The first youth, the one who had taken my money, glared at me with erratic eyes.
It was an odd look, a look of confusion maybe, of uncertainty or, perhaps even of fear; I decided in those first moments it was not a look of aggression anyway…
Behind him, having just emerged from a concealed doorway three or four metres back, now stood three other wiry Vietnamese youths; while all were initially taken aback by the sight of an ‘Englishman’ confronting one of their buddies it took only an instant for surprised expressions to become looks of anger.
…The tallest of the three recent arrivals, a young man with a head of thick brown curly hair and wearing a green Adidas three-stripe jacket, appeared the most enraged…
Upon witnessing the formation of the Viet Cong then sensing the pugnacity emanating from within, I knew I ought to have just left the money – which my oversized paws and their questionable dexterity are still struggling to extract from the left-front pocket of a pair of well-fitted jeans – I knew I should have just shown my palms in a display of ‘no attack’ and backed the hell out of that situation.
…His eyes at that moment made me think of the 8-ball in a game of pool; big, shiny and black as they were. I knew I ought to have just left it, ought to have just walked away, no harm done; I could still have turned up to Crazy Girls just with one less drink in my budget…
I was never going to do that though, was I? I didn’t give a toss about the money, about the irreverence or the shameless audacity shown by this Viet delinquent; I don’t think at that point I was even considering my own pride – no I’m pretty sure I just wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t walk away.
…Even as I saw three-stripe burst into action; even as he began sprinting towards me winding up for a classic (genuine Vietnamese) Mid Canterbury haymaker, I knew I had time…
With one almighty tug I withdrew my right hand from the petty thief’s left pocket. I saw the unwieldy haymaker in plenty of time; just like the drunken teenaged boys out fighting on Christchurch streets of years gone by, the punch was slow and it looked weak. With my left foot I took a measured step backward. I expected that once three-stripe had launched his attack the other guy, petty-thief, would be galvanised into action and was likely to have a go too, thus was preparing for this eventuality. I was an equal distance from petty-thief and three-stripe when three-stripe brought forward his ugly swing.
…Huh, I remember thinking, how about that, he’s left-handed; I’m not. As the puny fist came for the right side of my face I reflexively swung down and to my left. I knew I had positioned myself out of range if petty-thief came in with a kick but kept my eyes on his feet anyway, as I swung my torso through a 180 Degree sweep…
I felt as though I had judged the distance and timing well so was surprised to feel glancing contact against my right cheekbone.
…Legs bent at the knees, torso bent forward and to the left, I now positioned my hands in front of my face at chin-height and prepared to swing back.
Straightening posture, like a slingshot I whipped back around to the right; I then watched, as if seen in delayed coverage, as a pirouette of blood spatter performed a slow-motion arc before my eyes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; had the little prick seriously knifed me? I glanced downwards and to my right; a trickle of blood appeared to be dribbling down my face, dripping from my right jawbone and making a terrible mess down one side of my beautiful blue three-stripe T-shirt.
Gosh, I thought, that was unexpected.
Deciding then that I’d done enough ‘seeing what would happen’, I was just about to raise my hands in capitulation and back calmly out of the alleyway; the Vietnamese youths though, they had different plans.
Upon seeing blood, the delinquent Viet Cong became feverish; before I even had time to refocus, my head and face was struck by a barrage of furious fists. I pulled back and freed myself from the onslaught. Thrusting a forefinger menacingly in their direction, in a guttural voice I demanded, “Back the fuck up, just back off!”
To this day I do not understand the logic behind what happened next but, standing at the alley’s entrance – blood dripping, adrenalin pumping, voice reverberating, finger thrusting – a middle-aged Vietnamese man rushed up behind me and grabbed me by the arms, yelling, “Halm down man, halm down!” The sight of their target momentarily restrained seemingly rekindled the Viet Cong’s bloodlust; while this misinformed elder pinned my arms to my side all four young men now threw themselves upon me.
Without too much trouble I broke free from my rear grips, lowered my head and raised my arms in defence; the past few seconds had been quite long enough to form the decision that, against four young-adult assailants, puny or otherwise (also apparently one harbouring a shank), no good could come from trying to fight back. The best thing I could do was defend myself and hope to emerge with as few battle scars as possible.
