There are two reasons why VietNam was able to defeat such giants as the Chinese, the French, and later the Americans, and those qualities are still very much alive in the VietNamese people today: blinding persistence and cunning.
The Pham Gnu Lao section of SaiGon is a bustling traveler’s ghetto where virtually anything you can imagine will be brought to your terrace table at the Allez Boo, whether you want it or not. Young girls pop open their wooden suitcases to reveal counterfeit Zippos posing as relics from the American War; old men flame crisp-dried squid from their grocery-carts-cum-kitchens; while bootlegged travel books, still wet from the copy machine, are thrust in your face every five minutes. The shoeshine boys are trying to convince you that your flip-flops need shinning, and all the while, prostitutes parade up and down the street “oohing” and “ahhing” like they’re auditioning for Full Metal Jacket all over again.
There are hawkers throughout all of VietNam and they are impossible to avoid, and on rare occasions something comes along that you want. Or at least you think you want.
A young boy approached us with a basket selling souvenir chopsticks and little bird whistles made of clay. The Swedish girl at the end of my table asked what the black chopsticks were inlaid with, and the child answered: “Pearls!”
I looked at her, raised an eyebrow, and called after the boy. “And what kind of wood are they made of?”
He said they were ebony, and I raised my other brow at the girl and warned her, “Well, I wouldn’t eat with them if I were you.”
“Eh,” she said. “They’re pretty.” And she bought a few pairs.
Our noodle soups arrived at the same time and Sandra the Swede took out her new chopsticks wiped them off and dove in. We were talking about possibly taking a rickshaw tour of Chinatown the following day and sharing the costs when I noticed something odd.
It seemed Sandra’s lips were suddenly darker than before. I tried not to notice, but then she smiled and I gasped: Her teeth had turned a reddish black and the tips of her chopsticks had gone from “ebony” to “birch.” Sandra’s mouth was as shiny as a new pair of black patent loafers — she’d just eaten shoe polish.
The next morning we met in the lobby for fresh baguettes and sweet viscous VietNamese coffee and planned our day. In between brushing her teeth with baking soda and scrubbing her lips with alcohol swabs all night, Sandra had sliced the map out of her guidebook and made notes for our excursion to Chinatown.
And now it was time for the most difficult part of the day: crossing the street. I’d been honing my street-crossing skills for days but Sandra, having only twenty-four hours under her belt, was still terrified. It was my time to show off.
Traffic in SaiGon is unlike anything I ever knew was possible. There are no stoplights or stops signs on most of the streets, and navigating through the steady congested, ear-piercing, streams of motorbikes, taxis, cyclos, and trucks is daunting. I took the side of oncoming traffic and told Sandra to walk next to me, shoulder-to-shoulder. I explained it the way our guesthouse owner advised me when I arrived.
“You cannot wait for the traffic to stop,” Madam Cuc explained. “Wait until there are no lorries or cars, then look directly where you want to go and slowly step into the traffic. You are the rock and the river goes around you. Walk slowly at a steady pace and no matter what you, do not step backwards, speed up, or stop — or you’ll be struck.”
I explained this to Sandra as I confidently lead us through the tributary of honks and vrooms. “’You are the rock and the river goes around you,’ — it’s just like Madame Cuc said, you see?”
Sandra bowed her head and winced, “But rocks don’t move across the river.”
“Keep it up, and I’ll leave you here, Sandra.”
On the taxi ride to Chinatown (also known as Cholon) I was conjuring images of opium dens and street cafés like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel, or a young Marguerite Duras rendezvousing with her older Chinese lover under ceiling fans barely stirring a monsoon’d breeze. Instead, we arrived at a marketplace with mountains of child-sized plastic tables and stools, two-gallon aluminum kettles, and tables teaming with electric Buddhas with rotating illuminated halos.
