Living alone in Can Tho has thus far been a blessing and a curse. The blessing is of course that I have my pick of three rooms, four bathrooms, and a peaceful terrace on which to think during the very early hours of my mornings in Vietnam. The downside to my new-found solitude is that I am often surrounded by near complete silence at night. Funny enough, the saving grace to this oft found sense of loneliness has turned out to be the tiny animals who also live inside of my Can Tho home.
Colonies of tiny lizards seem to be in every southern Vietnamese household. Indeed, they are as much a part of my home as the paintings on the walls. The lizards are quite shy, however, and immediately scatter when I walk into the rooms in which they dwell. On the rare occasions that I do catch a full glance of their small, lithe bodies, they run from me as fast as they can. The lizards in Vietnam are quite beautiful. It’s a shame that these coy creatures choose to remain in the shadows.
Unwelcomed guests in my home are the hoards of mosquitoes who without fail crash the party as soon as I lay my head down to sleep every night. While general wisdom in Vietnam stipulates that we use mosquito nets, I hate feeling as though I may be suffocated by a big blue blob of silky fabric during my sleep and opt not to use the net. The choice has come at a high price, though, as the bare skin of my chest and back have played landing strip to these disgusting monsters for the last week or so.
The good news is that I am not as alone in my home as I thought. Last night, as I went down to the kitchen for a bowl of Rice Krispies and Vinamilk, I caught site of a toad who looked exactly like the toads in Houston. Old and ugly as he may have appeared, the little guy was kind enough to pause for a photo shoot. Who knows how long he had been waiting in this desolate house for a new roommate to arrive. And aside from the steady hum of my ceiling fan, the toad’s croaking has been a welcomed addition to my quiet nights of web development in Can Tho.
My sister asked me today if I wanted to search for a roommate in order to not only share costs of the house with him but also to fill the void in Can Tho. I told her that in addition to avoiding having to manage someone else’s stay in my home at all costs, I also needed the privacy. What I did not tell her, but what was on my mind, is that as long as the lizards and toads stick around and the mosquitoes stay out, that I should be just fine in this grand ol’ haven of solitude.
Every evening, as I stare down at my small bowl of rice and its accompaniments, I think about how much I have changed since first coming to Can Tho three years ago. I used to enthusiastically gobble down anything that was put in front of me, including foods that I simply did not enjoy.
Part of the reason for my unbridled willingness to eat during my School for International Training home stay was the message constantly pounded into our heads that while in Vietnam we were to eat what the locals ate and do as the locals did. It wasn’t my place to say that as much as I wanted to do so, I could not eat rice with every meal.
Now, the novelty of Vietnam has worn away and my place as a guest in my sister’s house no longer exists. I am not a stranger to this small Mekong Delta city anymore, and my role in chi Huyen’s home is that of a younger brother to my older sister and her husband, an uncle to her two sons, and a son to her mother. I no longer need to say that I am full or unfamiliar with the foods offered to me if I don’t want to eat. Now if I don’t want to eat, I say so, and that is that.
There is a part of me that misses the young, adventurous spirit that I once had in Vietnam. I remember writing home about how shocked and delighted I was to try a plate of fried scorpion or how dreadful, yet exhilarating it was to eat a cooked, half-developed duck embryo while sitting on the sidewalk with my Vietnamese friends. Those days seem for the moment at least to have passed.
I went to the supermarket today and tried my best to find foods that bring me comfort or remind me of better times back home in the United States. Watermelon reminds me of my childhood in Longview, Texas; Rice Krispies, of the days that I lived on a strict budget while studying at Rice University; peanut butter and jelly, of my mother’s thriving daycare business during the eighties; and milk, of everything beautiful and regal about Texas bovine culture.
This is the only way that I know how to stay sane while living so far away from so much of what defines me. The sugarcane juice, fresh tropical fruits, and rock your body Vietnamese coffee all have a very special place in my heart. But there is nothing like the taste of nostalgia on the surface of one’s tongue.
Sound is a constant in Vietnam. From the steady honks that bellow out of seemingly lawless roads to the early morning chorus of construction, here there is no place that sound does not find.
I’m mostly used to the new noise. The nasal whines of alleyway bread sellers have become music to my ears. The low bass jingles that come from cars in reverse have become comical. And the nonstop humming that comes from the mini-fan on my ceiling makes me feel not so alone in my new Can Tho home.
While most of the harmonies that piggyback their ways into my ears are interesting, and at the very least something new, there is one sound that I don’t think I will ever get used to. It is the sound of Vietnamese men who suck their teeth at foreigners.
