Puddled water after the afternoon rains and the relief of cooler, fresher weather for a while. My second Tiger Crystal glides down and soon I am calling for more, surveying surroundings, sat in the street, the sizzle of something sausagey sliding by on a handcart.
Handcart is swiftly followed by some lottery seller / blind flute player combo, whose tunes are undermined by the stench of sudden durian fruit on the back of a motorbike. Durian’s sickly-sweet flesh is overpowered by an aroma pungeant enough to make you puke.
Pham Ngu Lao.
My friend Simon had said to me, “Fuck that place. I never wanna set foot in that fucking hole ever again!” but still I had to come. If only for the memories.
The Huong Vy restaurant has accommodated many a long and boozy session, at one time heaving with expat middle-aged men from English-speaking countries, drawn to Saigon by the low-cost living and lovely, local ladies with low expectations and tight foo foos.
The old crowd seem all gone now, however. Maybe they were barred. Some might have moved on. Some might have passed on.
One for sure has done a runner to District 7 after an unfortunate and rapidly-acquired methamphetamine habit had led to him smashing a beer bottle over the head of a mate at nine o’clock in the morning and for no good reason. For no reason at all, in fact.
Gary the old homeless guy who would get bought green tea by the regulars and then sit quietly, dreaming of his prime, was without doubt dead, picked off one night or other by grinding destitution. Likewise I heard TB saw to one or two. The too-good-to-be-true offer of dollar vodka buckets at a bar a block away was exactly that: a spate of sudden death and blindness was the result and then they shut up shop.
The street vendors recognise me: not the shoe shine boys (unchanged) who are too pitiful to bother to make even the most unequal of relationships spring up from this dirty side street.
You might call it quaint in Saigon’s backpacker district and bizarre tourist trap. If you had been unable to get tickets for Banksy’s Dismaland, but still wanted an absurd destination with your family, you could do worse than the Pham.
Seemingly on a loop, people selling something- or maybe just themselves,- pass by in steady procession.
Rumours abound it is all controlled by the mafia. The street sellers have been sold into slavery by families eager to pay off gambling debts. What they make gets taken off them to pay off interest and they sleep like dogs on dirt floors and live off plain rice with fish sauce.
Hammock guy goes by, his unenviable task to generate interest in an uncomfortable rope net hammock in an area of urban blight three hours from the coast. He doesn’t even bother trying too hard, like he would never make a sale in any case.
Why wouldn’t he switch to something more lucrative, you think. In truth, there is a very fixed hierarchy of street sellers. While they sometimes move up or down a division, they are not in a position to show entrepreneurship.
At the bottom are the emaciated shoe shine boys, growth stunted from lack of nourishment and smoking when young. Their job is to shine shoes in a land where everyone is wearing flip-flops.
Engish teachers drinking their paycheques away before kindergarten classes eye them nervously as they approach with brush and toolkit, pleading pathetically, “Shoe shine number one. Number One!” They raise a finger too- not to say “Fuck you!” but to emphasize the second “Number One!” (although they have been known to say “Fuck you!” after drunken teachers say to them “Fuck you!” Taken together, it’s like a Derek and Clive sketch.)
The old ladies pushing barrows of carefully prepared food will break your heart.
Smokers are catered for, cigars and cigarettes. If you meet their eye they will say ‘wee’, which is Vietnamese for ‘weed’ and not a invitation to water sports.
Book lovers have a field day with ladies carrying towering piles of photocopied books held together with elastic. “You wa buy a boo?” they ask, waving down the spines of pirated copies of Shantaram and Life of Pi.
Sunglasses sellers pester sunglasses wearers more than the non-beshaded, like that establishes you as a user and so you might be in the market for more. One of them has been running the same notorious routine for years whereby he only has one pair which he rubs with care on his T-shirt before thrusting them in your face with a look of triumph, always deflated when you say “No!” and turn away. He slopes off, crushed, like you’ve just turned down the offer of the year.
“Hello. Wan’ something?” Fan Lady smiles, holding up a mass of friendship bracelets, pushing out her bosom to display her wares in a plastic tray. I ask for cigarette papers but she shows me a pair of scissors. “What would I want with scissors? I’m in a bar,” I say. In a flash, she holds up disposable razors and a pac-a-mac.
Night falls sudden as a car crash so I pay up and head for the pharmacist. “Mosquito repellant,” I say to the girl on the counter. “Do you have Valium?”
She heads in the back to check and a large North American comes in wanting Tylenol for her neuralgia, then the girl comes back, says “Sorry, no Valium! Diazepam okay? Same same.” It’s fine by me.
I return to the Huong Vy- where else is going to let me skin up?- but my table has gone. Instead I am ushered next to tourists with babies.
I skin up anyway, ignoring the dad’s glares. This is Vietnam, not West Virginia. He can fuck off. But then his wife leaves to the toilet and, while she’s gone, he asks if I can pass him the joint.
Huong Vy turns a blind eye to discreet smoking, though it is best to hide it if the police come by. Some say they get away with it due to being the last bastion of the South Vietnamese government- the one that lost that war against the North. They call it the ‘American War’ round these parts. From the seat of power to a strip of tables with chequered cloths and plastic chairs; if that isn’t disaster capitalism, I don’t know what is. Some say it’s actually two places, the old lady in the back being supported by revenue of the tables up one end- which is why they hate the drinkers up there and hassle you to buy food.
In a spate of one-upmanship a few years back- when the hotel opposite was internally demolished and replaced by a near-identical hotel and a Baskin Robbins that has never seen a single customer, -Huongy Vy responded by dividing an already improbably small loo into two tinier toilets only a contortionist could shit in.
That was their big revamp.
Night has fallen. A gecko on the wall makes a sudden leap for a cockroach that has somehow strayed above ground level. The gecko’s tongue stuffing in the massive, crunchy shell horrifies all who see it. It is ghastly.
The blind flute player passes by once more, steadily guided by his lottery-selling helper.
This is where we came in.
Time for the bill.