Vietnam is the country I was the most excited to visit in South East Asia. It’s cold here now. Communist flags line the streets. The money comes in different sizes and colors, it looks like Monopoly cash and has little windows in it and feels like plastic coated paper. The locals sit on footstools on the sidewalk and drink beer and smoke cigarettes and smoke out of long wooden pipes that look like bongs and they eat sunflower seeds and pho and spring rolls while they drink their beer or their tea. Motorcycles are everywhere. The traffic is the craziest I have seen in the past 14 months, watching the people cross the street is like watching a ballet, they move slowly and gracefully through hundreds and thousand and millions of motorcycles and taxis that swerve at just the right time missing pedestrians by inches.
Apparently, if you’re white you have a ton of friends out here, every five feet someone says “friend you need taxi? you need moto my friend? Where you go my friend?” and then they follow you down the street asking the same question over and over, until another white person walks by who must be a better friend because they leave you and start talking to them. I thought we had something, I felt so popular.
I keep meaning to take time to paint the scenery around me, and most of the time I fuck off too much and don’t settle down to do it. But today I did. I sat down near a large lake in the center of the city and painted the sky line. As I pulled out my paints and brushes one of my “friends” came and sat next to me. I had my headphones in, listening to Florence and the Machine and I was ignoring him, he wanted to shine my sneakers – “please help me out friend” I took out one ear bud and said “nope” put the ear bud back in and said “okay, I’m gonna make some art now” then I ignored him more. He pulled at my shirt sleeve and poked my arm, looking at the tattoos, he signed that he wanted me to give him one. I stared into his soul and told him to fuck off with my mind. Eventually he left and as people walked by they would stop and watch me paint, there were about 15 people in a circle around me, coming and going. I kept listening to my music and did my best not to pay attention to the crowd. Some people would come and stand in front of me, in my line of sight, then realize they were in the way and move. When I was finished I began to pack it all up.
There were a bunch of kids with flowers standing in front of me. I took my headphones out. One of the girls came up, holding a flower and said, “We are students and we would very much like to offer you a gift and maybe if you like you can offer me a gift if you want”. There is a hustle here in Hanoi, young ladies come up and say they are English students, she tries to warm up to the traveler in an attempt to take him to a cafe where she will expect to be paid for but the cafe will charge much more than what the real price should be, and if the traveler causes a fuss, the man (pimp) will come and they’ll just take whatever the traveler has. I was approached by one of these girls while sight-seeing the other day, I just said “No No No” and kept walking. “But why?” she asked as I walked away. The next thing I know she rode by me on the back of a motorcycle, there was a tall white dude coming in the opposite direction on the other side of the street and they hung a u-turn, she hopped off and ran up to him, giving him the hustle. I saw her and her pimp driver dude three more times that day alway with the same lines. So when this group of kids gave me the student line – I wondered, but then I thought “well, it’s a shit ton of em and they’re boys and girls and it can’t be the hustle.” I didn’t quite understand if she wanted something for the flower, I didn’t want to trade anything for it, I didn’t really want it. So I looked at her and asked if she wanted something for it – she didn’t understand and they all huddled together talking – she turned back to me and said “it’s a gift for you, it’s free”. I nodded, said thank you and took the flower. “May we have our photo with you?” one girl asked, I said yes and some came and sat with me on the bench. Then I gave them my camera to take a photo and then they asked to take a photo of the painting.
It’s so damn easy to have your guard up all of the time – to not trust anyone. I’ve been burned for trusting locals. I paid 15 dollars on my first day here for a fucking 3 dollar umbrella because I didn’t have the exchange rate figured out, so it was my fault, a nice sweet old lady sold it to me and played me like an accordion. That set me off on the wrong foot. But if you never trust anyone you don’t get a free flower from a nice group of Vietnam kids while sitting at the lake.
Thanks for reading
JTG – Hanoi, Vietnam 03/2011