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vietnam postcard
The Postcard Seller
Jo McMillan in Vietnam

‘Where you going? Where you going? I’m looking, I’m looking!’
a young voice said

A Vietnamese man was leaning through the café window with a bundle of postcards and maps of Hanoi. ‘Where you going? Where you going? I’m looking, I’m looking!’ he said again, the words fired off like a round of meaningless ammunition. I replied with a burst of laughter. He pulled back as if I had scalded him. Then he motioned with the cards again, not venturing his sales pitch, his raised eyebrows making the commendation instead. I shook my head, and looked away.

From this side of the square, across the pavement tables, the jumble of bicycles, and the hooting of the squadrons of scooters, I could see a group of postcard sellers outside the Hanoi Hilton. Every few minutes, the hotel’s revolving door released a camera-toting tourist into the heat of the Vietnamese spring. At those moments, the crowd of young lads would hum into life, with a ‘postcard, postcard, very cheap. I sell you very cheap.’ Some of the tourists put on their sunglasses, as if hiding their eyes might make the rest of them invisible too, and then they marched through the crowd regardless. Others put on a fixed grin and advanced broadcasting a generalised ‘No thank you’ until they had thrown off the most persistent stragglers.

The following day, I met the postcard seller again. ‘Where you going where you…’ but his attempt at a sale was cut short by the clunk of a slamming door as I disappeared into a taxi. When I bumped into him a third time, I stopped, hesitated, then nodded towards a bench beside the lake. This can’t be chance, I thought. I’m meant to buy his postcards. We sat down at either end of the bench, he laid out his cards between us, and I bought most of what he had.

That night, I took a large sheet of paper, and ruled it with narrow columns. I wrote personal pronouns in the first, modals in the second, verbs in the third. Then I noted some nouns, time words, adjectives and question words. It was late by the time I had trawled my phrasebook for the equivalents in Vietnamese and copied them all down. The postcard seller and I were now just about on a linguistic par. I was pleased, and didn’t find it laughable, that I could point out in Vietnamese ‘where-you-go-I-look.’

Hiêu was waiting for me outside my hotel the next morning. We shook hands, a gesture that seemed formally to inaugurate him as my guide. I showed him the table of conversational possibilities I had made the night before, and he traced out the question ‘Where-you-want-to go.’ Among the nouns were many of Hanoi’s tourist sights, and over the course of the next four days, we made our way round most of them. Each morning, after the prefatory discussions fingered across the translation sheet, I would ask, hopefully, ‘taxi? to which he would reply ‘no cheap,’ and he would stride off oblivious to the heat and humidity, leading me down the back streets and the side alleys of Hanoi.

By the end of those four days, our means of communication was crumpled and torn and had doubled in size. It had also told his story. Hiêu was nineteen, the oldest child of four, and his parents were farmers in a village outside Hanoi. There was no work for him in the countryside, and he’d come to the city a few months before to find a job and support himself. He lived with five other postcard sellers in a room on the outskirts, which had no electricity and no hot water. He cycled into town every day, bought postcards from a charity ‘very cheap’ he said, and sold them to tourists ‘no very cheap.’ That was how he lived. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Very sorry.’

On our last afternoon, we went to the Army Museum. We sat on a bench in a large echoing hall, surrounded by parties of schoolchildren, and looked at a map studded with fairy lights flashing up the ebb and flow of military fortunes. We wandered through room upon room of that grand colonial mansion, past mock-ups of Viet Cong hide-outs, and cases of battered uniforms, smuggled letters and burnt flags, taking in less and less, and becoming listless as we went. We sat and paused for a moment. On the wall opposite was a life-size enlargement of a black-and-white photograph with a gun-toting soldier in shades, who was smiling as he turned down the pleas of Vietnamese people he didn’t know.

In the museum courtyard, the wrecked machinery of war had been sculpted into a memorial: the corkscrew of a downed plane, a jeep concertinaed into the gravel, and bomb casing garnered into blooms. At the front, intact, stood a tank with a small metal plaque that read ‘Left behind as the US army fled.’ I offered my camera to a schoolgirl who was watching us, and stood with Hiêu beneath the barrel of the tank, our arms touching.

© Jo McMillan April 2003

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