by Luke Spreadborough
Luke spent some time in Viet Nam and wrote me that he had a great story about boat building in a town called Ben Tre. He even sent this photo at a teaser:
Since he had a lot of pictures, he decided to mail me a CD from his native Australia. This was going to take a while, so he sent me these three stories to "bide your time". I was quite impressed with them, but since they were not really about boat building, had decided not to publish them. That was before I showed them to Sandra. She said: "Writing this fine and interesting should be shared. You need to publish them." So here they are. - Chuck
The Birthday Party
We drove south, way south towards the sea. We pulled over deep in the countryside next to a classic Vietnamese house. They love large ceramic tiles covering the floor, and the entrance/greeting room always has very heavy hardwood furniture of high quality. The next room is almost always an afterthought, with an ocassional bed or two scattered around and then there is the bathroom. No bath but a handheld hose with a shower rose on the end. The toilet is usually the classic porcelain bowl but it has no cistern, flushing is achieved either by a tap and bucket or by a large tiled cistern to one side, open at the top for the convenience of baling. The bathroom floor is always wet and I have to hoist the legs of my jeans up whenever I sit on the bowl. This is Phoup's house.
That is how his name is pronounced, I have no idea how it is spelt. Phoup's daughter has turned one and since I know the family I was asked to attend. Not a problem, and several members of the greater family accompany me. Man, the majority of the strangers are country people and I get quite a few polite stares and questions are asked. It's cool, they appear to be quite friendly and after a meal of prawns, crabs and various noodle dishes one man drinks half a shot glass of rice wine and hands it to me. "He wants you to drink 50% with him, he would be honoured if you did." So this is rice wine. I agree and down the warm, oily liquid. Very strange and it has a good kick to it. I had brought a bottle of Southern Comfort along as an ice breaker and it worked well. The drinkers at the party drank it straight and their faces contored marvelously but they still complemented me on my choice.
Within minutes of the first man's offer I hade several others, "fifty percent" they would say and I was obliged to drink it. I really didn't want to offend such nice people. I asked Ngon if they were trying to drink me under the table. "No, never. These people would never do such a thing, but they feel you have honoured them by attending the party, no westerners do such a thing" Well, screw it, I may as well get drunk. After an hour some of them were swaying and Deng, a prawn farm owner, offered to show me his farm. This saved me the embarrasment of collapsing in a pile. I was one drink away from it.
We flew along a dirt road on Deng's Russian trail bike. He was very proud of it and kept pointing at it and repeating over and over "Soviet! Soviet!" I nodded agreement each time. Deng was drunk and so was I. I started screaming with laughter when Deng narrowly missed a timber post and we both roared the remaining distance to his prawn farm. Deng has some power here, the people we met all nodded at him and although he acknowledged the nods with his own he walked like a king amongst them. He was their boss. We sat down and started sobering up with the bitter chinese tea everyone here loves and went to the ponds.
trying to sober up at the prawn farm
Some of the boys used a castnet to catch the prawns but there wasn't a great amount. It was a new pond and this was it's first season, the twigs and roots on the bottom hadn't rotted away yet and this caused difficulty with the net. Deng was very proud all the same and insisted I see more prawns. Another young man leapt onto a platform and raised a small tablecloth sized net in the hopes it would be filled, but the three prawns in it leapt out. For some reason this was hilarious and we all roared with laughter until I felt sick. We turned and headed back to the party, but Deng was in high spirits and pushed his Soviet bike too far, straight into a pot hole at high speed. I rocketed skyward and came back down on the steel carrier frame on the rear. My arse is still sore, bu I didn't tell Deng, he would have been ashamed.
Back at the party my friend Ngon had succumbed to the wine, gone tomato red and fallen asleep. The others were swaying where they sat but when they saw me come back it was "Fifty percent!" all over again. I survived, but one of the young men who sat at my table was so overwhelmed with gratitude and alcohol he clung to my neck and kissed me on the left cheek. I was wondering how to get out of this and fortunately Deng decided it was time to go. The young man followed me and was planting kisses on the car window where I sat, to the amusement of all in the car except myself. I was a tad embarrassed, but I know he meant well. I was told that they kept drinking after we left until one of their number collapsed and couldn't be revived for some time. This scared them all into abstinance for the remainder of the night.
