There’s a game foreigners visiting Vietnam like to play, a parlor diversion that doubles as an intellectual and moral exercise. It’s called “How Can I Justify Not Giving This Person Any of My Money?”
A casual listener can hear any number of people engaged in this game at tourist-packed corner cafés in Saigon on a typical evening, when the street hawkers and hucksters are out in force. It starts when a Vietnamese person of any age approaches a foreigner who is otherwise busily engaged – in sitting down, for example. The solicitor could be a toothless local man carrying a case full of remarkably inexpensive name-brand timepieces. Or maybe it’s one of the legions of booksellers who lug around five-foot-high piles of haphazardly photocopied paperbacks. The game’s early stages involve players ignoring the vendor and his or her repeated entreaties to buy, until said vendor moves move on to the next table, where the ritual begins anew. One player then sighs, turns to another and utters the game’s official opening line: “I’d love to help every one of them, but…”. This is the cue for a companion, or any nearby English speaker, to reply with, “But you just can’t.” Thus the game begins.
The object, of course, is for you and the other players to successfully rationalize brushing off the endless parade of Vietnamese men, women, and children who approach you with goods or services in the hope that you will exchange money for those things, usually much more money than you think they’re worth. Extra points are awarded for using the phrase “At least they’re working” and/or making a veiled – or not veiled, whichever – reference to supposed abusers of federal welfare programs “back home.” Points also are given for comparisons to grifters, swindlers, and idlers in one’s home country. Extra credit is awarded for the exchange of knowing glances if, while playing, you’re approached by someone selling something, especially if they’re under the age of five.
In the tourist-choked District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City, street vendors – and, more rarely, handout seekers – operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They zero in on foreigners like guided missiles, programmed not to take no for an answer, or at least to pretend not to understand the meaning of the word in English, until the target’s body language has taken on the aspect of a cornered dog being force-fed a bowl of steamed spinach.
Their tactics are brilliant, visceral, and brutally effective. A sweet-faced youth of perhaps four, clutching a few packs of chewing gum, might wander up to you where you sit, place one hand up on your knee, and look at you with deep, soulful eyes, eyes that couldn’t possibly belong to an ordinary four-year-old. “Please, mister,” she’ll say. “You buy gum.” This appeal is difficult if not impossible for any semi-sentient, warm-blooded mammal to resist, especially when one takes into account the asking price, which in most developed countries is the kind of money you wouldn’t bother picking up off the street if you noticed it lying there.
Ironically, an odd characteristic of Vietnamese currency makes parting with such a pathetic sum much more difficult for the average tourist. The currency in Vietnam is the dong, a single one of which is worth roughly as much as a hundredth of a paper clip or, if you will, a dozen or so of the little sprinkles that go on Christmas cookies. In other words, one dong by itself has so little value as to be practically negligible. Yet the Vietnamese insist on expressing sums of money this way, which has the practical result of making them sound like much bigger amounts than they really are.
A cup of coffee, for example, may be priced at VD 13,500. Thirteen thousand and five hundred?, you think to yourself, scrambling for a calculator. That’s highway robbery! Or perhaps you’re presented with the bill after an average meal for two at a low-key Vietnamese restaurant. A hundred and twelve thousand dong?! We’re gonna have to cut this vacation short, if things continue this way. The western brain has difficulty dealing with such big figures, forgetting that a thousand dong is considerably less than a dime, therefore failing to grasp that the coffee clocks in around .80 cents and the meal sets its two owners back a total of about $7.
I’ve often thought that the Vietnamese government would do itself a lot of favors if it retired the dong in favor of a more muscular unit of currency – say, the kilodong. Or better yet, the millidong. It’s got a nice metric ambiance about it, and it’s worth ten thousand of the other kind, bringing it into closer parity with western currencies. A typical dinner for two would cost MD 11.20 under my plan, and that coffee’s now MD 1.30. This puts the perceived value of the millidong (but, crucially, not the real value) somewhere between the dollar and the Euro. Americans would feel just as inferior visiting Vietnam as they do in France, and Europeans might be a little less inclined to throw around those sneering, post-colonial attitudes. Everybody would take Vietnam a little more seriously, if you ask me.
