The March of the Dragons
1st March, 15:00
Mr Cường always wrote furiously on the white board. As if every word was a matter of the utmost
urgency. His writing was large, leaned slightly to the right and finished with a full stop impaled
like a darts player taking his shot. He turned, looking over the rim of his glasses. Tapping the white
board twice with his middle finger.
'Read these pages. We'll be discussing them tomorrow.' Hawkish eyes darted from one student
to the next. 'Don't forget your essays on the key problems of urbanisation. I'll be collecting them
Tuấn sat at the front of the class. He glanced at the clock above the whiteboard and scribbled
the study pages onto his dog eared notepad. He clicked his pen's retract button and without looking
slipped it into his top pocket.
Mr Cường's toothless smile wrinkled his face making him look older than his years. 'Class is
dismissed for today. Remember; study hard for a bright future.'
The class stood almost as one. Chairs grated along the floor and students began to shuffle out
of the room. A pupil at the back of the room lifted his head from his desk and let out an exaggerated
yawn as he stood. He made for the door in long confident strides.
'Not you, Huy,' Mr Cường called out, 'return to your chair.'
Tuấn swung his backpack over his shoulder. Narrowing his eyes at Huy, he made his way to
the exit. Filing out last, he pulled the door shut. He'd wanted to linger and speak to teacher, but Mr
Cường would want the privacy of the room to scold the wayward Huy.
Phượng was waiting in the hallway leaning against the wall. She'd let her dark shoulder length
hair down. Whirling a pink hair band around her index finger, her face spread into a smile. 'Are
you going straight home?'
'Yes, why?' Tuấn prodded his glasses a half centimetre up the bridge of his nose.
'Vân, Minh and I are going to stop for coffee. You should come.'
Tuấn shrugged. They often used to stop off for iced coffee. In this final year his visits had
become less frequent as the impetus leaned toward the coming exams.
'Are you waiting to speak to Mr Cường?'
'Yes.' Tuấn peered through the narrow window of the classroom door. He felt Phượng's hair
brush against his shoulder as she moved beside him.
Teacher rested his fists on Huy’s desk. Although Huy sat back nonchalantly in his chair he
couldn't meet Mr Cường's gaze. He looked from the floor to the door; locking eyes with Tuấn.
With a broad mischievous grin, he flexed his bicep.
'Hey!' Mr Cường slammed his fist onto the desk. 'I'm talking to you, foolish boy!' He followed
Huy's gaze to the door.
Tuấn and Phượng ducked to opposite sides of the doorway. Tuấn cursed. Were they fast
enough? He’d hate to bring teacher’s displeasure on himself.
'He's right. Huy is a fool,' said Phượng.
Tuấn nodded. He could hear teacher shouting that he would report Huy's inattentiveness to
his parents. 'I'll wait for Mr Cường. You go on. I'll catch up.'
'It's ok,' Phượng said, smiling. 'I'll wait with you.'
The door swung open, making them both jump. Huy breezed past with a lopsided grin. He
made some gang sign he'd likely seen a hip-hop artist perform.
'What's up, Bro?' Huy spat, jutting his face forward with each word.
Tuấn blinked and readjusted his glasses. Huy smirked. Shaking his head, he swaggered away.
Phượng stepped beside Tuấn. Her soft face etched with concern she gently lay her fingers on his
'Ignore him. He thinks because he's strong and cool he can do what he likes. He doesn't even
study. Just wastes his parent’s investment.'
'That is not your judgement to make, Miss Phượng,' croaked Mr Cường.
The two students spun about to face him. Mr Cường waved them inside the room. They
shuffled past him with heads bowed in submission. Mr Cường closed the door behind them,
keeping one hand on the handle. 'Now, what can I do for you two?'
Tuấn cast a second reproachful glance at Phượng who looked down at her feet. He wanted to
ask some advice about that message. He wasn't sure how he was going to ask. He definitely didn't
want to mention it in front of her. She'd make a fuss. He scrambled for something else to say.
'Please, Mr Cường… I was wondering... I wanted to ask about the... Chinese.'
'Oh?' Mr Cường's eyebrow arched, 'what about them? There are many things about them.
What do you want to ask me about the Chinese?'
Tuấn sighed. 'On the news- China’s threatening to stop trading with us because of the trouble.'
'Ah yes,' Mr Cường chuckled. 'The Trường Sa Islands. They may contain a few drops of oil,
'Teacher...' Tuấn's voice raised several pitches. His lower lip quivered. 'If we stop trading with
China, our economy will suffer greatly. We are Economics students; it will be our duty to protect
the future of the country's economy.'
Mr Cường chuckled, then coughed into his palm. 'Don't worry yourself, young Tuấn.' He
clapped his hand over the student's shoulder making him jolt in surprise at the sudden gesture.
