It was in the canteen car of the late-night service that the Vietnam veteran finally told me his story. We’d been friends for months, regulars at a Louisiana-themed bar off Saigon’s Bùi Viện backpacker strip, but his time in-country was, if not exactly taboo, not really a go-to topic, either.
A haze of railway employees’ cigarette smoke hung in the air, mingling with the steam from their bowls of phở. We were heading north to Quảng Ngãi, smack-bang in the middle of the country on the coast, where we were scheduled to take a car into the mountains and visit an orphanage for children of the Bahnar indigenous minority. Perhaps it was the fact that we were talking one-on-one for the first time, or perhaps it was the sheer volume of beer we’d consumed over the course of the evening—the better, we reasoned, to rock us to sleep. Either way, the vet decided it was time I learned a thing or two.