Beer In Saigon
It was my first and only visit to Saigon, a couple of years after the war. Lufthansa offered a discounted direct flight from Europe, a visa was easy to get, because my country had not been a party in the conflict.
I had been hopping in and out of East Asia during the whole war, but I had never set a foot on Vietnamese territory. I loathed that war. Years later, when I was with the UN Peace Mission in Cambodia, I made the acquaintance of a charming Vietnamese woman, and it was she who aroused in me the wish to visit her country.
After debarking in Saigon I looked in front of the arrival hall for my lady-friend from Phnom Penh to pick me up. I had informed her of my arrival time and date and invited her to join me, but she had not made it. I knew she had parents in Saigon, so I consulted a phone book, but there were thousands of her name. I gave up. I waited some more in the tropical heat. Then I took a taxi to the busy central road Rue Catinat, described by Graham Greene in "The Quiet American". Everything still looked like in this book. I found a former grand hotel, close to the Saigon River, that now was seeing not so good days.
They gave me a suite for nine or ten dollars. I had not asked for a suite, I assumed that this was a house like "Raffles" or "The Strand", where all the rooms were suites. They had a beautiful elevator in Belle Époque style, the kind you see in French detective movies, but it was not running, had not for an eternity.
My rooms in the third floor were four meters high, but they had been cleaned regularly only up to the height a standing man could reach. The higher part of the rooms was darkened by spin webs and mould. The bathroom was beautiful with an expensive tub, but out of the tap came no water. To help the sweaty traveller they had placed a big jar full of clean water on the side of the tub, and a plastic pitcher swam on the jar.
There was no air-conditioning, but in the living room they had placed a fridge. I opened its door. Inside was light, and nothing else.
So I walked down to the reception and asked them to give me a few bottles of beer and water. This is the way they handle it in middle class hotels in China. But the man at the reception regretted, they had neither beer nor water for sale. So I left the grand hotel to buy my beverages from a street hawker. There was one next to the hotel entrance. I spoke not a single word of Vietnamese, but I hoped the man would understand the meaning of "beer, birra, pijiou."
He listened attentively, and he answered: "No have."
"Où esqu'on peut acheter du bière?" I tried in French.
"This time Ho Chi Minh City no have beer. Pas du tout."
I pointed at a one litre bottle with a pink fluid, which I took for lemonade.
"Gasoline," he explained.
This reminded me of the hot summer of 1980, when there was in the whole city of Beijing not a single drop of beer to be found, only at the roof terrace of the Friendship Hotel where the foreign experts all nightly congregated and occasionally shared their privileges with me.
A cyclo came along. This is a specific type of trishaw, which I knew from Phnom Penh. On a cyclo the driver sits pedalling behind the guest who from his elevated front seat has a good view but also is the first to be hurt in the case of a traffic accident.
The driver asked me if I needed help.
"Beer, Birra, Pijiou." I replied.
He knew a nightclub where they served beer. The bar was a cave-like neon lit naked room with a big table in the middle around in which sat a dozen simply clad young Vietnamese women. Not a single man. Two political slogans in the red handwriting of a leader hang as decoration on the wall. Karaoke or KTV was not yet popular in Saigon.
I asked the waiter if I could buy beer to take home. How much? Six bottles. They had no bottles, so I ordered eight cans. I had to wait a moment.
A girl with short black hair stood up and offered me her seat at the table. I sat down and then noticed that there was no free chair for her.
"Now you have nothing to sit on," I said.
"No problem," she answered and sat down on my lap.
Somewhat surprised I tried to shake her off. She had some weight, it was quite hot in the room, and Vietnam was said to be a police state, where foreigners should behave. I tried to unseat her by tickling her. She squirmed but held her position. Being the first evening in an unknown country, I didn't dare to remove her forcefully. The waiter brought us two glasses of cool beer. The other ladies around us looked at us with a smile and a little envy in their eyes. I regretted I could not invite them all to a drink, but I didn't have that much money on me.
The beer for taking home arrived. They had the tins nicely secured with a complicated binding. I did not intend to spend any minute longer in the "bar". But the beer was heavy, and I asked the girl who still sat comfortably on my lap, if she could help me to carry it home.
When she heard that I lived in the Rue Catinat she agreed readily. It was only a few steps. Not the long and winding way the cyclo had needed to find the place.
