Hookers, hawkers and my friend Nghiep
Here’s the thing about living in Southeast Asia: you never, ever know what’s heading your way.
So it was Sunday morning in Ho Chi Minh City, at the end of a solo trip to Vietnam and looking to connect somehow with my 90-something-year-old friend Nghiep in a park near my hotel where he goes to exercise in the morning. It’s only a 15 minute walk from Pham Ngu Lao, but I arrived in the park sweating and looking for a spot of shade to cool down and make myself presentable. I sat down on a wide bench occupied at the far end by a frumpy middle-aged woman in plum-colored pajamas.
I smiled at her. She smiled back. She said something to me that I didn’t catch (since I don’t speak a spot of Vietnamese, this happens all the time in Ho Chi Minh City).
“Sorry?” I said in English.
“You want boom boom?” she replied in the King’s best, selling a ware that translates instantly into any language.
“At 9 a.m. on a Sunday?” I thought, then caught myself. “Wait! No. I mean…Jesus H!”
On my feet, I was on my way out of the park in a shot, ducking anyone looking my way and giving myself a fresh coat of sweat as I scurried for safety.
The market! I’ll go to the market and just stroll around to kill some time. There are no hookers in there. It’s a five minute walk to sanctuary.
While that’s true, it’s no safe harbor: there are literally hundreds of young women in the market who all but grope passersby in what has to be the world’s most aggressive selling tactics.
“Sir! You buy!” comes a command, not a question, hurled at me by some five-foot-tall retail terrorist in a Hello Kitty tshirt. She grabs my sleeve and latches on. I pull away, pick up my pace and cease politely deflecting sales appeals from people pitching knockoff Adidas polo shirts that they just happen to have in my “big size” and “big shorts! big shorts here!”
What would qualify as assault in some cultures is the ritual of selling in the crowded aisles of the market, and it’s as oppressive as the heat of the steamy morning.
Getting out of the joint was a bit like breaking through an NFL defense, but once I was into the secondary my open field running skills took hold. Giving a head fake to a guy selling knockoff Rolex watches, I headed for the meat market. No one selling bloody slabs of beef and pigs’ feet was likely to grab me as I hustle past.
It was a good guess, and the best part was seeing the exit to the street just beyond a noxious display of oxtail, hanging precariously and ironically next to a tofu display.
Back into the heat, I decided to bag the whole idea and head back to the hotel, take the day’s second shower and kill an hour watching ESPN before heading to the bus stop for the six-hour ride back to Phnom Penh. I’d had enough of hookers and hawkers and found myself in need of something simpler, more predictable. But I took a risk and walked along the outside of the park, hoping for a chance glimpse of Nghiep while scanning for hookers and street merchants to avoid.
And then, there he was.
There was something both visually unsettling and amusingly comforting about the sight of my shirtless elderly friend, clad in shorts and a white cap to protect his hairless dome from the morning sun. He stood next to a bench, wildly flapping his arms in his morning ritual of physical exercise. For me, it was the perfect antidote to a poisonous dose of the rougher side of Viet Nam.
The mere sight made me smile.
I approached him gingerly, not wanting to startle him – it’s best to think twice about big surprises for a man of Nghiep’s age. I said hello, and he responded with a friendly neutral greeting. He didn’t recognize me, and why would he? I’d popped into town with no notice. What would I do doing in a park in Saigon at 9 a.m. on a Sunday?
I told him my name and his face erupted and suddenly we were the day’s spectacle: An elderly Vietnamese man and a middle-aged American, clutched in an embrace, almost dancing in the morning heat.
And in an instant all the discomfort, stress and awkward feelings of outsiderliness that comes with being a foreigner in an aggressive place like Ho Chi Minh City simply dissolved.
We sat, talked, caught up on our lives. Mentally sharp as ever, he wanted to know where Gabi was, and Kirsty. An oil company accountant in his working days, Nghiep’s a man who thrives on details and he carefully consumed every word as I updated him on our travels and experiences.
He asked me if I’d received the copy of his latest book (I hadn’t) that he sent to me and gave me a quick update on his writings. His latest philosophical book touches on the essence of happiness, his common theme – part of his quest to define the things he feels are most important to human beings.
“My last,” he said, and I corrected him, pointing out that it’s only the latest of the eight tomes he has penned.
“Why last?,” I exclaimed. “You have at least another dozen books in you!”
We roared, clapped each other on the back and headed off into the park to find his wife, give her a surprise and continue spread the good vibes of a Sunday morning that had suddenly turned a lot brighter.