VANITY IN VIET NAM
the thing. Viet Nam is not about you...... Its about right now,
its beautiful, bright people and where they are, this moment.
I just spent the afternoon
ambling through expat Hanoi with my good buddy who lives back home. Hes
been aching to come here and see the "history" of the place
so he roped in one of his gal pals and took off. I couldnt spare
as much time as he could, but I was keen to see him so I agreed to catch
him up in the capital. While I was wasting my slacker time working my
slacker job, he saw the DMZ, the albatrosses of Saigon, the stuff weve
seen in Hollywood all these years. It was better than the History Channel;
but funnily enough, he also got mixed up in the local charm of small of
the smaller villages.
upon a collection of tailors in a tiny village south of Denang,
Tom took turns asking the various suitors to make him a pair of
pants. The next day, he and his traveling companion woke up, ate
a hearty breakfast of muesli and yoghurt and went to collect their
"Hmmm. I like the fabric," he says to the first, examining
the stitching as though it were dental work. "But here, no,
I dont like the way they fall," he said honestly without
a wave or hint of embarrassment caused. "Now these, these are
special." He looked over at Janice, his work colleague, confidante,
and self-proclaimed fag-hag even though Tom insists hes straight.
"Darling, can you come over here?" he campily calls from
the makeshift dressing room.
Janice is having a hard time with the heat. Its only thirty
(eighty-six for you American philistines) and shes got a damp
glue matting her blonde locks to her forehead. Her teeshirt says
"LOVE" in a playful, romantic font and when shes
not hot-and-bothered, its a perfectly apt uniform. "Whats
"I need you to take a look at my seat." He turns and presents
his posterior to her with a Madame JoJos sachet.
"This ones a keeper," he says to the confounded
Pierre the tailor who has no clue whats going on.
Six shorts, eight pants, and five shirts later, Tom runs his hand over
his purchases stuffed into a specially-purchased gym bag to carry all
his goodies. God forbid that a 6-foot tall, 32-inch waisted man should
stumble across this loot. But then again, hed be spotted, easily
discernible as the only dandy this side of Bangkok.
When Tom met me in our Hanoi hotel room, the first thing he did, ok, the
second thing after he gave me a hug, was unzip his bag and start modeling.
And to be honest, some of the fabrics left a little something to be desired,
but they did fit him really nicely in the seat.
I wanted to experience the day-to-day, lazy, ex-colonial, frighteningly
rich Hanoi. I wanted to get in the way of locals and ask them for coffee
and argue with them over who was the better man, Ho, Castro, or Che Guevara.
I wanted to cozy up on a park bench and take in the beauty of the high
cheekboned, luminescent Vietnamese women. We were sitting in Au Lac, a
bastion of ex-French, new money, where-can-I-find-a-decent-salade-nicoise
culture in the heart of the leafy part of town. (That is to say, across
the street from the grandiose Hotel Metropole.) The wrought iron gates
kept the bustle out and we stepped in for a lime juice and the latest
addition of the Womens Club of Hanoi newsletter. Thick, really thick,
this newsletter was conversationally written, jam-packed with events and
tips for "ladies who lunch". For a long moment, I was jealous,
thinking of languishing days spent getting my hair just right, anticipating
for the canard a lorange in the evening, playing bridge all afternoon.
I SO could be a corporate spouse. Take me, please. Im a decent bridge
player. I can cook. Or at least, order a cook around. Look, theyre
searching for a new chairperson to take over the mantle for next year
for the WcoH! Tell me Im not the right woman for the job!
Food on the way to Nha Tang
tall, and bathed, Janice was drawing many a stare from a whole host
of men. Vietnamese teenagers would fixate on her exposed thigh,
looking at it like the unlikely femur from a hereto-undiscovered
dinosaur. The graying expats would cast a casual glance over, panning
in that subtle way, drawing in a little air to feed the fantasy.
She was oblivious to it all, map in hand, leading us from one interesting
place to another.
"I really want to see Uncle Ho," she proclaims.
"Uh," I point out, "hes dead, isnt he?"
"In the mausoleum."
