Everyone Hustles Now

Welcome to the new Vietnam

By my last night in vietnam, i'm not feeling real high on the place. My travel plans are scrambled, my bankroll is shot, and I'm wary of another tired con. But this night seems magical, as if having confronted me with its harsh reality, Saigon has decided to treat me to a warm farewell. I stop for soup at a sidewalk stand I've gotten to know, and as I hunch over the bowl of broth, chicken and leafy greens, the alley begins to glow with the warm, amber light of the setting sun. People are laughing and buzzing in and out on their motorbikes-it's a Sunday, and for once, the work is done.

Back at my hotel, the manager and his family and several guests are gathered around a television. The national soccer team is playing Russia-another erstwhile ally on the interminable road to independence-and, incredibly, they're winning. The final is 2-1, with Vietnam victorious, and I head out and see the city celebrate.

I perch on a stoop on Dai Lo Tran Hung Dao, one of the thoroughfares leading to the main traffic rotary, and the show is on. What chaos! What utter abandon! Another impossibly hard week behind them, another ahead, but tonight is the night to burn it all off on the back of a two-stroke engine. Three, four, even five people on a moped, many of them flying the red-and-gold Vietnamese flag, coursing through the intersections, gunning at the green lights, surging like a wave through a crevice in the rocks. I start laughing. Lots of people are laughing at the sheer madness of it.

Inevitably, the cops start buzzing around, self-important assholes riding double on hot mopeds-the rear rider making threatening gestures with a white-enameled billy-club but getting zero respect. At one point, a pair of cops decides to bypass the throng on the way to the rotary by whipping up the wrong side of the street-this one has a concrete center divider-but instead of being intimidated, these Saigon bikers see opportunity. About a hundred of them simply follow the cops' lead, blasting up the boulevard in a sort of maniacal wrong-way parade.

A young boy toting a battered drum stops at the curb nearby, beating sporadically on the drum and chanting, "Vietnam, Vietnam." Our eyes meet, and he comes over to where I sit. I say, "Go Vietnam," and he laughs. I laugh, and he commences pounding away. Then a vendor swings by with just what I want-roasted peanuts in one basket and tangerines in the other-and I buy a few of each, give a cigarette to the kid, and the three of us have a nice moment watching the cacophony.

Finally, I head for my hotel, the din of the boulevard fading as I make my way through meandering streets. The present is harsh, even desperate, but the past is gone, and the future can only get better. The nation is young, resourceful and full of energy. For the first time in this tired millennium, Vietnam is in control of its destiny, and now, for the first time since the end of the war, the recriminations are over as well, the camps and the prisons, the betrayal and the vengeance. People are looking forward, not back. Tonight, Vietnam feels triumphant.

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