Friday, November 2, 2012


An Alley scene near Pham Ngu Lao.
Travel books recommend Saigon's Pham Ngu Lao area, and it is indeed reasonably safe and cheap. Most tourists eat and sleep here with few problems, taking advantage of the low prices. The neighborhood has a dark side though, giving it a bad reputation among Saigon’s residents.

In among the shops and legal street vendors, are many hustlers. Attracted by the foreigners with money, there are many scammers. The cyclo, taxi and motorbike drivers tend to be the worst offenders. Some will charge a foreign backpacker double, or triple the usual fare.

The closest thing to violent crime in this neighborhood, is an occasional purse snatching. One day in Pham Ngu Lao, two young Vietnamese men on a motorbike grabbed a purse from an older western woman, knocking her to the ground in the process. While making their getaway, a nearby policeman tried to stop them with a flying kick. He missed. The driver then cut a sharp corner, skidded, and the bike ended up on the ground. That’s when the crowd descended. Vietnamese shopkeepers who had been watching this drama unfold, attacked. The two thieves took off running. The first was captured immediately. The second, pursued by more neighbors and police, was brought back in minutes. The woman’s purse was returned. Admittedly, it’s rare for purse snatchers to be caught, but it shows that average Vietnamese will occasionally gang up on street criminals. They are victimized by thieves even more than foreigners.

Then there are the drug pushers and pimps who pester the westerners, sometimes to the point of harassment. Take the case of Dave. He was walking through Pham Ngu Lao one night, when he came to a street corner. Heavy traffic forced him to wait before crossing, and a short young drug dealer approached him. “Marijuana? You want marijuana?”

“No,” he firmly replied.

With traffic heavy, he still couldn’t cross the street, and had to wait. The little Vietnamese drug pusher pestered him further, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Final straw: the pusher tugged his shirt sleeve.

Wondering if the little pest was trying to pick his pocket, Dave lost his temper, swearing at the pusher to finally leave him alone. The pusher came right back at him, and the confrontation nearly escalated into a fight. Knowing that few pushers in Vietnam have guns, Dave could have easily pummeled him, but decided to do the right thing and inform the police. He quickly walked to a nearby police station.

Inside, he heatedly explained what had happened, informing them that the drug dealer was only 50 feet down the road. If they hurried, the police could easily catch him. The policemen stoically listened to the upset foreigner, and did nothing. They declined to leave the station, and instead began setting up a DVD player to watch a movie!

Infuriated at their inaction, Dave lost his temper again. “You’re worthless,” he bellowed at the policemen, “absolutely worthless!”

He then stormed out of the police station. He couldn’t get them to arrest the two-bit drug dealer, but he still felt better. After all, he had yelled at a roomful of lazy policemen, insulted them, and had gotten away with it. Apparently Dave wasn’t the only person who decided that that particular police station was worthless. Months later, the station was torn down.
New location of Godmother's Bar. The Godmother is a battle scarred ex-Viet Cong.

One night in Pham Ngu Lao, I checked out a hole in the wall bar popular with long term expats. Once inside, a buddy introduced me to the Godmother. As I shook her hand, I managed to avoid staring. The Godmother has a deformed face. Her left eye is out of place, and her nose has been shortened, twisted off to one side. The Godmother may have a scarred face, but she’s lucky to be alive today. The left side of her face was torn up by a grenade blast during the Tet offensive in 1968. At the time, the Godmother was a 17 year old Viet Cong fighter, taking on the American Army.

This female war veteran owns this bar, and it is appropriately named,  “Godmother’s Bar”. As her name implies, the Godmother is from a very connected family. Her relatives had fought on the communist side for decades, first battling the French, and then the Americans.

As the war ended, Saigon boomeranged from capitalism, to communism, and back to capitalism again. The Godmother went along for the ride. She went from being a communist Viet Cong guerilla, to a respected businesswoman today. Since her side won the war, her family’s political connections have paid off well. The Godmother owns four bars in the city, and has her hands in a few other businesses as well.

Her connections have even benefitted her foreign customers. When one of her long time German customers was robbed of his mobile phone, one of the thieves was immediately caught. The stolen phone ended up in the possession of the police, who refused to return it. It only took one call from the Godmother, and the phone was returned to its rightful owner.

She spends most of her time these days at Godmother’s Bar. It’s popular with expats living in Saigon, especially the English teachers. Without air conditioning, foreigners still come for the food and low prices. A bottle of beer is only 20,000 Vietnam Dong, about US $1.20. Some of her regulars even include American veterans of the war, who have returned to live in Saigon. I’ve watched her toast and drink with these old veterans on occasion, men she would have eagerly killed in her youth.

Today there are no hard feelings between them. She doesn’t speak much English, but between these old war veterans, words aren’t really needed. In her bar, everybody knows who everybody is, and what their past is. The war is in the past, and she's happy to welcome them as her customers.

My buddy Kenny, the former US Marine veteran from the war, is a frequent customer here, and the two old adversaries are friends now. Since he’s friendly and speaks some Vietnamese, he’s popular with the Godmother, and the bar staff. One night in the bar, a loud drunken American was being rather belligerent. Spewing obscenities, he shoved one of the bartenders off a stool. Kenny stood up, and walked over to his fellow American. Then Kenny picked him up, and threw the drunken idiot out of the bar into the street.

You don’t mess with Kenny, or his friends at Godmother’s.

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