My mind flashes back to all those ridiculously miserable trips to
Napoleons tombs and other remnants of legacy that older people
always want younger people to see. Is it because they are closer
to their own mortality that they can appreciate the memorabilia
of others? Whatever. So, Mr. Ho, or Uncle Ho, is paid a visit. Shocked
am I to see him, in the flesh, hermetically sealed in a Soviet-engineered
vacuum case, immaculately maintained and tastefully lit. No fewer
than eight guards stand in a moat protecting his body. Thrice, I
am ushered along by the elbow for taking my time along the trail.
Uniformly in awe, we exit into the sun and ponder. Just then, a
helpful woman comes by and says, "See Ho Chi Minh? See Ho Chi
"You mean we can go back?" Tom asks.
I think outloud, "Its not like Space Mountain. Once is
I kept wondering why I didnt know that his body would just be there
in plain sight. It was like a well-kept secret. Obviously there were no
photos. It was like, "First rule about Fight Club: one does not talk
about Fight Club." I guess Tyler Derden would be disappointed with
Im not much of a war history buff, not being American and all, but
I have something of a sweet spot for Communist poster art. Orwellian and
wholesome at the same time, my admiration stems from the same source as
my admiration of those early pioneers who invented with limited materials.
Applesoft Basic programmers, the astronauts on Apollo XIII, MacGyver,
they all had to make the most of their dire situation. In a society where
art was forbidden, these artists eked out a genre that told oodles about
the culture. The juxtapositions were astounding. East meets West in the
form of Asian faces wearing Soviet green. Femininity meets masculinity
in images of bright charming mothers with latent machine guns peeking
out from behind them. Optimism and Sacrifice. Hope for the future starts
with the defeat of the enemy. The colors, clean-cut lines, motifs and
subjects are easily worthy of the best modern art museums and yet, as
I walk through the exhibit, I get the feeling that if I talk to the right
kind of capitalist-communist, I might be able to take one home with me
for a couple of hundred bucks. Just imagine how cool that image of Ho
would look in my room juxtaposed against all those images of capitalism
like Sony, Pottery Barn, and Paul Frank.
Outside Ho Chi Minh's Tomb
|We leave the
museum after a fascinating exploration of a downed F-XXX fighter,
proudly downed by anti-aircraft guns. Its an anachronism in
this place where 75% of the people were born after the war. As such,
the museum is filled with a bunch of tourists.
Heres the thing. Viet Nam is not about you. Its not
about YOUR country. Its about right now, its beautiful, bright
people and where they are, this moment.
Tom is getting thirsty and Janice needs a cooling drink so I pull
into a tiny coffeeshop where we sit on those ubiquitous plastic
stools not designed for my Amazonian friends. The Red Bulls dont
exactly give us wings but we partake in some exciting conversation
with the many women in the shop about what is the actual price for
our drinks. We insist that she has undercharged us by a factor of
two but this is what you get for stepping out of tourisma.
A little girl
seated beside us is dressed in her Sunday Best, possibly on her way to
church with her father, (whom she adores), and her three uncles (who tease
her incessantly). A diva-to-be she relishes the attention and scowls at
me when I intrude on her parade, stealing away some of the looks intended
Later, après dinner, Tom sends over a couple of drinks to a couple
of ladies in the restaurant at an adjacent table. I would never have gotten
Tom to do this if it werent for the fact that one of them actually
winks at him when he passes her by on his way to the gents. Emboldened
by such a clear indication, I play along as wing-man, taking the first
steps to move over to their table. Once seated, the nervous what-the-hell-do-we-say
mood takes hold. I try idle chatter but the young one (fourteen according
to Toms under-his-breath sarcastic commentary) is completely clueless.
English is not in her repertoire. The winking charmer is not much better
and can barely utter a sentence before she is absorbed in a mobile phone
call and excuses herself outside. Truly uncomfortable now, I try talking
to miss-fourteen but to no avail. Tom blatantly says, "You got us
into this situation, you get us out."
It gets worse. Or freakier, depending on how you look at it. Winking girl
returns, looking ravishing in her tube top and silky hair and seats herself
down. Her friend hands her a drink and urgently tries to get her to get
more drunk. Just then, a twentysomething white guy walks in and seats
himself on a fifth chair, between the two ladies. His hair is geled and
his shirt stylish and pressed. Before the pimp thought crosses my mind,
he starts speaking with an upper-crust French accent.
"Hi there. My name is Stephane."
