Expat Diary | Living in Saigon Side Streets
Saigon Diary entry 1
As Neil Diamond sings, “Palm trees grow, rents are low and the feeling is layback.” It ‘s been raining daily, but it’s that gentle tropical rain that lasts a short time and then stops in time to walk to the bar without getting too wet. All in all it’s been a pretty good, though very busy, month. Saigon looks a lot different to the expat these days, especially downtown. I’m afraid it’s going Hong Kong on me. New hotel and office towers are rising, clutches of men in suits are seen on the streets, and my favorite hole-in-the-wall crab restaurant is now a boutique! And those great counterfeit goods are getting harder to find. (sigh) On the bright side, I haven’t seen a single pickpocket, street urchin tout or transvestite whore. Hmmm, maybe that’s not all that bright. And poverty seems to be slowly disappearing, at least the desperate kind. But the city is definitely losing its cherished (by me) status as a backwater. I actually saw a stretch limo slither out of the underground garage of the new Sheraton Tower Hotel. Used to be the only thing stretched here was the power of your US dollar and the only thing underground was the economy.
But the food is still the best, and the prices as low as ever. I have a well appointed bed-sitting room with a balcony overlooking a quiet side street that everyone calls Pagoda Alley, for the well attended Buddhist house of worship set amidst the little open air restaurants that double as watering holes. I have a TV and minibar, phone, aircon and writing desk. $12 a night. I could get the same room sans windows for $10. I came here on a budget of $50 per day, but most days I don’t go over $40.
Some other prices:
A bahn mi sandwich: $0.30
Beer in a bar: $0.90
Beer at the store: $0.30
Dinner in my favorite hole in the wall, including beer: $2
Set dinner at Vietnam House: as low as $10 (drinks not included)
A bottle of very decent locally produced wine: $2.50
Xe om ride across town: $1
A new silk shirt: $5
I picked up a new Panama hat just before coming here. I got it at The Hat Guys in Oakland. It’s the best one I’ve ever had. The ventilation is excellent, the UV protection is such that I can feel the difference, the fit is so perfect that it doesn’t fly off in a gust of wind, and I get compliments on it every day. Folks in Pagoda Alley have taken to calling me Mr. Hat. Except for the bar girl who calls me Daddy. 😉
The Saigon locals have a name for most of the resident foreigners here, and there is a colorful collection of them. Mr Fat can be seen morning, noon and night at his favorite table. Mr Black can be persuaded to sing Calypso when in his cups. So he sings a lot of Calypso. Mrs Tall is very stand-offish. I don’t even know where she’s from, but I think it’s Belgium. At least she has a waffle face. Miss Blonde is sometimes known as Miss Skinny, and she consorts with Mr Nose. Mr Sideburns is from Australia, and is seldom seen without his bit of Vietnamese Crumpet. A number of the middle aged foreign men have such Crumpets, though the locals don’t give names to the Crumpets except for Miss Argument. Thank goodness for my hat! Collectively I refer to the foreigners in the alley as The Soaks. You may say I exaggerate, but these people drink more beer than I do. They begin at breakfast and they don’t stop till bedtime. Admittedly they pace themselves, but it still seems to be their chief amusement.
Saigon diary entry 2
I figure that if the locals can name the foreigners, turn about is fair play. And there is a rich cast of characters in “Mr Hat’s Neighborhood.” The slightly built Miss Chatter first appeared before me as I read the morning paper at a sidewalk table. With little tufts of hair sprouting from under her arms, and one trouser leg rolled up to the knee and clutching numerous purses and parcels I immediately thought of the nursery rhyme “One shoe off/ One shoe on/ Deedle deedle dumpling/ My son John.” Without the formality of introductions she quickly told me, through Slim the waiter, that at age 37 she knew she was unlucky in love so I had nothing to worry about. She showed me her ID and her religious affiliation. She shared her diary with me, which of course is in Vietnamese. With Slim translating the odd sentence or phrase she spoke at length on sundry weighty matters, often to herself, to which she gave considered responses. She asked if she could have the remains of my breakfast.
Miss Chatter visits me most mornings now, and we have a comfortable routine. She’s always as eager as a puppy to see me, and sits down without asking. Usually a local woman who sits unbidden next to a foreign man would be assumed to be a Crumpet out cruising, and the staff would chase her away as such. But everyone in Pagoda Alley knows Miss Chatter, and knows now that she is friend to Mr. Hat. So I nod to Slim and he brings her tea. She never asks for anything else. I read the paper and she yammers into the void. I don’t think she hears voices, she just churns a pot of word soup. Eventually she gives me the news of the day. Sometimes Slim translates, sometimes he disappears. She reminds me that she’s unlucky in love, and has shown me her palm to read, mute but immutable testimony to her lovelorn status. Still, she says she is happy to know me.
I encounter her now and then elsewhere in town, as she is a wandering soul. Every day she has a different set of bundles about to fall out of her arms, things she collects in her peregrinations. There is always some food, which she always offers to share. I invite her to a coke or a juice, which she sips very lady-like as I swill my beer. She laughs easily and eagerly, usually at her own words, whatever they are. She tries to share the joke and I smile and nod. She’s actually rather pretty when she laughs. I’m coming to understand some of what she tries to communicate, if only through body language and voice tone. She warns me of the heat and insists on rolling up my shirt sleeves for me. She makes sure that my beer stays cold by putting ice in it.
A few days ago she was trying to tell me something that included a time and date. She wrote it on my newspaper. She knows I’m writing a guidebook and has given me information before that she thought was terribly useful to the visitor. I nodded and smiled and thanked her for the info. She seemed very satisfied. Later, I looked at the dictionary and learned it was something about musical performances nearby, that evening. Next day I learned from Slim that she had actually invited me to the performance. She had shown up in the alley at the “appointed” time, dressed in a red Chinese style tunic. She looked very pretty according to Slim. She waited patiently for quite a while, telling everyone that she was going with Mr. Hat to the theater. I’m sure everyone in the alley nodded and smiled and looked away. Nobody makes fun of Miss Chatter. She’s sort of the local mascot.
When I next saw her I apologized. I tried to explain that I had misunderstood her, and that I couldn’t have gone anyway as I had had a “previous engagement.” And that I usually have “previous engagements.” She clucked and cooed something, and rolled up my shirt sleeves and told me not to worry. “It’s not your fault,” she said through Slim. “I’m unlucky in love. Don’t worry.”
Last night Miss Chatter caused an uproar in the alley. She was huddled with some other women by Madame’s tea terrace (more on Madame later) when I plodded wearily in on my way home. Suddenly she bolted out from the flock, ran straight toward me, threw her arms around me and planted a big fat kiss right on my mouth. This is essentially a Confucian society, and if anyone else had done that it would have brought forth gasps of shock, shaking of heads and grumblings of protest. But when it’s done by King Lear’s fool, or Miss Chatter, it brings howls of laughter. The whole of Pagoda Alley erupted into the longest spate of laughter I’ve ever heard in this country. And when they saw Mr. Hat shocked and blushing they laughed even harder. As I tried to make a graceful exit, smiling and waving as best I could without breaking into a run, I heard a voice pierce through the gales of mirth with a phrase in Vietnamese that I’ve come to recognize. “Don’t worry! She’s unlucky in love!” They laughed into the night.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the Crumpets are beautiful, all the prices are low, and you never know who might kiss you.
Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone, my home town. Pastor Inkfest has … wait a minute. That’s somebody else’s show. Okay, start over.
What is it about a Panama hat? Other than the fact that mine is probably the only one in the country? You all know that the local Vietnamese call me Mr. Hat, for the ol’ Panama. Well, the expat community is relatively small here, especially among the writers, photographers and artsyt-fartsy types. Even people who have never met you eventually hear of you. So I’m now “the guy in the Panama hat,” to the expats. I have walked past a clutch of expats sitting at their beer, and one of them will look at me knowingly, maybe she’ll nod. I’ll pass one in the street and he’ll do a double take. A guy across the street will wave at me and point to his head to indicate his awareness of The Hat.
So, okay, I’m “the guy in the Panama hat,” to the foreigners. At least they know it’s a Panama. The locals, universally, call it a Cowboy hat. And I have failed at every attempt to educate them otherwise. They simply do not have a place in their consciousness for the idea of “Panama hat.” It’s a concept foreign to them. And when I tell them that a Panama comes from Equador, two countries most of them have never heard of, it only makes things more confusing. They simply nod politely and tell each other it’s a Cowboy hat. So it’s official. Mr. Hat is a cowboy, pilgrims. Whoopey tay aye ay. I don’t know how they square that with my English desert boots and khaki trousers. And I shall not delve into it. But yeeha, nonetheless.
Saigon diary entry 3
The Soaks here in Pagoda Alley, Saigon, have had a bit of high drama in their otherwise steady and predictable lives. The well-known Crumpet, Miss Argument, has been banished, at least temporarily, from the peaceful byway. Her offence? Causing an argument, of course! She arrived at the Phuong (Phoenix) Restaurant with Mr. Boots (He wears those old style jungle boots we had during the war. One wonders why a Swede wants to wear them, but life needs mystery.). All was going swimmingly when Mr. Bob arrived. (They call him Mr. Bob because his name is Bob. How lame is that? You got nothing about you that the locals can’t pick up on, or pick on you about? Poor Mr. Bob!)
Turns out Mr. Bob was the Main Squeeze for Miss Argument. Or at least the Main Paycheck. At least this month. When he saw her cavorting with Mr. Boots, there was Hell to pay. Invectives flew! Accusations were hurled! The peace was disrupted! Anglo Saxon verbiage of the coarsest kind (new to some Vietnamese ears) was liberally applied. Beer bottles and blows were on the verge of being launched. Curiously, of the three malefactors, the one in most high dudgeon was Miss Argument herself. She was furious at being caught out, in such a public forum, in front of Buddha and everyone. She kicked over a chair, she threw a drink, and I think she spat at somebody. It was all about face and stuff.
Two ladies restrained her. A couple of guys interposed themselves between Mr. Boots and the hapless Mr. Bob. I was sitting on the other side of the alley, which means about five feet away, cheering on Mr. Bob, when somebody told me to shut up, I was being a butt-inski, or words to that effect. The two ladies delivered Miss Argument into the hands of Mr. Boots. He dragged her away, kicking and screaming. I guess it’s like that old Texas saying, “Ya dance with who brung ya.”
Saigon diary entry 4
Suzi Q, the bar tender who calls me Daddy, is disconsolate this week. She has lost her cell phone, known here as a “hand phone.” There are two things one absolutely must possess here in order to be cool, hip, with it, fab, choose your superlative. One is a shiny new motor scooter, and the other is a hand phone. Walk down the street and see that anyone wearing trousers has a rectangular bulge in a front pocket announcing the Saigon hipster’s required accoutrement.
Suzi Q had both, and she was on top of the world. Scooting about on her scooter, yammering away to all and sundry on the precious hand phone, slinging drinks for exotic foreigners, wearing those tight jeans that scandalize the elders. Life was fine. Then one day last week she was tooling down the avenue on her bright red bike, hand phone held proudly to the left ear, when a motor scooter-mounted thief (known as a cowboy, but not the Mr. Hat kind) swooped down on her and absconded with the prized instrument. She came wailing to Daddy, so I called her number on my own coolness counter, hoping to get a trace on hers. But the wily thief had already cancelled her number. Now Suzi Q is Suzi Incommunicado.
She says it will take three months for her to save up for a new one. I think she’s suffering withdrawal. She looks like I did when I quit smoking. I sit at the bar of an afternoon nursing my beer (okay, I’m guzzling it, who the hell am I kidding?) and she’ll come up to me with her puppy dog eyes and say, only half jokingly, “Daddy, you buy me hand phone. I can’t call you, talk to you. Can’t call anybody.”
You haven’t seen those puppy dog eyes. Nor have you heard the way she says “Daddy.” Pity me, a helpless male of the species, alone in the far away city. I’m suffering as much as she. I’ve actually been tempted. After all, hand phones are cheap here. Mine cost less than a round of drinks at Thirsty Bear brewpub in San Francisco (unless owner Ron Silberstein is there to pick up the tab. Go, Ron!). But Suzi Q must have one of those expensive phones with all the bells and whistles. She needs all those functions she’ll never use, but be able to boast that she has them. Of course she would use the camera, to send grainy photos of herself to people who already know what she looks like. But fortunately for me, her lust for extra functionality keeps me from giving in.
