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Saigon

by Ted Guhl, 1995


During my first moments in Saigon I half expected to see something shocking, surreal, a time-warped American tank, or columns of Viet Cong marching down the street. Instead I saw a rather poor, pleasant looking city of wide boulevards, hundreds of bicycles, motor scooters, cyclos, and a few cars and trucks. The people, dressed in a wide variety of clothing from lovely Ao Dais to Western business suits, appeared lively and attractive.

Leaving the taxi, three white jacketed doormen quickly whisked my bag and me into the lobby of the Saigon International, a small French-era hotel. Within minutes I was registered, assured that the required notification with the authorities would be handled by the management, and escorted with smiling efficiency to my modern air-conditioned room on the third floor. There was no elevator; however the stairs were wide with large windows on each landing, like those of an elegant European house.

I unpacked, cleaned up a bit, and went for a walk. Upon leaving the hotel I was approached by a cyclo driver.

"Hello. Where you come from?"

"USA."

"Where you going?"

"Walking around."

"I give you tour? Go to war museum. Go shopping."

"No, thank you, I just want to walk around."

"Maybe good restaurant? Show many temple."

"No, thanks. Maybe later."

"OK. No problem. I am here."

It turned out that the War Museum was at the first corner, but I missed the sign and kept walking. Despite some interesting examples of colonial architecture, the area seemed amazingly uniform. Each block had a few stores and at least one street vendor.

One shop that caught my interest was sold Buddhist paraphernalia; icons, incense, calendars, and so on. I went in and tried to ask a few questions about the wares, but no one spoke English. I managed to buy a calendar with a picture of the Buddha surrounded by Vietnamese children.

After returning to my hotel to regroup and study the map and guidebook, I was ready to venture forth again. Negotiating a US$1 fare from my cyclo driver took only a minute or two and we were off. A cyclo, short for "cyclo-pousse", is a bicycle powered mini carriage with the driver sitting behind the rider. Though one may feel a bit of guilt at being peddled about, it is a pleasant form of transportation used by anyone without a motorcycle. It is slow enough to enjoy the scenery and, if you look like a tourist, it comes with advice and commentary. Within a few blocks my driver began a pitch to be a guide for the rest of the day, the night and however long I might be around. I assured him that I wanted only to be let off outside the Rex Hotel and that from there I intended to walk about and explore.

"Okay, I wait for you, bring you back, Okay?"

I let him know that I had no idea how long I would be or where my walking would carry me. I might be two hours or late into the night.

"Okay, no problem. I wait."

"Maybe long long time you wait," I said.

I use "broken English" regularly and without self-consciousness. I had discovered in previous wanderings that this simplest form of language was effective and appreciated.

"Okay, no problem. I bring you back to hotel."

Realizing that I would most certainly be returning, I asked him how much?

"No problem, it's okay, anything you want."

"Two dollar?"

"Okay."

The driver dropped me off at the Rex Hotel, an ornate Gothic building which once served as a sleeping and watering spa for US military advisors and now home to one of the better known massage services. I walked east on Le Loi Boulevard to Deng Khoi Street, wandering off onto side streets now and again; absorbing sights and sounds. Every block or two I would pass cyclo or motor bike drivers who would ask me where I was going, or gesture questioningly.

Late afternoon found me still wandering the streets, I knew I was hungry and would have to eat soon if I wanted to keep my energy up but I could not make up my mind where. I wanted to try some of the local food from a small cafe or street cart but could not remember, beyond some rather strongly worded warnings about unwashed fruit and unboiled water, what the guidebooks had said about this. Finally I ended up eating some fast food chicken from a place called California Fried Chicken. It was dreadful and served me right for being so fearful.

Feeling dislocated, I returned to the Rex Hotel, where my driver found me immediately and gestured for me to get into the cyclo. "You want go eat?" he asked.

"I eat already," I replied, as we headed down the street away from the plaza.

"Want go to nightclub?"

I said nothing for a moment, trying to decide if a beer or two would feel right, or if I should return to the hotel. Part of my mind was warning me that I should watch out where I let myself be taken in this indecisive and somewhat uneasy mood.

"You want meet girl?"

"No. Maybe a beer."

"Okay. I know good place. Cheap." And off we went, east on Le Loi Boulevard and south down Deng Khoi Street again. Good lord, I thought, he's taking me to one of the tourist bars.

However, we were soon at the end of the street, turning right along the river, and the driver was saying something that sounded like "Foreign Paris."

"What?" I shouted, over the noise of a hundred mopeds.

"Foreign Paris, Foreign Paris" he exclaimed excitedly, pointing to a huge, very ugly Hotel floating on the banks of the Saigon River.

"Ah, yes, Floating Palace. From Australia." I agreed.

"Yes, Foreign Paris."

We turned another corner and pulled up at circular kiosk located in a traffic island in the middle of Nguyen Hue Boulevard where the patrons sat at tables by a long unused fountain. My driver indicated I should go get a beer and he would wait. I ordered a 333 local beer that turned out to be quite palatable. two young Vietnamese jumped up from the closest table and gestured for me to sit. They joined a larger group at another table. Almost immediately, another young man, perhaps in his late twenties, joined me.

The conversation began haltingly. He asked me where I was from; I replied and asked him what his name was. I learned, during the course of twenty minutes or so, that he was studying English, wanted to get a job in a Hotel, was somehow related to the owner of the Kiosk, and that his sister had a restaurant somewhere nearby. Although I was enjoying the first conversation I had had since arriving, I felt a vague sense of unease. There would be long minutes of silence. His eyes would often search around, almost as if there were some danger or possible embarrassment.

"Should I eat at your sister's restaurant?"

He looked at me as if he weren't certain what I had said.

"Is good food at sister's restaurant?" I rephrased.

He smiled and shrugged as if to say, not really.

A long pause ensued and then he asked me, "You want come to party Sunday?"

Uncertain I had heard properly I repeated, "Party?"

"Yes, party, Sunday. You come?"

"Where?" I asked.

"Restaurant."

"Sister's restaurant? Sure."

Another long pause ensued. Finally I asked, "What time?"

"Yes, Two o'clock."

Another pause.

"Where we meet?" I asked.

He looked decidedly confused and I began to feel more uncomfortable. Had the invitation been a whim that he already regretted? Was this some sort of scam that he hadn't quite worked out and wasn't certain he could carry off? However, he repeated, "You come to party? Okay?" in a voice that seemed somehow desperate.

"Okay, Where we meet?" I asked again.

"Yes," he replied, "we meet here. Two o'clock. Sunday."

But he wasn't looking at me. Something was definitely wrong here. What do I say? Surely this much discomfort couldn't be simply from the difficult of speaking English? Without much enthusiasm I said I would be there.

He left and I got back in the cyclo. The driver had further ideas and suggestions concerning the rest of the evening but I insisted we return to the hotel. Once this was accepted the negotiations for tomorrow's tour began. Feeling somewhat more confident in my ability to direct my own destination despite continued suggestions from him, I asked him how much he wanted to be my driver for the day tomorrow. He suggested that whatever I offered would be fine.

"Five dollars?"

"Okay, no problem."

Half way back to my hotel, a motor bike pulled up alongside and slowed to match our pace. On it were two attractive young women, perhaps in their twenties. The driver had a charming smile, full of playful energy. The rider, who looked a bit younger, was willowy, with dark hair and deep, searching eyes.

"Hello," the driver shouted, "where you come from?"

"USA", I shouted back.

"America. You want massage? Make love, good?"

Speechless, I smiled, looked away, then looked back. I shrugged.

"Where you going?"

"Hotel."

"We give good massage, good make love, yes?"

Rallying, I replied, "You young girls, I'm old man."

"Make love us, you feel like young man."

They were laughing and so was I.

"Hotel no let you come in." I said, trying to regain some control over the situation.

"You come us, we take good care you," the driver said. She really seemed to be enjoying this.

"How much?" I asked, out of curiosity I hoped.

"Twenty dollars."

Shit, I thought, what do I say now. What did I want? I was certainly enjoying this conversation. And suddenly the somewhat fragile feeling I had had all evening disappeared.

Inspiration!

"I give you ten dollars. Just massage."

Her smile disappeared. I could see that she was sizing up this new suggestion and that she didn't believe me.

"Twenty dollars, massage, make love, two hours."

Suddenly, I didn't want this to end here.

"Listen, I give fifteen dollars, but just massage, no make love."

I could see that this offer was tempting from a monetary point of view but that somehow it didn't feel right to her. I believe she thought I was being cheap. There was no smile. Suddenly the motor bike veered off and turned around and was gone. I sighed. Welcome to Saigon.


The next morning I persuaded my self-appointed cyclo-tour guide to take me to the market area along Huynh Thuc Khang. This was not an easy task as he had many other ideas for our day's sightseeing. It wasn't that I had no interest in the museums, temples, shops, restaurants and assorted other suggestions he offered, but I wanted to experience the unexpected.

The market and surrounding streets were bustling, noisy, and absorbing in the variety of foods and goods for sale. There were Michael Jackson T-shirts, durian fruit, housewares, incense, sausages, an amazing variety of shoes and sandals, Ao Dais, statues, calendars, blenders, watches, "war-era" magnifying glasses, gold jewelry, and just about anything else one needs to live, survive and keep up with the Vietnamese Joneses. I immediately lost myself in the sights and sounds and odors. It was here that I first realized how wonderful the people of Saigon are; the directness of their gaze, the open and friendly smiles, and their extraordinary energy. These people are alive, and aware of it.

The first conversation I had was with a high school girl who was selling postcards and spoke English quite well. I had bought a pack from her and she initiated a lengthy conversation about her plans for the future, what her school was like, life in Hong Kong versus Saigon, and more. We ended up trading addresses.

While I was looking at some fake war-era binoculars, a man of my age (about fifty) introduced himself and asked if I was an American. When I said I was, he grabbed my hand, remarking that he was so happy to see me here. He had been some sort of military advisor to a Lieutenant Steve during the war; they had become close friends, and when the American withdrawal occurred he was left behind. For several years Steve had tried to get him out, had sent money, sponsored him for an America visa and did whatever he could to arrange for his emigration to the US. The government of Vietnam, at that time, refused to allow him to go. When the easing of restrictions began several years ago, he had tried to get in touch with Steve to no avail. Had he moved? Was he dead?

I asked what Steve's last name was, thinking perhaps I could do something to find him, but oddly, he didn't reply.Instead he took my hand and with tears in his eyes said, "I am very happy you are here again."

I didn't know what to say? I wanted to cry as well.

He gripped my hand hard and said it again, and then moved on.

I decided to head back to the central district and spend the rest of the day and evening there. My cyclo driver was quite incensed when I insisted he not hang around the Rex for four or five hours. I did not know where I would be when I was ready to return. I told him to meet me tomorrow around 11 AM.

As the evening came on, I felt hungry, and a little aimless. I decided to buy some bread and cheese from a street vendor. I ate as I walked. It helped some but I was now quite thirsty. Finally, I came to the realization that I was looking for someone or something to distract me from the emotions of the day. Telling myself that this nonsense must not go on, I stopped at another street vendor and bought a beer.

I walked up a side street that had a steady flow of cyclos and motor bikes, but no shops, plopped down under a tree, and watched the traffic go by. Within minutes I began to realize that I was an object of curiosity. Every few moments someone would see me and suddenly smile, or point me out to whoever they were riding with -- most motor bikes and cyclos carried at least two people. Quite a few friendly souls waved and shouted "hello". That did it, I was suddenly grateful to be here, at peace with myself and the end of the day.

Soon a young man came by and sat beside me, saying, "hello". I offered him a cigarette and we both sat and smoked for a while before he spoke.

"What your name?"

"Ted, and you?

He smiled.

"What your name?" I asked.

"Trouc. From where?"

"America."

"Ah, America, good. How long you in Saigon?" We made small talk and after a while he left.

I walked to the corner and got another beer and went back to my tree. Trouc passed by again and offered me a stick of gum. I sat for at least an hour. The sun had set. Time for some more substantial food.

Still feeling anxious about unwashed vegetables, I ended up in a place that advertised German food, eating an overly heavy stew of some sort. This is not going to do, I thought, I'll have to take some risks if I am going to eat well.

Wandering again, I came across a small local restaurant with no custumers but five waitresses, all standing or sitting on stools out front. They seemed anxious for me to come in. I said with a combination of gestures and English that I had already eaten but I would like a cup of coffee. I expected to get tea. One of them indicated for me to come in. It was a very hot evening and I wanted to stay outside, so I sat down on the steps. This was a source of immediate amusement. I was quickly brought a chair from inside.

As I waited, one of them pointed at me and asked, "name?" I told her, she tried to repeat it, and they all giggled. So, I pointed back and asked, "name?" When I repeated her name the laughter was unrestrained. I tried again, more laughter. So, I pointed at another one with similar results. This game went on for the ten or fifteen minutes it took me to finish my drink which was deliciously French-brewed coffee. The game was the only means we had to converse and each us at some point felt some frustration. I vowed to myself to learn Vietnamese.

Around 9 pm, I came upon an outdoor restaurant across from the Saigon Concert Hotel and sat at a table facing the square. Before long a motor bike pulled up.

"Hello!"

It was the same two young women from the previous night.

"Sit down" I said, "Have Coca Cola or a beer."

They parked the bike and joined me at the table.They ordered the local version of Coca Cola, which is fairly good, although a bit sweeter. We exchanged the usual questions. The older of the two sisters was named Lien, the other Huong.

Lien asked, "You here one?"

"Yes", I replied, assuming she was asking if I was alone.

"Tonight you get massage?"

I thought for a bit. I was enjoying the company, I wanted the contact.

"How much, I asked?