'You're one of my brightest students, yet it's not for you to shoulder the burdens of society.' He
nodded reassuringly. 'China are well established in this country. They have many factories in Binh
Duong. Many mining operations; digging mountains for limestone in the Mekong delta. China
aren't going to forsake that for the promise a few barrels of oil under the sea.'
Tuấn nodded. Chewing his lower lip, not really listening. He knew they could see he was
upset. They probably thought he was foolish by blubbering over some silly politics. Maybe he
should've just said what he'd wanted to.
Mr Cường turned to Phượng who was awkwardly trying to find interest in her feet. Shaking
his head, he slapped his thigh with an exasperated exhalation. 'Was there anything else?'
Tuấn glowered at Phượng. He already looked a fool so he might as well... 'Sir...I had a
message on my phone. I wasn't sure... if I should respond.'
'A phone message?' Mr Cường's snorted, his eyebrow curved, 'young Mr Tuấn, I really can't
mediate on personal squabbles. You're an adult. Make your own decisions.'
Tuấn closed his eyes and nodded. His cheeks felt hot.
'Along you both go now.' With a hand on his shoulder, Mr Cường guided Tuấn to the door. 'I
will miss these little chats after you graduate, Mr Tuấn. But tonight you have study, and I have an
evening class in thirty minutes.'
Tuấn walked down the corridor. Staring directly ahead, he heard Phượng's quickened steps
before she appeared beside him in his peripheral vision.
'You're worried about China? I don't think you need to.'
Tuấn halted, gritting his teeth. 'I Don’t care about China.'
Phượng bowed her head. 'Are you mad at me?'
He sighed. 'I like to talk to teacher alone.'
'You mentioned a message...'
'Oh, stop it Phượng! You're always fussing over me!'
Her mouth twitched. Her wide brown eyes were like those of a Labrador.
'Forget it,' Tuấn dismissed his outburst with a shake of his head, 'we haven't hung out after
class for ages. Let's go. Minh will be waiting.'
Phượng smiled and linked her arm with his as they continued out into the bursting sunlight of
the University courtyard.
'You know, Tuấn... We hang out after class quite often. It's just you don't.'
He knew she was right. She always asked. He always had something more important than
socialising. She'd even taken to inviting Minh; his best friend. Tuấn knew that was an effort to
attract his company.
Students still milled about after school; fetching their mopeds and motorbikes, or sitting on
the benches as they poured over textbooks or cell phones. Phượng waved to her friend Vân, who
was leaning over the handlebars of her motorbike. Phượng skipped ahead leaving Tuấn to catch
Tuấn shielded his eyes from the sun with his hand. He turned to the sound of a beeping horn
and the incoming chortle of an engine as Minh's small motorbike weaved its way toward him.
'You're coming with us, Bro?' Minh said, his voice raised in surprise.
'Awesome. At least if you're with us I won't have to listen to Phượng talk about you.'
'Hey!' Phượng protested.
'Mrs Tam's cafe?' chimed Vân. Her skin was completely covered to avoid the sun's rays: long
sleeves, white gloves, a long white scarf around her neck. Sunglasses and a surgical mask covered
her face topped by her yellow motorcycle helmet. Only her perfectly trimmed and plucked
eyebrows visible over the rim of her sunglasses. Many girls similarly covered themselves from the
sun, but there was no mistaking Vân with her posture naturally elegant even when relaxed.
'Yes, Mrs Tam's,' Phượng said.
Tuấn nodded his approval.
'Better get your bikes,' Minh said.
The parking area was always chaos at the end of the school day. A press of students competed
to be first out of the parking lot. Others lingered strapping on their motorbike helmets, fiddling
with under-seat storage compartments or sitting astride their bikes chatting on phones.
Tuấn had to allow passing motorbikes by before he could enter the fenced off parking area.
He walked slowly. Taking his smart phone from his pocket he opened up the messages re-reading
the message he'd had that morning.
'Hi Son, it's Dad. Your Gran gave me your number. Maybe you can visit next weekend - join
us for dinner'.
Dad? Tuấn shook his head. How dare he call himself that.
'Watch out!' Phượng cried.
He heard the bike accelerating behind him. Sensing its proximity, he jumped to his right to
avoid it; almost dropping his phone. He felt a rush of air as the bike swept past. Huy skidded the
bike to a halt in a small cloud of dirt, then turned on the spot dragging the back wheel around,
revving the engine like a Knight ready for another pass at the tilt. He'd already stripped off his
white shirt; he preferred the vest he wore underneath to show off his brawny arms. Fingerless
leather gloves and a backwards black cap produced the 'gangsta' look he was fond of.
'Idiot!' Phượng shouted, waving her fist.
Huy winked at her, his gaze then drifting to Vân. 'Hey, sister! You and me- we should ditch
these losers and go hang out together, honey. I treat you good. Nobody's going to mess with you
when I'm with you.'
