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Published: August 7th 2020
The day before had been a very happy one for Thuy and I. We’d gone to bed, little knowing what was in store.
On Thursday August 6th
Thuy’s phone rang at 6am, which was unusual. An ill omen. I handed the phone to her and she listened in silence. “A big problem
,” she said. Then she got out of bed and began to weep.
Her restaurant in Tan Chau had collapsed during the night. The foundations had caved in - after weeks of heavy rain – taking down some of the roof. The two expensive billiard tables had disappeared from view.
Her nephew, Viet, who lives in one of our two big houses adjacent to the restaurant, reported that the houses were undamaged and nobody had been injured. If the landslip had occurred during the day, when people were playing billiards and children were running around, it might have been more serious. Viet took some photos and sent them to me.
The rest of the day was spent in mourning. I tried to console Thuy, telling her that nobody had been hurt and that many people had lost their homes in the recent rains, but she was
inconsolable. The restaurant is her pride and joy – a status symbol as well as an intrinsically beautiful and impressive space. According to her brother-in-law, who had been the brains behind the construction of the restaurant, it will cost 300 million VND (= 12 thousand $US) to rebuild it. A huge sum of money, which we do not have. We have invested heavily in property and land, exhausting our cash, and have no alternative but to take out a bank loan.
Thuy contacted two banks yesterday and, as I write this, we are awaiting their response. If we are given two years to pay back a loan of 300 million VND, we will have to live frugally, but the money I earn from teaching plus my UK pensions should be enough to see us through.
As we were going to bed that night, I made the faux pas of telling Thuy we might have difficulty repaying the bank loan. This made her both angry and tearful, and I had to use all my diplomatic skills to calm her down. Her distress underlined once again what the restaurant means to her. The thought of not rebuilding it was intolerable.
In truth, it is an extraordinary building – a vast cavernous structure with a tin roof. It used to have a picturesque thatched roof, but the thatch needed regular and expensive maintenance. Then the local police ordered us to have a tin roof fitted (fire regulations), which was a blessing in disguise because we no longer had to worry about thatch decaying under the onslaught of heavy rain and burning sun.
The restaurant has undergone several metamorphoses since its opening in 2012. It began life serving food and beer. For a short time Thuy employed a bevy of pretty women to attract male customers. She paid them nothing; they pocketed whatever tips the customers gave them, and Thuy profited from the extra sales. However, drunken customers became a problem, so Thuy stopped selling beer and sold soft drinks and coffee instead. Then she had the idea of buying two billiard tables – of the boring pocketless carom variety – to attract customers, who would inevitably order drinks and food. There has always been a large TV screen for customers to watch Premiership football on Saturdays and Sundays. In its early days the restaurant was a haven for Thuy’s
cats, who enjoyed the open space and explored the rafters, but they have long since disappeared – presumably eaten by starving locals.
The restaurant, in its final metamorphosis, was a quiet place with just a handful of customers playing carom. It was never destined to be a money-spinner because of its situation – in the quiet hamlet of Tan An, across the river from the main town of Tan Chau. Tourists never visit, and the local people, who are poor, stay at home. Moreover, there has been an exodus from Tan An and Tan Chau to Ho Chi Minh City, where the money is. The heyday of Thuy’s restaurant was some years back before the mass migration to HCMC. Nowadays the restaurant is more of a family space than a business.
The chief beauty of the restaurant for me has always been its situation – adjacent to a large tract of rice and vegetable fields. It is an open-air building with no windows to block the view. And what a view! I’ve always enjoyed sitting in my favourite chair, admiring the fields, reading my book, watching Little Green Bee-Eaters darting hither and thither and skeins of egrets flying
to their roosts at sunset. An all-time highlight was seeing an Atlas Moth perched on a cool box and photographing it. Usually, one only sees Atlas Moths dead inside glass display cases. Fresh air, unspoilt nature, peace and quiet: a lovely escape from the hurly-burly and pollution of Ho Chi Minh City.
I have entertained a number of friends in Tan Chau: Angelo, Oliver, Lee, Paul, Svante, Jonas, Ajay, Tim. The most memorable times we had were in the restaurant carousing. Oliver has bizarre eating habits: he would eat countless pork ribs and nothing else – no vegetables or rice for ballast – washed down with innumerable glasses of malt whisky or ruou chuoi (banana wine). Angelo and Jonas too liked their single malts, especially Laphraoig and Ardbeg, which I used to buy cheaply in Phnom Penh. Svante was a Tiger beer man, whereas my beer of choice was always Saigon Red. Yes, that restaurant witnessed some great drinking sessions.
Karaoke is a way of life in Vietnam, and I have sat through many karaoke evenings in Thuy’s restaurant. A local man with a karaoke machine sometimes visits and, although my voice is terrible, I always join in.
I have no knowledge of Vietnamese songs so choose either ‘Hotel California’ or ‘Yesterday’, because these are songs the Vietnamese are familiar with.
The greatest event in our restaurant’s short life was on August 4th
2014 – the day of our wedding ceremony and celebration. No expense was spared, and the place was packed. Vast quantities of food and beer were consumed, and the day ended with raucous music, karaoke and dancing. A wonderful occasion that Thuy and I will never forget. In case we do, we have the video to remind us. Much better to have been married in Thuy’s own restaurant, next to her houses, than in some strange venue. That day alone justifies the restaurant’s existence and all the money we have spent on it.
Should we, as someone suggested, point an accusing finger at the builders for the restaurant’s collapse? Not being an authority on building construction, I really don’t know. Thuy’s father and brother-in-law, professional house-builders, were the architects and, of course, they did their very best, but a doubt remains as to whether the project was flawed. The restaurant is not built on flat land but raised up on an artificial platform
of sand. Successive rainy seasons have attacked the foundations, and three years ago there was a minor collapse which we repaired. Apportioning blame is futile; the important thing now is to rebuild the restaurant so that a future collapse does not occur. To this end, Thuy’s brother-in-law has travelled from HCMC to Tan Chau to supervise the rebuilding.
I completely understand Thuy’s desire to restore her collapsed restaurant to its former glory; it is her pride and joy, a vast open space in a village where people live in tiny cramped houses. I too want to sit again in my chair and contemplate the natural scene at sunset with a glass of banana wine in my hand. Repaying the bank loan over the next year or two will be a nuisance, forcing us to make sacrifices, but it will be worth it in the end.
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