The other night Mimi & I ate Japanese food at the Hoa Cuc Restaurant in Huynh Khoung Ninh St, District 1 . VND65,000 for a buffet that includes sashimi, sushi, tempura and a variety of fish dishes, soups, shellfish and stir fried vegetables among other things. The quality of the food is OK, but not as good as I have had at more expensive places, however on a cost/value ratio this place is hard to beat and the setting reminded me of being back in Tokyo.
It was the first time that Mimi had ridden with me on the back of the Vespa and even though the streets were crowded, we both realised how good it was to get outdoors and drive around in the cool of the night. After we had eaten instead of driving straight home we went into the centre of old Sai Gon and cruised along Nguyen Hue and Dong Khoi Streets. Mimi suggested that we buy an ice cream and go sit on the steps of the Opera House to eat them. What a great idea.
We parked the Vespa at the foot of the steps and sat with many other people who were watching the passing parade of traffic. No sooner had we sat down however than we were set upon by a young girl selling roses. Now it just so happens that I have had previous encounters with this little super sales person, (remember Justin, the young girl who hassled us all the way down Dong Khoi St from the Majestic Hotel right until we got around the corner to Nguyen Hue and then punched me in the stomach because I would not buy from her?)
This time, to get some peace and quiet I negotiated her down to VND10,000 for a rose and a packet of gum from her young offsider. This girl would probably be about 12-14 years old, although to Western eyes she looks about 8 or 9. Mimi commented to me that she thinks the girl is very intelligent and I agree. She is one switched on little miss, bartering and badgering and pushing to make a few dong, she is as clever as a whip and given the chance would no doubt be successful in some sort of business enterprise.
Mimi asks me how it makes me feel when I see these young children out on the street late at night and I admit that my heart goes out to them. We discuss the merits of not buying off them, thereby forcing their parents to find alternative sources of income, but what alternatives are there? I comment that I would dearly love to see these kids get a good education. Their English speaking and comprehension skills are far better than any of my students and I am sure with training in reading and writing they could be educated to a level that would take them out of their current cycle.
We sit eating our ice creams listening to the live music drifting from Saigon Saigon bar 10 storeys above us in the Hotel Caravelle and watch a young couple pull their bike up next to mine and sit a few steps below us. They are carrying a box which contains half a birthday cake which they open, take out some plastic spoons and invite us to join them. We move down a couple of steps and discover that they are celebrating Huy’s birthday. He works in the supermarket at the nearby Tax Centre and speaks very good English. He is sharing his evening with Diem who is quiet but friendly and has a beautiful smile. We talk and eat cake and ice cream until Diem’s phone rings and her mother tells her it is time for her to be at home.
Mimi and I talk about how Sai Gon must have been before there were so many motorbikes, how peaceful it must have been when there was only the sound of bicycle tyres and rickshaw wheels. We speculate about what the city will be like when there are more cars clogging roads that were not designed for them. I comment that I don’t think that I will live here if this city starts to become grid-locked by traffic like Hong Kong or Bangkok.
I describe to Mimi the scene from Greene’s “The Quiet American” that was shot right where we are sitting. The old Renault that contained the bomb was parked only a few metres away and I explain how, in the movie, the positions of the Caravelle and the Hotel Continental were swapped around and the actual Continental was hidden by the use of bamboo blinds. Mimi has not yet seen the movie and was shocked to know that so much violence and bloodshed had taken place where we are now sitting so serenely, both in a movie and in reality.
The night is still warm but there is a beautiful breeze coming up from the Sai Gon River and I ask Mimi if the stares she gets from local people make her feel uncomfortable. There is an assumption about an attractive 22 year old Vietnamese girl spending time with an older foreign man and some people make it quite obvious what they are thinking. Mimi says that no, she is aware of the issue but she doesn’t care about what people think because I am like a father to her and so she takes no notice.
We wend our way home through the traffic up Le Loi enjoying the simple pleasure of being at one and the same time alone with each other but a part of a huge mass of people enjoying a similar experience.