by Richard Sterling
In which we encounter cats, crumpets, and pirates.
I’d let myself get out of shape for while. At home I normally run around Lake Merritt (4 miles) four or five times per week. Burns off the pounds and keeps me thirsty for the suds. Win-win situation. So a couple of months ago I started running in Cong Vien Park, about ten minutes’ walk north of Loving Park. Cong Vien is heavily shaded and a lot larger than Loving. When I come back, usually around noon, I sit at Madame’s and have a couple of cold ones. Madame doesn’t actually sell beer, but she goes next door to Soakville and buys me one. I give her purchase price plus. Madame is ever amused at me sweating bullets in this heat. One time she grabbed a hunk of my T-shirt and wrung it out. She laughed and laughed as my sweat poured out. She takes daily exercise herself, but she does so before dawn, as many people here do. She thinks I’m mad for doing it in the heat of the day, as many people here do. But as Noel Coward sang, “Mad dogs and Englishmen (and their transatlantic cousins) go out in the noonday sun.” Fortunately Madame’s daughter, Miss D, always brings me her hand fan with which to cool myself.
So a few days ago Iwas sitting at my usual table nursing a cold one and recovering from the run and fanning myself with Miss D’s fan. Madame’s kitten, the one that nurses on Taco the dog, was clutching at my ankles and pissing me off. I kept shooing it away. It kept coming back for more. Finally it scratched me on the hand and drew blood. Before I could slap the thing silly it hightailed it. Goddamned cat.
I returned to my beer, confident that the pusillanimous pussyfooter would come no more. That was when Crawling Lady turned up. She’d been out of commission for several days. Now and then she is bedridden for as much as a week. “I can’t work sometimes,” she explained to me a few months ago. “Because my diabetes. Very hard to work. And my medicine, sometime, make me sick.” She has to take more than insulin. She showed me a basket full of pills, as well as her prescription. I had no idea what it all was. So anyway, Crawling Lady noticed my bleeding hand and asked about it. I pointed to the offending creature skulking about on the other side of the alley. She just sort of nodded, and muttered something I figured must have been philosophical.
Well it was a very hot day. And Crawling Lady seemed to be sweating as much as I. So I turned the hand fan on her. She found that refreshing, but also a little embarrassing. As you know, she is not one to be served or saved. She crawls on her own or not at all. But she knew I was just being playful. So in both embarrassment and amusement she began to giggle. I fanned her more and she giggled more. And I began to giggle. And Miss D, watching, began to giggle, and then so did Madame and so did Slim the waiter. We were all laughing as I fanned Crawling Lady. And then that damned cat leapt up and bit me.
“Goddamnit!” I shouted. And I got my free hand around the critter’s neck and I squeezed. Not enough to kill the little beastie, but surely enough to give it a good fright. I shook the little varmint, cursed at it, and then tossed it none too gently across the alley, where it landed with a roll and then ran off to hide. Madame, Miss D, and Slim were nonplussed. They knew the cat was a handful, and they batted it about, too. But Crawling Lady turned and looked up at me, and somehow looked down at me at the same time.
“Very bad, Mr. Hat,” she said.
“The damned thing bit me!” I protested.
“Very bad, sir. Never hurt animal. I go eat lunch now. You know I only eat vegetable. Never eat animal. I know you eat animal. Okay. You eat. But never hurt.”
“But the damned thing bit me! After scratching me and making me bleed!”
“You big. Cat little. You can feel hurt from little cat. Little hurt don’t hurt so much. Don’t hurt animal.”
She picked up her bag of postcards and medicines and whatnot, and pulled the strap over her shoulder. She shimmied her hands into her flip-flops. She turned back and looked at me with an expression of both compassion and remonstrance. And then she crawled to a vegetarian noodle seller half way down the alley.
So I was not only running by myself in the park. I’d hooked up with the local chapter of the Hash House Harriers. This is a gang of “drinkers with a running problem” that I have been associated with for about 12 years. Established in 1938, we are the world’s oldest and largest international running (and drinking) club, with over 1100 chapters world wide. The weekly run (and subsequent piss-up) is often the social event of the week in many an expat community.
