Ho Chi Minh City is divided into 24 districts. Like the Hunger Games, there are 12 that are numbered, i.e. District 1, District 2 etc and there are 12 with names. I live in the Binh Thanh District, not to be confused with the Binh Tan District, or the Tan Binh District, or indeed the Binh Chanh District. As I both live and work in Binh Thanh, I spend most of my time there. It’s a massive district, with around the same population as Dublin, so you could probably survive without ever leaving Binh Thanh.
But sometimes, I need to go to District 1. District 1 is fancy. It’s got skyscrapers and restaurants. Not restaurants like here, but restaurants with chairs that are big enough for me and bathrooms and kitchens that don’t have wheels. And shops. Actual shops that I understand what they sell and how to buy things in them. And the streets are still Vietnamese – there are still motorbikes everywhere, and still people selling things on the street, but way fewer and way quieter and it all feels saner and safer. Of course, it’s not “authentic Vietnam”, but that’s OK. Authenticity, like Westlife, is overrated.
Sometimes I go to District One for a bit of peace. Sometimes I go to buy something in a corner shop. Sometimes I go to be a tourist and see the sights. Today, I went to buy presents and souvenirs. I’ll be going home in a week for Christmas.
I had fun. I’m better at shaking off aggressive salespeople than I was. I bought one or two small knick knacks in no time at all.
I was in one of the big touristy markets when I spotted a present for my mother. The salesman, a good-looking young man, approached me and showed it to me in a range of colours and sizes. He had very good English. He tried to convince me to buy a million things, but I stuck to my guns and chose the one thing I had picked at the start.
The salesman, as he was talking to me, reached out and squeezed my belly. I felt myself getting angry, thinking “here I go again”, but I didn’t do anything. And he didn’t stop. He rubbed my belly, over and over and started calling me a “happy Buddha” and all the wiring in my head went bananas – the links between pleasure and humiliation and shame and submission and happiness all started buzzing in my central nervous system and I fell in love with this salesman.
But that didn’t stop me bargaining. He opened with a price of 2.5 million dong. I said that was rubbish and offered 600,000 dong. Him: 2 million. Me: 600,000. Him: 1.7 million. Me: 700,000. Him: 1.2 million. Me: 1 million. Him 1.1 million. Me: 1 million. Him: 1,050,000. Me: OK.
I was really proud of my negotiating skills. I’d never done anything like that before and certainly not when I was in love with my adversary.
I got out my wallet. I only had 850,000 dong. I was 200,000 short. He looked at me, distrustfully, and I handed over my wallet to him, so he could see I didn’t have any more money. I offered to go to an ATM. He came with me, carrying my 850,000 dong and my purchase.
The first ATM refused my card (you might remember that my crappy ATM card only works in a very limited range of ATMs). He took me to another ATM and again my card didn’t work. He looked at me admiringly. I had won. I had pulled a fast one on him. This had been my plan all along. EXCEPT IT HADN’T. I genuinely thought I had the cash in my wallet.
He said, grinning, “OK. You are good. You can have it for 850,000.” I was overjoyed. I took the gift and spontaneously threw my arms around him and gave him a big grateful squeeze. He was taken aback at first, but then he got into it. And boy did he give good hug – lots of strength and lots of squeezing.
I’ve missed hugs. I haven’t hugged anyone since I left Ireland. When I said goodbye to the staunchly Catholic middle-aged American woman I’ve been working with for the past month yesterday, we tried to hug. But it was like embracing an ironing board.
This salesman clearly loved being engulfed by the Happy Buddha. And he admired me for tricking him (I DIDN’T TRICK HIM). And it was lovely. I do like a good hug. I floated home.