by Richard Sterling
There are many characters in the alleys of Saigon.

Palm trees grow, rents are low and the feeling is layback. It’s been raining daily, but it’s that gentle tropical rain that lasts a short time and then stops in time to walk to the bar without getting too wet.

Saigon looks a lot different these days, especially downtown. I’m afraid it’s going Hong Kong on me. New hotel and office towers are rising, clutches of men in suits are seen on the streets, and my favorite hole-in-the-wall crab restaurant is now a boutique! And the counterfeit goods seem to be gone (sigh). On the bright side, I haven’t seen a single pickpocket, street urchin tout, or transvestite whore. Hmmm, maybe that’s not all that bright. And poverty seems to be disappearing. But the city is definitely losing its cherished (by me) status as a backwater. I actually saw a stretch limo slither out of the underground garage of the new Sheraton Tower Hotel. Used to be the only thing stretched here was the power of your US dollar and the only thing underground was the economy.

But the food is still the best, and the prices as low as ever. I have a lovely, well appointed room with a balcony overlooking a quiet side street that everyone calls Pagoda Alley, for the well attended Buddhist house of worship set amidst the little open air restaurants that double as watering holes. I have a TV and minibar, phone, aircon and private bath. $12 a night. I could get the same room sans windows for $10. I came here on a budget of $50 per day, but most days I don’t go over $40.

Some other prices:

A bahn mi sandwich: $0.30
Beer in a bar: $0.90
Beer at the store: $0.30
Dinner in my favorite hole in the wall, including beer: $2
Set dinner at Vietnam House: as low as $10 (drinks not
A bottle of very decent locally produced wine: $2.50
Cyclo ride across town: $1
A new silk shirt: $5
Boom-boom: negotiable

I picked up a new Panama hat just before coming here. It’s the best one I’ve ever had. The ventilation is excellent, the UV protection is such that I can feel the difference, the fit is so perfect that it doesn’t fly off in a gust of wind, and I get compliments on it every day. Folks in Pagoda Alley have taken to calling me Mr. Hat. Except for the bar girl who calls me Daddy (smile).

The locals have a name for most of the resident foreigners here, and there is a colorful collection of them. Mr. Fat can be seen morning, noon and night at his favorite table. Mr. Black can be persuaded to sing Calypso when in his cups. So he sings a lot of Calypso. Mrs. Tall is very stand-offish. I don’t even know where she’s from, but I thinks it’s Belgium. At least she has a waffle face. Miss Blonde is sometimes known as Miss Skinny, and she consorts with Mr. Nose. Mr. Sideburns is from Australia, and is seldom seen without his bit of Vietnamese Crumpet. A number of the middle-aged foreign men have such Crumpets, though the locals don’t give names to the Crumpets except for Miss Argument. Thank goodness for my hat! Collectively I refer to the foreigners in the alley as The Soaks. You may say I exaggerate, but these people drink more beer than I do. They begin at breakfast and they don’t stop till bedtime. Admittedly they pace themselves, but it still seems to be their chief amusement.

I figure that if the locals can name the foreigners, turn about is fair play. And there is a rich collection of characters in “Mr. Hat’s Neighborhood.” The slightly built Miss Chatter first appeared before me as I read the morning paper at a sidewalk table. With little tufts of hair sprouting from under her arms, and one trouser leg rolled up to the knee and clutching numerous purses and parcels, she brought to mind the nursery rhyme, “One shoe off/ One shoe on/ Deedle deedle dumpling/ My son John.” Without the formality of introductions she quickly told me, through Slim the waiter, that at age 37 she knew she was unlucky in love so I had nothing to worry about. She showed me her ID and her religious affiliation. She shared her diary with me, which of course is in Vietnamese. With Slim translating the odd sentence or phrase she spoke at length on sundry weighty matters, often to herself, to which she gave considered responses. She asked if she could have the remains of my breakfast.

Miss Chatter visits me most mornings now, and we have a comfortable routine. She’s always as eager as a puppy to see me, and sits down without asking. Usually a local woman who sits unbidden next to a foreign man would be assumed to be a Crumpet out cruising, and the staff would chase her away as such. But everyone in Pagoda Alley knows Miss Chatter, and knows now that she is friend to Mr. Hat. So I nod to Slim and he brings her tea. She never asks for anything else. I read the paper and she yammers into the void. I don’t think she hears voices, she just churns a pot of word soup. Eventually she gives me the news of the day. Sometimes Slim translates, sometimes he disappears. She reminds me that she’s unlucky in love, and has shown me her palm to read, mute but immutable testimony to her lovelorn status. Still, she says she is happy to know me.

I encounter her now and then elsewhere in town, as she is a wandering soul. Every day she has a different set of bundles about to fall out of her arms, things she collects in her peregrinations. There is always some food, which she always offers to share. I invite her to a coke or a juice, which she sips very lady-like as I swill my beer. She laughs easily and eagerly, usually at her own words, whatever they are. She tries to share the joke and I smile and nod. She’s actually rather pretty when she laughs. I’m coming to understand some of what she tries to communicate, if only through body language and voice tone. She warns me of the heat and insists on rolling up my shirt sleeves for me. She makes sure that my beer stays cold by putting ice in it.

A few days ago she was trying to tell me something that included a time and date. She wrote it on my newspaper. She knows I’m writing a guidebook and has given me information before that she thought was terribly useful to the visitor. I nodded and smiled and thanked her for the info. She seemed very satisfied. Later, I looked at the dictionary and learned it was something about musical performances nearby, that evening. Next day I learned from Slim that she had actually invited me to the performance. She had shown up in the alley at the “appointed” time, dressed in a red Chinese-style tunic. She looked very pretty according to Slim. She waited patiently for quite a while, telling everyone that she was going with Mr. Hat to the theater. I’m sure everyone in the alley nodded and smiled and looked away. Nobody makes fun of Miss Chatter. She’s sort of the local mascot.

When I next saw her I apologized. I tried to explain that I had misunderstood her, and that I couldn’t have gone anyway as I had had a “previous engagement.” And that I usually have “previous engagements.” She clucked and cooed something, and rolled up my shirt sleeves and told me not to worry. “It’s not your fault,” she said through Slim. “I’m unlucky in love. Don’t worry.”

Last night Miss Chatter caused an uproar in the alley. She was huddled with some other women by Madame’s tea terrace (more on Madame later) when I plodded wearily in on my way home. Suddenly she bolted out from the flock, ran straight toward me, threw her arms around me and planted a big fat kiss right on my mouth. This is essentially a Confucian society, and if anyone else had done that it would have brought forth gasps of shock, shaking of heads and grumblings of protest. But when it’s done by King Lear’s fool, or Miss Chatter, it brings howls of laughter. The whole of Pagoda Alley erupted into the longest spate of laughter I’ve ever heard in this country. And when they saw Mr. Hat shocked and blushing they laughed even harder. As I tried to make a graceful exit, smiling and waving as best I could without breaking into a run, I heard a voice pierce through the gales of mirth with a phrase in Vietnamese that I’ve come to recognize. “Don’t worry! She’s unlucky in love!” They laughed into the night.

Richard Sterling 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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