Quang Nam Province, Viet Nam
“Typhoon,” said Brandon Condley, his hard gray eyes expertly searching the bruised horizon.
It had been drizzling all morning, which was no surprise because actually it had been drizzling for weeks. But off to the east the real deal was rolling in from the South China Sea, having just wreaked havoc in the northern islands of the Philippines. Condley zipped his rain jacket all the way up underneath his throat as if to emphasize the coming storm, then pulled his worn baseball cap lower over his eyes. And finally, just to make the point that he did not really care, he laughed.
“Hey, Professor, Buddha’s pissed. Welcome to the real Viet Nam!”
Hanson Muir stood like a dreamer ten feet in front of him, near the prow of the narrow wooden boat. The boat was struggling against the angry current of the chalky, swollen Thu Bon River, its two-cylinder motor putting like a loud lawn mower. Its bow yawed this way and that, smacking against odd flotsam and swirling eddies. The monsoon had come to central Viet Nam five weeks before. It had dropped a hundred inches of rain in two weeks and then settled into an intermittent drizzle that would last for months. The fog-shrouded, unending mountains to the west were still weeping tons of water every hour from it. The rivers and streams had outgrown their banks. The endless terraces of rice paddies that filled the valleys leading eastward to the sea were now hidden under vast lakes of rainwater, often indistinguishable from the rivers or even the sea itself. And along the tree-choked knolls and ridges in the middle of the paddies, hundreds of villages sat serenely above the water, isolated like ancient little islands.
“How much further, Brandon?”
Muir’s posed stance made Condley laugh yet again. The brilliant scientist seemed to be imagining himself as a Viking marauder with his puffed chest and raised chin, one hand stroking his beard as the other held on to a railing. Hearing Condley laugh, he turned and caught the smaller man’s amused expression.
“Having your fun, are you?”
“You look ridiculous, Professor.”
“And it’ll be even funnier if we drown, I suppose?”
“You won’t drown. You’re too fat to sink.”
“I’m surveying the riverbanks,” said Hanson defensively. “In the event I am required to swim ashore.”
Condley laughed again. He knew this river. “I wouldn’t give a nickel for you making it to shore if this boat splits in two.”
“I thought you said I wouldn’t drown.”
“That doesn’t mean I think you can swim.”
“Your sense of humor leaves me weak.”
“Then don’t lose your grip, there.”
Condley walked carefully toward the stern and caught the attention of the boat’s owner. The tight-muscled little man, whose name was Tuan, was intently working the till of his creaky wooden craft while standing barefoot in a gathering pool of water. Three hours before, Tuan had seemed incurably happy when these two Americans had offered him forty dollars to take them upriver to the village of Ninh Phuoc and back. Now he had lost his smile. His narrow eyes squinted as he watched the clogged current. He was drenched and shivering, his rain jacket and shorts soaked all the way through.
“Bao,” said Condley, using the Vietnamese word for typhoon and pointing again toward the distant sea. “Sap den! Phai khong?”
Tuan glanced quickly up into the sky, then focused back on the dangers of the river. He tilted the rudder away from a swiftly moving log and then narrowly dodged the bloated carcass of a dead pig. “Khong co sao,” he answered. Condley could tell that a typhoon would never deter Tuan. Forty dollars was the equivalent of a month’s wages, and the little boatmaster had already planned on how he was going to spend it. “Di Ninh Phuoc di ve Danang, bon muoi do-lah, duoc, duoc.”
“What did he say?” asked Hanson Muir.
“Roughly, he said, ‘So fucking what?’ The rain doesn’t matter. He wants the money. He’s a tough little bastard, I told you that.”
“No, let’s put this in character, Brandon. If you hired him, he’s got to be the toughest little bastard in all of central Viet Nam, right? And by the time we finish this trip he’ll have become a legend.”
“He’s already a legend, just for taking us,” said Condley, secretly enjoying Muir’s unease. “If we finish the trip, they’ll erect a shrine in his honor.”