"Twenty dollars. Good massage, good sex, feel young."

Feeling young sounded pretty good at the moment.

"Tonight", I replied, "you give massage. No sex. Okay?"

They were still skeptical. I pointed out how much my legs hurt from walking all day. I showed them the bald spot on top of my head. I said that massage was much better than sex. We haggled a bit and agreed finally on a price of ten dollars. I could see that they were still skeptical. They felt that I had bargained my self into sex and a massage at half price. Next we discussed where to go. They asked me what hotel I was staying in. I told them and said I wasn't sure the hotel would allow guests. (I could just imagine the reaction of the desk clerk and white jacketed bellboys at the Saigon International to my walking in with two young Vietnamese prostitutes.)

To my relief, the girls agreed this was a bad idea. Lien said that the police often fined them heavily if they went anywhere near certain hotels. Lien said to come along with them and we all hopped on the very small motor scooter and headed off. Before long it became evident that the scooter was not going to put up with this kind of a load without complaining so Lien got off and said she would meet us back at the cafe later.

We crossed a bridge leading out of central district and soon I was lost as we crossed a bridge heading into a district south of the river. Eventually we turned onto a narrow side street and maneuvered our way through pedestrians and assorted vehicles for several blocks.

In front of me was a very dark, narrow passageway between buildings. Huong took my hand and led me down it. Images from Deer Hunter crossed my mind. I was scared. Oh well, I thought to myself, you have to trust now; this is part of the flow.

I do not usually wander about with my passport, Visa card, etc. I take what I hope will be sufficient cash, my international driver's license, and a photocopy of my passport. However, this time I happened have a Visa card in my wallet. Hell, I thought, why are you worrying about a Visa card when you should be worrying about survival?

We came to an open area in the middle of several dwellings. I could see a number of people through unglazed windows and doorless entrances. An intense, muscular looking man stared at me as I passed one dwelling. In a few moments we were in a small room, perhaps 10 by 12 feet. The walls were plywood covered with red and gold wrapping paper with a hearts and flowers design. Overhead were tinsel bells hanging from a neon light. It looked like a child's room decorated for Christmas. There was a dresser and self-standing closet along one wall. The floor was concrete. A portion of the room on the left was enclosed in mosquito netting, with a woven straw mat and pillows on the floor inside. On the dresser, and in various neat piles elsewhere, were a variety of clothes and other belonging. Huong said that she rented this room, that it cost $100 a month. I assumed she meant for business. It must be a room that normally belonged to the children of one of the families, I decided. I supposed it was a source of extra income for one of these families.

Huong indicated that I should step inside of the netting. Then she hung a large cloth across the center of the room, enclosing our half from the side with the door. She entered the net and sat facing me. She was waiting for me start! I took off my shirt and said, "Okay, you give good massage now. Okay?" and I lay down on my stomach.

The massage was short and tentative. When I realized it was over, I took out ten dollars and gave it to her. She gestured for me to stay where I was and left. Before long she returned; behind her a much older woman entered and squatted outside of the net. She had a bowl, a knife and an Asian apple. She pealed and cut the apple, handed a piece to Huong who offered it to me. After eating two slices, I indicated I had enough. The old woman left. I put on my shirt, then took a condom from my pocket and handed it to Huong. She smiled and looked at me questioningly. I said , with a smile, that she should keep many of these and use them. This bothered her. I said, "Up to you, Okay?" She nodded and put the condom in a box in the dresser.

Back at the cafe a smiling Lien said, "You feel like young man now?"

"No. I feel very happy, very good. I am still old man, but no hurt legs." This wasn't exactly true, my legs were still pretty sore.

"Only massage," she asked?

"Yes." I replied.

A conversation ensued between her and Huong in Vietnamese. The gist of it seemed to be that Lien didn't believe it and Huong, while agreeing it was so, seemed unsure what it meant.

"Why?" asked Lien.

At the moment I had no answer. I thought of saying again that I was an old man but that was quickly becoming a cliche. Should I tell them of my concerns about AIDS? A discussion of my relationship? Perhaps I could say something about my sense of morality. Good grief, I thought, that's pompous. I didn't know what to say. So I shrugged.

The talk shifted to families, then places. Lien had a limited English vocabulary but was patient and quite good at communicating despite the limitations. Huong spoke far less but evidently she missed very little. Then, at one point she said, "You want to see Buddha?"

Not sure what she meant, but responding to the obvious tone of invitation, I said "sure."

"You understand? Buddha?"

"Yes," I said, more confident that I had heard correctly, "Wat, pagoda, temple, Buddha." She smiled.

"Family go, we take cyclos." said Lien.

"When?" I asked. The two sisters were involved in what seemed to be an animated conversation around planning. When they slowed down, I asked again.

"Tomorrow, eleven morning. Okay?" Lien replied. "We meet here, take cyclo."

"Yeah!" I replied enthusiastically. "Family come too?"

"Yaaaah!" Lien mimicked me, laughing.

The girls introduced me to a cyclo driver named Deng who took me back to my hotel. I decided during the ride back to change accommodations. Not only was my hotel a bit far from Central, but I had seen far less expensive places that were quite nice. Deng assured me he knew of a guest house near the cafe that was safe. I asked him to meet me at the hotel tomorrow at ten am to take me there. I had forgotten about my arrangements with the other driver.


The next morning Deng was waiting. The other driver was too. He came over and said, "You say eleven morning!"

I tried to explain that I had decided to move hotels and he could take the bags in his cyclo, I would pay him. He wasn't listening through, and there were some angry looks between the two drivers. Finally, I took out two dollars and gave it to him and said I was sorry for the mistake, that I had forgotten. Then I put my bags in Deng's cyclo and got in. Frankly, I was relieved. Deng seemed far more accommodating, far less likely to take me where I didn't want to go.

Leaving the guest house later that morning, my excitement was heightened by anxiety as the old elevator with no door or gate literally creaked and jerked as it descended. I arrived at the cafe promptly at eleven. I was warmly greeted by Huong and introduced to Mama; who turned out to be the same woman who had brought fruit to the room after my massage last night! It was a revelation; that small room must be where Huong and her sister lived. After a coffee, We piled into two cyclos, Huong got in with me. I felt conspicuous passing through the crowded streets with a very young Vietnamese lady sitting in my lap, but most people either ignored us or smiled, so I began to relax and enjoy myself.

Outside of the temple, Chua Ngoc Hoang, Mama and Huong bought bundles of incense. As we entered the courtyard a line of monks with shaven heads and saffron robes were sitting on the ground. Some were children, as young as 5 or 6. They had alms cups and I was going to give a small donation when once again Huong stopped me. "Later," she said.

Entering the main sanctuary Huong divided her bundle of incense, giving me half and and showing me how to light it at the brazier. Taking me by the hand, she led me around and showed me where and how to place the sticks of incense. As we moved around she told me about each of the Buddha images -- one was for "happy future", another for "have money", and so forth. After we had placed all but a few sticks of our incense, we knelt before the central image, "This is great Buddha," she said, "you know great Buddha?"

"Yes," I replied, "Siddharta, Buddha from India." She looked at me uncertainly. (The Guidebooks informed me later that this was Ngoc Hoang, the Taoist Emperor of Jade.) Standing before his altar, she began the prayers, taking time to show me how to do them properly, how many times to gesture before one's face with hands palm to palm, how many times to prostrate one's forehead to the floor, palms up.

Next, with Mai, the youngest sister, and Mama we began to take photos. This was a big hit with the whole family; pictures of each of us before various Buddha images. At first I felt a bit uncomfortable, was it really all right to stand in the main sanctuary where people were praying and start clicking off photos? However, when one of the monks offered to take a picture of all of us, I relaxed.

We walked the various other areas of the temple, one of which held a large cistern with turtles sunning themselves along the sides and large carp swimming lazily in its murky waters. These I assumed were dedicated to the Vietnamese version of Tin Hau, Goddess of the sea.

Back in the main courtyard, Huong bought a cage of small birds. She gently removed two and placed one in each of my hands. Taking two for herself she told me to make a wish and let them go. I find it difficult to describe the pleasure I felt at that moment. The pagoda, the monks, Huong's family, the sunlight, the pungent smell of incense, and the murmur of worship all combined to create a moment I shall never forget. On the way out we all placed alms in the monk's cups. I had received much more than I had given.

Next we stepped back into the cyclos and were off to the zoo. First stop was a Vietnamese water puppet play at the History Museum, which is just inside the Zoo's entrance (note: the museum has an excellent collection of Bronze Age artifacts from various area cultures).

The water puppetry was highly entertaining to all of us. It related the defeat of a Chinese Overlord by an early Vietnamese Prince, who had been given a magic sword by a turtle god or goddess. Suddenly, I began to realize, when Mai took hold of one arm and Huong the other, that I was being treated with surprising intimacy by this family. Even Mama seemed to take a proprietary stance with me. I was delighted but a bit suspicious at such rapid intimacy. However, I fought this back and decided to damn well relax and be grateful for such warmth.

The next realization came while we were watching a zoo-keeper and her dancing bear. Huong had taken my arm and I became very aware that she was watching me closely as I watched the bear. I smiled at her. I didn't know what else to do at that moment. A part of me delighted in the contact and her obvious delight at being on this excursion. Another part of me thought, "She's got a crush on me? Good grief!" I vacillated between these two emotions the rest of the afternoon, whose most exciting moment occurred at the tiger cage.

They were two fully grown, healthy looking beasts in a large open cage comfortably landscaped with rocks, water and trees. As we approached a Vietnamese man climbed over the outermost protective railing to get a photograph of them through the inner bars. In the blink of an eye one of the tigers, with a frighteningly deep growl, sprung at him, covering the intervening twenty five feet in less than three seconds. The man jumped back, out of reach of a tiger paw poking through the inner bars, and fell over the outer railing. His hands were shaking as he examined his broken camera.

As we walked on from this incident, Huong held my arm even tighter and I knew it was not out of fear. We received a few disapproving looks from elegantly dressed Vietnamese men and women. I had nothing to feel guilty about but it bothered me none the less. Huong was aware of these reactions but seemed not to care.

Back in Central, Lien meet us at a local soup shop for dinner. Properly prepared Vietnamese soup is a wonderful experience. First a large bunch of fresh green herbs, something from the mint family, were brought to the table. Mama and Huong proceeded to pick individual leaves off, placing those that were unblemished in a pile at the center of the table. Lemons were cut up and arranged on a small dish. When the large bowls of soup appeared selected greens were placed in each bowl. Despite my misgivings about eating fresh unwashed greens the soup was delicious: hearty yet light, with a variety of flavors and textures.

During the meal Lien asked me if I wanted to meet them later that evening to play pool. By now my "yeah" had become a source of humor to everyone in the family.

We met at the cafe at 8 pm and went to Apocalypse Now, an expat bar just East of Deng Hoi Street. As cliche as it may seem, the Doors' "The End" was playing as we entered. On the right was a narrow bar and the opposite wall was covered with a chalk board for graffiti. Other walls were covered in posters from various Vietnam war films, including the Coppola film after which the bar is named. At the back is a large room with a full sized pool table.

We were early and managed to play a game or two of pool before the place began filled up. The men were almost all expats; business and engineer types, mostly in jeans and T-shirts. Several young Vietnamese women easily outplayed most of the men.

As the place filled, names went on the blackboard by the table. Whoever won would play whomever was next on the board; if you kept winning, you kept playing. Huong and Lien were paired up to play the current winners and, mostly because of Lien's skill, managed to beat them. Lien asked me to take Huong's place as her partner to play the next challengers. I hadn't played in years and was distracted by the noise and smoke of the bar. I joked about my bad shots and tried to keep it light. I don't think Lien was impressed. She took her game seriously and had hoped for a decent partner. We won, but I had not made a shot. I looked for Huong but could not see her. Feeling fuzzy headed I decided to go for a walk around the block.

The walk lasted about fifteen minutes. I returned to see Lien and another girl lose to an engineer from Norway. Lien was in a foul mood from losing (it would be quite awhile before her name came up on the chalkboard again) and Huong was angry that I had left without saying anything to her. I had a pretty good headache from the crowd, smoke, and noise, and managed to persuade our group to cross the street to another bar that was considerably less crowded and noisy. In the back was a pool table and only a few players.

Before long, the Norwegian engineer came in with several friends, including one European woman. The round of pool started. Lien tried again to beat the Norwegian but, even though he played badly this time, she lost. Her spirits were low to say the least. The Norwegian sat down at the bar next to me, openly smoking marijuana. He commented loudly on how poorly he had played.

"Well, One usually plays better if the competition is strong, right?" I asked.

"That's right," he replied.

I asked Lien if she would team with me against him and his partner. She unenthusiastically agreed. Although the engineer played a bit better, we won handily. Fortunately, I had become clear-headed, focused on the game and was able to make four or five difficult shots in a row. This so picked up Lien's spirits that she was laughing and playful as we left the bar. We went back to the outdoor cafe for coffee and Cokes and there Lien proposed that I rent a car the next day and we all go to Vung Dao, a beach resort two hours south of Saigon. When I agreed she went off to find Deng who could get us a car.

Deng suggested we go and stay the night; that he'd arrange a hotel room. Lien wanted no part of this. I couldn't seem to find out what all of this was going to cost. Meanwhile, Deng quietly said to me that he wasn't sure I should trust these two. "Maybe good persons, maybe bad persons," he said. "Maybe, You and I go. I know good hotel, cheap."

Thinking about his warning, I began to feel a bit paranoid. Still, I said no.

He said that he knew a girl I might like better than Huong.

I told him I wasn't interested.

