We met on a sweaty night in the middle of Hanoi, high up on a balcony full of backpackers. In the middle of the balcony was an old bathtub full of ice; staff members from the bar kept refilling it with bottles of beer, trying to keep up with the raucous crowd. For some inexplicable reason, everyone was wearing pink sombreros, and the place was filled with kids barely old enough to drink, sunburnt, be-hatted, throwing their heads back in drunken laughter.
I had arrived to Vietnam that day, my untanned skin giving away my newness, my arms suspiciously bare of ratty bracelets. I was on holiday for two weeks from my job. En route to the hostel from the airport, from the taxi window, I watched as the city of Hanoi sprawled out in front of me, families of five packed onto motorbikes weaving in and out of traffic at an alarming speed.
Beer in hand, I made chit-chat with groups of English backpackers under the black sky. Occasionally the guys would shake their heads like animals, covering the girls in droplets of sweat. The girls would screech in horror and joy, reveling in the attention. Music blasted over scratchy speakers, and once in a while the unmistakable sound of firecrackers echoed up from the street below.
And then: I can’t remember if it happened in slow-motion, or if you really did just walk in so confidently, so nonchalantly, that everything stopped. That moment only happens in movies, I thought. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of you as you walked across the room and sat down.
“The New York Dolls,” were my first words to you. You looked up from your spot on the couch, registered what I had said, then looked down at your shirt bearing an image of the band.
“Yeah, you like them?” You had green eyes, a deep voice from another continent. You were tanned a dark brown to match your hair, and the only one in the room not wearing a pink sombrero.
And I was yours.
Before I met you, I had never slept with anyone who wasn’t a boyfriend. I had never held someone tight on the back of a motorbike, I had never drunk whiskey in the streets.
That first night, you grabbed me around my waist and pulled me away from everyone, kissed me hard on the mouth. It was slippery with desire, with sweat.
“If this was Vegas, I’d be taking you to the chapel right now.” Your breath was hot on my neck.
I loved you. I knew you two days and I loved you. You were taller than any man I knew, a giant making your way through the streets of Asia. You had this great booming laugh that shook the walls. You ordered pho in Vietnamese, made the shopkeeper blush. At night you’d hold me closer than anyone ever had, play me songs by Sam Cooke.
“This is our song,” your tongue would find my ear, and I’d melt into your world.
Our second night together we cut open live snakes and ripped out their still-beating hearts, swallowed them whole. It was some tourist trap that promised virility and strength, both of us too young and lovedrunk to stop to consider the cruelty of our actions. The restaurant then grilled the snake, and we nibbled on the tough meat through gulps of snake wine, ice cold beer, shots of snake blood and vodka. Later you’d buy me a huge balloon shaped like a happy face, throw me over your shoulder and take me back to your hotel.
‘That’s me,” you said as I lay on top of you in bed, pointing to the balloon.
“I guess the snake hearts worked then,” I replied.
I was headed south, you were headed for Laos and beyond; our goodbye was casual. You told me we’d see each other again and I believed you.
Five weeks later I joined you in Sri Lanka. We had spent hours talking to each other online every day as you backpacked around Asia. I lied and told you it was fine with work; the truth is I was almost fired for taking so much time off. We spent a week entangled in each other’s bodies on a beach in the south, our own paradise. It was a place where the fish jumped out of the ocean, hurtled themselves onto the sand for reasons we couldn’t comprehend; their suicide became our dinner, accompanied with fresh limes and onions. We’d drink bottles and bottles of arak and ginger beer, stumble back to our shack guided only by the moon and the familiarity of the rocks. I’d fall asleep to the crashing of the waves.
For four months, we continued talking every day. You continued your travels through Sri Lanka and India; I continued my life teaching and living in Asia. Then, after only spending nine days together, you moved to be with me. I opened up my door and you stood there, towering over me, still covered in dust from another land. Despite the winter chill, you wore flip flops on your feet.
