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Three Short Stories of Vietnam

-All's Fair
-How to Cross the Street
-Ho Chi Minh's Finest

By Noah Klinger

October 28, 2009 

All’s Fair in Vietnam

“Dep, rat dep [beautiful, very beautiful]”.

That was an old Vietnamese lady, grasping my pale arm very firmly and refusing to let me go until she was satisfied that there wasn’t a freckle or spot of pigmentation anywhere to be found. For such a small, frail-looking woman she had a hell of a strong grip.

I am not the first person to notice that the Western preference for a glowing, golden tan is exactly reversed in much of the East. In Vietnam, where I lived for a year, everyone – the women, anyway - swooned over an ivory complexion and went to what seemed to me absurd lengths in pursuit of one for themselves. By far the most important status symbol was a pearl-white, luminous face - ‘a face like the moon’, as the saying goes. The source of this is mostly class-based. What in the West signifies wealth and leisure time to hang out on the beach for hours in Vietnam bespeaks a lifetime of toiling in rice paddies in the blazing sun.

When I first arrived in Vietnam I took a small room in the backpacker quarter with the aim of becoming an English teacher. Once this was accomplished I realized that I needed some more formal attire with which to maintain my respectability. So like a good tourist I trotted over to Ben Thanh Market in search of some cheap clothes. I found a shop selling khakis and asked the salesgirl how much they cost.

“Forget that” she said “Tell me; how much for your skin?”

I think I blushed. She wasn’t the only one to ask me that (and I could never quite be sure if they were serious or not), but from then on I always told them “It’s not for sale”, which at the time seemed like a tremendously witty thing to say.

The truth is that I’ve always been rather self-conscious about my mushroom-like pallor. I was always the one standing timidly in the patch of shade while everyone else strode through the broad sunlight. I was the one who endured the most horrific sunburns if I used sunblock that was weaker than SPF 50. The final indignity was being chased around a beach in Cadiz by a group of kids yelling ‘Whitey!’.

In Vietnam, however, this curious genetic discrepancy became a source of admiration for the locals. The effect was usually immediate; those who had a little English would simply announce upon meeting me ‘Oh, you are very white!” Others did not bother to speak, simply grabbing my arm and holding it up to their own for the sake of comparison.  One woman demanded to know what kind of special diet I was on to maintain such a complexion. In elevators, people would gesture towards me and then indicate their own skin with a mournful sigh of den (black) if their tan was a single shade darker than porcelain.

Sunscreen is expensive, so proper Vietnamese girls solve the problem of protecting themselves from UV rays by wearing an assortment of coverings, including hats, gloves, and face-masks that makes them look like motorbike-driving, cellphone-chatting ninjas.  On the sands of Vung Tau local tourists dressed more like they were going to the office than the beach; among the thousands of people there I saw exactly one woman in a two-piece bathing suit.

Instead of going tanning, Vietnamese girls go to spas for whitening, though exactly how this was accomplished I never did find out.  Instead of bronzing the various skin creams all promised to make you look like you’d spent your life in a dungeon 100 feet underground. Occasionally I would see women who had slathered themselves a bit too liberally with these products and the result was always lamentable. They looked deathly ill more than anything else.

It doesn’t take a genius to discover the moral in this, if there is one – namely that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; that people always desire what is expensive and difficult to maintain, and so on. I learned not to take it too seriously.

Of course, a little adoration never hurt anyone.

How to Cross the Street in Vietnam

One can be forgiven for thinking that Ho Chi Minh City is actually a kind of enormous warehouse-cum-testing ground for motorbikes. Every profession and social class is represented; businessmen in suits, schoolgirls in their diaphanous white ao dais, teenagers trying to show off for their girlfriends – the motorbike is in many ways the cornerstone of Vietnamese life. It is of course transportation, but also a status symbol, a source of income, and even – if they can get the balance just right - a love nest, if the rows of couple along the riverside and in the public parks are any indication.  They fill parking lots, crowd the sidewalks, pour down the streets in rivers and they never ever stop unless they absolutely have to at the risk of their own lives, and sometimes not even then. Add normal cars, buses, trucks, bicycles, and cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) to this miasma of machinery in motion and the very idea of crossing the street seems like a kamikaze mission – but there is a trick to it.

If you get a chance, take a seat in a café – especially one on a busy street in a proper big city, such as Leo Loi in Saigon or the Old Quarter in Hanoi – and watch the traffic swirl by. I personally never dared to ride any kind of wheeled vehicle in Vietnam, though the foreigners who tried told me that there was a certain logic hidden in the madness – essentially, if you could fit into a space, you went there, and to hell with the law.

OK, now to business.  We’re assuming you’re at one of the 99% of Vietnamese crosswalks that are either not really crosswalks or have no traffic light or signs of any kind. First, don’t panic. We’re going to get through this together.

