Wednesday, October 31, 2012


The neon lights of a bar in Pham Ngu Lao
"Saigon hasn’t changed. It’s the same now as it was then. The bustle, the hustle, the prostitutes. Except now there’s more traffic, more pollution. But Saigon hasn’t changed.”

This is the view from Ed, another American war veteran I met who has returned to live in Vietnam again. Ed was in the US Army back then, and served two tours of duty. He began as a company clerk, (like Radar on M*A*S*H) before switching to communications. Since he had an administrative job based in Saigon, his military service wasn’t particularly dangerous. He had a much easier time as a clerk in the big city, than the infantrymen who were out fighting the Viet Cong in the countryside.

Ed tired of the fast paced life in America, and with a soft spot in his heart for Vietnam, he came back to live here two years ago.

“I like Vietnam,” he says. “I like the people. I like the slower pace of life here.”

Ed rented a building in the touristy Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood, and opened a respectable restaurant bar. (There are still some disreputable bars around.) He named it the ‘Buddha Bar’, and runs it with his pretty Vietnamese girlfriend. Ed says proudly of his cooking, “I make a great Po-Boy sandwich.”

Before they took over the property and made it a reputable place, the previous bar here was much different. This locale used to be a darkened bar frequented by prostitutes. It was closed after the Vietnamese woman in charge was arrested. She was jailed for human trafficking, for sending Vietnamese prostitutes to Cambodia. As tourism rises, the Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood is improving. It’s becoming less seedy, and more gentrified.

Pham Ngu Lao has long been a well known neighborhood for budget travelers. It’s packed full of cheap hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, internet cafés and souvenir shops. The low prices bring foreign English teachers here as well. Due to globalization, English is now the second language of almost everyone in Vietnam doing business with foreigners, especially for tourism.

In recent years, Vietnam has seen a tourism explosion. With the war over the borders opened, foreign visitors soon discovered Vietnam’s scenery and pristine beaches, It’s reasonably safe, cheap, and tourism has grown every year since the end of the Cold War.

With the rise of tourism, some businesses in town have taken English names to attract more foreigners. “Big Man Beer” is one warped example. But translation can also be a problem. An oddly named restaurant I spotted in Pham Ngu Lao is called, “Dung Café”. Dung is actually a Vietnamese name here, but I don’t think they get a lot of foreign business.
The buzzing Saigon neighborhood of Pham Ngu Lao, where many westerners stay. 'Dung Cafe' is on this road.
On the sidewalks around the neighborhood, street vendors are everywhere. They  sell sunglasses, street food, cigarettes, watches, chewing gum, shoe shines, and on and on.

As I amble down the street, I hear a voice ask me, “Buy some book?” I turn to see a walking bookseller, toting a single stack of more than 30 counterfeit books. The towering stack is wrapped with a single cloth, and balanced high on her hip. Impressive.

To the long term residents here, flower vendor Ngoc is a familiar sight. Ngoc is a cute, intelligent Vietnamese girl. Only ten years old, she has already been selling flowers at night on Pham Ngu Lao’s streets for five years. Ngoc speaks English, and learned it only through her flower sales to foreigners. She speaks it fairly well, but she’s nearly illiterate, since she doesn’t attend school.

Fortunately Ngoc has been wise enough to steer clear of the foreign pedophiles (you may have heard of Gary Glitter) who have prowled around Vietnam. She often sold flowers or chewing gum to foreign English teachers, who quickly recognized her intelligence. Seeing her need for an education, a group of them took up a collection, and paid for school tuition for her for six months.

Ngoc began attending the school. One month later, she was back on the street selling flowers, and no longer attending. Ngoc’s mother wanted the money from her daughter’s flower sales, much more than she wanted her daughter to have an education.

For the child vendors and child beggars in the neighborhood, the foreign visitors are easy targets. Generous and well meaning tourists give with the best intentions, but they unintentionally keep up a vicious circle. When they give money to a begging child, or child vendor, they’re only condemning the child to more life on the streets.

The reality is that the children get little of the cash themselves. Most of the money goes to the adults who are exploiting them. Fagin would have felt right at home here.

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