Vanity in Vietnam
A travel essay
By Zia Zaman
I just spent the afternoon ambling through expat Hanoi with my good buddy who lives back home. He’s 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 couldn’t spare as much time as he could, but I was keen to see him so I agreed to catch up with him in the capital. While I was wasting my slacker time working my slacker job, he saw the DMZ, the albatrosses of Saigon, the stuff we’ve 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 the smaller villages.
Stumbling 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 travelling companion woke up, ate a hearty breakfast of muesli and yoghurt and went to collect their handiwork.
“Hmmm. I like the fabric,” he says to the first, examining the stitching as though it were dental work. “But here, no, I don’t 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 he’s straight. “Darling, can you come over here?” he calls from the makeshift dressing room.
Janice is having a hard time with the heat. It’s only thirty (eighty-six for you American philistines) and she’s got a damp glue matting her blonde locks to her forehead. Her tee-shirt says “LOVE” in a playful, romantic font, and, when she’s not hot-and-bothered, it’s a perfectly apt uniform. “What’s up, hun?”
“I need you to take a look at my seat.” He turns and presents his posterior to her with a Madame JoJo’s sachet.
“This one’s a keeper,” he says to the confounded Pierre, the tailor who has no clue what’s 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, he’d 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 after he gave me a hug (ok, the second thing) was unzip his bag and start modelling. 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 cosy 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-niçoise 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 edition of the Women’s 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 the canard à l’orange in the evening, playing bridge all afternoon. I so could be a corporate spouse. Take me, please. I’m a decent bridge player. I can cook, or at least, order a cook around. Look, they’re searching for a new chairperson to take over the mantle for next year for the WCoH! Tell me I’m not the right woman for the job!
Sexy, 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 greying 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, “he’s dead, isn’t he?”
“In the mausoleum.”
My mind flashes back to all those ridiculously miserable trips to Napoleon’s 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 Minh?”
“You mean we can go back?” Tom asks.
I think out loud, “It’s not like Space Mountain. Once is enough.”
I kept wondering why I didn’t 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 me.
I’m 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 situations. 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 colours, 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.
We leave the museum after a fascinating exploration of a downed F-XXX fighter, proudly downed by anti-aircraft guns. It’s 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.
Here’s the thing: Vietnam is not about you. It’s not about YOUR country. It’s 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 don’t exactly give us wings but we partake in some exciting conversation with the many women in the shop about what the actual price of our drinks is. 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 for her.
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 weren’t for the fact that one of them actually winked at him when he passed her by on his way to the gents. Emboldened by such a clear indication, I play along as wingman, 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 Tom’s 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 twenty-something white guy walks in and seats himself on a fifth chair, between the two ladies. His hair is gelled and his shirt stylish and pressed. Before the pimp thought crossed my mind, he started speaking with an upper-crust French accent.
“Hi there. My name is Stephane.”
Stephane is the pastry chef at the hotel Nikko. He’s 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.” It’s 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, we’re thirsty as we get back to our hotel in the middle of the thirty-six streets that comprise Hanoi’s old quarter. And at perhaps the most interesting of those 324 intersections, there’re 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 aren’t 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. It’s fresh, pungent, and frothy. It’s 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 by 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. There’s a writer’s group in the States of which I am virtually a part. I haven’t read the discourse in a while. The paternalist tone almost makes me lurch. Something about some of my group members 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 wasn’t there. It would be unfair to the memory of all those still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, blah-blah-blah, yadayadayada. It’s 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. It’s not even called that anymore.) Do you realise 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 that’s 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. It’s 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 Church’s. Impressive. Doesn’t want to get the wax and polish onto my fingers. Tom and I sit and chat with a Hawaiian-Vietnamese guy who’s in town for the weekend. “Love it here,” he says. “We know.” There’s 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 dollar.”
“One dollar?” I say incredulously. “No, no, no, no, no. One thousand dong.”
“One dollar,” the boy says. He’s 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 “one dollar” mantra to anyone who will listen. He’s got a sour look on his face and I almost believe he thought he’s getting a buck out of me. Maybe it was a misunderstanding, but we did agree on the thousand dong so I stand firm.
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. “That’s 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 isn’t used to his techniques not working and lowers his price to 5,000 dong. I ignore him and later show him my 1,000 dong note. I then try to reason with him. “Look, when you agree to a price upfront, you have to stick by it. It’s a transaction. It’s a deal. We agreed to 1,000 dong. If you got confused, then learn the lesson and next time, make sure you know what it is you’re going to get paid.”
He’s 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 1,000 dong note and a 50,000 note. He says, “Isn’t it funny how with one flick of the wrist, your $350 Church’s shoes can be sent to the bottom of the lake? Isn’t 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. “Don’t say that too loud, you idiot!” We’re 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 2,000 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 don’t have one and still don’t feel right letting him take me for a ride. I say, “I’m not going to let myself be had. Maybe some other tourist but not me.”
Just then, he grabs the 1,000 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 can’t believe how imperialist and paternalistic it was of me to haggle over pennies and then to add insult to injury, for me to say, “I’m going to teach him a lesson.” I don’t hear any of this but I can tell something’s up when I see them a little later. She’s still fuming and Tom is vigorously defending me.
“He is not ‘evil incarnate’. If you got involved in the local culture, engaged in some transactions, of any type, you’d know what it’s like to negotiate, to play by the rules of the game.” Tom’s a good advocate.
Janice objects, “It’s not the negotiating that bothers me. It’s his imperialist tone. Like he knows better.”
I think about my behaviour. I try talking it through and realise I’m sounding really defensive. Critically, I analyse whether I was being imperialist. I’m 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 wasn’t going to be had. (Defensive, defensive, more defensive.) It was going to be a lesson to him and I don’t 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 it’s okay for me to say, if you’re going to be a man and transact in a man’s world (and now you can add sexist), you’re only as good as your word (arcane and trite). You can haggle and negotiate all you want beforehand but you can’t renege. (I know I’m guilty as charged.)
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.
Vietnam is not about the war. It’s not even about communism. It’s capitalism, making the system work for you, getting through the days trying to get your slice of the pie. It’s 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. The colonialism is espoused as a new architectural style and people are waiting to go back to the opera. It’s Vietnamese-Canadians coming back to set up import-export shops. It’s mobile phones and SMSes. And of course, the enduring image, it’s the sight of a verdant rice paddy accented by a conical hat.