The most important thing to remember is Communism. In most societies it is incumbent upon you, the individual, to avoid getting run over. Cars are bigger and stronger than you and so it is simply your own foolishness to put yourself in their path. In Vietnam it is the Traffic, as a single mass, who are responsible for not killing you. I wouldn’t go so far as to thank Uncle Ho for saving your hide, but if you’re feeling lucky to be alive (and who, after surviving Vietnamese traffic, does not?) he’s as good a choice as any. 
The second is that, as impossible as it seems, every one of those drivers is paying close attention to where they're going.. So, if you walk at a steady pace across the street, the drivers will be able to estimate where they have to go to avoid you. If you run, stop, or made any sudden movements they'll get confused and tragedy may ensue. A collision between a pedestrian and a motorbike (or bicycle) can be dangerous for everyone involved, especially if the motorbike is loaded down with a family of four – mother, father, teenager and baby - as Vietnamese motorbikes often are. They have as much reason to avoid a crash as you do.

When all else fails, some Vietnamese person - usually a little old lady or smirking teenager or five-year-old girl, to make the experience as humbling as possible - will take pity on the poor stupid Westerner and lead you across. As soon as his or her foot hits the pavement the traffic will instantly - magically - flow around you, leaving a wide clear path for you to make your egress. Once, after following a kid who looked to be in preschool across the road, I watched in amazement as she turned around and skipped through the traffic back to the other side. 
This isn't to say that you don't have to be reasonable. The Vietnamese drivers are only human, and just because accidents are far less common than you would think doesn’t mean they never happen. Still, if you can work up the nerves, it makes every crosswalk an adventure.

Ho Chi Minh’s Finest

For the foreign traveler to Vietnam, signs of state-sponsored oppression take some effort to dig up. There is no internet censorship that I could ever find – not in English anyway.  The government-approved English –language newspapers were full of articles praising the government, and propaganda posters adorned every street corner, but as a foreigner I never endured any serious restrictions on my movements, speech, or actions. I did know a Brit who got kicked off of Facebook for his subversive opinions, but as far as I know nothing worse happened to him.

I don’t mean to say that Vietnam is a free country or to belittle the trials of those who are even now moldering in squalid prisons for speaking out against the government. Doubtless I would have had much different memories if I were a journalist or a political activist, but in my own limited experience the Vietnamese police state was more Police Squad! than Stasi.

This impression stems mostly from one vivid encounter I had with Saigon’s boys in green late one Thursday night. It was in early December, and at the hour when the earl-to-bed-early-to-rise Vietnamese had almost all gone to sleep. I was alone in my 16th-story Saigon apartment, admiring the low skyline and congratulating myself on finding an apartment high enough to avoid the smell of the river. Someone started banging at my door, so reflexively I yelled at them to go the hell away. The banging became more insistent and, now in high dudgeon at the disturbance, I stalked over and threw the door open.

Standing before me were four Vietnamese police officers; three young and one at least in his 50s..  Naturally the police would come visit me at the stroke of midnight. I was a little perturbed there were four of them; in a country where private gun ownership was illegal, did they really think it would take four trained officers to take me down if it came to that?

Without a word they trooped in. It was clear that the older policeman was the only one who spoke any English. He sat down at my kitchen table and demanded my passport, visa, and the lease for my apartment. I hurried to get them while the three younger officers stood perfectly straight against the wall, motionless in their dull green uniforms. 

Now I understood. In Vietnam, the traveler experiences the paranoia of the Communist government mostly as a series of inconveniences. For one, the government keeps track of everyone – citizens and foreigners – by requiring them to register wherever they spent the night. Among other things this was a hassle as it necessitated handing over one’s passport whenever one stayed in a hotel.

Even when one is dealing with a permanent or semi-permanent residence, the owners of the apartment are supposed to register their tenants with the local police station.  My landlady had apparently failed to do this, I suppose on the assumption that nobody would notice the presence of a blond-haired blue-eyed American living in a Vietnamese apartment block.

I was acutely aware that I had inadvertently chosen a T-shirt with Ho Chi Minh’s face on it; one of the kind tourists pick up for inflated prices along Le Loi Street. Would that win their sympathy, or be taken as an insult, a mockery of their dear Uncle Ho? The three silent officers were young and had probably been raised to love their Uncle Ho, but maybe the older one had fought for the South Vietnamese Army, or perhaps even for the Americans?...No, if that were the case they’d never have hired him as a police office and anyway, it was too late.

While still absorbed in this I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was one of the younger officers. He had taken his cap off – the better to wipe his brow - and with a rather sheepish expression indicated that he was hot and would like a glass of water. I studied him a bit more closely and noticed that he was even younger than I’d first thought – maybe 25 at the most. And here he was, poor fellow, perspiring in some strangers apartment at an hour when he should be asleep and wearing an outfit that had clearly been chosen because the various police departments were having some kind of contest for Ugliest Uniform. Suddenly I realized that my situation might not be so serious after all.

Apparently all my paperwork was in order. The senior officer considered me thoughtfully and asked where I was from (although, come to think of it, he should’ve been able to tell that from my passport).

“America”. I said.

He raised an eyebrow. “Your family…are they very rich?” That was a prelude to a bribe if ever I heard one.

“N-no”. I managed to stammer, displaying the fluid command of the English language for which I am renowned. The policeman grinned in a kindly, avuncular fashion and said ‘Well, I think you should get married in Vietnam. Vietnamese girls are very beautiful!” A knowing wink later and he and his comrades were gone.

I poured myself a drink and went back to the window. Would they arrest my landlady now? Would I have to pay a fine? Hadn’t my Vietnamese girlfriend said something about her father being a policeman? Ah, but the vodka was taking effect, and soon I slept the untroubled sleep of an innocent man.

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