Perceptive Travel: Bit Parts and Drama in Pagoda Alley

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Bit Parts and Drama in Pagoda Alley
by Richard Sterling



Richard Sterling takes up residence in an expat corner of steamy Saigon, Vietnam, where nobody knows your (real) name.


For many months now, I've been living in Saigon. I have a lovely, well appointed room with a balcony overlooking a quiet side street that everyone calls Pagoda Alley, for the well attended Buddhist house of worship set amidst the little open air restaurants that double as watering holes. I have a TV and minibar, phone, aircon and private bath. $12 a night.

I picked up a new Panama hat just before coming here. It's the best one I've ever had. The ventilation is excellent, the UV protection is such that I can feel the difference, the fit is so perfect that it doesn't fly off in a gust of wind, and I get compliments on it every day. Folks in Pagoda Alley have taken to calling me Mr Hat. (Except for the bar girl who calls me Daddy)

The expat community is relatively small here, especially among the writers, photographers and artsy-fartsy types. Even people who have never met you eventually hear of you. So I'm now "the guy in the Panama hat," to the expats.

Panama Hat

At least they know it's a Panama. The locals, universally, call it a Cowboy hat. And I have failed at every attempt to educate them otherwise. They simply do not have a place in their consciousness for the idea of "Panama hat." It's a concept foreign to them. And when I tell them that a Panama comes from Equador, two countries most of them have never heard of, it only makes things more confusing. They simply nod politely and tell each other it's a Cowboy hat. So it's official. Mr. Hat is a cowboy, pilgrims. Whoopey tay aye ay. I don't know how they square that with my English desert boots and khaki trousers. And I shall not delve into it. But yeeha, nonetheless.

The locals have a name for most of the resident foreigners here, and there is a colorful collection of them. Mr. Fat can be seen morning, noon and night at his favorite table. Mr. Black can be persuaded to sing Calypso when in his cups. So he sings a lot of Calypso. Mrs. Tall is very stand-offish. I don't even know where she's from, but I think it's Belgium. At least she has a waffle face. Miss Blonde is sometimes known as Miss Skinny, and she consorts with Mr. Nose. Mr. Sideburns is from Australia, and is seldom seen without his bit of Vietnamese Crumpet. A number of the middle aged foreign men have such Crumpets, though the locals don't give names to the Crumpets except for Miss Argument. Thank goodness for my hat! Collectively I refer to the foreigners in the alley as The Soaks. You may say I exaggerate, but these people drink more beer than I do. They begin at breakfast and they don't stop till bedtime. Admittedly they pace themselves, but it still seems to be their chief amusement.

I figure that if the locals can name the foreigners, turn about is fair play. And there is a rich collection of characters in "Mr. Hat's Neighborhood." The slightly built Miss Chatter first appeared before me as I read the morning paper at a sidewalk table. With little tufts of hair sprouting from under her arms, and one trouser leg rolled up to the knee and clutching numerous purses and parcels I immediately thought of the nursery rhyme "One shoe off/ One shoe on/ Deedle deedle dumpling/ My son John." Without the formality of introductions she quickly told me, through Slim the waiter, that at age 37 she knew she was unlucky in love so I had nothing to worry about. She showed me her ID and her religious affiliation. She shared her diary with me, which of course is in Vietnamese. With Slim translating the odd sentence or phrase she spoke at length on sundry weighty matters, often to herself, to which she gave considered responses. She asked if she could have the remains of my breakfast.

Miss Chatter visits me most mornings now, and we have a comfortable routine. She's always as eager as a puppy to see me, and sits down without asking. Usually a local woman who sits unbidden next to a foreign man would be assumed to be a Crumpet out cruising, and the staff would chase her away as such. But everyone in Pagoda Alley knows Miss Chatter, and knows now that she is friend to Mr. Hat. So I nod to Slim and he brings her tea. She never asks for anything else. I read the paper and she yammers into the void. I don't think she hears voices, she just churns a pot of word soup. Eventually she gives me the news of the day. Sometimes Slim translates, sometimes he disappears. She reminds me that she's unlucky in love, and has shown me her palm to read, mute but immutable testimony to her love-lorne status. Still, she says she is happy to know me.

