by Richard Sterling
Our Vietnam expat gives us another tour of his Saigon world.
It is sunset. The An Lac Pagoda, from which our alley takes its name, is full of congregants, as it often is at this time of day. They are so happy to be able to go there and perform their religious ceremonies. For many years after 1975, when the city fell to the northern armies and they had the joyous “reunification” it was difficult to practice any kind of religion under the communist government. But those days are gone. Motorbikes pile up in front of the pagoda. Some are even parked inside. And I sit here at my desk writing as the faithful chant in perfect unison to the sounds of drum and bell. If one were to record the sound it would be like one of those CDs of the sound of rain or of a waterfall. I could go to sleep to it were it not for the fact that they stop by about 9 p.m. Miss Chatter is in there.
I stood on my little balcony and watched as the people arrived. They all looked like people who are thirsty, and know that here they can drink. They looked relieved. They looked happy. Miss Chatter arrived on foot. She was laughing. This is the first time we have seen her since The Night of the Big Kiss. Until tonight she had simply disappeared. The talk has been that she was embarrassed at being so often “unlucky in love.” It might be that she just went back to her ancestral village or town for Tet, as many people do. I haven’t seen Heidi or Crawling Lady recently either.
Mr. Boots has left for Phnom Penh. After the fracas between him and Mr. Bob and Miss Argument he decided he’d had enough and moved on. It’s a common thing. The Soak Community is very fluid (ahem). Most stay a matter months to a couple of years and move on. They have pensions, or alimony, or simply “income” that allows them to follow the sunny weather and the cheap beer and Crumpets. As I like to say, they seek sunny places for shady people. So now with Mr. Boots gone, and Mr. Bob still indignant over his embarrassment about Fight Night, Miss Argument is without paramour and without steady income, as far as I can tell. They let her back into the Phoenix, but she’s radio-active for the nonce. Getting no action. She’s desperate. She’s even made advances at me, knowing that Mr. Hat is just an observer when it comes to the Soak Community. Well, for the most part, anyway.
Mrs. Tall IS from Belgium! I was right! And, standoffish though she is, she now has a beau! Mr. Malaysia, who could be another Mr. Sideburns were the name not in use, has been wooing her. They’re both in their 50s, I think. She’s a head taller than he, but he’s a belly wider, with a pretty good spare tire. He is quite dark to her very pale self. His ancestors are from southern India, and he bears a Portuguese name. He loves Hawaiian shirts. Mrs. Tall (they call her “Mrs.” only because she’s of a certain age) is positively giddy when she’s out with Mr. Malaysia. She normally would fix you with a steely glare, but she makes goo-goo eyes at the man lost in 70s fashion. I hope she gets some.
Lunar New Year, known as Tet, came and went recently. It’s outwardly pretty much like New Year as we know it, though it isn’t the “Night of the Amateur Drunk.” It actually has religious overtones, and is very family oriented. But it’s still a party, with fireworks at midnight. One of the customs here is for elders of the family (or friends) to give the younger ones “Lucky Money,” wrapped in red paper or envelopes. Or course everybody wants to get lots of lucky money, and they have no compunctions about telling you so. But it’s more important to get lots of contributions rather than absolute amount of treasure. It’s more about starting the new year with luck than with money. If you have luck, you’ll get money.
So I gave lucky money to Suzy Q, an installment on a new hand phone. It wasn’t much, only half of what her boss gave her, which was about a ten-spot. But a tidy sum here. But Suzy Q’s rich uncle gave her a fat wad in lucky money and now she has the niftiest hand phone in history. She can’t even comprehend most of its functions, and it makes the hugest bulge in her pocket, but she is back in the gaaaaaaame! Yeah! “Daddy, I take your picture with my hand phone, OK?” Yeah, that’s good, Honey. Now get just get Daddy another beer.
I have discovered another class of Soak. At the northern end of the alley gather the Anglophone soaks: the Brits, the Aussies, the Kiwis, other Commonwealth types, and the few Americans. At the south end are the Francophones. (In the middle of all this are the Buddhist worshippers, kids playing hackysack, beggars, touts, dogs, cats, and others.) Now I should tell you that despite the fact that the Francophones are Francophones, they have to speak English in Vietnam as nobody in this country these days knows how to parley vous. Of course it galls the Gauls that they must speak a language outlawed in their own country, in a country wherein they once held sway. But I digress.
At the Francophone end, near my place, sits nightly a table of Vietnamese women who get hammered. They are six or eight on any given night, and they have this in common: they are married to foreign men, or divorced from foreign men, or they want to marry a foreign man. It seems that something about foreign men drives these women to drink. One of them is Miss Grabby. She is of the last category. And she has set her sights upon your humble correspondent.
She’s really not bad looking, not at all. And I think that she has a head on her shoulders. But she’s always trashed when I see her. She can’t handle her liquor. She likes to grab me as I pass by. She tries to kiss me in public. Miss Chatter can get away with that in this culture. She has a special dispensation. But Miss Grabby is another story. And it’s not just her own reputation that suffers. It also redounds upon me. And I wouldn’t want people calling me a slut, now, would I? Mr. Hat a slut? Hmmmm. Maybe in San Francisco, but not here!
By the way, among the Soaks I am no longer The Guy in the Panama Hat. I am now simply Panama. I was so named by Mr. T (for Tim), a jazz musician from Here and There. He’s black, about 60, a cool cat, wears a wide brimmed hat though not a Panama, and carries his drumsticks wherever he goes. Always gotta be ready to jam.
And that’s the news from Pagoda Alley, where most of the women are sober, some of the men are responsible, and all of the children will be better than their parents.
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.
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