Vân presented Huy with her middle finger. He held his hands up and pursed his lips in mock
'Nobody messes with her now,' interjected Phượng, advancing on him. 'Don't you have to go
hang out at the park and show off body popping moves?' She placed her fists on her hips. Leaning
forward with her forehead creased in a frown like she meant business.
Huy’s grin was mocking. With a twitch of his wrist his bike shot past her in a short burst so
that he stopped beside Vân. Leaning close to her he looked into her eyes. 'Ok baby. Maybe next
time. We’ll go on my bike out to Starlight bridge. Have some fun.'
'You are handsome,' Vân said, her surgical mask twitching as she spoke. 'But, you're an
Huy whipped his right hand up parallel to his left ear; as if to strike her with a back handed
swipe. Vân made no move to defend herself. Turning her cheek as if daring him to strike. Phượng
rushed to put herself between them. He lowered his hand with a short, high pitched forced laugh.
'Don't worry baby. I don't hit no lady.' The thug winked and smiled again before revving the
throttle on his 100cc motorbike. He drove out onto the road at speed, without a glance to check the
Phượng smiled at Vân, shrugging apologetically.
'I can handle that guy,' Vân said, 'lets go to the cafe.'
Phượng nodded and walked back toward Tuấn. She narrowed her eyes slightly. He stood rigid
as he had been during the entire exchange. His sharp, chiselled face glum. Phượng opened her
mouth to speak, but then after taking a breath closed her mouth again.
'It's better that you deal with him,' Tuấn explained, 'as he said- he won't hit a girl. He loves
fighting. If Minh or I stop him, he'll fight us.'
Phượng walked past him. He strode briskly to catch up; waiting for her response. She
remained fixed directly ahead until she came to her moped. With her back to him she unclasped
her little yellow helmet from the moped's handlebars and let out a long sigh.
Tuấn's bike was parked nearby. He watched her start her bike and join the back end of the
throng of students leaving the parking shelter. He thought of heading straight home. Taking his
phone from his pocket his eyes again scanned over the short message. He wasn't going to be like
his father. His friends were his family. He'd stick by them in future no matter what. Running his
thumb over the screen he sucked his lower lip in thought before deleting the message and slipping
the phone back into his pocket.
1st March, 15:40
The customs officer looked barely out of his teens. Red and gold epaulets on the shoulders of his
lime green tunic might have signified some lofty rank; if it wasn't identical to that of all the other
immigration officials. Timothy shifted from one foot to the other while his passport was
scrutinized. Finally, the boy closed the passport and without looking up pushed it toward Timothy
with a curt nod of acceptance.
'Cảm ơn,' Timothy mumbled, practicing the only Vietnamese phrase he knew.
The boy was already waving forward the next in line. Timothy slung his backpack over his
shoulder and headed to the escalator. The terminal building was small for an airport servicing such
a large city as Ho Chi Minh. A few dozen paces separated the bottom of the escalator to the main
entrance with little in between; baggage collection points, a snack kiosk, and a cleaner mopping
the highly polished floor,
A solitary security guard dressed in enough braid and stars to be a General stood at attention
beside the doorway. The arrivals waiting area was outside. From behind a rope cordon a small
crowd of faces peered into the terminal. Timothy nodded at the guard who blinked and watched
him saunter toward the automatic door.
The dense heat of Vietnam struck immediately beyond the threshold of the air conditioned
terminal. The warmth palpable even in the air breathed. The sun's intensity immediately parched
the skin as heat rolled over him in a wave. It took a couple of seconds for the shock of the sudden
climate change to pass.
Some of those waiting in the crowd held signs with names scrawled on them; some bore
European names. None were his. He ambled past the flock of expectant, bored and anxious faces.
Chewing his bottom lip, he glanced at his watch; 4.18pm- a little later than he was expected. So
where was his guide?
'Mister Campbell! Mister Campbell!' cried a cheerful voice.
He spotted a thin arm frantically waving over the crowd, her a face smiling at him over
someone's shoulder. She pushed sideways between bodies emerging from the press with a grin as
wide and friendly as any he'd seen.
'Mister Campbell!' the girl exclaimed presenting her hand. 'Please, welcome to Vietnam!'
A cluster of gold bracelets jangled on her wrist as he shook her offered hand. Her broad smile
exhibited pure white teeth behind bright red lips. Her hair tied in a neat ponytail hanging over her
shoulder. A dark pinafore accentuated her pearly skin. Even in heels she was short; he stood almost
a head above her.
'Nancy? Glad you recognised me. I don't look much like my passport photo,' he said with a
smirk which he hoped was charming. She was much prettier than he'd expected.
'Wow, Mister Campbell your accent is really strong!' she gasped in exaggerated surprise, 'I
should keep a dictionary with me!'
They chuckled at her jape.
