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Graham Reilly - Saigon



People in Vietnam love nothing more than a good celebration and any excuse will do. Many local men, for example, enjoy nothing more than drinking several litres of home brewed beer to simply put some closure on the day, to mark its passing with a decent drink and some boiled quail's eggs, fried chickens' feet and various culinary delights constituted from the intestinal matter of dead fowls.

Down at the local bia hoi, or drinking hall, beer in two-litre plastic containers will cost you about 50 cents and a bucketload of les pieds du poulet barely puts a dent in a dollar. Combine these with a bit of karaoke and life can seem pretty good as the sun sinks over the Saigon River.

Soccer is also a major source of celebratory activity. Whenever the national soccer team is involved in a match anywhere in the universe, the streets suddenly empty, all work stops and people around the country glue themselves to televisions in offices and houses everywhere.

If a victory ensues the aforementioned populace rushes madly out into the streets and the excited citizens jump on their motorbikes and ride around for hours cheering and waving Vietnamese flags that enterprising vendors have quickly manufactured during the last 15 minutes of the game when a victory is on the cards.

In Saigon, which has seven million people and two million motorbikes, it can get pretty crowded out there in the streets.

Usually a few people are killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents, predominantly because there are no traffic regulations in Vietnam to speak of and people don't like to wear motorcycle helmets because they say it's too hot or it musses up their hair. They consider extensive brain damage a minor price to pay for a sweat-free visage and follicles that flow freely in the breeze.

Christmas too is a time for a good knees-up, despite the fact that most people are Buddhists. Although there is a sizeable Catholic community thanks to the zealous missionary activity of the French, Christmas has been embraced by everybody as a good excuse to pile the whole family on the one motorbike (I have seen three generations and a basket of ducks travelling merrily down Le Loi St.) and throw handfuls of glitter on passers-by and beep their little motorbike horns as often as possible.

It is also the perfect occasion to dress up any child under five in a Santa suit and do the usual circuit around the centre of the city until the child falls asleep or falls off the handlebars.

The Vietnamese also happily celebrate the western New Year. Again, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets, many of which have to be blocked off to minimise the chaos.

Huge stages are erected around town for pop concerts and fashion shows that attract huge audiences. Contemporary Vietnamese pop music concerns itself mainly with songs about lost or thwarted love, ill-fated affairs or laments about Autumn or Spring. One word, buon, or sad, features heavily in every tune. I am sad because my love has gone away and married someone else because his stinking parents made him, I am said because the leaves are turning brown, I am sad because my heart is broken in two, that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, contemporary Vietnamese popular music, has been MTV'd into a saccharine submission. There are, however, wonderful jazz musicians here and a legendary jazz club in Hanoi called Minh's where you can see some of the best jazz in the region.

But the greatest slap-bang celebrations are saved for the Lunar New Year, or Tet, as it as known here. The official celebration this year took place from January 23 to-29. During Tet, people fly or ride or squeeze themselves into rickety old buses to travel all over the country to spend time with their families in their home towns or villages and the roads teem with a variety of dodgy vehicles overloaded with people, bicycles and farm animals.

The first day of Tet is reserved for family and people stay in their homes to eat, talk and drink. Consequently, the streets are almost deserted and the shops are closed. This year, Saigon was like a ghost town. Most westerners take advantage of the week-long holiday and head for the beach or to their home countries.

On the second day of Tet people venture out of their homes to visit friends and more eating drinking and talking ensues. Most men are fairly pissed by early afternoon. Women generally don't drink alcohol or smoke here as it is not regarded as proper for them to do so. Men, as if often the case in Asia, can do what they like.

People start preparing for Tet weeks before it officially gets underway. Houses are scrubbed from top to bottom, lashings of food are bought and prepared and megalitres of beer, brandy and snake wine are stocked up. Everywhere, people in offices clean out all the shit from the bottom drawer of their desks.

It is an expensive time, and a lot of extra money is needed to pay for the copious amounts of extra food and drink and gifts and to pay off old debts as is expected at this time of year. The Saigon Traffic Police seem to feel the pinch rather acutely.

Notoriously corrupt, the officers generally post themselves at major intersections and street corners and pull over whatever hapless motorcyclist they like on some traffic infringement or other, real or imagined.

Once selected, the poor victim has no choice but to surreptitiously hand over something between 40,000 dong and 100,000 dong (Up to $12. The average income in Vietnam is $US450 a year) or it will mean a trip to the station, hours of tedious paperwork and a big fine.

This is a daily occurrence and at Tet the Traffic Police are everywhere, building up their cash reserves and waving their batons about with arrogant disdain. In their cream-coloured uniforms and their thick white leather belts they are easy to spot. With more money to spend on food, they are also fatter than most Vietnamese, and exude a kind of sinister and corpulent menace.

The incidence of general theft also increases at Tet, housebreakings, stealing motorcycles, pickpocketing. Saigon is generally a safe place and you can stroll around late at night or in the early hours of the morning with no fear for your personal safety, but Vietnam is a desperately poor country and robbery is a major problem.

Saigon has more than its fair share of motorcycle thieves, particularly on streets where major tourists hotels are located or where foreigners congregate. On Dong Khoi Street, made famous as Rue Catinat by Graham Greene in his novel, The Quiet American, (Director Phil Noyce begins filming the book here in the middle of February with Michael Caine in the lead role), tourists flock out of the Majestic Hotel or the Bong Sen or the Grand, like lambs to the slaughter.

Dripping with money belts, video cameras, jewellery and shirts that should be illegal, tourists are quickly relieved of them all (shirts excluded for reasons of good taste) by motorbike thieves who snatch their booty from their owners grasp with one yank or surgically precise snip with a knife. I know of people who have arrived in Saigon and within an hour have lost all their money, credit cards and passports.

But it is a problem even for long-term residents. My wife was robbed on the weekend crossing the street with our daughter. Two men on a motorcycle yanked her small purse, the string of which was wrapped around her wrist, and they were quickly off with a small amount of cash and a clunky old mobile phone. They would have been disappointed.

A few months ago I was relieved of $100 by two transvestite prostitutes on a motorbike as I stumbled home in the early hours of the morning after a big night at our local bar.

They leapt off their motorbike with considerable elegance I must say given the heels they were wearing and proceeded to make all sorts of lewd suggestions while one grabbed my crotch and the other the money from the secret pocket at the top of my trousers. How they got in there I'll never know. Still, I was distracted.

I haven't come across those particular two lady-boys since and have not been able to ask them what they did with my dough. But I bet they went out and bought some new lippy and had a bloody good celebration.

The expatriate Australian community here in Saigon will have its own reason to celebrate this month with the annual Australia day concert, which this year is being headlined by Dave Graney and Clare Moore. No songs about falling leaves, thank god.

It is one of the biggest events on the Australian expatriate social calendar here and it is always a sell-out. Vietnam is a wonderful, if frustrating country, a country worth celebrating for the spirit of its people and worth damning for the endemic corruption that pervades all levels of government. It is also a country that could do with some decent gigs.

© 2001 Graham Reilly



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