by Richard Sterling
In which we discover what makes the heart spin.
Valentine’s Day came to Vietnam, and the Patron Saint of Love was loaded for bear. Make no mistake, this is still officially a communist country. Officially. The signs of it are everywhere. Daily the masses are exhorted to “build socialism” and to “support the workers’ struggle.” Yet the big debate is whether or not Communist Party officials should be able to own a private business and have employees and capital. Should wealthy communists be taxed at higher rates than those who simply struggle to get rich? All over town are Soviet style political billboards extolling the virtues and mighty accomplishments of the Revolution. They are posted, under contract from the Communist Party, by local advertising agencies whose clients include Coke, Levi’s and Vuiton. The Cholon Tuxedo Rental Shop is festooned with flags bearing the Hammer & Sickle. The Commies are playing golf and tennis, and betting on the horses. They talk futures in the same breath as the workers of the world. They are learning to drink wine. I look forward to the day when they learn to drink it without cigarettes.
But, as I say, Saint Valentine came to Vietnam. He even came to my alley. And he followed me around a bit. He was in evidence everywhere. His day is ostensibly a Christian observance, and about ten percent of the population are followers of Jesus and hence authorized to invoke the Patron Saint of Amore. But the Buddhistas love Love as much as any, and demand to be let in on the action. Even the Commies pause in their steadfast atheism to partake in the special day.
And so big red Valentine hearts flutter alongside the proud but diminished Hammer & Sickle. Images of Saint V are posted alongside those of Marx, Lenin and Ho Chi Minh. The florists and jewelers and confectioners do a land office business. So do the hookers. They seem happiest of all! Just around the corner from the alley is what the locals call “Loving Park.” It’s about a six acre green space in the middle of traffic, graced with tall trees and shrubbery. It boasts two of the very few public toilettes in town, staffed by amiable attendants. Every night young couples come here on their motor scooters (the vehicle of choice in this country, there is little room for cars on these roads) and park them in long rows at the edge of the green. They sit on a bike, side by side or straddle one facing each other, and talk about their future, and make out, and now and then feel each other up when they think no one is looking, or when the right persons are looking.
Miss Jack makes frequent appearances here of an evening. She has several colleagues in other parks around town and they could all bear the name of Miss Jack. She takes up her station in a corner of the park where the shrubbery is about shoulder high. She is visited every ten or 15 minutes by young men who come to enjoy some of what must be the best exercised fist in the neighborhood. On the evening of the big VD (Valentine’s Day) there was a solemn line of young males, ranging in age from about 15 to 25 waiting in silent order at the edge of her domain. Each held his dong (Vietnamese currency) in his hand, worth about 25 cents. She called them each in their turn. They stepped up to the plate and she bent to her task. One hopes the shrubbery benefited from the enrichment of the soil. I first saw her that night at about 7 p.m., then again as I passed by at around 10 p.m., and yet again at midnight still plying her trade. I haven’t seen her since. I’m sure her arm must be in a sling. And I will never again approach that corner of Loving Park, no matter how well the bushes may grow!
Suzi Q works at the bar I call Regional Head Quarters. Her chief cohort is Sally G, and unlike Suzi Q, Sally G calls me Uncle. There is one more member of the night shift at Regional HQ. I call him Alfalfa. A bespectacled cherub-faced boy of about 18 to 20, maybe 5′ 4″ and slenderly built. Always neatly dressed and polite. Not the lisping, mincing rubber-wristed sort, but still about as gay as they come. And he has a crush on Suzi Q’s Daddy and Sally G’s Uncle. I have a little ritual for my entry into Regional Head Quarters. I whip out the hand phone and call either Suzi or Sally and place my drink order about a minute prior to my arrival. When I walk through the door my beer is poured and waiting for me. Other patrons of the bar are often astonished that the drink arrives before the drinker.