'It's okay. I've got my Vietnamese phrasebook. We'll muddle through.' He patted the satchel
at his hip.
'Oh, Mister Campbell, you should learn Vietnamese! I will help you!' She enthused.
'I'm not sure I'll have time for that, but please call me Tim.'
'Tim…' she tested the sound of the name before nodding her satisfaction. Her smile faded into
a frown. 'You have no suitcase?'
He unslung his rucksack from his shoulder. 'I prefer to travel light. Change of clothes, camera,
notebook and I'm good.'
Smiling again, Nancy tugged at his hand. 'Come, we should get a taxi before the sun turns my
He couldn't help but admire her seemingly natural elegance. Her pinafore clung to her thin
form. He fixated on the swing of her hips as she led him by the hand. She turned; catching his
inappropriately wandering gaze and breaking his enchantment. His apologetic lopsided grin
provoked a solitary chime of laughter from her. She's used to the attention, he mused.
Releasing his hand, Nancy engaged in Vietnamese with a waiting Taxi driver. Tim caught
sight of himself in the rear window of the taxi. He swept his fingers through his sandy fringe and
straightened the collar on his Ben Sherman shirt. He could already feel the effect of the humidity
on his pores; his underarms felt moist and the clammy warmth around his legs made him regret
wearing jeans. He knew from his time in similar climates that it would take days to adjust after
several cool months in the UK.
With the negotiations apparently concluded, the driver opened the nearside rear door of his
green taxi cab, motioning for Tim to climb inside.
'Ladies first.' Tim swept his palm toward the open door.
Nancy grinned before stepping inside. Sliding across the seat to the far side of the cab. The
driver motioned for Tim to hand over his backpack. Tim ducked into the taxi while their driver
deposited the rucksack into the boot.
'Oh, I don't have Vietnamese cash!' He winced through his embarrassment, 'it’s a closed
Nancy dismissed his excuse with a wave of her hand. 'Is ok Mr Tim. I pay. You pay me later.
In Vietnam can also use US dollar.'
'I know… there must be an ATM around here.'
Nancy slapped her hand on top of his. Squeezing it to quiet him. 'Is ok, Mr Tim. Don't worry.'
'It's just Tim.'
'I say it wrong?' she pursed her lips, confused.
'You don't need mister.'
'Tim.' Nancy's grin reached her cheekbones, narrowing her eyes to slits.
The taxi pulled away from the curb. The driver fiddled with the radio until he found a western
song; a recent dance track which Tim didn't know the name of. The driver turned in his seat to
gauge Tim's reaction to the tune while enthusiastically bobbing his grinning head to the beat.
'American music. Very cool!'
Tim flashed a faint smile. Nancy laughed and said something in Vietnamese to the driver who
turned the volume down and returned his attention to the road. The car stopped at a booth on the
airport's exit. Wordlessly the driver handed the attendant a ticket with some brightly coloured
banknotes, and then they were on their way into Ho Chi Minh City in the comfort of the air
The cab was quickly surrounded by a throng of motorbikes and scooters weaving around each
other with abandon along the four lane highway; sometimes three riders to single bike. Many of
the huge roadside billboards advertising expensive brands were in English. Large red banners
bearing gold star of Vietnam lined the neatly trimmed grass of the central reservation.
Nancy pointed out various sights they passed. The CT plaza mall with a huge movie poster
plastered on its side alongside adverts for pizza hut. Many coffee chains popped up along the route;
Trung Nguyen, Highlands coffee, and others all looking very much like Starbucks. Statues at the
centre of roundabouts depicted heroes from Vietnam’s past.
'Who's that one?' Tim pointed at an ancient looking warrior statue.
'Oh, some king who defeat the Chinese,' Nancy pointed past the statue, 'over there
They whizzed past colourful shop fronts- usually before Tim could ascertain what they were
selling. Almost every building had at its ground floor a shop or business of some sort. He glimpsed
numerous fashion shops, a row of shops selling washing machines, and a row of clock shops. They
passed Mercedes and Porsche showrooms and plenty of grocery stores, which at a glance had
Nearing the more densely populated central District 1 the footpaths became crowded with
vendors selling street food; Vietnam's famous Pho, dried squid, spring rolls, bread and much more
besides. The streets were as full with pedestrians as with motorbikes. No vehicle stopped even at
marked pedestrian crossings; bikers easily navigated around crossing pedestrians without slowing.
Tim did a double take when noticing a pair of motorbikes driving on the pavement; walkers stepped
out of their path without a hint of irritation.
'Bloody hell,' he mumbled.
'This street one way,' Nancy said, 'easier drive on sidewalk than go longer way around.'
Despite it all, Tim saw an apparent order to the chaos. Aside from the constant beeping of
horns and a palpable impatience at traffic lights, everyone knew how to manoeuvre around
everything and everyone. There was an almost frantic pace not unlike London or New York;
chaotic only to the visiting observer.