Rather like fighter pilots and frat boys, all hashers are anointed sooner or later with official Hash names. Here in Saigon we have a man named Two Dicks and a woman named Venom Sucker. There is a man named Nutcracker and a woman named Nut Sucker. There is Paddy-Fag, Able Semen and his wife Navy Shagger, Hand Job, Voyeur, and the poor unfortunate Clifford who is yet to be anointed. My Hash name of many years is Climaximus.
Now it’s important to understand that in this part of the world most Hashes are dominated by Brits and Aussies. We are open to all, and we generally have some of all, but there is a decidedly Etonian (or maybe Monty Pythonian) slant to all the whacky ceremonies and bawdy drinking songs we indulge in. So it was no surprise to me last weekend at the post-run piss-up in the Café Latin on Dong Du Street that Fudpucker hollered to me, “Climaximus, you Yankee buggah, do you read Somerset Maugham a lot?”
There was a titter amongst the gentry. (Actually it was a drunken bellow.) Mystified as to where this might be going, I replied that while Maugham has a certain early 20th century charm, I find him to be a bit mired in the Edwardian age. He uses words like “effrontery.” As in, “Fudpucker, you have the effrontery to address me, you Limey sod!”
“Love the hat, Climaximus, but combined with the khaki trousers and the desert boots it’s just all so very imperial. You belong in a movie, sport! I vote we change your name to Somerset!”
Bastard! Or should I say bawstard? Or Etonian twit, or English pig-dog? There is no way they can change my name officially. What’s done is done in the Hash, for ever and aye. But that doesn’t stop some of the Brits and a few of the Aussies from calling me Somerset. And all the Vietnamese members, since they can’t pronounce Climaximus, follow suit. So now I am Mr. Hat to the neighborhood; Panama to the soaks; the guy in the Panama hat to the greater expat community; officially Climaximus, and Somerset to many, of the Hash! I think I’m having an identity crisis.
Booksellers and Other Whores
The pecking order among the hookers here is most interesting. At the top are the Crumpets. These are women who establish an on-going relationship with a foreign man. In other words they cultivate a sugar daddy. It might be for only a week or two. It might be for several months. If they do well they end up with cash and gifts and empty promises. Miss Argument is the most famous example, though not the most successful. She is, of course, her own worst enemy.
The most successful, or at least the most intriguing and most popular, is Miss Tittie. I call her so not because of her generous endowment, though she is busty for a Vietnamese woman. It’s because one of her flirting gestures is to grab her tits and push them up and out at the object of her attentions. She’s very bold for a Vietnamese woman. She has to be, and she has to communicate visually. She is a deaf mute. She is not beautiful in any traditional sense. But she is like the girl Kira in Ayn Rand’s novel We the Living. In a tribe of young friends in Moscow, all children of privilege and party, all of them beautiful, she is the exception. She is skinny, has stringy hair, a few pimples. She smokes. And yet she is the one always surrounded and doted on by the young men. Because the girl has balls. She is ever herself, truly and expressively. She revels in herself. Life is a major motion picture and she has been cast in the role of Kira.
Miss Tittie is just like Kira, except that she is a bit better looking. She colors her thick black hair so that it matches her bronze skin, and she pulls it tightly back into a bun or ponytail so that it makes a bronze helmet. She wears tattoos. She has big eyes with big brows, and a Roman nose above a large mouth with very full lips. Yet she is quite slender, you might even call her skinny. She looks very un-Vietnamese. I suspect some Indian ancestry.
She can express anything, any thought or feeling, through mime. If she were from a major Western city she could be a star performer instead of a Crumpet. (Or perhaps a star Crumpet.) Her face has a range of expression to match Jim Carey’s. Her bodily expression could compete with Marcel Marceau. Any man who makes love to her with the lights out would be a fool. She sat down with me recently at Madame’s as I recovered from my run. She had recently lost her sugar daddy and was showing me her “resume.” It was a photo album, much like a model might have, showing her in various artistic poses, different costumes, all very fetching and a few rather suggestive. It also showed pictures of her and her classmates at the deaf school she attended. As I was perusing her “qualifications” an alley dog sauntered by. It was a fat boy dog whose big balls wobbled comically to and fro beneath his upturned tail. Miss Tittie imitated the dog with hand gestures that somehow perfectly conveyed the image of the wobbly-balled hound. I laughed out loud, and she laughed silently.