But until that happens, you’ve still got to deal with a puppy-dog-eyed Kewpie doll barely out of diapers asking you for several thousand somethings, presumably so that she can someday go to school and avoid a life of drug-addicted prostitution.
And she’s only the barest tip of the iceberg. The Vietnamese know the value of youth all too well. Around 9pm each evening, the streets swell with an army of mothers who carry sleeping newborns and infants around in the crook of one arm or draped over a shoulder while walking from cafe to cafe. In their free hand, they carry small, individually wrapped packs of facial tissues for sale. Maybe you’ve got the stones to send a four-year-old packing, but are you man enough to show the door to a mother-and-child team who look like they stepped out of a History Channel documentary on Dustbowl-Era Oklahoma?
The combined mass of street vendors, xé ȏm drivers, and pleading restaurant touts make negotiating the sidewalk on De Tham or Buy Vien streets as mentally hazardous as running a gantlet of pitchforks and shovels. The sheer salesmanship on display would bring the canniest used car dealer to his knees.
“Hello friend!” “Hello boss!” “Hello chief!” “Mister you help me please? I sell nothing all day.” “You need motorbike?” “You buy t-shirt? Give you good price, very cheap.” “You want DVD? All new release.” “You like fruit? You buy please. They so heavy.” “You need wallet? Real leather. How about Vietnam postcard? Twenty postcard one dollar.”
Watches and backscratchers, bracelets, rings and keychains. Toothbrushes, nail clippers, shampoo and Q-tips. English-language newspapers and magazines, cologne, fans, cigarettes and lighters. Pirated anything and everything.
Eye contact is to be avoided at all costs. Stepping into a cafe or restaurant is no guarantee of a reprieve. Vendors patrolling the street walk right into open-air restaurants, stopping at every table to see if you wish to become the owner of a bobble-headed rubber horse or a new pair of sunglasses to accompany the ones you’re already wearing. Cafe owners are curiously unperturbed by this, rarely giving the hawkers so much as a glance – simply stepping around them to deliver food to the table.
Not everyone is selling hardware. Beggars, often disfigured, are free to hobble just about anywhere they like – into stores and through restaurants, stopping often to display gimp arms, hunchbacks, and stumps, hat held between your nose and a meal you were formerly planning to enjoy.
I’m in awe of two Cambodian kids, brothers, who work De Tham Street downtown, a.k.a. backpacker central. They’re performers of the old-school style, despite being approximately 6 and 8 years old. Dressed in garish, handmade costumes at once too big and too small, they specialize in the classic sideshow arts: fire-breathing, snake-swallowing, hot-coal-eating, and the like. After a typical ten-minute sidewalk performance, they walk through the seated cafe crowd soliciting tips. I’m always tempted to give them a big bill, something special for the effort, but I’m worried one of them will try to staple it to his forehead for an encore.
Like most of this workforce, these boys are smart. A friend used to dismiss them as “hacks,” claiming the snakes were rubber fakes. I always felt this was a little harsh. Personally, I can’t see much difference between the difficulty levels of threading a long green plastic piece of rubber down your throat and doing so with a similarly-shaped live reptile; I’m impressed and disgusted either way. But these snakes are real, which my friend discovered to his dismay one night when he was a little too loud in his denunciation and suddenly found one draped around his neck, dripping in saliva and heading down his shirtfront.
I tend to like the kids best, especially when they’re selling something, because they’re so easily distracted from their mission. There’s a little girl of about five who has the De Tham Street cafe my friend owns on her circuit every night starting around 8pm. I don’t know her name; she’s still got a lot of baby fat on her, so she walks with a little bit of a waddle. It’s pretty clear she’s getting enough to eat. The only English she knows is “Buy gum?”, but I always like to have a little fun with her. Like all the working kids her age, she’s a great actor. She shuffles/waddles up to you and fixes you with a look that bespeaks a life of deprivation, tedium, hopelessness and hunger – although as I’ve said, this last one is a little hard to believe. The overall effect is a portrayal of despair that Brando could have admired.