Lien, who caught some of this, got angry. Finally he gave up his efforts and said he would arrange the car for us. I managed to make known my concerns about cost which started the whole thing up again. Deng said it would be cheaper for me to check out of the hotel and stay in Vung Dao for the night. I objected that I had to make a plane the next day and did not want to be that far out of town. Lien and Huong said I would not have to pay any hotel at all because I could stay at their house tomorrow night!

Finally we settled on renting the car just for the day. Lien informed me that they would pick me up at the hotel at five thirty in the morning! It was now about 2 am. Christ, I thought, what have I gotten myself into now.


The phone rang at 5:30 sharp. I groped for it and said, "Hello?"

"You go Vung Dao, now?, asked a male voice.

"What, who is this?"

"Go to Vung Dao?" It was Deng.

"Yeah. " I said, "what..." but he had hung up. I immediately went back to sleep, I had not really been awake.

About twenty minutes later I woke with a start. I got up and went to the window. Below was Deng, and sitting in his cyclo was Huong. She was dressed in a bonnet and a very bright floral beach shirt and slacks. I tried, as best I could, to put together a bag for the beach: towel, shorts, T-shirt, camera, film. I finally arrived out front about 6:10. Huong made sure I knew that she was angry at having been made to wait so long and then she dropped it. We got into the cyclo and Deng peddled us around the corner to the cafe where Lien was waiting with the owner of the car.

I had made it clear last night that I didn't want to drive. Lien had said she'd drive but I think she could see I was skeptical about that. Perhaps she was a very good motorbike driver but how often she had a chance to drive a car? I never found out because the owner had decided to drive us there himself for no extra charge.

On the way to pick up Mama and Mai, Lien asked if she could bring a friend and I said, of course. How all seven of us were going to fit into this Toyota, with bucket seats in front, was something I had to see. However, Mai ended up staying home to make room for Lien's friend, a nice young Malaysian man named Tun. It was still pretty crowded.

Huong and Lien were in a holiday mood, shouting over the tape player which was blasting an eclectic assortment of popular tunes from a variety of countries. Due to the lack of sleep, the tight squeeze, and their laughter and horse play I began to feel a bit testy. Both young women had the playful habit of hitting and pinching me; and on several previous occasions I had said, with a smile, "ouch",or "stop it" -- this time when Huong pinched, I pinched back. She looked hurt.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"Why you do so hard?"

"You hit me, you pinch me, I tell you stop, now I pinch."

"Too hard." she said, "Just talking."

I realized she was right -- it was communication, and I was missing the point. I smiled and pinched her gently. She hit me, I hit her back and, after a dozen or so repetitions, I gave up. All was forgiven.

Next, Huong decided she was sleepy. She put her feet on Lien's lap with her upper torso across my chest, her head on my shoulder. Before long, Lien decided to sleep also. I don't know how Tun felt, but Huong's bony back was almost enough to keep me from enjoying the scenery. At least there was relative calm, except for the tape player which was, at the moment, blaring out a selection of country and western -- Wallon Jennings, Vietnam style.

Vung Dao was full of surprises. We stopped at a restaurant and beach house that looked as if it had been built in the 1950s. It had that typical open to the air, grey weathered look common to unpainted wood houses on the shores of New England. At the back door were a couple of Vietnamese body builders lounging self-consciously. Here the party ordered a light breakfast of soup and French bread, I had a cup of coffee. Huong insisted upon feeding me part of her meal over my mild protestations that I wasn't hungry.

The next stop was a modern resort, with a lovely restaurant, changing rooms, gift shops and a terrace over-looking the beach. We paid 1000 dong to use the dressing rooms and then went down to the beach. Lien, and Tun, Huong and I, paraded down the beach behind Mama. At the end of the crowd, the resort staff set up chairs and umbrellas for us and we settled in.

We lounged for a while and then went swimming, or rather wading, since I was the only one who knew how to swim. Of course I ended up carrying Huong around on my shoulders because she was afraid to go in deep (4 feet). There was the usual splashing and horseplay.

After a while I went back to my chair, put on sun block lotion, and fell asleep in the sun. Before long Huong woke me; we had to move because the tide had come up a bit. This was not as easy at it sounds since the wind had gotten stronger and the umbrellas wanted to imitate kites. Mama had disappeared. I think she had gone back to sit with the driver and drink tea.

It was camera time and I shot two rolls of film. Posed photos of Lien and Tun standing with their arms around each other, Lien sitting in Tun's lap, Lien and Huong in a Beachnut Twins pose, Lien in an assortment of bathing beauty poses, Tun with his best Humphrey Bogart cigarette dangling pose, the four of us (taken by a passing German), Lien lying in the surf with her hand behind her head and so forth. It was a lot of fun and it reminded me of Ocean Beach in Connecticut where I had spent many summer days with my mother, whose 1940s bathing suit and attitude on the beach were identical to Lien's. The one discordant note occurred as I was taking a shot of Lien and realized that she had a large area of discoloration on one thigh and several smaller ones on her arms and lower legs. These were not bruises nor birth marks, but looked to be the results of either burns or very bad scrapes.

As the day wore on we moved the chairs several times, with the wind becoming increasingly stronger and by late afternoon umbrellas were taking off with some frequency and the beach had almost disappeared into the tide. We packed up our gear and headed for the changing rooms.

Mama appeared as we came out of the bathhouse. Amazing timing, I thought. We went into the restaurant where Mama ordered a large bowl of crabs and, following Tun's example, I ordered myself a beer and some Malaysian chicken.

The afternoon sun settled lower.The beach disappeared completely, waves washed against the tide wall, and wind whipped the palms. A magnificent bowl of steamed crabs appeared, as well as our chicken and a plate of vegetables; I was ravenous. As Mama, Lien and Huong began opening up the crabs I reached for one, but Huong pushed my hand away. She cracked a claw, extracted some crab meat and fed me. I was allowed to feed myself the chicken. The crab was delicious -- she would extract a choice morsel, and dip it in fresh lime juice, cracked pepper and salt.

While we were all feasting, Lien and Huong discussed my staying over for the night. As Mama seemed comfortable with this I agreed.

Then a discussion began between Mama and Lien about whether Huong and I would be having sex tonight. It seemed lighthearted but I could sense some serious undertones. Mama was amused but also curious. Lien was pushing it a bit. Once more I repeated that I did not intend to have sex with Huong. The mood deepened. Lien wanted to know why?

I said, "I am oldest person at here -- older than Mama!"

They laughed at me and for good reason; Mama, they pointed out, was 71 years old!

"You touch woman here," Lien said, touching my arm, " you young man. You touch woman here," she touched my leg, " you old man."

More laughter and agreement.

I wasn't entirely sure what she meant, but Huong, Lien, and I had been touching hands and arms all day, and Huong and I were frequently hand in hand or arm in arm. If it all was indeed conversation, just what was I saying?

Huong seemed quite unhappy about the whole conversation. I told her I would talk with her about it, that I liked her very much, and not to worry. Lien joked about it halfheartedly for a little longer and then the subject was dropped for the moment. Mama insisted on paying for the entire meal.

As we walked to the car; Lien asked me if it was because of money? I said, "no" that I intended to give each of them $10 tonight, so that they wouldn't have to go to work. What I had not spoken of, so far, was my other life. My twenty-two year old daughter, seventeen year old son, ex-wife. The common law wife and her eleven year old son with whom I live. It wasn't that I had wished to hide this, but there had not seemed to be cause on my part or expressed interest on their part in my background. I reflected now on my answer to an earlier question Lien had asked, "You one?". I had understood it to be a question of whether I was traveling alone. I wondered now that if had I answered with some background on my personal relationships, had said for instance that I had a family, if I might have saved myself a lot of trouble?

I was attracted to Huong; flattered by her attentions, yet I could not accept the role of lover with someone this young. This was not morality, however important its moral implications were, it was cowardice. I could imagine how I would feel as I told this tale to others in my life. Would they not see, as I did, a betrayal of who I was? This was not a pretty picture to me. I remembered the moments of embarrassment I had felt when Huong took my arm at the zoo or sat in my lap in the cyclo as we passed down the streets of Saigon. Those were nothing to the feelings I would have if I forgot myself.

We drove along the coast and came to a particularly lovely spot with large boulders adjoining the sea. There was a gift stand across the road. Huong and I walked together up the road. I told her that I liked her very much and knew that she liked me.

I asked, "You like me, yes?" She nodded.

"I think you like me because I am good friend, and because I like your family, and because I make you smile -- not because I have sex with you. Okay?"

She smiled at that and took my arm, and I could tell she was a little happier. We walked back to the car where she left me and crossed the road to a gift stand. She returned with two identical necklaces; each with a heart carved in shell on a woven string of shells. She put on one and placed the other over my head. I thanked her and, looking into her eyes, held her hand for a moment.

The drive back was more physically uncomfortable than the drive down. Huong was asleep again on my lap and my legs kept going numb. It seemed endless. Finally we stopped at an open air market, and Mama and Huong got out to buy vegetables. I got out also but was immediately accosted by extremely insistent vendors - men, women and children. The driver indicated that I should watch my wallet. They were so aggressive that I had to get back into the car, where several continued to ply their wares at the closed window.

As Mama and Huong returned a man in a official-blue shirt, was writing out what looked like a parking ticket. Mama dealt with it, although I did not see exactly what she did.

We dropped Tun off, and everyone waited outside while I went into the Guest House. I had a new dilemma; should I really take all of my luggage to some place I didn't know, and probably shouldn't assume was safe. I decided against this.

I only had about ninety dollars left and I had to be certain I had enough left to get a cab to the airport in the morning. I had promised to give Huong and Lien each ten dollars. I also wanted to give some money to Mama for the family. I had bought some ebony chop sticks at a craft store the first day here and I decided these would make a nice gift. I put a fifty dollar bill in the card section of my wallet and a ten and twenty in the bill section and packed an overnight bag.

On the way to their place they asked about my bags; I lied, I said that they were too much to drag around, we could pick them up in the morning. It was the first of several lies I would tell that night.

It was still light when we arrived and I could see much more of the life of the community as we passed through. There were at least five families living here; people were busy at a variety of tasks: washing clothes, preparing food, cleaning auto parts. Those who made eye-contact with me seemed much more open and friendly than two nights ago.

I was introduced to others of Huong's family: Hua, an older sister who was nine months pregnant and who had an 3 year old girl; and Tai, Huong's 10 year old brother, a dark-eyed young man with a magnificent smile. Huong, Lien, Tai and I went into the small room where Huong had given me that tentative massage 36 hour before. We all sat on the floor and I was handed someone's 4-month-old to hold. Members of the family came and went, the floor was swept, and clothing and belongings that had been scattered about were put in order. I handed twenty dollars to Lien and told her it was for her and Huong, that I hoped they would not have to work this night. She accepted it with a smile. Huong also asked me for some money to contribute to food and drink for supper, I gave her the ten. I now had nothing left in the bill section of my wallet. Lying once again, I told her I would have to go to the bank in the morning to get more money. She pointed to the side pocket of the wallet, but I shook my head.

Eventually the immediate family, seven of them, gathered into this room bringing a variety of food for dinner. It was at this moment that I realized this tiny room was not simply a bedroom, but rather it was home to the whole family - it was their dinning room, bedroom, and living room all rolled into one; cooking was accomplished in the common area of the compound.

We all sat on the floor in a circle. I was handed a very large bowl of soup. There were two of these and I tried to share mine but was told it was for me alone. Lien and Huong shared the other one. I was also given a glass of tap water, which I could not bring myself to drink. Huong selected various vegetables and pieces of steamed chicken from the common dishes to feed to me.

You are not suppose to drink water unless it has been boiled for twenty minutes; you can get dysentery from salads and unpeeled fruit, and even cooked foods can be a problem if the preparation areas are not sanitary, or if they have been left to cool or been reheated. So, what do I do? Do I tell these people that their generosity might hurt me? Pretend to be sick or not hungry?

The soup was delicious, and even though my stomach kept reacting to my anxieties, I managed to finish almost all of it. I continued to eat whatever morsels Huong put in my mouth for a while and then when I was full said, "No more, thanks. It was delicious. Very full now."

It occurred to me, during dinner, that Lien seemed to hold the most status in the family, closely followed by Huong. This was evident from the quantity and choice of food apportioned to each - these two had shared the other bowl of soup, and seemed to get first pickings from the common dishes. Mama served everyone, assisted by Mai. It also appeared that Huong's status was elevated somewhat by my presence and I assume that both sisters derived their status from being the wage earners. Mama was clearly the final authority within the family, as everyone else took their clues from her concerning when to eat and what their part in preparation and clean-up was.

After dinner I was brought French-brewed coffee. A conversation ensued, initiated by Mama and interpreted by Lien, in which she expressed her desire to see both Lien and Huong married and pregnant. I grew somewhat dismayed when I realized that this discussion somehow included the idea that I might be a possible choice for Huong. I deflected this by asking Lien how it was that she and her sister had managed to avoid pregnancy. I was also concerned about their awareness of AIDS, but didn't feel I could go that far in my questioning yet. I did not get an answer. As at the resort, the atmosphere had become strained; only this time it seemed more intensely so.

Mai decided she was going to give me a massage so she began pounding on my back. Apparently a vital aspect of Vietnamese massage consists of holding the hands held together as if praying and using the sides of the palms and fingers to beat upon the muscles. I had encountered this form in Chinese massage, but only as a sort of punctuation once the kneading and rubbing was over. Mai was enthusiastic with this, if a bit haphazard. Soon Huong and Lien had decided a group massage was in order. Therefore, I was told to disrobe. In fact, bedtime was evidently approaching as Lien and Mai also changed into their nightclothes. At this moment I caught further glimpses of the damage that had been done to Lien's body; she had innumerable scars on upper arms and legs, as well as the discolorations I had seen earlier.