We spotted a cyclo driver and negotiated a two-hour tour for ten American dollars total for both of us. Duc charmed us while explaining which temples we’d be seeing and how he loved Sweden. We settled into the cyclo and were immediately whisked away to our driver’s favorite restaurant in Cholon — even though it wasn’t yet noon and we’d told him we weren’t hungry.
Duc’s “favorite restaurant” was also, it seemed, heavily favored by heavy Americans and Germans in fanny packs, and the only Asians we saw were employees. The menus were in English only, and the prices in dollars. And the unctuous, insipid food would prove a culinary allegory of what was to come.
Thirty minutes of nose-scrunching and dabbing the oil spills from noodle dishes, then shelling out half our daily budget for the displeasure, we were finally back in the cyclo being peddled about. Duc’s charm had washed away like freshly-inked calligraphy in a downpour. And though we insisted upfront that we didn’t want to be taken to any shops, our first two stops were naturally shops. We kindly declined and remained seated in the cyclo perfectly contented to enjoy the view. Duc was furious and rollercoaster’d us down the narrow streets spinning into pot holes and jamming us into oncoming traffic.
An hour and a half into our jaunt and we’d only seen one temple, where even amongst the joss sticks and melodious chanting, our ears still rang from earlier hawking of “T-shirt, lady! You want t-shirt! T-shirt! T-shirt!”
With thirty minutes left of our tour, we told Duc we’d cut our losses and pay him the entire agree-upon amount. “We can find the next pagoda on our own. Don’t worry,” I told him. I handed over a crisp ten dollar bill respectfully with both hands and thanked him. His arms were folded across his chest and he refused the money. Snarling, he insisted it was “ten dollars each person!” Furthermore, he demanded payment in VietNamese dong that at the rate he was suggesting would have increased his fee by 50 percent.
I remembered Madame Cuc’s advice the night I arrived in SaiGon. “Pay what you agreed upon and don’t argue,” she said. “You put the money on the seat and you walk away with grace. Let him lose face, not you.” I took out an extra dollar hoping it would silence him, and placed the eleven dollars on the seat. As expected, Duc put on quite a show, throwing the money, screaming, and flailing about with such vehemence that all that was missing from his lugubrious playlet was a finale of self-immolation and a fireworks display.
With our hearts in our throats, we hurried into an enormous indoor market to catch our breaths.
Sandra pulled out her map and I asked if we were anywhere near the next pagoda, which I remembered was on Lao Tu Street.
“I can’t find Lao Tu Street on here,” Sandra said while knitting her brow. “It doesn’t seem to be on here.”
Frustrated, she handed me the paper and said, “Maybe you can find it.”
“Sandra, where did you get this map?”
“I cut it out from the guidebook last night.”
“And where did you buy your guidebook, Sandra? From one of the book ladies on Pham Gnu Lao? The nice ladies who sell bootleg travel books? Your map was creased when it was photocopied, Sandra. You can’t even see Lao Tu Street on here. It’s worthless.”
Ten minutes later Sandra was off somewhere buying fake Lacoste shirts for double what she’d pay for authentic ones back at home. And finally I was enjoying a respite from the city and Sandra, while huddled in a dark dingy bar drinking snake wine with black-toothed old men. While not unlike drinking rubbing alcohol at least it was authentic and if I’d recently dined with shoe-polished chopsticks — which Sandra was probably doing at just that moment — at least it would strip the Kiwi shoe cream right off.
I arrived back at the guesthouse ahead of Sandra who chose to explore Cholon further. It was quiet in the hotel lobby for once and I was sobering up with another cup of café sua da and reading the local English-language rag.
The phone rang. Madam Cuc sounded annoyed, slammed the phone down and shuffled toward the door. “It’s your friend, that Swedish girl. She’s too scared to cross the street; I have to go get her.”
I could see Sandra through the blur of traffic squinting and mouth-breathing, then jumping and clapping when she saw Madam Cuc coming across shaking her head. I could have sworn she had black teeth again, but I wasn’t going to wait around to find out; I ran back up to my room and called it a day.