Everyone Hustles Now

Welcome to the new Vietnam

Photo by David CoganThe difference strikes you immediately as you walk across the dusty no-man's land dividing the People's Republic of Vietnam from the benighted Kingdom of Cambodia. Gone are the airy, whimsical stilt houses of the Khmers; they've been replaced by the squat, concrete-pad homes of the Vietnamese. Cambodia feels like a place of spirits and ghosts; Vietnam is tough, utilitarian, all business.

It's apparent on the airwaves as well. In Cambodia, in shops and on buses, the radio is always tuned to traditional Khmer music, which is lilting, almost eerie; in Vietnam, the music is pure bad, plastic Top 40 cuts from annoying bands you always tune out.

For 10 centuries, Cambodia stood at the center of the world of Southeast Asia and Vietnam at its periphery, a political and cultural satellite. Then the modern era descended with a vengeance, and while Cambodia immolated, the Vietnamese fought their way out. They're fighting still, every day, for crumbs and scraps, for every nickel. But they don't seem borne down by the struggle; they seem energized, even exhilarated. The toll it takes is on you, the foreigner-you are the quarry.

This may be a communist country, a planned economy in a one-party state, but it quickly becomes apparent that there are no rules-especially not for traffic. The predominant mode of transport is the moped, but everything is out there: buses, lumbering trucks, even a few autos, all navigating a river of 50- or 100cc bikes. As we make our way into Ho Chi Minh City, we come across an occasional traffic light, but they are like the center lines painted on the main roads-advisory guidelines observed only by the faint of heart. At street corners, traffic flows converge in a mechanized torrent. Bikers routinely take left turns by cutting to the inside curb, sometimes half a dozen at a time, sometimes including among them svelte young girls in their traditional pale pantsuits, silks and dark tresses trailing behind as they make their way across the flow as if nothing is going on, head-on to the traffic, the oncoming drivers parting, sometimes miraculously so, to let them through.

On the sidewalks, the battle for an opening is every bit as intense, and entrepreneurs command every inch of storefront and sidewalk. A grimy hand pump and tire-patch kit becomes a curbside service station for the moped drivers; a battered pushcart become a sidewalk café. Children and the frail elderly are regular members of the work force and seem to get no deference; everybody has their own problems.

I'm sitting at a sidewalk soup stand run by a handsome woman in her 40s who is orbited by her mother, her sister, three of her children and three who are her sister's. They are bickering and teasing, the mom seeing to it that the kids are helping out, the older children rounding up friends and siblings for a night out. It suddenly strikes me: in a sense, even among families, there is a transaction of sorts underlying every human contact. It's not a function of mean spirit; it's simply a function of scarcity. There is so much poverty and so much hustle. It recalls Mexico, where small children hawk tiny boxes of Chicklets; here, you'll see a woman spend the entire day in the market selling a tray of nuts. It's all she has, and she's trying to make it work. Everyone is hustling all the time.

While the scramble for cash seems to underlie every interaction, the contacts you make are no less genuine, as if once the basic question of commerce is taken care of, at least for the moment, we then have the chance to enjoy ourselves.

Later, i'm lounging on a beach on the central coast, having left behind the frantic pace of the city. A small figure appears trudging toward my friend and me; she's carrying baskets of fruit slung over her shoulder. We agree to buy; she drops to her knees, produces a knife and cutting board, and proceeds to pare and slice. It's good that she does: like a lot of the fare in Southeast Asia, the fruit is strange to western eyes-tough and ugly on the outside but sweet on the inside, with a wild array of texture and flavor. Eating is an adventure here, and courage is well-rewarded.

Along with the delicacies, we're getting our server's life story-as much as her English will allow: where she was born, how her family came in from the country, what happened during the war (her father was with the Army of the South), how she gets by. Very friendly, very light, lots of smiles and laughs. Soon, she is joined by a pair of older women-they're masseuses, available at $2 per hour. Then another-she does manicures and pedicures-and then still another. The bill is still less than 5 bucks, so we're feeling magnanimous, taking all comers. As they work, they banter with us and one another about prices at the market and the dearth of tourists. My toes take center stage as an older woman teaches a protégé the best way to attack a cuticle.

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