'We are near your hotel. This is the heart of Saigon. Look, here is Uncle Ho!'
The statue of the wizened leader sat smiling down at sculptures of adoring children. It
reminded Tim of a photo he'd seen showing a ring of stone children dancing around a fountain
among the ruins of Stalingrad.
Nancy pointed out the opera house; its grand pillars and Imperial design stood out majestically
among French colonial buildings, modern malls and stylish brand shops such as Louis Vuitton,
Versace and Dior- all of which Nancy proudly indicated with a tap of her index finger on the cab
'There, next to the Opera House- the Continental hotel. That is where the Quiet American was
written. Many foreigner journalists stay there during the American War.'
'The American War?' Tim puzzled, 'ah, the Vietnam war.'
Nancy nodded enthusiastically. 'For us, is the American war.'
The Taxi passed the expensive looking Caravelle hotel, glimpsing the Sheraton Towers.
Above numerous tall buildings, the massive Bitexco tower stood gleaming in the sunlight like a
giant shard of glass pointing toward the heavens. The taxi pulled into a side road and stopped. The
driver sprung from the cab, rushing to open the boot.
There was Tim’s hotel; Hai Long 5. It didn't look particularly grand. Its huge sign tilted
outwards either precariously or by design. The sign, windows, even the steps were bordered in a
tacky gold colour. The hotel’s slim form was compressed between its neighbours; another equally
garish hotel and a shop selling leather products; its sign in English declaring 'Alligator, python,
A young bellboy- smart in his red tunic and matching cap, sprang from his seat outside the
hotel to pull open the taxi door even as Tim had one foot outside the taxi. He wordlessly waved
Tim toward the hotel entrance before hurrying to the driver to relieve him of the luggage. Nancy
paid the driver while Tim ignored the bell boy's repeated gestures urging him inside.
The scent of street food lingered. Boiled vegetables, strange sauces and various seafood mixed
with the smoke of exhaust fumes from the heavy traffic. It was little wonder that many pedestrians
and motorists alike covered their mouth and nose with a paper surgical mask. Nancy skipped to
him. Winking, she took his arm and guided him up the hotel steps.
The hotel foyer was as garish as the exterior; tacky but clean. A large fish tank sat beside the
entrance adjacent to a sickly coloured sofa, which was of course gilded in gold trim. A wallmounted
widescreen TV showed Stephen Segall in a knife fight with Tommy Lee Jones. The
receptionist smiled from behind a desk cluttered with leaflets for tours, boat trips and massages.
'Welcome, sir. Do you have a reservation?'
'Yes. It's Timothy Campbell.'
Pushing in front of him, Nancy conversed with the check-in girl in what Tim thought to be
authoritative, almost harsh tones. The corners of the receptionist's mouth curved down and she
nodded politely. He listened to them chatter for a few moments before the receptionist asked for
his passport; in return giving him a room swipe-key which she offered with both hands.
'They will keep your passport tonight,' Nancy said, 'they copy it to the Police station. It is the
'Oh... guess I won't be getting away with any crazed murders if the Police know where to find
Nancy rolled her eyes. 'Oh, Mr Campbell you are funny,' she said without a hint of mirth. The
bell boy directed them toward the lift with a tired gesture.
'What was all that between you and the receptionist?' Tim said.
'Ah, I got you a better price.' Nancy's cheeky chuckle belied her shy shrug. 'I told her price is
too much for mini-hotel. They should make a bargain or we find cheaper hotel.'
'Wow, thanks. I'd have liked the Continental or Sheraton, but a working man like myself has
to make do. So, how much am I paying?'
'$38 a night,' she beamed.
'Oh. The original booking was $35.'
'Yes, but now you have the best room. Discounted to half price!'
The lift doors opened, Nancy walked ahead. Smirking, Tim shook his head. He was paying
her to assist- she knew the City, so he'd give her some latitude.
The room was spacious, with a large sized flat screen TV which the bellboy switched on. A
writing desk, large double bed, and L-shaped sofa. A window spanning the width of the room
provided a nice view of the street. The bathroom was pristine. Tim nodded in satisfaction; a bargain
'Thank you, sir,' said the bellboy. Bowing as he backed out of the room then closed the door.
Standing at the centre of the room, Nancy spread her arms magnanimously. 'You are happy
for this room?'
'Yes. It'll do nicely.'
She stood watching him and smiling. He wondered if he should remind her he was spoken
for, or was he getting the wrong signal? He feigned a yawn.
'I leave you to freshen up,' Nancy chuckled, 'I come back after two hours then we go eat.'
'Uhh, yeah... that'll be fine.'
She twirled toward the door. Waving her hand over her shoulder as she bounced away.
'Oh, bugger!' he Winced.
