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.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002