Saigon diary entry 5
Heidi is about 11 years old, and more grown up than most people I know. Hmmm, that may be why I like most people I know. Anyway, I first met her as I took an afternoon tea at Madame’s Tea Terrace here in Pagoda Alley. She wore jeans, a plain cotton shirt and a black baseball cap. Her hair hung down to mid back in a ponytail. Slender but not skinny, like most females here. She had a hand stretched out for money. But she also had a look on her face that said, “I bet I could beat you at anything fun.” It was a playful yet dareful look. I waved her away, and she stuck her hand closer to my face, and her expression said, “Run a race, play pool, long jump?”
We repeated this same encounter three days in a row. No way would I give her money. But I finally invited her to a coke, which she accepted. We speak only a few words of each other’s languages, so we sipped tea and coke in silence. But we locked eyes most of the time. We took each other’s measure. I’m sure she looked for weak spots in my frame in the event of a fight. I wondered what might scare her. I gave her my business card. She took it to an English speaker and had that person write the word “souvenir” across the top. Heidi has become like Miss Chatter. She knows she can sit at my table, no matter who else might be with me, and I’ll stand her to a coke. She never asks for more. Not even when she cleaned my clock at a game of pool a few days ago. Oh, yes. The 24 hour bar at the end of the alley has a pool table. Unbeknownst to me, Heidi has been there a few times. I’ll leave the details to your imaginations.
Saigon diary entry 6
I finally bought a post card from Crawling Lady. Curiously, it was the same day that the Saint Vitus Dancer made his reappearance after a three week absence. Saint Vitus’ Dance is a genetic nervous disorder that causes its sufferers to walk in crazy postures, with pained expressions, arms akimbo, tongue sticking out, eyes bulging. I don’t mean this unkindly, but it’s a bit like a Monty Python silly walk. Our dancer had reached the middle of the alley and paused, frozen in his pose, statue-like. Because of the position of one of his hands, a passerby thought he was begging and tried to press a small note into his hand. It fluttered to the pavement, and the would-be good Samaritan fled in confusion.
Crawling Lady crawled up to my table and said hello as usual. “Hello, my friend,” said I. “I’m happy to see you.” I long ago found that Vietnamese people love that phrase, “I’m happy to see you.” I’m the only foreigner I know that uses it. And I use it sincerely. And it always brings a smile, even a blush. Crawling Lady grinned, nodded and said “Happy see you, too. You buy postcard?” She always asks, but never presses. The most remarkable thing about Crawling Lady is that she speaks more English than most people in the alley. She’s a simple soul and doesn’t have a lot to say, but she can say a lot.
I remembered that I needed to send a birthday greeting, so I said, “Yes. Post card.” She took the flip-flops off her hands. Her feet have no use for them. Her legs are permanently bent at the knees, at an angle greater than 90 degrees. She never needs shoes. I’m always astonished at how clean and well scrubbed she is, given her life on the pavement. And unlike other paraplegics here, she wears no scraps of inner tube to pad her knees. Yet I’ve never noticed a hole in her trousers.
I looked at her wares. I selected the card. I paid her the $0.20. We chatted for a while. And then Heidi appeared. She took her seat, greeted Crawling Lady, and looked at me askance, as if to say, “Why I’m just a girl. I can’t play pool.” I signaled the waiter, who brought her a coke without being told. Upon receiving it, Heidi first offered Crawling Lady a drink. She took a perfunctory sip, smiled and said “thanks.”
The three of us sat there for a while, me drinking tea, Heidi and Crawling Lady sharing a coke, now and then speaking, but not too often. Then a guy at the next table (and the tables are very close together) decided that he must show charity to Crawling Lady. He stood up, and with a grand gesture, offered my lowly friend a bank note worth about a dollar. A tidy sum here. She politely refused. Crawling Lady has never taken charity, and she is sincerely embarrassed when it’s offered.
The man urged her to accept, and yet she politely refused, turning her face away. He insisted, and she began to show her ire. He tried to force it on her, and she batted his hand away with her flip-flop. He stuffed the bill into her bag of post cards, sat down in a huff, and told her not to be a fool, take the money while you can! She took it out of her bag, crumpled it into a ball and threw it at him. I could see from her tired expression that she has been this route many times. The man was speechless, almost apoplectic, that his largess could be so easily dismissed. That so humble a person could so steadfastly refuse him, from so low a posture.
Flustered at the unpleasantness, Crawling Lady turned to go. She pulled her flip-flops onto her hands. She tucked up her bag of postcards. She looked back and thanked me for buying one. “See you later, Mr. Hat,” she said. At that moment, Heidi abandoned her coke and without a word dropped down onto the pavement, on all fours, next to Crawling Lady. Just before they began to crawl away together, shoulder to shoulder, like a team of mules, they burst into a fit of giggles. They nudged each other, nuzzled each other, and giggled some more. They looked back at me and stuck out their tongues playfully. They looked at the man and stuck out their tongues not so playfully. Then, giggling like school girls, crawled together to the very end of my alley.
How can you not love this place?
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. Take that, Garrison Keilor! Straight from HCMC!
Saigon diary entry 7
It is sunset. The An Lac Pagoda, from which my alley takes its name, is full of congregants, as it often is at this time of day. They are so happy to be able to go there and perform their religious ceremonies. For many years after 1975, when the city fell to the northern armies and they had the joyous “reunification” it was difficult to practice any kind of religion under the communist government. But those days are gone. Motorbikes pile up in front of the pagoda, Some are even parked inside. And I sit here at my desk writing to you as the faithful chant in perfect unison to the sounds of drum and bell. If one were to record the sound it would be like one of those CDs of the sound of rain or of a waterfall. I could go to sleep to it were it not for the fact that they stop by about 9pm. Miss Chatter is in there.
I stood on my little balcony and watched as the people arrived. They all looked like people who are thirsty, and know that here they can drink. They looked relieved. They looked happy. Miss Chatter arrived on foot. She was laughing. This is the first time we have seen her since The Night of the Big Kiss. Until tonight she had simply disappeared. The talk has been that she was embarrassed at being so often “unlucky in love.” It might be that she just went back to her ancestral village or town for Tet, as many people do. I haven’t seen Heidi or Crawling Lady recently either.
Mr. Boots has left for Phnom Penh. After the fracas between he and Mr. Bob and Miss Argument he decided he’s had enough and has moved on. It’s a common thing. The Soak Community is very fluid (ahem). Most stay a matter months to a couple of years and move on. They have pensions, or alimony, or simply “income” that allows them to follow the sunny weather and the cheap beer and Crumpets. As I like to say, they seek sunny places for shady people. So now with Mr. Boots gone, and Mr. Bob still indignant over his embarrassment about Fight Night, Miss Argument is without paramour and without steady income, as far as I can tell. They let her back into the Phoenix, but she’s radio-active for the nonce. Getting no action. She’s desperate. She’s even made advances at me, knowing that Mr. Hat is just an observer when it comes to the Soak Community. Well, for the most part, anyway.
Mrs. Tall IS from Belgium! I was right! And, stand-offish though she is, she now has a beau! Mr. Malaysia, who could be another Mr. Sideburns were the name not in use, has been wooing her. They’re both in their 50s, I think. She’s a head taller than he, but he’s a belly wider, with a pretty good spare tire. He is quite dark to her very pale self. His ancestors are from southern India, and he bears a Portuguese name. He loves Hawaiian shirts. Mrs. Tall (they call her “Mrs.” only because she’s of a certain age) is positively giddy when she’s out with Mr. Malaysia. She normally would fix you with a steely glare, but she makes goo-goo eyes at the man lost in 70s fashion. I hope she gets some.
Lunar New Year, known as Tet, came and went recently. It’s outwardly pretty much like New Year as we know it, though it isn’t the “Night of the Amateur Drunk.” It actually has religious overtones, and is very family oriented. But it’s still a party, with fireworks at midnight. One of the customs here is for elders of the family (or friends) to give the younger ones “Lucky Money,” wrapped in red paper or envelopes. Or course everybody wants to get lots of lucky money, and they have no compunctions about telling you so. But it’s more important to get lots of contributions rather than absolute amount of treasure. It’s more about starting the new year with luck than with money. If you have luck, you’ll get money.
So I gave lucky money to Suzy Q, an installment on a new hand phone. It wasn’t much, only half of what her boss gave her, which was about a ten-spot. But a tidy sum here. But Suzy Q’s rich uncle gave her a fat wad in lucky money and now she has the niftiest hand phone in history. She can’t even comprehend most of its functions, and it makes the hugest bulge in her pocket, but she is back in the gaaaaaaame! Yeah! “Daddy, I take your picture with my hand phone, OK?” Yeah, that’s good, Honey. Now get just get Daddy another beer.
Saigon diary entry 8
I have discovered another class of Soak. At the northern end of the alley gather the Anglophone soaks: the Brits, the Aussies, the Kiwis, other Commonwealth types, and the few Americans. At the south end are the Francophones. (In the middle of all this are the Buddhist worshippers, kids playing hackysack, beggars, touts, dogs, cats, and others.) Now I should tell you that despite the fact that the Francophones are Francophones, they have to speak English in Vietnam as nobody in this country these days knows how to parley vous. Of course it galls the Gauls that they must speak a language outlawed in their own country, in a country wherein they once held sway. But I digress.
At the Francophone end, near my place, sits nightly a table of Vietnamese women who get hammered. They are six or eight on any given night, and they have this in common: they are married to foreign men, or divorced from foreign men, or they want to marry a foreign man. It seems that something about foreign men drives these women to drink. One of them is Miss Grabby. She is of the last category. And she has set her sights upon me!
She’s really not bad looking, not at all. And I think that she has a head on her shoulders. But she’s always trashed when I see her. She can’t handle her liquor. She likes to grab me as I pass by. She tries to kiss me in public. Miss Chatter can get away with that in this culture. She has a special dispensation. But Miss Grabby is another story. And it’s not just her own reputation that suffers. It also redounds upon me. And I wouldn’t want people calling me a slut, now, would I? Mr. Hat a slut? Hmmmm. Maybe in San Francisco, but not here!
A well known Vietnamese-American restaurateur from the Bay Area came to town a few weeks ago to visit family. I’ll call him Lemuel. (That should throw off any clue seekers.) Lem and I quickly became drinking buddies. Several times we’ve gone together to a fancy night club frequented by Communist Party bosses, foreign investors, well heeled tourists and the like. Among the regular entertainers is a sister act whose title translates to something like The Two Hot Babes. And Oh, God, are they hot! Especially the one that does a perfect impression of Cher. Lemuel throws his dong (Vietnamese currency) around like confetti. And so when I told him I’d like to meet Cher he stuffed some of his dong into a waiter’s hand and within moments Cher was sitting beside me. Ah, the power of the mighty dong! She looked even more gorgeous up close. She smelled gorgeous, having just worked up a sweat singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” She held a hand to the hem of her mini skirt (yes, miniskirt!) lest she inadvertently flash some one. I spoke in my most dulcet tones, with florid words and a quote from the Bard about how much I enjoyed her performance. She looked at me blankly. Lemuel translated. Arrgh! Despite her perfect English singing, she doesn’t speak a word! I tipped her a tenner, and told her, through Lem, that I hoped to hear her sing that song every time I came to the club.
A few nights later Lem and I returned. The Two Hot Babes were scheduled to sing that night, but at that moment a jazz quintet with a lead sax was worrying out a riff on Summertime. We took Lem’s usual table, and the bottle of cognac with his name written on it and the bottle of gin with mine were soon produced. They were both half empty from previous visits. Charming hostesses brought tonic and soda and plates of fruit. A man whose job is to do nothing but walk from table to table with an ice bucket filled our glasses and moved on. Three charming hostesses, whom Lem calls “my future ex wives,” mixed the drinks. The one who could speak English entertained me while the two others fawned over Lemuel. He was in his element. I was just waiting for Cher to appear. The future ex wives moved on to another table. They are required to rotate, lest the cops conclude that naughty goings on are going on in the presence of party bosses. They were quickly replaced by two other future ex wives. Neither spoke English. I patiently waited for Cher to come out and sing I Hate Myself for Loving You.
