Tuesday, November 07, 2006

There's A Little Green Man in My Head

Saigon, Vietnam

"Fuck off, you little twat," I said to the six-year-old girl.

"Fuck you up ass!" she responded.

At that moment, I knew that I had to find a new place to stay in Saigon.

* * * * *

Every major city in Asia has a budget travellers' ghetto, and Saigon's is named Pham Ngu Lao. The lodgings in the neighborhood, as in most "backpacker districts," run a shortened spectrum from cheap and grotty guesthouses to mid-range and passable hotels. The restaurants serve Western food, and there are plenty of same-day laundries. Every third storefront is a travel agency, and every sixth is an internet cafe.

A backpacker district is supposed to provide the necessities of independent travel at reasonable prices. A backpacker district is not supposed to turn you into a vengeful paranoid, swearing at little girls and starting fights with young Vietnamese men.

But that's what Pham Ngu Lao does to you. It gets into your head and under your skin and any other bodily metaphor you care to write. It's not so much a neighborhood as a neighbor, the tedious one you try to avoid but can't, and you watch, mesmerized and powerless, as your emotions arc from distaste to rage.

The dominant fact of Vietnamese life is that its people are poor but want to be rich, and they have decided that no-holds-barred capitalism is the way to achieve their goal. It has become a cliche to say that the United States lost the war and won the peace, but when one of the tallest buildings in town illuminates the night sky with the blue and white Citibank logo, the cliche can't be dismissed as lazy typing.

The vendors of Pham Ngu Lao have decided, for their part, that the way to fatten their bank accounts, at Citibank and elsewhere, is to harass every Caucasian in sight until he or she buys their product or service through force of bullying.

Some vendors are more aggressive than others. Some will merely call out as you walk by. "Custom suits." "Taxi." "Hasheesh." I don't mind these catcalls. The vendors have a right to tell me what they're selling, and I have a right to ignore them.

But Isaac Newton was correct, and entropy always increases. Storeowners start to yell at you when you are half a block ahead and continue until you are half a block away. Hostesses grab your arm and try to pull you into their restaurants. Pimps yell directly into your face. Old ladies selling piles of bootleg photocopied books will physically block your path, forcing you to shove them aside.

Hawkers loudly shill for the many nightclubs that double as brothels. One teenage tout followed me down the block, half a step behind, screaming in my ear.



"One free drink."


"Why not?"


"You gay boy. You asshole."

I whirled around and shoved him backward onto the sidewalk. He sat stunned, looking up at me, and I turned a corner and was gone. Shoving the guy was the stupidest thing I've done this entire trip, because he easily could have pulled out a knife or gun and made short work of me. But that's what Pham Ngu Lao does to you.

As a defense mechanism, you start to walk down the street with a scowl and hostile attitude, avoiding eye contact. If you so much as look at a merchant or her store, she will run out and pester you. Don't even think about consulting a map or guidebook while standing on the sidewalk; you will be mobbed. Don't stop moving, or they'll attack.

The entreaties are not isolated or occasional or often. In Pham Ngu Lao, they are constant and never-ending. Someone is in your face every five feet. You become paranoid and want to lash out at everyone who comes too close.

Nor does your hotel provide a respite. The hotel employees will not give you a straight answer to any question, because they want to sell you overpriced add-ons. They'll claim they don't know the location of the nearest laundry or the directions to the train station, but they'll be happy to launder your clothes or call a car and driver. Every morning, the woman at the front desk of my hotel would demand to
know where I was going. On the first morning, I made the mistake of
telling her and was subjected to a three-person tag-team pitch for
tour guide services. After that, I ignored her, to her obvious

Among the varieties of mercenary behavior, the worst is exhibited by a set of adults who use children to shake down travellers. Ostensibly, the children are selling flowers or cheap gewgaws, like bracelets. In reality, the supervising adult will select a likely street corner and instruct the children to stalk and harangue Westerners until they obtain some money for their efforts. The kids, lacking other socialization, don't understand that their actions are wrong, and most travellers are too timid or harried to try to teach them otherwise.

* * * * *

I tucked the Wall Street Journal Asia under my arm and walked out of
the restaurant. She had been waiting and pounced.

"You buy flowers," said the six-year-old, standing in front of me and
blocking my way.

"No," I said, walking around her.

"You buy," she said, snatching at my elbow.

"No. Toi!" I said, approximating a Vietnamese epithet for "go away" which literally meant "go die."

"Give me money," she said, following me.


"Yes. Give me money," she said again.

"Fuck off, you little twat," I said. She understood at least one of those words.

"Fuck you up ass!" she yelled, still shadowing me. "Fuck you up ass!
Fuck you up ass!"

I rolled up my Wall Street Journal Asia and gave the little girl a sharp bop on the nose with the newspaper.

She froze. I kept walking and melted into the crowd, as I counted to myself, "One. Two. Three. Fo--."

"Wahhhhhhhhh!" she cried, running back to her hidden minder. I hailed a cab and told the driver to take me to the central business district. I needed to find a new hotel in a calmer neighborhood and clean away the miasma of Pham Ngu Lao.

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Blogger sendaiben said...

That's weird. I was in Saigon this February, and I had the opposite experience. I felt that everyone was very low key, and the only touts I saw were the guys selling water outside the old Palace...

We didn't stay in this district, however.

7:06 PM  
OpenID Guy said...

While I'm sure your intention was for your readers to feel for you, this post just makes you sound like a complete dick... try being civil to people or politely responding, rather than shoving them or hitting little kids.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Wait....yes, I think you've just about won the Biggest Asshole Tourist Ever Award. So you smacked a 6-year-old hawker even while acknowledging you knew Pham Ngu Lao was an area built around the backpacking trade in one of the fastest developing cities in Asia. What did you expect, peace and quiet and relaxing serenity? Nice work douchebag.

7:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt and Guy-I'm not sure you read the same thing I did. I'm quite sure you've never been to this particular neighborhood. Please go there. Please. Then you can come back here and not only apologize, but commiserate about how awful it is.

8:56 PM  

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