It’s good, but it’s no match for the tickle monster. One finger in the ribs and her technique falls to pieces. She giggles and shrieks, squirming in delight, and then an instant later she’s back in character, looking even more serious because she’s on the clock and she’s got a job to do, and tickling’s not in the rulebook. But she’s also easily distracted by typical childhood pleasures. My cheap cellphone has a game on it called “Rat Xenia” that’s as dull as any videogame I ever saw. In it, squiggly, pixelated blobs that are evidently supposed to be rats scamper across the screen. Your job is to steer them, using four phone buttons, toward pixelated traps that appear randomly on the screen. It’s electronic boredom incarnate, but if she’s giving me the eyes of despair and keeping just out of tickle reach, I’ll hold up my phone for her. In a moment she’ll be leaning against me, clicking hypnotically, rapt with her mission of guiding rats to their dooms.
There are also the fruit ladies, or as I like to call them, the basket cases. Usually older women, this gang carries across their shoulders a two-meter wooden plank, notched at each end, from which hang baskets piled high with fruit – rambutans, mangoes, pineapples, local bananas, exotic dragon fruit, coconuts ready to be turned into boat drinks with one deft slice of a razor-sharp machete, and other bewildering varietals I can’t even begin to name. The women keep fairly busy with the locals, for whom they’re essentially mobile produce sections. But tourists are too easy a mark to pass up. A common tactic is for these women, who have calves of steel, to approach a foreigner and moan miserably about how weighty the basket is: “You buy please. So heavy.” Another bit of genius is to ask the target if he or she would like to try carrying the baskets. This works well on new arrivals, still in thrall to a place that has never seen a Starbucks. Having discovered for themselves just how heavy the baskets are, it’s that much harder not to buy something from her after they’ve had their fun and taken their pictures. As you might imagine, this one rarely works twice.
Foreigners sometimes try to draw a distinction between these workers and those who exclusively target tourists, supposing that somehow one is more “legitimate” than the other. But that doesn’t make sense to me. They’re all just trying to earn a living any way they can. That little girl’s act is perhaps a little more transparent, but not fundamentally different from the one put on for you by a realtor or an investment broker or anyone who’s ever worked in advertising.
Even the handicapped keep busy here. While many profoundly disabled persons do resort to begging, others ride around in three-wheeled carts powered with a vertical hand crank that sits in the area between what would have been their legs. One morning a few months ago in Hoi An, while I sipped a cup of coffee at a cafe with a view of the river, I watched a gentleman pump toward me in one of these contraptions, stopping just in front of the cafe, which was set a few steps above the street to prevent it from being inundated when the river flooded. He gummed a huge smile at me and waved an English-language Vietnamese magazine over his head, something I’d be no more likely to buy than I would a copy of Grit. I shook my head and found an invisible object a hundred yards away with which I suddenly became intensely preoccupied. Not to be deterred, the man threw himself out of the cart with a calculated thud and began dragging himself up the steps toward me, in the manner of a cat who’s just been hit by a speeding car and is returning home to die.
“No thanks!” I said, panicking. “Really, I’m fine! I’m allergic to ink, that’s all!” I tried to catch the eye of the cafe owner for a little help, but he was stepping over the man’s torso on his way to another table with a plate of toast.
It’s a challenge saying no to these people, I tell you. Vietnam is developing fast, but not so fast that it’s prepared to legislate disability benefits – or social security benefits, or unemployment benefits, or subsidized housing, or Medicaid, or homeless shelters, or really any sort of social welfare program at all. You lose your job or your legs in Vietnam, you’d better start working on those fire-breathing and hot-coal-eating skills.
So it’s no wonder that relatively wealthy westerners on holiday here, accustomed to those kinds of entitlement systems, get flustered, questioning the merits of handing over their hard-earned money to what they see as a pack of grifters and street urchins. My advice is to keep a few millidong handy and be generous with it. A pack of gum here and there won’t break the bank. And you sure don’t want to end up with a spit-covered snake down your shirt.