Alfalfa watches the girls as they receive phone calls. If he perceives that it’s from me he rushes to fill the order for them, and lets me know that he did so. If he misses that he makes sure to greet me at the door. Sally G doesn’t much mind his doing this, though Suzi Q is a bit more territorial. But they all know that he is not allowed to call me Daddy, or Uncle, and so Suzi Q is mollified. Alfalfa knows well that the girls’ Daddy/Uncle is a straight arrow. And he respects that. Though it doesn’t keep him from lingering near me after serving me this drink or that snack. “Thank you,” I’ll say to him. “You go back to work now.” But if it’s a slow time he’ll just sit on the stairs that lead up to the pool room and watch me. I catch him doing so and he doesn’t look away. He just smiles. He has such a twinkle in his eye when he does so. He did me a small favor recently, and I told him he was a good boy. That might not have gone over well in the States, but this is Vietnam, where the approbation of one’s elders is prized. Especially if the elder is someone you have a crush on. That one comment sustained his good mood for an entire night.
Red Rose & Blue Jacket
There are roughly 16 flower girls in the greater neighborhood surrounding Pagoda Alley. They are all between about 6 and 12 years old. Many of them wear a Catholic school girl type skirt, though they wear different tops. Little Miss Bluejacket is my personal favorite. She has a bad attitude. Most of the girls approach with a sweet smile and an engaging manner. “Mister, you buy flower for lady?” They have taken lessons in charm from their mothers or aunties, and most have learned well how to weedle an extra dong out of the defenseless male. They might rest a head on your shoulder. The littlest ones might even crawl into your lap. But Little Miss Bluejacket, who is now 10, and on her way to being a drop dead gorgeous teenager, will approach a man with a bundle of roses and say, “You! You buy flower!” Her victim will be polite and say, “Oh, no thank you. I already have one.” To which she responds, “You buy flower!” She’ll stay right where she is and lock eyes with her prey. And this beautiful bad seed will bend him to her will. She can even exercise this power over women. Perhaps especially over women.
The days leading up to Valentine’s Day are good days for the flower girls. As long as they play by the rules. You see they have something of a cartel. There is a price below which they agree not to sell their blossoms. One girl might find advantage in doing so, but it would cut into the others’ ability to eke out a profit. So the rock bottom price for a rose is about 20 cents.
One night shortly before V Day I was coming out of the little Mexican place in the middle of the alley when I heard a great, high-pitched commotion half way between there and the Phoenix. There all the little flower girls in the neighborhood had gathered for a roisterous pow-wow. Miss Bluejacket was in heated argument with three other girls, and all the others were pressing in upon them. All were shouting at once, apparently calling for blood. Miss Bluejacket had a faction of two, maybe three, girls, but they were vastly outnumbered. Still, she hurled vitriol in exchange for vitriol with several other girls. They got in each other’s faces and shouted their curses. As the hostility reached a crescendo, and quite without warning or apparent planning, two girls leaped on Bluejacket. Others shouldered her faction aside and held them at bay. The two assailants grabbed Bluejacket by the arms and pulled them out to the sides as though they would pull her apart. They tugged and tussled, their school girl skirts and their long black hair swaying and rippling with the ensuing struggle. A third girl, urged on by the frenzied tribe of little girls, leaped onto Bluejacket’s back and began to pummel her. I could hear the dull thumping sound as each blow landed between her shoulder blades.
Bluejacket knew that she was done for. There was no escape. Her small faction was helpless, as was she. So she just took it, took it as the beautiful little flower girls, ages 6 to 12, screamed for more. After a dozen good hard slugs to the upper body they let her go. And she immediately got back in their faces and screamed at them. Of course she had no argument other than her own native defiance. She had been underselling the cartel in the busiest season, the week of Valentine’s Day. She had been cutting into the other girls’ livelihoods. Justice had to be served. And they savored it. The alpha flower girl made a brief address, jerking her head toward Miss Bluejacket, who stuck out her tongue. The alpha then led the pack away, back into the night; back into the market for fragrant flowers; back to foreign men who were waiting to be charmed by pretty little girls offering blood red blooms; back to Western women who overpay them in the belief that they are helping to “empower” the girls by promoting their entrepreneurial spirit; back to the soaks; back to work.
