She Was Looking Out For My Dong

Further Down Bui VienSo I’ve been in Viet Nam a week, having spent most of that in the backpacker section of District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, which is pretty much an international circus — fun, but rather crazy. I’ve turned down so many touts, xe om drivers, ladies of the evening (and in some cases ladies of the afternoon) and various other peddlers in the neighborhood so often that half of them just look at me and smile and wave and don’t bother with the sales pitch. The other half shake their head and look away in frustration and disgust; it’s inconceivable why a rich American would want to walk somewhere when has a choice to do otherwise.

But I guess I’m like Larry Darrell in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. I’m content to loaf in the corner cafe with my books and interior monologue; no I don’t need xeroxed pirate copies of the latest Dan Brown opus or Lonely Planet Laos; I don’t need my shoes shined or my sandals repaired. No, I don’t need a xe om ride somewhere. A massage? No thanks, I don’t need a massage with or without a happy ending. Yes, I’m sure she’s very lovely and very young, as you say, but no thanks. No, I don’t need “boom boom” either. Yes, I’m sure she’ll do everything, but no thanks, no boom boom today – some other time, perhaps.

Heck, most of the working girls now ride up to me if they see me walking down the street at night (I’m big enough and tall enough that I must be a foreigner), hop off their motorbike, walk up to me, begin their sales pitch, recognize me, laugh, mock me — “ah, you go with me ‘some other time!'” — and hop back on the bike and ride away. I should add that most people here looking to make a buck off foreign tourists are actually pretty easy going. I always smile when I refuse and say “no thanks” — I’ve even learned to say it in Viet — to show that there’s no hard feelings and no loss of face, and almost always, the smile is returned and they back off (plus it’s cute when the working girls act all pouty and sad). Sure, there’s a few that push the hard sell (and I confess there have been a few lovelies I’ve been hard pressed to say no to), but they are the exception rather than the rule.

And certainly not everyone is on the take, not by any means. I’ve met a few xe om drivers who are great guys (there don’t seem to be any girl motorbike taxi drivers, dammit) and seemingly honest to a fault; then there is my new friend Den, a cyclo driver. A cyclo is the word here for pedicab — the taxi cab cum bicycle. I finally broke down and did the tourist thing the other day and hired Den to peddle me around; I had already met and talked with him prior to this, and he seemed like a good guy (plus he speaks English tolerably well, so he could do double duty as tour guide); my instincts proved correct.

Not for the Faint of Heart IIDen’s been doing this for more than 20 years; this is how he has fed his family (he had four kids; his oldest, a daughter, is currently attending university). It’s also how he learned English. We’ve gotten so tight that if he sees me on the street and I’m going somewhere close by, he’ll offer to take me for free — I’ve tried insisting on giving him some cash, but he won’t take it. As if that weren’t cool enough, today he took me around shopping for a used bicycle, and even did the translating for me as I negotiated prices, then let me follow him back to my neighborhood. When I asked him how much I owed him he hemmed and hawed, so I just crammed a couple hundred thousand dong (that would be the Vietnamese currency) in his hand and told him to take it. All around, a top-notch guy.

Then there is the family at the Kim Hotel. Ideally, I wouldn’t be staying in the backpacker district for long. Granted, it’s seedy in a wild border-town sort of way (although it’s not on a border, per se — although wander a few blocks away from it and it’s almost a different world), which means it’s crazy and fun and there’s a bunch of different kinds of cheap, tasty food available. Were I just visiting here on vacation, it would be fine. But I’m ostensibly here for the long haul, and to begin my career as an English teacher. As such, I briefly considered finding a quieter neighborhood; I could probably have found a furnished apartment outside of the central downtown area for close to what I’m paying at this guest house (but who knows if I’ll find a job here or somewhere else after the course?).

But the family that runs Kim Hotel are wonderful people — the second oldest daughter serves as the manager; the younger siblings clean the rooms. Everyone is warm and friendly; the lobby of the building doubles as the family’s living room. Houm (I’m sure I’ve butchered the spelling), the oldest daughter, takes time to teach me Vietnamese words and phrases when I ask; when I asked where I should go to get a local sim card for my phone, she took me herself and even did the talking when we got to the phone shop. She was skeptical when I told her I had hired a cyclo driver — that would be the aforementioned Den — she wanted to be sure I wasn’t getting scammed. She’s also giving me a modest discount since I’m staying long term, and even let me move into a slightly bigger room than the one I had before.

