I am having to revise my approach to living in Hanoi, and quickly too. It’s a long story but I am going to tell you anyway, so settle in. It begins in Cape Town. In South Africa we white people are often hassled and harangued. Not necessarily threatened but everybody has their hand out. White, black, or anything in between. Give me something for nothing. Sometimes with a please, sometimes with a whimpering and pathetic plead. Especially if you look like a tourist. And I don’t like that. I will always give something to somebody who is actually doing something. Guarding the cars, waiting the tables, selling the Big Issue, sweeping the pool. Whatever it is, even if it is leftover pizza (everybody asks for a doggy bag in Cape Town) I will always give somebody something, if they are making an effort for themselves.
However, in South Africa, I can pass as a local white man. I at least look similar even if my London accent is a bit of a give away. So, if anybody approaches me in the street, dressed in trouble and who looks as if they are going to ask me for something, money, cigarettes, cell phone, then I can adopt the Johannesburg Stare. It’s the one I use that looks straight at a person, with a lazy eye, one eyebrow cocked and a slight turn of the head that says ‘don’t even think about it Boet.’ (which literally translates as ‘brother’ but really means ‘mate’.) And then, realizing I am not a tourist after all and instead assuming that I am from Johannesburg, or a veteran of the border wars, they go away. And quickly too.
This doesn’t work in Hanoi. I’ve tried it. And I now realize why that is. It is because they know I am not local. They know I am not from these parts. For some reason I stand out and I think it must be my African shirts. So I thought of a solution. The thing is (and I told you this was a long story) when I travel I tend to travel lightly. My reasoning is that as long as I have my passport and bank card then anything else I may forget I can sort out on arrival. Obviously I want my books, laptop, phone etc but I do not fret for hours making lists of what I might or might not need or worry that I may have forgotten something important. Because the only important things are bank card and passport. Everything else can be bought on arrival, if necessary.
And that is where I made a schoolboy error when travelling to Vietnam. I had read somewhere that in Hanoi you can buy shirts for $3, footwear for $4, bedding for $20 and so on. You know where I am going with this. So I used up my weight allowance on books and equipment knowing I can buy clothes, shampoo, shaving stuff and all the rest of it for a fraction of what it would cost me to buy first and then cart half the way around the world. This means my clothing inventory amounted to about four shirts, two pairs of trousers, three pairs of shorts, whatever I was wearing when I got on the plane and, well that’s about it.
Now, here is the problem. An extra large shirt in Vietnam would probably fit a twelve year old boy in South Africa, or an eighteen year old girl in England (or a four year old American) but they just don’t sell clothes for 6’2″ and 94kg westerners like me with size ten feet. Apparently they do not cater for orangutans here. However, resourceful as I am, I thought I could find a way of blending in a little better and have some of those eastern shirts made for me. You know the ones with the communist collar, pockets around the waist and with some sort of Eastern pattern. Kill two birds and all that. Find some new clothes to fit and then blend in and stop being recognized as a westerner in the street.
Well, obviously that didn’t work and the hassling continued. ‘Buy this from me Mr, I do you a special deal.’ I still had some empathy for these people, who are at least trying to eke out a living of some sort. That is until I needed lighter fuel for my Zippo and some new flints so bought them at the Zippo shop on Hang Thung Street for 60,000 Dong ($3). Then, the following day, a young street lad with a tray of fake Zippos and tins of fuel approached me, having seen my lighter on the table and said ‘I give you good deal on fuel and flints, the best in town.’ Ok, I know I already had them but I am going to need more, sooner or later, so I said, ‘Yes, I will buy some from you.’ He didn’t have any flints so scurried off down the road. Ten minutes later he returned, with a beaming smile, handed them over and said ‘special price for you, only 280,000 Dong ($15)
He obviously didn’t know what I already knew (that his special price was four and a half times more special than in the shop around the corner) and so I told him he was a con artist and to piss off. He was shocked, hurt, almost in tears. So was I. He wouldn’t leave me alone and followed me a good half a mile along the street, ‘how much will you pay then, give me anything’ he said. I released he had probably spent his dinner money in the same shop as I had been in to buy these flints for me but I am losing my empathy for this sort of thing.
Then, yesterday, a very old man walked up to my table on the pavement with a toothless smile, said something I didn’t understand and actually made to pick up my cigarettes off the table. He wanted a fag. (That’s a smoke for those of you in America) I grabbed them and told him to piss off too. And, after I had thought about it, I decided I don’t like that about myself. What I am becoming? Am I losing my empathy for those who have next to nothing to survive on. Has the constant pestering in the hot and narrow streets of Hanoi finally revealed the limit of my patience or did Cape Town do this to me long ago, and i’ve only just noticed?
I don’t want to be taken advantage of, in a cynical fashion, in a country whose people think I am an easy mark but, by the same token, a pack of cigarettes cost as little as a single dollar here. ONE DOLLAR. Why didn’t I just give the old man the whole packet? I began to wish I had. As for the street kid? Well, he will learn, like the rest of us. I am sure he is learning all the time. He’ll be alright as a hustler. This town is full of European travelers who realize that 280,000 Dong for lighter fluid is about half what they would have to pay in Germany. The police are trying to stamp out that sort of behavior towards tourists but, as long as he doesn’t get caught, he’ll be fine. By the way, that old man walked past me again this morning. I called him over and gave him my packet of Marlboro. The look on his face was worth a hundred dollars to me. I might do it every time I see him.
And that brings me to another way I have to change my way of thinking here. Three times now I have been approached by beautiful, young (probably teenage) Vietnamese girls who have said, ‘Hello, can I speak to you for a while.’ Now, where I come from beautiful young girls just don’t do that to 34 year old men like me who are slightly graying at the temples. So I thought what you are thinking now. Prostitutes, and perhaps not even girls. ‘Leave me alone’ I said on each occasion, ‘go away.’ But, I was talking to an American this afternoon, who I met a few days ago in a bar along the street, who has traveled these parts before and has more experience than me, who said, ‘one of the things I like is all the young people who just want to talk to you, so they can practice their English.’
And he has a point, I have experienced this myself. The owner of the coffee shop opposite my hotel, that I now call ‘Nan’s Kitchen’ (see Hotel Blues) has a sixteen year old daughter who regularly asks if she can sit and talk with me as it is ‘good for my English.’ The young Vietnamese people are very aware that if they are going to get on in the modern world then they will have to speak fluent English. I suspect that within a single generation everybody will. So, I am changing my approach. I realize now the Vietnamese shirts will not prevent me from being hassled, so I need to get used to it and stay polite. I can’t help looking English after all.
And, from now onward, I will not tell poor street kids to piss off but will explain that I know they are trying to massively overcharge me and do some negotiating instead. (They need to know that not every westerner is an idiot) And I will hope the police don’t catch up with him. Also, I will give away my smokes to old men and, most importantly of all, the next time a beautiful young Vietnamese girl asks to talk to me then I will say yes, invite her back to my hotel, check she is actually a girl and then talk to her about whatever she wants to talk about. I might be 48, no wait, 34, but I can still keep it up all night. A conversation, I mean.
Hanoi City – May 2013
Next – Hanoi Street Life
Albert Jack books available for download here