My mission takes me deep into the covered market. I pass though its outer quadrangular layer of dried fish – pungent but not unpleasantly so – and lethal ironmongery, into the penumbral heart where more banal items are sold by men and women far from banal. I nod and smile my way down narrow aisles, lit by naked bulbs, of T-shirts and bleach, tin buddhas and carbolic soap. Ah, this looks promising!
Catching the lady’s eye I stretch my left hand across washing powder, baby clothes and underarm deodorants. With my right I mime the clipping of nails manifestly too long. Her assuring nod of recognition makes clear I could not have chosen more wisely. Her stall, I am given to understand, is the Colosseum; the Louvre Museum of cuticle containment.
Surveying several models, spanning three different philosophical approaches, I reject clippers of the kind I’d left at home and whose design renders their edges irredeemable once dulled. I reject too the scissors; no good, in my clumsy left hand, for dealing with the right. Settling on a hybrid solution – scissors in operation, cutters in execution – I part with 50,000 dong. I don’t bargain. There are too few farangs in Kon Tum for the kind of monkey business routine to Saigon, Hoi Anh or the larger Mekong towns. I’ve had overpayments returned too often here to worry about such things. Least of all with so fine-looking an item as this; its dull steel not flashy but soberly suggestive of dependable precision. And all for thirty bob!
The deal done, she detains me with restraining hand, her other producing – what else? – a pair of ice-blue speedos, the critical bit adorned with the word, “Star” in sexy black lettering. I didn’t fall off the crimbo tree. The glint in her eye hasn’t escaped me, nor the three neighbouring stall-holders, all female, zeroing in. Viets are big on poker humour but we Sheffielders are no slouches either. Fixing each lady in turn I pull both hands apart to stretch the item, then, with rueful head shake and lewdly southward gesture, flag my sorrowful resignation – what can a chap do? – at its hopeless inadequacy for the scale of wedding kit it would have to house. They shriek with laughter. One slaps my forearm. The principal actor jabs me in the shoulder, Dick Emery style. I am awful – but they like me.
1930: British lady takes morning air on deck of houseboat on lovely Dal Lake in Srinigar, Kashmir. Boy glides shikara alongside, climbs aboard to place pretty string of beds round milk-white neck. “Kitna”, she snaps: how much? With a figure required, and not wishing to disappoint, boy plucks one from thin air.
Minutes later he rows away with two rupees. She turns to servant.
“Did I not bargain well, Abdul?”
“Indeed memsahib – but he wanted to give you the beads.”
I read this decades ago in Jan and Rumer Goddens’ wonderful and long out of print Shiva’s Pigeons. Whatever its literal truth, I vouch for its accuracy of sentiment. When it comes to Asia at large, and India in particular, don’t ever assume you Already Know.
Frankly the guy was beginning to piss me off. I’d chosen this restaurant, pricier than my usual pavement pho joints, because I wanted to reflect. When he approached my table I’d been more than glad to snap him with young boy in arms. (He wasn’t the father, I now knew.) But within minutes it had become clear – from the way he leaned on the low rickety table to tilt it alarmingly, and from his dogmatically gesticulated assertions that my Saigon beer was number 10, his Tiger beer number 1 – the guy was juiced.
Under cover of retrieving specs to study Tiger label, I pulled the bag housing camera, flash gun, radio transmitter and wide angle lens – a cool £2.5k’s worth – from under table to seat beside me. I knew he had no larcenous intent but when his beers (trust me: a man with three on the go is already four sheets to the wind) plus my own tipped over, I wanted my kit high and I wanted it dry.
It was getting worse. “Money”, he kept saying. “Munn-ee”. I didn’t like the slyly knowing tone. I’ve heard it once or twice in the more spoiled parts of Vietnam, and in India more times than I’ve had hot roti. I signalled an incomprehension not entirely faked since I couldn’t for the life of me figure what he meant by his repeated circular gestures above my half eaten supper. Did he want my food as well as wallet? Apparently not, since my gestured invite to have himself a trio of skewered prawns only evoked vigorous head shaking and fresh round of the food wave and munnee thing. Finally, in that form of frustration peculiar to drunks, he staggered to his feet, arms outstretched for farewell embrace. Man, was I ready to oblige!
Beer in hand, I watched him fasten a skid lid. Oh no! He surely isn’t driving home!?!Phew: he climbs onto a Suzuki, behind a steadier looking dude who pulls away in a reassuringly straight line.
I nurse a beer. Then another. I signal for the bill but there seems to be some problem. My waiter, out of his depth, calls his boss over. Her English is only marginally better but she finally gets through to me.
You no pay! The man …
She gestures to the seat my self invited guest had occupied.
The man – he already pay …
Much as I’d like to leave things there, the tale has a sequel. At a table a few yards away, a large group of lads in late teens have finished eating and are putting beers away with gusto. They’re boisterous but happy and it hits me belatedly – duh! – that it’s Friday; le weekend. K-lined is king; this is what normal people do on Friday night. It’s me that’s out of joint, skulking over a few solitary beers to reflect!
One boy comes over. Normally he’d be shyly respectful. Now he’s cheerfully expansive. He wants me – I look over his shoulder to see his pals nod and beckon vigorously – to join them. Can you in your wildest dreams imagine, in Blighty, a bunch of teenage lads wanting a sixty-something to drink with them? Fuck it! I haven’t come to Vietnam to reflect but to experience.
So there’s me, early hours of Saturday, surrounded by boys a third my age and loving every minute. We haven’t a word in common so, for the umpteenth time in this beautiful country, my camera and kit, far from demarking difference, open doors.
The lads show off; I snap. They roar over the results; I clink glasses every ten seconds and beam like a man in second childhood, eighty today, surrounded by his favourite grandsons.