That was the moment I saw a woman in a booth across the room. She was not conventionally beautiful. She would never appear on a runway. She would never appear in a bikini. She was a bit overweight by modern western standards. Yet she had such poise. And the look on her face was of such rich enjoyment of the goings on that it was infectious. Her hair was bobbed at chin length. She wore a red tunic and a black knee length skirt. She was just deep enough in her cups that her face was flushed and her inner coquette was out and about. I caught her eye.
Lem saw me nodding and smiling to her. I gave him a quizzitive look as if to say, “Is this situation dongable? Can you do the dong thing here?” He made a discreet inquiry. His family is well connected, on both sides of the political divide. A cousin in the room talked to a cousin who talked to a cousin. Lem was summoned, and introduced to the Lady in Red. They chatted a few moments. They exchanged cards. Some kind of serious conversation went on between them and the cousins, with gestures made to others in the room. I was called over. And I was introduced to the Lady in Red, and invited to sit with her. As Lemuel took his leave to return to his future ex wives he whispered in my ear, “Be discreet. She’s an official of the Communist Party.”
Well shit! I fought the Communists in the bitter war here. I cursed them as they chased us out of the country in 1975. After military service I went into the “military-industrial complex” and was a Cold Warrior. Where I worked our chief competition was not Hewlett-Packard or IBM, but the Soviet Union’s electronics industry. We played technological leap-frog and cat-and-mouse with the Commies every damned day. Even after I became a journalist I wrote sarcastically about the Reds and predicted their demise before the end of the 20th century. And I was right and I was glad of it!
I really didn’t want this kind of complication. More than anything I just wanted to see The Two Hot Babes. I just wanted to drink a little gin, have a good time. And I certainly was in no mood to be discreet! I wasn’t even sure what discreet would mean in the circumstances. Did it mean that I shouldn’t say, “Neener neener neener, we won the Cold War, ha ha ha!”? Did it mean I should praise the struggles of the masses, talk about Marxist-Lenninist dialectic, comment on class war? I had no idea! So I said, “I like that red tunic. It suits you.”
So, okay, I’m not Mr. Smooth. But Miss Commie giggled and shrugged. She had limited (understandable) spoken English, and I less Vietnamese. But we could “write notes in class.” We clinked glasses now and then. That seemed to break the ice. Vietnamese love to clink and drink. A waiter brought over my gin bottle and I poured her a stiff one. She knocked it back pretty quick and dared me to another. And yet another. We played slap the hand and we laughed a lot as we sank deeper into our cups. Eventually I began to hear that buzzing sound in my ears. Maybe you know it, too. All the other sounds in the world recede to some distant horizon and you’re only dimly aware of them. You just hear the buzzing. I’ll be discreet here and just say that Miss Commie and I were being indiscreet. That’s when a battery of colored lights penetrated my senses. The disco ball was spinning, the floor was thumping with a hard base, the very air was vibrating with the high volume. And I became aware that The Two Hot Babes had taken the stage and were singing I Hate Myself for Loving You. Ah, Irony!
Miss Commie and I have exchanged text messages since then. We’ve arranged to meet a couple of times. But she’s broken it off each time. We had been indiscreet. Party bosses were there. It would be one thing if I were to see one of Lem’s future ex wives. Or even a capitalist running dog of a business woman who brings in more tax revenue than a whole regiment of red brigades. It might even be okay if I were a proclaimed American Socialist. But there are no secrets here. Everywhere I go the folks I meet say, “Ah, I’ve heard a lot about you.” Everybody knows I’m a war vet and a Cold Warrior. The people here don’t hold grudges, but many members of the Party do. Party Poopers.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where most of the women are sober, some of the men are responsible, and you can always get some one to pray for you.
Saigon diary entry 9
Valentine’s Day came to Saigon HCMC, Vietnam, and the Patron Saint of Love was loaded for bear. Make no mistake, this is still officially a communist country. Officially. The signs of it are everywhere. Daily the masses are exhorted to “build socialism” and to “support the workers’ struggle.” Yet the big debate is whether or not Communist Party officials should be able to own a private business and have employees and capital. Should wealthy communists be taxed at higher rates than those who simply struggle to get rich? All over town are Soviet style political billboards extolling the virtues and mighty accomplishments of the Revolution. They are posted, under contract from the Communist Party, by local advertising agencies whose clients include Coke, Levi’s and Vuiton. The Cholon Tuxedo Rental Shop is festooned with flags bearing the Hammer & Sickle. The Commies are playing golf and tennis, and betting on the horses. They talk futures in the same breath as the workers of the world. They are learning to drink wine. I look forward to the day when they learn to drink it without cigarettes.
But, as I say, Saint Valentine came to Vietnam. He even came to my alley. And he followed me around a bit. He was in evidence everywhere. His day is ostensibly a Christian observance, and about ten percent of the population are followers of Jesus and hence authorized to invoke the Patron Saint of Amore. But the Buddhistas love Love as much as any, and demand to be let in on the action. Even the Commies pause in their steadfast atheism to partake in the special day.
And so big red Valentine hearts flutter alongside the proud but diminished Hammer & Sickle. Images of Saint V are posted alongside those of Marx, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. The florists and jewelers and confectioners do a land office business. So do the Crumpets. They seem happiest of all! Just around the corner from the alley is what the locals call “Loving Park.” It’s about a six acre green space in the middle of traffic, graced with tall trees and shrubbery. It boasts two of the very few public toilettes in town, staffed by amiable attendants. Every night young couples come here on their motor scooters (the vehicle of choice in this country, there is little room for cars on these roads) and park them in long rows at the edge of the green. They sit on a bike, side by side or straddle one facing each other, and talk about their future, and make out, and now and then feel each other up when they think no one is looking, or when the right persons are looking.
Miss Jack makes frequent appearances here of an evening. She has several colleagues in other parks around town and they could all bear the name of Miss Jack. She takes up her station in a corner of the park where the shrubbery is about shoulder high. She is visited every ten or 15 minutes by young men who come to enjoy some of what must be the best exercised fist in the neighborhood. On the evening of the big VD (Valentine’s Day) there was a solemn line of young males, ranging in age from about 15 to 25 waiting in silent order at the edge of her domain. Each held his dong (Vietnamese currency) in his hand, worth about 25 cents. She called them each in their turn. They stepped up to the plate and she bent to her task. One hopes the shrubbery benefited from the enrichment of the soil. I first saw her that night at about 7PM, then again as I passed by at around 10PM, and yet again at midnight still plying her trade. I haven’t seen her since. I’m sure her arm must be in a sling. And I will never again approach that corner of Loving Park, no matter how well the bushes may grow!
Suzi Q works at the bar I call Regional Head Quarters. Her chief cohort is Sally G, and unlike Suzi Q, Sally G calls me Uncle. There is one more member of the night shift at Regional HQ. I call him Alfalfa. A bespectacled cherub-faced boy of about 18 to 20, maybe 5’ 4’’ and slenderly built. Always neatly dressed and polite. Not the lisping, mincing rubber-wristed sort, but still about as gay as they come. And he has a crush on Suzi Q’s Daddy and Sally G’s Uncle. I have a little ritual for my entry into Regional Head Quarters. I whip out the hand phone and call either Suzi or Sally and place my drink order about a minute prior to my arrival. When I walk through the door my beer is poured and waiting for me. Other patrons of the bar are often astonished that the drink arrives before the drinker.
Alfalfa watches the girls as they receive phone calls. If he perceives that it’s from me he rushes to fill the order for them, and lets me know that he did so. If he misses that he makes sure to greet me at the door. Sally G doesn’t much mind his doing this, though Suzi Q is a bit more territorial. But they all know that he is not allowed to call me Daddy, or Uncle, and so Suzi Q is mollified. Alfalfa knows well that the girls’ Daddy/Uncle is a straight arrow. And he respects that. Though it doesn’t keep him from lingering near me after serving me this drink or that snack. “Thank you,” I’ll say to him. “You go back to work now.” But if it’s a slow time he’ll just sit on the stairs that lead up to the pool room and watch me. I catch him doing so and he doesn’t look away. He just smiles. He has such a twinkle in his eye when he does so. He did me a small favor recently, and I told him he was a good boy. That might not have gone over well in the States, but this is Vietnam, where the approbation of one’s elders is prized. Especially if the elder is some one you have crush on. That one comment sustained his good mood for an entire night.
There are roughly 16 flower girls in the greater neighborhood surrounding Pagoda Alley. They are all between about 6 and 12 years old. Many of them wear a Catholic school girl type skirt, though they wear different tops. Little Miss Bluejacket is my personal favorite. She has a bad attitude. Most of the girls approach with a sweet smile and an engaging manner. “Mister, you buy flower for lady?” They have taken lessons in charm from their mothers or aunties, and most have learned well how to weedle an extra dong out of the defenseless male. They might rest a head on your shoulder. The littlest ones might even crawl into your lap. But Little Miss Bluejacket, who is now 10, and on her way to being a drop dead gorgeous teenager, will approach a man, tourist or expat, with a bundle of roses and say, “You! You buy flower!” Her victim will be polite and say, “Oh, no thank you. I already have one.” To which she responds, “You buy flower!” She’ll stay right where she is and lock eyes with her prey. And this beautiful bad seed will bend him to her will. She can even exercise this power over women. Perhaps especially over women.
The days leading up to Valentine’s Day are good days for the flower girls. As long as they play by the rules. You see they have something of a cartel. There is a price below which they agree not to sell their blossoms. One girl might find advantage in doing so, but it would cut into the others’ ability to eke out a profit. So the rock bottom price for a rose is about 20 cents.
One night shortly before V Day I was coming out of a little eatery in the middle of the alley when I heard a great, high-pitched commotion half way between there and the Phoenix. There all the little flower girls in the neighborhood had gathered for a roisterous pow-wow. Miss Bluejacket was in heated argument with three other girls, and all the others were pressing in upon them. All were shouting at once, apparently calling for blood. Miss Bluejacket had a faction of two, maybe three, girls, but they were vastly outnumbered. Still, she hurled vitriol in exchange for vitriol with several other girls. They got in each other’s faces and shouted their curses. As the hostility reached a crescendo, and quite without warning or apparent planning, two girls leaped on Bluejacket. Others shouldered her faction aside and held them at bay. The two assailants grabbed Bluejacket by the arms and pulled them out to the sides as though they would pull her apart. They tugged and tussled, their school girl skirts and their long black hair swaying and rippling with the ensuing struggle. A third girl, urged on by the frenzied tribe of little girls, leaped onto Bluejacket’s back and began to pummel her. I could hear the dull thumping sound as each blow landed between her shoulder blades.
Bluejacket knew that she was done for. There was no escape. Her small faction was helpless, as was she. So she just took it, took it as the beautiful little flower girls, ages 6 to 12, screamed for more. After a dozen good hard slugs to the upper body they let her go. And she immediately got back in their faces and screamed at them. Of course she had no argument other than her own native defiance. She had been underselling the cartel in the busiest season, the week of Valentine’s Day. She had been cutting into the other girls’ livelihoods. Justice had to be served. And they savored it. The alpha flower girl made a brief address, jerking her head toward Miss Bluejacket, who stuck out her tongue. The alpha then led the pack away, back into the night; back into the market for fragrant flowers; back to foreign men who were waiting to be charmed by pretty little girls offering blood red blooms; back to western women who overpay them in the belief that they are helping to “empower” the girls by promoting their entrepreneurial spirit; back to the soaks; back to work.
The next night Little Miss Bluejacket approached me as I was finishing dinner at the Phoenix. She fixed me with a hard stare as she held forth her individually wrapped roses. “You buy flower,” she insisted. In the months I’ve known her I’ve never bought a flower from her, just as I’ve never given money to Heidi, and only bought one post card from Crawling Lady, and that only when I needed it. But as with Heidi and Miss Chatter I have bought her a coke now and then, which she takes away to drink on her own rather than share my table. “You got your ass kicked last night, didn’t you?” I said to her, indicating the spot only a few yards away where the deed was done. She speaks little English, but my meaning was perfectly clear to her. “You buy flower,” she demanded, shoving one into my face. “You buy flower.” I think those other little girls had better watch their backs.
