Getting off a small island isn’t always easy. I wanted to fly back to the mainland today but can’t get a seat till tomorrow. I’m condemned to sit out another day under a coconut palm, sipping juice to the rolling boom of surf. Maybe I’ll have a beer too, but just the one. Tonight I go squid fishing with Quoc’s friends and must conserve my strength and keep a clear head. It’s not easy being trapped in paradise …
I’ve met some good westerners: an engineer from Heidelberg and his adult daughter, the anglo-french couple (he a Brit journalist, she a teacher) from Aix with seven months to tour S.E Asia and, of course, Viet-American Quoc. I’ve also seen too much of the kind of western behaviour that makes you cringe. Yesterday evening I was by the ocean for sunset, as were clusters of locals and westerners. Photographers call this the golden hour. With a sun not yet low enough I turned my attention inland, sweeping my lens person to person, lingering for a moment on a pair of shapely aryan legs. Putting the camera down I saw they belonged to a young blonde in romantic embrace with an equally good looking boy. “Ah”, I thought indulgently, as the soft light enveloped and blessed their kiss. A second later my fondness vanished as an elderly Viet, bent at the waist, approached with begging bowl. Patiently she stood; two, three minutes as they studiously ignored her. In India, teeming with beggars, this may be forgivable – though even there it costs nothing to look the person in the eye and smile as you say no – but here, where I’ve seen an average of a beggar a day, it sickens me. A few dong could transform her day. Being next in her sights I gave more generously than I would have and that’s the situation in a nutshell for the (many) westerners who come with respect. We’re all compensating.
(To give some perspective on how easy it is to make a difference in the context of a widening gap between winners and losers of economic liberalisation, we’re approaching Tet, the lunar new year and the country’s biggest festival. Vietnam News reports that the government is to give its poorest, including disabled victims of agent orange, a quarter million dong, $13, as a “Happy Tet” gesture.)
Since my hippy days of Afghanistan and India in the early seventies I’ve made a study of twat westerners in the third world. I’m enough of an expert to appreciate they’re not confined to those spots like Goa, Phuket – and now Phu Quoc – whose beauty combines with third world prices to make playgrounds for spoilt brats who’d as soon be in Cannes or Martha’s Vineyard if they could afford it. You see twat westerners in Delhi and Angkor, Chiang Mai and Phnom Penh. But you don’t see them in the same concentrations for the simple reason that people who go to those places are likely to have wider cultural horizons than snorkelling, beaches and no strings sex. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not condemning any of that per se. It’s just that when these are the sole points of interest, in places where you need the emotional intelligence of an aphid not to see the grotesque levels of inequality underpinning the fun. And not only see it, but find a way of responding.
PS last night over fresh caught snapper, Quoc revealed more of himself. I told of his Saigon father doing a ten year re-education stretch. Now it turns out his Hanoi mother shopped him. (That’s not as incredible as it sounds. Everything we know about totalitarian regimes tells us they throw up situations where husbands or wives fingered by the system will encourage spouses to save themselves by denouncing them. Try Helen Dunmore’s excellent but chilling The Betrayal for an insight into this.) On his release the pair were reunited and now live in Los Angeles where ma rolls her eyes as pa writes articles feverishly critical of Hanoi for a shoestring rag distributed across California’s expat contra community. Only when her son, having chucked corporate law to take on Beijing over its water grabbing, announced his intent to visit relatives still in the country, did ma reveal the family’s closet skeleton. Since he’d be talking to aunts and uncles with diametrically opposed views, the danger of a blunder on his part now outweighed the desirability of keeping things buried.
He could sell that story to Amazing but True.