Nancy turned. Her head tilted questioningly and brow furrowed in concern.
'Oh it’s just...' he shook his head, 'I didn't tip the bellboy.'
'Is ok Mr Campbell. Not necessary. If you want, you can give him something later. There is
ATM over the street in the Circle K. We visit there later.'
'Thank you, Nancy.' he called as the door shut.
He fell back onto the bed. Stretching out then kicking off his shoes. Motorbikes and beeping
horns remained a muffled background noise. Outside the third-floor window clutters of electrical
cable haphazardly criss-crossed the street. A billboard poster of a girl drinking a soda smiled at
'Vietnam,' he mumbled to as he rubbed his eyes. 'This is going to be an interesting trip.'
2nd March, 16:30
Lâm swatted at a fly buzzing around his ear. He sat in his green plastic chair. The electric fan he
was repairing resting across his knees. Returning to his work he unscrewed the casing. Poking
around inside the fan with the tip of a screwdriver he located the problem; a pin between the power
button and arm connecting to a cog had come loose. Turning the fan upside down, the wheel and
the pin both fell into his lap.
He picked up the pin between two oil stained fingers. It was broken. The missing part still
attached to the cog wheel. Setting the fan down at his feet, he stood and walked to the near wall of
his small workshop. Three dirty shelves showcased a variety of nick-knacks; engine pieces, rubber
belts, little plastic trays filled with various screws and bolts and a scattering of stained and dusty
He shuffled through various objects until he found the yellowed head of an old fan. Returning
to his chair he opened the old fan and removed its pin. He held it alongside the broken one; satisfied
they matched he set about replacing the busted pin.
Traffic passing the workshop was constant. Their fleeting shadows crossed the floor in by
Lâm's feet. A small cardboard sign propped against the shop entrance declared in permanent
marker; Repair, motorcycle, radio, gadget. The bottom left corner of the sign was darkened where
it had soaked up moisture from a puddle.
The workshop was a converted double garage with a roll up iron gate opening onto the street.
A scattering of discarded objects which once worked some gadget cluttered much of the floor
space. To the rear of the workshop an old grey portable television sat atop a small wooden chest
of drawers. The screen directed toward a double mattress in the back corner of the workshop. A
pot of congealed rice sat atop a portable gas stove in the middle of the room. A power socket hung
loose from the wall showing the wiring, from it a power chord led to a four socket extension unit
beside Lâm's chair.
Having fixed the case back onto the fan, Lâm kicked the sandal off his right foot and picked
up the fan's plug with his toes and stamped it into the extension socket. He nodded in silent
satisfaction when the fan purred to life; the head whirring gently from left to right.
Noticing a shadow hover at the entrance he looked up. It was an old woman, her crooked back
bent in her paisley clothes. Her face cast in shadow under her conical bamboo hat. She clutched a
small stack of lottery tickets. Her eyebrows raised from her sagging features. She couldn't quite
force the salespersons welcoming smile.
Lâm set the fan down and reached into the back pocket of his stained and frayed jeans.
Producing a small wad of bank notes of small denominations.
'One ticket please, Anh,' he said.
The old woman's arthritic fingers trembled as she separated a ticket from the bunch and
offered it in her claw-like hand. Lâm handed her a five-thousand Dong note. She silently mouthed
her thanks, displaying a single browned tooth. She shuffled on her way along the uneven pavement.
Her hat turning left to right in search of her next customer.
'Why do you want to buy lottery tickets? I thought you're having trouble paying rent.' The
grating, nasal whine came from Dũng; a street vendor who sat to the right of Lâm's workshop. A
fat gossip of a man who sold canned sodas, dried squid, and cigarettes.
'She needs the money more than I do.'
Dũng snorted. 'She won't last the year. She's been coming by here for years. This year she's
'Just give me a packet of consulate.'
The tubby vendor smiled at the younger man. His sweaty hair clung to his forehead. He sat
behind his mobile stall upon a little plastic stool, the legs of which bulged under his weight. With
a beefy hand he selected the red and white packet of cigarettes. He tossed it to Lâm who caught
with both hands.
'I know.' Lâm walked the few steps to the stall, handing the vendor two notes. The stool’s legs
quavered as Dũng shifted his weight to stuff the notes into his pocket.
The shout came from somewhere across the street.
'Stop that kid!'
Along the busy street heads turned and necks craned to see what the commotion was about.
A barefoot young boy with a dirty face dashed into the road. Lâm recognised him as a local street
urchin who he'd given money on occasion to buy food.
Noticing Lâm the boy changed direction- cutting across the path of a scooter. The rider had
to brake harshly. Shaking his fist, his cursing muffled by his surgical mask. The urchin kept going.
Darting past Lâm he found refuge at the rear of the shop where he tucked himself between the old
TV and the rear wall. His eyes peered over the top of the television set.
