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VIETNAM | Tuesday, 16 November 2004 | Views [588]


“Hey Lady, want to buy some gum?”

I ignore the haggling voices and keep looking through the pictures I’d just picked up from the Kodak store between to the old lady selling rice hats, “Three for a dollar!” and the traditional Vietnamese restaurant serving plates of food that look nothing like the plastic replicas in the window.

“Hey Lady, where’s Big Guy and Yellow Hat?”  I spin around at Ming’s nicknames for the two friends with us yesterday and see him grinning from ear to ear for fooling me.  He quickly falls in step, one and a half paces to my one.

He’d seemed sad the day before, when we’d first met.  Deep down and under the happy smiling face he’d seemed sad, and old.  I’d look over at him sometimes and if I caught him off-guard, I’d see his long fingers fiddling the pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint he’d just tried to sell, his mature eyes distant in his 14-year-old face.  He came up to the three of us that morning – me, ‘Big Guy’ and ‘Yellow Hat’ – and, like the other kids, tried to sell us a pack of gum.  But unlike the others, he kept following and hassling us about it until we finally just asked if he’d like to show us around for the day.  That seemed to make him happy and he promptly put the gum in his pocket to lead us to a reliable tailor.  I’d sat down next to him while the guys were measured for their suits by giggling tailor-girls and Ming silently passed me a stick of gum.  I’d seen a somber chord in those almost-black eyes right before he flashed a bright smile.  I grinned back and chewed my gum, the one thing he had to give.

So, somehow he found me today, my solo day that is pleasantly turning out to be not so solo.  He walks with hands stuffed into pockets and eyes examining the sidewalk like a soldier searching for leftover mines, but his shyness at being alone with me without my two joking American friends dissolves when I ask about school.  He explains that Vietnamese children go to English school Mondays through Saturdays, and the times are staggered so older children can go to school in the mornings or evenings and have time during the day to, sadly, work or beg for money and food.  English school costs around $300 USD a year, a sum of money that many families can’t save in three years.  However, Ming doesn’t go to school that often anymore since he’s getting ‘so old’ and high school costs even more money.

We keep walking past shops and fountains, the Ritz hotel on the corner where we met his father yesterday, across the deadly streets, and as we talk I notice something puzzling:

“Hey Ming, why do you say Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City?  The war was before you were born.”

“I don’t know…it’s shorter.  I like it better.”  Pause.  He looks at his feet and with a casual shrug, “It’s pretty.” 

I rumple his hair and smile at his embarrassed admission to recognizing beauty.  “I think so too.”

Eventually we find our way back to the fountain near my shuttle’s pick-up spot and I show him Japan and China and Hong Kong in my pictures.  He longingly fingers a photo of the ship we’d sailed in on.

“Do you want one?”  He looks up, eyes wide, and nods.  I slide a picture of the ship out of its plastic sleeve and write on the back:

To MingFrom Wendy

“Now, Ming, this is just for you.  I don’t want you to sell that, ok?”  He shakes his head ‘never’ and cradles that photo like a hundred-dollar bill.  The simple gift of a photo will keep that beautiful white grin plastered on his face for the rest of the evening – young for at least one night.

© Wendy Allen 2003

Tags: vietnam, Writings (true or otherwise, poetry or prose)

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