Monday, 4 May 2009

LETTER FROM VIETNAM Chapter 7

TROIS SERVEUSES Saturday 8th March 2009 Click to return to Table of Contents As tourists, you have a limited universe of people with whom you can talk to find out about a country. First there is the language issue, which means you can only talk to those people who happen to speak the language or languages you speak. Secondly, as far as natives are concerned, you are likely to meet only a limited cross section of the population, either people who serve you, who are ferrying you around, or are trying to sell you something or conversely from whom you are trying to buy something . Then, if you are so inclined, there are tour guides. Since we never take tours, we have to rely on the former types. There are, of course, fellow travellers who can give you help as to where to go, what to see, where to stay or eat and how to get there, but rarely give you any insight into the people themselves, the rhythm of life, the heartbeat of the country. I have always believed that the first door to open in any country is the language, and as humans, there are always the same factors you must display, which can help you prise it open a crack. These include first and foremost, the willingness to try. The second is consideration and manners. And the third is curiosity and application, which is to say that you ask, and remember what you are told. The latter necessarily involves writing down, practice, and study. Each word you learn is a lever which will incrementally open the door wider to understanding a country. And the first word you should learn in any language is Thank You. Gracias. Danke. Merci. Grazie. Kamsahamnida. Arigato. Mgoi. Efkeristo. Spacebo. Tak. Obrigado. Shukran. Teshekyur. Or in Vietnamese. Cam on. (Kahm Uhn). Before we left, I went to Ngo Anh Twan, a Vietnamese fellow in our office, and got him to write
down (and pronounce) a basic lexicon. (We speak French). I have left out the accents, which are crucial in Vietnamese but (not surprisingly) not crucial on an English language keyboard and thus practically impossible to reproduce. Bonjour => Xin Chao Merci => Cam On Excusez-moi => Xin loi Au revoir => Tam biet Combien => Bao nhieu Trop cher => Dat qua Tres bon => Ngon qua
And how to count: 1 mot 2 hai 3 ba 4 bon 5 nam 6 sau 7 bay 8 tam 9 chin 10 muoi 100 tram 1000 nghin
Armed with these few words, off I went aided by the fortuitous fact that Vietnamese, unlike Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese, is written in a Roman alphabet created by a French jesuit based on Portugese to replace the Chinese characters previously used. In other words, you can read it. It is a tonal language, so by utilising my ass-backwards method of learning how to say things and then learning the alphabet (which I have not really done) I almost always got the pronunciation wrong. But a lot of times I was close enough, and anyway, most people repeat what you say, no matter how cack-handedly, as is should be said. So if you pay attention, you gradually can figure out and make mental notes for the next time.
My modest improvement in the language was entirely due to three waitresses, the first we met in Hanoi, in a fairly posh restaurant our first night called Club Opera. Using my extremely limited vocabulary, I still ordered in Viet, reading out the items. Instead of laughing, our waitress asked how long I had been in Vietnam. "Five minutes...okay two hours," I said. Then she laughed, and after throwing in a compliment (learning Vietnamese would take you a month) she began talking. Her English was good (she said she had studied for 10 years). She came from a village 60km away from Hanoi, one of four children. She had come to Hanoi for university, and this was her first job out in the real world. She wanted to work in the hotel/tourist industry and English was the first ticket. I was impressed by her poise. I took a photo of her with Steens and promised to send it to her. Her name was Thuy. By her reaction, Thuy gave me a crumb of encouragement to keep on trying to speak. We then went South. We went to a beach resort at Mui Ne (between Phan Thiet and Mui Ne actually) called Coco Beach. It is run by a Franco-German couple (though he was never there) who blazed a trail on the beach in 1995. They have had 14 years to perfect their craft, and they have done a superb job. There are only 35 huts on stilts (huts being a word which doesn't really do them justice, as they are all polished woods, nice new bathrooms etc.). Everything is top class despite a very reasonable price ($105 a day). In the Caribbean, those numbers would be reversed, and Coco Beach would still win by a fair piece. Steens and I gave it 9.5 out of 10, with no valid reason for the .5 deduction. The beach, by the way, is also superb, wide and hard at low tide, which it was the next day. At breakfast the next morning, we were served by a bright and friendly young Vietnamese woman. Her name was Dung (pronounced Yung). I started to ask her questions about how to say this or that, and found that my enthusiasm to learn was met by her enthusiasm to teach. Over the next five days, she became our window on Vietnam, and she showed herself to be a remarkable, courageous, open, and gracious person. She also displayed a forthrightness that was refreshing. With Dung, you get