The next night Little Miss Bluejacket approached me as I was finishing dinner at the Phoenix. She fixed me with a hard stare as she held forth her individually wrapped roses. “You buy flower,” she insisted. In the months I’ve known her I’ve never bought a flower from her, just as I’ve never given money to Heidi, and only bought one postcard from Crawling Lady, and that only when I needed it. But as with Heidi and Miss Chatter, I have bought her a coke now and then, which she takes away to drink on her own rather than share my table. “You got your ass kicked last night, didn’t you?” I said to her, indicating the spot only a few yards away where the deed was done. She speaks little English, but my meaning was perfectly clear to her. “You buy flower,” she demanded, shoving one into my face. “You buy flower.” I think those other little girls had better watch their backs.
Be My Valentines
In the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, all the females I know in the alley and the surrounding neighborhood had been reminding me of the impending event. “You will bring me chocolates, yes?” As with Tet lucky money, they are not shy of asking for it. “But I’m not your boyfriend,” I’d say. “But I am woman,” they’d counter. “You have to bring me chocolates.” I tried to make them understand that V Day is not like Tet. “If I bring you chocolates it means you have to be my Valentine,” I told them one and all. “So you will bring me chocolates?” I tried to explain that only their boyfriends should bring them chocolates. But it was like trying to teach them the difference between a Panama hat and a cowboy hat. “You bring me chocolates!”
I resolved to make a day trip to somewhere else on Valentine’s Day. Besides, I’ve come to know a lot of females in the last three months. There are the night shifts at General HQ and Regional HQ, there are the day and night shifts at the Lucky Café Bar, the girl who brings me the morning paper, Madam at the tea terrace and her daughter, a couple of pool sharks in the 24/7 bar on the corner, plus every female you’ve read about up to now including Miss Bluejacket! They all want chocolates!
So I slept in, then sneaked away. But the whole city had Valentine fever. And it was infectious. Women and girls were all giggling over their chocolates and flowers. Men and boys were beaming. I wanted to participate. So I betook myself to the candy sellers in the Ben Thanh market, about five minute’s walk from the alley. There was a bewildering display of candies, many of which I’d never seen and couldn’t even guess what flavors. But the only chocolates I saw were big heart-shaped boxes full. I’d bust my budget for a week if I bought enough to go around. Then I saw my solution. On the floor behind a bin full of what smelled like durian candy was a basket of M&Ms. All plain, no peanut. I scooped up what I thought would be enough packets and then added a few more for good measure. I figured I could give any excess to street urchins.
The day shift at the Lucky was still on duty, so in I walked with my sack of treats. I gave each girl a bag and they positively gushed. And they squealed. It was as though I’d given them each a diamond ring. They tore open each bag and compared their contents to see if they all had the same colors and quantities. And then they ate them on the spot. Two of them traded colors. I was amazed at the power of such a small gesture.
So I made my rounds. Madam hugged me. The girls at General HQ went in together to buy me a drink. One of the pool sharks let me win. Crawling Lady had never received a Valentine before. She pulled off her flip-flops and put her hands together prayerfully and did that Buddhist thingy. Heidi looked at me with her special dareful smirk and gestured for a second bag. I pulled her ponytail instead. Miss Chatter, well, you know how Miss Chatter responds to anything. I think she’s still yammering on about it. I thought about giving one to Miss Jack, but that would have required standing in line, so I tossed one over a pair of tables at the Phoenix to Miss Argument and ran. I dropped one into the begging bowl of a barefoot mendicant nun. At first she looked confused, but then broke into a grin. Even Bluejacket smiled at me, and punched me on the arm playfully. I think it was playfully; the mark disappeared in a matter of hours.
