A recounting of the author’s courtship of his wife-to-be in the ancient Vietnamese city of Hue.
In the fall of 1992, shortly after graduating from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Sullivan went to Vietnam with an assignment from Bicycling magazine to write about biking from Saigon to Hanoi. He was looking for local color to flesh out the piece when he first encountered Thuy in her exotic native city. She wanted to learn English; his interest was caught and held from his initial vision of her traditionally dressed in a graceful ao dai. Since Sullivan is the kind of writer who spends a lot of time in his own head, readers are privy to every twist and turn as he accepts, ponders, rejects, and finally embraces the notion that boy has met girl and destiny waits. It was clear from the outset that their relationship would be complicated. Thuy’s family had very traditional values and beliefs—her mother, for instance, insisted that she tightly braid her long hair before going out in the evening so that “ghosts will not fly in there”—and she respected them. The US trade embargo on the reunited country’s communist government worked against Jim in subtle ways. It was a 19th-century courtship; Thuy’s initial refusal to even shake his hand put physical contact well back on the calendar. When the first kiss finally arrived, Sullivan writes, “A tiny gasp escaped between us. It could have been her; it could have been me.” But there were other persistent gentlemen callers, and one of them, a Hue police officer assigned to monitor foreign travelers, took Jim’s success personally. The ensuing complications afforded the author a Kiplingesque take on the community of marginally depraved Western expats going to seed in Bangkok, where he waited in agony for bribes and paperwork to interact.
Cultures clash, but love conquers, with some fascinating twists and plenty of intimate details.