Saigon Nights - A freaky tale circa October 2001
Vietnam @ a time before tourism took hold.
Mercy is a virtue.
I'm in a pool hall in Ho Chi Minh City. Uncle Ho may have led a revolution from the north to bring his light of Communism to the hedonistic south, but he obviously didn't reach this place.
Its a massive building, pool tables extend across the floor in an impressive display of symmetry. The decor is tinged with the yellow film left by years of nicotine and the air is thick with Marlboro tobacco. Western murals adorn the walls in true war-era Saigonese style. Slogans and pictures from a bygone time peer down upon me. I'm taken back by the hypocrisy of the scene - of the hundreds of faces here, in a western themed pool place, I am the only westerner.
I finish up my pool game with my local friend, and we say our farewells. Its well past midnight and its time to head back to the hotel, which is located on the other side of the city. I head outside and hail a cab.
The cab is an old Russian made vehicle that looks like it has been in the wars. I know it, because I can smell the exhaust fumes leaking into the cabin from the engine. Its a hallmark of these cars - they refuse to die, but do their best to kill their passengers. After the USA left Vietnam, in the wake of what the Vietnamese call the American war, the country was economically cut off from the western world. Cars, among many other things, became stuck in a time warp. This car and its driver are pre-war merchandise. A true Vietnamese experience.
The driver is the silent type. No words are spoken and I watch the city pass me by. As time ticks, the exhaust becomes worse and I can taste the fuel. The 'putt-putt' of the engine becomes more laboured and I know what comes next. Inertia. The engine stalls and the car rolls to a stop. I ask the driver if the car has broken down. He can't speak English, but his hand gestures convey his frustration. This cab is done for today. Tonight, the cab driver will probably spend his night patching up the dying beast for another journey. I pass him a few notes to help him out and open the door.
Its cold outside. Every breath creates a cloud of mist. There are no cabs here, its a quiet part of town. I look around and get my bearings. I am fortunate that I was following the taxi’s journey instead of talking to the driver. I know there is a body of water in one particular direction and if I find and follow it, I am confident that I can reach my hotel. The only question is distance, and what lies between here and the hotel, but I'm out of options. I can’t stay here all night, so I begin walking.
One well lit street merges into another and as I move forward, the walkways narrow to reveal shuttered shops. The street lights dim and soon, I am walking in darkness, through twisting grimy backstreets. Debris is strewn across my path. I move quickly but quietly, trying to remain undetected as I make my way, stepping over bottles, plastic rubbish and broken wooden pallets that litter the floor.
The silence is broken when I hear a cough come from somewhere to my left. I freeze in my tracks. I’m not alone here. I turn slowly, my eyes wide open and straining in the dark to see where the noise came from. Gradually, I begin to make sense out of the shapes that clutter the walkways of the street. Homeless people, many of them, are lying amid boxes and refuse along the edge of the walkway. Their shapes are broken up my rags, cardboard and paper that they have used to protect themselves from the night chill. I must have taken a wrong turn. Danger.
I stand motionless, waiting for movement. There is none, only the silence of night. I exhale slowly, quietly, and begin to move again. I place each foot slowly, one in front of the other, creeping back the way I came, trying to be invisible. I’m making good progress – soon I’ll be away from here. I relax, just a little…
*CLANG* The metallic sound of metal bouncing across asphalt breaks the silence as my boot makes contact with an empty can. I get that sinking feeling in my stomach. Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement. They’re waking up. Sleepy voices, questions in Vietnamese. Fingers begin to point towards me – even in the dark, I am clearly the outsider here. I’m waiting for the chase to begin, but I don’t want to run. It might start an attack and I don’t know these streets like they do. So I begin to back up, forcing myself to walk away slowly. All the while, I’m watching, waiting to see what will happen next. I’m at their mercy, its only a question of time.
I step back again. Something’s wrong… I’m stepping on something soft and my balance is gone. I lose my footing and I’m falling backwards. My landing is soft. I’m on the ground now, looking into the eyes of an older homeless man. His eyes are luminous against the grit that coats his face. He looks confused, its obviously not every day that a 90+kg white guy drops in on him for a social visit. I jump to my feet and apologise profusely. I want to keep moving, but its too late. That fall cost me my advantage and now I’m surrounded.
I resign myself to the situation. I tell them that I have lost my way and I ask for help to find my hotel. I ask in English, using the name of the hotel, hoping someone will recognise the name, but I am not expecting any reply. I’m looking into the crowd for a friendly face and I repeat my question, palms outstretched to show that I am not a threat. Then, to my surprise, I hear the homeless man with the luminous eyes reply in broken English:
“I help you. Come quick. We go. I show you…”.
It’s a simple decision to make – better to put my faith in one person who has offered to take personal responsibility for my safety than a crowd who cannot understand me and look hostile. I follow the lead of the slight homeless man as he guides me at a fast pace through the back streets to the river line. At the water’s edge, we are alone again and he smiles at me and points in the direction of my hotel.
I look at him. This homeless man is my unlikely saviour. “Why did you help me?” I ask him. He simply replies “Because you need”.
I am deeply surprised and humbled by his gesture. I take off my coat and take all the bills from my wallet, saving only enough for a cab fare back to my hotel. I hand them to him. He looks confused. I say “….because you need”.
We smile at each other, shake hands and part ways. I don’t know what happened to him, but I will always remember that night.
Mercy is a virtue, unique to us. What makes it so special is that it is a blessing of unconditional kindness that only comes from the darkest circumstances.