At length I had three bags left and two girls to go. I headed for Regional HQ. I whipped out the hand phone and told Suzi Q “Daddy’s on the way, Baby. Draw me a cold one.” When I arrived the place was empty but for Suzi and Sally. I took my seat at the bar and set my near empty bag on the stool next to me. The girls stood shoulder to shoulder facing me across the bar. They were ever so slightly standoffish, with a cautious look of expectation. I was coy at first. “Did you get lots of candy today?” I asked. “Mmm, some,” they answered in unison. After a minute of teasing they knew I had something for them. So I turned to my bag, fished out the last three packs of M&Ms figuring I’d eat one with them. Then I turned back to face my two favorite Valentines, and Alfalfa.
I froze. “Where in the Sam Hill did he come from?” I thought. The girls faces were lighting up just like all the others I’d valentined. And so was Alfalfa’s! He could plainly see I had three packs of happiness. And there were three of them. Then he saw my hesitation. Now you know the kinds of things that went through my mind. No need to elaborate. But it came down to one thing. If I gave the girls a Valentine and none to him he was going to be crushed. Especially if it happened in front of the girls. Even gay guys don’t like to be humiliated in front of girls. If he were to misconstrue my meaning in giving him a Valentine, dealing with that would be preferable to hurting somebody so callously. As I handed each of them, all three, their M&Ms I said, “For my Valentine.” The girls went giddy, as the others had. Alfalfa pressed his Valentine to his heart and beamed immense gratitude, and relief.
The girls tore open theirs and gobbled them as the others had done. Alfalfa slowly opened his as though he were unwrapping a gift. He tore it down the seam as some people do with a bag of chips. He laid it down on the bar and spread the bag open to reveal the jewel like candies. The blue ones really stood out. I’d noticed that throughout the day and night. They were the first ones to catch your eye. It was the same for Alfalfa. He delicately picked up a blue M&M, lifted it to his mouth and slowly chewed, looking at me with such twinkling, smiling eyes that I was taken aback, and even moved. It was as though he had never tasted anything in his life so sweet as a blue M&M.
A well-known Vietnamese-American restaurateur from the Bay Area came to town a few weeks ago to visit family. I’ll call him Lemuel. (That should throw off any clue seekers.) Lem and I quickly became drinking buddies. Several times we went together to a fancy night club frequented by Communist Party bosses, foreign investors, well-heeled tourists and the like. Among the regular entertainers is a sister act whose title translates to something like The Two Hot Babes. And Oh, God, are they hot! Especially the one that does a perfect impression of Cher. Lemuel throws money around like confetti. And so when I told him I’d like to meet Cher he stuffed some of his dong into a waiter’s hand and within moments Cher was sitting beside me. Ah, the power of the mighty dong! She looked even more gorgeous up close. She smelled gorgeous, having just worked up a sweat singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” She held a hand to the hem of her mini skirt (yes, miniskirt!) lest she inadvertently flash someone. I spoke in my most dulcet tones, with florid words and a quote from the Bard about how much I enjoyed her performance. She looked at me blankly. Lemuel translated. Arrgh! Despite her perfect English singing, she doesn’t speak a word! I tipped her a tenner, and told her, through Lem, that I hoped to hear her sing that song every time I came to the club.
A few nights later Lem and I returned. The Two Hot Babes were scheduled to sing that night, but at that moment a jazz quintet with a lead sax was worrying out a riff on Summertime. We took Lem’s usual table, and the bottle of cognac with his name written on it and the bottle of gin with mine were soon produced. They were both half empty from previous visits. Charming hostesses brought tonic and soda and plates of fruit. A man whose job is to do nothing but walk from table to table with an ice bucket filled our glasses and moved on. Three charming hostesses, whom Lem calls “my future ex wives,” mixed the drinks. The one who could speak English entertained me while the two others fawned over Lemuel. He was in his element. I was just waiting for Cher to appear. The future ex wives moved on to another table. They are required to rotate, lest the cops conclude that naughty goings on are going on in the presence of party bosses. They were quickly replaced by two other future ex wives. Neither spoke English. I patiently waited for Cher to come out and sing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.”
