The Postcard Seller
Jo McMillan in Vietnam
you going? Where you going? Im looking, Im 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?
Im looking, Im 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 hotels 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
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 cant be chance, I thought. Im 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 didnt 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 Hanois 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 hed 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 didnt 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
© Jo McMillan April 2003
all rights reserved