July 17th, 2007
Ho Chi Mihn City (Saigon) District 1
If you recall, this whole caper started off two months ago with a bunk tip from a blackjack dealer in Vegas regarding a cousin connection in Iraq. My intention to provide our news organization with a set of eyes on the ground in the Green Zone -- if only to grab a slice of Pizza Hut and a drink with my collegues at the Hotel Palestine -- seems to have been waylaid and I seem to have slid south to such an extent that getting my sorry ass back to the Middle East has become a logistical nightmare. However, I feel it is my duty to get some sort of foreign policy perspective for the folks back in the States, and, with that in mind, I decided that if Iraq was a no-go, I should at least visit the scene of America's last Waterloo.
Not only have my eight days on the muggy streets of Ho Chi Mihn City presented me with a valuable insight into the Asian mind, but they may have also presented me with a solution for our current boondoggle in Baghdad.
We need to give every Iraqi a scooter.
Good Christ, boss, you would not believe the motorized mayhem in this country. They're like a swarm of crack-addled locusts with no respect for man or civilized traffic-control systems. They run red lights, go the wrong way up one-way streets, drive on the sidewalks, rally against traffic on the highway shoulder. All of this is achieved while riding three or four to a bike, talking on a cell phone, in the rain, eating a bowl of pho noodles with chopsticks along with cargo loads never intended for the back bumper of a 150cc Honda "Spree." I've seen the Vietnamese cyclists carting air conditioning units, 30-gallon aquariums, kennels packed with feral dogs (I will not speculate upon the ultimate destination of that manifest) and bundles of iron re-bar. Hundreds -- thousands perhaps -- of these maniacs gather at each red light (if they deign to stop at them), racing their engines and inching into the intersection in anticipation of the green on the tree while pedestrian tourists clinging to their children scramble for their lives to get across the wide boulevards before the horde is upon them.
This is no place for Christians, but the aspect of Buddhism seems to work quite well with this system, because if you're due to be reincarnated, what's the big deal with getting run down like a snake while on foot or smeared onto the side of a two-ton delivery truck full of bricks? In fact, the scooter riders are so fearless that the drivers of cars and lorries are constantly on the defensive, which results in a constant symphony of horn blowing that would put a NYC hackie to shame. My driver, Quy (pronounced "Kwee"), has been driving a cab for thirty years -- which is why I hired him: in a Third World country an old driver is a good driver simply for the fact that they've lived that long -- and is so conditioned to blowing his horn at scooter drivers that it's become an unconscious habit. We were out in the Mekong Delta the other day, not a goddamn vehicle in sight either direction, and Que was blowing his horn. Dude could be on the Lincoln Highway in Point of Rocks, Wyoming and he'd be leaning on the buzzer. In fact, Que has punched the horn on his '93 Daewoo so many times that there's a dent on the left side of the wheel.
But my point is that these folks are so obsessed with their motroized transport that there's no time for any other sort of chaos. Thus my suggestion to send a couple cargo ships full of Vespas to Iraq. Hell, it's as good as anything those monkeys in D.C. have come up with.
This is a remarkably peaceable country considering the mayhem we wreaked here during the War. Sure, the water is undrinkable and the air is like the smoker's lounge in the Madrid airport, but the food is fantastic, the Tiger beers are 75 cents and you can get a "Junior Suite" at this hotel looking out over the muddy Saigon River with two bathrooms and a mini bar full of $1 Wild Turkey shooters for seventy bucks. And the people are as friendly as any I've encountered on this journey. The moment I arrived at this hotel, the watchman on my floor asked if he could bring tea to my room so we could practice English. "Foo" was so sincere in his request that I had to agree despite just getting in from my 36-hour trip from South Africa. Foo has since arrived each evening with his red thermos to chat. So maybe if anything, they're too eager to make nice.
