“Lotusland transports readers far away from narratives about the Vietnam War. David Joiner takes Vietnam as many people have come to know it and shows us what it’s like today. A wonderful, important debut.” — Le Ly Hayslip, author of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and Child of War, Woman of Peace
“Tender, brutal, authentic, Lotusland captures the romance, disenchantment, and discoveries of expats living high and low in Vietnam. Joiner weaves a fine story.”
— Andrew X. Pham, author of Catfish and Mandala and Eaves of Heaven, and translator of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace
From Chapter 1
“I thought you couldn’t sleep on trains.”
Nathan awoke to find the pink-haired girl placing a bowl of instant noodles beside him, followed by two small bananas. She’d changed clothes and wore an old knee-length skirt and t-shirt with a faded Dong Ho painting of carps across the chest. Gold Chinese lettering cascaded down the side and sparkled in the clear morning light.
It took him a moment to realize she’d spoken in English. Behind her, sunshine stabbed through mists that encircled the jagged mountains.
“You brought me breakfast?” he asked.
“You missed the delivered meal. This is better, anyway. Go ahead and eat, I’ll be right back.”
Stretching to break up the stiffness he felt from sleeping all night with his back against the wall, he looked over the other side of the platform. Broken rocks lined the tracks, and between there and the near rice fields were ditches of stagnant water. It was a miracle he hadn’t tumbled off in the middle of the night.He pulled out his cell phone to see the time, and noticed that his old friend, Anthony, had sent him a pre-dawn message. “Big week coming up. Not sure how much time I’ll have for you in Hanoi.”
The message was not what Nathan wanted to hear. While his trip north was the best chance they’d had in three years for a reunion, Nathan also wanted to ask him for a job. He’d been preparing for several weeks to approach him about this.
Over the last few months, the focus of their correspondence had been on the money he owed Anthony. In his last e-mail, however, Anthony mentioned that his wife, Huong, wanted him to forgive Nathan’s debt. “Of course, you and I both know her idea is ridiculous,” Anthony had written. “I guess that’s just the not-yet-dead embers of a first love speaking.”
The pink-haired girl returned with tea. Steam peeled off the cup and thinly veiled her face as she set it beside the bowl.
A Lipton bag bulged at the bottom of the cup. Swirls of orange rose from it like something being pumped. He was conscious of a pleasant tightness in his chest.
“Thank you.” He reached for his money but she stopped him.
“It’s my treat.” When he hesitated, she told him to eat before his food got cold.
She sat next to him as he ate.
“Your English is excellent. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, considering you’re going to America.”
She only smiled and raised her head to watch the passing scenery.
The breeze buffeted her hair; it fluttered about her eyes until she tucked it behind her ears. He imagined it airy and soft in his fingers, like the fringe of a silk scarf. As he thrilled over the prospect of touching it — absurd though the fantasy was, he wondered why she coloured it. The Vietnamese language had so many ways to describe the beauty of black hair, he couldn’t imagine why she’d turn it pink. The more he thought about it, he wondered if perhaps it were a wig. And why a wig unless she was hiding something, like a hideous scar or disease? But it was too morbid a thought; and besides, pink hair fit her.
“I like your hair,” he said in Vietnamese. “It’s like candy.”
She laughed. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“You speak Vietnamese like a Vietnamese,” she remarked, turning his earlier compliment back to him. “You must have a good teacher.”
“I’ve never had one. They cost too much.”
She looked at him skeptically. “Then you must have a tu dien toc dai: a long-haired dictionary. People say that’s the best way to learn.”
He shook his head again, not wanting her to get the wrong impression. “Vietnamese girlfriends are even more expensive.”
Again she laughed. “But you’re American. You never worry about money.”
“That’s a common misconception.”
“What about your girlfriend?”
He had to think back to last night’s conversation. “I said maybe I had a girlfriend.”
“Liar.” She smacked his arm.
He peeled a banana. As he ate it, she peeled the other and set it before him in its own skin.
He followed her gaze to the passing countryside. The land here was divided into paddies: a deeper green than the rice fields in the south. Far from the tracks, farmers stood knee-deep in the muck, like thin stunted trees, fixtures in an unchanging landscape.
When he was done with the second banana he asked her name. But she either didn’t hear him or didn’t feel comfortable telling him. The train’s movement gently rocked her as she continued to look into the distance.
Her abstractedness allowed him to study the sharpness of her jaw line and the high bridge of her nose. When his gaze fell to her lips, where a tremor passed as if trailing a thought, it stayed there.
“You’re from the north,” he remarked, trying to draw her out. The term he used, que huong, meant something like ‘home village.’ Its connotations were stronger than the English word ‘hometown,’ for Vietnamese roots ran much deeper than in America.
She turned enough that he could see her eyes. In them was a kind of wonder. “How can you tell? From the way I speak?”
“I didn’t guess it from your clothes and hair.”
“Last night when you first saw me, you must have thought I was strange.”
Until suddenly you left, he wanted to say, I thought you were a gift. But he couldn’t tell what she was after, so he tried to make a joke of it. “I thought you were a...” He stopped to recall the word ‘stowaway,’ but all he could remember was that it involved a lot of words. “... A deserter,” he said instead, hoping to make her laugh. He carefully pronounced the words, as with these, too, he almost never had the chance to use them.
She smiled oddly and turned away again.
David Joiner was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the US. His earliest experience in Vietnam was as a volunteer teacher in 1994, when he became the first American since the end of the American War to live and work in Dong Nai Province. He has spent more than 10 of the last 20 years in Vietnam, making his home in such places as Saigon, Hanoi, Mui Ne and Bien Hoa.