In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day all the females I know in the alley and the surrounding neighborhood had been reminding me of the impending event. “You will bring me chocolates, yes?” As with Tet lucky money, they are not shy of asking for it. “But I’m not your boyfriend,” I’d say. “But I am woman,” they’d counter. “You have to bring me chocolates. “ I tried to make them understand that V Day is not like Tet. “If I bring you chocolates it means you have to be my Valentine,” I told them one and all. “So you will bring me chocolates?” I tried to explain that only their boyfriends should bring them chocolates. But it was like trying to teach them the difference between a Panama hat and a cowboy hat. “You bring me chocolates!”
I resolved to make a day trip to somewhere else on Valentine’s Day. Besides, I’ve come to know a lot of females in the last three months. There are the night shifts at General HQ and Regional HQ, there are the day and night shifts at the Lucky Café Bar, the girl who brings me the morning paper, Madam at the tea terrace and her daughter, a couple of pool sharks in the 24/7 bar on the corner, plus every female you’ve read about up to now including Miss Bluejacket! They all want chocolates!
So I slept in, then sneaked away. But the whole city had Valentine fever. And it was infectious. Women and girls were all giggling over their chocolates and flowers. Men and boys were beaming. I wanted to participate. So I betook myself to the candy sellers in the Ben Thanh market, about five minute’s walk from the alley. There was a bewildering display of candies, many of which I’d never seen and couldn’t even guess what flavors. But the only chocolates I saw were big heart shaped boxes full. I’d bust my budget for a week if I bought enough to go around. Then I saw my solution. On the floor behind a bin full of what smelled like durian candy was a basket of M&Ms. All plain, no peanut. I scooped up what I thought would be enough packets and then added a few more for good measure. I figured I could give any excess to street urchins.
The day shift at the Lucky was still on duty, so in I walked with my sack of treats. I gave each girl a bag and they positively gushed. And they squealed. It was as though I’d given them each a diamond ring. They tore open each bag and compared their contents to see if they all had the same colors and quantities. And then they ate them on the spot. Two of them traded colors. I was amazed at the power of such a small gesture.
So I made my rounds. Madam hugged me. The girls at General HQ went in together to buy me a drink. One of the pool sharks let me win. Crawling Lady had never received a Valentine before. She pulled off her flip-flops and put her hands together prayerfully and did that Buddhist thingy. Heidi looked at me with her special dareful smirk and gestured for a second bag. I pulled her ponytail instead. Miss Chatter, well, you know how Miss Chatter responds to anything. I think she’s still yammering on about it. I thought about giving one to Miss Jack, but that would have required standing in line, so I tossed one over a pair of tables at the Phoenix to Miss Argument and ran. I dropped one into the begging bowl of a barefoot mendicant nun. At first she looked confused, but then broke into a grin. Even Bluejacket smiled at me, and punched me on the arm playfully. I think it was playfully; the mark disappeared in a matter of hours.
At length I had three bags left and two girls to go. I headed for Regional HQ. I whipped out the hand phone and told Suzi Q “Daddy’s on the way, Baby. Draw me a cold one.” When I arrived the place was empty but for Suzi and Sally. I took my seat at the bar and set my near empty bag on the stool next to me. The girls stood shoulder to shoulder facing me across the bar. They were ever so slightly standoffish, with a cautious look of expectation. I was coy at first.
“Did you get lots of candy today?” I asked. “Mmm, some,” they answered in unison. After a minute of teasing they knew I had something for them. So I turned to my bag, fished out the last three packs of M&Ms figuring I’d eat one with them. Then I turned back to face my two favorite Valentines, and Alfalfa.
I froze. “Where in the Sam Hill did he come from?” I thought. The girls faces were lighting up just like all the others I’d valentined. And so was Alfalfa’s! He could plainly see I had three packs of happiness. And there were three of them. Then he saw my hesitation. Now you know the kinds of things that went through my mind. No need to elaborate. But it came down to one thing. If I gave the girls a Valentine and none to him he was going to be crushed. Especially if it happened in front of the girls. Even gay guys don’t like to be humiliated in front of girls. If he were to misconstrue my meaning in giving him a Valentine, dealing with that would be preferable to hurting somebody so callously. As I handed each of them, all three, their M&Ms I said, “For my Valentine.” The girls went giddy, as the others had. Alfalfa pressed his Valentine to his heart and beamed immense gratitude, and relief.
The girls tore open theirs and gobbled them as the others had done. Alfalfa slowly opened his as though he were unwrapping a gift. He tore it down the seam as some people do with a bag of chips. He laid it down on the bar and spread the bag open to reveal the jewel like candies. The blue ones really stand out. I’d noticed that throughout the day and night. They are the first ones to catch your eye. It was the same for Alfalfa. He delicately picked up a blue one, lifted it to his mouth and slowly chewed, looking at me with such twinkling, smiling eyes that I was taken aback, and even moved. It was as though he had never tasted anything in his life so sweet as a blue M&M.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the pretty little flower girls are strong, all the parks are Loving, and you never know who might be your Valentine.
And good night to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are.
Saigon diary entry 10
This damned hat! Make no mistake, I love the thing. It’s the best I’ve ever owned. But the folks in Hat’s ‘Hood have never understood the thing; what they have always insisted is my cowboy hat. Altiplano grasses of Equador and the history of Panama have no meaning for them. Some do know about a certain Panama Canal and have concluded that workers there wear cowboy hats. They just don’t have a folder on their mental desktop for this sort of data. They know that somehow Mr. Hat is frustrated at this state of affairs, but it has made no difference.
Until now! Halleluiah! Tidings of great joy! They have finally learned that it’s not a cowboy hat! I was coming down the alley when I tipped my hat to a matronly lady I’d never seen before. “Hello, Mr. Hat,” she says. In this, as in any other, neighborhood nobody is unknown to the locals. Nothing goes unobserved. There are no secrets. All of Vietnam is one great big small village. It turns out the woman is from Hanoi and is in town for her annual three month visit with her grandchildren. She’s an educated woman who speaks fair English, though of the old Hanoi school. That means she learned the Queen’s English from East German teachers in communist Berlin back in East Block days. She learned how to harangue the masses in English, but learned little or nothing about English speaking peoples. Nevertheless, Madame Marxist (as I call her) is respected here for her learning and her many other fine accomplishments. She is a party member. People take her seriously.
As she and I chatted briefly she complimented me on my hat, a thing that happens almost daily. I thanked her, but said nothing more about it. I have learned not to point out that it isn’t a cowboy hat. I just let people think that I, and I suppose workers on the Panama Canal, are all cowboys.
“Where did you get it?” she asked me. It’s a question often asked. People want to get one for themselves. Knowing that any discussion of my headgear is going to create confusion, I just say that I got it in my home town, or in my country, something like that. And I add that they are not available here. So on this occasion I just said that I got it in California, and let it go at that.
Jungle drums, my friends! The grapevine! Urban telegraph! By the next evening the whole neighborhood knew of their mistake. All and sundry were disabused of the notion that I wear a cowboy hat. Madame M, with her mighty reputation as a scholar and speaker of English, has set them straight. They are now satisfied to know that Mr. Hat’s chapeau is a California hat! Fiat Lux! Eureka! No longer will Mr. Hat be frustrated with them! And why didn’t he tell them in the first place?
No doubt their relatives in San Jose and Riverside wear hats like Mr. Hat’s. They must now all send to them for their own California hats, now that they understand where they come from. According to Mr. Hat (at least in their own minds) they are only available in California, not in Vietnam. Workers on the Panama Canal must be from California. If all the people in California wear hats like Mr. Hat’s, and surely they must, do they all wear khaki trousers and Clark’s English desert boots, too? We have khaki trousers here. And we have counterfeit Clark’s English desert boots. They are as good as the counterfeit Rolex watches and lacoste shirts and Gucci bags our excellent counterfeiters make. Surely they can make a counterfeit California hat? That special grass he talks about must be from California. Well we have special grasses in Vietnam. The best special grasses! We should now all be able to have a California hat!
I sit at Madame’s Tea Terrace, reading the morning Communist Party rag (English version). The Prime Minister urges the agricultural sector to continue improving production. The National Assembly lauds the Laotian People’s Government’s efforts to strive to continue to perfect its practice in improving the organizing of cadres’ efforts at bringing under improved control many things that need improved control. In Hanoi they pin a medal on Daniel Ellsberg for undaunted courage. In Saigon the People’s Committee (City Hall) gives certificates to 25 middle school students recognizing them as examples of “Good Children.” An economic survey is set to stoke optimism.
My too-damned-swell Panama, no it’s a cowboy, no it’s a California hat sits on a corner of my table. It seems to mock me. “Thought you cut quite a swathe when you got here, didn’t you, Sport? Thought you’d impress them with my special Equadorian grass, crushability, fashion history and all that.” Or is it consoling me? “Don’t worry, pal. So what if they don’t savvy? You still look like a million bucks when you’re under me.” Madame Marxist stops by to assure me that she has rectified the Great Misunderstanding. She informs me that such efforts are necessary for harmony between peoples. And it helps to promote social progress and cohesion when all comrades are correctly informed. My papergirl wants to know if there are California hats made for ladies. There has been a suggestion in the alley that I should be renamed as Mr. California. Slim the waiter wants to try on my hat, so he can see what he’ll look like when he emigrates to San Jose, California. He puts it on backward, as they invariably do when I let them try it on. It slips down to his nose. He wonders if all Californians have heads as fat as mine. “No, Slim,” I sigh. “But maybe Panamanian cowboys do.”
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the lady comrades are strong, all the counterfeiters are talented, and all the children are certified as “Good Children.”
And good night to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are.
Saigon diary entry 11
I stepped into Regional HQ the other day and Alfalfa told me he had just seen Heidi walk by in tears. Suzi Q had drawn my beer as per the usual telephonic ritual, but I laid the price on the bar and told her she could have it. Unlike most Vietnamese women she likes a cold one now and then, despite the fact it’s seen as unfeminine. I went looking for Heidi. Anything that could reduce that girl to tears had to be something serious. She is undefeatable and indefatigable. She’s Bluejacket’s alter-ego; the “good witch.” I figured it must be a death in the family. I found her sitting on the pavement talking to Crawling Lady. She was still sniffling a little so I held back. A little girl who can “beat you at anything fun” doesn’t want me to see her crying. In a moment she got up and walked away, still wiping her eyes. I approached and knelt down next to Crawling Lady. “Hello, Mr. Hat,” she says. “You buy post card?”
“Hello my friend. No post card today thank you. You tell me, why does Thuy (her real name) cry?”
“Her bicycle.” She need say nothing more. I knew this day would come. And I knew it would come soon. I knew it instantly I saw the bike.
It was a festive night, as so many are here in the neighborhood. I had just turned into the alley on my way home for a shower and shave before dinner. There stood Heidi, proudly gripping the handlebars of a brand new bicycle. It was a girl’s bike, natch, painted sky blue and dotted with white daisies. It had a white wicker-work basket hanging from the handlebars and it was full of fresh flowers. The rear fender sported a carrier for either cargo or passenger. Fat new tires on the rims of white-spoked wheels promised miles and miles of biking pleasure. One of those shiny, hemispherical, ringy-dingy bells was bolted to the right handle. No girl of eleven ever had a more beautiful bike.
Totally confused, I asked her, “Where did this come from?” She grinned and pointed behind her to a middle-aged man from somewhere in the USA. He didn’t look a bad sort. And he didn’t seem overly pleased with himself. I’m sure his primary motivation was a simple idea that every kid aught to have a bike. It was his last night in Vietnam, having come for a two week vacation. Heidi had put the touch on him his first day in town.
