Letter from Vietnam
Saigon takes a lot out of you. The beggars on every corner, people trying to sell you things you don’t need and would never travel thousands of kilometers to buy, which you buy anyway. Like those cone-shaped rice-straw hats that bad television comedies use to portray the archetypal ''Chinaman.'' I see sailors and European yoga women walking around in the sun with them on.
Last night, I looked down from my fifth floor balcony in Saigon and felt the contradiction of the traveller: exhaustion and exuberance. Down in the alley crammed with pho shops, wandering bookselling women stopped in front of diners to offer used paperbacks wrapped in plastic. And the little girl who sells gum for 5,000 dong a pack skipped from restaurant stall to hotel courtyard asking strangers in her bold charming old-world beggary of a thousand years for money. For gum.
I thought I could handle one more night of Saigon Beer and beggars, so I laced up my hiking boots, steeled myself against the poverty and hoped for a night of neon and pretty women. I descended, down down down the five levels of stairs into the kitchen, and the smiling hotel staff wished me good luck for the night.
Good luck. What does that mean?
On Le Loi Street, the swell of motorbikes swallows me up. You don’t cross streets in Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, Vietnam's largest city. You wade across them, literally rubbing shoulders with men on scooters and their female passengers, wearing dainty silk arm-length gloves and cotton bandanas to keep out the soot. They look like bandits.
I hitch a ride on a scooter for US$1. The driver takes me to the wrong place. A second driver, for another dollar, takes me to the right one: Apocalypse Now, a pool table bar and techno disco club on Di Thac Street. How many bars in Indochina can there be, or have there been, that have been named for Francis Ford Coppola’s remake of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Vietnam-War style? About as many Suzy Wong bars as Hong Kong had. When all the Apocalypse Now bars disappear, the war will be over.
It doesn’t take long for the reigning pool shark in Apocalypse Now to join me at the pool table, and after losing 50,000 dong (roughly US$4.50) I bag it, find a stool and sit at a table overlooking the parade of young women and old expatriate men walking into the bar. It soon registers what this night life is all about, at least in this bar: 99.9 percent of these women are prostitutes, a 40-year leftover from the war.
Tables of them—some so pretty you forget how to think, some miserably ugly, hopeless and, remarkably, like Suzy Wong’s colleagues. Single guys walk over. They talk. They buy themselves and the girls drinks—the men get alcohol, the women lemonade and water. (During the war, it used to be called Saigon Tea.) One by one they leave with each other. Some come back. Some are gone all night.
I end up talking to a [manager for a casino management business] from Macau. He recently moved to Bangkok and he can't stop telling me the ''fantastic'' stories of all of the hookers he's bought since moving to Thailand. He tells me a story of one particular bird who just can't get enough of his fat, sweaty self-centered self.
''I just buy her for two days. She absolutely loves it,'' he says. ''She left my apartment one day saying '’Oh, so tired, yawn.' I watched her leave. She got into another guy's car. Not too tired.
“I have a girlfriend. I keep my personal life separate. I like that you can just pay the girl, she f----s you. She leaves. Shuts the door. Bye bye,'' says Mr. Casino. He goes on and on about his porn collection and how his girlfriend is learning English and how she’s also learning to have sex with him by stealing his porno DVDs and watching them while he's away on business and sexual safaris. He goes on about the very nasty things that Thai hookers do if you pay the right price. A guy can buy a couple—they come in pairs!—and they bring a suitcase into your apartment and it’s filled, filled, filled with glorious sex toys and a man can stay awake all night and never dream but live the life of a movie star binging on cocaine and croissants in the morning and the pale Oriental skin of the prostituting magi.
He complains that Saigon is hard for finding hookers. The hotel staff is watchful. He tells the story of meeting a girl in an elevator at the Sofitel. They work out a deal, she will visit floor five first and then come down to his room. While he's on the phone, a knock at the door. It's her. She comes in. She does her stuff while he's on the phone. He hangs up.
''I know this sounds like a movie, but it's 100 percent true,'' says Mr. Casino. All is good until he gets a phone call on the hotel phone. It's the staff. They know he has a girl in his room. She must leave. She leaves. Mr. Casino is lucky: some guys get mugged when they take a girl back to the hotel. Others get fined by police. Or are subject to extortion.
He's got me worked up over possible violence in Ho Chi Minh City tonight. Those scooter drivers outside will offer you a ride and take you to another girlie bar. They might mug you and the police won't save you. It's getting late. I take my beer with me, finish it, and walk out to the scooter with my beer bottle in hand, just in case I have to crack it over some punk's head.
I drive through the Vietnam night, hell cooled down, flying insects batting my face. The scooter driver keeps telling me he knows me, that he's helped me before. I don't know him. He offers to take me to another bar, ''Same same, but different, same girls, same fun!''
I say no. We wind our way through the empty streets and I get off at the park. There is a statue there of some great leader and nobody around.