I finally bought a post card from Crawling Lady a while back. Curiously, it was the same day that the Saint Vitus Dancer made his reappearance after a three week absence. Saint Vitus' Dance is a genetic nervous disorder that causes its sufferers to walk in crazy postures, with pained expressions, arms akimbo, tongue sticking out, eyes bulging. I don't mean this unkindly, but it's a bit like a Monty Python silly walk. Our dancer had reached the middle of the alley and paused, frozen in his pose, statue-like. Because of the position of one of his hands, a passerby thought he was begging and tried to press a small note into his hand. It fluttered to the pavement, and the would-be good Samaritan fled in confusion.

Crawling Lady crawled up to my table and said hello as usual. "Hello, my friend," said I. "I'm happy to see you." I long ago found that Vietnamese people love that phrase, "I'm happy to see you." I'm the only foreigner I know that uses it. And I use it sincerely. And it always brings a smile, even a blush. Crawling Lady grinned, nodded and said "Happy see you, too. You buy postcard?" She always asks, but never presses. The most remarkable thing about Crawling Lady is that she speaks more English than most people in the alley. She's a simple soul and doesn't have a lot to say, but she can say a lot.

I remembered that I needed to send a birthday greeting, so I said, "Yes. Post card." She took the flip-flops off her hands. Her feet have no use for them. Her legs are permanently bent at the knees, at an angle greater than 90 degrees. She never needs shoes. I'm always astonished at how clean and well scrubbed she is, given her life on the pavement. And unlike other paraplegics here, she wears no scraps of inner tube to pad her knees. Yet I've never noticed a hole in her trousers.

Heidi

I looked at her wares. I selected the card. I paid her the $0.20. We chatted for a while. And then my my little friend Thuy, whom I like to call Heidi, appeared. She took her seat, greeted Crawling Lady, and looked at me askance, as if to say, "Why I'm just a girl. I can't play pool." I signaled the waiter, who brought her a coke without being told. Upon receiving it, Heidi first offered Crawling Lady a drink. She took a perfunctory sip, smiled and said "thanks."

The three of us sat there for a while, me drinking tea, Heidi and Crawling Lady sharing a coke, now and then speaking, but not too often. Then a guy at the next table (and the tables are very close together) decided that he must show charity to Crawling Lady. He stood up, and with a grand gesture, offered my lowly friend a bank note worth about a dollar. A tidy sum here. She politely refused. Crawling Lady has never taken charity, and she is sincerely embarrassed when it's offered.

The man urged her to accept, and yet she politely refused, turning her face away. He insisted, and she began to show her ire. He tried to force it on her, and she batted his hand away with her flip-flop. He stuffed the bill into her bag of post cards, sat down in a huff, and told her not to be a fool, take the money while you can! She took it out of her bag, crumpled it into a ball and threw it at him. I could see from her tired expression that she has been this route many times. The man was speechless, almost apoplectic, that his largess could be so easily dismissed. That so humble a person could so steadfastly refuse him, from so low a posture.

Flustered at the unpleasantness, Crawling Lady turned to go. She pulled her flip-flops onto her hands. She tucked up her bag of postcards. She looked back and thanked me for buying one. "See you later, Mr. Hat," she said. At that moment, Heidi abandoned her coke and without a word dropped down onto the pavement, on all fours, next to Crawling Lady. Just before they began to crawl away together, shoulder to shoulder, like a team of mules, they burst into a fit of giggles. They nudged each other, nuzzled each other, giggled some more, looked back at me and stuck out their tongues playfully, looked at the man and stuck out their tongues not so playfully, then giggling like school girls, crawled together to the very end of my alley.

How can you not love this place?




Richard Sterling

Richard Sterling is both a travel and food writer. The principal author of Lonely Planet's World Food series, he has been dubbed the Indiana Jones of Gastronomy for his willingness to go anywhere and court any danger for the sake of a good meal. He has been honored by the James Beard Foundation for his food writing, and by the Lowell Thomas awards for his travel literature. Pirated versions of his many books can currently be autographed in Pagoda Alley, Saigon.



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