Thursday, February 21, 2013


Bartenders spin flaming bottles in a Danang bar
Chau is an attractive, friendly Vietnamese woman, with a wide smile and a kind voice. She speaks English well, and at 30 years of age, she’s already the owner of her own business in downtown Danang.

“I have this bar two year,” she says proudly from behind her dimly lit bar. Tonight's a rare occasion when she’s wearing tight clothing, and it complements her womanly figure. This gets more than a few looks from her male customers. Some are Vietnamese, but most are western men. But unlike less reputable places, this isn’t a bar for working girls. In Chau’s bar, (name is withheld), she doesn’t allow prostitutes. “When they come in, I ask them to leave,” she says.

Chau isn’t from Danang, she’s from a village outside the city. She may be a businesswoman now, but capitalism wasn’t always popular with her family.

“My father was Viet Cong,” she confesses to me. “He no like Americans. He still hate Americans. Many VC, still hate Americans. But most of them are dead now.”

Back in the war years, Chau’s hometown was a Viet Cong stronghold. Her father’s side may have won the war, but his family paid a high price. “His two brothers died. His mother and father died,” Chau tells me. Her father was also wounded by a US bomb, and his old injuries bother him in his old age. For the first time, I’m hearing about a Vietnamese that still hates Americans. Given all that the war did to her father’s family, I’m not surprised. Fortunately his hatred didn’t spread to his chipper daughter, who seems to enjoy chatting with me. 

Chau says her father doesn’t understand her. “He ask me, ‘how can you talk to Americans’? I tell him, that (the war) was long time ago. That finished,” Chau says. “I don’t have a problem with Americans.”
Chau first came to know Americans as a tour guide, when she traveled extensively doing tours for returning US veterans. “Most of them nice. Some of them not so nice,” she says, giving her view of the vets. 

She traveled with them all over the region, from Danang, to the former De-Militarized Zone, and even to the infamous site of My Lai.

“What was it like with them there?” I asked.

“They cry,” she says. “They feel bad. They talk with lady there who tell them what happen. She tell (them) their story. Another lady was a child (then). They cry.” 

Chau's village endured fighting during the war
Chau also brought the veterans to an orphanage, where children continue to arrive today with deformities attributed to Agent Orange. The vets cried there too. Now that Chau owns her own bar, she doesn’t travel with vets anymore. But she’s still happy to translate for American medical teams that come to Danang, who treat the sick in poor communities for free.

Chau likes the American doctors, but there is another group she despises. “The old American men, they come back Vietnam. They marry young Vietnam lady. I don’t like,” she says with disdain. She allows these old men with young brides to come into her bar and drink, but that doesn’t mean that she approves. Nightlife is more relaxed in Danang than in Ho Chi Minh City, so she's had few problems with customers.

“Have you had many bar fights?” I ask, remembering the brawl I had witnessed in the former Saigon. 

“Only one time,” she answered. Predictably, the bar fight involved an American, although he didn’t start it. “It was old American man in the war.”

During an evening at Chau’s place, an American Vietnam veteran was talking with a twenty-something English teacher from England. They both had their share of drinks, when the subject of the war came up. Among other things, the burly young teacher told the veteran that he thought the Americans were baby killers. It went downhill from there.

“The English man, he know boxing,” Chau said. Being bigger, younger, and a trained fighter, the Englishman wasn’t afraid to back up his words with his fists. Chau kicked the brawling pair out, but not before a lot of blood was spilled in the bar. The American got the worst of it.  But that wasn’t the end of it. The American lives in Danang, and he got the last laugh. The Englishman had a well paid job at an international school, and the American found out which one.

“The American, he have Vietnam wife,” Chau told me. “They call the school where he work. Teacher fired.” Out of a job, the English 'boxer' was soon out of the country.

I ponder over this conflict. During my whole time in Vietnam this is the only fist fight I’ve heard of that involved a disagreement about the war, and no Vietnamese were even involved. The two pugilists were from two countries that are supposed to be allies.

Chau tells me later of a fight in a different bar, that ended tragically for her family. Some years back, one of Chau’s brothers was killed. He was just a university student then, out for a night with his friends when the fight broke out. He tried to break it up, and was stabbed fatally in the melee.

The new river front walkway in downtown Danang

The perpetrator was tried and sentenced to a long prison term, but he wasn’t behind bars for long. Less two years after her brother’s death, Chau’s family found out that the killer had already been released. He was long gone, and nowhere to be found. It turns out that the prisoner’s father was a powerful figure in the government. Chau’s father also worked in local government and was a war veteran, but that wasn’t enough power to guarantee justice for his murdered son. In the end, he didn’t have anywhere near the clout that the father of the killer did.

These days, Chau is doing very well. Her parents have retired, and with her pub thriving, she earns enough money to support them. She’s even saved enough to do some traveling. Unlike most Vietnamese, Chau has seen a lot of the outside world, and has traveled throughout Southeast Asia. She’s even flown to New Zealand and her favorite, Australia.

“I would like to go see America some day, but it very far,” she tells me.

I ask her if she would like to go work in America, but she doesn’t see the need. “Here I do what I want,” she says. “I’m free.”

I suppose it’s all very relative. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press don’t concern her. Chau enjoys the freedoms that she wants the most. She has the freedom to travel, and the freedom to run her own business. In her case, that’s all the freedom that she needs.

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