Everyone Hustles Now

Welcome to the new Vietnam

When the fruit is eaten and our backs have been rubbed and slapped and chopped into a blessed version of numb, the money is exchanged, the baskets repacked, and they're off. The closest we get to goodbye is the plea that if we're on the beach again tomorrow, we stop and buy here again. Okay!

That afternoon, clouds gather over the bay, and the wind picks up. The water begins to chop and heave; whitecaps fleck green swells. About a quarter-mile off the beach, I spot a small craft-not a boat, really, but a sea-going basket, round as a quarter and about 5 feet across-powered by a single person working an oar that's lashed to the gunwale. It seems impossibly unwieldy and treacherous, but as the minutes pass, I see that he is making progress, methodically swishing his oar back and forth in the brine. You can't believe the industry, the energy, the level of enterprise you encounter everywhere. It fills you with wonder at how people can persevere.

The most lucrative trade, or at least the most ubiquitous, is in flesh. "Hey, mister," I'm asked at least a dozen times, "want to go boom-boom?" I pass on the offer but turn the question back to him, asking if he likes to partake of the local talent. He is flustered at the very thought. His wife wouldn't put up with it, he says; she's already warned him, "If she catches me out, she'll throw acid on my face while I'm asleep."

Of course, I'm not really here to shop. Asia is immense, all of it fascinating and foreign to me, but this is Nam, ground zero for the war I grew up with. It's home to my history as well as theirs, and on several occasions, I seek to plumb that commonality. But if I'm still fighting that fight politically and culturally, here, it's all over. There seems little leftover animosity: not once do I face hostility based on my nationality; here and there I even spot a "USA" logo on somebody's jacket. It's style, after all.

Not that all is forgotten. Trangh, 40, the manager of a small hotel in the center of the city, seems typical of the South. A former member of the elite whose family lost everything, he's quick to tell his story, but it seems rooted more in a determined forgetfulness than the spirit of revenge. We're sitting at a cheap plastic table on the sidewalk off a hectic boulevard, sipping the rich, sweet espresso that recalls the decades of French occupation. He exhibits no fear: we've just met, and his family's humiliation is the first thing he wants to tell me.

"Only what we could carry," he says twice, holding up two hands. "That's all we had." He spent two years in a rude prison with his ankles shackled; upon his release, it took months for him to walk again. His father, a ranking commander in the army, spent 17 years in "re-education."

Is he angry? Is he seeking to somehow get even? How can he stand it? "I try not to remember," he says carefully, working hard to find the right words. "It's very hard here. There's no money. It's enough to do to get by from day to day."

After a time, the constant press for cash can become daunting. One night in the city, I head out to find a place to sit and write and sample the local brew. "Hey, mister," I hear as soon as I'm out the door. "What's your name?" I'm not real sure where I'm headed, so I go along. My new friend is driving a cyclo, the three-wheeled bike that is the modern answer to the rickshaw; he knows just the spot. I tell him how much I'm willing to pay for the ride, and we're off.

We head farther than I'm ready for, across a bridge and into a neighboring district, but we finally alight, and I'm set up with a table, a pitcher, pad and pen. My driver pulls up a chair and wants to chat. His name is Hai; all right, but I have this letter I'm trying to get out. He seems to get the picture; after a moment, he pushes off. Ten minutes later, he's back, this time with a couple of friends. There's another pitcher and a round of barbecued octopus and some greens steeped in broth. I continue scribbling; Hai and his pals are content to talk to one another.

Finally, I let Hai know I'm ready to leave, and we call for the bill. I look at Hai, he looks at his friends, they look back at him, and he looks back at me. Guess who's buying? Of course, none of this had been discussed, and I am perfectly steamed-not at the cost, but at being taken. All I had wanted was a ride and a little peace. The worst is when I am delivered back to my street. I pay Hai the price I had named, and he protests immediately. Too pissed-off to haggle, I hand him a grimy bill and walk off. The last I hear from him is cursing.

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