Synthetic locals sell their story

Vietnam Heritage, November-December 2011 -- At the foot of the An Hoi Bridge, about 100 metres from the well-known Temple Bridge, in World Heritage Hoi An, in Central Vietnam, I heard ‘Hello’. I didn’t see anyone who looked like she would speak English. Again, ‘Hello’. On a sampan, two old betel-chewing women smiled at me. I said, ‘I am not a foreign tourist’. The older woman said, ‘I just went ahead and called. Can you give me some money?’ I sat in the sampan. It was 9 a.m.

The younger woman, sitting at the rudder, was eating.
I asked them, ‘So far, has any foreign tourist taken your picture?’
‘Not yet,’ the older woman, Bui Thi Nhieu, said. ‘They won’t go out for a walk until noon’. The betel-grinder in her hand was moving. ‘At the age of 85, hardly able to chew, with all teeth gone, I should have the betel well-ground before I can swallow it. What strange people they are! We take a walk around when the air is cool and fresh, but they wait until the sun is high before they leave the hotel.’
Mrs Nhieu wore worn-out, dirty clothes and her face was totally wrinkled.
Ms Nguyen Thi Toi, 72, said, ‘We are friends living close to each other. I told her to come for fun.’
I asked Mrs Nhieu ‘Where do you come from?’
‘Cam Nam’.
‘Don’t you pick mussels and cook corn?’
‘No, I go fishing.’
‘How long have you been working as a model . . .?’
‘A few months, I’ve been going begging since the last flood. I have children but I am so poor, getting not enough for food. As I am still able to walk, I shouldn’t ask for help from children.’
‘How do you talk to the foreign tourists?’
‘I . . . just say “Hello”, “Photo”, “Money”.’
Suddenly Mrs Nhieu stood straight, calling out ‘Hello’. A group of foreign tourists was walking by. There was no reply. Mrs Nhieu sat down, grinding the betel, her eyes toward the Temple Bridge, near which were there sampans with teams of two from Hoi An, their eyes fixed to where foreign tourists emerged.
Mrs Toi said, ‘We don’t rob anybody. But it is so disgusting to compete.’
‘Who do you compete with?’ 
‘With these people. The old ghosts bullying the new ones. If I give you a boat ride for half an hour and get VND50,000 ($2.38) I will have to give half the amount to them because they say this wharf is theirs. If you are young and pretty, know how to work as a model, you can make money.’
‘Old women like you, hardly able to walk, how can you attract the foreign tourists?’
‘. . . We just cover our head with a leaf hat, sit still, and whenever they tell us to show our teeth and smile, we smile. Sometimes they give VND10,000 [$0.48]. Sometimes they give VND5,000 [$0.24], sometimes they give just VND1,000 [$0.05]. That’s fine, if they don’t give any. What can we do to earn money?’
Another sampan came up, a woman with the same age as Mrs Toi in it.
Mrs Toi said, ‘I am from An Hoi. I come here every morning. Toward noon I have to get back to cook lunch for my children. Those women are not so bad, but the other women who sell bananas and toy animals are worse. They tug the tourists’ clothes, insist, stand up for them to take pictures and force them to buy.’
A woman keeper of a cloth shop on the road above said, ‘I think it’s a big shame. Can you believe, once, a foreign tourist couldn’t bear the insistence and had to buy the bananas, and then threw them into the trash can. The bananas were not good, but she forced them to pay one or two dollars.’
Mrs Toi’s son said, ‘It’s so disgusting. Please clean it up.’ ‘The most disgusting among the people below is Mr Sau. Anyone who tries to compete with him will be called names.’ I returned my original two old women.
‘Have you got any [foreign tourists]?’
‘Not yet.’
‘Will you go home at noon?’
‘No, I brought lunch with me.’
Mr Sau was pointed out to me. He wore a brown coat wet with sweat and leaf hat. His hair and beard were white. He was sitting in a sampan looking like a yogi in a hut. Two tourists were coming. The ‘hello’ was uttered repeatedly. Luck came to Mr Sau only. He was professional. He sat cross-legged, smiling toothlessly and naturally, making no effort. A foreign tourist with a red shirt pushed his camera button repeatedly. Mr Sau held out his hand for money, and received just a smile. Another foreign tourist, who seemed to be walking with his wife, gave Mr Sau VND10,000 ($0.48).
A banana-seller had been standing in the same place since early morning.
‘Anybody that wants to take my picture has to buy some bananas,’ she said.
‘How do you ask them to buy your bananas?’
‘“Photo”, “banana”, “money”’
‘How much is a hand?’
‘I just say it costs two dollars, but I will sell it for one dollar.’
A tourist gave a sign for her to stand close to his wife for a picture. The vendor was radiant, giving herself fine airs. She hoped. The camera clicked repeatedly. 
‘Banana money?’
‘No, thank you.’
‘You stingy.’
[Vietnam Heritage asked the author of this article whether he had paid anything for the material provided by his respondents. He said he had. Ed.]

Text and Photo by Moc Mien
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