I had been dreading our return to HCMC for the past few days, not because it represented the end of my holiday in Vietnam, but because I had unfinished business there. I had put something in motion that now had to be resolved and the question remained: was I man enough to complete what I had started?
A few days earlier we had rolled in HCMC full of excitement, this after all was the ground zero of the Vietnam War and the American Embassy, the location of that Miss Saigon moment, was right across the street from our hotel. We quickly convened in the hotel lobby and ventured out into the clammy evening and drank in the warm soggy air and the sights. Someone in our party suggested a drink at the famous Rex Hotel and so it was that destiny lead us past a T-shirt stall on a piazza close to the Notre Dame Cathedral. My eye instantly caught the cool Ho Chi Minh T-shirts: a snip at a mere 30,000 Dong ($2 US) apiece. I bought three and was accosted by a young girl who smiled, called me ?no hair? (baldness is unusual in Vietnam) and tried to sell me postcards and an obviously counterfeit copy of Graham Greene?s The Quiet American a novel set in the early 50?s in Vietnam or rather Indochine as it then was.
Not wanting to ape my fellow travelers, some of whom were reading the book, I resisted at first but the girl?s winning smile and persistence wore me down and I decided to buy the novel. As I handed over another 30,000 Dong I asked her name. ?Phuong,? she replied and turned to seek another buyer. Safely ensconced in the rooftop bar at the Rex we ordered cocktails and sat back – life was good.
Later that night as I settled into bed I decided to put aside my historical novel and reacquaint myself with Greene?s classic novel of political intrigue – now I was here in Saigon what better time to start the book? Half-way down the first page Fowler, the lead character, introduces us to a Vietnamese girl over whom he and Pyle (the quiet American) will squabble – her name is Phuong. I smiled at the co-incidence and read on.
The next morning we drove out to see the Cu Chi tunnels, the site of one the American Army?s most frustrating defeats. Despite the mountainous pile of explosives utilized, the bulldozers, the highly trained dogs, the systematic flooding, the defoliant and the tunnel rats the GI?s had failed to roust the VC insurgents from the area: they had simply burrowed their way like moles from Cambodia to Saigon! I was cranky, my fellow travelers were annoying me and the barbaric display of simply effective and almost medieval weapons employed by the VC turned my stomach inside out – I wanted to get back to HCMC.
In the afternoon we scoured the streets for more souvenirs. We sat in a tiny cafe off Ngyuen Dinh Chieu and ruminated on fate as we ignored a crippled beggar shuffling by and sipped our sugary, warm sodas frightened of what the local ice would do to us. If not for the accident of birth we too might have been begging for worthless bills damaged by some distant war fought over long forgotten ideals. We finished our drinks and returned to the T-shirt stall to stock up with presents and there was Phuong again bright-eyed and smiling trying to sell me more of her postcards. I told her she shared the same name as the Quiet American?s Vietnamese girl. ?Yes, I know that,? she replied and blushed.
As we walked back to our hotel a fog of gloom descended upon me and I found myself becoming more and more confused, By the time I?d reached my room I was ready to explode. The vicious devices in the tunnels, the beggar I?d ignored on the street, the happy faces of the children who called at us everywhere had all come to haunt me. I felt guilt. I had to do something – but what? I had no children but if I had a daughter I?d want her to be like Phuong: bright, funny, cheeky, industrious, cute. It was ridiculous I had cash in the bank. Surely I could help.
I sought advice. I didn?t want to try throwing money at a problem I couldn?t solve. I didn?t want to do something inappropriate but I felt an enormous powerful force pushing me onwards and my impulsive reaction was not to be denied, I could not be talked down. It was agreed that maybe there was some educational help I could offer. Phuong?s self taught English was excellent and she told us that she spoke some Japanese and French too – clearly she was no fool. We decided I should go and find Phuong and ask her mother if there was some help that could be offered.
I hurried back through the streets. It seemed that everyone was watching me and that they all knew my plan and thought I was nuts, but I didn?t care. I felt good. I was doing something positive at last – this was the butterfly effect I always talked about, what sequence of events might I be putting into gear here?
I found Phuong again and asked her to translate as I explained to her mother what now seemed to be an utterly ridiculous scheme. Her mother distrusted me and watched the tourists in the square – there was money to be made out there and I was slowing business down. I felt I was interfering, who was I to play the hand of God? But it was too late I?d already asked them to think of something Phuong might want to study – I?d be back in HCMC later in the week, we could discuss it then. As my interview stumbled to a close I noticed a man in Vietnamese Army green with a communist party ID card on his chest approaching. He tried to take Phuong?s books and post-cards. Phuong?s mother nonchalantly pulled them back – part of a half-hearted charade played out every day on the square it seemed. But the man looked coldly into my eyes, things were getting ugly and, feigning nonchalance, I walked away.