what you see. She doesn't mince words. On the second day, I asked her her name again and was quickly reproached: "I already told you yesterday.", she said. Okay, so pay attention in class. I got her to write down the answers. Mostly I asked her about restaurant Vietnamese , how to order, ask for the bill, and the names of certains kinds of food. After three days she asked us if we would like to come with her to the market the next day, when she would be working in the beach bar, and would finish at three. Sure, we said. She suggested we order a taxi, and meet her outside the hotel. We figured this was as to not attract attention, we guessed. The next morning, she mentioned that at first we would go to her house to meet her parents and her daughter, and then to dinner with her husband. At five to three we were waiting by the reception when Dung and all the other waitresses shuffled by in their yellow uniforms. She signalled that she would change, and we then moved out in front of the hotel by the taxi we had ordered. I tried to get some money out of the ATM which unfortunately was broken. Since the Dong is 17,500 to the $, I had a random collection of big ticket bills with no real concept of what that translated into purchasing power and had no idea if I had enough cash. This could potentially be embarassing. After five minutes or so Dung emerged in white jeans and a yellow top. In the taxi she told us that her father was a fisherman, but had been injured badly (his arm) when she was seven years old, and from that time onward she had been forced to work to help support her family. For the first five or six years she worked in a factory (didn't say what kind) when she figured out that this was not a long term solution, being very poorly paid. Her next job was in the kitchen of a hotel at which point she decided that to get anywhere, she would have to learn English. Without formal schooling, this involved going back to study at nights. She then worked in the restaurant of the hotel as a waitress, and after several years, she interviewed with and got a job with Francois, the owner of Coco Beach, where she had worked for seven years.
In describing her life, she repeatedly refered to herself as being unlucky, not to excuse herself or to complain or to elicit sympathy, but just because that was the best way of describing what she had had to do to get to where she was. This extended to her daughter, who she warned in advance was "very small" and slow to learn, with part of her head which had not closed properly (the fontanelle, we assumed). Her mother and father watched over her daughter, when she was not at her husband's house, who as a farmer lived out in the country. She stayed in her parent's house, along with one of her two brothers, and went out to her husband's when she didn't have to work. We thus expected the worst. We went into Phan Thiet, a medium sized city (40,000, I guessed...205,ooo actually, so what do I know?) which is one of Vietnam's most important fishing ports, evidenced by the large number of boats anchored in the river. After winding around the town, we went down some narrow street which ran down to the water (the South China Sea) which we could see in the distance across a derelict tract of land. In the street were a bunch of craftsman building one of the little round boats which could hold max three people (in my mind I christened them the rub-a-dubs, after rub a dub dub three men.......you know the rest). These boat have a round bottom, no keel or rudder, and (I assume) are used only close to shore. I had seen one the first morning at sunrise (see sunrise picture above).
We then walked around a corner and there was Dung's parents home, a three or four room (we couldn't tell from the street) house with blue shutters which opened onto a porch. The house was simple, with a concrete floor. There were only two pieces of furniture in the front two rooms, two chairs that Christina and I were given as honoured guests. Dung's mother brought us each a glass of water. We made small talk through Dung as the interpreter. Noting that the house had no step down onto the dirt street, I asked if the house flooded. Only during the rainy season...(6 months of the year), Dung said by way of her father. Oh. I tried to digest this fact.
Dung's daughter, though perhaps small for her age (who can tell?...everyone was pretty small) showed absolutely no signs of being slow, or in fact being any different to any small child, running back and forth from grandmother to grandfather as they doted proudly on her. Dung explained the structure of her family, including two brothers, one of whom worked in a restaurant and the other who (right around the corner) was looking for a job.
She then took us on a little tour of the street around the corner. Her brother was squatting eating a bowl of noodles at a roadside restaurant. Next to them were the boat builders. After getting their permission , I snapped some photos. There were two main craftsmen and a bunch of hangers on. The leader, a very friendly and fit fellow, demonstrated how he sliced the thick bamboo poles into malleable strips while I videoed him. The other main protaganist peeled and worked the bamboo where it could be woven to cover the frame, bending it with his feet. A finished product lay drying in the sun.
