My fleeting acquaintanceships were rapidly evaporating; deluges were occurring regularly and with each washout more overstayers seemed to drift away.
During a respite from the rain I wandered over to the second Bui Vien and past the Pink Tulip hotel, to see a minibus depositing its load of flamboyantly dressed middle-aged men to the sidewalk.
I strode along the main Bui Vien Street for perhaps the 317th time that month and, as had become the way, was largely ignored by everyone; food vendors, shop owners, massage girls, street merchants – no one even offered to sell me a set of nail clippers anymore.
I barely looked sideways as I paced along the street; my mind was in turmoil – I was being tormented, oppressed by my own brain and I just needed to feel free again.
In my head I saw image after image of gorgeous Vietnamese faces, nodding, smiling, giggling, laughing, playing with their hair, as I attempted to articulate their language; then their happiness, their willingness, their almost eagerness, to put in place a future meeting yet, invariably, when that time came, how they would never be there as arranged.
As I approached the dark end of Bui Vien I realised, I think I was intending to stop in at Crazy Girls bar, I think in the hope of catching up with Noobie. Why I should want to do that I do not know, but that’s what it appeared I was doing.
My brain controlled my body’s actions as expected, but then there was me; it felt as though I didn’t know what the hell was going on anymore.
I heard Noobie before I saw her. My heart fluttered; God that annoyed me – why did it keep doing that? Then I saw her; she was seated out front of the bar with workmates, poring over some documents, typically ravishing. She saw me; her face at that moment became one of consternation. She spun and said something to a nearby bargirl; they both turned to look at me with expressions of distaste. “Why you still here?” Noobie called out to the street.
I responded with an expression of apathy.
“You go home now,” she said, making dismissive gestures with her hand. “You not wan here anymore.”
I gave the one-time love-of-my-life a brief nod and kept walking.
Performing the usual circuit, I ducked down a perpendicular lane and walked home the back way; then stepping into my avenue of Bui Vien I was momentarily halted by a particularly demonstrative street vendor, playing the game, trying to sell her wares to a group of (I believe) Australian tourists. This attractive young Viet woman – who I’d met, to whom I’d chatted and from whom I’d purchased, numerous times in the past – Lan, had been seemingly convinced to put on a display for these decadent middle-aged husbands and wives. The vivacious Viet, so keen and willing she was to ingratiate herself to these potential customers, having set down her tray of assorted bric-a-brac was now spinning and twirling her thick wire loop of friendship bracelets (every street vendor carried one of these, pieces of Number 8 wire circled into a half-metre ring with hooked ends, through which around 100 colourful bracelets were threaded, with the ends latched closed), as if she was some exotic dancer performing on a stage. Mid-dance, Lan spun, mischievous smile at her face as she swayed her hips provocatively, holding her wire loop in both hands at arms-length; she saw me, flashed a brief grin of recognition, just as her wire ring swooped and collided with the back a passing tourist. The tourist in question didn’t appear to even notice but of course, the youthful Lan was immediately gripped by contrition. She allowed her wire loop to hang by one hand, bumping on legs as she tried to bustle through the crowd, in the hope of commanding the tourist’s attention to offer an apology; alas the pedestrian had merged with the crowd and was gone. Lan looked back at me with a sheepish half-grin, her cheeks dimpled as she walked in my direction, biting down lightly on her tongue, allowing her wire loop to bump forcefully against her knees as she came. I glanced down to where the ring now hung, unmoving; it appeared to have sprung open at the ends. All but about four friendship bracelets had just finished sliding off the wire and now lay in a haphazard pile on the road. Without thinking I stepped forward and dropped to my knee, surrounding the mess. Lan followed me down with her eyes; she saw what had happened and froze in horror. I shot a look upwards, endeavouring to convey reassurance, while at the same time attempting to protect her livelihood from so many oblivious feet (to most Westerners, Vietnamese street vendors are purveyors of crap; to those vendors though, that ‘crap’ is their livelihood – they lose that merchandise and they are the ones who have cover the shortfall). From a kneeling position I surveyed the situation on the ground – myriad bracelets scattered over almost a one metre diameter – and, still just seconds after the disaster had been spotted, decided upon the most effective way of rectifying the mishap. With my left knee on the road I braced my spasmodic right arm, at the elbow, against the inside of my right knee. With one last glance upwards at the horrified Lan (how does a woman who earns no more than 2.000.000VND – around 140NZD – each month, reimburse for 100 items each retailing at 120.000VND? Let’s just say I felt as though I could understand Lan’s concern), using my left hand like a scoop and the right like an immovable horizontal stake, tensing shoulder muscles to the point of excruciation in order to mitigate tremulous limbs, in several juddering movements I carefully manoeuvred every last one of those fallen friendship bracelets up and onto my right hand/wrist/arm. I looked up at Lan, saw a face of radiant relief, then with my right hand grabbed the lower end of her broken ring and simply rose to my feet. Lan watched joyously as the colourful array of straps threaded themselves back onto the loop, then she quickly snapped closed the hooks and breathed, possibly, for he first time since seeing they’d come apart.
She looked at me and, although it is not considered acceptable for a street vendor to touch or, particularly, embrace a client – they must, of course, respect a tourist’s space – the warmth in her eyes was thanks enough. As I turned and continued walking towards my hotel, I heard one of the group of Aussies observing in a commanding voice, “Oh, good man … Shit, that’s a good man, right there! … Isn’t ‘e a good man, isn’t ‘e, sweetheart, ‘elpin’ you out like that?”