After removing my shirt and pants and putting on a light cotton robe from my pack, I was handed a toothbrush, soap, towel and led to the bath, which was a small wooden room. A cement tub of water, with a pitcher sitting on its edge, occupied one end of the room. A small hole in the cement floor provided drainage. As near as I could tell the hole was the toilet, although it did not smell like one. I removed my clothes and washed quickly, dried myself, and returned to the family's room.

The message began with three sets of hands pounding and kneading the back of my torso, arms, legs, and head. I felt like a lump of pizza dough. The massage turned into a training session as Lien and Huong criticized Mai's technique. Then Mai, at Lien's prompting, began walking on my back and legs. At this point Huong and Lien lost interest and after fifteen minutes or so Mai finished. I wondered, briefly, if I should pay her?

I was beginning to realize that my struggle was not based entirely on issues of sex between Huong and I. How often over the past two days had I worried and lied about money? Their evident poverty suggested that all of this attention I was receiving might be based in the riches I represented. This tension took several forms, the most disturbing being that I would be eventually be robbed in some way or another. I had worried about having my wallet stolen and being left in Vung Dao for instance; or, inversely, that I had taken unfair advantage of them by letting Mama pay for lunch. These thoughts left me feeling quite sad.

After the message, mosquito netting was hung on both sides of the room, leaving an open area between. Woven straw mats, pillows and blankets were laid out. Mai and Tai were in one area, Huong and I in another, with Lien and Mama in between. I assume that I had taken Lien's usual spot in sleeping arrangements. Lights went out and within minutes I could hear someone snoring lightly. Huong had arranged herself up against me with one leg over mine. As I was still wearing only my shorts and light robe, and Huong a light cotton gown, this felt extremely intimate. I did my best to accept it without "talking" in any way that would encourage further intimacies.

I was slowly drifting in and out of sleep when there was a voice at the door and everyone got up. For a moment I thought there was a crisis. Then, dressed as I was, I was excitedly dragged by the hand to another family dwelling where an elderly, toothless, grandfather, several middle-aged men and women, along with an assortment of small children were sitting around on the floor watching a Vietnamese-made film on TV. Lien, Huong, Mai and I were provided with benches to sit on, and a mosquito coil was placed between my feet.

The film was about the war, or rather the effects of the war upon a family (which war was not made clear.) The film techniques were at once both stylistically complicated and cinematically simplistic. Visually it resembled a television comedy of the fifties not unlike The Honeymooners, with stagy settings and straightforward medium range shots. Stylistically it was a blend of soap opera, melodrama, situation comedy, and stage musical; all with realistic overtones.

It began with a rather humorous scene in which a Vietnamese government official visits a family's home to conscript the oldest daughter - who is married and has a nursing baby. Her husband is apparently already away in the war. (He is going to be blind from a war wound, I am gravely informed by several of the viewers). The humor in the scene arose from the buffoonery of the Chaplinesque official as he attempted what appeared to be an inept seduction of the loyal wife (and unwilling conscript.) Vocal tone, gesture, and facial expression were sufficiently exaggerated and familiar enough that I was able to understand most of the intent and motivation of the characters without being able to understand the dialog.

This was followed by a melodramatic scene (and a song or two) in which the wife is forced to leave her infant daughter with her mother and go off to war. There followed one tragedy after another: the husband is blinded and receives news that his wife is dead, likewise the wife believes him to be dead, the mother, carrying the baby, finds him on the battlefield and she dies, leaving the infant in his care; it was one coincidental and tragic event followed by another and another.

After the war, the wife meets a well-to-do businessman, whose wife has died leaving him with a boy child. She marries him and adopts his son as her own. Meanwhile, blind husband number one has raised their daughter, who is now 10, and she in turned cares for him, making his meals, etc.

There was much weeping throughout this film. In fact, at one point I went to my back pack and brought back tissues which I distributed to one and all, including the toothless grandfather. Everyone thought this was terribly amusing. Lien had kept me up with the action by providing occasional commentary through which I learned that they had all seen the film several times.

The war is over and the wife is happily married and loves her adopted son. Coincidentally, the daughter is hired to be a housekeeper by her real mother, who did not recognize her. This employment only lasted a few minutes because the stepson grew immediately jealous.

Through a series of complicated plot devices involving other relatives the wife eventually discovers that husband number one is alive, as is her daughter. Then husband number one also hears, from a cousin, that his wife is alive and remarried to a wealthy man from the city. He decides not to reveal that he is alive, even though he still loves her very much; however, he is willing to let the daughter go to live with her mother because they are relatively wealthy and can provide more advantages for her.

These conflicts are the crucial conflicts of the film: how to resolve the wife's unintentional bigamy, what is best for the children, and how can the love that each person feels for the others be resolved?

The wife has an emotional scene with her second husband about her decision to go visit her first husband and daughter. He gets angry and walks out.

She arrives at the first husband's humble dwelling just as he is sings, sadly, of his love for her and his willingness to give up his daughter for her own happiness. Hearing this she decides her place is with the daughter and first husband, that she still loves him. Suddenly he realizes she is standing behind him in the doorway and breaks down weeping. They argue a bit about what to do and she tells him she still loves him. The second husband and the son show up and after much soul searching husband number two graciously bows out. He leaves his son who, sorry for his earlier outbursts, remains with his new family.

As complicated as it was I was able to follow easily. This was partly due to Lien's commentary, but mostly to the clarity of performance. The enemy in the war was never shown, identified or even characterized, nor was there an antagonist of the sort that most film plots are so dependent upon. The most unsympathetic character was a Vietnamese government official who is responsible for the false information on deaths. These facts, coupled with the emotional responses of the viewers, led me to the conclusion that the people of Saigon seemed to hold little grudge against the Americans or French, but were deeply concerned with how to heal their wounds. The film resolved its conflicts with compassion, integrity and the restoration of basic values. These are a generous and strong people.

Back to bed. Everyone was asleep except Huong and I. I could sense her expectation, feel it in her slight movements and hear it in her breathing. I was lying on my back with my eyes closed and drifting. She said something to me so quietly and oddly that I was not certain what it was. I thought, for a moment, that she had asked about a condom.

"The key opens." she repeated.

I was completely still, barely breathing. I didn't know what to say.

"You sleep now?" she asked after a few minutes.

I nodded, gave her a hug, lay back and closed my eyes. Before long she was asleep. The night passed in disjointed impressions separated by fitful periods of sleep. Strange sounds and smells came to my awareness and passed; hazy imaginings, emotional flutters, and self-reflections did as well. Once during the night I arose to use the toilet. My shuffle started a dog in the compound barking. As is their way, the message was passed on by every other dog in the vicinity and I could hear them for several minutes after, the barking moving father and father away through the neighborhoods of Saigon.

Shortly before dawn the roosters begin their declarations. The first began at a distance, one then another, growing closer; the reverse of the dog's message. Finally the rooster quartered immediately behind the wall of our room crowed. I laughed. His "cock-a-doodle-doooo" was oddly abbreviated, so that it sounded like, "cock-a-doodle-oop"; sounded just as if he had been strangled mid-crow.

With everyone up and about, I was given toiletries again. Oddly, I couldn't bring myself to brush my teeth. The odor of the bathhouse and toilet this morning was not nearly as inoffensive as it had been the night before and that strengthened my anxiety about the water.

Likewise the sight of the rich, opaque, breakfast soup filled with unrecognizable bits of meat and vegetable initiated a sort of nausea that was heightened by my lack of rest and emotional confusion. I forced myself to one spoonful and then another. Before long I had almost finished the bowl and was feeling a great deal better for it.

Mama made what apparently was a joke about Huong now having a baby. I suppose I should not have been surprised at this continuation of the previous night's conversation, however I was. I decided then and there that if we were going to have a discussion of intimate relationships it was not going to be limited to Huong and my presumed affair. So, I asked Lien once again how she and her sister avoided getting pregnant.

She seemed not to understand but I repeated it with an addition, "You, Huong have many men for sex, how you not get pregnant?"

She said something so softly that it was not intelligible, but the pain in her voice and eyes taught me that Lien had suffered a great deal more then I knew.


Later that morning, in the guest house, I discovered the fifty dollar bill was gone from my wallet. I was at a loss. I had planned to get the bill changed at the desk and give Huong and Mai ten each as a going away gift. I was going to give Mama ten to take a taxi back from the airport. That left enough for the taxi and the departure tax.

Now what do I do? Do I confront them, express anger or disappointment? Who had taken it? Was it one of them, or some other who had snuck into the room while we were watching TV last night? I had come to the decision that all of my anxiety about money and motives was unfounded, now I felt hurt and betrayed. I left the hotel in a muddle and walked around the corner to meet them at the cafe.

As I sat down and ordered coffee, Huong moved close and took my arm. I looked at her for a moment and then told her that someone had stolen money from me. I told her that she had been right yesterday, that I had had more money in my wallet. I asked her to tell Mama. I told her I didn't want Mama to think I was cheap when I didn't pay for their taxi home or give any more money to the family before I left.

She said she would tell her. She spoke angrily to Mama for a moment but I could not tell from Mama's lack of expression what Huong had actually said to her.

I told Huong that we would need to go to a bank that took Visa before we went to the airport. Then I gave Mama the ebony chopsticks. Mama looked at me questioningly and I nodded that she should open the gift. Her reaction, when she saw the chopsticks, was a combination of amusement and confusion.

Outside the airport entrance Mama, Mai and Lien all crouched in typical Vietnamese style by a pillar as I went to buy a pack of cigarettes. When I returned I sat down with them, which caused some laughter. I think it was because I sat on the ground instead of crouching. We lounged for a while without words.

Then Huong looked at me and said, "I very sad."

"Why?" I asked.

"I sad you go."

"I sad too," I replied, "but only little bit. I happy too. I meet you. I meet family. I am happy more than sad."

And I was. I was grateful for the experiences of the past few days, and for the affection I felt from each of them.

Mai kept looking at my camera and I finally gave it to her and told her to take pictures. She happily took a few pictures and handed me back the camera. I gave each of them a hug, but it was awkward, they seemed embarrassed by it. I think the place was too public for such physical displays of emotion.

On the plane I thought of home, of my world - so narrow in that peculiar way that familiarity breeds. There I am secure in my emotional life, unafraid to tell the truth, one who knows himself thoroughly.



Text and photos copyright 1995 Ted Guhl. PhotoCD scans by Advanced Digital Imaging.

Article created 1995

Readers' Comments


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Charlie Le , March 10, 1997; 07:03 A.M.

Hi! After reading your story, I feel a bit embarrass and angry. I am embarrass because you have described exaclty what Vietnam, saigon in particular has become, a city of sin and poverty. Thanks to the tourists. I am angry because you have taken advantage of the family. They only did what they did with you for one and only one reason-finanical return. Do you think mama, Huong really like you? Either you're so naive or just really stupid to think that. BTW I am one of those staring eyes when I see a young Vietnamese girl with a grey, bald man. I am Vietnamese and I am just really sad and sorry for my country. Charlie

Thien Nguyen , March 28, 1997; 05:36 P.M.

The story was revealing and moving. However, it portraited only a very small piece of the lives of the Vietnamese. In general, I doubted if the story could happen. The Vietnamese are very conservative especially about relationship and sex. If a girl has to earn money as an escort, it is a great insult to the family. Her family would be ashamed, talking her out of the profession. In the story, it is as if the family accepted it and even encouraged it. I found this to be very hard to believe. However, Vietnam is now poor; regrettfully, anything can happen for the money.

Thien

Tony Ton , April 21, 1997; 05:18 A.M.

Great story. I really feel sorry for the Vietnamese, especially the poor like Huong, Lien... I guess these girls had to make their livings in a hard way. But, I believe that you only see a partial face of the Vietnamese people. There are still a lot of educated, moral Vietnamese that you didn't have a chance to meet during your visit. Hopefully you can have a second chance to visit Vietnam.

I am going to Vietnam on my second trip next week. Thanks for the warnings about Saigon,and sharing the story.

Tung Truong , June 07, 1997; 01:09 A.M.

Your story was very well told. It sounded like a great adventure to me. I left VietNam at a young age and now I'm sixteen, living in Canada. I haven't visitted Viet Nam since so I don't know what it was really like there. Your story has certainly given me a better understanding of what VietNam was like. My family is planning to go back this Summer and I'm very excited to be seeing the country where I was born.

Tung

Kevin Carroll , June 24, 1997; 01:01 A.M.

I'm a veteran of Vietnam from 1967=68. I regularly browse the photo.net and was drawn to this story because I am considering re-visiting Vietnam myself. I'm curious if this was the first trip to Vietnam by this gentleman, and if so Why? I would hate to be considered an "ex-pat", whatever that means. I don't know, I was vaguely disturbed and insulted by this piece for some reason. If a person visits a land of a different culture and has fears in Saigon about eating vegatables, yet does not find it very odd that an entire family would adopt him to the point of wishing that he would impregnate one of the daughters, perhaps he is missing the point of what it is like to be Vietnamese, and what influence (mostly bad) flooding their beautiful country and ancient culture with teenagers caught in a draft has wrought. If I revisit Vietnam, this time of my own accord, it will be to come to grips with my own experiences there, and to in some small way asess for my personal satisfaction the depths of the damage that we unintentionaly caused to these wonderful people, and to try my best not to act as an Ugly American tourist photographer. By the way that resort city is Vung Tau, not Dao and thousands of Americans visited there on in-country R&R's during our prescence

HUNTER FEDERSPIEL , July 08, 1997; 06:03 A.M.