I asked Dung how a woven boat could keep the water out (the boat was kind of like a glorified basket). She mentioned that the weaving was very tight, and that the boat was caulked (she didn't use that word) with a mixture of soil and resin and oil, which dried in the sun, shrinking and sealing the holes. Hmm. I thought.
Which is why I believe this must be a close to the shore vessel.
After this Dung said she would takes us to the market, but first we would go to a park and a beach. Are we going to take a taxi? I asked. No, said Dung. My brother and I will take you on our motorbikes. I looked at Christina and thought, Now this could be interesting.
Sure enough he brother showed up with two helmets and another moto. Dung attached a little seat in front for her daughter, and off we went, me behind her brother, and Steens perched tentatitively behind Dung and her daughter. I pulled out my camera as we weaved in an out of traffic which was admittedly light. Steens did not look convinced. Basically the rule for riding behind is the same as Hanoi streets: No sudden movements.
We came to a park by the beach where we did for the first tme what is a very important cog in the system of a country with perhaps 40 million motorbikes: hatchecks for motos. Helmets were doffed and attached to the bikes and a parking ticket was taken, akin to checking your coat at the theatre. This routine proved important later, not at this park, but later at the market where the same system was employed.
The beach was peopled with an after school throng of students. There were no swimsuits in sight. In fact, the students went into the water in their school uniforms. No bikinis, that is for sure.
We sat on a wall and chatted. Dung filled us in more on her life. Occasionally there was a bit of miscommunication, but overall her English was more than comprehensible. She used the words "same same" as a conjunction or perhaps a pause. She spoke of the wealthy as being "rit". She talked of her brothers and her father, mostly of hardship. I wondered what she must feel like, looking at a generation of young schoolkids doing what schoolkids do: laugh, flirt, chase each other, kick balls, roll around in mock fights like two young stags...all of these things denied her by fate, by her father's accident. She grew up way too early, and at 27 already had 20 years of hard graft under her belt. She had no real resentment but I thought of her as an outsider, pressing her face to the glass in life to peer at what others more fortunate than her had without trying.
She told us how much money she made: Dong 1.15mln per month, with tips at about 300,000.
That is less than $100 a month. And for this she had to ride the bus to work (taking the moto is too expensive) and live at home while her husband worked the fields (never found out what crop he grew). Next to no possessions, but a fighting spirit and a ready smile of crooked teeth. And given the long haul which is life, a hell of an attitude.
While we sat on the wall, we were constantly approached by little urchins, no more than five, trying to sell peanuts or candy. Thus her situation was by no means unique, and from the wizened skin and general dirtiness of these kids, not bad off. At least Dung always had a house.
I asked here how she met her husband, and she said rather a strange thing. She told me she liked her husband because he didn't drink too much coffee and only smoked a little, and thus did not spend too much of the money she gave him.
Her daughter didn't cling to her particularly, but to her brother, who proved to be a perfect uncle, patiently playing with her. The little girl was very well behaved, if very quiet, but who wouldn't be with a bunch of strange foreigners who suddenly turf up.
After we left the beach, Dung said we would go to the market, which she said was brand new. New? I wondered. I had in mind a vibrant maze of stalls with fresh fish, vegetables stacked neatly, little noodle stands and people yelling as they haggled over price. You know, your basic tourist image of "how we shopped in Vietnam" and of how I managed to barter for some obscure fruit.
Nothing of the kind. When she said brand new, she meant brand spanking new. The market turned out to be a four story department store with escalators, electronic goods, restaurants (a cafeteria, a snack bar, and a bakery) and a proper full-on supermarket. It would not have been out of place in the UK, in Italy, or in South Carolina. Of course, the ingredients were vastly different, a huge array of fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, and insects (yes insects!) which looked unfamiliar. I immediately saw why Dung had suggested it in the first place. The whole idea came about when I had asked her in the restaurant how to say mango and papaya and she wrote down the words on a piece of paper: xoai (pronounced soy) for mango and dua du (pronounced doh-doh roughly) for papaya. She then showed me how to cut and carve a mango so that it popped out in a checkboard pattern, turning the skin inside out to leave neat little squares. She had brought several from her garden.
This supermarket was like a huge study card exhibit for learning Vietnamese, with every item marked with a card and a magic marker. I took lots of pictures. There were some splendid and unique foods, such as silkworms and fish stomachs.
