I had been scouring the official bookstores for days, looking for a trashy English novel to reward myself after months of tedious grammar texts and pocket dictionaries. I had come across nothing but a Vietnamese translation of Jack London's stories, and had spent a sweltering week on the beach, adding snow bank, sled dog, and icicle to my already lopsided vocabulary. Western books and magazines, I was told, were a potentially corrupting influences on the national psyche and therefore banned to the public. I resigned myself to a few more months of barren reading and returned to my dictionary, opened to the letter R.
Once again the indomitable Vietnamese entrepreneurial spirit rose to the occasion, this time in the form of a little old man with a tattered handbag and a big floppy hat, plodding slowly down the beach.
He paused at my towel and offered me an elegant bow. "Excuse me," he said in almost perfect Voice of America, "would you be interested in a novel or two? I have titles in several languages..."
Unconstrained by the finer points of social decorum, I almost toppled him in my haste to get inside his bag. Danielle Steele, Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Follet; he had them all, and a healthy dose of Danish and German works as well. He spent his days wandering the beach, buying, selling, trading and reading the worn paperbacks he garnered from sun-baked travelers. He had followed Dante through the Inferno, shared thirsty days and nights with The Old Man and The Sea, and was hoping to someday come across some of Orwell's works, to understand the mysterious references to Big Brother and the Savage.
The books had brought him more than a love of Shakespeare's sonnets. His language skills had blossomed while others were busy forgetting their Western ways. He now spoke a haunting, lyrical English that rivaled some of his most cherished authors. I wondered why he didn't migrate to Saigon and accept one of those sought-after positions as translator for a foreign firm.
He shook his head and directed my gaze out over the frothy white surf and cloudless blue sky. He was quite content, he said, and enjoyed the freedom of working to his own rhythm and in his own space. He seemed sincere, but a lifetime of diet books and car commercials had made me suspicious of such pure and unambitious contentment. There must be something, I insisted, something that he wished for but did not already have?
He hesitated for a fraction of a second. "A house perhaps?" I prompted quickly. "A small motorbike? A steady income?"
He shook his head. "A library," he said at last. A place where everyone was free to browse, to sit and read and drink a cup of tea. It had been his dream for years. Lately he had even found the perfect space for it, above a tailor shop and overlooking a tiny corner of the harbor.
He cocked his head and smiled again. For now I was welcome to borrow any of his books, he said, and could even return them by mail from Saigon or Hanoi if my travel plans took me elsewhere. We spilled his bag onto the sandy towel and I listened while he put a gentle finger on each crumbling binding, and explained why one was good, the other not. Eventually he rose to continue on his pilgrimage, leaving me with four of his favorite titles and the feeling there was more to life than making money, and that he had found it somewhere between a child's hopeful smile and the pages of Shakespeare's greatest works.