Sunday, 3 July 2011

Money in the hat

Vietnam, Mekong Delta

Three of the four tourists wore their tour-inclusive pointed bamboo hats as they were paddled fore and aft in a canoe through the thin, mangrove lined canal just off the Mekong River in southern Vietnam.  The fourth, grumpy at being herded around, harrumph-ing at the trash that littered the banks, and displaying the effects of a traveller’s worst fear; meeting other travellers, mumbled ‘don’t want it’ when the bamboo hats were passed back through the canoe.  Can you guess who this grump was readers?

Passing other canoes heading in the opposite direction, light of load now their tourist meat had been delivered to the waiting boat, the fore paddlers hissed an initially unintelligible phrase to us – ‘teeep morny’.  ‘What are they saying’? I asked Helen.  ‘Good morning, I think’ she responded, as another paddler hissed at us, this time rubbing his thumb and forefingers together.  ‘Oh, right, I see, they’re saying tip money’, I said, the repeated pleas now becoming clearer, more insistent, and frankly more irritating with each passing canoe.  A clever and unequivocal little phrase that one, precluding as it does the waggish response of ‘don’t eat yellow snow’.  Being harangued into tipping is an experience that can sully the most pleasant of experiences, just as excessive hawking and the directive of ‘you buy something’ can ruin a browse through a market.  And yet, irritating as these things may be, I still understand and admire the enterprise of it, perhaps even the necessity of it, for this is a game in which the outcome matters far more to the hawker than the prey.  Nonetheless, a t-shirt that reads ‘no thanks, got enough crap already’ would be a useful wardrobe addition to the market browser in Vietnam.   

The hissing paddlers were part of a two day ‘Mekong Explorer’ tour, run out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), a ludicrously good value way to get to Cat Tho, stay overnight, then reject the return bus journey back to the city (so ludicrously good value and with such small margins that I wondered what the paddlers cut of the take was - not much I concluded handing over a tip). So instead of heading back to Ho Chi Minh City with the rest of the group we have continued west, towards the coast and then on to Phu Quoc Island, where I sit now, overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, a cool sea breeze cutting through the humidity of the day, my writing instruments of beer, cigarettes, notebook, and laptop fanned out in front of me.  The tour made me grumpy at first, but as it went on I became more pensive, the continual undertone of tips, kickbacks, and tourist trappings shifting from an irritant into an insight.  An insight into a nation that has quietly said no the political philosophy of the communist government, and has collectively jumped on to the capitalist bandwagon, grappling over each other to reach the Rolls Royce at the front of the traffic jam.    

On the second day, in a quiet moment, I asked our guide what ambitions young people like him had.  His response, ‘to make money’, does not translate well into the written word, as it implies the kind of shallowness that those who yearn to ‘be famous, just famous’ exhibit.  However, he was saying more than this, I think; he was telling me the chance was there to do something other than just survive, that the luxury of peace and relative stability was a platform not to be squandered.  With an accent and phrases that were a bizarre mix of Seattle and Saigon, his tour guide patter also provided an insight into what exercises the collective mind of the country’s youth.  We weren’t there man, we weren’t there! was his unspoken cry, the war a non-memory, an irrelevance to the young of this striding society.  He spoke of wealth, and non-wealth, of how people made a living, and of international relations between themselves and their neighbouring countries of Laos, China and Cambodia, each trying to harness, in this case, the Mekong River and its banks as a power and revenue generator. His tour commentary, repeated daily and with the same jokes no doubt, seemed nonetheless to have a spontaneous edge to it, as if he was thinking out loud, trying to understand his rapidly shifting country, and his place in it.  The word ‘money’ littered his soliloquies; how to get it, how it has been lost, what it’s like to have little but want lots. 

And I ended up rather liking him for it.  He taught me more than I could ever learn from a book, he revealed a lot about what the national character of Vietnam’s youth is like, and he did so with a charming uncertainty of just how he would fit in, but a rigid certainty that he wanted a piece of this new world pie.  In some ways I think this makes this young lad from Saigon no different from a peer in Seattle.  He wanted to get on, but just wasn't sure how yet, and I liked him for that.

But I’m still not wearing that bloody stupid hat.

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