We didn't buy anything, but instead went up to the kiosks on another floor, where we bought Dung's daughter a custard tart (which she devoured). I was still having trouble discerning anything wrong with her at all. Certainly not her appetite. We ordered mango shakes.
Dung's brother sat quietly, unable to join in the conversation and reduced to playing with his niece which he didn't seem to mind.
All the time I was trying to reconcile Dung's salary with the price of everything I had seen, and how this cornucopia of goods gibed with the fact that this was supposedly a communist country, and a poor one at that. Something just didn't add up, and I felt very uneasy. Not because of Dung, but really because of myself and the obvious iniquity of life on the planet. We all have to make do with what hand we are dealt, but in this day and age we are at once liberated by travel, mobility, opportunity, and technology while at the same time being trapped in a web not of our own creation.
My entirely wrong image of the Vietnamese market we were going to see, the third world showplace of daily life, was supplanted by a carbon copy of the West, large scale capitalism waving buy me! buy me! in front of people who were striving to make ends meet.
At the end of the day, you can knock a few zeros off a banknote, but it all boils down to money, money, no matter where you are.
Of course I didn't say any of this to Dung, but calculated that each mango shake was a not inconsiderable portion of her monthly wage.
She also had a mobile phone which she used to call her husband, who arranged to meet us at a restaurant by the river. This too must chew up the Dong.
We then decamped to the parking garage at the bottom of the building, where Dung found to her horror that she had mislaid her parking ticket. No big deal, I thought, we can just pay the full penalty. No, she said, it's not the money, and entered into a rapid discussion with her brother, whom she dispatched up to where we had been to see if he could find it. He returned empty-handed. She then said to me, you go with my brother to meet my husband, and I will catch you up with Christina.
On went the helmet, and off we went into the dark, a night had fallen (at this latitude, it is as though you turn off a light switch).
There was quite a bit more traffic as we darted in and out. Turning across oncoming lanes was like crossing a street in Hanoi. There is never a good moment to do it, so you just go and hope for the best. It is a wonder that the streets are not littered with bodies or broken motos.
We eventually arrived at the river, where Dung's husband stood waiting. His last name is Nguyen (the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith) but I never got his first name. Neither he nor Dung's brother spoke a word of English, or at least they were willing to admit or use. My nascent Vietnamese was worse than useless.
Dung's husband looked like a miniature Asian version of Brad Pitt, a resemblance both Christina and I remarked on later.
He followed us past a whole line of restaurants along the river, all constructed in the same manner with tables spilling onto the pavement, a ground floor completely open to the elements, and a stairway upstairs with more tables both indoors and on a balcony above. It is a design for the tropics, unthinkable in northern Europe. The tables were all low slung with tiny blue plastic chairs, ill-suited for anyone 6 feet or above (ie. me, as I was the only person in the restaurant in this category).
We were directed to a table inside, where Nguyen and I sat down while Dung's brother said something and then dashed off.
There ensued a half-hour interlude of hand gestures, three bottles of beer each, and I am afraid to say little else. Language is everything. I managed to extract the fact that Nguyen liked Arsenal and beer and that despite what Dung said, he smoked like a chimney. Most of my attempts at small talk without the talk failed miserably. The table next to us had four men downing beers along with some kind of liquor in a clear bottle with a long thin neck. Thinking this might be a way of breaking the communication logjam, I signalled to the liquor and asked (by shrugging shoulders) what it might be called. Nguyen immediately thought I wanted a bottle....No, no with a tippling motion and crossed arms, I clarified that that was NOT my intention. It became clear that matters were not going to progress, so we lapsed into an amiable silence, sipping our beers.
The waitress, a relatively tall girl in a Tiger Beer blue outfit, could speak English but I didn't have it in me to ask her to be a go-between...anyway where would I start?
So we waited.
And waited.
And waited.
After the second beer, I began to get a little worried. Where the hell were Steens, Dung, daughter and brother? The market had not been that far away. I had visions of an accident, a night in a hospital making useless hand gestures. I pointed to Nguyen's phone and said Dung's name, turning my palms up in the classic what? sign. He dialled his wife. The conversation was very short. I then pointed to my watch. He held his hands far apart and then brought one in 2/3s of the way. He then pointed to his watch and held up 10 fingers.
Okay. A third of the way to go and 10 minutes. Still, what speed have they been going? Crawling? I tried to indicate slowness by walking my fingers across the table at a snail's pace and pointing to my watch. Nguyen smiled. Women! He didn't need to say it.
