The Hanoi Shoe Shine Wars.

I watched a movie the other day.
It was a Korean movie
about the Korean war.

One of the characters was a shoe shiner.
He loved shoes and was making a pair
for his younger brother –
the best pair ever.
They were drafted into
the war and there
the shoe shiner became a killer.

Walking down the street in Hanoi
a shoe shiner came up to me.
I snubbed him and kept walking.
He followed me, kneeling down
into my mid step
he put the brush against the side
of my black leather shoe.

I looked down and thought of the character in the movie.
I stopped and agreed to a shoe shine.
We sat on a concrete step on the sidewalk.
‘How much?’
‘Very cheap’ he said.
He pulled out blue plastic sandals
from a blue plastic bag
and told me with his hands
to remove my shoes.

I took them off
and passed him the shoes.
I stuck my feet into the sandals.
He began to brush the polish onto the shoe
he looked at the sole
shaking his head in disgust.
Reaching into his plastic bag he
pulled out a wide strip of thin rubber.
He pointed to the tire of a car
‘Same same, very strong.’ He said.

He put it against the worn leather sole
and applied some glue towards the front
then around the sides.
‘You live or visit in Hanoi?’ he asked.
‘How old you are?’
’33’ I said.
‘Oh you look more young – I would have guess 28.’
‘Thank you.’ I said.
‘You have wife?’
‘No. Ex wife and lots of ex girlfriends. You?’
‘Yes. Two babies.’
It felt good I thought. Supporting a family man.

He pulled out a long flat blade
with a wooden handle.
He sharpened it on a stone.
He pulled it along the side of the sole
at an angle, with care.
Cutting off the excess rubber.

Another shoe shiner walked by.
They spoke to one another.
The other one sat across from us
on the sidewalk.
My guy passed him the other shoe.
He looked at it
admiring the craftsmanship
of my fine vintage shoes.
“This is my friend.’ He said, pointing to the new guy.

‘Hello, Where you from?’ he said.
His teeth were crooked and had brown spots on them.
‘US’ I said.
‘Oh America! Number one! Hero!
How long in Hanoi?’ he asked.
‘2 weeks.’ I said.
‘How old are you?’
‘You look younger, I would have guessed 20’s.’
I nodded.
“You have family? wife? girlfriend?’
They must have the same shoe shiner phrase book I thought.

He pulled out rubber from his bag
and put it against the sole.

The original shoe shiner started to buff my shoe.
He passed it to me.
I took it.
He reached over and bent it
this way and that, back and forth.
‘See? Is strong, very strong.’
‘Fine- okay. Thank you.’ I said.

He pulled out a calculator
and typed on it.
He showed it to me.
It said 600 on it. 600,000 dong.
That was thirty dollars.
‘Good price!’ he said.
‘I don’t have that much.’
‘We go to ATM?’

I reached in my pocket
pulled out 300,000 dong
and some change.
15 dollars.
It was a lot for a shoe shine
I didn’t want in the first place.
I passed it to him.
He shook his head and looked sad.
‘You no have more?’
‘That’s it bud. I asked you how much!
You should have told me when i asked you.’ I said.
‘Okay okay’ he put the money in his pocket.
Shook my hand and walked away.

The other one came and sat next to me.
An older man stood above us.
He was wearing an army helmet
it looked like a turtle shell.
He’d been watching for a while.
Next to him was a woman
with a Vietnamese cone hat on.
She knelt down
and pulled out a long large fish.
Placing it on a piece of blood soaked styrofoam
she whacked it over the head
with the flat side of her knife.

The fish flopped around in her hand
squirming to get free
or to avoid the blow.
He wasn’t going out.
She grabbed him by the belly
squeezing hard.
She started to cut off the dorsal fin along his back.
He looked miserable.
She gave him another whack and he went out.
She put him on the styrofoam
and ran the blade along his side
the scales popped off of him like confetti.

The new guy didn’t have the finesse of the other.
He used much more glue
and left rough ridges along the edge.
He began to buff it out.
Passing me the shoe
he asked for money.

I shook my head
‘I gave everything to to your friend –
you’re gonna have to split it with him.’
‘No, he’s not good man, he only care about money
he will give me no dong. He is not good person.’
‘Not my problem man, he gave you the job, not me.’ I stood up.
He stood up with me.
‘Okay we can go to ATM.’ He said.
I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed.
He was very short.
‘Not gonna happen.’ I said.
‘Just 300,000 dong.’ He whined.
‘I have nothing, NOTHING! I gave it all to your friend –
you split it with him.’

I began to walk away.
He followed me. ‘ATM is right there.’
He pointed to the right.
I turned left.
‘Okay you want to go over here – there’s ATM over here.’
I put my hand on his shoulder again.
‘Not gonna happen.’ I said again.
I threw my hands in the air
and began to walk faster.

I lost him in the traffic.
And my step felt soft on the pavement.


About jason tyler grace

I've been tattooing for 12 years or so and traveling the world for around 17 months. I have tattooed in Costa Rica, Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Germany, France, Holland, and Australia.
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