At the Yen Trang I afforded Loan the usual salutations then ascended the marble staircase to the hotel foyer. Lieu could tell something was awry the moment she saw me; “Hello Tim,” she began tentatively, “What is the matter?”
I looked up and, in response to her query, simply shook my head. Suddenly I had an uplifting thought, “Hey, did My Hanh call?”
Lieu looked at me blankly.
“My Hanh, from Nhan Tam, you know? When I was there the other day, she said she’d give me a call at this number, so we could, you know, organise something.”
“Call you, at the Yen Trang?” Lieu asked confusedly.
“Yes, it made sense, given that my phone went down weeks ago and the dental clinic have this number on file…”
“Oh, sorry Tim, she might be busy, I have not heard from her – but you should ask Thao, she might have had a call.”
“It’s fine, Lieu, thank you,” I forced a smile and opened the door to the stairwell.
“Tim…?” Lieu’s small voice pulled me back down.
Turning to face her, I cocked my head and gave a questioning look.
“Tim, I think you have very bad impression of Vietnam lady, yes?”
“Honestly, Lieu, currently, yes, I do.”
“No, Tim, you should not … We very busy, you see, to make time for nice man, like you.”
“Hah,” I shot back sarcastically. “As I see it, you are so very busy, because you have not enough time to get through all the White men like me, falling at your feet.”
“No, Tim, please don’t think that about Vietnam lady … We want love nice man, we just don’t know you yet.”
“Oh, come on, Lieu, you, ‘Vietnam ladies’, have had ample opportunity to know me, problem is, you, are never there when you say you will be there … You, don’t appear to give a damn about ‘nice man like me’.”
“I know, Tim, Vietnam ladies, very busy.”
“Anyone, anywhere, is able to make time for things they consider important, Lieu.” On that note I took four flights of stairs, two at a time, to my room.
Half an hour after that I was back down, having showered, changed my clothes, shaved, and washed my hair (this ‘clean and pleasantly aromatic hair’ thing, this is a novelty which, upon leaving Southeast Asia, I will sadly not maintain). Walking by reception I couldn’t hide a smirk as Lieu made a big, Vietnamese/broken-English, fuss over my ‘dep chi’ appearance. I headed outdoors and, bombarded by the late-afternoon heat, also the sun that shone almost directly into my eyes, made my way down the hotel steps. “Hey Tim,” called a very cheerful Loan, from the café to my left, in her thick Vietnamese accent, “what you want? I cook any food you want.”
“Ga com tien,” I said with a smile as I stepped off the bottom step and turned immediately leftward, towards the Loan’s Café facade.
“No, no … No matter, I make you any food, whatever you want – it cost you nothing.”
I stepped up to her counter. “Why would you do that?” I asked with an abashed grin.
Loan beamed and was manifestly ecstatic. “You make my business grow, Tim – you have faith in me, you believe in my product … You tell the people, and now, look!”
I turned into the sun’s glare, squinted my eyes, and was genuinely astonished; every table at Loan’s Café was occupied. I couldn’t believe it; after a moment I turned back to Loan, “It’s your food that’s done this, not me.”
“You,” she replied warmly, “it was you made the people stop, take notice my food … Thank you, Tim.”
I stared at the face of the elated Viet woman and smiled; it was surprising just how satisfying it felt, knowing that I had made her so happy.
“So what you want?” she asked again, laughing, “Anything”.
I grinned, nodded, tilted back my head and in my sharpest Viet accent, announced, “Café sua dah!”
As Loan poured the dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of my iced coffee I gazed around the seating area – she was right, I could recall stopping and speaking to, convincing, to come in for a meal or otherwise, every one of these people over past days, and now they were repeat customers – then promptly swallowing my outpouring of pride, which was threatening to pour out all over the floor, I breathed in the fetid air and continued waiting on my sumptuous Vietnamese iced coffee.
Taking my beverage, I went to sit out on the road where, in fairness, the only spare seats were located anyway. I had barely sat down when I saw, walking in my direction, just one more of Vietnam’s utterly stunning woman. ‘Do I bother?’ I asked myself, ‘Or do I just let her walk on by then later when I’m berating myself wishing I’d stopped and chatted with her I can console myself with the reality that there was never really any hope with a woman like her anyway?’
“Ah, sin loi (Ah, excuse me).” No, I didn’t seem to have a lot of decision-making power anymore; my brain just did what it wanted to do, and I had to go along with that.
She slowed her progress and looked shyly in my direction.
I stood up.
She looked startled, impressed even, stopped, appeared to slightly overbalance, and took a small step backward.
“Sin chow (Hello),” I started again, consciously employing my Viet accent.
She smiled, but with uncertainty.
“Ban co quear com? (How are you today?)”
“Doy quear… (I am fine…),” she said with what I perceived as mild trepidation.
I raised my hands to waist height with splayed fingers to show I meant no harm and, smiling in a hopefully reassuring way, continued my ingratiation, “Den doy la, Tim … Den la gee? (My name is Tim … What is your name?)”
“Den doy la, Lan,” (different Lan to street-vendor Lan; although in fairness I recall pointing out in an earlier instalment how, among the Vietnamese population, names are frequently repeated, so go with it please, this is reality). “Ah, hi, Tim … I speak English, if you’d prefer…?”
“Lan,” I extended my hand, grinning wildly, “pleasure to meet you.”
Article by Tim Walker
Edited by Wan Moore-Shot
Photography by Justin Knicker Thyme