A saccharine fragrance carried by the Perfume River lured artists and romantics from all over the city. Some say the captivating aroma came from wild flora that fell into the water as it slithered its way through Day Truong Son Mountains. But that was decades ago, one war veteran told me, before the river became an unlikely victim of the Vietnam War and lost its scent.
I knew none of this history when first I visited the river. All I knew was on this particular night, at the waterfront near Le Loi Street, I sat beside my husband on a stone bench captivated by the riverside ambience. A restaurant shaped like a lotus at bloom, fiery dragon boats adrift, Truong Tien Bridge with its coruscating kaleidoscope of colors glistering on the waters–this place was clearly a refuge for love.
Moments like this might have gone unnoticed if I were back home in California, but it was our fifth month backpacking in Southeast Asia. When you’re married and traveling on a budget, romance in the air can get overpowered by the miasma of spattered urine from public squat toilets, sweaty T-shirts reeking of underarm must, or bug repellant to ward off malaria-carrying mosquitos. The Perfume River gave me a kind of ease where I could, at last, hold Russ’ hand without holding my breath. On that bench we sat in the most enchanted, uninterrupted bliss.
Until an older man approached me.
He rode bicycle, metal basket attached. Even after months of living abroad, I still had trouble turning down peddlers. But I refused to let him rob us of our bliss. So when the man reached into his basket, I firmly shook my head. He moved on to a group of French tourist who blew right past him. Unrelenting, he came back and asked if we would read his poem. I didn’t have the heart to shoo him again.
“All right, go ahead” I said. “Show us your poem.”
He extended a folded piece of paper which I flattened and held between Russ and I, the side written in English. I skimmed the cursive letters in forced silence while the poet lingered.
His name was Le Cong and his poem “Gold Dream” tells the story of how he longs to be with the woman he loves. A fragment of the poem reads:
Now you’re leaving,
Thousands of ocean separation.
You sing love’s song.
The wind crying.
I seem to find your fragrance,
Then fall unsteadily
Soul is losing in eternity,
Looking at you, laughter broken up…
“You say here ‘ocean separation’,” inquired my husband – always the journalist, “where’s she now?”
He told us she lives in Hue. But it feels like a great distance to him because she is married to someone else.
Perhaps I caught a faint whiff of the mystical river and fell entranced because, for a spell, my mind went elsewhere. I ruminated on the times I sat pitifully beside my husband, tormented by motion sickness on decrepit overnight trains. Or the time our beach bungalow in Lombok, Indonesia came with a family of gargantuan cockroaches, making any touch from Russ trigger thoughts of tingly tentacles. Ever since we left the U.S., seems like Perfume-River moments have come a lot less often. Had I let romance become a casualty of our nomadic life?
I then asked Le Cong how he managed to survive his loss.
“If I love, I make poetry,” he said. “If I never love, I make nothing.”
The difference between Le Cong and me is that he had figured out a way to make the most of his conditions, even if they were less than ideal. Whereas, there I was in Vietnam, seeing for the first time how many moments I let slip by because of my quixotic ideas of romance, rather than seizing each moment that we are given.
When we rose to leave, I slipped my arm through Russ’ arm and urged him to give a few Vietnamese Dong. But Le Cong refused any money.
“Cảm ơn,” I said.
He thanked us in return for simply engaging. Soon after, we left the banks of the Perfume River, headed to our backstreet budget hotel. Behind us, where bridge lights glistened on the river, I spotted the poet pedaling in the distance, in search of someone else who might spare a moment to hear a love story.
About the Author: Asia Nichols, a freelance writer from the Bay Area, has been vagabonding through Southeast Asia, India and Nepal since 2011. Read more about her marriage and travel adventures at www.ourfirst100days.com.
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