Sunday, July 29, 2012

'Proposals' came fast and furious - and aplenty - at Ben Thanh

Ho Chi Minh City, Friday night. Taken by Arif


While I can never claim to be the first foreigner to have visited Saigon since the fall of Saigon in 1975, but I guess I can arguably claim that I was one of the earliest ones. Way before any Malaysian ladies knew and able to pronounce Ben Thanh, and long before anyone at that famous market can exclaime "Murah, murah," I have been frequenting the city formerly known as Saigon.

Many times over!

Once upon a time - read: the 70s, Vietnam is a name that conjured hatred and invoked fear, especially since the evacuation of the last Americans from Saigon. The theory was that the rest of South East Asia would fall like the dominoes to communism. I was worried about heading to Kota Bharu to start my secondary schooling in 1976, as that would be the nearest Malaysian town to Vietnam, and the Thai border; and if Malaysia were to fall to the communist, I was sure then that they would invade through Kota Bharu, just like the Japanese in 1941.

So when the Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General visited Melaka Refinery as part of the country's delegation to promote economic cooperation with Malaysia (I was introduced to him in my Training Simulator Room), I was bemused that I got to shake hands with the top guns of the communist Party.

That was in 1994, I think.

In 1995, I was asked by my company to go to Vietnam since we got an inquiry about our products. Then, we would have to get visa to visit that country. And mind you, we have to pay top dollar to get the one-entry visa, and we would be paying the (war) vanquished currency! (Normalization of relationship with the US occurred in 1995.)

But I had not prepared for my eventual arrival in Saigon.
The old Saigon Aiport - not many have seen this airport,
and experienced it.
The airport (it was an old Saigon Airport), perhaps the same one the Americans used to evacuate from Saigon, and it was full with the Army personnel.

Mind you, they were the communists, if I can put it in that way. In other words, they were the VIETCONGS! 

Would they slaughter me right there and then at the airport (like in many American war movies) or torture me to my death? I was hoping that would not be the case, and in any case, I was cursing myself for not asking my boss to increase my insurance coverage when agreeing to come over to Vietnam.

While I was not the only foreigner then, I was pretty sure I was one of the few foreigners who had bothered to go to Vietnam. Perhaps we could count ourselves with our fingers, and there were too few of us, and too far in between. Everybody that I saw that day were wearing greens with some sorts of beret, and hence I perceived everybody was communists.

And mind you, for sure they would not see me as their comrade.
I used to stay at Rex Hotel, perhaps one of the
few hotels then at HCMC in the old days. Rex HOtel
can be seen on the left in the background.
Hey, I was in a country that we thought would invade Malaysia in the mid-70s. We were sure of that; and here I was, alone, in Saigon and trying to figure out what it takes to get to the city centre. I had to bargain in simple English, by pointing US$, as to the fare I was supposed to pay to take me to my hotel.

Fortunately then, as it is not the case nowadays, they had never tried to cheat me. I probably paid less than USD4-5 for my trip to District 1 of Saigon. Worst was trying to bargain my way to Vung Tau which is about 4-5 hours south of Saigon. Vung Tau is a port city and centre of oil exploration in Vietnam.

There was no Lonely Planet to guide me then.

Halfway to Vung Tau, we stopped for our lunch. Obviously no one speaks English and I could not simply explained that all I need is a simple fried rice with egg, and no pork or meat or chicken. I was gesturing to the cook, but I guess we were like chicken and duck trying to rationalize what the other was saying.

Fortunately a stranger took interest in our chicken and duck conversation and managed to interface between us.

So I got my fried rice and egg lunch that day.

Nowadays one can easily ply Vung Tau using the ferry. It is more comfortable that before and less of a hassle than using the road that are filled up with motorists.

Ben Thanh - The Capital of Vietnam

Ben Thanh is the capital of Vienam as far as Malaysian women are concerned - for the shopping kinds, that is! Put them anywhere in Saigon, heck, put them anywhere in Vietnam, I am sure they would be able to find their way back to Ben Thanh.

