A Letter from Hanoi


Fire & Rain
Scott C. Davis

2017. Hanoi, Vietnam.

Let me tell you about Ms Nugyen, aka Zoe Lu.
This young woman worked in a hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
where I was staying until my $32 room was sold out from under me
to an Australian with a wide-brimmed hat who offered to pay $100.
Zoe’s co-worker found another hotel for me, an $85 hotel which was
OK. But I lost a day of my trip in the hotel shuffle. And my budget
for hotels was wrecked.
Zoe was my consolation prize. Her boss assigned her to spend a
couple of hours walking me through Hanoi’s famous night market
. . . on the clock . . . to keep me from complaining too much to
Zoe and I wound through crowded dark alleys, risked our lives
against the surge of motorbikes when crossing a lopsided square, then
turned into the Tirant Hotel and took a creaky elevator and then
stairs to the roof garden, twelve stories up. The view was great: the
Old Quarter spread out below us and Hoan Kiem Lake in the early
evening with lights and the promenade and leafy trees all around.
I thought I was supposed to be helping Zoe with her English, so I
started talking slowly about my travel as we slurped our smoothies.
I was giving Zoe a generic lesson in conversational English . . .
when she broke in and started telling me all the weird stuff she was

doing with her boyfriends (in particular, boyfriend A) that her par-
ents who still lived in “the village” could not know about in this

traditional society. Top secret.
“My boyfriend and I played a game,” she said. “The game was
called ‘The Seven Days of Love.’”
“I met him on FaceBook. We chatted for day after day, but never

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met, never exchanged pics, never saw one another from a distance.
Nothing visual or tangible. Then, we decided that it was time.”
“Time for what?”
“Time to meet,” she replied. “We got together in a coffee house
not far from here. We were talking and it seemed to be going well.
Then he suggested that we play this game that he had thought up, a
game called ‘The Seven Days of Love.’”
“I have never heard of this game,” I said. “How does it work.”
“Well,” said Zoe, “he proposed that we live together as man and
wife for seven days in a row, as an experiment.”
“OK. You went from chatting online to a week of mad sex with
this guy in a single one hour meeting?”
“Right,” said Zoe.
“What happened after seven days.”
“After seven days,” Zoe explained, “he wanted to have an eighth
day, then a ninth day, then . . .”
“What did you want?”
“I don’t know what I want,” Zoe said.

Zoe could not ask her parents for advice and seemed to be look-
ing to me for guidance. So I weighed in with some gently phrased

cautionary tales. Ultimately we ended up on the age-old topic: Was
boyfriend A (Mr Eight Days of Love) or boyfriend B (a young French
guy with long blond hair and beautiful lips) the better choice. I gave
her some thoughts, largely coming down in favor of boyfriend B, yet
ultimately I tossed the question back to her. Zoe pondered my advice
as we return to her hotel.
Behind the counter in the lobby, Zoe opened up the hoel’s laptop,

looked up my websites, and googled one of my rock climbing excur-
sions from many years ago, when I was just a year younger than her

current age. Then, she got started on YouTube. You remember Leon-
ard Cohen’s Hallelujah. He turns the Biblical text into something that

could run in Cosmo. Still, it’s good. Then, there is the un-believable

version by GEM, performed in Hong Kong. As a young Asian wom-
an, Zoe identified. By the end of her performance everyone in the

audience is crying like . . . human beings.
So, Zoe is rather interested in western music but her groups were

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more soft-rock oriented, not real 1960s romping rock ‘n’ roll: John
Lee Hooker, Carlos Santana. Most of my music was Vietnam War era,
whether or not it was explicitly anti-war.