And you were mine.
I had never been so happy, or laughed more; I had never thought somebody so perfect. I’d run home from the subway station just so I could have five more minutes with you. I’d jump into your arms and we’d make love in our clothes. I’d ignore your shaking hands in the morning. We ignore a lot when we’re in love.
You got a job in another city, a really good job, and you couldn’t say no. After five months of living together, you left with the same backpack you had arrived with. I visited every other weekend, and we’d spend the days curled up together on your futon in your tiny apartment, nursing hangovers. Every night you’d be at the local pub. You could easily drink 20 beers a sitting.
How could I be so naïve? How could I not question the bin full of empty vodka bottles, or that every memory of you included alcohol, or the fact that every night before bed you’d stand at the kitchen sink, open a bottle of red wine, and chug the entire thing in one go? Ignorance is bliss, they say. Ignorance is bliss and love is blind.
Months later you would drink so much that a subway attendant would rush to my aide, fearing you were going to fling me over the platform’s edge. You were yelling at me.
“Why don’t you just fuck him then?”
You had never looked more menacing, looming over all the people waiting for the train. Your boss had put his arm around me at dinner, a dumb joke. Your eyes were bloodshot. You looked horrible and pale, bloated. You had been getting progressively worse and worse while living away from me, breaking down under stress and fatigue. You were drunk from morning until night. My laughter was no longer shared; now it was a nervous titter, a laugh of someone waiting for the ticking time bomb to explode.
“Let’s just go home,” I whispered. I had lived here long enough to know that any outburst of emotion in public was highly disrespectful. I was silently fuming with anger and shame; it wasn’t the first time your drinking had made me feel this way.
“You know what?” you shuffled toward me, and once again I saw the attendant inch forward, anxiously watching our every movement. “You’re a bitch.”
“You know I don’t like swearing,” I tried to remain calm. “So let’s just count to five, and we can pretend that never happened.”
“One, two, three, four, five,” you counted out loud. “You’re a fucking bitch.”
I broke up with you on that train platform, tired of waiting for the man I met in Vietnam to reappear. On the train back to your apartment you hurled all your worst insults at me, your head lolling from side to side. I prayed nobody spoke English. I had nowhere else to go but to yours – it was midnight.
You passed out immediately in bed, still in your work shirt and tie. I crawled in next to you. This was supposed to be my bed, my apartment; just three days earlier I had finished my last day at work. I had moved to this new city to be with you. I lay in bed beside you, your snores rhythmic and rattling. I thought back to our first nights together in Vietnam, when we slept as one.
And then – my first instinct was that you had brought a glass of water into bed, and had spilled it; why else would I suddenly be so wet? Horrified, I turned on the lights. You had urinated all over yourself, all over the bed, all over me. I shook you awake. Urine had seeped all the way up to your neck, and your tie was soaked.
Incoherent and confused, you stripped, throwing your clothes in a corner; they landed on the ground in a splat. I was too disgusted to help you. I showered, then made a bed on the floor of a spare blanket and some sweaters.
In the morning you didn’t even know why I was angry. In the morning you didn’t even know we had broken up. You didn’t believe that you had wet yourself; I forced your nose into your soiled clothes like a disobedient dog.
I left you on the side of a road. I clambered into a taxi as you stood there, your face stricken. On the way to the taxi stand you had thrown up twice, from the alcohol or perhaps from the shame.
That night as I lay in a hotel bed you’d call me again and again, leave messages asking to at least stay friends. It was too late. I already had a ticket back to Canada, planned a life without you as I gazed out over the skyline. Somewhere amongst the glittering city lights I found my answer: I would do what I had always wanted to do. I would travel, live nomadically, set out with no end date and with no return ticket. On that beach in Sri Lanka, wrapped in each other’s arms, we had discussed doing this together.