Three doors down from my hotel is The Seventeen, a country-western bar where all the hostesses dress like Dolly Parton and the house band, a Filipino eight-piece with the handle of "The Dalton Gang", plays passable Michael McDonald covers. Yeah, yeah, boss, I know the hostesses there are paid to be agreeable and make me buy as many $7 pina coladas for them as possible, but one girl over there named Khahn Le was so adamant about getting me a driver for less than the tour-guide rate that she made all the calls for me and then rang my hotel at 6:30 in the morning (she got off work at 2 a.m.) to let me know he was on his way. And my driver since, Que, isn't even related to her.
Of course, I first thought this friendliness was a commie ruse to surround me with stooges. And if that's the case, then they've done a damn fine job of putting me under nearly round-the-clock surveillance because I've spent almost all my time dodging scooters with Que, drinking 2-for-1 Tigers with Khahn Le at The Seventeen or taking a hatchet to the English language with Foo because not only is it 95-degrees outside, but it's also been raining like the dickens. (Que told me there are two seasons in South Vietnam -- Rainy & Not Rainy. This is obviously the rainy one.) But I tend to think that if the governement was really that on the ball, they'd find a way to charge more than five bucks for a full dinner with drinks.
There is an amazingly light police presence here and I have yet to see one single firearm. Not even at the airport. There's a smattering of traffic cops standing around watching pedestrains scamper for cover and a few Army guys doing what else but running people over on scooters. Not that they really need any cops on the Saigon beat. I've been lost down the darkest alleys here and still felt no sort of threat from the populace. The only dangerous people are the girls between the ages of five and ten. These moppets, armed with blister packs of "Sparkle Breath" gum and Eighties-era postcards of Uncle Ho, latch onto to you something fierce as you walk down the street. Somehow they all speak perfect English.
"Hey man," this shorty said as she fell into step with me. "You wanna buy some gum?"
I told her no thank you.
"I don't need 'No thank you,' I need money."
I picked up my pace but she jogged along with me.
"How about you buy me some milk?"
I finally gave her a buck to get lost, but she apparently informed her clique about the easy hustle at the Riverside Hotel and they've been camped out for me ever since. It's not good form for a professional journalist to be hounded by a pack of pre-pubescent girls, so I've been chewing a lot of gum. In any event, I would file a complaint with the authorities if I could find any.
I asked Khahn Le about the cops -- or lack thereof -- and she cracked up. I thought she was laughing because I was too dense to realize that every other dude in the saloon, including the the Dalton Gang drummer, was an undercover gendarme. But when she stopped laughing, she told me that the cops are as non-existent as I figured. To illustrate she told me a story about a jewelry store across the street from police headquarters getting robbed. Twice.
I'm also surprised by the lack of hospital facilities. There was one next to the "Snake Farm" Que insisted on taking me to, which I have to admit is pretty good planning, because this "zoo" was basically a bunch of King Cobras wriggling their way out of their cages. But again, this might be like the lack of cops -- why have them if they're not needed? Despite the insane traffic, I've only seen one accident. Que refers to smash-ups, even this one, which left pools of blood on the street, as "kisses," which again indicates the level of affection these folks have for their wheels and how lightly they take traffic laws. I'd love to see a Californian Highway Patrolwoman out here on loan. Her brain would explode in two minutes.
It seems like the only person whose motives were not as they seemed turned out to be Foo. He called my room this morning at 6 a.m. and asked me to open the door so he could bring me a thermos of tea. I must be an even worse teacher than I thought, because the watchman didn't seem to understand when I mumbled that I was trying to sleep off a hangover. I told him we'd chat later that afternoon. I hung up, but he called right back. I finally realized that the only way I was going to get back to sleep was to let him bring in the bloody hot water and teabags. I opened the door in my boxers.
"You leave tomorrow?" he asked as he slid past me to set the thermos down on the table.
I told him yes and gave him my best get-out-of-my-room look. He came up to me in the doorway and repeated his question. I thought maybe the guy was sad he was losing his free lessons, but then his hand went to my chest. I was so groggy that I assumed this was just some sort of friendly gesture. That idea went away when he dropped his hand to my crotch. I didn't exactly throw Foo out of my room so much as eject him into the hallway.
Yes, I told him as I closed the door, I leave Vietnam tomorrow. -- Tony Perez-Giese