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Letters To DOMAI

Night at the Hoi Quan
Memoir by Richard Taylor, writer

When I arrived in Vietnam in early 1968 I was as virginal as you can get and still not be a virgin. Except for my mother, my family was all male. I had no social experience with the opposite sex except what I could gain in school, and that wasn't much. Women or girls, both were a complete mystery to me. I was awkward in their presence, and left the impression with them (I imagined) of being a comical figure.

When I landed at Bin Hoa Airbase and stepped out onto the flight tarmac on foreign soil for the first time, air heavily laden with tropical decay swept over me and I knew I wasn't in America anymore. This was terra incognita, and as I was to learn over the succeeding twenty months, I truly was a stranger in a strange land. It was a land of war, struggle, poverty, economic predation, outrageous contrasts, suffering, contradiction, and death. It was my introduction to adulthood.

After a month of specialized training learning to teach Vietnamese soldiers how to fire antiquated weapons like the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), M-1 and M-2 rifles, and mortars (my first fired mortar rose into the air and drifted left along the firing line like a feather in the wind, causing my fellow advisors to shout pleasantries and leap for cover) I was assigned to an Advisory Team, a province-level command of thirty or so specialists. I was to be the Province Intelligence NCO (non-commissioned officer). Yes, I feared it was to be the mortar thing all over again, but surprisingly it turned out that I had a gift for rumors, and rumors of rumors, as one intel pro called the floorboard of the craft, and I was soon a respected member of the intel community, represented locally by the CIA, Navy Intel, Air Force Intel, and several others whose names, even forty years after, I am uncomfortable to mention.

My life after hours was dull. We advisors drank. We advisors gambled. We advisors went whoring. Well, the others did. I didn't, for two reasons. One, the women of Southeast Asia looked like children to me, so petite and subtle of figure as to have no figure at all. Second, I was not mentally prepared to pay a woman for sex. My trusted interpreter Huong suggested that I try boys instead, which were readily available. Yes, war is an ugly thing on many levels.

After about six months Vietnamese women stopped looking like children and began to look like what they really were, women of understated but certain beauty. My best pal during this time was an Asian-American disc jockey from Denver, Colorado, who embraced life like a bear dipping a paw into honey. He insisted I go along with him to the Hoi Quan Club (literally, 18 Club, named after the local Vietnamese Army outfit). I acquiesced without admitting to myself that I was finally going to dip my paw into honey, but certainly that must have been the decision made somewhere up the executive ladder of my brain.

It was not what I expected. The building predated American involvement in the war, going all the way back to French colonialism. It was a huge, if somewhat dilapidated structure of grace and style. Inside, the main room looked like a set from a Warner Bros. movie of the 1940s, a large dance floor surrounded by tables where patrons sat, ate, drank, and guffawed. Smoke floated in the room like a sea fog. My pal and I (and two other innocents we'd shanghaied) took a table toward the back, beneath a second floor balcony. We ate. We drank. We guffawed. We listened to the band, and better, the stereo system when the pitiful orchestra of six became tired.

Finally, the place started to empty. Even while the joint was jumping, as they say, I noticed that some patrons, soldiers, civilians, folk of indeterminate designation, would stand and stroll to an extra wide door at the far end of the cavernous room. A rather plump woman would greet them and they would disappear. Mamasan. Now with the place emptying of normal customers the time seemed right. My disc jockey friend called for Mamasan and talked with her a moment. Then thirty or so girls of varying levels of attractiveness came out and formed up as if for a military inspection, and of course that was what it was.

Some of the women looked down at the ground or up at the rafters, whether a show of feminine shyness or shame I can't say, while others stood straight and looked you in the eye. Some flirted, some grinned and shared soft words with nearby friends, secrets only they would know. I saw one girl who looked back at me with a self-confident expression. She was tall for a Vietnamese, probably five-three or four, with all the coloring of her sisters, black hair, black eyes, olive skin. Where Vietnamese were distinct from one another, and this is probably true of us all, is in their faces, and this girl's face was lovely with high cheek bones and lips fuller and wider than was the norm.

“I'll take her,” I said loudly. She grinned at my break with accepted protocol, said something to a girl standing beside her and they both chuckled.

“Well okay, cowboy, you want her,” my disc jockey friend said. “My friend wants the tall one. How much?”

Her name was Tuan, or at least that was what she claimed. Once we were in her tiny cubicle she immediately began to unbutton my clothes, taking charge of the entire matter. I said, “No, wait, wait.”

“What? What you mean?”

“I want to see you.”

“See me?”

“See you. Without clothes. Naked. You know, naked?”

She knew naked. She shrugged and pulled off her short blouse and skirt.

“You see?” she said.

I saw. She was lovely. Her body was the equal of any American or European girl's. Her breasts were small but shaped perfectly and moved with the slightest provocation. Her shoulders were strong, her back curved and articulated with subtle musculature, her bottom plump and round. Between her legs the hair was jet black and soft and stringy like the mane of a show horse, but there was far less hair there than I'd imagined.

“OK?” she said. “You see?”

“Could you walk?”

“What?”

“Walk. You know--” I made the 'let your fingers do the walking' sign. “Walk.”

“You crazy G.I.,” she said.

“Yes. Probably. Could you just walk?”

She made pistons of her fists and walked to the end of the cubicle and back in short, exaggerated steps. “Walk!” she finished with a grin.

“No, no, walk like... like you would normally. Walk like...” It was clear she didn't have a clue what I was saying. “Oh, hell, walk like this.” I showed her what I meant.

“Oh,” she said, “like you not here.”

“Yeah, like I not here.”

