“I'm bored,” said Sonny Pham said. “I want to speak English.”
The sun had disappeared over the beach in Phan Rang, leaving only purple clouds over the bay.
“I'm not trying to sell you anything,” he said. “I just want to talk.”
Pham, who introduced himself as “Taco Bell” pointed to a nearby snail cart and sat down.
His broad shoulders and long hair made him look some twenty years younger than his age, 61. He spoke about Vietnam knowingly, but also with the bright eyes of someone taken with the general ease of life here.
It hadn't always been so.
Pham hopped on a boat in 1979, the year Vietnam was once-again battling for survival on every front.
Young men like Pham were conscripted to either push Pol Pot and company toward the Thai border or repel waves of Chinese troops flooding into Lao Cai—more soldiers than the scant border units had bullets to shoot. The US embargo, in the meantime, wasn't doing much for peoples' waistlines, particularly those who'd backed the wrong horse.
Pham spent a couple years in a refugee camp before winding up in Mary's Island New York.
For the next few decades, he bounced from one state to another trying his nose at various grindstones.
He was washing dishes for $2.50 in Miami right around the time that Colombian hitmen were machine-gunning Cuban cocaine kingpins in broad daylight.
For five years, he ran a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, working seven days a week.
He got married. Had five kids. Then divorced.
He continued to work long hours and finally found something like the American dream in a one-hour photo booth in Orange County.
He told his customers to call him Taco Bell—a ubiquitous Mexican fast-food franchise--because it made them smile and he held a certain affinity for the chain's Taco Pizza.
At one point, he said, he had four employees. A nice big house. And he was his own boss.
He grimaced when I asked to take his picture with a digital device cruelly built to resemble a 35mm point-and-shoot.
Digital cameras, after all, took everything from Pham.
In a single decade, they reduced his $200,000 photo developer to junk. Pham stuck to film believing that American giants like Kodak couldn't go out of business overnight.
By the time the 2008 crash came along, Kodak had folded and so had Pham's photo booth.
He couldn't pay his mortgage. Or any of his bills. He had no income.
Then one day he walked into bankruptcy court and cashed out.
“I just let it all go,” he said.
His kids gave him some money to travel to places he'd never dreamed he'd go. Italy. France.
“You can't buy kids like that,” he says.
Finally, he got the urge to come back home.
Last year, he landed in Vietnam and began traveling the length of a country he hadn't seen in 35 years. For a time, he lived with his brother in Ho Chi Minh City. Then he settled in Phan Rang where he found a house on the water for $30 a month.
In the mornings, Sonny goes swimming in the ocean. He usually buys a dollar's worth of fresh clams and snails for lunch. When it gets hot, he goes home and reads the news. When he gets bored, he rides his bicycle.
After the sun had set, Pham invited me to join some friends on folding chairs out in front of their hotel for a meal of stir-fried beef, french fries and the small, local bánh xèo.
“I didn't enjoy life for 35 years,” he said watching everyone eat and drink. “I lost a lot, until now...”