'Oh, he's trouble. Get him out!' Dũng wailed.
Lâm frowned at the boy. Before he could think what to do about him he was distracted by the
fast approach of a second set of footfalls. He didn't know the new man; in his mid-forties with
short cropped hair, a white shirt open at the collar, a cheap blue tie loose around his neck. Trousers
neatly ironed but the legs didn't quite stretch to his ankles.
'Where's the little bastard?' The man panted.
Lâm placed his hands on his hips and shrugged one shoulder.
'Is he your son? I saw him go inside. Is he stealing for you?' the man made to step into the
workshop. Lâm stepped into his path. 'I can see him there hiding!' The man stabbed his finger at
Lâm puffed out his chest. At 184cm he stood taller than most Vietnamese. He raised his chin,
looking down his nose at the accuser, silently enduring the outburst.
'Why are you protecting him? I’ll go to the police and tell them you're running a scam from
Lâm glanced back at boy still peering from his hiding place.
'What did he steal?'
'Little bastard has my cell phone!' the man sprayed spittle from his reddened face.
Still thinking, Lâm slowly nodded.
'You big ugly giant! Look at you! With your stupid big rubbery lips and narrow eyes! Even if
you get children to steal for you- you still can't afford a proper haircut or clean clothes-'
Lâm grabbed the accuser by the shoulders, shaking him to silence.
'I'll get your phone back for you. You don't need to call me names, Anh. Not unless you want
me to bloody your nose.' Lâm spoke slowly, in a heavy droning tone. He released the man who
stepped back, brushing creases from his shirt.
'Just get my phone.'
The boy leapt from his hiding place- sprinting toward freedom. Lâm's long arm lunged at the
boy, snatching him back, feet kicking. Lâm took a firm hold on his skinny arm. The boy's eyes
darted, searching for an escape route.
'Give me the phone,' Lâm said in a low voice, hoping to soothe the boy.
'He's a liar!' The boy squirmed.
Lâm shook his arm. 'Give me the phone.'
A tear appeared at the corner of the boy's eye, yet he continued to try to wriggle free.
'Tears don't fool me,' Lâm whispered, 'give me the phone, and I'll see you're taken care of.'
The boy's bottom lip protruded. He bowed his head in submission. Reaching down the front
of his shorts he produced a small black mobile phone- a model several years old. He placed it in
Lâm's waiting palm. Keeping a firm hold on the boy, Lâm offered the phone to its owner.
'Thieving little bastard.' the man spat, and with a reproachful glare at Lâm he walked back the
way he'd come. Street vendors and their customers who paused to witness the spectacle returned
to their business.
'Why'd you protect that scoundrel?' Dũng wailed.
Lâm turned his attention back to the boy whose wide eyes regarded him with curiosity and
apprehension. Lâm sighed and released the boy. Crouching, he rested his forearms on his knees.
'What’s your name?'
Lâm smiled. The boy hid a smirk behind his small dirty hands. Kids often found amusement
in the centimetre-wide gap between Lâm's front teeth.
'You remember me, Dac?'
'You're an orphan?'
He nodded again.
'How old are you?'
'Maybe ten,' he said with a shrug.
Lâm grinned. The boy giggled. He seemed small for ten. Lâm sniffed, wiping his nose on the
back of his hand. 'If you want, you can be my apprentice. I can't pay anything, but I'll make sure
you're fed and if you don't have a place to sleep, you can sleep here.'
'So, you like young boys now do you?' Dũng sneered, followed by a harsh, mocking laughter.
Lâm ignored the remark, waiting for the young boy to consider his offer. Dũng persisted.
'Maybe it's because you're too ugly to find a new girl since that educated girl you dated did the
smart thing and left you.'
With a sigh, Lâm rose and strode to the vendor. 'If you say anything like that again, I will
bloody your nose.'
Their eyes met. The vendor snorted and turned his attention to shuffling around the order of
soda cans on his little cart. As Lâm walked away, he heard the vendor mumble that he'd given the
theft victim the same empty warning.
Lâm tore open his packet of cigarettes and lit one with a cheap brass zippo; a copy of US war
era lighters vendors sell to tourists. His bore the image of an eagle on a black shield and some
writing in English which he couldn't understand. He took short, quick puffs on the cigarette,
blowing smoke rings. He hoped it would amuse the boy.
Dac sat on the floor, fidgeting with the front of his grimy white t-shirt. His bare feet were
black with dirt. His hands as filthy as Lâm's. He had dark smudges on his face, yet his hair had
been cropped short. He was probably wearing his only set of clothes.
'Does anyone look after you?' Lâm asked pointedly through a cloud of smoke.
'Sometimes, different people.' The boy shrugged, twitching his nose.
'Where do you sleep?'
'Different places,' the boy sniffed and fidgeted. He seemed incapable of sitting still- looking
ever ready to break into a run. His wandering eyes constantly searching.