Zoe did not ask about the war and had no idea that, in the geogra-
phy of my mind, her youth and freshness was a striking counterpoint

to the images of war I had internalized decades earlier as one who had
passed a physical at the Oakland Induction Center and carried a draft
card in my wallet on an idyllic college campus in the West Bay during
the bloodiest years of the conflict. (Not so idyllic that night after the
new draft lottery system suddenly turned campus frat boys anti-war.
They abandoned their kegs and fought the Palo Alto police, palm tree
to palm tree as the sirens blared.)
As a rule, young Vietnamese have little or no consciousness of what
is called the “American” war. For one thing, the French were fighting
in Vn continuously from 1850. They constructed a prison in Hanoi
from a pottery yard and kept their captives here for decades before

John McCain arrived and the locals adopted the American usage, call-
ing it the “Hanoi Hilton.” The French kept two very sharp guillotines

in this prison. They routinely chopped off the heads of prisoners, put
the heads in small wicker baskets that were perfectly sized to hold one

head each. Then, they displayed two severed heads-in-baskets side-by-
side and photographed them as trophies. If you visit Hanoi, you can

see the black-and-white photos in the museum display at the Hoa Lo
prison, just to the right of the guillotine.
Funny thing: these days young Vietnamese in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
give tourists directions saying things like, “It’s near the New Hilton”
(referring to the hotel) or, “It’s near the Old Hilton” (referring to the
During WWII, the Japanese interned the French and occupied the
country themselves. So, for a time, there were two layers of occupiers.
Four years after the US left, the Chinese invaded and briefly occupied
land in the Ha Giang district along the border. And then, there was
a major war with Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge. In the Vietnamese
view the American war as just one of ten decades of war.

In any case, after smoothies, boyfriends, rock climbing, and You-
Tube, Zoe decided that she was willing to listen to me on a lot of

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topics. I am a talker and ultimately a writer. Many words have already
been said in the world. But Zoe hadn’t heard them. At least, not from
me. An audience is a totally rare thing! Her receptivity . . . plus my

aversion to doing boring computer work when on vacation . . . com-
bined to elicit the following letter.

Dear Zoe Lu:
You are only 23 and are climbing aggressively into adulthood,

living away from your family and home village in the big city, work-
ing two jobs, getting to know men, listening to popular music from

Hong Kong, Britain, the US . . . making plans. A larger world is
waiting for you.
Before you take flight, you need a certain amount of grounding.
You were well raised by your parents, you have been to university, and
your major in business/tourism is a practical one in this town flooded
with tourists . . . where bright red flags with yellow stars (emblems
of communist glory) are sold to tourists on military caps and where
Europeans and Americans stock up on “period” propaganda posters
from a bygone regime, very red and very hard core.

My wife and I have no children, and so I feel the impulse to oc-
casionally adopt a younger person. Your life is none of my business.

Still, at this moment, I feel that it’s my job to help you get a Classic
education. By this, I mean, of course, an education in Classic Rock ‘n’
Roll. I am no expert, still . . .
I will send you the clip of Santana performing at Woodstock later
tonight. Click the link when you are restoring your energy after a
long and draining day in the work place tussling with tourists . . . and
can use a shot of inspiration from a young crew of musicians, your
age, who are utterly lost in the moment, utterly alive . . . especially
the drummer, really!
For now, something more meditative: I am thinking of Fire &
Rain, a James Taylor song that carried me through my twenty-third
year, my first year after college. Find it on Google. There are several
versions on Youtube.
The war in Vietnam was going on . . . there was a military draft . . .
and I did not want to travel to Vn to “kill women and children.” So

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I declared that I was a person of conscience and, after three months
of struggle with my heart and my draft board, I was accepted as a
conscientious objector or CO.
I was required to work for low pay in the “public interest” for two
years. I ended up in an African-American community in Richmond,
Virginia. A small settlement on the banks of the James River called
Fulton. This is the place where the children of freed slaves came to

the oldest part of the city just after the Civil War. Here there were ag-
ing detached houses and duplexes available for purchase on contract.

Property ownership suited their striving mentality. And, they could
buy on credit, a few dollars a month.
Virginia is on the East Coast of the US . . . a long way from my
home in Seattle, on the West Coast. It would be like you moving to
Japan for two years.
I was alone, no friends, a “lost puppy” as they say, learning lessons
from the overwhelmingly kind African-Americans who took me in
and treated me like one of their own. I was a low paid community
worker (an uncredentialed social worker). And then someone played
Fire & Rain for me.