My imagination was running wild and I dared not look back. Maybe the man from the square was following me. Perhaps Phuong and her mother were being roughly hustled into a van as I fled. What was I thinking? I?d tried to salve my guilt, had tried to help and had put them in harm?s way. I was completely out of my depth – it seemed I had found myself in a whole new chapter of Greene?s novel. As I returned to the hotel I looked over my shoulder – the boulevard was full of cyclos and mopeds as usual. No-one was lurking in the shadows, I was being overdramatic but I felt sick to my stomach. I?d poked my nose where it didn?t belong. I?d tried to put my silly liberal ideas into action and it made me feel sick.
I took a shower and prepared for dinner. The reckless euphoria I?d felt an hour ago when the scheme first occurred to me had been replaced by stomach churning regret. Outside the hotel we climbed into a cab and I tried to relax…and then it happened.
As the cab nosed out into the busy thoroughfare its headlights illuminated a typical Vietnamese city scene: a vast throng of people all hurrying on a thousand different journeys and at that instant the first Western music we?d heard in 2 weeks came over the taxi?s radio: ?Imagine there?s no heaven, it?s easy if you try…you may say I?m a dreamer, but I?m not the only one.? It was a sign, how could it be anything else? Every lyric of the song seemed breath-takingly pertinent. Perhaps I hadn?t been such an idiot after all – maybe I really could achieve something. Lennon?s plaintive voice and his incredibly optimistic lyrics filled me with hope. ?Practice senseless acts of beauty and random acts of kindness? ran the bumper sticker. It?s a daft impossible, idea but Winston O? Boogie was telling me to do it… ?it?s easy if you try.?
And so here I was returning to HCMC. The sick stomach feeling was gone but many times in the past days I seriously considered not making my Wednesday evening appointment with Phuong and her mother. It would be so easy to avoid the piazza and not show up – problem solved. But I?d started it and now I had to finish.
With my heart quaking (guilt? apprehension? English reserve? I couldn?t decide) I made my way back to the now familiar square with a liaison from our Vietnamese tour group. We found Phuong and her mother – apparently they hadn?t been arrested by my thought police – and the friendly T-shirt seller?s wife produced four of those plastic stools you see on every Vietnamese street and our conference began. I hid my face under my baseball cap – I didn?t want to call attention to myself or suggest that maybe this is what my friend Kim called an Aqualung moment (?Sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent…?). I let the guide do the talking. My plan seemed vaguely feasible again but Phuong?s mother put up the first road-block, she wanted cash. I?d been warned this was likely to happen and I was prepared. I said no. I wanted to help not to damage. Gradually Phuong?s story emerged.
Phuong?s father was long gone. Phuong spends her mornings at the Orphanage school in HCMC – she is sponsored by a Dutch lady who also met her on the street, visits her every year and sends her $20 on her birthday. Incredibly my kind of lightning has struck Phuong before. In the afternoon Phuong is released from school and works the streets selling postcards and books to tourists while her mother hangs in the shadows and watches out for her. They both live off Phuong?s earnings. Phuong can joke with the arrogant tourists and charm them in three languages but she can only write Vietnamese. On her right hand she has not one but two thumbs – she has a smile that would melt the coldest of hearts.
After much negotiation it has been decided that for the price of a cheap bicycle I will help her go to language school for one maybe two years. With no strings attached all Phuong has to do is show up and learn – the right of any child. If she uses her language skills to become a tour guide for Vietnam?s fast-growing tourist industry she could earn more than a doctor. Maybe she?ll just want to have kids and pass on her wit and skills – maybe she?ll do both. It?s up to her now.
POSTSCRIPT…As my plane lifts off from Hong Kong a few days later I read my earlier thoughts about colonialists and religious fanatics (diary 2001). I wonder is my gesture a genuinely decent thing or just another chapter, albeit a small one, of hypocritical western meddling in the 3rd world struggle?
Coincidentally Freddy Heineken, the guy who owned the brewery that was promoting itself when I landed in Hanoi just two weeks ago, died last night. He was 78 and had $3.6 billion in the bank. All I know is that whether you?re selling books on the street in Ho Chi Minh City or you?re the richest man in Holland one day we?ll all be equal.
POSTSCRIPT TO THE POSTCRIPT (dated June 26th)…Phuong never took up my offer of the year’s tuition. Instead I’m buying a water buffalo for a family near Hue. So much for good intentions…
The Water Buffalo I bought and its new drivers