I could probably find a quieter place. I could probably find a place with a softer mattress and fancier furnishings, a place where the locals are a bit more quiet and reserved (as they seem to be outside of District 1, from what little I’ve seen). But this is close to the school where I’ll be taking my CELTA class, and would I be able to find such a warm, inviting place elsewhere? One where they’ll bring my bike in at night along with the family’s motorbikes? One where I can leave my stuff in my room and not have to worry about it? Plus, my room is always left spotless after Houm’s sister has cleaned it. I’ve stayed in $300-a-night business-class hotels where the maid staff wasn’t as meticulous. Could I do better than that as a stranger in a strange land?

I’m not even gonna try. Besides, there have been other random acts of kindness, right here in District 1, Saigon. Last week when I decided I should try Vietnamese coffee — the traditional way with sweetened, condensed milk, which is OMFG good — when I went to pay my bill, which was 50,000 dong (about $2.70, and I had two of these drinks, which would be about $5 apiece in a Starbucks), I accidentally paid with a 500,000 dong note — about $27. 500,000 dong in a land where you can get a meal on the street for 1,000 dong. Nevertheless my server immediately pointed out my goof. What’s more, she wasn’t annoyed at the idiot foreigner; she smiled, laughed, and said “Oh no, that’s 500! It’s only 50!” (at about 18,500 dong to the U.S. dollar, most prices are discussed in thousands of dong).

She could have fleeced me and I never would have known; all denominations of dong have Ho Chi Minh’s face on them, and the differences in the colors of the larger denominations of bills are subtle — you have to look closely, as I’ve learned.

Fortunately this young girl was looking out for my dong.

And yes, I’ve been waiting this whole time to make that pun.

Yeah, really the only thing I’ve got to complain about, the only trifling glitch so far is that the so-called Irish expat bar in Saigon serves Guinness in a can. Guinness. In a can. In a quote-unquote genuine Irish pub. Guinness in a can is fine when you know at the next bar down the street they have it on tap. Now I’m going to have to go to another country to get it, so no pints on tap for the foreseeable future.

“The horror … the horror.”

Ground Zero, Backpacker CircusOh, you’re probably wondering about these photos (if I ever succeed in actually getting them uploaded).  This is traffic in District 1 — the arty-farty night shots, and the live-action views from the vantage point of Den’s cyclo. I’ll save the traffic topic for another time. Let it suffice to say that what at first seems utter chaos to the Western eyes is actually a complex ballet of internal combustion, rubber, and human instinct. And now I have a bike to ride in it.

“The horror … the horror.”

That’s not me saying that, this time, it’s the people on the road in District 1 when they see me coming on my no-name, cheapie hard-tail that I bought from a local shop after the proper negotiations took place.

P.S. Finally got the shots uploaded — the one’s I’ve taken so far, anyway. The entire set is on Flickr.

3 thoughts on “She Was Looking Out For My Dong”

  1. Jeff,

    Great site, I am travelling to Saigon next week for work. Staying by the river (where can I get a guiness for St Paddy’s day? Even if it’s in a can?)

    1. Thanks Paul 🙂

      As for Guinness, your options are limited my friend. If you want it on tap, you’re sh*t out of luck. There are a few places here and there where you can get it in a can, but it’s not like the pub draught cans you find in the West, and it tastes odd — but it’s still good, and better than no stout at all. But it will cost you — the cheapest I’ve found it is 100,000 VND ($5.35) American at an Aussie expat bar called the Blue Gecko. The “Irish” expat bar here, Sheridans, has it closer to $6, as does Le Pub (you can find these places via lonelyplanet.com).

      If you are staying near the river in District One though, you can walk to Sheridan’s or the Blue Gecko. If you’re jonesing for western food, check out the Black Cat — but if you’re only here for a week, you’ll want to check out the local food, and District One provides you with no end of options there. Have fun!

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