That was the moment I saw a woman in a booth across the room. She was not conventionally beautiful. She would never appear on a runway. She would never appear in a bikini. She was a bit overweight by modern Western standards. Yet she had such poise. And the look on her face was of such rich enjoyment of the goings on that it was infectious. Her hair was bobbed at chin length. She wore a red tunic and a black knee-length skirt. She was just deep enough in her cups that her face was flushed and her inner coquette was out and about. I caught her eye.
Lem saw me nodding and smiling to her. I gave him a quizzitive look as if to say, “Is this situation dongable? Can you do the dong thing here?” He made a discreet inquiry. His family is well connected, on both sides of the political divide. A cousin in the room talked to a cousin who talked to a cousin. Lem was summoned, and introduced to the Lady in Red. They chatted a few moments. They exchanged cards. Some kind of serious conversation went on between them and the cousins, with gestures made to others in the room. I was called over. And I was introduced to the Lady in Red, and invited to sit with her. As Lemuel took his leave to return to his future ex wives he whispered in my ear, “Be discreet. She’s an official of the Communist Party.”
Well shit! I fought the Communists in the bitter war here. I cursed them as they chased us out of the country in 1975. After military service I went into the “military-industrial complex” and was a Cold Warrior. Where I worked our chief competition was not Hewlett-Packard or IBM, but the Soviet Union’s electronics industry. We played technological leap-frog and cat-and-mouse with the Commies every damned day. Even after I became a journalist I wrote sarcastically about the Reds and predicted their demise before the end of the 20th century. And I was right and I was glad of it. Hells bells, I just held the mirror up to them at the top of this dispatch!
I really didn’t want this kind of complication. More than anything I just wanted to see The Two Hot Babes. I just wanted to drink a little gin, have a good time. And I certainly was in no mood to be discreet! I wasn’t even sure what discreet would mean in the circumstances. Did it mean that I shouldn’t say, “Neener neener neener, we won the Cold War, ha ha ha!”? Did it mean I should praise the struggles of the masses, talk about Marxist-Leninist dialectic, comment on class war? I had no idea! So I said, “I like that red tunic. It suits you.”
So, okay, I’m not Mr. Smooth. But Miss Commie giggled and shrugged. She had limited (understandable) spoken English, and I less Vietnamese. But we could “write notes in class.” We clinked glasses now and then. That seemed to break the ice. Vietnamese love to clink and drink. A waiter brought over my gin bottle and I poured her a stiff one. She knocked it back pretty quick and dared me to another. And yet another. We played slap the hand and we laughed a lot as we sank deeper into our cups. Eventually I began to hear that buzzing sound in my ears. Maybe you know it, too. All the other sounds in the world recede to some distant horizon and you’re only dimly aware of them. You just hear the buzzing. I’ll be discreet here and just say that Miss Commie and I were being indiscreet. That’s when a battery of colored lights penetrated my senses. The disco ball was spinning, the floor was thumping with a hard base, the very air was vibrating with the high volume. And I became aware that The Two Hot Babes had taken the stage and were singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.”
Miss Commie and I have exchanged text messages since then. We’ve arranged to meet a couple of times. But she’s broken it off each time. We had been indiscreet. Party bosses were there. It would be one thing if I were to see one of Lem’s future ex wives. Or even a capitalist running dog of a business woman who brings in more tax revenue than a whole regiment of red brigades. It might even be okay if I were a proclaimed American Socialist. But there are no secrets here. Everywhere I go the folks I meet say, “Ah, I’ve heard a lot about you.” Everybody knows I’m a war vet and a Cold Warrior. The people here don’t hold grudges, but many members of the Party do. Party Poopers.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where all the pretty little flower girls are strong, all the parks are Loving, and you never know who might be your Valentine.
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.