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 Gone are the airy, whimsical stilt houses of the Khmers; they've been replaced by the squat, concrete-pad homes of the Vietnamese.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.

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.

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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