Abusing The Locals For Fun And Profit
How Uncle Ho Fooled Us All And Became The Greatest Capitalist Ever
“Yasser Arafat and Ringo Starr the same person? You be the judge?”
–Robin Williams in “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
I don’t know what role our bad bus ride and long, sleepless night played in it, but it didn’t take long for us to start abusing the locals. Even though it was in a good-natured way.
After being delivered to a hotel (again, not the one we requested) and hours of sleep, Paul and I were both in a mood as we wandered the streets of this ancient port town where the main attractions were such things as a covered bridge, Japanese tombs and numerous Chinese Assembly Halls. (This still puzzles me. I mean, Americans don’t go out of their way to promote American Legion halls as tourist attractions, why does Vietnam’s Chinese community?) By the time we finally got to Bobo’s, one of Hoi An’s big backpacker haunts, we were ready to give someone grief; our waitress was a most convenient target.
We weren’t rude, just weird. When the waitress came, we told her we were glad to be in Nha Trang. When she asked where we were from, Paul told her he was from a small village in England called London while I refused to say, but told her I had been in Hoi An the day before and liked it here in Nha Trang much better. After she told us her 22nd birthday was in two days, I said I was 50 years older than she was. Paul said I didn’t look a day over 60.
Despite our foolishness, she must have taken a liking to me because she took to affectionately hitting me with a bottle opener. Man, did it hurt!
If the saying about the last laugher laughing best is true, she ended the evening more amused than me. Just before we left, a man walked up to the table and began talking to me in Hebrew.
“Um…uh…do you speak English?” I asked, after recovering from a moment of gape-mouthed shock.
“Yes, but someone told me you were from Israel,” he said in a thick Israeli accent.
“Who told you that?”
“He did,” the Israeli said as he pointed to a waiter I’d never even seen before.
Although I was as thrifty as possible, money was still sliding through my wallet like water through a sieve. So, when I heard the town had a package rate for local attractions, I happily paid $5 for admission to four destinations: a cultural museum, an old assembly hall, one of the village’s oldest houses and a Japanese covered bridge. Sadly, the cultural museum was mediocre and the assembly hall reminded me of an Elk’s Lodge with an altar in the middle. By the time I got to one of the oldest houses in the village, I wasn’t just wondering if I’d made a wise investment, I was dead tired from too little sleep, too much walking and too much heat. The hot tea the tour guide gave us, the wooden benches where we sat and his monotonous monologue put me right to sleep. When my so-called friends started laughing at me, I got up and walked around to stay awake while they listened to the rest of the lecture.
Once the lecture was over, they walked around the house and I sat down again and started nodding off until the tour guide noticed.
“Are you asleep?” he asked, loudly.
“I was until you woke me,” I shot back.
The covered bridge was supposed to be the next stop, but we ran into Sunny on the way, so we sat on chairs in a nearby alley while we had sodas and talked. She was frustrated because she was trying to get into the city’s museums but the guards wouldn’t let her in because she didn’t have a $5 ticket and she didn’t know where to get one. So, we invited her along and told her we’d sneak her into the covered bridge museum by giving the guard all our tickets at once.
Before we left the stairs, however, we were surrounded by a pack of children who loved Dennis. When he asked them to sing something, they sang “Happy Birthday to You.” Dennis was hoping for a folk song, though, and asked if they knew any. When they said they didn’t, he got a mischievous gleam in his eye and taught them the “Too Cheap Charlie Song,” an English ditty he says the prostitutes used to sing about American soldiers.
While Dennis taught, we also played with the children, gave them coins from other countries and whatever spare trinkets we had in our pockets. They were most fascinated with Sonny’s Daytimer–until Dennis produced the best prize of all: a pre-moistened towlette from KFC. They were all agog when he opened the packet, pulled out the napkin, unfolded it and wiped it against their faces. The present backfired when he touched a toddler with it and she screamed in fright.
Dennis was so embarrassed he dropped his head in shame. As he looked down he saw Colonel Sanders’ picture and noticed Sanders looked a lot like Ho Chi Minh. Once he mentioned it, we realized that wasn’t the only coincidence between the chicken magnate and the Communist leader. They’re both from the South and they’re both dead.
What better proof could anyone ask for? I’m sure it would have been enough to convict in Vietnam. So, maybe all these years when Ho was in exile he might not have been in France after all. I mean, who’s to say that he wasn’t in America searching for a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices to make his chicken finger licking good? (And here I always thought it was the grease.) That may help explain why the U.S. was so eager to get the Japanese in Vietnam. It may also explain why America was so quick to dump Ho later on. It wasn’t Ho’s turn to Communism, it was his introduction of Extra Crispy chicken. Apparently, U.S. officials did it to express their displeasure in being misled. It seems they thought they were already eating the tastiest, crispiest chicken possible (and Ho was happy to let them believe it).
After such a major discovery it was hard for the covered bridge to be anything but anti-climactic. What made it more of a come-down was paying to go over it while Hoi An’s citizens were using it as a regular bridge, walking and riding bikes back and forth across it for free. Boys and girls, can you say, “They must have seen you coming?”
We may have gotten taken, but we also had our moments of negotiating brilliance. When I was in Saigon I got my first haircut in two months for 50 cents, the Aussies upgraded to an air conditioned hotel room for less than a dollar in Nha Trang after wishing the desk clerk “Happy Uncle Ho’s birthday,” and Sunny bought two hand-tailored dresses in Hoi An for less than what it would have cost to buy just one in the U.S.
The award for sheer gall in negotiating, however, had to go to Dennis for his stunt at a Hoi An beach. Although he wanted one of the pineapples a pack of hawkers was selling for 10,000 dong he only wanted to pay 5,000 (approx. 50 cents). When the kids wouldn’t go for his offer, he took out a 5,000 dong note and folded it so there was a crease in the middle of Ho Chi Minh’s face and showed it to the miniature capitalists.
“Look! 10,000 Uncle Ho not happy,” Dennis said as he held the bill at a downward angle showing a frowning Ho. Then he tilted the bill up slightly, making the hero of the people appear to be smiling and he said, “5,000, Uncle Ho very happy.”
I don’t know if he got the pineapple at the price he wanted, but he did get a chuckle out of the kids.