoi studying ethnomusicology or musical anthropology or some shit like that. He said—not to Leo’s face, of course—it was a mighty fine coincidence that the crash happened just after he’d been drafted.
I remember him saying, “a guy like Leo? That dude probably crashed his bike on purpose so in my book that still makes him a draft dodger”, as if Leo was some sort of chicken-shit traitor. One of us, I can’t remember who, said, “I dunno man, it takes a lot of guts to ride straight into a tree on purpose, no?” But the young American didn’t laugh. I think he was genuinely offended by Leo’s presence.
“Why do you think Leo came to Vietnam?” he said looking at us like we wouldn’t have an answer, but we did, or somebody we were with did: “Hmmm, well, maybe he’s here because he can work part-time, go out as much as he likes, drink shitloads and sleep with attractive hookers?”
The young American shook his head and gave us his opinion, which, of course, was delivered like it was an indisputable fact. “Nah, that’s not why Leo came—that’s what he does here, maybe that’s why he’s not going anywhere, but he came here originally because he crashed into that tree on purpose to dodge the draft and while he spent the war smoking pot, his peers were getting mowed down in the fucking jungle—he’s spent the last three decades feeling ashamed. He’s haunted by that war as much as a veteran. That’s why he’s came here. And now, he doesn’t know where else to go.”
Maybe this know-it-all was right but honestly, we didn’t give two shits. At the end of the day we preferred Leo’s company. Like I said, he usually had a good story for us about whatever he’d been up to. Like the time his air-con control was held to ransom by a prostitute—you remember that one?
Well, the way he told it, he’d gone to Hanoi’s premier late night dive bar, yeah, you know the one, and, as he normally did, he shot a game of pool, had a bunch of beers, slammed a few whiskies down and took a hooker home. But that night, after the deed had been done, he got into a dispute over how much he owed. Who knows, maybe the price of petrol or a bowl of pho had gone up, but she had some rationale for why her rates had changed and Leo wasn’t having any of it. He forked out what he reckoned was the going rate and ushered her out of his house. But when he went back inside, he noticed the air-con was off and the control was nowhere to be found.
And it was the middle of June and forty million degrees outside, and soon to be inside if he couldn’t find the control.
I can’t remember how long he said he was rooting around his pad looking for it but at some stage the penny dropped—the hooker had swiped it. He was so used to his air-con blasting out sweet, precious cool air through the night there was no way in hell he could survive without it. So Leo redressed, returned to the bar and sure enough, he found the girl back inside along with some of her associates (a couple of pimps that Leo wouldn’t dare mess with lest they smash a bottle of Carlsberg over his head for what was probably a paltry 10 bucks).
So, did she have the control? Yes, she had. Leo asked could he see the control (you know, so he knew it was alive and being treated fairly). She slipped the top of the control out of her purse. Leo asked how much she wanted for the control. She named her price (more than they had been in dispute over, of course). Leo forked out the cash. She handed over the control. She said, “hẹn gặp lại anh”, and he said “hẹn gặp lại em” like there was going to be no hard feelings—Leo knew when playing this game, you could be hoodwinked fair and square like that. He would chalk it down to experience. Next time the aircon control would be hidden along with his passport, his stash of dollars and a bundle of dong.
Anyway, afterwards, well, I guess Leo rode his big dirty MZ motorbike home and turned on his air-con and slept for as long as an old guy like that can sleep, and the hooker continued her night, and life went on for both of them…
You know, I’m sorry, I thought that was a really funny story, but actually, now it’s kinda just depressing. Why? I don’t know man. I guess we’re a little older and a little wiser now. Thinking about it now makes me hope that that girl somehow had the wherewithal to escape a shitty existence where she’s forced to steal air-con controls to get paid for performing sex acts on a seedy old expat. And who knows, maybe she did. Maybe she somehow got enough money together to open up a little coffee shop or a noodle stall or something like that. But, I doubt it. It’s much more likely, she’s still prowling clubs and pavements, probably more desperate than ever.
As for Leo, around Christmas time one year he vanished. Every now and then his name has come up and we’ve probably both heard a few versions of what had befallen him. One of the more naïve stories was that he’d tired of the debauchery and decided to go back to wherever his kids and grand-kids were living in California and give ageing gracefully a shot. I also heard a story that he’d been busted doing god-knows-what god-knows-where and got deported—adding substance to this story, there’d been a rumour going around at the time that the authorities were apparently starting to clamp down on the lowlife expats, who did seem to be dwindling in numbers, but then again maybe they were just dying off. I have also heard how his passport expired and when he went to get it renewed at the U.S. embassy, the staff pulled his record and realised he’d a whole host of financial felonies—unpaid alimony and taxes, and so on. They refused to renew his passport so he had to go back to the U.S. and do jail time. I’ve even heard that he’d simply died but no one knew or heard as he had no friends who ever checked on him. His remains were repatriated and the world rolled onward regardless.
I always give people a chance to offer up their apocryphal versions of what happened to Leo before telling them it’s all bullshit. The real story is Leo got even more hammered than normal one night and, when riding his MZ home, he smashed into a lamppost and cracked his head off the road. He ended up in Bangkok for surgery before being flown back to California. I remember telling the young American this story like it was indisputable fact and, of course, he loved that the idea that Leo had come the full fucking ironic circle—crashing a bike on purpose to escape a nightmare existence in Vietnam during the war, crashing a bike accidentally to end his dream life of debauchery in Vietnam. Sometimes I don’t let the irony stop there. I tell everyone he’s basically a wheel-chair-bound cripple so the young American and his friends picture Leo looking like an actual Vietnam vet, only with neither medals nor valour—nothing but a slew of sordid memories and embarrassing escapades running through his mind…
But shit, sorry man, I can tell I’ve gone too far with this one again. Honestly I feel guilty singling Leo out like this. I enjoyed his company, and I know you did too, and sure back in those days, we all used to get up to crazy shit, especially during the summer. Like we used to say in our best back-in-Nam-voices, “I could tell you stories…” There were days and nights of consecutive 40-degrees-plus-belters where we’d think, “Jesus, this one really will last forever.” But eventually the worst of the heat would get broken up by a couple of storms, the summer would start to fade and when autumn comes around, oh man, Hanoi would be so beautiful that it didn’t matter how stir crazy you’d been through May, June, July or August; come late September or early October, on that first perfect autumn’s day you’d forgive the city just about everything—except maybe for harbouring screw ups like Leo. Sure he told us some funny stories. But did you ever think about all the shit he must have got up to that he didn’t tell us? Yeah, you’re right—I know I brought him up but now I wish I hadn’t. I was trying to look back and pretend even the worst of things were worth remembering.