When Vietnamese men love you they show it. I had arms all over me, hands on my buttocks as I walked along (rather disconcerting, this) and hands on my shoulders. They don't need to be drunk to do this.
Ho Chi Minh City
I'm sitting at a roadside eatery oppposite a very sweet Vietnamese woman. I'm with a group of friends from Ben Tre and we have been in HCM for two days. An amazing place, the traffic, shops, stalls and street sellers all add to the colour. Beggars aren't that apparent until you open your wallet, then one, two, four or more gather waiting for a handout or for me to buy their lottery tickets. I'm sick of buying lottery tickets.
Two book sellers push their wares towards me, copied books in Vietnamese. I indicate to them that I can't read Vietnamese but it makes no difference, so I ignore them. After three minutes have passed one of the female beggars starts sounding at me. The string of invective becomes unbearable, she won't stop. "What is she saying Trung?" but my companions have their heads bowed, they don't want to look at me and Trung refuses to translate. "She is angry at you because you won't share your wealth and help her, so she is calling you terrible names".
I fight the urge to tell her I'm not the author of her problems, and if she had the patience I would have given her some Dong. Screw this stupid woman, I have had enough of beggars today. I fight urges of guilt and compassion daily, especially towards those like the pretty young girl with no legs. I happily bought lottery tickets from her, but this screeching crone can go and jump. She has all her limbs.
She trails away and is in the distance when Trung turns and smiles at her, waving bye bye as he does so. She flies back and renews her harangue, directed at me of course. I tell Trung in no uncertain terms that I don't want him to encourage the woman. She finally leaves us in peace, and the book sellers, shoe shine boys and various others walk away and leave us to quietly eat our noodles. I'm sitting opposite Minh, a very feminine sweetie who commences gulping down escargot and smacking her lips loudly with pleasure. She gives me the sweetest smile as she flicks snail meat from her teeth with a toothpick and then rams a finger up her left nostril.
I love Vietnam.
Nose picking/fiddling is a national pastime, or so it seems. I was holding conversation with a wealthy businessman who suddenly felt it necessary to ram a finger up each nostril, successively. I didn't flinch, but it was unnerving to behold.
Another beautiful young woman, Tram, did the same as we conversed. Ngon himself does it, and I told him that though it may be a physical requirement to keep the breathing passages clear at all times, it is also considered uncouth behaviour in the western world. I made sure he realised I wasn't being critical of his and all other Vietnamese behaviour, just pointing out the fact that if he wished to trade successfully in Australia it would be best to forgo the immediate health of his nose for the sake of a deal.
That sort of thing. He understood. Ngon sells foodstufs in Australia.
The Vietnamese Government practises an almost lawless form of capitalism, masking it as communism. I hate it. Corruption is at every level and the blackmarket thrives. Unfortunately the black market keeps an enormous amount of people alive. It is impossible to tell professional beggars from real ones so I regard them all as real.
I find it interesting that the various eateries and stores don't move the beggars along, rather, at times they either help them access their clients or ignore them. It indicates to me a level of compassion amongst the Vietnamese themselves, and the beggars do not target tourists only.
I was sitting in a restuarant one night when we were approached by a blind man. He couldn't have faked it, he had no eyes. I wanted to buy lottery tickets from him (he was selling, not begging) but my friend Ngon beat me to it. He asked the man "How can you tell if people are giving you the correct money?". his reply brought tears to Ngon's eyes. " I trust people sir. I trust the love they have in their hearts, I know they would not take advantage of me".
Ngon gave him 10,000 dong (about $1.00) and wouldn't take any tickets but the blind man was upset and said he couldn't do this. Ngon explained to him that by accepting the money he was giving Ngon what he wanted. He was very thankful and his faith in humanity was reinforced.