In the reception of the grand hotel I asked for my key. The man behind the counter looked at me and the girl who held the beer in her hands.
"In this house," he spoke with dignity "foreign guests are not allowed to take a woman up to their rooms."
I understood that for him this was not a question of baksheesh, but of political correctness. The Thai and Cambodian practice of "joining" had not yet reached Vietnam.
I looked at the girl. She made a defiant face, not at all fearful.
I had learnt in China that it is possible for a foreigner to challenge the communist state power if you have the nerve and the right arguments.
"I have rented a suite with a separate sitting room in order to receive visitors. You didn't tell me when I booked that it is impossible to have visitors."
"It is not impossible, but if you insist you have to speak with the party committee."
This hotel had indeed a communist party committee of its own. They were three white haired men who in the daytime sat around a table in the second floor and studied newspapers. Now they came down to show their authority. Suddenly I was not sure if they would let me spend the night in my hotel room.
The chairman of the committee produced a laminated sheet with the hotel regulations. Section 18 – he pointed out – proclaimed that it was forbidden to have firearms, prostitutes or explosives in one's room.
"The lady is a friend of me," I said.
"We know this kind of woman. She is not acceptable."
"How can you say that? Immoral behaviour has been extinguished in this country for many years."
He did not know how to reply.
I had studied the regulations beforehand in my room. So I took the sheet from his hands and showed him another paragraph, which said all visitors had to leave the guest rooms at midnight.
"Look, it is still early in the evening. I can guarantee that my visitor will leave the hotel before midnight."
The chairman consulted with the other members of the party committee. They reached an agreement.
"If you promise not to cause trouble to the other guests, you can take your visitor upstairs. But if she is not gone at midnight, all three of us will come to your room and knock on the door until she goes."
"There will be no need."
The party committee withdrew.
The man at the reception put the ID card of my companion into a safe.
When we reached my suite she was not put off from the desolate state of the rooms. We sat down and opened the first beer. I had saved my lunch from the Lufthansa flight, and we ate it with gusto. We both were relieved that we had come as the winners out of the confrontation.
She told me a lot about social conditions in Vietnam. School for the children began – attention English teachers in LOS! – at six o'clock in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. Of course there was no air conditioning in most school buildings. Women did all the physically exhausting work in this country, while the men lay lazy in the shadow of a tree, dreaming of the next war to win. They had just won three wars in succession: Against the USA, the Chinese Red Army – at their northern border – and the Khmer Rouge, liberating Cambodia. (This heroic attitude may have changed in the meantime.) We spent a very animated evening together, and I gained a still deeper respect for Vietnamese women.
A few minutes before midnight I accompanied my visitor downstairs to be sure she got her ID card back. The party committee – I learned – had already gone to bed and was by now probably sleeping soundly.
The next day I took a car to the seaside resort of Vung Tau. There I found a hotel on the beach that had air conditioning and beer. It was only a few steps from the hotel entrance to the sea, so I could make it in my trunks. The water was so warm, that you could swim for hours – which I love to do – and there were none of the hazardous currents which can make swimming in Satthahip or Ko Samui less comfortable.
A bit troublesome were sudden brownouts, like they occur regularly in the Philippines. I took a torch light down to the dining hall. Still, it is not easy to highlight your chow with one hand and eat it with the other.
I learned that in Vung Tau the battle against immoral behaviour had not yet been won. It had just come to a standstill. An invisible demarcation line divided the resort in two parts. North of the line – where my hotel stood – the communist moral had triumphed. South of the line everything was more expensive and not so clean. Even the seawater was dirty. No need to try that.
Back in Saigon I ate the first durian of my life (the begin of a wonderful addiction) and booked a flight to Hong Kong without problems. But when I arrived in Hong Kong I discovered that the people there were less polite and helpful than the Vietnamese. I missed their gentleness for the rest of my trip.
If you want to read more about scarcity of beer in South East Asia – with a bottle of Singha in your hand – I recommend that you search the archive of the "Asian Wall Street Journal" for the title "No beer in Bali". This is one of the most amusing stories the paper ever published, telling how General Suharto allowed his son to levy an additional beer tax on every bottle emptied on the island of Bali for his personal enrichment. This audacity became one of the step-stones to the General's downfall.
A very nice tale.