Of course he was charmed by her. She’s a “good witch.” She has a pouch that she carries by a strap over her shoulder. It holds photos and post cards and dedications in her writing book by people she has charmed. They are from all over the world. Some of these people have become her pen-pals. That’s the more remarkable for the fact that she must have everything she writes and receives translated, as her English is quite limited. But her kind of charm overcomes language.
So her kind benefactor, in a fit of fatherly type love, or brotherly type love, or maybe something less savory, gave her this rich parting gift. Rich indeed. A rich gift to a poor girl in a poor country. The tuition for primary and secondary education is provided by the state here, but parents must pay for books, materials, uniforms, etc. Families are large, and it’s not uncommon that they send only one or two of their kids to school. The oldest boy and the smartest girl are the priorities. This is why Heidi is free every day to work the streets and the foreigners. Her family must be poor, indeed, if they have to keep a girl like her out of school.
Heidi was over the moon with the bike. The fact that she didn’t know how to ride a bike was irrelevant. She walked it everywhere. She put stuff in the basket, piled cargo on the rear carrier, rang the little bell as she approached anyone she knew. Virtually every adult with the means rides a motorbike here. People park them on the sidewalk and then sit on them as at Loving Park. Or they sit on them and just chat with others sitting on their bikes, or just watch the world go by. Heidi would walk her bike to a parking area, drop the kick-stand and then sit on her bike like any adult on a motor. I’d walk by her, perched proudly on that most beautiful bicycle, and she’d ring her bell at me and grin. It lasted longer than I thought it would. About two weeks.
I don’t know where she hid the bike at night when she went home. But somehow her parents found out. Or maybe she just copped to it out of filial piety. That’s a strong inducement here. I hope that was it. I hate to think that she was caught out hoarding such a valuable, easily convertible resource.
So I left Crawling Lady and caught up with Heidi when I figured her tears had stopped. I pulled her over into a sidewalk café, the kind here that are furnished with beach chairs. I sat her down and ordered her a coke, and I had a coke, too. “Sorry about your bike,” I said. There wasn’t much point in my saying more. She wouldn’t understand most of it anyway. But she knew my sentiments. And so we just watched the traffic go by for a while, and sipped our cokes.
Of course at a time like that you want to do more than just buy a kid a coke. I wanted to buy her a bike, of course. So would you. Where we come from every kid aught to have a bike. Where we come from. And I could have bought her one. I could have bought her two bikes. But they would have gone the way of the first. And Heidi would suffer three losses instead of one. I learned many years ago, when I loved a poor prostitute named Fatima, that mucking about with other people’s lives is a bad and impossible business. It doesn’t work. The law of unintended consequences always applies. Or to put it into the local Buddhist context: There is only one real favor that a human being can do for another, and that is to help him or her on the way to enlightenment. All else is mere indulgence.
In the West it is said that no good deed goes unpunished. Tonight a well-meaning soul in Sweetapple, Ohio or maybe Armpit, Texas or Bumfuck, Nevada sleeps soundly. He is secure in his generosity to a poor girl in a poor country. He is no doubt happy for the chance to practice charity, to be the Great White Benefactor. His investment pays dividends. He reaps the reward. He isn’t the one punished.
We were finishing our cokes. And as we were across the street from the 24/7 bar with its pool table, I suggested a game. Heidi does love to shoot stick. And as you know, she can usually beat me at it. I figured a little victory in life was just what she needed. She noisily slurped the last of her coke through the straw, stood up and wiped her last tear away, and we headed to the table. She was a bit off her game. I mean, hey, that bike was a beauty. But you know what? She still beat me. And it was worth every missed shot. I never lost a better game.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the beer is cold most of the time, many of the pool cues are reasonably straight, and you can be charmed out of your socks any day of the week.
And good night to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are.
Saigon diary entry 12
Every time I try to speak a little Vietnamese I get the damned tones wrong. I’ve inadvertently told a woman that she was a urinal; I’ve asked a waiter to change my stomach; I’ve asked for extra “no” at a food stall and answered “rice” to a request for alms; I’ve tried to buy a bottle of “yes” and answered “wine” to a yes-or-no question. My fox paws patter on. The folks laugh, I laugh, and they all know I’m doing my inadequate best. So I have no trouble laughing my ass off whenever they make an erroneous error with my own lingo. I’ve been collecting fractured English menu items from all over town. Here are just a few:
Fried Rice Hell
Grind Potato Cold Meat
Frilled Beef with Pork
Fried Spaghetti Dry
Baked Honey with Garlic Ribs
Mexican Burrito with Mung Bean (That’s actually correct, sadly)
Wedges Served with Sour Cream
Banana Flammable (Yes, it’s what it sounds like)
Good Cyclo Driver (Don’t ask me)
Filleted Fish Paste Fried
Rice with Clab (No, that’s not crab)
Beef in Wild Battle
Fish Pie Broth
Boiled Bowels Instant
Dutch Spring Balls (Who says the Dutch don’t have balls?)
Pancake Horny (No comment)
Chilli Corn Corny
Many first time visitors are startled at the personal questions Vietnamese people ask upon first meeting. They will quickly ask if you are married, how many children you have, how old are you? This not to be intrusive, it is simply to place you in your allotted pigeonhole. Everybody must have one. If you don’t have one it upsets the natural order of things. So people remember your answers to these important questions. And that includes your birthday. Even if not everybody remembers the actual date of your birthday, somebody will. And if the folks will it, the grapevine will hum as your birthday approaches.
Now, I never think about my birthday. Hells bells, I often forget how old I am! If it weren’t for people like my sister Laurie in Eureka and my friend Laurie at the SFCVB it would go by un-noticed by me. But the folks in my alley would not let that be this year. My birthday was April 3. I sat at my usual table at Madame’s that morning reading the Daily Blab. My paper girl, Anh, (sorry, I don’t have a nickname for her) had given me the April 3 edition gratis. I’ve kept it. Madame came up behind me, grabbed me by my freshly shaved noggin and rubbed it against her 70 year old bosom! “Appy birsday!” she proclaimed. Madame is very physical. Many people here are. Soon thereafter Crawling Lady appeared at my feet and handed up one of her post cards inscribed with a birthday message. “You buy post card?” she asked, strictly out of habit.
“No thanks, my friend,” said I. “But thank you for this one.” She beamed, and sat beside me for a while. At length, she pulled on her flip-flops, wished me a happy birthday, and crawled away.
That afternoon I repaired to the Lucky Café-Bar for my usual post prandial suds. The girls of the day shift there presented me with an apothecary jar filled with colorful origami figures that they had made themselves over several days. There must be at least a hundred in that jar. It is gracing my desk as I write. That evening the night shift ladies plied me with tequila. Or, as they say there, “Going to Mexico for Richard.” And they presented me with a one-portion birthday cake. The Vietnamese word for cake is “banh.” So they called it “banh birthday.”
Then I got a text message from Suzi Q. She said, “Daddy, come quick! I need you!” Suzi Q has done this in the past, as recently as April Fools Day when she begged me to come to Regional HQ at two in the morning only to find the doors locked! But I went. And Suzi presented me with two beautiful silk shirts, one for tucking, one for not tucking. She informed me that her mother had chosen one of them, and she the other. She further informed me that, as women will often do, she has observed my sartorial habits, and found them wanting. Especially as to variety. She hopes these shirts will be the start of a new wardrobe.
Also at Regional HQ Sally G gave me a lovely leather-bound notebook. She had noticed that the one I carried was just about filled up. She had also noticed that it was of wrinkled and broken cardboard on the cover and just didn’t look swell, functional though it was. Now I write on creamy paper in a book too big for my pocket, though I’m happy to carry it by hand wherever I go. Alfalfa gave me a card that I could see came from Crawling Lady’s stock.
Miss Chatter gave me her portrait and penned a love song into my new notebook. She decorated it with hearts and flowers. And she sang the song to me, as people in the alley listened. No doubt she hit a lot of wrong notes, but how would I know which ones? A couple of the Crumpets also wrote dedications into the book. It must be good stuff, because nobody will give me a literal translation. The Black Cat Bar named a drink after me. It’s called Richard’s Proper Martini. It’s done just the way I like it. They’ve even printed it on their drinks list.
I didn’t think it could get any better, but then I ran into Heidi and Bluejacket. It was pure coincidence that they would be within feet of each other. You know, Good Witch/Bad Witch, that sort of thing. But there they were. Bluejacket gave me one of her roses. She made sure to slap me with it first, and then stuck her tongue out at me. But that’s just her way. Heidi gave me a card, again I could see it was from Crawling Lady’s stock. Then she hugged me a long, long hug. And I started to get choked up, see? Because how can a guy not, when everywhere you turn somebody does you a kindness you never expected?
Well I couldn’t let the little witches see Mr. Hat bawl. That wouldn’t do in this culture. So I thanked them and went straight to my room on the third floor. I got misty for a few minutes. And then I stepped out onto my balcony, where I can see the whole of my alley. Bluejacket had gone back to work bullying foreign men and women into buying flowers. Miss Chatter was holding forth, God knows to whom. The Soaks were in their element. And the kids were playing hacky-sack, and the bell was ringing in the pagoda, and the cats were chasing mice, and the fruit ladies were hawking their wares, and the Crumpets were doing their best, and Miss Argument was arguing. All was as it should be in Pagoda Alley. And I decided that if they wanted to call it a California Hat, or a Cowboy Hat, or whatever, that’s okay with me. “Com sau.“ No problem.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the menus are confusing, all the old ladies are amorous, and where your hat can be anything you fancy.
And good night to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are.
Saigon diary entry 13
The city fathers have decided that they must emulate the Thai government and institute a contingent of “Tourist Police.” Their mandate, according to the Red Rag (what I call the Commie daily), is to “prevent bad things from happening to tourists.” Big Brother goes on to say that they are all bilingual in either English or French. He also goes on to say that they are all from a “youth volunteer group.” In other words they have no police powers. The real cops would brook no interference in their ability collect tribute. And in Commiespeak “volunteer” means that somebody volunteered you.
These young men wear institutional green uniforms with blue baseball caps. They look sort of like the garbage men of an upscale neighborhood. Of the half dozen I’ve spoken to none speak more than a few words of English or French. Nobody knows what they actually do, because so far they haven’t actually done anything. They hang out on the corner with their hands in their pockets, usually in squads of three. Certainly Derry the Irish jazz trombonist has had no satisfaction of them. He was waylaid the other night by a pair of transvestite whores on a motorbike. They tried to nick his wallet, but all they got was a snotty handkerchief and he managed to conk one of them on the noggin with his trombone case. I was not surprised. I’ve always found the pickpockets and other thieves here to be of a lesser sort. Although Derry says they spoke better English than the Tourist Police.
This is not surprising. The quality of spoken English here is uniformly poor except for places like the international hotels, banks and such. The whole nation, it seems, is bent on learning English, but most of their teachers are unqualified, or imperfect speakers themselves. Many people I know have respectable vocabularies, and can write the words. But they can neither speak nor comprehend the spoken language. They can no more pronounce English than I can pronounce Vietnamese. And then there is the question of context. George Orwell would have a field day!
As one might expect, Vietnam is a great place to enjoy Vietnamese food. Foreign fare, on the other hand, is, at best, hit or miss. I recently broke a tooth on a pizza. I cut my tongue on a club sandwich. At lunch I ordered “genuine American ham” and got Spam. Ketchup is actually red, but there all similarities end. Apparently the Vietnamese think that “minestrone” means “crunchy soup.” And I fear they think that shepherd’s pie is made with real shepherds. Lord save them from Girl Scout cookies!
So I went for lunch to what all and sundry assured me is a swell Italian joint. I ordered white bean soup. I like white bean soup, and I figured it would be quick, as I was pressed for time. How long can it take to ladle up a bowl of soup? After waiting for 15 minutes the waiter, an eager young man named Sang, came to report, “Sorry, Sir. No white bean soup. Minestrone soup only.”
Having been down the Via de la Minestrone I opted for a salad, figuring that would be quick and fool proof. So, okay, it was only fool proof. The salad was fine, and with a local beer ran me about a dollar and a dime. I called for the check and I paid. 15 minutes later Sang returns with my change. “Good news, Sir!” he announces with a broad grin. “White bean soup we have! It was in refrigerator and nobody know.” I now call that place the Good News Restaurant.