The last I heard you moved home. You used to write to me sometimes, short emails telling me about your travels, telling me how you wish things had been different, that we could have remained friends. I have never responded. Not responding is my only method of coping, not with your alcoholism, but with the fact that I didn’t recognize it soon enough. Maybe I could have saved us. Maybe I could have loved you forever.
“Maybe they’re just giving you all you’ve ever wanted,” I said to you that first night.
You smiled. It was the best smile I had ever seen.
“And maybe you never ever know what that was,” you recognized the lyrics; they were from “Vietnamese Baby” by The New York Dolls.
“And maybe you’re just finding it out now,” I smiled back this time. Warmth spread up from my feet all the way to my head; it was more than just the heat of Hanoi.
“Maybe I am,” you laughed, taking my hand, leading me into that night that was so full of promise.
I began reading this under the impression that someone was going to be with child! Glad that were not the case. Lol. Drama is always fun to read.
I’m glad that wasn’t the case either…
Woah. So glad you did decide to post this Brenna. So raw and beautiful….
Thank you so much, Dalene, I really appreciate that.
Wow, what a very moving and powerful story, I’m glad you decided to publish it. Very well written and not what you usually see in travel writing. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Jill! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I have nothing to say except that I am so moved by this piece — you write SO beautiful and SO honestly. Wow.
Thank you so much, Oneika, that means so much to me! x
A brilliant piece of writing Brenna. But at the same time, I feel I went on this emotional journey with you. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you so much, Ed, I’m glad you enjoyed it. x
So poignant. So evocative. So beautiful. Thanks for writing with such honesty…best thing I’ve read in a very long time.
Wow, thanks for that comment, Ann.
Absolutely beautiful, and heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this piece. I know you are a stronger woman for it.
Thank you so much Jess – I think I am!
This is so good it hurts. And so good that I wish I could express myself this way, to describe a similar situation I had. Framing around a song makes it that much better.
Thank you so very much, Caroline. I’m glad that you enjoyed it…
Totally gripped for the whole of that story Brenna. Sorry it didn’t work out but your current life is testament to the fact that everything happens for a reason. A good inspiration to me right now.
I’m so happy that it could be inspirational for you… I agree that everything that happened since was so, so, SO worth the heartache at the time. Trust me. x
Wow- you somehow managed to turn this unfortunate and heartbreaking incident into a beautifully written story. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to write about it.
Thank you so much, Ashley. This happened years ago so time and distance certainly help in writing about it!
I just love the way you write Brenna. Thank you so much for sharing and i can’t wait for your books.
Thank you so much, Alex, that is a really encouraging comment!
Brenna, this was so, SO beautiful because of its raw honesty. I’m so sorry you had to go through this; truly it must have been heartbreaking knowing that the man you loved so much didn’t/couldn’t love himself enough to see his issues and work through them. I won’t speak platitudes about how ‘awesome’ your new life is without him because it doesn’t make up for the pain you went through but I hope that in time it becomes a little less painful for you and your heart heals completely. Toni xx
Thank you so much, Toni, I really appreciate this comment. This happened years ago so I’ve had lots of time to heal – and dated others since him! I just wish the best for him now, as we really did care about each other.
I’m so moved by your openness. It was SO brave of you to write – no, publish. I’m glad to see that you’ve come out the other side of this and I hope he’s gotten the help he needs. Beautiful storytelling, Brenna. xx
Thank you so much, Alyssa, this really means a lot coming from you. I am so thankful for the situation because it taught me so much about myself and about life. Thanks again xx
I feel your heartbreak so poignantly. Nothing is harder than realizing things are so very different than you thought they’d be, that the person you love isn’t present anymore though they are standing right in front of you.
I love the direction your blog is taking since you’ve moved to London!
Thank you so much, Camille. I’m really glad that you enjoyed it!
And thanks for the nice comment about my blog, since moving to London my work and schoolwork have really taken over my life but my blog is still my number one passion. I hope to update it much more frequently now that I’ve finally settled in (including a new flat)!