Eventually, the whole entourage arrive on masse....safely, about a half-hour since we had left them.
What had happened was that since Dung couldn't find her ticket, they wouldn't give her back her moto. She had to wait for her brother to return, send him back to her parents to get her registration proving ownership, and then and only then would release the bike. In a country with 40mln motos they just don't take your word for it that the white one is mine.
We then got menus, more beer, and let Dung do the ordering. I had to ask her how much it would all cost, seeing as how I had to trawl through my ocean of Dong. She said no prob, she could lend me the money. As it happened, I had more than enough, but it was pretty poor form really, and I felt a schmuck.
She didn't seem to be bothered. We had an extraordinary dish: scallops in their shells with peanuts, green peppercorns, oil, salt and some random spice. This was a truly outstanding dish, not out of place in a *** restaurant, certainly not expected from a sidewalk restaurant with plastic chairs and a concrete floor. The classic fried noodles with seafood were also delicious, so much better than the hotel. Dung asked me if I would eat anything. Sure. Once. I said. Bring on the sea snails then. I had three, but quit when her husband started giving me his. He looked amused. Enough already, for my readiness to be game.
That was it then. All for less than $20 so I needn't have fretted, but who was to know?
Dung then asked us if we would take the bus back to the hotel, which she said would be much cheaper than the taxi. Sure why not?
She then escorted us in our little motorcade across the river to the busstop, where she instructed a little 16 year old girl returning from a night out (she had sparkles on her eyelids and cheeks) to keep an eye out for us and tell us when to get off. After many thanks, we got on the bus and returned back without incident, with a busload of Vietnamese and a couple of Aussie backpackers (well behaved this time).
We stepped back into the hotel, and the manicured grass and the palm trees and the aquamarine pool reflecting in the moonlight all seemed a bit surreal.
But what an experience! The aftereffects are still with me, and I consider it a privilege to have been invited by Dung into her life.
The next morning was our last breakfast (we would have to leave at 3AM the next morning to catch a flight back to HK). Dung was on duty in the restaurant. After I had already had my juice, papaya, and croissant (ie. the usual) she brought me a bowl of steaming hot noodles with beef and said, you must have a Vietnamese breakfast. She said she had made it. Already full, I did not do it justice. I suppose my sea snail performance had convinced her I would assimilate anything.
Perhaps it showed that with all the best will in the world, I was still a foreigner a long way off from going native. Or maybe I was just imagining this. Anyway I tried my best, but could not drain the bowl.
Later that afternoon, after I sat foolishly with my legs dangling in the sun (thus frying the parts usually covered by socks in spite of Factor 30) I went to the beach bar to talk with the third waitress on our trip who had helped my with the language.
She was of Chinese extraction, and her full name was Phuong Nghia Quach, or Anhia for short. She had also been friendly and kind to us, and patient with my Vietnamese. I went to tell her that we would be leaving the next morning and that this was our last day. She said I know and then asked me to wait. She bent down under the counter and pulled out a packet wrapped in newspaper.
I got these for you and your wife, she said quietly.
She unwrapped the newspaper, and pulled out a bracelet made of round carved beads and a square mother of pearl necklace for Christina.
I was thunderstruck. This was entirely unexpected, and for want of a better word, just plain kind. After thanking her profusely, I went back to Steens and showed her our gifts. She was equally amazed. "Where did that come from?" All because of curiosity and politeness, I guess, expecting nothing but a few words to help communicate and receiving the warmth of a heart in return.
We later wore both gifts as we had drinks at sunset and talked with Anhia.
I went to the hotel shop and bought thank you cards for both Dung and Anhia and spent the afternoon thinking up what to say and what to do. I ended up giving money along with our thanks, but it seemed insufficient for the gesture and kindness and welcome we had received. When I gave Dung her card she said matter of factly: But you already bought dinner. Classic Dung.
You could say that three waitresses do not a country make, that there are plenty of bad apples as well. No doubt, but a nation is made up of individuals, and individuals are part of families, and families are the threads which make up the tapestry of society. You can tell a lot about a society by how people treat you, and not only how they act, but how they react to your gestures of friendship. And my overriding memory of the people of Vietnam is somehow caught up in the stories of the three waitresses, these trois serveuses, who allowed me to peer briefly into the heart of their country, and who left me with an abiding bittersweet memory of a world at once very far away from mine and yet somehow close.

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