I walked out of the Ho Chi Minh CBD, such as it is and into District 4. I discovered later that locals recommended District 4 should not be on any walking tour for visitors, it being too dangerous and violent. Something of a slum, and I suspect that is the real reason why locals don’t want us to wander around in there. As I wandered down a side street off a side street off yet another road I was prompted to stop by the interrogative “Where are you from?” and following my reply, an invitation to have a beer. So I sat on a small child’s plastic chair in the shade of a brown umbrella in the company of four middle aged men, a wizened grandfather and a diminutive girl. Given the choice of Heineken or Tiger (or drinking from dirty beer bottles from goodness only knows where) I elected Tiger and was promptly asked for 20,000 dong. This was then handed to the little girl who promptly ran off up the street and disappeared. Gypped again. She was replaced by an older woman who turned out to be the grandmother of the girl who just did the magic disappearing act with my money. This was getting weird.
Suddenly two beers actually appeared (inside I chided myself for being so mean spirited) and the child was introduced as Mai Khang, a seven year old who has been learning English for two months. Her pronunciation was excellent but perhaps most striking was her enthusiasm to try new words, and to experiment. So we played with words and phrases and used this journal to help write down things we could not otherwise convey to each other. We had a delightful couple of hours with this family. Grandfather had a smattering of English which was distilled to a favourite sound-bite of “number one” accompanied by a thumbs up and a crinkly smile of his deeply tanned face. We toasted each other with warm beer(two became four became six), shifted alternatively out of the sun or rain, practised our colours and otherwise slowly killed time. Eventually the group grew to include other children, elderly folk who climbed into hammocks and swung themselves to sleep. Other adults appeared and sat around. Some just sitting on the periphery and enjoying the afternoon. Others groomed each other in a meticulous manner suggestive of a de-lousing session. To cap it all off a ride back to the hotel with the father of Mai Khang, on the back of his motor bike. Somewhat precarious and initially not in the direction of the hotel, which was starting to put me on guard – maybe this was not a good area to explore after all. But my misgivings were unfounded as he took a circular route back to the hotel, clearly proud of what he had to show me. Delivered safely back to my hotel in the open and trustworthy manner in which the whole conversation started.
His tour took me through the lanes and muddy paths which stretch down to and along the Saigon River. Here were warehouse still with a colonial air. But here mainly were warehouses that were used to house stores shipped in during the Vietnam War. Two conversations are stuck in my mind. Mai Khang’s grandfather was a stevedore for the USN. He said he loved that work, loved the US people he had worked for, loved the opportunities, the money he earned. Still could remember the names of the servicemen he worked with, and wondered where they all were now. A poignant moment and loaded with honesty, severed friendships, long memories but no animosity. Just a sadness at friendships he had no hope of renewing.
A little later in that same warehouse area we met an old, old woman. Actually she was probably only in her late sixties but life had been tough on her and her toothless grin and peasant clothes, unkept hair and bare feet spoke all that needed to be said about the course of her life. You see people like that all the time. But you don’t always hear even the smallest part of their stories. She was different for she gave up all her heart and hopes when she asked if we, the first white faces seen in her lane in thirty years (we had poked down into a very remote area of District 4), knew Paul, where Paul might be. Paul was her US boyfriend who suddenly left thirty years ago when all the US military suddenly left and she could not understand why he had not come back for her. Since then she had not been able to get work but held out a hope that her young knight in green camouflage armour might reappear and rescue her from her District 4 prison. She, a beautiful Vietnamese girl who was all a man could desire. She asked and looked earnestly at us for an answer.
How do you respond to that question knowing that an honest answer would destroy any hope (if it was really there) and a lie would be just that and give her a false hope? How do you encourage her, build her up, not deflate any hope she has in her heart? How do you look her in the eye and tell her a lie when what was probably seductively Asian thirty or so years ago is now wrinkled and dried out, frail and broken, unlovely in the eyes of even her own people? As I stood there and looked at her, with young children laughing and scampering around our feet, trying to pose for photos I thought of the boyfriend. What memory would he have of her then in his minds eye? And what would he think if he met her now? Then I took another mental snapshot of him; no doubt living like a lot of retired servicemen I have met. Probably still has a vision of her and himself as fit and youthful twenty somethings – but who is now overweight, out of breath and living in a trailer by himself with a mongrel dog and two stray cats in the lost blocks of Louisiana somewhere.
We lied. So she continued to smile her toothless grin of hope as we edged back out of the lane through the spilling kids. Silent we were, in the face of a vanquished life.
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