I love how raw and honest this story is, it brings me chills. Yes, love is blind, but the only way your can really learn that is through experience. Thank you for sharing such a poignant story xoxo
Thank you so much Zalie, I couldn’t have gotten through any of it without your support. xoxo
Thanks sister xoxo
Wow Brenna. That was seriously the best real-life written story I’ve ever read. Such emotion and realism. Thanks for sharing how you overcame and bettered. What an inspiration!
Wow, that is an amazing comment, thank you so much!
I really admire your bravery for writing this Brenna and glad you got through it. He sounds so wonderful yet troubled all at the same time. That must have been so hard to deal with.
A beautiful piece of writing. x
Yes, he really was wonderful, and I wish him all the best. Thank you so much for your comment, Helen! xx
This is beautifully written and you are so brave for putting your story out there. It is so rare to see such a honest personal story on travel blogs these days. It is certainly true that everything happens for a reason.
Thank you very much, Jodie! I also wonder what would have happened if I had stayed…
That was so incredibly intense. I could not stop reading. I flew through so many emotions, so fast, and they even mirrored yours in the story. happiness, longing, fear, and sadness.
Th emotional component wasn’t the only thing that stood out, because the writing was amazing. You’ve grown leap and bounds since you started your Masters. I loved the slow start where you explained environment, to the leap to passion, to the embarrassing and fearful climax, to the heartbreaking resolution that you cant live this way.
The last part slayed me the most. Where you jumped back to the beginning and finally reveal the meaning of the title. That connection by music (which I feel is so incredibly powerful) seems so promising but we already know how it ends.
I’ve read a lot of your writing but this was exceptional and is my new favorite piece by you. It made me feel and was such a brilliant use of words and flow.
Thank you so much for sharing. This is going to resonate with me for a while.
P.S I agree with all the other commenters that you were so incredibly strong for leaving. Its so easy to get caught in a negative cycle hoping things change because you love someone, when really the only way things change is when you stop excepting them by leaving the situation. I hope he has gotten help because he seems like a great person who had some serious troubles and not the right coping methods to deal with them.
First of all, I’d like to agree that he was (and I’m sure is) a great person and he was just struggling at the time. I really do wish him all the best and hope that he’s happy.
Secondly, wow. Thank you so much for such a detailed comment; it really means so much to me to read these words. Writing is often very difficult (especially with a job and a blog and everything else in life!) and I’ve hit somewhat of a wall recently, so your comment is extremely encouraging and supportive. Though my writing is nowhere near where I’d like it to be, I really thank my professors and fellow classmates for their continued support and advice.
Anyway, thank you so much again, I am sure to come back to this comment whenever I’m feeling a bit low.
All the best,
I just started following your blog and this was the first entry I read. I found it to be both beautiful and sad as I have experience with loving an alcoholic in a past life. You’ve won my heart with your writing, I can’t wait to read more. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Leslie. I promise that not all of my posts are this depressing! I hope you stick around for more. Thanks again for your supportive comment.
I feel like I’ve both learned so much about a part of you while at the same time walked away with fifty more questions. Fabulous, touching storytelling — and good on you for moving on and forward!
Thank you very much, Edna, your support means so much to me!
wow. just wow.
A really lovely post and story, Brenna. Thanks once again for sharing your beautiful tales. It can sometime see hard to bare it all on a blogg, but your retelling are always stunning.
Thank you very much, Laura. I really appreciate your comment.
I have always loved your writing style and enjoyed following your blog over the years, but wow! Just WOW! This post was so incredibly poignant and real. I teared up while reading this, and felt as if I was right there with you in all of your heartache! I am so happy you made it out of such a poisonous relationship and turned it into something so beautiful.
Thank you so much Lauren, those words mean a lot to me. I really appreciate your support over the years!
What an engaging tell! Well written & safe travels! Looking forward to more. 😀
Wowee! This is what I love about your blog! It’s not just travel that you write about, but living. That is definitely what inspires me and keeps me checking back in. Wise woman!
Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m so glad that you are still reading.
I am so glad to see this story turned into a beautiful ode to love and loss. It’s raw and honest and I love it.
Thank you so much, Kerri.
Thank you for being brave enough to share such a personal story, especially one as beautifully written as this.
Thank you, Jayne, I really appreciate that.
This was the best piece among all the personal stuff I have read so far. Must have taken a lot of courage to put it into words.
Thank you so much, I really appreciate that.
Poetically written for such a difficult situation. I know its not easy writing about something so personal–I struggle with how much I want to reveal in my writing, both on my own blog in other forms.
Thank you very much…
Such an evocative piece Brenna. I’m sure it took a lot of courage to finally publish it, but I’m really glad you pressed that button. I loved reading it – so raw, so honest!
Thank you so much, I really appreciate your support!
[…] Vietnamese Baby by This Battered Suitcase. Brenna’s honest and beautifully written account of a love affair born in Vietnam. […]
I admire your courage for sharing this story. Beautifully written, so immersive, my heart is still racing!
Thank you very much, Sarah…
This is so poetic and lovely, I could feel the words piercing me. Thank you for writing this with so much honesty! The world needs more writers like you. 🙂
Thank you so much, Meryl, that’s a great comment and I really appreciate it!
Omg Brenna………seriously your writing is amazing. I was reading this at work and everything around me just disappeared and I love how the tone of the piece changed so drastically. I’ve dealt with alcoholism in my family and I’m really glad you were strong enough to leave that sort of situation 🙂
Like I’ve mentioned before, when you publish a book I’m buying a zillion copies and giving them to everyone I know.
Aw, thank you so much, Jacquie. I really appreciate all of your amazing comments and support, I’m glad you liked the story…
[…] Vietnamese Baby – This Battered Suitcase – I seem to have a thing for honest posts at the moment after having Flora’s post as a favourite last month but this post just blew me away. I honestly didn’t think it was going to end like it did, and from the opening sentence I was living this story right through Brenna. I think it is so brave and honest to write something like this a put it out there for everyone to see. There needs to be more blogs like this one. […]
I love this kind of writing from you. Just lovely. 🙂
Thank you so much, Katie. 🙂
[…] Vietnamese Baby – This Battered Suitcase A powerfully written and thought-provoking post focusing on love abroad. Blogging at its best! […]
You write so honestly, and beautifully. Seriously, you help inspire me to be a little more vulnerable with my writing.
Thank you so much, Claire.
[…] 3. Learn about a time when travel can make and break your heart […]
I love reading these posts, thank you and please keep sharing! They would make for a great compilation travel/romance book one day!
Thank you so much!
[…] (That make no sense.) + Bomb Pop Shots – (Late, but there are always reasons for shots.) + This post – (So, so beautifully […]
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, Brenna – and this must have been so hard to write. If this is what the Masters is doing for you and your work then I’m even more excited to start the course :p
Thank you, Flora! You will love the course.
A incredibly beautiful piece, and courageous beyond measure. Congratulations and I hope that by writing, and sharing this piece it will give closure to what would have been a heart breaking time.
Thank you very much Robbie, I really appreciate that.
When I first read “Vietnamese baby” I instantly thought about the song, but I was pretty sure a cool travel girl wouldn’t have heard about the New York Dolls…I was wrong 🙂 From now I will follow your blog.
I used to wear a NY Dolls t-shirt all the time, even have some pictures wearing it in Saigon. Wish I was the guy who met you in Vietnam, haha.
Anyways, a very interesting read, you write well and I could not stop reading.
Thank you so much, Magne, that’s a great comment ha ha! I do like the New York Dolls but haven’t listened in a while… your comment reminded me I should more often.
Fantastic! so well written I loved it! Sorry things didn’t turn out how you hoped they would have. Everything happens for a reason
It definitely does… I’m very glad that things turned out the way they did!