THE STORY IS BOTH BEAUTIFUL AND SAD. I APPRECIATED TED GUHL'S CANDOR ABOUT HIS EXPERIENCES AND HIS MIXED EMOTIONS. SOME OF THE CRITICISMS FROM OTHER READERS MAY BE MISDIRECTED. THERE IS POVERTY AND PROSTITUTION THROUGHOUT THE WORLD, INCLUDING THE UNITED STATES. THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES ARE NOT UNIQUE TO VIETNAM. IF PEOPLE WANT TO ASSIGN BLAME FOR THE DIFFICULT CONDITIONS IN VIETNAM TODAY, THEY SHOULD PLACE THE BLAME ON TWO THOUSAND YEARS OF WARS AND OCCUPATIONS BY CHINESE, FRENCH, JAPANESE, AND AMERICAN FORCES, AS WELL AS THE CORRUPT AND INEPT COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT THAT RULES VIETNAM TODAY. THE MAJORITY OF THE VIETNAMESE PEOPLE ARE MORE CONCERNED ABOUT THEIR EVERYDAY STRUGGLE FOR ECONOMIC AND SPIRITUAL SURVIVAL. THEY ARE NOT CONCERNED ABOUT PLACING BLAME. IN REGARD TO THE DISAPPROVING LOOKS THAT TED NOTICED FROM SOME VIETNAMESE PEOPLE WHEN HE WENT ABOUT IN PUBLIC WITH HUONG, KEEP IN MIND THAT, IN MOST ASIAN COUNTRIES, RELATIONSHIPS AND MARRIAGES BETWEEN OLDER MEN AND YOUNGER WOMEN ARE NO BIG DEAL. HOWEVER, THERE IS A XENOPHOBIC PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION IN ANY COUNTRY (ESPECIALLY IN ASIAN COUNTRIES) THAT LOOKS DOWN ON RELATIONSHIPS AND MARRIANGES WITH "FOREIGNERS". OF ALL FOREIGNERS, THROUGH, VIETNAMESE PEOPLE SEEM MOST FOND OF AMERICANS. THIS IS NOT JUST BECAUSE AMERICAN TOURISTS HAVE A LOT OF MONEY TO SPEND. MORE IMPORTANTLY, AS EVIDENCED BY THE OLD MAN THAT TED HAD MET IN THE MARKETPLACE, AMERICANS AND AMERICA REPRESENT THOSE QUALITIES THAT VIETNAMESE PEOPLE VALUE AND CHERISH MOST: FREEDOM, OPPORTUNITY, INGENUITY, PROSPERITY, VITALITY, AND GENEROSITY. IT IS NO COINCIDENCE THAT THE MAJORITY OF VIETNAMESE PEOPLE WHO WERE FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO EMIGRATE TO THE UNITED STATES, CANADA, FRANCE, AUSTRALIA, AND OTHER FREE COUNTRIES HAVE ADAPTED AND SUCCEEDED IN THEIR NEW HOMELANDS. IT IS ALSO NO COINCIDENCE THAT THE VIETNAMESE WORD FOR "AMERICAN" ALSO MEANS "BEAUTIFUL".

Tom T. Dang , July 10, 1997; 07:48 P.M.

First of all, the city is Vung Tau not Vung Dao.

Your story was well told and I enjoyed it wery much. I just went to Vietnam in April 1997 and visit Saigon for the first time. I love every minutes of it. The sex part was sort of truth because I was there and was approached in the same way. However, I am very comfuse on the part that the family is openly talking about sex with you. However, Saigon is changing rapidly...anything could happen. And about your fifty dollars lost, it was the only ugly segment of your trip. I hope you do not count that against all Vietnamese. Thanks for the story

Tom Dang

Tam D. Doan , July 18, 1997; 09:44 P.M.

This was a very moving story regarding how hard life is in Vietnam. It is a fact that a lot of young women in Vietnam make their living providing SEX to tourists. It is certainly believable that the mother of the girls in this story would turn a blind eyes toward her daughters being propstitutes, since her livelihood depends on them. It's very real that her family members, who are in dire poverty, would defer to the 2 girls who bring home the money, after they get used to the fact that they are prostitutes. For every woman who decides to be a prostitute, there are proabably tens of thousand other women who would rather work harder for their living, than lose their dignity. This story has much authenticity to it. I have more compassion for this poor and ignorant Vietnamese family than any feelings. It certainly reminds me to maintain all my moral obligations, even when my stomach and those of my dependents are empty.

A very sad story of people in poverty and desparation. However, you may encounter many similar situations in many places right here in a much more prosperous USA.

john nguyen , July 21, 1997; 08:22 P.M.

I thought the story is well-written and simplicity to make me understanding the ugly of vietnamese sub- culture. To some extend, the true need to be told for outsiders understand how poor and desperate the vietnamese peoples. That would be a lesson to let the communist government improve their treatment to the people of vietnam. I would learn a lot from this story and apply when I will be back there this year 97. John

oj ngo , July 30, 1997; 03:07 A.M.

Hi, Once again, like many readers here, I'd like to compliment you on the well-written story. I truly do not know how I am feeling after reading the story other than *sad*. I am sad that you were there. I am sad for all those who were there and are there. Is my home country dying? -oj

Ly (Lee) Van Tran -- , August 20, 1997; 11:48 P.M.

This story adds another mark in the history of my identity crisis. I was born in Vietnam, but have been in the US for 23 years... yet even today, I'm not sure if I'm American or Vietnamese. I can dissect this story to tiny pieces, but what good will it do? Even, two decades afterwards..there still lingers a misunderstanding... an ignorance about cultures. To fully understand a country, its people is to know its culture first. The US government failed miserably years ago... and the tourist still do today. An example would be President Johnson mis-pronouncing the word Vietnam.... which turns out sounding like a Vietnamese phrase meaning "lame duck". As for the author, his description of the eyes... well, if you didn't know.. most Asian people do not keep very good eye contact because in the culture, it is disrespectful to look someone straight in the eyes if they are an authority figure.. be it parents, elderly etc. One more thing, you don't talk louder and slower to a blind man do you? Well, it is not doing justice to speak broken English to someone... they will just learn how to speak bad English.

Ted Guhl , November 11, 1997; 06:29 A.M.

I'd like to apologize for taking so long to reply to all of your comments on this article and to assure you that I will respond very quickly with personal messages now that I am settled again. Since I submitted this article I have moved back to the States (from Hong Kong) and recently to Japan, so you can understand why I am behind on my email. Once again thank you for your responses, they are most encouraging as this is only my second published travel piece.

Ted Guhl

Dave Wallace , March 29, 1998; 10:22 P.M.

Ted Guhl's travel story is reminiscent of some aspects of Saigon that I experienced in 1973-1974 when I was working for an importer/exporter and living in the city. Some of the Vietnamese women sell themselves in the evening and then visit the temple and pray the next day. They don't seem to find this a contradiction! These woman can be very charming and friendly - even if you don't want to succumb to their charms. For some reason when I just said 'no' and treated them as if I respected them, I won some kind of respect from them - they could be very friendly and protective of me. I viewed them as people trying to survive - I tried not to judge them. I can verify without a doubt that the majority of Vietnamese women hold a high standard of morality. When I was there, 'nice girls' didn't even talk to Americans - though I eventually made some women friends. I tried to date a particular girl from the company where I worked. She was from a prosperous family, and the embarrassment of our 'relationship' was a struggle for her - she knew what could happen to her reputation. All in all, from the perspective of a soldier in 1969-70 and a civilian in 1973-74, the Vietnamese are a wonderful people!

They have nothing to be ashamed of. I consider those days to be some of the best times of my life, and some of the Vietnamese to be the best people I ever had the honor of meeting. If you are a Vietnamese-American and reading this - believe me - you have a great heritage. Be proud!

Thomas Vuong , May 12, 1998; 03:23 A.M.

I've visited this site several times (mainly looking for camera stuffs and tips) before I found the story. I don't know the right words to describe what I feel...It hurts...PArt of the story remind me of several Western movies schemes that makes me kind of angry..BAD guys/girls, lowclass,criminals, servants, buttlers,poors characters/extras are always portraited with minorites (blacks, asians etc..). Guess who are the good guys...The American, caucasian, The "DUKE"/John Wayne etc...

The other part of the story reminded me what I have seen & experienced before I left the country to come here to study before the fall of SAIGON. The story is GREAT and I see that the author was not either trying to put down the Vietnamse or the Country..Nor did he try to be a "John Wayne" here. The story sounds sincere...

It hurts to see inocents people are forced into doing things (anythings) for their own/family survivals...This story did bring out a point to everyone in this country (Vietnamse or Not vietnamse) that How lucky you are and How you take everthing here for granted (freedom, human rights, life, family, survival etc...)in this country?

Should we feel pitty/sorry for them..NO..They didwhat they have to do to survive...Majority of them should be considered as heroes to us because...they did the "dirty" so they can SAVE others...Don't feel pitty..DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT...STOP the government...bring Civilization back there..STOP those STUPID VC...HELP them to help themself & their family..DON't give them the money 'cause you feel sorry for them...

Kevin Atruowng , May 21, 1998; 02:20 A.M.

Ted, what a adventure, hah!! I applaud you for being so brave. From what I've heard about Saigon nowadays, I would not be easy as you were while in Vietnam. Being an easy person in Vietnam could lead you into trouble. Eventhough I love to visit Saigon, I would be exxxxxxxtremely careful once I have my first step on the land of Vietnam. Anyway, it sounds like you had a fun trip, and I really like the way you described the situations. I can also feel that I was right there seeing everything. Chao!!!!!!!!! Kevin Atruowng

Quoc Van Tran , June 09, 1998; 07:10 P.M.

I just recently finished reading your story Ted and liked it immensely. I think it was simple and well written. There were no heroes, no judgements, and no preaching. It was just a story of one man's experiences in a foreign land. I feel some kinship to it because I, myself, recently (March '98) visited Saigon for the first time since leaving it in '76 as little more than a toddler. I'm sad to admit that much of what Ted spoke of rings true. The VN Dong is now 12,000 to 1 US Dollar. Yes, prostitution is more prevalent over there than say, the U.S., but I'll let someone else make judgements on that. Yes, you have to be careful of what you eat. If you're thirsty, its better to take a drink from the Coconut venders on the streets (They'll crack open the 'nut for you and give you straw to sip) than asking for drinking water or soda. Had no problems with La Vie (bottled spring water), but I have heard bad things about other brands.

I'd like to mention that visiting Vietnam is no different from visiting any other country. We may be White and Black, Asian or Hispanic, Irish or Italian descent over here in the States, but over in that other country, we're *all* American.

It is a shame that you (Ted) didn't already know someone over there to take you around or go with some friends as a group. I think you would have had a much better time if you did. To be one man, alone in a foreign country under communist rule, unable to speak the language, and yet still trying to make a vacation out of it... ::shakes head in disbelief:: Well, kudos to you for that.

Regards,

-QVT

Spam Izbad , June 11, 1998; 01:27 A.M.

Ted, you are an eloquent writer and appear to have great ability to recall details. Great story!

I can't believe how many people who've contributed comments to this site have victimized the poor girl who was forced into prostitution. Yes, it is unfortunate. Yes, Vietnam has a number of problems that have resulted from the war. But let's not forget that a) not every young girl in Vietnam opts for prostitution for the easy money and b) prostitution still takes place in the "land of opportunity" (USA) and there are many hard luck stories here too.

War is an embarassment to the human race - personally I think the politicians who start wars should be put in cages to fight each other to the death instead of making whole generations pay. But that is another issue...

My problem is with the folks who wrote their comments as if this only happens in Vietnam and victims only exist here. There are victims everywhere - everyone is a victim sooner or later. Survivors overcome their victimization.

By the way, I'm a white American and am part of a very, very integrated family (white, Vietnamese, Japanese, Hispanic) and take offense to the postings regarding the "ugly american"/"John Wayne is hero" statements. Generalizations of white people are no more fair than generalizations of non-white people. It's a changing world and not everyone is stuck in the racist mentalities of past. I think most folks today, especially young folks (I'm 31) are basically open-minded - much more so than previous generations. Not everyone in America takes what they have for granted.

Michael Duc Thai , June 13, 1998; 04:17 P.M.

Ted; Just like many other readers, I enjoyed alot in reading your story about Saigon. Different feelings were arise at I read thru that article, I had found myself laughed at some point and felt so touching at others (like when you meet the man/military advisor at the market). Not just only Vietnam, but most of the third world countries do have similar social and economic problems as Vietnam. Thailand, Hongkong, Malaysia, Philippine, etc....are the most practical examples. These problems have led to numerous heart-break stories. Due to earning a living, sometime, you may really end up with no choice. Is is good or bad? I believe none of us qualify to give a judment on this issue.

Jamie Hammond , February 10, 1999; 04:06 P.M.

I found the article to be very interesting. I recently visited Saigon and Vung Tau. I was there from 1/3/99 to 1/18/99 and I had a great time. I took my girlfriend with me, who left Vietnam in 75' at the age of two, she also thought the trip was a remarkable experience. Her and I both felt that the people of Vietnam were very friendly and receptive. I would recommend to anyone interested in going to visit Vietnam to do so and enjoy. The people and culture made for a great trip me and I am looking forward to going again in the fall of 99. Jamie Hammond

Xuan Busch , March 07, 1999; 11:58 P.M.

Your Story is so boring that I don't want to read all. Nothing interesting but a poor tourist with two bad girls. I don't think you know much about Vietnam. What you expected to see is not for the tourists who want to visit Vietnam.

Chau Nguyen , March 28, 1999; 11:14 P.M.