'Did you ever work?' Lâm asked.
The boy shrugged again.
'Okay,' Lâm dropped the remaining half of his cigarette to the floor, crushing it into the
concrete with the bottom of his sandal. Lumbering to the rear of the workshop he searched, moving
cans and containers. Returning moments later offering a small cake. Dac snatched the small red
and white wrapped treat from Lâm's hand. He tore it open and took a large bite from the Choco
‘You can help me with some small tasks. You got small useful hands. I got big hands,' Lâm
looked down at his palms, 'I can teach you to repair things.'
The boy munched on the chocolate marshmallow treat, staring at Lâm with wide eyes as if
regarding a madman. Lâm waited for a reply but the boy finished the treat in silence.
'Well, what do you think?' Lâm said.
The boy shrugged. Lâm winced. He brushed his dark fringe from his eyebrows. How to get
through to the boy?
The young urchin discarded the Choco pie wrapper and sprang to his feet. He scuttled out of
the workshop with a sideways glance at Lâm.
Dũng laughed a throaty cackle which developed into wheezing and coughing. He wiped spittle
from his lips with the back of his hand. 'You're a bigger idiot than people credit you for. Apprentice
that boy? He's stupid and lazy. That's why he's a thief and an orphan.'
Lâm sat back into his green chair. He picked out another cigarette.
'I bet he isn't even an orphan,' Dũng scoffed, 'probably his mother thought he's too much
trouble and threw him to the street.'
Lâm let out a long breath of smoke. 'If that happened he's still an orphan'
'What?' Dũng's voice raised in a hoarse rasp.
'If his mother cast him out, he's an orphan.'
'No, you fool. He's an orphan if both parents are dead.' The vendor's let out a phlegmy chortle.
'No,' Lâm countered, 'he can be an orphan if his parents are alive but don't take responsibility
'Nonsense. I'll ask Ngoc, she'll agree with me. Hey! Ngoc!' Dũng called to a middle aged
woman who sold street food six metres further along the street.
'What?' she cawed.
'Can an orphan have parents?'
'No of course not. That's a stupid question. Stop wasting my time with nonsense!' The woman
returned to preparing her pungent crab soup.
'See!' Dũng's smile was wide and mocking.
'You didn't say it the way I said it,' Lâm grunted, curling his lip with a sideways glance at the
Further discourse was interrupted by a motorbike swinging from the road into the workshop
entrance. It was Tuấn- the university student whose expression was always serious, bordering
stern. He always dressed smartly: today he was sporting a brown blazer and black trousers. The
bespectacled student nodded a greeting to the tinker.
'Hey, Tuấn,' Lâm smiled.
The student retrieved some bank notes from his trouser pocket. He offered the small folded
bundle. 'I came to pay you for the work you did on my motorbike last week.'
Lâm stood and accepted the money. He pressed it into his pocket without counting it. 'Still
'Yes, like new.'
'Hey, you there!' Dũng interjected, 'do you think an orphan can have parents who are living?
or do they have to be dead?'
'What?' Tuấn wrinkled his nose.
'He thinks an orphan can have living parents, but not in same house as the kid.' With a sneer,
the portly vendor jerked his thumb at Lâm.
Tuấn shook his head and shrugged. 'If the child is abandoned then he or she is an orphan.'
The vendor's grin vanished. He threw up his arm, dismissing the youth. 'What do you know?
You're just a kid.'
'Yes, sir. Hey Lâm, did you hear that yesterday in District 4, ruffians beat some vendors?'
Lâm's face contorted in confusion. 'What's that got to do with me? Is there a gang who're after
Tuấn blinked. 'No. Just Chinese vendors because their government put oil rigs and warships
in our territorial water again. Everyone's after oil now that there's little coming out of the middle
'Oh, wow.' Lâm’s expression remained vacant. The two looked at each other in silence. Lâm
tried to think of something to say. He didn't keep up with current events. Nothing outside his street
'Ok... well, thanks again for the repair, Anh.' The student rolled his bike backwards out of the
'Always welcome.' Lâm lowered himself back into the chair.
As the student was turning into the road, Lâm was again greeted by the patter of bear feet.
The orphan rushed into the workshop clutching something to his chest.
'What’s this?' Lâm said.
The boy offered it to Lâm with both hands; a transparent plastic pouch containing a set of
screwdrivers of different sizes, each with a different coloured handle.
Dac stood with one foot awkwardly atop the other. He twitched his nose and chewed a
fingertip. 'You can use the tools?'
'Yes,' Lâm grinned broadly, 'thanks.' He ruffled the youth's hair. 'Maybe these can be your
The boy flashed a cheeky smile.
'Didn't steal them, did you?'
'No,' The boy answered quickly. 'I bought it with money I stole yesterday.'