The Tale of Kieu: The Last News from Mr. Hat’s Neighborhood

by Richard Sterling
In which Crawling Lady gives Mr. Hat a poignant surprise.

I thought after the incident of the brat cat (the one I tossed across the alley) I might be on Crawling Lady’s shit list. And to tell you the truth, I’d rather be on George W. Bush’s shit list than hers. Of course I’m not lofty enough to be on Dubya’s SL. On the other hand, maybe we all are. But I’ve come to learn that CL just doesn’t have an SL. She might remonstrate. She might throw money back at you if you try to force it on her. But she just doesn’t have time for a shit list. Her life is going to be short. She knows it, and she’s wasting no time with chicken shit. Her philosophy, if I may put words in her mouth, is to treat big things like little things and little things like big things. The front page of the Red Rag (or any other rag) becomes a little thing, and greeting a friend warmly in the morning is a big thing.

I knew I was forgiven for using the cat for a forward pass not long after the incident. She crawled toward me, sidled right up next to me, and slapped me on the thigh and laughed. Then she tucked her useless legs under herself, leaned up against my leg and stayed a while. Now that’s become her habit. Thigh slapping and all. And she doesn’t ask me to buy postcards anymore.

A couple of days ago she invited me to lunch. Yeah. Her treat. What do you say to somebody who is as poor as a church mouse, is gonna die young, crawls on the ground with flip-flops on her hands, is diabetic and God knows what else? Oh, and you are the only person who has ever given her a valentine, even though it was just a lousy pack of M&Ms? What do you say? Well, I think you say, “Thank you. I’d love to.” But for some reason that’s hard to do. Maybe for lots of reasons. Maybe even reasonable reasons. And you can ask yourself why that is, and answer it on your own.

I stood up and I asked my humble friend where we were going for lunch.

“No animal,” said she.

“No problem,” said I.

She crawled and I followed to a little hole-in-the-wall around the corner. I know the place. I take a coffee there now and then. CL hoisted herself up onto a little plastic stool next to a little plastic table. I sat beside her. She called for iced tea for herself and a beer for me. I wanted to say no to that. The beer would cost more than all else combined. But she knew that. So I took it, and I savored it. Might have been the best beer I ever had.

I had rice and veg, she had noodles and veg. And we talked idly about this and that. We exchanged a little gossip, and wondered about our little love Heidi and how she might be doing, and how we might go together to Hanoi to see her. She followed lunch with a few of her battery of pills. I had to wonder if all of them were real, or just fakes or piracies. That’s not unknown here. Maybe that’s why she gets sick on them. But how could I know? And who am I to ask? It’s her life, and she fiercely defends it, short and painful though it’s going to be. But it’s all going to be on her terms.

I’ve recently read The Tale of Kieu. Written in the early 19th century by Nguyen Du, it is widely considered to be Vietnam’s most important piece of literature. An epic poem, its final stanza is:

This we have learned: with Heaven rest all things.
Heaven appoints each human to a place.
If doomed to roll in dust, we’ll roll in dust;
We’ll sit on high when destined for high seats.
Does Heaven ever favor anyone,
Bestowing both rare talent and good luck?
In talent take no overweening pride,
For talent and disaster form a pair.
Our karma we must carry as our lot—
Let’s stop decrying Heaven’s whims and quirks.
Inside ourselves there lies the root of good,
The heart outweighs all talents on this earth.

I’ll be back home this week, after six months in the neighborhood, with a few side trips here and there. There are many more stories to tell of all the people I’ve introduced you to, as well as many others. I’ve fallen in love, with persons and with a place. I’ve never laughed so much in half a year, nor come so easily to tears. And I’ll be coming back to my alley as soon as I can, for as long as I can. You’ll be able to read all the stories in a book maybe a year from now. So until then, my friends:

That’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the big things are little, all the little things are big, and where, from a balcony on the third floor, the world makes love to you every time you look at it.

And goodnight to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are!


Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies, How to Eat Around the World, and several titles in Lonely Planet’s World Food series. His anthology, Food: A Taste of the Road, won a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, and he is also the editor of The Adventure of Food and coeditor of The Ultimate Journey.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.

2017-04-24T02:32:39+00:00