Stephane is the pastry chef at the hotel Nikko. Hes been in Hanoi
six months and is dashing and charming, and on a second date with our
tube-topped friend. A second date punctuated by a naïve, date-stealing
coup. But he handles the situation remarkably smoothly, almost relieved
to be able to swap stories with us rather than have to stumble through
a conversation with his date. We have a remarkably good time and the restaurant
has to shut its lights to get us to absorb the "please go" message.
He invites us to "Apocalypse Now." Its a bar, not a late-night
screening of the movie.
We go. We hang out. Stephane starts paying more attention to his beautiful
date. As he should. We gawk for a while (me at the girl; Tom, presumably
at the girl, but one can never be sure) and stumble home in the rain.
One afternoon, were thirsty as we get back to our hotel in the middle
of the thirty-six streets that comprise Hanois old quarter. And
at perhaps the most interesting of those 324 intersections, theres
a couple of those handy plastic stools. Janice and I walk over and take
a seat, still singing the jingle from the ice cream man. As we sit down,
without having to utter a word, two draft beers are presented to us in
a matter of seconds. "Just what I wanted, but how did she know?"
I thought. I look around and see a weird, simple sign that reads:
BIA 1500 Dong
For those who arent logging into Bloomberg everyday, this is 10
cents. And you can guess what B-I-A spell. Just about the cheapest beer
I have ever had on this planet. Its fresh, pungent, and frothy.
Its cold, too, which makes it so, so worth it. There is NOTHING
else you can get here. Nothing. And considering the price, it attracts
a steady stream of backpackers who either have heard of it word-of-mouth
or are as lucky as us.
Janice and I keep singing the song and Tom walks by and joins us. We make
a melodic trio.
A day later and I find myself at an Internet café, checking mail.
Theres a writers group in the States of which I am virtually
a part. I havent read the discourse in a while. The paternalist
tone almost makes me lurch. Something about some of my groupmembers objecting
to the writings of a colleague about the experience of a VietNam war vet.
They claim that he has no right to write about it since he wasnt
there. It would be unfair to the memory of all those still suffering from
post-traumatic stress disorder, blah-blah-blah, yadayadayada. Its
infuriating, censorial, frighteningly-PC, and completely irrelevant. I
feel like posting to the group:
Deal with it people. Stop being so imperialist and judgmental, trying
to decide what one can or cannot write. Besides, the war is irrelevant
anyway. How many of you have actually been to Vietnam? Do you know what
its capital is? (No, not Saigon. Its not even called that anymore.)
Do you realize that seventy-five percent of Vietnamese were born after
the war? Do you even know where Vietnam is conceptually, not geopolitically?
Let the guy write his story.
I am evil incarnate. Or at least thats what Janice now thinks. See
here we are, walking along the lakeside after a late meal, ambling. The
littlest boy of a crew hanging out near the ice cream shop catches my
eye and says, "Shoeshine?"
"Okay," I say looking down at my scuffed up dress shoes. Its
late but hey, what the hell. I walk over and say, "One thousand dong."
Surprisingly, the boy takes my first offer and repeats, "One thousand."
This is about six cents. A true bargain.
He starts ripping the laces out of my Churchs. Impressive. Doesnt
want to get the wax and polish onto my fingers. Tom and I sit and chat
with a Hawaiian-Vietnamese guy whos in town for the weekend. "Love
it here," he says. "We know." Theres a fifteen minute
moment and then my shoes are ready. I try on the left shoe and am really
happy. But before the boy gives me back the right, he throws out, "One
"One dollar?" I say incredulously. "No, no, no, no, no.
One thousand dong."
"One dollar," the boy says. Hes holding my shoe hostage.
"One thousand dong is what we agreed to." I take out the bill
and offer it to him. He backs away repeating his "onedollar"
mantra to anyone who will listen. Hes got a sour look on his face
and I almost believe he thought hes getting a buck out of me. Maybe
it was a misunderstanding, but we did agree on the thousand dong so I
In soft tones, I try to reason with him. His friends are laughing, mostly
at him, but also at the situation on the lake at one a.m. He throws out
15,000 dong. "Thats one dollar," I say. I stand pat. I
walk around in one of his sandals, chatting with Tom, and with the Hawaiian
guy. The boy isnt used to his techniques not working and lowers
his price to 5,000 dong. I ignore him and later show him my 1000 dong
note. I then try to reason with him. "Look, when you agree to a price
upfront, you have to stick by it. Its a transaction. Its a
deal. We agreed to 1000 dong. If you got confused, then learn the lesson
and next time, make sure you know what it is youre going to get
Hes understanding about half of the English words and almost all
of their meaning.
