If you go down to Saigon, you were supposed to check out Ha, that's what this captain up at Chu Lai kept telling me.He was different, Ha only worked in a bar on Tu Do Street because she was putting her brother through law school, or buying medicine for her sick aunt, something like that, and every night when the bars closed on Tu Do Street her daddy picked her up and walked her home.
One of the differences between officers and enlisted men was that officers went for that rebop about the sick aunt and her daddy picking her up, bar girl after bar girl. Bar girls for officers tended to be a very romantic entity. The only enlisted man I ever knew who spent more than two weeks in Asia and still talked that talk was a chaplain's assistant who came down with venereal disease as his reward for believing it.
My first trip to Saigon, this particular captain was along. He told me to meet him at the bar Ha was a bar girl in. Also, he told me to be sure and ask for Ha. I had to meet him, all right, but nothing in the Uniform Code of Military Justice said I had to buy into some officer's fantasy about a bar girl.
It was late afternoon, just when all the rich ladies of Saigon were taking their post-siesta stroll down To Do Street, and the poor ones were waiting for the GIs to come into the bars.
I was the first customer of the day.
All I wanted was a quiet drink. It lasted maybe 20 seconds before a girl detached herself from the rest of the bar girl staff, like a fighter peeling off from formation after spotting a target of opportunity. Me.
Would I buy her a drink? No. Did I want to talk? No. Why not? Because I didn't. Was I unhappy? No.
I had to give her credit. She didn't call me number-10 GI. She even sat next to me and talked with sad puzzlement at my silence and played the match game in which you make the fish swim the other way by moving only two matches. (Three matches?) She was lovely. Charming. That fine-boned Vietnamese cantilevering of cheekbones around huge eyes that stunned you, even if you were enlisted, and you'd been the bar girl route in Okinawa, Hong Kong, Yokohama, Taipei and in the Philippines' incredible Olongapo. You always wanted to fall in love with one of them, but you learned better, unless you were a chaplain's assistant.
When the captain arrived, he told me I'd been listening to Ha all along, of course, and I felt that contempt for naivete which you feel in the presence of people like officers, or the rich.
Maybe the captain picked it up. In any case, we didn't go back to see Ha later, choosing instead to eat a French meal on the roof of some hotel where journalists used to eat their French meals and watch the artillery flashing on the horizon, thus collecting ironies to be inserted in their big-picture stories -- this being 1966, before the ironies of Vietnam got to be a way of life. And death.
So once in a while I wonder what happened to Ha.
The last I heard of her, a lieutenant I knew flew down to Saigon and looked her up. He bought her drinks. He fell in love with her. He told us all about her. He got himself another hop to Saigon. He bought her drinks. He hung around all night, till the bar closed.He was crazy about her. He foresaw something torrid but meaningful. He walked her outside the bar when it closed. Her father was waiting for her. He was really her father. She understood the lieutenant's expectations and was very apologetic. The father was apologetic. They invited the lieutenant back to their house, where he met the brother in law school or the sick aunt, or whoever it was. They were real too.
When the lieutenant got back to Chu Lai he'd fallen out of love with her, of course, but he liked telling the story about how he'd bought her drinks all night and couldn't get her into bed, for love or money. She'd kept his fantasy alive. It was the only story an officer ever told me about a bar girl that I believed.