Last night I was at the Phoenix. Miss Grabby was in a rare sober moment and we were chatting (she sounds the same sober as drunk), and at my feet an alley dog was nursing a kitten. The kitten belongs to Madame at the tea terrace and usually scratches my ankles of a morning as I read the Red Rag. The dog has somehow acquired the name of Taco. She actually cradles the cat in her forepaws as it sucks dog tittie. I don’t know if it’s getting any milk, but it does suck enthusiastically, and it purrs audibly. The bitch seems to enjoy it, too.
So I’m sitting there and some one mentions that my friend Chris is back from a trip to his native England, and I figure he might be at Regional Headquarters. I whip out the hand phone and call Suzi Q.
“Hi, baby. Is Chris there?”
“Hello, Daddy. Yes. Chris come. You come?”
“Yes, in a while. Let me talk to Chris.”
“Yes, you come talk to Chris.”
“No, Honey. I want to talk to Chris now.”
“Yes, you come talk to Chris now. You want beer?”
“Not yet. I want to talk to Chris.”
“Okay, you come.”
And she hangs up. I call again. We repeat the above conversation. She is starting to be confused about the repetition.
“Suzi,” I say slowly and carefully. “You give Chris phone.”
Silence, but for Johnny Cash singing in the background. They know I like Johnny Cash, and they put him on in anticipation of my arrival. Would that they could put Chris on the phone. But I linger a while at the Phoenix, because Miss Grabby is sober for the nonce, and Andrea Boccelli is on the stereo. I’m suffering through a gin and tonic made from Cuban gin (Vile stuff! Damn you, Castro!), and a squeeze of orange juice (Can they be serious?). But the tonic is Schwepp’s and so I console myself. I look down the alley to the little hotel that faces Madame’s tea terrace. The hotel has recently been renovated. It now has a nice terrace of its own. It’s plastered with pictures of ice cream. I asked slim the waiter if they are now selling ice cream. “No,” he said. “It only to make the hotel more beautiful.”
A couple of backpackers make their way into the alley, looking for lodging. Time was that backpacking was synonymous with traveling light. Now they carry enormous packs on their backs, and somewhat smaller ones hanging down the front. They remind me of two-humped camels. I call them Bactrian Packers. One of the local dwarves walks by. There seems to be an inordinate number of dwarves in the city. I don’t know if they are born here or just gravitate here. But here they are. Shortly behind the dwarf a mendicant Buddhist nun shuffles along, one of several in the neighborhood. The cat-nursing dog takes brief notice. I think of Fellinni.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where “bad things” never happen to tourists, the transvestite whores are making a comeback, and you really learn to understand Italian cinema.
And good night to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are.
Saigon diary entry 14
I beat Heidi at a game of pool a few weeks ago. But it was too easy. She was very much off her game. I knew something was amiss. Over cokes afterward I asked her what the trouble was. She sucked on her straw, pensively. She pointed upward with her index finger, signifying North. “Hanoi,” she said, and her face clouded. Her family was moving back to their ancestral home. Heidi was born in Saigon. She has only been to Hanoi once. But people here can be away from their places of origin for ten generations, and yet they will long for those places. But not Heidi. She didn’t want to go. She loves these streets even more than I. As Melville said that his Harvard College was the deck of a whale ship, so are these streets to Heidi. They have formed her. Though she be only eleven years old, they have formed her. This endless carnival of vendors and hawkers, cheaters and liars, hookers and pick-pockets, cooks, bartenders, flower girls, and foreigners from all over the globe, have been her world. And she was loathe to leave it. But she is gone now. And she, and I, and my alley are diminished.
I didn’t know how to respond when she told me she was leaving. It wasn’t the language problem so much, you know. When you realise that you love a kid, and that kid knows you love her, language can be circumvented. But it’s important in this country that we not come between persons and their families. Sure, it’s important where we come from, too. But it’s doubly important here. I had to tread carefully.
We sat silently for a while. Then I got up and paid for the cokes. I nodded to Heidi to follow me. Opposite the western end of Loving Park is the Huyen Sy Catholic Church. Heidi’s family is Buddhist, and I’m Protestant, but the Huyen Sy’s flower garden is open to all, and it’s a peaceful place. We sat down on a bench facing an image of the Virgin Mary. Vietnamese Catholics came and went, lighting incense and votive candles, praying, genuflecting and so on. I explained what I could of it to Heidi. She might have understood every third word. But that wasn’t what counted. What counted was that she knew the message of my heart. And she laid her head on my shoulder, and held onto my arm. Here in Vietnam people are quite open to various interpretations of the divine. It isn’t unknown for persons to attend both church and temple. None would raise an eyebrow at the sight of a Pagan and a Protestant finding a bit of comfort in the shadow of the Catholic Mary.
In the fortnight that followed I managed to meet Heidi’s parents. She is the second child of five. Her dad is a day laborer. Her mom has a bum leg, but she does what work she can, like laundry. They were living in two rooms on the second floor of an old apartment building that Dickens might recognize. They shared bath and toilette with I don’t know how many. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Per capita income in this country is only about $500 per year. Through Heidi I managed to learn from Dad that they were moving to Hanoi because he and Mom had determined that their luck would be better there. Vietnamese people strongly believe in luck. Astrologers are taken very seriously. Star gazers had convinced Mom and Dad that luck awaits them in Hanoi.
I had a nagging feeling that Dad’s luck (or lack thereof) centered on cards and dice. Maybe Mom’s, too. These people are incorrigible gamblers. The Red Rag will tell you that soccer is the national pastime, but I tell you it’s the lottery and games of chance. And both Mom and Dad had a certain pallor that suggested that Heidi’s bike had been reduced, at least in part, to cheap rice whisky. And certainly that bike was financing the move to Hanoi. Now Heidi’s benefactor, the Great White Benefactor, who sleeps soundly somewhere in the heartland, had given her a gift that had not only caused her to cry, it was now taking her away. Away from her beloved streets, and away from me, and no doubt from many others. Truly, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
I always tell travelers here that if they want to give money to the children they meet and adore, that they should give to a reputable charity, or at least to the kids’ parents. It’s impossible to make a difference in a child’s life by giving the kid money, or a bike. Giving to the kid’s parents might make some small difference. Well run charities, by and large, will see your dollar go farther than any other means.
So here I am about to violate my own rule. I want desperately to help Heidi. Hells bells I want to adopt her and take her away from want and deprivation! I want to buy her ten bikes and tons of ice cream and barrels of coke. I want to send her to college. I want to see her go to the prom. I want to give her away at her wedding. But I can’t do diddly shit. Anything I give to Heidi will end up in the hands of Mom and Dad. And anything that they get, who knows where it will go? Not to any college fund, that’s for sure. To be fair, they are doing the best they can. But their best just isn’t good enough. They don’t have the power. They don’t have the education. They don’t have the wherewithal. They don’t have anything. Nothing but the money from Heidi’s bike and the words of some soothsayer.
I thought about buying her some new clothes. I don’t think she has ever had new clothes. But new clothes can be easily resold. There was no question of giving her money. She’s a good girl and would turn it over. And so she should, in this culture. Her parents and her siblings have to eat, too. I wanted to give her something of meaning; something that would remind her of me and my love for her. The perfect gift would have been a custom made pool que, the kind that comes apart and fits into a leather carrying case. Maybe her name monogrammed on the fat end of the que. A few cubes of chalk thrown in for good measure. I could get one for fifty bucks. But Mom and Dad could sell it for forty. Almost a month’s pay.
They were to make the journey by bus. It would take three days, if they didn’t pause. So I bought them food enough for the journey. The day before they left I went to the Ben Thanh market across the street from Loving Park. I loaded up on various kinds of food wrapped in leaves and steamed. Perfect travel fare. I got about 15 pounds of fresh fruit, including lots of oranges, custard apples and papayas. I got some Chinese style ham and sausage, some Laughing Cow processed cheese (they actually like the stuff here). Heidi likes Coke, so I bought 24 cans. On the morning of departure I picked up two dozen Vietnamese baguettes.
I brought the food to them in a cyclo (pedicab) that morning, having told them that I would do so. They were all packed up in cardboard boxes and cloth bags. Their place wasn’t far from the bus station, but I told the cyclo driver to go get some of his colleagues and pedal the family to the station. As the family loaded up I took Heidi by the hand and asked Dad if it was okay for her and me to walk to the station. He seemed confused, but assented.
I always carry a blue and white bandana in my hip pocket. Never go out the door without one. Always pack a few when I travel. I pulled out a freshly laundered one, rolled it up lengthwise and tied it around Heidi’s neck. Humble gift though it was, it was one she could keep. She fingered the knot. It was a good square knot. I still remember my knots from navy days. I pulled her ponytail one last time. And so we walked hand in hand. And we didn’t say a word. And we got to the station and sat on the family bundles waiting to be lashed to the roof of the bus. I’m really not a morning person, you know. Anybody who knows me can tell you. When I’m sitting at Madame’s of a morning reading the Red Rag I’m barely coherent. I shouldn’t be allowed out and about before noon. I’m just no good in the morning. I felt like I was about to get weepy. And I had already got weepy on my birthday. Then Heidi slapped me on the knee. And she stuck out a hand as if for money, just the same way as she did that day we met. And she had that dareful look that said, “I bet I could beat you at anything fun.” I laughed out loud, and so did she. I laughed and I laughed and I wiped away the tears, and so did she.
And then it was time for her to go. And she boarded the bus. And she took a seat by the isle, as all the window seats were occupied. But she looked out to me, still fixing me with that dareful smirk, her black baseball cap cocked to the back of her head, fingers on the knot of the blue and white bandana. Until the bus took her away. And she was gone.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley.
Saigon diary entry 15
I’d let myself get out of shape for while. At home I normally run around Lake Merritt (4 miles) four or five times per week. Burns off the pounds and keeps me thirsty for the suds. Win-win situation. So a couple of months ago I started running in Tao Dan Park, about ten minute’s walk north of Loving Park. Tao Dan is heavily shaded and a lot larger than Loving. When I come back, usually around noon, I sit at Madame’s and have a couple of cold ones. Madame doesn’t actually sell beer, but she goes next door to Soakville and buys me one. I give her purchase price plus. Madame is ever amused at me sweating bullets in this heat. One time she grabbed a hunk of my T-shirt and wrung it out. She laughed and laughed as my sweat poured out. She takes daily exercise herself, but she does so before dawn, as many people here do. She thinks I’m mad for doing it in the heat of the day, as many people here do. But as Noel Coward sang, “Mad dogs and Englishmen (and their transatlantic cousins) go out in the noonday sun.” Fortunately Madame’s daughter, Miss D (that’s what her name starts with, I won’t tell you more), always brings me her hand fan with which to cool myself.
So a few days ago I’m sitting at my usual table nursing a cold one and recovering from the run and fanning myself with Miss D’s fan. Madame’s kitten, the one that nurses on Taco the dog, is clutching at my ankles and pissing me off. I keep shooing it away. It keeps coming back for more. Finally it scratches me on the hand and draws blood. Before I can slap the thing silly it hightails it. Goddamned cat.
I returned to my beer, confident that the pusillanimous pussyfooter will come no more. That’s when Crawling Lady turned up. She’d been out of commission for several days. Now and then she is bedridden for as much as a week. “I can’t work sometimes,” she explained to me a few months ago. “Because my diabetes. Very hard to work. And my medicine, sometime, make me sick.” She has to take more than insulin. She showed me a basket full of pills, as well as her prescription. I’ve got no idea what it all is. So anyway, Crawling Lady noticed my bleeding hand and asked about it. I pointed to the offending creature skulking about on the other side of the alley. She just sort of nodded, and muttered something I figured must be philosophical.
Well it was a very hot day. And Crawling Lady seemed to be sweating as much as I. So I turned the hand fan on her. She found that refreshing, but also a little embarrassing. As you know, she is not one to be served or saved. She crawls on her own or not at all. But she knew I was just being playful. So in both embarrassment and amusement she began to giggle. I fanned her more and she giggled more. And I began to giggle. And Miss D, watching, began to giggle, and then so did Madame and so did Slim the waiter. We were all laughing as I fanned Crawling Lady. And then that damned cat leapt up and bit me.
