|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Nguyen Quoc Trung
In early December two years ago, my neighbour Mr. Cang, who was the president of a hardware company, brought home a 30-year-old woman with a swollen face and black circles around her eyes.
"Her name is Tram. I've taken her here so she won't be beaten by her husband," Mr. Cang whispered to me. He had the habit of talking in a low voice, just enough to hear. He hated speaking loudly.
As I wondered if he was joking, Tram said:
"He paid fifty million dong to my husband to take me here, you know!"
"Don't mention the money, dear!" Mr. Cang grumbled in a low voice.
Tram shot a dirty look at my neighbour, then took everything from a suitcase and arranged it tidily on the bed. She went to the kitchen and cleaned everything there as if she were already used to living in this villa. She tried to gather some spices for cooking, but they had all expired. Mr. Cang looked sad to hear this news. His wife had bought all these things over three years ago. He placed all the old things into a large basket and phoned a supermarket nearby. A moment later, the staff from the supermarket brought everything he had ordered to the door. And food was cooked right after that. It was true, then, what people often said: family life cannot exist without the presence of a woman.
My neighbour Cang lived a lonely life after his wife died in an accident. The house was large with small paths running around it. Usually, his wife did her morning exercises inside the house, but that morning, she walked on the pavement. Out of the blue sky, a taxi veered onto the pavement and killed her. It looked as if she had been murdered, but it was only an accident. His two children were still studying in Australia. It was terrible for a middle-aged man to live a bachelor's life. Actually, he was fully capable of remarrying someone and many women admired him, but he had no idea yet. I could read his loneliness on his face. To allay his sorrow, he often visited the orchards on weekends and listened to don ca tai tu [Mekong Delta folk songs]. Gradually he developed a close relationship with the owners of several clubs there.
About one hour later, Tram approached Cang and said:
"Everything is ready. Please invite your guest to sit down!"
A tray of food with a lot of rural dishes was placed in front of us. She did not sit down together with us, but stood behind Mr. Cang and served the food.
That night, Mr. Cang took Tram to my house. She gave me a bag, speaking with a sweet voice, her black eyes twinkling: "Mr. Cang told me that you like dried shrimp."
I invited them into my living room. But Tram went straight into the kitchen, and had a look round for a moment before she got down to business cleaning and arranging things on the shelf.
During this time, Mr. Cang said in a low voice to me that she was born in a small hamlet by the Tram River, so probably her name was taken from the name of the river. Her family was very poor. They had no land to till, so her parents had to work as hired hands. She had to drop out of school when she was in ninth grade and earn money for her family by transplanting rice, harvesting, cutting grass and doing odd jobs. One day she went to work for an old couple and their grown-up son. The son had done nothing except for gambling on cockfights. They found that Tram was gentle and pretty. In addition, she had skilful hands and worked hard.
"Will your daughter be our daughter-in-law?"
"What good luck that would be!" her mother said, smiling.
The two women came to see each other often, while Tram could only smile. One night, while having dinner, her mother said:
"Mr. and Mrs. Chin wish to have you as their daughter-in-law. Do you consent?"
"If you both consent, I'll consent too!" Tram said with a smile.
One week later, a boat decorated with a dragon head neared Tram's house. It was carrying betrothal engagement offerings. Mr. Chin was wearing a silk robe and a turban, while Mrs. Chin was wearing a blue robe with some girls following behind, carrying the engagement offerings. The last person in line was their son Hai, looking quite smart in a suit.
Seeing the family's dilapidated house with its roof of coconut leaves, the soon-to-be father-in-law handed fifty million dong to Tram's father to build a new house. The neighbours commended Tram for her good luck.
After the lavish wedding party, Tram moved into her parents-in-law's house. It would have been a very happy nuptial night for her if her husband had not beaten her black and blue. Tram was in great confusion, wondering why he was beating her. It turned out that he had beaten her to rob her of all the jewels she was wearing to pay his gambling debts from the previous week. In reality, her husband's family was also very poor. They had nothing to eat for their daily meals except some dried fish. A few months later, her father-in-law suddenly died. Her mother-in-law followed suit. Her family was broke, so she had to sell some patches of land and work as a hired hand again. Her husband was deep in debt, so they had to sell the rest of the land to pay his debts. Whenever he lost money on a cockfight, he vented all his anger on his wife.
Her house was near the house where Mr. Cang went night after night to enjoy the singing of the village's folk artists. He heard the husband's swearing and beating sounds, but he never heard the woman's voice. The people around told him that in this area, it was quite normal for husbands to teach their wives a lesson by beating them. As an intellectual, Mr. Cang could not bear such a scene; nor did he wish to turn a blind eye to violence. However, he lacked the guts to interfere in the family's affairs.
One night, the villagers went to enjoy a singing performance in great numbers, filling the three-compartment house completely. Boats were anchored all along the river. While they were enjoying the beautiful singing, they all heard the swearing of a man who then rushed to beat a woman. Mr. Cang could bear it no longer. He rushed to stop them, but the drunken man said:
"What right do you have to meddle in our family business?"
"You are beating people and you are breaking the law, you know!"
"If you intervene in my beating this woman, I'll blow your head off, you see!"
