By Tyler Nemkov
Captain Cook negotiates the price of a cod’s tail while I watch blood drip from a plastic bag holding a three-foot long, skin-on cow’s tail onto an open wound on my left big toe. My gut says drop the bag, trade my wallet for a bar of soap, run to clean water and start scrubbing.
“Everybody knows me, I’m a hero,” he says the first time I sit down at a table with him at an empty beach resort late at night. He tells me this again when I get to his house and we relax for the first of the three thousand beers we share over the next four days. And again when we enter the local market in Nha Trang, a beach city in southern central Vietnam, the hometown of Captain Cook.
His pride comes across in the most disarming way. I want to believe him, and not just because he takes me under his wing for a week. He forces me onto a motorbike by myself in the insanity of Vietnamese traffic, which looks like a motorized version of the entrance to a big-box department store on Black Friday. Motorbikes ride against traffic while public buses skim the sides of a bike carrying a family of four. I curse loudly enough that I hope he can hear me, but he is 17 vehicles ahead of me, pulling over to wait. I arrive at his house white-knuckled and nervously laughing as I nearly fall over my bike getting off.
I owe him plenty. He spent days teaching us how to cook traditional Vietnamese dishes in his house. Bánh xèo, the rice flour-based pancake stuffed with pork and seafood, is our first endeavor. It’s served with nuoc cham, the ubiquitous dipping sauce of Vietnamese cuisine, his version consisting of an intoxicating combination of dark fish sauce (that smells just like Gouda cheese), coconut water, tomatoes, chilies, garlic and lime. The intense umami of the sauce makes each dunk of Bánh xèo taste like an instant memory, and I try to focus my senses on the colors, smells and scene so I can remember everything.
When I ask what his cooking lessons cost, he quotes me an approximate value of, “Fuck you, man.”
I do the same the times we are at the market, laughing when live shrimp make noble escape attempts. I dig my nose into the mountain of fresh lettuces and herbs surrounding me and I do a double-take when I see a stand selling ginger, onions, garlic and shallots that are absolutely overrun with cockroaches. The Captain is in front of me the entire time, proud to have a foreigner he can take around to show the everyday life of local Vietnamese.
If he could see himself 35 years ago, this scenario would be peculiar to him.
The Captain was a commander in the Vietnamese army during the American War. One gets to be a commander by being both smart and, well, effective. The gist of his story is confirmed by a few chef acquaintances of mine that put me in touch with him. In reality, who knows the details, but any war-related awkwardness fades quickly when you spend five minutes with the man. War is a different set of rules, and he defended his country first against the United States and then against Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
“The army took my youth and my innocence. It was terrible. I saw unpossible things!” he says, his fifty-eight years easily passing as forty, un-guessable aside from the reading glasses, the slight wrinkles around his eyes and the deafness in his right ear from constantly firing a weapon. Using decent English with a slight welling of water in his eyes, he talks about his thirteen years in the army.
“I went from a pistol to much more. AR-15, AK-47, M60, B38 and in the Khmer Rouge a B50 bazooka… ok, empty your beers, time to cook.”
We spend the next week shaving the hair off an oxtail with a disposable razor, peeling shrimp, cleaning cuttlefish and washing pounds of basil with the help of his cousin, the ever-friendly Phuong, his personality unraveling like an infinite ball of yarn.
By Western standards, the kitchen we work in is rundown, to say the least. No oven, concrete floors doubling as our worktable, ants parading on the walls, a small refrigerator and a hose next to a small hand sink. But he owns this kitchen, this house, which by his country’s standards is not bad at all. He owns pots and pans, numerous knives and a countertop two-range burner that puts out considerable heat.
When I ask what his lessons cost, he quotes me an approximate value of, “Fuck you, man.”
He continues. “Money is bullshit. I mean, I know we need money to live, but… what for?”
He pauses to look at a clip of a plane hitting the Twin Towers on a box TV mounted on his wall, as it’s the eleventh anniversary of September 11. “See, all those people in the towers? It’s so sad. It’s terrible! Spend all of your life making money, saving money, and what good is that money when you die? What for!”
Captain says he wants one thing from us as payment, really the only thing he now wants in life: “Friendship.”
But it’s easy to see that the man is fighting for his family as well, a family that was broken before it really even began. In the early 1990s his wife was killed in a bus accident, leaving the Captain with a son and daughter to look after. This week, we’ll sit at a table eating a hotpot of scallops, cuttlefish, cod, shrimp and more with his son, daughter-in-law, Phuong and his four grandchildren; his daughter is away at school in Singapore.
He misses her dearly, but is happy to shell out any amount for her education. By Vietnamese standards, the Captain is in a sort of upper-middle class that one achieves with fortunate breaks and hard work, but falls below any sort of glamorous life.