“Goddamnit!” I shouted. And I got my free hand around the critter’s neck and I squeezed. Not enough to kill the little beastie, but surely enough to give it a good fright. I shook the little varmint, cursed at it, and then tossed it underhand across the alley, where it landed with a roll and then ran off to hide. Madame, Miss D and Slim were nonplussed. They know the cat’s a handful, and they bat it about, too. But Crawling Lady turned and looked up at me, and somehow looked down at me at the same time.
“Very bad, Mr. Hat,” she said.
“The damned thing bit me!” I protested.
“Very bad, sir. Never hurt animal. I go eat lunch now. You know I only eat vegetable. Never eat animal. I know you eat animal. Okay. You eat. But never hurt.”
“But the damned thing bit me! After scratching me and making me bleed!”
“You big. Cat little. You can feel hurt from little cat. Little hurt don’t hurt so much. Don’t hurt animal.”
She picked up her bag of post cards and medicines and whatnot, and pulled the strap over her shoulder. She shimmied her hands into her flip-flops. She turned back and looked at me with an expression of both compassion and remonstrance. And then she crawled to a vegetarian noodle seller half way down the alley.
Saigon diary entry 16
So I’m not only running by myself in the park. I’ve hooked up with the local chapter of the Hash House Harriers. This is a gang of “drinkers with a running problem” that I have been associated with for about 12 years. Established in 1938, we are the world’s oldest and largest international running (and drinking) club, with over 1100 chapters world wide. The weekly run (and subsequent piss-up) is often the social event of the week in many an expat community.
Rather like fighter pilots and frat boys, all hashers are anointed sooner or later with official Hash names. Here in Saigon we have a man named Two Dicks and a woman named Venom Sucker. There is a man named Nutcracker and a woman named Nut Sucker. There is Paddy-Fag, Able Semen and his wife Navy Shagger, Hand Job, Voyeur, and the poor unfortunate Clifford who is yet to be anointed. My Hash name of many years is Climaximus. (and that’s another story)
Now it’s important to understand that in this part of the world most Hashes are dominated by Brits and Aussies. We are open to all, and we generally have some of all, but there is a decidedly Etonian (or maybe Monty Pythonian) slant to all the whacky ceremonies and bawdy drinking songs we indulge in. So it was no surprise to me last weekend at the post-run piss-up in the Café Latin on Dong Du Street that Fudpucker hollered to me, “Climaximus, you Yankee buggah, do you read Somerset Maugham a lot?”
There was a titter amongst the gentry. (Actually it was a drunken guffaw) Mystified as to where this might be going, I replied that while Maugham has a certain early 20th century charm, I find him to be a bit mired in the Edwardian age. He uses words like “effrontery.” As in, “Fudpucker, you have the effrontery to address me, you Limey sod!”
“Love the hat, Climaximus, but combined with the khaki trousers and the desert boots it’s just all so very imperial. You belong in a movie, sport! I vote we change your name to Somerset!”
Bastard! Or should I say bawstard? Or Etonian twit, or English pig-dog? There is no way they can change my name officially. What’s done is done in the Hash, for ever and aye. But that doesn’t stop some of the Brits and a few of the Aussies from calling me Somerset. And all the Vietnamese members, since they can’t pronounce Climaximus, follow suit. So now I am Mr. Hat to the neighborhood; Panama to the soaks; the guy in the Panama hat to the greater expat community; officially Climaximus, and Somerset to many, of the Hash! I think I’m having an identity crisis.
Saigon diary entry 17
The pecking order among the hookers here is most interesting. At the top are the Crumpets. These are women who establish an on-going relationship with a foreign man. In other words they cultivate a sugar daddy. It might be for only a week or two. It might be for several months. If they do well they end up with cash and gifts and empty promises. Miss Argument is the most famous example, though not the most successful. She is, of course, her own worst enemy.
The most successful, or at least the most intriguing and most popular, is Miss Tittie. I call her so not because of her generous endowment, though she is busty for a Vietnamese woman. It’s because one of her flirting gestures is to grab her tits and push them up and out at the object of her attentions. She’s very bold for a Vietnamese woman. She has to be, and she has to communicate visually. She is a deaf mute. She is not beautiful in any traditional sense. But she is like the girl Kira in Ayn Rand’s novel “We the Living.” In a tribe of young friends in Moscow, all children of privilege and party, all of them beautiful, she is the exception. She is skinny, has stringy hair, a few pimples. She smokes. And yet she is the one always surrounded and doted on by the young men. Because the girl has balls. She is ever herself, truely and expressively. She revels in herself. Life is a major motion picture and she has been cast in the role of Kira.
Miss Tittie is just like Kira, except that she is a bit better looking. She colors her thick black hair so that it matches her bronze skin, and she pulls it tightly back into a bun or ponytail so that it makes a bronze helmet. She wears tattoos. She has big eyes with big brows, and a Roman nose above a large mouth with very full lips. Yet she is quite slender, you might even call her skinny. She looks very un-Vietnamese. I suspect some Indian ancestry.
She can express anything, any thought or feeling, through mime. If she were from a major western city she could be a star performer instead of a Crumpet. (Or perhaps a star Crumpet.) Her face has a range of expression to match Jim Carey’s. Her bodily expression could compete with Marcel Marceau. Any man who makes love to her with the lights out would be a fool. She sat down with me recently at Madame’s as I recovered from my run. She recently lost her sugar daddy and was showing me her “resume.” It was a photo album, much like a model might have, showing her in various artistic poses, different costumes, all very fetching and a few rather suggestive. It also showed pictures of her and her classmates at the deaf school she attended. As I was perusing her “qualifications” an alley dog sauntered by. It was a fat boy dog whose big balls wobbled comically to and fro beneath his upturned tail. Miss Tittie imitated the dog with hand gestures that somehow perfectly conveyed the image of the wobbly-balled hound. I laughed out loud, and she laughed silently.
Then there are the wannabe Crumpets. A good example is Miss High-Ho. I call her that because her name is Hai, and, well, she’s a ho. She, and women like her, want to get sugar daddies. But they are too old, or too fat, or simply have no fashion sense, or can’t communicate well enough in either English or any other medium. And some of them just have a lousy sales pitch. “You! We go boom boom!” Miss High-Ho is a combination of all the above. Nevertheless, I have bought her a beer now and then, and a meal or two. Her communication and interpersonal skills came into light, though, when my friend Michael, a local restaurateur from Oakland, CA, on a whim asked her if she knew my name. According to Michael, she paused a moment, searched her memory banks and answered hesitantly, “Killian?”
Miss Noodles works at a noodle stall around the corner from the alley on Bui Vien Street with her aunt and uncle. I like her. She has fair English and a good sense of humor. I often get a late night snack from her. I sit on a teeny tiny stool next to a teeny tiny table and she’ll stand behind me and stroke my shaved head and call me her “coconut.”
She always pronounces it ko-ko-NUT. I might walk by of an evening on my way to elsewhere and I’ll hear her shout “Coconut!” If I have time, I stop to chat. Sometimes I bring her little tokens: a keychain, a piece of fruit, a penlight. At their noodle stall you can order fried noodles with meat or vegetables, noodle soup with meat or vegetables, or Miss Noodles. I’m not sure about the meat or vegetables in that case. Perhaps Miss Noodles counts as the meat portion. I’m sure she would look very appetizing on a bed of greens.
Miss Juanita is so called because her name rhymes with the Spanish Juan. She is a garden variety street walker. But she is also a good marketeer. She stations herself outside the GO 2 bar on De Tham Street or the Allez Boo on Pham Ngu Lao, where young foreigners and Bactrian Packers congregate, and hands out her phone number to any who will take it. She even offers it to women, in the event they might want to give her a referral. She is on call day and night. I’m sure her motto is, “We deliver.”
And then there are the book sellers. Every popular title you can think of is available in cheap pirate copies. You will see stacks of them, 2, 3 even 4 feet high and more, tightly bound for easy carriage. They are always carried by women, balanced on their childbearing hips (though it must be said that Vietnamese women barely have hips). They cruise the streets with stacks of piracy almost as tall as themselves.
Back in February I sat at Madame’s reading the Red Rag. It proudly announced that due to intense negotiations and many “frank discussions” Vietnam was now in complete compliance with all intellectual property regulations as described in US, Australian and Austrian law. Last week in the same place Mrs. Book approached me with a teeteringly tall stack of piracies and said, “You buy book, Mr. Hat? I have many. Many good book.” I perused her wares. “I think I’ve read most of them,” I said. “And I wrote two of them. And I’ve got a story in that one edited by Bill Bryson.”
“Oh, you like?” she asked. “Very cheap, but good copy. And I have bad copy even more cheap. You buy, Mr. Hat? You want two? You want three? I get more copy.”
“You know about copyright?” I ask.
“If you want I can get. Get copy of anything. You buy?”
The Crumpets and the part timers and the wannabes and the street walkers all occupy the lower rungs of society here. As they do anywhere. But Mrs. Book is a respected merchant, plying an “honest” trade. I get nothing from her sale of my own books. Bill Bryson gets shafted, too. Travelers’ Tales, his publisher, gets nothing for its investment and effort. Mrs. Book and her innumerable colleagues are stealing on a massive scale. World wide it amounts to billions of dollars. On a personal scale, the standard print run for a pirate book here in Saigon is 12, 000 copies. So I have two books on the local market (that I know of) for a minimum 24, 000 copies. I should be getting about fifty cents per copy. So I’m out $12, 000! I could use twelve large right now. But I’ll never see a damned dong of it. The Crumpets and their ilk are at least providing a genuine service, for very little money. And they are not robbing anyone (generally). But they are on the bottom. And Mrs. Book and her cohorts are “respectable.“ I tell you it’s a topsy-turvy world when IP robbery is more highly esteemed than an honest ration of nookie.
I signed some copies for Mrs. Book anyway. Couldn’t help myself.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where big hurts and little hurts are put into perspective, noodles come in a surprising variety, and the art of the mime has reached unexpected heights.
And goodnight to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are.
Miss Tittie is still without paramour. I am surprised. I thought she would fill the void immediately. I thought she would set off a bidding war! It’s about 11pm right now and I just left her at Soakville. She was dressed in a white Ao Dai (pronounced OW yai), the traditional loose trousers under a long, split tunic that makes a woman look at once winkingly provocative and yet modest as a nun. She was sitting with Miss High-Ho, who still thinks my name is Killian. I have not disabused her of that. I kind of like Killian. Miss Tittie greeted me with a wave and a pat on her head to indicate the The Hat, even though I don’t wear it at night. A couple of flower girls converged on me and insisted I buy each lady a rose. Only one dollar each. Ha! They must be new girls. Mr. Hat knows that he can get four for a dollar. And all the other girls know that Mr. Hat might buy them a coke, even a bowl of noodles, but he don’t buy roses.
I waved off the girls, and Miss High-Ho invited me to sit down and buy both the ladies a dinner. I thanked her but no-thanked her, and “chatted” with Miss Tittie for a bit. I have trouble communicating to her, but I have very little trouble understanding what she wants to convey. But then I’m not used to using sign. Well the gist of her message was that she still has no sugar daddy because she’s raising the bar. She can do better, and she will. She is an avid reader, she told me. She respects a man who writes well. She has read a pirate copy of one of my books, World Food Vietnam. She, as all here who even see the book, is very flattered at my homage to her native culinary art. She asks me once again if I am interested in a mutually beneficial commercial and personal relationship of indeterminate duration. Terms to be negotiated.
I have to say, I’m flattered. And if my publishers were more generous (and that means you, too, James and Larry!) I could be quite tempted. But I’m not as rich as I look. And as well, I am going to be out of town soon for several weeks. Not a good time to start a commercial and personal relationship of indeterminate duration. With a twinge of regret (okay a lot of regret) I wished her luck, and came home.
