This Is Where It Gets Interesting
“Has it gotten interesting yet, or did I sleep through it?”
–Fellow student during an Economics class lecture right after the professor announced he was about to reach the most interesting part of the lecture.
It was raining when I arrived in the south central coast town of Nha Trang, and most of the city was under water. The clerk at the hotel where the bus stopped, called Khach San 58 and Military Head Querters, assured us it had only been raining since morning, but I didn’t believe her because so many people affiliated with the tourist industry told me bald-faced lies for no good reason. In fact, a backpacker at a restaurant near the town’s currency exchange said it had been raining for two days.
Once the two Australians and I changed money we went to a local restaurant called Banana Splits, and the silliness began as they told me their stories. Gary, the younger of the two, was a 36 year-old baggage handler for Quantas, which allowed him to travel cheaply. Dennis was 40-something and on his first trip to Vietnam since the war and was getting accustomed to not having to be as vigilant about his wallet as he did during his first visit. He still distrusted Asians, though. Especially the Vietnamese.
As we moved from Banana Splits to the restaurant next door, Restaurant 60 (where do they come up with such original names?), Dennis regaled us with war stories. He talked about “elephants” (American soldiers who wore cologne, walked loudly and did everything they could to draw attention to themselves as they snuck through the jungle), VC tricks, tales of brothels, booby traps, pickpockets and the bad craziness of Saigon during the war. He also told the story about how he saw a barber’s chair in a storefront, realized he needed a haircut, then went in and sat down to wait for the barber. He was there a while before figuring out he was sitting in a chair where prostitutes gave hand jobs to horny soldiers. He never mentioned how he realized it, though.
It must have taught him something about handling hookers, however, because he knew just what to say when a cadre of prostitutes on motorbikes hit on us as we walked to our hotel. They hooted and hollered as they trailed us for about a half-mile. Finally, Dennis said two magic words that sent them scrambling: “We’re Russians.”
I’d never seen a motorbike stop on a dime before, but that’s pretty close to what the prostitutes’ did after Dennis’s response. One minute they were there, the next they were a blur of light speeding away in the opposite direction.
Located on the south central coast, Nha Trang has been called one of the country’s prettiest municipal beaches and is a great place to hang out. Although it isn’t possible to sit out on the beach for more than 15 minutes without being harassed by a hawker, the shoreline itself had escaped the concrete jungle look of many other beach town resorts. There weren’t any fences restricting access to the water, no high-rise condos, and it was still possible to stay in a hotel across the street from the beach cheaply. In fact, the Englishman (Paul Collis) and I were sharing a double room with hot water for a whopping $9.
It didn’t look like things would remain unspoiled long, though. When I visited, there were at least six major resorts under construction across the street. It appeared the only way the town would escape the fate of other beach towns was if all of the developers walked away from their projects. As strange as it sounds, such an odd occurrence wasn’t so unlikely. Many Vietnamese cities have several buildings that hadn’t been completed because developers got so frustrated with the cost of doing business in Vietnam that they just walked away from partially complete hotels, resorts and homes. Sadly, Nha Trang’s beaches are so pretty it seemed like too much to hope for.
Because large scale tourism was new to Vietnam and the government hadn’t had enough time to regulate it (to get its share of graft), there was a sleazy undercurrent of hustlers who hadn’t quite polished their acts. We saw evidence of this our second night in town when we stopped at a poolhall and Dennis gave us play-by-play as we watched two cyclo drivers, a hustler and hooker wearing glasses target a man from Holland and his girlfriend. One of the cyclo drivers was dancing with the man — which just looked strange because neither could dance for shit — and giving the unwitting victim friendly pats all over his body. He was trying to find out where the guy kept his money so they could rip him off later, Dennis said. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese woman was chatting up the girlfriend as a diversion. Gary warned the mark, but only pissed the guy off enough so that he stormed out of the bar, leaving a dejected looking prostitute and thwarted hustler in his wake.
Even though we were visiting during the week of Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, we couldn’t find any parties anywhere. In fact, the only thing we did find were a couple of middle-school-aged kids who told us they were planning a big Ho Chi Minh party with lots of food to eat, plenty to drink and a ton of local residents for us to meet. All we had to do was give them 100,000 dong (approx. $10) each in advance to buy the food. Considering how cheap food is, they would have been able to fund the entire party with our $40. They also could have held the party without us.
After spending much of the evening at Coconut’s Bar playing pool, we had seen enough. the only winner the whole evening was Gary who had beaten every person in the bar. And even he hadn’t gotten everything he wanted. He made a 5,000 dong bet (50 cents) in hopes of losing the game so he could go back to Australia and say, “I lost 5,000 playing pool in Vietnam.” The bet didn’t help. He still won.
Once the games were over, Dennis told more war stories. This time around he focused on prostitutes. The most memorable part of the discussion centered on the nicknames prostitutes gave U.S. soldiers. A guy who wouldn’t spend much on a hooker was called “Too Cheap Charlie,” a john who “dated” more than one hooker was a “butterfly boy,” and a virgin was a “cherry boy.”
It seemed a strange note to end the night on, but we were tired and had booked an early boat tour, so we left. On our way out we saw that the two cyclo drivers were still working the Dutch couple in hopes of salvaging the evening.
And then the prostitutes returned.
They rode their motorbikes on the road alongside and just behind us yelling “bang bang,” “Want to have a good time?” and “Want to party?”