Then there are the wannabe Crumpets. A good example is Miss High-Ho. I call her that because her name is Hai, and, well, she’s a ho. She, and women like her, want to get sugar daddies. But they are too old, or too fat, or simply have no fashion sense, or can’t communicate well enough in either English or any other medium. And some of them just have a lousy sales pitch. “You! We go boom boom!” Miss High-Ho is a combination of all the above. Nevertheless, I have bought her a beer now and then, and a meal or two. Her communication and interpersonal skills came into light, though, when my friend Michael, a local restaurateur from Oakland, CA, on a whim asked her if she knew my name. According to Michael, she paused a moment, searched her memory banks and answered hesitantly, “Killian?”
Miss Noodles works at a noodle stall around the corner from the alley on Bui Vien Street with her aunt and uncle. I like her. She has fair English and a good sense of humor. I often get a late night snack from her. I sit on a teeny tiny stool next to a teeny tiny table and she’ll stand behind me and stroke my shaved head and call me her “coconut.” She always pronounces it ko-koNUT. I might walk by of an evening on my way to elsewhere and I’ll hear her shout “Coconut!” If I have time, I stop to chat. Sometimes I bring her little tokens: a keychain, a piece of fruit, a penlight. At their noodle stall you can order fried noodles with meat or vegetables, noodle soup with meat or vegetables, or Miss Noodles. I’m not sure about the meat or vegetables in that case. Perhaps Miss Noodles counts as the meat portion. I’m sure she would look very appetizing on a bed of greens.
Miss Juanita is so called because her name rhymes with the Spanish Juan. She is a garden variety street walker. But she is also a good marketeer. She stations herself outside the GO 2 bar on De Tham Street or the Allez Boo on Pham Ngu Lao, where young foreigners and Bactrian Packers congregate, and hands out her phone number to any who will take it. She even offers it to women, in the event they might want to give her a referral. She is on call day and night. I’m sure her motto is, “We deliver.”
And then there are the book sellers. Every popular title you can think of is available in cheap pirate copies. You will see stacks of them, 2, 3, even 4 feet high and more, tightly bound for easy carriage. They are always carried by women, balanced on their childbearing hips (though it must be said that Vietnamese women barely have hips). They cruise the streets with stacks of piracy almost as tall as themselves.
Back in February I sat at Madame’s reading the Red Rag. It proudly announced that due to intense negotiations and many “frank discussions” Vietnam was now in complete compliance with all intellectual property regulations as described in US, Australian, and Austrian law. Last week in the same place Mrs. Book approached me with a teeteringly tall stack of piracies and said, “You buy book, Mr. Hat? I have many. Many good book.” I perused her wares. “I think I’ve read most of them,” I said. “And I wrote two of them. And I’ve got a story in that one edited by Tim Cahill.”
“Oh, you like?” she asked. “Very cheap, but good copy. And I have bad copy even more cheap. You buy, Mr. Hat? You want two? You want three? I get more copy.”
“You know about copyright?” I ask.
“If you want I can get. Get copy of anything. You buy?”
The Crumpets and the part timers and the wannabes and the street walkers all occupy the lower rungs of society here. As they do anywhere. But Mrs. Book is a respected merchant, plying an “honest” trade. I get nothing from her sale of my own books. Tim Cahill gets shafted, too. Travelers’ Tales, his publisher, gets nothing for its investment and effort. Mrs. Book and her innumerable colleagues are stealing on a massive scale. World wide it amounts to billions of dollars. On a personal scale, the standard print run for a pirate book here in Saigon is 12,000 copies. So I have two books on the local market (that I know of) for a minimum 24,000 copies. I should be getting about fifty cents per copy. So I’m out $12,000! I could use twelve large right now. But I’ll never see a damned dong of it. The Crumpets and their ilk are at least providing a genuine service, for very little money. And they are not robbing anyone (generally). But they are on the bottom. And Mrs. Book and her cohorts are “respectable.” I tell you it’s a topsy-turvy world when IP robbery is more highly esteemed than an honest ration of nookie.
I signed a few copies for Mrs. Book anyway. Couldn’t help myself.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where big hurts and little hurts are put into perspective, noodles come in a surprising variety, and the art of the mime has reached unexpected heights.
Richard Sterling is the author of The Fire Never Dies, How to Eat Around the World, and several titles in Lonely Planet’s World Food series. His anthology, Food: A Taste of the Road, won a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book, and he is also the editor of The Adventure of Food and coeditor of The Ultimate Journey.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.