Still, he has passed through the capitalist ranks without a bit of irony, considering what he fought for. The man was simply defending his Motherland. After being bedridden for years from a landmine in Cambodia which gained him his hero status, he became a tour guide in 1988, mostly due to his English skills. In 1997, after working as the Tourism Director of Nha Trang for the government, he went off to start his own tourism company. He boated around from island to island, the captain of his ship. When lunch came around, he was the one to cook. His name makes sense.
We sit down to a dinner of banana leaf-covered fish and wild boar marinated in lemongrass and chili and I notice a scribbling of ink etched into his tan, smooth forearm as he is flipping the fish covered in chili and salt.
The Captain tells me that it’s the Vietnamese version of “Que sera, sera”, a sort of middle finger to God that a friend scratched into the Captain’s skin after his wife died. The smell from the fish steaming through the thick leaf permeates the room, but as it subsides, the Captain yells for quiet.
“Stop! Stop! Smell.” He takes a cartoonish deep whiff of nearby potted flowers, which bud twice a month. They sit in front of his pseudo-entrance room where a hammock he sleeps on every night lays. The surrounding plants console him from the horror of the thirteen years he spent in the jungle, but in a reconciliatory way.
He’s clearly not trying to simply forget the hundreds he killed, or the massacre he saw when he stepped into a Highlands village to see all the woman and children killed. He remembers how he and his soldiers exacted revenge in the dead of night, knife stroke by knife stroke. During the Khmer Rouge, the bazooka blasts to a pregnant Cambodian woman, who was still clutching a rifle as he walked by and saw a premature baby’s hand extend from her stomach.
He takes these memories onto the hammock every night, and the plants help him cope. However, he also claims that if the weather gets exceptionally cold, he goes insane. He tells vague stories of running the streets nude, singing and dancing, the only remedy being his son locking him in his house for a few days until he got over it. I clutch my beer closer, as he shakes another empty can.
Captain drinks Beer Larue by the case, a French import of which there are stacks of cans in a separate fridge in his living room. The beer is his water, and keeping up with him is like racing the light. The man is always either sober or perpetually drunk, but it doesn’t matter either way. The Captain is somehow bigger than the time in the jungle, the deaths, bigger than the beer, than the shrapnel still lodged in his left temple.
But he is still trying to negotiate how to build a legacy as big as the man he is. The family helps maintain the legacy, as do the two tourism companies he now owns, the multiple branches, and the seventy employees. He wants to be the flowers, though, and not the jungle. That’s where the cooking comes in.
The Captain instructs me to take a picture of his hand clutching a clove of star anise over a simmering pot of pho, the noodle soup that practically defines Vietnamese cuisine. He adds a copious amount of ginger to the boiled beef, which will neutralize the powerful smell that can take over the house. I figure a similar tactic will be used for the blocks of gelatinized pig’s blood that find their home in a bowl of Bún bò Huế, a noodle soup that employs the stinky qualities of fermented shrimp paste. In some ways, Bún bò Huế is more interesting than pho, the powerful shrimp paste providing a hearty background to the chewy noodles and the shaved banana blossom and cabbage that garnish the dish.
We split the cost of the food cooked and he quizzes me on what is going into each dish. I’m crouched on the concrete floor, trying to cut the legs off of live shrimp while he mocks the “womanly” way I’m apparently doing it.
Later he tells me he’s planning to tile the entire floor, to extend the countertop and even add a dishwasher, a proposition to which the face of Phuong, who is the general director of his company, lights up.
The glass coffee table reflects the basil, coriander, lettuce and lime that is about find its way into the daikon and beef-studded pho. The Captain gets us all a beer and raises his with a reflective, “Yo, mate” as he does before almost every sip. Small scars line his bare shoulder, and I want to ask where they come from, but am too nervous to hear the answer. I have plenty of guesses.
Apparently, he was riding one of his multiple motorcycles in the Mekong Delta about a year ago, cruising over 60 mph in the rain and slid out, putting himself in the hospital for another three months. Maybe it’s from that. Or the American War. Or Cambodia.
Instead the topic falls to where the Captain goes from here. He can only smell flowers on a hammock for so long; the world beckons to him. He wants to sell all but two of his motorcycles, pass his company to his kids and Phuong. One of the bikes will be under him as he takes a few of the twenty cameras he allegedly owns and rides as far as he can. Once he runs out of money, he’ll teach traditional Vietnamese cooking in India, Europe, Russia, wherever he can get a few more bucks for gas to continue the trip.
But that’s a few years from now, and I’m certain I’ll never see him again. He wanted to meet us in Hanoi, where he said a caravan of five vehicles meets him at the airport. At this point, I had little reason to not believe him. Or maybe it’s that I had strong intent to believe. His business got in the way, however, and the nightly parties he promised will have to wait.
I hop onto my motorbike en route to the train station to leave Nha Trang, and Captain Cook leans in and calmly says, “Forget me not.”
As if I could.