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.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 3 Apr 2002