To sort out the mess I had to zip across town to the internet people to make sure they know that it is I, the foreigner, who lives at 608 and not some local guy with a similar address. Joe's posse members were all out on various runs. But before a nefarious interloper with patched pants and broken teeth could scoop me up on a battered old bike, Joe roared up between us and I hopped on his ride. I was in a hurry. I had no patience for the competition. "If the competition isn't Johnny on the spot, then it's Joey on the spot for me" thought I.
We caromed across town at top speed until I was deposited at the requisite offices of the august operators of the www. I told Joe not to wait, not knowing how long this would take. Turns out it wasn't long. They had got their money from the other guy. Having got theirs, they were satisfied.
So I came out of the office and saw that I had a choice of half a dozen drivers all vying for my custom. I recognized a broken–down old guy I call "Sam." I'd used him a couple of times before. He knew the way home. Joe gives him the stink–eye when he comes around, but I don't like to get involved in their disputes. I summoned him. He putted up to me on what must be at least a ten–year–old bike. Doesn't even have an electric starter like virtually all the newer ones have nowadays. And it needs a bit of up–keep. So does he.
So when he pulls up he lifts a piece of white terrycloth from the rear seat of his bike. Keeps the tropical sun off the black leatherette, making it much cooler for sitting on. Nice touch, Sam. On the way home we have to stop at traffic lights. He makes a point of pulling up short in order to pause under the trees that line the main roads of the city, for a bit of cooling shade. "Nice touches," I think. "Too bad he doesn't have a posse." I figure maybe I'll talk to Joe about him. Give the old guy a break.
A Big 3–dollar Bill
We arrive back at 608, Chung Cu, Ngo Tat To and I dismount. I remove the helmet that he is legally required to provide for my safety. I reach into my pocket for the dollar and a dime that he has earned. And all I have is big money.
It is my habit, whenever going out the door, to check the contents of my money pocket for both the total amount as well as the presence of small money. But I had been in such a hurry, and been distracted. And now I was going to pay the price. I could just hear that Mexican traffic cop snickering and saying, "It's not much money, Senor." Well that's not the point, is it? I don't like being taken for a ride after being taken for a ride. And if they know you've paid too much once, they'll make up reasons for you to pay too much in the future.
Knowing the answer, I hand him the smallest I have, a "three dollar bill," and ask if he has change. "No," he says, with eyes downcast in acceptable humility. I shove it toward him in a gesture that says, "Well then take it, you son–of–a–bitch." With a certain delicacy he accepted the 50,000–dong note, switched off his bike and dismounted. Without saying anything, his little half helmet still on his head, he padded over to a nearby sidewalk cafe and asked for change of the big money. They shooed him away for a barefoot beggar. I figured they would. They usually do.
Two more cafes yielded him one dismissive gesture and one shout to go away. He was standing in the street with the big money in his hand and nowhere to go. He looked my way and saw that I was standing in the mid–day tropic sun and sweating bullets, my patience wearing thin. I was about to give him the finger and retreat into the air–con comfort of 608 where a cold beer and a hot female companion were waiting for me. Lunch, too.
He pads back to where I stand. He hands me back the big money. Using one of about a dozen words in his English lexicon he says, "Tomorrow." In my hot and distracted state I don't quite grasp the import of what he is saying. I'm even a little irritated, as I won't be in town tomorrow. "Tomorrow no good," I say. It's Monday, but he doesn't know how to say Wednesday, so he says, "Next tomorrow." Then it sinks in, that this man who probably lives in a single room and dines on broken rice and tastes beer or whiskey only on feast days is going to lend me the not insignificant sum of a dollar and a dime.
Consider: I could easily stiff this guy for a dollar and a dime, and he knows it. What could be his remedy, after all? Call a cop? People here gladly pay money not to deal with the cops. And who would the cop believe? The one who could pay him to believe.
Could he yell at me when he sees me and badmouth me to his fellows? I could just avoid his corner. Come to 608 and try something bold? I could sic Joe on him. Or maybe take me to court? Yeah, right. Small claims court, right? It doesn't even exist here. Even though, for him, it's no small claim. A dollar and a dime is a meal his family doesn't eat. It's half a tank of gas he can't buy. It's tribute he can't render unto Caesar, whether he makes a buck or not.
What he could do is rightfully claim that he can't make change, and that it's my fault for not carrying small money like any other resident of the city. But he doesn't. Instead, he decides to trust me. Man to man he's going to trust me for two days for 20 — 25% of his daily bread.
He nods to me and once again says, "Next tomorrow." And then the little shoeless man who has the heart to lend me a dollar and a dime mounts his rusty steed and rides away. I tell you, a lesson in humility can be a bitter pill to swallow. But under this day's mad–dog noonday sun, it comes with one cool, sweet drink of water.
Richard Sterling is the author of many articles and two books on Vietnam, the most recent of which is the first edition of the Eyewitness Guide to Vietnam and Angkor Wat. You can see his Vietnam blog here.
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