In this song, James Taylor is singing about a friend who killed her-
self. Also, about his own struggle with drug addiction. Also, about his

hard time dealing with fame. The composer Carol King played piano
on this recording. She later wrote, You’ve Got a Friend as a response to
the line in Taylor’s song:
“I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.”
I was a young soul with great ideas, great hope, great longing
. . . but limited training, skill, and ability. Could I engage in a crisp
course of action over time? Could I define an objective and pull my
heart, mind, and the circumstances of my life into a focused effort?

To me, James Taylor was singing about what I could be, the transcen-
dent promise, elegance, and beauty of my personal future, a reality

rising above my loneliness, doubt, hesitation. James Taylor told me
that I could acquire the technical skills I needed to bring my dreams
to life.
Now, many years later, I have traveled to Vietnam. I have staff here
for my businesses. I like to photograph local beauty spots. I love the

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people. It is good to see urban Vietnamese growing into the middle

class . . . especially in the years since the US liberalized its trade poli-

Still, I am overcome with guilt for the pointless violence and death
perpetrated by my country from 1963 to 1973, during that now
forgotten war.
This morning when I should have been working at my laptop, I
was, instead, listening to the most common commercial release of
Fire & Rain. The song made me think about myself. Now, I am a
stereotypical retirement age tourist, an old guy sitting in a slightly too
expensive hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. My transcendent future
is still . . . in the future. As yet, it has not unfolded . . . or maybe it
blossomed and the petals fell and I never noticed, walked right over
I now have particular kinds of talent, training, and skill. I can
understand how things fit together. I can count things. My frame
of mind is more technical, more “how do things work.” And, facing
the world, I feel inadequate. I want more skill, more technique. I am
nothing like a brilliant man, sad to say. I have never made money, and
my accomplishments, if you want to call them that, are specific, local,
particular. I can assure you TED has never called. (Let me give you
my phone number, just in case).
But the point I am making is that the creative impulse of my
youth, my ability to dream great dreams and to believe in these
dreams . . . is just gone . . . and I am left, as they say, staring into the

abyss. The whispers that echo in these depths are saying, “The techni-
cal is nothing at all without a dream.”

So, my advice to you is to nurture and protect your great vision.
Take time to be your flaming zany self. Stay in touch with the you
of this moment. Then, as years go past and you become more adept,
more knowledgeable, more technically gifted . . . there will still be a
point to your expertise, your unflagging effort, your fierce commercial
Anything else? No, that’s about it.
This morning, I occasionally glance through the window at the
prosperous smoggy skies of this international city and my mind drifts.

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Now, as I play a live recording of Fire & Rain, it does not bring to
mind the dreams and aspirations of my youth.
As I listen, the words “fire and rain” flash in my mind, and I see an
image of children in the Vietnam War who are running toward me
down a rain-soaked road and screaming and one of them is a young
naked girl and they are running from a billowing black cloud, a dirty

cloud of fire and smoke filling the sky, a dry cloud with no rain. In-
stead, napalm.

Now, as I listen to James Taylor, his words summon hundreds of
faces of lost children, consumed in the pounding seething flaming
furnace of war . . . and everything, every trace, every memory is
washed away in the long heavy jungle rains of summer.
Fire and rain.
As I mentioned, my wife and I have no children. So, I ask, “Whose
are these lost children of the Vietnam War?”
“They are my children.”
Zoe, you are quirky, inspiring, instructive, compelling. You are a
woman who knows more than I do about basically everything. Tell
me: What happened to the Zoe Lus of two generations past, of your
grandmother’s generation?
Your future is ripe, ready to blossom. Mine, it’s been put on hold
for many years. I have more to do. And what of the children of years
gone by, the children of Vietnam, running and screaming on that
road? Their goodness, their heart, their transcendence—their lives
were sacrificed. For what?
Your pal,

In the ten years of the Vietnam War, 3.3 million Vietnamese were
killed. The napalm girl survived, although her two cousins and two
other villagers were killed. She now lives near Toronto.