How would one explained the fact that everybody in the market is able to speak Malay, albeit sporadically. We did not share the same religion, nor language and I don't think culturally there is any similarity between the Malays and Vietnamese.

May be with the Champas - if only in religion, but not with the Vietnamese.

Since my last trip about a decade ago, I had never set my foot in Ho Chi Minh again. After leaving my (previous) employment, I lost that travel streak. May be I was concentrating on the local market, may be it was too expensive to travel in SEA on my own, with no big sugar daddy of a company to sponsor my tickets and five star hotels, so to speak.

The Vietnamese ladies at Ben Thanh took the (Malay) language as if their lives depended on it; and in some case, their lives did depend on it. Since the new millennium, Malaysians made up a significant numbers of buyers of Vietnamese goods sold at the market.

Everywhere we go, we were asked to visit their stalls, loudly proclaiming, "murah, murah." They would even tell you that they can make "baju kurung" or "jubah" within a day, and delivered to your hotel by end of the day.

But I could not stand the bargaining style of Ben Thanh. I knew I would lose - all the time.

First they would shout "Abang Sayang, mari, mari, murah" to attract you to their stall, and will pull your hand to have a seat at their stalls. Now that's something new. I would normally be addressed as pakcik, even if I knew she is older than me. I guess Malaysian ladies prefer to batter one's pride and confidence, eh?

And bring one back down to Earth.
Inside Ben Thanh. It is like a black hole
in as far as the money in your wallet is concerned!
But the Vietnamese ladies are smarter. Even if they are not much older than Arif or Akmal, and in front of Arif and my wife, they would not hesitate - or stop - calling me Abang Sayang!

Don't you worry - I know my place in this world; I knew that abang sayang thingy is strictly meant to ensure that my dollars, Vietnamese dong and ringgit would soon be parted from my wallet into their cash register! I was under no illusion that I was Tom Cruise to their eyes.

But to be honest, while my wallet is what they were after, once I started agreeing to the price for the goods I was interested in, they would turn their attention to Arif.

"Is he your son?" they would ask me. "Why?" I would asked them back.

"He is so handsome, very good looking." Aah, the Vietnamese girls were going ga-ga over Arif. 

Typically Arif would blush, but not without thanking them first.

"How old are you?" they would either asked him, or his mother.

"Oh, I am also 21," they would reply, excited that their age is similar. "Would you be my boyfriend?" OMG, they would propose to him, right there and then. There were no hesitation in their voice, and they were blunt. I am sure I would have died from embarrassment than to do that to any girl when I was their age, and I am sure that that would be the case with Arif.

We would only laughed at their spontaneous proposition. We thought they were hilarious, if not downright absurd!

These Vietnamese girls, as young as they may be, are quite aggressive and would stop at nothing to get what they want. This is something new to him and us. I am reasonably sure Malay girls would not do that, at least not straight to your face. They would probably whispers that thought among themselves, behind your back.

Many a times, I told them to instead address Arif as their Abang Sayang and not me. But I guess they knew who has a thicker wallet (at least for now), and I believe that that term of endearment is meant for someone with a (thick) wallet (that's relative though), and has nothing to do with age, or appearance!

Arif was comparing notes on the Japanese and Vietnamese - he had visited Japan for eight days and Vietname for three. "No, culturally, they are a world apart," I told him, "but both are industrious, that's the common bond. But the Japanese are culturally more refine and sophisticated."

At least to my eyes. Not without basis though - I spent nearly 1 1/2 years in Japan in total while working for a black gold company in the late 80s and early 90s. And I was there during the opening of Vietnam in the early 90s.

Arif found the bargaining process at Ben Thanh stressful. I would too if I were there the first time. To me, I knew I can just walk away anytime I feel the prices are too much to pay. They can't force me to buy their stuff if I don't want to. After all, I was there 15 years ago and knew about the prices then albeit I am sure inflation brought by my fellow Malaysians would have caused the price to skyrocket.

Especially since they would call one Abang Sayang!

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