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Monday, February 28, 2011

Michael's Adventure in Vietnam

In the fall of 2009 my husband and I went to Thailand and Cambodia for a conference (his) and travel. Currently he is back in that part of the world--in Vietnam as a volunteer, doing lectures and helping with neurology patients, etc. I could not resist this anecdote from a letter written today. It is a pleasing mixture of the sad, the surprising, and the downright hilarious. I especially laughed at the red part (you'll see.) And I am glad he signed off as "Your loving husband!" (Names changed to protect the semi-innocent.)

Later thoughts: I am finding the long firecracker string of facebook comments amusing as well--particularly the ones about "red" and the bittersweet comedy-of-errors remarks. I should have titled the piece "Innocent Abroad." Twain could have done a lot with Mike and this little incident. Somehow Thailand and Cambodia didn't prepare him for the surprise of this moment! Also, I realize, reading through those comments, that it's not wholly clear that "Phuong" is a doctor, based in the U. S. Clearly Mike had just seen her for the first time, though, and I suppose she could have been something else entirely, passing herself off as a doctor--she is creative, after all--luckily she was not something else entirely!
I had a funny thing happen today. I was supposed to meet with Dr. Mai at noon and was sitting in the lobby waiting for her [but she did not show up.] A Vietnamese /American lady who was about 30-35 years old came up to me and in pretty good but accented English asked me if I was with [the medical volunteer program.] I said yes, and she introduced herself as Phuong. She was odd, pleasant, not pretty. Almost immediately she asked me if I was doing anything and if I had eaten. The answer was no to both. Then she asked if I would like to go and have lunch at her in-laws' house. I thought this was a little strange since we had only known each other about 5 minutes, but I thought the idea of going to a regular Viet house was interesting. So we got a cab and took it to a very warreny part of town. When we got out, her in-law (I'm still not sure what his exact relation was, perhaps her brother's wife's father?) came down a narrow alley on a scooter.

It seems the house is still pretty far away, but the alleys are too close for a cab to negotiate. So I get on the scooter, and he takes me down these seemingly endless alleys that are about the width of the space between ours and the M--'s garages. He finally drops me off at the house, which is a small but tidy thing, maybe two rooms down and two rooms up. It is decorated with the most extravagant Catholic imagery, statues, posters, a bust of Pope Benedict and a glass church with a neon "Ave Maria," neon halos, and a little flashing light show around the Infant of Prague. The mother-in-law and a pleasant toothless crone were there to greet me. I started to take pictures of the Catholica. [Marly: What a dratted tourist!]

Soon Phuong arrives. A table is brought out, and beer poured over ice. We have a nice if somewhat over fishy lunch. I eat mostly rice and a little dried pork and sauteed green beans. We stay about 90 minutes. I am surprised how much they make of me. Some other relatives arrive. He and his wife (who was VERY stylish) had just been to a wedding. He is a thoracic surgeon. I had hoped to ask him what his practice is like but it turns out he is too drunk from the wedding and has fallen asleep in the kitchen. Not too drunk to drive a moto in suicide traffic, but too drunk to stay awake. After a while we leave and walk back to the main road because the father-in-law got too drunk over lunch and he is taking a nap. The mother-in-law and sister-in-law are walking back with us and quite fawning over us both. We get back to the road amid extravagant hugs and get a taxi. On the way back Phuong is very quiet, but about halfway back to the hotel we have the following conversation:

Phuong: "I have a confession to make."

My husband, Michael: "Um, what?"

Phuong: "I told them you were my fiancé."

Michael: "You are spoofing me."

Phuong: "No. You see, in Vietnam a girl my age should be married. My mother is ashamed that I'm not. I couldn't stand to embarrass her in front of her relatives so when I saw you, I just thought about having you come and see them so they would think I wasn't always going to be single."

Michael: "That is really not a good enough reason. Besides, I'm like 20 years older than you."

Phuong: "That is alright. Since you are so plump and red they think you are really rich, which is more important."

Michael: "What happens when we don't get married?"

Phuong: "I hadn't thought that far ahead."

Photograph: The photo of "The Temple of Literature" courtesy of and Eva Schuster of Germany.


  1. I should have seen this coming, what with the built-in in-laws! Fab story. I especially liked the word "warreny."

  2. Fantastically, wonderfully absurd!

    Thank goodness there was no Shogun wedding!

    I loved the stuff about the house interior. Oh, how interesting those photos must be!

  3. Julie-from-facebook: I liked "warreny" as well!

    Paul: Shogun wedding! Hah. A writer left me a note on fb that this was definitely a story that you wanted to hear from your husband and not somebody else!

    Yes, it is outrageous. So surprising. And yes, I'd like to see that interior.

  4. "...stranger than fiction!"
    what a hoot!!