Actually, Mr. Cang was talented at martial arts, so he was not afraid, but he tried to speak gently first:
"If you beat people, you'll be put into prison, you know!"
"I'll beat her until she pays back my fifty million dong!" he said, dragging her inside.
The next morning, Mr. Cang went to the couple's house. The husband had just gotten up and still looked drowsy. His wife was cooking in the kitchen. Later she brought two bowls of noodle soup and said in a low voice:
"Would you invite the guest to have breakfast with us?"
Her face was bruised all over. Mr. Cang choked up just looking at it. But why did she serve him so kindly? Later he learned that in this land, women were constant victims of violence.
Deep in the night, Mr. Cang heard the sounds of beating again from the neighbour's house. He rushed there:
"What are you doing? Do you want to kill her now?"
"I spent fifty million dong to build a house for her parents. If anyone can pay me that sum, I'll give her to him immediately."
That afternoon, Mr. Cang went to meet the communal People's Committee to report the case. The chairman of the committee said to him that they already knew what had happened and had given the husband warnings. Actually they had already divorced, but she still owed him fifty million dong.
"If you want to help her, you should pay that debt, take her to the city and get her a job," the chairman said.
Mr. Cang was not lacking money. His company was still thriving despite the economic crisis that had made a dozen companies go bankrupt. The next day, Mr. Cang came to see the husband and handed him a sum of fifty million dong. The husband counted the money and found that there were two million dong extra.
"Just keep it and buy alcohol for yourself!" Mr. Cang said.
"No, I don't need it. Take this woman away. I don't want to see her back," the husband said.
The people in the condominium praised Mr. Cang to the skies for generously paying the debt to rescue her from her violent husband. Not only that, but he took good care of her. Naturally, there were also a lot of rumours and gossip, but he did not care a pin. He showed people that what he had done to help the woman in distress was very much needed in this society. Every day, after morning exercises, he went to work. He had breakfast and dinner outside. A lot of girls in the company and the city tried to catch his attention, but he pretended not to notice. They did not know that the woman from that hamlet had changed his life. Sometimes he had dinner at home, where he ate the dishes Tram cooked for him.
Tram got used to going to the supermarket and to the beauty shop and became accustomed to life in the big city as if she had been living there for ten years. She now looked pretty and healthy after all those terrible years living with that violent husband in her home village. I felt happy for her, thinking that every cloud had its silver lining.
Mr. Cang was as busy as a bee. He was up to his eyes in work from early morning until late at night. He often went abroad on business, leaving Tram alone at home. Their friends often urged them to get married so that a baby's cries could be heard in the villa.
However, everything did not go so smoothly. When Mr. Cang went abroad on business, Tram went to a luxury cafe at the head of the street to enjoy some soft drinks. Gradually she got addicted to drinking coffee.
One day, after returning from a business trip to South Korea, Mr. Cang came to see me and broke the news: "Tram is going to get married."
"Good, it's about time for the two of you to tie the knot!"
"No, not to me."
"So, to whom?"
"With the Canadian guy who rented your house the other year. Remember him? She has already moved in with him."
I was dumbfounded. That Canadian guy's name was Frank Owen Goor. He was working for a Canadian pharmaceuticals company. He could speak Vietnamese very well. His company had gone bankrupt and he now lived on unemployment benefits.
"Why did she leave you?"
"During my absence from home, she often went to the cafe. That's where she met that guy…."
"How could she leave you when you treated her so kindly?"
"She told me that she wanted to marry a foreigner so that she could go abroad to live. So I think I had better respect her decision."
I kept silent for a moment and then said:
"Don't think about that woman. Now I understand why her ex-husband beat her that way."
"It's OK for her to choose her man. I only hope that she finds happiness without falling into a miserable situation as before."
One Saturday afternoon, I was sitting alone in the cafe on Tan Son Nhat, when all of a sudden, I saw Tram walking hand in hand with Goor. She was in jeans and a T-shirt. Seeing me, they were startled. A moment later, Tram came to me, speaking in a shy voice:
"He is going to be my husband soon, you know! Mr. Cang saved me from being tortured by my ex-husband and I am much obliged to him. But I found it so hard to get close to him. He often went on business abroad, and then I found it even more difficult to live alone. Fortunately I met Goor. When I did the cooking, he went to help me in the kitchen and talked with me, making me happy."
I stood like a log. A moment later, she continued:
"Marriage really is a matter of fate. I told this man that after we get married, we would pay Mr. Cang the sum of fifty million dong, but Mr. Cang said to me that he gave it to me." Then Tram went back to her lover.
A moment later, the Canadian guy came up to me and said:
"You know, I have lived in Viet Nam for about ten years, and now having lived for the first time with a mien Tay* girl, I find it so wonderful. I have lived on unemployment benefits for one year now, and I have to support this woman too, so it is very difficult for me. I still owe you three months of rent. I will pay you when I get a new job. Please, I beg you not to let the cat out of the bag. I feel so ashamed."
Translated by Manh Chuong
Mien Tay* is a vast rice-growing region on the west bank of the Cuu Long (Mekong) River where the women are known for their beauty.