Every country has good sides and bad sides. Unfortunately, Ted Guhl's experience in Vietnam felt into a negative part. And...unfortunately, the negative part catches people's attention easily. I will go back to visit Vietnam in May after seven years living away. I'd known the negative sides while I was living there. This time, I would like to learn, to look at, to feel the positive...

Anthony Tho Nguyen , May 20, 1999; 04:11 A.M.

I enjoy Ted's story very much even I feel sad and confused at some points. In my opinion, Ted simply told what he has seen, felt, and perceived. He didn't directly state his judgement about the situation. However, to tell is to be responsible for the effect, especially when it is in public. In the story, Ted said that he liked to experience "the unexpected" as he was in Saigon. It is good in terms of achieving raw experience, emotion, and discovery for a tourist on a trip. Unfortunately, Ted's knowledge about Vietnam, its culture, language, and people was so poor at the time he was trying to explore them. For example, he was incapable to understand what the man in the market place told him; incapable to understand the young man's behavior; Therefore, many things he told in the story seemed to be very strange, confusing, and ridiculous to those who have a better acquaintance with Vietnam. I was born and grew up in Vietnam so I think Ted tells the truth about what he's seen but I also believe that he described it improperly. Since there was a problem of language in the fact, what Ted heard or he thought he heard the Vietnamese said might not be correct or meant to be. I think it's very important to understand the culture of the country, about which, one wants to write. I think Ted is an honest man but inexperienced with the country he visited. I'd like to thank those who have an understanding about my country's culture, people, and what the Vietnamese have been through. The Vietnamese people have been tortured by wars, poverty, and communist regime all together for centuries! One at a time, they fight against it for independence or survival, yet hold no deep hatred about their enemy or try to identify what actually makes them poor. If you are an American, French, Japanese, or Chinese, you'd understand what I mean. That is the beauty, perhaps also the weakness, of the Vietnamese people. You don't have to worry that your countries used to have war with Vietnam as you are about to visit it. You are welcomed in Vietnam, just don't be cheap, mean, and stupid because many & many Vietnamese are not. I feel sad for them but proud of them as well.

Anthony T. Nguyen

Andrew Nguyen , June 03, 1999; 05:11 P.M.

I appreciated that you took your value time to share your experience with us. It comes no suprise to me that your story is true. Nevertheless, it's a dishonor to us as Vietnamese that you have only had a chance or spent most of your time with Huong who only discussed about sexuality. I think it would be a greater and more pleasure trip if you could meet someone that has dignity and honesty rather then prostitutes. I feel very uncomfortable when you said you lost $50 at Huong's house. This tells me that either Huong or one of Huong's family member took it. This definitely hurts all Vietnamese's reputation. But beleive it or not this happens everywhere including the U.S who claims the richest country in the world. All in all, I am thankful for your time and I would like to suggest you that "DON'T TRUST ANYONE ESPECIALLY THOSE YOU JUST MEET THE FIRST TIME." I was very suprised that you allowed yourself to stay overnight at one's house that you have never knew, especially you know what she does. I am also shocked that Huong's mom didn't take any reaction toward Huong's action. Well, anyway one thing I would like to say here is most Vietnamese girls aren't like Huong.

Andrew Nguyen :-)

Email: andrewnguyen21@hotmail.com

Ivry Tan , June 24, 1999; 12:46 P.M.

Hello Ted! I was a little surprised at the content of your story. I don't doubt it one bit but I must say that it has been most enlightening and offered me a different aspect of Vietnam. I have personally been there myself on a community service project recently and I loved every minute of it. Thanks to the wonderful friends I've met there. The Vietnamese are sincere and friendly people and they had made my stay there most enjoyable. However, I do hope that you might decide to visit Vietnam again. It's a beautiful place and I hope that your next visit there would be under more pleasant circumstances. sincerely yours,

David Tillman , August 03, 1999; 03:21 P.M.

Dear Ted, Kudos on your honesty on your trip to Vietnam. I don't see why people get their dandruff in an upraor over your story being true. I've heard similar story from Americans who went there. I read a story by one guy that stayed in Ho Chi Min city that said mothers would constantly ask him to marry their daughters...some as young as 14. One woman asked him to marry his 14 year old daughter, and if he wouldn't, he could adopt her and marry her when she turned 18. It's sad in a way the Vietnamese people have been reduced to this. They would have been better off if they had lost the war. Look at Germany and Japan and contrast them with Vietnam, if you don't believe me. They missed out on all the billions we would have poured into their country to rebuild it.

Hugo Pham , August 15, 1999; 11:27 A.M.

Hi Ted, If you could come again to Vietnam. Things have been changed in good and some in bad. The so called 5 stars hotel Floating hotel have been moved away. Hotels are increasing in quantity and quality, and are much cheaper. You can get your Int'l hotel (vo Van Tan str) for less than US$ 20 / Nite (including breakfast). Entry visa procedures are easier, you can get it upon arrival at the airports Tan Son Nhat (Saigon), Danang and Noi Bai (Hanoi) although you still must get your visa approval before hand. Asian is trying to solve its crisis, so does Vietnam. Vietnam has to compete with its neiboughring countries in terms of travel, like Thailand, China... The US Consulate in Hochiminh City is rivalising with its Embassy in Hanoi... Wish you, your beloved family and friends all the very best... and see you soon in Saigon...

Calvin Vu , August 15, 1999; 11:41 P.M.

Thanks for a great story, Ted. I'm a little sad, not because of the existence of some poor people in Vietnam, since that's an evitable part of the growing pain, but because of the choice of words that some people exhibited in their comments which marred the hospitality and friendliness which is engrained in the 4000-year Vietnamese cultural heritage.

It's part of the cultural difference which you have already observed in the play on TV that evening in Huong's house where all actors greatly exaggerated their facial expressions to convey the story. Many VNese still have this symbolic thinking which permeates their art forms. These people think that every story and every picture would symbolize the whole class of people and objects, and so are upset that you decided to portray and symbolize the country that way. But your story is simply a snapshot of one aspect of life in Vietnam...

On the other hand, there's a Chinese/Vietnamese saying which roughly means "If you carry a fragance then others will inevitably smell it". Being an American would mean a person with money and so you will always attract the people on the streets who will look for that: money. If you had gone to the countryside where people were less effected by material pursuits or to the libraries where you might meet some friendly educated people then your experience would have been much different.

As for the missing $50, did you ever find out how much that crab dinner cost ? The convention in VN is that the host, here Mama, would try to pay for the dinner to show her hospitality, even though she could ill-afford it. However, she would expect you to pay her back in some other way to show your appreciation for her hospitality. My guess is that such a dinner in VungTau would come to around $50 or even more so you might as well consider that you paid for the dinner and forget about the missing $50 :). You should have realized that such a poor family wouldn't be able to afford such a dinner and taken that into consideration when you gave them the money that night. Anyway, I pray that you still have the light-heartedness as in that day when you had the two little birds in your hands and released them at the pagoda and this good feeling will keep you from visiting our country again. My little travelling advice to you is to avoid the big cities in the poor countries the next time. Those are just about the worst places to visit.

Paul Dau , September 10, 1999; 06:24 P.M.

Thanks, Ted for a great article. Even for someone like me, who had spent most of my adolescent years in Saigon, I could relate to your story on my first trip back in 96 after 16 long years in the US.Yes, Saigon has its ugly sides, just like everywhere else- I had worse experience in New York City not long ago- but for the most part, Saigon offers much more than what you'd described. As a matter of fact, I liked it so much, that I've just made another trip back in June '99.The standard of living is nowhere near the US.( It's now 14,000 dong/USD), and the price of a decent hotel is between $15-$20/night, but the compassion, the friendliness, and the feelings of being around your own people is something that I will never forget.And lastly, next time you plan a trip back to Saigon, have some Vietnamese-Americans accompany you and you will find out what I'm talking about.

Ted Guhl , November 04, 1999; 07:57 P.M.

A Thank you from Ted Guhl

To begin I want to thank each of you who have taken the time to respond to my Saigon Journal on Web Travel Review over the past three years. I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to those who have found offense in this account. I assure you none was intended. In truth my trips to Vietnam, there have been several since the article was written, have been the among the most wonderful experiences in my life. The Vietnamese are truly warm and caring people, with a strong sense of family and Buddhist values. There are a few misconceptions left by the account that I would like to clarify: The first is that I made Huong and her family out to be predators. My intention and real feelings are just the opposite. I tried to indicate - perhaps should have just said directly - that the girls were children of mixed parentage. Both had fathers that were American servicemen. This was the reason for the abuse that had taken place and their position as "victims". As far as I am concerned, if blame must be assigned, then blame the Americans who made policy during the war years and it's aftermath, then blame those individual Vietnamese who abused the children left behind. And if my account does indeed give the impression that these were "bad " people, I sincerely apologize and regret my incompetence. The second misconception I apparently fostered was that Mama was preying on the children and on me. On the contrary, I believe she is someone of great heart. Not all of these children were hers. Some she had taken in and provided for as best she could under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I observed that she tried very hard to instill some sense personal worth to each of the children. I also think she did her best to show me the traditional hospitality and warmth of her people. I have traveled among many cultures and have met many people with far greater resources who were far less generous and far less lacking in true humility. Finally, a word about prostitution. As we all know, it exists virtually everywhere to some degree. In general I can neither condone it nor condemn it. At its worst, it is a dehumanizing (and sometimes deadly experience) for both the prostitute and the purchaser. At best, it is an ancient form of enterprise (sometimes youthful experimentation) and can provide, at least temporarily, a chance to avoid abject poverty. Who will condemn another for avoiding starvation for themselves or their family. In a better world there would be less dehumanizing opportunities for every person. Finally, let me express my gratitude once again for your support, information and criticism. They have provided me with an invaluable education.

Yours truly, Ted Guhl

Frank Giordano , November 12, 1999; 06:09 P.M.

Fascinating story, Ted. I found it interesting that those who were most incensed by it were people of Vietnamese origin. I suppose no one likes to see their country of origin portrayed in a manner that indicates it has plenty of problems as well as strengths, but that is how I perceived your article. It seemed to me that you were reporting truthfully what happened to you as best you could understand it. The cross cultural gaps are huge and we must be wary of the problems they cause. No one can hope to claim any real understanding of another culture unless they have lived immersed in it for a long time. When you are also not fluent in the language of the host country, it only compounds the problems. These were the conditions under which you authored this story. I believe you were aware of these factors and your awareness reflected in your nonjudgmental approach to your experiences. I just wish that some of the commentors could take the same nonjudgmental approach to your reportage. My experience with Vietnam was limited to one tour of duty there from 1971-1972 as a physician and Army officer. I was stationed in Saigon at the Third Field Hospital but my area of responsibility extended from Bien Hoa to the north of the city down to Can Tho(spelling?) in the delta. I left Vietnam with some very favorable impressions of the country and its people, but I realize these were impressions only. My contact with the people came through three distinct avenues: the people who worked for us in capacities as varied as housemaid to executive assistant; civilian friends I made in Saigon; and members of the then South Vietnamese government, some of whom were my patients and some with whom I had contact in an official capacity. All in all, these folks spanned the gamut from rather poor to incredibly wealthy. Whatever their socioeconomic status, they were all open, friendly and generous to a fault. I found that the Vietnamese tended to take friendship more seriously than many Americans. If you were a friend, they would bend over backward to accommodate you in whatever way they could. They especially took seriously any favors you did them and tried to repay you a hundredfold. During the time I was there, we had many more Vietnamese civilian patients in our military hospital than we did Americans. The US had a program at that time which took in civilian casualties of the fighting on a space available basis and since the American role in the fighting had decreased considerably by that time, we had few GI wounded. I looked on this program as an obligation we had since we were in part responsible for them being injured, but the Vietnamese patients looked on it as a gift and I cannot begin to describe the sense of gratitude they conveyed. In the beginning it made me feel guilty since I didn't think we deserved it, but their attitude was contagious and it made us want to help even more. The civilian friends I made in Saigon were wonderful people. One family still stands out in my mind even after all these years. The Viens were an upper socioeconomic class family. Mr. Vien owned a number of businesses in Saigon. He was a practicing Buddhist and had two wives as Buddhism allows if you can support them. The senior wife was the mother of his children. When we were invited to his home for dinner, she would act as hostess and entertain the guests along with him while the junior wife attended to the details of the dinner. His oldest child, Christine, was a stewardess for Pan Am (back when there was a Pan Am and when they were still called stewardesses not cabin attendants). Christine had been educated in France and Switzerland. Her English was better than mine and she was also fluent in French, Italian, German and, of course, Vietnamese. She was passable in Spanish also. Altogether she was an incredibly sophisticated and polished woman who could hold her own in any situation. Since she had one foot in Asia and the other in Europe and the US, she served as a wonderful bridge to the Vietnamese culture. The Viens opened their home to us many times and the warmth and hospitality of that family remains one of my fondest memories to this day. Yes, there was a lot of prostitution and the Vietnamese bar girls were notorious for being able to separate you from your money quickly, but so what? Those were rough times for many people and they did what they had to in order to survive. But I was lucky enough to see other aspects of their society which was a rich and varied one. When you go back again, get out of Saigon(I still have trouble calling it Ho Chi Minh City) and go to the Dalat Highlands. I promise you'll find no more naturally beautiful place on the face of the earth. Make sure you sample the Dalat strawberries. They are an incredible treat, much more flavorful than the fruit we have here, and I never got sick eating them. Or visit the ancient imperial city of Hue. You will never regret the time you spend exploring this beautiful country filled with generous and accepting people.

Dang Esther , November 17, 1999; 01:29 A.M.

