After a dinner of Hue’s famous pancakes, just outside the walls of the citadel, we were walking back along the Perfume River to our hotel. From a large concrete building, set back from the road a bit in deep shadows, loud music thumped into the street. Bachata. Close your eyes and you are back in Latin America. In the heart of Vietnam’s imperial city, the sounds of the Dominican Republic. We crossed the uneven parking lot in the dark, the dim light in the lower hall of the building like a cave leading us to the source. Beyond metal bars we could see a couple pairs of dancers, and they were remarkably good, certainly not amateurs. It didn’t take long to understand that the wiry little man with the gray hair and rubber hips centered the room. We found a doorway and stepped in to watch. A mirror leaned against one wall, a hefty sound system stood in the corner in a lockable wooden cabinet.
As light on his feet as he likely was on a scale, the man had all the right moves and his partner did a respectable job of keeping up, though the concentration in her face and hints of hesitancy in her hips suggested she was his student. Dark patches of sweat appeared in his collared, long-sleeve shirt. Another younger couple, a sister teaching her brother, as it turns out, danced along, one eye on the instructor much of the time. When the music paused between songs, we and two other onlookers, drawn by the Caribbean rhythms in a Vietnamese night, applauded.
The master came over and shook our hands, his free hand touching his elbow delicately, an Asian practice I feel adds a bit more grace to the gesture. Bao Thanh wouldn’t tell me how old he was, but he did admit that his love of dance dated back to when he learned at the “West Navy” school in Ho Chi Minh City, then Saigon. He served in the navy, if we understood correctly, under President Đình Diệm, who was assassinated in 1963. But surely not bachata. We asked him about this and he said, “Internet!” He brought over his smart phone and started loading a YouTube video of two Dominicans, and he pointed at the tiny dancers on the screen. Impressive.
After smiles and pleasantries, they returned to face the mirror and analyze one of Bao Thanh’s expert moves, and we stepped out into the night to cross the bridge back over the Perfume River.