Kim Van Kieu is one of those stories that is so famous that The Lonely Planet Guidebook will advise enterprising tourists to read it if they really want to move beyond the superficial world of noodles stalls, trinkets and bar-hopping. Supposedly, its influence is so immense that even illiterate peasants, working the emerald rice paddies, will recite a few lines, as they bend their backs in the kind of primordial labor that also makes great postcards.
Through this literary endeavor, any budget traveler can truly begin to understand the Vietnamese people. But don’t just listen to me or The Lonely Planet; I’ve had this point corroborated on the good authority of several drunken German tourists at that delightful watering hole in Saigon—Apocalypse Now—who swear by its merits as a touchstone of culture: “Kim Van Kieu is a part of your literary DNA.” Short of dating a local girl, reading a bootlegged photocopy book of the story of Kieu is the best way to distinguish yourself from the crowd at the youth hostel.
Kim Van Kieu is a narrative poem that serves as an allegory of resistance. Put in layman’s terms: the poem tells a story and we can read from the story how it is trying to tell, quite indirectly, another story. The other story is about a beset Vietnam as it has attempted to resist a thousand years of invasion.
The backdrop of the story is the imprisonment of Kieu’s brother and father. In order to save them, she marries herself off to a rich man who tricks her, turning her into a prostitute. Her virtuous self-sacrifice is paradoxical, for she becomes that which is diametrically opposed to the very essence of virtue. She becomes a whore.
The story can be read as a tale of the individual caught up within the machinations of the state, compelled to make sacrifices under unusual circumstances for the cause of nationalism. The heroine Kieu is the archetypal Vietnamese, forced into terribly unnatural acts out of desperation. The father and brother are the patriarchal authority, thwarted by injustice. The middle-aged man can be any of a series of imperial powers–China, France, Japan and the United States—who have interfered with a nubile young country’s natural development.
Vietnamese people appreciate the pathos of this type of irony, even if they do not tolerate it in real life. Prostitution is a growth industry in my old homeland and the statistics are staggering. In my various visits to Vietnam during two years of traveling, I often saw the young sex workers come out at night and stand, backlit, at the doorways as pimps piss-pissed their wonders and virtues. Girls of this kind could usually be found lurking somewhere near that bar Apocalypse Now, which is a hotspot for tourists who seek a certain kind of adventure.
I often wonder how many young girls, sold into prostitution in Vietnam are choosing to do so for heroic reasons. I often wonder how many people actually think that what they are doing is patriotic and self-sacrificing—that it might serve a greater cause that will shake the very fabric of Vietnamese civilization to its core. But it doesn’t seem like an appropriate question to ask.
One night, I got drunk on Tiger Beer at Apocalypse Now and then wandered around the tourist quarter, looking for people to buttonhole. I asked this forbidden question to a nice, middle-aged man at a coffee shop. Set before him on an aluminum tray was a tall glass of ice coffee, an ashtray, a pack of Jet cigarettes and the daily newspaper. He was dressed in that classic Vietnamese style that always makes me feel immediately at ease: white button-down shirt, high-water black slacks and plastic flip flops. His hair, severely side-parted and blackly impeccable, glinted against the luminescence of the naked bulbs strung like gargantuan Christmas lights on steroids. He told me two things that immediately made me feel better. “Kim Van Kieu, she’s not a real person.” The other thing: “Those girls, most of them we get from Laos.” I guess I should have been relieved that the bulk of our prostitutes are not really of consequence because they come from across the border. Perhaps I was.
It took me several days to get a dawning sense of the true injustice that lay behind this new knowledge. For what of the predicament of the many Western sex tourists who had been assiduously plugging away at Kim Van Kieu and waiting for the moment when they could graduate to a real Vietnamese? Did they know they were getting the switcher-oo? All that work, all that intellectual development, all laid waste. The injustice of that was terrible.
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