In line with the rest of Vietnam’s outdoor seating, the kiddie furniture out the front of Loan’s Café caused me and my Western stature continual problems.
On the plus side Loan’s tables and chairs were made of timber rather than plastic, so that was something.
Constricting as it may have been, I found that if I turned side-on, rather than attempting to wedge my wiry frame under the table, it did provide a fine vantage point from which to view the everyday shenanigans of Vietnamese locals…
I was seated contentedly outside Loan’s Café as dusk fell one afternoon/evening, sipping a fruity, icy beverage that Loan had whipped up for me (she used to regularly prepare ‘testers’ for me to sample and critique; a largely pointless endeavour as anyone who knows me will be aware, I eat and enjoy most anything), when I saw what I perceived to be a familiar face.
…Street vendors continuously walked by with their trays of novelties, merchants cruised by on motorbikes, some towing trailers, laden with their wares – bottles of water, bags of ice, fresh fruits, desiccated meats, exotic vegetables, smoked fish or indeed, just about any item of produce imaginable…
I recall experiencing a wave of surrealistic vertigo; I recall thinking how this could have been the plot from one of my own novels – a character from the beginning, largely unremarkable, of little noteworthiness to anyone, somehow returning to the story at the end to surprise, or perhaps to startle, the reader. As I stood to command this character’s attention, I recall witnessing the look of shock – with my being a presumed short-overstaying tourist he seemingly expected to have never seen me again – then uncertainty, or even of fear, on the young man’s face. I smiled, the only lasting trace of injury to my face a small horizontally linear scab on my right cheekbone, “Kohm ko chi (No worries),” I attempted to reassure him.
…It was from this vantage point, sideways seated outside Loan’s Café, that I would go on to witness the kind of mechanical ingenuity that would surely impress even the most creative Kiwi mind; motorised trolleys, carts, or precarious three-wheeled monstrosities designed solely for shifting produce along HCMC’s potholed streets (then there was the ‘ice-guy’, who I saw most mornings, wearing a heavy waterproof hat and stiff plastic homemade poncho, riding his tiny motorcycle carrying bags of ice to supply local produce retailers, with – no exaggeration – a one metre square stack of 10 kilo ice-bags balanced on a tray immediately behind him and towering over his head at – I swear – around three metres high, on a bike whose rear tyre was perpetually flat and whose front wheel barely even contacted the road, and each time he stopped he was met with a veritable cascade of icy water, but which he had to do frequently, and which he did do using a homemade support/brace he would wedge under the stationary bike’s frame to keep it upright while he stepped off to unload before moving on to the next premises) which, at a glance, were just crudely appointed, comically basic, home-built vehicles but when I looked closer, these contraptions, dilapidated as they appeared yet functional as they clearly were, had all been built around the frame, the basic structure and feeble engine of one of Vietnam’s myriad worn out, broken down and disused motorbikes…
As the young man made his tentative approach, I again marvelled at how good-looking he was; wheeling a motorbike – hitched to a wooden trailer stacked full of grapes – he came to a halt a few metres before me (in fairness I had seen this street vendor around but only from a distance, thus had never identified him as ‘Petty Thief’ from my third night on Bui Vien) where, as I suppose he would any other potential customer, through gestures and broken English, he offered to sell me some grapes. Petty thief indeed; he wanted 70 dong for one kilo – I bought a half kilo, watched him bring out his scales and carefully weigh the goods, then paid him 30. Given the circumstances I didn’t think he’d complain.
…Typical of scooters/small motorcycles these things tend to run at inordinately high revolutions; given the modifications involved in transforming a small bike into a flatbed truck, exhaust systems/mufflers are seldom reattached.
Petty Thief turned out to be a reserved, respectful young man who clearly worked for a living; as he wheeled away his rig I guessed the reason for his tethering a trailer to a motorbike then pushing both, had a lot to do with a regard for potential customers – few tourists enjoy the obtrusion of discordant noise, particularly when the vehicle behind that noise is showering your fresh produce with exhaust fumes. Noise was ample on Bui Vien anyway; as if to bolster my assumption of the gentle-spirited Petty Thief, at that moment the most abrasive sound I had ever heard caused both he and me to cringe and turn our heads from the incoming audio, as a three-wheeled, pseudo-military, but merely scooter-powered monstrosity lumbered by, of course, pulling massive revs.
The aforementioned situation is not what one would consider a rarity in the daytime on Bui Vien, and probably explains the closing of this particular street for one afternoon, as I was fortunate enough to become an uninvited guest for my first ever Vietnamese wedding ceremony; which I witnessed from the steps and out front of the Yen Trang hotel…
A downpour had just ended and the stench on the street was horrendous yet, chaperoned/ushered by the only genuine Police I saw in Vietnam (this, as opposed to ‘security’ guys), along with the apparent Chief of Police (a stout little chap who stood at around 5 foot 2 with a generous belly, was dark-skinned, bald on top with longer stringy hair around the sides, complemented by a brilliantly polished dome and with a smouldering, unmoving cigarette hanging from the corner of his feverishly delegating, clearly self-appointed ‘Chief of Pomposity’, mouth), were a meticulously attired bride and groom who, carefully avoiding puddles and potholes, lovingly carried out their nuptials, concluding with a tentative kiss and a cheer from anyone who happened to be watching.