Shortly after this a litle girl came in also selling tickets. She was a cherub and spoke vietnamese with a Shirley Temple voice. I asked Ngon how old she was and it turned out she was eight. Eight years old walking the streets at 9:00 at night. I bought her tickets and was rewarded with huge smiles. What a darling.
But what a heartache it can be, with the legless, limbless, blind, maimed and the mentally disturbed constantly in evidence. The biggest danger is to give too much, it can ruin the recipient. 1000.00 to 2000.00 Dong is quite acceptable and usually invokes a smile. If they can muster up 5000.00 dong in a day then they are doing well. I quickly learnt to keep my wallet hidden and have many thousand dong notes stuffed in my pants pockets. This works very well.
I was at a coffee shop in Ben Tre with Ngon (it's Ngon's favorite shop when he visits) drinking the local version of iced coffee when I heard a shuffling sound behind me. The shop owners were bringing out their daughter, Hein. Hein is twenty two years old, pretty if a tad chubby , and has no strength in her limbs. She can't use them. Her parents manipulate Hein into a low chair where she spends the day talking to the usual clients and watching the street come to life each morning.
"She can speak english you know, she taught herself from a CD. Speak english, she will answer you" I say hello to Hein but she giggles with embarrassment. I tell her it's OK, she can speak to me when she wishes.
Hein's father sat down with us and conversed with Ngon in the local tongue as I looked around at all the smiling clients. They were happy to see me, a wealthy (by comparison) westerner who appeared to be happy to mix with them. Vietnamese people are cheerful, always.
I asked Ngon about Hein's circumstances and he explained to me how she was born this way. I fear for her, her parents aren't young and they were so saddened by her condition they refused to have any more children. Hein is an only child. When her parents die she will be in deep shit. Her father applied for aid from International Red Cross amongst other groups and the answer was always the same, glad to help you, please fill out these forms and we will get onto the case ASAP. Nothing ever happened and it has been this way for years.
The parents make around $10.00 AUS a day, but after the rent, tax and consumables are removed from the gross profit they are no better off than $3.00-$4.00AUS a day. If they can't open the shop for one day they are in trouble financially. this is how it is for most Vietnamese people, the wealthy make up roughly 1% of the population or less and most individuals work seven days a week with one day off a fortnight. They work long hours as well, twelve or more for a subsistance wage. Corruption is the way to go. Being a middleman can bring wealth if it's practiced with care.
Hein insisted on shaking my hand each time I left her shop, it made her happy.
of all the Vietnamese I met (apart from the screeching crone, but I didn't really 'meet' her) none was rude, all treated me kindly and every one of them was genuinely pleased to meet me. They are well aware of racism, and this is why I pleased them, I was happy to mix. It was no effort on my part and the reward for me was to re-write what I thought of these people in my head. They are nothing like the image I held. But there are problems.
My view is a distorted one. I don't live here and I miss many of the finer points of life in this country. The cost of living is reasonably low, however without bonuses or other forms of added income families are incapable of ever buying a house. Homelessness is a way of life for many, as well as unemployment. Hence the beggars. But regardless of this they manage to survive, something my western mind has difficulty appreciating. What I see with a sense of sorrow they see as normal. I would love to live here for three years to gain a clearer picture of it all. I'm reminded of Australia in the sixties. Families struggled, not many had a telephone, not every family had a car and the town I lived in, Wynnum, didn't have any sewerage system, it was all cart emptied until 1965 or 68.
I remember several families that lived in poverty and how other families helped them out if it was felt neccessary. I think that's what I am seeing, there is a sense of community here that once existed in my society when times were tougher. I think that will be the saving grace of people like Hein, those who know her would not allow her to fall all the way down, they would help where they could. Ngon himself has a good amount of compassion towards those he left behind (he escaped to Australia in 1981 as one of the boat people). He gave an old friend his mobile phone, because he was poor and could sell it for a good profit. Families are where the power lies here and they stick together but that doesn't mean they don't care about those around them. The real problem is the lack of finances to give. Child labour is evident, as well as what could only be described as female slavery, but I will deal with that later.
My mind is not an asian mind. I had to remind myself of that when I was there.