(TimeOut supplement of the Vietnam Investment Review – 2004)
Here everybody is a poet and everything has a legendary beginning. In such a land, wishfull thingking and strange practices are norms. Better watch out, pals, if you happen to come from where reasons and sciences are your bread and butter. How? Just don’t take things as they are claimed to be. Use your imagination in reverse. Sure, the things you would encounter in your trips are all trivial, but is it true that life is a composite of trivialities?
Say, your rented bike might get a flat tire and you see a pumpman (Vietnamese English, meaning a person who sits on pavement with a hand-or-compressed-air pump, ready to inflate your flat tire for a thousand VND each) with a placard that says (I am sure they will have it in English soon) “Bom Xe Gia Truyen” – “Pumping Bikes for Generations”. Just don’t take it literary, OK? No family, even in Vietnam, have lived on pumping flat tires for generations. I never came across such a mention in any academic writings about Vietnam.
Then noontime comes and you think your system needs some fuel and you remember what the guidebooks call PHO and lo and behold just on your right and left and in your front and rear you see quite a cluster of PHO restaurants and all of them, with their colorfull signs nowaday designed and cut and printed from computer, claim to be “PHO Gia Truyen” – again meaning “PHO for Generations”. To be true, they do differentiate themselves with “Beef PHO for Generations”, “Chicken PHO for Generations”, or “Beef Stew PHO for Generations.” Well, just ignore the claims, close your eyes and take your leap of faith into any of them. Don’t judge their quality by seeing how crowded they are. People’s tastes vary. And the local best could turn out to be your worst. And don’t ask if you hates lies. All of them are newly openned and perhaps even the restauranteurs themselves do not know what their parents or grandparents or great-grandparents did for a living.
Most exciting is “Tam Quat Gia Truyen” – “Hit and Sooth for Generations”. Because this is not massage as we know it for generations (Forgive my slip of tongue!). This is a sort of Vietnamese traditional (I don’t say quack, since it works most of the times) treatment of muscular tiring/aches by using hands to hit and sooth your back, buttock, thighs, calfs, arms and even your face. A century ago, this was a profession all right, practiced exclusively by wandering blind old men who walk the streets or sit crossed-leg in the market with a reed mat and a small wooden box of tools of the trade such as a wood mallet to help extend their hands over your body. You would just lie down on that reed mat right on the pavement or that flat spot in the market and let the oldie noisily hit and sooth you. I know it because I am Vietnamese and old enough to know these things that are not legends at all. But I never imagine those blind, homeless, smelly, half drunk old guys were able to bestow on us generations of now-a-day-well-off hit-and-sooth families in the middle of Hanoi. Yes, these “Hit and Sooth for Generations” salons (some of them only a small dingy rented room of some 6 square meters) are mushrooming pretty fast right in my quarters and I do feel like they are more rooted than I am. Everyday, when I walk past these salons, the young boys who always lurching around outside to lure and bait and invite passing-by- would-be-clients would try a furtively smile at me and say “Quat di bo?” Meaning “Have a hit, Daddy?”
And once upon a time, I tried such a hit at a rather clean looking place, not far from home. It went like a legend. And hit and sooth was not really hit and sooth. Three young girls hurried to take me in as though they feared I would probably spirit away with many other four-thousand-years-old ghosts they had already knew too well in their lives. Which one you like? Me or she? Or me? Or she? Or me? Or she? I took my leap of faith (I remain a frankie, I did what I say and write) into one of them. She was fast with her hands. Some four thousand seconds later I found myself sitting naked in a tiny sauna box. “These are all herbs, all herbs,” she kept saying, poking a iron rod into the small receptacle full of who-know-what over a fire, and a finger onto my numb flesh. She was not naked as I was. I don’t say she’s dressed. Then, four thousand seconds after, she was scrubbing me under a shower. Perhaps four thousand years ago they called that hit and sooth. Things are undone and done, up and down, while my ears were full of her voice: “Don’t worry, dear, let me do it for you.” As if I was in my death-bed and this was my final scrubbing. Then, on a waist-high matressed bed, she hit and soothed again, always asking if it was good and nice. When the legendary time was up to its sixty thousand VND level, I found myself clad again, by her, with many tugs in and nibs out with giggles and then with a fast recital of other services that I might want if I paid more, to which I did not have any words or money to respond. Finally, I was out on the street again, back to the para-legendary world of things for generations.
Trying to cleanse myself of legendary stuffs so that I can do real things and earn my living, I went to a pagoda, hoping to face the ultimate truth of being with my prayers. Having positioned myself in front of the exuberant altar, I opened my eyes and saw a huge red box with a big, white inscription in both Vietnamese and English: “Hom cong duc – Box of Kindness.” It has a slit for you to slip banknotes in. Make a contribution to legends making, would you?
Hanoi, 9 February 2004