I had noticed that, by the two week point, as I had hoped would happen, so recognised was my presence, I was now being treated less like a tourist and more like a local; Bui Vien massage girls and other street vendors had become sufficiently familiar with me that they had, largely, ceased in their otherwise relentless approaches and seemed to have accepted that if I wanted to buy something from them, I would ask for it (and if you think back to retired expat, ‘Canadian Aiden’ from week 1, this is just what he had said happened to him after he moved here; Vietnam becomes a different place once one has experienced that transition from ‘tourist’ to ‘common-placement’).
While my presence may have appeared commonplace to most, during my final week I was approached by a woman I had not before seen around Ho Chi Minh City. She was gorgeous, she was vivacious, she was intriguing, she was captivating (yet strangely, I didn’t get/don’t recall her name); that night I took a 45 minute taxi-ride across to District 4 in order to capitalise on the coupon for a ‘Free 60 Minute Full Body Massage’ (retailing at 220.000VND – around 20NZD) that this woman had given me. I felt as though this was a challenge I could handle; I now understood how to avoid taxi-scams but importantly, I understood how to pay for a massage that was just a massage, and this was a free massage.
The next 50 minutes were spent in oily heaven with a gorgeous Vietnamese masseuse (not the one I’d met in District 1, but close). Of course I was timing it and yes, fifty minutes later, of course I did query the missing 10 minutes, to which she responded innocently, “But you say you no wan boom-boom…?”
“The coupon said, ‘Free Sixty Minute Massage’ – you only did fifty minutes…?”
“Last ten, for boom-boom – you say you no wan boom-boom.”
“Aha, I see, so it’s more like a ‘Free Fifty Minute Massage’, then pay two million dong for boom-boom…?”
“Three million – you wan?”
“Thank you for the wonderful massage.”
Several hours after leaving I had returned; District 4 was a different place, much less busy than District 1 and more geographically spread – District 1 everything is crammed tightly into spaces along street edges while in District 4 things don’t appear nearly as squashed. I walked back into the bustle of Bui Vien Street and sat outside drinking local beer with a group of expats/travellers (this location in fact was where I overheard the fable of the ‘White man beaten by Viet Cong street-youths’, mentioned in an earlier instalment, and realised, with a sickening jolt, that this ‘fable’, which may just be on track to become Vietnamese folklore, referred to the incident outside the banh mi vendor on my third night on Bui Vien – Vietnam XXI). Hoping to mentally abscond from the situation, I unthinkingly accepted and sucked back some awful Vietnamese weed – overlooking the fact that I had recently ‘recovered’ from a serious chest-borne illness – only to have my lungs spasm and convulse their way to bed that night.
The next morning, after placing my breakfast order with Loan then heading back up the steps and spending over half an hour on the hotel’s public computer in ‘talks’ with a rather ‘distressed’ Lin (original object of my affections) regarding ‘hacking’ of her Facebook account…
According to what Lin had told me, the current object of her affections, a middle-aged American man named Gary, and she had ‘broken up’ (this was, reportedly, following Gary’s multiple visits to Vietnam to see her, also after Lin’s admission of her ‘extracurricular’ antics with other American men she’d met around town); yet apparently, during their time ‘together’, under Vietnamese rule the two had become ‘engaged’ and, presumably along with a lovely ring, Gary had bought Lin a rather expensive camera, which he now wanted returned. Truth is I forget/didn’t understand the exact circumstances of this case, but for some reason Lin was not able to give back the camera thus needed to refund the money; now back in NZ and with an objective mindset it occurs to me that, obviously, I mean if Lin was any kind of Vietnamese eldest daughter at all, she would have sold the camera for the cash. Reportedly the item was worth somewhere in the vicinity of 2500USD – tantamount to around 75.000.000VND – over a year’s salary for an average Viet worker. It seemed ridiculous that this wealthy American ‘Gary’ should be demanding the return of such a gift and in fact, the deeper I ventured into this tale the more unbelievable the story became; furthermore when she had announced to me – this was prior to the ‘camera’ thing – that despite the cessation of their relationship Gary would now not allow her to officially expunge their ‘engagement’, yet was still insisting that she reimburse him for the camera.
…From what I could tell Lin was hysterical (although this was Facebook communication, and we all know how easy it is to misinterpret dialogue via Facebook communication). Honestly, I struggled to see the problem; ‘hacking’ somebody’s Facebook account seemed a pointless thing to do and besides, it was online, he was in a different country – he couldn’t actually do anything…
It occurs to me, again, the content I am describing, indeed the manner in which the above plot is reading, this saga is playing out along very similar lines to a novel that I might write; let me please assure the reader, everything I have written in my Vietnam Chronicles to date, everything that I have yet to write, much as it might be coming off ridiculous, far-fetched, or even farcical, (in fairness I believe the reason for the similarities, is that, rather than the author of a novel developing a protagonist then creating a story around that character, in this case it is the author who is the protagonist and, much like a story I might myself create, while the author is doing their best to control the story’s path, realistically, life will always dictate life’s story; I’m merely telling that story), to the best of my recollection, is 100% truthful.
…Or so I thought.
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Gary Cooper
Photography by Rhyll Guy