That was a truly amazing read – I have tears in my eyes and goosebumps. Thank you for sharing.
Oh wow, thank you so much for letting me know, Audrey. I’m glad that you enjoyed it…
[…] Vietnamese Baby […]
Brenna this was beautifully written and very moving. I read it on the train and this post came to me at an interesting time. Thank you for being so honest and for sharing a story that I think most women feel speaks to them on some level. I love reading your posts and reflecting on them afterwards.
Thank you so much Beatrice, this comment really means a lot to me.
[…] Her storytelling is emotional, it’s vivid and it’s so relatable. Favorite Stories: Vietnamese Baby and Navigating Home: A Story From […]
I’m so sorry about the sad ending
Thank you, but it was a good thing… I learned a lot from that experience!
Bravo, it’s the least we can do to be a better person
Hope you have many happy adventures since this post!
I love this. I come back to read it again and again.
I remember the first time I stumbled across I got to the line:
“…Despite the winter chill, you wore flip flops on your feet.”
Into my mind popped: “Australian.”
Big apologies on behalf of my country’s men.
Not sure how I missed this comment… yes, you guessed it. 😉 Thank you so much for your comment and for reading.
This was the first piece I ever read of yours, about a year ago. Since then, I’ve read most entries you’ve written and love this blog a ridiculous amount, and this is still my favorite entry. I’ve read it several times, and I cry every time. Thanks for being here <3
Thank you so much, Jenna, that means so much to me. It especially comes at a good time as I’m struggling with my book a bit… but this story is the style of the book, and a version of it is included! Glad to know that you enjoyed it as it encourages me to keep writing the other stories…
Oh my god I’ve got goosebumps. This is so well-written, so beautiful, and so sad.
Not sure how I missed this comment… but thank you very much, Jemma. 🙂
This was absolutely beautiful. I really have no words x
Not sure why I never responded to this comment – thank you very much, Ashley x
[…] solo has taught me how to be better at relationships. I’ve been very open about my failed romantic relationships on this blog – *cough* and even my failed flings *cough* – but the truth is I’ve […]
[…] Caribbean for a week. I don’t really know why they offered it to me (I write about poo and heartbreak, thankfully not often in the same post) but they did, and I was extremely flattered. I had to turn […]
new to the blog, and this story just melted my heart. I love the way you write.
Thank you very much, I really appreciate that! I hope you’ll keep reading.
[…] and he eventually moved to Japan to be with me. But over the year things started to crumble, and the relationship became volatile. Still, I loved him, and I really did picture settling in Australia with him. I could easily […]
I am glad to start finding out there are people out there falling in love quick and strong even after a short period of time. I did the same, and am sure not only once. But I can also relate how it feels to be madly in love with someone, and being ready to make it last as long as it can, and realise one day you have to let go. I guess it is just a choice we have to make sometimes, I find it even a bit weird that I explicit share these thoughts to you, someone I just started to follow here; probably I am just happy to see I am never the only one having those feelings 🙂 Nice writing by the way!
Thank you for your comment… and for sharing your experiences here! Yes, I think many of us have experienced this or something similar.
This was absolutely beautiful.
I’ve just recently discovered your blog, and I can’t wait to read more. Your writing is stunning. This story has similarities to an experience I’ve had and so this really tugs my heart strings and I look forward to being fully healed in time. Thanks for sharing 🙂
I stopped reading when you said you cut open live snakes and ripped their hearts out. Beyond cruel.
Oh, I totally agree. It was a horrible thing to do and I’m ashamed that I participated. I did a lot of stupid shit when I was younger (this was ten years ago) that I deeply regret. Thank you for pointing this out, though, I’ve updated the post to reflect this cruelty.
I just started following your blog and this was Wonderfully written. You’ve won my heart with your writing, I can’t wait to read more. Thank you.
Amazingly Written. Love your Writing!! Thanks a lot