First of all, I'd like to say that you (Ted) were very brave to visit Vietnam by yourself. Second, I believe that your story reflected a true side of the Vietnamese society nowadays. (It's reality, people! Why don't we just face it with care?) Third, I wish you had had more respect for the girls by not having physical contacts with them at all. For I think they treated you special because you're American. They liked you because of who you are, an American, and what you have, wealth. If your intention was not to hurt them, show them how they're supposed to be through yourself. They wouldn't have loved you less if you'd given them a perfect example of how to live a life with integrity. They would have respected you more if you had. The Vietnamese people have a lot to learn from us. We have a lot of things to learn from them ourselves. If we care enough, don't cause others to stumble and don't be inactive. I'm a US citizen, but if it's God's will, I'd like to go back there to serve those poor people. The Vietnamese might not realize this but what they need most is not money but love. Show them your true love. Lastly, thank you for sharing and Peace to all! -- Esther Dang

ha quach , December 18, 1999; 03:56 A.M.

Ted,

i agree w/ those who say you tell a story w/ simplicity as you experienced it. the honesty & straightforwardness is what best brings out the humanity in you, in the lien & huong, in the people you met on your short trip.

i revisited viet nam in 1991 when i was 15. before i could step out of the airport, the customs guys were trying to swindle me out of $200 plus some of my belongings, none of which could fetch the dollars they could get from reselling them on the blackmarket as much as these items had personal significance for me. i was in a daze for two days wondering why my own people would cheat me so shamelessly. was it my teeth are white and i'm not as tanned as they? lucky for me, i still understood the language and could get around OK. from the airport, i was scuttled along into a hotel that i didn't book, had my passport and visa taken away, was essentially locked up in community waiting area w/ a poor french journalist for three days and intermittenly questioned by some official-looking men as uncomfortable in their duties as the customs men at the airport in getting their monthly income by harassing expats. the hotel was gorgeous, had two gigantic antique elephant tusks in its foyer. to the right of the tusks was a narrow hallway with dizzy neon lights on the side wall advertising a massage area. during my stay, elegantly dressed young ladies would escort western men to that back area. the traffic wasn't heavy, but it was consistent and predictable, and the bellboys went about their business and the official-looking men went about theirs questioning me, the journalist, and a few other expats. i was the youngest in the group, 15, and none of this seemed to bother them that their presence at the hotel was an indirect government blessing for such atrocious activities.

i finally got out of the hotel and the first thing i did was to go for a stroll. one left turn and i was hit by a throng of young children coming up to me asking if i would like to buy some Wrigley's chewing gum. i told them in my best rusty Vietnamese that even in the states, i don't eat gum. one boy turned to asking me about the schools in the U.S. i told him how a typical day went, what my classes were, how the teachers were, recalling that i had never went to school in viet nam and was permanently stuck in "kindergarten" for being too dim-witted to advance and had to be informally adopted by the buddhist monks a stone's throw from my house so i could stay out of trouble while my siblings went to a catholic school with nuns and jesuits. when i made myself out to be a baser creature than the kids now trying to squeeze american dollars out of me, they lost interest in what had made me different in the intervening decade between them and me. this was saigon; i didn't feel at home yet, so they left me alone. i hit the big street with its traffic of human appendanges hanging out of cyclos and took a left. three shops down, i stopped at an empty cafe and asked for a glass of lemonade, something i had never had before in vietnam. in the village where i came from, it was always lime-ade. a lady brought out a stool with my lemonade. i drank it all down in one big progressive tilt. it was exactly as i'd imagined it would be, the best form of lemonade plato would ascribe to this drink. i gave myself away and asked for two more glasses. by then, i had a good idea for fair market rates in the city. the lady wanted three times the going price. i casually told her the stand across the street would be happy to have a new regular who loves lemonade. then, with my most serious voice and perfect vietnamese, i said i was not in the country as a tourist but that i was stopping by saigon on my home to rach gia to the house where i was born. i said it was all right any way, and gave her the price she wanted for the drinks. she politely handed me back the change and fussed that it was unnecessary to overpay. i fussed back and shoved two more dollars into her hands. i'll not have another chance at heavenly lemonade like that ever again, so she might as well take it. that was three days in a hotel/brothel/interrogation place and twenty minutes on the streets of saigon on a three-month visit home.

we can be amazed by what we know and don't know. the only things that are familiar are our reactions to our experiences after the fact. thank you for sharing your story.

Patricia Dinh , January 30, 2000; 05:48 P.M.

Thank you Ted Guhl for your complete honesty, even though many may not appreciate it. I married an Amerasian...born during the war. So, I can relate very well to your experiences. The Vietnamese can be very warm, receptive, giving,and especially forgiving. Alot of times though, their warmness isn't for free. They are expecting something in return. They are doing it for a reason, not for true interest in you, but because they see that they may get something out of it. They don't give their friendship for no reason.....there is something in it for them. There are many homeless, sick, and needy in Vietnam that no one will bother with, because these people have nothing.

binh-an Nguyen tan dat , February 21, 2000; 06:46 A.M.

beautiful story, this sort of story will satisfid many readers. Not in a good or bad way, but invold to it. As you seen many readers express the feelings , that is because the story and we are vietnamees. Why only vietnamees left there message? I think because if you only seen it or feel it you can understand your story. You `re an outsider, but you no now about the life of vietnam, hope you will never forget it.

P.S. i really don`t now why vietnamees so in love whit the country as is it broken and dying. Just like said we are vietnamees weird people hu.

lewis lorton , March 20, 2000; 10:49 A.M.

I was in Vietnam in 1968 - living in a small compound in BienHoa city. I thought about returning for 30 years and finally went back to Vietnam in March of 99, by myself, with a backpack, no contacts, no reservations, a copy of Lonely Planet and only a vague idea of a travel itinerary. I was there for two weeks and it was wonderfu. I even went to where I had lived in 1968 and stood on the very spot where the building had been. I could see the iron bridge and the road, but every trace of the compound had been erased. 30 years worth of emotion overcame me and I had to sit on the ground until I could again see. This activity certainly puzzled the driver of the car I had rented.

During my trip North, I stayed at the moderate to cheap hotels, spoke to no other Americans, and spent hours wondering the streets of any town I was in. In 2 weeks of constant interaction at a very superficial level, since I speak no Vietnamese, I never felt cheated or in any real danger. It was a life-changing experience and I conceived a love for the country that persists very strongly now - a year later. My 2 grown sons and I will be going to VIetnam next March to explore more of the land aroung Hanoi and see the parts I missed before - and share some experiences with them.

cuti le , May 19, 2000; 03:03 A.M.

toi song o sai gon vao thap nien truoc 1975, thoi bay gio sai gon dep hon bay gio nhieu ,luc do it nguoi ngheo hon bay gio .Tre em mo coi thoi nay nhieu hon thoi xua nhieu....Can doi che do hien nay di .

Ted Guhl , September 13, 2000; 09:38 A.M.

Can anyone translate the above comment for me? Ted Guhl

Dinh-Yen Tran , September 27, 2000; 01:25 P.M.

Hello Ted. It's amazing that people still comment on your article after all these years. I suspect much of what you experienced would still be relevant today. I sympathize with you, being a tourist unfamiliar with the people, language, and culture. I doubt that anyone could have responded with more grace and understanding to the "unexpected" under the same circumstances.

Being of Vietnamese origin, indeed I feel saddened by the plight in which some Vietnamese have found themselves. But I hope foreign visitors will react more like you and refrain from taking advantage of them.

Khiem nguyen , November 21, 2000; 06:14 P.M.

Thank you for the story, I enjoyed most parts of it which reflects part of the low society in Saigon. When we say society, we mean everything from best to worst. Unfortunately, you had a bad case. At first, I felt very unsafe and risky for you to hang out with those. You may end up with some even worse cases. We could not judge the whole Saigon by a particular occurrence. If I put myseft in your situation, I would not expect a good thing happen to me. Firstly, they tried to get your money by prostitute. This evident was clear enough to feel unsecure to hang with them. Every where around the world, there always be some good and bad people. You were alone with alot of barriers such as different philosophy, ideology, society, cultural, ethnic, language etc, these reasons may limit you to recognize who was good or bad at the first sight. I would have an escort travel with me not only for safety purposes, but also for good guidances, advices and not feeling lonely in strange places.

paul nuggent , January 18, 2001; 01:44 P.M.

translation to cuti le comments... I lived in Saigon before 1975; Saigon was much more beautiful then; much less poverty, and orphaned street children. The current system needs to be changed.

Ted..great article! I am looking forward for my first trip back to vietnam in 25 years..

irene Ng , May 01, 2001; 05:17 P.M.

I'll be back-packing alone starting mid July to Vietnam - from Saigon to Hanoi. I wonder how safe it is for an Asian woman travel alone there? I'm a Chinese-Malaysian-Canadian. Any advise? Please help and contact me @ irenen@naitmci.com Thanks.

Dinh Tran , May 21, 2001; 10:18 A.M.

Mr. Guhl, I know that you have replied to the support and criticism, but have you consider removing this story and replacing it with better experiece of VN's trip since you have returned to VN couple times since this article. I found this story very distured and offensived to Vietnamese people. Personally, I believe you telling the true but prostitute is everywhere in the world especially in the poor countries not only in Vietnam. Even in this great nation, USA ,drug and prostitute are big time headache for society. I think you should keep this "bad" exprience to yourself because you did participated along the game. As a mature, fifty something men you should be able to control your destiny and only you can allow yourself into the situation that you descrite in the story. You know fully well in advance that these two girls are prostitute as they approached you from motor bike "You want massage? Make love, good?"I dont' know why you came to VN unprepared, broke, and know nothing about her cuture. Any one reading this story might cast a doubt that you come to VN looking for cheap massage and sex. You have all the right to write whatever you like but what would your ex-wife, your daughter think of you after reading this story? By the way, the girl in picture must be one of two sisters and she look very unattractive to me.

lyndon bird , May 29, 2001; 03:06 P.M.

Ok,I've read quite enough of the bombast, pompousness and nonsense of other comments on this page. It's time the truth were told.

Fact: Prostitution is rife all over South East Asia - Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, China...Vietnam is no different, why should it be? Fact: For most Vietnamese men, while it may not be admitted in certain social situations, use of prostitutes is not frowned upon and is very much part of their way of life. Fact: Following from the above, most Vietnamese men have (at some time in their life) slept with at least one prostitute, many with several. Fact: Foreign tourists did not create prostitution in Vietnam, it has been there for centuries. Again, to reiterate, it is part of the very fabric of life in South East Asia and as common as, say, going to a pub in Britain. Are you getting this? Fact: The outrage at Ted's liason with the girls is a product of two things on the part of the dissenting Vietnamese poster : 1) The need to maintain 'face' (or what they perceive to be an appropriate image of their country to foreigners). 2) A combination of racism and sexism on their part.

Racism, because what they really hate is not prostitution, but the idea of a white man having relations with a Vietnamese girl. Sexism, because it the voice of a male-dominated society that straight-jackets women into roles of submissive wives or whores. Are we going to see lots of Vietnamese women posting, telling us what THEY think of the story...nah, don't think so.

At this point I'll qualify my statements by saying that I visited Vietnam and found it to be a beautiful, cultured, charming place full of wonderful, warm people. But still, the truth is the truth, even though I know I'll be slated beyond belief for telling it. While I was over there, I think just about EVERY Vietnamese man I talked to for any length of time offered to hook me up with a girl. And,no it wasn't just the poor...at a very respectable hotel the manager offered to hook me up with a whore and told me he would sort things out so that it was ok with the police!

I write this not to discredit the Vietnamese but to tell the truth to white tourists who visit there. If you want to sleep with a whore, do it. It's not your fault prostitution is there. If there was never another white tourist in Vietnam again, it would still be rife on a scale not even imagined in the West. The funny thing is that while white men like Ted agonize and gnash there teeth over the morality of it all, I bet you top-dollar that some of the guys Vietnamese guys that condemned him here (for, er, not sleeping with a prostitute) would NOT THINK TWICE about doing a lot worse if they thought that the woman in question scrubbed up well!

lyndon bird , May 29, 2001; 03:39 P.M.

I'd like to add to above, something I think is very pertinent and no-one has really touched upon. It's this: the real reason for prostitution in Vietnam is not the American War, nor is it Communism, nor is it even poverty (at least not directly). Prostitution was rife in Vietnam long before any of these factors came into play. The reason is this: women there are largely forbidden by the male-dominated society from obtaining financial and social independence. Finding their economic opportunities choked through the combination of society's sexism and poor education, many are faced with a simple choice - marry young or become a prostitute.

If male sexism wasn't the over-riding reason for prostitution, then poor men would be selling their bodies too all over Vietnam! I urge you to think about this without prejudice and you will realize I am right. Some of you may point out that I condoned prostitution in my last post by saying to white men in Vietnam, go ahead do it without guilt, but my point is that these women will be prostitutes anyway beacuse the society offers them few or no economic alternative. Not sleeping with them doesn't liberate them, it just potentially makes them poorer. The only way they'll achieve liberation is through the creation of other economic opportunities, which fortunately we are starting to see now in Saigon. In fact, as response to the posters who claim that the American dollar is bringng sin into Vietnam, it could be argued that, quite the reverse, the overall effect of tourist wealth and foreign investment is to create more legitimate jobs in the service industry, which usually equals more legitimate opportunities for women.

Dinh Tran , June 01, 2001; 10:58 A.M.

