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Solo for a Day

VIETNAM | Tuesday, 23 September 2003 | Views [658]


Saigon.  The name rolls over my tongue like the sweet tang of an exotic fruit.  Saigon.  A word full of romance and war, love and suffering.  It’s a word that, once experienced, becomes a part of you forever, imbedded in the deepest part of the heart, the part that can only be discovered on a battlefield or alone far from home.  Saigon twines her fingers into my soul and gently prods the soft spots a little every day, just hard enough to remember, but never hard enough to want to forget.


I step off the bus into dripping humidity and a hoard of children who speak English better than I do.  A tiny thirteen-year-old girl follows me – “Ma’am, would you like to buy some postcards?” – and the youngest children who don’t know English yet tug at my hands and clothes and, with eyes threatening to overflow, hold out five-packs of Wrigley’s in their chubby hands.  The little ones crowd around my legs and silently plead with me to buy, shoving their gum into my pockets while the oldest children, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, gather close by, still hawking their balloons and postcards and roses in perfect American English.  These children work the tourist streets all day long to bring a few dollars home to their parents who might also work all day for a few dollars, or they might do nothing and depend on their sixteen-, eight-, or four-year-olds to bring home enough money for tomorrow’s single meal – or bottles of beer and bowl of opium and hash.  One little boy’s stained green t-shirt reaches almost to his knees, but I can still see the outline of a pot-belly through the grimy fabric.  His tears carve tiger stripes down his cheeks and his mouth opens wider, wailing as he desperately pries my fingers apart to force his pack of gum into my palm.  I want so much to just gather him up, hold him close and tell him that it’ll all be ok – even though I know it probably won’t – but he runs off when I reach for his bony shoulder.  I wonder what his punishment will be if he brings that little pack of gum back home at the end of the day….  Slowly, the mob of children surrounding me comes back into focus and I push my way through, dodging postcards, gum, and pudgy four-year-old hands.

Looking down the streets of Saigon, I see gutters filled with the city’s trash and sidewalks lined with vendors selling more postcards, machine gun shells, noodles and sweets, disarmed landmines, jagged pieces of shrapnel, Coca-Cola.  I relish the smooth cadence of their language, and I can’t help smiling when they suddenly switch to English as they see all five feet nine inches of me coming.  I’m thankful I can at least tuck my blonde hair under a cap: one less thing to make me stand out in this land of almond-skinned, almond-eyed people who are at least a head shorter than me.

I approach the street corner and a man wheels up holding out his one hand, callused and caked with dirt.  “American? A dollar for my children?”  He has no legs, his other arm stops at the elbow, and I can see by his filthy, maybe at one time blue or green shirt and pinned up pants that he probably has no children or family to speak of – families take pride in appearance here.  He is somehow strapped to a skateboard and pushes himself along with his one good arm, strong and muscular from thirty years of beating the ground.  Men like him sit in groups on the street corners all day long playing cards or dice games, and when they see me coming at least one of them always shuffles or wheels his way into my path to beg money.  Many of these men are jobless and sometimes homeless.  The war – what they call the American War – caused their deformities.  These men swinging down the streets as monkey-like pendulums after stepping on landmines during the war or by recently discovering one thirty years forgotten; men with arms blown away by machine guns; women with beautiful black hair and smooth skin melted away by napalm; and the little children, innocent, dragging club feet as they laugh and play with their friends.  Some are born with no eyes, hooks for hands, enlarged heads, mental illnesses, all because their mothers and fathers were exposed to Agent Orange, one of the many weapons American troops dropped in order to ‘save’ them from the North.  I feel helpless and responsible seeing these people move on with their lives only to be reminded of the horrors of war when their children are born.  Many parents can’t even bring themselves to remember and explain to their babies why they look the way they do, so these children are growing up with no awareness of war’s heartbreak and no appreciation for the sacrifice of their elders.  A dollar, worth 15,000 dong, is what they want from me, but the paper is worthless in comparison to their pain.  All I can do is listen to their stories and keep on with my journey.


Beginner’s guide to street-crossing in Viet Nam:

1.)    Remember Mom’s “Hold hands and look both ways, Sweetie.”?  Well, forget it.

2.)    Look left.

3.)    Search for a gap in the river of motorbikes surging at you (a non-existent phenomenon, but try anyway).

4.)    Close eyes and pray.

5.)    Start walking at a steady pace (They will dodge you.  You will get run over if you try to dodge them).

6.)    When you reach the median, look right and repeat.

I finally reach the indoor market and my senses are overwhelmed with Vietnamese chatter and laughter, buzzing flies, prickly tropical cherries, sweaty air, sweet, pale Asian pineapples, and acrid dampness from bodies packed too close together.  And the colors – oh, the colors!  Dwarfish yellow bananas, sweet and soft; white dragon fruit speckled with tiny black seeds; fluorescent mangoes and papayas; grayish dragon-eye fruits (bitter tasting and not worth the peeling time or the huge pit); piles of cracked coconuts exposing their pearly flesh; and rows upon rows of fabrics – exquisite silks patterned with white and gold flowers or city scenes, polyesters and cottons of all shades for men’s suits, all piled onto shelves that can only be reached by little women teetering on top of 20-foot ladders.  I buy some silk to have made into a traditional áo dài and wind my way out of the stifling isles and the salty fruity smells of the market and into the falling night of my first day traveling solo.


Saigon – this city of dust, strange foods, poverty and happy people.  She draws me in.  What keeps pulling my mind back to this foreign land?  The people?  The poverty?  The urge to escape first-world comforts?  The fear…?  I am scared to go back on my own.  What could happen to me, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American woman in a poverty-stricken land?  But Saigon has a twisted romance.  Viet Nam has buried itself in my soul, and the fear tells me that I am not ready to go back quite yet, but also that I will one day go again.

© Wendy Allen 2003


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


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