The punches and kicks were coming from all sides; instinctively I held up my forearms to cover my face. I saw my hat go flying; that was followed by my glasses. Until that moment I had been reasonably calm but that, having my hat and glasses knocked from my face, that pissed me off. To my right I saw my banh mi vendor and realised that I had been pushed back out onto the street. I saw my hat a few metres away, on the pavement to my left; taking a couple of quick paces I crouched, leaned forward and reached out to grab it. A firm kick to the stomach ensued. Hat in hand I now straightened and, oblivious to punches and kicks, scanned the road for my glasses. Blurred vision notwithstanding I saw them, having fallen on the road another few metres from the hat. A few more steps and I bent down to retrieve them as well; I tensed my core as I predicted another foot coming at my midriff.
What I didn’t predict was the powerful kick administered to my right hamstring; rendered momentarily powerless that leg collapsed, sending me toppling over backwards.
Instinctively I went down on my right side (jiu-jitsu), stripped of my base but still able to protect anything important. I felt a pummelling of jandal-feet kicking my back, which didn’t bother me particularly, I was just focusing on keeping my skull out of harm’s way. I then saw one of the delinquents – possibly petty-thief – skirting around above me and winding up for a face-kick. From upper peripherals I saw the blue jandal and black stonewash jean-leg making their rapid way towards my face. Elevating my chest, I turned my head slightly to the left then still with my eye on the foot to my right, with my right arm (jiu-jitsu) I scooped the incoming ankle. Rolling fully now onto my back, with the kicker’s foot trapped in my right armpit, I swung his forward momentum to my left. As he toppled to his right I used that inertia (jiu-jitsu) to pull me back to my feet.
Again I was caught in an onslaught of weak punches; hat still in my left hand my only focus now was my glasses. I scanned the ground; there they were. I felt immense relief; they didn’t look broken. Brushing off a few insipid fists I reached down and grabbed the thick-rimmed glasses; my fingers went right through the frames…
Across the next few instants I envisaged the next 20-plus days in HCMC then trying to make it home again, without the aid of my prescription lenses; my world came crashing down. I felt ill.
…I was suddenly furious. I stood at my full 6 Feet. “FUCK OFF!” I yelled, “just FUCK OFF!”…
My assailants fell back and stood looking at me. I inhaled deeply and bit down hard on nothing. Driven by fury I stabbed a finger out of my clenched fist then moving only my lips, mouthed some threatening words at them. Clutching a black felt Trilby in one hand and a set of lens-less glasses in the other; with the temperature nearing 28 and my heart pulling at least 160, unsurprisingly I was still leaking blood profusely. (Additionally, and one of the most horrific sights I’ve witnessed to date, with eyes looking directly ahead, I was clearly able to see the tops of both my cheeks.) Occurring to me also, I was trembling violently. The Viet Cong shrank back into the shadows and I immediately went on the hunt for my lenses. My heart leapt as I saw the first, a mere outline on the road. I pocketed it then went back to where I had originally picked up the glasses and scanned the road again. People milled around staring, laughing, pointing, leering; ignorant. (I hadn’t realised but from the time I had purchased my banh mi – which I had not eaten and in fact, I thought bitterly, had probably been stolen by now anyway – until now, the street had become packed with revellers.) Avoiding looking directly at any Smartphone cameras, chuckling wryly; I might be a You Tube sensation – #whitemanbeatenbyvietcong – I walked in what I thought was a five metre radius of the glasses’ fallen location and found nothing. I was anxious, I was despairing; I was angry – at Vietnam but mainly at myself.
…Oh, I’d found out ‘what would happen’ alright; resigned to three weeks’ not being able to see straight, yeah, nice one…
Unlike the rest of Ho Chi Minh City, District 1 street vendors operate 24 hours a day; anyone can be a Vietnamese street vendor, young or old. The oldest I have seen, according to sources, was over 100 and she was utterly repulsive; the youngest was a boy of about 3 years old, (reportedly an orphan) who didn’t speak a word, but just wandered the HCMC streets with his swag of produce, making beseeching sounds and looking for sales. Where many tourists disregarded, mocked or were rude to this little guy, I always made a point of buying something from him, even if it was just a back-scratcher or a pack of playing cards; suffice to say I returned home with a lot of crap that I really didn’t want (but at least my back’s not itchy as I play another round of solitaire).
…Out of the surrounding horde appeared my favourite little juvenile street vendor; he was peering up at me earnestly, holding something in his extended hand. My heart jumped again, and I reached down to claim my second lens. I grasped it thankfully then dropped to my left knee, crouching in front of the lad. Sliding the lens into the same pocket as the first I pulled from my other pocket the money I had reclaimed from petty-thief and three-stripe. I pushed the 120 dong into the boy’s hand, looked directly into his bright eyes, that beaming little Vietnamese face, and said simply, “Thank you … Thank you.”
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Grey Shous
Photography by Trevor Lah