I noticed that none asked if we wanted to celebrate Ho Chi Minh’s birthday.
In what had become fairly typical fashion, Dennis stepped forward as group spokesman to deal with this orgy of prostitutes. I don’t know about the others, but I was sure he was going to say “We’re Russians” but, he had a better idea.
“Don’t talk to us, talk to him,” he told one hooker as he pointed to me. “He’s a cherry boy.”
That was all she needed to know. I’m not sure what she’d heard about American virgins, but she had to have me and she had to have me then and there.
“Fresh American banana! I must have fresh American banana!” she said as she rolled her motorbike up on the sidewalk and aimed in my direction.
I was so stunned it took me a few milliseconds for what had happened to sink in. And even longer to react.By this point, she was gaining on me. And “Fresh American banana” was her war cry.
I’m sure she yelled endearments to entice me, I’m convinced she said nice things about me, and I know she was attractive, but the only thing I was certain of at the time was that a woman who wanted to have sex with me because she thought I was a virgin was chasing me on a motorbike. (I’m sure Dr. Ruth and Miss Manners would have had a field day with this one.)
I got back to my room a few steps ahead of her fumbled with the key, but managed to get the door open before she closed the gap. Then, I heard one final, plaintive cry from her.
“I’ll pay,” she said.
Although the prostitute didn’t seen as much of me as she wanted, half a boatload of people saw far more than they wanted the next day. It was the perfect counterpoint to the deliberate rudeness of Momma Hahn.
Hahn is the Vietnamese Humphrey Bogart character in “The African Queen,” a short, salty, foul-mouthed, hard drinking woman who runs her own cruise business, taking tourists on day-long trips of South China Sea islands near Nha Trang for $7 a head. She may be in her 30’s but her brown leathery skin, smoker’s cough and years of hard living make the 5’2″ tall woman look closer to 70. She nicknames each of her passengers based on their attributes. I was “skinny man” and Dennis was “fat, lazy man” because he was big and he was wearing pants instead of shorts. She also conjugates the word “fuck” in places others wouldn’t have dreamed (“I sell cold fucking beer”), and threatens to take passengers who aren’t having a good time and throw them overboard.
Mama Hahn is an institution in these parts. Travelers began whispering her name reverently around Saigon and it came up with increasing frequency the further north I went. For good reason. She knows how to throw a party. In 1996, $7 bought a daylong cruise with stops for swimming, snorkeling, more swimming, drinks served from a bar that floats in the water and lunch. Beers are $1, Pepsi 80 cents and a cigarette box filled with joints $3.
The most impressive part of the cruise is lunch. The spread takes up so much of the top deck there’s barely enough room for people to sit cross-legged on the floor. And it’s good food. Tuna steaks, prawns cooked in lemon juice, vegetable dishes, squid, steamed crab, seafood spring rolls and rice, of course. The dessert spread is just as impressive, filling the deck with the freshest tropical fruit I’ve ever tasted.
All of the passengers were sitting on the floor eating dessert and huddling under a canopy to stay dry during an afternoon storm when the ugly incident occurred. While most of the passengers had gotten upstairs fast enough to get a spot out of the rain, I sat in an area with minimal coverage. It gave me adequate protection from the rain, but not from the water on top of the canopy. Anytime a passenger got up, the person’s head bumped the canopy and sent rainwater cascading into my lap, as I leaned to my left, dodging the downpour. The more soaked I got, the more everyone laughed.
It was funny the first few times, but I thought their laughing with each dousing was downright rude. I like a good joke as much as the next guy, but I think it may be a scream the first time and funny the second, but its amusement value falls off after that. As it turns out, the crowd wasn’t laughing at my soaking. No, the source of their merriment was completely different.
I knew my bathing suit wasn’t the most comfortable. I had it for five years before I left for the trip, but I didn’t use it much because I hadn’t gone swimming in years. I didn’t think size would be much of an issue on the road, either, because I didn’t expect to wear them more than a few hours at a time. Besides, I was getting so much exercise I was losing weight, not gaining. As a result, I figured the swimsuit would fit better. It was a good theory, but it didn’t take into account the fact that the lining was as loose as the elastic on a fat man’s sweat pants. Since the looseness had never been a problem when I stood up, it never occurred to me there might be a problem when I sat down.
Dennis was the first to notice that I was hanging out of my suit whenever I leaned forward. Instead of telling me, however, he laughed, nudged his brother, and pointed. In fact, each time I leaned forward I apparently stuck out of my bathing suit a little further. Under the circumstances, I thought I would have noticed a light breeze, but I didn’t. To my chagrin, I was one of the few people who didn’t notice. Even the cute Swedish woman who was staying at Military Head Querters noticed.
There were a few small consolations, however. For starters, I didn’t know I had flashed the boat until days later when the brothers mentioned it as they signed my journal. I was also fortunate that Mama Hahn didn’t notice. She never would have let me live it down and she would have told everyone who hadn’t noticed.
At least, I don’t think she noticed. I could be wrong. Later in the day she walked up to me and said she had a question.
“I don’t speak too good English,” she said as innocently as she could, “What means ‘to fuck?'”
I was tempted to say, “It’s what cold beers do.”
The food may have been fantastic, the snorkeling in surprisingly clear water may have been amazing and hanging out with Mama Hahn may have been great, but by the end of the day I was glad the Englishman and I had decided to take a night bus to the next city.