“I only spend my money on two things”, he said. “Sports shoes,” he lifted his tiny leg to show us his spotless, size three Nikes, “and orchids”, he gestured towards the delicate, white and pink potted plants resting on every available surface.
We met Mr Mu in his coffee shop, right across the road from our hotel in Hue. The afternoon stretched out lazily in front of us and with no plans and no desire to form any we sat around drinking iced coffee with kids from the high school next door.
The coffee shop didn’t belong to Mr Mu, it belonged to his son but he made it seem like it was his by shouting at the staff and rearranging the furniture for no reason.
‘Parley tu Francey?’ he asked me. I said no, but neither did he, really.
It didn’t take long for Mr Mu to start talking about the war. Lots of facts and figures, like a history buff using information in lieu of experience, except that he did have experience. No one born and raised in Hue before 1975 could have escaped with innocence intact.
When all that was left of our coffee was murky melted ice, Mr Mu announced that he was taking us to a hot spring resort. I went back to the hotel to grab my bikini and just as I jumped on the back of his motorbike and Shaun settled onto the back of his friend’s I remembered the thing you’re meant your say if you suspect anyone of doing you a favour. ‘How much?’
‘Oh, 200,000 Dong’ he said. Fine. The hot spring resort was nice and deserted but expensive and as I tried to relax in the coolest of the many pools Mr Mu could be seen stomping around impatient to leave. Once we returned to the coffee shop he convinced us to come to dinner that night. His wife had learned to cook from her mother, who had cooked for the Emperor of Vietnam in the Forbidden Palace, he said. We weren’t convinced but won over by the promise of real home-cooked Vietnamese food we promised to come back to the coffee shop that night.
Can you do something to be kind but make money from it at the same time? I think you probably can. The food we ate that night arrived in plastic containers from a local café. It was good, but nothing we couldn’t have walked around the corner and bought ourselves for a fraction of the price and yet Mr Mu sat with us for hours, shared shots of rice wine, told us stories and made us laugh.
Can something be true and not true at the same time? I think it probably can. Mr Mu told us a story that night about something that happened when he was a high school student in the sixties. English speaking locals were in short supply at the time and he managed to become friendly with some US troops stationed near his high school. Talking with these troops, day after day, Mr Mu would learn things, things to do with the war, things that might help him to survive. One day Mr Mu learned that if he went foraging in the woods around Hue he would find gold.
According to the troops, certain flares used by the US helicopters at night to light up the dense jungle terrain contained small amounts of gold. It was possible to collect the remnants of these flares and extract the precious metal they contained, the only problem was finding them. By watching the flares come down, night after night, Mr Mu managed to gradually sketch out a map of the most likely places to look for treasure.
Finally, one typically humid Hue morning, he led an expedition of student friends deep into the jungle on the outskirts of the city. The found what they were looking for, just a few shreds at first, then a little more, then a little more. They were giddy with success, eager to fill their bags with the equivalent of cold hard cash when the inevitable happened. One of the party stepped on a bomb. The blood that sprayed from his body as it was blown apart spattered against the wild orchids that grew all around. The sight of it stayed with Mr Mu for the rest of his life and every orchid he has ever bought and tended to is a tribute to his fallen friend.
“That’s terrible”, I said and meant it but couldn’t help thinking, is this a true story? It seemed too beautiful, to visually rich, too symbolic to have actually happened that way. A brutal, despicable death turned into a single arresting image, blood on an orchid.
We paid for our dinner and as we left Mr Mu tried to convince us to come back the next day. We politely declined, we couldn’t afford any more of his hospitality. As I walked back to the hotel I thought about his story and how well it would work as a short work of fiction. There’s no such thing as a true story, anyway.