Though not that common outside of Saturday morning cartoons, when we find someone attractive in the United States, we whistle. I have since childhood associated whistling with happy events, like the sight of a beautiful woman or the sunshine after the rain. To my American ears, whistling is absolutely beautiful.
On the contrary, sucking teeth sounds dreadfully unpleasant to me. Imagine a “Pssst!” in reverse or the sounds that we make while attempting to dislodge food from our teeth. This is exactly the sound that local men make when they find a foreign woman, or man, attractive.
I haven’t quite figured out why Vietnamese men suck their teeth at me. Surely they are not attracted to me in the same manner that they are attracted to Western women. Perhaps it is my size or my height. Or maybe they do find me handsome and want to make a verbal note of it.
Whatever the reason is for locals to make this sound, it doesn’t seem to keep the hairs on the back of my neck from standing upright every time that I hear it. Nonetheless, every local who I have asked about the sound of Vietnamese men sucking their teeth says that it’s a positive sound, one that is meant to at the very least compliment the listener. Sadly, I think that I will need to live in Vietnam a lot longer before I begin to hear this odd sound as music to my ears.
I have finally discovered why travelers who come to Vietnam eventually return. It’s not the amazing water culture of the Mekong Delta, the allure of big city thrills in Ho Chi Minh City, or the peaceful lakes in Ha Noi. Nor is it the lighthearted nature of the locals or the rich modern history that has threaded itself into this nation’s fiber over the last century. I am now convinced that the real reason we come back to Vietnam is due to our crippling addiction to ca phe sua da.
You may call it Vietnamese coffee, iced coffee milk, or simply liquid cocaine. I’ll settle for referring to the Vietnamese staple as my siren, and for seven thousand Vietnam Dong per morning, my love affair with the sweet, powerful drink has taken on an entirely new meaning in Can Tho.
There is a woman who does business just a moment’s walk away from my new home. She offers to deliver by bicycle drinks of all sorts to my doorstep, but the only thing that I have had my mind on this week has been the rich aroma of her ca phe sua da and the complimentary tea that comes with every glass.
She makes it thicker than they make it in Ho Chi Minh City. I can almost swear that she uses one half of a can of condensed milk as the base for each of my drinks, but part of me refuses to look at the woman completely as she prepares my guilty pleasure. After all, ignorance is bliss, and on the terrace of my new sanctuary, where I enjoy my ca phe sua da every morning, there is only enough room for my body and the rich, intoxicating smell of Vietnamese coffee.
This evening my coffee lady asked me how long I would stay in Can Tho. Although I will be here longer, I told her that my stay would last another six months. She could barely contain her joy and I don’t blame her for it; I would also be psyched if the goods I peddle made women and men alike weak at the knees.
I truly wish that this entire story as it relates to my love for ca phe sua da was over-embellished, but alas, it is not. If apple pie is as American as red, white, and blue, then consider my newest addiction to ca phe sua da as Vietnamese as I will ever be.
“It’s not like you’re going through culture shock.”
“I know, I know. So let’s call it habit shock.”
The last twenty-four hours have been a complete whirlwind. I have suffered through the trek from Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho, reunited with my home stay family from two thousand five, and moved into an absolutely beautiful three story, three bedroom home. The photos that chi Huyen sent to me several months ago in a push to get me to move to Can Tho, instead of the big city, barely do the house justice. I’m glad that I’m here but at the same time realize that my perspective in Can Tho has changed.
Whereas three years ago I paid little attention to the measures that home owners go through to protect their belongings in Vietnam, I am now beginning to notice just how many bars and padlocks there are in this country. Upon arriving in Can Tho yesterday evening, I was given a set of keys by my sister. One key is for the large lock that adorns the front of my new home. Another key is for the main door. And another is for the door that leads to the rooftop of my abode.
My best friend in Vietnam came to visit me last night. After dismounting her motorbike, she reprimanded me for not helping her roll the vehicle inside of my home’s greeting area. She was only stopping by for a moment, and when I questioned her need to roll the motorbike inside, she told me that Vietnamese people work hard for their belongings and want to protect them. Even in the dreadfully quiet alleyway in which my home is situated, padlocks and metal bars abound, and even the cars are protected by steel cages.
I have only been in Can Tho for a day and I am not yet used to the attention to detail that my stay here will require. In America, even in the shadiest neighborhoods, I had no issue at all with leaving my car doors unlocked to fill up at gas stations or to stop by friends’ homes. Then again, maybe I was just one of the lucky souls back home.
Padlocks aside, I’m excited about the world of possibilities that await me in Can Tho and in my new home. I now have enough room for an office, a sleeping room, and a guest room for when family members and friends sleep over. And, who knows. I might now be able to buy a few paintings to hang on the walls of my new sanctuary.