six hours in saigon

words & images alexandra von arx

Open your eyes. Stretch stiffly in your ripped, sticky, reclining bus seat. As you marvel at how the bus threads itself into alleyways and roads so congested with bikes that there is barely room for the errant pedestrian, you realize that you are beginning to feel nauseated, not from the lurching of the bus, but from the anxiety in the space below your stomach. You love this city but fear it. You've seen enough glimpses of its dark, scaly underbelly through its gossamer feathers that you know there's still much to be afraid of. The local men are not timid. Touches here. Shouts and calls there. Getting followed around the block and finding an accomplice blocking your way once you round the corner. Escaping back into the daylight before the dark clouds closed you in. Nothing seriously precipitous, but enough to make your heart race slightly as the memories flicker through your brain like rogue lightning.

Feel the wheels of the bus lock and the giant vehicle grind to a halt. Grab your bags and jump down from your seat as quickly as you can. The open doorway of the bus is already crowded with motorbike drivers clamoring for customers. Ignore their shouts and push through the reaching and grabbing tangle of their hands until you reach the curb and crane your neck, looking for your usual driver. You spot him already waving to you from the other side of the street, his pimples and unusually white teeth shining from the shadows the streetlight to his left is casting over his face.

He takes you to your usual hotel; tip him even though tipping motorbike drivers isn't encouraged. Notice her as soon as you walk into the lobby. Although the room is packed with western faces, her red hair and loud, jubilant voice are unmistakable. Embrace with the joy that sisters who were enemies in childhood but friends through maturity exhibit after a long absence. Rush to drop your bags off in your room, and then grab her hand and head outside.

You are staying in the heart of the backpacker's district, because it is cheap and accessible. Keep your eye out. Watch out for the local men who will stare and call out and reach for you. Watch out for the ones who only see you as one thing, good for one thing. Put all your defenses up, be ready to fight back, scream, kick and run. Stay close to your friend. Be in no mood to take anything unwanted from anyone.

As she is always politely indecisive, be the one to pick the restaurant. The waitress, wearing an uncomfortable amount of eye makeup, throws the menus at you and then hovers over your shoulder, pointing at different dishes (always the most expensive) as you turn the pages. Ignore her protests when you order a cheap bowl of noodle soup; grimace as your friend orders the gigantic, overpriced cheeseburger.

There is a pause as you both look out onto the street. It's nearing the hour when the noise unconsciously rises and limbs begin to move more of the own accord. Watch clots of tourists begin to clog the streets. Watch them tumble into and around each other in the street—waves of Euro, Aussie, American, Russian, weaving between the occasional oncoming motorbike and car. White faces roar with laughter, encouragement, and incitement. Ripped tanks display muscles and barbed wire or Chinese character tattoos. Elephant pants flutter across beer guts and tighten around weak ankles. Drinks are spilled; more arrive without an order. The scene is more like the dance floor of a nightclub in Vegas than a main street in a city in Southeast Asia, and the Vietnamese have been relegated to the role of waiters in this club—bumping through the foreigners and, with sickeningly false cheer, proffering cigarettes, sunglasses, guidebooks, dried squid snacks, and more beer, more beer, more beer. They are pushed and shoved and mocked by the crowd, who view these vendors as accessories to their own fun. White arms wrap around brown necks in false gestures of friendliness as streams of insults flow from the white mouth into brown ears as the brown mouth smiles uncomprehendingly because he doesn't understand, he's just trying to be nice, just trying to make a dollar or two tonight.

Look closer. See the girls. See the girls with the flyers. See the girls standing outside the bar in the dresses that fall only a few inches below their hips. See the girls lurking in the alleys next to restaurants. See the girls laughing with the old white man outside the bar across the street. See it in their eyes. See it in the way their bodies move. See it in the way they guard themselves while fulfilling their requirements to entice. Know that many of them are there because their parents sold them into this life, but mostly because tourism creates an interminable market for their presence, their bodies. Feel almost guilty knowing that no matter what happens to you here, you can always leave. You will always be the lucky one.

One man from the table of Swedish men next to you leans over and says something to you about how you and your friend stand out from the crowd, like flowers in a snowstorm. Glare at them and let them know that their compliments are better used elsewhere. Scowl again at your friend when she chides you for being mean to sweet strangers. Remind her to feel disgusted at the entitlement that permeates through men in this city where they are given everything that they want.

The flashing lights, the raucous, drunken screams, and the advertisements for free beer and Starbucks drown out any notion that you are in Vietnam. You could be anywhere where European and Australian tourists come to never hear the word "no."

Drink. Drink your weak gin and tonic. Drink each time you see a hand fall where it shouldn't. Drink each time you see a Vietnamese waiter chase a pair of college kids down the street because they skipped out on their bill. Each time a child with a basket of bracelets walks up to a pair of drinking buddies and is either ridiculed or used as a prop for a photo.

The waitress brings over more drinks, courtesy of the Swedes. Your friend encourages you to go over and thank them. Grudgingly, you begin a stilted conversation. They are friendly and moderately intelligent. They keep the drinks coming. The minutes and, eventually, the hours go by. Start to talk about things that you would never tell a stranger, like that story you wrote about suicide in seventh grade. Begin to become immune to the touches that occasionally caress your arm. Note that your friend has almost fallen into the lap of the blond man on the other side of the table. Accept another offer of a shot.

It's past 1:00 AM. The Swedes lead you out of the bar. They causally suggest that you need to come back to their apartment so they can get your phone number. Your friend heartily agrees. Let your cloudy eyes wander across the street now littered with discarded pamphlets and beer cans. The girls are still sitting outside their bars. Their dresses are still too short and their gazes are as empty as before. The Swede runs his hand down your thigh. Snap to attention.

Reach for your friend's wrist and insist that you are leaving. They protest. Your friend is grabbed and kissed like she wanted it. Snatch at her with one hand while defending yourself with another. The men laugh at your efforts like you're a silly girl trying to jump as high as they can in gym class. They clutch your arm but you shove them away, threatening to yell for the police. Your friend stumbles incoherently beside you. The Swedes are silent. One makes one last attempt to soothe you into submission, but you bolt away before his fingers reach you, and you drag your friend down an alley and onto the next street. Shake your head and feel disgusted with yourself, with everyone who doesn't belong in this city, with those trying to make it their own perverted playground where the citizens are their playthings and beer is the fuel that is burned to keep the madness going day after day after day. Pity the locals who have to try to make a living off these monsters.

Keep walking until you are far enough down the street that you two are almost alone. Stop to adjust your heels and whisper to your friend that you are almost back, just keep going. Barely hear the noise of the motor behind you as you focus on keeping your friend on her feet. Only feel the slightest of tugs as your purse is plucked from your hands. Stop and stare in disbelief as a motorbike zooms by you, the passenger clutching your wallet and speeding off into the night. Stop for a beat and watch the bike disappear around a corner. Slowly begin to feel the delayed shock and adrenaline surge against the alcohol in your veins, and cause your stomach to surge and force its contents up through your mouth and nose. Stare into the yellow mixture of gin and noodles and stomach acid that is sliding silently into the gutter, and at your friend who has collapsed against the side of a building, and at the Swedes who are advancing toward you down the sidewalk. Try to force yourself to remember that you are still…here? Still lucky? Still happy? Still privileged?  

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