Muir shrugged, nervously looking at the sky. “I take your point about the storm. Tell him we’ll give him the money anyway. He didn’t even look up at that cloud bank, you know.”
“He was born here. He can smell a typhoon from fifty miles away.” Condley waved the boatmaster on, laughing grimly. He loved the nguoi trungs, as they called the combative, tough people from Viet Nam’s central mountain region. “The fucker’s going to die for forty bucks.”
“I told you, give him the money.”
“Well, then you’ve got to deal with his pride. He’s a nguoi trung, Professor. He’ll never take a handout.” Condley nudged Muir. “Are you sure you want to keep going?”
From the look on his flabby moon of a face, it was clear that Hanson Muir was not sure at all. The boat hit a half-submerged log, jarring them and knocking Muir sideways. The heavyset anthropologist held nervously to the boat railing and pushed his dirty eyeglasses back up his nose. Finally he sighed. “We’re almost there, aren’t we? If we return to Da Nang we’ve got to come back out here and do it all over again.”
“If we keep going and then get back to Da Nang after the typhoon hits, we won’t get out. The plane from Sai Gon won’t even come in there. The entire airport area will be underwater. And if we get stuck in Ninh Phuoc during a typhoon, we might end up staying there till spring. The way the Taiwanese have been strip-logging up in those mountains, the root systems are almost gone. This whole region could become one giant mud slide.”
Muir forced a grin, masking his fear. “I’ve always been tempted to take a Vietnamese wife.”
“Trust me, you’re not going to feel like settling down in Ninh Phuoc. If you want a wife, I’ll find you one in Sai Gon.”
“I was teasing. My present wife would object rather violently to being replaced, you know.”
“No need for that,” shrugged Condley. “The Vietnamese have always been polygamous. You can have as many wives as you can afford.”
“Now you’re teasing me.”
“Actually, I’m not.”
Muir rolled his eyes, obviously thinking of a retort, then let the notion go. Sai Gon was a long way away, but Ninh Phuoc was just up the river. If they could make it up the river. He gave Condley a questioning look. “You haven’t really told me what to do or say when we get there.”
“It depends on what they’ve got, Professor. If it’s real, you can do your thing. If it’s chitchat, just be nice. Make the people feel important.”
“I’m a scientist. I’m not supposed to be nice.”
Another dead pig floated past, and then off next to the shore a dead villager, spread-eagled and bloated, spinning in the rapid current. Muir swallowed hard, watching the body twirl past them. Condley nudged him, snapping him out of it. “When we get there, just watch me. Smile when I smile. Eat the rice when I eat the rice. Drink the tea when I drink the tea. Smoke the cigarette when they give you one.”
“I don’t smoke.”
“You do now.”
Condley’s craggy face twinkled with secret happiness as the boat fought its way upriver. His shoes were squishy from the water in the boat and his fingers were crinkly from the rain. He feared the raw, surging power of Song Thu Bon, but at the same time he felt oddly content. The chalky river that ran from the mountains in Laos all the way to the sea just south of Da Nang was as comforting as an old friend. He had memories along its banks. Some of the memories were horrible. A few of them were even good. But all of them had meaning. And what was life if it brought you no meaning?
Muir had decided to ignore him. The brilliant academic had turned away from him now, studying the flotsam as if history itself were slapping and bumping along the gunwales. The old boat shuddered against the current, causing its boards to creak. Muir shifted his gaze from the river to the dangerous beauty of the mountains that now rose up fierce and shrouded on all sides. “Do you know where we are?”
Condley pulled out an old American tactical map he had kept from the war, carefully unfolding it. As a Marine thirty years before, he had laminated the map to protect it from the rains. It still bore black and red stains along its folds from where he had once used grease pencils to mark checkpoints for patrols and on-call targets for artillery. Turning it this way and that, he started matching the map to terrain features that rose up near the banks of the river. This was his area. He had walked every inch of it in another life, and neither he nor it had changed a whole lot since he’d left. Finally he held his finger on the map, showing Muir where they were.