She walked. She retrieved an incense burner from a shelf above the bed, reaching high. I sat on the bed and pulled up my feet to give her more room. Her procession began to have a haute couture feel to it. She was performing.

“Shop,” she said, and pretended to pick through items in an imaginary bin.

“Wash,” she said, and pushed unseen clothes up and down on an unseen washboard, making her breasts wriggle in exaggerated motion.

“Ah, ah, what you say, ah--” I didn't have an idea, so she pulled a chest from beneath the bed, took several garments out of it, rustled them up, and began to fold them neatly at my feet.

“Fold!” I said.

“Fold! Yes, fold!”

She folded the garments, returned them to the chest, closed it and pushed it back beneath the bed.

She looked at me with an expression that asked, Now what?

Well, I kissed her everywhere but on the lips and by morning she'd come to appreciate me. As we lay entwined, she said, “You like see me.”

“Yes.”

“Naked,” she said. “Walk.”

“Naked. Walk. Yes,” I said.

“You pay see girls walk naked?”

I didn't quite know what she meant. My “yes” was tentative.

“You come back, OK? You come back tonight?”

That night my disc jockey buddy and I returned to the Hoi Quan. When the time came to separate, he chose a girl and went upstairs where the pleasure rooms were located. Tuan took me by the hand and led me toward the back of the club, where the girls lived in a large dormitory.

Mamasan said, “You pay to see girls walk?”

“Uhm, okay.”

“You pay for Tuan, plus twice more to see girls walk?”

Tuan could be had all night for five hundred piasters, or roughly five dollars. For fifteen dollars I could have Tuan and I could see the girls walk, whatever that meant.

“Okay, sure.” I paid her.

Tuan provided me with a chair from the restaurant. “You sit,” she ordered with a grin.

“I sit,” I replied.

While I sat girls came and went. The girls who returned took off their clothes beside their bunks and walked naked into the showers at the far end of the dorm. Some looked at me as if I were a demented uncle to be tolerated, while others who obviously knew what was going on made jokes about me in Vietnamese and chortled with their friends about the crazy American who wanted to watch the girls walk.

Some of the women were so thin they looked like they were starving, but most were better fed and better cared for than the overall Vietnamese population. Whoring was a growth industry in this war-ravaged nation.

After half an hour Tuan joined me with two drinks. “You pay,” she said, and I paid the waiter for her tea and my whiskey the same price as for two whiskeys.

“So, you like, eh?” Tuan asked.

“Yes, I like.”

She sat on my lap. One of her friends from the first night walked by from the shower carrying a robe. Obviously, Mamasan had given them instructions not to wear clothes whenever possible. “No, no,” she told her friend, “you shop. Shop!” Then she leapt into Vietnamese. Her friend listened, cocked her head and looked at me as if my mother had repeatedly used my head as a croquet mallet, and then did as Tuan told her. She walked up the aisle to her bed, dropped her robe on the mattress, and then walked back toward us as if she were shopping, picking this up, shaking her head, dropping it, moving on.

Over the next hour I was presented with a number of performances.

Two sisters walking hand-in-hand down the lane, picking flowers.

Two competitive women telling each other to go to hell, and then laughing.

A model striking one pose, then another, her clothes as invisible as the emperor's.

I got to see several dozen women, many of them beautiful, perform a kind of Kabuki theater for me, naked and charming and innocent as innocence allows in a bordello. Some were outward bound to rooms upstairs, while others were inward bound to a shower and waiting. Only Tuan stayed with me, the director jumping up from my lap time and again to instruct her actors.

Finally I stood, intending to leave before curfew at 10 meant that I couldn't travel on the province capital streets without endangering myself, either to MPs or worse. Tuan said, “No! No go. You pay. You stay!” Maybe it was a matter of whore honor, or maybe she was grateful that I had unintentionally allowed her to be someone else for a night and not merely a prostitute, but she didn't want me to leave.

All of the rooms upstairs were taken, and sleeping with her in the dorm was out of the question, but the Mamasan arranged for a cot to be set up in the pantry. There Tuan and I performed a different kind of Kubuki theater, long and slow and wordless.

I was startled awake at around 4 in the morning. MPs were conducting a raid on the Hoi Quan, looking for soldiers who'd broken the curfew, and their orders to return to secure compounds before 10. My jeep was parked right out in front. It may have drawn them, I don't know. I'd been preoccupied and forgot about it. In any case they were conducting a room-by-room search across the club. I had minutes to figure out something to do, maybe less.

“Hide. Hide!” Tuan said. She was naked.

“Go put some clothes on,” I said.

All I was wearing were green Army issue boxer shorts. There was no way to get away, I knew. I was trapped. And I couldn't very well abandon my jeep. There was only one chance to survive this, and that was to charge.

I picked up my boots, pants, shirt, and gun belt, and walked out into the still semi-dark club. I dropped my boots and they pounded to the floor, making an 'I am here' racket. I began to pull on my pants.

“Gentlemen,” I said to the MPs in my deepest command voice. There were three of them. All three turned and looked at me as I dressed.

“Evening, sir,” one said.

They thought I was an officer. It was too dark to see my rank insignia.

“Conducting a raid, are you?” I asked. One sock, then boot on. Second sock, then boot on.

“Curfew jumpers,” another MP said.

I was in no hurry, my manner said. My heart was beating with an accelerated rhythm. I took the time to blouse my boots, using rings to turn the pants up at the boot line, first one boot on a chair bottom, then the other.

I grabbed my shirt from the back of the chair and began putting it on.

“Well,” I said as I walked unhindered to the door, “Goodnight then.”

“Goodnight, sir.”

Kubuki theater indeed.

THE END

Copyright 2010 by Richard Taylor
Richard Taylor, writer


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