The bar was crowded. People were literally wedged inside, chest to chest, shoulder to shoulder and back to back. You’d think it was a holiday weekend if you were at home, back in the world, but this was downtown Saigon on an average Tuesday night. It was the same every night in the cramped little bars that sat one next to another up and down the block. Outside the sidewalks were busy, spilling into the streets where two and three wheeled scooters mingled with bicycles and vehicles. Most of the vehicles were jeeps and 3/4 ton trucks, all painted olive green and each with a wire cutter arm sticking up from the front bumper. Scooter, bike or vehicle, they all had horns and their use was so common it played a never ending symphony of discord. Inside, we flipped a coin to see who would wade to the bar for beer refills.
Tim leaned over and yelled with his mouth next to my ear. The noise inside the bar was worse than the street, whose sounds simply added to the din of people shouting to one another over the music played so loud it distorted. It’s what you had to do to be heard. “Another and then we gotta jet.” he bellowed. I half heard and half lip read his message and nodded. Mike lost the toss and stood up to try a bulldoze to the bar. He didn’t get anywhere. A bar girl pushed him back into his chair and immediately dropped into his lap.
“You buy me one drink?” She batted her eyelashes while she reached down to grab Mike’s crotch.
“What? I can’t hear you.” Mike yelled back.
“You buy me one drink? Okay?”
“You buy me one drink. I number one girl. Make you happy.”
“What?” he could hear her, we all could. He was messing with her.
“You buy me one drink!” she screeched.
“Ahhh, no can do Mama-san. GI no money.” he said, smiling widely. She took her hand off his crotch and punched him in the arm.
“You number ten.” she said. “Who here number one?”
“We all number one, baby.” yelled Tim. “You go bring us three beer. Maybe buy you drink.” The B-girls were always hawking drinks. They claimed it was champagne, but it was ginger ale. Went for five bucks a pop, and while often replaced, rarely consumed.
She brightened. “Three beer?” We all nodded.
“You buy me drink?” We all shrugged. “You no good GI sissy boys. You all number ten!” she snorted as she stood. She pried her way through the endless wall of sweaty people and disappeared. We all laughed and then decided the skip the beers and just go. We each worked our way towards the door, but it only took a single step for our seats to be refilled. In spite of the tiny bar dimensions, it still took a couple of minutes to get to the street.
“I think you were falling in love there, Mike.” I said. He smacked me on the back of the head. I was getting ready to needle him again but we all got distracted by young Vietnamese men or boys trying to sell us something, usually a female sibling. But they also hawked watches, wallets, cigarettes, marijuana or single bottles of beer or pop, all warm. Constantly interrupted, we gave up talking and just strolled toward one of the shuttle points that always had rides to and from the different billeting areas.
All of us seemed to notice it at once. It got quiet. The traffic wound down and came to a halt and a crowd of people began to form ahead of us, up at the next intersection. We exchanged glances with each other, and went to see what caused the sudden stoppage of the frenetic city pace. Mike was biggest and he went first, Tim and I following behind and to each side. In football it would be a flying wedge. We muscled our way to the front of the growing crowd and looked at what was now encircled by a growing wall of onlookers. A yellow robed monk sat in the middle of the intersection, a metal tin, maybe two gallon sized, sat next to him. He was praying quietly. I noticed that there were a group of monks, maybe six or so of them standing to the side looking solemn.
As we watched, the monk lifted the tin and dumped its contents all over himself, soaking the saffron colored robe. A few people began to yell and move towards him, but in a blink, he ignited himself and burst into flames. He sat there, his back slightly stooped but straight and just looked straight ahead. His face revealed the agony he must have felt. It was not a look of peace. Cries and wails rose up all around us, many of the watchers crying and wringing their hands in grief. There was nothing to be done. It happened pretty quickly all in all. Suddenly, Vietnamese police in their khaki uniforms and white helmets appeared and began to disperse the crowd. They were shortly helped by American MPs. I expected to see some kind of fire truck or something to show up, but I saw none. Just the jeeps and scooters that brought the cops and MPs. We were all hustled off, told to be on our way. A couple of photographers got threatened as they tried to stay and keep taking snapshots of the monk’s ordeal.
None of had anything to say as we hitched a ride back to base in a deuce and a half truck we caught at the shuttle point. We just sat in the back on the fold out bench, rocking and swaying with the movement of the truck, and watching the street recede behind us. What do you say at a time like that? We just rode in silence and probably wondered the same things. Like why someone would do that, and what they thought it might accomplish, or how did he stand to burn like that without screaming in pain. There was talk about the suicide in the mess hall at breakfast, but then our company Sergeant Major told us all not to talk about it, engage in speculation, or write about it to family and friends at home. “It’s no damn good.” he said. “It’s senseless and sad, but things like this happen in unfortunate times like this.” The rumor mill kept going, but all anyone ever learned was that it was a protest over the senseless loss of life in war, exemplified by a senseless death.
A day or so later we were back downtown, heading to our favorite sardine can of a bar when we passed the intersection. There were scorch marks where the monk had died, but that was it. I don’t know what I expected to see. Maybe a temporary memorial of flowers and candles or something. But no, just a circle of darkness on the pavement that would wear away in the next week.