“We’re right here, Professor. That mountain over there is Nui Son Su. It was one of our key outposts on the edge of the Fifth Marines regimental headquarters in An Hoa. An Hoa is just behind the mountain. Or its ruins are, anyway. So that means we have two or three more turns in the river. The mountains will close in on us, then open up, then close in again — right here. And when they open up again, we’ll be in Ninh Phuoc.”
Muir looked upriver. Indeed, the mountains were assembling themselves through the rain-mist, pushing at the river from both sides. He gave off a little shiver as he stared into the gap. The current picked up, turning frothy as the river narrowed where it passed between the mountains. Condley watched Tuan, studying the boatmaster’s face for clues and deciding from the little man’s steadfast eyes that they were going to make it. Then for a long time he peered upriver through the rain, lost in memories.
Lots of memories. Years of them, clinging to the crags and standing deep inside old foxholes that still scarred the hillsides.
They broke through the pass and entered calmer, wider waters. Muir seemed to relax, his scientist’s need for certainty calmed by Condley’s map-reading skills. The river turned sharply to the left and Condley pointed to a high, steep mountain that rose more than a thousand feet up into the mist.
“That’s Cua Tan,” he said. “We’re almost at Ninh Phuoc.”
After Cua Tan the river’s left bank opened into a valley that reached far to the east. Condley knew that the valley would eventually end in a huge canyon up against even higher mountains, a fiercely sharp range called the Que Sons. The Americans used to call the big box canyon the Antenna Valley. And at its entrance, just off the river, he could finally see the village of Ninh Phuoc.
“There it is,” he said. “We made it.”
Long time no see.
The boatmaster thankfully followed his directions and left the river’s main current, navigating across the floodlands toward the village. “A badass place,” said Condley as they approached the looming darkness of its tree lines. “Lots of people died in here. The NVA kept a division up in those mountains. We had a reinforced Marine regiment back in An Hoa. When they ran into each other it could fuck up your entire day.”
Tuan didn’t know ten words of English, but as he expertly worked the tiller he understood exactly what Condley was saying. He laughed, still shivering from the cold rain, and pointed toward the mountains.
“Da, truoc nay, co nhieu linh Bac dang kia.” Tuan then slipped from Vietnamese into the mix of pidgin French and English still left over from the region’s thirty years of war. “Boo-coo bang bang obah dare.”
“Boo-coo,” laughed Condley, repeating the murdered French phrase that had become so common in Viet Nam. “Boo-coo bang bang.”
Quyen was waiting for them. The Vietnamese government’s liaison officer was standing on the high, flat paddy dike that marked the outer edge of the village, dressed in gray slacks, a white shirt, and black leather shoes. His thick hair was matted by the rain. Dozens of drenched villagers stood along the dike with him, smiling and elbowing each other as if the boat’s approach was grand entertainment. Condley waved to Quyen, calling to him. The whole village waved back, welcoming them.
The boat putted up to the edge of the dike, docking alongside it as if it were a pier. Tuan threw a rope to a group of laughing, screaming young boys, who immediately tied the boat up to a tree. The current was strong here, even away from the main path of the river, and Tuan’s boat nudged gently prow-first against the mud of the dike, held fast by the flow of the water.
“Chao ong, Chao ong!”
Quyen greeted Condley with genuine happiness as the American stepped from the boat onto the muddy dike. The political officer had traveled to the village the day before in order to prepare the villagers for the meeting. Condley had worked with Quyen twice before, and he knew the young bureaucrat would be dying to go home. Quyen was a city boy, from Ha Noi in the north. In Da Nang two nights before, the locals had teased him that the villagers in the mountain hamlets off to the west were wild, of a different species, that drinking their water or their tea might make him sick, that some of their food might kill him, and that many of them even had tails. Quyen had half believed even the part about the tails.
“Ah, Mr. Condley, Mr. Muir,” said Quyen. He smiled brightly, rubbing his hands in front of his dark, narrow face as if each of these Americans were holding up a Buddha to be prayed to. “It is my great pleasure to welcome you to Ninh Phuoc. Come with me, come with me.”