Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ho Chi Minh City

One of the restaurants in the next alley over has free WiFi, so we decided to have breakfast there and check e-mails, pay bills, and other mundane things. The place was empty with the exception of one young man, yet six of the booth tables had laptops on them, opened and running. I could not believe the bad luck not being able to find a table where there was a plug available. The hostess came running out of the kitchen to sit us, competition is tough for patrons. She pointed to a table occupied by a laptop and I asked if it was okay. When she said it was, I realized that since they offer free WiFi, they also offer computers in order to access it. All six of the computers on the tables belonged to the restaurant as their bargaining chip for getting customers.

The plugs throughout Vietnam and Cambodia are European style plugs, while Malaysia has British style; however, here they are all as loose as an old bitch after birthing six unwanted litters. Besides the plug, you need a 2 by 4 to hold it in. The plug has to dangle just so in the outlet in order for an actual electric connection to be made. After fiddling with one for a good three minutes, I asked Ron to try, but the only way we could get it to work is if he held it. For some reason he was not willing to be bent over holding it for the forty-five minutes I would need it just so. My battery was already evaporated, no juice was left. A plug was essential. Then it occurred to me that if their laptop was plugged in, I could most likely use that plug. After asking, I cut the power to their machine and powered up my own. Finishing up, we dropped the computer off at our hotel and we were off for discovering.

It was not a terribly eventful day. We went to one of the major markets that covers one full city block. They sell everything from raw materials for making your own clothes, to touristy souvenirs and restaurant are serving food. If you are a tourist, you are like highly prized beef. Each stall will call you over, ask what you want to buy today, or many have the give of prophecy to automatically have a shirt, underwear, pants, t-shirt or belt already in their hands telling you this is what you have come for. If you smile and say “No, thank you” or “just looking”, they start getting aggressive. These mostly young women will grab your shirt, your arm, or your pant leg if you are tall enough and they are sitting on the floor at the time to get your attention to show you their full selection of wares. If what they have in their hand is not to your liking, chances are they have something you will find desirable if only you give them the chance.

Ron was looking for a muslin pullover V-neck and I happened to spot one, but it was embroidered. I made the mistake of making eye contact and now the race was on. Not only did I have the two women at the current booth all over me like white on rice, but every woman at every booth within earshot knew there were potential consumers within radar range. We were like trapped animals. The woman first showed us to shirt I did not like for him in his size, so then we asked if they had it plain without the embroidery. They did. One woman actually held my arm while the other went looking for it, lest I should escape during this diversion. When the ‘perfect’ shirt was produced, Ron was flipped around like a store dummy to see if the shoulders were the right size. They were cookin’ on full steam and there was no stopping them now.

The next factor was bargaining the price. When they suggested some ridiculous price, I told them for that much we would grow our own cotton, run it through a cotton mill, spin it, weave it and have it hand sewn for cheaper. Instead of lowering the price, they return with “How many do you want to buy?” Not being taken in by the discount for quantity trick, we said just one. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange has less bargaining done than we did with these two. Finally, I suggested Ron leave it behind to think about whether or not he really wanted it or not. He has had the idea for this shirt for over a year and each time we have come across one, he has negated it. We left them pleading with us to remember their stall was 116 and a price tag of 150,000 Dong, less than $10.00.

As we tried leaving the narrow aisle overflowing with merchants and merchandise, the smell of money was in the air and we were wanted bounty. We were grabbed, seized, snatched at, mauled, and man handled. The only thing we were not offered was someone’s first born child. We made our escape.

Many countries we have traveled to have had people who are poor or those that are out to scam try to sell us everything and anything, use emotional blackmail, or just pester us to distraction, but this is the worst we have dealt with. We continued walking and came across a pleasant young man with his sidewalk stand set up. He makes pop-up cards that he hand cuts and arranges. One card may open to a multicolored lotus flower while another may be a farmer plowing a field with oxen. They were beautifully executed. He had one of butterflies, so I bought it for my office.

Hearing various rumors that there was a Hard Rock Café here, we went in search of it. They vendors sell HRC t-shirts, but we fell for that stunt in Rome in 1993, years before HRC’s arrival. Though it was Sunday, all of the stores are open all day. This not being a Christian country, the day of the week means nothing to them. At the Tourist Information Center, we found there was a knock off HRC, but it was closed down. What we did find was a Gloria Jean Coffee shop! Yahoo, real coffee for a change, not the faux French press drip coffee that is cold by the time it finishes dripping. Guess what direction we went in?

Being fueled by caffeine, we ventured into a tall tower mall that was as western as they get, but the sign offering the chance to win a trip for two to the Beijing Olympics this year if you use your Visa card at any merchant in the mall, made it appealing. The grocery store at the top was a haven of American brands, but not with imported prices. If only we did not have strict weight limits on luggage. One strange item was Lipton brand chocolate milk tea bags. They also had a full line of breast creams to make your breasts more beautiful after various occasions.

We were sitting on the steps outside this building when a young guy comes over and wants to polish our shoes. Well, fine, but I am wearing Crocs, which can be cleaned in the sink or shower and Ron is wearing his Birkenstock sandals with only two narrow leather straps. When we refused him, he stood in front of us smiling. Deciding to ignore him, we started speaking to each other. I felt something and the guy was washing my shoe with a toothbrush and water. I jumped up yelling stop. He then tried Ron’s sandal with shoe polish, but when we stopped him again, a security guard came to expel him from the area.

Ron had found out there was a Catholic church nearby with a mass at 4:00 and wanted to go. In the courtyard was a grotto with a shrine to Mary. It looked like the vision from the movie about Fatima. Inside the church, it could have been any country, nothing spoke of cultural differences except the flower leis around statues like they use for the Buddha or Quan Yan statues. Mary and Quan Yan could pass for sisters, can you imagine. As it would happen, this was a benediction, not a mass. When it was over, we left; Ron had his fix, which would last him a week or so.

Eventually, we returned to the market and bought the shirt making two women happy, but not as excited as they would have been had we bought two, three or six gross of anything. Getting out of there took lots of exercise in dodging, pulling, picking hands off of us, and sprinting when we had a clear shot.

Stopping for a beer at a sidewalk café within an hour, we were approached to buy fruits or vegetables from four different vendors, sunglasses from two vendors although the fact that we were both wearing Rx eyeglasses did not seem to dissuade them, books from vendors that walk around carrying a stack of 40 different books all in English, three vendors that sell Zippo lighters with slogans on them, a vendor with a wide variety of Gucci or other designer wallets and then there are multitude of physically deformed who are begging for money.

It is emotionally wearing having so many people try to sell things when it is evident they are not doing this for the fun of it and you realize how much better off we have it than they do. Then the beggars all have legitimate claims and needs, but when do you stop giving and giving and giving, when you know there is no social security system in place to aid them and this is their survival. We have limited ourselves to each of us giving to one person each week.

From social work consciousness to reality once again, we went to the restaurant Good Morning Vietnam for dinner. Surprisingly, it is Italian food, the perfect change needed and their pizzas were excellent. They promise an authentic Italian chef at each of their five locations throughout Vietnam and the chef delivered the goods.

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