  5. zephyr,

    Can you imagine what Hollywood would do with a beginning like that?

  6. I think it sounds like a pitch that would launch a bidding war! 8^}

  7. It is good that Michael is happily married, and quite a humourous story if it didn't have the wry twist of that poor girl's unhappy un-married state in the eyes of her family. Glad nothing was mixed in the beer, although it seems it was oowerful enough by itself.

  8. Oh my! If it weren't in a blog, I would think this was short story fiction. And given the discription of the setting, it could be a screen play for an indie movie...LOL

  9. zephyr: definitely!

    ajunker: Is that A for Albert? Yes, well, as I said on facebook, it is also sad. Yes, it is both hilarious and poignant. Happily married to a plump red man! Luckily I don't think that a very accurate description...

    Ruth: Yes, I think it is full of possibilities.

  10. Hilarious story, one for both you and your husband to remember a long time! But, I'm confused - is Phuong also this Dr. Mai your husband was waiting to meet? Sorry, perhaps I'm being too literal here.

  11. Ah, I shall go back and clarify... I already knew about "Dr. Mai," so he didn't need to make that clear in a letter...

  12. This is amazingly funny and sweet...a short story in the making. :)

  13. He's lucky not to have been kidnapped! At first, I thought Phuong was going to be Dr. Mai. When he got to wareny part of town, i was sure he was on his way to a brothel. When the scooter guy comes, and the cold crone appears, I was sure of it. But the decor seemed a bit odd for that. and then the Doctor-in-Law passes out in the kitchen. (Do brothels have Doctor-in-laws?)Did he ever find out what happened to Dr. Mai?

  14. Hannah,

    Yes, he ought to turn it into something a little longer!


    One of my cousins was reading it and said his battery died in the middle--he was expecting something harrowing when he powered up again.

    We had many interesting and odd events the last time we were in that part of the world. And for some reason, in Cambodia I was a confession magnet. I heard many heartbreaking stories...

    Usually people try to talk you into the scuzzier activities, at least in Thailand: tuktuk drivers, normally. I don't think that ever happened in Cambodia, but we hired a driver. (Or he snared us.) Don't know if it's the same where he is.

    The funny thing is, I think he was supposed to have a minder. So far, I don't see one! Of course, Mike is pretty hard to "mind."

  15. COLD CRONE was supposed to be "old crone"--she's always hanging out in Goya's pictures of whore houses and such.

    He clearly needs a minder--to save him from evil fish lunches with ugly fiancees, and other calamities.

  16. Okay, now I have added a colorfully emaciated Goya-esque crone to my mental picture.

    The Minder. Of course, I was his minder in Thailand and Cambodia! But he has gone all sorts of places and done exactly what the setting and chance urged... And that's what is worrying!

    I even worry about him when there are no people, like when he was way north in the Yukon with nothing but a guide and bears and horses. He's just highly imaginative about getting into sticky wickets.

    FISH LUNCHES AND OTHER CALAMATIES would make a great title for Mike's adventures.

  17. I saw this coming from a mile away.
    Paul...wrong country: shotgun perhaps, but not shogun.
    How exciting it must be to have a husband who has adventures, if more than a bit nerve-wracking.
    Mine only wants to play golf and stay in one place. I sympathize, though I want to do neither of those things myself. I would be the one going on adventures, if I could.

  18. Adventures are good but time-consuming. Hard to get one's work done... And when I got back from Thailand, I kept falling asleep. For three weeks! They say coming back in the other direction is better. It could hardly be worse.

    Yes, he is very wild. Let's see. Recent-ish adventures in Turkey, Greece, Yukon, Crazy Mountains (by Yellowstone), Sweden, Thailand, Cambodia.

    Of course, it's not all fun. This is a volunteer-to-work trip of several weeks duration. And he has a lot to do.

    Good things about golfing husbands: you know where they are, and you are fairly sure they're still kicking and unlikely to stop any time soon.

  19. Better send him the newsclip about the nice yacht couple and their friends kilt by Sudanese (??) pirates. If this lady picked him out of a crowd because he was plump and red, a real kidnapper might do the same--

    Innocent better not go Abroad lest he be picked up by a broad, I think--

  20. So far he always bobs along and flows with the stream. But yes, I know what you mean!

  21. Hilarious! Your husband writes wonderful letters - I love the description of why, exactly, his age doesn't matter.

  22. Hi Clare--

    I'm afraid that I laughed heartily at that point. Though I don't see him that way at all!

  23. Postscript: This post garnered more than a 100 comments over three links in various places, so it clearly moved people. It is a fascinating story, isn't it? I already have writers bugging me to turn it into a story. I imagine Mike should do that, not me!

  24. Vietnam sounds like an extraordinary place to discover!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.