Janice is grimacing, sulking in the corner, completely unused to any sort
of negotiating. Tom is telling me to stick by my guns. Besides, all we
have is a 1000 dong note and a 50,000 note. He says, "Isnt
it funny how with one flick of the wrist, your $350 Churchs shoes
can be sent to the bottom of the lake? Isnt it ironic that he is
holding something 10,000 times more valuable than the service hostage?"
I laugh and shush him at the same time. "Dont say that too
loud, you idiot!" Were cracking up, partly due to the cheap
beer. The boy is getting worried that I am not at all worried. He comes
by and offers me 2000 dong. At this point, I honestly shove my hand in
my pocket hoping to find a spare 1000 dong note to end this but I know
I dont have one and still dont feel right letting him take
me for a ride. I say, "Im not going to let myself be had. Maybe
some other tourist but not me."
Just then, he grabs the 1000 dong note from my hand and drops the shoe
to my feet. I wonder how I won so suddenly and turn around to hear a few
muffled chuckles and see a green Vietnamese cop walking our way. The boy
runs off amidst his friends gentle mocking laughs. Tom and I walk
home laughing too, Janice still sulking.
When we get back to the hotel, Janice tells Tom that she was appalled
by my behaviour. She cant believe how imperialist and paternalistic
it was of me to haggle over pennies and then to add insult to injury,
for me to say, "Im going to teach him a lesson." I dont
hear any of this but I can tell somethings up when I see them a
little later. Shes still fuming and Tom is vigorously defending
"He is not evil incarnate. If YOU got involved in the
local culture, engaged in some transactions, of any type, youd know
what its like to negotiate. To play by the rules of the game."
Toms a good advocate.
Janice objects, "Its not the negotiating that bothers me. Its
his imperialist tone. Like he knows better."
I think about my behaviour. I try talking it through and realize Im
sounding really defensive. Critically, I analyze whether I was being imperialist.
Im not, I maintain. I was being held hostage and yes, there may
have been a misunderstanding (cos I had had a few too many) but
I wasnt going to be had. (Defensive, defensive, more defensive.)
It was going to be a lesson to him and I dont think it was wrong
of me to be the agent of the experience. If anything, my only sense of
misguided entitlement (there you go
) was that as an elder, it was
okay for me to tell him how the world works (hah! P-A-T-E-R-N-A-L-I-S-T-I-C).
That its okay for me to say, if youre going to be a man and
transact in a mans world (and now you can add sexist), youre
only as good as your word (arcane and trite). You can haggle and negotiate
all you want beforehand but you cant reneg. (I know Im guilty
We talk about it that day and the next. Tom still says he would have done
the same as me and Janice still holds me in about as much esteem as a
cross between the Grinch and the would-be emperor in Gladiator.
Viet Nam is not about the war. Its not even about communism. Its
capitalism, making the system work for you, getting through the days trying
to get your slice of the pie. Its pride. Never have I seen as many
flags in an Asian country. On one piddly little street, I could see at
least ten of the stylish red-with-gold-star banners hanging proudly. The
people speak in dollars, not dong. In ripped off American styles that
borrow oh-so-slightly from the communist motifs making them ultracool.
The colonialism is espoused as a new architecture style and people are
waiting to go back to the opera. Its Vietnamese-Canadians coming
back to set up import-export shops. Its mobile phones and SMSes.
And of course, the enduring image, its the sight of a verdant rice
paddy accented by a conical hat.
photos © Waco Moore 1996
© Zia Zaman 2001
Splitting his time between travel-fiction writing and a day-job helping
Sun Microsystems dominate the world, Zia Zaman now calls Singapore home.
Born in Karachi, he has lived in Montreal, Boston, London, and San Francisco.
His work has appeared in local press, Chance, MCI, Novelists Abroad,
Hackwriters, and other litzines.
Read "Bhutan Is and Other Shorts from Remote Asia" on An Unusual Day.
See also CITY OF MYSORE
by Zia Zaman
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available
LOSING ONESELF IN REMOTE ASIA
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