To previous comment: Where the heck you get the facts from? Reader of this pape may respect your comment if you can shown any proof, any statistic to support your comment otherwise you just make a pool out of yourself of obvious ignorance, stupidity and low level of education. Other reader can be a judge that no one buy yourself make a bombast, pompousness and nonsense. I can understand why the guy like you will not hesitage to use prostitutes. You should not look at yourself at example and generalize all Vietnamese men. The fact is: not all Vietnamese men use prostitutes and it is not part of our way of life? Where have you been? and you need to grow up. This is 20th century and Vietnam is not male-dominated society anymore that straight-jackets women into roles of submissive wives or whores. There are many female reader response to this page, and you could not tell between male and female anyway.

dave mc , June 11, 2001; 08:34 P.M.

I visted Sai Gon for 10 days in early May of this year (2001). The purpose of my trip was to meet a woman I had been talking to online, since early December. We had met when I recieved a mis-directed yahoo message - not via some online dating service. She is 30 (single), I am 40 (divorced).

I found Sai Gon to be a city of great contrasts. I had never been overseas before. I am white (english/irish) 3rd generation American. So my observations are colored by my own life experience. As are all of ours. Could I possible understand Vietnam or the Vietnamese people in such a short period of time? No - but I tried to understand as much as I could.

Since the topic of Ted’s story was centered on his relationship with two prostitutes and their family - I will address that first. I spent many hours at night walking the streets. Time change does that. Even after a full day - I would have trouble sleeping till 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning. My hotel was located on a main blvd - one end is at one at the zoo, and at the other end the old Presidential Palace, with the American Consolate near the middle. During certain evening hours it was impossible for me to walk 4 blocks down that street without a usually beautiful young woman or many times two young women ride up on her motorbike and offer services. Now I never did what Ted did - but because I was there to see someone I cared about. And doing anything hurt that relationship was not something I was going to do. But had I not had that holding me back - I would have certainly have been tempted. Here in America the average prostitute working on the street is not something of beauty. There - many were beautiful. And being 40 - and having a beautiful woman who is probably only about 19 or 20 offer to have sex with you for less than than what a medium price dinner in the USA would cost is tempting. I confess - I enjoyed the attention they gave me. Even if I never said yes, I still enjoyed it.

Ok - as for the morals of it. Prostitution exists everywhere. Only difference is how hidden it is. Sai Gon has 7 million people in it. Notice I said “that street” - turn onto another street and the people I would encounter were not prostitutes. It was obvious that Sai Gon has it’s areas where it would be easy to find one. One particular corner next to the US Consolate and across from a kareoke bar is one such spot. Right next to my very modern high rise hotel. But that’s the same as big cities here. Here most of ours become one due to substance abuse or other problems (street prostitutes atleast). There, if you are poor, your options are limited. Men are still valued more than women. A poor family needs more than one income to survive - often several. And family obligation is very strong. I’m sure not all poor resort to prostitution - but I can understand some doing it. Not everyone can afford to have high morals.

So was Ted wrong? I can’t judge that. I have my own weaknesses. From what I read - he paid for attention, not sex. Who doesn’t like the attention of a beautiful woman. And for the several who say they were not beautiful - it’s in the eye of the beholder. The women I went there to meet might not live up to your standards either - to me she is beautiful. To me - she is beautiful!

My other observations. If you are an American Vietnamese who hates the government there and have never gone back. Go back. Stop simply hating. It’s a different place than you left. It’s a 3rd world nation - it’s gonna have corruption. The south lost and the north won. Get over it. If you love your native country - invest in it. Even by going there - you invest in it. See something very different than here - and go with an open mind, leave your hate at home. Vietnam might surprize you! It did me. And I know I know I don’t know everything - these are just my observations. What do I know.

Food? Damn good. I ate everything that she ordered. Yes - maybe she knew the places that wouldn’t get me sick - but I never gave it a second thought. I did stick to bottled water. And drank my beer out of the bottle. But I broke so many “safe” food rules - and survived quite nicely! But I experienced real food there! Yes - maybe if I got sick I might have another story -but luckily I did not.

What I am trying to say - people in vietnam - don’t think that this story puts down your country. It’s just a very small piece of life there. Whether true or not. You have poor people who do their best to provide for themselves and their families. American-Vietnamese - it’s one hell of a place to visit. Go to Sai Gon - take the hydroplane to Vung Tau (lots faster than driving) swim in warm water. Eat great food. See a very warm and friendly people. If you can say you are from california - people will start naming places they have friends or relatives. Make up your own mind about a very beautiful country. But be a good guest too. Some don’t like you there because how many ex-pats come back and show off how much money they have and act arogant. Teach them you can be a good tourist too. I did my best to show that americans were not bad people. Do the same. They resent you more because you look the same - but are different. Don’t let that bother you. And American “white people” - visit the world. You have no concept of places so different from where you grew up unless you explore the world. I know I didn’t. This was my first “overseas” trip. I felt so safe there.

And for honesty. I left a camera on a table at a resturant. Just as we were driving off - a worker ran out with it. You have honest and dishonest people everywhere. This was a Vietnamese resturant - not a place for tourists. - and they knew it was mine (i.e an american that could afford to lose it). But they were just like people here - honest - because most people are. Both here and in Vietnam.

As for Linh Chi - the woman I met. Still doing my best to work on that. I’m in love but a greencard alone won’t do it in this case. See - women there won’t just sell themselves too!

Olivier Nguyen , June 26, 2001; 09:04 A.M.

Hi everyone, I just get back from Viet Nam and yes, I feel sad for the country also for people there. I took quite a lot of pictures but the photo shop mess up my negative and kill more than 1/2 of my photograph. I was so angry but i could not do anything with it because i am a 1) vietnamese 2) foreigner

who ever want to come to vietnam and need suggestion or guide, don't hesistate to contact me via my email.

dust, traffic, polution, criminal, drug, money talk are all in that country

T. Nguyen , August 03, 2001; 06:03 P.M.

Ted - good essay. As a Vietnamese-American, your essay offers me an intimate look at the daily lives of the locals there. I left Vietnam at a very young age and I pretty much have forgotten what life is really like there. The sad and unfortunate side of life is always painful to read about but I am glad that you have the courage to write the truths rather than to suppress or ignore them all together! Incredulous as it may seem; Houng and her family behaviors somehow do not surprise me. Human resilient for survival always amazes me. Being in a well educated, upper middle-class realm of America's society, it is sometimes too easy for me to pass my judgement on these poor people. Notwithstanding to their plight, it's against my moral fiber to see that Huong and her sister had to resort to the "flesh trade" in exchange for a vacation with an American. How tragic life has become for all the poor in Saigon.

Lyndon Bird , August 12, 2001; 10:51 A.M.

I'd just like the right to reply to Dinh Tran if possible, in order to set straight some of the misconceptions created by that post. First, I do not have a low level of education. I have a first-class honours degree in linguistics. Secondly, I did not sleep with a prostitute in Vietnam. It was offered many times. I declined. Third, if you really want me to post stats about the level of prostitution in Vietnam I will. I didn't want to bore people with tedious statistics. Lastly, I would like people to bare in mind that Communist control of information coming in and going out of Vietnam is still very high. The Communist government obviously wants to present the best possible face for Vietnam to the world. Readers should bare in mind that many (but by no means all) of the posts by Vietnamese on this page could be propaganda.

Ted Chien , August 17, 2001; 01:42 A.M.

Why does everyone here is so obsessed with prostituion including Ted. Just go on the net and you will find yourself all kind of whores from 50 states. Vietnam, America or Europe for that matter is not immune to this problem. What strikes me as kind of strange is that there are women here who will do anything for a "fuck" despite the many opportunities that this land of plenty can offer them. These local whores do not have to use their backs as a way to support themselves. On the other side of the coin, Third World nation whores can not boast of the same opportunity that their colleagues in the USA have. So, as we can see, which is worse? Fucking to survive or just plain fucking since it is easier to use one's back. Think a bout that one!

Ted Chien , August 17, 2001; 02:21 A.M.

One more thing...Thailand now has the highest incident of AIDS in southeast Asia thanks to the SEX trade which originated from Europe and America. I worked in Bangkok for three months in 1987 and I witnessed first hand account of this industry. Tour buses loaded with middle-aged white men, some were bald, some were fat, but all had the same goal. They poured into Phuket and other seedy town to look for boys, girls and anything they can get their hands on. They were shameless and I must admit to everyone that this whole image is still bothering me to this day. The government there is powerless and if an arrest was made, which rarely happened, these pedophiles would use their US dollars to get them out of jail. We, as an advanced society, has the responsibility to protect the innocent and the desperate disregard of which country these poor souls are from. You know we have a major problem with pedophiles in the States and for anyone to go on here and encourage that it is OK for all white men to "fuck" little girls/boys in some third world country is beyond disbelief. Get real and look at yourself in the mirror and check to see if you still have a soul!

Keith South , December 29, 2001; 07:34 A.M.

Firstly I apologise for the lack of photographic comment.

This article has sparked off a lively and largely well informed debate, in this it has been remarkably successful, and I don't believe any further dismembering of the article is required, it has justified it's existence. Since the article was written around a trip of a few days, the author made no attempt to indicate that it was a comprehensive account of Vietnamese life, merely an account of those few days. Since those days were absorbed by these events...it would have been difficult to write about anything else, not to say say fictitious. I thought it was honest, and delightfully free from judgement, a quality painfully missing from some of the comments.

I admire him, I know had it been me - I would have made some excuse and never experienced those events. Did he cross the line, probably a little bit. But I don't believe he was ever totally in control of events, more swept along by an incurable curiosity. Bravo!

Were they using him? Maybe..but again, I don't believe so, it seems to me that it was grasped as an opportunity to let their hair down for a day or so. As a possible pursuit into a marriage? Maybe so, again. As a safeguard to a reliable a decent income for the family, a happier life? There are worse motives. Ultimately, we all use each other to some degree. Are the girls Bad? No. Admittedly they might not be the sort of girls you take home for tea, but they were polite and good to their family. I know of erudite people in higher positions who are far worse, who pursue additional income out of greed not need. These girls are making a living, okay - so it's a poor choice of career - but are we to label them as bad for a lack of wisdom? Prostitution is as old as the hills, whether we call them Whores, prostitutes, ladies of the night, concubines, escorts, courtesans or geishas - they amount to the same thing. All the while men are weak and easily tempted by available sex, there will be women and men prepared to sell it to them. Supply and demand - to use the modern parlance. These high and mighty commentors might try looking a little closer at the male of the species if they want to apportion blame.

As I was reading the comments I became increasingly aware of a strong dislike for the girls, particularly from VN side. I felt it unfair to read since the girls themselves were not party to the conversations written about them. I wish they had the opportunity to express their view. Maybe someone could get the opposing view? I don't believe the existence of prostitution in a country like Viet Nam is an indication of lack of morals, just a lack of opportunity. The existence of it in a rich nation might be another matter.

I should like to say that I am visiting Viet Nam in Feb 2002, until June. I am 40ish, bald and will probably be seen with a extremely attractive and young VN lady. But leave your jujdements at home, for she is my very dearest friend, older than me and Russian! Eyes, like cameras DO lie!

Hayley Q , March 23, 2003; 04:22 P.M.

Thank you, Mr. Quang-Tuan Luong for the information of Vietnam and the beautiful photographs of this country. I look forward to more informations and photos of Vietnam from you in the future. Thank you for the terrific work!!!!!!! Hayley Q.

dave tr , June 26, 2003; 04:19 A.M.

Ted I would just like to commend you on a great job documenting your particular experience in Saigon. As with everyone else I'd like to throw in my two cents, in the hopes that I could add some perspective to the issue at hand. First off, much respect to Lyndon for his views, despite their specifics (I don't agree wholeheartedly with the idea that foreign consumers of the sex trade don't amount to anything), a lot of what he says is true. However, truth is hardly a tangible object and it wouldn't hurt to look at the situation from multiple angles. Being a Vietnamese-American I can say with most confidence that "saving face" is a major cultural value for the Vietnamese, which can explain why so many Vietnamese have posted negative comments on the article (and on Lien and Huong themselves).

Some Vietnamese will bash me for saying this but most of the prostitutes' business do come from native Vietnamese. My uncle worked in Ha Noi for a year (2002-2003; he also lived in Saigon/Phan Thiet for 16 years before coming to America) and can attest to the fact that rich or poor, visiting brothels is a favorite pastime of the locals. His estimates of those that go to prositutes for sex are in the high 90's (out of 100 percentile that is). I've only been to Viet Nam twice, the second time doing volunteer work in Phan Thiet, and in my experience outright and obvious prositution is most prevelant only in the major cities.

People in Vietnam ARE quick to grab hold of opportunities which might afford them with some benefits. Lien and Huong might very well have never befriended Ted if he hadn't been visibly foreign. I have seen how locals in Sai Gon treat my returning Vietnamese-American uncles, in contrast to my local uncles, and I must say it is discerning to say in the least. I myself have had to grapple with insecurities about whether someone wanted to befriend me based on kindness alone or for a deeper motive (in Vietnam, skepticism is HEALTHY!). With that being said, the story is touching and shows that despite the most dire and abject of conditions, humanity is present in all cases. Ted's decision to humor a massage, without the sex, is as close as it comes to getting a valuable experience without compromising morals (and from the looks of all these replies, it looks to be a good one at that). I'd be hesitant to pass judgement on those who choose certain paths to survive- for all of those who like to strike down other humans as "below them", question what you would do if faced with the same poverty. Lastly I encourage those interested in realizing truth in its more purer form to actually visit Vietnam. It has its ugliness, its rawness, but ultimately it is an amazing and beautiful country.

Will Lee , March 12, 2007; 10:01 P.M.

Hi Ted!

I have a question. If you had no intention of having sex with the girl when you first went to her house, how come you had a stack full of condoms in your pocket? It is like seeing you holding the knife with blood in your hand and blood on your clothes and say that you're not a guilty.

Sorry to bring this up after such a long time! Thanks for writing the essay!


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