I got a note from my little love, Heidi, recently. So did a few others. I had given her some stamped envelopes, each with a single sheet of blank paper inside, and a cheap plastic pen that could have no resale value. Crawling Lady, Madame, Mrs. Fruit (more on her later) and I compared notes. She arrived safely after an uneventful journey. They stopped for a couple of days in Hue, where they have kin. They arrived in Hanoi five days after their departure. As yet they have no mailing address. She mentioned mundane things we all know about. All the other notes were longer than the one she sent to me. That’s because her English is limited. But there was one thing in my note not in any of the others. It was something I’d taught her early on. She signed off with “See you later alligator.” How is it that such a little thing can punch a man in the gut so hard, and yet he wants it to punch him again?
Saigon diary entry 18
Well I’m keeping up with the running in Tao Dan Park. Madame still laughs at me when I come back sweating bullets. And she loves to wring out a hunk of my shirt and watch the sweat run. Then she sits me down at my usual table and towels me off in mother hen fashion, chuckling all the while, telling me I’m crazy. Today folks across the alley at the Ice Cream Hotel laughed at the scene, joking that they couldn’t tell if she were my mother or my wife. They decided it would be funnier if she were my wife, and the joke rippled down the alley. I hope they don’t start calling me Mr. Madame!
Well, as you know by now, folks here do like to pigeonhole you. They ask your age, your marital status, how many kids you have, what’s your sign, where did you get your hat. And once they’ve got you neatly in your hole you’re in that hole for good. Unless and until a voice of great authority, such as Madame Marxist, tells them a greater truth. A few days ago I was doing my usual counter-clockwise laps around the park. I decided that was monotonous and switched directions, running clockwise for the rest of the run. At the end I sat on the usual park bench to catch my breath before repairing to Madame’s for my well earned suds. One of the park workers approached me, and just stood there regarding me, with a somewhat worried or confused look on his face. I figured he’d never seen a paleface up close all sweaty and pink. But then he spoke, in halting English. He told me his name, but I shall always call him Mr. Park. After the obligatory pleasantries Mr. Park paused, sucked his tobacco stained teeth and said, “I see you running many times in my park.”
I should explain that here in Vietnam anything with which a person is affiliated is “my.” The waiter says, “Welcome to my restaurant.” The dish washer says, “I wash my dishes.” The garbage man says, “I collect my garbage.” The junior cop says, “I direct my traffic,” while the sergeant and the captain and the chief say, “I collect my taxes” (of course they mean that). And beware if you should come to visit, for when speaking English they often confuse the possessive pronouns. You might be introduced to a lady and be told that she is “your” wife. A lady may say that she is going to “my” room later, and then you find her at your door. My, oh my!
But on to Mr. Park’s report. He has been watching me. Perhaps he has been taking notes. Maybe I’ve somehow been doing something unauthorized and he is going to “fine” me. “Every day I see you,” he says, “and you run that way,” indicating counter-clockwise. He waited for my response to his close observation. “Uh, yeah…,” says I.
He paused, as though looking for just the right words, and says in an almost solicitous manner, “But today you change. After you start.” Then he awaited enlightenment. I said nothing.
“Something wrong in my park?” he asked.
“No, Sir,” I said, and I tried to explain that I had changed my steady course on a whim. More the fool I.
“Somebody make trouble for you?” He asked.
“No, no trouble.”
“Something in your way?”
“No, nothing, nothing in the way.”
“I work very hard to make the park good.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do.”
“But you don’t like to go that way.”
“I like to go that way.”
“Why you don’t go that way?”
“I go that way before.”
“But now you don’t go.”
“Yes, well, you see…”
I knew there was no explaining, rationally. I might as well try to tell him about Panama hats and cowboy hats. If only Madame Marxist had been there to bail me out. I wondered what she might have said. Yes, yes indeed. What would Madame Marxist say? Well, she might tell him to mind his own business! But then I’m not a party member. I’m a foreigner, and possibly some kind of heretic. I’m from California. Ah ha!
“You know California?”
“Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I have cousin in California. Also Minnesota.”
“I am from California. And in California we do that.”
“Number one sure.”
“Mostly. It’s a custom.” Custom is one thing people here can appreciate, even if they think it’s crazy. I got up, and I thanked him for all his hard work in making the park good. I congratulated him on a job well done. That kind of thing is important here, along with custom, and pigeonholing, and soothsaying, and clinking-and-drinking, and joking, and laughing, and loving. I left Mr. Park still a little befuddled, but with at least a tentative smile on his face, and went for my suds at Madame’s, who thinks I’m crazy, but loves me anyway.
I keep running with the Hash House Harriers, too. Last week was especially grueling. What we do is run a “paper chase,” typically about 10 Km. One or two persons are the “hares” and the rest of us are “harriers’ (hounds that chase hares). The hares lay out a course, marked with bits of paper, or sometimes chalk marks or little piles of white flour. The course is full of dead ends and false trails. When faced with a fork in the road, lead runners rush down the separate ways looking for the tell tales. The ones who find the true trail shout “On! On!” and the pack follows. Of course those lead runners who went down the false trail are now bringing up the rear. Acting as the hare takes a lot of time, what with reconnoitering the course and laying it out. Anyone who lays a course is entitled to wear a T-shirt saying “I laid the Saigon Hash.”
Last week’s hares were Wet Rag and Steel Balls. Devious bastards they. I’ve never run through so much water buffalo shit in my life. I fell into a flooded rice paddy. I tumbled through what seemed to be tumbleweed. I risked tetanus! We all ran through several farm villages, bringing huge amusement to the inhabitants who kept imitating our cry of “On! On!” At one little cluster of hootches we ran single file down the narrow trail, and some yahoo suddenly stepped out right in front of me, making a gesture as though smoking opium! He must have been on something himself! I tried to swerve, but I knocked the beggar down, leapt over him and kept running and shouting “On! On!” His mates laughed themselves silly. Yes, I think they were on something.
I should explain that we always run in the countryside here, though in other cities we often run right through downtown or in the neighborhoods. But there are many restricted military and police zones here, even in the city. In earlier years the Saigon Hash had a bad habit (hee hee) of skirting them as closely as possible. Finally a gaggle of our fellows ran straight into some compound and were taken under fire by soldiers. Nowadays we board a chartered bus at the Caravelle Hotel every Sunday at 2:30pm and are taken safely out of harm’s way.
So after the run and before the post run piss up and dinner at a local bar/café, we conduct what’s called The Circle. We gather in a ring. The Grand Master and the Religious Advisor conduct the ceremonies, chief among which is punishing the hares for being so devious! We have two large blocks of ice in the middle of The Cirlce. The hares are made to sit on them until they melt an impression of their butts in the ice!
Charges are read out against other members. Pussy Problem and his wife Pussy Solution were seen exchanging a kiss at the mid-run water stop. No sex on the Hash! And General Erection was seen urinating along the way. No pissing on the Hash! They must have a Down-Down! They are brought to the middle of The Circle and given mugs of beer. They must chug the beer as we sing a bawdy song about them. If they can’t finish by the end of the (short) song, they must pour it on their heads.
Ladies first, so Pussy Solution starts drinking as we sing:
Why was she born so beautiful,
Why was she born at all?
She’s no fuckin’ use to anyone,
She’s no fuckin’ use at all!
Drink it down, down, down, down, down!
The other offenders are given their beer, and we sing:
Here’s to them, they’re true blue.
They are pisspots through and through.
They are bastards, so they say,
Tried to go to Heaven but they went the other way.
Drink it down, down, down, down, down!
Before the hares may rise from their icy Hell they are given beers and we sing:
They ought to be publicly pissed on!
They ought to be publicly shot (bang! bang!)!
They ought to be nailed to the shithouse,
And left there to fester and rot!
Drink it down, down, down, down, down!
Then there are the newcomers. One by one they all get a welcoming Down-Down. We sing this and that. Until we get to the five French men and women who have just been posted to Saigon by a French firm. We brought them as a group into The Circle, burdened them with beer, and we bade them hearty welcome by singing, to the tune of the Marseilles, “Dien Bien Phu, Dien Bien Phu, Dien Bien Phuuuu, Dien Bien Phuuuu, Dien Bien Phu!”
Our Vietnamese members usually sing on the soft side, feeling self conscious at being too expressive in public. But all of us were happy that the messy run was over, the beer was especially cold, and all was well with the world. They sang that hearty welcome with special gusto.
The Frenchies all took it like sports, and none were surprised. For that is what the Hash is all about. Being a sport. And, well, drinking a lot of beer.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where silence can be golden, where Big (or maybe little) Brother may be watching, and despite those jokers at Fox News Channel and the AM talk shows the French are okay. C’est bon!
And goodnight to you, Miss Jack, wherever you are.
Saigon diary entry 19
I thought after the incident of the brat cat (the one I tossed across the alley) I might be on Crawling Lady’s shit list. And to tell you the truth I’d rather be on George W. Bush’s shit list than hers. Of course I’m not lofty enough to be on Dubya’s SL. On the other hand, maybe we all are. But I’ve come to learn that CL just doesn’t have an SL. She might remonstrate. She might throw money back at you if you try to force it on her. But she just doesn’t have time for a shit list. Her life is going to be short. She knows it, and she’s wasting no time with chicken shit. Her philosophy, if I may put words in her mouth, is to treat big things like little things and little things like big things. The front page of the Red Rag (or any other rag) becomes a little thing, and greeting a friend warmly in the morning is a big thing.
I knew I was forgiven for using the cat for a forward pass not long after the incident. She crawled towards me, sidled right up next to me, and slapped me on the thigh and laughed. Then she tucked her useless legs under herself, leaned up against my leg and stayed a while. Now that’s become her habit. Thigh slapping and all. And she doesn’t ask me to buy postcards anymore.
A couple of days ago she invited me to lunch. Yeah. Her treat. What do you say to somebody who is as poor as a church mouse, is gonna die young, crawls on the ground with flip-flops on her hands, is diabetic and God knows what else? Oh, and you are the only person who has ever given her a valentine, even though it was just a lousy pack of M&Ms? What do you say? Well, I think you say, “Thank you. I’d love to.” But for some reason that’s hard to do. Maybe for lots of reasons. Maybe even reasonable reasons. And you can ask yourself why that is, and answer it on your own.
I stood up and I asked my humble friend where we were going for lunch. “No animal,” says she. “No problem,” says I. She crawled and I followed to a little hole-in-the-wall around the corner. I know the place. I take a coffee there now and then. CL hoisted herself up onto a little plastic stool next to a little plastic table. I sat beside her. She called for iced tea for herself and a beer for me. I wanted to say no to that. The beer would cost more than all else combined. But she knew that. So I took it, and I savored it. Might have been the best beer I ever had.
I had rice and veg, she had noodles and veg. And we talked idly about this and that. We exchanged a little gossip, and wondered about our little love Heidi and how she might be doing, and how we might go together to Hanoi to see her. She followed lunch with a few of her battery of pills. I had to wonder if all of them were real, or just fakes or piracies. That’s not unknown here. Maybe that’s why she gets sick on them. But how could I know? And who am I to ask? It’s her life, and she fiercely defends it, short and painful though it’s going to be. But it’s all going to be on her terms.
I’ve recently read The Tale of Kieu, Written in the early 19th century by Nguyen Du it is widely considered to be Vietnam’s most important piece of literature. An epic poem, its final stanza is:
This we have learned: with Heaven rest all things.
Heaven appoints each human to a place.
If doomed to roll in dust, we’ll roll in dust;
We’ll sit on high when destined for high seats.
Does Heaven ever favor anyone,
Bestowing both rare talent and good luck?
In talent take no overweening pride,
For talent and disaster form a pair.
Our karma we must carry as our lot-
Let’s stop decrying Heaven’s whims and quirks.
Inside ourselves there lies the root of good,
The heart outweighs all talents on this earth.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the big things are little, all the little things are big, and where, from a balcony on the third floor, the world makes love to you every time you look at it.
NB Every year the U.S. publishers of Travelers’ Tales gather together the best travel writing from all points abroad, published in the previous year, and republish them in a collection called The Best Travel Writing, Volume … http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-Travel-Writing-Volume/dp/1609520572 It is widely considered the gold standard of travel writing. Not only is it highly regarded by critics and readers, it is used in universities to teach the narrative art. The stories you have just read were first published in the 2007 edition.